Updated: Mar 13, 2019
Forty years ago I gave myself the greatest gift I ever could. I set off on a run. It wasn’t for long. I ran for precisely 10 minutes around the Wits University rugby fields, and I ran at night so no-one would see me. Looking back at my training log, I wrote, “Ran for 10 minutes around the university rugby fields. Quite tough, Coughed and spluttered a bit.” But I returned the next night, and the next, starting an odyssey that profoundly changed my life for the better. I also continued to make entries in that diary, which is something I still do. Now, as I look back at a journey that has covered nearly half the distance to the moon and includes hundreds of marathons, I can at last grasp the importance of those first, faltering steps.
It doesn't usually take long for us to understand why running is so important to us. We feel the health benefits and watch the reading on the bathroom scales plummet. We love to travel to races, exploring our country, and the world. We enjoy great, enduring friendships.
We are reminded of our hunter-gatherer roots as we run through the seasons, listening for the first cuckoo of spring and watching the autumn swallows gather. We splash through puddles and watch our frosty breath hanging in white puffs behind us. We run through countless glowing sunrises and fiery sunsets.
We understand that you don’t have to be number one to be a winner. Every time we tighten the laces on our shoes and set off to live a lifetime in one run, we win. We learn that we control our own destiny and nothing is written until we write it.
It is no coincidence that I mark this anniversary today. That first short run of mine was my attempt to control my life in the wake of the terrible events in Soweto two days before. On 16 June 1976, having learnt of the nightmare unfolding in Soweto, we Wits students had naively set off on our own march, in solidarity with the Soweto youngsters. We didn’t get very far. On the old Queen Elizabeth Bridge we were set upon by thugs from the SA Railway Police. The brutality and vicious hatred I experienced from them that day left me feeling numb and helpless. I was a lost victim.
My first running steps were an attempt to restore order in my life and to be a master of my own fate. The decision to start running gives all of us a feeling of control and a sense of purpose. While running, particularly when the going gets tough, we are constantly given the greatest gift - meeting a person we learn to respect and admire. A meeting with ourselves.
Someone who's been where I have, and more, is Don Ritchie. He started running a decade before me and has won dozens of major ultra-marathons and holds 11 ultra-marathon world records. We enjoyed swapping stories while at his home in Lossiemouth, Aberdeenshire Scotland, earlier this month.