Below are the contents of a letter sent to the Comrades Chairperson Mqondisi Ngcobo on 9 July ahead of the Comrades debriefing sessions (which were held from 10 – 12 July). It outlines major issues from the 2023 event reported by runners. I have also taken the liberty of providing some suggestions to address the issues.
It has now been one-and-a-half months since Comrades was held and there has been no publicly shared plans, actions or accountability from the CMA. The biggest fear is that the the problems will be swept under the carpet and with no root causes being addressed.
I had a good 45 minute ‘off the record’ (on my suggestion) telephonic discussion with Chairman Ngcobo around many of these issues the previous Friday (7 July). I indicated that I am planning to write an article on the issues and there was an opportunity for the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) to provide their action plan so that I could list what is being done ahead of the 2024 event. This provides an opportunity to move the focus to the future and ensure we see no repeat offenses.
It is much more pleasant engaging with the Chairman than the Race Director. The following response was received, “I welcome every point you have raised here, and your feedback shall form part of our plans for the 2024 edition. I would also like to register my appreciation on behalf of the Board, to you personally, for your observations and for extending an olive branch to the CMA.”
I was told to expect an announcement on Friday the 15th of July – a date which has come and gone. I have followed up a couple of times in eager anticipation of the announcement (Chairman Ngcobo has said all the right things and I am cautiously optimistic that the CMA will finally take accountability and provide a clear plan for addressing the 2023 issues) and am assured that we can expect the announcement no later that Wednesday 26 July.
Once the announcement and action plan are communicated, I plan to update this (or publish a new) article that can be used to keep CMA employees and elected officials honest and hold the custodians of our great race accountable before and after the 2024 event.
Note: Runner comments from social media have been added into this article for additional context but were not included in the original document (which is attached below) sent to the Chairman.
Here are the 15 Major Concerns…
(some are more serious than others)
1. Safety at Start
It appears that a combination of reprehensible behaviour by some runners together with insufficient staff and poor access led to stampeding and near crushing incidents as well as runners being knocked over. This is probably the most serious issue and if not addressed is likely to lead to critical injuries or death at a future event.
- Use photographic and video evidence to disqualify any runners jumping or pushing over fencing.
- Evaluate how other large international races are effectively processing larger numbers of runners effectively and implement learnings.
- Better trained volunteers and security staff (there are several first-hand reports from runners who were given incorrect information which caused confusion and congestion).
- Use timing chip information to disqualify or penalise runners that cross the start line in an impossible time (e.g. it’s impossible for an H batch runner to cross in the first minute).
- Consider mat-to-mat timing (personally I would not like to see this but it may be the best option).
- Consider separate starts that merge later in the race (e.g. like London Marathon does).
- Drop the fences much later to give people more time to get to their pens.
2. The poor quality of the sound system at the start
This should be simple to solve. It would be good to know what the root cause of this year’s issues were (i.e. provide an honest, transparent answer to runners).
3. Incorrect T-shirt sizes
With 30 years of precedent as well as runners entering 7 months beforehand and specifying their size, this should also be simple to solve. If runners don’t get the size they ordered, CMA / Mr. Price should arrange that they can collect the correct sized shirt from a Mr. Price store.
The race distance was also incorrect on the shirt which is an amateur mistake.
4. Congestion and safety negligence with detour at 3.5km
The stated reason for this detour was that traffic police did not correctly barricade the N3 highway. Getting the well paid traffic police to do their job should be the problem to sort out rather than forcing 16,000 runners though a dark, narrow, unsafe side street in Pietermaritzburg.
This topic and the gross negligence for runner safety is covered in detail in the Nightmare of Epworth Street article (to be published).
There are three safety issues outlined within this document. Genuine runner safety should be the number one priority. As a show of good faith that the CMA is taking and addressing the negligence to safety seriously, I would suggest that the two Technical Delegates who resigned because their concerns were ignored are reinstated in 2024. If they are happy that the 2024 event is safe, then the running community can be comfortable that the 2023 issues have been addressed (and no new ones have been introduced).
5. Bailer Buses on Route
Bailer buses were on the runners’ route from Cato Ridge all the way through to the finish, getting in the way of and interfering with runners.
From an anonymous source, the buses were told to drive on the route by traffic officials and were not allowed to follow the pre-race routing.
You are paying R1million to the traffic authorities, hold them accountable for the agreed plans. The CMA should be monitoring the traffic situation the entire day and have the relevant authorities (up to MEC level) on speed dial if and when they deviate from the agreed pre-race plans.
The Minister of Sport is happy to call the race office to make sure his Russian comrades are allowed to run so surely the race office can return the favour to ensure traffic and metro police perform the agreed race days activities as agreed.
