For the first time in 40 years I watched the Comrades Marathon from a different perspective – from the VIP stand on the side. It was a sight I will never forget. The endless stream of runners who poured excitedly past us has to be seen to be believed. 20,000 runners is a huge army, and the flow of cheering and singing runners went on for ages.
After watching the start and rubbing shoulders with lots of past winners, sponsors and Comrades dignitaries, my wife Gill and I drove to Drummond to assist at a seconding table for Complete Marathons at the top of Inchanga.
Drummond was buzzing with spectators and club volunteers busy erecting tables and gazebos, and starting their braais. All the while, as spectators sipped hot coffee, we could see and hear the progress of the race on portable televisions and radios. I bumped into 4-time Comrades Marathon champion, Alan Robb, and his wife, Marietjie. Alan was quick to remark that it was probably the first time we had been together at Drummond and were not frantically racing each other!
I wonder how many Comrades runners know that the race may have been in danger of being stopped outright this year. Inchanga was a thick pall of smoke in the early morning, with blazing bush fires crackling alongside the very road the runners were going to have to climb. There was some amazing work done by fire-fighters and emergency personnel on the slopes of the famous hill to ensure the race went ahead without incident. I’m sure even the most exhausted runner could not have failed to notice the acrid smell of wood-smoke on the summit of Inchanga.
The summit of Inchanga (the 4th major climb on the up Comrades) is an excellent vantage point for watching the race falling into place. The men’s race featured a lead pack of most of the major contenders, all keying off each other. I noticed Bongmusa Mthembu and Ludwick Mamabolo looking particularly strong and alert.
When Camille Herron came past, I have to admit I thought she had thrown away her chances. In my opinion, leading the Comrades Marathon from very early on is an extremely foolhardy way to run the race. It puts massive pressure on the leader and forces her to be ‘the hunted’ for the entire race.
I always preferred to be the hunter. My plan was always to take the lead as late as possible in the race and then work hard to establish an unassailable cushion. Camille appeared to be going all out to win it from as early as possible. She came past me with her ungainly running style charging like a praying mantis thrashing through the air. I gave her very little chance of holding her lead even though it was over 6 minutes.
How wrong I was. And when I think back on my memory of those few seconds as she passed me, I recall thinking that her running style may have looked bizarre, but that she was devouring the ground very quickly.
Gill and I helped at the Complete Marathons seconding table for a while, then walked down Inchanga to Drummond to drive to the finish. That walk down the famous hill will remain indelibly etched in my mind.
For the first time, I was witness to the true spirit of Comrades as a spectator. Thousands of runners streamed past us heading for Pietermaritzburg. They still had a full marathon to run, yet most were still in good spirits, determined to push on no matter what. There were many who stopped to pose for selfies with me and still more who shouted greetings or shook my hand.
“Bruce, just don’t tell us it’s all downhill from here,” one runner joked.
I’m not a fan of the new finish at Scottsville. The distance may be a bit shorter, but there is a nasty sting in the tail with the last climb onto the grass. However, my biggest gripe is that the spectators and runners are too far removed from each other.
The runners run down the horse-racing straight and the spectators are inadvertently kept far back by safety rails and barriers. I know the old finish was busting at the seams and there were capacity constraints, but I loved its intimacy and the close contact it offered with spectators. When I ran my last up Comrades back in 2011, I finished to an explosion of noise and cheering. I felt I could almost touch the clapping spectators. Distance robs the race of some of its magic. For example, the dramatic last-minute finish was lost for many of us at this year’s race.
This was another tough year. While not as gruesome as the 2013 up run it seems many runners struggled and finished in times far slower than they had hoped. Indeed, champion Bongmusa Mthembu’s winning time was on the slow side (However, a win is a win !) and, throughout the field, there were many disappointed finishers.
I understand there were more visitors to the hospital tent this year than in ‘normal years’. We had been warned to expect rain, but it stayed away. Instead, it was warmer and dryer than we had anticipated, and this contributed to the race being a struggle from early on. My congratulations go to everyone who ran. You can proudly boast “I ran the 2017 up run.”
At every Comrades Marathon there is an abiding memory or a special moment. This year that moment has to go to the lady’s champion, the delightful Camille Herron. She had us all in a complete state of anxiety when she stopped in the finishing straight underneath what she supposed was the finish line. Unfortunately, she had stopped under the spectator bridge and still had a few metres to run. The screaming from the spectators rose to a desperate crescendo as she nonchalantly waved and blew kisses. Camille will forever be in debt to the runner who grabbed her by the arm and guided her to the real finish line.
Congratulations, Camille. We look forward to welcoming you to next year’s race.
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