Another episode of the “Memorable Moments” blogging a book project.
In previous posts about achieving goals, I wrote about my dismal athletic performance as a schoolboy, I won’t re-hash the details, just accept that I was pretty awful. I was quite good at sports I could compete in on horseback.
Pietermaritzburg, Natal, South Africa on May 31 st 1979, the day of the Comrades Marathon. I was sitting in a folding chair on the side of the road cigarette in one hand, beer in the other watching thousands of runners staggering up the hill towards the finish line of the 87km (50 mile) ultra-marathon about 6 km away. Saying that the runners must be mad, I would never punish myself like that. As the day progressed and the 11 hour cut off at 5 pm approached, it became obvious that many of the runners would not make it in time. But they did not give up, they had set a goal of finishing the race and they were determined to do it.
As nice as it would be to feel the weight of that finishers medal in their hands, the real goal was to finish the distance. Just getting over that line would make them all winners. The time it took and the medal were secondary. That determination stuck in my mind. Why did thousands of people, many completely un-athletic, torture themselves, risk serious injury, medical problems or even death? Years later I would find the answer for myself.
In the mid 1980’s, the “fun run” craze hit South Africa. My boys were at junior school and almost every week it seemed there was another fun run to raise money for the school, church, sports team or a charity. My marketing management job involved flying to different cities almost every week, plenty of late nights, rich meals and good wine entertaining clients. It was before the days when political correctness would spoil all the fun of lavishly looking after customers and business associates. We were encouraged to spend our entertainment allowances. As long as they were incurred in the line of duty, the effects of moderate over-indulgence were seen as badges of honour. Not a sign of disgrace like today. Life was much simpler then.
The result was that here I was in my late thirties, unfit, continually stressed out, short of time, a smoker (most people still were) and setting myself up for a heart attack. To make matters worse, I enjoyed playing squash but did not play regularly. Sometimes after a two-week break, a 30 minute squash session would feel like it was going to be my last.
For a period, I managed to resist my sons demands that I run with them on these fun runs by sponsoring them for ever-increasing amounts per km. Eventually the disappointed looks on their sad little faces as they told me I was the only father who refused to run with his kids in the whole school ( a lie I found out later) got to me. For some strange reason most mothers seemed to be let off more lightly.
Early one Saturday morning, I lined up with a hundred or so other unfit parents for a 1 km fun run. I had walked hundreds of miles in the bush during my military service 15 years earlier, so I was confident that I could easily manage 1 km. My boys, most of the kids and a few fitter parents streaked off. I set off at a more sedate pace, still confident. After a hundred metres or so, the years of rich living and lack of exercise caught up. I was reduced to a shambling shuffle. I did finish that run, I lived to run another day.
Despite my poor performance, I did not finish last. I enjoyed the reaction of my sons and realised that now I had weakened and run once, they were not going to let me off the hook, I was going to have to run more often and longer runs too. I decided that I had better take this running thing more seriously so I started running a few times a week. A good friend was the secretary of the Westville Athletic Club, he invited me to join the members on a Monday evening for a 4.5 or 8 km time trial.
The first few attempts were a disaster, I finished the 4.5 km route last and behind most of those who had done the 8km circuit. Some had already had a drink, showered, changed and gone home by the time I got back to the club house.
But I persevered, I remembered those struggling Comrades Marathon runners from years before. I started taking my running even more seriously, joined the club as a member and before long was not the last one back to the club house. I started enjoying the fun runs with my boys, found that I could keep up with them for 2 or 3 km, even entered a few business relays and fun runs. Then the inevitable happened, the other club members pressurised me into entering a “proper” 10km road race. Saying that as I had become a member of the club it was now my duty to participate. I allowed myself to be persuaded, completed the race within the time limit, got my first ever medal for completing a road race.
Despite the humiliation of being overtaken by scores of runners 20 or more years older than me, when I was reduced to the same shambling shuffle I remembered so painfully from the first fun run, I was hooked. I had been bitten by the running bug.
That first medal inspired me to set a goal of completing the Comrades Marathon inside the 11 hour deadline within 3 years.
I did but that is another story.
Image from Artvex