The Ultimate Nightmare
by Bruce Fordyce
Bruce Fordyce recounts the detailed story of David Vlok's nightmare Comrades Marathon.
Every runner has experienced those nightmares. It's race morning and you wake to see the sun streaming through the curtains of your hotel room. A surge of adrenalin and terror catapults you from your bed and you run around your room like a headless chicken panicking to get to the start of a race for which you are hopelessly late, and for which you have been preparing for many months.
Not only are you late for the start of the race but you have also arrived at the start wearing the wrong shoes, as a desperate despair envelops you, you are woken by a noise, or by your partner turning over in bed and you realise with an immense sigh of relief that you have only been dreaming. It isn’t race morning, you are at home in bed; there are still two weeks to go before race day. All is well.
But for David Vlok, at last week's Comrades marathon, it wasn’t a dream. It was real and it was worse than a nightmare.
David was in Durban to celebrate what should have been an extremely proud occasion; the running of his 20th Comrades and the award of a coveted “double-green” number. He spent the night before the race at Durban’s famous Elangeni Hotel. He knew he would have to wake especially early to join dozens of others for the long bus ride to the start at the Pietermaritzburg City Hall the next morning. But he wasn’t concerned. The general hustle and bustle of runners waking up all over the hotel would ensure that he woke well in time. Besides which, he was sharing a room with Renier Grobler who was part of the Nedbank elite green dream seconding team. When Renier woke to fill bottles and pack for the team he would wake up. After all David’s bakkie was part of the fleet of seconding vehicles. They couldn’t forget him.
He watched the Super 14 final on television in the evening and mindful of the gargantuan task facing him the next morning he enjoyed just one beer. In bed, however he struggled at first to sleep as the pre-race nerves gnawed at his stomach. Renier’s fidgeting around in their room also irritated him. Eventually David snapped and growled at Renier to make less noise. Renier crept around their room like a church mouse. David fell into a coma. Unable to sleep, Renier softly exited their room, closed the door as quietly as possible and left for Pietermaritzburg.
David woke to the sound of his phone ringing. He had to get out of bed to sleepily answer it. It was his girlfriend Candice phoning. “My darling”, she said “I know that you are in the bus driving to Pietermaritzburg now and I wanted to wish you luck and to remind you “Shoonkums” that I’ll be thinking of you all day.”
In a millionth of a nanosecond David was wide awake as a giant surge of super heated adrenalin surged through his veins. It was 4:45 am and he wasn’t on any bus. The race was due to start in 45 minutes, and he was standing naked in his hotel room 90 kilometres from the Comrades start line on the most important racing morning of his life. So little time so much to do. David screamed down the phone to a poor night duty clerk at reception. “I don’t care about the cost, get me a hotel car now and get me to @#% Pietermaritzburg”
David’s nightmare got worse. The running vest he had packed was too small. Desperately he tore at it with his hands and teeth to create more breathing space. Pinning his on numbers, one inadvertently upside down he shot into the lift and hurtled into reception.
And then things began to get even worse. There was no car available to drive him to the start. Cowering behind the counter the terrified receptionist explained apologetically. “All our cars are driving to Pietermaritzburg taking runners to the start of the Comrades sir” David sprinted out into the street and to his immense relief found a sleeping taxi driver slumped over the steering wheel of a wreck of a taxi. Banging on the side window he woke the slumbering driver and demanded to be driven to 'Maritzburg even though it was going to cost him R800.
David rummaged through his wallet and discovered it contained only one R50 note. Perhaps it was the sheer terror and desperation in David’s voice but the hotel Clerk handed him R800 as David frantically signed his life away for the cash. The wreck of a taxi lurched into gear and trundled off towards a very distant Pietermaritzburg. Even though it was a wreck and had no lights, David began to calm down, "It would be alright" he reasoned. He would be late, but not desperately late.
David’s nightmare was about to get much worse. Neither he nor the driver had remembered that there were two huge events occurring on the same weekend in KZN. The Comrades marathon and the dress rehearsal for the football world Cup had resulted in many road closures. The 90 kilometre drive was going to be at least a 110 kilometre weaving, doubling-back dead end catastrophe. David added 15 minutes to his ETA.
David’s nightmare was about to become blacker still.
A pink glow tinged the horizon as the taxi rattled its painstaking way towards Pietermaritzburg. Suddenly the rattle became a shaking, then a spluttering and then the taxi shuddered to a halt. It had run out of petrol. David was going to be running a lot further than he had anticipated that day. Grabbing an empty can and his precious R50 note he sprinted the 2 kilometres to the petrol station they had just recently passed. Then he sprinted back with the fuel.
At last Pietermaritzburg hove into view. But all main roads into the city were blocked. David began his second hard run of the day, another 2 ˝ kilometer sprint to the start line. He had to get there to run over the special mat to ensure that his race chip recorded that he had started. But as he arrived at the start line the Comrades officials had just finished rolling up the mat. The runners were gone. It was time to pack up. A young lady spectator offered to take his photograph as David stood under the start banner. Her photograph recorded that he was starting half an hour late. As he set off on his journey to Durban and in pursuit of the 20,000 runners ahead of him an official leapt into the road, “David Vlok” He shouted officiously, “I am disqualifying you for a late start”. The few remaining spectators begged the official to allow him to run and urged David to go. He set off with the official pursuing him still shouting that he was disqualified. Despairingly, as he ran down the road to Durban, David turned to the official and said “Listen mate I’m running to Durban are you going to chase me all the way there?” The official abandoned his pursuit and David set off in the dark. But he was lost and alone and the new 2010 route through the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg was a complete puzzle to him. He was enveloped by fresh waves of panic.
And then finally David Vlok’s luck changed and his nightmare began to end. A lone traffic officer spied him wandering lost and alone and gave him a police escort until he had caught the tail end of the Comrades field.
Accompanied by a flashing blue light and wailing siren for nearly an hour David almost experienced the thrilling sensation of leading the Comrades marathon. In reality he was stone last for all that time.
His Comrades ended 11 hours and 13 minutes after the official starting gun (So he probably ran the race in about 10:40) As he finished Comrades officials were there to greet him, hand him a medal and, inform him that he was indeed an official finisher.
Later it was an honour and privilege for me to be asked to present him with his double-green permanent number (2575) for successfully completing his 20th Comrades. It will forever be remembered as one of the most memorable runs in the history of the race.
(I’ve been chuckling about it ever since)