RRW: Comrades Marathon Champion Piet Vorster Is Dead At 66

By Riël Hauman
(c) 2018 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

(15-Jan) — Piet Vorster, winner of the Comrades Marathon in 1979, passed away on Saturday in Johannesburg. He was 66 years old and had been suffering from motor neuron disease for some time.

Vorster earned 14 Comrades medals, of which four were gold, given to top-10 finishers.  He finished fourth in 1978 (5:52:04, “down” run), first in 1979 (5:45:02, “up”), sixth in 1982 (5:50:20, down), and seventh in 1983 (5:59:34, up).

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He ran his first Comrades in 1971 for Tuks Road Runners Club and his last in 1996 for Pinetown and District AC. When he won in 1979 he was the first member of Collegians Harriers, at that time the organisers of the race, to do so.

Vorster, who lived in Worcester in the Western Cape province at one time and ran for Celtic Harriers in the eighties, finished the Two Oceans Marathon ten times (and the half marathon twice), with a best time of 3:23:43 in 1986 when he was eleventh, one place out of the gold medals.

But he ran the race of his life between Durban and Pietermaritzburg on May 31, 1979. The Comrades was 88.2 km long that year. Course record holder and three-time winner Alan Robb was the favourite, but there was a dark horse in the field as well: Johnny Halberstadt, one of the best runners ever produced in South Africa and the reigning South African marathon champion at the time (who would run a new national record of 2:12:19 later in 1979).

Halberstad, a graduate of Oklahoma State University, set off at a furious pace and recorded the fastest time ever at halfway, with Vorster second and Robb struggling. But Halberstadt, also a four-minute miler, had misjudged it and at Umlaas Road — the highest point of the course and about 20 km from the finish — he was forced to walk, and then to lie down at the side of the road.

Vorster, whose best marathon time was more than 12 minutes slower than Halberstadt’s, charged past towards Pietermaritzburg, his hometown. He conquered the monster hill, Polly Shorts, and reached the finish in the Jan Smuts Stadium in 5:45:02 to break Robb’s record by a shade over two minutes. Halberstadt, who had lost eight minutes when he stopped, finished second in 5:50:30 and Bruce Fordyce third in 5:51:15.

In actual fact Vorster almost did not participate that day. He had a sore heel and didn’t want to run. His helpers persuaded him to start. Later he said: After all the arguing with my brother, Hannes, and my second, Mike Walsh, as to whether I should run or not, we got to the start late and I had to dash around to book in by 6 a.m. I finished booking in just as the runners made off.” (“… book in by 6 a.m. ... ” — those were the days!)

The next year Vorster finished third in the other big race in Natal province, the Dusi canoe marathon.

Vorster, a land-surveyor by trade who studied at the University of Pretoria (Tuks), was a tough competitor who gained the respect of all his rivals, including Fordyce, Shaun Meiklejohn and Deon Holtzhausen, who all paid tribute to the “unbelievably kind person” and “real gentleman”.

Vorster, born on 22 February 1951, won the first Riebeekberg Marathon in 1986 in 2:38:17. His best marathon time was the 2:24:58 which gave him third place in the 1978 Durban Athletic Club Marathon.

This reporter made friends with Vorster when he participated in races in the Western Cape, but only got to know him really well when we were the only two Afrikaans-speaking members of the Comrades TV commentating crew in the 80’s. He used to ride to Durban on his big motorbike and we shared a room in the old Rob Roy Hotel at Botha’s Hill on the Comrades route. We had many conversations about running and the quiet, unassuming man was a delight to be with. “Gentleman” was a fitting description for him; he was a man of integrity and with a great sense of humour. Salt of the earth, that was Piet Vorster.