Flashback Friday: Comrades Marathon

Hundreds of sweating, aching, tired bodies are crossing the line. Only a few minutes left until the final gunshot will break thousands of hearts. Already, some people need help to make it to the finish line, arm-in-arm with complete strangers they exemplify the spirit of this marathon. I cheer along with the crowd of spectators, urging the man crawling towards the finish to keep going, to not give up. The crowd roars as some of his fellow runners give him a helping hand across the line.

The Comrades marathon is the world’s largest ultra-marathon race, alternating each year between the downhill from Pietermariztburg to Durban (89 km) or the uphill in the other direction (87 km). Runners have 12 hours in which to make this arduous journey on foot. It is not for the fainthearted, or the badly prepared.

My father and his brother ran this marathon 10 times together.

I remember sleepless nights the night before, when parties in the streets of Durban would keep the whole city awake that night. Then, early morning wake-up calls so that we could be at the starting line for 5 AM the next morning, part of the surging sea of humanity, the excitement tangible in the air. A shot rang out, and the race started, slowly, plodding, as thousands of people crossed the starting line. We’d all get in the car then and set up camp at Drummond, the halfway mark. We’d cheer the runners along, sometimes handing out water sachets and bananas, until our own runners finally passed us, looking tired but good. And then the finish line, the anticipation – will they make it in time? My father always joked that they liked getting value for their money, so they used as much time as possible to get in. It was always a relief to see them coming in, sometimes as little as five minutes left on the clock, but always in time.

After my uncle passed away, my father ran the race one more, final, time, with my uncle’s son. It was a bittersweet moment for all of us: the son following in the father’s footsteps. It was a tough race, but they finished it together. While my father has retired from running, my cousin continues their legacy on his own. We are all incredibly proud of him!

Have you run the Comrades marathon? Or any other ultra-marathon worldwide? Have you been a spectator? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.

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