Tipton Harriers and the 1972 Comrades Marathon

Comrades Marathon

Part One

Home Dominance
The South African Connection
Laying Down The Gauntlet
Caution & Confirmation

Part Two

Background To The Comrades Marathon
Funding The Trip
Black Country Pride
The Training
Other Preparation (Of A Musical Kind)

Part Three

The Characters
Getting There
Arrival & Acclimatisation
A Further Challenge - The Paw Paws
The Diet

Part Four

The Field & Facilities
Race Expectations
The Day Before
The Route - Course Map & Profile

Part Five

The Great Day Dawns
How The Race Unfolded
The Team Result
The Call Home

Part Six



Saturday 3rd June 1972 was a significant day in the history of Tipton Harriers and the world of Ultra Distance running globally.

It was on this day in South Africa that the 47th running of the Comrades Marathon, organised by the Collegians Harriers – “For Amateurs By Amateurs” - took place and a piece of Tipton history was to be forged.


It was Mick Powell and George Johnson who started Tipton’s experimentation in the world of ultra distance running. Mick & George went down to the Road Runners Club’s London To Brighton race in 1962 and from those two performances a formidable record developed.

They were joined through that decade by the likes of Tony Fern, Ron & Gordon Bentley, Bill Carr, Tony Burkitt, John Malpass along with others such as Ron Copson & Ray Williams.

Through the 1960’s Tipton had become the leading Ultra Distance team in the United Kingdom. They had notched up race victories around the country in races such as “The Exeter To Plymouth”, “The London To Brighton”, “The Isle Of Man 40”, “The Woodford To Southend” and many others.


South Africa and the UK had long had close connections when it came to ultra distance running and achievements. Arthur Newton, originally from Weston Super Mare had left the UK and settled in Natal, had come across and run the "London To Brighton" and set records at various distances including, at the age of 51, in January 1934 the 100 Mile "Bath Road" from The Bear Inn at Box, a village near Bath, along the main route (now the A4) to the finish at Hyde Park Corner in London.

South Africans often competed as individuals in the long distance events in the UK such as The Road Runners Club's London To Brighton Race and Scotland's Two Bridges Road Race. These were just two of the races in the UK's ultra distance calendar in the 60's & 70's.

The Road Runners Club had been at the vanguard of the ultra distance culture and were widely respected around the world enjoying an international membership.

Indeed Tipton, in the shape of Jack Holden, had already enjoyed connections with South African & The Comrades Marathon. Hardy Ballington, a one time winner of the Comrades Marathon had taken the trouble to send Jack some food parcels during the post war period in his build up to the London Olympics in 1948.


As has already been said South Africans often competed in the UK ultra distance challenges. They had witnessed the performances and success of Tipton Harriers as well as the sociable nature of the men from the Black Country. Their ability to combine hard competition and hard recreation afterwards endeared them to many overseas visitors.

Stories of the performances of Tipton’s squad had also circulated around the world in the paragraphs of the Road Runners Club’s magazine.

The Two Bridges race, though a recent addition to the ultra calendar at that time, had proved a happy hunting ground for Tipton.

Two Bridges Race

 Name 1968 1969 1970 1971
 Gordon Bentley  12th (4:25:15)  14th (4:09:31)  9th (3:59:20  12th (3:58:08)
 Ron Bentley  4th (3:58:53)  6th (3:51:15)  3rd (3:42:15)  15th (3:59:09)
 John Malpass    13th (4:07:23)  5th (3:45:18)  5th (3:40:27)
 George Johnson    7th (3:53:13)  8th (3:54:43)  11th (3:55:17)
 Tony Fern  11th (4:25:15)  17th (4:19:59)    
 Bill Carr    9th (4:00:04)    3rd (3:37:16)
 Mick Orton        13th (3:58:27
 Tony Burkitt        6th (3:42:06)
 Ray Williams      17th (4:22:23)  
 Ron Copson      24th (4:46:45)  
 Team 1st 1st 1st 1st

It was after the 4th Two Bridges Race in Scotland in the August of 1971 that a challenge was made and the adventure started. It was at this event, on 24th August 1971, that Charlie Chase laid down the infamous gauntlet on the table where the Tipton lads were sat having a quiet drink after the race. This was to be a challenge forged out of friendship.

Charlie Chase was a member of the Germiston Callies club from Johannesburg and had taken part in the Two Bridges Race that day, placing 17th in a time of 4:06:23. He visited the UK on a frequent basis combining business and his love of running.

His club, Germiston Callies, had a tradition in contesting the famous Comrades Marathon. In the past, they had provided two of the individual winners of this famous event in the form of the Wally Hayward (1930, 50, 51, 53 & 54) and Jackie Mekler (1958, 60, 63, 64 & 68).

His challenge to the Tipton lads was to travel to South Africa in 1972 and take on what was then believed to be the hardest ultra distance race in the world, The Comrades Marathon, against South African teams who had been dominant in their event.

As was said by one of the lads at the time "We had always heard about the Comrades. There was a romantic tinge to it – all those names like Inchanga and Drummond." 


The Tipton lads, full of the win at the 1971 Two Bridges, as well as beer and bonhomie, wanted to rise to the challenge there and then.

Ron Bentley was more cautious and suggested that they wait at see how they fared in the London To Brighton in September of that year (1971).

The 26th September 1971 came and Tipton again won the RRC “London To Brighton” team award, The Len Hurst Belt, for the second year in a row. It was also their fourth win overall. The team race was based on “three to score” and excluded “ineligible” runners.

Here is a record of the performances recorded by members of Tipton Harriers in the famous RRC race in the lead up to the Comrades adventure.

London to Brighton (1962-1971)

George Johnson
17th (6:50:25)
12th (6:29:55)
18th (6:32:15)
20th (6:19:50)
5th (5:59:25)
27th (6:56:36)
7th (5:58:57)
2nd (5:55:08)
21st (6:25:10)
Gordon Bentley
8th (6:16:28)
14th (6:10:01)
12th (6:24:54)
12th (6:15:29)
8th (6:02:33)
Tony Fern
11th (6:26:20)
7th (6:16:16)
11th (6:06:39)
10th (6:20:40)
John Malpass
22nd (6:36:46)
16th (6:25:20)
3rd (5:55:30)
3rd (5:35:09)
Ron Bentley
23rd (7:07:22)
23rd (6:28:32)
5th (6:02:39)
Bill Carr
20th (6:34:42)
25th (7:31:05)
7th (5:48:15)
Tony Burkitt
4th (6:01:59)
6th (5:44:56)
Mick Powell
17th (6:50:25)
Ron Copson
38th (7:33:17)
Total Finishers

(NB - When, in 1970, Tipton finished four in the first five it took a further twenty five years for another club to come close to this level of domination when, in 1995, Gengold Harriers from South Africa finished five in the first six)

South Africa provided twelve contestants of which four had finished in the leading places at the Comrades Marathon. Their presence helped seal the challenge further as Dave Levick from South Africa won the race for Witwatersrand University in a new course record.

Witwatersrand University athletes, entered as individuals to comply with international rulings relating to apartheid , placed 1st, 2nd & 4th but were unable to compete as a team.

That sealed it - it was a case of seize the moment. And so began a very busy time and many things to address.



The Comrades Marathon was first staged on 24th May, Empire Day, in 1921.

The idea for the event came from Vic Clapham who was born in London on 16 November 1886. Vic emigrated as a youngster to South Africa, with his parents.

At the outbreak of the South African War in 1899 he enlisted as an ambulance man in the Cradock Town Guard at the age of 13. He later moved to Natal and worked as an engine driver with the South African Railways.

With the outbreak of the Great War 1914-1918, he again signed up with the 8th South African Infantry, and fought and marched over some 1700 miles of the eastern savannahs of Africa during the conflict.

These combined experiences of pain, agony, hardship and death that he witnessed during those awful days left an indelible impression on the young soldier. What stood out strongly was the friendship and collective experience engendered among the men in these conditions.

When peace was finally declared in 1918, Clapham felt that all those who had fallen in this catastrophic war should be remembered and honoured in a unique way.

His idea was to inspire an individuals’ will by stretching their physical & mental abilities to the limit.

He recalled the tremendous heat and thirst he experienced whilst at war. He came up with the idea of a long distance race and approached the athletic authorities of the day to sound their views. His idea was based on something he had read in a newspaper about an event in England.

There was at this time a "Stock Exchange Walk" between London & Brighton. This was about 50 odd miles. The distance between his home town of Pietermaritzburg and Durban was about 54 miles and so the idea crystalised. Durban lies on the central south east coast of South Africa with Pietermaritzburg inland.

His campaigning eventually led him to the doors of the “League of Comrades of the Great War”. These were a body of ex-servicemen who had formed an association to foster the interests of their living companions who had survived the Great War. It some ways it mirrors the Royal British legion formed in 1921 in the UK.

Clapham asked for permission to stage the event under the name of the Comrades Marathon and for it to become a living memorial to the spirit of the soldiers of the Great War. He was laughed at and turned down. It took stamina to get the event off the ground with him applying again in 1919 and 1920 to no avail. Finally he was successful in 1921 with a refundable grant of 2 Rand (about £1) for expenses! 48 entered, 34 started and 16 finished. An endurance event had begun that still captures the hearts and minds of people today.

He was a tireless campaigner and worked hard to establish the event. In many ways it was the forerunner of the mass participation events now enjoyed the world over including our own London Marathon. It captured the imagination of the South African people and eventually the rest of the world.

There was an added challenge to participants - that of a 12 hour “cut off” at the finish. There were also various ‘cut off’ times applied along the course for logistical reasons. Different “cut off” times continue to exist to this day.

The race continues today held annually in June. The race, in modern times, alternates in direction every year and has a slightly different course depending on the direction being run.

Both the “Up” route from Durban (1935m/6349ft ascent and a 1295m/4249ft descent) and the “Down” route from Pietermaritzburg (1295m/4249ft of ascent and 1935m/6349ft descent) provide formidable but different challenges to a runner’s legs. In 1972 the route was to be “Up” from Durban to Pietermaritzburg.

The Comrades Marathon was at that time regarded as the unofficial world championships for ultra distance running. No wonder Tipton wanted to take part.


Up until 1931 there was no team trophy and the race was already 10 years old. Vic Clapham commandeered an old World War One relic, a discarded steel helmet, found by his sons.

(In 1998, Dave Bagshaw met Vic Clapham's son at the finish of the race in Pietermaritzburg. He was told how he and his brother had found the helmet that forms the centre of the Gunga Din shield in the Unsimduzi River. They used to play with it in the garden skimming it across the lawn like a frisbee in the years before it was chromed and became a prized team trophy.)

