On Thursday, May 22, Princeton field hockey assistant coach David Williamson will participate in the fourth annual Unogwaja Challenge. This marks the second year Williamson will be competing in the challenge. He will be the lone participant who currently resides in the United States.
The event begins in Cape Town, South Africa, as the participants embark on a 10-day, 1100-mile cycle to Pietermaritzburg. On the 11th day, the dozen racers take to the roads of the KwaZulu-Natal Province for the running of the Comrades Marathon, a 52-mile ultramarathon, commonly understood to be one of the world’s greatest sporting events, which this year will finish in Durban’s Kingsmead Cricket Ground.
It is no stretch to say that the Unogwaja Challenge is one of the most daunting feats of endurance in athletics today. Additionally, the associated foundation carries with it a message profound in its depth and meaning.
According to the founding statement available on the Unogwaja website, “It is not a ‘race’ from Cape Town to Petermaritzburg, it is a journey of inspiration, fun and togetherness born out of one man’s determination and spirit to follow his heart and participate in the Comrades Marathon.”
Kilkeel, Northern Ireland is Williamson’s hometown. As of the 2001 Census, a population of 6,338 resides in the coastal town, which is located about 40 miles south of Belfast.
You can follow his journey on his personal website, which includes the tagline, “A little pain lets you know you’re alive.”
On Aug. 23, 2013, Williamson was announced as an assistant coach for the reigning national champion Tigers. He brought with him a passion for field hockey and, according to his biography, “extensive experience coaching both stateside and internationally.” This year marks the first in which he has not played as a member of a club team, and he considers the break to be the beginning of his retirement from playing.
His hockey career has seen him achieve success both at the individual and team level. Honors include two Club Player of the Year selections in addition to three national titles. A goalkeeper by trade, he refers to his positional play, the coaching of which demands a nuanced approach, as “kind of the dark arts over here.”
“Goalkeeping is my specialty,” he explained. “That very much opens the door not just at Princeton but in the U.S. in general. I’m very fortunate that Kristen is aware that I’m accomplished in field coaching as well. So I get to do a little bit of everything here, which makes this place very attractive.”
Williamson carries an unmistakably sporty build accompanied by an ardent love of competition. This refined athleticism is manifest in how quickly he turned his dream to compete in the Unogwaja Challenge into reality.
In terms of marathon-style endeavors, he said that his 2013 participation in the event was “the first thing I did, almost.”
According to Williamson, Matt Winn, husband of field hockey head coach Kristen Holmes-Winn, stoked his interest in cycling a number of years ago.
“Kristen’s husband a number of years ago — we were doing hockey camps — had his bicycle out and he said that I should get into it. ‘It’s a bit nerdy, a bit different. It’s right up your alley.’ ”
However, Williamson had always had the presence of great Irish cyclists in the back of his mind. Stephen Roche, a winner of cycling’s Triple Crown, and Sean Kelly, a former world No. 1, were national inspirations during the 1980s, a “Golden Generation” for the country’s road racing.
While working as a coach at Monmouth, Williamson took the opportunity to participate in a few triathlon-type competitions. In his words, “I decided, ‘I’ll give this a go,’ on a whim. And I really enjoyed it. Then I did a couple more. Nothing extreme.”
Friend and fellow hockey player John McInroy, whom the Princeton coach was following on Twitter and Facebook, was involved in the organization of the Unogwaja Challenge as an ambassador and competitor. A native of South Africa and a member of the nation’s field hockey team, McInroy met with Williamson in Ireland while he was preparing for a field hockey competition at the London 2012 Olympics.
“I was in his ear about the challenge, saying that it was awesome and it had been an incredible job,” Williamson noted. “Then he said, ‘You’ll do it, won’t you?’ And I said, ‘Oh yeah, yeah. I’ll do it.’ It was one of those spur of the moment remarks. But when I left there, I started thinking that this was something I felt was going to happen.”
Not long after, Williamson mentioned something about the Unogwaja Challenge to colleagues Matt Winn and Mike Pallister at a field hockey camp where they were coaching.
Winn was enthralled by the prospect of the event, and told his fellow coach, “If you don’t come back next year having done this, you’re a failure. I wish I had the opportunity to do stuff like this. If you can go and do it, do it!”
Armed with this extra motivation, Williamson entered a screening process. Interviews are required by the foundation in keeping with the founding statement’s motto, “To ensure the event ‘grows’ within the spirit of how it began.”
By his own admission, Williamson was somewhat of two minds during the interview process. On one side, he struggled with nerves, and hoped that he would avoid selection. The other side Williamson described as a certain bug which told him, “I really desperately want to do this.”
A Native American proverb tells of the internal fight between two dogs. One embodies those inferior human states. The other embodies our positive attributes. The dog that wins, so it goes, is the one whom you feed.
Understood by the evaluators to be a consummate athlete, one who feeds his better side, Williamson prevailed.
