A man called Bill Payn giving a go at Comrades

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IT’S COMRADES Marathon time again and on Sunday, a 20000-strong swathe of slightly insane but happy humanity will emerge into the sunrise of a Durban dawn to risk life and limb in a quest to run 90km uphill to Pietermaritzburg in less than 12 hours. 

But let me tell you something of the very first up-run of this epic event in 1922 and of the participation of a man called Bill Payn, beloved teacher of generations of Durban High School boys and a former Natal cricketer, Springbok lock forward and veteran of two world wars. I was privileged to have him as my English tutor.

In 1922, Arthur Newton, a 39-year-old pipe-smoking farmer from Harding, wrote to his friend Payn telling him of his intention to take part and could he stay the night at Bill’s house before the run. In the letter, Newton urged Payn to have a go at the race himself.

It is a Comrades legend now that Newton won that 1922 Comrades Marathon and went on to win four more.

And so it happened that a reluctant Payn, relying entirely on his fitness as a rugby player, found himself toeing the line at the start on a chilly May morning together with his friend. And believe it or not, Payn actually led Newton for the first 30km of the run.

In Payn’s own words: “When I got to Hillcrest, my feet were giving me so much pain that I took off my rugger boots [that’s right he ran in rugby boots] to make an inspection.”

He found the soles covered in blisters. Some kind follower offered him a pot of Brylcreem, which he smeared over his aching feet.

He pushed on to Botha’s Hill where a friend on a motorcycle arrived with a basket of curried chicken and rice, which he and a running companion devoured with relish and with whom in happy companionship he pushed on to Drummond.

There the two of them repaired to a local pub where the landlord had set up a row of beers on the bar counter. It was at this point, that a race official rushed in and said: “Bill, what the hell are you doing here? There are only five runners ahead of you.”

With his exhausted companion having bailed, Payn set out alone for Maritzburg.

On Harrison Flats, a fiesty old woman offered him a bottle of liquid, which he greedily smacked back before she announced: “It’s peach brandy and I made it myself!”

Later, again in Payn’s own words: “To this charming little woman must go full credit for inventing the first liquid fuel for jet engines!”

On the outskirts of Maritzburg, he was hailed by his wife’s family, who were having morning tea and cake on the verandah, so he joined them. While thus engaged two rivals went past, so the record will show that Payn finally ended the race in eighth place! A gold medal effort these days.

At the finish he found his feet a mass of blisters, so he fulfilled a rugby obligation the following day playing in a pair of “takkies!”

When Payn died in 1959 in Durban aged 66, the funeral was reputed to be the biggest ever seen in the city.

In this manner, legends of the famous Comrades Marathon are born.

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