In Roman times a victorious general, returning from a successful battle or campaign, was often awarded a celebratory parade through the streets of Rome in front of an adoring Roman citizenry. This parade was called a Triumph and was accompanied by all sorts of pomp and ceremony. The conquering general rode a gold bedecked chariot pulled by
4 magnificent stallions. The general wore a laurel crown and a purple toga trimmed with gold. These trappings signified the near kingly or divine status of the general. Marching ahead of the general’s chariot with their bugles and trumpets blowing, and holding aloft their regimental standards, strode his victorious legionnaires. Walking with the legions came the spoils and plunder of war including many slaves and conquered enemies, and often the defeated chief of the conquered foe. This poor king was usually executed at the conclusion of the Triumph. In 46 BC after his successful Gallic campaign Julius Caesar was granted 4 Triumphs and Vercingetorix the chief and king of the Gallic Averni was executed by strangulation at the conclusion of one of these Triumphs. All this glory, power and adulation was bound to go to a general’s head and perhaps give him pretensions of grandeur, so the parade also included a young slave boy whose job it was to stand behind the general in the chariot and from time to time to tug the general’s toga and whisper this reminder “memento mori”. “Remember, you will die” (Remember general you are not immortal, and you too will one day be humbled by death.)
The Latin words “memento mori” remind me that that as runners, no matter how talented or fast or experienced we may believe we are, the marathon can still humble us. And when the marathon chooses to bring us back to Earth it doesn’t give us a gentle tug on the toga, it gives us a hefty “klap” (whack or punch). Experienced runners describe the experience as ” the bear climbing on your back, or like hitting a brick wall.” I would argue that you’re not a proper runner until you’ve been properly humbled by the marathon.
I believe it was the great Bill Rodgers, who recently turned 72, who coined the phrase “the marathon can always humble you” I recall reading his post race interview after the bear climbed on his back in the 1977 Boston marathon. Chasing eventual winner Jerome Drayton of Canada, Rodgers found the pace and the heat just too much and was forced to drop out of the race at 17 miles. This came as a huge shock to the Boston course record holder, and to his adoring Massachusetts fans. After all Rodgers had run 2:09:55 in 1975 and he should have been able to cope easily with the pace. Drayton went on to win in a relatively slow 2:14:46.
I remind those who have forgotten, or whose running days are too young to remember, that “Boston” Billy Rodgers has been one of the greatest marathon runners ever to run the marathon’s brutal 42 kilometres. His inspirational running and his humble, yet engaging personality, are among the reasons that so many of us run today, and that the sight of a group of runners running along roads is commonplace now. For several years Rodgers was ranked number one in the world at the marathon distance and indeed at other road race distances. In the 1970s he won four Boston marathons and four New York marathons as well as a host of other races. Frank Shorter’s win in the 1972 Olympic marathon is credited with starting the running boom, but Bill Rodgers brilliance is credited with keeping the fire burning. So, for him to concede that running a marathon can be a humbling experience is an ominous warning for all us lesser mortals.
I must admit that I have had my toga tugged many times while racing, but one occasion in particular springs to mind. I ran the 2012 Comrades marathon confident of earning a silver medal. (sub 7 ½ hours) Despite being in my mid- fifties, I “knew I could do it” as I had very narrowly missed a silver the year before when the race was an up run. (My years of experience reassured me that though the down run is longer than the up run, at silver medal pace it is 5 to 10 minutes quicker.) I had also recently recorded a sub 3 hour standard marathon which many veterans use as the benchmark for assessing a runner’s chances of earning a Comrades silver medal.
When Max Trimborn’s cockerel crow rang through the air at the Pietermaritzburg City Hall that morning I was brimming with silver medal confidence. Ignoring my own advice to runners to start the Comrades like a coward so that you can finish like a hero, I probably started too fast. Hours later, on the Botha’s Hill descent my old running legs began to protest. I was stiffening up, my quads were aching and I was struggling a little. I was still confident that I could break the 7 ½ hour barrier but I knew that it was going to be a struggle, a long and bitter one. I realised that a possible marathon humiliation was looming, on the distant horizon, close to the shimmering Indian Ocean.
