Updated: Feb 2
There’s a rough red dust path that hugs the inside perimeter of Biyamiti bush camp, deep in the Kruger National Park. The path runs between the humming electric fence and the sad wooden benches with their rusting plaques mourning Oom Jan and Tannie Taljaard, “Who so loved this place” and "Our Dad, who taught us to love wild places, with love and gratitude from the Bloody Kids”.
When I am there, and I visit occasionally, I love to trace that path, running in the early Spurfowl-cackling dawn, trailing puffs of deeply exhaled breath that are borne away behind me by soft zephyrs of bushveld wind. I relish inhaling great lungfuls of the rich bushveld air that smells of the magic of Africa; a potpourri of dry elephant dung, potato bush, wild sage and woodsmoke from last night’s braai, which we friends enjoyed under a billion laser-beam stars.
A late Scops owl calls “Krrrp, Krrrp”, and a distant baboon sentry barks at me from the cliffs across the dry, sandy Biyamiti river all pockmarked with hundreds of yesterday’s meandering animal spoor. As I run, I stare northwards and thrill at the thought that this wilderness stretches for hundreds of kilometres, and I marvel at the realisation that there are leopards out there that are fortunate enough never to have encountered a human.
And so, one chilly June morning I swept around the northern corner of that red-dust path to suddenly find myself face to face with a great Cape Buffalo bull. For an instant, we were both startled. I froze, relieved that I was protected by that humming, crackling electric fence. He snorted and tossed his huge gnarled boss threateningly, and then we both just stood still and stared at each other.
He was standing ankle deep in damp, cobwebbed grass, the cobwebs shimmering with morning dew like small misty shields. His nose twitched and glistened, and slightly comical straws of grass poked from the corner of his slow-chewing jaw, like an absentminded diner who has forgotten to wipe the corner of his mouth. Though, of course, there is nothing comical about the Cape Buffalo.
I reminded myself that this great beast, staring at me with angry blood orange eyes and an expression that suggested I owe him money, is so dangerous that only the female Anopheles mosquito is more deadly. And so we stared at each other and continued to stand still. And stared at each other some more, and I suddenly realised that these special moments are why I love our sport so much.
Many of us love racing; testing ourselves against ourselves, or against others, or even the relentless, never-tiring stopwatch. We delight at setting a new p.b. or completing a gruelling ultra-marathon and proudly displaying the race medal.
I remember understanding that I was a different person after my first marathon, from the person I was before the starter’s gun had set us on our way. I have admired and studied the look in the eyes of a first-time Comrades finisher, who realises they met someone they deeply admire and respect on the Pietermaritzburg/Durban road. Themselves.
And, yes, the winning was wonderful, and I treasure every memory I have of carrying the Mayor’s baton across the finish line at the end of the Comrades marathon. I would gladly sell my soul for one more opportunity to lead the Comrades field across the finish line. (Sadly, I suspect that I bargained my soul away long ago and what remains is of little value.)
However, as special as the victories were, they form a mere part of a lifetime of running. Now that I have joined the back-starting corrals and batches, with the thousands who can never win, I have learnt to enjoy my running just as much. I have given myself permission to be slow. Just ask any injured runner what is more important to them - winning or simply running - and I’m sure most will choose the latter.
The travel, too, has been a great adventure and a special running gift. Some of us have been able to use the excuse of a race as a chance to travel and to see our country and the world.
From time to time there has been a little prize money. (Though that is a bitter subject for those of us who won in the 1980s.) Besides, no amount of prize money can remotely match receiving an award from Nelson Mandela, whose words still make me chuckle, “Ah, here comes Bruce, the man with more Comrades than my A.N.C."
It has also been reassuring to know that exercise is good for us and that running has its health benefits. But, like addicts desperate for an illicit drug, I suspect many of us would run even if it were proved that it was a most unhealthy pursuit. We are addicted. We crave our regular dose of heroin-like endorphins. I can miss a day’s running, perhaps even a couple. But by the third day, I simply have to run.
I also believe we runners just love to move, to experience running as our hunter-gatherer ancestors did. Moving sometimes very quickly, sometimes slowly, gazing at sunsets and sunrises, running in rainstorms and with snow underfoot. There is also something special about embracing and mastering pain, making it a friend.
I remember, back in 1981, talking to my friend Auret Van Heerden after his release by the apartheid security police from months of solitary confinement and torture. (Auret was a NUSAS chairman and also chairman of our running club.) Of course, after months incarcerated in solitary confinement in a small prison cell, he missed good food, his family and his girlfriend, but he also told me he missed the pain that accompanies running. He missed that ache in his legs. He particularly longed for the burning in his lungs when climbing a steep hill. Upon his release, he ran up and down Johannesburg’s gold mine dumps. I understood.
And finally, there are the friendships. Running has made me so many friends. Great friends. Even those against whom I have competed. How can one learn to love and respect someone you once tried so hard to beat? But we do. I love the laughter our sport brings. Running is a great leveller and, while there are many heroic feats to admire, there is also much at which to laugh. I enjoy the understanding that the day has started or ended well because of a run shared with friends.
Standing on that path in the Biyamiti camp, I muttered to my new friend and his massive, hugely muscled body twitched at my softly spoken words. “Can you and I be friends for this minute?” I asked quietly as we continued to stare at each other. “Can we, for a few moments, be friends in an otherwise indifferent universe and share a few moments of this special dawn. We have our different lonelinesses. I, the occasional loneliness of the long-distance runner and you, tossed out of the herd to lead a lonely, nomadic life. One day when we are no longer strong, I suppose I will succumb to some 21st century affliction, while you will turn your old, scarred back into a thorn bush while the lions circle."
And then, as if he had had quite enough of my silly musings, he tossed his great cratered boss once more and dustily trotted away across the sandy Biyamiti River into the distance. I silently wished my new friend well and, suddenly, the last two lines from Robert Frost’s famous poem sprang to mind;
“And I (we) have miles to go before we sleep
And miles to go before we sleep."
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