Blinding sense: The tale of a blind runner during the world’s most beautiful race.
It’s 5.30AM and the streets are brimming with people and cars. Rhodes Drive is backed-up bumper to bumper from the overflow from Main Road. You can taste the angst and excitement as hundreds of pedestrians breathe it out onto the early morning air. Jumping into the stream it’s a long walk up to the grand finale, Newlands, the pool where the torrent will eventually swell up to a mass and break free onto the big, open road.
Today is the Two Oceans Marathon. The one time a year when feet own the road. It seems even before the gun has gone off they are already claiming it, if the off-peak, peak Main Road traffic is anything to go by.
The feet swimming up to Newlands is bathed in a rainbow of sneakers. Even though the light still classifies it as night, the bright greens, pinks and yellows reflect from the streetlights. Half of the walker-byes are also wearing black bags over their attire. There’s no rain predicted, poor lucky sods, but that piece of luck won’t keep the fresh morning breath at bay.
The start line is on the road between Newlands brewery and Spur. South Africa’s first-ever Spur. It’s an ironic touch, to start those who are supposed to be at the prime of their fitness, off between a burger joint and a brewery as they endeavour to spend 56 kilometres with their feet biting the road. A tall, blonde woman in her thirties runs past in a black bag warming up for the cause while a bouncer closes the gate in front of us plebeians in jeans and polar fleece. The crowd control barriers feature as an emotional boundary point for sad goodbyes as the fleeces are separated from the black bags.
Hein will be warming up and stretching at the starting line. He starts in group C, a coveted spot just behind the professionals and amateur-professionals.
“Oh baby just go at your own pace, don’t push yourself too far now hey? We’ll be waiting for you at the finish line, remember to wave as you pass...” A big set woman is telling her equally big set husband before he kisses his two kids and she ushers him to go through the crowd control gates.
“Okay, now we need to leave, come kids we’ll get breakfast at Vida on the way to the starting line...” She grabs the kids by their hands and engines up the hill at a pace that the gold medallist Russians, Ukrainians and of course Ethiopians will start the race within a few minutes.
Hein is adjusting his tether firmly around his arm. He wants to be as close possible to his partner when the storm sets loose. Focus, all he needs is focus in the rush about to come.
At the allocated spectator viewpoint, where the supporters are finally allowed to step onto Main Road, people are standing on walls in the hope of seeing their mom, dad or boyfriend. From here there’s a clear view of the massive structure built over both lanes of the double carriageway. Here and there a few runners leak through the giant banner, a few lost half-marathon lambs whose moment of glory already started an hour ago. The late-sleepers only add to the build-up of anxiety amongst the crowd.
Hein is familiarising himself with the sounds of people around him. No one thinks straight when the gun goes off, like a bunch of scared sheep. He must stay focussed.
The bright green banner spread across the road seems to vibrate a glow. The organisers clearly wanted this effect as there are lights particularly installed onto the banner illuminating the tar below. The runners want their photo-perfect moment amidst the other 12 000 photo-ready starters.
Two enormous police motorbikes cruise up the road from underneath the glowing banner while a coloured man with a limp starts ushering the over-eager spectators back to clear the sacred road again. Nervous supporters now elbow each other for a front-row view. Something big is about to happen.
Focus. He desperately needs to focus on the sounds close to him before they start to shuffle forward. The big green banner is his first milestone, after that he ought to be fine.
In the not-so-far distance, there’s a faint “Clap!” and the gun went off. It’s a soft muted sound anti-climaxing the wound up nerves that’s followed by stone-ground silence.
And then the floodgates open.
You hear it before you see it, the simultaneous “pat-pat” of thousands of colourful sneakers hitting the road at a rhythmic heartbeat. It’s a scene from an apocalyptic film, where thousands of people fill four carriageways and run straight towards you. The yells and “whoops!” don’t help much for the scary picture being created.
