In the end there were six of us. There were 10 kilometres, and 18 obstacles. Maybe there were more, someone said 20, I don’t know. After a while all the sun and the mud and the heat and the hills, all those hills, became a bit of a blur and I stopped counting. There were 10 kilometres, give or take, maybe, and four water stations, probably, I think. But there were six of us in the end, I know this.
The Impi is a pretty well-rounded workout. A lot of running, with a lot of climbing, and a lot of crawling. A week’s leg days in one go, lung-busting high-intensity cardio stretches, ropes and nets and pits, the Impi Challenge has enough for anyone. It’s hard on the quads, with all that uphill, and the knees, with all that inevitable downhill, and in between it’s hard on the shoulders and arms.
And it’s tough on the mind too. Everybody has their thing, that makes them stop and think and wonder if they’d be better off going home. My thing is heights. The first time I went up the cable car in Cape Town I froze and couldn’t move, not even my feet to walk out at the top, and just the thought of climbing on a chair to change a light bulb has me thinking it’s okay to rather live in the dark. Everyone has a thing; maybe it’s running 10km, or barbed wire or mud pits. And mine is any kind of heights.
Here’s some local history: Shaka was a bit mental. When he took over the Zulu tribe, back at the turn of the 19th century, he took one look at its military and decided everything needed to change: weapons, formations, rankings, everything. Before Shaka came along, an impi was a group of guys who put on a show at weddings, and these days, it’s known as one of the world’s most ridiculously fearsome armies.
His secret? Unity. For example, in the famous bull horn formation, senior veterans led from the front and middle, while quicker guys closed in from the sides, and a group of reserves waited at the back to round things up. This is something you learn at school, so you think it’s child’s play, but at the time it was new enough to put the Brits on their asses. And it’s something you see in rugby, or any kind of professional team, so you think it’s standard, but at the time it brought an entire people together.
There’s that Johnny Clegg song. You know the one they play at the rugby, when the Zulu guys come out in full regalia and take on the Haka, like a big Fuck you, welcome to Africa. I never really thought about the lyrics, until now. Impi! Wo nans impi iyeza. Obani bengathinta amabhubesi? Here comes the army. Who can touch the lions?
The first thing you do at the Impi Challenge is pick up a tyre. Then you run with it, up a hill. There were times on Saturday where I was behind the rest of my team, and times where I was way, way up ahead. There were times when we waited for guys to catch up, and there were times when we ran in a row, or climbed in a line. This is, for me, the point of doing it, or the maybe just the best part. Leading, then trailing, leading again. Learning a rhythm.
Here’s some more history: it could have been worse. Shaka made his guys cover a half marathon every day, fed them nothing, made them kill everybody, and each other. They ran barefoot, and we did it in Faas 300s, kitted out by Puma. They gave us yellow shirts too, and those were more brown than anything from the first obstacle. The Impi is pretty well-rounded, but it’s not murder, and it’s hard on the legs and the body and the mind, but we had each other and we had help.
There were six of us. I know this because everyone has their thing, that makes them an important part of the impi. Maybe they’re way back on the long runs, but first over the rope ladder, or way ahead through the vineyards but crap on, well, anything that involves any kind of height. There were six of us and I know this because on the hills between the mud pits and the log ladders and the barbed wire I did some leading, and some trailing, and a lot of thinking: that I could sprint ahead if I wanted to, and do what I’m good at and think only of me, and arrive at a high wall and then what?
We’re a way off forming our own bull horn, but we’re not doing this for show, either. We’re getting into a rhythm. This year was fun, next year will be better. We’ll be stronger, quicker, more effective. More united. Here comes the army. Who can touch the lions?
Image by Cherie Vale/Newsport Media