Comrades Marathon – a life changing event – Part 2

Continued from part 1 – This then, is the point each runner, from first to last, must pass if he is to arrive in Durban on his own feet. It is here, stripped of any of society’s false privileges, that he finds no hiding place, no shelter of convenience. Face to face with himself he must look deep inside. ‘These miles,’ wrote George Sheehan, ‘will challenge everything he holds dear, his value system, his life style. They will ask nothing less than his view of the Universe.’

For me, in 1986 the desire to live just one step longer did come from within, on the Old Main Road I found mangled thoughts. The hero and the coward danced side by side next to me. Life and death became one. Pain and pleasure, panic and calm. There were vague universal insights mixed in with my Coke and water. Redeem yourself or die.

Coinciding with these darkest moments, 35 kilometres away Bruce Fordyce was just completing his sixth and perhaps his greatest Comrades. I learn this from a lone spectator, perched on the embankment that skirts Field’s Hill. Bruce Fordyce, everyone’s complete runner – quiet, undemonstrative, humble in victory (‘I owe everything to my seconds’) – enshrines the Comrades ethic. His is a victory of purity, a victory for the human spirit, the affirmation or morality.

With renewed vigour, with renewed faith that if the test is severe enough, goodness must always prevail, my gloom disappears and I enter Pinetown. Now I find sufficient energy to use the last trick of the ailing runner – a trick learned from Dave Levick, the man whose Comrades record had even then just been surpassed. ‘Run,’ he said, ‘from face to face. Look into the eyes of each spectator. Look for their joy. Imagine who they are, what they do, how much they want you to do well. Let them pull you through.’ A thousand faces later, I have survived Pinetown, have climbed Cowie’s Hill, to enter the last, dreadful 16 kilometres.

Through Westville, the endless downhill reactivates the ice pick that hammers ever more painfully with each downhill stride. At 45th Cutting, I have but 41 minutes to cover the last 8 kilometres to come home in under eight-and-a-half hours. Down Black Hill I prepare for the last hill, the curving climb past the West Ridge tennis courts to Tollgate. Now I am reduced to running each step by itself. My eyes see only the road at my feet. I now must obey the Comrades runner’s second rule (‘Don’t look upwards’), because I have no choice. I no longer have the energy even to lift my eyes to the horizontal.

Then, at first only gradually, I begin to perceive that the gradient has, at last, begun to relent. Soon I reach the summit ridge, a cruel 100 metres from the top of the Tollgate Bridge. My fatigue is extreme. No longer is there sufficient oxygen on the planet to keep me moving. My staggering gait and contorted face suggest imminent collapse. I wonder vaguely whether I will die, whether the psychiatrist Coon, was right when he suggested that death may be the ultimate aim of marathoners. He likened us to the king’s messengers; those who took pride in sacrificing themselves for their monarch. ‘One always sees in these messengers a moment of exaltation, when they have finally won through and delivered the news; then it seems to be an almost inexorable destiny for them to drop dead – anything but death would be a dull, sodden anti-climax’ (Coon, 1957).

But like Maurice Hertzog, I am to be spared. Slowly the gradient relents, and I spill over Tollgate encouraged by the spectators’ assurance that from here it is all downhill. Three minutes later the fire in my chest has relented, the ache in my legs recedes. Now I know for sure that I will finish. The minutes speed by, but the road seems to stand still. I am straining to deliver full power, but sound as controlled as a steam engine at full throttle. I wobble and groan monstrously. I begin to hope that something will burst.

The clock strikes half-past-two in the afternoon as I turn into Old Dutch Road and see my marker, the trees lining the road outside Moses Mabida. Like the Chinese monks of whom it is said that they could run great distances in the mountains, by fixing on a distant peak and entering a trancelike state, a mantra, I see only these trees. I run oblivious of the noise and confusion around me; of a Natal road under perennial reconstruction.

Finally the entrance to Moses Mabida beckons. From inside, the noise of ten thousand voices is deafening. ‘Two-oo minutes, two-oo minutes.’ I comprehend the meaning but can no longer calculate distances and times. Halfway round the field, in unison, the crowd informs me that now only one minute remains. I rumble on, cursing that my victory lap has to be run in such an undignified race against the clock. Then I see the finishing line. On the left, a haggard group of runners. On the right, pacing expectantly like Gary Cooper at High Noon in Dodge City, is the elegant figure of Mick Winn, the race organizer.

Later, from the warm comfort of the Mabida turf, when a measure of physiological normality has returned, secure in the knowledge that the last step has been taken, I know again why it is all necessary; what common bond unites all Comrades. Skill, you see, is not our requirement, nor has our race anything to do with winning and losing. These are the spoils of other, lesser games unable to transport you to the places we have been; we who have accompanied Hertzog to the summit of our own Annapurna: ‘For us the mountains had been a natural field of activity where, playing on the frontiers of life and death, we had found the freedom for which we were blindly groping.

The mountains had bestowed on us their beauties and we adored them with a child’s simplicity. Annapurna, to which we had gone empty-handed, was a treasure on which we should live the rest of our days. With this realisation we turn the page: a new life begins. There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men’ (Hertzog, 1952).

Indeed…The only common bond that links all Comrades runners is the need to look for the mountains in life. To take the paths less travelled, to go against the common stream, to search for the unattainable. Finally to accept we have no option – our nature and our way of life is our fate. And that which we call our fate is but our disposition. In this truth I find the fertile seeds of redemption. These seeds settle into the deeper loam that lies beneath the inconvenient and uncomfortable chatter of social shallowness. They come to rest in a place where honour, commitment and integrity takes root.

And so I have no choice, but to follow my fate. At the end of May sometime between 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. you will find me in mind, if not in body somewhere on the Old Main Road between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. I am secure in the knowledge that I will find my redemption there and I will defeat the coward within. And then finally I can commence the hero’s life.