There are few sporting events in the world that have the ability to produce goosebumps with the regularity of the Comrades Marathon. From the National anthem and Chariots of Fire at the start, to incredible defiance of physical limits during the day, the Comrades Marathon produces extraordinary at an astonishing rate. Having attended Comrades in the past 3 years as part of the Unogwaja Challenge, I was beyond excited when I was invited to join the KPMG Running Club for the weekend and view behind the scenes as the newly formed club took on its first ever Comrades Marathon.
What Pierre Jacobs and Dana Coetzee have put together is a bunch of athletes that truly embody the values of the global firm. There is no individual who believes they are better than the rest, there is no personality who demands better treatment and there is no arrogance at being an elite runner. Instead the likes of Nic de Beer, Thabo Nkuna and Abram Retshedisitswe spent time with me on Friday and Saturday night answering a plethora of questions from an enthusiastic fan. There was patience, gratitude and genuine interest in filling me in on the plight of runners who were all looking to finish within 6:30. That’s 89km in just 390 minutes.
To highlight the excitement even further, Yushaa Abrahams, an employee of KPMG, had turned his holiday with his family into a time of giving back to the club by arranging six seconding points along the route. All of these would be manned by volunteers from the KPMG Office. A further reminder of the selflessness that is becoming a common trend in the fresh life of the KPMG Running Club was the fact that Jenna Challenor, an athlete who has run an Olympic qualifying time in the Marathon this year, spent her day on Sunday seconding the KPMG elite athletes on a voluntary basis. Class all round from the team in blue!
Obviously the massive media interest on the day was around Caroline Wöstmann and Colleen de Reuck. Caroline was chasing the never before completed double-double of Comrades and the Two Oceans Marathon, while Colleen, a four time Olympian, was running her first Comrades at the age of 52. Both would play their role in one of the most sensational Comrades days in recent years.
As I woke up early to watch the start on television, I found myself intermediately holding back a lump in throat. I too had vested interest in the race with friends and a family member taking part too. As the seconds turned to minutes and the minutes to hours an unlikely force made his way to the front and with just under 30km left broke away in what appeared the inevitable “far too early” break. But on this extraordinary day David Gatebe would not fall away and would run home to smash the record of Shetsov in a time of 5:18. At the stage of his arrival I was at the stadium and all of those present knew that we were witnessing something sensational. The more sensational was still to come.
After being filled with the enthusiasm of a five year old on Christmas morning, I headed down track side to welcome the first KPMG runners in. Thulane Magagula was the first runner home with a remarkable time breaking the six hour barrier in 20th position and taking home a Wally Hayward medal. Joined in this category was the exceptionally likeable Thabo Nkuna who finished in 5:59 taking home the final Wally Hayward medal in 24th place.
It was at this stage that eyes turned to the big screen as Caroline Wöstmann, the leader of the race from the start, looked to be struggling immensely. Her record attempt was off and the question was could she hold off a reinvigorated Charne Bosman. As cramp caused Caroline to bump into a motor bike and to later fall over, many in the stadium thought that was the last we would see of Caroline in the race. With more than 20km to go Caroline was in more pain than she had experienced in a race. The lure of the support vehicles could almost be imagined akin to the lure of water in a dessert. Caroline refused to give up. Through gritted teeth she kept moving forward almost being willed on by the entire nation. The tension in the stadium was almost unbearable and the cheers for Caroline every time she tried to run again were louder and louder.
Ultimately Charne managed to pass Caroline with just under two kilometres left and nothing must be taken away from the opportunistic victory of Charne, who has regularly played the bridesmaid to her opponent. The cheer when Charne came into the stadium was beautiful and South Africa were proud of their local winner. But the cheer from the stadium when a battered Caroline entered the stadium was something that ranks up there with being at Soccer City for the Shabba goal in 2010. As Caroline fought to find reserves the crowd willed her over the line. Not just the KPMG supporters, nope, but every single person in the stadium was supporting the triumph of the human spirit. With dry eyes in short supply Caroline crossed the finish line, not winning the race, but winning the hearts of the country. It was another display of extraordinary from a truly exceptional person. I was incredibly proud to be on the same team as Caroline.
But with five and a half hours left in the race there was still more for the KPMG crowd to cheer on. Kerry-Ann Marshall, a South African favourite already, has mastered her trade in trail running, but in her third Comrades Marathon (after having a tough start to the day) came home in sixth place. Colleen de Reuck, mimicked the act of her brother Colin many years ago, when she finished in seventh place. At 52 in her first ever Comrades Colleen reminded us of the importance of following your dreams and underlining that age is an excuse, not an answer.
As the hours ticked by there was still time for the most heroic act of the day. With just over three minutes left a lady collapsed in the stadium, merely 300 metres from the finish line. As many ran around her chasing the daylight and of course the clock, she battled to get to her feet. Then the true beauty of Comrades was delivered. A random stranger, looking perfectly poised to finish his race saw the stricken lady and without a second thought stopped to help her. Try as he may, he could not get her to her feet in order to finish the race. He refused to abandon her and instead abandoned his chance to finish inside the mark of 12 hours and receive a medal. The unknown Samaritan may not have finished the race, but he inspired a group of people to be selfless, to help one another and to know that a medal doesn’t define you, but an act of kindness can.
After the race I was emotionally exhausted, but got to spend some time with Caroline in the KPMG area. There was not an ounce of negativity or disappointment from the leading lady. Nope, that just not the Wöstmann way. The three gold medal receiving ladies made a turn by the KPMG office on Monday, when they could have been resting, to celebrate with KPMG staff a rather extraordinary Comrades.
I would like to thank Pierre, Dana and the KPMG team for hosting me this weekend. If a team is representative of the personalities in it then it is safe to say that the KPMG Running Club is a selfless, authentic and most importantly inspired team that are making the extraordinary happen every day.