Sam Tshabalala, a previous winner of the Comrades Marathon, passed away on Monday. Athletics South Africa mourned his loss. On Sunday, Tshabalala passed away at the age of 65. Tshabalala, commonly known as Mshengu, was the first black Comrades Marathon winner in 1989 when he finished the downhill race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban in 5:35:31, breaking Bruce Fordyce’s string of eight victories in a row.
With the exception of World War II and the regrettable years 2020 and 2021, the Comrades Marathon has been run annually since it was first held on May 24, 1921. Vic Clapham, a veteran of World War One, came up with the idea for the race to honor South African troops who died in the conflict. Clapham intended the memorial to represent the ultimate physical challenge because he had traveled 2,700 kilometers through East Africa during the war.
The Comrades, a race that traverses the difficult “Big Five” hilly terrain between the KwaZulu-Natal cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg, alternates between an “up” run starting in Durban and a “down” run starting in Pietermaritzburg each year.
The race’s approximate 90km length fluctuates a little bit every year. Runners must complete the course in less than 12 hours and arrive at a number of cut-off sites by the designated times in order to continue in the event. There are 27,500 entry spots available (2,500 international entries). To compete in this renowned event, runners must have finished an official “qualifying” marathon in less than 4 hours and 50 minutes.
Sam Tshabalala tribute
“It is with regret that we learn of his passing when we believed he still had a lot to give back to the sport in other ways of choice or opportune. Top athletes hold the bigger responsibility of being role models in the sport and to society. And on that note, we are grateful for his work around youngsters at Zamdela, Sasolburg, where he stayed.
“On behalf of the ASA Board and the entire athletics family, I convey our deepest condolences to his wife Julia, four sons, three daughters, his athletes, friends, and the Zamdela community. He was a lovable person who will be sorely missed,” said James Moloi, the president of Athletics South Africa.
Tshabalala received the Platinum Medal from the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) in 1998 in recognition of his historic accomplishment and dedication to ultramarathon running. Tshabalala received a retroactive jacket from the CMA for his 2019 performance in 1989. Both on and off the field, people respected his modesty, politeness, and charity. He motivated a generation of Comrades athletes and supporters, giving many of today’s champions the motivation to strive for greatness.
The CMA chairman said, “We honor a Comrades winner, hero, and legend. What Mr. Tshabalala did for ultrarunning and our generation are part of our road-running culture and South African history. He was bold, great, and humble, all at once.
1989 Comrades runner-up Willie Mtolo: “It was lovely to see Sam again. Sam ran the 2019 Comrades Marathon. fantastic man We completed a fantastic marathon in 1989, and ever since, we’ve remained close. Every time we met, we had a lot to talk about. I am aware that he assisted local racers. He was supportive, uplifting, motivational, and motivating. I’ll never forget him.
Mervyn Williams, former CMA chairman: “I had the honour of seeing Sam cross the finish line on that historic day in 1989 as CMA chairman. Sam was the first “black guy” to win the Comrades Marathon, and he deserved the honour. I wish his family peace.
Inspired black runners
Black runners would continue to be motivated by this historic victory for decades to come. Many future champions have credited Tshabalala with inspiring them to run, especially after he endured the hardship of a terrible vehicle accident in 1991 that left him with severe injuries and months of recovery.
Sam Tshabalala would come back and run a sub-6:30 in 1992, unfazed. Sam Tshabalala completed 13 races throughout his Comrades career, winning one gold and twelve silver medals. Tshabalala received the renowned Platinum Medal Award in 1998 from the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) in recognition of his significant accomplishment and contributions to the sport of ultra-distance running.
The CMA awarded Tshabalala with a retrospective jacket in 2019 for his 1989 performance following the creation of the official Comrades Winners Jacket in 2016. He was well-known and respected for his modesty, politeness, and generosity both on and off the field.
In the 1980s, The Comrades had come to be associated with Bruce Fordyce. However, the 1989 race was wide open without him, and the unknown Tshabalala was ready to make history. Fordyce, who won the Comrades eight times between 1981 and 1988, opted not to participate in the 1989 marathon. Following a 100-kilometer race in Stellenbosch in February, he felt worn out and ill-prepared to defend his title because there had only been three winners in the preceding 12 years Fordyce (8), Alan Robb (3), and Piet Vorster it completely opened up the race.
The great Sam Tshabalala has died. I will miss you Sam. You were a worthy @ComradesRace champion ( 1989) and you were a good friend. Your win changed the race, for the better, for ever
— Bruce Fordyce (@BruceFordycerun) October 3, 2022
Only beginning in 1975 were black athletes and women of all races permitted to compete in the Comrades. Vincent Rakabele, who finished 20th that year, became the first black athlete to take home a Comrades medal. It marked the beginning of a journey that was completed 14 years later on Tshabalala’s glorious day.Tshabalala was just competing in his third Comrades when he ran in the Spectrum Athletic Club’s colors. His two prior tries had been “up” runs. It was in decline in 1989.
Nobody really knew who he was, while Fordyce’s absence, leading women’s runner Frith van der Merwe’s stunning performance, and 80-year-old Wally Hayward’s effort to finish within the 11-hour cutoff time were the key storylines building up to the 1989 event.
In the end, Van der Merwe ran faster than ever before, finishing at 5:54.43. She had such a great time that she came in 15th place overall. And Hayward, a five-time champion in the peak of his career, fell over the finish line with 1:57 remaining to become the oldest finisher in history. He is still the only 80-year-old to finish the Comrades Marathon.
Sam Tshabalala, the first black runner to win the Comrades Marathon, passed away suddenly on Sunday night. https://t.co/yJXfuatFTH
— Daily Maverick (@dailymaverick) October 4, 2022