This is the hardest part of the race for Hein, not tripping over the shoes in front, behind, or next to him, to keep the tether tight so that no one can break in between them. He needs to get out from underneath the banner, he needs to get away of the rushing crowd.
When they pass, it’s a rapid river of colourful blur and faint odour of nervous sweat charging past. The river is swelling and continues to rush past for what feels like solid minutes. All the faces become one as they blur past, but somewhere deep in the belly of the beast I think I recognize two chargers holding each other by the arm, a thin tether running between them.
And as soon as I see him, he’s gone.
I met Hein through unusual means. Being bored and eager for a project, I typed the term “blind runner” into the Google search engine and was met with not only a person, but a history.
In 1976 Dick Traum was the first amputee to complete the New York Marathon. It is believed that his victory opened the minds of disabled athletes around the world and thus acted as instigator and inspiration to thousands. Whether Traum should factually be honoured with these credits could be argued, however the point is that the concept of long-distance disabled athletes is still relatively new. On South African shores only in 1993 did the first blind runner finish the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon.
According to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and Athletics South Africa (ASA) racing regulations, blind runners count as able-bodied athletes. The basic rule revolving around them is that they are allowed guides as long as they participate in a team and don’t disturb other runners, which is partly why guide dogs aren’t allowed in races. In their code of ethical conduct, the IAAF specify, “There shall be no discrimination in athletics on the basis of race, sex, religion, or any unfair or other irrelevant factor, except as permitted by law.” Whether this relates in any way to blind runners being classified as able bodied or the allowance for a guide as long as the rest of the playing field is happy, is unclear. Apart from technical explanations and IAAF rules, Google only produced one name on its first page, Hein Wagner. A few days later, I sit on my “blind runner’s” couch in the picturesque Zevenwacht looking over Table Mountain in all its glory.
His house is decorated very plainly. Artistic people will call it modern. It is set out open-plan with one room housing the spacious kitchen, lounge and dining room. There are no paintings on the wall, though there is a pink blooming orchid standing proudly on a side table as you enter through the double doorway. On its beige base a photo of a bride sitting on a swing leans dangerously close to toppling over. Between the television and a bookcase, another orchid hides; it was once pink but is now in a state of crumble.
“Can I get you something to drink?”
The tall, green-eyed man he asks before settling in on the khaki corner-couch that looks out onto a big flat-screen television.
“Is that your wife in the picture behind you?”
“No, that’s my sister, beautiful isn’t she?”
Hein was born with Lieber Congenital Amaurosis, in other words he is and always has been, completely blind.
“As a kid I was able to make out the difference between night and day, but now there’s nothing. Ask me what my favourite colour is,” He urges.
I bite, “What’s your favourite colour?”
“Black, I guess....” and he bursts out laughing.
Asking Hein about the IAAF regulation that organizers should ensure race-times to take place in their entirety in good daylight conditions, Hein only laughs.
“That’s more for the convenience of the other athletes, so they can be aware of us.” Hein chuckles again, but does not comment further. Instead, he prefers to wander down a different topic.
“When I was five my parents sent me to boarding school at Worcester. Of course it was scary for a little boy to go off in the great unknown like that, but I think the worst was the holiday when I returned home. Before boarding school I had many friends in the neighbourhood, we all grew up together, and no-one ever treated me as different. School changed that. They suddenly saw something was wrong with me. I decided I want to play like the other boys like nothing was wrong, so I started riding a bike, just like the other boys. I realised I could hear the echo of the tyres on the road, and I could differentiate when I was on the side-walk and when I ventured to the street. I guess that’s how my life of adventure started...”
In Hein’s first grade report his teacher wrote, “he is on a constant journey of discovery”. I ask whether he’s still discovering.
“I’m formatted to be adventurous. For me seeing means experiencing. To sit on the back of a double-decker tourism bus is useless, I need to touch and hear and feel the view. So yes, I am constantly discovering, no place is ever exactly the same again. You can say every day is an adventure for me.”
