Well, last weekend I left you all high and dry whilst I was comfortably ensconced in my G-spot, awaiting the start of the 2011 Comrades Marathon. So, without any further ado, let’s return to about 5:10 a.m. on the morning of Sunday 29 May 2011.
The atmosphere is, metaphorically and literally, electric. The inky black night that darkens the skies above Durban City is broken by hundreds of lights and spotlights along a one kilometre strip of the former West (now Dr Pixley Kaseme) Street. The 101 year old Durban City Hall is beautifully and hauntingly lit up with its personally tailored lighting.
Tens of thousands of amps of vibrant, strong-beat-driven music is being pumped out of who-knows-how many speakers. The runners are all excitedly chattering away, catching up with long not-seen-friends, fighting down their nerves, discussing last minute strategies for tackling The Big Five Hills, all the while competing with primitive rhythms underlying the modern tunes.
Far in the distance, nearly a kilometre ahead of where I stand, are the eye-burningly-bright spotlights that, like the probing lights of an alien ship, shine down onto the “A” seeded runners – illuminating a scene that, even now, is being broadcast on national, SABC, TV. For the benefit of the TV cameras, and to broadcast their own unique message to the nation, many runners have their pre-prepared banners hoisted high above their heads – one of the many Comrades traditions. I too have a banner, but for now keep it folded and shouldered – I will unfurl it later on as I approach the Start Line itself.As I mentioned in last week’s update, I have decided that to sit down in G-pen at this stage would court the risk of serious injury, rather than preserving some of my energetic reserves. So I stand, in my sardine-crammed tin-can, with my water bottle in my right hand, my collapsed banner in my left, and I intermittently shake my limbs about to try and keep warm and expel the nervous tension.
Suddenly, my heart skips a beat – I remember that I haven’t switched my Garmin (GPS running watch) on – and it usually takes a few minutes to load up and “locate satellites”. Relieved that I had remembered in time, I switch it on; then bring my attention back to Dr Pixley, and soak up the atmosphere around me.
After a year’s worth of intense physical, mental, emotional and temporal investment in, and effort towards, this day, it is difficult for me to comprehend that I am finally here; that I am in Durban, about to take the first steps forward in what is the climax of this journey for me. And now I know, that for every one of the thirteen or so thousand other runners crammed with me into this one kilometre long, rectangular block in the pre-dawn dark and chill – I know that for each one of them too, this is a momentous occasion in their lives, and that every one of them has also had to move heaven and earth, in a unique and fascinating journey, to be standing here, right now.
Mentally, I pinch myself. “This is it. Durban – the start of the Comrades Marathon. I am here, finally here.”
I remind myself, “Fifty five years ago, aged 18, my father stood almost on this very spot.” He too was about to run his first Comrades Marathon – and although he had the advantage of youth on his side, I have the advantage of his and all the other collective knowledge about, and support in, the race. But that year, 1956, there were only 88 scrawny runners standing unnoticed on West Street – certainly there were no spotlights, TV cameras, portaloos, music. Just the accompaniment of the myna birds.
“The Myna Birds!?”
My attention is abruptly yanked back to my immediate environment. I had heard tell from so many people, from multiple books and articles, of the raucous protestations of the Indian myna birds upon being awoken at some ungodly hour from their feathery sleep on Comrades morning. Every alternate year, on the “up run” that starts in Durban, the mynas apparently make a godawful racket when they are rudely awoken by this rowdy bunch of humans who have clearly lost the plot. The mynah experience is, apparently, another unique aspect of the Comrades Marathon “up run”, and something to which I have been very much looking forward.
But now when I listen out for these birds I hear nothing – no avian sounds at all. Neither did I hear them earlier on. So unless any of you 2011 Comrades runners who are reading this can inform me otherwise, I have a few theories of why there were no protesting mynas this year.
