I used to love the Comrades. Not the ones lately deployed to the higher echelons of government. The race, I mean. The greatest ultradistance marathon on the planet.
Growing up in Pietermaritzburg, it was an annual fixture in our lives. If you didn’t run it, you helped out at a water point, or popped your deckchair on the side of the road, stoked up the skottel and waited for the tired masses to shuffle past you for hours and hours.
The traditions were keenly anticipated: Chariots of Fire trumpeting out on a crisp winter morning against the backdrop of the magnificent City Hall; the starter’s gun setting them off; the winner accepting the mayor’s scroll at the finish line; the timekeeper, pistol raised, ready to signal the end of the race, his (I only remember men) back to the stragglers racing to beat the clock.
All drawn out over a day filled with drama. Exhausting, but exhilarating.
The most memorable moments, though, were those of a comradely sort. Watching Bruce Fordyce notch up another win, taming the monster that is Polly Shortts in the process, was always a thrill.
But the real lump-in-the-throat action came at the end of the race, when broken bodies brought to a painful halt were scooped up by fellow comrades, no less drained by their own efforts, and dragged across the line to secure that all-important medal finish.
It happened every year without fail and will, no doubt, happen again tomorrow when the field sets off for the 92nd edition of the run. For the first time in a long while, I’ll be there, hoping to reacquaint myself with the magic I felt as a child.
The years in between have taken me far and wide and so my interest in the marathon has waned. Happily, I’ll be posted to a watering station in Camperdown. Back in my early teens it was here I camped out overnight as a volunteer with football chums, waiting for the 4am trucks to drop off the water and Coke and food that would be devoured by hungry and thirsty souls later in the day.
It should be a sweet reunion, if I can safely marshal myself and my bicycle up and over the hilly route from Durban, joining, as I am, a local triathlon club on a pre-dawn ride.
It’s certainly an unconventional way to reconnect with the famous old race and those comrades of yore.
Following the week we’ve had, blitzed by marathon revelations from the Gupta e-mail leaks, I’m not sure the same can be said for our comrades in government.
Once brothers- and sistersin-arms, times have changed for them too. It’s no longer clear who stands for what, and which is friend or foe.
Who knows if the person to your left or right, who may have carried you over a line in the past, kept you going when your spirit was spent, is still the same comrade who held your life in his or her hands.
There is another great race on, but it is not a noble pursuit. It cares not for the multitudes but for a privileged few, whose goal is not glory but ill-gotten gain.
In this race the tactics are underhanded, the participants doped up by the colour of money. Never mind the consequences. Who cares anyway about titles and reputations?
Pride has been left in the locker room in this race to the bottom. And don’t bank on any comrades-in-waiting once you get there. It’s not that kind of race.
Comrade, noun: your friends, especially friends that you share a difficult or dangerous situation with.
That’s the dictionary definition I’m going with tomorrow. There is another, but its meaning is hollow.