Join me in the final quarter-mile of the Comrades Marathon, the world’s oldest and largest ultramarathon. The Comrades is a race of nearly 90 kilometers, run on roads between Pietermaritzburg and Durban in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa. The event is steeped in tradition and is a cultural touchpoint for South Africans. Widely considered the greatest road race in the world, running The Comrades is a life-changing experience.
The voice from within speaks as you enter Kingsmeade Stadium.
LOOK UP… TAKE IT ALL IN.
Gone are the hours of training. All of the miles run and schedules shifted to get your body ready for this day. Their investment is about to pay off.
Gone are the pre-race jitters. Completely eliminated is the anxiety which reared its power in the most unsavory way: a night of violently expelling bodily contents when you wanted to be sleeping.
Gone is the looming legend of the Big Five. Those five hills that appeared as comic jigs and jags on a computer screen elevation profile that was completely incapable of translating the true menace of the topography. Your body has climbed up and charged down them – and countless others – successfully.
Gone is the taste of boiled potato and Tailwind, the magical combination that nourished you on your journey. Simplicity won the day.
Gone is the pain of the blister on your heel. For hours it made you grimace with every other step. It reminded you just how repetitive motion, in all parts of life, often chafes and causes discomfort.
Gone is the heavy-hanging unknown of the distance: 89.2 kilometers. It was a distance more than a marathon longer than what you had ever run before. It was a distance nearly incomprehensible to you just a year ago.
Gone is the sheer exhaustion felt just moments ago, when your mind and legs were in a battle of red light-green light. Your mind and body now work in concert, moving swiftly and with ease.
Gone is the heat of the day, the warm African winter sun having slid into the Valley of 1000 Hills. The cool Indian Ocean breeze licks the salty air in the stadium.
Tens of thousands of people fill the stadium, waving flags and holding banners that blur together in a ribbon of support.
The lights of the stadium pierce the view, dappled by welling tears. A deep breath holds back the flood of emotion. Breathe in. Breathe out.
There’s just a short lap around the infield to the finish line.
LOOK UP and SAVOR THIS MOMENT…
Carry with you the memory of the months of training runs with your 69-year-old father. Unbeknownst to you until this very moment, he has been preparing you for this personal victory for 35 years. And you are profoundly grateful.
Carry with you the smiling faces of your children who don’t really understand your love of running or why you had to go across the world to do this. They just know their mom runs a lot, just like her dad.
Carry with you the support of your husband who just plain thinks you’re nuts (but loves you anyway). You scan the crowd for him unsuccessfully, but you know he’s watching and cheering you on.
Carry with you the children of Ethembeni School for whom undertaking this challenge will never be possible. Their songs, smiles, and small hands that you high-fived are forever intertwined with your heart. Feel another swell of gratitude for a healthy body and strong legs that carry you wherever you want to go without a second thought.
Carry with you the cheering crowd, pouring their hearts and voices out to you. As one of the extraordinary ordinary people of the day, their cheers for you echo the belief that every person holds a promise of greatness. The democracy of running doesn’t care if you’re a gas station attendant or a rocket scientist, or a celebrity. Everyone is equal on the road and must do the work they lined up to do.
Carry with you the good-hearted people of South Africa, who embrace your presence in their country and their beloved race as a gift. They have implored you to “enjoy the journey” since you gathered at the starting line more than eleven hours ago. They know what it means to be a Comrade, so you proudly carry them with you.
You are about to achieve the scariest goal you ever set.
You are a citizen of the world.
You are a finisher of the Ultimate Human Race.
Karen Shopoff Rooff drafted this essay in her journal shortly after completing the 2016 Comrades Marathon. She was so affected by the experience of running The Comrades that she returned in 2017 to earn her back-to-back medal. In 2017, she brought her three kids to the race, wanting them to witness the camaraderie and inclusiveness that makes The Comrades such an uplifting experience.