Runners’ Spirit

To understand something its good to know where it comes from

The body, roughly stitched from pubis to throat, lay naked in the Oshakati morgue. Our job was to put him, his boots and bloody clothes in a used coffin, screw down the lid and take him to his flight home. A conscript dead, a vast sadness – the waste of war.

Vic Clapham in the 1914-1918 war saw death, injury and more. He would  also have seen the base side of military life: theft, unwashed selfishness, fear, cowardice. But he wasn’t trapped by them.

He saw more. In the gloom of war he saw good. He saw solidarity among the soldiers. He saw them share maybe water and food, maybe the physical and emotional load. He saw humour, courage, sacrifice, resilience and endurance.  He saw the unselfish concern for injured comrades; himself, far beyond any duty, carried for a long distance when he could not longer go on.

He knew soldiers’ rough comfort. He knew their reverence and faith.

In this spirit the Comrades grew. Though not always in the headlines, each year the Comrades Marathon creates some of this good; the light of life.

The spirit is in the runners.

The spirit is also in those watching, engaging from the side of the road.

It goes further: the organisers of the event, those who stage it, the families and friends of the runners, much of  a  nation enthralled but the spectable

Spirit in the runners

My mate Danie and I

He runs in a silent world, but still gets the Comrades cheers

Part of the Comrades spirit is generated in the runners.

The first part of the run is easy – unless you didn’t sleep well or ate too much of the wrong things; if you haven’t got a good way catch the wild herd of butterflies jostling inside.

The second part of the run is doable. At a steady pace, all the miles of your training carry you along. Its running just past fun and chat and jokes, but not too hard to do.

But then, sometime, you have to grit your teeth. The end is further than you want it to be. To far to hold on to as the means to keep going. Running is becomes uncomfortable, legs jar, feet hurt; discomfort you can’t escape. It can get harder: sun harsh, jarring shade, road hard, air rough. Sometimes even looking hurts. Nothing available tastes right. There’s still a way to go. The end of the run not yet close enough to bring hope or escape

Just there, deep in the Comrades, when you have to dig deeper, the spirit flows. It’s not a burst of energy, or happiness or a pain relief. The Comrades spirit begins with dash of resolve. You hitch yourself up and keep going, not matter what.

With maybe with a joke – stick a fork in me to see if I’m done; maybe the ratchet in your mind holds – its only 20 km to go; maybe with just a grunt, you go on. Even those who seek first comfort and indulgence understand. Giving up is wrong. Life doesn’t give up. Survival, adaptation are at source.

Spirit flow

We see the Comrades spirit at the end. Runner’s will help fallen comrades across the finish line; cross the line with friends bonded in many hours of training and now running; a married couple embraces; a father, against the rules, carries a child to the finish line.

Its there too on the road. Runners help, sometimes to their own cost, runners, strangers who falter – encouraging words, advice if need, often its just running with them, sharing and so lessening the load.

Many runners know that another’s success takes nothing from them.

Maybe two, maybe a group of runners run all the way together; a solidarity, a sharing the eases the load.

Early in part of the run; even in the dark first jostling stop-go, in leg-tangling trash-bags and curses; in the exuberant banter, the loud chatter, and among some pretty evil farts, the spirit flows.

A runner falls; instant concern, surge of empathy, helping hands. Way made for harder runners from behind. Joy of recognising the gait an old friend then greetings, wishes of good luck. Strangers suddenly talk to each other. At a crowded water table, runners sachets and thanks .

What I also like is further down, up, down the road. In silent kilometres a connection forms between same-paced runners. Faster ones come and go, others slow and disappear. The load, the total effort of those who stay is less than the individual efforts. That’s a rich part of the spirit.

Little for the ego

Those who expect that Comrades spirit jump up and pat them on the back may be disappointed. Trumpets don’t blast. The Comrades spirit doesn’t won’t pick them out and say “Hey everyone, look at here, a special person, a comrades runner, look what they achieved.”

Nor will it solve anyone’s problems. More likely it will give lessons, perspective: pricks for egos; aches those who seek first comfort; delay for those who seek quick wins; weights for those who like to carry things they needn’t.

It teaches that persistence brings rewards; that we are not alone; together who knows what can be done.


Long after the run the spirit, its energy, is still strong, ready to sparkle. You might walk down the steps to a beach and coming up is an older man in a faded Comrades Green number shirt. You might say, “You had a good comrades innings”.

He may glow. “Yes. Long ago now. Eighteen in a row, until my legs gave in.”

“Wow. But your Comrades cup is still full?”

“Yes even if I drink from it, it stays full.”

Or you might be away from home on holiday or work. You will greet runners, smile, chat with those going in the same direction.

Comrades runners know each other. They smile as they stretch out of their cars at a petrol-station in Harrismith – fellow t-shirt pilgrims head for another day of reckoning.  In the short “Good luck” and “Thanks you too” is a rich connection.

More on the Comrades Spirit to Come.

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