An Ultra Extraordinary Impact

David Yon, December 16, 2013

It is pitch black as you walk along the road in Wakulla Springs State Park toward the start of the 50 mile race. While both races run the same loops and finish at the same spot, the 50K runners (the 31 mile fun run), enjoy the luxury of starting in the light. Funny, I don’t remember this race starting in the dark before. Either the sun is getting lazy or maybe that thick layer of black clouds above has decided to delay sunrise for a bit. A little rain starts to fall.

It seemed like a simple question – Who is your hero? There are a lot of people I respect and admire. But a “hero” seems like something unique and most times I leave the answer blank. But in the year 2000, Mary Jean and I got this crazy idea about running the Comrades Marathon, a 53-54 mile run in South Africa. A point to point course, it alternates direction each year. In 2000 it was an “uphill” year and ran from the city of Durban on the Indian Ocean to Pietermaritzburg, the capital of the province of KwaZulu-Natal. We had run our qualifying ultras at Wakulla Springs.

It was our first trip to Africa; a 30+ hour trip from Tallahassee. Of course, whenever possible I love to read something of the character and history of places we visit. I have no idea how it came to be that I choose the book “A Long Walk to Freedom” as my window into South Africa. But by the time I had finished the autobiography of Nelson Mandela, I knew who my hero was and that person and the Ultra Marathon would be forever linked in my mind. To my knowledge Mandela never ran Comrades or any ultra for that matter. But the story of his journey from Mvezo, his place of birth, to Qunu, his childhood village and place of burial, by way of an exiled rebel life, the prison at Robben Island, the truth and reconciliation commissions, and the Presidency of South Africa became inseparable from our trip over the Comrades course and our memories of South Africa. My goal marathon day was to reach the finish line before the clock turned 7 hours and 30 minutes in order to claim a silver medal. Not much of a goal compared to those of Mr. Mandela, but the story told in A Long Walk to Freedom was so compelling and so inspiring that it became part of my Ultra experience that day.

And so was the experience of running the 75th Comrades Marathon. It is a very challenging course with a lot famous landmarks and hills, “Polly Shortts, Botha’s Hill, Cowie’s Hill and Umlass Road (the highest point on the course. The crowds were awesome. The total experience was unforgettable.

It is of course amazing to see a person prosecuted for wanting to abolish apartheid in his country, then forced to live on the run in fear of losing his life, and finally struggle to survive 27 years in a small prison, rise above all of that. And not just to survive. No, what seared this African experience in my mind forever was the power of the graciousness and goodness he used to create a miracle transition. Mandela said it this way:

“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”

It is the Ultra runner’s mantra – keep one’s head pointed toward the sun and one’s feet moving forward. It is a philosophy that we all can benefit greatly from. And despite enduring intense hated, Mandela could still say:

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

The rain stopped for a while. Actually, it stopped for a long time. And a good number of runners finished their race before the rain returned. A drizzle, a rain, a downpour and finally, it was an intense storm. Volunteers ducked under tents and overhangs, but continued to count laps, serve food and yell encouragement to the drenched runners.

The Tallahassee Ultra Distance Classic is GWTC’s finest moment. It is far from the mainstream; there are usually less than 100 runners. It starts at 7:00 a.m. and does not end until after 5:00 p.m. most years. It is a great showing of love for the sport of running and the people who are part of it. Perhaps, it proves that Mandela was right – “for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” I know for sure The Tallahassee Ultra reminds me of my hero.