Oldest Comrades Marathon Champ Dead at 97

By Riël Hauman

(c) 2014 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
(Used with permission)

— When George Claassen won the Comrades Marathon on the day South
Africa became a republic, running as a sport was still pure,
uncomplicated and a gentleman’s game. When he passed away last Tuesday,
June 17, as the oldest living Comrades winner at the age of 97, the
sport had changed beyond recognition ‰ÛÓ and he often lamented the fact.

Nicolaas Claassen was born on 26 February 1917 on a farm outside
Wolmaransstad and ran his first Comrades in 1960, finishing third
behind Jackie Mekler and Gerald Walsh. Mekler became the first Comrades
winner to go under 6 hours for the “up” run with his 5:56:32 and
Claassen’s 6:34:07 was then the best time for a novice in the “up” run.

next year Claassen, a school headmaster in the town of Middelburg,
followed leader Keith Pearce in the company of Frikkie Steyn and Trevor
Allen (who had won in 1952 and 1959) until Pearce collapsed from
exhaustion and cramp on the outskirts of Durban. In the meantime an
injured Mekler had withdrawn just after Botha’s Hill. Claassen and
Steyn ran together past 45th Cutting, having shaken off Allen, but at
Westridge Park Claassen drew away and the younger Steyn could not close
the gap again.

Claassen reached the finish at the Beach
Pavilion, just past the former finishing venue at Hoy Park, in 6:07:07,
the fourth fastest ever for the “down” run. He was then 44 years, 3
months and 5 days old ‰ÛÓ the second oldest after Wally Hayward in 1954
to take the title (Hayward was almost 46). The sturdily built Claassen
ran the race in Bata canvas shoes (“tackies”).

Steyn was second in 6:09:05 and Allen third in 6:22:49. There were a record number of 98 finishers.

Claassen, who called himself “a child of the Western Transvaal
[province] with its endless distances and receding horizons”, made no
big fuss of his victory. That same evening he returned home the same
way he came: he took the train to Standerton and from there drove his
car through the night to Middelburg, where he was headmaster of
Middelburg High School for seventeen years and also coached athletics.
He arrived in time for breakfast and then went to the school for his
day’s work.

Claassen completed the race eight more times,
achieving ten medals in total and permanent number 994. His last
Comrades was in 1977 at the age of sixty, when he finished in 10:14:00.

was one of five Germiston Callies runners who won the Comrades, the
others being Hayward, Mekler, Mercer Davies and Alan Robb.

1973 he formed the Pretoria Marathon Club and was Chairman from 1974 to
1985. The George Claassen Half Marathon and 10 km are still held every
January in his honour.

At the age of sixty he could still run the marathon in under 3 hours and cycled until he was 88.

way in which athletics has been politicized and the problems brought
along by the professionalism of the sport he loved saddened him. When I
phoned him in his home in Bloubergstrand near Cape Town when he turned
90 to congratulate him on the special occasion, he lamented the decline
in the standards of the sport. “It is a tragedy, the sport is declining
everywhere, especially in the schools. But fortunately people like you
and me have our wonderful memories of what it was like,” he said.

about his health, Oom [uncle] George ‰ÛÓ as he was affectionately known
to many ‰ÛÓ said: “My head is still right and I still live in my own
house. My children are very good to me.”

He leaves his sons
Wynand, former Springbok rugby captain, George and Danie, and daughter
Maryna (Metelerkamp), as well as thirteen grandchildren and ten
great-grandchildren. His wife, Nella, passed away in 2009.

George’s passing leaves a void in his family, to whom he was devoted,
and among all those who knew him, but also in the South African
athletics world as a whole. He was a man of principle, deeply
religious, a lover of nature, gentle, wise and, until the end of his
life, with a keen interest in people and life.

* * * * *

days before the passing of George Claassen, another Comrades standout,
Graeme Fraser, died at the age of 65 in Durban from motor neurone
disease. Fraser, whose permanent number was 666, twice finished third
behind Bruce Fordyce in the Comrades, in 1982 and 1983 ‰ÛÓ with Alan Robb
also finishing ahead of him in 1982 and Gordon Shaw in 1983.

ran his two best times in these two years ‰ÛÓ 5:41:55 for the down run in
1982 and 5:46:20 for the up run in 1983. In each case he was just
narrowly beaten for second place ‰ÛÓ in 1982 by 29 seconds and in 1983 by
32 seconds.

1982 and 1983 were indeed his golden years, as he
also finished second to Fordyce in the London to Brighton ultramarathon
on both occasions, running 5:43:13 and 5:23:29 respectively, and
beating the redoubtable former champion Don Ritchie in 1983.

won four more Comrades gold medals ‰ÛÓ in 1981, 1984, 1985 and 1987 ‰ÛÓ and
achieved twelve medals in total. He also won three medals in the Old
Mutual Two Oceans Marathon, with a gold for ninth place in 1983.

George Claassen crosses the finish line of the Comrades Marathon in
1961, watched by Comrades founder Vic Clapham.

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