Having recently settled into portly late middle age – that sounds preferable to early old age – I still had one physical challenge outstanding in my life’s inbox to complete: run around the world. Perhaps lack of fitness would be too charitable a description of my physical condition. It was not only the slightly stout demeanour but also my back to consider. It had forced my withdrawal from the Paris Marathon in 2011. With 6000kms still to run, it could even have prevented the achievement of my RTW Goal.
Climbing Mountain Everest was never seriously on my bucket list. Even if I had obtained sponsorship which was highly unlikely, there were the more serious factors such as lack of leave and an irascible wife to contend with. Aside from these considerations, it was utterly inconceivable in that as a South African I would not be able to obtain a visa to 80% of the world, Nepal being one of them, at that time in South Africa’s turbulent history.
Main picture: At the start of the Pick ‘n Pay 21km race at Saheti School together some some of the runners who would accompany me: Ken, Laurie, Nigel, me, Myer, Mike, Amanda and Kurt. They had the heavy work to do: carry the banner for 21,1kms.
In stepped an urbane affable lanky runner by the name of Ashley Wood who would play a signal role in establishing a monumental physical goal in my life but one which a person as athletically challenged – again a charitable characterisation – as I was, could by a dint of supreme effort actually achieve.
I first encountered Ashley on a run at the Police Colleague at Hammanskraal, a dusty shanty town north of Pretoria in the former Bophuthatswana during the late 1980s. Apart from being amongst the 20 or so whites mingled with thousands of local blacks, it was his witty repartee and other witticisms in the mould of a latter day Churchill which instantly attracted me to him.
What he laconically proposed was that I enter the 1 000km Challenge, run 2 000kms in races per annum and possibly, just maybe, with a dollop of good luck achieve after 20 years the equivalent of running from Joburg to New York. I never was that great in maths but I never checked the veracity of his assumption at that point.
It was implausible that I could. Utterly inconceivable. So I demurred.
But Ashley being the wily marketer that he was, let his silver tongue and affable charm work its magic
His plan was quite brilliant in its simplicity. Ashley played his trump card. All that we had to do was to run the equivalent of a marathon plus 10 kms per weekend for a minimum of 50 weeks a year for 20 years!
That proposal struck my body, which would have to fulfil its part of the bargain, as being manifestly unreasonable. For the naturally cautious person such as myself, my default position on all such inane proposals was a negative response. Then he played his final trump card. Seeing that he had a company car and seeing that he lived down the road, he would pick me up every Saturday and Sunday and take me to the races. I succumbed to his entreaties
My body revolted. It staged a rebellion. From a maximum of 20kms per week, my body now had to run 40 to 50kms per weekend.
Ashley was in his element.
The weekend now consisted of crisscrossing South Africa running races. After a half marathon in Pretoria on Saturday morning, we would motor 600kms down to Durban to run the Durban marathon on Sunday morning. A Wednesday night 15km race at Standerton was well within our Wednesday night range. The business trip to Cape Town would now always be scheduled for a Friday in order to run the Cape Town Master’s Marathon the next day.
Even the most obscure towns and dorps made the radar; anything to get the mileage up.
Geoff Gilfillan, the local undertaker, had also joined us in our inane quest together with any other indigent waifs and strays which Ashley invariably attracted became part of the retinue. Adding spice to the mix was the fact that these runners were generally from the wrong side of the railway tracks.
One such misbegotten pair was an Afrikaans bus driver and his Indian girlfriend in an era when interracial relationships might have been legalised but were definitely still frowned upon – abhorred actually – in conservative and polite circles.
Ashley who was a dear friend was an admixture of the compassionate person conflated with certain rigid negative perceptions of certain races. His desire to assist those less fortunate than himself and often from other racial groups was heart-felt and genuine and not some liberal minded atonement for white injustices inflicted on other races.
The relentless pressure – week in and week out – began to take its toll. Being blue blooded males with our innate competitive streak, every race became a challenge, a race.
Not factored into this equation was an unwritten physical law: one’s body is not akin to a machine. It requires a modicum of rest or at least not to be pushed to the limits of its endurance all the time. It was more than the physical discomfort and continual wariness but the mental strain. In that we all had a formidable opponent.
Then it finally happened. After a few years, Ashley cracked. The prospect of running a marathon every weekend for another 17 years was his abiding concern. Like eating one’s favourite food every day, the initial euphoria is no longer present. So it was with Ashley.
Without his cheerful banter and companionship, it would be far harder. I consoled myself with the fact that all it would take is another 17 years. Even more remarkably was that my body’s consent was now given willingly. I had become hooked on the adventure. Spurring that confidence was that my body was like a pack horse in accepting all the additional burdens and cares that were placed on it. Left unspoken especially to my confidantes was that I developed an acute mid-life crisis at age 40.
I kept my own counsel. In the wake of this disillusionment with life, I disdained the idea of an extramarital affair but rather poured all my copious energy into improving my running performance.