After 14 years of boarding school at the Pionier School in Worcester, Hein became a computer analyst where he ended up working with Mark Shuttleworth. It is his work in the great outdoors, however that led to his current occupation as motivational speaker and adventurist. Some of his achievements include sailing from Cape Town to Rio in the Cape to Rio yacht race, skydiving, the Ironman, white water rafting over in the Zambezi, the ABSA Cape Epic and was even a member of the South African blind cricket team in the 1998 World Cup in India (which they won). Hein is also an avid runner and cycler, and is particularly giggly about his hobby of solo cycling.
“Wait. A blind man riding solo?”
“Yeah that’s quite a dangerous one...The mechanics of it are quite simple, a friend rides in front of me with a piece of plastic in his wheels and I just follow the sound. When the tsak, tsak, tsak goes faster I know it’s a downhill and vice versa. It’s quite an adrenalin rush.”
The IAAF and ASA of course do not approve this adrenalin fix, which means Hein must specially negotiate these races privately with event organisers. For serious racing purposes though, Hein rides tandem on the backseat with his one-eyed partner, Aalwyn de Kock in the steer to appease the IAAF officials. They are currently training for the 2016 Paralympic cycling team to head to Rio. The Two Oceans, in but a month’s time, is Hein’s final serious running event he’ll be booting up for before shifting all focus to Rio.
Hein’s face lights up when starting to talk about the Two Oceans.
“It truly is the most beautiful race in the world, just like it’s advertised.” He moves to the edge of the couch. Where he previously spoke laughingly, his tone becomes serious and poetic.
“You don’t have to see it to appreciate it. It’s a race of contrasts. The one moment you’re on Main Road the next the pungent smell of the Indian Ocean hits you and then the fynbos tickles your nostrils up Chapman’s Peak.”
It’s 7AM on the finish line at the University of Cape Town’s rugby fields and there is a strong Northern wind. The wind flaps the flags lined up on the homestretch violently toward the finish line, as though ushering the returning runners to the end.
Walking up from the starting line to the finishing straight, there is a water-point with music and dancers in short, frilled skirts, and in the distance there is a brass band marching up and down Rhodes Drive. At the fields, voices of masses screaming amidst a man’s voice over a microphone are heard. The voices sound like thousands joining together in cheer.
Next to the finish-straight there are five metal-constructed pavilions for supporters. They are filled to the brim like a bunch of sardines in a tin. Most sardines are wrapped in blankets or thick jerseys, at their feet are picnic baskets and they all take turns to look at the athletes through long-lensed cameras even though the action is only a barrier away.
“10 seconds until the silver medals are over!”
The middle-aged man standing in the field in a tight, bright blue jacket blares into his microphone, warning the over-achieving half-marathoners to finish under 90 minutes.
An attractive blonde boy around his twenties has just seen a familiar face enter the green.
“Coooommee on daaaddd!!!”
He urges as he lures his father closer with an iPhone recording his entry.
The sardines patriotically stand up as one as though the queen is passing.
“10, 9, 8, 7....”
The sardines jump on their seats, starting to yell with the excited middle-aged cheerleader in the blue jacket. The father isn’t going to make it.
“6, 7, 5...”
“4, 3, 2, oooooooonnneeeee!!!”
The crowd erupts. A goal has been scored, the home team has won and celebrations are all around. Cameras are snipping, snapping and beeping away.
The father runs past waving, smiling and throwing a thumbs-up to his attractive blonde-haired son. He might have been waving to the iPhone, the image isn’t very clear.
As soon as the chaos began, so soon it is over, and the sardines promptly settle back down again and disperse. They all seem to find their footing toward the food stalls for rehydration – the first milestone of a long day has been overcome.
Over the finish line, a massive lime-green tunnel has been built, herding the finishers together. Above it hangs a devilish clock reading out the time in cold, red numbers, never giving the runners a moment to rest.