The most likely explanation, I suspect, pertains to the fact that the noise these mynas make is not, as is traditionally explained, a protest against being woken up in the very early hours of the morning. Rather, it is a profoundly symbolic act in which animals demeaned as having “bird brains” mock the tens of thousands of these other, supposedly intelligent, creatures who are about to subject themselves, voluntarily, to running all the way from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. I suspect that the mynas have cottoned on to the fact that this ingathering of humans happens every SECOND year, when the race begins in Durban, and so they plan their mocking and jeering of homo sapiens accordingly. This year, 2011, however, they were fooled due to an almost unheard of change in the Comrades schedule – because of the Soccer World Cup last year, both 2009 and 2010 Comrades Marathons were “down” runs, with the early morning start taking place in Pietermaritzburg, and not in Durban last year. My theory is that the mynas were inadvertently fooled by this chance occurrence into believing that these crazy humans had finally come to their senses and had decided, for once and for all, to scrap this bizzare event. Hence, at the start of my Comrades Marathon, the mynas were absent due to being booked into a Tree&Tree (avian equivalent of a B&B) for the night. Mark my words, when our feathery friends discover that they missed out on another opportunity to mock their human counterparts, when they realise that the nutters will be back in two years’ time, these birds will be sure to be present, jeering at the start of the 2013 Comrades marathon.
The unlikely alternative to this explanation, of course, is that human technology, in the form of umpteen speaker systems, completely drowned out the noise of these alien fauna, and together with me being distracted by a thousand new sights and sounds, I simply did not hear them 😉
I return my attention to the thrill of the pre-race atmosphere. I look at my Garmin to check and see that the 5 minimum satellites it requires to give an accurate reading have been located. All good.
Casually, I check my heart-rate. My monitor reads 135.
One hundred and thirty five?!!!
Oh my —!!!
Normally my heart rate, if I am simply walking around, is in the upper 70’s. After I have warmed up before a run it rises into the 80’s, maybe the 90’s with a vigorous warm-up. My average heart rate on an easy run is about 145. Yet now, standing on the spot, with no warm-up due to the confined space, my life-giving organ is pounding away at 135 beats per minute!
I knew that I was excited and nervous, but this is ridiculous.
The edge of panic enters – if this is what my heart rate is like now, it’s going to go through the roof when I start running! I have previously set a warning alarm on my watch to sound, and continue sounding, if my heart rate goes above 185 – it looks set to hit that mark when they fire the start gun!
“Calm down, Robin. Breathe. Deep breaths. In … and out; in … and out”. I try calm myself down. I employ a host of relaxation techniques and mental strategies to slow my ticker down, but the best I can do is reduce it to 125. Oh pooh!
Although still concerned, I forcibly eject this worry from my mind, and console myself with a sentiment that Bryce Courtenay once eloquently expressed: “when skating on thin ice, you might as well tap dance”.
About to run an incomprehensibly long and uphill road race, and still carrying some residual injuries, I am already skating on thin ice. And if it so happens that even before I start, my heart rate is at a dangerously high level – so be it! I will tap dance on thin ice – and go out with a big bang, rather than fizzle out with a whimper.
Come to think of it, that has been a theme underlying the whole build up of my preparation for this event – giving 100% of myself to EVERY aspect of training and fund-raising. And, after all, this event is called The Ultimate Human Race.
Thin ice: bring it on!
Suddenly, and without any kind of warning, the crowd around me surge forward and then, just as suddenly, stop dead in their tracks. It is impossible to avoid being dragged along, and then colliding, with them as they come to an abrupt halt. Fortunately, I had been told to expect this. Apparently what happens is that with 15 minutes to the start, when the runners are all in their pens and the entry gates from the pavements are closed, the marshals remove the fences dividing the A through H seeding pens. The front runners in each pen instinctively push forward to fill the couple of metres of space thus created, but when they reach the back of the runners seeded in front of them, they have stop. This creates a “slinky-like” surge-stop effect.
A few days after the race when I spoke to my friend Sandy, she told me that she and those around her were quietly and calmly sitting down in F-pen when, completely unexpectedly, the surge-stop happened, and they were nearly trampled in the process!
This Comrades Marathon thing, it turns out, can be quite harmful to one’s health. What is not advertised on the pack, for obvious reasons, is that over the years there have been a number of fatalities during this race – not from car accidents as one might expect, but mostly runners who have had heart attacks along the way!
Back in G-pen I say a quick prayer that I don’t join the statistics by being trampled before my time!
Now the background music stops and, after a number of seconds, the relative quiet is replaced with the first few notes of South Africa’s National Anthem. The anthem begins, gentle and slow, with the rhythm and movement of a church hymn – the hymn from which it originally derived:
Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika (God bless Africa)
The hair on the back of my neck stands up.
