In the early 80’s, Natal local Graeme Fraser clinched six gold medals in the Comrades Marathon while competing alongside big names like Bruce Fordyce, Alan Robb and Tony Abbott. Today, a debilitating disease means he can no longer get out to support his beloved race in person, but he remains a dedicated supporter of the race and the running community.
When former Comrades gold medallist Graeme Fraser was diagnosed with motor neuron disease (MND) at the beginning of 2014, a disorder that affects the cells that control voluntary muscle movement, often making speaking, swallowing and walking nearly impossible, he says the running community immediately rallied round. “The running community is amazing and I’ve had so many people contacting me and supporting me through this difficult time. I lost a lot of weight a year ago. In my Comrades days, I was around 66kg and I’ve dropped just under 40kg now. It’s taken a hold, I get fed through a drip and am bound to a wheelchair,” he explains.
With Comrades upon us, Graeme has had a lot of time to think about the race he has held so dear since first running it in 1975. “Back then, everyone was obsessed with running it,” he says. “The idea of attempting Comrades came up and it was quite a thing to do back then, because we didn’t have all the fancy technology or supplements like today. I remember having to boil honey and water for my race-day nutrition!”
THE GOLDEN STREAK
Graeme clocked an admirable 7:46 in that debut Comrades, running in the colours of Westville AC, and a year later went 30 minutes faster to grab his first silver medal. Another 7:45 followed, and then in 1978, now running for Hillcrest Villagers, he dipped under seven hours for the first time. That 6:28 also put him in the top 50 for the first time as he came home 39th. “I missed the race in ’79 because I was hit by a car on a training run, but returned even stronger the next year with a 5:58 finish for 11th place,” he says. “From that point, I knew I had to break into that top 10, even though the competition was strong.”
And so began Graeme’s golden streak. In 1981 he crossed the line in 5:54:12, coming home sixth to secure his first Comrades gold. “I couldn’t quite believe it! I broke into that field and it’s a stand-out year for me. The next year was even better, I was close and came third with a 5:41.” Over the next four years he was third again, then seventh, tenth and sixth to secure four more golds, also securing permanent number 666 in 1985. In that same period, he also earned two gold medals in the Two Oceans ultra in Cape Town, and twice finished second behind Bruce Fordyce in the London to Brighton ultra in the UK.
Graeme ran his 12th Comrades in 1988, finishing 88th in 6:30:25, but failed to finish in 1989 and then decided to take up a supporting role on the route with Hillcrest Villagers. That saw him become a regular at the club’s usual spot in Kloof, but unfortunately, he may have to watch this year’s edition from his bed. “My wife still takes me out in my wheelchair and I keep on getting calls. Bruce also called me up a while back to ask how I am,” he says. “Comrades will always be there to honour. There’s such a great camaraderie when it comes around. Especially leading up to race day, I reminisce about my own time running against the best. Wherever I am on race day, I will definitely think about the great people in this sport.”
Graeme’s son Steven has set up a Facebook support group for Graeme and his fight against MND: www.facebook.com/ThumbsUpForGraeme