The flags keep flappering straight toward the finish line, like an army saluting the returning heroes, begging them to enter the safety of the cave. The cheerleader bellows out again, “Now there’s a strong tailwind helping the runners along for the last 4 kilometres, let’s give ‘em a hand as they come in folks!”
Every now and then an athlete storms past with iPhone or Galaxy in hand recording the big entry. The preferred mode of technology is music though, earphones decorating earlobes as they fly past the crowd. It’s like a theatrical costume, hiding emotions set against the regal backdrop of adoring yells. Hein’s voice fills my ears as a runner crosses the line with ear-shells for the umpteenth time, “I don’t know why people want to run with those things. You need to feel it, experience it. If I run with music in my ears I cut off a whole sense. I won’t be able to hear the shoes patting on the pavement or the breathing, the life around me.”
“So your only hate against mp3’s are poetic in nature?”
“Well, I won’t call it poetic, it’s truth. They’re blinding their senses.”
According to the IAAF, no athlete is allowed to receive any form of technical assistance, and if found guilty to not abiding to this rule, disqualification applies. The possession or use of video, cassette recorders, radios, CDs, radio transmitters, mobile phones or any similar device is in this context regarded as “assistance”. Dr Jim Jenison, sports sociologist and anti-mp3 activist, explains that running with headphones is not only unsafe in terms of not hearing cars or people, but essentially removes you from the environment around you. The problem isn’t the rule, however, it’s the enforcement of it.
Hein should hear the sea by now.
After starting between a rock and a hard place in the early hours at Newlands, the route takes the grand tour of Main Road Southbound. When the gun sets loose the storm at 6.30 AM sharp, the sun faintly starts illuminating Devil’s Peak as it watches over Newlands. By the time the runners motor past Claremont onto Kenilworth, there is a glorious sunrise that most of them won’t even be aware of.
This year’s route is referred to as “the traditional route” after having been changed and edited since Chapman’s Peak Drive has been known to scatter rock confetti ever so often. It is the same route as the initial 1970 one that opened up to a total of 26 runners. Today, 44 years later, the Two Oceans prepares for 26 000.
From Newlands, the road carries the athletes past the business area of Claremont, where suburbia opens up with a signal of tall pine trees towering over houses and blocks of flats. Occupants stream over their balconies to catch sight of the train rushing past foot by foot.
As the pine trees and quaint balconies go past, Wynberg closes in. Streetsellers and vagrants wake up and wave the rush good morning. Supporters gathered by the Maynard Mall are randomly shouting out their loved ones’ names. Driving past, a Grant, Fateem and Shirley is heard somewhere between the thousands.
As they keep pushing, old-town Wynberg rushes past, “Little People Locksmiths Cornershop”, “Eric home wares and glass” are just a couple of the hundreds of little holes in the Cape-Holland style walls. When the crowded shops come to an end, the first sighting of the Silvermine Mountains come to sight in the distance, just a little tease of what’s to come. In the soft morning light the rocky exterior resembles that of soft lace folding over the mountainous body. (She wants company, lots of company to touch her dangerous, curvaceous edges.) The first 14 kilometres over Main Road travels through satellite suburbs and long forgotten tourist spots. It is a flat charge, though the mountains are in constant sight, slowly luring the fresh legs closer.
After setting the long, flat road behind, it’s Muizenberg’s turn. You can smell the saltiness of the ocean, hear its agony of thundering and crushing over itself and even feel the sea breeze that kisses with a slight salty sting. But you cannot see it as you trudge through the dingy surfer’s town. It’s only when you finally turn a corner at the age-old, stone railway station that you are finally greeted by a full view of the glorious soft blue stretching miles into the distance.
By now the sun is floating high above the horizon, setting loose the most glorious glimmers of blue and yellow hues over the open sky. It’s a happy sight. The strong breeze breathing in from the horizon is making a couple wisps of cloud fly towards Table Mountain in the far South, beckoning the runners home.