Maluphakanyisw’ uphondo lwayo (raise high her glory)
Unbidden, I feel tears coming on. Around me some runners are still talking, but others are vocally giving witness to South Africa’s miracle.
Yizwa imi-thandazo yethu (Hear Thou our prayers)
I’ve been loudly singing along, but now I feel a rising tremor in my throat and I’m struggling to get the words out. More and more runners around me are now either singing or have fallen silent; many are standing sharply upright, at attention, hands over their hearts.
“Hands on hearts”!
Images, from five days earlier, of the cutest toddlers in the world, in the back-room of a run-down Hillbrow building, in a freshly painted, newly-built Diepsloot classroom, hands on their hearts as they proudly sing their National Anthem for me – these images thrust themselves into my mind’s eye.
Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo
(God bless us, her children)
I fight against the rising emotion in me, and I manage to muffle a few sobs, but then the words, their meaning, the atmosphere around me, and thoughts of the whole journey that I have travelled to get here today – all batter at my rapidly beating heart and I can no longer contain myself. The river of feelings that I had attempted to hold back has burst its banks, and my emotions pour forth in a flood of sobs and tears.
The anthem makes its fourth switch of language (the previous three being Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho),
Uit die blou van onse hemel, uit die diepte van ons see
(from the blue of our heavens, from the depths of our sea)
Oor onse ewige gebergtes, waar die kranse antwoord gee
(over our everlasting mountains, where the echoing cliffs reply)
A late-arriving runner – perhaps he has had to answer nature’s call after the seeding-pen-gates were shut at 5:15 – desperately scrabbles in an attempt to scale the perimeter fence and enter G-pen. I flashback to a memory of 1987 – I was at Wits University, at the height of Apartheid South Africa and I remember on one occasion, seeing students fleeing and climbing a fence to get away from a stomping, frightening platoon of helmeted and glass-shielded riot police.
The Comrades Marathon itself was not immune to the dictates of a country entrenched in discrimination. Up until the mid 1970s, women runners and “runners of colour” were not allowed official entry. But in 1975, in the 50th running of the Comrades Marathon, Vincent Rakabela finished 20th overall (out of 1,237 entrants) and, in so doing, became the first black runner to earn a Comrades Marathon medal. It was a similarly exciting moment for the country when, in 1989, Sam Tshabalala became the first ever black winner of a Comrades Marathon. And it’s fantastic that this year, 2011, the year of my first Comrades Marathon, Stephen Mizhingi of Zimbabwe won the Comrades Marathon for the third time in a row – the first time this has been done since Bruce Fordyce’s string of victories.
This morning, as I await the start of this magnificent race, thank goodness the only reason that the fence is being scaled is because a wayward runner wishes to claim his hard-earned spot and compete in an event that will forever bring honour to his name, regardless of his race performance. And thank goodness it is a race in which the nearly 90 kilometres that he will run, will be in a spirit of Comeraderie, together with 13,000 other participants – black, white, men, women – all pulling together to conquer their internal, rather than external demons.
The anthem continues in English:
Sounds the call to come together
And united we shall stand
Let us live and strive for freedom
In South Africa our land.
Are there ANY other countries in the world that incorporate five (of their country’s eleven official) languages in their national anthem?
Are there ANY other countries in the world that have managed such a successful transition from an oppressive regime to a democracy without a bloody political revolution? Sure, South Africa still has its problems, but given the circumstances, they’ve done a pretty darn good job.
Tens of thousands of voices break out into cheers and hurrahs, and there are very few dry eyes around me. Thank goodness someone advised me to take tissues to the start, and I reach into my pocket. I blow my nose; a number of times.
Suddenly I hear a muffled cock’s crow. As mentioned on my page The Prags and Comrades Marathon Legends, Max Trimborne’s accurate imitation of a cock’s crow that has preceded the start of this race every year since 1948, including 55 years ago when my Dad stood on this selfsame spot preparing to run his first “up run”, echoes across time and space. But I am a little confused – I had expected the famous cock’s crow to sound only just before the firing of the start-gun – in fact, I had read somewhere that it’s a good idea to start one’s watch at the playing of Max’s cock’s crow in order to have a few precious seconds extra to play with in the race. But there are still about 10 minutes to go before the start?!
