One foot in front of the other, no matter how slow and on we go …

2014-05-30 00:00

COMRADES is the buzz word in the province right now as the hours count down in anticipation of Sunday’s 89th running of the iconic event.

Overseas athletes and hundreds from outside KwaZulu-Natal have descended on Durban; some seasoned campaigners just looking forward to another long run, others with knots in their stomachs as they ponder what has made them want to footslog 89 km between Pietermaritzburg and Durban.

It’s a day enjoyed by thousands of spectators, television viewers and yes, believe it or not, runners on the road. Yes, it’s a long way, it’s something the body is not quite used to, but there is also an element of having a good time, making the most of the day and ensuring it works out the way it should.

As a small boy watching the runners come through Pinetown, there was a sense of amazement that these people could actually run so far and spend so many hours on the road. In my mind, they were close to superheroes with a touch of invincibility about them.

Asking Dad what had to be done to be able to do such a feat, the usual answer was what was applied to most things in life, “Hard work and sacrifice”.

As the years rolled by, the idea of having a go, at least once, and being part of the race, became more appealing.

At high school, while most young teenagers had posters of their favourite rock group or beach babes in bikinis, I found maps of the Comrades route and pictures of Fordyce breasting the tape far more inspirational.

A letter to the Comrades Association resulted in being informed I had to be 18, I think (this has now been changed to 20) to enter and they looked forward to welcoming me to the fold when I decided to give it a go.

The years went by and the opportunity to join a running club was eagerly taken, with the focus of running Comrades suddenly much closer and within touching distance.

Regular running, some decent standard marathon times and the huge step of faith was taken — it was time to give this race a bash.

Driving between Durban and Pietermaritzburg it seemed impossible to take on such a distance and cynical friends and family made sure they put in their two cents worth, saying they would be on hand to scrape me off the road when I collapsed and there was no way I would ever make it.

That was encouragement in itself. As with all Comrades runners, a steely resolve was born in the soul and a flame of fierce determination burned, a driving force to meet a challenge and prove a point.

Pre-Comrades hype reared its ugly head as any piece of information from anybody was eagerly devoured, all in the hope of making the journey somewhat easier and painless.

When the day arrived — the 1990 up run — the adrenaline rush standing at the start and realising you are finally part of the great race was one never to be repeated. There was no turning back and when the gun sounded and the mass of people snailed forward, thoughts were on whether the end would be reached in time, with 11 hours the cut-off then.

Those 11 hours seemed way too much time for a cocky novice but the day was young and many hours had still to pass.

As part of listening to so-called advice, the idea was to run slowly and for as far as possible before giving in to walking. Also, which proved rather foolhardy on later reflection, a plastic water bottle with some “magic” potion was clutched in one hand; that bottle eventually discarded as it started feeling like a brick as the kilometres rolled by.

Some runners were already walking as we streamed out of Durban and seeing this gave a great boost, a false hope that I was in better shape and these poor souls had not prepared enough.

As it turned out, long before halfway, going up Field’s Hill, the legs started complaining a little. A brief stop to walk a few steps at a water table felt like heaven, but the delight was soon cut to shreds when a massive signboard informed of more than 60 km still to go.

One foot in front of the other, no matter how slow and on we go. It worked for a while and eventually the climb up Botha’s Hill had its say. Despite tenacious willpower, this was the moment comfortable running ceased for the day and the rest of the journey became a stop-start affair, like a cold car engine trying to find some rhythm on a winter morning.

And that’s exactly how it went. Those 11 hours suddenly became rather too short and another cardinal sin was committed when the thought process dictated that stops at all the physio stations along the route for a leg rub would alleviate the pain and pump fresh life into a set of tired and exhausted pins.

This was duly done and after every rub, it took less than 100 steps before the pain returned and the white gel they rubbed on started running down the legs.

Still, the thought process favoured these rubs and so it continued as time slipped by and the sun cast afternoon shadows over the road.

Reality kicked in when spectators before Cato Ridge had the top 10 men already past the post listed on a blackboard and the hammer blow of how mortal I really was hit home.

It was late afternoon when my feet hit the grass of the then Jan Smuts Stadium (now Harry Gwala) and a bronze medal and time of 10:14 was my first official Comrades finish. It was close to cut-off, but the job had been done.

The folks at the finish asked where I had been and why I had taken so long. I didn’t really care. All that mattered was I had made it. I was still standing. I had conquered the long road.

I was a Comrades runner. I returned another 10 times and after the 11th effort in 2000, which turned out to be the worst time of all, decided that the winner’s accolade would never be mine and with a Green Number, could run whenever the bug resurfaced.

It’s still dormant, but the memories are as fresh as though that 1990 run was yesterday.

It’s an achievement being part of the Comrades family and something to savour.

Appreciate life and give the race a go.

• David Knowles completed 11 Comrades Marathons between 1990 and 2000.

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