Run Comrades, run: The poor, abused marathon

2012-04-06 08:41

South Africans have ruined the marathon.

Maybe the Comrades should be blamed for this.

 For whereas in “civilised” countries like America and the UK the word “marathon” mostly means 42.2km, we call anything from a 10km race to a near 90km race, and more, a marathon.

That’s in any case the term I heard thrown around by perfectly informed people before doing the Nike 10km dash through Joburg. Maybe it just felt like a marathon to the poor souls.

See, America has the New York and Boston marathons (and by these I mean the standard 42km distance) as extreme bastions of the running calendar.

The UK has London and France has Paris.

And so it goes on.

 But in South Africa, to gain the equivalent admiration a Pommie would for running the mere 42.2km in London, we have to slog it all the way between Durban and Pietermaritzburg – a distance of about 85km to 87km. And we call it a marathon.

For those who are not quite as mad, or who live in Cape Town and don’t want to venture beyond the mountains, there is the Two Oceans. It’s called a marathon, but at 56km it really is an ultra because it’s 13.8km longer than a standard marathon and roughly 35km beyond what I consider a fun distance to run. We shall see tomorrow. I’ve supposedly entered for the race.

First, more about the word “marathon”. It’s a Greek town towards which a messenger in the ancient times ran to deliver a missive before he dropped dead. The distance which caused his premature expiration? 42.2km.

A marathon is to 42.2km what a dozen is to 12. Anything more and it’s an ultra. Anything less, and you call it by its number, unless it’s 21.1km, in which case it is, you guessed it, a half marathon.

As Comrades runners are piling the miles on their legs in the final two months before the big one, and as we polish off the marathons and the ultras, I’m reminded of the time when I trained for my first marathon.

It was 12 years ago for Paris, which happens around the same time as London, for which I couldn’t get an entry. I was living in London at the time and the hype was huge.

I trained hard, I tapered hard, I carbo loaded with fine French supermarket cuisine (I’ve always been a stingy traveller) a day or two ahead of the race.

I didn’t go to any museums in order to conserve my feet. As beginner’s luck would have it, I ran what is still my personal best.

I can’t remember how long I rested after the marathon, but I do remember imagining shortly after that I was half-dead and very special.

But training for the Comrades, a marathon now seems like an easy training session. Well, not exactly, but the Two Oceans will be my second ultra-marathon in less than a month, and it’s probably the same for the thousands of people who will also be treating tomorrow’s run as a Comrades training run.

They’ll hardly rest much after, as is conventional wisdom after a race.

Many of them are likely to fit in another marathon or two, or a 50km, before May, when the training programmes ease off a bit to rest for the Comrades.

Now this may all sound gung ho and easy, but 45km into tomorrow’s race me, and about 9 000 others, are bound to be convinced that we’re dead and will ask ourselves why we do it.

By the time we cross the finish line, we’d have forgotten this question.

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