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Siphiwo Mahala

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

I was Not Always Like This

I put on my SANDF vest with pride as I prepare for the race. The thick red, maroon and navy stripes against a white background announce that I am part of the formidable team of military personnel. The slightly protruding belly underneath my vest is acceptable for a man of my age.

Living in Pretoria taught me to make very wise choices. I chose to run for the military club not because I ever harboured any ambitions of becoming a soldier, but for my street credibility. I live in what used to be an apartheid military area and every third house or so is still occupied by someone linked to the army. No bugler will risk venturing into a house whose occupant keeps an R5 rifle under his pillow. The soldiers are my friends. I have become one of them.

It’s a marathon – 42.2km distance in total. We start the race, the majority of us running quite slowly, but some are slower than others. There’s a woman wearing a blue doek with a matching long skirt. I’m almost convinced that she was on her way to church when she found herself in the middle of the running crowd, except that the blue rugby socks that she’s wearing won’t be appropriate at any church. If she’s a runner, she’s definitely one of the slowest, I conclude.

I see a pair of Rastafarians. They are both very tall with long silver-grey dreadlocks. They are both wearing long coats and tracksuit pants. They run in a slow rhythmic pace so much that it seems like they are just skanking to the sounds of Bob Marley. I whizz past and they remain a distant memory.

Seeing SANDF emblazoned across my chest and back, everybody seems convinced that I am a soldier. For this I command a certain level of respect, and there are some expectations as well. A young man comments that as a soldier I’m used to climbing mountains. These are small things, I tell him. At 17km I run into Bhut’ Eric. I know him. When I was a midget in higher primary school he was running. I’m close to retirement now and he’s still running. I notice that what used to be black beard looks more like a broom littered with grey ashes.

We get to a water point at 18km and he takes a water sachet and gives it to me. I decline because I’ve got my own. He asks me to open it for him. It dawns on me that with zero dental formula he can’t bite on the plastic tube. I duly bite for him, water sprinkles out and I hand it over to him.

At 25km I decide to make a clear distinction between old sticks and my fresh pair of legs. He bids me farewell as I accelerate. At 31km my legs start cramping. I walk for two minutes after the 33km water point. The legs cramp again when I try to run. I start calculating the remaining distance before I get to the finish line. I look over my shoulder and see a woman pushing a child in a pram. The little rascal giggles incessantly.

Still huffing and puffing, I walk, spit and occasionally run. At 35km a group of old men with heavy Afrikaans accents advances. One barks at me, “C’mon soldier. Run, soldier!” I look at him. He’s a very tall man with a bushy moustache and hairy arms and legs.

“I’m trying,” I respond.

“Where arrr the otherrrs?”

“Ahead,” I’m not in a mood to explain that I am not a soldier and I wasn’t training with ‘the others’ as he seems to assume.
“When I was a ma-jo-rrr there, YOU wouldn’t be doing this! You’ll run with the others in front!”

“I know, major. I wasn’t always like this.” He continues with his race and as soon as he disappears from view, I walk again.
Bhut’ Eric catches up with me at 37km. I tell him to go I’ll catch up again. The pair of Rastafarians keep on skanking past at 39km. At the 41km point the blue woman glides past in the same old pace. The finish line keeps moving further away. The last hundred meters if particularly long. I cross over the finish line and collapse.

My homeboy and former running mate, Bra T, finds me lying under a shade still struggling to catch my breath. He offers to rub my legs, but I decline because I want to get home, take a shower and then get the rub. He asks how long it took me to finish the race, and I tell him. He shakes his head with disappointment. But it’s good enough to qualify for comrades, I tell him.

He appoints himself as my trainer. I tell him I can’t keep up with a strict training programme anymore. What with my family, fulltime job, my reading and writing? Best runners know how to make time for training, he says. I tell him that I’m not what I used to be. You still have the potential to be the best, he assures me. I have no energy to argue, so I give him my mobile number and leave. He shouts once more that he’ll make sure that I return to proper training.

I am woken by my phone. I fumble and get hold of it and answer. The voice on the other side says, “You are not at training yet?”
“Who’s this?” I ask.

“It’s Teabag. Get up and go for training!” Training? I look at the time. It’s 4:35am.

“Bra T, I can’t run. I only went to bed at 3:30 this morning. I was writing.”

“Man, are you a runner or not?”

“Bra T,” I say. “You know I was not always like this.” He hangs up. I fall asleep.


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