Friday, April 29, 2011

Heading back to South Africa for the Comrades Marathon

Since I am only three weeks away from departing once again for South Africa to run the 56 mile Comrades Marathon, I thought I would publish the write up I did from last year.  Enjoy.   Also, here is the video from The North Face that also tells the story.
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Here I am, two days before running what has been called “the greatest footrace on earth”, steadily making my way up the hills of Polly Shorts, an infamous section of hills within the Comrades race course, and my head is filled with negative thoughts.  I’m running with my teammates Nikki Kimball and Lizzy Hawker. We are scoping out the Comrades course, running small sections, and primarily trying not to be killed in the process.    The air is filled with dust and smoke.  We are running into a strong hot and humid headwind.  Cars are zooming past seemingly unaware that their tons of steel are inches away from our bodies.  There is no shoulder.  We jump into the hay or ditch on the sides when we can. 

I spy a rare side road that seems to have no traffic.  I can’t bear another minute of our current situation, so I say “let’s get the hell off this road” as I point to the side road.  Although we are ditching our ride up the road, we are certain they will come back to find us.  We all breathe a sigh of relief as we lightly jog on this small slice of heaven.  No cars, shielded from the wind, we are momentarily happy.  We discover that the road leads to the Imvelo Ranch, home to an endangered species of antelope.  The sign and locked gate marking the entrance to the Ranch are our first signs of any wildlife in between the urban jungles of Durban and Pietermaritzburg.  We snap some pictures, hooked up with our ride, and are off to preview the remaining sections of the Comrades course. 
In front of the Imvelo Ranch 
But my head is still filled with conflicting feelings.  When we arrived at the Hilton in Durban the Monday evening before the race, we were warned to not go outside at night.  After thirty hours of travel, I settled for shaking out my legs on treadmill as hard as concrete.  The next morning, we inquired where we could jog.  The helpful concierge gave us very specific direction on the “safe” route to get to the security guard lined boardwalk, where we were then free to jog back and forth.  Since the Hilton is positioned close to downtown Durban, we found that simple things like going to the grocery store two blocks away required us to be handed off from security guard to security guard as they guided us to the store.   If we wanted to eat out at night, we needed a cab ride to a safe street lined with restaurants, which had invested in security guards for tourists and locals looking to eat in safety.  Returning from dinner called for a thrice over of the cab and driver to make sure we were stepping into a safe taxi.  Every local who we interacted with had their own story of car jackings, robberies, etc.    Locals have seemed to figure out how to live with the ever-present fear of violent crime, and as tourist, we were learning the same. 

