20 Comrades in 20 days: why runners are taking up this extreme challenge

Meet the men and women of the Ufudu project, who'll be chasing adventure even as they create it, when they run from Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg in time to join the Comrades marathon

20 May 2018 - 00:01
Runners reach Cato Ridge during the 2017 Comrades marathon.
Runners reach Cato Ridge during the 2017 Comrades marathon.
Image: 123RF/lcswart

Tell people that you are interviewing a bunch of runners who are embarking on the equivalent of 20 Comrades marathons in 20 days and the response is an incredulous "What?!".

Even seasoned Comrades runners in the final throes of preparation for this year's marathon respond in kind. I suspect this may have something to do with the fact that they know what 90km by foot actually feels like and so can extrapolate what 19 more of those very same ultramarathons run on consecutive days might do to the body and the soul. Why would anyone wilfully choose to pursue such a feat of endurance?

Dave Chamberlain is the instigator or "chief crazy" (as some of his running mates call him) of the Ufudu project. Ufudu means "tortoise" in isiZulu. Apparently there is a cycling group that annually undertakes the same distance and then runs the Comrades; that challenge is called Unogwaja, the hare.

Chamberlain demurs when asked to be interviewed unless I assure him that I will not focus unnecessarily on pedantry - you know, irrelevant stuff like the distance: 1,800km in this instance.

"I do these sorts of things because I'm trying to live the best possible life that I can, but I've found that interviewers in the past have tended to sensationalise their final drafts. I completely understand why people focus on distances, times and epic encounters, but none of these things are actually important to me. I genuinely just want to wake up excited about the day ahead, every day, " he writes rather strictly on e-mail.

I completely understand why people focus on distances, times and epic encounters, but none of these things are actually important to me. I genuinely just want to wake up excited about the day ahead, every day
Dave Chamberlain, 'chief crazy' of the Ufudu project

I immediately agree to his terms. Obviously there is a temptation to try to understand this sort of thing from a technocratic perspective - how do you get your body to bend to your will in order to execute this herculean task? If you view the body like a machine and each physical feat like an equation that can be mastered - put in so many hours of training, so much preparation, so much food, and voilà, off you go - then the facts of the matter might be your main preoccupation. How many hours are they training per day? (Four) What are they eating? (Lots). Etcetera.

"Why do you do it, Dave, why?" I ask once I get him on the phone. He sounds ebullient, light of spirit and amused - not a bad combination of personality traits if you are about to set out on an adventure of this kind, which appears to be a small blip in the continuum of his greater life's run, which in turn can be viewed as a series of projects, like the Hug Run conceived as a nine-year, 90,000km journey around the world, which started in May 2016 in Norway. He has covered 21,000km across 10 countries and run across the US almost four times, in a chapter of the project inspired by Forrest Gump, natch. He has interrupted all that for the Ufudu.

"People get so hung up on the running and assume I am some kind of ultramarathon professional or a fitness freak. Or they think I am a hippy pursuing an alternative lifestyle. I am none of these things, in fact I am rather boring. The best way to explain it is I have only one life to live, and I want to spend what time I have on this planet living and travelling around the world and the best way I can think of doing it at the moment is running. I want an exciting and passionate life, but I am living my life like anyone else."

Dave Chamberlain says running enables him to see the world and brings excitement and passion into his life.
Dave Chamberlain says running enables him to see the world and brings excitement and passion into his life.
Image: Rhys Morgan

Well, not quite - there is something exceptional and perhaps exceptionally crazy about living a life like this. Why doesn't he just do it on a motorbike if it is not necessarily about the physical act of running? "Running is just part of the package," he says, as if he himself is slightly mystified by the particular turn his life took, and is on the outside looking in.

He started running these sorts of distances when his late mother, who seems to have been a bit of a running snake herself, proposed that he join the family on an Antarctic marathon they had all signed up for, by way of running all the way down Argentina. It sounded like a good idea at the time as he had lost his passport and could not fly back to a scuba instructing job in the Caribbean in time to take it up. And one long run led to another.

It is this kind of cool detachment about the physical part of the challenge that each of the runners I interview evinces. Despite the fact that they have hashtagged their endeavour #Longroadtocomrades, you would think they had signed up for a walk in the park. They all appear to be in the midst of much longer and more epic life running challenges. The distance and the actual running seem to be secondary to some other driving force that is propelling the team of six to run from Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg in time to join the Comrades on June 10.

