Runners compete in the 2016 Comrades Marathon. Picture: REUTERS/Rogan Ward

Cape Town - Like many South Africans, I grew up with the Comrades.

For much of my childhood we lived on farms along the route and every year we abandoned what we were doing - stroking lambs and crashing the ride-on mower into walls - and walked to the end of the road to clap and cheer and get sunburnt.

The runners seemed both foreign and familiar. Some were skinny, others were chunky. Some women wore lipstick; some men joked about our wors rolls. Yet, there was something strange and noble about what they were doing, as though they were superheroes. “One day,” I said to my dad. “I'm going to run the Comrades.”

When I was 16, my friend and I volunteered at a watering point. We hollered out terrible catch phrases as we held out cups of Coke. I promised a runner who had given up that if he carried on I would marry him. For days afterwards I was terrified a moustachioed man would come and claim me.

One Sunday morning, something happened to my father's heart. My mother came through to the lounge and told us she was taking him to hospital. My father's face was the colour of cinder blocks. I lay with my brother on his bed and cried. Hours went by. My brother cried. My parents returned in the evening; my dad had been diagnosed with arrhythmia.

“We stopped off for KFC. He felt like it,” my mother said.

My father quit smoking, stopped drinking wine and started running. He wore poly shorts and smelt of Deep Heat. He ran further and further and started doing races on weekends, returning stiff and sore, but grinning at the medals around his neck. Sometimes it felt like we never saw him.

He ran his first Comrades two years later. Like all the times before, we walked to the end of the dirt road, set up deck chairs and clapped and cheered and told people they were looking good. My mother kept anxiously scanning the road, looking for my father's figure and looking at her watch. When he eventually came into view, I wanted to run and hide. He looked like a recently released hostage who had spent two years in the jungle being tortured by a man called Lawai. My father cried when he saw us and collapsed into the grass. “I just want to go home,” he wailed. “It's right there.”

My mother grabbed him by his shoulders. “You get up and you get back on that road and you finish this race,” she hissed. “I've not spent the last two years alone for nothing and you've not put in all that training for nothing. Now go.”

He finished in time, and ran it again the next year, and the next.

In the days after the race, I watched him hobbling around the house like a soldier returned from battle. He had experienced things I could never imagine. He had suffered delirium and exhaustion and had dug deep and pushed through. I wanted to feel that. I wanted to see how far I could go. I began running, starting with a 2.5km route that nearly killed me. I'd have to stop near the school to quietly throw up my lungs. But running is one of life's simplest forms of exercise - all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other and keep going. Before long, I was up to eight kilometres, then 12, then 20.

Eventually, I was ready for a marathon. I'd put in the training, greased my thighs, eaten rice pudding and driven the route. Nothing could go wrong.

Everything went wrong.

After 32 kilometres, my left ankle went awol and I was hallucinating about the apocalypse. The only thing that kept me going was seeing my husband pop out of side streets on his motorbike. “Just a few more kays,” he would say. “You're nearly there.”

I crossed the finish line in five hours and cried a lot. And then cried some more when I had to haul myself on to the back of the motorbike to ride home.

I stopped running and took up yoga. My father stopped running when his knees seized.

On Sunday, I watched the Comrades on TV. David Gatebe won the race in the same time it had taken me to complete half that distance. The winning woman, Charne Bosman, is only four years younger than me. I watched the stragglers limp through the stadium, then fell asleep on the couch. I dreamt I was cutting a wedding cake made out of sweat and mud. The moustachioed man was there, wearing a tuxedo jacket with fluorescent shorts, and I ran away from him through a park, into a forest, up a mountain and then all the way around the world.

I woke up and took the dogs to the park, and when I was sure no one was watching, did a few lopes around the field. Then a few more. And some more. My body seemed to be grinning. “I remember this,” it said. “Do you remember this?” it asked. And I did.

 

Cape Argus

* Helen Walne is an award-winning columnist and writer based in Cape Town.