On the eve of my attempt to run the 89 Km Comrades Marathon from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, I met an elderly gentleman, who had completed the event more than twenty times. Our discussion was largely centred on the event and he was helping me to ease my anxieties. He gave me one important piece of advise “All that you need to run is till the start of Durban town. The crowd will ensure that you finish the remaining 9 km before the cut-off time.” It was so true the following day as it appeared that the people of Durban have conspired to ensure that I finish and get my medal. Such was the ability of the people to change the destiny.
When it comes to sports, history is rarely made in empty arenas. The greatest of the sporting actions invariably owe their greatness to the support of the audience. They have made winning teams lose and losing teams win. Even in the age of television coverage of sports from every nook and corner of the globe, watching a sports action live has its own charm. For many, it provides them with a life-time worth experience. Nick Hornby writes in his memoir Fever Pitch, which was inspired by witnessing the title winning match between Arsenal football club and Liverpool football club in 1989,
So please, be tolerant of those who describe a sporting moment as their best ever. We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium.
While it is easy to understand the rationale behind people spending exorbitant money to watch a game of cricket or football, it is often difficult to comprehend someone going to watch a marathon entirely free of cost. Sometime back, I asked a friend of mine to come out and watch a running event that I was involved in organising. He cynically replied that he finds more meaning in watching paint dry than seeing folks put one foot after another for 42 long kilometres. A marathon runner certainly lacks the artistic appeal of Zinedine Zidane or the controlled aggression of Malcom Marshall. Looked unitary, a runner many not provide you with an excitement or enthusiasm, unless you know them in person. But, there is more to marathon.
A marathon is a spectacle by itself. One gets to see a diverse set of crowd, separated by age, gender, caste, creed, race, nationality or even the shape of their body; yet united by a single pursuit to see through the distance. Other than the lead pack of runners who compete for prize money, the rest of runners run their own race. For them, the race day is the crowning moment of all their training efforts over many days and weeks. Every runner has a story and the marathon weaves their stories together. Watching the entire city move in one direction, towards one goal, instils the belief that anything is possible if we collectively move together. Kathrine Switzer, often credited to be first women finisher of Boston Marathon, once said,
“If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.”
Marathons have their share of fanatic crowds too. The “Wellesley Tunnel” created by students of Wellesley College in Boston by standing on either side of the Boston marathon route has become an integral part of the event. London marathon once surprised the participants by having celebrity sportspersons handle their water station. The Comrades marathon in South Africa is often a symbol of unity in a country torn apart by years of racial discrimination. Cheryl Winn, who won the race in 1982, says
“It showed the country what it could and should be.”
Closer home, the Mumbai Marathon brings the best of the spirit of Mumbai. In 2009, I participated in the Mumbai Marathon, which happened to be the first major event after the city was jolted by terrorist attacks in November 2008. For the city, it was moment to stand as one and move forward.
This Sunday, Coimbatore will be hosting its own Marathon. With over 13,000 participants, it promises to be biggest sporting event in Tamil Nadu outside Chennai. The marathon, started in 2013, is organised in aid of the Coimbatore Cancer Foundation and has been growing every year in terms of the participants. It is also an opportunity for residents of Coimbatore to come out and experience what marathons are all about. These runners are none other than friends, neighbours, relatives, colleagues – ordinary people – collectively trying to do an extraordinary feat of completing the distance. Sportspersons rarely acknowledge or remember the audience by their first name. In marathons, runners will remember each one of their friends who came out to support them, however trivial it may look. For the crowd, it would be an experience that would be best left to witness than describe.
To close the loop on the friend I mentioned earlier, he did come out to watch a marathon in subsequent years and complimented, “Yes, there is something special in watching a marathon.”
An edited version of the blog above was published by The Hindu in the Metroplus edition of Coimbatore on September 29, 2017. The online version can be found here – http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/fitness/come-out-and-cheer-the-runners-of-the-coimbatore-marathon/article19768671.ece