6. Female runner facilities
There is a lack of facilities along the route for female runners who are menstruating. I would suggest engaging with your female runners (especially those with multiple Comrades) to ask how this situation can be improved. Possible solutions are special “female only” facilities at special points along the route.
This issue has been raised by runners and ignored in the past.
I would also suggest adding a special portfolio to take feedback on how the Comrades can be improved for female runners.
7. Cutoff timings
This one should be very simple, use an equation (similar to DLS in cricket) to determine fair and reasonable cutoff times.
Engage the expertise and experience of the official Comrades pacing team and management.
Avoid the opinion-based decisions of one-man who seems to have a vendetta against “joggers”.
8. Cutoff guns fired too early
There is video evidence as well as official split timing showing that cutoff guns were fired too early at Pinetown and Sherwood.
Ensure that the timing clocks at the cutoff points are in sync with the official race time. If in doubt, err on the side of caution and slow down the cutoff clocks to allow slightly longer for people to cross (allowing someone through a few seconds late is a much better scenario than cutting off someone early).
In a situation like this year when the cannon fired 20 seconds late, it would also be best to adjust the cutoff accordingly (although the final finish line gun would fire on official time).
9. Heavy handed cutoff officials
Whilst this problem is likely to be largely resolved if sensible cutoff times are reinstated, there was a disturbingly heavy-handed approach by officials at the cutoff points. The cutoffs along the route should not be treated the same way as the final finish line cutoff. The referees and volunteers should have some “customer service” training so that they can better deal and empathise with cutoff runners.
10. Unawareness of race day issues
It is a real problem that senior CMA staff and officials seem totally oblivious to what is happening on the route during the event and how the race is being experienced by 90% of their runners.
I would suggest that CMA staff and officials who are not running Comrades (which is almost all of them), are actively in touch with support tables, race referees and other stakeholders along the route. If this were the case in 2023, the situation of bailer buses on the route could have been sorted out during the run.
I would also suggest having some runners (from different seeding batches) to provide live information of race day issues to the organising team (i.e. they can flag race day issues to the organising team for immediate resolution).
The portfolio debriefs are scheduled to take place a month after the event. This is far too long. The standard at international events is the week afterwards (with most doing debriefs one or two days after the event).
11. Running out of medals
There were insufficient Wally Hayward, Isavel Roche-Kelly, Silver and Back-to-Back medals at the finish.
This is another easy problem to solve with basic math. Adjust the standard medal numbers by the increase in runners and adjust for race distance. If you have 20% more runners on a course that is 2.5% shorter you are going to need more silver medals.
12. Safety at the finish
In addition to the other safety concerns raised, the capacity at Kingsmead is apparently insufficient to cater for Comrades runners and supporters and violated health and safety legislation.
It should be noted that the officially stated reason for moving from Kingsmead to Moses Mabhida in 2018 was that Comrades exceeds maximum health and safety numbers at the smaller Kingsmead venue.
As a runner, I think the Kingsmead finish is better and more personal than Moses Madhida but creative solutions need to be found if the Kingsmead venue is to be the finish in future years (especially with the 100th Comrades due to be run in four years time).
One solution, proposed by Norrie Williamson, is to move to a street finish (which is what the World Marathon Majors do). It’s important that new ideas are tried and lessons learned before the centenary run.
13. Tidying up the route
The route was shabby, ridden with litter and in some places dangerous with open manholes and potholes. The municipalities are the main financial benefactors (both directly in the various fees they charge the race and indirectly through the R544million that Comrades brings into the local economy each year).
Comrades has a massive local and international audience and can also be seen as a tourism advert for the thousands of international runners that participate. Cleaning up litter, trimming verges and fixing open manholes and potholes along the route before race day used to be standard practice but seems to have been forgotten in 2023.
14. Stop half-truths and outright lying from the communications team
There appears to be a toxic culture within the paid Comrades staff who practice the continual peddling of half-truths and outright lies in official press releases and statements in the media.
This is a violation of the CMA’s own constitution and those that continue this practice should be held to account.
15. Terrible communications
This is different but related to the above point. Many runners who raise issues and concerns with Comrades get totally ignored. Examples of this is the runner who has twice raised the issue of female facilities for women runners along the route and an international runner who sent a detailed query about the Pinetown cutoff. Neither received as much as an acknowledgement.
Those that do get a response seem to be brushed off with messages like “we will escalate this to the relevant team” and never get any further feedback. The runner that broke her leg in the Epworth Road congestion got a terribly sterile, impersonal and unemphatic response signed by “Comrades Marathon Association.” The club of one of the runners cutoff at Sherwood when the gun was fired too early (official timing shows that he made the cutoff) is still awaiting a response other than “we’ll look into this.”
Based on the interactions I’ve had and the emails forwarded to me by other runners, it appears that runners are treated as a necessary inconvenience rather than as customers and the reason why Comrades exists in the first place.Follow Running Mann: