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Different journey, same finish line for Comrades runners

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Whether it be to break records, honour lost loved ones, raise money for charity, or simply for the love of the race, this year’s Comrades Marathon runners are ready to hit the road. As the big day approaches, they share their unique stories.

Though Sunday marks Levi Lipskar’s fifth Comrades, his wife is preparing for a gruelling journey of her own – giving birth to the couple’s sixth child. Almost 38 weeks along, there’s a chance she may go into labour before the race begins. Yet, the hardest thing for her is missing out on the excitement of the ultramarathon, says her husband.

“She’s very encouraging of my running, she has more FOMO [fear of missing out] than anything,” he says. “She’s probably the world’s best second at Comrades, so she’s upset she can’t be there this year.” Should the baby arrive before the race, Lipskar won’t run. “If it can’t happen, then so be it, it’s disappointing but not devastating. There are far more important things in life.”

Nevertheless, Lipskar, a rabbi and the head of Jewish life at King David Victory Park, has been running for about 13 years and has made some of his closest friends through the pastime. “In my position, it’s also a way to express to kids, to families, that you can lead an observant lifestyle and still enjoy the outdoors and stay healthy,” he says. “You can do things that are tough and overcome them.”

Though he says he’s not a super athlete, this motivation together with his strong mind, family, community, and the charities he supports – the Malka Ella Fertility Fund and The Friendship Circle supporting children with special needs – will get him through the race. “Sometimes in a journey when things get tough and you persevere, you see the blessings,” he says, speaking of how these causes align with the Comrades.

“It’s also about just conversing with people on the road – South Africans from all walks of life. It doesn’t matter if you’re a chief executive or a street cleaner, at Comrades, you’re all trying to accomplish the same thing – the playing field is level. It’s very motivating. The most South African I ever feel is at Comrades.”

Another Comrades supporter of the Malka Ella Fund is Dr Yossi Unterslak, a reproductive physician who bears witness to the miracles the fund facilitates. Unterslak started running during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown to alleviate stress and anxiety. Slowly, he built up to his first Comrades, which he ran last year. This year’s marathon is the perfect way to honour his late father, he says, dedicated community general practitioner Dr Rodney Unterslak.

“My dream of running the Comrades started with my late dad, who loved the race. We would watch it together when I was a kid,” says Unterslak. “This year’s Comrades is actually 11 years to the day that my dad passed away, and since my dream began by watching the Comrades with him, I felt it was a fitting tribute to him to run it. Thanks to my wife, Ester’s, marketing genius, I’m running it under the slogan: ‘Living and running for Dr Rod, who lived and ran for everybody else his whole life.’”

As it’s his dad’s yahrzeit on the day of the marathon, Unterslak will be saying kaddish a few times along the road, including at the start and finish of the race. “At the stadium at the end, we’ll have a mincha minyan and do the last kaddish of the day with Jewish people who are planning to finish around the same time as me. There’s someone else who’s also saying kaddish at the end, so hopefully with the others, we’ll make a minyan together.”

The camaraderie of running is a large part of the appeal of the marathon for Ryan Kalk, who will be running the Comrades for the eighth time this year – also in support of Malka Ella. He initially got into running at school when it was a requirement for soccer and cricket, and later recaptured his stride after a breakfast run with his friends. “I don’t run because I enjoy running but because I enjoy being around people,” he admits. “We spend time chatting, and I’m staying fit and healthy at the same time.”

Though Kalk has threatened to quit running the Comrades on multiple occasions, something always draws him back in, whether it be a promise to run with his uncle from Israel or after his passion was reignited by seconding friends who took up the challenge. This year will be particularly special for him because his two oldest children, his sons, will be on the sidelines for the first time.

“We watched the documentary Down, A Comrades Story recently because I wanted them to understand what the race is all about,” he says. “I’m not just out running and not at home – it’s about more than that. Now that they’re old enough to be able to manage it and better understand what it’s all about, it should be good for them.”

For Dr Vic Boston, who will run his 45th consecutive Comrades Marathon this Sunday, quitting has never been an option. Boston, 63, started running the legendary race as a teenager, and hasn’t stopped since – aside from the two cancellations over the COVID-19 pandemic. He says his Comrades runs have given him mental strength and stamina. “With Comrades, 70% is in the mind,” Boston says.

“It’s a great race, it’s very healthy, but at the moment, the only thing that’s keeping me going is the pressure to break the record,” Boston admits. “I’ve proved it. I’ve done it. I’ve got silvers. So now it’s just the pressure of those two men ahead of me, who are both in their 70s, going for their 49th and 48th races this year.

“Nothing beats your first Comrades to be honest,” he says. “You’re going out into the unknown, you’re a novice, you just never forget your first one. I was a young boy, but I still remember it. It was uphill and actually very easy.” The only one that comes close, says Boston, was his 40th race, when he received an award for the milestone.

In general, running the Comrades is incredibly challenging, he says. “You just vasbyt, you don’t stop, you’ve got to finish. Comrades is a fight all the way. It’s harder than it looks, especially on a downhill. It’s hammering on your body and there is a long recovery time. If you haven’t done the homework, don’t bother coming to the race.”

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