I met Ambrose on Sunday. He appeared like an angel around the 3km mark and when I was seriously considering turning around and walking back. My calves were burning, I was horribly hot and my Garmin told me my heart rate was too high. And I needed the bathroom. Really badly.
It was patently clear that I was not prepared for this. I had separated from my friend at around 400m and I knew that I was in trouble. It was my sixth 10km of the year, but it was probable that the Soweto 10km was not going to happen for me.
Until I met Ambrose. “Come on old man!” said someone who didn’t look much younger than me. “Let’s do this together.” I looked at his outstretched hand, not knowing whether to low five or fist pump or shake formally. So I hit his palm and said, “You don’t even know what you are taking on.” And then, “And who the hell are you to call me old!”
It turned out that he was in fact, three months older than me. But at 49, we apparently don’t count that. A few minutes before, in what was not the highlight of my running career, I had been passed by a woman running with a baby tied by a towel to her back. She glided effortlessly ahead of me, and I am almost certain that I saw the child mock me with a “my mom is a real runner” look… but I couldn’t be certain, because I was partially blinded by the sweat that was now gushing into my eyes. So the appearance of Ambrose was just what I needed.
We ran and we walked and we walked and we ran. Although I had been to Soweto many times, I had never run through the streets and Ambrose (an ex resident) was able to point out the street that he had grown up on and the house that he had lived in, which was now inhabited by his uncle. We couldn’t see it, but he looked for his relative along the way, in vain. We swapped stories, lamented as to how we had let ourselves go to seed; we laughed and teased other runners who were just as bad and just as unprepared as we were. The race marshals and the Metro cops shouted at us when we slowed to walk, told us it was illegal and they would arrest us if we did so in a “no walk” zone. And then one Metro cop pointed at me and said rather firmly, “No more boerewors and braais for you! From now on, it’s cabbage and water.” Not that he was in a position to talk.
The Soweto run is the only time I have seen the runners take the water sachets and Cokes from the “water points” and then a few metres further along hand them to the children who had come out in support of the runners. The Soweto run is the only time I have been offered beer by a resident who was returning from a night out. And it is the only time I have seen runners dart into houses for a quick bathroom break. And it was also the only time that I ran with Ambrose. It was soon after the boerewors comment that my phone beeped. It was a News24 update that simply said “Mahlobo rushes nuclear deal”. I was about to tell Ambrose what had just been reported, but then I realised that I had no idea what his political view was. I had no idea if he was an ANC Zuma supporter, or a member of the DA or EFF. I had no idea what he thought of the BLF movement, or if he wore black on October 30th. And I didn’t care. Because what I saw on Sunday in Soweto was South Africans running and laughing and playing and teasing and supporting and dancing. I saw all types of South Africans forgetting about the political turmoil and just enjoying the magic of the day.
And I thought, this is what it means to be a South African. We crossed the finish line together. We hugged (which was a bit of overkill for a 10km). We took a selfie (which I later sent to him) and then we promised to be in touch. We probably won’t be. But it doesn’t matter. Because I am sure that I will see him next year.