His previous running experience went no further than his high school cross country course and other endurance training for hockey. The Comrades Marathon, part two of the Unogwaja challenge, requires that all runners finish a sub-five-hour marathon to qualify. Due to time constraints, the Belfast Marathon would be the only race available to Williamson, and it fell just a couple of weeks before the gauntlet in South Africa.
“I never enjoyed running,” he explained. “I still don’t know if I enjoy running or not. But I had to qualify, so I had to do a marathon. Belfast was the only one available to me.”
Field hockey places significant demands on one’s physiology, with ball control requiring a player to bend lower to the ground than expected in any field sport. Additionally, goalkeeping in any sport requires a very specialized and straining combination of posture and ability.
“I had gone to see some specialists about my body, because basically I’ve ruined it playing hockey. My hips and knees and lower back are in bad shape from goalkeeping.”
The advice he received was to focus on building cardiovascular strength through swimming and cycling in order to avoid further stress from running.
“If you can suffer it,” the aspiring Unogwaja challenger was told, “you should have the cardio and the capacity to do the distance.”
“So that’s what I did,” Williamson said. “I did the marathon. That was the first time I’d ran over 10 miles and I surprised myself a little bit. I was very, very stiff after, because I was trying to protect my knee and the way I was running put stress on my lower Achilles. So I was kind of hobbling around a little bit after. But I was on course for a sub-four-hour finish. I decided that I could slow down for the last five miles, knowing that I could finish in time comfortably. Then I didn’t run again until I went to Comrades.”
Nerves were high at the beginning of the 2013 Unogwaja cycle. All the competitors were accomplished athletes, but none of them quite had a grasp on how to set the pace for such a lengthy duration. However, Williamson and most of his fellow participants rode comfortably through the first day, then less comfortably through the second, then relatively smoothly the rest of the way.
“Everybody was talking about how hard it was going to be,” he explained. “And I remember going over the first pass and being elated when I got to the top, because I realized I could do this. You just got fitter every day, because you were on a bike for 10 hours.”
Distance running or cycling requires strategic consideration of pace and effort. When is it appropriate to run faster? When is it appropriate to change gears? However, the sheer span of time spent in competition demands a certain mental engagement beyond just these sporting thoughts. Where do your thoughts wander while on the road?
Williamson draws a sort of team-first attitude from his experience as a player and a coach. A goalkeeper often needs to coordinate his field players, and so he would notice how other riders shifted in their seats and felt the various pressures of the distance. A goalkeeper needs to be vocal, so he would chat frequently with those alongside him – his interview with the ‘Prince’ went on for 50 minutes without more than five questions asked.
“After the selfishness and concern of seeing if I could actually do this on day one,” he explained. “I knew I’d be fine. Then my thoughts turned to making sure everyone else could ride the bike. We were all in communication beforehand, sending emails back and forth before the trip. And then we met a few days before the event. It really accelerated the friendship process. You make very strong bonds with people knowing that you’re all going into it together. Everyone soldiered on and rallied around anyone who was struggling. And very much so when I got to the run, anything I had given to anyone was paid back a hundred-fold with what everyone gave back to me. That was very humbling.”
“There were times where we were cycling in very open and quiet expanses across the Karoo where there’s no traffic. It was incredible. You could look into the horizon and see the road go to a point in the horizon. Those were the best days. I remember at one point someone started singing American Pie.”
“When you had to go single file, I find my mind going to sort of the message of the event and what it’s about. What possessed me to want to try this? Apart from just the physical challenge. What was bigger than that? I’ve never really lived in a typical 9-to-5 environment. I’ve owned a company and sold a company. Coaching hockey has always been in the background. And I thought that if you can do this, if you can take on this challenge, there’s nothing that you can’t do.”
The Unogwaja Challenge was inspired by the story of Phil Masterson-Smith, a South African runner who made a resounding name for himself in the early days of the Comrades Marathon. Masterson-Smith went by the moniker of Unogwaja, which means “hare” in Zulu.
He was the ultramarathon’s youngest ever winner, finishing first in 1931 at the age of 19. In 1933, in the days leading up to the Comrades, Masterson-Smith biked from his home of Cape Town to the marathon’s start in Petermaritzburg out of necessity, for he could not afford the train ticket. After the grueling 1700km trek, he placed 10th in the 52-mile run.
Both the mythos of the Comrades Marathon and the young tale of the Unogwaja Challenge have many folds and a deep resonance in South African culture and beyond.
London-native and Cape Colony-raised Vic Clapham established the Comrades in 1924. A World War I veteran, he sought to commemorate the hardship suffered during the campaign in German West Africa (now Tanzania) which demanded that he and his infantry march 2700km through the sweltering heat. Part of the message enshrined in the race’s constitution is “to celebrate mankind’s spirit over adversity.”
The level of solidarity expressed on Comrades Day, which falls this year on June 1, is comparable to that of any other national holiday in South Africa. Twelve hours of live television broadcast are set aside for the event. Both professional runners and amateurs receive media coverage and community support.
