The Impi Race -Lereko Mfono

Two friends, Bongani and Michael, are standing at the top of a mountain, tired, exhausted but nonetheless motivated. They are training to run the famous Impi marathon that takes place once a year during the gruelling winter season. They are both graduates from the runner’s academy which was started by their coach Mr Joel Ribane, who himself won the Impi marathon in its first year. “Boys, boys, boys, if you really want to clinch that title, you will have to beat all 300 runners coming from across South Africa to win. What will make you different from them, how hungry are you to come out on top?” Mr Ribane always says to them.

Bongani and Michael have every reason to stay focused, The marathon itself is notorious for a number of things, namely, its length, which stretches 56 km, secondly it’s rough terrain, as a large portion of the marathon is run through mountains and forests; but worse of all, the marathon is notorious for the freezing conditions it takes place under. In the past five years, no less than three runners have died because of hypothermia. It is a marathon of immense risk and considerable sacrifice.

“Michael, we’ve got two weeks left and I am still not sure why we need to do this”, Bongani remarks. “Well let’s not forget the many benefits of winning this Bongani, the glory, the prestige and of course the R10 000 cash prize that will be able to pay off the registration fee for university next year,” Michael responds. Both being 18 and in matric, Bongani and Michael are now confronted with the reality of their futures, it is either they stay in their hometown, Heidelberg, where resources are limited for young people to excel, or branch out into towns like Johannesburg where there are better opportunities.

Bongani and Michael became friends in primary school during cross country season, when only the both of them would pitch up. At races, they would always finish next to each other, paying no attention to who will be considered to have crossed the line first. Racing was a bond they shared, but now, at the brink of the Impi, a lot more is at stake. Both of them need the full cash prize, and both of them seek to be scouted by a potential investor or agent who can help take their careers and dreams to the next level.

“Things are rough for both us, but whatever happens Michael, if I lose, may it be to no one else but you, I mean that”,

“Nothing will bring as much joy as seeing us reach our goals, I am going to run the best race of my life, because I know you will be right there running your best as well, whatever happens Bongani, let us run, let us run hard,” Michael responds.

The day of the Impi marathon comes and an atmosphere of fear, anxiety and bravado fills the air. Over 300 runners have lined up at the start of the race and family members are there to cheer on and sing for their sons, brothers, uncles and friends to win. The weather is colder than expected. The main doctor of the race comes out to warn runners about the dangers of continuing with the race and a few players forfeit the race due to fears of hypothermia. Not Bongani and Michael though, today they are more determined than ever to win, they have trained with great discipline and passion, and are both confident to come away with the coveted prize. Doctors are located throughout the race and soup banks have been placed at every 7 km station for the runners to drink and keep warm to lower the risk of any health dangers and complications.

The loud gunshot sounds and the race begins. Bongani and Michael immediately put themselves in a competitive position, being part of the first load of runners. They are next to each other, and seems will remain so as the race progresses.

The first 7km soup bank emerges and the runners quickly stop by for a sip of soup, except Bongani and Michael. They both continue running, forfeiting the short soup break in order to gain the upper hand, and they do. They begin to lead the race. The next 7 km soup bank emerges and both friends look at each other, and again continue running, opening an even greater gap as the following group of runners choose to stop by to have some soup.

Their coach, Mr Ribane shouts from the sidelines “Bongani! Michael! This is not part of the game plan, please, on the next soup bank, you are to drink some soup!” But on the next, they continue running, however not without some slight hesitation from Bongani, he seemed to have considered the thought of resting a bit at the soup bank to drink some soup and continue with the race, but this would result in a clear edge in Michael’s favour for the race. Michael seems to be doing much better than him through these gruelling conditions.

They continue to run, they pass the halfway 28km mark and get closer to the 35km soup station. At this point, the other competitors are far down lagging behind. Bongani begins to talk to Michael,

“My friend, how are you doing?”

“Excellent, I am feeling incredible Bongani, how are you doing?”

