What exactly is the Comrades Marathon?  No! I’m not talking about the foot race that Vic Clapham battled against the odds and the authorities to get going in 1921 and at which 34 people eventually lined up and 16 finished on that morning in May 1921.

I’m not talking about the race where a bunch of very fast runners take off from the start once a year to try to get to the finish just short of 90km away in as fast a time as possible.

I’m talking about the real Comrades Marathon.  That special something that has happened for 92 years since 1921 and has attracted thousands of people who come and run either from Durban to Pietermaritzburg or from Pietermaritzburg to Durban depending on the direction the race is being held that particular year.

I’m not only talking about the thousands of people who take part in the challenge the race offers to those who take part in this extraordinary footrace that has been called the “Ultimate Human Race” but those countless thousands who line the route year after year to watch the race so that they can simply say “I watched Comrades again this year” or “I haven’t missed Comrades on TV for the last 20 years” or however long it has been.

In my own case I have been at 59 Comrades Marathons, my first as a boy of 9 at the side of the road in Pinetown for the 1956 race when Gerald Walsh was the winner and there were under 100 runners and with the exception of just three races, I have been at every Comrades since then.  People have long since stopped asking me “Why?” and instead it’s not even a question any longer but instead a statement “I guess you’ll be at Comrades again this year” because they don’t have to ask.  They just know!

Why is it?  It’s a question that I’m not able to answer.  What was it that attracted me to Comrades in 1956 and kept pulling me back year after year until I ran my first one in 1968 and then after I have run my 10 had me going back for more and more and still more as a radio journalist, the stadium announcer and eventually back to where it all started – as a spectator.  Then not satisfied with that I started writing about it in this blog.

I look at the new runners and it makes me extremely pleased to see so many who are taking up the challenge that my beloved strip of tarmac between Durban and Pietermaritzburg has to offer. 

A lot of the older runners will say that it’s a lot easier now that there is a 12 hour time limit but there are still 90 odd kilometres that have to be covered and that is still a long way and the fact that the organisers have given 12 hours now gives more people the chance to do the Ultimate Human Race who might not otherwise have done it and that’s a very good thing I would have thought.

There’s nothing in the rule book after all that says a runner has to use the full 12 hours.  You can still set your own target of whatever time you want and if I were still able to run (which sadly I’m not) I would certainly be doing that and looking to be running the times I was running back then – not that my aged knees would allow it but one can dream can’t one?

When I ran my first one and right now that’s the one I want to talk about, I had 11 hours in which to finish it but whether it was the 11 hour time limit as it was then or whether it had been the 12 hour limit as it is now I don’t think it would really have mattered. 

I wanted that medal and I wanted it so badly. I wanted to add my name to those others whose names were there whether they had been amongst the winners like Newton or Hayward, Ballington, Mekler, and Walsh and I knew I had no chance of being amongst them in terms of the times I could run but that didn’t matter or whether my name would be amongst the others whose names were not as well known but were there, listed as finishers and who would be known to only their families and friends but who would be there as a Comrades finisher, I wanted desperately to be one of them. One of those who would be a hero to me.

That is what so many over the years have wanted and that is what so many still want and what the organisers, by extending the time limit, have given to so many more who might not otherwise have been able to experience this.

So you have 12 hours to make this dream come true of running in the Comrades and becoming a finisher and achieving your own personal goal.  It’s only the top few who are in a race. The rest of us are out there on Comrades day taking part in a glorious “happening” that nobody can fully explain in full no matter how hard we try.

You simply can’t explain to anyone why you would want to spend months preparing to spend a full day travelling on foot over very nearly 90km when you know that you are going to be sore and in fact very sore at the end of it and in return you are going to be presented with a very small medal as a material reward. 

What you can’t explain to a person who has never run Comrades is the reward you get in the way of the massive sense of achievement when you finish Comrades and it’s a feeling that never leaves you and a feeling that nobody can ever take away from you. A feeling that stays with you for the rest of your days.

There are just those of us who run Comrades but there is another group who is equally captivated by “The Ultimate Human Race”

That group who get up when it’s still dark and who go out just to watch the race.  Their skottles at the ready to make breakfast and to enjoy themselves at the side of the road. In my running days I simply couldn’t understand these people and why they would want to do this to watch a bunch of people they don’t know running past. 

Then as the years went by and I became a spectator again, I became one of those “breakfast at the side of the road on Comrades morning” people and it’s wonderful.  It just grabs you and you are drawn into the spirit of it all and you find yourself shouting encouragement at people you have never seen before and might never see again and you look at South Africa and what it’s really all about and you wish that all our politicians could be with you to see it too instead of sitting stirring it up in their plush offices that we have paid for with our hard earned taxes.

I witnessed something I haven’t seen for many years at Comrades this year and that was the mother and father of all traffic jams on the N3.  I had forgotten exactly the impact that Comrades spectators have on traffic.  Three lanes of traffic in the direction towards Pietermaritzburg going nowhere!  At a complete standstill and nobody seemed to be getting upset about it!  After all it was Comrades Day!

There is no doubt that Comrades is something very, very special but there is something missing from the lives of many of the newer runners.  Many have very little knowledge of the history of the race.

Comrades has an amazing history and runners really need to know as much as they can about the race.  I see runners struggling to get that prized Bill Rowan Medal yet many have no idea who Bill Rowan was and why the Bill Rowan Medal is awarded if a runner breaks 9 hours!  These are the sorts of things that complete the pride you might feel in having won that Bill Rowan Medal.  I twice ran a time that would have earned me a Bill Rowan Medal but both before the introduction of the medal.  How I wish I could have had those Bill Rowan medals in my collection knowing that symbolically I could have won the first Comrades on two occasions!  That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about when I say learn about the history of the race.

And that’s just one tiny little piece of it. There’s so much more.

When you are out there on Comrades Day, whether as a runner or as a spectator or one of the many helpers who gives so freely of his or her time you need to be aware that you are part of something that is really very special.

Comrades is not just another road race on the calendar!

July 2017