But it wasn’t just the security issues that were bothering me.  At the core of my discontent was the discovery process we were involved in, peeling back the layers of what seemed like a very modern society – fast and efficient airports, eight lane highways, luxury accommodations for the most discerned traveler, creature comforts for all needs, and some of the best, freshest food I’ve encountered away from the farmer’s markets of Oregon. What we were uncovering was a conflicting view of this seemingly modern society.  
Primary mode of transportation
On the four lane highways, autos would zoom past people walking on the sides of the highway, with their feet as their only form of transportation.  Shantytowns could be found right outside of the urban areas.  The constants smell of smoke lingered in the air from both the burning of fields and the fact that a large part of the population still uses fire for cooking and heating their home. 
Home in Chesterville
The region surrounding the Comrades racecourse, KwaZulu Natal, has the highest rate of AIDS infections in the world.   Nearly forty percent of the women in this region are HIV positive.  It also has the highest rate of orphans in the world, with one quarter of the estimated two million children orphan by AIDS in South Africa found in this region.   And it goes on…South Africa also has one of the highest rates of rape in the world.  According to the South African organization People Opposing Woman Abuse (Powa), a woman is raped in South Africa every 26 seconds. Shockingly, only one in nine rapes that takes place in South Africa is ever reported - out of the reported cases, only 7% lead to a convictions. (Powa).
Two days after arriving in Durban, we had the opportunity to visit Chesterville, a township along the Comrades course.   Because we knew about the orphan crisis prior to our trip to Comrades, our team from The North Face had created a partnership with a local charity, Starfish Greathearts Foundation.  Formed in 2001, Starfish has been working with the people in community based organizations of South Africa, to fund, train, oversee and empower them to deliver quality care to children who are orphaned and vulnerable due to HIV/AIDS.  Our team has been working to fund a project in Chesterville called Vukukhanye. Knowing what we knew about the tidal wave of orphans in the region surrounding the Comrades course, we could not think of Comrades without thinking of the orphan crisis.  The two are inextricably linked in our minds.
Preschool in Chesterville
Vukukhanye was formed in 2002 in response to the serious threat to child and family welfare caused by the HIV/AIDS epidemic within the township of Chesterville.  The program focuses on the provision of care, support and counseling for abandoned, abused, neglected, orphaned or homeless children.  Vukukhanye links in with the community and other relevant organizations to promote family stability and improve the social environment of children within its area of operation.
“We must look to the future and try our best to find ways to help the increasing number of children who will be without parents – both orphaned and abandoned …We are on the path to a catastrophic situation and need to make the best use of the available time to arrive at ways of caring for these children”  (Ross Halkett, National Council for Child and Family Welfare, South Africa)
Vukukhanye loosely translates to “Arise and Shine” in Zulu.  It reflects the communities optimistic hope that they will show the world that they can rise above their circumstances.  What really struck me about the visit to Chesterville was how proud and optimistic the people are. Living in a one-room hut with on and off electricity and water, the people of Chesterville are proud.  Their houses are tidy and their clothes are clean.  
Mother and daughter in their tidy, tiny home
We visited a preschool, afterschool sports program (Sports for All), three different houses/family set ups, and a Foster Home.  Vukukhanye is involved in all, supporting in various ways.  The social workers are amazing people, but it really is the spirit of the community helping individuals in their community that is so strong.  It is the grandmothers in the community who are taking in the children without parents.  As Jenine, one of the social workers involved in Vukukhanye pondered, “What will we do when the grandmothers die?”

