A marathon of mind over matter and a lesson in life

2012-05-28 00:00

THIS time next week more than 15 000 athletes will reflect on having conquered another Comrades Marathon, knocking off nearly 90 km on the road from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.

For most, it’s another notch in the stick, another accomplishment; for others, something done and dusted, never to be repeated.

Whatever the reason for putting one leg in front of the other over such an arduous distance, the aches and pains are more than worth it, not forgetting the prized medal which, although small, signifies huge heart, commitment and grit.

A journey of mind over matter, from the early morning cold and darkness to the final straight and the finish line, the Comrades is a day of emotion. No matter how you get to the finish, the sense of achievement is something only those who have completed the run understand.

You cannot see the runners clearly in the early morning darkness, but the nervousness is evident. Last-minute stretching, a quick leg rub, a sip of energy drink — they are not going to make the run easier. It’s all down to the body and mind working together, remaining positive and moving toward the finish line.

Blinding spotlights, body heat and the vapour of muscle ointments hang over the start. Vangelis’s Chariots of Fire clears the cobwebs, and the starting gun, heard only by those near the front, sets the great slumbering snake of athletes in motion. Spirits are high, the air is cool and the day has started.

Once they’re into a rhythm, life on the road feels good and invigorating. Groups of runners keep you warm, the sun peeps over the hills and the large kilometre boards pass by at regular, comfortable intervals.

As the sun climbs higher and the road winds deeper into the farmlands, the smell of nature, tilled soil and chicken farms fills the nostrils. Cows lazily turn for an instant to see what the fuss is about, content to continue grazing.

Closer to some of the bigger towns, the smell of bacon and eggs wafts down the line, but for the runners this is no time to dwell on delicacies.

The sun gets stronger as the runners weaken. Laughter and banter are scarce and even acknowledging support with a slight wave is valuable energy wasted. Reaching the halfway mark at Drummond lifts the spirits. Hundreds of people are lining the road and there’s a welcome cold shower to refresh you for the second half of the run.

On the down run the second stretch is not so lonely because Botha’s Hill, Hillcrest, Kloof, Pinetown, Westville, Cowies Hill, 45th Cutting and Berea Road are spectator hotspots, with diehard supporters waiting until the last runner is through, urging you on to your personal goal. Smoke, beer, braais, banners, music, sweets, fruit, even potatoes are offered — any nourishment to keep those muscles pumping and juices going. Kilometres-to-go boards become a curse, walking is tempting option and the mind starts questioning why this was done in the first place and what the purpose of it is.

Suddenly kilometre boards reflect single figures, Durban’s high-rise buildings are in sight and the only enemy is the clock. Then it falls into place. Why it is worth it? As you get closer and closer, people are shouting, cheering, running with you, fellow athletes are pulling you through. Steel railings spring up next to the road, you hear voices and thudding music. Sahara Stadium Kingsmead is ahead. You are on the grass, absolute heaven after the hard, hot tar and all you hear is people shouting from the scaffold bridges and the announcer counting down the time.

A corner is turned and it’s a straight trot to the finish. Who cares about the time, the blisters, the screaming muscles? The taste of victory overwhelms everything and makes you realise what has been accomplished. It’s a lesson in life and well worth doing again. Clutching that medal gives resolve to do it again. That’s the Comrades — the Ultimate Human Race.

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