When I turned 50 I ran a marathon on each continent in celebration. The fourth was in South America.
This was going to be a marathon battle of epic proportions. The sky was clear and it was humid. Because the race was point-to-point, we were bussed to a place 40 kilometres out of Rio de Janeiro. The starting time was set for nine in the morning. The temperature was already 30°C and it was getting warmer.
Nothing can repress the spirit of the Brazilian dawn. This corioca is an ethos of pride, sensuality and infectious enthusiasm. It is everywhere. Take this spirit and mix in a passion for football, and the start of the Rio Marathon resembled a Mardi-gras rather than a race. In every other race in the world, at the gun, you have to watch your footing around all the cans, bottles and debris left by a patiently waiting start crowd. But here the debris is kicked, dribbled and, for more than a kilometre into the race, skilfully kept in play and eventually kicked into touch.
Soon enough we settled into a pace. I wondered what the day would bring. The entire race is run along the beachfront. I had my doubts about the heat, though. Normally one gets the idea of how well an event is organised by the presentation of the first drinks table. This should be placed at the three-kilometre mark, and should have cold water and at least one other drink. By the time we ran past the six-kilometre mark, with no water in sight, I was beginning to get really worried.
The writing was on the wall. There was going to be little on the road by way of drinks, and it was going to be hot, humid and uncomfortable. But there is a maxim I use when coaching Comrades Marathon novices: “Make sure of your medal”. That is what I intended to do.
The cut-off was six hours, so I had almost an hour longer than what I was used to. Slow down. With the oppressive heat, I needed to drink often, so wherever I could, I stopped at a garage or house, and begged water. I carried water with me on the run.
By the time I reached the halfway mark, the organiser’s folly was evident. The runners were dropping like flies. Still, I chose to enjoy this run as much as I could. The 30-kilometre mark was somewhere on Ipanema Beach and it was close to lunchtime. Runners had to dodge ice-cream carts, prams and people. Chaos, sheer chaos.
The blaring music at the finish could be heard at least three kilometres away. I ran along the shoreline with Sugar Loaf Mountain on the other side of the bay. Many yachts were out in the festive holiday atmosphere. I was home, and my medal was in the bag.
The final run-in was fine, and for the first time in almost the whole race there was a well-stocked water table with hardly a kilometre to go. I made it with only a couple of minutes to spare. This was a prized medal that epitomised the struggle.
Much later that evening, I sat in an open-air café enjoying the sea breeze. All the doubt and the fear I had had while in New Zealand was gone. I had only two more marathons to run. I could now see the end.
I looked across at a table close by. A couple was sitting there ignoring each other. She was attractive in the movie-star sense, and he had the air of a high-powered executive. The atmosphere around them was one of excruciating sadness. I called the waiter over. “What’s their story?”
“They are a wealthy couple that own an apartment here on the Copocabana. They work in São Paolo and come here for weekends. She is having an affair.”
The waiter filled my wineglass and continued: “She sometimes comes here on her own and meets a man without her husband.
“I think he is an investment banker and I think that she is on the radio. Do you know that it costs millions of dollars, US, to have an apartment here on the beachfront?”
Their sadness seeped into the fabric of the evening. Over the road there was a huge carnival going by. It was a Gay Pride march with over half a million participants. There were enormous floats and people in outrageous feathered costumes. The music drowned out this sad couple’s despondency. The flow of life will wait for no one. No matter how sad and lost you may feel, the sun will always set in a magnificent blaze of glory.