More than the Logo; diminished but not defeated.

Author: Eric Bateman

21st December 2018

Eric Bateman, the Running Man in the VOB logo, Honorary Life Member and former gold medalist in both Comrades and the Two Oceans identifies with runners who overcome loss of form through illness and aging – a situation that every runner must face.

“The Running Man is fraying at the edge” explained the VOB Chairman some years, having  approached me to enquire whether I had the original photograph from which the VOB icon had been traced. “He is getting thinner and his hands have disappeared with successive reproductions of a poor photo image”. I explained that I had never been able to obtain the original, but had a copy of the photograph that appeared in the Cape Argus on 7th April 1977, and that he would have to use artistry to maintain the image.  The photo (shown below) was taken by a staff reporter, and captures me descending Chappies during the 1976 Two Oceans Marathon, in the colours of UCT since VOB had not been established. The logo image does not do justice to the scene. The full picture is far more emotive as it shows the stunning backdrop of the Sentinal and Hout Bay and expanse of the Atlantic Ocean beyond. Too much for a logo, but sometimes the background is more important than the subject.

Fast forward to the Park Run at Rondebosch Common on Saturday 17th November 2018. At the half-way mark, my son drew level at my left shoulder. “Dad, should you be running this fast? You’re speeding up!”. Me, silently, “Of course I am!” as I entered that hallowed mental zone of will against body, where motivation is great and imagination runs free. It is 1984, and I am entering the Kingsmead Stadium in Durban to complete the final lap of the Comrades Marathon in 9th position in 5 hours 50 minutes. The senses are bombarded –  screams of encouragement from the crowd, pressing in to touch me. Pain, elation, music, smells of midday braai’s, sweat and “Deep Heat”. Pressing thoughts – “Shall I smile for the camera?”; “Will I collapse?”; “Can I pick up the pace for a final sprint?”, “How close is Kevin Shaw behind me (a 2 hours 13 minute marathoner); “I’ve made it, yes, I’ve made it”; “Thank you Jesus”. Then, in my reveries, I am entering Villager’s Sports Grounds in Claremont in the familiar colours of white and blue in the last kilometer of the 1984 56Km Two Oceans Marathon when the VOB team comprising Bruce Matthews, Graeme Dacomb, John Brimble and I won the Men’s Team competition. Will this ever happen again? Now I am passing the 4 Km mark. It was the same race and same place in 1985 and 1986 when I set personal bests of 3 hours 21 minutes (8th and 9th places respectively) with similar floods of emotion. But now I am putting in the final sprint, passing runners, I care not whom, or the humble nature of the event – it’s not even a race! But this is my race, and I am finishing well. I click my watch, catch my breath, share brief greetings with familiar faces and friends and then contemplate the moment. “How did it go? What was your time”, someone enquires. “Twenty-four minutes thirty-nine” I reply. But that is not the point. This is a moment to remember, to savour, and I do.

Ten days earlier I had been diagnosed with lung cancer, and was due to have half of one lung removed three days after the Park Run. I had something to prove. I wanted one last draught of the runners’ elixir; the heat of competition between body and will, and the intoxicating reveries that accompany it. Running was not going to be the same again. A moment of grief and loss. Very personal and very silent. Was there an alternative? No; surgery was the only hope of cure. That was my next “Comrades” challenge.

Now as I write four weeks later, still with pain and noticeably more breathless, I reflect on this wonderful sport. Every runner is an icon. We run in races – but alone. Each with our individual talents honed through the discipline of training. But we run within a bigger picture, our backdrop, sometimes beautiful, sometimes harsh, sometimes with gain, but also with loss, particularly with age as our bodies weaken. The icon may fray at the edges, but the spirit remains. Challenging ourselves to achieve something; anything, even though only half of what we previously could do. That is what makes running such a health-enhancing sport; invigorating the spirit and mind as much as it improves the body.

I write this to salute our many friends at VOB who have lived through hard times, illness and disability, but have bounced back to embrace another challenge. Forgive the front runners if they ever seem dismissive of your times and achievements. Each runner’s background is more important than their icon. The body will fade but the spirit lives on.  No promises, but I have registered for my 36th 56km Two Oceans on Easter Saturday; a season of resurrection!  Where have you set your sights in 2019?


Contact details:

Eric D Bateman MB ChB, MD, FRCP, DCH

Emeritus Professor

Division of Pulmonology & Department of Medicine, University of Cape Town Lung Institute, George Street, Mowbray 7700, Cape Town

Mobile: 060 5033 944        Tel:    021 406 6901   Email:  eric.bateman@uct.ac.za      Web:  www.lunginstitute.co.za