The Ultimate Human Race: Comrades Marathon

The Comrades Marathon is a race we have watched with anticipation each year. Screaming at the TV, we would will the marathon runners across the line, be left in tears for those who never made it, and wince in pain as we watched the poor runners suffer from cramp as they tried to reach the finish line. Comrades Marathon, an inspiring feat of pure human strength – something I did not think was within my capability until I had completed my first Full Ironman in 2015. Completing an extreme endurance event like this made Comrades seem like an extremely realistic goal.

After completing Ironman with a stress fracture of my femur and torn labrum (the labrum is a piece of fibrocartilage (rubbery tissue) attached to the rim of the hip socket that helps keep the ball of the joint in place.) I was instructed to take 6 months off to heal. 6 months and a day after completing the Coronation Double Century, I was wheeled into hospital for surgery to fix my hip. A further 6 months off from total exercise and a few kg’s heavier, I decided it was time to set another goal. A phobia of swimming which I developed after Ironman together with not having the time to train like I did in the past, Comrades seemed like a viable choice.

Last year I watched Comrades like a hawk from start to finish wondering if it was indeed a good goal to set. I saw my friend Marilyn Fischer cross the line in an unbelievable time with a huge smile across her face, and that was the deciding factor – if Marilyn can do it (obviously a few hours quicker) then so can I. I consulted Ian Waddell from Personal Best who has trained the likes of Ryan Sandes and we put a plan together – first to conquer Table Mountain Challenge, followed by the Two Oceans Marathon, all in the build up to Comrades.

Due to my busy work schedule, Ian adapted a training program that best suited my lifestyle. Track with ATC on a Tuesday, an hour / 12km on a Wednesday, Hill Repeats with Garth Dorman on a Thursday and then 1 – 3 hours on a Saturday and Sunday. Compared to Ironman training, this was a walk in the park. Training had its ups and downs due to work loads but I managed to follow the program about 70% of the time, even when we travelled to Italy and Germany in December for Christmas Holidays.

Through informal conversations, (I never told anyone I had entered) I found 2 recruits who had also entered Comrades: Sean & Alistair. Now I was excited, I had identified some familiar faces and I didn’t need to do this alone. Although we did not train together due to work and travel commitments, we started the race together last Sunday, amped, energised and ready to run.

Standing at the back in Group H, we plotted our strategy of run 9min walk 1min, which would leave us in a good position to finish and at an average pace of 7.20min per km. It seemed like a good plan. We sang the anthem, danced to Shosholoza and I could feel the tears roll down my face as Chariots of Fire began to play. The hooter sounded and off we went.

The up run lived up to its expectations. We were advised that the first 60km is all uphill and we should take the first 60km very easy, which is what we tried to do. We tried not to get caught up in the hype and push too hard. Without knowledge of Durban roads nor driving the route beforehand, our strategy of run 9min walk 1min didn’t turn out to be the most effective strategy. But lessons learnt for next time. After about 27km (I think) we lost Alistair. He was feeling nauseous and not well, so he dropped off and Sean and I carried on. I think at this stage I had also pushed a bit too hard up the hills and dipped into a bit of a dark spot. Not feeling great, Sean marched on with one of our club mates Esther and that’s when panic set in. I suddenly realised I had no race strategy. I had been too busy to figure it out and was quite confident that the 3 musketeers would start and finish together. Now what?!

With no concept of time and where I had to be at what kilometre mark, I remembered something Ian had told me. He had once mentioned that the best thing to do is run without a watch; run for fun, have a good time and if you’ve done the training, you will fall into a natural stride and finish in the allocated time. So, I had to trust my body and ability and just run with it – excuse the pun.

 

A few km later I caught up to Sean who tried to talk to me about the scenery to take my mind off things, but I think I was passed that. I was now in survival mode. We caught a bus who had a really great strategy of run 10 sec, walk 10 sec to make it up the hills – we did this with them until we couldn’t hold on any longer – in hindsight we should’ve stuck with this sort of technique from much earlier on to conserve energy up the hills.

