I haven't plagerised this - got permission from the man himself. Oh Captain my Captain - he is an awesome athlete with a wicked sense of humour and a way with words.
Each year, on Comrades, I run with dead people. As if keeping an annual appointment, they will arrive. In the last few minutes before the start - when the tears come - they’re all there with me. While Shosholoza is being sung, while Chariots Of Fire is being played, while thousands of sounds and emotions seep from thousands of runners, while Indian Mynas are chirping in the artificial dawn, my ghosts are quite clear:
“When you get lonely later, we will be right next to you. Don’t worry - you’ll be Ok.” I feel my scalp prickle in their presence and I bend down to unnecessarily retie my shoes - slightly embarrassed of my tears. A weeping middle-aged man lost in the crowds.
As many old timers have mentioned before, Comrades is not a race. It’s a journey - an odyssey - and its Homeric proportions go way beyond the physical - or mere numbers. Yes, there are some basic truths that cannot be ignored; X amount of training, with Y talent at your disposal, will yield Z time; if you do not refill your tank you will suffer like a dog and then suffer some more.
But these are insignificant things. An average person, with an average amount of training, can finish Comrades. But to merely put one foot in front of the other, oblivious to everything outside - and to everything within - is to miss the point. Also missed, is a priceless opportunity to get to know your self.
The Comrades route is completely without guile; it is a beast and there are no secrets to this journey. From the very first step, the route will systematically attempt to dismantle you and, as Tim Noakes implied in his seminal article, it will usually succeed. Piece by piece, and despite your best efforts remain whole, somewhere between 55 and 65 kilometers, locked into a deafening silence, you will be stripped down to fundamental components.
For the remainder of the journey, you will attempt to reassemble yourself and I promise you this: you will be a better version. Even if it is for a fleeting few days, you will be more at peace, you will be more tolerant, and that random act of kindness will come a little easier.
It’s between 55 and 65 kilometers that my scalp prickles again and I know they’ve rejoined me. My mother; the ravages of her cancer are not evident; she’s young and animated and supportive. My grandmother; my savior; the woman who sacrificed everything to raise me. My father; a man I hardly knew; he looks at me curiously to see what became of the distant boy.
And we talk. We talk about grief, love, kindness and hope. We poke around all those open wounds; we accept our accountability and culpability; we examine our value system. We tell the truth. My ghosts know when to arrive and how long to stay and when they see the resolve with which I run past the runner’s rescue van, they drift off again to allow the crowd back in.
The crowd - the magnificent crowd. Were it possible, I would force every single politician to run this race. I would force him or her to stop at every single man, woman and child, and personally apologize for creating false divisions that we - in the ultimate human race - have no interest in. Hundreds of thousands of people standing all day, in all conditions, screaming themselves hoarse and carrying you forward on a deafening wave of goodwill. Looking YOU in the eye, saying YOUR name, and urging YOU on. Saying to those who would divide us, in one glorious day, with one glorious voice, “We are better than this!”
I find it astonishing that I have completed this journey 16 times. It seems like yesterday that I was young and terrified and sitting on an un-barricaded pavement waiting for my first start. I find it astonishing that novices actually want to hear my advice, for I consider my advice worthless. They want to hear about the merits of painkillers - or not, buses - or not, bananas vs. potatoes, coke vs. PowerAde, pacing and pain.
I look at them and have no meaningful words to give. I just say, “Enjoy the day - you’ll be fine.” I want to tell them that where they’re going is a place of solitude. That - if they’re brave enough - they’re going to unlock doors to which only they have keys. Perhaps I will say, “Remember to give a flower to Arthur,” but usually I keep quiet. Who needs another boring old fart trying to be wise?
With my own doors unlocked and my own self-reassembled, I eventually enter the stadium. Left and right I see faces. Some are looking at me, some looking at a point behind me. Happy and relieved faces searching for that special person. The bends on the grass seem to take forever, but eventually I round the last turn to see one final straight. I feel my scalp prickle and I know my ghosts have come to say goodbye. I mouth the words “Thank you” and the tears begin to come. I look up at the clock and under the digits I read in my mind (and maybe the Comrades organizers should put them there) the immortal words from Ulysses: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”