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The Comrades Marathon has become a world class sporting event which attracts the leading long distance runners from countries all over the world. The first race was a down run from Pietermaritzburg whilst the first up run from Durban to the provincial capital took place in 1922 and consisted of a field of just over 100 athletes. The runner who came in eighth, was two years later to receive his Springbok rugby colours playing in the forward pack against the touring British Isles side. More remarkably was the fact that he never trained for the Comrades relying on his natural ability, and to have a greater challenge he did not make use of running shoes, preferring to complete the event in heavy rugby boots on his feet. In those days the Comrades took place on mainly sand and gravel roads.
This Springbok rugby player was Bill Payn, who in fact, played provincial rugby over a period of eighteen seasons losing four years whilst serving overseas in the First World War. He did have the opportunity then of representing South Africa in the Imperial Services Tournament held in Britain before returning home. In all, he represented Natal in fifty nine matches. Bill had a natural affinity for all games and excelled at every branch of sport that he became interested in, so much so, that he attained his provincial colours in five sports, represented Natal at cricket, boxing, baseball and athletics in addition to his main sport of rugby. However sport was but one of his interests, being recognised as an outstanding English scholar and a leading South African expert at the time in the science of Etymology, being the study of words and their origins.
Bill Payn played in two tests on the flank in the 1924 series but later after his own playing days were over he was to have an important role in the development of a post World War Two Springbok rugby legend.
The central point of this story however is his running of the Comrades Marathon and the unusual manner in which he achieved his success. Bill Payn later spoke about the run and an abridged version of that day goes as follows, `On a bleak May morning I toe'd the line at the start when some civic dignitary fired a pistol and then very sensibly buggared off back to his warm bed. When the shot rent the air, off we sped - like a crowd of Armenian refugees fleeing from the wrath of the Turkish army. Shall I ever forget that infernal run. It was not very long before I realised that I was prey to an all consuming thirst, so clamant indeed, that I could not refuse any man who offered me a drink. At Hillcrest my feet were giving me so much pain that I took off my rugby boots and found a mass of blisters had formed on the soles of both feet, some kind follower provided me with brilliantine with which I anointed my feet and then repaired to the hotel for a huge plate of bacon and eggs. This done and much refreshed I ran up Botha's Hill where at the top I found a friend who was also taking part, but he was in a very bad state so we sat down next to the road and exchanged notes and took stock of ourselves and the situation we were in. I fear that we did not move with the freedom of young athletes but rather resembled two old ducks, suffering from some distressing gynaecological disorder.
Fortunately at that stage my friend's supporter arrived on the scene with a wicker basket which contained a delicious curried chicken set on a huge bed of rice. This we shared equally and then set off together in happy companionship for Drummond and here we bent our steps to a pleasant oasis - the pub - where I lined a dozen beers up on the counter determined not so much to celebrate a victory but rather to drown our sorrows. Whilst we were busy at this, one of the camp followers arrived on the scene and urged us both to continue as there were only five runners in front of us. My friend could not continue so I set off alone for Pietermaritzburg. Somewhere along Harrison Flats I noticed a frail little woman with pink cheeks standing at the side of the road. She held up in one hand a bottle and in the other a glass. I stopped, and with old world courtesy bowed low saying `Madame your servant to command'. `Tis peach brandy', she volunteered, `and I made it myself'. I gulped down a full tumbler of this home-made brew and in a second realised that I had swallowed a near-lethal dose of the rawest liquid I had ever tasted. I am still convinced that to this charming little woman must go full credit for inventing the first liquid fuel for jet engines. Fortunately I was facing Maritzburg and I was propelled along the way. I was too far gone in my cups even to ponder on whether this assistance did not breach the prescribed laws of amateur marathon running. On the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg I was hailed by wife's family who were taking tea on the veranda. I went off the road and joined them in their tea and cakes. While we were thus happily engaged, two of my `hated' rivals went past and so it was that I ended the course number eight. In the changing rooms I discovered that the soles of my feet were now two huge pads of blood blisters. My brother-in-law then arrived and he had the uncanny insight to my most immediate needs, for he gave me a bottle of champagne, for which I was most grateful. Shortly thereafter a rugby friend arrived and chided me as to whether I had forgotten that I was due to play a first league rugby match the next day and that our team needed me. Cadging a lift on the back of his motorbike we went back down to Durban and on the following day I played full back in a pair of old `tackies'.
This account by Bill Payn does not appear possible but it has been vouched for in every detail by Arthur Newton, another friend who was himself destined to become a legend in the world of marathon running, particularly in the Comrades. Bill's time for the up run was .It was indeed a remarkable achievement by a remarkable man. His description of the race is filled with humour which so characterised his outlook on life. To illustrate this aspect there is a classic story told of Bill when he was captaining his club's first cricket side in the premier league and they were not having a very good season with the bat. He placed an advertisement in the local Natal newspaper which read, - Join Stanford Hill and bat twice on a Saturday afternoon.
Of all his sporting interests, rugby was to remain his greatest love and he devoted many years of his life to the administration of the sport, coaching young players in the enjoyment of the game. He was the founder of Natal schools rugby and became a father figure to organisation serving on its executive from 1933 - with a gap for the war years - right through until he passed away in 1959. It is interesting to note his thoughts on the game of rugby and why people are keen to play the game. Quoting him again `Why do men love to play rugby, is I feel sure, that it is the simulacrum - in simple terms it means an image of - of war as waged in the medieval days when battles were marked by the two cardinal virtues of courtesy and courage'.
