by Mary Gorski
From start to finish the run is magical.
My trip to the starting line of the 85th Comrades started the week of the 84th running. My boss had talked about the possibility of a work trip to South Africa. I said that I had long wanted to take part in Comrades. “Get into the race and I’ll send you there.” November 1 was the opening date for first-timer registration. Would the boss remember the offer? September 1, October 1 and then again at the end of October I pestered him, just to make sure. It seemed like an offer too good to be true. “Yes, get into the race,” he said. Before the sun rose on November 1 in Milwaukee, I was on the Comrades website, credit card in hand. With the sevenhour time difference I didn’t want to wait too long. Within hours, the race closed, filled to its 20,000-entrant capacity.
A few minutes before the start, the South African anthem was played. Sung in a combination of Zulu, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Sesotho and English – five of the 11 most frequently spoken languages in the country – it is a reminder of the history of the country and its re-birth as a post-apartheid society. The gun went off and four minutes later I crossed the start line and was soon able to run my pace, surprised at how easily 20,000 people found room in the streets.
All runners are required to wear bib numbers on front and back, with our names printed on them; the color of the number indicates something about its wearer. International runners had blue numbers. People of multitudes of colors and accents came up to me and welcomed me to their country and to their race. “We are so glad that you are here!” I was told. And they seemed to mean it. Runners, volunteers and spectators had the same welcoming enthusiasm. “Welcome to South Africa!” I heard again and again.
As we slowly ran up an early hill a fellow runner told me, “Next year you will run down this!” Comrades switches directions each year and while I was only a few kilometers into the race I was already being encouraged to come back for an “up year.”
“Oh, but you must!” I heard over and over. “You are doing a fine job here today. Well done, well done!” Bottles or a hydration pack? Neither are needed. After the first few kilometers the aid stations are constant. How do 20,000 people move through an aid station? Very easily when there are hundreds of volunteers at each.
Ever wonder what it might feel like to ride in the Tour de France, with spectators camping out just to cheer you and your fellow competitors on? Eager fans crowded in the street, propelling you forward with their enthusiasm? “Well done, well done! Welcome to South Africa!” Coming through the main spectator sections one was surrounded by fans five, six and seven deep. In less spectator-friendly sections the fans were there as well, though smaller in number. From the top of bridges and even hanging from trees they were there. The encouragement of women to women was incredible. “Lady, lady, you look so strong! Lady, lady, I know that you will finish! Lady, lady, have courage!” And of course, “Lady, lady… WELL DONE!” The course felt like a paved cross-country ski trail without the snow. If you have done the American Birkenbeiner or Quebec’s Gatineau you have a sense of the terrain. Rarely was it flat. Up, up, up and down, down, down. This was a “down year” from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, so the end point was much lower than the start. For those who still had quads in the last 20-km it was a wonderful ride into town. For those who had lost them somewhere around 70-km, the end was a constant battle of pain management. “Well done, well done!” The shout took on a new meaning in the latter miles of the race.
I had heard about the stadium finish but had no idea of what awaited me. My jaw dropped as I entered. Thousands of fans were waiting for us. Cheers from every direction. Our entry flashed upon a jumbo screen as we came to the finish. So overwhelmed by the spectacle, I found myself laughing and crying all at once. Even the finish of mid-packers like me was broadcast on national television. “We saw your finish on TV!” said one of my hosts at the end of the day. “You are now famous in South Africa.” I have done many races, and been a part of many special sporting experiences. But this? All I can say is “WELL DONE!” What more can I offer to the South Africans than their words to me.
Comrades Marathon, 89 km
Pietermartizburg, South Africa