Increased speeds operated in tandem with decreased weight. I focused meticulously on my diet and other minutiae of running so as to eke additional speed out of my body. On the white board in my office at work – Monoweld Galvanisers – I listed my weight and speed by distance. My objective was to be in the top 15% to 20% in all distances.
The first to be achieved was 10kms. Finally my time hovered around the 44 minute mark, the 15km at the 1:11, 21km at 1:49, 25kms at 2:05 and 32kms at 2:48kms.
Only the marathon time stood unbroken at 4:10.
The chosen race was the Johnson Crane in Benoni. It was now or never. The kilometres drifted past: 10kms in 50 minutes, 15kms in 1:15, 21.1 in 1:45, 25kms in 2:05 and 32kms in 2:45.
Then it struck. My body finally threw in the towel. It told me in no uncertain terms that the heat and the speed had sapped me of all my reserves. Of course the Germiston Callies 25km on Wednesday night race had also taken its toll.
By a dint of supreme effort, I finally finished in at 3:53, a broken man.
My 90kms to drive home would be a nightmare. Drifting in and out of consciousness, I finally passed out. In the pre-cellphone era, there were few options. I waited in my Audi 500SE until the worst of the nausea had subsided and only then cautiously drove home.
A 3:30 marathon was way beyond my ability. In spite of doing another 80 marathons after this episode, long distance races would remain my nemesis, my personal cross to bear. As a self-respecting running in South Africa, it was de rigeur otherwise one could not be called a runner.
Having hurt my back in my early twenties when lifting a stove, I had periodically experienced back pain. In my early forties the first serious bout of back pain was experienced. Fortunately it subsided. After various episodes finally in January 2002, I could bear the pain no longer, it had to be a back operation. Apart from short runs, nothing else was allowed. As a passionate runner, this was akin to a jail sentence. My definition of a short run was anything under 32kms together with the occasional marathon but no further ultras.
By the time of my second back operation, I reluctantly scrapped marathons except overseas marathons off the list. Having already run 93 marathons by 2010, my objective was then to complete 100 marathons but there was a twist: they would be international marathons. With Nigel as a co-conspirator, we entered both the London & the Paris marathons as they were separated by a week in April 2011. The unexpected happened. In excruciating pain, I drove myself to the hospital. The MRI scan confirmed by worst suspicions, another operation, my third, was necessary.
With no official cut-off, I could complete the London Marathon but not the Paris marathon. No more marathons for me were on the agenda except if they were overseas and some generous benefactor paid all my costs. None has appeared to date so officially the 94th marathon, the London, was my last. Still, having not achieved 100 marathons, the next goal was still achievable, the Around the World Challenge.
As this would be my competitive running swansong, I would go out in style. Thirty of my family & friends were invited to complete the last 21kms of this odyssey with me. Malcolm demurred because Spain was too far to away or perhaps that was because he was unfit. Without prompting, Kurt agreed to fly up from Durban. Even Clive who had chided me mercilessly for the past 15 years for being a runner, relented and ran part of the way with me. Against very long odds, I had achieved a goal which if the truth be told was too bold to admit to anybody.
What did it require?
Twenty four years of unremitting dedication, focus and commitment together with an understanding family. But as the saying in Africa goes about how one eats an elephant: one mouthful at a time. More importantly, the benefit was not solely the completion of 40 075kms but rather all the wonderful unassuming people that I have had the opportunity to meet. Unlike society, one is not divided by race, class or gender but rather one is bound by a common humanity. Today’s race, the 10km Vuyo Mbuli Memorial Run was no different. In spite of not having known his name until his untimely death recently, I can recall friendly chats with this ebullient runner from the Soweto Cabal Running Club.
In running we are all equal, enduring the same highs and lows, the same character testing climbs and heat. One is judged by the indelible characteristic: one’s endurance, perseverance and mental strength and not some inconsequential arbiter representing one’s vanity or one’s bigotry. There was somebody special who was unable to attend the celebratory breakfast after the race: Ashley Wood. Not for Ashley the mundane excuse of having to wash his hair that morning – or what was left of it – but rather a more important impediment. Ashley, my dear friend, had an important meeting with his maker. Sadly on a 21km run in the Pilansberg Nature Reserve some 15 years prior, Ashley had suffered a fatal heart attack and did not recover.
Your seminal role in setting a life-changing course for me will always be remembered as well as your camaraderie, sunny disposition and endless witticisms especially those during the depths of despair during a long race. Perhaps I should now attempt 50 000kms but please do not tell Janine.
Under the aegis of The 1000km Challenge, I am the 8th South African to have achieved this honour.
Order of completing the Around the World Challenge:
Note: An update. Shortly prior to the unwanted arrival of Covid-19, I did achieve my 50,000 kms. Given the fact that Janine’s health was precarious and as she was, at that stage, bedridden, I set myself the target of doing 2600kms per annum in races instead of my previous 2000kms.