Comrades veteran tells story of the race that inspires all South Africans

2011-06-02 00:00

JOHN Cameron-Dow is a runner and an author. A veteran of 10 Comrades Marathons, he’s earned his green number and is well qualified to write a book about the race that has come to represent courage and humanity.

His 10th finish in 2003, by the skin of his teeth, was a near thing, having been told by doctors that he shouldn’t run for health reasons. Cameron-Dow decided he would put all his might into running his last Comrades and get his green number. With only minutes to spare, he finished the race knowing that it would be his last as his body would just not be able to endure another.

Having received official permission from the Comrades Marathon Association to write a commemorative book — Comrades Marathon: the Ultimate Human Race — on the marathon that has become a national legend, he endeavoured to make it more than just a historical record of each race. Cameron-Dow has made the book a beautiful collection of anecdotes and highlights for every South African who has ever watched, participated and rejoiced in this phenomenon.

I remember watching my first Comrades Marathon as a young teenager, glued to the television for the better part of a day. I still wonder the same thing: “Why do these people do it?”  The sheer agony on the faces of the runners as they force themselves onwards is amazing. Watching the frontrunners is nail-biting, but equally as fascinating is watching those who barely make it through the halfway mark before cut-off.

Like a guilty voyeur, I am still mystified by the Comrades phenomenon. Cameron-Dow has gone through the history of the event race by race and in each story, a little bit of the magic is revealed. He had previously written a book on comrades icon Bruce Fordyce. The book, Bruce Fordyce — Comrades King, taught him what guts it took to drive certain people to face the challenge again and again.

Cameron-Dow is a humble man and he is greeted by many runners at the stand where his book is being promoted at the Comrades Expo. Some are curious, others are old running buddies and most are thrilled that a book has come out about the race they all treasure.

For him, it has been a 10-year enterprise, including seven years of researching and writing, and throughout he has learnt more about this race than he dreamt possible. He has likened this process to his other hobby of jigsaw puzzles where he spends hours putting tiny pieces together until the whole picture comes together.

He had access to the Comrades Marathon Association archives and carried out many hours of personal interviews. By uncovering the stories of the legends of the race and also finding out the stories of the unsung heroes, Cameron-Dow has shown that the race is a truly inspiring one for all South Africans because it mirrors many struggles.

For some people, the race is a personal challenge — a metaphor for overcoming their own personal identity crises. For others, the race is a vehicle for reaching out to others through the camaraderie of running. Yet others see the goal — winning the gold medal as a way to make money and to be acknowledged.

The race that grew from such humble beginnings 85 years ago, has become symbolic of the change that South Africa represents. Cameron-Dow says: “People should not underestimate how this race can inspire the common person — the same way the Fifa World Cup did last year.

“When the CMA began to offer prize money, there were people who felt that the race would lose its special feeling, but it never has. It has grown and become more professional, and we are attracting more foreigners every year.

“Some of the best ultra-marathon athletes come to win, but many just come to participate and to soak up the real sense of camaraderie,” says Cameron-Dow. He believes that the race reflects the real change that has happened to the country.

“It started as a race which only white men raced, then there were black men who went unacknowledged and now all men and women, of any colour, can run side by side. Whoever wins this race is a talented athlete, but even those who finish have a total feeling of euphoria. Such is the nature of the Comrades — there are no losers.”

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