A final word on Comrades

2014-06-06 00:00

COMRADES is over for another year, laid to rest for a while at least, before the ball starts rolling full circle once more.

Last Sunday’s spectacle was just that, another big day on the road between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, for top runners, the back-markers and spectators.

This is a day when the runners take precedence and from the support and coverage by the media, the race is an important institution in the province, growing from strength to strength.

Being at the finish at Kingsmead Cricket Stadium brings a day filled with emotion. Arriving early to get a decent parking and get settled in the press room was a wise move, allowing time to take in the atmosphere and take into account the mountain of work associated with setting up the venue for the day.

Volunteer staff work around the clock for three weeks getting it all rigged up and looking out across the hallowed cricket turf with a few officials and eager spectators milling around, it’s like waiting for a sleeping giant to arise.

There is calm over the ground, tinged with excitement and expectation knowing that in a few more hours, the venue will come to life with music and screams of excitement as the winner of the gruelling race arrives to breast the tape.

It’s quite surreal to realise that while the stadium awakens, a bunch of pedigreed athletes are going hammer and tongs on the road, vying for pole position and the Comrades title.

When Bongmusa Mthembu broke away and headed for glory and a life-changing experience, the adrenaline started to bring life to Kingsmead.

It started filling up as people flocked in to cheer him home and be there for that moment when he crossed the line. An announcer’s voice boomed through the stadium and beyond and the big screen on the electronic scoreboard told us he was getting closer.

Hardly anyone knew Mthembu but the stadium stood and roared as one to bring him home and see him claim the biggest moment of his life.

It was an indication of how passionate we are about Comrades and better still, how proud we were to welcome home a South African winner. The Comrades belongs to us and the foreign domination went on far too long. People were more than chuffed that for the first time in many a long year, the Comrades up and down run was ours, the titles owned by South African runners as the foreign challenge was quelled.

As the next nine runners arrived to close out the top 10 and thus the gold medallists, the crowd continued to spur them on and applaud them for what they had achieved. It’s a knowledgable crowd that watches Comrades and they know all too well what goes into preparing for the race and what it takes to knock off nearly 90 kilometres between KZN’s most prominent cities.

Women’s winner Eleanor Greenwood received a welcome big enough to tremble the foundations, such was the joy at seeing a new champion as she relegated the Nurgalieva twins to lower positions on the podium.

But the heart and soul of the race unfolds as the day wears on, as the sun starts casting shadows across the stadium, signalling the end of a long day.

Once the above-average runners have earned their silver and Bill Rowan medals for seven-and-a-half- to nine-hour runs, the real characters start arriving. These are the folks who run Comrades because they want to achieve something. It’s their dream, their life’s ambition, their reward for all the hours they have sacrificed. Time means nothing, as long as the 12-hour gun signalling the end of the race is beaten. This is where the characters and stories of the race are found. For some, it’s a once-off achievement, that medal more than enough testimony to their conquest.

But, surprisingly, the vast majority return to do it all again next year and beyond. Ask them why and they all say that it’s the spirit of Comrades; something that has to be done.

For the average Joe watching, it seems beyond logic that those who are hobbling, walking, stopping for leg rubs — just struggling in general — want to continue. Is that medal so important?

Truth is, every medal, regardless of what it is, is worth it’s weight in gold. It has a certain lure, like a drug, where people want more. Why else would Dave Rogers have attempted to earn his 46th medal, the clock forcing him to call it quits at Cowies Hill? Surely he has enough to show for his Comrades efforts but no, despite his disappointment, he says the DNA of the race is in his blood and 2015 looms as another possibility.

Dave Williams, Dave Louw, Gary Holland, Alan Robb — just some of the legends who have 40 or more medals to their name — keep coming back.

For those who have not run the race, it’s a misnomer as to why, but just one taste of the race, one medal, makes the soul thirst for much more.

This year, 14 620 runners started the race and 11 984 finished. On the day, nearly 800 received medical treatment at the finish, with 362 treated in the main medical tent. More than 400 received rubdowns at the finish and 60 were sent to St Augustine’s Hospital. Of these, 14 were referred to Umhlanga Hospital.

That’s not pretty reading, but most, if not all these folks, will be on the start line next year, determined to fare better. That’s human nature. Improvement is infinite and there is always room for a better time, a better run. That’s why the Comrades has lasted 89 years and next year’s 90th run is guaranteed to stir more souls as they make the journey from mere mortal to immortal just for that one day in the year — Comrades Day.

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