Tributes are pouring in for the first official female winner of the Comrades Marathon, Betty Cavanagh. She passed away two days before her 89th birthday.

The ultra-marathon was officially opened to women and people of all races in 1975. Cavanagh is being hailed as a trailblazer in a time when male dominated sports bodies and thought women were too frail for long distance running.

“When you would be running along the road, like for instance in Comrades, and somebody would see a woman ahead, well then they would kill themselves virtually to get ahead of you. And going around the final bend to the finish, there would be these mad sprints for the finish because there was this thing about not being beaten by a woman.  But I think Frith Van Der Merwe put that to bed when she ran and finished 15th overall among the men. And certainly this year we had Gerda Steyn beating some of the recent male winners. So I mean, that’s something that’s certainly been put behind us,” says Comrades Marathon Association chairperson and 1982 female winner Cheryl Winn.

Cavanagh’s daughter Kate Tyson has expressed gratitude at the messages of support that are pouring in after her mother passed away, two days shy of her 89th birthday.

Tyson is proud of her mother’s achievement. She says while women were allowed to take part in Comrades unofficially before 1975, in the 70’s it was thought unladylike for a woman to take part in long distance.

“So there were a lot of obstacles. The ladies those many years ago really had to persevere. And they really made it very easy for us to come and run. Even the way my mom was talking about the running gear. You didn’t have running vests and all the kit that you have today. She had to make her own running vests. Ja, so we had come a long way. And we have benefited from them.”

Tyson and her husband, Dean, say Cavanagh also had a very strong spirit that showed even at the age of 80 when she broke her hip.

“You know a lot of people don’t recover from that . . . She was already 80 . . . She was determined. And she used to get up. To start with she would just walk form their flat to the next flat and back again. Gradually over time she extended it and extended it until eventually she was walking around the whole complex. So there was a determination not to  . . . Hmm . . . Just sit and accept her lot in life. But that she was going to get up and walk and be healthy again . . . Hmm . . .  And it just showed the inner strength she had, which obviously came through in the Comrades marathon as well.”

Cavanagh’s funeral service will be held at Saint Vincent’s Catholic Church in Pietermaritzburg at 10 o’clock on Saturday.