The Greatest Story Never Told

Covering a distance of 56.1 miles (90 km), in a subtropical region of South Africa, is the world’s largest and oldest ultramarathon.  The Comrades Marathon is run on “The Big Five” sets of hills, Cowies Hill, Field’s Hill, Botha’s Hill, Inchanga, and Polly Shortts, and between the capital of the Kwazulu-Natal Province of South Africa, Pietermaritzburg, and the coastal city of Durban.  There were many reasons why I chose to run this race; ultimately, I knew that one of life’s greatest adventure was ahead of me.  Training for Comrades was a ninth-month commitment not only to myself, but also to fellow runners in the event.  One early morning, I received an email from a registered participant, an experienced Comrades veteran.  The race list of participants reflected contact information as well as birthdates.  It was our shared birthday that caught his attention and eventually began a long-distance friendship.  He helped me with my training, offering helpful tips to prepare for the race and arranged for my night’s stay in Pietermaritzburg, before the race.  Finding hotel accommodations during Comrades, the pride of South Africa was near impossible, but through my friend’s generosity, his brother (who was also running the race) and I spent the evening at a small farmhouse.  Travel to the race the next morning was in the back of a chicken truck.

Part of my journey included the opportunity, and a source of inspiration, to help raise funds for a charitable organization.  The organization chosen was the Ethembeni School located in Kwazulu.  Ethembeni cares for 300 children with varying disabilities on campus, and they immediately became my South African family.  I arrived with my 8-year-old son, our beloved nanny and that day, met my friend for the first time.  We were leaving that afternoon to travel to Pietermaritzburg for the race start. I asked if he and his brother would join us at Ethembeni School for a tour and assembly with the children.  When we arrived, the children were dressed in uniform, most of them blind, and had prepared dances, songs and meals for us as well as crafted beautiful African gifts. We were all overcome with profound emotion and gratitude. We spent the afternoon singing, dancing and celebrating.

That evening we arrived in Pietermaritzburg and settled in to watch a rugby competition and the farming family made us a delicious pre-race meal. I sat quietly in my room after the game preparing to run 56 miles through the hills of South Africa; one of only 150 Americans. In a few hours, I would travel the road that overlooks the valley of 1,000 hills where heroes from the Great War died in battle. I would run past the Comrades Marathon Wall of Honor serving as a permanent landmark to commemorate the achievements of Comrades runners who completed this epic journey. Most importantly, I would pass the school at mile marker 29 where I knew the children would be wildly cheering.

My friend and his brother are faster than I so we separated at 4:30 am to our starting points. What I haven’t shared yet is that from the moment the starting gun sounds, runners have 12 hours to complete the course in order to receive the coveted Comrades medal. My training was designed to finish the race in 11 hours and 30 minutes. There I was alone, yet with 22,000 individuals from around the world each with their own personal story. The runners began singing Shosholoza, a miner’s folk song meaning “Keep going. Move fast on those mountains.” Then I heard it...the Chariots of Fire theme music. I had been dreaming about this moment for what seemed like all my life. Then the cock’s crow.  This Comrades tradition came from a local runner 60 years ago who was standing nervously at the line and needed to do something, anything, so he filled his lungs and let out a rooster crow. Cockadoodle starts the Comrades marathon. I had tears streaming down my face and an American flag sewn to my shorts. Next to me stood an elder with a gentle smile, who I knew had run over 30 Comrades by the color of his bib. He wiped my tears and said “Just run to Durban today. That’s all you have to do is run to Durban.”

That’s what I did. I ran and ran and ran and talked to people and fell in love with the rolling grassy hills and the sights, sounds and smells. I watched the sun rise with each passing mile and came closer to Durban and Kingsead Stadium where I would make the final lap before finishing the ultimate human race.

My approach to Ethembeni School was exciting as I could see the children lined along the road looking for me as earnestly as I was looking for them.  They pulled into a massive huddle and raised me from my feet. Carried 25 yards by the heroes.  I ran up and down the hills carefully watching my time. As the day passed and the evening grew near, I was slightly behind my time by about 10 minutes. I knew if I continued even at a slightly slower pace, I would make the 12 hour cut-off.

How did I feel? Hurt, tired, humble, stripped.  Then, I saw them. The lights of Durban.  I was less than 5km from the victory lap. By this time, I was shuffling along with the other runners. Then, the unexpected, I fell.  I ran into a small reflective marker on the highway. It took me down. It was dusk so it was difficult to see if I was hurt as I could not feel my feet or my legs. I saw blood on my shorts and on my shoes and then realized my knees were cut. Runners passed me, but they too were just running to Durban. It took me nearly 10 minutes to stand up and another 5 minutes to move my legs forward. Some spirit moved me to keep going the last 5km to Durban. I didn’t dare look at my watch, but just kept moving forward, shuffling, crying, and heaving. As I entered the stadium to run the last 400 meters, it was filled with fans cheering wildly. For a moment, I thought they were cheering for me, but they were screaming loudly as the clock ticked down 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 BANG! With 250 meters left to finish the race, the final gun of the Comrades sounded and I missed the 12 hour cutoff finishing the race in 12 hours 2 minutes.

The coveted medal… I crossed the finish line and my son and nanny were there, placing a homemade medal about my neck. I’d finished it, the greatest foot race in the world. But the adventure wasn’t over.

I met up with my friend from South Africa in Cape Town. I met his wife and children and we ran together and shared pictures and stories for a few days. Then we said our good-byes unsure when our paths would cross but committed to connect at least on our shared birthday. On our last night in Cape Town before returning to the United States, I noticed a wrapped present on my bed. Thinking my son left me this prize, I thanked him in advance of opening it. He denied knowing anything about it. I opened the card and it was from my friend. He explained how our friendship had expanded his life and his eyes and heart were opened at the school. Our chance meeting by having been born under the same star delivered to us both great gifts.  In his note, he expressed to me that he felt I was an example of the Comrades spirit. The gift?  His Comrades medal beautifully mounted and framed.

At that moment, I embraced this odyssey, this spiritual quest. What is it I learned? What was revealed to me and about me? Ubuntu.  Ubuntu is a Bantu term meaning “human kindness.” The South African region of KwaZulu-Natal embraces the idea of Ubuntu “human-ness” and “humanity toward others.” Philosophically, it means the belief in the universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. It’s about our interconnectedness.

As we celebrate this springtime season and the special holidays, it is a special time to encourage storytelling and other creative ways to connect with each other and our residents and family.  What’s your greatest story never told?

Rebecca Adelman