Lessons from Comrades

So many new post ideas, so little time. But this one will go cold soon, so here’s a short post reflecting on lessons I learnt when running the Comrades marathon last weekend.

It’s a very emotional race: people speak of it with such reverence and affection. And it truly does test you on multiple levels. Being neither physically prepared or mentally tough will be sufficient to see you through. So here are the key take aways… there were lots more, but I’ve bored enough people to narcolepsy in the last year with talk of running.

Lesson 1

Running a race like Comrades gives one an over-inflated sense of agency. You really do believe there’s nothing that can’t be achieved with sufficient will and determination. After all, it’s that sheer ‘bloody mindedness’ as a friend puts it that gets you to the start line, never mind the finish line. Most of us have run 1000km+ in the 5 months since January in training alone, with a similar amount in the 6 months prior to that. We’ve given up social opportunities, booze, sleep ins, any hope of reasonable tan lines or publicly displayable feet. Our bodies have undergone profound changes as we force them to run while eating, run while sore, run while cold, run while drinking, run while hot. Our guts go into hyperdrive, our muscles store glycogen and water, our heart rates drop and our sleep needs rocket. And let’s not forget the ridiculous amount of laundry…

So no wonder we start thinking we’re invincible. Superhuman. Every day we are forced to overcome our desire to rest, to skip a day, to drink the wine. A friend said “listen to your body”… and any Comrades runner will tell you that’s exactly what you don’t do. Your body will tell you to stop, it will moan and complain. “So how do you know if you should stop then?” they asked… to which the response is: many indicators… but pain is not one of them.

In all these Herculean efforts to overcome our gremlins, demons, doubts and flaws, it’s very easy to forget the invisible enablers that give us the options to make such choices. We really think it’s all down to our own doing and nothing else. Which leads me to:

Lesson 2

Behind every successful Comrades runner is a whole team of fed up supportive friends and family.

My interest in Comrades was sparked by my uncles, both of whom ran 1o races and acquired the covetted Green Number (10 runs). It’s a prestigious accolade, and is reverred the running world over. When I spoke to my grandmother after my race, she said my uncle was very proud of me and that I had run. I remarked that my respect for uncle was there, but my respect for my AUNTS had grown enormously. Because while my uncles were out being boys, spending 10+ hours a week running, probably 10+ extra hours of sleep a week also, their wives were doing the laundry, prepping the meals, raising small children, pinning down the domestic front with little to no domestic support from spouses who were obsessed with mileage in all hours outside of work.

Only 20% of Comrades runners are women. And yet the success rate at Comrades, and ultra distance running in general, is higher for women than men. Taken to extremes (like, 300km+) women will out perform men overall in endurance sport. Coach Parry’s research indicates that women’s higher pain thresholds, more conservative approach (we ‘respect the distance’ and don’t fire out the starting blocks in a fit of ego) and willingness to take professional advice ensured that in general, women run better ultramarathons than men. So why such a low turn out rate?

I don’t have hard data, but my hunch would be: free time. I’ve seen similar trends in the trail running groups I’ve tried around Cape Town. Almost all the women in attendance are child free. The men post instagrammed pics with the baby on Facebook, but I know that on the weekend they spent 6 hours or more on the trail. I’m relatively certain that the vast majority of their wives and partners are not afforded the choice to do the same. Most of my female friends stop running seriously once the first baby arrives. While this is initially a physiological requirement, the rhythms and labour divisions set in quickly and the pattern sticks.

So it’s no surprise that the longest running Comrades participant is a white male proudly attempting his 44th medal. Yes, it’s a phenomenal achievement. But contrary to most, what I saw was a man who was afforded a ridiculous amount of time free from drudgery and domesticity to just run ludicrous amounts over a very long period of time, with probably a wife to mother his kids, and a domestic to clean his house and cook his meals. Achieving 44 medals is as much testimony to being allowed the opportunity to as it is to taking that opportunity.

[No offence to people who run that damned race year after year after year after year… but really? It’s an awful lot of time. There are other interesting things to do in the world also.]

Now on to the positives!

Lesson 3

Comrades is special because of what it enables its runners to do off the road. Whether aware of it or not, almost every Comrades runner I have met is running to heal: running to, running from, running through… running strong, running tired, running running running. I ran to get off anti depressants, to make my anxious overwrought mind finally collapsed into delicious exhausted sleep, to excommunicate my heartache, to “run until it doesn’t hurt any more” ( ala “Mignon (Mossie) van Zyl”). It’s not the hills and sweat and miles that makes Comrades unique amongst races. It’s the exorcism of demons along the way. And the triumph of the human heart over the pain inflicted by life and living.

Which brings me to the last lesson, which was, for me, the most profound:

Lesson 4

Comrades is utterly contradictory. Because simultaneously:

no one can do it for you.

and you can’t do it alone.

That verdommende course is the loneliest 90km you’ll ever trudge. No one can take away your pain, no one can choose for you to put the next step down, to ignore the lurking vulture of a Bailer Bus creeping along in your peripheral vision, tempting you to climb on board and all the pain will go away (like the Devil in the desert tempting Jesus of Nazareth, those bloody Bailer Buses!) You will retreat into your own head, into your throbbing heaving chest and ask yourself who you are, where you’re going and WTF made you do this.

And then you draw. Draw in, draw breathe, draw courage from the wonderful strangers plodding beside you, handing you water, screaming your name, rubbing your legs, telling you to keep going, keep going, keep going, keep going, keep going… keep twelve bloody hours of going. They tell you wonderful lies, like “you’re looking good” and “almost there”… the bastards. The glorious wonderful human beings who have given up their day for no other reason than to help you slay your demons one by one, mile by mile, to scream your name louder than your muscles scream to stop. The mounted police looking so proud on their horses. The blind student who held his hand out for passing runners to give him high five. The woman with her placard saying “Shut up legs! You’ve got this.” The bhuta with his Tazz boot open pumping kalawa somewhere on the side of the road near Inchanga. Those kind people who raked thousands and thousands of plastic sachets off the road so those who follow didn’t slip. The dancers, the singers, the cheerers, old and young, all hues and sizes. You realise that you wouldn’t get much past 50km without them. Comrades only starts at Kilometre 50.

And what a life lesson. Your pursuit is yours alone–no one can do it for you. But you will not get very far without the support and kindness of others, stranger or friend. We are social creatures, even though our current historical moment would have us believe we are individual islands and others are for our use. We need each other, and Comrades’ glory is a triumphant testimony to our collective spirit as much as our individual determination. And what glory we can achieve when we are not only given the chance to go the distance, but then exercise the choice to also.


A shout out to Tshepo Joseph Shibambo of Apex Athletics Club, Pretoria. I owe you my race. Thank you. Ke a leboga.