Comrades and The Worker Bees

By Bruce Clark

As an attitude adjuster, Comrades reigns supreme. There really is no better place to go when you need to realign your soul. You want hills? Smack. You want heat? Smack. You want suffering? Smack. You want distance and discomfort? Smack, smack. You think the world has gone to the dogs? Smack. You think that the last vestige of all that’s good in human nature has been squeezed out by life? Smackety smackety smack  –  and that’s before you’ve even reached Drummond.

I’m well aware of the cathartic effects of a CAAK (Comrades Attitude Adjusting Klap) because I have been on the receiving end many times. Nineteen times I’ve creaked into the stadium a better person than the one who started. On the road something happens inside me. I leave the start grumpy and intolerant and, by a process of Comrades chrysalis, arrive at the finish as someone you may want as a friend. Each year my CAAK teaches me something. This year was no exception.

My CAAK this year was delivered in a bus. I am not talking about the banging-something-noisy, mutual-encouragement, pooling-of-energy, sharing-of-pain, jocular, singing, man-with-flag-on-his-back kind of bus. The bus I am referring to is the vehicle on wheels which is parked next to the road. It has ‘Runners Rescue’ written on it and is known in the trenches as ‘the bailers bus’. As I was reaching up to my head for my sunglasses to shield my eyes from the early morning sun, and with only a half marathon on the clock, I felt a searing pain in my leg and realised instantly that I was not getting to Durban on my feet. With all the will in the world one cannot run sixty kilometres on a torn calf. That is all.

It wasn’t even 8:00am, I had just discarded my warm top, but already I was looking for a bus. I found one parked directly after the Cato Ridge water table and just before the route turns left to go under the bridge. Because it was so early in the race the vehicle was empty. I hobbled/hopped up to the lady in charge who confirmed I intended to bail. She unpinned one of my beautiful yellow ’19’ numbers and, on the other number – still pinned to my vest – scrawled a big  ‘X’.  Never had a black pen made such an offensive mark. Comrades 2014 was over. As is my personal tradition, I was obliged to give away the race t-shirt still wrapped in its plastic. My double green, for this year at least, was gone. My reaction was not pretty but at least it was silent. The whine, whine, moan, moan, bitch, bitch was a voice only I  could hear. If I could not run I wanted to go home. I wanted to demand that I be taken directly to the finish in order to indulge in some hard-earned self-pity. Obviously I could not do that, so instead, I said, ‘So what happens now?’

The lady replied, ‘Now we wait for other runners’.

I climbed into the vehicle, chose the very back seat, and stared glumly out the window. My very first thought filled me with shame: ‘If I have to wait until the bus fills up, let’s hope it does so quickly’. No sooner had the thought entered my head when it was ordered to leave and banished forever. The bad karma I had briefly created for myself worried me enough to construct a more positive thought: ‘I will sit here as long as it takes. I shall turn my attention to the road and watch all the runners’. As it turned out, I watched everybody. Every. Single. Runner.

I kept track of which part of the field I was watching by noting where the buses were. The first one to run past was the second nine-hour bus; the first one had passed me while was I walking. I looked at my watch and they were spot on – whereas the first seemed too fast. With the bus gone the main field resumed and I noted with rising amusement (humour, briefly lost, was finding its way back to me – albeit slowly) how the spectators chose to encourage the international runners in what was a tortured attempt at an accent. To run with ‘Australia’ on your vest was to have “Ozzie Ozzie Oi Oi Oi” directed your way all day. To run with the silver fern of New Zealand, on a black vest, was to watch attempts at the Haka all day. On previous Comrades I have run along side international runners and felt a surge of affection for my own countrymen as I witnessed their sincere, warm – and tone deaf – encouragement.

Long before an international runner came into view I could tell which nation they were from by the sound preceding them up the road.  “G’day, Mate!”,  “Och Aye!”, “Hup Hup!”, “Konichiwa!”. Do the international runners all get together after the race to select a massacre-the-accent award? I was amusing myself with these thoughts when another runner joined me in the vehicle – he was a ‘knee’ – and then another – she was a ’nausea’. We introduced ourselves to each other and compared our woes. We reassured each other that, no question, we had to bail and, after a while, we reassured each other again. In the background, the water table was blasting loud music, the timing mat was beeping non-stop, and a carnival of sights and sounds was streaming past. “Och Aye!”, “Hup Hup!” “Shalom!” One by one more runners joined us in the vehicle. More introductions, more commiserations, and another round of reassurances.

 A massive running bus came past but none of us could read the flag so we had a debate as to which one we thought it was. Someone said that the field was so thick that you couldn’t actually tell where the bus began and where it ended. I said that yes, you can tell; it starts in Pietermaritzburg, and ends Durban, and is about thirteen thousand strong. I’m pretty sure they were impressed by my insight because of the respectful silence that followed. “Guten Tag!” Another huge bus came past and this time we managed to read the flag. The eleven-hour bus – or one of them. I said I thought they were way too quick but everyone else disagreed. I looked again at my watch and they were correct; I was surprised at how long we had been there because it only seemed a few minutes.

As the bus disappeared around the corner we started up a discussion on the merits of buses and the responsibilities of bus drivers. They were all for them but I said that I was a two’s-a-crowd person. I couldn’t imagine spending so long in a bus with people that you were more in need of a divorce lawyer at the finish than a cup of soup. The only person I want that physically close to me is my wife – and that’s only at the end of ‘date night’. I wondered why I had never seen a lady runner driving a bus. Women are miles ahead of men when it comes to enduring ultras and they’re especially good at staying tough while the men fall apart. Why no women? It was a perfect opportunity to make a quip about women drivers, but it was an opportunity lost. We all agreed, though, that it was a tough job.  I said I wouldn’t want it because how do you explain it to your passengers when you park your bus at the finish in12:02 instead of 11:59. You can hardly give them a refund. I added that if someone was blowing a vuvuzela in my ear for twelve hours I would probably want to kill them.