Sports For All Program
One question that had been on our minds, and on the minds of others as we went about talking to large and small groups in the United States about raising money for Starfish Is:  “Why such a high rate of AIDS/HIV infections?”  What we learned is that sex education starts at the ages of seven to eight.  But the cultural beliefs run counter to HIV/AIDS education.  Culturally, the male is very empowered. It is not manly to wear a condom.  Rape is common and unreported.    There is a belief in the townships that a man carrying HIV can rid himself of the disease if he has sex with a virgin. But few of these rapes are reported because the rape laws favor the criminal, not the victim.
We also learned of the concerns about child trafficking with the coming of the World Cup.  Borders and border control are opening and becoming lax to invite the World Cup spectators in, leaving the most vulnerable citizens, the children, open to being smuggled across the border and sold. 
We met a 15-year-old girl, who was abused by her alcoholic father. Her mother and father have since died of AIDS.  She had just given birth to a little girl.  She had to drop out of school because of the infant, and is living in her house taking care of her infant daughter and her 11-year-old sister.  She's HIV positive.  Because of Vukukhanye, she was able to take anti retro viral medications during her pregnancy in hopes of protecting her unborn baby from HIV.  She was to learn the results of her daughter’s HIV test a couple of days after our visit.  As soon as her daughter is old enough to go to preschool, She plans on finishing her education.  Vukukhanye also provides her with food parcels and moral support and guidance.
Teenage mom and baby
After our visit to Chesterville, in the two days we then took to preview the course, I kept wondering how I would see the “magic” of Comrades, as others have called it. Why was I participating this “great race” when a large part of their society was in need of help.  The hype and commotion surrounding this race seemed inconsequential compared to some of the social issues the country was dealing with.  My questions to myself were “Isn’t all of this energy, time and money that is being put into the race, much less the World Cup, misdirected?  How can a country invest billions of dollars, currently estimated at $15 billion between South Africa and FIFA (soccer's international governing body), into the upcoming World Cup, while ignoring a large part of their constituents?  How can this seemingly modern society not protect their women and children?”
Race morning started with all the normal pre race rituals - - an early wake up at 2.45am, quick breakfast and coffee, then a ride to the start.  All was going smoothly until we and all the other 20,000 participants tried to go through the highway toll at the same time.  With the rush of people, we also were exiting the one exit to Pietermaritzburg at the same time.  What seemed like a nicely cushioned timeframe to get to the start ended in a dash out of the car before our predetermined drop off point, a “warm up” jog/sprint to the elite starting area, and then a sigh of relief when we realized we had an entire five minutes to spare.
As we lined up in the elite start corral, we were packed shoulder to shoulder.  Any last minute adjustments, such as re tying of the shoes were impossible.  Nikki, Lizzy and I ended up in the middle of a sea of dark men.  We quickly assessed that we would be stampeded by the masses going out at a five minute pace, so we tried to shuffle our way toward to sidelines, explaining to all who were willing to listen that we were “trying to save our lives.”
And then the magic of Comrades started.  Five minutes before the gun, we were led in the song “Shosholoza” a traditional Southern African folk song. The song was traditionally sung by all-male work gangs in a call and response style. The word Shosholoza means go forward or make way for the next man.  Every single person around me, save Lizzy and Nikki, was singing in a strong voice.  By the third time through, I was getting the hang of the lyrics and attempted to join in.  It was a beautiful and moving moment, and a wonderful way to calm the nerves. 
As soon as the gun went off, I knew I was a part of something much bigger than just a race.  In the dark of the 5.30 am start, crowds lined the street.  As the mass of humanity swirled through the streets of Pietermaritzburg toward Durban, we passed families huddled around open fires, cheering on the runners.  Hundreds of thousands of spectators.  Mostly black. 
 “Ladies!  Ladies!”  “USA”  “Obama”
On one hand, this race seemed so unimportant relative to the poverty and social issues that surround the area.  On the other hand, most of the people that we met in Chesterville knew of the race and were excited to have met runners participating in Comrades.  Running transcends the social class and economic lines and becomes something that anyone can participate in and rally around.  Running is free, it’s empowering, and it can unite a country, if only for a day. 

I had some very strong emotional feelings running this race, thinking about the women who live in fear, the grandmothers who are taking care of large numbers of children in their communities.  How strong and proud these women are, but how the system, from the government to the cultural norms and values around them pushes them down, it doesn’t lift them up. Racing Comrades in the sea of men, I made it a point to connect, smile and make eye contact with the women spectators.  One black woman spectator who I waved to ran beside me for as long as she could cheering me on.  I cheered back to the young girls lining the route.  I high fived the kids, which sometimes almost brought me to a dead stop because their hands formed such a strong grip on mine.
running along...
In all of my years of running, I’ve never had the entire route of a race covered with spectators, sometimes ten deep.  I’ve never felt such a connection to the people, and such a lift of energy from the crowd.  I can honestly say I ran with pure joy the entire route.  For once I was completely unconcerned with time and place. I was in the moment.  Races like this don’t happen often, if ever.    This is the magic of Comrades. 
A huge thank you to the corporations (Workday; The North Face) and individuals (too many to name) who enabled me to raise over $20,000 for Vukukhanye.  The children of Chesterville thank you. 

2 comments:

  1. Kami, thank you for posting this beautiful experience you had. It is so difficult to really open our eyes and accept truths that are so hard to bear. But really, we can't be free until we do.

    I am a new trail runner, hoping to do the Northface Endurance Challenge in San fran this year- the 50k. I admire you a great deal and hope to meet you one day! My husband and I live with our 6 year old daughter here in Portland.

    Thank you,
    lisa

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