Due to the non-circular nature of the course, the race alternates between uphill and downhill years. 2013 was an uphill year, from the port city of Durban to the savanna of Pietermaritzburg. Runners that year had not only that challenge, but also one of the most difficult set of conditions in recent memory. Oppressive heat lead to the medical treatment of over 800 runners, a total far outstripping the average treatment of 250.
“We were at the very front, behind the professionals,” Williamson said of his start to the 2013 road race. “Once we started moving, after the first couple of hours I was soaked through. It was so humid and it was dark. I was losing a lot of fluids. Then the sun came up and the wind started. Everything was just bone dry. That’s why I think there were so many people admitted to hospital afterwards.”
“The whole way, apart from a few stretches where there were no spectators, it was lined two or three people deep with people supporting you. It was strangely emotional. People who didn’t know you had banners up with your name, cheering you on. And you have the name on your shirt, so someone will pick you out in the crowd and cheers you on.”
“Someone said it: if every day in South Africa was like Comrades Day, you’d have no problems. I was ignorant of how big it was. People say that on Comrades Day, you flick the television on and watch not professionals, but just the normal people coming in.”
The finish in Durban’s Kingsmead Cricket Ground — this occurs in alternate years — is one of the great moments in world marathon running.
“People ask, ‘How could you run for 11 hours and 30 minutes?,’ ” said Williamson. “I just can’t put a time frame on it. When we started it was dark; when we finished it was light. That’s all I can really tell you. I had my running watch on, but I wasn’t really looking at it. It was incredibly humbling afterwards, when [fellow Unogwaja participant] Tiago [Dionisio] said that he had had a strategy in place at the start to get me through to the end. He said we’d make it in 11:30. We made it in 11:30.07.”
Williamson spoke of the intensity of the atmosphere around both the Unogwaja Challenge and, of course, the Comrades Marathon. A certain generous and engaging attitude characterizes South Africans, described by the Princeton coach as a desire “to get to know you and know what you’re doing.”
Layered social, political and economic challenges have characterized South Africa’s history. And yet, the “Rainbow Nation” has an inescapable beauty.
South Africa has scars on her face. But there’s majesty in her heart.
One of the most marked attributes of the culture is an obsession with sport. Some of the world’s greatest athletes have come from the relatively small, out-of-the-way nation. Steve Nash, the NBA’s Most Valuable Player during the 2004 and 2005 seasons was born in Johannesburg. Legendary golfer Gary Player hails from the same city. That’s to say nothing of the numerous cricketers and rugby players who populate premier leagues around the world and regularly produce victorious efforts for the Proteas or Springbok.
An adventurous spirit fills the country. Cycling routes are regularly populated by casual and more experienced riders. Williamson asked around about this sort of national pastime, and a response he received was, “Because we have it. We have it on our doorstep. We might as well use it.”
A number of writers have aimed at describing that vast expanse of wilderness which inspires all who visit South Africa. In the tradition of poetry about the Boer War and African fronts in WWI, Thomas Hardy wrote in his “Drummer Hodge,”
“Young Hodge the drummer never knew —
Fresh from his Wessex home —
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam.”
Personal accomplishment receives a great deal of attention in marathon running and distance cycling. However, the most impactful aspect of these events comes through charity. Williamson has raised money for a hospice in his native Northern Island, coordinated with a number of family members. Additionally, he is working with South Africa’s Wildlands Conservation Trust.
“I wouldn’t deem myself to be the world’s most altruistic person,” he admitted. “There are things that I’m very much aligned to and I give to. There are other things that I sort of balk at. What I love about what the Wildlands Conservation Trust does is that, in a very brief summary, they try to return the landscape to what it was originally. The community there, having reappropriated the land, was not necessarily skilled to farm it. So they have a ‘-preneur’ program. For example, a tree-preneur. You’ll be given a seed set and taught how to grow a sapling and varying different types of trees. You grow them, then you can barter them back into the charity. You can barter for say, a bicycle, or livestock, or building materials and education. You can get whatever you want. But you don’t get cash, because they’re afraid that there’s a cash handout culture.”
One woman who benefited from the trust, by Williamson’s account, balanced her yield with a combination of short-term produce and longer-term growth, which would require more sustained effort. Through the project, she managed to send three of her daughters to college.
Over the past century, South African literature has been an exceptionally vibrant body of work. Alan Paton’s 1948 novel “Cry, the Beloved Country” is perhaps the seminal work in the country’s canon. Paton captures the simultaneous beauty and heartbreak of a troubled nation, which appeared doomed by the cruel system of apartheid. In the novel, a priest Theophilus Msimangu says to fellow clergyman Stephen Kumalo, “The tragedy is not that things are broken. The tragedy is that things are not mended again.”
“This will be my last time being an athlete in this event,” Williamson said. “I’ll probably be involved in support crew after and involved in the growth of the Unogwaja message afterwards. But because of the provenance of the story, which is so specific, it’s very hard to create something or recreate something so specific. But with anyone who I talk to, there’s always a different folk who feel that this is an incredible story. There’s so many connections to it. I’m just doing my little bit to try and get this out there.”