Oblate Voices is a JPIC blog that follows stories of hope and is about how Oblates and associates live and experience mission work in the spirit of the Oblate founder, St Eugene De Mazenod of responding to the needs of poor and most abandoned around the world.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Durban, South Africa: Two Oblate Priests Compete in 93rd Annual Comrades Marathon

On the chilly morning of Sunday, June 10, 2018, approximately twenty-thousand people representing 60 countries stood near the Pietermaritzburg city hall in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa for the 93rd Comrades Marathon, a gruelling annual ultra-marathon run inter-changeably every year between the cities of
Pietermaritzburg to Durban. The Comrades Marathon is the oldest in history with a distance of 90 kilometres (an estimated 55 miles), which has to be done within 12 hours. Among the throngs of hopefuls at the starting line-up were elite runners and other less elite ones who were hoping to finish the run within 12 hours, the official cut off. Among the hopefuls were two Oblate priests; namely Frs. Sithabiso SITHOLE and yours truly Zweli MLOTSHWA. Besides being brother Oblates and sharing a passion for running, both Fr Sithabiso and myself serve in the newly formed council of the united/amalgamated Oblate province of Southern Africa. Fr. Sithabiso is vice bursar/treasurer and I am vice/vicar provincial. 

Running the Comrades Marathon is like going on pilgrimage. One begins at the starting line, confident of the training that has brought them to that point, but also filled with doubt and fear about whether they will finish in time or not. Besides the elite runners, the prize of finishing is not monetary, it is a mere medal. Thus, the race is ultimately a battle between a person and their own self, competing with the self, fighting with the self to reach the goal. Like a pilgrim, one soon realizes that they are not alone in the race and from there on it stops being a race but rather a personal journey accompanied by other fellow pilgrims and spectators on the road who cheer and encourage you from start to finish. For everyone who has run the Comrades Marathon, one of the overwhelming aspects is the enthusiastic support from spectators extending the entire stretch from start to finish, all cheering and calling out your name, which is printed on your t-shirt, encouraging you not to give up. Like a pilgrimage, the Comrades fills one with a lot of self-doubt: Will I make it? Will I suffer from cramps? Will I make it on time? Have I trained enough? So many
questions that might lead one to arrive at the conclusion that it is better to just give up, but then deep inside an unknown spirit pushes one to keep going despite what the mind and sore legs might say. Like a pilgrimage the marathon takes all of you, not just your legs and mind but also your human spirit. It nudges you to encourage your fellow pilgrims, to allow them to draw strength from you and for you to also draw strength from them. 

The Comrades is for the better part run along a beautiful scenic route between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, the city known as the Valley of the Thousand Hills, which has beautiful green rolling hills that one can miss because they might be otherwise too focused on their legs. The hills are a killer to run but a joy to see and marvel at the beauty of God’s creation, thus my personal challenge to run green. This is a campaign that encourages runners to dispose of empty water sachets and cold beverage containers that are provided during the race in or near the rubbish bins that are provided. Giving a thought to nature might not be the primary focus while nursing tired legs, but one could all of the sudden become aware that throwing rubbing in the rubbish bin also makes it easier for the thousands of volunteers who pick up and clean after the runners. This creates a consciousness of connectedness not just with nature but with other fellow human beings. 

The greatest thing about the Comrades Marathon is not crossing the finish line but seeing the finish line and realising that one has made it on time, and maybe even surpassed their own personal time challenge. Crossing the finish line is a culmination of hours, days, weeks and months of training. In our ultra-modern world of instant everything, the Comrades Marathon is for me a reminder of the old-fashioned principles of consistency, preparation, perseverance, determination and above all, the beauty of the human spirit that can conquer great challenges. Am I running the Comrades Marathon next year? Of course, I am!!!

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