My First Comrades Experience: The Tales Of A Novice

Penelope Cairns |

I believe that as a true South African, one should to run the Comrades Marathon at least once in their lifetime. I did, and it changed my outlook on life. – By Kenneth Mookeng


It has been a dream, a 20-year-old dream to run the Comrades Marathon. I have watched it so many times, I can make out the hills and small towns without seeing any of the names. The many winners of years gone by, and the thrill of the exciting cut-off when the final gun goes are stuck somewhere deep down in my memory.

I believe that as a true South African, one should to run the Comrades Marathon at least once in their lifetime. In December 2015, I decided to take action and started running. It is always a safer month to start running in order to avoid being part of ambitious New Year’s resolutions brigade. Joining the club (Wonderpark Athletic Club) gave me the courage I needed, discipline and focused training.

Fast forward to the morning of Comrades Marathon 2017. I realised in the morning of the race that running from eThekwini to uMgungundlovu would not be a walk in the park.

There I was, in the thick of it all, the noise, the crowds and blurring music with the enthusiastic radio announcer welcoming all the runners. As I walked towards my seeded block, gate G, my heart skipped a beat, my stomach churned and my bladder, which I just emptied a minute ago, seemed to be full again. I looked to my right, I saw a friend Nathi looking relaxed, and happy to be there despite his layoff due to injury. I looked to my left, a happy couple was running towards gate D, and they were relaxed too. There was no mirror nearby to check if people were aware of my insecurities. I remembered that if it walks like a duck and quarks like duck, it’s a duck. So, I just blended. I looked, walked and talked like a Comrades runner. “I am not letting myself down, after all my family thinks I am a champ already”.

I gathered my thoughts just in time for the National Anthem to start playing. When I heard Chariots of Fire, I suddenly developed a rash. My hair stood on end and I shivered uncontrollably. Tears rolled down my cheeks. I thought to myself, it is finally happening. I am running the Comrades Marathon. This time it’s real. This is it. I am also mad. Just a little mad, only slightly mad. Of course only mad people run the Comrades Marathon.

The lady next to me, sensing my fear, reassured me and told me it would be fine. I was somehow embarrassed and thanked her. It has to be fine, I heard that reassurance a lot. My mates said it before. My coach said it too, just like a school teacher telling a delinquent child. It has to be fine. I waited for the cock to crow. Will it be three times, twice or once. Did it crow, or did I hear…and then there was a big bang. I looked up and there was a shower of sparkling and shimmering confetti. I knew that the sight will remain in my memory for as long as I live. I took the first step, and the second, almost pinched myself to ensure that it was in fact real. If it is a dream, today I wasn’t going to wake up. The race to Pietermaritzburg is now on.

No-one told me that starting the Comrades Marathon is in itself a challenge in itself. I could hardly make a full stride, I tiptoed for a long, long time. At the bridge in Berea, we actually came to a complete stop due to the bottleneck of runners as we filtered to the N3. Now is my time, I needed to run like I have been during my training. I needed to find my coach, he is my only hope, my strategy, my dream maker, or breaker. He is the official pacer, the driver of a sub-11 bus.

After a few kilometres I saw the flag! It must be that of coach Madoko. I have seen it before, and I have seen it over and over again. I know his running style. I have even practiced his unique sideways right foot shuffle and the left right praise singing gait. His short tip toe strides cannot be mistaken.

Madoko’s bus is full as always. There were a number of teammates and friends around him. I could notice my running friends Neo and Mapula in the back row. I am no competition, a non-entity and to cap it all, a novice. I have no chance in hell to be close to my coach, he is a celebrity and they all knew him before I knew that he was Madoko. There was some space to run and I had an opportunity to run on my favourite place, on the front seat of the bus. Cowie’s Hill was piece of cake. Fields Hill, here we come.

I respect the Hey Wena bus. It is amazing, full of passengers, but never noisy, full of colour, excitement and amusement. After about 30km of climbing, Madoko called for the usual “feeding of the muscles”. By now, most passengers know the drill. “Breathe in…and out”. Sometimes he would yell “Hey wena maan, use your nose, not your mouth”. Watch out Botha’s Hill, Madoko bus is coming, and this time is on a rampage, I am in it and living my dream. The game is on.

