Comrades 2014 - Six of the Best

It was a proud day for my brother, Alby. In the last decade, he has strung together ten consecutive Comrades runs thereby earning himself a permanent Green Number on completion of the 2013 edition. 2014 was the first year he'd be running in Green. And with it came shorter queues, better service and the respect of his fellow Green Mambas.

Alby being treated like royalty at the
expo's Green Number tent
I, on the other hand, was on number 6. 

"Oh, I remember my 6th," snicker the Green Mambas when they see my tally.

"Things were so much simpler then. Nine was a tough one. Bill Rowan that year. Eight wasn't too bad. Down I think. Bronze, definitely bronze. I barely remember anything before my 7th. Number ten is obviously the best. My team mates, a band of brothers really, made sure I finished that one. No more queues after ten. You'll know what it means when you get there."

They tend to peer off towards the horison when they speak about past races, fingering the embroidery on their permanent green number badges, and pulling at their skinny fingers where their wedding rings used to be.

My season had been a long one. From August 2012 plenty of juice had been squeezed out of the legs and during that time I had been lucky enough to commandeer two teams of Apocalypse Cows, race triathlon for province and country, race Ironman for myself, and cycle with friends across the Alps and Dolomites. So the 2014 Comrades would be a precursor to a break which had been a long time in coming.

The road out of Pietermaritzburg eased our way down her jagged flanks into the throat of Polly Shortts. The dark night bled itself into a sunrise fringed by clouds having the consistency of bleached intestines.   

At the 80k-to-go marker,  I checked our pace under the yellow glow of the street lights and compared them to my piece of paper containing distance and time markers. In the heat of battle everything returns to a visceral state and disables my ability to perform simple mathematical calculations. "52 minutes" I noted. Considering the handful of seconds it took us to cross the start line we were on cue. 

Who can remember the exact moment when reality crushed the pace chart? Probably after 30k's or so. Maybe closer to 40.

We saw some of the strong A team runners from our club (Go Bedfordview Athletics!) coming back to us before Inchanga with an array of ailments from jammed knees, cramping muscles and broken backs. Like front line soldiers returning from a failed assault. That was a sign of things to come.

We eased off the pace and corralled our fellow runners into formation, latching onto the camaraderie to help bury the discomfort a little bit deeper.

Here's a small world story:- a husband was taking a picture (see above) of his flying and waving wife. The picture did the rounds and someone recognised my brother and I in the background. Our club mate, Andries, was just behind us. He too was sporting our club's Oxford and Cambridge blue. That was the moment we started to find a group. Things were looking up. As the picture was being snapped, the day was getting warmer, the legs were purring and it felt good to be on the road.

If one could turn this picture into a Matisse and hang it up on the kitchen wall, I could quite confidently say "I was happy then. Life was good. The road was coming to us, the warm wind was at our backs and we were strong."

Madras Rouge, The Red Turban, 1907
(Henry Matisse)
However, and all Comrades runners or people who have shared inordinate amounts of discomfort would concur, Life is not always a Matisse. If only we were that blessed. It's rather a mixture of a cubist Picasso dissecting fragments of the truth and bottling them into a Daliesque-world of deserts and broken clocks.

The day is an eclectic mix of memories.

Conversations with Brazilians who don't speak a word of English concluded with staccato words of love and a tearful embrace. Sharing smarties between each other like shrooms in the neon room. Catching a fallen runner before they succumb to the sweet embrace of the tar. Runners leaning their foreheads against walls and retching over azaleas. Elvis and Marilyn cheering you on as pretty girls swing from hammocks in trees. Zombie runners, stationary in the middle of the road, wobbling on their own axis. Impeccably mannered school children in blazers and ties applauding with their eyes. Sports watches distorting time into an unstable space-time continuum.      
The Weeping Woman, 1937
(Pablo Picasso)

The Persistence of Memory, 1931
(Salvador Dali)

The hills heave and sigh. The camber leans and dives. Empty water packets pop under strained ankles. Lips quiver. Teeth gnaw. Calves ache. Quads agonize. This is no longer a race. Or a run. Or a walk. Truth be told, this is not much of a life. This is attrition. Cold blooded and relentless.

What keep us going is the faith that the road, as with all things, will come to an end.   

Gravity no longer works on the stadium's green grass. The soft lush field fluoresces like sparkling algae off a tropical island. Energy dissipates off the feet leaving a kaleidoscopic tail of crushed minutes and seconds in the shape of musical notes. Muffled sounds bottleneck into cocooned jazz packets and explode around the ears in firework-bursts of elation. The pounding torment from the hellish hag ride dissolves as a medal finds its way around your neck and the grimace is finally replaced by tranquility.      

In support of the fighting little James Read

Nine hours and forty minutes after the rooster crowed in Pietermaritzburg, Alby and I crossed the line. 

We turned our backs and pointed to the picture of little James Read on our backs. 
While our race was finished, his had just begun.

The quintessential South African odyssey is over. 
For at least another year.

Now where's my hammock....

Stef (manager and brother extraordinaire)
and the writer gatecrashing
the Green Number party
A Green Number?
One day soon you say?