“Jissie dis ver” (Jeez it’s far) Zola Budd muttered under her breath as we ran shoulder to shoulder down the Berea. We were grinding our way through the last few kilometres of the 2012 Comrades marathon and both of us were hanging on desperately and counting down the last few kilometres to the finish at Kingsmead stadium.
“Vasbyt Zola” I replied, “ons is amper daar.” (Hang on Zola, we’re nearly there)
Zola was running her first Comrades marathon; I was running my 30th, but in the 3 hours or so that I spent running alongside her I learnt so much from this genius of long-distance running. I learnt most about how to overcome an immense barrier, a mountain of a task. Zola reminded me that you eat an elephant one bite at a time.
But I digress, let me start at the beginning and explain how Zola and I came to be running together at the end of the 2012 Comrades marathon.
Earlier that year there had been a wave of excitement and a buzz of anticipation when Zola Budd’s Comrades entry arrived at Comrades house.
Her manager, Ray de Vries, caused a sensation when he announced that the twice World cross country champion, and multiple world record holder had decided to take a major leap into the unknown and had decided to run the World’s most famous ultramarathon. Zola’s entry was the major story of that year’s race.
As a friend and admirer of Zola’s I immediately agreed when Ray asked if I would appear in a couple of press publicity photos at Durban’s Kings Park athletics stadium. The photo shoot was largely uneventful except for one exceptional moment. Zola had been quiet and modest as she always is, but she asked one favour of the photographer. Standing on the right red tartan track she said to the photographer,
“Please take one photograph of me standing here “
When we enquired why she wanted that photograph she replied,
“Because I set a world junior record here a few years ago.”
We were stunned into respectful silence.
A few weeks later, on race morning I wished Zola luck in the early morning chill at the start of the race, and we went our separate ways. That was the last I saw of her for several hours. Her starting pace was considerably bolder than mine. But at Winston Park with about 30 kilometres to run I rounded a bend to see a slightly crestfallen Zola walking towards the distant finish.
I remember thinking.
“Cheeky little imp, what does she think she is doing running ahead of me for 60 kms. Isn’t she aware of my Comrades C.V.”
I shot straight past her with an encouraging grunt and a nod, but I had run some 200 metres or so when it suddenly struck me.
This was the marketing opportunity of a lifetime, and I was about to ignore it.
Acknowledging that my winning days were long gone, I muttered to myself.
“If you’re not going to win the race “I muttered to myself, then finishing with Zola is a brilliant alternative.”
Zola accepted my offer of race companionship.
And so, we ran together sharing the journey to Kingsmead stadium. Zola is wonderful Comrade’s companion. She doesn’t engage in irritating conversation, in fact she is a lady of few words, she doesn’t bump or wonder into her companions running space, she shares water, and she is happy to walk when the hill is ridiculously steep. And with one exception that day she doesn’t get grumpy.
Watching Zola running was a delight. She has a unique, elbows out, efficient running style but watching her tackle the task of eating the Comrades elephant like a seasoned veteran was even more inspiring. Despite my 30 Comrades runs and hundreds of marathons I was still a student of our sport watching Zola break the race down into chewable chunks and bite-able bits. She ignored distance markers until there were just 10 kilometres to run. “What’s next Bruce, “she would enquire.
“The descent of Fields Hill Zola” I would reply.
“Right let’s get that done.”
And now Bruce?
“Cowie’s Hill Zola”
“Great, let’s get that monster behind us.”
And so, we continued until we had just 10 kilometres to run. But the 10km. distance board was missing, and then I witnessed Zola’s only grumpy moment that morning.
“Where’s the 10km. board” she exploded.
“Relax Zola, it has fallen over, or it’s been stolen. We will see the 9km. board around the corner. “
“How do you know?” she angrily replied “Oh sorry, of course you know. Now its less than my morning training run to the finish.”
And a little later.
“5 kilometres to go. That’s my favourite distance.”
And so, we finished in Kingsmead stadium together in a little over 8 hours and hundreds of spectators gave Zola a thoroughly deserved standing ovation. That shared Comrades journey remains one of my most treasured Comrades memories.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that two years later, unencumbered by my presence Zola ran the down comrades over an hour faster, and finished 7th overall and first veteran lady.
This blog is published by kind permission of The Citizen Newspaper.
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