We’re getting towards the beginning of August and that means in just a month’s time entries for Comrades 2019 will open and if we look at the speed at which entries were snapped up for 2018 I have no doubt the same thing is going to happen again for next year albeit an up run which, incidentally, I have always preferred.
This means that a tremendous number of novices, fired up by Comrades 2018, will, in all probability, be giving serious thought to tackling the road between Durban and Pietermaritzburg on the 9th of June 2019
I’ve been around Comrades a very long time. In fact, I’ve been around Comrades longer than most people have and I have often been asked “Why run it because it can’t be good for you.”
I know one chap who won’t run it for that very reason. He feels that he would rather give Comrades a miss than risk any sort of permanent damage to himself. I feel very sorry for him because of what he’s missing but that’s the decision he’s made and I would never try to change his mind. He’s of the opinion that Comrades is simply a race to see who can get to the finish in the fastest time and is not really any different to any other race.
It’s so very much more than that. Only 51 men have been able to win this race but many more have tried to do so and failed but it’s not the winners I want to talk about.
It’s the ordinary runner. The person who has perhaps watched it on TV for the last number of years and has finally taken the decision to run Comrades and earn that prized medal. Comrades is, however, much, much more than just that very precious medal but make no mistake, it is a very precious medal. Small in size but massive in meaning.
Let me try to explain.
I have a couple of permanent injuries because I ran all those Comrades all those years ago in shoes that one could hardly call ideal but I have often said to people that had I been told when I was 21, and I was about to run my first Comrades that when I reached 70, I would be suffering from a very bad back and very bad knees because of those Comrades, I would still have run the fourteen I ran, because Comrades gave me so much more than it ever took away from me and it did that in so many different ways, not only in the running world but in life in general.
Allow me to give you just a few examples of the things Comrades can offer you for the taking and all you have to do is to realise that they are there and take them and use them.
There’s the old saying that Comrades isn’t easy because if it was, then everyone would do it, but it’s not easy and this is confirmed by that very small overall number of people who have done it since it was first run in 1921.
We’re not sure of the exact number who have run Comrades since it started but we guess between 150,000 and 200,000 but as a percentage of people from the eligible age and health group in a country that now has 57 million people of whom probably at least 15 million are in the right age and health group to take part, it is pretty small percentage.
In fact it wasn’t until around 2000 that the numbers actually picked up when the race organisers increased the time limit to 12 hours making it that much more accessible to many more people who might otherwise not have attempted it, have the numbers increased in any significant way.
There are other factors that come into play obviously, such as the restriction on the number of entries that the narrow “old road” can safely handle as well as the facilities at both ends of the race. Imagine an entry the size of one of the major overseas city marathons trying to fit onto the road through Drummond!
Then there’s this inexplicable thing of why it is that so many of us go back and run it again and again and if you ask anyone who has run more than once, why they’ve done so, you’ll get a variety of answers many of which don’t really make a lot of sense.
Many years ago I sat down and something came to me and I put it down and when Comrades themselves saw it they even used part of it on their banners for the 1999 race and on the front of the runners’ T shirts that year and the “verse” they chose to use from what some people called a poem, was
It’s something that changes lives forever
and makes those who do it different
Not only to others but to themselves.
It takes ordinary people who struggle to achieve mediocrity
and allows others to look up to them in awe.
What I was getting at in the verse I quoted above when I said that Comrades takes ordinary people and allows others to look up to them in awe is seen in the reaction of non-runners who find out that you have run Comrades. It takes ordinary people who are no more than mediocre in most things they do in life and allows them to move beyond that mediocrity somehow. They are suddenly seen in a different light.
It certainly did that for me and people still look at me in awe when they find out how many I ran – and I only ran 14 of them. That’s nothing compared to some people.
The other thing I have always found amazing and I recently had a huge disagreement with the same non-Comrades runner I’ve mentioned, who regards Comrades as he does any other road race, about this because he simply couldn’t understand it, was that people very seldom ask me what my Comrades times were, but are far more interested in the number I’ve run and the response to that is then “WOW”.
To the ordinary public, Comrades times don’t mean a lot. The number of times you’ve run Comrades means a huge amount! To the ordinary South African there’s a kind of magic associated with Comrades. A magic that’s difficult, if not impossible, to explain to someone like my non-Comrades running friend.
Comrades is more than simply a road race between two of KZN’s cities. It’s a lesson about life and if you come away from Comrades having learnt nothing then it’s best to have a good hard look at yourself because you’re missing something important.
One of the many things it taught me is that sometimes we throw away the opportunity to do things better than we actually end up doing them.
My final Comrades in 1987 was a fairly hot day, and at the time I didn’t know it was my final Comrades as the injury that eventually stopped me from running hadn’t made itself known at that stage. It did very shortly after that and before I had the chance to run my 15th.
On that Comrades morning I stood at the start line prepared to run under 9 hours. I had run under 9 hours a couple of times before and close to it a further few times so I knew I was capable of doing it and I had trained to do it again but when I realised how hot it was and how hot it was going to be my attitude was “I couldn’t be bothered” and I ran to a very sociable 10:14 and that was way slower than the limit of my ability and I knew it was.
