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Lynne in NYC

Kopac's Corner

The Comrades Ultramarathon

by Bob Kopac

The world really is a global village. Case in point: This year Bob Rother and Lynne Kopac ran the 2003 NYRRC Mothers Day 5K. While I waited near the finish line in Central Park, I happened to strike up a conversation with runner Rodney Barnes. He had just completed an 18-mile training run in Central Park and had stopped to watch the finishers. I asked him if he was training for a particular race. He replied, "Comrades". By chance, I knew exactly what he meant. A couple of months earlier, Bob Rother had lent me a videotape of his favorite running movie, "The Long Run", filmed in South Africa.

This well-made movie is the story of a German running coach (played by Armin Mueller-Stahl) in South Africa who works for a factory that produces bricks. In his youth he trained for, and DNF'ed, at the Comrades Ultramarathon. Now he was training 4 of the African employees to run the Comrades Ultramarathon, a grueling 89-kilometer race. However, he then loses his job to a younger, black, employee.

While in the midst of despair, he encounters an illegal immigrant from Namibia (Nthati Moshes, in her acting debut), and he recognizes her running potential. He convinces the South African authorities not to deport her, but to put her into his custody. He then starts training her for Comrades using a tough training regimen. The relationship between the runner and the dictatorial coach, their different motivations, and the beautiful South African setting result in a striking running movie.

Back to Rodney Barnes. I was glad I knew about Comrades, because I was able to have an enjoyable talk with him about the race. He explained that this year's Comrades course was from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. Each year this point-to-point course changes direction. The Pietermaritzburg to Durban route is considered an easier "down run", whereas the opposite direction is a more difficult "up run". Rodney had run the race before, and was training hard for this year's event on June 16, 2003. I wished him luck.

A month and a half later, I searched the Internet to see how he had fared. Rodney finished the 2003 ultramarathon in 09:29:08. I also discovered that he had performed very well in previous Comrades. He had received the bronze medal twice. He also had received the Bill Rowan medal in 2001 for running Comrades in 08:50:16. In 2000 the race officials began awarding this medal to all runners who beat the time of Bill Rowan, the winner of the inaugural 1921Comrades Ultramarathon in a time of 8:59.

Because of a movie filmed on another continent, I was able to have a knowledgeable conversation during a chance encounter with a runner. Because of the Internet, I was able to easily find his race results at an event half way around the world. We really do live in a global village.

Footnote: Thanks to the Internet, Bob Rother obtained information that showed the 2003 Comrades had its own, somewhat frightening, "Who Let the Dogs Out" moments. Fanilakhe Ntshangase, a 28-year-old runner, was kidnapped after he left the race expo. Bandits forced him into a taxi at gunpoint and then robbed him of his running gear. Fortunately, he was unharmed. The sponsors of Comrades gave him replacement clothes and shoes so he could run the race.

More unfortunate, however, was a 60-year-old Japanese competitor who was mugged during the race! Thieves robbed him halfway through the race, stealing his running shoes. However, unlike Abebe Bikila, who won the 1960 Olympics marathon in Rome while running barefoot, the Japanese runner did not complete the race without shoes but instead DNF'ed.

The Kwazulu-Natal Athletics and Athletics South Africa direct the Comrades Ultramarathon. Here is a link to the Comrades Ultramarathon web site: http://www.comrades.com

Here are links to movie reviews of "The Long Run":