Aiming for 50! Barry Holland’s Amazing Comrades Record


The year was 1967, and the Comrades Marathon was heading for a thrilling finish outside Greyville Racecourse’s ​​Royal Durban Light Infantry Drill Hall. In the lead was a Scotsman, Tommy Malone, who had led since Botha’s Hill. But chasing hard was Manie Kuhn, who had finished second the previous year behind Malone and was eager to reverse the order.

Malone hit the finishing straight with a slender lead, and looked by all rights to have won again. But as the 3 000-strong crowd leaned in to watch Malone finish, in charged Kuhn, pushing through the throng. Malone turned to see Kuhn right behind him – and as he did so, his right leg cramped, and he fell to the ground just a metre from the line. Kuhn took the win by a second.

It was one of the most dramatic moments in Comrades history; and for 13-year-old Barry Holland, who watched the moment while squashed between the crowd of  spectating adults, it was the start of a journey that will culminate with a 50th attempt at the race in 2024.

…this attempt at a half-century of finishes will probably be his last.

“I may have been young, but that was when this Comrades thing really started,” says 72-year-old Holland now. “I just knew I had to do this race one day.”

That day came seven years later when at age 20, Holland finally got to the start line to begin a race that has dominated his life ever since. Ahead of the 2024 race, his stats record 49 consecutive medals; and realistically, according to Holland, this attempt at a half-century of finishes will probably be his last.

“I’ve been having trouble with my knee for a while; and to be honest, I’m not enjoying doing those long training runs so much anymore. So I think if I can get my 50th, I’ll be happy to retire from running Comrades. I know that Louis Massyn could go on to get 50 or more, but it doesn’t bother me if he does.”

Holland ascribes his remarkable Comrades record to his love of running with others, and the camaraderie he shares with his regular training partners.

“It’s been about the people I’ve intersected with over the years. The incredible times we’ve had together, and the process of getting to the start line each year,” he says. “I’m a social person. I don’t even like it if I’m at home by myself for extended periods when my wife is away; so I would never have been able to train by myself. I would hate that.”

 “Nobody in their right mind sets out to run 50 Comrades, that’s for sure.”

Holland first attempted to train for the race as an 18-year-old; after two weeks, he decided he hated running. A year later he tried again, and made it to three weeks before giving up. But at the age of 20 he finally got to the start line, thanks to a running group that still inspires many in Durban today.

“I was out running in Durban North one morning, and I turned around a corner and saw 30 guys standing in the road. It was the Regent Harriers group. Not an official running club, but a group of runners who train together regularly. Once I met them, I never looked back.”

And so, in 1973, Holland lined up for his first Comrades – with little idea of the record he was going to set.

“Nobody in their right mind sets out to run 50 Comrades, that’s for sure.”

In Sickness And Health
Holland’s record-to-be was almost spoilt the very next year, when he battled with flu in the lead-up to race day. 

“I was still living at home, and my mom came into my room and said: ‘You can’t run when you’re sick like this.’ But I told her that I’d run 2 000km since January, and I wasn’t going to waste it. 

“So I ran. And from Polly Shortts onwards, I have no recollection of anything that happened on that day. I think the only reason I survived is because I was still 21.”

Things also nearly went awry in 1995, at the peak of Holland’s Comrades career, when he came back from a skiing trip in Canada and tried to cram in too much training. The result was a stress fracture, which looked likely to prevent him making the start line. But ever determined, Holland started anyway, attempting to go out with the silver medal bunch.

“I just thought I’d see what happened on the day. But by Pinetown my leg completely blew, and I had to walk the rest of the way to Durban. I was just very arrogant back then – and I paid the price, with my slowest time of 10:14.”

Holland’s remarkable record includes 22 silvers, and seven Comrades under seven hours, with a best of 6:29 for the Down run and 6:34 for the Up. He’s also run under nine hours nine times, and his average time for his 49 medals is 8 hours and 15 minutes.

“Back in the late 80s and early 90s there was a talented squad of runners at Jeppe in Johannesburg, and we would egg each other on in training. A lot of testosterone would come out; but all of the squad had broken seven hours. We fed off each other. It was a wonderful time in my life.

