I am sure that I am not alone in this wish, but when this whole Covid-19 “pandemic” nightmare is over (and hopefully that is very soon) there are some words and phrases I hope never to hear or speak again. These words include, “social- distancing”, “wear a mask”, “vaccine”, “sanitiser”, “pandemic,” “stay safe” “lockdown” “Covid protocols” “Ivermectin“ and,” for the greater good”. I hope also to see some phrases reverting to their original meaning i.e. “We’re all in this together” will be a war cry for a rugby team, or a rallying call for those about to start a marathon, and the “third wave” will be the breaker that knocked me off my feet at the beach. Finally, I long for the day when “virtual” races are confined to history. That is with the exception of one very captivating virtual race, and that is the virtual Comrades marathon which will be run on the 13th June. This year it will be known as the Comrades Centenary Hope Challenge.
I am virtually “virtualled out.” Like many of us I long for social interaction, for meetings with real people and for business over a coffee table, face to face. I have grown tired of virtual zoom, google meetings where “you’re on mute” is mentioned far too many times. Of course, I’m grateful for the work these meetings can generate and occasionally for the income I’ve earned from these sessions, However I have learnt that it can be really taxing, in fact exhausting, delivering a motivational speech to an almost invisible audience.
Most of all I have been longing for races with real runners. I can understand that the virtual run concept might have had some charm in the early days but the whole idea of constrained running was personally exorcised when, while enduring the hideous prison of lockdown level 5. I was forced to run 54 laps of my garden to be able to record a 5 kilometre run. I still cannot raise a smile about the memory of running loops around the rose bushes, past the dog’s bowl, up the stairs, circling the courtyard and garage and all this while anticipating the thrill of changing direction every 10 laps. At the end of that awful time, I had worn my own coronavirus ring of brown trampled grass around our garden. The grass took weeks to recover. It was as if the trampled grass was taunting me.
We runners need to get together to talk to each other, to tease and laugh and gossip together. Dare I say it, we also need to hug each other. I was given a glimpse and timely reminder of normality in November last year when the wonderful runners at Alberton Athletic club (AAC) bravely and almost defiantly staged a 10 km race with a participant’s limit of 500. (This was before the December second wave brought a sudden end to outdoor gatherings of that size) The race was an economic failure for AAC. You cannot make money when 500 or fewer can participate, but it was a massive social and compassionate success. AAC reminded those of us who were there that it is in our DNA to socially interact and that to force us apart is inhumane. After the race many of us stayed to chat and laugh and enjoy each other’s company. There may have been a few drinks consumed. I can remember only that I returned home smiling and content much later that afternoon.
That day the simplest things reminded me of how lockdown had robbed us of our humanity. I had my head down for most of the time I was running the 10km. race but I glanced up at one stage and looked straight at the 3kms distance board. I nearly wept at the sight of that board. It was just a simple distance marker, sporting the club’s emblem, but to me it represented everything precious about our sport and it underlined what we had been denied for many months. Most of all however that simple distance marker stood for freedom.
Incidentally, I was disqualified afterwards because some health official in a stuffy department office had decided that I was putting myself in severe danger by running a 10 km. race at age 60. I was not supposed to have even been at the venue.
However, there is an exception to my fatigue and boredom with virtual sporting events, and that is the Comrades Centenary Hope Challenge. This is one virtual race that I can get excited about. And my excitement is based on my experience of last year’s event. Last year’s virtual Comrades was so special. Perhaps it was the timing of the race. It came shortly after we had been released from the prison of lockdown level 5 but while we were still severely constrained. It felt like a delightful whiff of parole for convicts facing life sentences. The 2020 Virtual Comrades was also one of the first races to experiment with the concept. As such it felt, unique and exciting, and as a result it attracted tens of thousands of participants. I have no clue whose idea it was to open the race to all by including a number of different challenges and distances but that was a stroke of genius. Immediately the event became all-inclusive it and gave thousands the opportunity to become part of the Comrades family. It brought the global Comrades family together and allowed those who had never run the Comrades and those who will never be able to participate, to honour the race, and to feel part of the DNA of Comrades. Even this Comrades veteran felt emotional pinning on his old green number, 2403 again, and wearing it with pride when I ran despite the fact that I was “only” running the 10km. event.
Last year’s event has wonderful memories for us all. I recall us all emerging like curious moles from the suffocating enveloping soil of lockdown, whiskers twitching with excitement and eyes blinking in the bright light of freedom. Some of us resembled drowsy bears tumbling, shaky-legged from our dark dens after months of slumbering hibernation. Before my group of virtual Comrades friends set off to run we poured excitedly over social media posts from New Zealand and Australia where our Comrades cousins had already run their Comrades races. When we set off on our many adventures I recall cars hooting as they drove past, random strangers cheering and, eager neighbours hastily erecting seconding tables. Runners waved joyfully. I remember being inspired by some acts of courage or insanity where some had elected to run the full 90 kms. (My friend Kirsty Brits’ odyssey springs to mind where she and a friend ran the full 90 kms across the Namib desert. They finished exhausted and seared and sandblasted by the sun and wind but triumphant and happy. A handful of Swakopmund friends clapped and cheered as they completed their odyssey.) But for the majority of runners the distance covered that day was not as important as was the sheer joy of participating in something special and memorable, something that mattered and made a difference.
For those same reasons I simply cannot wait for this year’s event. Besides which I’ve had a glimpse of the finisher’s medal and it’s a cracker, a real beaut. The medal alone makes the run unmissable. Most of all I look forward to a happy sequel to last year’s successful event and to experiencing the same positive adventures we enjoyed last year. This year’s run has an extra buzz of excitement to it because I suspect we can all see light at the end of what was a long bleak tunnel. The madness seems to be coming to an end. Certainly everyone I chat to firmly believe that the 2022 Comrades will return as a normal a race as possible and that we may soon see road running races return again.
This morning on my run I was passed by a runner proudly wearing last year’s Virtual run T shirt. I knew exactly what he was training for. He was training for the Comrades Centenary Hope Challenge on 13th June ( By the way it’s not that hard to pass me on a run nowadays !) His smile and enthusiastic wave when I commented reminded me that perhaps the one blessing of this awful time is that every year we will have two Comrades runs to celebrate; the actual 90 kilometre monster and the Virtual Comrades marathon of hope . I hope it stays that way in future.
Entries for the Comrades Centenary Hope Challenge Enter close on the 13th June. Entries are open for everyone around the World.
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