“Hola!”, “USA USA!”, “Bravissimo!”, “Konichiwa!” The worker bees arrived. This time there was no debate. Even had we been unable to read the jiggling little flag, there was no mistaking that this was the twelve-hour bus. It was gigantic and my idea of hell. The bus completely swamped the water table and I thought there was no chance that everyone would get an opportunity to drink. I was intrigued to see how they would manage the logistics of the confined space. It was easy. They morphed into a mobile water table with every runner who could reach a handful of water sachets passing it on to their neighbour who in turn passed it on to theirs. It was a chaotic, co-operative, self contained eco system, and as the last of the runners disappeared around the corner, I felt a prickle in my eyes, but I’m certain it was just dust.

“Arriba, Arriba!”,  “Bonjour!” , “Ciao!”, Hei!” Not long after the twelve-hour bus had gone, a driver climbed into our now-full vehicle and told us he needed to transfer us to a bigger vehicle in order to create space. He drove under the bridge to the beginning of the Harrison Flats where there were already two other vehicles parked. In contrast to the bedlam at the water table, the new spot was strangely quiet. There was a twenty-seater which was already half full and a big commercial vehicle which was empty. Because I was the last person to get out of our vehicle I discovered that, when I did, the smaller of the two was already full. There was no space for me. I waved goodbye to my new chums and, for the second time that day, found myself sitting alone in a vehicle and staring out the window.

If, like me, you assumed that the twelve-hour bus signalled the approximate back of the field then, like me, you are wrong. Long after the twelve-hour bus had disappeared, a steady stream of runners ran, jogged, and walked past the window. The flow was much reduced but it was still consistent. My earlier impatience to leave had long evaporated and was replaced, instead, by fascination. After a while the gaps opened up between the runners – but still they came. Each time I noticed a particularly big gap, I was convinced that the sweep car would come into view.

By now the road was almost clean. Already I had seen the signs of packing up. Litter trucks – full of squashed cups and empty sachets – drove past. Cleaning teams raked the road and I could see mini piles of raked-up litter all along the Harrison Flats. Even the barriers at the freeway were partially open to allow a limited one-way traffic flow. And still the runners came. The gaps were so big that I started to doubt that there was sweep car at all. When I was absolutely certain there were no more runners, another one appeared in what looked like a run but, in reality, was slower then a walk. They seemed to take an eternity to cover the short distance between the bridge and me. Standing on the other side of my window was a large group of people who greeted every single runner with a tumultuous round of applause and wild cheering and were, in turn, rewarded with a waved hand, a ‘thank you’, or a beaming smile.

‘They’re not going to make it,’ I thought to myself. As if to confirm, I looked at my watch again. ‘No – they’re definitely not going to make it’. It was while the words ‘fail to finish’ were floating through my head, that I received my biggest CAAK to date.

Failure? Who am I to use the word ‘failure’ in the presence of such tenacity? Is having the courage and determination to battle on against all odds, but not make a particular place, at a particular time, considered a failure? Does a piece of metal attached to a ribbon define success? Of course they know they not going to make the cut off. But is that a reason to step off the road? Of course not. If we only attempt things we are certain of achieving, life becomes instantly bland. They’re not getting up in the morning certain of getting to Durban; they’re getting up in the morning determined to live on their own terms. Every step they take is a celebration of their lives. This is not failure. This is success in its purest form. These are probably the most well-adjusted people in the race.

Watching those warriors of the road as they battled past, alone, and headed for the sea, I found myself getting stupid and all soft in the head. The magnificence that is the annual Comrades Marathon, with its power to induce introspection, overwhelmed me. I sat thinking how lucky I was to be alive and sitting in an empty bus at the beginning of a by-now almost deserted Harrison Flats. My feeblemindedness expanded to how much I love my wife and sometimes even my children. What a privilege it is to stand in the starting pens each year and bellow out songs with all of these most excellent people.

One again I was seduced by the Comrades Marathon and yet again she had reduced me to tears. Why can’t the kindness and goodwill, so evident by everybody, everywhere, be captured and piped through our air conditioners? My thoughts were interrupted by a car. Finally, agonisingly, the sweep car arrived and, behind it, a small convoy of cars. As soon as it drove past us, a driver got into our vehicle and we took up position at the back of the queue. We inched our way along the Harrison Flats picking up runners until we were full. After getting permission over the race radio, the driver turned around, took the direct route to the freeway, and drove down to Durban.

It’s possible that your mental movie of the 2014 Comrades Marathon is different to mine. If you managed to run more than 22 kilometres, it’s definitely different to mine. I think, however, that mine is better. You see, I got to view the ‘Directors Cut’. I watched the parts that only a few see. You know like at the end of Reservoir Dogs when it’s all doom and gloom? You leave the cinema super-depressed because you think that everybody is either hurt, or dead? They’re not! They’re just actors, silly! They’re alive! They’re happy! It’s only tomato sauce!

All is not as it seems. The Comrades Marathon does not end when the twelve-hour bus arrives, nor does the finish line define success. Between the worker bees and the sweep car are the most extraordinary people; and to each and every one of them I say thank you so very much and, in the immortal words of Ali G, “RESPECT!”