Runby Gareth Pretorius / 15.10.2010
The loneliness of the long distance runner is a phrase often casually tossed out like an empty KFC takeaway box from a speeding taxi. But runners are actually never alone. In the uniform of the 21st century digital athlete – black velcroed arm strap and white earphones hooking them into their beats.
Driving baseline of torn feet hitting the ground, melodic muscles, riffs of power and pain, wicked bass plucked by the glutes, and the joints a tortured choir howling angst. But the runner keeps coming back itching for more – more miles, more pain.
Every morning, all over the world, from the mountains and valleys of rural villages to the slums and suburbs of every major city, they drag themselves out of bed to run. Faces contorted, grunts and noises, breathing hard, bodies convulsing. They look mad.
You have to ask: ‘What are they running from?’
You’re always back where you began. But now you’re tired, sore, reeking and breathless. It’s irrational. At least you’re witnessing the day waking up, hearing the birdies, watching the sun rise, but why do we do it?
We’ve been running for millennia. But we used to have a purpose. Bushmen run after a buck for days – they run it down and eat it. They run for a reason. Others run in soulless vaults, their gym. They don’t go anywhere. Pushing and pushing. Getting nowhere. Coming back for more of the same. Runners united in their desire to go further, faster. Making internal mosh pits of adrenaline – emo endorphins jumping for more! They’re addicted.
“Hi, I’m Gareth. And I’m an addict,” he says to a circle of strangers. Overhead lights hum bright, fingering something squishy underneath his chair.
“Hi Gareth!” the group responds.
“It started when I was small. It felt nice. All the cool kids were doing it! We’d meet before school and do it until we were dizzy. Soon I was doing it everyday. Late for work. My girlfriend left me ‘cause she just wasn’t into it.” He breaks down. “I need my fix man! Just twenty k’s!”
I am an addicted runner. Hooked on the music. Hooked on the desire to “Run, Forrest, run!” I remember being 6 and going for early morning runs with my father and sister. My little legs up a hill. Dreams of winning the Comrades then the sharp, searing pain of shin splints shattering those dreams. But that didn’t stop me. I joined the cross-country team at school. Taking strength from the story of the Tortoise and Hare.
And so it began 5, 10, 20km runs. As a gypsy traveller, I smuggled my “drug” past unsuspecting customs officials into Russia where I dodged Ladas and statues of Lenin on the slushy streets of early Spring St Petersburg. On a barely zero degree morning in Glasgow, a Kung-Fu guy and I raced at a solid pace for an hour, leaving me a tartan stripe away from hurling. A 10km run in Bogotá. At an altitude of 2640m, the third highest capital city in the world, exerting yourself at that height leaves your blood cells white as snow, shaky and so weak at the knees you dazzle the locals with your spastic Salsa skills. Along the dirt roads of Rio Muchacho, on the Pacific Coast of Ecuador, I was the joke. Machete wielding campesinos cajoled me in Spanish: “Los gringos son locos!”
But no run comes close to a barefoot early morning-baggies only jog in Durban. One of a handful of people on the beach. Surfers, a character prospecting with his metal detector, a truly breathtaking sunrise and dolphins playing just off shore. I once saw Zulu men pulling a frightened sheep by the horns onto the sand to be bathed before slaughtering. Oblivious to glares that oozed out of the sun creamed pores of a middle aged couple. Or the time a Muslim couple, he long bearded, she in full burka and Nike running shoes, jogged past a group of traditional healers resplendent in colourful beads, braids, and khangas, drumming and singing at the water’s edge.
Entwining cultures. Everyone doing their thing. I set off on my run. Light ocean breeze, waves washing away the noise in my mind. When I’m done, it doesn’t matter that I’ve returned to the same place because I’m not the same person. No better or worse – just different. In the warm Indian Ocean, I know I’ll run until I’m too frail to walk. Not for medals but for pleasure. For memories and the high. For life.