Obituary: Betty Cavanagh (Comrades No.462)

The Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) is saddened by news of the death of Betty Cavanagh. She was 89 years old. Betty is revered as the first official female winner of the Comrades Marathon, when it opened up to participation of both women and people of all races in 1975.

She has been described as a humble and endearing person; a genuine trailblazer who inspired women and paved the way for our current female ultrarunning champions.

Betty successfully completed six Comrades Marathons, as well as having run four races unofficially, between 1970 and 1973. Her official personal best was achieved in 1978 in a time of 9hr53min. She holds 6 Bronze medals.

Well regarded in the world of athletics, Betty inspired many women to take up running and participate in The Ultimate Human Race. Together with her husband Tony, they initiated long distance training sessions, motivated other athletes and were part of a growing ultra-running community.

Betty often accepted invitations as a VIP guest on Comrades race day and made herself available to be part of CMA events, whenever possible. Her most notable recent public appearance was the opening of the revamped Comrades Marathon Museum in 2016, when she donated her 1975 Comrades Winners Jacket to the museum.

Betty possessed a real gentle and welcoming spirit, always with a smile and an easy-going attitude. Her humble but illuminating presence will be greatly missed by Comrades officials and volunteers alike.

CMA Chairperson, Cheryl Winn says, “As the official winner of the 1975 Comrades Marathon, Betty Cavanagh’s name was the first to be engraved on the coveted Comrades Marathon Bowl. She and her fellow female pioneers such as Lettie van Zyl, Mavis Hutchinson and even others before them, such as Francis Hayward (1923) and Geraldine Watson (1931/2) were the inspiration, not only to my generation of women who gradually began competing in greater numbers in the late 1970’s and 80’s, but were also the genuine trailblazers who paved the road for the likes of Frith van der Merwe, the Nurgalieva twins and Gerda Steyn, as well as the record number of 6476 women who have entered the 2020 Comrades Marathon.”

Winn adds, “What I also immensely admire about Betty is the significant contribution that she and her husband Tony made to the sport of athletics in general, and in particular to ultramarathon running in KZN.  They will always both be fondly remembered for so generously putting back into the sport they loved.”

CMA Elder, Poobie Naidoo and his wife Pat, have shared their sadness at news of Betty’s passing, saying, “We will always remember the lovely lady that Betty was – a kind, gentle but also strong and determined individual who made time for people and embodied grace and gratitude. Our deepest condolences to the family and all who knew her.”

Jay Reddy of KwaZulu-Natal Athletics says, “On behalf of KZNA I extend our deepest condolences to Betty’s family, officials of CMA, friends and associates. It is indeed a sad loss for the athletics fraternity. We celebrate her life and her historical and iconic contribution to the Comrades Marathon and sport in SA. May her soul Rest in Peace.”

CMA Board Member, Isaac Ngwenya says, “Betty was so committed to running, such that her training route became the well noted ultra, where after completing it, all runners were assured of successfully finishing the Comrades. At the Cavanagh Marathon, Betty and Tony were always at the finish handing out medals and cheering runners and to welcome their daughter Kath, who was always with us at the back to ensure that all strugglers made it. May she rest in peace.”

Former CMA Board Member, Ian Kerford says, “This is very sad news. We will remember her fondly.”

Terence Hoskins says, “Lola and I are saddened to hear of Betty’s passing. For many years we spent time with her and Tony. They encouraged us to run the Cavanagh Marathon as a Comrades tester. She will always be in our hearts. Rest in peace Betty. Our deepest sympathies to Tony and family.”

Comrades Brand Ambassador at Large, Mark Bloomfield says, “Regrettably I never had the opportunity to meet Betty Cavanagh but what she did for Comrades is a major reason I ran it and am now an international ambassador. People like Betty are an inspiration to us all.”

Yvonne Le Tourneur of Sports Adventure Tours says, “It is with great regret that we learn of the passing of Betty Cavanagh, the first official female to win the Comrades Marathon. It is women like Betty who opened doors for females to run The Ultimate Human Race and inspired so many to follow in her footsteps. The 2020 slogan, ‘Iphupho Lami – Dare to Dream’ is very fitting with this lady and all the runners that follow and tread on her footsteps. Sincere condolences to all her family and friends that had the great pleasure of knowing this Comrades Champion.”

Angie Narayanan of The Community Chest says, “Community Chest extends their deepest and sincere condolences to the family of Betty Cavanagh. We especially salute Betty for inspiring Women to run Comrades Marathon. Today thousands of women have taken on the challenge to not only run the Comrades Marathon but to run for charity. As we bid farewell to our Comrades Marathon Heroine, we hope that her legacy will continue to inspire many more generations.”

Marie Howarth from Penthouse Travel Sporting Tours says, “Betty was indeed an inspiration to all Comrades but especially Women. She paved the way for all Women to be included in the sport we love so much. My sincere condolences to her family and friends.”

The funeral service for Betty Cavanagh will be held on Saturday, 1 February at 10am at the St Vincent Catholic Church – 41 Fisher Rd, Pelham, Pietermaritzburg.

Photo 1 Caption: Betty Cavanagh at the revamped Comrades Marathon Museum opening in 2016. Photo: Supplied

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