My mind begins playing tricks with me – is this a deviously subversive move by the secret order of the Durban Indian Myna Communitys to sow confusion amongst these stupid humans? Or had somebody’s rooster, in the centre of Durban city, broken free and was now running rampant causing chaos and mayhem? Fortunately, common sense prevails and I do not start my watch; I eagerly wait to see what will happen next.
The sound system starts up with the pick-axe-in-the-mine-swinging work-rhythm-beat of Shoshaloza – a song that has become, like Australia’s Waltzing Matilda, South Africa’s UNoffical national anthem. Shoshaloza was originally sung primarily by Ndebele speaking migrant workers from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) travelling on the trains to get work in South Africa. This work was, mostly under the ground, extracting South Africa’s wealth (gold) with their blood, sweat and tears from the hard, unyielding earth. With rhthyms and a beat particularly suited to “call and respond singing”, Shoshaloza evolved over the years, and was used by groups of workers engaged in any hard physical labour. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why, in recent years, Shoshaloza has spontaneously emerged as an anthem at multiple sports events and is, every year, sung after Nkosi Sikelel’ at the start of the Comrades Marathon.
Led by the speaker system, the thirteen-thousand-strong mass of runners sings its way through Shoshaloza. I defy anyone, even if they do not know the meaning of the words or the history of Shoshaloza, to be present during this occasion and not to have “goose-bumps” tingling up and down their spines. I think it was during the singing of Shoshaloza, that, perhaps quite appropriately for a song whose timing and rhythms relate to physical movement, the crowd went through another surge-forward, stop-dead cycle. This was to happen quite a few times more before we got moving properly.
Lack of mynas notwithstanding, the noise levels around me are phenomenal. As the speakers pause after Shoshaloza, and there is a relative lull in the roar of sound, I lean towards a neighbour and ask, “How will I hear the gunshot [that signals the start of the race] from here?”.
He gives me an odd look, “The gunshot?”.
“Yeah,” I reply, “when they start the race”.
“Mate,” [he would have said that if he were an Aussie], “they don’t fire a gun. They fire a cannon.”
Of course! How could I have been so naive as to think that one of the biggest races in South Africa would be started with a gunshot. Yes, sure, that’s how they used to do it in the old days, like when my Dad was running Comrades, and there were so few runners that almost everyone got to stand in the front row at the start. And, sure, that’s how they start road races in every other country around the world. But only in South Africa, God bless her and her inhabitants, where the sound of small arms fire, including the ubiquitous AK-47, is commonplace and could easily pass by unnoticed, do they have the ingenious idea to fire a cannon instead.
For goodness sake!
My reverie is interrupted by the final piece of music that will come from the speaker system this morning: “Chariots of Fire“. This classic piece changes the status of any eyes that might have been dry up until this point. And it is now, when we are all softened up by the gentle, inspiring strains of Vangelis, that some lucky bugger gets to light the fuse to the cannon.
“How do I know this?” you may enquire.
Because next thing I know, I darn near have my ears blown off! That’s how I know! 🙂
Yes, yes, I know I’ve taken a bit of poetic license here but, given that I was a good 800 metres behind the front row, and assuming the officials did not fire the cannon right next to the front runners (as those top contenders would then have been blasted all the way back to H-seeding pen) it was a mighty KABOOM!
My Uncle subsequently told me that at the start of the race he was back in room 1442 of The Royal, relaxedly watching the start of the race on the telly, and getting ready to go back to sleep, when he too heard an almighty blast and felt the building shake. This was followed swiftly by the whistling of a cannon ball as it flew unceremoniously past his 14th floor window. (Naaah, not really 🙂 but he did genuinely hear and wonder what the heck the Kaboom was.)
Quickly I press the start button on my watch.
“Finally, at long last, this it, here we go,” I think to myself.
But we don’t.
We don’t budge from our spots; not an inch.
About a kilometre in front of us, the A-seeded runners have scooted off like the proverbial hounds after the hare, but way back where we, the plebs, are placed, we stand and tap our feet, waiting for our turn to start The Ultimate Human Race.
Suddenly, there is a surge – this time for a few metres more than the last couple of surges.
And then we stop, again, we stop dead in our tracks.
Another surge, and stop.