Take Mike Sewell, who recently ran 1,200km across Patagonia with Roger Cameron (both have signed up for the Ufudu). Why do it? "It's so incredible to be in such a raw form of being - using my own physical body to get from place to place. It is about getting out of the ordinary. We are brought up in these brackets and pigeon holes, working in corporate because that is what society tells you to do. Why sit behind a desk?"

Carla Molinaro views the Ufudu as a warm-up run for her nine-month journey from London to South Africa in the second half of the year. She explains: "I like the idea of a journey, and the adventure." She will follow the east coast down Africa. She is doing it unsupported, with her running pram, and tells a funny story of how the chap in the pram store insisted she would need safety straps for the baby, and she had to confess that there was no baby. Cue confusion.

Read anything about endurance running and you will come across the theory that we are born to run. The book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall became a bit of a foundational text of the endurance-running movement - knocking The Lore of Running by Tim Noakes straight off its pedestal. Here is the explanation for running as a way of life: McDougall visits the ancient tribe in Mexico who by chance escaped the Conquistadors and avoided later waves of urbanisation. The Tarahumara run incredibly long distances every day, from early childhood till their dotage. Men, women, children all run and when pitted against some of the world's most feted endurance athletes come out tops or at least equal - running in white cloth and sandals for the men, and flowing full skirts and sandals for the women.

McDougall goes down the barefoot-running rabbit hole, but essentially argues that our human physiology is such that we are built to outrun our prey in the hunt, and so we can run a very long distance every day for several days until the prey expires while we blithely go on to feast. And the stories the runners tell me kind of bear this idea out. Sewell started the six-week Patagonian journey with an injury. He was reduced to walking for much of the first two weeks, until something gave and the injury self-healed. The last three weeks he sailed along, running between 42 and 50km a day.

Dave Chamberlain waits for water on a run in Namibia.
Dave Chamberlain waits for water on a run in Namibia.
Image: Rhys Morgan

The other running tribe you might encounter in the endurance literature are the Tendai Buddhist monks, or the marathon monks. Their ascetic practice involves much long-distance running around Mount Hiei where their headquarters are based. The ultimate feat of kaihogyo (their practice) is to live an austere and isolated life in the mountains and run 1,000 marathons in as many days. If you manage to complete the cycle (only 46 monks have done this since 1885) then you achieve enlightenment in this life and a form of identification with Buddha known as Fudo Myoo.

There appears to be a physiological explanation for this altered state of consciousness brought on by the physiological act of endurance running. Dr Arne Dietrich, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the American University of Beirut, calls it the "transient hypofrontality hypothesis." He argues that all altered states of consciousness - whether brought on by LSD or endurance running - share the same mechanistic experiences, like a sense of timelessness and a complete collapse of the mental space time continuum.

Could this be the drug the Ufudu folk are after - the singularity? They are all disappointingly un-Buddhist monk-like and laugh at the thought. They are not after some spiritual enlightenment fix. Which actually jibes quite well with Dietrich's transient hypofrontality theory. "Whenever the brain is under assault it needs to hunker down and concentrate on the basics. The mystical oneness ... the calm and serenity that comes from being in the here and now is simply because you can no longer do the fancy footwork required to extract yourself from the here and now. That requires a lot of brainpower ... All altered states of consciousness are lower states of consciousness - you connect to nothing but your own reduced mind."

A handful of people are pushing boundaries. For me it's not spiritual, it's just about getting out of the ordinary
Mike Sewell, who'll be taking up the Ufudu challenge

"Endurance is the struggle to continue against a mounting desire to stop," writes Alex Hutchinson in his new book Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance.

He examines all kinds of human quests, the sub- two-hour marathon, the chap who crosses the Antartic single and unsupported and attempts to understand what is happening here. I am still not entirely sure.

Sewell says: "The human body adapts to endurance. People are realising we are capable of more than we thought we were. A handful of people are pushing boundaries. For me it's not spiritual, it's just about getting out of the ordinary. "

Chamberlain says: "I am not some kind of anarchist, I am just trying to find excitement and passion in my life. This is just a series of experiences I am enjoying. I want to know how I will respond on Day 1 at 60ks when I am strong and happy and on day 7 at 5ks when I might be feeling broken ... I just want to live the best life I can."

The Ufudu challenge, raising money for childrenofthedawn.org.za, starts this week and ends on June 10 at the Comrades finish line. Follow @Longroadtocomrades.


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