Since my high school days I’ve thought of myself as a runner. I used to run around the block in my small hometown, and I helped out once or twice at the school cross country, although I did get the little tickets I was supposed to hand to each finisher well and truly mixed up after the wire holding them together cascaded to the ground.
I often watched the Comrades with my folks, but never guessed for a single moment that I’d ever be one of that crazy crowd. I could not understand how one could run for so long. But it so happened that one of my small handful of high school friends was a long distance runner. I was inspired when he took part in an ultra-marathon at 16 and the headmaster announced his achievement in Assembly, remarking what endurance it must have taken to run for three hours (it was most likely closer to four…)
Although I had a few brief lapses in my twenties due to attempted and ill-advised hard drinking and disorderliness, the lure of running never entirely faded and I eventually I was persuaded to do a 10 km night race. Gradually the 10 and 15 km races gave way to 21 km and longer, until I was ready for my first marathon. I developed a love-hate relationship with my training which persists to this day. After all, running is very similar to a relationship. Some days you’re head over Nikes in love with the sport and other days you’re seeking a trial separation, as the spark has gone and the sight of a sexy new pair of running shoes beside the bed fails to excite you in the least.
I even won an 8 km race once (part of a fun run organized by a school) , and didn’t realize I was in the lead until I saw with about 2 km to go that I was running behind a traffic officer’s vehicle and the people at the water point were cheering me on. Granted only a tiny handful of a dozen or so had entered the 8 as there was a 4 km option, but it was quite a special feeling to receive an envelope containing cash at the finish – the one and only time this happened!
I was motivated by the exploits of one or two real speed warriors whom I became friends with, and we occasionally trained together. One was a real speed martinet and pushed me into anaerobic capacity a number of times. I performed a fitness test at the Naval gymnasium and received 119% – way above average in every test done!
I never intended to run further than a 50 km, until one year when I was part of a group of friends that got together and watched the Comrades on TV. Wally Hayward was running in the race at age 81 and made it to the finish line with less than two minutes to spare before cutoff. This emotion-filled TV moment was the catalyst that catapulted me into the Comrades crowd. I grew determined to be at the start the following year.
Then a few days before the big race I developed a slight bug and the doctor advised me not to run. Great indecision overcame me as I wrestled with my choice. The night before the race I was driving around with a friend who was also doing his first Comrades, and I was crying. I decided that I could not bear to be left out and so the choice was made to take it slowly and just to finish.
There is nothing to compare standing with thousands of other runners outside the City Hall waiting for the Chariots of Fire tune to play and the subsequent “big bang” signaling the start of the race. And then the serpent of shuffling humanity slowly begins its sojourn in the dark streets.
I finished the race seven times from 1990-1996. Thereafter, several circumstances conspired to keep me from the race. On several occasions I was half tempted to enter but I was battling with a hiatus hernia, causing discomfort when I ran too far. It would be fourteen years before I stood on the start line again in 2010. By now I had my official diagnosis and saw the Comrades as a way to improve my self esteem and get my life back in gear.
In 2011 I had severe back problems that prevented me from training for a full month, during the height of the training “season”! When I returned to my alma mater for the first time in thirty years to attend the Reunion, I told everyone I was not running. This was just a week or so before race day.
Then on the Wednesday following I got a call at work. Someone had dropped out and there was a lift and shared accommodation to be had. After a hour or so of painful indecision, I made up my mind to go. Some of the ladies in Production wanted to know why I was crying and so I replied in a broken voice “I’m running Comrades.”
It went better than expected considering my lack of training, and I completed my No. 10 in 2012 – another special moment.
Today as I write this there are a mere two weeks to go to the world’s greatest ultra-marathon – all 89 km of it. Driving between the two cities, it’s hard to imagine that every year thousands actually use their legs to complete the incredibly hilly course.
Like all relationships, there are good times and bad times, and it sure has improved my mental strength and endurance, and helped me cope with some of the many difficult circumstances I’ve had to put up with. It’s always a great feeling to inspire and motivate others to run the great race, which began way back in 1921 long before 99% of us Web generation were ever conceived.
Sometimes I do feel as if I’d like to trade some of my joints in and get a few added spare parts, but the human body has an amazing ability to recover from all the weird demands we ask of it. But if you see yourself as a winner, namely just completing the distance, this winning attitude can spread to other areas of life.
Not all of us can run marathons, but may have other goals that are just waiting for an ignition button to get them going. Never fear to exceed your wildest dreams.