Vic had this symbolic Great War memento chromed and mounted on a circular piece of wood. This team trophy was named the "Memorable Order of the Tin Hats (MOTH) Team Trophy".

Gungadin Trophy


This trophy was presented to the Comrades Marathon by the "Gunga Din Shellhole" the successor organisation to the "League of Comrades of the Great War" of which Clapham was a member. The trophy became known simply as the "Gunga Din". (Gunga Din was the name of the hero in a poem of 1892 by Rudyard Kipling.

In 1931 the first recipient of this coveted prize, appropriately was the Maritzburg United Athletics 'A' Team. Since 1960 the team award had been won as follows.

Comrades Marathon Team Results

 Year  1st Gunga Din  Points  2nd Arthur Newton  Points
 1960  Germiston Callies  22  Durban Athletic Club  24
 1961  Durban Athletic Club  14  Germiston Callies  43
 1962  Durban Athletic Club  47  Savages Athletic Club  51
 1963  Savages Athletic Club  30  Germiston Calloes  44
 1964  Durban Athletic Club  27  Germiston Callies  29
 1965  Savages Athletic Club  22  Germiston Callies  34
 1966  Savages Athletic Club  22  Germiston Callies  33
 1967  Savages Athletic Club  40  Collegians Harriers  48
 1968  Savages Athletic Club  33  Germiston Callies  34
 1969  Savages Athleric Club  23  Germiston Callies  33
 1970  Savages Athletic Club  24  Collegians Harriers  30
 1971  Savages Athletic Club  24  Wits Athletic Club  68
 1972  ?  ?  ?  ?

Who would it be in 1972? Tipton wanted it to be them.


How much would it cost? Ron Copson admitted in 1975 that the only thing which seemed to give cause for alarm at the time was raising the money, but raise it they did by every known means, and a few others as well.

Their target was £1400 to cover the air fares for the seven members of the team (at this stage Mick Orton was yet to figure in the plans). Their accommodation & hospitality costs were to be generously met by various people from the local athletic clubs and athletic organisations in South Africa.

The trip was to be for three weeks and being treated as a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity for all concerned.

Through the winter Ron & Gordon Bentley together with George Johnson staged between 10 and 12 dances around various venues in the Black Country to raise funds. The entertainment at these functions was often arranged by talented local pianist Colin Beadsmore. The profits from these events went to the fund.

Tony Burkitt recalls one singer/comedian called Lee Wilson who was a relative of one of the members of another club in the Tipton Sports Union (TSU). Tony recalls Lee appeared on the TV talent show of the time called “New Faces” and gave his services free for the cause.

In February 1972 the following letter appeared in the Road Runners Club Magazine from George Johnson appealing for funds.

Dear Sec,

As you know, in recent years Tipton Harriers have been building up a very strong Ultra long-distance road running team, and in the last four years have been particularly successful in this type of event.

Every year we compete in the Exeter to Plymouth 44m, the Isle of Man 40m, Woodford to Southend 36m, Dunfermline to Rosyth 36m, Liverpool to Blackpool 48m (now ceased) and the world-famous London to Brighton 53m.

The past four years we have been unbeaten in these events, and on three occasions have provided the individual winner as well, each one also breaking the course record for the event.

After our victory in this year’s London to Brighton which was our second in succession, and our fourth in all, we were asked by the visiting members of Savages AC of Durban, and Witwatersrand University if we could possibly send a team to compete in the famous “Comrades Marathon,” a distance of 57 miles from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, which this year attracted an entry of no less than 1200 athletes.

They have guaranteed to provide us with full accommodation, food, transport, if we could raise the money to cover our fares, and have started a fund in South Africa to achieve this end.

This means starting a fund to raise something in the region of £1500 by means of dances, raffles, donations, etc. We have been given a good start of over £200 with donations from four local businessmen connected with Tipton Sports Union of which we are a member, and on hearing of our plans, the Sports Union have assured us that they will will start a fund to raise half of the total if we can raise the balance ourselves.

In order to do this, apart from dances, except, we are writing to as many athletic clubs is possible to ask if their members would be willing to have a collection and help us achieve this target.

We realise that athletes are faced with a lot of expense to enjoy their sport, but any donation, however small, will be gratefully received and acknowledge and will make our task a little easier.

Yours sincerely,

G G Johnson, Secretary, Comrades Marathon Subcommittee.

PS I have enclosed a brief record of our achievements to show you that if we are fortunate enough to go we shall be able to make a determined effort to bring the Gunga Din trophy to England for the first time ever.

Donations should be sent to R Bentley, Treasurer, 5 Carlton Crescent, Woodsetton, Sedgley, Dudley, Worcestershire.

At one stage Ansell’s Brewery offered to kit the team out with tracksuits provided they had a logo for a local brew called “Ansell’s Ale” but this was not to be as the Amateur Athletic Association forbade any such sponsorship.

Ron Bentley was able to obtain discounted air tickets for the trip but only with a bit of subterfuge as they had to state that they were staying in hotels when in South Africa.

The trip really brought the various clubs of the Tipton Sports Union (TSU) together as all component clubs partook in the events and functions to help raise funds. They were riding on the crest of goodwill after the opening of the facilities at Gospel Oak in 1971. There was a container on the bar at the Social Club known as the “coffin” into which spare change was happily put to help the cause.

The late Gordon Bentley organised an infamous “men only” at a venue in Bilston where the Police got wind of it. The crowd and ‘entertainers’ were only warned by the timely sounding of the fire alarm!

Ron Copson recalled two other striptease evenings at the Robin Hood near Quarry Bank. At that time there was a small theatre on the site. Ron reckons he could have sold 7000 tickets through work alone!

Tipton Harriers had planned for a team of seven, financed by club funding. It was not until the spring of 1972 that Mick Orton decided to come along and pay his own fare so he could look after his club mates.

Ron Bentley, the Tipton captain, told Mick that he would be foolish to attend the Comrades as a spectator – he couldn't miss such a great race experience. And so Mick decided to “at least start the Comrades ‘cause I might never have the chance to go again”. The team was now eight.

As the date for departure got closer a final function organised by Alan Richards, was held on 20th May 1972 at the Queen Mary Ballroom in the grounds of Dudley Zoo. There is an unsubstantiated story concerning an encounter between Ron Bentley and a killer whale!

Tipton Harriers

One final act of kindness before they left came from Bert Ward of Ward’s Poultry fame who slipped Ron Bentley, the Captain, £150 as “pocket money” for the lads for the trip. It is a measure of the hospitality that they received that Ron came back with £73!


It was clear that the trip and challenge had captured the interest of the club, the area and the wider Black Country community. The following was written by Harry Harrison, the legendary Black Country Poet.

Off The Cuff Black Country Stuff, Harry Harrison

(The News, Thursday, 11th May 1972)

They’ope ter win the ‘Gunga Din’

Worro Aer’kid.

Yoh know where the best ultra-distance runnin team in this country doh yer, Aynuk? No tew ways abaht it, ode pal, Tipun ‘Arriers marathon men can run ferther thun sum uv the new motors!

Ah ‘ad a chat th’uther nite ter the eight runners oom flyin out ter South Africa Whit Satdy ter run in the werld fermus “Comrades rerce” on Jewne 3. Well abuv a thousand runners ull be steppin it out frum Durban ter Pietermaritzburg, which is 57 miles. Yo’ve ony gorra think abaht it un yoh start swetin un get the cramp or surmut, doh yer?

These runners train morning, newn un nite dew anythin betwin 100 un 200 miles evry wik apiece ter keep fit. Wi’ tew “Bentleys” un a “Carr” in the team yo’de think they’de run on petrol instid uv glucose un orange jewce, wud’n’t yer?

Team manager Bill Carr frum Ocker Bonk Tipun is producshun maniger ut Vowells, Cherch Lern, Bramwich. They’ve got abuv 100 runnin members altagether in Tipun ‘Arriers un Bill is maniger uv the lot, not just the ultra-distance team.

“If anybody goz off the fewd, they’le get their appetite back if they run “100 mile” ‘e sed.

The tew Bentley Bruthers um tew rite lads if yoh get torkin tew um, aer’kid..Yo’me outa breth lissnin abaht sum uv their performances.

Team captin Ron Bentley wun 100 mile rerce last October in just under 12 ‘ours 38 minits, which is the therd fastist time in the werld! Gordon Bentley finished therd in that one. Yoh cor ‘ardly believe anybody cud run 100 mile wi’out stopping fer one thing or anuther, con yer? It’s theer tho’, Aynuk, they keep runnin un they’me fed outa plastic bottle feeders ter keep um gooin’. It’s marvluss, really.

Ron Bentley jined Tipun ‘Arriers 20 ‘ears agoo un ‘e ‘elps ter run a steel stock’olders in Portway Road Oldbrey. Yo’de want a perper uz big uz ‘The New York ‘Erald Tribune’ to put down all the rerces this team uv run in, un ah bay jokin’, neither.

Gordon Bentley wuz Staffordsheer yewth champion ut arf-mile, the mile un cross country, un e’ze run in two 100 mile rerces un finished booth times! The Bentley Bruthers ope ter break the werld record uv 159 miles fer 24 ‘ours non-stop runnin in 1973 aer’kid! Anybody dewin a runnin commentary on that ull av a soore throat ah’le bet our Aynuk.

John Malpass is anuther well known runnin nerm, ay it ode pal. E jined Tipun in 1961 frum Bramwich ‘Arriers. In 1971 John wuz ranked the top United Kingdom ultra distance runner un ‘e cum fust in the Exeter ter Plymouth un the Ilse uv Man rerces!

Tew South Africans pushed ‘im in ter therd plerce last ‘ear in the London ter Brighton rerce, but ‘e recorded the therd fastist time ever by an Englishman.

Wiltshire born George Johnson uz run in the 53 miles London ter Brighton rerce nine times un finished the course evry time...that’s gooin’ a bit, ay it? George, ooh wun the Wiltshire Marathon three times, uz run in 58 rerces between 26 miles un 53 miles.

Midlunds Marathon Champion in 1966 un 1967, Tony Burkitt wuz mile champion uv Midlunds Grammer Schewls in 1957. E’ze bin in gud form in the big rerces the serm uz Ron Copson, ooz run in evry ultra distance rerce except the Isle uv Man.

“This team is great un shud put up a gud show in the ‘Gunga Din’ trophy rerce in South Africa,” Ron tode me. Progress chaser Mick Orton, ooh lives opposite th’Arrier pub, Tipun, is payin ‘is own fare (£145 air tickit) ter run the course frum sea level up ter 5,000 feet!

