This time 4 years ago I had never competed in a race more than 12km never mind one 89km long, but after my friend ran the London Marathon a year shy of her 50th birthday, I decided that at the ‘young’ of 45 I could also attempt one; and so my love of long distance running began. I only ever planned to run one marathon but having experienced the ‘high’ of crossing the line at the MCG in Melbourne, I was hooked, and within weeks of finishing this one I was already planning my next race. Melbourne was followed by New York, Gold Coast and the Solar Eclipse Marathon and then I read about ‘the World’s Most Beautiful Marathon’ – which is actually a 56km Ultra Marathon in Cape Town and needing a new challenge, and also loving South Africa, I registered for the 2013 event.
Taking part in this race was a whole new experience as South African Runners are so friendly and when they see an International runner they are interested in why you chose the race. It also became clear that in South Africa you are not really considered a ‘real’ runner until you have run Comrades – a 89km run between Pietermaritzburg (PMB) and Durban run ‘uphill’ one year (i.e. Durban to PMB) and ‘down’ the following year.
Having successfully completed Two Oceans I started to seriously consider Comrades and whilst in Cape Town bought Don Oliver’s book ‘How to make Sure of your Comrades Medal’ which I read from cover to cover on the flight home and by the time I landed in Australia I was hooked on my goal for running Comrades in 2014 especially as it was a ‘down’ year and so immediately registered on the Travelling Fit site for details as they were released.
I was lucky that I had a good base from which to start my Comrades training but it is entirely possible to run Comrades as a ‘newbie’ with a great programme in Runners World South Africa which starts in July gets runners up to speed well before the race in June the following year.
To qualify to run Comrades you have to have run a sub 5 hour marathon within the previous 12 months and the faster your time the better your starting position which is important as Comrades is a gun to gun race, i.e. The clock starts when the gun goes off, not when you cross the starting mat. As there are 18,000 runners competing it can take up to 10 minutes to cross the start if you are in H batch and given the length of the race every extra minute you can gain at the start is a bonus.
As I was running well I decided to go for a sub 4:20 Marathon to get an F start which would allow me a reasonable chance at a bronze and so entered Sydney Marathon and had absolutely perfect conditions to cross the line in 4:16 despite having surgery 2 weeks prior to the race. I could then concentrate on getting my distances up but had some leeway as I knew it would be hard to run during the hot summer months and indeed starting a 4 hour training run when the temperature was already in the 30’s was indeed challenging.
Comrades is such a iconic race in South Africa that there are numerous training programmes available but the theme of all of them was to run to time not distance and also not to overdo it with most having three rest days and four running days. All the programmes also stressed a ‘run / walk ‘ strategy as there is no way you can run all 89km unless you are a professional!
I decided to run Two Oceans again as my long training run and so headed out to Cape Town for a flying visit over Easter and unfortunately had a rather disastrous run as I started cramping at 5km and struggled to whole way but managed to finish well before cut off. It was however an important learning race as far as what I could eat / drink and would help me in the rest of my Comrades preparation.
Once back in Australia there was just over 1 1/2 months to consolidate my training and start my taper which I have always found hard. It was good to have the Travelling Fit and Comrades Australia and New Zealand Facebook pages and also the the regular emails full of useful advice from Bruce ‘Digger’ Hargreaves as I was training on my own as my usual running partner was not taking the challenge with me and this can be lonely experience, but knowing there were others also putting in the miles and reading their stories was good encouragement.
Finally the day came to fly out to South Africa and I proudly wore my Australian Comrades running top which was certainly commented on by the South African Airlines crew as everyone in RSA has heard of Comrades. After an eventful flight when I had to deal with a medical emergency ( which fortunately turned out to not be too serious) I met up with my parents in Johannesburg for the short flight to Durban and into ‘Comrades Fever’
Waking up on Thursday morning, I did a short training run in the gym which overlooked the exhibition hall where the expo was being held and I watched with interest the final preparations being made.
After breakfast I walked the short distance to the expo and was lucky enough to be there for the opening ceremony which really brought home to me the status this race has. Once the ribbon was cut there was a rush into the expo to register and I was glad I was an international runner as the queue soon built for the local registrants which was not made easier as there was hitch with the new registration system and the iPads would not read the chips. however eventually it was sorted out and it was time to look round the enormous expo which surpassed even New York. First I visited the Comrades apparel store as we had been advised that this sells out fast and indeed, when I went back on the Saturday there was literally nothing left!
The expo was really well organised with lots of places to eat and drink as well as every type of stall including a fitness assessment where you could get a cholesterol and blood pressure check and another where you could get an ECG as part of of runners study.
