The Comrades is quite causally called “the greatest” ultra-running event in the world. One can understand why tourism-related websites, brochures or locals could do so. But others say so too. Hal Higdon, as an example, a USA writer and ex-runner of note, has a Comrades training program and in it calls Comrades “the world’s greatest ultramarathon race”.
No long story, no justification, just that: “the world’s greatest ultramarathon race.”
The Comrades owners bill it as “The Ultimate Human Race”. But one has to ask if they know why. Besides maybe referring to the number of entries or finishers, they don’t tell anyone.
They certainly don’t trumpet it. Their ads, the talks they organise, the TV shows and the presentation on the day, the Comrades website, museum, the race Expo, the race-day trimmings, the run itself, and the medals, all of them are modest.
Not that there is a problem with modesty. Others can have a different view but I like it. Modesty becomes the event. It feels right that nothing they do shouts, “Look at me. I’m the best ever.”
It suited Mohammed Ali when he said “I am the greatest”. I understand trumpets and fanfares. It’s just that part of what makes Comrades the event that it is, is the silence of the sweat and grind of the runners, broken of the occasional whoop when getting to the end.
Maybe the Comrades organisers learned from longer runs that it’s best not to get too far ahead of oneself given the risk of breaking down or tripping.
Their pursuit of Guinness World Record recognition is a bit tasteless to me but well, I won’t say anymore.
What is worth recognising is that the greatness of Comrades lies in the heart of the challenge, the courage of the runners who attempt it and all those who work to make it possible.
So is Comrades “ultimate”?
First, let’s ignore the definiteness of the “the” in “The Ultimate Human Race”. The question is: What makes or can make a run, a road run of all things, a long road run, extraordinary or “ultimate”.
My answer begins like this: The Comrades Marathon is an “ultimate” event. No doubt about that.
Now, I’m not paid to say that. Actually I pay: getting up many mornings from a snuggle-warm bed to air tickets; from socks and after-run beer to talking-about-running wine and sun-block; from knee cartilage cleaning costs, to, well, psychiatry bills – at least those related to weighing the rocks in my head. Not that I mind. I’m happy to pay, just as I am happy to provide an unsolicited homage.
Part of the answer is that the extent to which Comrades is ultimate takes nothing away from any other event – running or otherwise. Because it shares the joy running with most running events, its glow lights the other runs as much as their glow brightens the Comrades. Without them running the Comrades would not even be possible. A 5k recovery run is part of the Comrades and part of running. Even the awkward first steps of a starting-out- runner are in there.
Without being too modest and thus different to the Comrades owners, let me say I know what makes Comrades ultimate – well, anyway, I have good insight. I would like to know the rest of it too but as you will see later, there is a special sense in which it is impossible to know all of what makes it “ultimate”. There is just too much.
Maybe not, maybe it’s all a con. Maybe Comrades is over-hyped. Maybe it’s a just a money making racket, with clever marketers to part gullible runners from their money, to pat on the back those who bought into the idea so they come back to spend more. Maybe even, calling the Comrades Marathon “ultimate” is just hype from runners who have done it, to pat themselves on the back and justify why they put in all that effort. Maybe it is just another parochial road run.
But I don’t think that dark thinking is right.
This makes Comrades ultimate
So on with this project. It seeks to explore that which makes Comrades “ultimate”.
The ultimate nature of the Comrades Marathon lies first in the gem at the heart of its conception. Then it lies in its peculiar and particular distance and in the spirit it creates.
It lies in more too. Its way of determining of winners and losers; in the way it engages and enriches others – spectators, supporters, communities along the route, a nation.
The majesty of Comrades lies too in the unique experiences of each runner and in the role it plays in the journeys of their selves; it lies and sparkles and flickers in all the stories of everyone who is touched by the event, of all who has run, thought about running, organised, helped, supported, watched, cheered and reflected on what the run means.
It lies in more too. Together I call them the “16 Facets”. They started as four, grew to more; they still grow, merge and rearrange themselves as I think about them. They might end up less than 16; most likely though they will end up more. Read about the 16 Facets here
Besides the homage
There is more too. Now and again ideas pop into my head about enriching the Comrades experience. Not that anything needs fixing. Nor are my ideas intended to be prescriptive or judgmental of what is currently being done.
It’s just that the event stirs up feelings primal and powerful, rich and rewarding. The more they are amplified the deeper the experience of the event will be.
Once I sent a list of some of the things that I thought to one of the Comrades bosses. It’s probably coincidence but some of them like the recognition of an up and down run are there. My idea wasn’t that they should be consecutive, but still. So it’s in that vein that I make the occasional suggestion.
Also, Comrades is one kind of running among others. Its uniqueness is in relation to other running and other ways of living. So from time to time there might be more about running here too: maybe about philosophy of running and it values; maybe at the role of mind in running, comments on training and then because running generates so many experiences, they may be a few of my running stories and experiences.