When I turned 50 I ran a marathon on each continent in celebration. The third was in Australasia.
Of course the marathon in Rotorua was washed out. Why shouldn’t it be? After all, it had rained in Africa, it had pissed in Europe, and now this, driving rain in New Zealand. Break the drought; get me to go on a pilgrimage anywhere. Rent the Rainman.
My host and close friend Al, kept me company during the race. He really didn’t have to; he is a well-trained athlete, not a plodding pilgrim with a bad limp. He is a man of high spirits, with not a grumpy bone in his body. He has the running style of boisterous puppy, full of boundless energy. Al is a great inspiration and was lots of fun on the run.
We trotted along happily, Al making all the insane comments a runner can make. We joined a big group of runners from the local YMCA club, all decked out in yellow vests. We sloshed through a watering table.
“Mind if we join the Yellow Submarine?”
“Hi mate, you from South Africa?”
“Yea, and don’t mention the rugby, don’t mention the cricket, in fact no, I’m from Mozambique.”
It was pouring with rain. Al had humoured me, chatted with me, and harangued me for almost 30 kilometres. I could see that he was getting impatient. He was a much stronger runner than I and he wanted to finish his race and get out of the rain and the wind. Friendship stretches far – but there is a breaking point. He grabbed my hand, gave it a squeeze and ran on, bounding along in puppy-dog fashion. I watched him disappear into the bobbing crowd of runners ahead.
All the runners around me were warning of the monster hill up ahead. “It’s a real bugger, mate, just take it slow.” Sage local advice. A small, damp group stood next to the 32-kilometre marker board, at the base of the hill. “Kia-ora,” they yelled as I ran past. A fellow runner roughly translated: “Strength to you.”
I leaned into the hill and looked down. I have done this so many times before; what hill in Rotorua could break my spirit? The challenge was there.
Al and Eva waited patiently for me as I crossed the soggy finish line. The clock at the side glowed in the gloom. 05:12:07. I felt pleased with myself. In terms of the number of races to be completed on my pilgrimage, I was at the halfway mark. I was tired, really tired. Still, consistent times were good. Slow but consistent. I had earned the right to become the Five Hour Pilgrim.
“In each race I have learned that the desire to quit comes but once. It is a coward that once beaten does not return.” Not my words, but those of Tim Noakes. I felt that need to quit while in New Zealand. Not just to quit the race, but to throw in the towel and stop this whole project. No more pilgrimage shit. Al was giving me a lift back to Auckland Airport and we stopped off for a cup of coffee. “Tom, you surprise me. Quit? You? Why?”
I think it happens when you are really tired. It was all beginning to catch up with me. I had run two marathons in as many weeks. I had spent more hours in an airplane than I cared to think about. The flights from London, back home to Johannesburg, to Dubai, to Singapore, then Brisbane and to Auckland. I felt vulnerable and was beginning to question the sanity of all of this.
Self-doubt runs alongside many who undertake projects and pilgrimages. I wonder if Edmund Hillary ever looked up at the summit of Everest and thought: This is madness – I can’t go through with this. I sat in a coffee shop with my dear friend Al in New Zealand. He was animated, waving his arms, his message clear. “If you quit now, I will kick your sorry ass all the way back to South Africa. You’ve been an inspiration to so many people; many have dreams and they don’t have the courage to follow through. If you toss in the towel now, you will confirm to hundreds the bland truth – that it is never worthwhile to dream dreams and to act on them. It will become a truth that greatness, no matter how small and simple, was never meant for the ordinary man.”
The truth is I felt vulnerable, afraid and even stupid. For now I would give Al the benefit of the doubt – and believe me, the doubt was big. Huge, in fact. He dropped me at the airport after his long lecture about giving up. We shook hands and I found my way into the departure lounge.
Finding the right words is not easy, and giving expression to a life-changing pilgrimage will not be easy. To try to explain why I was thinking of abandoning the quest is even more of a challenge. When I got home, I took my family out for a pizza. Franco gave me something to think about. Dear Franco was an old friend dating back to our early school days, and now the owner of a popular neighbourhood Italian restaurant. He echoed Al’s sentiments. My pilgrimage was beginning to stir hope and dreams in others. I was left with only one choice. I would continue this journey but I must allow myself to acknowledge that it would be difficult at times. There was a warm, friendly hubbub in the restaurant. The smell of garlic, romantic continental music. Franco refilled Kay’s wine glass.
“Tom, I have always thought you a little odd, but I never had you down as a quitter.”