It Can Be A Lonely Road to Comrades

At 3.30am on Saturday 23 March, while you were sleeping, I was on my way to eMalahleni in Mpumalanga. I love the name eMalahleni because it’s the newer name of the municipality previously known at Witbank. So essentially, it went from White Ridge to Place of the Black. Pretty funny, don’t you think? I think it’s named place of the black now, not for poetic justice reasons, but because of the black dust that is to be seen everywhere as a result of the coal-rich soil that prevails in that part of the country.  What I didn’t realise was that I would be making that black dust part of my person later in the day as I breathed it into my lungs and as it stuck to my sweating legs.  The race – Xstrata Impilo Wellness 3-in-1 was a 10km, 21.1km and double lapper 42.2km around the block of a coal mine. Yes, in those parts, a run around the block takes on a whole new meaning! “The block” as it were, started at the back gate of the Tweefontein Golf Course and stretched for 5km at a time in front of you. We travelled in an anti-clockwise direction with the traffic behind us, so that was a bit unpleasant to begin with as large trucks carrying their loads of coal, blasted towards your back. The water tables were phenomenal and had loads of interesting things to occupy your mind as you went through them. I met a nice young woman at the start (the race started 10 minutes late). She was from Anglo running club. What an amazing story she told me. She missed Comrades cut off last year by 3 minutes and now she’s back fitter than ever and ready to finish her first Comrades. While out on a training run on 24 December 2011, she was raped. Still, she went back to running and ran her first Comrades last year, just 6 months after that dreadful ordeal. And even though she didn’t make the cut off, she didn’t give up. What an inspiration. She was much faster than me and, when I wanted to walk at my usual pathetic 2km mark, she sped ahead. I stayed with the pack for about another 5km and then the field thinned out. It was getting hot and the scenery was dull and grey. Seriously, there was nothing to see and there were 3 patches of trees along the way. Hot and dull. I spoke to a lady at about 15km, but she too sped off. It certainly looked like speeding compared to my pace. I was quite close to the back of the field by now and I was hot and tired and lonely and again, that overwhelming desire to give up began to creep over me like a dark summer afternoon cloud.

At the water point at about 14km an Adam Lambert song was belting out of the speaker in front of the plastic blow up rhino and it made me cry. “What do you want from me?” I just didn’t understand. Why was I doing this? Why was I running? Why do I run? Why don’t I give up? I want to give up. I always want to give up. Lots of times I do give up. Why couldn’t I just do that now? Whatever it was, I knew that I could give up in just 7km and be finished for the day. 21km isn’t too shabby so I’d just give up. I was close to last and so another 21km wouldn’t be possible with a cut off time of 5:30. At this point, however, I had run a 32min 5km, a personal best 10km and a personal best 15km and I was on my way to run a personal best 21km. Did I want to give up on finishing my first official marathon when I was clearly doing so well?  I thought about it many times on that 7km journey. It was getting hot. I knew I was almost last and I was running with 21km runners….if i started on a 2nd round at this point, I would have, without a doubt have been last. Did I want to come last? Oh my word! I never come last. How humiliating. How awful to know that everyone wanted to go home, but that they’d be stuck there waiting for me to finish if I started another round of this marathon. And what about my objective of not dying and not coming last? Holy cow! What if I died doing that flipping second round and what if I came last? What if I came last? What if I came last? Yes, Brenda, what if you do come last? What will that feel like? What it will be, Missy, is a little humbling. You could probably do with a little humbling.

The marathon winners weren’t very fast. They came breezing past me as I approached the 21km mark in about 2:20. That’s not very fast for a Comrades qualifier, I thought. Although the winners were slow in comparison, the overall field was quite fast, clearly lots of people trying to qualify. The field was very small, probably no more than 600 people. As I came to the finish of the 21km, I asked the marshal if I was too late to go again and he said “Why don’t you just try?” so I did. And then at every marshalling point, at every water point and at various other points, I cried like a stupid baby because I wanted to give up every time I saw another person. I was alone and lonely. I am always alone and I never feel lonely because at least I have prayer. But now I felt like even God had gone and was somewhere kilometres ahead of me. At the first watering point at about 25km, I took my water and coke, thanked everyone for waiting for me and started to cry behind my glasses. I was so slow and so feeble. My knees hurt and I wanted to give up, but something, someone wasn’t letting me. That Adam Lambert song raged on in my head. “What do you want from me?” Then I looked to my right and there was a fat, colourful man from the watering point running next to me with a boerewors roll in his hand. He just ran next to me and then looked surprised. “Are you crying? Why are you crying?” he asked. “Because I want to give up and I can’t!” I bawled at him. “And you mustn’t give up. You must just zama. Just zama! Okay? Just zama!” I nodded my head because that was all I was doing here, was just zama’ing! He left me and I kept on trying.