The South African runner nerm Charlie Chase invited the team ter goo un ah know wotever ‘appens, the lads un Tipun ‘Arriers in their green un white ull be a credit ter the Black Country. Lets wish un all the very best. Cheerio, Eli


Taking up the challenge at the Two Bridges Race was the easy part.  The hard work began through the latter part of 1971 and into 1972. Against the normal winter season backdrop of cross country league races, area and national cross country races hard graft was being done.

Remembering that all were in full time employment, some with young families, some with physically demanding jobs it is hard to imagine how they fitted in the mileage necessary to ‘get fit’ for the Comrades.

During the week most did their own thing, slowly cranking up the weekly mileage, often in excess of 150 miles. Two or even three sessions a day were often the norm. The strength of the Tipton club helped here as various members like Alan Richards, Andy Holden joined the team in their training. It was not just Tipton who joined in this journey. The likes of Colin Hunt, Colin Kemball of Wolverhampton, Len York and Dave Hope from the Worcester club also played their small part in the preparations. Some club nights afforded the lads the welcome lift of training in a large group. They often met at the Accles & Pollock Sports Ground in Oldbury.

But it was the weekends that provided the best opportunity for getting the longer runs in and throughout that period from September 1971 through to the spring of 72 many back to back runs were done on a Saturday & Sunday. They would think nothing of logging four to five hour excursions on each day. The pace was measured and provided a sociable atmosphere as well to relieve the tedium and pain of such efforts.

On these long runs through the Staffordshire, Shropshire & Worcestershire countryside they often took money for food & drink to recharge their batteries part way round. Big loops were drawn up from the club heading out through Dudley, Kingswinford & Wolverhampton. On odd occasions they would run into Birmingham & back on the canals.

Mileages for some had already been high.  Ron & Gordon Bentley had been used to the higher numbers whilst training for the 100 mile race in 1971. For these two it was not uncommon for them to see off 150-160 miles a week.

Ron Copson recalled "Training was increased to an almost, new and unknown level even by our standards, so that we all got very fit, and could not wait to get there". For Ron it was a "three times a day" schedule. Living in Halesowen he used to run to work in Lye, then train at lunchtime, followed by the run home. At weekends he would venture out into the countryside. He would run to Alveley alone, meet John Malpass, the pair would then run back to Ron's whereupon John would run back home. This amounted to around 130 miles a week. As his family remarked during this phase when he came through the door "do you live here?" His weight during this time was a stable 10st 3lbs.

Tony Burkitt also recalled that he trained regularly with John Malpass as they both lived in Alveley. They would meet every morning at 5.30am and run anything from 15 to 20 miles in around one and a half to two hours, which was very hard running for a training run. Tony added that that was enough for him though he did try to manage a steady run of 30/45 minutes at night. Tony was able to confirm that John ran again at lunchtime and managed another long run in the evening.

John Malpass often remarked that the Comrades team were involved with training for 10-12 hours of every day in the period leading up to the trip.

Tony Burkitt estimates that at that time John was clocking up at least 200 miles a week. Tony also said that John was like a machine, switching his engine on at the start of each run, running hard for as long as he had to, then switched the engine off. A fitting tribute to someone he felt was “so focused on making himself the best runner it was possible for him to be”.

Josie Burkitt, Tony’s wife, also recalls with wry humour that she would say to their two daughters “Girls, this is your dad!” when he would arrive through the door after yet another run.

Mick Orton provided an insight into his training prior to his victory in 1972.. His monthly mileages, running up to 3 times a day up to within 2 days of an event and his associated racing were as follows


Mick Orton's Training Log for 1972

 Month  Mileage  Races  Notes
 January  425  3  
 February  304  2  
 March  331  1  
 April  349  5  Road Relays
 May  498  None  

Due to illness, he had had two separate weeks with very little training in March and April. He only did 10 runs over 20 miles at approximately 9½ miles per hour pace and 2 over 30 miles (32 and 33 miles in approximately 4 hours).

Mick also stated that his most serious training was for the cross-country season starting the beginning of December and culminating with the National Championships at the beginning of March.

His cross-country training was as follows – 6 weeks steady running, with runs of up to 3½ to 4 hours on Sundays giving a total of between 120 miles to 130 miles weekly. Thereafter he cut down on his mileage but introduced 2 to 3 interval sessions per week, i.e. 11 to 12 miles on the road, first 3 miles steady, then a number of faster efforts and ease off over the last 2 to 3 miles. For the rest of the week he ran as he felt.

His best times at that juncture, for the standard longer road race distances were 50m 21s for 10 miles and 1hr 51m 34s for 20 miles.

Mick also admitted he had a leaning towards yoga – doing a few exercises daily especially before a big race. This physical awareness was to help him out in the latter stage of the race.

He described his diet as normal, though not containing too much fatty food. He said that supplements of wheat germ, vitamin and iron pills were taken every day noting that this was under his doctor’s supervision. He weighed 150lbs (10st 10lbs/68Kg’s).

In South Africa Dave Bagshaw was also training hard though not without some disruptions. He gave an insight to the author in August 2012 as to his build up.

Dave Bagshaw's Training Log for 1972

 Month  Mileage  Races  Notes
 January  141  2  One x 20 mile race & one 3 mile relay stage
 February  222    
 March  226  
 April  449  2  One marathon, one 33 mile race
 May  501    


As well as banging in the miles the lads had been planning to entertain their hosts. Two of the team had looked at the course and showing some artistic enterprise come up with a song that they planned to sing.

Tipton Is The Team

(To The Tune Of “Wearing Of The Green”)

 Green is our colour
 Tipton is our scene
 We are the greatest
 Long distance running team
 We are the runners of Tipton
 The greatest in the land
 And when we run we mean we run
 We really shrink the land

 Our vests are hoops of green and white
 You'll see them to the fore
 And if you ever catch up with one
 You'll have to run some more
 Green is our colour
 Tipton is our scene
 We are the greatest
 Long distance running team
 Our motto is to run to win
 Of that there is no doubt
 And if you see us struggling
 You'll never see us drop out

 Yes my lads we’re hard but fair
 Whenever we run the race
 To be beaten by a Tipton boy
 Is certainly no disgrace
 Green is our colour
 Tipton is our scene
 We are the greatest
 Long distance running team
 Now we’re here to tackle Botha’s
 Polly Shortts as well
 Drummond's tough or so we're told
 But we're here to run like hell

 Now you've good teams so we've read
 We only know a few
 Of Ladysmith and Wits we've heard
 Of Callies and Savages too
 Green is our colour
 Tipton is our scene
 We are the greatest
 Long distance running team
 We've heard your runners of the past
 Great names to think on
 Like Jackie Hardy and Wally
 And of course the great Newton

 The course is tough of this we are told
 And when Maritzburg’s near
 Having run through the Valley of a Thousand Hills
 We’ll all shout "Where's that beer"
 Green is our colour
 Tipton is our scene
 We are the greatest
 Long distance running team
 (Solo) Ron Bentley
 I'm big Ron Bentley
 Captain of this team
 I'm proud of my bunch of lads
 The best the world has seen
 (Solo) Gordon Bentley
 My name is Gordon Bentley
 Unlike my brother Ron
 I’ve raced a hundred on the track
 And I'm going like a bomb
 (Solo) George Johnson
 I'm quiet George Johnson
 I don't say much at all
 But when it comes to running
 I'm the shrewdest of them all
 (Solo) Tony Burkitt
 I'm Tony Burkitt
 The smallest runner on view
 My head may roll from side to side
 But don't let that fool you
 (Solo) Bill Carr
 My first name is Billy
 My second name is car
 The distance doesn't worry me
 I'd trained to run that far
 (Solo) John Malpass
 I'm Johnny Malpass
 The long and lanky one
 I've run two hundred miles a week
 And so I fear no one
 (Solo) Ron Copson
 I'm the other Rony
 Copson is the name
 I'm not the fastest of the boys
 But I love this running game
 (Solo) Mick Orton
 My name is Mickey Orton
 The youngest in the team
 I'm just learning this tough game
 With the best team you have seen
 Green is our colour
 Tipton is our scene
 We are the greatest
 Long distance running team
 Now would like to thank you all
 The listening to our song
 But never mind you good folks
 You won't have us for long

 Were only here for a short while
 Our stay is far too short
 But each and every one of us
 Will be a jolly good sport
 Chorus (Repeat Twice)
 Green is our colour
 Tipton is our scene
 We are the greatest
 Long distance running team



Who were the men taking on this magnificent challenge and what did they do?

George Johnson, originally from Devizes, had stayed in the area after a stint in the RAF at Cosford after getting married. In 1960 George was captivated by the performance of Abebe Bikila over the marathon distance in the Olympic Games. He wrote to Jim Bedford, then Secretary of the Harriers, to ask if he could join. It was the start of a long career in which he helped lay the foundations for the success that came Tipton’s way. At the time of the Comrades George was 35 years old and working in the scrap metal trade. He ran in 84 events at or over the marathon distance and completed no less than 84 - a remarkable record.

John Malpass was originally a member of West Bromwich Harriers joining Tipton in the early 1960’s. John ran over many surfaces – road, cross country, track & fell. He had always been up for adventure and first ran the Ben Nevis Fell Race in 1960. Our first records of John running anything over 10 miles was at the Pembroke 20 in 1963 where he recorded a modest 2hr 12m 44s for 62nd place. John was a “solid” clubman always turning out in the road relays and league races. It took until 1968 to get another record of John competing in a long distance race when he competed in the London To Brighton. It was probably in 1969 that John made his breakthrough and found his niche when he finished 2nd in the Liverpool To Blackpool 48 ½ Mile Road Race. In May 1970 he was 2nd to Ron Bentley in the Exeter To Plymouth “44”. Two weeks later he was 3rd in the Isle of Man 40. In September he was 3rd behind George Johnson in the London To Brighton. In 1971 amongst many performances he won both the Exeter To Plymouth race and the Isle Of Man 40. As an aside he managed 12th in the Polytechnic Marathon. This is just a snapshot of John’s amazing career before the Comrades. John, aged 32, was living in Alveley in Worcestershire at the time and was a draughtsman by trade. Going into the 1972 Comrades many felt him to be the top ultra distance runner around.

John was hoping that his wife Gloria would be able to listen into the race as a family friend was a “Radio Ham” and would be trying to tune in to the frequency of the local station that would be covering the race. In an article in a local paper in South Africa he was quoted as saying “I am a firm believer in the right frame of mind. There are a lot of fellows that are the same over short distance, but it is the chap who is more stubborn over the marathon distance that wins through” going on to say “I can truthfully say that I don’t suffer from pre-race nerves. I have only one thought in mind and that is beating the man in front of me.”

