‘Unog­waja’ epit­o­mises the spirit of Com­rades

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - STEPHEN GRANGER

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.

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