Updated: Mar 13, 2019
What is it about Pinetown that makes it such a gruelling part of the down Comrades marathon? Perhaps it is its position, lying in a deep bowl in sub-tropical KZN, 70 grueling kilometres after the start. (It certainly doesn’t help that it lies at the foot of the bone-jarring descent of Fields Hill and that, with shattered legs, runners have still to struggle up three major hills - Cowie’s, 45th Cutting, and Tollgate.) Perhaps it is the din of the cheering crowds and baring Vuvuzelas that irritate instead of encourage.
Whatever it is, in the din and heat and humidity of Pinetown, thousands of Comrades marathon runners find themselves swearing and muttering quietly to the road, to themselves and to other runners, “What am I doing here? This is insane. Never ever again. Never ever, ever again.”
Though surrounded by hundreds of other runners and encouraged by throngs of spectators, I know Pinetown is where each runner will never have felt so alone. I've been there; and this is where you have to confront yourself and decide whether to give up or battle on.
What you end up deciding is your decision and yours alone. However, my advice is simple: remember that thousands of fellow Comrades runners have reached that same barrier and have have struggled on, rather than throw in the towel.
It is very tempting to drop out and seek relief in the entourage of pick-up vehicles where beguiling helpers seem to beckon like Ulysses’ sirens. Or to rest - just for a moment - under the shade of a spectator's umbrella. When measured against the subsequent guilt and disappointment you will probably feel, it is actually easier to keep on going. The relief is merely physical, but your feelings about it can last a lifetime.
Try to remember the words of Eric Liddell, the runner from the famous movie, Chariots of Fire, ”And where does the power come from to see the race to its end? From within.”
Do your best not to think about the last 20 kilometres of the race, but on the next landmark. It can be daunting to ponder on the challenge of still having to run nearly half a marathon, especially for those for whom a half marathon was an enormous challenge in January this year.
So break the race into 'chewable chunks'. Get the Pinetown flats behind you, then climb Cowie’s Hill. Next it’s the steep drop down to the dual carriageway and, at Cowie’s Hill, there are just 10 kilometres to go. Suddenly the challenge becomes a simple morning run, and your spirits will lift. The impossible will seem eminently possible.
Focus on the 91-year history and tradition of this great race. This is not your qualifying marathon in some obscure dorpie. This is not your Sunday training run. This is the greatest ultra-marathon in the World, and this is your opportunity to write your own paragraph in the next chapter of the epic.
Join a bus or small group of determined runners, eat a bit, drink something. Keep yourself busy. Chat to another runner and wave at spectators. If you spot a television camera, start running steadily and challenge yourself to look strong for the viewers (after all there are a few million of them). Above all, don’t allow yourself to slip into quiet, depressed contemplation. A quiet runner is a runner thinking about stopping. A talking, waving runner is too busy to consider stopping. Before you know it, you will be running down the concrete canyon on Durban’s Berea with just 4 kilometres to go.
Then prepare yourself for the highlight of your Comrades - no matter how many you run: the last lap around Kingsmead cricket ground. There, you will change your mind about that 'never, ever, ever again' vow you made earlier.
As you circle that ground, blowing kisses, air-punching or waving furiously, remind yourself that, in Pinetown, you met a hero, and someone you now deeply admire. You met yourself.
Adapted with kind permission of The Citizen newspaper.
Image taken by Gill Fordyce. Bruce Fordyce, with two fellow runners, on Pinetown Old Main Road, just past St. John's Road Bridge... 19 km to go to complete the Comrades Marathon.