Another Alveley resident at that time was Tony Burkitt, then aged 30. Tony joined the Harriers in 1958 just after winning the NW Midlands Grammer Schools One Mile Championship for Bilston Grammar School at Aldersley Stadium, Wolverhampton.

Jim Bedford, the Tipton Harriers Club Secretary at that time, kindly arranged to pick Tony up and take him to the club to meet everyone. Tony ran in Junior & Senior teams over all surfaces but it was in 1964 that he went to watch the Midland Marathon Championship at Leamington. He was impressed and thought “I’d like to do that”. He increased his training mileage and ran the following year finishing 5th in 2h 40m 49s. This made him even more determined and he went on to win in 1966 (2h 27m 40s) & 1967 (2h 22m 59s). But it was in 1969 when Tony went down to support John Malpass, George Johnson, Gordon Bentley and Ron Copson with drinks and sponges in the London To Brighton race. He could not believe the “strength and determination” shown by these lads. He was hooked and promised to join them the following year. Ron Copson knowingly advised Tony by saying “Tone, you’ll know you’re tired when it becomes a major decision whether or not you’re able to step up a gutter”.

Tony was born in Walsall who lived in Wednesbury as a young man until his marriage, then moving on to Quarry Bank. He started out as a “progress chaser” in Wolverhampton moving into the “fruit and veg “ trade as a salesman in Great Bridge also owning a grocery shop in Walsall.

Ron Copson was another friend of John Malpass who worked in Lye as a buyer at Bronx Ltd. Ron was 40 at the time of the race. Ron lived in Halesowen and used to have a seven mile run to the club just to train. Ron joined the Harriers around 1965 after some badgering by Pete Boxley, another Tipton legend, who used to work with Ron. Ron tells the tale of how he came to take up ultra distance. It came about after Malpass asked Ron to come along to the next race he and Tony Fern were to run in, what he did not tell Ron was just how far that race was. It turned out to be the 1969 “Liverpool To Blackpool” Race, some 44+ miles! As it turned out he finished 17th and Tipton were third team. Some baptism that was.

It was through Ron that Harry Taylor, the then Editor of the Black Country Bugle, gave good exposure of the trip and the eventual result.

Gordon Bentley and George Johnson were working together trying to establish a business on a bit of land in Oldbury. Gordon was then around 33 years of age. Ron Bentley, Gordon's elder brother, worked next door. Gordon & George lived close together near Lanesfield, and used to run from there to and from Oldbury - a great grounding. Lanesfield was at that time a centre for ultra distance as Tony Fern lived round the corner.

Bill Carr joined the Harriers in 1960. Under the insistence of his brother in law Ken Rickhuss, a stalwart of the club at that time. He ran mainly road and cross country races and in around 1967 moved up to running the ultra distance ones. To get fit for such events he ran to and from work and often also forgoing lunch to get in more training. At the time of the Comrades he was 30 years old and the Production Manager at Vowles Foundries in West Bromwich. He was also Team Manager for both Tipton Harriers and Staffordshire County Amateur Athletic Association.

Mick Orton was the youngest of the party at the age of 23. He had been a runner since joining Tipton Harriers at the age of 12. He had gone through the ranks training seriously in the 9 to 10 years before the race. He lived in Tipton at the time in Glebefields Road. He worked as a “progress chaser” for local firm Wilmot Breeden Ltd at their “Truflo” factory in Dudley Port.

Finally there was the legend that is Ron Bentley. Ron joined the Harriers in the early 1950’s after returning from National Service and being inspired by watching Jack Holden in one of the Sedgley 15 Mile Road Races. Ron was a supreme all round sportsman. He had boxed, and competed at gymnastics and hockey. Ron competed at every aspect of athletics – road running, cross country, track & field. He first tried the marathon around the age of 27. It was the Midland Championships and he finished 3rd.

In 1964 he was approached by Tony Fern & George Johnson to join them in the London To Brighton Race and that really kick started his ultra distance career. He is an inspirational man and can motivate and encourage people. This he did and, combined with his love of adventure and a challenge, he took many members of the Harriers to races the length and breadth of the country. He worked in the scrap metal & salvage trade. He described himself as ‘feeling like a gladiator’ when he stripped off his togs and got his club vest and shorts on ready to race. He was the man to lead Tipton in the Comrades challenge.


The trip started at 10 o'clock on Saturday morning, 27 May 1972, appropriately with a pint of ale at the Social Club at the Tipton Sports Centre on Gospel Oak Rd. It was a wet and windy morning. After all the goodbyes three cars took the party of 8 gladiators to Heathrow.

As they were checking in, unbeknownst to them a coach load of supporters arrived, complete with banners, bells and streamers; to wish them "bon voyage." One nice anecdote came from Tony Burkitt. It concerned his Mum & Dad who had not known about this in advance. The coach called to pick them up. His Mum had popped out to the corner shop at the time to get some bread, still wearing her slippers. Off they went on the coach to Heathrow - his Dad, Mum, the loaf & slippers! A number of members from the Road Runners Club were also at the airport, what a send off!

After taking their seats in on a new type of plane, a jumbo jet, which they all agreed was a gorgeous plane inside, they took off at 6:35 PM. There was an hour stop at Las Palmas, on the Canary Islands to refuel. Already they found it lot warmer than back in England.

On they went landing in Johannesburg after 15 hours flying. They donned sunglasses and took a few photographs before catching the internal flight to Durban. At this time Durban did not have a runway that could accommodate large long haul planes hence the need for another leg.

In Durban, they were met by members of the Savages Athletic Club.



They were warmly greeted by members of the local Durban based Savages Athletic Club. The party were introduced to their various hosts and split into groups.

After these formalities each group went with their hosts to their own private digs in the Durban suburbs.

Bill Carr, Ron & Gordon Bentley stayed with Gerry Treloar the Chairman of the Savages club. Mick was on his own with Bart de Jager.

Ron Copson & George Johnson were paired together and stayed with Graham & Wendy Ford. George was a Lawyer and member of the Savages Club. John Malpass & Tony Burkitt were billeted with another specialist – this time a brain surgeon, (Tony recalled the name as "Curtis", Dave Bagshaw however suggests this may have been Doc Curwen who was an anaesthetist).

Tony recalls just how kind and accommodating they were. Early morning training runs were slotted into their own family routine. They were taken by car wherever and whenever they needed to go.

A hectic time was had during the week prior to the race, with a little light training. It was a bit of a culture shock. The South Africans trained very early in the morning. Amongst those that met for those early morning runs, often at 5.30am included the amazing 71 year old Ian Jardine. Ian was near blind but had competed in at least 14 Comrades and was an incredible character. He used to compete with another runner who "guided" him, often this was Gerry Treloar.

As part of their preparations they explored parts of the course both on foot and in the minibus made available to ferry them around.

Their hosts took them to see parts of the course. They ventured out to for one morning run at Cowies Hill that featured early on in the race.

A notable venue for runners in Durban at this time was Hoy Park and Tipton made use of this for some of the morning training runs prior to the race. Breakfast was often hosted by Savages member Malcolm Hean at his house.

On arrival they had to get used to the heat and different environment. The weather was hot until two days before the race, when it clouded over much to their liking. Another thing Ron Bentley recalled was the rapid change from night to day.

There is only a very short twilight and on one occasion they came unstuck as they had gone out for a training run and lost track of the time and distance covered. The soon found themselves floundering around in the dark trying to trace Ron Copson who had become detached from the group.

The build up must have quite an experience with all the press calls and radio interviews the lads undertook in addition to the functions and socials laid on by their hosts.


On arrival in South Africa the lads were faced with another, good natured challenge, from a group calling themselves the “Paw-Paws”. The reward for meeting the challenge was to be “beers all round” for the winners.

The “Paw-Paws”, a group of five Comrades runners who trained together, issued a strong formal challenge to the Tipton team. They presented an inscribed scroll (see below) to the eight Englishman over tea and cakes after a quick run to Drummond and back from Hillcrest in the week leading up to the race.


The challenge was the brainwave of local Comrades hero Dave Bagshaw (who had won in 1971 thus bagging a hat trick of victories) would be won by the team with the first four runner’s home. The losers have to buy a beer apiece for the winners.

The confident Paw-Paws also challenged a group of Durban North men who train at Greyville and called themselves the Greyville Grubbers.

The challenges were made all in good fun, but were quite serious, according to Dave. They added a light touch to the heavy going and tension of the final week before the big race.


The eight tough, long-haired, pale faced Tipton entrants had caused a stir in the week leading up to the race when their eating habits became known. Tipton were experimenting with what is now referred to as the Saltin Diet

They were in the throes of the “depletion” diet, regarded as novel at the time. They had completed their last long runs before departure to exhaust muscle oxygen stores. Then for the next three days they ate a high-protein diet leaving out carbohydrates.

This state of starvation, it was said, would allow muscles to take up and store heightened amounts of glycogen. This would allow the runner to prolong his optimum running speed for a longer period.

So in the final days immediately preceding the big race they switched to cakes and sweets, soft drinks and plenty of beer! This added to the mysticism and aura surrounding the lads from England.



The race had drawn an entry of 1448 which easily bettered the previous record – that of 1239 in the 1971 race.

As John Cameron-Dow wrote in his recent book on the race:

In 1972, South Africa appeared to be heading towards serious internal conflict. The nationalist government continued to implement its policies of racial segregation amid signs of increasing black resistance. In 1969, Steve Biko had established the South African students organisation. In 1972, a black People's Convention was founded. Strikes were held in protest against low wages at a time of escalating inflation. Biko's Black consciousness movement was growing in strength.

 White recognition of the inequity and un-sustainability of apartheid was limited. While many found the policy abhorrent, government control of the media and of education had been affected in brainwashing the public.

 The country's racist laws were in direct conflict with the ethos of the Comrades Marathon. Yet the race was, like other entities, subject to the laws of the land. Legislation barred the majority of the population from taking part. Comrade’s organisers, facing a dilemma not of their own making, opted for a compromise. They decided to turn a deaf ear to the problem and quietly encourage athletes of colour to participate unofficially.”

There were at least 22 unofficial entrants also lined up. More than half were classified in reports as “nonwhites “ –  5 Africans, 4 Indians and 2 coloureds -  the terminology a symptom of the troubled times. There were at least two ‘unofficial’ female contestants. These were the times where women were severely limited on the distances they could officially compete over. The Comrades name never being more appropriate.

Even in those days the race attracted celebrities. Two former Springbok rugby players (Walton & Oxley) taking up the challenge.

