It was the first marathon I had ever run and it was a killer. The thermostat rose to 40 degrees during the course of the morning, as the runners toiled around the National Park route 120km north of Cape Town. I was stopping at every drink station and still my legs felt leaden and it was hard to pick my feet up. Why did I sign up to do this, again?
One thing the route did have in its favour was that it was mostly flat. Until right at the end, that is. I really felt like I had given everything I had in the tank by the time the distance markers read 38km. Four kilometres to go, nearly there. I was already looking forward to collapsing on the ground with a cold coke when I noticed the gradient rising beneath my feet. A hill? Whose bright idea was it to finish a marathon in 40 degree heat with a hill?!
It was hard to keep my feet moving. I had almost slowed to a walk when suddenly I felt a hand on my back. Some guy - a guy with far too much bounce left in his legs and who, for some reason I couldn’t understand, was still smiling - came alongside me and cheered me up that hill. He kept his hand on my back, he wouldn’t let me walk, he told me I could keep going and, somehow, I did.
At the top of the hill, he vanished. Perhaps he was doing shuttle runs up and down the hill to rescue other runners at risk of giving up. Or perhaps he was angelic. Whoever he was, the pressure of his hand on my back when I felt most depleted has returned to me more than once in the years since then.
Sometimes we need other people to help us keep going.