South Africa

Leaving a legacy: Barry Holland prepares for 50th and final Comrades Marathon

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It took a double dose of random chance to get Barry Holland to the start line of the Comrades Marathon in 1973.

Half-a-century later, he will return next month, having created a legacy at the popular annual race in KwaZulu-Natal.

Holland holds the esteemed record of having completed the approximately 90km course more times than any other person, after finishing the last 49 editions in succession.

How it started

Now 72, his Comrades journey began when he was a teenager.

Finding himself within the Greyville racecourse grounds in Durban, as he often did with his parents being avid bowlers, 15-year-old Holland wandered off to see what all the commotion was about when he heard people gathering for the finish of the 1967 Comrades Marathon outside the Royal Durban Light Infantry Drill Hall.

Slipping between the throngs, he caught a glimpse of defending champion Tommy Malone stumbling just before the line, allowing Manie Kuhn to sweep past and win the race by one second.

The memory of that finish, which remains the closest in the history of the race, stuck with Holland and he swore to participate in the gruelling ultra-marathon when he was old enough.

“It resonated so much with me that I decided I had to be part of this thing,” Holland recalled this week.

Hitting the road

While runners must now be 20 years old to participate in Comrades, the age limit was 18 back then, and when he was of age, Holland started training.

But after two weeks of dragging himself out of bed in the mornings, he hadn’t seen a single other runner on the road and decided to pack it in.

“I thought to myself ‘this is a ridiculous sport’ and I was tired of running on my own in the dark, so I gave it up,” he said.

The next year, however, he tried again, this time training for three weeks before calling it quits.

Determined to give it one more go the following year, he was about to give in for the last time when he turned a corner on a morning run and bumped into a large training group, which he promptly joined.

“If I had not crossed their path, I would not be sitting here today. It’s purely by chance,” he said.

After running for a while with Regent Harriers, an informal training group which today consists of nearly 1,000 runners, Holland then became a member of Savages Athletics Club and ran his first Comrades in 1973.

And while he has since become known for his longevity, it was fast times which drove him to keep returning to the race in the early stages of his running career, and he went on to secure 22 silver medals (for a sub-7:30:00 finish).

Though he started out with Savages, Holland later moved to Johannesburg and joined Jeppe Quondam Athletics Club, which he represented at Comrades for 38 successive years.

His last hurrah

Having moved back to Durban, he has run for Dolphin Coast Striders since 2015, and he will represent the club again next month as he aims to become the first person to complete the Comrades Marathon 50 times.

He looks forward to the occasion, but Holland has decided that this year’s Comrades will be his last.

“I will never give up running, but I previously decided that when I no longer enjoyed it, I would be done with Comrades,” he said.

“I’m 72 now and the hard training runs are no longer enjoyable, so 50 is enough for me.”

As part of a farewell celebration, Holland will be joined on Comrades race day by two of his daughters, a son, a son-in-law, a nephew, and his wife Debbie, who will run the race for the 21st time as they aim to extend their record for the most combined finishes by a married couple (which currently stands at 69).

With the Comrades Marathon Association coming to the party, HollandΒ and his family have also been given their own starting pen, which will include invited runners from Dolphin Coast Striders and Jeppe Quondam, at the back of the D seeding group.

‘An amazing journey’

He expects another Comrades legend, Louis Massyn, to ultimately break his record for most finishes (with Massyn looking to complete his 49th race this year) but Holland will be proud enough to become the first to 50.Β 

“I really like Louis, and I have a great deal of respect for him, and I think he’ll go on to run more than me,” Holland said.

“As for me, if you asked most people who was the second person to climb Everest, very few would be able to tell you, but everyone remembers who was first.

“In terms of running 50 Comrades, I suppose that’s my role, to be the first. It’s going to be a very satisfying end to what has been an amazing journey.”