The First Time

Even 30 years later one can remember every detail, every nuance, every careless whisper. Despite the intervening years, all the feelings & emotions are remembered as if they were yesterday.The first time that your eyes met hers, the first surreptitious kiss. They are engraved in one’s mind never to be forgotten.

Prologue

My first time was slightly different; my first race, a marathon without training; something that I will never forget.

The offer that I could not refuse

After splitting up with Cathy, my ex-wife, I accepted a transfer with Barlows to be the Group Accountant for the CG Smith Group in Durban. This was to be a trial separation but by accepting an appointment outside Joburg, I had already made up my mind.

I knew nobody in Durban & not knowing what to do; I stayed at the Blue Waters Hotel for several months. My boss, the Group Financial Manager, was Haydn Franklin, who had previously been the GM at a Barlows Forklift Dealership in Belgium. Despite clicking, being a local & married to boot, we never went jolling. On finding out that he played Squash, I challenged him to a game. It never seemed to eventuate as he either had spousal duties or he forgot his kit.

Eventually Barlows moved the Head Office to Barlow Park in Sandton & still the game of squash had not been played. Being involved in the singles circuit, the last thing that was on my mind was a game of squash with a guy. If he had been a female, it would have been a different matter.

On a day early in September 1983, Haydn marched into my office & announced, “The Challenge is on & a case of beers on the outcome.”

Mentally calculating that I should just pay him the cash now instead of participating in the charade, instead I reposted, “You’re on!”

“OH, just by the way, you never asked what the Challenge was” he sneakily continued.

“OHHH!” I stammered perplexed not knowing what was on his mind.

“It is the Joburg Marathon on the 12th October 1983. That gives you less than a month to get fit”

I was gobsmacked. Shattered. At 30 years old, the last time that I had done any serious training was 10 years previously in the Army.

Sensing my dilemma, confusion & in shock, the sales pitch started, “It is an extended cut-off of 4:30. If we run at 6 minutes per kilometre, we will easily make it. My wife will meet us at the 32km mark with some snacks & then it will be an easy jog back to RAU” as UJ was then known.

Haydn quickly disappeared in case I changed my mind. But how could I; the deal had been signed, sealed & delivered. I was committed.

The scientific training plan

Haydn was the guru on running as he had two months training behind him. This marathon was also going to be his first race. I cursed.

“Why didn’t Haydn at least invite me on these training runs?” I cursed again.

Haydn simple but elegant training plan was as follows:

  • Week 1: Sunday – run 15kms
  • Week 2: Sunday – run 21kms
  • Week 3: Sunday – run 32kms
  • Week 4: Run marathon

The training runs would be from his house in Bryanston & his wife would be the second.

On Sunday, I pitched up ay Hadyn’s house in Army takkies & T-Shirt ready for the unknown. Haydn assured me that 6 minutes per kay was very slow & that we easily be able to maintain it. Within 500 metres, I was huffing & puffing like an old fashioned steam train. Hadyn being my boss, I could not let him know I was battling already so when he queried how I was going, I exclaimed calmly, “Nice easy pace”

Meanwhile even my toes had started objecting. Maybe they knew something that I did not; like 15kays is a longer than a marathon. I gamely struggled along cheerfully answering Haydn’s questions as if nothing was wrong but inwardly cursing this god-damn, f*cking challenge.

I berated myself but the pain never abated.

After what seemed like days, we were back at Haydn’s house. Haydn was none the worse for wear whereas I was drenched through as I must have lost 4 to 5 kgs of sweat.

15kms had been further than my body could withstand. Our final time had been slightly over 1:30 due to my impertinence of walking up Hill Street in Randburg. Haydn eventually forgave me as long as I did not ever walk again. EVER!