At Winston Park I rounded a bend in the road to find a weary Zola Budd-Pieterse trudging dejectedly along the road. Like all competitive runners I ran straight past Zola while silently lecturing her;
“ Zola you started too quickly. This is your first Comrades, and you chose this occasion to race ahead of me, me, a former race winner. Foei tog Zola jy het te vinning begin ( “Oh dear Zola you started too quickly.”) I had run a dozen or so triumphant paces when my brain suddenly experienced a rare moment of genius, an epiphany.
“If you’re not going to win the race and win a gold medal and your silver medal prospects are beginning to look grim“ I pondered “ then finishing with the legendary Zola is equivalent to a platinum medal . I immediately slowed down and waited for Zola to catch me.
Zola graciously allowed me to accompany her for the remaining 25 kilometres or so that we had left to run. Together we gritted our teeth, dug deeply, cursed a lot, and laughed a little. We chatted wryly about how the marathon can always humble you, even if you are a former Comrades winner or an Olympian, World record holder and World cross country champion.
We shuffled a bit, walked a lot more and discovered that we were a Jack Sprat and his wife couple.
I was useless on the downhills and Zola struggled on the ascents. But together we dragged ourselves to the finish at Kingsmead.
We were given a tumultuous welcome by the Kingsmead spectators when we finished. This turned out to be a marketing opportunity of a lifetime. The next morning the newspaper photographs of Zola crossing the finish line almost had as much prominence as those of the race winners. But we both knew it was the marathon that had triumphed. We had been truly humbled on the road from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.
I doubt that a year ago there is a single runner who would have predicted that an invisible virus would bring marathon running to a grinding halt and that for many months we would not be gathering in our thousands to run marathons and other road races. Now suddenly the marathon itself has been humbled, and in a manner none of us could have foreseen. As things stand, we marathon runners are the humbled and vanquished and this virus has conquered us. No one can predict when we will run again. Covid -19 appears to be triumphant, riding vainly on an ugly chariot compelling us to cancel and postpone events, or to arrange virtual races and races with exclusive elite fields. It is almost like a bad dream. And it has set us a challenge that is unlike any other we have ever faced. The virus has challenged us to run a marathon for which there is no end. Depressingly, we have no idea how far we have to run.
I think we must understand we are running a serious ultramarathon here. We have already come a long way and we may have some way to go but we should treat this challenge exactly as we would any long- distance race. We need to take it one step at a time and one day at a time and we will prevail one day.
After all our hero Bill Rodgers came back from defeat and surrender at the 1977 Boston marathon to triumph many more times at Boston, at New York and dozens of other marathons.
And Zola returned to Comrades two years later and without the handicap of my company humbled the course and her opposition by finishing 7th overall and first veteran.
I had the good sense to call it quits and to retire on 30 Comrades runs and to turn my attention and energies to trying to make a positive difference in the lives of South Africans. With the invaluable help of family and friends I turned to a to a new phenomenon called parkrun.
I have absolutely no doubt that the marathon will prevail, and we will challenge ourselves to run marathons again not as virtual runs or in wave starts but like we used to in great excited cheering masses of runners and and that will be the greatest triumph ever. I can’t wait for that joyous time.
I apologise for not blogging for a while during lockdown. However I have not been idle. I have written a new book “Winged Messenger”. I share my 1976/77 training diary so that raw novices and experienced runners alike can follow the journey I took to my first Comrades.
Novices particularly will enjoy reading about how I took my first stumbling, rudimentary steps and how I began to understand the demands of the race. My mistakes and progress towards my date with destiny in May 1977.
“This is a unique blend of both a training guide and a fascinating glimpse of the life of a young man in his quest to conquer both himself and South Africa’s greatest race.”
I’m also delighted to introduce you to FordyceFusion, which offers personal guidance for your running journey.
So, if you are considering taking that first step, or if you are an existing runner looking for a more fulfilling running experience, please click here for more.
WINGED MESSENGERCopies of my book "Winged Messenger" are available for sale here - BUY WINGED MESSENGER
THE FORDYCE DIARIES
THE 86 AND 88 COMRADES MARATHONS
CONQUERING THE UP AND TACKLING A DOWN RUN
The must-have books for everyone who wants to run - or win - ultra-marathons.
"My new eBooks are not an update of my old bestseller, but a new duo full of old wisdom. And some new ideas."
ONLY AVAILABLE HERE, AT BRUCEFORDYCE.COM