“We were all a bit arrogant, and used to wonder why anyone would bother doing Comrades if they ran over nine hours.”


Barry Holland: By The Numbers

2:39 Best marathon time
6:29 Best Comrades ‘Down’ Run
6:34 Best Comrades ‘Up’ Run
22 silvers
7 finishes under seven hours
9 finishes between 7:30 and 9 hours
8:15 Average Comrades time over 49 events


Train & Recover
Since those earliest days Holland has had a healthy respect for Comrades, and has diligently tailored his training to focus on the race.

“Comrades is just the cherry on the top of five months of intense training,” he says bluntly. “The training is hard, and requires dedication and commitment. And yeah, sure, not everyone wants to chase times; but you still need to be dedicated.”

Holland breaks up his running year into post-Comrades – when he takes a complete break from running, for between six weeks and two months – to rebuilding again in September for a marathon in October or November. He re-focuses on his Comrades training in January.

“The running year is very different from the normal year,” he says. “The running year starts in July, and ends with Comrades in June.”

When Holland was running silver medals regularly he would train six days a week – sometimes twice a day – and would include successive weeks of 160km, 170km, 180km and 190km during peak training. He later revised those totals down to 145km, and found that the increased recovery time helped him run under seven hours at his peak in his late 30s.

“The 8km weekly time trial was always a benchmark. We would do it every single week, sometimes after a morning 15 or 20km, and run it as hard as we could,” Holland remembers. “It taught you a lot about pain and suffering.”

Included in his build-up were five runs over 50km, which included races such as the Two Oceans, Bergville and Korkie ultras. 

“If all went according to plan, I could run silvers like I was eating Smarties,” he says.

For now, Holland is driven by his natural leadership capabilities. After retiring from his successful printing business he moved down to Ballito, and has helped grow the Dolphin Coast Striders club from a membership of 80 to its current 500 – and now is also running the Balwin marathon series, launched last year.

Whether Holland will manage to overcome his knee issues and make the Comrades start line in Durban on 9 June, only time will tell. But his status as an icon in the sport is firmly established.

Barry Holland on…

“When I was younger, we would train for silver by running eight sessions a week over six days. So some days we would run twice. We would always do the weekly 8km time trial, even after a 15 or 20km run in the morning. It taught you a lot about pain and suffering.”

“At my peak, I would run five runs over 50km to prepare for Comrades. It was a combination of races like the Oceans, Bergville and Korkie ultras, and some longer training runs.”

“To be a good runner, you need three pillars: one, you need to train. Two, you need to have the ability and the genes. And three, you need a head that can take the pain.”

“At one stage I did successive weeks of 160km, 170km, 180km and 190km, but I could never understand why I couldn’t break seven hours. So then I started to realise that I was overtraining, and changed those weeks to never run over 145km. When I got to the start line, I wasn’t tired – and only then started breaking the seven-hour barrier. It’s always better to get to Comrades slightly undertrained rather than overtrained.”


“In the latter years I’ve changed the way I eat a lot. I used to just eat what was put in front of me; and I think I hid behind my talent, and did well despite the eating. I also drank a lot of beer! But I met a guy called Larry Wilson, who cured himself of cancer and runs the Incredible Health Clinic. With his advice I cut out sugar and bread and beer, and started including high-quality fats in my diet.”

“When I first started running Comrades, I would run on Coke and water. But I don’t do that anymore; I rely on a food supplement.”


“The race has changed. Some things for the better, and some things for worse. I’m not sure I enjoyed the blunders the organisers made over the last couple of years. It smacked of arrogance, and I was disappointed with that. The race is also politicised, with everyone having their own agendas.”

“When I started running, Max Trimborn would do his favourite cock crow in person. And I also remember the days when the black runners would just start singing Shosholoza. Nowadays, that’s all played over the PA. It would be nice if they <itals>didn’t play Shosholoza, because I think the runners would start singing it themselves, without having to seed it.”


READ MORE ON: comrades-marathon

Copyright © 2024 Hearst