They will curve along the ocean like this all the way past St James and Kalkbay. The road takes a slow, leisurely path squeezed between the cool breezy Indian Ocean and the mountain that is still waiting all this time for her feast.
At the fried fish capital of Fish Hoek, the road takes a sharp turn right, inland towards Kommetjie and the mountains. This corner is designated as one of “the ultimate supporter hot-spots” according the Two Oceans supporter’s guide. The oily smell of bacon and eggs cooked on gas braais is a smell not easily forgotten for hardworking legs and focussed minds.
A couple kilometres onwards at the halfway turn, Noordhoek leads up to Chapman’s Peak. There are no more pungent smells, except that of sweat and baking tar. The road is broad and after years of heavy trekking has turned into a smooth, light-grey highway. Slowly starting to climb up to the dreaded pass, the white and blue beach of Noordhoek flirts down below. The smell of fynbos, though still faint, is enticing with its perfume of spicy sweetness, the mountain is a great seducer of senses. The Mountain will finally have her feast of flesh after waiting for these legs since the morning light. The wind that has been bellowing since the darkness of morning has now completely chafed away her lace cover. The veil is lifted and her teeth are showing.
Chapman’s Peak is a 9 kilometre route with 114 twists and turns coiling around the mountain. She’s a snake, luring you around every turn, snaking, winding, writhing the life from any muscle it touches. Even after spitting out the tired sinew, bone and muscle at the summit, it won’t let go without paying a fully-paid toll. You have to pay to use this road, and if it’s not in cash, it’s in tears.
Down in Houtbay when the mountain finally releases the trembling legs, there are waves of cheering and support, pulling tired bodies along. It’s as though the residents of the tired little fishing village take pity on the runners slowly treading past as they try to recover from their trying pass.
Houtbay is just a quick lay-bye however, a quick pat on the back and squeeze of the hand as the tired little village lies between two different kinds of hells, Chapman’s and Constantia Nek.
The Constantia Nek road is a forest of trees arching over the road allowing glimpses of the city in the distance only through holes in the bark. When driving the curve over the mountain, putting the ocean and precipices behind and looking forward to wine country and the finish line, the turns are eased into, gliding easily up and over the forested mountain. Running it, however, every step is felt as feet need to touch down, bite deep into the road. Every bend becomes a milestone, every glide turns into an eternity. The truth in the humour of the marathon mark (42.2km) can only be fully understood runners, as the milestone lies square with the Constantia cemetery.
Anything can happen on this part of the race, as the finish line, the flags beckoning you home is so close. You can almost feel the soft grass of the rugby field beneath your feet, and hear someone in the crowd shouting out your name and taste a cold bubbling glass of Coke pouring down your throat. But you cannot smell it. Not yet. You can only smell the trees around you, sweat and a hint of spicy fynbos still lingering in the back of your mind.
“My favourite part of the race is those last 25 kilometres of race, you know from Chapman’s Peak onwards. Not only is it the most beautiful part of the race being through the mountains, but that’s also where all the real fun lies,” Hein giggles, knowing he is saying something unorthodox. Today is three days away from the race and Hein seems to be itching to get his feet on the road.
“How the hell do you enjoy the last part? That’s the difficult part!”
“Well yeah, it’s tough, you need to push yourself, and sometimes my running partner Axel has to push me, but yeah. I can sense great masses or bodies, and on Chapman’s there isn’t really anything to compare it with. I can feel us climbing higher with the mountain right next to us and sense steep cliff drops where the road ends. I can also smell the dry heat off the rocks and the perfume of the fynbos next to the road. Then Constantia Nek, well another toughie, but quite luxurious, over-indulging and just plain magically gorgeous, I wouldn’t expect anything less from Constantia if you get what I’m saying!”
