I am many things, but one I am most proud of is status of “runner”. Running helps me cope with the pitfalls of life. It dragged me out of a very dark hole that I was in and made me proud to stand in the sunlight again. I made many wrong choices in my life, but choosing to run was not one of them.
Before I ran I was a South African stereotype of the negative variety. I was the coloured guy from the Cape Flats who joined a gang at a young age, was violent and drunk through his late teens to mid-twenties, who loved breaking the law and being with loose women, and who didn’t give much thought to his future and that of his children. I was the guy who, by the age of thirty-six was a lost soul, stuck in a dark hole filled with depression unable to identify up from down, left from right.
I felt despair. I wanted out, but I couldn’t see how that could possibly happen. I was a man without purpose, a father without the means to provide for his family, a drunk, a drug user and a former criminal who was as bad at life as he was at crime. I was being overwhelmed and I felt like a man drowning without hope of saving himself. There are very few options for a person in this situation. I could leave, get a job, quit the booze and drugs and move on, but in a country marred with unemployment and not opportunity and with an unattractive offering, this was far easier said than done. The second option was the easier of the two and the most common among those in that situation: stay and continue down the same empty path – at least it’s familiar.
I did neither. I went for a run.
My running started without fanfare. I put on trainers and headed out the door. I did not know where I was going or how long I was going to be and I didn’t care. All I knew was that I needed to go out and hit the road with my feet.
That first run felt like somebody had thrown petrol down my throat and lit a match. I couldn’t run for more than a few minutes at a time, my body not used to exercise. But I kept going. I was uncomfortable, with heavy breathing and sweat pouring from my body, but it felt impossibly good at the same time. Maybe that was a hallucination, brought on by my mind trying to make my body forget about the pain it was in.
That first pavement adventure was about 6km in distance and took a long time to finish. I was so tired after my run that when I got home I fell on the bed fully dressed. Sleep came to me almost immediately. I was stiff and sore for days after, but I had this sense of accomplishment that I could not recall ever experiencing before. This, from just a run!
Running has made me stronger both mentally and physically. I got pushed out of my comfort zone and I discovered where my limits were and how to surpass them. It forced me to discover lost parts of my mind and solve issues that I thought could not be solved. It was alongside my accumlating kilometres that I was able to break the cycle of my stereotypical life. I’m certain that Einstein was a closet runner who did most of his ground breaking work on long solo runs.
Running has only brought positivity to my life. It changed me from a depressed self-loathing human being to a proudly optimistic man who searches and sees the good in the world and tries every day to reinforce it. It gave me direction and purpose. It gave me a way to follow my God-given greater path and brought me closer to my Creator.
It is still my therapist. When I feel the doubts of life pulling at me I put my running shoes on and head back out the door.
Of course it does not solve all my problems. I am still living on the Cape Flats surrounded by crime and drugs, but I am not a part of the problem anymore. Many areas including my own still suffer the oppression from gun-wielding gangsters who care little for life or for those who try and live it in a more peaceful way. But I’m part of the other side of the story now; I’m part of a community trying to be part of the solution. My lack of higher education is still a weight that holds me down and closes doors that were hard to get open in the first place.
Running to me is a mirror of life itself. When you start out in life you know nothing and struggle to make sense of everything that surrounds you. You learn to crawl before you can walk and you learn to run before you can even talk. You fall down. You get back up. You probably fall down many more times but every time you learn to get back up.
To get from point A to point B you need to keep moving forward in the right direction. You will take detours along the way, that’s almost a certainty, but you always course correct and get back on the right path.
Without running, my life would not be what it is. I would still be spending weekends with friends, complaining about the cards life had dealt me while drowning my sorrows with copious amounts of alcohol, telling my kids what my dad used to tell me: “Do as I say, not as I do”.
Running has taken me places – literally (important for those reliant on sub-standard public transport!) I run in places I never dreamed of before; I even run on mountains and cities I’d never before visited. I get to share my love of running with like-minded people and with my kids. I’ve made new friends and these friends have met someone from a side of the tracks they might never have engaged with. I get to motivate and encourage others by sharing my journey, opening their eyes to the potential on the Flats. We’ve all learnt.
I regret many choices that I have made and many actions I have taken, but putting on those trainers and heading out on that very first run is definitely not one of those regrets, nor have I regretted a run since. SA.
Image: Julian Vermeer