‘Unogwaja’ epitomises the spirit of Comrades
FOR most of the more than 15 000 expected to line up in Durban tomorrow, the challenge of running to Pietermaritzburg within twelve hours represents the highest physical achievement of their lives. For a diverse group of eleven from four countries, the journey to the start line will be even more formidable.
Team Unogwaja 2017 comprises participants from Brazil, Germany, India and South Africa, and the eleven left Cape Town early last Thursday morning to cycle 1749 km to the start of the Comrades before embarking on the greatest foot race in the world with some of the richest ultra-running history.
Names such as Newton, Hayward, Meckler, Bagshaw, Robb, Fordyce and Van der Merwe roll off the tongues of Comrades connoisseurs as they recall some of the greatest moments of the great race.
Many would regard Bruce Fordyce as the best of them all, with his unparalleled record of nine victories in the 1980s, including record times for both the ‘up’ and ‘down’ races, although some would push the claims of Wally Hayward, who competed over five decades, winning his first in 1930 at 21 years and running his last in 1980 at the age of 80! In between he took four more victories in record time between 1950 and 1954.
While Hayward is admired for his age-defying feats, Phil Masterton-Smith is another who proved that age need not be an obstacle to Comrades success. Just 18 short years after his birth, Masterton- Smith came within less than a minute of upsetting Hayward in 1930. The Maritzburg youngster made no mistake the following year, winning in 7 hr 16 min 30 sec by just two seconds ahead of Noel Burree.
Masterton- Smith remains the youngest Comrades winner, but it is for his courage and determination in getting to the start of the Comrades in 1932 that provides a connection to the Unogwaja Challenge.
Based in Cape Town, and without the rail fare to Natal, Masterton-Smith, nicknamed ‘Unogwaja’ (zulu for a hare) for his bounding style of running, chose to cycle, completing the journey in just 10 days before placing 10th in the marathon.
For seven years the Unogwaja Challenge has followed in the cycle tracks and footsteps of Masterton- Smith in an extraordinary physical accomplishment – cycling 10 days to the Comrades and running the great ultra-marathon on the eleventh.
Essentially the Challenge is defined by a small group of men and women from many countries, determined to test their physical powers to the limit and make a positive impact on the planet through fundraising for deserving charities and spreading a message of goodwill throughout their journey.
Tuesday’s 200km leg from Cradock to Lady Frere was one of the coldest, with temperatures little above freezing, but tears of pain and emotion flowed freely as Team Unogwaja completed the tough 150km section from Kokstad to Richmond yesterday. Conquering the tortuous Umkomaas Pass en route to Richmond represented the last major hurdle for the eleven, with only a short 35km ride into Pietermaritzburg today remaining in the cycle leg.
A ceremonial march up the Maritzburg High Street with thousands of school children later this afternoon will be the prelude to the Comrade, and a chance to rest aching limbs and damaged muscles.
“We’ve had to work hard out there each day,” explained Unogwaja veteran, Cape Town’s Miguel Netto. “But the spirit has been incredible. Having the Brazilians with us has been a huge plus. Even though some cannot converse easily in English, they remain positive throughout.”
“I have enjoyed every minute,” said Chilean-born German mother of two, Cecilia Marchant. “We have been perfecting “group riding” where we cycle side by side in squadron formation. That is where trust comes in. If one person falls or hits a pothole, several of the riders could be injured.”
Others in the squad include Piet Viljoen (55), Jess Kavonic (27), Kirsten Wilkins (40), Kenny Chiloane (43), Andrew Christie (28) (all South Africa), Andre Ferreira (32), Clodis Boscarioli (43) and Rosana Almeida (50) (all Brazil), and Vikus Dhawan (India).
ULTRA DISTANCE: Cape Town urban planner, Kirstin Wilkins, leads Unogwaja 2017 through a dry winter landscape in the Eastern Cape, 1000 km into their Cape to KZN journey.