Lose the Watch

This column by Simon Gear first appeared in Runners World SA in May 2011

A few weeks ago, I found myself having breakfast at an hour to midnight.  Chicken soup, bananas and a Snickers bar, washed down with an award winning east African filter coffee, heretically mixed with hot chocolate for the occasion. 

The faces of my fellow diners were set and determined, the usual early morning jokiness replaced with near silence in the light of the head torches.

One by one, we stood up from the table, leaving food on our plates uneaten for the first time in days and shrugged out of the tent into the freezing night to collect our packs, check camera and phone batteries and make last minute adjustments to straps.  Assembled, we began the day’s walk, slipping easily back into the famous Kili shuffle where each step is savoured like a rare wine.

An hour later, we were still in sight of the lights of the camp below us but the first of a long line of other climbers were pouring past us.  No survival shuffle for these guys. Despite the thin air, they marched briskly past, whispering assuredly among themselves in German and French.  And on we trudged, the metronome of our slow steps a completely freeing rhythm.  After decades of exertion completely dominated by the minutes and seconds of my stopwatch, I walked up through the inky night, the only marker of time being the path of the moon across the sky behind us.

When, five hours later, that moon was followed by the sun, we saw our surroundings for the first time.  A desolate, loose-gravelled moonscape, broken only by the sudden presence of three-storey high glaciers, scattered erroneously across the desert.

We reached the top of the mountain bang on schedule, after eight hours of walking.  We were still a complete party, while below us, we had passed a steady stream of dejected climbers, toppled by the ego gratifying feeling of striding up the early stages, only to have their lungs crushed by the thin icy air above five and a half thousand metres.  Weirdly, there was no elation at reaching the summit, merely a satisfaction of a difficult, but assured victory, safely achieved.  Rather like beating the English used to feel for Australia.

For five days we had released any thought of competitiveness and surrendered completely to the experience of being on the mountain.  The sense of quiet accomplishment sank deeper than any passing elation I may have felt in the past from the helter skelter of a new 5k PB.

Kilimanjaro has changed my running a bit.  After years of disparaging the idea of the finish itself being a victory, I am finding that I leave my watch at home more than I bring it along.  I run a bit slower than I used to, but I get further down the track before I start hating what I’m doing.  Sometimes, I never get to hating it at all.  For someone who has spent two decades in a dysfunctional marriage with my favourite sport, this is an epiphany.

My father has tread a similar path, although it is age and not a volcano that has helped him to appreciate running.  For four decades he has raced himself into the ground, preferring to stay on pace until he falls over rather than back off and enjoy the day.  This noble attitude has provided him with the unenviable record of only 9 Comrades finishes, despite double that in starts stretching back to the 60s.

As his 65th birthday begins to loom over the horizon, it has occurred to him that to eventually leave running without a green number to his name would do a disservice to fifty years of toil.  So after a lifetime of bluster and faux competitiveness on both our parts, we will line up in Durban this year, together for the first time.  I doubt that either of us will be wearing a watch.

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