More than 1000 runners were expected to finish and qualify for medals – an indication of the progress made since 1935. Entries and finishing numbers for the Comrades Marathon since 1967 were as follows:-

 Year  Up/Down Entries  Finishers  Winning Time  Winner
 1967  Down  600  415  5:54:10  J D "Manie Kuhn
 1968  Up  659  435  6:01:11  Jackie Mekler
 1969  Down  795  586  5:45:35  Dave Bagshaw
 1970  Up  865  636  5:51:27  Dave Bagshaw
 1971  Down  1239  925  5:47:06  Dave Bagshaw
 1972  Up  1448      

Natal, home of the great race, as usual had by far the biggest number of entries from any of the South African provinces. It had more than half of the 1448 entrants – 594 from Durban and districts and 164 from Pietermaritzburg and its districts.

The arrival of Tipton Harriers team from England brought an international flavour to the 47th Comrades Marathon. But Britain was not the only "foreign" country represented in the race.

Six countries including South Africa had entrants. The eight Tipton men formed the biggest foreign contingent, followed by Rhodesia with five. Botswana and Swaziland each had two and Zambia one.

It is hard to imagine now but back then the use of computers in anything but big business and academic environments was big news.

The computer age had finally caught up with the Comrades. Consigned to the past was the tedious task associated with the administrative side of this great event. To handle the record entry the race administration used computers for the first time to aid entry management and results production.

For the first time in the race history they put out distance markers, in 5Km intervals, for the last 25Km. This is a far cry from the standards of race organisation we enjoy in major events with every mile or kilometre clearly marked.

Improvements were also in place for the finish area in the form of seating. In the past, the spectators had crowded at the fence of the finishing enclosure and only a few had a good view of the runners as they reached the line.

The huge crowd that were expected to flock to the Collegians Ground in Pietermaritzburg for the finish were for the first time be able to watch the final lap of the race from tiered grandstands.


"We’re extremely fit and confident and we're going to win the Gunga Din Trophy on Saturday." That was the prediction of Ron Bentley, the Captain of the Tipton Harriers team from England, who arrived in Durban on Sunday 21st May to compete.

The local press featured the visitors on a grand scale in the days leading up to the race. “On the evidence of both the records and the dedicated manner in which the eight-man Tipton team set about their two training runs yesterday, it looks as though Savages’ seven year reign as team champions and winners of the Gunga Din Trophy could be at an end.”

The press reckoned that the member of the squad most likely to cause concern to front runners of the calibre of Dave Bagshaw, Dave Box and company, was John Malpass.

They described him as “Pale and wiry, Malpass moved with the easy rhythm of the accomplished ultra long distance runner”.

Malpass, who had in the preceding months had won the Exeter to Plymouth race in 4hr 42m; the Isle of Man event in 3hr 56m 08s and was also third in the London to Brighton during 1971, felt the Comrades could be one of the toughest courses of all. "We had a look at a section of the course and it seems more hilly than the ones we used to back home," he said. "Without a doubt it will be a tougher run than the London to Brighton which is about the same distance."

Malpass had no doubts about finishing – he had averaged 320km/200 miles a week for some months during training.

Ron Bentley held the Exeter to Plymouth course record with a time of 4hr 41m 23s clocked in 1970 and in 1971 he won the British 100 mile event in 12hr 37m 55s beating John Tarrant (12hr 51m 38s). Ron's brother, Gordon, was third in that event in 13hr 14m 17s.

As an aside it was on this trip that Gordon & Ron Bentley were elected and inducted as honorary members of the Centurion Runners Club. This was South African club originally formed in 1933 in Cape Town, revived in 1968 by Tony Tripp (Savages Athletic Club) in Durban. It was only open to people who had run in and completed a 100 miles race.

George Johnson, had competed in nine London to Brighton runs since 1962 and was creditable 2nd in 1970. The remaining members of the team, Ron Copson, Mick Orton, Bill Carr and Tony Burkitt, had all turned in creditable runs in the past in various long distance races around the UK.

But the locals had their own expectations and views.  In 1922 Arthur Newton was an unknown quantity when he entered & ran the first 'Up' version of the race. Would another “unknown” cause an upset?

Dave Bagshaw was rated locally as a “racing certainty” for the 1972 race. With three wins in a row, the 1969 and 1970 runs being in record time, fair-haired 28-year-old Bagshaw was the hot favourite. He was also aiming to match Newton's four wins in a row.

Experts were saying 'It would take a very good runner indeed to topple Bagshaw from his throne'  and that he had an 'immense psychological advantage' over his rivals. Ironically Bagshaw was also an “expat” like Newton.  Another who had been widely expected to challenge in 1972 was Dave Levick who had won the London To Brighton in record time in the previous year. Sadly for the race Levick had to withdraw on medical grounds with a foot injury.

Despite the absence of Levick the South African ultra distance cognoscenti were still licking their lips in anticipation of the race. With Dave Box in the field all of Bagshaw's rivals were to be there including Don Hartley, who had won the recent Cape Town Two Oceans Ultra-Distance Race and Trevor Parry, the Witswatersrand University runner who ran second behind Levick at the 1971 London to Brighton race.

In not dismissing the English challenge it was expected that if there was to be a surprise it would come from the squad of eight from Tipton.  They felt that, of the eight entrants from the Black Country, it might be John Malpass (who had placed third to Levick and Parry in the 71 Brighton) or the experienced veteran Ron Bentley who had run prodigious distances in training would spring a surprise but only 'if they did not burn out under the South African sun'. In the write up of the 1972 race after the event it was observed that some of the Tipton entrants were ‘burly by marathon standards’.

What of the chances of these brave men? Jackie Meckler had pointed out in 1962 that British visitors were often underrated because of South Africa's long string of successes in the London to Brighton race and because it was felt that the South African hills and heat would defeat the visitors.

The logic applied, however, was the fact that the English runners would carry out the bulk of their training for the race in the cold and wet of an English winter and spring whilst the local runners adapted themselves in the stifling summer heat. When you then consider the timing of the Brighton, held in September, the same logic had merit for the South Africans visiting the UK having trained in their winter.

Whatever the merits of the diet, training, experience etc. the team had trained long and hard and were now ready for the race of their lives.


There was no pre-race pasta party but a gathering of runners and friends, at the DLI Hall in the Greyville area of Durban, on the eve of the race for a barbeque. This famous Durban landmark, opened in 1904 provided the surprisingly small number of attendees with a chance to renew old friendships and talk about the up and coming race. The Tipton visitors were introduced almost absentmindedly.


The following two diagrams show the course and profile of the race. They are taken from the 1986 book, “The Comrades Story” by Morris Alexander, which chronicles the history of the race.


The profile clearly shows the “rollercoaster” challenge that faced the eight men from the Black Country heading inland from costal Durban (located on the right hand side of the profile).


The Comrades Marathon route is often described by the 'Big Five' hills. The names of which carried a reverence when conversations took place in the years before the trip amongst the ultra distance fraternity. Names that were also immortalised in the song they had written and were to sing to various groups on their travels.



The runners assembled and the race started at just after 6.00am outside Durban Town Hall. On the day the Tipton lads wore their club vests and race numbers with pride. For completeness they are listed here:-

No Name
 300  John Malpass
 301  Gordon Bentley
 302  Ron Bentley Snr
 304  Bill Carr
 305  Ron Copson
 306  George Johnson
 Mick Orton
 308  Tony Burkitt

Why no number 303? Well this had already been awarded in perpetuity to Dave Bagshaw after winning three times and earning what the race calls an “evergreen” number.

Prominent on the front line were the eight Tipton warriors. Ron Bentley had advised the lads to hold hands in a line to avoid the pressure from the large field assembled behind and losing the advantage of a clear run.

There seems to be some confusion as to just what the weather conditions were like at the start. A local newspaper reporting  on the race described it as “cold” but the more formal account given by the respected Comrades historian Alexander Morris tell us that “the sky was starry and the weather mild”.

The noise levels  in the street with a dense crowd of both runners and spectators was such that the starters final instructions were lost in the chimes of the Post Office clock. It was reported that “The record field started a few minutes late in cold and chaotic conditions”.

And so it was that at two minutes past six that Reg Kitchen, respected officer of the Natal Athletic Association sent the runners on their way.  As the huge field made their way around the first corner a “despairing Max Trimborn” followed them, on the loudhailer, with his traditional “cock crow” echoing amongst the buildings.


The large field were off to the relief of the Tipton adventurers. Up front Dave Bagshaw, the experienced Savages man on home turf, for a while, was tracked by fast starter Gordon Baker who hailed from the other end of the course, Pietermaritzburg.

It was these two who set the early rhythm of the race down the Berea Rd and over the early undulations of Mayville & Black Hill. The Savages were making their mark.

By now spectators and supporters were beginning to appear and across barriers of the flyovers that straddled the course in Westville there were noisy and encouraging crowds.

At Huntleys Hill, after around 41 minutes, Dave Bagshaw was looking masterful and in control but with Baker on his heels. Already the race had fragmented.  Leading the Tipton challenge at this stage was Tony Burkitt, the excitement perhaps getting the better of him. Along the line of runners then came first Orton and a little later Ron Bentley.

As Mick recalled “I started with Ron Bentley steady, as I'd never run the distance before. Every hill we came to I was dropping him, so after we done about 8 miles he said for me to carry on!” he went on to say “the story going round in South Africa was that Tipton had given me the job of blowing up Bagshaw so that the other Tipton runners could come through.” this was never the case.

For most of these leading runners the competition was not just for the coveted gold medals to be awarded to the first 10 home for the first time in the history of the race but against their fellow men and the course.

The field snaked its way behind down the line of the “old road”. Everyone was concentrating on their own personal athletic ambition.

Expecting hot weather most of the field wore a wide assortment of headgear in anticipation of the hot sun that was to come. The headgear was as varied as the characters running – it made for a motley looking bunch.

At Cowies Hill Dave Bagshaw had 8 seconds worth of clear road between him and Baker. Next came Derek Van Eeden from Witswatersrand University some 42 seconds behind the leader and 35 behind the second man. Box was next and Burkitt still leading the Tipton & English challenge. Everyone of the leading group were described as ‘running strongly’.

Next on route came the Pinetown Valley, headquarters of the informal Pinetown Paw-Paws whose beery challenge to Tipton formed another slant to the race.

The bottom of Fields Hill was reached just under an hour and a half after the start. Bagshaw toeing the beginning of the long winding climb first. By now Baker was over a minute down. There had been a change in the leading Tipton man. No longer was it the impetuous Burkitt as he had been replaced by the relative rookie Mick Orton tracked by Van Eeden, both around two minutes behind the leader.

