Soon enough, however, I crest the hill and feel the human warmth of the crowded village. It is time to take stock. The distance has by now removed just enough energy for my legs to become concerned. Sensing that today something extra is expected, they urge caution and argue for energy conservationa shorter, less flamboyant stride. But even now I know that their warning has come too late, that I have again been carried away by the occasion. For however easy the first 4 hours may have felt, the cost has been too high. Within 1 hour I must pay for my early excesses; I must reenter the soul of the Comrades, that special confrontation between an exhausted body and mind and an ailing but unbeaten will.
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Through Botha’s Hill Village and Hillcrest, I must distract my mind from the oncoming holocaust. I wave, talk, and smile to every spectator, interested or otherwise. My mind, as if preparing for the coming onslaught, is sharpened and extrovert. These are magic miles; the best miles in reflection are always those immediately preceding the final collapse. Then too quickly I am past Hillcrest. Now alone and unaided, I must pass into the void beyond. It is here, in the sudden solitude of the quiet lane that meanders gracefully through Emberton and Gillitts, that for me the Comrades Marathon really begins. No longer do I progress on my own terms; the hopes and confidence stored in training now vanish before the reality. The course that I have held at bay for 57 km is now running me. I am approaching the line, isolated, uncertain, and caring only for survival.
My legs, detecting the first signs of an ailing will, begin their own mutiny, their tactics carefully prepared. They inform me that this is far enough. Geographically, they argue, the race is two thirds over. Why, they ask, must they continue to run, knowing that from here each step will become ever more painful, ever harder? After all there is always next year. Through the blanket of developing fatigue, I begin to appreciate the logic behind these questions; I begin to feel the attraction of that haven of rest at the side of the road, the bliss of not having to take even one more step toward Durban.
Around me, I know that each runner is engaged in this same battle. In common suffering, we are alone to find our individual solutions. A glance up the road shows a string of runners, each running alone, each separated by a constant distance from the runner in front and behind. A common thread holds us together, but only reluctantly do we defile the sanctity of the space that separates us; the space that is our universe20 m of tarmac, our support team, and just enough room left over for our thoughts.
My willpower now comes from my assistant. Ever smiling, ever happy, he is pure encouragement, my sole precious link with a world that cares. In his hands he carries all our wealth: a bucket containing iced water, a sponge, and a choice of three different drinks. His presence confirms that it is all worthwhile, that to him and his world, I am the most important runner, and that together, whatever the cost, we must endure, we must both survive.
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