All runners understand the importance of time. Loss of time at water points can be avoided by the grab and go strategy, or simply by just passing. But when it comes to the call of nature, one must oblige. This turned up to be my Achilles’ heel. The sub-11 bus was about a kilometre away from me. I duly remembered that I should not panic, but to run my pace until I catch up. So I looked down, flat footed, and started Botha’s Hill. At the top of Botha’s Hill, I looked up for the bus. I was losing it. Slowly, the two pacer’s flags got further away from me as I was huffing and puffing at the back.

“Well done Kenneth, keep going…” was all I needed as I heard shouts from some seconders on the side of the road. Immediately, I felt a surge of energy in me. I looked ahead of me and saw the road decorated with flags and balloons and people all over the place. “It’s the halfway mark” said one runner next to me. I was delighted to have made it this far. I celebrated this milestone in the best way I could, by grabbing two cups full of coke, gave one to a random spectator on the side of the road and said, “to Drummond…” I proposed toast, up the cups collided in midair and indeed we drank, “…to Drummond”.


Inchanga… hot, endless and unforgiving. After every twisting turn, comes another hill. I had to remind myself that it’s not a sin to walk. By this time I had passed many runners who were walking too. If you can’t beat them, join them. So I too, decided to walk. My mind drifted from running as I strolled parts of these hills. All of a sudden, a big bus of runners, paced by a lady, shook me, injected some energy in my soul and I, like a daydreamer waking from a deep slumber, sprung to life again. It was full of ladies. Strong top runners. It was colourful too, some wearing colourful tutus matching with their lipsticks. The flag was written “sub-12, Comrades mama’s bus”. I had the feeling they have been together for some time. I could not let this one go.

Well, it was only up to the 57km mat in Cato Ridge. I do not recall what happened after that. I found myself alone again, wondering in the world of madness and confusion. My daydreaming was rudely interrupted again by the clicking sound of the tambourine. It was Steve the pacer, and we wobbled our way through Umlaas Road and finally needed to face the dreaded Polly Shortts.

Nobody runs on Polly Shortts. Everybody walks. I really am horrible in walking, I stroll. So we decided to run down little Mpusheni, walked up the real Polly’s and down we ran again. Every time Steve walked, I lingered behind. I was surprised by an unscheduled hill before turning right into the somewhat civilised part of the race. There were a big number of spectators having a good time on the both sides of the road. This section of the race was good for me. With an increased pace, we passed a big group of runners that was paced by Bucks and his adorable wife.

Minutes later, we passed another bus, and this one was much bigger and had brave gentlemen in it. I could hear the noises from the stadium. I increased the pace, passing hordes of well-wishers as well as a gentleman who clearly belonged to a league of elbow raisers, and seemed somehow inebriated, all wishing us success. A left turn, another left, and what do you know! We are in the stadium.

We ran under a bridge, and into multitudes of spectators. The noise in the stadium was deafening. My recollection of running towards the finish line is flimsy and faint. I was overcome by emotions. All my senses disintegrated. I do not remember my feet touching the ground. I felt like I was floating in the air as if I was in spirit. Perhaps I was. I hugged and kissed the lady who hanged the 2017 Comrades medal around my neck. But one thing for sure, I was not dreaming, I have the medal and finished in 11:47:31.

Looking back on this journey, I learnt a few lessons that only runners can relate to. The biggest lesson is a running bug, if it catches you, you are gone, welcome to the club. You and your family must be aware of it, manage it and treat it well. The other lesson is that runners live in a parallel world of their own. It is complete, with its culture, language and all characters, the disciplinarians, happy go chappy, clowns and so on. To a non-runner, they are all crazy, mad as they come. But the best lesson I learnt in the past 18 months, is that, if you want to make your dream come true, start by dreaming. And better still, if your dream is not big enough to scare you, it’s not worth your while to pursue it.

Now is my time to sit back and daydream about the down run in 2018.

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