Burkitt was not far away as too were Ron Bentley, and a short while later Malpass & Carr. At the top of Fields Hill at the official checkpoint the leader was credited with 1hr 35m.

Check Point 1 – Fields Hill (24.4 Km/15.16 Miles)

 Pos  Name  Time  Margin  Club
 1  D Bagshaw  1:35    Savages
 2  D Baker  1:36  +1m  
 3  M Orton  1:36  +1m  Tipton Harriers
   F J Van Eeden  1:37  +2m  Witswatersrand University
   D G Morrison  1:37  +2m  G C H
   T Burkitt  1:38  +3m  Tipton Harriers
   D Box  1:38  +3m  Savages
   T Parry  1:38  +3m  Witswatersrand University
   L W Jenkins  1:39  +4m  G C H
   R Bentley  1:39  +4m  Tipton Harriers
   J Malpas  1:39  +4m  Tipton Harriers
   W Carr  1:39  +4m  Tipton Harriers
   A N Black  1:40  +5m  UCT
   R H Davey  1:40  +5m  Savages
   D C Hartley  1:40  +5m  Celt H
Selected Others
   C H Crawley  1:45  +10m  Savages
   G Johnson  1:45  +10m  Tipton Harriers
   G Bentley  1:45  +10m  Tipton Harriers
   R Copson  2:01  +26m  Tipton Harriers

Whilst the long climb had shuffled the order of the race it was clear to see that Tipton meant business in the team race.

Both the race and the temperature of the day were warming up as it approached 8.00am. Tipton had four scorers through within four minutes of the lead. Indeed with Gordon Bentley and George Johnson passing this point in 1hr 45m, 10 minutes behind the leaders but alongside the fourth of the Savages men it was clear that something special was in the offing.

A measure of the difference in abilities and personal challenges that were on display was that at this early stage of the race there was already an hour and a quarter between the first and last athletes through.

Obviously making an impression on the South Africans Mick Orton was already described as ‘rugged’ and in a further tribute described him as running ‘powerfully in the Hardy Ballington and Hayward fashion’. The latter two were former winners of the race and both legends.

At Gilletts, Orton moved in front of Baker into second spot. Mick had turned 24 in the few weeks leading up to the race and his maturity in this competition belied his young years and inexperience.

The race was snaking at this point taking in parts of older courses. Orton was on the leader’s scent up and over Hillcrest & Botha’s Hill. At this point before they dropped down into mist in the Drummond Valley the runners were faced a magical cloud inversion.  Mick was later to describe this as “like entering a different world”.  Surreal it may have felt but Orton’s application was very real as he chased the leader down. It was on the descent that Mick drew level with the three times winner Bagshaw.

During the race the Tipton runners were “supported” by friends of South African runners taking part as well as members of the University at Pietermaritzburg. Drinks were many and varied from plain water through to fruit juices. Little food was taken on board.

Tony Burkitt recalls the fondly the young man who “supported” him who appeared everywhere with his bucket of cold water in one hand and drinks in the other. Tony said that “he covered that many miles, he was probably fit enough to run himself the following year”.

The half way mark beckoned at Drummond. The shape and speed of the race was changing. Record times were being posted.

Check Point 2 – Drummond (45.2 Km/28.0 Miles)

 Pos  Name  Time  Margin  Club
 1  D Bagshaw  2:50    Savages
 1  M Orton  2:50    Tipton Harriers
 3  G Baker  2:54  +4m  C H
 4  D G Morrison  2:57  +7m  G C H
 5  F J Van Eeden  2:58  +8m  Witswatersrand University
 5  D Box  2:58  +8m  Savages
 5  L W Jenkins  2:58  +8m  C H
   T Burkitt  2:59  +9m  Tipton Harriers
   J Malpass  2:59  +9m  Tipton Harriers
   W Carr  2:59  +9m  Tipton Harriers
   Ron Bentley  3:00  +10m  Tipton Harriers
   R H Davey  3:01  +10m  Tipton Harriers
   D C Hartley  3:01  +11m  Tipton Harriers
   A N Black  3:06  +16m  U C T
   T Parry  3:13  +23m  Witswatersrand University
   C H Crawley  3:12  +23m  Savages
   G Bentley  3:16  +26m  Tipton Harriers
   G Johnson  3:18  +28  Tipton Harriers
   R Copson  4:01  +78  Tipton Harriers

Orton & Bagshaw had gone through half way an incredible 6 minutes ahead of the previous record time set by Jackie Mekler over 10 years before (1962). The third man through also was ahead of the old record.

Tipton were already asserting themselves in the team race with five ahead of the second Savages scorer.

What was going to give? Was Orton, the raw rookie from England, going to blow up? On to the climb of Inchanga, the mist was still engulfing the road and creating spectres.

The third phase of the race normally saw Bagshaw run away from the field as he had done in his previous three outings.

This was not going to be repeated, as from Drummond, Mick ate up the next two climbs and disappeared into the mist to the top of Inchanga.

It was not only the absence of mist atop Inchanga that welcomed Orton as it was accompanied by a loneliness – that of race leader.

Metronomic was his pace as he ate up Radnor, Harrison Flats and Cato Ridge. His pace to the end of the third quarter of the race was hovering around 10 miles an hour – outstanding.

Admiration from the onlookers grew and doubts dropped away as Mick began to convince them that, even with such limited ultra distance racing pedigree, he could run away from the three times winner, Bagshaw.

Bagshaw was by now having physical troubles as well as shouldering the mental trauma of seeing Mick run away from him. He was forced to a walk on a number of occasions. The third quarter was having an effect further down the field.

Mistaken identities due to a lack of programmes along the course meant that the crowd were unable to recognise just who these men in green & white vests were. The organisers had badly estimated how many programs to print and the supply ran out during the early part of the morning .

Confusion was further caused by the fact that the green and white hooped vest was identical to those of the Cape Town Celtic Harriers.

Our lads were thus denied many an encouraging cheer through lack of recognition. There is one amusing anecdote from the course as when a "knowing" spectator called out "come on, England" as a green and white hooped vest went by, he was taken aback when his call earned a retort in the local language of 'Ek is nie 'n Engelsman nie'. To which the surprised onlooker replied, 'Heavens, they've learnt Afrikaans already, too'.

As Orton strode on past Cato Ridge and Camperdown  vast crowds again looked down on the lone runner from their vantage points on flyovers criss-crossing the course. It was estimated that there were 250,000 lining the course that day. Further history was to be made at the end of the third quarter of the race at the Camperdown checkpoint – the first “sub 4”.

Check Point 3 – Camperdown (63.7 Km/39.5 Miles)

Pos  Name  Time  Margin  Club
 M Orton
 Tipton Harriers
 D Bagshaw
 G Baker
 D Box
 L W Jenkins
 F J Van Eeden
 Witswatersrand University
 J Malpass
 Tipton Harriers
 W Carr
 Tipton Harriers
 T Burkitt
 Tipton Harriers
 D G Morrison
 G C.H.
 D C Hartley
 Celt H
 Ron Bentley
 Tipton Harriers
 W H Brown
 R H Davey
Selected Others
 C H Crawley
 A N Black
 G Bentley
 Tipton Harriers
 T Parry
 Witswatersrand University
 G Johnson
 Tipton Harriers
 R Copson
 + 2hr 01m
 Tipton Harriers

The latter half of the race was to see little change of position.  As in all races of this nature the positions are normally determined in the first 30 miles.  The remaining 25 miles was a test of courage and willpower, of fitness and strength to overcome the cumulative fatigue. This was an area where the Tipton team had immense strength and experience.

Temperatures were rising as the race hit the final gruelling quarter. This had two long leg sapping drags up Ashburton & Polly Shortts. At what was known as the “Richmond Turn Off” Mick was 2m 48s ahead of the defending champion. Still questions were being asked amongst the on lookers – could Orton maintain his lead? Even back then the course was inundated with traffic as spectators, officials and people trying to get ahead of their own runners to provide some welcome drink & sustenance.

Mick described that he “felt the tremendous pull coming up Polly Shortts”. He did not falter and crested the great climb at 11.20am some 5 hours 20 minutes after the dawn start in Durban. By now Mick was looking dominant having built up a 4½ minute lead over brave Dave Bagshaw in second (around 11.25am) who had been reduced twice to a standstill on this infamous hill with Box now in third (at 11.33am) having overtaken Baker on the climb.


Mick Orton - Out alone on Polly Shortts

The top provided the welcome site of Pietermarizburg in the distance and the knowledge that there remained just five more miles of this epic experience. The drama was not yet over.

As Tipton Harrier Doug Fownes wrote after the event:-

“Mick suddenly felt tired.  Those behind felt even worse.  Then disaster struck.  Reaching the top of the hill and with only 4 miles to go Mick was struck by cramp. Forced to stop he amazed the onlookers by performing a series of exercises to stretch the offending muscle.  After two or three attempts he managed to start jogging and before long he had stretched into the long relentless stride of before. “

Doug recorded after talking with Mick:-

“Reaching the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg he started running through enthusiastic crowds of spectators.  Seeing a Union Jack fluttering at the side of the road he made a grab for it only to see it slide of out of reach.  The owner of the flag realising Mick’s intention asked a Press Car to follow the leader and an astonished Mick was presented with the Union Jack from the passing car.” Mickrecalled the incident “A woman shouted out to me near the finish; "come on our kid! I'm from Wednesbury!" She gave me a union Jack!

There were upward of 10,000 spectators at the finish area all awaiting the new hero and a new course record. They had been kept informed of the progress and performance of the man from England via live radio commentary.

As he entered the Collegians Ground in Pietermaritzburg he enjoyed the final circuit of the track. The newly acquired Union Jack waving high above his head the young Tipton challenger had taken on and won the greatest ultra distance race in the world at his first attempt.



Mick Orton – The Comrades Victor

His finishing time was an outstanding course record of 5hr 48m 57s. He defeated the three times winner and race favourite Dave Bagshaw by 4m 57s. He joined the illustrious pantheon of four runners who had won at their first attempt and setting a course record thus becoming the fifth such athlete. Mick was not unique in some ways as he was the third English runner to win the Comrades since 1962, when John Smith won, and Bernard Gomersall of Leeds in 1965.

In winning, no one was more surprised than Orton himself. 'I'm flabbergasted', he said. 'My attitude at the start was that I would be content to just finish the course. My longest race previously was 36 miles and I came 13th.'

The race was won for Orton – and lost by Bagshaw – at Drummond, the halfway mark. And looking as if he had just run the 100m Orton said afterwards that he was surprised at his victory. "Pinch me. I must be dreaming".

