Comrades Marathon – a life changing event – Part 1

The Comrades Marathon is not a race, it is a life changing event. It asks nothing less of you than your view of the Universe. It is run over a brutal course through KwaZulu-Natal’s Valley of 1000 Hills. In the following piece I gratefully acknowledge my friend Tim Noakes.

You may suspect that the Comrades Marathon is different, but at the start you are certain. The atmosphere is carnival. We are an eccentric family doing for one day what we like best. And no matter how humble the results, for eleven hours we will be loved and applauded for it. From dawn until the sun sets in Durban, we are the children of the road, to be succoured, encouraged, praised and protected. Today there can be only one outcome, each runner a winner, each a hero.

At the start, there is neither doubt nor fear. The outcome is predetermined. The Comrades family will ensure our safe passage to Durban. Even when the last ounce of energy has been spent, there will be an arm for support, a shoulder to steady our shaking legs, someone to carry us over the finishing line. In faith then, at 5h30 at the end of May each year, the Comrades Marathon begins; each runner knowing that this is his year. That this year he is at a peak. He is older, wiser, more experienced. This year at the moment of truth, when once more the pain and discomfort becomes intolerable, the desire to quit almost irresistible, he will fight back with more courage, greater energy, supreme endurance. This year he will run the course on his own terms; he will become the hero he was always meant to be.

For the first four hours each year, I know all these things, I know that this is finally to be my year. The approach march has been easy. The first 40 kilometres or more have passed effortlessly, the pace has been a pleasure. The friendship, the scenery, the weather – all have been perfect. But then, as it always is on the ‘down’ run, the steep climb past the Alverston Tower up to Botha’s Hill Village, makes the effort noticeable for the first time. Quite suddenly I no longer have breath to spare on conversation. My horizon comes down to the few metres of road ahead and I shorten my stride, looking for maximal efficiency. These kilometres must be run in earnest.

Soon enough, however, the hill is crested and there is the human warmth of the crowded village. It is time to take stock. The distance has by now removed just enough energy for my legs to become concerned. Sensing that today something extra is expected, they urge caution, they argue for energy conservation – a shorter, less flamboyant stride. But even now I know that their warning has come too late, that I have again been carried away by the occasion. For however easy the first four hours may have felt, the cost has been too high. Within the hour I must pay for my early excesses; I must re-enter the soul of the Comrades, that special confrontation between an exhausted body and mind, and an ailing but unbeaten will.

Through Botha’s Hill Village and Hillcrest I must of necessity distract my mind from the oncoming holocaust. I wave; talk and smile to every spectator, interested or otherwise. My mind, as if preparing for the coming onslaught, is sharpened and extrovert. These are magic miles; the best miles in reflection are always those immediately preceding the final collapse. Then too quickly I am past Hillcrest. Now alone, unaided, I must pass into the void beyond. It is here.. in the sudden solitude of the quiet lane that meanders gracefully through Emberton and Gillitts that, for me, the Comrades Marathon really begins. No longer do I progress on my own terms – the hopes and confidence stored in training now vanish before the reality. The course which has been held at bay for 57 kilometres is now running me. I am approaching the line, isolated, uncertain, caring only for survival.

My legs, detecting the first signs of an ailing will, begin their own mutiny, their tactics carefully prepared. They inform me that this is far enough. Geographically, they argue, the race is two-thirds over. Why, they ask, must they continue to run, knowing that from here each step will become ever more painful, ever harder? After all there is always next year. Through the blanket of developing fatigue, I begin to appreciate the logic behind these questions; begin to feel the attraction of that haven of rest at the side of the road, the bliss of not having to take even one more step towards Durban.

Around me, I know that each runner is engaged in this same battle. In common suffering, we are alone to find our individual solutions. A glance up the road shows a string of runners, each running alone, each separated by a constant distance from the runner in front and behind. A common thread holds us together, but only reluctantly do we defile the sanctity of the space that separates us; the space that is our universe – 20 metres of tarmac and just enough room left over for our thoughts.

So despite the internal mutiny of an exhausted body, as I approach Kloof Station, my mind is still in control. But whatever mental reserves I retain, I know they are inadequate for the sight that now confronts me. From Kloof Station, at the top of Field’s Hill, the Comrades plays its most evil trick. Experience tells me not to look, that should I for one second, divert my eyes from the road, I will most likely not finish. But I have no discipline and I see it laid before me: the final, infinite 25 kilometres that separate me from Durban and the finish at the Old Kingsmead cricket ground.

In each race I have learned the desire to quit comes but once. It is a coward that once beaten does not return. But as I begin the descent of Field’s Hill, even this knowledge is of no assistance. Four kilometres from my second who must wait anxiously in Pinetown, forbidden to help me on this major highway, my mind hovers in the balance. I progress now only because it is automatic, it takes time to switch the engine off.

And it is here on this major descent, that I am joined by the final tormentor. The continual jarring of the sharp descents from Inchanga, Botha’s Hill and Hillcrest has taken its toll on my quadriceps muscles and every step now sends an ever more painful shock down each thigh. The muscles are in rebellion; depleted of energy, their connective tissue is now coming apart. A physical coward in the best of circumstances, the added pain is too much; my tenuous will-power finally deserts. I become Maurice Hertzog descending from that epic first ascent of Annapurna (Hertzog, 1952): ‘It’s all over, Lionel, I am finished. Leave me alone and let me die.’

You may of course think that even now I could still walk. That a few minutes of rest would restore the desire to live, would defeat the coward within. But you would be wrong. For the discomfort I feel exceeds my ability either to recall or describe it. ‘After 18 miles,’ wrote David Costill (1974), the world’s foremost running physiologist, ‘the sensations of exhaustion were unlike anything I had ever experienced. I could not run, walk or stand, and even found sitting a bit strenuous.’ Were the human brain able to recall the pain of Field’s Hill, no one would ever run the ‘down’ Comrades twice.

More to follow…