Road running is one of South Africa’s most entrenched and diverse sub-cultures. Wherever you live, if you get up early on any morning you will find people of all ages, races and shapes running into the dawn, trawling empty roads. Sometimes you find them in small groups. But more often than not they are in a lonely bubble of concentrated selfhood. In our country, particularly at this time of year, all their roads and aspirations lead to the mighty Comrades marathon in early June.
“Comrades”, as they call it, is like a giant that leers down upon the lives of every runner, inviting them to come to visit his castle.
But the hard streets of concrete and tar are not my subject today.
I want to tell you about trail running: a subculture of that subculture. Trail races take place off-road, along paths, through mountains, forests and sometimes deserts. They have a different set of legends and heroes.
(But before I go there let me divert briefly off course… Let me say as an aside that people’s hobbies are not incidental or irrelevant to big picture issues, as we may imagine. They are not outside of politics. It is through these subcultures that different peoples often find each other, literally. Road running clubs, choirs, churches, community theatre – these are the places where the social fabric of a nation is knitted together. These are the places where otherness is dismantled and community is found. These are initiation schools for the awareness and understanding of Ubuntu, our mutual dependence on each other. Ubuntu, not as command, but as discovery and opportunity of humanness.
For this reason, if I were a Minister of Arts and Culture rather than treating my portfolio as a cul-de-sac where I have been parked in order to have time to pursue other interests, I would invest heavily in support to these groups. Dream on …
But back to the path … I am a trail runner. I can say those words with pride and conviction. So it was that earlier this year I found myself on the starting line of a beautiful three-day trail race called the Three Cranes Challenge.
Outwardly the Three Cranes is a test of endurance. Its total distance, 100kms, is divided over three days. But these are not the ordinary kilometres faced by a road runner – these are kilometres that break down into their 1,000 parts, where each metre is felt in hard climbs up and then back down mountains; along paths that meander through forests; across tufted grass lands, over rocks. One irony of trail running is that while you are enveloped in beauty, it’s not wise to take your eyes off the path in front of you without risk of a fall.
On the Three Cranes you ascend, then descend, the Mbona and Gilboa mountains – each day.
This year I ran the Three Cranes for my third time. Such is its allure. Perhaps because you can’t be distracted by the splendour around you, perhaps because physical endurance concentrates the mind wonderfully, my thoughts mainly turned inwards.
Many runners will tell you of the epiphanies they experience on the road. Many of my life decisions came at me in this way. This time, as I pushed my way through forest and field, my mind began to reflect on the value of each passing second and the meaning of the freedom I was experiencing as I ran.
I had freedom to stop, to start, to divert from my path; freedom to splash in the streams I crossed, to pause and marvel at a passing view, or a passing moment; to notice a cloud burst, or a cloud blossom in real time on the landscape in front of me. I had freedom and opportunity to study the enduring minutiae of plant life, tree branches and vines whose play and the patterns they form unfold unnoticed. I heard birds sing before I saw them, changed my footstep to protect a passing vole.
These thoughts led somewhere darker. They made me realise what it means for the freedom fighter to be imprisoned, what the denial of freedom actually amounts to. I thought of the years that leaders like Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, Dorothy Nyembe, Barbara Hogan and many others had spent in prison. I realised how we so easily clump these years into one stretch of time – erasing the hours and seconds – that way overlooking what the amputation of time actually means for a prisoner. What being imprisoned actually takes away from a person.
I suddenly felt and valued my own freedom. I wanted to embrace it and protect it, knowing that there are people out there who would happily take it away from me too.
I suddenly felt and valued human life. I was struck by wonder of the planet we have been placed on.
In this context, thinking of un-freedom, of a dark, uniform, never changing prison cell, became terrifying.
However, the beauty I was witnessing was also a strong vindication of the freedom fighter. The spider’s web of freedoms I was entangled in at that moment was the essence of the freedoms we fight for. These earthy freedoms are part of our being and humanity, part of our inter-relationship with our planet. They do not exist for some. They should be there for all. Access to and understanding of their beauties by all will make for a better humanity. That’s why I fight for human freedom.
And on that understanding I resolved to continue the race and put my best foot forward in the struggle for freedom and equality. DM