In 1997, in one of the most remarkable achievements ever linked to the gruelling event, Percy Dunn took less than six hours to cover the 87km distance dressed in a Liquorice All Sorts Man costume, and 16 years later Vincent O’Neill completed the race in an 8kg rhino suit.
In 2007, British runner Richard Whitehead became the ﬁrst double amputee to ﬁnish the event, well inside the 12-hour time limit. This year, a group of gritty amateur athletes have again tackled the Unogwaja Challenge, emulating former race winner Phil Masterton-Smith who could not aﬀord the train fare between Cape Town and Durban in 1933, so he cycled to the start and ﬁnished the race in 10th place overall.
For the ﬁrst time, some of the Unogwaja participants have tackled the arduous task on foot, covering 56km a day for an entire month, before running the race in aid of Community Chest. Meanwhile, Hazel Moller and Michelle Maree set out last week to complete the Comrades distance every day for 10 days, raising money for Pets.
Not only do these people support worthy causes, they embody the tremendous spirit of the annual race by motivating the rest of us wary individuals for whom the race itself is diﬃcult enough.
This week’s news of Riana van Niekerk’s cancer diagnosis provided a stark reminder that running an ultra-marathon might consume thousands for six months a year, but at the end of the day our challenge is short-term.
On Monday, the race will be over, but the six Comrades charities will be looking for more funding, Pets will be searching for further support, rhinos will still be endangered, Whitehead will be missing both his legs and Riana van Niekerk will wake up with cancer.
Comrades is special to each of us who complete the distance, but the true spirit of the event lies in the people who do it not for themselves, but for others who cannot.
When my legs start to hurt at Drummond, I’ll think of the Ten10 ladies, when my lungs burn up Inchanga I’ll remember Whitehead, when my body tires through Cato Ridge I’ll recall the Unogwaja entrants, when I feel nauseous at Polly Shortts I’ll consider Dunn and O’Neill, and when I feel like giving up, I’ll replay my interview with Van Niekerk.
Her tears will remind me that this is more than a race. It’s proof of what the human body can achieve when pushed to its limits, and how far it can go when driven for the sake of others. The pink ribbon on my vest, a small gesture in support of Van Niekerk, will be used to drive myself forward.
I will remember that she is at home, contemplating the future and dreading the worst. By sharing my journey with her through the spirit of the race, my medal will belong to Van Niekerk as much as it does to me, and therein lies the essence and beauty of this great event.