Meet Mark Heywood – HACT’s 2018 Comrades Ambassador & Runner

30 Nov 2017

The HACT team is honoured to announce that iconic AIDS activist, Mark Heywood is an official Ambassador for our 2018 Run for Hope Comrades campaign.

The Executive Director of Section27 and co-founder and Executive member of the Treatment Action Campaign recently took time out of his busy schedule to share some insight into his other passions, namely endurance sport and the race of all races - the Comrades Marathon…

Q: You’ve successfully run the Comrades and raised much needed funds for charity previously, why have you decided to run the Comrades for HACT in 2018?

A: I am happy to be running for HACT in 2018 because I believe work on HIV and TB remains crucial in South Africa. It is important to support community interventions like those run by HACT, who have tirelessly tackled the HIV/AIDS pandemic for the past 27 years in the communities with some of the highest new HIV infection rate and the highest overall prevalence of infection. I run for hope!

Q: 2018 will be your 19th Comrades Marathon, tell us about your Comrades journey

A: It is hard to live in South Africa and not notice the Comrades Marathon. When I moved back to South Africa in 1989 I quickly became aware of it. I must have caught it from the air. In those days I didn’t have much money and somewhere along the line had acquired a t-shirt with an altitude profile of the route below the words ‘I ran the Comrades’. Not having much money and not having many clothes, I wore the t-shirt guiltily for a few years. But I felt like a fraud. Perhaps it was the need to rectify the fraud that steeled my will to actually do it.

That was then. Now it’s time to prepare for Comrades 2018. Memories of my first run have blurred somewhat. But it was exhilarating, exciting and all new. I know that I walked a lot, but I finished the entire race in 8 hours and 5o minutes. That’s relatively fast….That was to be my first – and last – sub-9.

Several months before my would-be daughter had died during childbirth. My and my partners’ world had come crashing down. A month later, picking up and getting back on the road was about the only way to regain a sense of body and mind. I remember that as I came into the stadium emotions and tears welled up.

Q: The Comrades Marathon is known as the ultimate human race, what do you think makes the Comrades so special?

A: Over its ninety something years the Comrades has definitely become part of a tradition, passed from generation to generation, a test of some sorts for those who seek tests! 

Personally, I have run and enjoyed every one of my Comrades races; or at least enjoyment is the word that you use once you cross the finishing line, along with elation and exhilaration. Before that line though there are hours where many of the feelings are the exact opposite. Hurt, pain, confusion, desperation, anguish, uncertainty, fear. But undoubtedly, these feelings are combined with moments of humour, laughter, sharing, solidarity; the encouraging words of a total stranger, eye contact with another, a knowing smile shared between runners.

So yes, in many ways, the Comrades Marathon is less about running and more about reaffirming the human spirit. It will define you, and it will humble you!

Q: How would you describe the Comrades experience to someone who’s never run this iconic ultramarathon before?

A: I think the first myth to dispel is that the Comrades is run in a day. Generally, it is something that infects the entrant in January and remains until June. The day of the ‘race’ is really just the final lap, albeit one day that vindicates (hopefully) months of arduous, frequently tedious, training. It is the culmination of a slow ticking off of the kilometres that various experts say must be covered. It is the last in a succession of Saturday and Sunday mornings where the entrant does the opposite of what the world thinks you should do on those days: sleep in.

Neither is the Comrades just a matter of the body. In the training period it is experienced in dreams and not a few nightmares. Common are nightmares where the runner arrives half an hour after the race has started, or where despite the expenditure of energy and panic, you are frozen in time, rooted to the ground, unable to make body and mind co-operate.

The object of this ritualistic rigmarole is to acquire a state of fitness where extreme physical exertion does not lead to collapse or a heart attack. A level of fitness is to be achieved that must last for just one day. Indeed, after the mission accomplished, one of the things that strikes me is how quickly one loses the fitness - mentally and physically, the body returns quickly to its pap state.

Eventually race day arrives.

On this day a large crowd of ostensibly ordinary people mingle with a handful of giants. Earlier this year I encountered a worker in Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape, training in his work overalls. Vuyo Mbuli ran it twice and should have run it again this year. Last year, eight HIV-positive members of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) ran their first race in ‘HIV positive’ T-shirts. These and many more mortals have a day to share the stage with legends like Bruce Fordyce, Alan Robb and a thinning string of crazed ordinary people who’ve run the race 10, 20, 30 and some even 40 times.

The spirit!

Externally, it’s the long road. Throughout the day there is an endless succession of faces and cheers, landscapes and valleys. There are high points and low points. Internally it’s the intense inward focus that makes a runner forget that everyone else who is beside, behind and in front of her is going through much the same pain/pleasure. For the Comrades is not just a test of physical endurance; it’s a battle between the brain and body. Although both start off in sync, there comes a time when the brain doesn’t believe in the body’s ability to keep going. It receives signals of pain or draining energy and interprets them as reason to slow down or stop, even impending defeat. In my experience, just after reaching the high of half way, a schizophrenic war begins between two parts of the mind. One part desperately wants success, the other, less soulful, is generally only used to reading electronic signals transmitted through our nerves. They call ‘halt’!

If you would like to join Mark in supporting HACT’s 2018 Run for Hope Comrades campaign, please click here for more info.