I am convinced that, as a nation, our favourite national sport is not football. Nor is it rugby or cricket. Our favourite national sport is a sport called littering.
Our habit of simply dropping the tin can or wrapper on the ground as soon as we have finished its contents is a national hobby, and a national disgrace. Surely no other nation is as adept as we are at the plastic bag toss. (This is when the remains of a fast food meal are neatly wrapped and bow-tied in a plastic bag and then tossed out of a car window to land in a crumpled heap in the veld at the side of the road.) We are the World champions at that sport. Our national flower should not be the Protea, but rather a tattered plastic bag caught on a barbed wire fence, flapping forlornly in the wind.
Much of this litter can be found on the verge at the 60 kilometres mark in the Comrades marathon, on a stretch of road known as Harrison Flats. A rather bleak, lonely and ugly stretch of road, Harrison Flats drops slightly downhill towards Cato Ridge on the Comrades “up” run route.
While there are some beautiful stretches of road on the Comrades route (the view of the Valley of 1000 hills at Arthur’s Seat springs to mind). There are also some inspiring landmarks like the Wall of honour and the uplifting Ethembeni school for disabled children, where wheelchair-bound children high five runners. Their cheering and screaming leaves every passer-by teary-eyed.
Harrison flats, in contrast, is an uninspiring stretch of road running through winter-dry, dull veld. It can be a motivation killer. And it is on this uninspiring stretch of road that thousands of Comrades runners will start to question their sanity tomorrow, as they grind their way towards Pietermaritzburg.
For many runners, this will be the furthest they have ever run. En route to Harrison Flats, they will have summited some infamous and formidable hills; Cowie’s Hill, Field’s Hill, Botha’s Hill and Inchanga. In the process, they will have run possibly the hardest 42-kilometre marathon that they will ever run. And, somewhere in the handful of kilometres that runners will have to cover on Harrison Flats, lies the critical tipping point on the up run.
So I would like to leave this message to all those Comrades marathon runners battling the odds on Harrison Flats tomorrow:
“It is going to be warm and humid on the Comrades route (it might rain in the early morning). The weather forecasters say up to 24C. The sun will be glinting off the roofs of the cars parked at Cato Ridge. Sweat will trickle into your eyes stinging them with diluted sunscreen.
"Your quadriceps and calf muscles will be aching and, because you declined to make a generous cut in the toe box of your expensive running shoes, you may be sensing the painful onset of black toenails. You will probably also be aware of the physical signs of impending cramps.
"You will be surrounded by dozens of other runners and yet you will feel so alone. None of those shuffling near you will be talking, as everyone realises there are 30 kilometres to go. And that those 30 kilometres harbour those looming monster hills; the 3rd hill outside Camperdown, Little Pollies (Ashburton) and the awful Polly Shortts itself.
"You will mutter to yourself, 'Never, ever again.' but with several foul expletives thrown into the mix.
"It is now that you will meet someone you deeply admire and greatly respect. Yourself. Only you can get yourself through to the finish. Only you can conquer the seemingly impossible journey ahead.
"Take comfort from the fact that thousands have been here before and thousands have finished the Comrades. Take comfort also from the fact that while some big hills are looming in the distance, essentially the bulk of the climbing has been completed.
"From this point to the finish, the route is actually quite forgiving. If you started conservatively and conserved energy in the first half, you can make up time. Harrison Flats is actually slightly downhill on the 'up' run, and you can run a few faster kilometres on the road to Cato Ridge.
"Have a drink, chat to a new friend on the road. Hum your favourite music to yourself. Finally, focus on those you love who are waiting at the finish, or hoping to follow your progress on television. Remind yourself that this is the culmination of weeks, months and possibly even years of dreaming, planning and training.
"Remember that if the Comrades was easy anyone could do it. However, it is not easy and you are not 'anybody'."
Good luck to every runner tomorrow. I will be on the road seconding friends and then I will assist in presenting green numbers at the finish. Since I am so busily involved with the Comrades on race-day, I don’t really miss running it.
But I do miss it the next day. On Monday morning, you runners will all be limping. And the Comrades limp is a limp of pride and honour. Your limp is as important as your medal.
It matters not whether your limp is that of a 5½ runner or an 11.59 runner. You are all brothers and sisters in arms who struggled bravely on the Comrades road; particularly from Harrison Flats to the finish.
I will be envious on Monday morning and I will be wishing that I was limping too. So I hope you come along to my Comrades After Party on Monday and tell me how you went. I will listen.
With thanks to The Citizen, South Africa.
THE '86 AND '88
CONQUERING THE UP
TACKLING A DOWN RUN
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