And so it goes
Now, after the cannon blast, and in the midst of our stop-start attempts to begin running, something bizarre begins to happen. I’m being serious here, I’m not having you on, but SHRAPNEL starts flying all over the show. A host of missile-shaped objects are flying through the air, over me, in front of me, behind me, all over it seems. I duck as one whistles past my left ear.
And then I realise what’s happening – many runners have taken water bottles to the start pens with them. And although some, like myself, will carry these bottles till after the first drinks’ station, others now wish to discard their bottles. Out of consideration, they do not simply drop their bottles to the ground, as this could cause their fellow runners to trip and be trampled. Instead, they hurl these bottles, like Molotov-cocktails, in the general direction of the pavement. The problem is that the street we occupy varies between 6-8 lanes wide, and many of these missiles run out of steam before they reach the pavements. I am VERY glad that I am positioned more or less in the centre of the road, because even though I’m no physicist, the trajectory of some of those bottles tells me that there will be a number of runners blithely running along when they are unexpectedly hit by UFBs (unidentified flying bottles).
We are now, eventually, building up to a slow but steady walk. We are accompanied by the ululating of a crowd of invisible African women. Except for VIPs near the start line, spectators are not permitted entry in the immediate vicinity of the runners – there’s simply not enough space – but obviously a number of supporters were waiting somewhere out of sight, in the walkways nearby perhaps, and are encouraging us in this timeless expresssion of support for their men going into battle.
Or so it felt to me.
It was FANTASTIC!
Slowly, progressively, we are able to walk a tad more briskly, though still with some surge-stop effect, until eventually we approach the alien lights beaming down at us. It is tempting to shield one’s eyes from the burning-bright spotlights, but everyone wants to be on TV and wave “hi” to Mum, or Dad, or the dog. So we refrain from covering our eyes and, as we come directly into the lights’ glare, we wave at the cameras that are invisible to us, but which we know are filming away, beaming our images across the nation. Well, most of the other runners wave, but not me – now, finally, about 10 minutes after the “Kaboom”, as I approach the Start Line and the spotlights, I hoist my hand-made and carefully pre-painted-in-Perth banner.
“Pietermaritzburg or Bust” – this is it!
My memories of the first couple of kilometres of the race are filled with a sense of excitement – the thrill of the moment, the rush of humanity, the shared connection with the other runners. And, of course, the incredible support of the spectators lining the streets – something which would continue throughout the race.
About a kilometre after I passed the Start Line, I was wanting to discard my banner and the sticks I had used to hold it up. I moved over to the side of the road, but I did not want simply to chuck it away. As I approached a crowd of spectators on a street corner, I singled out one local who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the spectacle. I ran up to him, shoved my banner at him, and said, “Here, take it, it’s yours”.
I think I made the man’s day, and possibly his year! His beam of absolute delight lit up the darkened street.
I also remember people peeling off the river of runners, dashing up the side-streets to get rid of the excess liquids they’d taken on board, and then rejoining the mainstream. A few kilometres out, as we were climbing the onramp onto the highway, a couple of guys desperately overladen with fluids, climbed the railings of the bridge and, within a metre of the mass of runners, peed over the edge – to the applause, wolf-whistles and “chirps” of thousands of their Comrades.
A few minutes later, as we were jam-packedly jogging our way onto the highway, all of a sudden the street lights lining the onramp went out. A collective “aaahhh” was heard as the already poor visibility went to near-zero, and the risk of being tripped up by unidentified flying black wings, or any other unseen obstacles, increased dramatically. Fortunately, a few hundred metres later when we ran on to the highway itself, those lights were still working and, with a sigh of relief, we could see once again.
And it is here, on the dimly lit N3 freeway from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, that I must leave you all once again. For those of you disappointed that I am only a few kilometres into the race, you can console yourselves with the fact that I got you past the Start Line! I have said, that these updates will give you a “Robin’s eye view” of the race: and that’s exactly what you’re getting.
I hope to cover the remainder of the race itself in a maximum of another two chapters (maybe three :-)). Then a further chapter describing the events of the evening once I’d finished the race, and a final chapter for the day after. But, as the original Number 13 is wont to say, I have good news and bad news for you. The good news: my parents are coming to visit my son and I during the school holidays this coming week. The bad news: my next chapter may therefore be a little bit delayed 😦
But hey, I’m keeping you entertained, and now you still have more to look forward to.