Harold Strachan's Last Word

Harold Strachan: Agony and ecstasy


Hell, I can’t believe I’m so vrek old as to be called a frontiersman, some sort of voortrekker maybe, but here I have it in a thesis from the Sports Physiology Department up on the hill: I am a trailblazer of the Comrades Marathon. Somebody’s becoming a doctor for saying so. I don’t mean just my own personal self, I mean the whole couple of hundred gents who ran in the 1940s, and by gents I don’t mean ladies, nor any male who was uncaucasian, nor even he who was pale of face but too curly of hair, flat of nose or thick of lip.

But ja, the trailblazing: the race was started only in 1926 and suspended for the six years of WW2, so by 1946 when it started up again it had been run only 13 times before. And there was no Two Oceans nor any other ultra-marathon, as far as I can make out, so I dare say we were pioneers. Sort of. Many sorts of – e.g. there was Dart Bousfield from Ladysmith, member of our very own Maritzburg Harriers club and my Comrades teammate, who brought a personal chiropractor along for the race. Each runner had his own support car containing driver, lemonade – flat because CO2 bubbles cause the cramps – salt for the cramps, salt enough to pump up the blood pressure fit to burst through human skin, Elastoplast enough to bind up a broken body like an Egyptian mummy, also racehorse embrocation from the vet. He could bring the vet along too, if he liked. The driver of this car would drive up and down the course and bring back reports of where other competitors were so he could decide where strategically to set up a support and refreshment post for his runner.

Pounding my way over the Harrison Flats, five-eighths of the race behind me, I haven’t seen anybody for ages and it’s getting lonely without anybody to talk to when what do I espy way ahead but Dart’s Plymouth limousine and lo! there is Dart lying on a soft blanket smoking cigarettes whilst the chiropractor has his foot in Dart’s crotch and Dart’s foot under his, the chiropractor’s armpit. The chiropractor gives a creaking wrench and Dart says to me Hey, have a look at this! His left leg is half an inch longer than his right. Dart’s missus has got a neat little braai going so when both his legs are of equal length he can forge ahead with a nice piece of porterhouse for energy. Carbohydrates? Don’t be silly, carbohydrates are what Zulus eat – uphutu, man. Strange to see a chiropractor as support-driver, say I. That’s nothing, says he, a bloke from the Transvaal has brought his rabbi.

But all that was the jolly side of the Comrades. The suffering was in the training. We should all have died of renal failure for a start. I mean your training wasn’t proper if you didn’t suffer the most dreadful agonies of thirst, water would slosh around in your stomach and give you the cramps, see, so you just had to bite the bullet... well, okay... suck a small stone or something to keep the mouth moist and acquit yourself like a man for 30 miles, then you could start looking around for somebody watering their garden or a country shop with a handy tap or if you had brought sixpence along you could actually buy a bottle of lemonade and shake all the bubbles out first.

And then again, people are so cruel. You didn’t in those days see folks running all about city streets and country roads as is now common practice, people would stare at you if you did, but very unkind were those motorists out in the veld who would shout Hey, do you want a lift? and laugh like anything because they thought they were the first ever to say this witty thing when in fact they were the 20th of that very day. I had grown a trim guerilla-type beard to go with my curly Air Force moustache and some idiots would shout Hey Father Christmas where’s your reindeer? But you learn to stand on your dignity, concentrate on the job in hand. At the peak of training I phone Pam who is teaching at a school in Hillcrest, 40 miles along the Comrades course, and ask if I might run down from Maritzburg on Friday for a friendly weekend with good companionship and run back up again on Monday. Aaah yes, fancy that!

I set off at first light for the cool of morning and hit Hillcrest at the full heat of day. Pam is still teaching but her housemaid is around, the place is unlocked and I let myself in and make myself at home. The school day is over at lunch time on Friday, Pam knocks off and collects her dinky little daughter from the infant place and arrives home to find her house deathly silent with the doors open. She scouts around the garden and finds the housemaid huddled away in the bushes. What’s up? says Pam. There’s a man in the house, says maid. He arrived in his underclothes. Now he’s lying in the bath drinking tea. Pam comes indoors, kid on hip and I climb out of the tub and put a towel round my waist to go and say hullo. The kid catches sight of me and goes hysterical and screams Yiiiii! NAUGHTY wow-wow! I mean she thought I was a bloody dog, man.

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