“Eish, not too well at all Michael, I can feel my heart beating from my throat, and my fingers are getting a bit swollen”

“Okay, well it seems like you really need to get that soup break as soon as possible”

“Yes, I think so too, so next station we shall stop right?”

“We? I’m fine, I don’t need to stop, don’t involve me in your problems, there is a race we are running here, leave me to focus on it for myself”

“We started this together my brother and that is why we got this far, if you want to go ahead then so be it”

And so it became. At the 35km soup kitchen Bongani stopped for the first time in the race and had soup. The Doctor at the station tested his body temperature and was shocked at the results, it was so devastatingly low that he estimated that had Bongani not come in for recuperation, he would not have reached the next soup bank without collapsing. “If you say your friend has not received any soup so far in the race, then I am scared he might not finish it.”

Those words by the Doctor send shockwaves to Bongani, he begins to fear for his friend’s life. He runs back into the race trying to see if Michael is within view, but his now too far ahead.

‘I must do something about this, I must get to Michael very soon, I will lose him, we will loose him if he does not get to his senses and get some aid’.

Bongani runs with a much more intense speed, but Michael does not appear in view. The 42km soup bank appears and Bongani retreats to it, hoping he will hear news that Michael stopped by for soup, but they tell him he just continued running. Panicked and desperate, Bongani tries to tell the authorities to intervene and force him to stop and get some, but they all accuse him of jealousy and formulating tactics to win the race. So, he goes back to his initial plan, to race till he gets Michael.

Bongani runs on a strong steady pace past the 49km soup bank, which happens to be the last for the marathon. He continues to run, getting into the last 7km of the race, which are considered the most brutal because you run up against a hill. Bongani runs on, slightly picking up pace as the urgency of getting to Michael consumes him. With a little over two kilometres left, Bongani gains sight of Michael.

He finally catches up with him, with only a kilometre left and pleads with him to stop and request for immediate aid, he assures Michael that he will make sure he wins the race, but soon realises that something is not fine with Michael, he is not responding to anything Bongani is saying,

“Michael, can you hear me? Michael!” Bongani shouts. But Michael seems to be mumbling some words resembling “I got to win, I have to win”

Bongani tries harder to get his attention but Michael does not respond to him, he keeps running, so they run till they reach the finish line, Bongani allowing Michael to get to the finish line first. At the finish line Michael continues his mumblings despite the celebrations that surround him, he almost seems unaware that he has won. The doctors reach him in aid and after going through some tests, diagnose the reason for all his new behaviour. He has gone deaf and slightly blind. The Doctors estimating that full blindness will soon follow as those two sensory organs have gone into a regenerative state. “Michael has won the race but the effects of the race will change his life dramatically” the doctor says.

Bongani breaks down in tears, at shock with what has befell his best friend. The whole athletics community celebrates Michael as an official ‘Impi’, a warrior, but unbeknownst to them, Michael will never know, see or hear those praises. The money that Michael ran for will now be used to maintain him for a month or two and after that his family will have to fend for him and take care of him. Bongani wonders if his life has any more hope than Michael’s, he is left with the same outcome as before the race, he still has no university registration money, he still has no sponsor to continue running and worse of all, he has no friend who will hear him voice his hope and fears. His coach, Mr Ribane, encourages him to keep running, “You can moan all you want Bongani, these things happen all the time, I say keep running, you never know what you will bump into, keep running your race boy”.

So, the next day, Bongani wakes up early in the morning, drinks a cup of soup and attacks the Heidelberg mountains, “I will keep running, but I will not be consumed by it, it will not get the better of me like it did with Michael”. At the top of the mountain, Bongani sees a figure of a person, he walks closer trying to make out who it is, he gets closer, and sees him, his best friend Michael, he yells,

“Michael!…”Michael does not respond to him, he simply smiles and looks at him, raising his fist in the air, like the warrior he has become. Bongani soon remembers his words, “…The Impi victory gives you superhuman strength”. They run the mountains that day, along side one another, until the sun sets.

Photo: Botswele Mogotlane

 

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