On that note, I went home & slept for the rest of the day. All conceivable parts of my body complained. I reprimanded those body parts that would not assist me in finishing the marathon to shut up as they were inconsequential, unimportant in my quest to run a marathon. If I lost a toe or a shoulder, so what! I could still run. I took pity on my calves. They were on fire so I rubbed them with Deep Heat before admonishing them too, “If you think that you force me not to run the Joburg Marathon, think again. Twenty four beers are on the line here & I aim to bring them home with me”

The 21km training run was even worse & then came the 32km run. Before I started, I knew that it would be a challenge way beyond my ability. I could make it to 21kms but then my body rebelled. It would go no further. I cajoled it, I begged, I forced it; mind over matter style, all expedients that I could muster. By 26kms even Haydn’s wife could hear my muscles complaining but not Haydn as he skipped along in his effortless long stride. I calculated that I was taking two steps to his one.

Finally in pity, Hadyn’s wife invited me into her car much to Haydn’s disgust but I was past caring as I lay sprawled out on the back seat silently dying.

To Hell & Back

They claim that training for the Special Forces is like going to Hell & Back. Well today was going to be my version of this phenomena. With only three training runs under my belt & muscles still complaining like stuffed pigs, I was about 6 months away from being prepared for my first marathon. When the Training Manuals had stated, build up to a 15km run they meant over 2 months, similarly for a half marathon & a 32km run & not 15kms, 21kms, 32kms on consecutive weekends. This was a crash course in training. But how was I to know that. Haydn was my boss & training manager & as such he should know what to do.

Lining up in my blue T-shirt, black Army shorts & green Army takkies, I felt distinctly out of place as I seemed to be inappropriately dressed. My fellow runners in their Nike running shoes, Club vests & Ray-Ban sunglasses looked the part as runners. Instead I looked like somebody who had arrived from the farms or plots. All of them seemed to be fine running stock with lithe lanky bodies.

I tried to hide in the crowd as best as I could but there was no place to hide.

The gun went off & the runners streamed down Empire Road towards Hillbrow. Quickly the first runners were a kilometre ahead of us. Fortunately with so many runners, the pace was slightly slower than 6 minutes per km so I was not doing my usual stunt of panting at the first km. Then it was right & up what is now called Constitution Hill & down to the Centre of Joburg. Even at this point, the runners ran shoulder to shoulder across the road.

To make up the distance, the route took us down one street & then up another so that one could see half a dozen rows of runners. The half-way point was near Wemmer Pan. The elapsed time was 2:15. Haydn was tense. We were behind schedule but he had a plan to catch up the lost time while my plan was to slow down & stop. Haydn had other ideas. Our pace would have to drop to 5:40 per km. I cajoled my body but it did no obey. Haydn cajoled my body. It rebelled. At best I knew that 6 minutes per kay was unachievable but I hung in. Haydn was constantly giving me the splits but I never heard anything as I focused internally to keep going.

At 32kms, Haydn’s wife was waiting for us. The snacks were a welcome break & a chance to walk, the first since we had started as Haydn did not seem to believe that a runner should walk as it was unsporting.

Then we were on the road again. By now, I was delirious. I did not know what I was doing but putting one foot in front of another. We were now running in the Coloured areas behind RAU. The inhabitants formed a channel down which we ran, egging us on. I could not focus at all. Sensing that I was close to the end, Haydn linked his arm into mine to steady me.

With a strict 4:30 cut-off, it was now going to be tight. At two kays to go, there was 13 minutes left. Haydn was extremely agitated. It would be touch & go. With 500 to go, there was an uphill. My body was rigid, it refused to move. Haydn refused to relent but gave me 20 seconds to recover.

The count-down had started. The crowds were cheering the few stragglers on to beat the gun. I ran with my eyes closed with Haydn steadying me. I was past caring, finished. I needed to stop.

“60 seconds to go” the announcer screamed

“50 seconds”

“Let’s sprint”, Haydn yelled frantically

“You go”, I whispered.

“Come” he pulled me along

“30 seconds”

“Faster”, Haydn shouted apoplectically.

“I can’t”, I mumbled, heaving as I did so.

Finished

4:29:55

 

“Bang”, the gun stopped all the charging runners in their stride as they gave up the challenge.

I did not know where I was as I sank to the ground. Haydn’s wife was there to greet him as I lay there writhing.

Medal received

Medal received

I cursed. I ranted. Finally I made a solemn vow that I would NEVER EVER run again & that if I did, somebody could incarcerate me for insanity. I would not run even if there were a dozen cases of beers on it.

It took me six years to relent.

 

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