“So what’s your favourite memory of the race?”
“Well last year, while going up Chapman’s, there was a hell of a wind. My buddy Axel saw this guy running with about a 4 kg rock. Now this was a skinny guy you can see has done the race a couple of times, but Axel thought he was some hippy on a kind of spiritual journey. So he goes to the guy and asks, ‘Can I carry your burden?’ and runs for a few hundred metres until he can’t anymore and gives the guy back his rock. He then finally asks what the rock is for, and the skinny guy replies, ‘Well there’s a hell of a wind and I don’t want to get blown over when we reach the turn at the top.’”
Hein bursts out in uncontrollable laughter. Axel, the great rock-carrier was Hein’s guide last year, holding Hein in the one arm and a rock in another. Only two days before the race did the pair meet each other for the first time.
“Ha! Can I carry your burden! Ha! Ha! Ha! Burden! Axel asked to carry his burden and he only carried a rock for the guy!” He continues to laugh uncontrollably to the point that his eyes start tearing.
“So how do other runners respond to you?” He takes a few seconds to coordinate his thoughts again.
“I don’t think South Africa is quite used to blind running, as in not used to the mechanics of it. For example, it is easier for other runners to make way for me and my guide than for us to run around them. So if you say ‘blind runner coming through!’ people generally keep on doing their own thing and only when we eventually pass they understand.”
“So you’d say people aren’t quite aware of what’s going on around them?”
“Earlier I laughed when you asked for whose benefit is the rule to run the race in as good daylight possible, well it doesn’t really help either me or other runners. People run their own race, and that’s great, but it’s also difficult for us as we are dependent on how and where people choose to place themselves in the road. That’s also why I hate mp3s so much, as people are cutting of a whole sense of being aware what’s around them.”
“You’re going to want to turn off the N2, you should see a blue sign any time now.” Hein is directing me to drive back to his house after we went for a joyride this morning. The first time driving to his house in Zevenwacht, I took the scenic route through Manenberg and Khayelitsha. After getting lost, Hein decided to help me and is particularly adamant I don’t turn on the GPS.
“So we should be passing a mall right now on your left, the robot upfront you need to turn right.” It might be a case of the blind leading the blind, but we arrive home without one wrong turn made. When Hein earlier praised the Two Oceans as “truly being the most beautiful race on earth,” he wasn’t just being poetic, he was acutely aware of exactly what’s around him.
It is just after 9.30 AM. The devilish clock above the finish line reads exactly three hours ten minutes, in red unending numbers when the first Ultra runner crosses over to the other side. Two people hold a thick green ribbon with “Old Mutual” tattooed over at each end of the finish line and limply lets go as the runner passes them. What happened to the days when winners had the honour of ripping the ribbon apart with their tired bodies in victory, feeling efforts rewarded with something more tangible than a limp towel being wrapped around them?
A few hours onwards and the throngs stepping crippled over the finish line is a stark contrast to the chargers from Newlands this morning. The current of runners that was let loose at the starting gun were all blurred together into one face of determination. That face, the mask of determination also stuck by as they passed the “Little People Locksmiths”, the soft lace covering the mountain and the first glimpse of the ocean. Now, however, they are feeling it. They are experiencing it. They are aware of the grass underneath their feet and the rhythm of the pat-patting of their feet on it. This morning there was only one man connected to the throng around him by a thin tether around his arm, now there are dozens. People are carrying each other across the line, pulling a stranger just that few metres onwards towards the flappering flags.
A man takes his phone that was hidden somewhere from some secret pouch and records his last hundred metres. He is probably thinking about Instagram, Youtube or boasting around the water cooler at work on Monday.
In an hour or so Hein will be entering the green. In accordance with IAAF regulations, he will be the first of the team to cross the finish line, pulling Axel across behind him. People will congratulate Hein on overcoming his disability. No one will pity the man following just behind dressed in earphones and recording device for not overcoming his.