What possesses the ultra runner? Are they superhuman, or just insane? It’s a question unfathomable to those of us who think it’s a long way to the corner café. Yet every year, runners turn out in their droves to tackle nearly 90km for the Comrades. HAGEN ENGLER tells it from the horse’s mouth.
The Comrades marathon starts at 5.30. Twelve thousand-odd competitors convene in downtown Durban from about two hours before that.
The streets are well lit, and the weather is still warm. A carnival atmosphere reigns. Runners embrace and exchange cell numbers at the tog-bag tables. Nkalakatha plays on the PA system, followed by a rendition of Shosholoza by a community choir. There’s an edge of apprehension too. A couple of running partners share a long, meaningful handshake…
The lone rangers like me loiter and wait for the gun. A few sit cross-legged on the West Street tarmac. The crush and the clamour for positions goes on far ahead of us, in starting pods A, B and C. This is section H. Okes are chilled, we’re not racing anybody.
You can’t miss the blast of that starter’s pistol – it comes amplified tenfold over the PA, lest the guys 10,000 places back not hear it and start their watches late.
As it is, it takes us eight minutes to pass the starting line.
I like to start slow, so I allow the pack to surge away from me as I trot west through the business district, with only a few enthusiastic spectators jogging beside me.
After a few minutes I hear the growl of motorcycles. I turn around to find I’m being tailed by eight members of the Durban traffic department. I’m coming stone last in the Comrades.
Time to speed up.
Just before Toll Gate, five kays into the race, I catch up with the sub-12 hour bus, a group of 300 runners under the stewardship of an experienced runner chugging along at a pace calculated to bring us home just within the maximum time allowed.
Thus begins my epic foot journey to Pietermaritzburg.
What distinguishes it is not the athletic exertion required – bus driver Vlam Pieterse’s mantra is, “The aim is not to get tired”. What makes running the Comrades marathon great is the human stories that unfold during the race. A lot can happen in 12 hours.
In Westville, a woman meets the man she last saw a year ago during the previous year’s race. They met then, and he has ensured that they will meet again this year, even going so far as writing to the Comrades organisers.
But there’s more romance to come. At Botha’s Hill, with 50km to go, a couple of runners produce a banner reading, “Nicky, will you marry me?” Seconds later I run past the handsome squire on one knee, proffering an engagement ring to a flabbergasted Nicky.
It looked like she was going to say yes.
Soon after, I stop to pee and fall off the back of the bus, ushering in a dark period of lone struggle. At halfway the guy next to me cries, “Ek kap oor. Ek gaan dit nie maak nie.” He pulls out.
It would be so easy to join him. But we’ve only done 42km. I’ve run 50 before, so let’s keep going. Next hill is the notorious Inchanga. If I survive that, maybe I can make it.
We maintain the plod until, surprise, we round a corner and there’s the 12-hour bus! I catch them during one of their regular walking spells. Truth is, when you’re at the back of the field, you walk the Comrades as much as you run it.
For the next ten kays, Vlam’s bus propels us forward. By now we’re 400 strong.
“Sorry, Vlam,” I overhear a guy ask him surreptitiously. “Do you maybe have anything for a cramp?” Vlam produces a roll of salt pills, as you’d expect from a man running his 17th Comrades.
I decide I’m not going out like that, but sure enough, 10 kays later, there’s something that feels a lot like a cramp going on in my left calf.
I stop for a massage and lose the bus again. Now I’m on my own, with 25 kays to go. I’ve never run this far before… Luckily the terrain is flat until Polly Shorts.
I will myself that far, and by the time I’ve walked up Polly’s I’m shattered, but I have exactly an hour left in which to complete the last eight kays.
Anyone can do eight kays in an hour, but after you’ve already done 80km?
Dude, especially after you’ve done 80km! When you’ve trained for six months, run three marathons, missioned to Durban and completed most of the Comrades marathon, there’s no way you’re going to let yourself miss out on a finisher’s medal.
I set the controls for pain-override and blunder through the streets of Maritzburg towards Harry Gwala stadium. I’m not gonna blow this.
Two kays from the stadium, with 15 minutes till cut-off, a guy screams and goes down, his body racked by cramp. He’s not making it.
But I am. I catch up with the Vlam Bus as they enter the stadium to a tumultuous roar. Four hundred strong, it’s one of the biggest buses in Comrades history.
I finish with eight minutes to spare.
I waddle to the tog-bag table, get my bag and sit down. I can’t tell you how good it feels to sit down. DM
*This is an extract from Engler’s book Comrade Baby.
Photo: Runners compete in the 89km Comrades Marathon between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, May 24, 2009. More than 12,000 participants took part in the ultra-marathon race held in South Africa. REUTERS/Rogan Ward
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