Wednesday, June 3, 2015

On Comrades



by Brett Larner

My first awareness of South Africa's Comrades Marathon was Alberto Salazar's seemingly random win when I was 20 and his subsequent crediting of the performance benefits he received from taking the drug Prozac, but it was at the Boston Marathon the next spring that it really caught my imagination.  At the pre-race pasta party an older Irish runner sitting at the same table told my friend Bruce and I about Comrades, its epic scale, the intense drama of its finish line cutoff, the camaraderie of those trying to help each other to the line and the devastation of the unlucky stopped just a stride away.  Ever since then I've wanted to run it.  In 2010 JRN associate editor Mika Tokairin and I planned to do it, but with the change of course direction due to the World Cup we opted to wait for another uphill year.  This year things finally aligned.

Our experience was no different from any other blog account of Comrades you can find.  And yet it was intimately personal at the same time.  The long travel there.  The dangers of Durban.  The South African national anthem, Shosholoza, the Chariots of Fire theme, two crowings of a rooster, the gun.  I don't think I've ever been as nervous before the start of a race.  A start that seemed conservative, but then again what do I know?  I've never run so far, and I've heard everything there is to hear about how tough the Comrades uphill course is.  Cap in hand, sunglasses on the top of my head, running through the darkness up and down hills in the midst of thousands.  Mika, in the middle of a group of 40 or 50 black South African men a third of the way into the race, passing a small group of the only Japanese supporters on the course who started cheering, "それ!頑張れ!” "Sore! Ganbare!"  "That's it! Give it all!"  Then, in a magical moment, first one, then another, then all of the African men around her took up the Japanese words, "Sore! Ganbare!" unfamiliar in dialect but intuitively understanding their meaning, chanting them over and over, Mika in their midst with goosebumps on her arms, something out of a dream.

Through wealthier white areas but mostly on into rural black communities where children and families lined the road, calling out my name, "Brezz! Brezz!"  Far off my target pace but counting down the kilometers to the point where I would cross into uncharted territory at 8 km to go and Mika doing the same with 32 km to go.  An eerie and total silence on the final major uphill up Polly Shorts after the chaos and noise of the rest of the course, our comrade runners wordless with less than 10 km to go, most walking, the lone spectator seeming out of place in his support even speaking in an almost conversational voice.  With 3 km to go, an elderly Indian gentleman saying to passing runners in warm and distinguished tones, "Congratulations, Brett, on completing your first Comrades Marathon.  Congratulations, Wesley, on completing your second Comrades Marathon."  The finish, one of the most satisfying of our lives, waiting for our friend Mini Mika to come in 22 minutes before the cutoff, the intense cheering for those on the cusp of the 12-hour deadline, and the heartbreak for those a step from the line when the gun went.



For years I've said I think there are three great road races in the world, three that share elements of history, legacy, scale and something intangible that sets them apart from others that may talk themselves up big, something you can't buy no matter how big your budget.  The Boston Marathon, the Hakone Ekiden, and the Comrades Marathon.  All three of us have run Boston and are devoted Hakone watchers, and now having run Comrades we all felt the validation of this assessment.  Everything about Comrades was like a World Marathon Major that just went on and on, the number of participants, the crowd support, the broadcast, the importance of the event.  Of course it is not a true marathon and its inclusion would create multiple problems, but in every other aspect Comrades fully deserves to be part of that series, certainly more than the Tokyo Marathon does.

It's easy to be cynical about the degree to which there is any kind of real purity in such major events and how much is simply the product of skillful marketing, but we felt that Comrades maintained a purity, one shared with Hakone that in Boston may have somewhat diminished with its era of easier qualifying standards.  Something in the way that today's runners maintained the ideals on which the event was founded.  The atmosphere around and throughout the race was alive with it, and all three of us, experienced runners who have raced around the world, were deeply impacted by it and by those around us, finding ourselves asking, "What are they running for?"  Most places these days the average fun runner might do a Color Run or Turkey Trot, maybe have completing a marathon on their bucket list, maybe 10 km or half marathons for average middle class recreational runners.  Here we were surrounded overwhelmingly by black South Africans, thousands upon thousands and many of whom did not seem to be regular runners, doing crazy shit, 87.7 km on a very, very tough and hilly course, as if that was just what you do.  It was easy to sense that there was something more to it.

In the preface to his book Runaway Comrade Bob de la Motte wrote of the apartheid years saying, "The Comrades would transcend South Africa's social, racial and gender challenges...For 11 glorious hours, everyone was equal and left the finish with dignity and the same sense of camaraderie, regardless of race, age or gender."  This equalization was easy to pick up on, in one aspect like Hakone the distance and nature of the course meaning that results were completely self-contained and incomparable to other events.  More than any other race any of us had run, every runner really was equal, a stratification of medals based on finishing time but the sheer brutality of the course making all goals and everyone who achieved those goals equal in a way not true even in marathons.  Mass-participation without becoming a parade, still focusing on achievement and excellence, on realization of potential.  Enigmatic and liberating.  For everything you hear about Comrades being life-changing, liberating, transcendent, half my life after I first heard about it, it was all true.  We came away with a reevaluated view of South Africa, its people, our comrade runners, ourselves.


(c) 2015 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

10 comments:

CK said...

Back in the late 70s and early 80s, and at the time ignorant of Hakone's existence, the hardcore distance runners I knew considered Boston, Fukuoka and the Comrades as the classic trio. Bruce Fordyce was the runner we speculated about, ...would he ever have been competitive in a championship marathon had he been in a position to enter (...not that any OG at that time had its full worldwide quota).
Great post, and many (somewhat envious) congratulations.

Christian said...

first you got me infected with the Hakone virus, looks like you're planting yet another seed... ;-)

Jean-Benoit Jaouen said...

Congrats Brett ! So we could have met at Comrades 2010 because I was in...
When telling about the "three great road races in the world, three that share elements of history, legacy, scale and something intangible that sets them apart from others" you could add a fourth one which is SPARTATHLON, a nonstop 245-K run from Athens to Sparta in the footsteps of Phidippides (since 1983). Also very apart from all others ultramarathon.

Mike L said...

Great write up Brett. You mentioned on Marathon Talk training for Comrades on hilly terrain west of Tokyo. I live in Tokyo and I'm hoping to run Comrades next year and am curious where it would be best to train. Obviously you were training for the up run and I'd be doing down but just wondered if you found a useful course .

TokyoRacer said...

Terrific article and the video is amazing. I can't believe the number of runners at 12 hours! How many started the race?

Jean-Benoit Jaouen said...

16584 runners started

Brett Larner said...

Thank you for all the comments. It was a great experience. Mike, contact me through the address on my profile and I'll be happy to send you some course maps.

Anna Novick said...

what a great experience. your writing makes it jump off the page!

Padraig said...

That as an outstanding report. What a great achievement for all of you.

mike said...

Report gave me goose bumps Brett. Makes me want to do the race, but sounds a bit harsh.