RUNNING DOWN A DREAM
The Comrades Marathon — a gruelling crash course in many of life’s (hardest) lessons
This Sunday, 11 June 2023, brings the 96th running of the Comrades Marathon where dreams will be made and hearts broken.
Comrades Marathon Sunday, a day which will be rich with the rhythmic sound of nearly 18,000 runners’ feet, this year making their way from Pietermaritzburg to Durban; the beat of which is matched only by the pounding of every runner’s heart as they set out to achieve what most believe to be impossible.
Along with a return to June for the first time since 2019, this Sunday’s race also marks 100 years of women’s participation. In 1923, Frances Hayward unofficially took part in, and completed, the Comrades at a time when the race was only open to white men. Frances had written to Vic Clapham beforehand in an application to run the race, but her request was denied. Undeterred, she informed Vic and the Athletics Association that she would run unofficially.
Come race day, Frances lined up with the 68 men competing that year. She crossed the finish line 11 hours and 35 minutes later in what would have been the 28th position in a field of 30 finishers.
When reflecting on what she’d achieved, Frances stated, “I should have been content if I had beaten just one man!” And to her credit, she’d beaten two, as well as the other 38 who never made the distance.
In the spirit of breaking boundaries, the 2023 Comrades brings the possibility of setting fastest times. Widely considered to be the queen of Comrades and one of the best female ultra-athletes South Africa has ever seen, Frith van der Merwe’s Down Run record of 5:54:43 has been standing since 1989.
Having already claimed the record for the Up Run in 2019, Gerda Steyn is widely believed to be the one to watch, named by Frith herself as the runner with the right stuff to break the 34-year record.
Age is just a (green) number
Another 1989 record that’s at stake this year will see 81-year-old Johannes Maros Mosehla setting out to take the title as the oldest person to complete the Comrades since Wally Hayward. Added motivation for the day is that this will be Johannes’ tenth race — the successful completion of which will see him join the prestigious Green Number Club.
It’s hard to explain to those who’ve never run the ultramarathon what running the Comrades truly means — because it’s so much more than the day.
It’s months and months of early mornings, strength training, weekend long runs, trials with nutrition, hard lessons, kilometres clocked, and mental (and emotional) preparation.
It’s running a marathon just to qualify for the start line, and — if you’re lucky — bagging a PB (‘personal best’). If you’re unlucky, then it’s blisters, missed goals, lost toenails, troublesome injuries, and hellish war stories.
The Comrades Marathon is unbridled curiosity taken to the extreme in pursuit of an answer to the questions: what does it take to succeed? And do I have it?
In 2017, I lined up for my first Comrades. Somewhat serendipitously, my eldest brother lined up alongside me, as he set out in pursuit of his tenth finish. What followed, on the road between start line and finish, was a gruelling crash course in many of life’s (hardest) lessons, all pounded into me with each step of 89 km.
On that day, I shared time and space with people who hailed from all over the country, and abroad. At times I ran with family and friends, and at others, I ran alone.
I (think I) learned what I was made of, and just what I had to give — even when I thought there was nothing left. More than one runner saw the ZERO on my race number that day — the sign that unites all novices — and smiled encouragingly.
A few even took the time to run alongside me, gifting words of wisdom, before sending me off with the instruction to “go get my medal” and plenty of wishes of good luck.
Come Sunday, each runner will take to the road for their own reason. And whatever each person’s reason is — from breaking records to raising money for charity; from ticking off the first time to grabbing a Green Number; from winning a (probably drunken) bet with friends to coming in as the last runner to cross the line before the 12-hour cut-off — it’s going to be a day when we see nearly 18,000 brave human beings whose commitment, compassion, and comradery serve as a timely reminder of what we can be, and what we can achieve when we set out together.
Because, as the African proverb reminds us, “If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.”
And the 87.701 km of Comrades is pretty damn far. DM