At the end of one of the Comrades Marathons, a man, lying in the dark in a small ditch at the Scottsville Racecourse, was calling out to people walking past him. “Please, someone, tell my wife I am here.” He was one of the majority of the field who had just managed to cross the line before the cut-off. I think it as the 2000 race – the finish looked like a battlefield, said Bruce Fordyce later.
He was a cramping, shivering, wet mess. He’d taken on the Comrades, and the Comrades had taken him to hell and back, and then left him in a crumpled heap at the finish. That is the Comrades. You do not mess with the Comrades. It is not a fun race. It is no easy ride. It hurts. I have covered a handful of Comrades. My favourite joke is that I have a best of 5:20 for the down run…on the back of the press truck. I have never run the Comrades, despite the best efforts of Fordyce to convince me to do so. I’ve seen that race up close. I’ve seen the carnage and the pain, the sweat, puke and urine, the cramps, tears and blisters.
I’ve also seen the elation and relief of the finisher, witnessed the courage of Mr, Mrs and Miss Average, and watched dead eyes come back to life as they crossed the finish line. I’ve interviewed winners, runners-up and the last person across the line. It’s the longest day in sports journalism, a 3am to 9pm gig that rips your heart out, patches it back up and leaves you standing a little stunned at the wonder of it all. I will never run it. It’s madness.
I have many friends who run the Comrades, some through injuries and sickness. Tommy Malone, the father of Amanda and father-in-law of Bobby Harvey, one of my oldest friends, did not run for two years after he lost the 1967 Comrades to his friend Manie Kuhn in the most dramatic of finishes. Malone always sighs when 1967 is brought up. People forget he won the 1966 race. After 1967, after he had run in Green Flash takkies bought in a Boksburg store, he took his two-year break to allow the injuries to heal. He returns to the race every year to take part in the reunions and to cheer on Bobby and his daughter. Malone cannot run the race again even if he wanted to – the Comrades organisers have given his number – 62 – to his daughter. I was there when Malone finished her first Comrades and watches Tommy cry huge tears of pride.
Malone has occasionally climbed aboard the press truck for the best view of the race. There is – or was – an etiquette that had to be followed by the media on the trucks. Those who have covered the most Comrades get to sit on the top row. The rest of the pecking order is determined by how many races you have covered. There is an unofficial rule that one should have finished the first beer by sunrise, although that is not strictly enforced. A local government official decided he would watch the race from the press truck one year, despite not having accreditation. He spied the food and beer in the coolboxes and got stuck in. He passed out at 7am, stretched across the bottom row. Someone should have told him the Press Truck Comrades is a marathon, not a race.
Dimitri Grishine, the Russian two-time winner, vomited one-metre in front of the truck on an up run after he had tried to force an energy drink down and it decided to fight gravity. Sitting on the top row brings hacks into range of the ever-present danger of low-hanging branches and telephone lines. Mark Beer, my colleague at The Star, once heard a warning too late and as he turned, a telephone line whipped across his nose, ripping off his cap and new sunglasses, leaving a cut on his nose. The race leaves a mark on everyone.
Fordyce, always in demand at functions during Comrades week, once arrived at the start of the race in not his best shape. He had not trained as well as he could have and looked shattered afterwards. “You do not mess with the Comrades,” he told me. No, you do not.