This year, the Comrades Marathon will be held on the last Sunday of Women’s Month. But it may come as a surprise that the history of women in South Africa, and arguably the world’s greatest ultramarathon, is not very long. It started a long time ago, but without recognition, with long breaks in participation.

The first women who participated in the race had to do it unofficially. Frances Hayward completed the race way back in 1923, in only the third edition. 68 people started, 30 finished, and she actually beat one of the finishers in 11 hours and 35 minutes.

Between 1931 and 1933, Geraldine Wilson ran it, increasing her time from over 11 hours to just over 9.5 hours. She was the first to do the run up and down, again unofficially.

After that, no woman completed the race until 1965, the first race for the legendary Mavis Hutchinson. The following year, the (unofficial) women’s winner was Maureen Holland, who had won four times since women became regular participants from 1970.

It was only in 1975, in the 50sthousand publication that Comrades has become a truly open event, with no restrictions on race or gender. But only two women officially competed, and Elizabeth (Betty) Cavanaugh won after Mavis Hutchinson lost a lot of weight. But she became the first woman to be officially awarded the “Comrades” medal.

Betty Kavanaugh was recognized as a woman ahead of her time. She died in 2020 at the age of 89.

Letty van Zyl won the next three as more and more women slowly took part. But by the end of the decade there were only 17 men compared to 3,000 men at the start.

The decision to include women in 1975 was not as backward as it might seem. Catherine Switzer officially ran the Boston Marathon in 1967, but was pushed and prodded until organizers decided not to allow women to run, they said, for their own safety, until 1972. The New York Marathon allowed women to run in 1974, and London has only had an elite women’s race since 1981. The first Olympic marathon for women was held in Los Angeles in 1984.

The 1980s saw an explosion of female interest in Comrades, many of whom began making their mark in marathons around the world. Isabelle Roche-Kelly was the woman to beat for the first half of the decade, before the years when Lindsey Waithe and Helen Lucre had some tough battles with each other. They increased the women’s winning times, both uphill and downhill, to around 7 hours. By 1987, women were doing what many men thought was impossible – the top nine earned silver medals, completing the race in under 7½ hours.

Then came Frit van der Merwe. She was 6th in 1987 and won in what was considered a remarkable time of 6 hours 32:56 the following years. But it was the 1989 run that remains in the record books to this day. Earlier that year, she had already set the Two Oceans and the 30-mile and 50-mile world records. Many thought she did too much. Running from the start as usual, she finished in 5 hours: 54’43”, more than an hour ahead of the woman in second place and 15thousand in general. Only three women have since broken 6 hours, and all are on the run. The last was Gerda Stein in the last race before the pandemic in 2019.

In 1994, Russia’s Valentina Lyakhava won the race, starting a foreign dominance that would continue for the next two decades. With the exception of Rae Bischoff in 1998, a foreign athlete had won the women’s title every year until 2014. Ten of these titles went to one of the Russian Nurgaliev twins, usually Alena, but twice – Alesia.

After that, the South African women regained the title, although neither winner came close to the 6-hour mark. American Camille Heron’s winning time in 2017 was 6:27:35, the slowest time since 1999. She will be back this year.

Gerda Stein won the 2019 race, setting a course record of 5:58:53. But she won’t be returning to the postponed defense of her title – instead opting to compete in the New York City Marathon in November. She will have to improve her best marathon standard time by around 8 minutes if she is to compete with the top class of East African and American runners also in the elite field.

That leaves this year’s field wide open. But we do know that 3,027 women will take part in the start this year, which is a significant improvement on the two who officially started in 1975.

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