And the rewards of this striving are those that the runner experiences in the predawn excitement at the start of any marathon: “God made a home in the sky for the sun, it comes out in the morning like an athlete eager to run a race” (Psalm 19, verses 5 and 6).
You may suspect that the 90-km Comrades Marathon is different, but at the start of the race you are certain of this. The atmosphere is like a carnival; we are an eccentric family doing for one day what we like best (Alexander, 1985). And no matter how humble the results, for 11 hours we will be loved and applauded for our efforts. From dawn until the sun sets in Durban, we are the children of the road, to be succored, encouraged, praised, and protected. On race day there can only be one outcome: each runner a winner, each a hero.
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At the start, there is neither doubt nor fear.. The outcome is predetermined. The Comrades family will ensure our safe passage to Durban. Even when we have spent our last ounce of energy, there will be an arm for support, a shoulder to steady our shaking legs, and someone to carry us over the finish line.
In faith then, at 6:00 a.m. on May 31 each year, the Comrades Marathon begins with each runner knowing that this is the year. This year he or she is at a peak and is older, wiser, and more experienced. This year at the moment of truth, when once more the pain and discomfort become intolerable and the desire to quit almost irresistible, the runner will fight back with more courage, greater energy, and supreme endurance. This year he will run the course on his own terms, or she will become the heroine she was always meant to be.
For the first 4 hours each year, I know all these things; I know that this is finally to be my year. The approach march has been easy. The first 40 km or more have passed effortlessly; the pace has been a pleasure. The friendship, the scenery, the weather all have been perfect. But then, as always on the “down” run, the steep climb past the Alverston Tower up to Botha’s Hill Village requires noticeable effort for the first time. (The race is run annually in opposite directions: one year “up” to Pietermaritzburg, the next year “down” to Durban, which sits 2,000 feet lower than Pietermaritzburg.) Quite suddenly I no longer have breath to spare for conversation. My horizon comes down to the few meters of road ahead, and I shorten my stride, looking for maximal efficiency. These kilometers must be run in earnest.