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‘Allahu Akbar,” (God is great) calls a Muezzin struggling to be heard above the Chariots of Fire anthem from a speaker. Among the 13 667 Comrades ultra-marathon runners at the Pietermaritzburg start line a group of 50 Muslims congregate for Fajr salah (morning prayer).
The race is in honour of fallen soldiers in World War I and it feels like you’re going into battle. Your running shoes are your sword.
“Some part of you actually thinks you might die that day,” laughs my dad and coach, Anver, running his seventh consecutive race. Two men died on his second run.
A rooster crows, but the sound is quickly killed by the bang of a cannon, as it has done for 77 previous races. At 5.30am an army of runners shuffle down Chief Albert Luthuli Road and past the enormous red bricked Pietermaritzburg City Hall. The eldest runner is 83 and the youngest 21, two years younger than me. The pack is dense; the last runner takes approximately 15 minutes to cross the start line.
Goosebumps race down naked arms, legs and bandaged nipples (to avoid them bleeding against your T-shirt from friction). It could be all the nerves from nine months of training coming down to one day. Or from the cold south-easterly wind and heavy clouds from the Indian Ocean. Perfect running weather.
The first 20km is a gradual climb, a mixture of excitement and darkness hides the ascent. Using moonlight breaking through the clouds we stream down a steep 2km downhill called Polly Shorts, shouting “passing through”, despite what the running manuals advise about conserving energy.
At 77km to the finish we begin climbing into Ashburton, drop to Tumble Inn and pull ourselves up a huge hill into Lions Park. Then we hit the highest point of the run, Umlaas Road junction, at 860m above sea level. We win a small psychological battle in a long war.
At 65km from home we begin to taste the scale of the Comrades support as we enter Camperdown. Thousands of strangers clap and scream for us like we are rock stars, reading the names on our race numbers.
We also hit the first of five hotspots. Chips fastened to our shoes send GPS signals and messages to family and friends following the race online around the world. But there are cut-off times.
The whole way a kombie labelled “Runner Rescue,” crawls beside the runners. Like the grim reaper, the leather seats and air-conditioning lures many runners’ hearts.
“I’m only dropping out if I’m in a body bag,” I swear to my dad.
Cato Ridge, at 59km from Durban, is a small village with a big roar. By now the runners are significantly quieter, recognising the truth and significance of the challenge as we head towards Harrison Flats. This barren desert of support is not as flat as the name suggests. It is a series of deceiving hills.
The next few kilometres are lonely.
“This is no one’s favourite part of the route,” says my dad.
At five hours into the race we meet Inchanga, a quad crippling hill.
Moaning and groaning we approach Drummond and the halfway point. A long cosy row of crowds, music, and a mistaken belief that it’s only a case of “same again”, lulls runners into a false sense of security. Shortly after, over the loud speakers we hear that Ludwick Mamabolo crossed the finish line in five hours and 31 minutes, making him SA’s first Comrades winner since 2005. The runners cheer.
We raise our backs proudly and stand strong, but as soon as we turn the corner away from the supporters’ helpless stares, we slowly walk towards Arthur’s Seat and the Comrades wall.
On the side of the road a seat is carved out in the rock. Legend says five-time winner Arthur Newton used to rest on the rocks. Now it’s tradition to pick up a flower and throw it into the seat. “Morning Arthur,” shout runners as they pass. They say it gives you luck for the rest of the race.
For the next few kilometres we approach Alverstone Tower, slowly. We see this tower from the time we leave Inchanga. It feels like it will never come, like a mirage in the desert.
Botha’s Hill is a seemingly vertical ascent that my father forgot to tell me about. The reward is music to our ears. Bagpipes and the polite clapping of Kearsney College rugby players welcome us below lush trees overhanging the tarmac.
At Hillcrest we catch a glimpse of the sea in the distance. We can smell home, but this is also where many throw in the towel. Arms feel heavy, knees weak and ankles as agile as spaghetti.
Now the race really begins, it’s all mental strength from here.
There are as many spectators as braais along this part of the route, but our kidneys have pretty much shut down and our stomachs feels as if they are eating themselves.
On Fields Hill and with 25km to go, I am in trouble as my calf muscles freeze to a halt when cramps set in. I down a handful of salt and receive a quick ice-rubdown by a student physiotherapist and shuffle on.
It’s downhill into Pinetown, but at this stage our knees are swearing at us. With 64km under our belts we stumble up Cowies Hill, poking us where it hurts; everywhere. We are motivated by chasing landmarks.
“Run to that tree, then walk to that stop sign,” says Dad.
We sing Father and Son, by Cat Stevens, and I let my dad in on a secret plan at the end of the race.
“No, no Yusuf. You’re dehydrated; you don’t know what you’re saying. We will talk about this next week,” he counsels.
I tell him I have been planning this for years and he gives me his blessings.
It is a taxing ascent into 45th Cutting and with 9km to go we catch some momentum running down the M13. The “Sub-11 hour” bus is just behind us and we still believe we can make it in less than 11 hours.
We hear them coming in their hundreds, like a herd of wildebeest. But panic gets the better of us as the bus passes.
We struggle to calculate our times. We are tired and confused.
“Keep calm. Keep to your strategy,” says my dad, pushing forward.
Faint-hearted spectators should turn back now, it’s all blood, vomit and tears.
At the toll gate, with 5km to go, my dad trips on a cat’s eye reflector on the highway and tumbles to the ground. I dust him off and we struggle on, nibbling at the more easily digestible single-digit kilometres.
I don’t know how long the run-in is from the gate of Kingsmead Stadium to the finish line. It is a blur of flashes, soft grass, and people screaming from the rafters. But we take our time. We savour it.
Now I’m sitting with my feet in a bucket of ice and have Bambi (the new born deer)-like legs. I realise the day is a celebration and culmination of a year-long training programme.
The race epitomises everything great about SA – the camaraderie, and support for one another. Strangers cheer you like an Olympic athlete. It’s your day as a hero.
My dad and I crossed the finish line hand in hand at 11 hours and 11 minutes – 11 894 runners made it to Durban.
And the Bollywood ending and big secret? I got down on one knee and proposed to my childhood sweetheart, Sumaiya Seedat, at the finish line.
Running 89km to give her a Comrades medal beats a ring.
An old man laughs. “You just finished one marathon. And you are about to start another.”