The Comrades is the one race that somehow manages to transcend politics, scandals, and individual adversity. I watch it every year. Here’s why.
I start getting emotional about the Comrades Marathon several days before it actually takes place. I’ve never actually run the race; in fact, I have never actually run any race, but that doesn’t stop me from being a fervent spectator.
Every year, we get up ridiculously early on Sunday, pack coffee and rusks, and set off in the warm darkness for a good vantage point. By the time we reach one, the eastern sky is turning pink, people loom and fade in the pre-dawn grey light, there are warm glows from headlights, streetlights, lamps and torches. It’s cold up the hill, so watchers are huddled up in blankets in their chairs, the skottelbraais are making breakfast, small groups walk up and down, workers stand on street corners in their shop uniforms. We are all waiting, united in expectation.
There are a number of good places to watch the Comrades. Perhaps the City Hall, brightly lit and festive with music and noise and crowds. Old Main Road through Hillcrest is always lined with cars and people and good humour. There’s the finish at the stadium, where some of the real drama takes place. Almost the entire 89-km route is lined with relatives and friends of runners, passers-by, and the merely curious – like us.
The half-way spot at Drummond, along the R103, is a lonely stretch of curving road through red cliffs, with open veld on one side and the view over the Valley of the Thousand Hills on the other. A retaining wall is marked with yellow bricks and a small plaque bearing the Comrades logo. This is one place drenched in Comrades atmosphere.
When driving along here one afternoon long ago on the way to visit friends, we passed a small group of runners, with thighs like locusts, plodding grimly up the hill.
“What are they doing?” wondered my youngest, who was eight at the time.
“They’re practising for the Comrades,” I replied, and told my children how marathons started, some famous races, the annual Comrades between Pietermaritzburg and Durban… (I do tend to go on, as my children remind me often).
“And so they run all the way,” I finished.
There was a short silence and then: “Why don’t they just take a taxi?” from Alex.
If I thought that was funny at the time, it was even funnier when it turned out that one of the runners had indeed tried to cheat that year by – taking a taxi.
There are three main reasons why the Comrades has the cache that it does.
Firstly, it is not the Durban Marathon or the Pietermaritzburg Marathon or even the South African Marathon: it is called the Comrades. This frees it from any geographical claim or boundary or ownership. It is not a city’s race or a country’s race; it is a human race. Established in 1918 to honour the soldiers of World War I, it transcends all divisions to be truly democratic. The Rugby World Cup united us for a while, the Soccer World Cup united us for a while, but the Comrades unites us every year.
The runners’ line-up includes wealthy businessmen with their back-up Land Rovers; policewomen and health professionals and office workers taking time off to chase something else apart from miscreants, viruses or the bottom line; shopkeepers and street-sweepers with ordinary takkies and sweatsuits. There are secretaries and doctors and lawyers and politicians – and my gardener Robert, who has four medals.
Secondly, it has managed to resist politics. There will always be those who make a noise in order to feel important, but the Comrades has managed to rise above them all. When there was fuss about holding an international sporting event on Youth Day (June 16) – instead of recognising the positive role that the Comrades could play in highlighting youth issues, the rattling revolutionaries decided that the Comrades trivialised the ‘struggle’ and threatened a boycott. The Comrades simply, graciously, and quietly moved its date. I’m sure there have been other attempts to politicise the race, but it is the measure of the wisdom of the organisers that these have never, ever posed a serious threat.
Thirdly, I don’t know if there have ever been attempts to professionalise the Comrades, but I am sure someone has tried. The Comrades has managed to avoid the taint of money.
There has been controversy, of course – this would be impossible to avoid. People have attempted to cheat, there are doping scandals, there are backroom battles, there are rumours of disagreements. But never has there been a serious threat to the existence, organisation, success or sheer glory of the Comrades.
Because the Comrades is not about statehood, or politics, or money. It is about achievement, pure and simple.
And yes, I get emotional long before the time. It is exciting to pack the picnic the night before: the alarm goes off at 5am and you get ready before dawn, talking quietly for some reason, getting into the car, driving through the night to your vantage point. It is thrilling to stand in the cold sunrise of a winter’s morning, exchanging random greetings with others, and waiting for the runners.
At first it will be quiet, with just the murmur of voices and snatches of music from car stereos. Then you hear, from far away, the thrum of the helicopters. A motorcycle might roar past, back and forth, with a cameraman riding pillion. People sit up and peer down the road. The tide of excitement rises. Then you see the headlights approach as the lead car comes nearer, the far-away applause gets closer, and then the lonely runner appears, silent, determined, sometimes flicking a smile at bystanders but mostly just looking down, looking ahead.
And then they stream past, in ones and twos, groups and strings. Dressed in shorts and singlets, wigs and clown costumes, company slogans and messages to Mom. Each one gets a cheer, applause, a shout of encouragement. Some of the Comrades stories will happen right in front of you – the grandmother running with her grandkids, the cancer survivor, the comeback kid. Some you will hear about afterwards – the marriage proposal, the small personal victories, the collapses and the struggles and the helping hands.
This year is an up-run: I prefer the down run, as there is something atavistically satisfying about the runner, bearing news, coming down from the hill. And I have to admit that part of the emotion is relief that I am not the one facing shin splints and sore muscles and cramp and exhaustion…but that is the coward in me talking. Mostly I admire the people who take on a race against themselves, who win through, not for money or glory but personal achievement.
We all have our own private battles, our victories and our defeats – whether they are in work or life, against outside events or our own personal demons. Some battles we choose, some are forced upon us. It is how we meet adversity that shapes us.
I have overwhelming respect, and admiration, and buckets of emotion, for all those who choose to take on the challenge of the Comrades, those who train and persevere, those who line up, jogging and jumping to warm up, at the start…. and hobble or stumble or crawl over the finish.
But we also serve, those of us who stand and wait on the sidelines and cheer on the runners; the dreamers and the doers. Life is just like the Comrades. It includes us all, whether you watch, or whether you run. DM
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine