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May 13, 2024

The Marathon Runner

By KK Brown

"It is not commonly known ... " Hermann Potgieter said to the American, after that gentleman had bought Hermann Potgieter his third brandy and coca cola, " ... that my grandfather, Theuns Potgieter, was the finest marathon runner in the Natal Midlands."

Hermann Potgieter was, we knew, not strictly accurate in this statement, because the young American tourist and his wife, to whom Hermann was speaking, were the only people in the hotel that evening who were unaware of the fact that Hermann Potgieter's grandfather had been a great marathon runner, and who had not been availed of the information on more occasions than any of us cared to remember.

Even the expression on the face of Old Joseph, the native barman, displayed a minor degree of that to which I shall refer as resigned indifference: and Old Joseph was a polite and respectful servant.

We permitted the inaccuracy to pass unmentioned, however, for there was always a certain expectant interest in Hermann Potgieter's story, which interest normally arose from hitherto unrecorded details which Hermann Potgieter had remembered since the time he had last recounted his story.

We settled ourselves, therefore, more comfortably in the armchairs in front of the log fire -- for it was a cold evening at the Springbok Hotel in the Drakensburg Mountains -- and waited while Hermann Potgieter kindly permitted the American to buy him another brandy and coca cola, and lit his pipe.

When the American returned with the drinks, limping slightly, Hermann Potgieter continued. "Oupa Theuns Potgieter won the marathon race from Durban to Pietermaritzburg on no less than six occasions ... " related Hermann Potgieter, nodding gravely in recognition of the look of surprised admiration on the young American's countenance.

(This information held no great surprise for those of us who had heard the story previously, for it was consistent with Hermann Potgieter's earlier revelations of the facts of the matter since the late 1970's, when Hermann Potgieter had remembered that his Oupa had, in fact, won the race upon six separate occasions, and not four, as Herman Potgieter had previously -- incorrectly -- remembered.)

"The race is called the Comrades Marathon, and it is called that ... " continued Hermann Potgieter " ... because it is run in memory of the men who died in the Great War when the Englishmen were fighting against the Germans and trying to steal their land, as they stole the land from South African farmers after the Boer Wars."

"I think, Herman, that the Americans were also fighting against the Germans in that Great War ... " interjected Piet Gouws, slyly, winking at Danie Gerber from just beyond Hermann Potgieter's line of vision. Piet Gouws was a bit like that: that sort of a man, I mean, who thought he was funny, and liked to stir up trouble: so we ignored his silly attempt at intervention.

"That may be ... " replied Hermann Potgieter " ... but the Americans only started fighting the Germans a long time after the English were fighting the Germans, so they cannot be blamed as much, and anyway, they only started fighting the Germans because the Englishmen told them lies about the Germans." Hermann Potgieter brushed off Danie Gerber's impertinent interruption with the confident ease of one content in the knowledge that he possessed a superior grasp of the facts of history. Hermann Potgieter continued.

"When the Engels men started running up from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, and the next year running down from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, Oupa Theuns Potgieter would not run with them because he did not want his neighbouring farmers (most of whom basked proudly in their Afrikaans or German extraction) to feel that he might have sided with the English in that Great War when the Englishmen were being unreasonable towards the Germans, and trying to steal their land, even. But he also did not want those neighbours to think that any Engels man could run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, or from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, even, any faster, or, indeed even AS fast as HE could. (Although Hermann Potgieter did concede, generously, that the Engelsmanne had gained a lot of valuable practice in running away during the First Boer War, which was why -- he told the American -- that the English generals had dug trenches in the Great War against the Germans: to stop the English soldiers from running away from the German soldiers.)

"So Oupa Theuns Potgieter ... " continued Hermann Potgieter " ... who was a clever man as well as being a great runner, decided to run in the opposite DIRECTION to the Engelsmanne, and when they ran UP from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, Oupa Theuns Potgieter ran DOWN from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, which is the very same distance, give or take a yard or two.

"But Oupa Theuns Potgieter was a busy farmer, and could not afford the time to run the Comrade's Marathon EVERY year, so he was able to work it out that that the honour of the Volk would still be satisfied if he only did so every second year. And this is how it came to pass that when other people, who had obviously supported the Engelsmanne against the Germans in the Great War, ran UP from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, Oupa Theuns Potgieter would run DOWN from Pietermaritzburg to Durban."

And on the six occasions -- Hermann Potgieter related, -- over a span of twelve years, when his Oupa Theuns Potgieter ran down from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, while those people who were anti-German were busying themselves with running up the hills from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, his Oupa Theuns Potgieter reached HIS destination before the leaders of the race running in the opposite direction, reached THIERS.

"And, being fully aware of the degree of honour that was at stake ... " Hermann Potgieter informed the American, " ... Oupa Theuns Potgieter set his mind very seriously to his task, and each year went into a very great deal of serious training."

Hermann Potgieter paused for a moment, refreshing himself from his glass of brandywyn and coca cola, as he recalled in his mind the precise details of the very great training to which his Oupa Theuns Potgieter had subjected his body.

We nodded, respectfully, then, in recognition of the great sacrifices that Hermann Potgieter's grandfather had endured in the cause of the honour of the Volk and their German friends.

His grandfather had -- Hermann Potgieter then told the American -- cut holes at the front of an old and comfortable pair of veldschoen (so his toes would not rub against the material and become sore), and had, further, instructed his wife to rub his feet with a mixture of lard and cow dung, nightly, to harden the soles. This task was, later, delegated to Mfumu, who was Oupa Theuns Potgieter's bossboy and running companion, because Ouma Hendrina found the smell unpleasant.

(Not that Ouma Hendrina was pernickety about the smell of any cow dung and lard mixture, you must understand -- for she was a true Boeremeisie, and inured to the odour of such compounds -- but rather to the definitive aroma which emanated from Oupa's feet themselves, which, obviously, he could not wash whilst he was in training, in case they became soft.)

Every second year Oupa Theuns Potgieter had, as the date of the race drew nearer, also, -- Hermann Potgieter continued -- entered into a progressively more strenuous regime of daily runs, to prepare his body for the great race.

And he took with him on these strenuous training runs, his bossboy Mfumu, who was also a very fast runner -- Hermann Potgieter told the American -- although Mfumu was often inclined to laziness.

Some of us, who were listening to Hermann Potgieter's recounting of the story, thought that we noted a certain discomfort in the American's expression when Hermann Potgieter mentioned, casually, in passing, as it were, that Oupa Theuns Potgieter made Mfumu carry a short sjambok on these training runs, in order that Oupa Theuns Potgieter could immediately correct Mfumu's laziness at the time that he first noticed it, rather than waiting until they had returned to the farm.

Hermann Potgieter appeared to miss the American's fleeting concern for Mfumu's wellbeing, however, and proceeded with the details of the training.

Mfumu would -- Hermann Potgieter told the American -- lead two horses behind him, on a combination bridle, on these training runs, so that Oupa Theuns Potgieter would be able to ride home after the training runs, to avoid that to which he referred as 'overtraining' or that to which Oupa Theuns Potgieter also referred as 'risking serious stress injury'.

The second horse was provided for Mfumu, of course -- Hermann Potgieter took great pains to point this out to the American -- so that Mfumu could keep up on the return journey, and be able to rub Oupa Theuns Potgieter' legs with balm, and massage his feet before Oupa Theuns Potgieter became cold and stiff on the completion of his daily exercise.

Again we nodded admiration at the advanced training techniques that had been employed by Hermann Potgieter's grandfather, all those many years since, and we also looked sternly at Piet Gouws, who again attempted to disturb the continuity of Hermann Potgieter's recounting by foolishly reminding Hermann Potgieter that he had never previously mentioned the second horse, the one that Mfumu rode back to the farm after his training runs with Oupa Theuns Potgieter.

(It was clear to those of us with the capacity to think clearly -- into which class, sadly, Piet Gouws did not fall -- that Hermann Potgieter had included this hitherto unrecorded detail for the benefit of the American, who, being a foreigner, might not automatically have assumed that a South African farmer would, naturally, have provided adequate transport for his labourer.)

Hermann Potgieter then instructed Piet Gouws, with some severity, to remain silent, and to bring Hermann Potgieter another glass of brandy and coca cola, and another beer for the American, for which, he advised Piet Gouws, the American would be happy to settle the bill, on account of the fact that the American appeared to be limping slightly, as if he had fallen over and hurt himself, and needed rest.

Whilst Piet Gouws was away, Hermann Potgieter enlightened the American to the fact that Mfumu was, in the opinion of Hermann Potgieter's grandfather, often more of an hindrance than any sort of a real asset during these training runs, for besides being inclined to idleness, Mfumu was also inclined to clumsiness, and often dropped Oupa Theuns Potgieter's water bottles and the bag containing Oupa Theuns Potgieter's change of clothing, and that other bag which contained Oupa Theuns Potgieter's pipe and tobacco, as well as the other things that a top athlete requires if he is to perform to the zenith of his true potential.

And this clumsiness extended further, even, Hermann Potgieter told the American. Many were the times -- Hermann Potgieter's Oupa had told Hermann Potgieter -- when Mfumu had failed in his duties for such an insignificant reason as having trodden upon a 'wag 'n bitjie' thorn, which became lodged in his foot, all because of the clumsiness of not having taken care where to put down his feet when he was running. Such carelessness -- Hermann Potgieter informed the American -- significantly reduced the benefit to any athlete of ever even having a 'second' in the first place, actually.

We noticed, then, that the American's wife, who was sitting beside the American's chair, had been paying careful attention to what Hermann Potgieter had been saying earlier, because she had begun gently to massage the calves of her husband's legs, where he had hurt himself tripping over a tree root, or something.

(I agreed with Danie Gerber, later, after the American and his wife had retired to bed in the hotel, when Danie Gerber said, referring to the incident, that it was reassuring to think that some wives still thought about their husband's comfort, despite the disturbing modern trend towards equality between the sexes.)

When Piet Gouws returned with the Old Joseph, who was carrying the drinks upon a wooden tray, Hermann Potgieter was busy relating more of the complex details of his grandfather's training for the Comrades Marathon to the American.

"Yes, Oupa Theuns Potgieter had worked out his training program with great precision, and he stuck to it, regardless of what other supervision needed to be attended to on the farm, or, indeed, what the weather was like, even. And it was only on those very coldest and rainiest of days, when cruel Burg winds drive icy raindrops at you like darts, that Oupa Theuns Potgieter would expect Mfumu to carry an umbrella, holding it low to shield Oupa Theuns Potgieter from the torrent as they ran."

The look of surprise on the American's face suggested to us that he, too, had also heard of those other occasions: those occasions when Mfumu had carried a sun umbrella, as well, when they were running on hot days, to prevent Oupa Theuns Potgieter from dehydrating in the heat. But the American, obviously new to the area and unwilling to cause offence, did not remark upon Hermann Potgieter's unintentional omission.

We all -- including the normally fractious Piet Gouws -- listened attentively as Hermann Potgieter recounted the other details of his grandfather, Oupa Theuns Potgieter's, methods of training, which included things like how Oupa Theuns Potgieter would, on occasion, run alone, even, around the farmhouse if Mfumu had some demanding task of importance around the farm and could not be spared to be a 'second'. (Oupa Theuns Potgieter had insisted that important work on the farm should always come first, and 'seconding' second -- Hermann Potgieter told the American -- and again we nodded our appreciation at Hermann Potgieter's fine command of the English language, which, we knew, was, on account of the Boer War, not Hermann Potgieter's first choice in the conduct of normal dictation.

(The reason that Oupa Theuns Potgieter ran around the farmhouse -- upon the occasions when Mfumu was unable to attend to his 'seconding' duties -- rather than the normal routes which took them further from the farmhouse, was, we all knew, that Mfumu carried the short sjambok, and without Mfumu, Oupa Theuns Potgieter would have been unable to deal with the black mambas whose acquaintance was occasionally made during the course of their exercise. This is not to say, of course, that Oupa Theuns Potgieter was AFRAID of the mambas, Oh no! We all knew that. It was simply that Oupa Theuns Potgieter would not permit that sort of a reptile which had behaved so badly, and had been so frowned upon in those early chapters of the Old Testament, to interfere with the training he was undertaking in order to uphold the honour of the Afrikaans nation and their German allies. But we could not expect our American guest to know of such things, and I, for one, was happy that Hermann Potgieter had wisely neglected to mention the fact.)

"But winning a race as long and arduous as the Comrades Marathon ... " Hermann Potgieter warned the American, " ... requires more than just training! There are also tactical matters to be taken into account, and it was in these matters of tactics that Oupa Theuns Potgieter's brain gave him an advantage over other gifted runners. For example, Oupa Theuns Potgieter knew that 'conserving energy' was vital in any race of such extended duration, and he perfected a selfless technique whereby, on the very steepest of hills, Oupa Theuns Potgieter would relieve Mfumu of the baggage Mfumu was carrying, and carry the load himself whilst sitting on Mfumu's back, so that Mfumu did not become over-tired."

(Oupa Theuns Potgieter would not have used such a tactic had he been running in the same direction as the other athletes -- Hermann Potgieter had told us upon the occasion of an earlier recounting of the story -- because he would not have wanted those other athletes to think he was offering his 'second' any undue or unseemly preferential treatment.)

I was becoming sleepy as the tale progressed: my eyelids ever heavier in the flickering firelight as my own brandies wooed me towards inattention while Hermann Potgieter explained to the American about the complexities of training for, and running in the Comrades Marathon.

And I may even have dozed, momentarily.

I remember, clearly, though, when Hermann Potgieter got to that bit about Oupa Theuns Potgieter's rosettes that he got from winning the Comrades Marathon six times. (Although Hermann Potgieter described the rosettes with no remarkable degree of accuracy, because he represented them as being constructed from silk, when, to those of us who had actually seen them, they seemed more to resemble the coarse old blue heavy sheeting that had hung from the front window of Oupa Theuns Potgieter's voorkammer before Ouma Hendrina replaced them with the pink curtains she bought at a sale at the Indian shop in Pietermaritzburg.)

Hermann Potgieter was still describing the winning rosettes to the American, when I noticed the American reaching into the pocket of his tracksuit, and producing what looked like a silken purple ribbon, holding a large gold coin that glittered in the firelight.

Hermann Potgieter was still expounding upon mutis that Ouma Hendrina had concocted on order to cure Oupa Theuns Potgieter's aches and pains after a strenuous training session, but stopped when the American leant forward and held the trophy towards him.

"What is that?" enquired Hermann Potgieter, with what appeared, to us, at least, to be a certain degree of trepidation.

"It is a gold medal." Replied the American, in that curious accent that is, sometimes, by foreigners, mistaken for the English language.

"They give them to the first ten men who finish the Comrades Marathon each year. This is my second one. I hope one day to have as many as your grandfather earned. This year I came third in the race, but it was the 'up' run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. Last year I came first. I much prefer the 'down' run. It is much faster, and takes considerably less time."

The American's wife finished massaging the American's legs soon thereafter, and, confessing to a little weariness, they bade us a fond "goodnight" and, after leaving some change for Old Joseph upon the table as a token of their gratitude, retired to their room.

Hermann Potgieter had the last word, naturally, as he finished his brandy and coca cola and reached for his hat on that cold night in the Springbok Hotel ladies bar lounge.

"I never did like Americans so very much." He said gruffly, pocketing the coins that the American had left upon the table.

"And particularly, not black Americans."

-- KK Brown

History of the Comrades Marathon

Article © KK Brown. All rights reserved.
Published on 2006-08-07
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