In many ways, the Comrades Marathon is less about running and more about reaffirming the human spirit. It will define you, and it will humble you.
It’s Comrades time again. This is a running race that seems destined to be run annually by human beings until the end of their time or until climate change, war or the end of the world make it impossible. Over its ninety something years it has become part of a tradition, passed from generation to generation, a test of some sort for those who seek out tests. In the words of one years’ theme: ‘It will define you’.
This year’s theme is Izokuthoba. It will humble you.
It is hard to live in South Africa and not notice the Comrades Marathon. When I moved back to South Africa in 1989 I quickly became aware of it. I must have caught it from the air. In those days I didn’t have much money and somewhere along the line had acquired a t-shirt with an altitude profile of the route below the words ‘I ran the Comrades’. Not having much money and not having many clothes, I wore the t-shirt guiltily for a few years. But I felt like a fraud. Perhaps it was the need to rectify the fraud that steeled my will to actually do it.
That was then. Now its 2016 and the twentieth anniversary of my first run. Memories of that year have blurred somewhat. But it was exhilarating, exciting and all new. I know that I walked a lot, but I finished the entire race in 8 hours and 5o minutes. That’s relatively fast….
That was to be my first – and last – sub-9.
Several months before my would-be daughter had died during childbirth. My and my partners’ world had come crashing down. A month later, picking up and getting back on the road was about the only way to regain a sense of body and mind. I remember that as I came into the stadium emotions and tears welled up.
Since then I have run it fifteen more times and enjoyed every outing; or at least enjoyment is the word that you use once you cross the finishing line, along with elation and exhilaration. Before that line though there are hours where many of the feelings are the exact opposite. Hurt, pain, confusion, desperation, anguish, uncertainty, fear.
But these feelings are combined with moments of humour, laughter, sharing, solidarity; the encouraging words of a total stranger, eye contact with another, a knowing smile shared between runners.
It is through the Comrades that I have understood the aging of my own body and the wonder of the human body as a whole. Today when I reach eight hours and 50 minutes (the amount of time it took me to complete that very first race) I still have 10 or 15 kilometers left to run – and they are incredibly painful kilometres. I wonder how it was that once upon a time I was crossing the finish line at that point. I wonder how Bruce Fordyce ever managed it it under five and a half hours.
Sub-9 is no more for me. Yet there are men and women of my age who still run under nine hours. There are two men who have run the race 43 times. I myself am in an elite of exactly 136 people in the history of the whole world who have competed it 16 times or more. That’s one elite that I’m prepared to boast of. I earned it.
I know Sunday’s race is going to be hard. It’s never easy. A Comrades runner never claims success until success is achieved. Yet there is a point in every race where you know you are going to make it. For me my body sends my mind a signal somewhere around 60kms that it’s going to be able to do it. If you have time in hand you know you can manage another 30km.
But that doesn’t mean the rest of the race is easy. It is not. On the down hill run I hit my nadir at about 65kms. There’s a dreadful, long, boring stretch of about 8kms after Pinetown. It’s a mild descent with nothing to distract you from the dreary tarmac. The battle now becomes more with your head than your body. Your head refuses to believe your body can do it. By doing so it saps the body’s energy and commitment, gives it a crisis of confidence. It’s a peculiar and situation-specific type of schizophrenia. Really, it is!
In countries like England marathon running is associated with fundraising for charities and causes. On the London marathon almost every runner is raising money and millions of pounds accrue as a result. It builds social fabric, a benign transfer of wealth to civil society organisations.
We need to import this tradition.
In 2013 I ran the Comrades with comrades. For close to a year I had encouraged and mentored a group of people living with HIV to run the race, including my close friend Vuyiseka Dubula. We had started training with breathless flabby short runs of 5km. By C-day each runner was ready for 90. Each runner underwent a transformation of mind and body, of finding inner belief, of gaining a deeper dignity.
This year, for the first time, I’m running it with comrades Qondisa Ngwenya and Grathel Motau. In the last five days we have recruited a small team of runners to raise money to help reconstruct schools in the Vuwani district of Limpopo that have been burned down. 52,000 children have suddenly found themselves destitute of the means for education, something Dikgang Moseneke described in his last Constitutional Court judgment as being “a formative goodness to the body, intellect and soul.”
People say this is very noble, but it’s actually about self-help. I will try to help the learners by raising money for their schools, they can steady me as I traverse the the Pinetown demons.
It’s called Ubuntu. I am what I am because of who we all are.
But it’s more than that. It’s about solidarity. A disaster has fallen upon 50,000 children. Selfish and criminal adults decided to make smoke with children’s futures. In making this appeal we have received overwhelming support, but not enough money.
We have also dodged a few brick-bats. Some people’s attitude is ‘the community did it to themselves, let them fix it’. Others transfer their hatred of the government onto the learners and say ‘it’s all their fault, they should fix it’. Some strange beings have even gone as far as saying that SECTION27, an organization that campaigns and mobilises people for the right to basic education, is straying into service delivery. What errant nonsense.
It’s about the human race, stupid. And the Comrades is described as the ultimate human race.
So, please discount such arguments and pledge to our cause. If you can do something to change the world, or even one person’s world, just do it.
It will define you. DM