Bagshaw struck a number of bad patches in the second half of the race and was clearly in distress in the final stages before home. He said afterwards that although he was disappointed in not winning four in a row, Orton was "too good for me".  Bagshaw, who was not a natural front runner, later admitted to Gerry Treloar in “Ultra Runners All” by G F Marais that he had made a tactical error in 1972 by running abreast with Orton instead of breathing into his neck and then moving past him.

Orton’s performance on the sun baked roads of South Africa was one of glorious determination, dedication and doggedness.

The Finish (90.4 Km/56.1 Miles)

 M Orton
 Tipton Harriers
 D Bagshaw
 +4m 57s
 D Box
 +11m 07s
 F J Van Eeden
 +13m 45s
 Witswatersrand University
 G Baker
 +14m 09s
 J Malpass
 +17m 05s
 Tipton Harriers
 W Carr
 +18m 49s
 Tipton Harriers
 L W Jenkins
 +24m 46s
 W H Brown
 +25m 52s
 D C Hartley
 +26m 08s
 Celt H
Other Selected
 T Burkitt
 +28m 20s
 Tipton Harriers
 R H Davey
 +32m 35s
 Ron Bentley
 +35m 17s
 Tipton Harriers
 C H Crawley
 +42m 06s
 G Bentley
 +50m 39s
 Tipton Harriers
 T Parry
 +57m 57s
 Witswatersrand University
 G Johnson
 +1hr 07m 51s
 Tipton Harriers
 R Copson
 +3hr 21m 10s
 Tipton Harriers

But what of the team race and the other magnificent seven?

Bill Carr and John Malpass had run together for a time until with just a few miles left Bill eased for a drink, John opened a gap, and Bill never quite gained contention and they finished 6th and 7th in 6hrs, 6mins, 2secs and 6hrs, 7mins, 46secs. It was three “home” for Tipton and two for the Savages.

Tony Burkitt running alone in 10th place during the last quarter and a gold medal seeming safe within his grasp, was told with about 6 miles left to run of a “green and white” hooped vest catching him very fast.  “Bentley’s coming” was the only thought that filled Tony’s mind and forced his legs to increase the pace.

Still the green and white vest drew nearer and eventually with Tony almost totally exhausted and with only a few miles left, Hartley of Cape Town Celtic (another green and white club) passed Tony and went away.  Thus Tony missed a gold medal by one place and finished 11th in 6hrs 17mins 17secs.

Tony’s run in 11th clinched the coveted team prize by beating Savages 3rd & 4th counters. Team Captain Ron Bentley was still out on the course, some seven or so minutes down on Tony, but a couple of places ahead of the 4th Savages man but had overheard radio reports being discussed in the crowds that Mick had won. He knew then the team title was won. A very happy and emotional man made his way to finish 13th.

And so the famous epic race was over. This was a fairytale victory for the young 24 year old novice from the Black Country.  The following, in Mick’s own words is an account of the race itself:

"The Comrades, for me, was one of those races where everything just slotted into place. I knew I would be running within myself for the first 30 miles, but was very apprehensive of the second half. My plan was to run with Ron Bentley, who has been a terrific inspiration to me. After about 7 miles I left Ron as I seemed to be dropping him on the hills. At this stage I was lying about 8th and thereafter every time I caught another chap I seem to pass him with no conscious effort. I eventually caught Dave Bagshaw at about 23 miles but only started pulling away after 30 miles. It was only after the race that I heard we'd broken the record to Drummond. With 40 miles behind me my legs started to feel tired and when 10 miles from home promised myself a walk up the notorious Polly Shortts. When I eventually did reach Polly’s I said to myself – 'You can't possibly walk whilst leading in the Comrades' so somehow managed to press on and keep going. An attack of cramp just over the brow of the hill had me really worried, but fortunately didn't persist and I had a good run in. The crowd over the last 2 miles were fabulous and kept me going.

In conclusion then I would like to say, this was my most exciting race of my life – I will certainly try to be back next year, and want to thank those concerned for their hospitality and for organising "the best race in the world".

Mick also said after his shock victory: "I had really intended to act as a “second” to the other Tipton lads but they persuaded me to enter. I'm normally a cross-country man who runs distances of between 10 and 15 km. I found the warm, sunny conditions pleasant and relaxing and a happy contrast to the wind and rain I am used to back home. I ran normally and it was utterly fantastic to find I was the winner. I want to run again next year."

The first ten finishers were all chasing a gold medal. Silver ones were on offer to all performance less than 7hr 30m. Eighty four managed this. The remainder pocketed bronze.

The following table shows how our entrants performed across the four quarters and checkpoints. The split times are followed by the cumulative pace up to that point in the race and were taken from the official race results booklet circulated after the event.

Checkpoint Splits

Check 1
Top Of Fields Hill
Check 2
Check 3
 M Orton
1hr 36m
2hr 50m
3hr 59m
5hr 48m 57s
 J Malpass
1hr 39m
2hr 59m
4hr 14m
6hr 06m 02s
 W Carr
1hr 39m
2hr 59m
4hr 14m
6hr 07m 46s
 T Burkitt
1hr 38m
2hr 59m
4hr 16m
6hr 17m 17s
 R Bentley
1hr 39m
3hr 00m
4hr 20m
6hr 24m 14s
 G Bentley
1Hr 45m
3hr 16m
4hr 41m
6hr 39m 36s
 G Johnson
1hr 45M
3hr 18m
4hr 50m
6hr 56m 48s
 R Copson
2hr 01m
4hr 01m
6hr 00m
9hr 10m 07s


The race proved a triumph for the Tipton Harriers team from Staffordshire. Apart from Orton's victory, they became the first overseas club to win the famous “Gunga Din” Trophy which is awarded to the first team with the lowest "total" calculated from the sum of each of the finishing positions of their first four athlete's home in the race. In winning this Trophy, Tipton broke the stranglehold of the Durban based Savages Club, who previously had won it each year since 1965.

1972 Team Result

Tipton Harriers
 M J Orton
 D Bagshaw
 J G Malpass
 D G Box
 W H Carr
 R H Davey
 A H Burkitt
 C H Crawley

This was a blow to South African sporting pride. As if the loss of the “Gunga Din” wasn't enough, the Springboks rugby union team lost 18–9 in the international tour match against England at Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg, that same afternoon. A great sporting day for the English all round!

Dave Bagshaw also tells the tale of a South African punter who visited his bookmaker and accepted odds on a "double" of Dave Bagshaw for the Comrades Marathon and a win for a horse called Mazarin, the favourite for the Durban July Handicap over a few furlongs at Greyville racecourse.  He lost his money on both counts as Mazarin was way down the field in July


Tipton Harriers with Trophy


Left To Right :- George Johnson, Ron Bentley, Ron Copson, Mick Orton, Gordon Bentley, Bill Carr, John Malpass & Tony Burkitt.


News of the event was phoned home to an eager, expectant Tipton Sports Union club-house.  Newspaper reports from the time indicate that John Malpass acted as the “messenger” by ringing Bert Ward from South Africa. The atmosphere was electric.  As the result was read out there was first silence, then gasps of amazement, then jubilation amid tears of joy from the ladies.  The news spread, Tipton Harriers all over the country phoned in to hear the news and it was the same sequence, silence, gasps of amazement and jubilation.



The prize presentation took place after the race. Bill Cochrane was guest of honour and presented the prizes. Bill had won the race in 1935 from Hardy Ballington, who helped the famous Tipton runner with Jack Holden by sending him food parcels after the Second World War when rationing was limiting availability. Hardy also won the Comrades race three times (34, 36 & 38).

Mick won a very grand clock for his victory. A worthy winner who as well as winning the overall title also won the Hardy Ballington Trophy for first Novice home, first awarded back in 1938.

When Dave Bagshaw received his prize, a watch, he asked for the microphone to say a few words. He recalls saying "Today, I had a novel experience; I came second in the Comrades.  Since I finished, a number of people have said 'hard luck Dave'.  I would like to make it clear to everyone here that it was not my hard luck or Mick's good luck that led to his victory.  He was simply the best runner on the road."

The team could not take the “Gunga Din” trophy away with them but, as Bill Carr recalls, they were presented with small plaques to commemorate their win.


Mick Orton & his prize

At the presentation the lads sang the song, as written by John Malpass & Tony Burkitt, to a crowd of 10,000. This song was sung in South Africa about a dozen times throughout the three week journey.

The Comrades Marathon, all the Tipton runners agreed, was something they would remember all their lives. They had been overwhelmed by the friendship and hospitality showered upon them. They remarked on the support given along the length of the course as in England 'interest in a race was over the minute the first three were in'.


In the two weeks that followed the race the visitors were welcomed around the country. Functions and trips were many and various. They were feted at functions held by firms such as McCarthy Chrysler. The generosity of the hosts was humbling.

After a few days back in Durban the lads flew to Johannesburg for some time with the runners from Witswatersrand University.  Ron, Gordon & Bill stayed with Dave Levick. Tony stayed with a lovely Jewish family, whose son was studying medicine at the University. Tony remarked that “if I’d had any health problems at either of the two places I stayed, medical help was on hand!”

It was from this base that they went out on safari under the direction of Fred Morrison a highly respected figure in Germiston Callies athletics. The trip was not just exciting for the animals and wildlife they witnessed but also that one of the cars had no brakes!

Ron Copson recalls that on one of the days they went to the University where a few of them underwent some physical testing on a treadmill. Allegedly John Malpass attained a higher score than Dave Bedford who had undergone the same set of tests.

Ron suffered an unfortunate and unexplained episode on the trip back home. He had taken a camera with him on the trip and taken a number of photographs. He had finished a few films and had taken the opportunity to get them developed. Somewhere on route they disappeared – film & prints. It remains a mystery to this day.


The race results booklet published and distributed to all finishers carried these notes on the event including recording “the great impression the Tipton Team made, both socially and on the road”.

They also concluded that more loudspeakers would be needed at the Start to overcome the noise level created by the thousands of persons present. Also a sign of increased popularity and participation caused them to consider better arrangements and crowd control at the finish for the future.

They observed that the course provided fewer traffic problems, except for the isolated spots like Fields Hill.  They also concluded that the warm day took its toll on a number of fancied runners.


There was another touching moment before departure in Johannesburg when who should turn up but five of the Savages Athletics Club. The lads had thought they had seen the last of them when they boarded the plane in Durban to fly to Johannesburg. This was not the case. The five Savages had jumped in a car and driven 400+ miles to say one final farewell to the English visitors.

No wonder they felt they had been treated like film stars throughout their trip.

The journey home from overnight from Johannesburg on 11th June was uneventful until they landed at Heathrow. They went to get off the plane but were held back. Tired after the long flight they were at a loss to understand what was going on. To their relief and surprise they were finally let off the plane and onto a red carpet. What a way to come home.

But more was to follow as a coach full of family & friends had again headed south from the Black Country to greet the heroes.

On the Monday morning at 3 AM, the coach had left the Gospel Oak Sports Stadium to meet the athlete’s aeroplane at Heathrow, which was expected to arrive at 7:40 AM.

The supporters and team then headed back to the Sports Stadium, where a celebration and buffet was arranged for later in the day. In the evening the Mayor of West Bromwich, Cllr W Manifold, met the party at another reception.


The return

The full reality did not sink in with those at home until the 8 heroes returned to Tipton.  After being hero-worshipped in South Africa where they were front page news and celebrities for their remaining week there, they took the Tipton welcome in their stride.

It was only when they told first hand of their epic struggle, of the torturous 54 miles from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, and showed the magnificent press photographs of the race did the rest of their friends and family begin to realise the significance of their achievements.

There then followed more celebrations both on an individual level and the group. Returning to work proved emotional for some.

What was notable was the lack of coverage and recognition in the local and national press. So much so that it prompted the great Black Country Bugle, a monthly production at that time, to carry the following  on their front page under the headline “Tipton Harriers Long-Distance Men Conquer The World”.

“Wakey wakey you slumbering Black Country sports editors! The greatest event in the history of the Black Country sports has just taken place and you tuck it away in the catacombs of your chloroformed columns. Tipton Harriers Ultra long-distance team win the Comrades marathon in South Africa and you grudgingly dole out a few pathetic paragraphs of faint praise or one crummy picture with an even crummier caption!

The Bugle is proud and honoured to carry this great story on its front page and sound a clarion call for the Tipton heroes who travelled thousands of miles to bring great honour to their native bakers and make Durban resound to the cry, "Tipton" "Tipton" "Tipton!"

The South African press had no reservations about the importance of the occasion. Banner headlines across the front pages of all the leading dailies, proclaim the mighty victory of the Tipton lads. The red carpet was laid wherever they appeared and hospitality was heaped upon them!”

They went even further :-

“Men have been knighted for less, but what happens when he and his teammates return to the land privileged to own them as sons. Where were the banner headlines, the fanfare of trumpets? What kind of sleeping sickness attacked the recumbent reporters of our local press who greeted them with accolade of near silence, a few paltry platitudes of pathetic prose – a pittance when they should have been a banquet to end all banquets!

We take nothing away from the great reception, the lads received from the Tipton clubmates, some of whom travelled  to London to meet their plane. They knew the full story – how hard the lads worked to raise money for the trip and how Mick Orton paid his own travelling expenses when he was not included in the seven strong squad.”


There were three types of medal on offer - Gold, Silver & Bronze. Gold were for the first 10 men home, Silver for those who completed the course in under 7hr 30ms and bronze for those completing before the cut off of 11hrs.

goldmedal silvermedal bronzemedal

The medals could not be given out on the day as each would be engraved and were normally sent on at a future date. Indeed it was not until January 1973 that the Tipton lads got their hands on their medals.

It was agreed at the time that they should be brought back to England by 53 year old South African veteran athlete Tom Gore, who had competed in no fewer than 16 consecutive Comrades events.

Tom was on a visit to the UK and came to Tipton to the Gospel Oak Stadium and presented them with their medals. As it happened his visit coincided with a Veteran’s 10,000m race which was being promoted at the club’s headquarters. Tom ran in this with great enthusiasm, achieving a fine time. For his effort he was presented with a plaque by Tipton's captain, Ron Bentley with whom he stayed.

This proved to be a historic occasion and Tipton's South African visitor was made very welcome, as befitted one who has given so much to the sport.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW (September 2012)

Ron Bentley (81) is in Lower Gornal, Dudley, and currently President of Tipton Harriers. George Johnson (75) lives in Woodsetton, Ron Copson (80) is in Halesowen. Tony Burkitt (70) lives up on the North Wales coast at Colwyn Bay. Mick Orton (64) is in Bilston. Bill Carr (70) is now living in Bewdley, Worcestershire.

Sadly John Malpass died at the young age of 47 in 1987. Gordon Bentley also passed away in 2004.

=====THE END=====


In 1972 Tipton won both team titles at the 'Brighton' & ‘Comrades', only four clubs have achieved this double in the same year. Tipton are the only British Club to have done so.

Mick Orton’s performance in 1972 prompted the club to raise funds and to send him back to South Africa a year later to defend his title.

In the spring of 1973 Dave Bagshaw, who was now back living in the UK, was a guest at an event to help fund Mick's trip to run the 'down' Comrades and experienced again the club sprit that had helped Tipton to success the year before.  Dave told the author in 2012 that he still has Mick's vest from the 1972 race in his "running" drawer.

With Dave Bagshaw out of the race, it was wide open again.  Dave Levick was a real favourite, as was Alistair Wood, a brilliant, smooth striding Scot.  He had all the credentials, for this 40-year-old had previously beaten Orton in the 1972 London to Brighton. He was taking ultra distance running to another level by being the first person anywhere to average over 10 miles per hour over such a distance.

The 1973 “Down” run drew a huge field of 1621 nearly twice the size of the 1970 “Up” run.  A classic race was on the cards.

From the very start, Orton gave notice of his intentions.  By the time the lead bunch ran down Polly Shortts, Wood went into the bushes, and Orton moved ahead.

By the time Orton reached Drummond, he was ahead of the rest of the pack by a full eight minutes, he was intent on burning off the opposition, and he was looking strong.

Dave Levick was biding his time and now started to perk up and he moved up the field using his own wise pacing judgement.

By the time the race leaders reached Botha’s Hill Orton was a full 10 minutes ahead of his next rivals.  The real interest was here and a titanic struggle was taking place.

Levick was beginning to make his move, and by the time he reached Botha’s Hill, he overtook the Pietermaritzburg salesman, Gordon Baker, and moved into second place.

But the hard downhill running proved too much for the Capetonian, and Baker came back at him by the time they reached Gillits.

Up front, Orton was running well, his powerful legs pumping, he looked a sure winner.  At Kloof there were more changes taking place behind the strident Orton.  Chris Hoogsteden made a move and much to the surprise of Baker, moved into second position.

At the bottom of Fields Hill, it was Orton, Hoogseteden seven minutes back, with Baker close by, then Levick two minutes adrift of them.  Then the cracks began to show.  Perhaps it was poor timing, going out too fast, but at the base of Cowies Hill Orton began to falter.  Van Hoogstenden and Baker closed, Levick hung back.

Hoogsteden made his challenge on the tiring Orton, and now on the outskirts of Durban the race took on a different complexion.  Soon it was the turn of Hoogsteden to falter, and Baker was soon in the lead.  Still Levick hung back and bided his time.

Gordon Baker, running his best ever Comrades soon caught the crestfallen Orton, and on Maryville Hill found himself in the lead and his life’s ambition right within his grasp, only five kilometres to go, and he was in the lead.

Fate at times can be cruel, for victory on that day would be snatched from Baker.  Levick struck and with a ferocious turn of speed, and a steely eye, Levick closed in on an incredulous Baker.

Levick, now running the race of his life hauled in on Baker, and to a huge, cheering crowd outside the stadium ran at an unbelievable speed to the finish line.  Levick’s time was 5hr 39m 09s.  This 23-year-old engineering student from Cape Town had set a new “Down” record. Mick battled on to finish 5th in 5hr 48m 09s.

Mick recalled later recalled “I went back in 1973, after getting married on the Saturday, I departed the following Wednesday on what was planned as a three-month trip, the course was run the opposite way round and I lead at one stage by 10 min. I had done the depletion diet popular with marathon runners at the time my legs just went dead! I struggled home in fifth place. I returned to my wife after only a month away, the local press still carried a story entitled, "The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Runner's Wife!"

In 1973 Ron Bentley set a World Record for 24 Hours setting a remarkable mark of 161 miles 545 yards on 3rd November 1973 at Walton On Thames.

Ron Bentley went back to South Africa in 1975 and ran the race finishing 33rd in 6h 39m. Bill Carr revisited the race in 1989 (9h 13m 02s) and 1990 (7hr 15m 59s). This makes Bill unique amongst Tipton members in that he has a full set of medals - gold, silver and bronze - from the race.

Other Tipton runners have also ventured to the race including Ken Rock in 1973 (6hr 56m) and more recently in 2004 Seb Shepley (7h 28m 25s).

In 1983, there was a reunion in Johannesburg of all living winners of the Comrades (only one absentee due to bereavement).  The Tipton pennant that Mick Orton gave out still hangs in a room at Dave Bagshaw's home in Yorkshire as a reminder of the challenges of this special race, the comradeship of fellow runners and so many shared experiences.

Vernon Jones from Durban used to write to Jack Holden after he moved away from Tipton.  Jack once said to Ron Bentley “He knows more about Tipton than me and he lives in Africa”.

Vernon was one of the runners who used to meet up at Malcolm Hean’s house of a morning in appropriately, Holden Avenue, Durban, which was the venue of Holden Harriers, a hilarious group of runners that include Nick Raubenheimer, ‘Doc’ Curwen & Gerry Treloar.

A number of the team were reunited on 10th October 2010 at a gathering held at the Tipton Sports Academy to celebrate 100 years of Tipton Harriers and again at a Centenary Meal held 26th March 2011 at the Copthorne Hotel in Dudley.

Tony Burkitt after attending the reunion was so inspired that he donned his running shoes again and subsequently ran the Chester Marathon in 2011 at the age of 70 in a time of 5hr 34m – prompting him to then burn his trainers muttering “never again”. Apparently this was the fourth time since 1978 when he stopped running that this ceremony had happened.


The “Men of The Comrades” - Ron Bentley, Bill Carr, Ron Copson, the late Gordon Bentley, Mick Orton, the late John Malpass, Tony Burkitt & George Johnson.

Thanks to :–

  • Ron Bentley
  • Dave Bagshaw
  • Ian Champion & Andy Milroy of the Road Runners Club
  • Dave Lees of the Savages Club in South Africa
  • Sian Theron of the Comrades Marathon staff
  • The material of Comrades authors and Alexander Morris, Tom Cottrell & John Cameron-Dow
  • Guillaume Marais author of “Ultra Runners All”
  • The Black Country Bugle, the late Harry Harrison
  • South African Newspapers  - Various Cuttings
  • Personal archives of many members of Tipton Harriers
  • Tipton Harriers scribe and former Club Captain Doug Fownes
  • Tipton Harriers website manager Bryan Mills

This article was written by Chris Holloway of Tipton Harriers in the summer of 2012.