Take a Bow, Mr. Holland

The term ‘legend’ should never be used lightly. But, there are certainly circumstances in which it is unquestionably deserved. A legend is many things: Strong. Inspirational. Kind. Confident. Just a few moments in Barry Holland’s company will reveal that he is all that, and a bit more. We chat to the man who now holds the record for most consecutive Comrades Marathons: an astounding 46!  

When an 18-year-old Barry Holland decided to attempt the Comrades Marathon for the first time in 1973, the Durban North lad believed it was in his blood. “I was a Durban boy,” he smiles. “I remember watching the closest Comrades finish in 1967, when Manie Kuhn beat Tommy Malone by just a second. That left an indelible impression on me but, as with most ideas that pop up in our youth, I buried it away.”


But it gnawed at Barry, until he decided to run ‘just one’. “I trained for two weeks, and I was done. I hated it, and thought it was stupid. So, I gave it up.” Barry recalls fondly. “When I was 19, I tried it again. This time, I trained for two and a half weeks before I thought it was really stupid. Oddly enough, though, the flame didn’t die.”


In 1973, Barry joined a group of about 30 runners called the Regent Harriers. “That was the turning point, I think. I finally ran my first Comrades at 20 years old. It was tough, and I kept telling myself to just keep putting one foot in front of the other,” he chuckles, recalling how modest the finish line was. “It was nothing like the finishes we enjoy today, with stadiums full of people. It was just a simple banner at UKZN, and a few well-wishers. My mother was there to congratulate me on my first medal…I will never forget the proud look on her face.”


Barry’s first run was completed in 7h52m, a time he immediately set out to beat. “Once I ran my first, my goal was to get better. I trimmed my time by around twenty minutes, and got a silver. I finished my fourth in seven hours and nine minutes, and I was now close to my ultimate goal: finishing in six and a half hours.” Barry admits that, when he first set the goal, he felt ‘ten worlds away’. “I had to rethink my training. I believe that more is not more, less is more. If you expend yourself training, you have nothing left to race with. I concentrated on three things: talent, training and mental approach. That’s what makes a successful runner.”


The pinnacle of Barry’s Comrades story was finishing in 6h29m, a feat he achieved in his 19th run. Albeit, he has a trove special – and humorous – memories, such as the time he ran with the flu, or when he battled a spider bite for most of his run. Arguably his most special run was this year’s, when he ran with his daughter Kathryn. (Running appears to be a Holland family trait; Barry’s lovely wife, Debbie has run more than 20 Comrades.) Barry beams as he relays Kathryn’s foray into Comrades: “When I ran my 45th race, I equaled Dave Rodgers’ record. My son-in-law told me that if I broke that record, he would run with me. I did, and so he kept to his promise. Kath joined us, and I cannot tell you how proud she made me. We started and finished together. The feeling of sharing this beautiful moment with her was absolutely indescribable.”


What, then, is the driving force behind finishing a staggering 46 Comrades? Pride, says Barry. “Pride for my running club, pride for my town, pride for my family. I honestly don’t think I am anything special, but these marathons have been a journey. Nothing compares to the excitement and atmosphere on race day, and the pleasure of meeting different people.” Barry concedes that, as he gets older, it gets tougher to race. “I find that I need a peg to hang my hat on. This year, Kath ran with me so I had a mission.”


Will he run in 2019? Unequivocally, yes. “Debbie is running!” He laughs indulgently. “I’m addicted to it, I think.” He pauses. “I suppose the big question is, will I reach fifty Comrades? Well,” he winks. “I’ll take it a year at a time, but wouldn’t that be something?”