By Jeannie De Vynck
It’s 3:30 in the morning and the hotel dining-room is full. There is not a free table anywhere, so my brother and I join a couple at their table. We start with the usual chit chat, “Is this your first time?”, “Where are you from?”, and then the man’s story begins to unfold. They are from up north, Carletonville, and he is running this race after having fallen on a stake in a mining accident.
“Come again?” Our breakfast companion, Daniel de Wet (the “Sosatie Man”), had fallen on a 1,8m industrial crowbar which had passed through his body from groin to shoulder, miraculously missing his vital organs, but it did destroy one kidney and damage his small bowel. He had run it six times before and thought his running days would be over after the accident, yet after a three-year recovery period, he set his mind to again run this 90km race from Pietermartizburg to Durban – the Comrades Marathon.
This is one of the many heroic stories you hear about Comrades runners. From its beginning in 1921, it was run for a deeper reason than a mere race – that of honouring Word War I fallen soldiers, comrades in arms, and it continues to be a reflection of the depth of the human spirit today.
But what about the other tens of thousands of ordinary people who tackle this giant? (Almost 20 000 people lined up at the start in 2018.) In essence, there are tens of thousands of different reasons why people run it. As South Africans, it is embedded in our shared national psyche as something that brings together people, both runners and supporters. There is an historical narrative around the Comrades – the oldest and biggest ultra marathon in the world – that is rivaled by no other race.
Personally, I have learned many things from this experience, especially that a marathon can be seen as a metaphor for life. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. These are just five of those life-lessons.
1.You Can’t Do It Alone
As a confirmed introvert, long distance running is a perfect sport for me to just escape and be by myself for a while. However, Comrades is not an individual sport: you need other runners to get you through the training and I can’t imagine doing 90km by myself. Right from the start, you are part of a team with each member helping the others to make it to the finish. I owe my brother, Trevor, a huge debt of thanks for getting me through most of the race.
As I stand with 20 000 other runners at the start, fighting back tears as the national anthem plays, there is already an emotional bond between us. After singing “Shosholoza” together, the stirring opening bars of “Chariots of Fire” come on, which is always a bit of a cliché running song , except when you’re waiting in the dark at the start of the Comrades when it sends adrenaline through your veins.
The crowd support is as vital as the help from fellow runners. Even someone calling out your name can lift your spirits no end.
2.Enjoy The Journey
One afternoon, while waiting at the primary school gate at home-time, I noticed that the little kids run out of class. They run because running makes you feel happy. Sadly, by the time the Grades 4’s to 7’s come out, they are walking, and lugging ridiculously heavy bags. We can’t lose our joy in life! Besides enjoying the race for the pure pleasure/challenge of it, there has been some research done which concludes that those who smile while running can improve their times by up to 12%. (Research by Dr Brick of Ulster University)
3.Just Keep Moving Forward
At about 89,5km, with the Moses Madiba stadium in sight, there hung a banner reading, “Asijiki. No turning back”. I had to laugh, “Really?!” But it does highlight an important aspect of marathons: you can walk but don’t stop. If you keep moving forward, you will get to the end. Sometimes, we just have to plod through life without giving up, no matter how much pain we’re in.
4.You Can Do So Much More Than You Think You Can
When you start running, a 5km fun run seems too much, let alone a 10km, a 21km, a marathon…an ultra-marathon… but as you keep running, you realise that you can go beyond the limits that you had set for yourself.
At the end of most races, runners are handed a medal in a little ziplock bag; but not at the Comrades. The Comrades officials smile at you, congratulate you, and then put the medal around your neck. You feel like an Olympic champion and want to cry. It is a little ceremony marking a moment in your life.
After a full day, the firing of the 12-hour cut-off gun is truly dramatic to watch and devastating to those runners who just miss it. But it is all part of what makes the Comrades what it is. As the “Last Post” is played, I do give a thought to why this race was started and think what a privilege it has been to be part of the the Comrades Marathon, “The Ultimate Human Race”.