His very close friend and fellow schoolmaster, Isak Van Heerden, who was to become the Springbok coach in the 1960's,commenting on Bills outlook on the game said `He looked upon the game as a friendly and controlled war, feeling that man still has his primitive instincts and one of the strongest is the love of a good fight, which no amount of civilisation has been able to eradicate. Bill saw the game merely as a natural desire of a healthy man to pit his strength and skill against that of another and that rugby was the best possible outlet. He worshipped the game for the companionship amongst friends and for the opportunities that it allowed for comaradieship with opponents after the match was over'.
Bill Payn was very much a man of Natal being educated at Maritzburg College and after qualifying as a teacher spent much of his working career teaching at Durban High School for Boys, but in 1939,at the age of forty six he once again set off for war serving as a gunner in North Africa. Whilst in action in the Western Desert he was awarded the Military Medal, receiving a personally signed letter of commendation from the Commander-in- Chief of the Allied Forces, General Alexander.
Later in the campaign the Allied troops were forced to retreat from Gazala back towards El Alamein. With the German Army closing in around them Bill made two desperate efforts to escape but was captured on each occasion, imprisoned first at Benghazi in Libya, where he was struck down with acute dysentery and his weight dropped from just over his normal of two hundred and thirty pounds to under one hundred and fifteen pounds. It took a long time but he eventually recovered and was transferred across the Mediterranean to a P. O. W. camp near Rome.
Bill's strength of character was such that he looked on prison life as a challenge refusing to be restricted and to quote him again `Life is always life if one can laugh and that captivity is what your heart makes of it.'. He accepted the conditions of imprisonment refusing to acknowledge their limitations, preferring to see in them an opportunity for fulfilment, the enrichment of character and to be of service to his fellow prisoners.
Using his ability in developing mental pursuits he kept many of his fellow inmates highly amused and was in great demand as a speaker with a range of subjects stretching from discussing the complete works of Shakespeare, a set of which he had with him in camp, to his talk on whales and their habits which was also a great favourite. He continued to teach, and was again in demand, conducting classes for those Prisoner's of War who were taking correspondence courses. A fellow prisoner wrote of him that his most outstanding characteristic was his unquestionable spirit which knew no bounds. Although he was no longer a young man, when the Italian war effort collapsed, Bill and two companions managed to escape into the mountains of Italy and were on the run for over two weeks, diverting enemy troops from the front, to search for them. Eventually they were recaptured by German troops and sent to prison camps first in Austria, then Poland and eventually to Germany itself.
Whilst he was busy keeping the spirits of his fellow prisoners up intellectually, his love of sport also played an important role in their well being with Bill forever arranging rugby and cricket matches, even teaching the prisoners from the other Allied nations the art of jukskei!. It was while they were in a prison camp at Thorn in Poland which contained an equal number of young New Zealanders and South Africans crazy about their rugby that Bill Payn's organisational ability was shown off at its very best. A rugby ball was received through the good offices of the Red Cross organisation and Bill proposed a series of `test' matches between the rugby worlds greatest rivals. He roped in two able assistants, Peter Pienaar, the son of the 1921 Springbok captain to New Zealand and Billy Millar Jnr, whose father led the 1912/13 Springboks to the U. K. With Bill Payn as the driving force, they arranged practices and made up the jerseys, and served on the `Springbok' selection panel. The making Springbok jerseys is a story in itself, with Red Cross vests being boiled together with the olive green Russian battledress which were freely available, to obtain the green. The gold was more problematical but an ingenious solution was found, the S. A. Medical staff boiled up a solution of anti-malaria tablets to achieve the right result. It was important to look the part. The rugby field was marked off with yellow clay lines on the vast sandy parade ground and with army boots considered too lethal, the players played with bare feet in the middle of the Polish winter.
It was during this period that Bill, so the legend goes, came across a young South African from Johannesburg who had been playing for the Pirates club before the war. He was a strong, talented prop forward who also had a useful boot on him. Bill encouraged him to work hard at this aspect of his game whilst stuck in the P. O. W. camp and to concentrate on his accuracy with his place kicking. The young soldier was none other than `Okey Geffin' who five years later was to become a legend in the annals of South African rugby as well as an immense thorn in the flesh of the 1949 All Black side under Fred Allen. In the first test at Newlands when South Africa fielded fifteen new caps, because of the war Okey Geffin he kicked all fifteen points, setting a record in the process. The final score was a win for the Springboks 15 points to eleven. In the Third test of the series at Durban Okey was again responsible for all the Springboks points in a close contest which we won by nine points to three.
This is the only series in which a clean sweep of four wins to nil was achieved against New Zealand. Two years later, Geffin, was a member of Basil Kenyon's highly successful side to the United Kingdom and he was the top point scorer with eighty nine points scored in thirteen appearances. The Springboks only lost one match on this tour of thirty one matches in little over five months. They won their five tests including the massacre of Scotland at Murrayfield by 44 poins to nil
But reverting to Bill Payn This is his story and it started with his personal description of his Comrades Marathon run which reflected both his humour and his tenacity. It was his friend, Izak van Heerden who perhaps summed Bill up best of all when he said, `He was always seeing a humorous situation and playing upon it. He was a merry companion, a real friend and a great champion of the game of rugby'.