I’ve said it before, running is a great sport. Central to this is that at just about any event, the number of participants far exceeds the number of spectators. Rather like a home game for the Lions at Ellis Park, really. But with our heavy emphasis on being a part of the race, rather than among the thronging masses along the verge, comes a fierce commitment to independence that may not be in our best interests.
I had occasion, not too long ago, to journey around Limpopo on the Department of Tourism’s dollar. They had collected together a group of alleged journos and we were expected to go home and write stories about how wonderful a province Limpopo is. And it is. Home to mountain ranges I bet you haven’t heard of, the Grippen fighterjet and the Mapungubwe world heritage site, to name just three pretty cool features. And it is also now home to my favourite road in South Africa.
So it turns out that Haile Gebreselassie trains with headphones on. This is a major problem for all we right-thinking, macho, ego-driven athletes who quite rightly dismiss walkmans as something for occasional joggers and American actors pretending to be runners. There’s just something so, I don’t know…modern about running with the latest from Britney doof doofing in your ears. Generally, I like the world to myself when I run.
US Olympic miler, Marty Liquori, once said, “If road running is rock and roll, then track is Carnegie Hall.” No matter where you lie on the continuum between once a week, once round the block joggler and Haile Gbresselassie, track is the real deal. When you step out onto an athletics oval, you are walking on holy ground, blessed by generations of sweat, hope and fear. Every lap you run, every interval sprinted, adds your own layer to the pain of those who came before you. For runners, tracks are our Stonehenge, our Western Wall, our rhino midden. It’s where we come to die, so that our dreams may live. Athletes don’t wee on fire hydrants. We run quarter mile intervals.
When I first met my wife, she was an adherent of the teachings of the late Maharishi Yogi. That’s the same guy who got the Beatles and a host of other 60s icons into transcendental meditation. Not having been brought up in a tradition that even got within a standard marathon of eastern mysticism, I was naturally curious about meditation and we had quite a few discussions about it in those early days.
There seems to be a concern in some quarters that the two grand old dames of South African road running, Comrades and Two Oceans, are beginning to suffer dwindling numbers in the face of competition from a host of younger, shorter races. Oceans has already spawned a half marathon which has supplanted the 56 as the biggest event of the weekend, and Comrades is rumoured to add their own half to the calendar soon, although not on the same day.
Up here on the highveld, April smells like cross country season. It’s a hard-to-pin-down mixture of dust, Antarctic air and fear that pervades the running community and makes you realize that now is the time to haal uit en wys. I love the smell of April.
One of the clearest memories of a training run that I have is one that I ran during matric finals. We had just written Chemistry II and the only thing left between us and the endless summer was English Creative Writing so the books were essentially closed. My high school training partner and I laced up and went out on the school cross country course for the last time together.
I’m fundamentally lazy. In fact I’d go as far as to say that of the sub-set of ‘3:30 in the morning’-rising, multiple job-holding, ‘2 kids and a house’-missioning guys, I am easily the laziest. Well, was. About a year ago, I was out running and came across a family on mountain bikes, meandering along the river path on what was clearly a social ride. I had to confess my admiration for families who are prepared to engage in such activity of a Sunday morning when any sensible person is in bed with the paper and a bacon roll.
What must it be like to be an Idols contestant? I’m not talking about the Kelly Clarksons of the world or the guys who know they’re hopeless but are keen to see whether the rude one, Adolph, or whatever his name is, is actually a human being or not. The folk who captivate me are the people who march in there, absolutely convinced that they are God’s gift to Sony Records when in fact they are… how to put this nicely… crap.