Published in Other News on 28th April 2006
South African distance running icon Wally Hayward passed away on Friday at the age of 97. Over a 60 year athletic career Wally (Wallace Henry) Hayward became a hero not only of the South African public, but also of athletics aficionado’s throughout the world.
Wally attributed his introduction to running to the gold rush years when he was employed to sprint to peg out the claims on behalf of prospectors. It began as a way of putting a few shillings on to the family table but lead to a deep-seated passion for the sport.
This speed for securing the best plots was reflected first on the track and later on South Africa’s roads. Although best known in South Africa for his association with the Comrades marathon, he was as adept in the shorter events where he earned national titles in all distances from 3 miles (4.8km) to the marathon.
His debut to Comrades (1930) came at an age of 21 where he became one of the youngest winners, recording a time of 7hours 27 minutes. A return to shorter distances, and active service in North Africa during World War 11, took him out of ultra events for a 20 year period. To Wally, if it was worth doing, it was worth doing well and not surprisingly he was decorated for his war year service
On his return to Comrades in 1950 the 41 year old won in 6 hours 46 minutes, and went on to make it a hat-trick of wins in 1951, setting a new record of 6 hours 14 minutes for the down run.
In 1952 Wally represented South Africa at the Helsinki Olympics in the marathon, preventing his participation in Comrades, but he returned the following year, not only to become the first athlete to break 6 hours, but then to record a series of achievements that would stand for years.
In late 1953 Wally went to England where he set a new record for the London to Brighton (approx 90km) race, and then took a World Record breaking 12 hours 26 minutes for the 100miles from The Bear pub on Bath Rd into Hyde Park Corner in London. Yet again under the guidance of the great Arthur Newton, Wally lined up at Motspur Park just a few weeks later, for a 24 hours race where, against the top British ultra runners, Wally set a new 24 hour world record, at the age of 45. Although this open record stood for years, the standard of his run can best be adjudged by the age group record that lasted over 5 decades, eventually being beaten by a small margin by Scot Don Ritchie. Wally was awarded the Helm’s Foundation Award for the Outstanding Sportsman of the Year for the African Continent.
His success in these three record-breaking runs was marred by the 1954 decision of the South African Athletic and Cycling Association who declared him a professional for allegedly accepting contributions towards the considerable expenses incurred in competing in England. This ban on participating in athletics lasted 20 years until 1974. There is little doubt that had Wally been able to compete he would have made further impression on world marks in the ultra-distances. This was not only Wally’s loss, but a loss to world athletics.
His fifth win in the 1954 Comrades was his final major race prior to the expenses controversy, and there is little doubt that additional wins would have been on the cards if he had not been banned.
The talent and determination of Wally Hayward’s was exemplified in 1988 when he returned to the Durban to Pietermaritzburg road for the sixth time and at the age of 79 beat over half of the field to finish Comrades in 9 hours 44 minutes. One year later the country watched in awe as the octogenarian crossed the finish line in 10 hours 58 minutes and 3 seconds, beating the then 11 hour cut-off.
Each year Wally could be seen at the side of the Korkie 56km route giving his trademark thumbs up and encouraging runners as they passed by. He became a traditional figure at the end of Comrades awarding the cherished green number to those who had completed their 10th run.
In one of those thought provoking twists of timing his passing, has come in a week when it has been announced that the London to Brighton race will no longer be run, and only four days prior to the annual Wally Hayward races (10km, 21km, 42.2), which will be held on Monday May 1 in Gauteng.
Wally was a motivation and inspiration to many runners, he was a legend in his own lifetime and his story will continue to encourage and motivate future runners and Comrades. Born and competing before the emergence of electronic media, the enormity of Wally’s achievements was to some extent short-changed. In recent years the exploits and life of Wally Hayward was captured in a biography ”“ Just Call Me Wally (Penprint)
World wide the names of Don Ritchie, Bruce Fordyce, Yiannos Kouros and Wally Hayward head the list in any discussion of the greatest ultra-runners of all time, but for versatility of distance, for longevity and taking account of the 20 year loss due to a controversial banning, Wally Hayward was the greatest of them all.