Jackie Mekler, ultramarathon legend and 5-time Comrades champ, passes away at age 87

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By Riël Hauman
(c) 2019 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved 

The word “great” to describe sports stars is bandied about rather easily these days in hyperbolic fashion that tends to rob the word of its real meaning. But it fitted Jackie Mekler, the oldest surviving Comrades Marathon champion, who passed away on July 1. He was a great Comrades runner. He was also a great South African ultramarathoner. And he was a great person.

Mekler (87), whose Comrades number was 9, was one of five men who have won the Comrades Marathon five times. He was the first, in 1960, to complete the “up” run in under 6 hours (5:56:32). He was only the third runner to hold the records for the up and “down” runs at the same time (he clocked 5:51:20 in the 1963 down run). In both his record runs he surpassed Wally Hayward’s times. He set world track records for 50 km, and 30, 40 and 50 miles.

In a long, distinguished career Mekler, who meticulously kept a log of his running exploits, ran 403 submarathon races, 41 standard marathons (of which he won 14) and 32 ultramarathons (winning 13), including the London to Brighton race, which he won in 1960. He completed the Comrades twelve times (10 gold medals, one silver and one bronze).

Mekler, who was born on 4 March 1932, first attracted attention when he finished 17th in the 1950 Johannesburg to Krugersdorp race over 20 miles. Eight months later, just 18, he ran his first marathon, the Southern Transvaal Championships, finishing fifth in 3:12:53. Two years later he scored his first victory when he won the same race in 2:42:56 — a massive improvement.

His first ultra, the Pieter Korkie race over 38 miles, followed in 1953; he finished second in 4:32:07. He would win the event six times — in 1954, 1958, 1960, 1962, 1964 and 1965.

He ran his first Comrades in 1952, finishing seventh in 7:45:08. The next year he was fifth (6:52:59), but then only returned to the race in 1958 to win in 6:26:26. This was the beginning of an extraordinary Comrades career that saw him finish in the top three nine times: third in 1959 (6:35:52), first in 1960 (5:56:32), second in 1962 (6:04:04), first in 1963 (5:51:20), first in 1964 (6:09:54), second in 1965 (5:56:19), first in 1968 (6:01:11) and third in 1969 (6:01:30). After a gap of 16 years he ran again in 1985, finishing in 8:23:33.

Three of his losses in the sixties came at the hands of visiting Englishmen: John Smith in 1962, Bernard Gomersall in 1965 and Dave Bagshaw in 1969 (with Dave Box second).

In October 1953 he finished second to Hayward in the 100-mile race from Box to Hyde Park Corner, London, when Hayward — who Mekler called a major influence in his own running career — set his world record of 12:20:28; Mekler ran 13:08:36. He also finished fourth in the London to Brighton race which Hayward won in record time. He and Hayward stayed with five-time Comrades champion Arthur Newton for several weeks and Mekler learnt much from the two experienced men. “When Wally was at his best,” Mekler would later say, “he simply vanished soon after the start. All you saw were those huge calf muscles powering into the distance.”

The next year Mekler won his first South African marathon title in Johannesburg in 2:35:25.1, beating Hayward and newcomer Jan Barnard. Just more than a month later he finished second to Barnard in the trial race for the British Empire and Commonwealth Games, both beating Jackie Gibson’s SA record — Barnard with 2:25:31.8 and Mekler with 2:28:57.2.

In the dramatic and harrowing Empire Games Marathon in Vancouver on 7 August, with Jim Peters failing to finish in the extreme heat, Mekler (2:40:57) won the silver medal behind Scotland’s Joseph McGhee, with Barnard taking the bronze. Mekler only learnt that he was second when he entered the stadium; he finished 81 seconds behind the winner.

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Mekler, third from left, getting his silver at the CGs

Two days short of a month later Mekler set world records for 50 km (3:25:29), 40 miles (4:18:14) and 50 miles (5:24:27.4) in Germiston.

