All of a sudden, his bag and he were summarily tossed out on the platform of the station at Pietermaritzburg, South-Africa.
The passenger, a lawyer, contemplated walking back to Durban that cold winter night or continuing onwards to Pretoria in the next train. He did the latter, but this incident had a profound impact on his life, and on that of over many hundreds of millions of people. A fire had been lit in Mahatma Gandhi’s soul at this racial injustice. A fire that was to change India and its people.
117 years later, on an early winter morning of 2010, I found myself in the same city, standing outside the Town Hall. I was there with over 16000 others, who were going to run down from there to Durban, 89 km away, in the 85th annual edition of the gruelling Comrades Marathon.
I had goose bumps not just because of the nip in the air, and not just because of the historical coincidence of being in the town of the Mahatma’s ‘political birth’, but also because I was finally at the start of this gruelling run. My months of training, alone and with company, had helped me physically and mentally get prepared for this moment, and arrive at the start line injury free.
Now was the moment of reckoning. Would I be able to complete this distance, which I had never run before? More importantly, would I be able to finish it in the stipulated time of 12 hours? I threw all those thoughts out of my mind, not wanting to clutter my limited mind space.
I felt really good that morning and at 5:30 am, the cock crowed, the gun was fired by the Mayor, and the seemingly endless sea of humanity surged slowly but surely towards the start line.
I looked around with awe and humility. There were many who were running their 10th 15th and 20th Comrades run, and a few were running their 30th! The will power around that Town Hall, I felt, could collectively help change the world, if there was some way to harness it. “Treat the Comrades with respect and hold yourself back during most of the run and keep assessing yourself. Walk up the slopes but keep moving. Run faster if you must, only in the last 4-5km.” These were among the several nuggets of advice given by seasoned campaigners. We bonded, and were friends for that moment.
The route was from Pietermaritzburg at a height of approximately 2500ft down to Durban at sea level, with 5 hills in between – Polly Shortts, Inchanga, Botha’s Hill, Fields and Cowies. I knew I had to walk up every hill, and run with a slow and measured pace on the down hills, being careful not to run fast down them in my exuberance. I started thinking about the similarities between life and long distance.
There will be times when you have to think on your feet, be flexible, patient and self confident and keep moving forward .
Soon Polly Shortts was behind us and the sun had started streaking across the Eastern sky. Cheerful spectators, and volunteers handing out water made the going easy. Music, cheers from little kids and delicious aromas of various barbecues were ever so energising.
I was constantly reminded that I was going living an amazing experience showcasing how the ordinary end up achieving the extraordinary. The now famous vuvuzelas were trumpeting along the route. I had 28 km and four hours to go. No time for complacency.
Another eight km in the next hour got me exhilarated as I now knew that unless I did something foolish – I would finish in the stipulated 12 hours, even if I walked the entire bit. Then four km in the last hour. Listening to the vociferous and moving cheering gave me goose bumps. With two kms to go, I upped my pace. Before I knew it, I had crossed 250. I stopped counting. I could now hear the loud music and the fanfare from Kingsmead Stadium in Durban where the finish was. I started running faster, running past the gates and then waving my arms and dancing. Saw huge smiles of relief, exhaustion, satisfaction, delight and tears as we crossed the finish line.
I realised that human energy when harnessed can surmount any barrier. How apt that I should have learnt this lesson in a place where Gandhi learnt to change his angst into a mass movement.