Why do runners run? Why do they enter a half marathon, a marathon, and who in their right mind would enter an ULTRAmarathon? Why would anyone want to run 89.17km on a road? Surely there are easier ways to get from one city to the next – bicycle, bus, car? Yet every year thousands of athletes from around the world line the streets of South Africa to compete in the 89.17km Comrades marathon, known as “the ultimate human race”.
When I was young, my family would religiously watch the event on tv – all 12 hours of it. We’d eat, drink and laugh at the stupid people who thought that running this distance was fun! And every year I would think to myself, one day when I am big, I will run and complete that race.
When I did “become big”, I sat and wondered again why people would run. Then I heard about the ton of chocolate eaten on the route, along with 5.4 tons of bananas, 448 pockets of oranges and numerous other goodies (bottomless coke, cream soda and powerade). Maybe this was their inspiration (If I run 8km, I can have a chocolate bar, if I run 89.17km, can I eat as much as I like?) Nothing was able to prepare me for what I was about to endure.
Months of training behind me (and countless slabs of chocolate to make up for the burnt kilojoules), I stand at the start, amongst 12 900 other runners who have decided the free chocolate and coke is a good way to spend the day. The first 60km breeze by and we all laugh, joke, run and walk along. The entire route is lined with spectators who scream my name and cheer me on. In this race, everyone gets their name printed on their race number, not just the “elite” athletes. The sea of supporters continue along the road and I am embarrassed to walk in front of them for they have such belief that I am a hero. If only they knew, I was just here for the food and a possible chance to be on national television. By the time I plod past, some of them have even lost their voices from all their shouting, yet they continue to encourage as best they can with crazy statements like “you are looking so good” and “not much further to go now”.
This race begins at 60km with 29km to go. I dig deep and recall the tunes played every year at the start – firstly the South African national anthem, followed by the theme song to Chariots of Fire. I hum along in my head as my feet pound the pavement and try to ignore the shooting pain increasing in my knees and quads with every step. I wonder whether chocolate will take away the pain, whether it will make me feel better? Instead I make conversation with those around me and we recall happier moments of sport – I develop friendships in those few minutes which will last a lifetime.
The challenge increases with each stride (more like a shuffle at this point of the day), but with only a few kms left to endure. I see a man stumbling along the road leaning to one side and another who is vomiting in the gutter – clearly they did not eat enough chocolate to get them through this long day. I take my time, 12 hours from the start before the cut off gun shatters the stadium, the longer I run, the more I can feast!
10 hours, 45 minutes have elapsed before I enter the stadium. And I know now I did not do this for the chocolate, or the biscuits , or the coke. Tears fill my eyes as I cross the finish line, surrounded by runners who are now my friends, crowds who have pulled me through this day. I have completed the ultimate human race.
I started running because I love chocolate. I ran 10km, then 21km. As my desire for chocolate grew, I needed to add more kms, hence the upgrade to ultramarathons. Now I can eat as much chocolate as I want. But I realise after this race that I dont only run to savour the next Lindt ball or box of honeycomb Tim Tams. I run to learn about myself, to reveal who I truly am inside and to challenge myself to be a stronger person. So here’s a challenge for you – enter a race, maybe even the 2010 Comrades marathon in South Africa. Work hard at it, but dont forget to enjoy the chocolate along the way.