Early in 1955, on 15 January, he also collected the world record for 30 miles, again in Germiston, running 2:57:48. Three weeks later he won a track race over 10 miles in Cape Town in 54:13.0. He then went to England and again stayed with Newton, and this led to a lifelong friendship. He competed regularly, finishing 12th in the Polytechnic Harriers Marathon, popularly called “the Poly” (2:40:21), and third in the English AAA Marathon (2:50:49); he followed this with second places in the Scottish Marathon (2:39:00), the Bristol to Weston-Super-Mare ultramarathon over 42 miles and the Turku Marathon (2:39:26).

In 1956 he was third in the trials for the Olympic Games, but was not selected. He won his second SA marathon title the next year (2:33:06.8) and in 1958, six weeks before his Comrades win, finished fourth in the Empire Games trial. After the Comrades he won three more races in a row: the Pieter Korkie, Jackie Gibson Marathon (2:42:00) and the 38-mile ultramarathon between King William’s Town and East London.

In 1959 he won the Paarl Mountain Race, then held over approximately 12 miles, in record time (65:08). Early in 1960 he finished second in the SA Marathon (2:32:03.4) behind Keith James, but in front of Barnard, and then won both the Korkie and Comrades — both in record times. Only James was selected for the Olympic Marathon — a big disappointment for Mekler.

This was followed by his London to Brighton win in record time despite an injured knee (5:25:56), but in October he failed to finish his world 100-mile record attempt between London and Bath. The year 1961 started off better with a win in the Southern Transvaal Marathon and in 1962 he won the Korkie and Jackie Gibson again. In 1963 he was second in the SA Marathon (2:30:45) and then finished fourth in the Classical Marathon in Athens. He won the Jackie Gibson for the third time.

In 1964 he once more won the Southern Transvaal title, and then also the Korkie ultramarathon, a win he would repeat in 1965.

Mekler always trained exceptionally hard. He did all his running in tennis shoes (“takkies”) with glued-on heels, trimmed for less weight and lined with Sunlight soap to prevent blisters. His race drinks were hot, sweet tea and lemon squash and water, and he also regularly took salt tablets.
From the age of nine Mekler and his sister, Hannah, lived in an orphanage in Parktown, Johannesburg (their parents had emigrated from Eastern Europe just before the Great Depression), where Mekler, from the age of 13, would sneak out in the early mornings to go and run to combat his loneliness and the strict rules he had to adhere to. He dreamt of becoming a famous runner and joined Germiston Callies at the age of 16. He remained an honorary member of the club after he stopped competing.

Mekler started corresponding with Newton, who gave him advice and copies of his books. In 1948 he was caught stealing bread from the dinner table for a friend who had missed the meal and was expelled. “I have never been happier!” he said later.

He became an apprentice printer, and spent his whole working life in the industry, later becoming managing director of Penrose Holdings. After retiring, he farmed in Mpumalanga and lived in a house he built himself. He and his wife, Margie, eventually moved to Melkbosstrand near Cape Town.

In an article written by Bruce Fordyce some years ago, he tells the story of a dinner at which a young woman was boasting about her first Comrades. In the course of the evening she must have sensed that Jackie may have some connection to running, so asked him if he ran. “I jog a bit,” he said. After the dinner someone must have given the woman the true facts, for the next day a box of chocolates arrived at Mekler’s house with the note: “I am so sorry. Will you ever forgive me?”

In recent years Mekler was in regular attendance at the Comrades Expo and finish line. Nine-time winner Fordyce described him as “one of the true legends of the race but, more importantly in later years, he was an elder statesman of the race, a role he filled with dignity, humility and grace. He was an inspiration to all of us and I am proud to have called him a close friend.”

Mekler’s death followed soon after that of another Comrades champion, Tommy Malone, who won in 1966 and was second in 1967.

Mekler, whose autobiography, Running Alone, was launched at this year’s Comrades Marathon, leaves his wife, two daughters and two grandsons.

Posted in: Professional

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