Ultra Country - how South Africans created the legacy of Comrades

South Africans are a strange bunch.

Ask any South African what their most popular marathon event is and I'll bet you a stuk of biltong* and a bottle of Wit Blitz** that they'll answer "Comrades".

Now - and this is the interesting bit - Comrades isn't a regular marathon of 42.2 kms. Comrades is an ultra marathon. "Ultra" means "more than". What is "more than" you ask? Well, it's approximately 87 to 90 kilometres depending on which direction you run. The nonchalance to have a race of magnanimous proportions and varying distances in itself reflects on the make up of the South African mentality. What would be considered hardcore in most cultivated countries, South Africans pigeon-hole into the "Long Slow Distance" training box. The usual response to someone telling you their standard marathon time, no matter how fast or how slow they are, is not congratulatory or one of awe as you might expect, but rather the question of whether they'll use the time for their Comrades seeding i.e. the seeding that determines the starting pen into which they will be goaded come race morning.    

For those unfamiliar with Comrades, here's a quick history-in-a-nutshell lesson:
Started in 1921 by a 35-year-old war veteran, Vic Clapham, the 90km (or 56 mile) footrace alternates direction between Pietermartizburg and Durban and serves as a living memorial to the soldiers of the Great War.  
Reasons as to why South Africa, the rainbow potjiekos*** of a nation that it is, is an ultra country are many. Some argue that it's because it's a frontier town right at the bottom of the world map and oh-so-very-far from the better geographically placed civilisations with their housebroken citizens, warehouse cities of anti malaria vaccines, and at least two civil wars under their belts.

Others argue that Comrades became so entrenched in the country's psyche because of it being popularised, in the quiet period before reality television, by South Africa's unnatural focus on the event during the isolationist years. The South African Broadcasting Corporation would broadcast the entire spectacle on national television for the entire 12 hours of the race thus ensuring everyone from the elites to the last wobbly runner would have their moment under the TV spotlight. This guaranteed that each race would be watched throughout the country's living rooms and communal bars by every entertainment-starved family in South Africa.

Many South African childhoods, for those lucky enough to be born in the Sixties and Seventies, were filled with fond fuzzy memories of Kiwis flower bombing the Springboks from a Cessna in 1981 and having the Comrades televised for the entire day. That was, of course, for those who had access to televisions. Houses were filled with shouts of "He's on the field. Come watch!" Whether it be for Bruce Fordyce who had once again run away from Bob de la Motte to yet another victory, or for the last Silver medallist (sub 7h30m), or for the last runner clawing their way to a medal before the insensitive firing of the finish line gun. 

Those childhood memories remain etched. And it reminds one of a time when no-one really questioned why flower bombs were being dropped onto rugby players or why so many people of all colours and sizes were doing such a long and painful race. It's just what everyone did. And so as we grew up we used this as a benchmark for things to come and accordingly recalibrated our expectations of what would normally be considered a limitation.

You can imagine the indurate thinking of our old school running and spectating predecessors, as they sat in their camping chairs drinking Castle lagers and milk stouts soaking themselves in Comrades folklore, decreeing:
Our fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters ran the Comrades marathon. Henceforth it shall be the rite of passage for all future runners, their children, and their children's children.
Oh yes - one more thing - we heard the Kiwis flew a Cessna over their stadium and dropped flower bombs on our players during the rugby match. Henceforth we'll buzz the stadium with a Boeing 747 every time we play the All Blacks. No half measures on that one. 
So that's exactly what they did.

This feeling of tenacity and stoutheartedness gifted to all South Africans allows them to believe that no matter what is thrown at them, with grace and fortitude all and everything can be overcome.

So, on Sunday 1 June 2014 at just before 5.30am, as the rest of the world sits back recovering from the previous day's 5k fun walk and sipping on its double-shot-espresso-lattes while double tapping the volume on the TV control, a group of about 18,000 South Africans mixed with a dollop of hardcore international athletes will be scrunching their fingers and toes, in the cold air of Pietermaritzburg.

The runners will be staring blankly off into the dark call of the morning immersed in the echoes of Vangelis and its Chariots of Fire. Overwhelmed with the hope that the pain to come - and by Jove it will come - will not be as bad as their fears. And that the voices of runners long past will sustain and invigorate them when the hills and valleys becomes fearful and loathing. And that the soft green grass of the Durban stadium will still be there waiting to ease their muscles and shepherd their limbs around the stadium and allow them to cross the most sacrosanct, reputed and welcoming of all marathon (ultra or otherwise) finish lines.

My best Comrades picture from 2013. Keeto running to his wife
closely followed by the squad. Lots of tears.

Tip top taper,

*stuk of biltong - stick of dried meat, a much better version of beef jerky
**wit-blitz - South Africa's answer to moonshine
***potjiekos - stew cooked in a three-legged cast-iron pot over an open fire