In hindsight it was NOT the right thing to have done and I still regret it over 30 years later when I stupidly decided to run my sub 9 “next year” but “next year” never came because the permanent injury and the end of my running came instead.
I should have aimed for it because I could have done it had I tried – if only I had tried but now it’s too late. How many of us do things like that? Not only in our running but with many other things in life.
We don’t give it our all “because we couldn’t be bothered” just as I had done on that Comrades morning in 1987 and we never get the opportunity again. That’s very sad and even worse when we can look back and realise that we have done it to ourselves.
It was after that 1987 Comrades that I messed up because of my “couldn’t be bothered” attitude that I was most successful in business and other things I tried. There was no way I was going to adopt that attitude again and lose any more opportunities in life!
Just one thing of many things Comrades taught me.
Back to my original question though. Why do people run Comrades? Is it a challenge? It’s certainly that without any doubt and with the time limit having been increased to 12 hours instead of the old 11 hour limit, this has made the challenge a bit more accessible to a lot more people.
Does this mean that it’s a lot easier?
Not at all. It’s just a lot more accessible to a lot more people. Durban and Pietermaritzburg are still where they have always been and on the Down Run this year the total distance was a touch over 90km and the third longest Comrades ever, so it was certainly a challenge.
To cover 90km on foot in under 12 hours is a challenge make no mistake. It’s a huge physical challenge to the ordinary person but what is probably an even bigger challenge is the mental aspect of it all. When you’re out there on the road on Comrades day it’s just you and the road to the finish and you get the opportunity to prove to yourself exactly what you’re made of and that’s another thing Comrades taught me. I learnt not to give up on something I had started and that was something that was to stand me in good stead in ventures in later years.
The runners up at the front are in a race against other runners but those further back are in a race against themselves or against the clock. If you’re in your personal race against the clock, very few people actually care what time you run. Will I do this? Can I do this? People are more interested in whether you finished rather than the time in which you finished. To a non-runner your time doesn’t mean much and other runners are more interested in their own times than they are in your time.
When you are on that stretch of road still some distance from the finish and every part of your body is screaming for you to stop and your legs are aching and your head is telling you that you can’t actually go on but you know that you must go on because you need to do this that’s when you learn about yourself and those words were never more real.
It’s something that changes lives forever
and makes those who do it different
Not only to others but to themselves.
That’s why you run Comrades.
3 thoughts on “WHY RUN COMRADES? :”
A wonderful life time Lesson!
It is indeed Mervyn and I feel honoured and privileged to have been and to still be part of it.
What South African’s do not understand is how unique an event the Comrades is. Look at the numbers that turn out for today’s Comrades and many others miss out. If you attempted today in many countries to start a 90 km event and get citizens begging to enter and have a cut off time in a Marathon just to start, the city council would laugh at you. Yes, in 15 kms fun runs you get the numbers, but a 90 km event, no way, even get TV coverage of the Comrades, and people admire you for just finishing. You have got to be joking.
I ran for ten years in South Africa from 1964-1973 and ten years in Australia, Perth, West Australia, Adelaide and Melbourne, mainly ultras. I was a organiser of 100 mile races on 1 km grass tracks and Multiday-day running races. Yet here in Perth for example, the State Governments are creating combined cycling and running tracks to get people fit. They sponsor cycling events and fun runs, to encourage people to get fit to combat the mass of young tubby people wandering around.
I myself am now a racing cyclist, it is something that took the place of running as I achieved all I wanted to, but gives me the same satisfaction, Therefore, I am the type of person the government wants. I started in my early 60’s I am now 72, and when fit very fast. People are amazed at my state of fitness and almost faint when I tell them my age. I was in a 80 km cycling event and mentioned this fact to a fellow South African and he almost fell off his bike. Yet in South Africa it is normal to have over 65’s finish the Comrades, here in Perth, there are only a few of us older riders.
The point is Perth and Australia would do anything to have a popular event like the Comrades, which encourage the ordinary Joe that they can actually finish the event. South Africa does not know how lucky they are.
I never had any leg troubles as I was and still am thin and picked my running races, yet many of the chaps I ran with in Perth did and retired from the sport. I took up cycling with the same zest I did with running. I was a natural at long distance running and I am in cycling, but I do not do it to keep fit, or thin, or the usual reasons.
For me it is a way of life, a form of meditation, of living for the moment, not in the past, or the future, just there.The sense of actually achieving something which creates a sense of positiveness. Of not seeing difficulties, but an opportunity, the knowledge of self, insight into what you are about, a form of peace.Thus heaven is not some vague place but in yourself, so no Guru or religion can help you find your truth. A place beyond words, that cannot be expressed. This is what running or cycling can do for you. Therefore in South Africa, they have the Comrades marathon, which is a goal to aim for, and once you have achieved it, what you dreamed of in your working life might become possible.