The busses at this stage become so big trudging up the hills that it becomes difficult to run with your partners, however Sean was always just behind me, but then he wasn’t. I stopped and looked around but couldn’t find him. That’s when I knew I was now officially all on my own. My saving grace were the cut off points. Each time I reached one, I was 20min ahead of the cut off. I knew my family and friends where going to be at Camperdown and Umlaas Road, so I knew I had to get there. They had come all this was to support me, and I couldn’t let them down. I decided once I had seen them, I would make a decision whether to carry on or not.

Just before I reached Camperdown, a sweeper bus came past me and I heard someone shouting at me. It was Alistair! His nausea had turned into vomiting forcing him to retire from the race. I asked how Sean was and he said he was fine, and about 25min behind me. Knowing Alistair had retired played in my mind the whole way to Camperdown – should I get in the bus or should I carry on? It would be so much easier to just get in the bus!

 

The last 10km to Camperdown were painful. It was hot, my mind was playing games and the aid stations had run out of water! I finally saw Heinrich, Kate and Zan, had a good cry, ate something solid and continued walking up the hill until I saw my dad. I gave a brief wave and carried on because I knew if I stopped to chat I might not carry on. I decided I would keep going and do the best I could until the next cut off point. If I didn’t make the cut off, then so be it. But each time I got to a cut off point I made the cut off by at least 10min.  Only knowing what time of the day it was (my watch stopped) I thought to myself that I would walk all the way to the Top of Polly’s and by then I am sure I will miss the cut off and have to get in the bus. I got to the top of Polly’s with 2min left until the cut off, approximately 17:08 in the evening. Shit, now what! I have 50 min to do 7/8km and get to the finish feeling as if my whole soul had been sucked from my body.

“Its all downhill from here” the crowd shouted. So if its all downhill from here, maybe I could do it, maybe I could still finish? With these thoughts running through my head, I decided I was not going to be that poor person I watched year after year that missed the 12 hour cut off by 10 seconds! I didn’t come all this way to now be cut off by milli-seconds with my family and friends at the finish line. Dehydrated and completely over it, I wasn’t going to be able to stop for the water or coke that I needed – I couldn’t waste time, not even 1 second, I had to keep running as fast as I could. I got into a rhythm and ran, watching the km markers go by. Thinking I could do this, I hit that first pimple after Polly’s and had to walk. F**K I thought, they lied – its not all downhill. Then I remembered Jan Van Rooyen telling me there were 2  or maybe 3 little hills before the end. I conquered that one and carried on running until I hit the second hill. Now with tears rolling down my face, I really didn’t think I was going to make it. I saw my family on the side of the road telling me I was going to make it – but I knew they were just saying that to be positive.

The crowds on the side of the road were screaming as if there were only seconds left. I started to black out. My eyes were heavy and they kept closing, I couldn’t keep them open and I was moments away from passing out – I knew I should stop for coke, but there was just no time. The runners around me were madly trying to calculate if they were going to finish and how they were going to finish but I blocked them out and kept running.

I ran past an elderly man who was bent over in absolute pain and agony, cramping and barely able to walk. All I wanted to do was help him, but I couldn’t. It was at this point that I realised what it was like to be on the other side of the TV. How many times do you watch these runners crippled by cramp by the time they get to the finish line and you sit screaming at the other runners to help them and you cannot understand why they don’t. Now I know why…at this point you are so physically and emotionally exhausted, that you simply just can’t. A week later, this is something I am still grappling with.

The next thing I knew, we were running under the famous bridge into Scottsville and I had caught a bus. I had caught the back of the 12 hour bus. The runners were shouting, rejoicing, throwing their hands in the air and celebrating. I was wondering how they could do this as we had what felt like seconds left to cross the line. I felt like a bully pushing past them, but without my glasses I couldn’t see how close we were to the finish line and how close we were to cut off. It’s only now that I realize we had 6 minutes left on the clock. I finished at 11:54:02.

 

 

After crossing the line, I sat on the side of the field trying to catch my breath, before passing out and being carried off on a stretcher (so dramatic) to the medical tent to be put on a drip. About an hour later I felt much better, got up, went to meet my family, cried some more and drove back to Durban already thinking of what and how to do Comrades better next year!

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