Two Oceans: Like taking candy from a baby
The stink of Mentholatum and shit surrounds the horde of runners gathered in the dark in Main Road in Cape Town's Newlands before the Two Oceans ultramarathon.
Runners queue outside portable toilets set up all around the suburb. There is a barefoot man with an old frame of a backpack strapped to his back, running for guide dogs. Taped to his backpack is a sign saying this will be his 26th time, all of them with bare feet. Another man in front of me is dressed in a black cow onesie.
There is a speech from a dignitary, three tremulous blasts from the "snoek horn" – and then the gun!
At the back of the crowd, nothing happens. Then, in slow motion, everyone begins to shuffle forwards. Runners begin to discard their jerseys, throwing them on to the pavement.
The race takes us all the way along Main Street – past the KFC, Cash Converters, used car lots and surgeries, and past the bottlestore in Plumstead. Some people are already on their way to work; others, with blankets around their shoulders and cups of coffee in their hands, watch the horde.
We are running towards the mountain, fringed with cloud, to Muizenberg. Every 3km or so there are water points. There is Coke in cups, and Powerade and water in sachets. The tar is littered with plastic.
We round a corner and are now running right next to the sea, through St James. A man stands in his garage, the doors open, strumming and singing some kind of stirring country for all he is worth. Music helps with running; it pushes us on.
The man running for guide dogs passes me. The soles of his feet are black.
A runner pulls off the road at a water point. I stop. He has a cigarette and lighter in his pocket and gives me a puff.
There is a long stretch though Fish Hoek and, near Lake Michelle, marshals serve us boiled potatoes.
Then the long climb up Chapman's Peak; we can see the flat horizon and surfers catching waves hundreds of metres below.
Tanya, my friend who has run the race a dozen or more times, tells me she has seen two dead bodies, or rather dead runners, on this stretch of road during the race before.
I file that away.
There are very few cups at the water points up Chapman's. We swig Coke straight from the bottles.
We run to the top and then down, into Hout Bay.
Every runner has a number – 30766 in my case – and, printed under that, a first name. This lets spectators egg you on, personally.
As I jog into the town, a portly man in a comfortable fold-up chair, sounding not unlike the Trevor Quirk from my childhood, is providing a running commentary: "Looking solid, Matthew, looking solid…"
During the race, at least 40 people at the side of the road cheer me on personally, and every time my name is mentioned, I smile.
At a water stop, a child has a chocolate. I snatch it from her hand and run on.
With the climb up Constantia, the conversation with pain begins. There are many discarded painkiller wrappers on the road. My inner monologue goes something like this: 'OK, I'll run to that tree … What about that tree? That one with the light bark … OK, I'm running now … How does that feel? Sore? OK, I'll walk from where the road curves … fuck."
And so on.
After Constantia, the road winds through a forest of gumtrees, the gentle camber making it painful to run.
Cunningly, a Christian outfit has set up a large gang of supporters along this part of the route. If ever you're going to need some help, why not trust in God? There is even a banner strung across the road, with a Bible verse on it. Many of them call out to me. Your name is a powerful motivator.
By this time, 50km into the race, most of us are shuffling. A woman in front of me trips on a cat's eye and goes down as though she has been shot, her whole body, her face, hitting the tar with a slap. Everyone runs on.
Kirstenbosch, and now we just have to run to the University of Cape Town. Everything is a blur of pain.
Other runners are walking past us, wearing their medals. There is grass, and I'm on the field with the cheering crowd. It has taken me seven minutes short of seven hours.