‘Finishing’ Comrades is a huge achievement

2013-05-28 00:00

THE Pietermaritzburg cricket oval is currently being transformed into a village of tents, fencing, signage and scaffolding. Portable toilets stand in groups around the ground and at regular intervals, huge trucks arrive to off-load food, drinks and other commodities.

It’s all in preparation for the finish of Sunday’s Comrades Marathon, an undertaking that makes running the race seem like a walk in the park.

Jeff Minnaar is in charge of ensuring the venue caters for everyone’s needs come race day. His love for Comrades — although he only ran one race, in 1978, finishing in 10:18 — has seen him involved in the race for 42 years and he returns every year, as a volunteer, to add immense value to an iconic event.

While talking to Jeff there are phone calls and people wishing to see him, with questions fired from all sides. “Where do these toilets go? The carpet at the finish is too long. Has that leak on the far side, near the runners’ entrance been fixed? Get onto the mayor and the electricity department to fix the streetlights around the stadium …”, it’s a fascinating story unfolding before your eyes.

Said Minnaar: “We are the A-Team. Like the television series, we are here to help and do what is good for the race. ‘A’ stands for assistance and we help each other wherever we can, from putting up signage to banging in tent pegs.”

Minnaar has a team of five to 15 casual workers and the rest, about 96 people, are volunteers.

“It’s incredible how people respond and give of their time for Comrades. This past weekend, we had between 70 and 100 people working and all they have to show for their work is two T-shirts and a hat. On race day, they get a cap and a shirt, plus they get meals while they work,” he said.

On race day, the same team is in action, assisting with security and whatever needs to be done. At 1 pm on Saturday, the day before the race, all is done and more than half of the team is then transported in minibuses to Durban, where they assist with building the facilities for the start. They finish between 6 pm and 7 pm and meet back at the oval at 1.30 am, returning to Durban to assist with marshalling at the start. Then it’s back to the finish to work all day, finishing at about 6.45 pm.

A handful of casuals and volunteers return on Monday to start breaking everything down. All is cleaned up by Thursday.

The finish in Pietermaritzburg requires more work than in Durban. There is more space as the mayor’s garden is used and Minnaar and his team moved in from May 13, when they started building the finish.

“It takes two weeks and two full weekends, plus the day before the race, to be in shape. This year we started a week earlier due to Cars in the Park, starting with perimeter work. Each year, in mid April, I do a mock layout, marking everything and making sure everything fits,” said Minnaar.

The team’s biggest challenge came in 2009, when South Africa hosted the IPL and a semi-final at Kingsmead finished a few days before the down run.

Said Minnaar: “We built the finish in three days and one night and dismantled it in two-and-a-half days. The cricket finished at 9 pm on Wednesday of that week and we worked day and night, the first shift being 45 hours.

“The floodlights were on permanently and we actually had to look upwards to see if it was day or night. Once we started, we had shifts of 10 hours on and eight off …”

It’s an undertaking all on its own, yet it’s done by people who are willing to give of their time to ensure the race runs smoothly and moves forward with the times.

When crossing the line at the finish of Comrades, spare a thought for those who have been running a marathon of their own for more than two weeks to ensure it’s a day to remember for each athlete.

Finish stats: 190 toilets, 90 tents from 3m x 3m to 35 m x 25 m, 2 600 chairs, 250 trestle tables, 330 security personnel, 200 stretcher bearers, 4 600 m of fencing from the mayor’s garden to the finish, up to 10 km of electrical cable, 11 scaffolding structures, four bridges, 130 cold showers, 800 litter bins, 164 directional signboards in and around the stadium, 90 medical interns, a tented hospital with a fully equipped ICU unit, and Minnaar walks seven to eight kilometres around the venue daily.

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