Mr Zama's water point. The water points on this race were legendary!

Mr Zama’s water point. The water points on this race were legendary!

About 2.5km ahead of me on a long, gradual uphill, I could see another human. That was my angel. I knew that person was on the same journey as me. He probably also didn’t want to come last. He probably also had sore knees and he probably also cried every time he saw another human being. At 28 km I thought, only 15km to go. I can run 15km.  It isn’t that far. I was getting slower and the heat was burning me. My back was starting to ache and my fingers were swelling, a sure sign I was starting to dehydrate, but I kept on like Mr Zama had told me. I could feel the packing-up going on around me and I felt guilty every time I came to a water point or a marshal point because i knew everyone was waiting for me. They had been in the blazing heat since early in the morning and I felt guilty that I was greedy and wanted to do a 42 instead of just stopping when I was at 21 or 23 or 25 or 28 or 30. At 30km I stopped. I was done. And then I wasn’t done, I was p*ssed off because I just wanted to get home. I was hot, tired, slow, burned, dehydrated, lonely, angry, guilty, grateful, gatvol! So I ran on. I told a woman at the water point that I was probably last so they could pack up. She looked surprised. She said something I will remember forever. “You only come last if you don’t finish!” She was right. Everyone who had given up. Everyone who hadn’t zama’ed. 98% of the people in the world were behind me in that race. That thought just made me cry more. I used up an entire packet of tissues. The tissues and the sunscreen wipes were the only things I needed to have with me, but I had been stupid enough to take some dried fruit with me. I’m sure that was what led to my sore back. It’s amazing how an extra 200g can throw you off balance and stuff up your back.

I was very sore. At 4.5km to go, the marshal told me, only 4.5km to go. He may as well have said only 180km to go. I was so sore and tired and depleted. Even the next two steps were more than I thought I could manage. But the Adam Lambert song was fading. All I could hear now was Sphonono’s story of how she came back from rape to run Comrades and Mr Zama and the lady who told me that I only come last if I don’t finish. My angel was still in front of me and he was in a lot more pain than I was. I knew that because I had closed the gap from 2.5km to just 150m. When he walked, I ran. When he ran, I was walking. But he was my angel. I knew that while he wasn’t giving up, we were still okay and we were still not coming last. Everyone’s generosity of spirit and kind patient waiting for me overwhelmed me and I cried. An ambulance stalked me like a vulture at one stage until I turned to them and told them, “Unless you have a new pair of legs in there, you cannot help me, so you may as well move along.” Every truck that flew past just centimetres from my back left in its wake, a cooling blast of air and I welcomed them with some fear and some excitement.

And then it was there. The sand road into the finish. I had made it. And I’d made it in 5:55. My personal best marathon. And I wasn’t last. Okay, I was last, but I was in front of all those others….Actually, on the day, I wasn’t last, but the woman who came in last had run a 12-hour race the day before and a marathon the day before that. The fact that she hadn’t died, meant she deserved a spot in front of me! Lol! Everyone was waiting for me at the finish. Sphonono, Mr Zama and the lady. They embraced me and congratulated me like I’d won the flipping race. I hadn’t won that race, but what I had won, was a medal to officially put me in the ranks of those who have run a marathon in their lives. I never saw my angel again. He just disappeared. I may have imagined him.

I’m not sure I see Comrades in my near future. I can’t do that twice in one day. I’m not even convinced I can do that again. I’ll probably try to stay away from a double-lapper for the time being. Muscles are all good. Back’s still a bit sore, but it’s to be expected. I ran further than 98% of the people in the world will ever run.

All distances take us on the same journey. Good luck on yours. My wish for you is angels like Sphonono, Mr Zama the Finishing Lady and my angel. We are nothing without them.

Lots of love


Thanks Shaun Horsepower for the always beautiful action shots!


2 thoughts on “It Can Be A Lonely Road to Comrades

  1. Always a pleasure Brenda,…I have photo records of all the races I’ve attened since 2010. Enjoy the trip down memory lane. 🙂

  2. Pingback: My Hope for Kaapsehoop | Slow Coach

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