The atmosphere in the starting area of the Comrades Marathon was an almost overwhelming jumble of sensations. There were the feelings of excitement, anxiety and apprehension. There was the sound of rock music blaring from loudspeakers and people talking in many unintelligible languages. There was the movement of 18,000 runners shifting and fidgeting in their double-knotted running shoes. There was the smell of ointments and sunscreen.
As the South African anthem played, local runners quietly sang along. When the song “Shosholozo” began playing, the crowd enthusiastically sang and swayed to the music. It is a traditional song originally sung by migrant workers in the diamond and gold mines, and is so popular it is often considered South Africa’s second national anthem. In those moments, I could feel the powerful hope this country has for a better future.
The announcer sent us off with wishes for a good race. From corral F where I lined up, it took six minutes after the cannon blast to walk to the start line. It was cold in the early morning air and all the runners were bundled up but soon began discarding their extra clothing. The road was crowded with runners for the first several miles. At this point in the race, people ran easily and chatted comfortably with their friends, spouses and training partners.
The early hills were not overwhelming and I easily could have run up them but had been warned to conserve energy so I walked them. The “big five” hills on the course are notorious and have names, but there are many other long, steep hills, too. When I asked other runners which hill we were on, many times they’d answer, “It’s just another big hill!”
My race bib had my name on it so people would run up to me, call me by name and talk for five or 10 minutes and then go on their way. I also had a small U.S. flag on my shirt and lots of runners wanted to know where I was from, if this was my first Comrades, and how I was doing. I met a Bushman who was wearing traditional clothing, including a reed skirt, necklace, headpiece and carrying a ceremonial stick. He spoke perfect English and was happy to tell me about his way of life. I talked with a guy who was doing his 47th Comrades and ran the entire way wearing a backpack. It’s one of the special things about a race of this distance, you have to go slowly and there’s time to talk with the people around you. Plus, in the spirit of a race started by Vic Clapham in 1921 to pay tribute to his WWI comrades, running with friends is an important theme.
After about four hours of running I decided to just focus on getting to the halfway marker. I ran comfortably and got there in five hours, 31 minutes. I was elated to be halfway done but after a couple of minutes of euphoria realized that meant I still had another five or six hours to go. I quickly put that thought out of my mind and started focusing on more immediate and manageable milestones like getting up the next hill or to the next aid station.
I have never seen a race that came close to this one in terms of cheering crowd support and physical aid support. The spectators were loud and enthusiastic from start to finish. There were singing groups, dancing groups, people in costumes, and people eight feet above the road in chairs hung from trees. The entire country embraces the runners and wants each one to succeed. The aid stations were well-stocked with water, Gatorade, boiled potatoes rolled in rock salt, bananas, oranges, broth, and Pepsi, and had massage and first aid as well.
I didn’t look at my watch again until 15 kilometers to go and then I saw a chance for a sub-11 hour finish, but some hills near the end made that impossible. I ran and walked the final hills and as I got into Durban I was counting on being able to see Kingsmead Cricket Stadium where we would finish and feel the excitement that would carry me through the last few kilometers. I couldn’t see the stadium and my feet, legs and hips were sore, but when I saw the two kilometer (to go) marker I didn’t want to disappoint the spectators so I ran.
I passed through a short tunnel at the stadium and ran out onto the field. My first thought was “Wow the grass feels good on my sore feet.” There were bright banners everywhere and people were yelling and cheering. I heard my name and I waved at the crowd. All of the soreness and fatigue left my body and I could feel my whole body smiling.
And, then, there was the finish line. I raised my arms, the announcer said my name, and I was overwhelmed with emotion. I walked for a few minutes feeling a little disoriented by everything that had happened that day. A race official handed me my medal – I had done it, finishing in 11 hours, 9 minutes!
As 12 hours approached, I was anxious to watch the dramatic finish line closure in person. But as the final countdown began, a finisher who was standing on a chair in front of me fell over, hit his head on the ground and lay there.
I bent down to assist him and checked his pulse. I told him that he had fainted and would be okay once he got some fluids. It took him a couple of minutes to become alert again and I missed the finish of the race. But the important thing was that he was fine and I was fine, too. It was a perfect opportunity for me to be a “comrade” to a fellow runner, which is what the race is all about.
The spirit of the Comrades Marathon is something rarely seen. I am proud of the training I did and of finishing the race, but what I will remember forever is the spirit and soul of the race, and the runners and country that make it happen every year.
• Scott Kipp is an Ahwatukee Foothills resident and pediatrician.