Refuelling Comrades’ souls – 25 years on
For 25 years, Rabbi Shlomo Wainer has braced the icy pre-dawn chill on Comrades Marathon day to enable Jewish runners to lay tefillin en route. Last weekend, Chabad of Umhlanga’s rabbi once again uplifted an extremely gruelling down run for so many with this unique initiative.
Those who have competed before look forward to that brief Hillcrest tefillin stop 60km into the marathon. This pitstop is unique, and as far as Wainer knows, it’s the only one in the world because Comrades is the only race that starts before sunrise and ends late in the afternoon. In other words, the only time to lay tefillin is en route because it isn’t possible before dawn.
At the Chabad pitstop, male runners get more than just a tefillin opportunity, they have a chance to give tzedakah and get a motivational and strength-inducing hug from the rabbi before they continue on their way to complete the last 30km of the gruelling run before the dreaded cut-off time.
This year, more than 40 runners stopped off briefly for their soul food. There were also three who at different times needed a minyan to say kaddish. Wainer made a plan, and an emotional never-to-be-forgotten kaddish was recited before the runner moved on.
For many Jewish runners, the weekend starts with a vibrant Shabbat at Umhlanga Chabad led by Wainer and Rebbetzin Devorah Wainer at the shul. There’s a charged energy in the shul filled with excited runners and their families.
When Comrades runner and chazzan Ezra Sher sang a prayer to the tune of Chariots of Fire, it enhanced the mood. As did the wisdom shared by guest speaker Tilda Tearle, a veteran of 30 Comrades. Her advice was to avoid sitting at all during the race, “because you won’t be able to get up”, she said to much laughter.
On Shabbat morning, first-time runners were honoured with an aliya to the Torah.
Though most of the Jewish runners were from South Africa, some travelled from Israel, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Gadi Levin, a 50-year-old grandfather originally from Cape Town, travelled from Tel Mond, Israel, to run his first Comrades.
Brian Rodkin came from Canada, with his family kitted out in supportive posters, to run his ninth race. Rabbi Wainer even persuaded Rodkin’s dad, Sam, to put on tefillin – something he hadn’t done in 75 years.
Avigdor Book arrived from Israel to run his seventh Comrades. Several Jewish runners, like Steven Isaacson and Dan Chaitowitz, were running their tenth Comrades, a feat that would earn them the prestigious green number.
When Wainer started the initiative a quarter of a century ago, his idea was to start a tradition of supporting Jewish runners. Two runners stopped to say hello, and one asked if the rabbi would help him lay tefillin as he wasn’t able to perform this mitzvah before the race.
The following year, Wainer came equipped with more tefillin, and so the tradition began. Wainer understands that if people are in a hurry and don’t lay tefillin – his hugs and a brocha will suffice, or even just a wave of acknowledgement that he and his team are at the roadside, supporting all the Jewish runners.