During the next couple of days I visited the expo a number of times and each time found something new to see. By Friday the queue for local runners was over 3 hours long but there was plenty of entertainment to keep people amused and the whole spirit of Comrades could be seen in the mixing of runners exchanging stories about their paths to Comrades.
On Thursday evening we had the Travelling Fit meet and great which was a good time to meet the other Australians and also the Americans who were joining with us. Digger gave a introduction to the event for us ‘newbies’ and an added bonus was the chance to meet 9 times winner Bruce Fordyce who had some fantastic stories of the races he had run in.
On Saturday morning I joined up with my parents to take Bruce’s course tour which he led personally and driving the route really brought home the enormity of the challenge the following day. Although classed as a ‘Down’ run, first 65km are mainly up hill and Bruce’s advice about how to run certain parts of the course proved to be invaluable the following day.
Once back in Durban, I paid once last visit to the expo then spent the rest of the day getting my kit ready as we were to get the bus to PMB at 2:45 the next morning.
After an early dinner I was in bed by 7:30 and contrary to my usual pre pace sleep problems I managed 5 hours before waking to my alarm at 1:30am. Once dressed and down in to lobby there was a lot of nervous excitement before we boarded the bus and set off to PMB ( after having to return to the hotel once to get a straggler)
The drive up the freeway in the dark allowed my to contemplate the task ahead and I can honestly say that it felt like sitting my Fellowship exam all over again as this was the culmination of 16 months of preparation.
Walking through the dark street of PMB to the corals made me glad of my last minute purchase of a headlight as a number of people were tripping over loose paving stones and the last thing I wanted was to fall and end my race before it even started!
Once in the corals there was no going back and the nervous tension was palpable. The mix of first time runners like myself for whom it was a journey into the unknown with those who had run it many times before made of a hive of excitement and tension which started to mount as the announcer kept counting down the time to the start.
At 5:20 the buildup to the start began with the singing of the traditional African song Shosolosa followed by the South African National Anthem then the playing of Chariots of Fire during which more than one tear was shed and a shiver went down my spine. This was followed by the ‘cock crow’ and the starting cannon and …. nothing happened! No doubt the front runners started running but back in the F coral it was a couple of minutes before we even started walking forward but after 4 minutes I crosse the start and my Comrades had begun.
Even at this early hour the streets of PMB were full of supporters to cheer us along the first of the many miles to Durban. We were extremely lucky as it is usually close to freezing at the start but today the temperature was a barmy 12 degrees. As we made our way along the crowed streets out of PMB in the pre- dawn light some people were already shedding tops but having been warned by Bruce Fordyce that there was a dip which was partially cold, I kept mine on even though it was getting warm.
Dawn was breaking as we ran up the first of the 5 major hills ‘Polly Shorts’ and with the early morning light came a feeling that I was taking part in more than a race, it was a total running experience.
I soon settled into a comfortable pace, but taking heed of Don Oliver’s advice I was careful to take regular walking breaks which was easy given the number of hills in the early part of the race.
Despite headphones being banned, there was plenty of entertainment along the route and wearing Australian Colours got a number of ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie’ chants as well as many locals welcoming me to the country and the time passed remarkably quickly during the first half of the race and it seemed no time before I was at the 21km mark and the first of the support tents which allowed me to ditch my headlight and pick up some of my race sustenance, ( I had already discarded my top as there is a tradition that Comrades runners give the unwanted tops to the locals as some of the people in the surrounding areas are very poor)
By now the sun was up but luckily there was a layer of cloud which shielded us from the true heat of the sun.
After passing though the chicken farm area where the wind was blowing in the wrong direction and the smell rather potent, we passed Ethembeni School for the disabled where the children come out in force to support the runners and in turn the race gives much needed support to the school.
Down into Drummond and the halfway mark, and I found I was well up with my timing and started to think that I might indeed be able to finish this race.
The pull out of Drummond was long and hard and by now everyone was walking but we still had seven hours to complete half the race and some of the hardest parts were behind us.
Passing through 56km I felt much better than I had a couple of months ago finishing Two Oceans and it was into the unknown, I had never run more than 56 km and from here one every step was a new record.
At 65 km we hit the Nedbank Green Mile, a mile of entertainment which really lifted the spirits and many runners even took time to stop and take ‘selfies’ using the large picture frames provided.
From here the race stared to go downhill and the relentless pounding started to take its toll. At 13 km to go I felt my first toe nail go and after trying to struggle for 1/2km I had to stop to do a quick repair job and was so glad I had decided to put some band aids in my running pouch. At this moment I thought my dreams of a bronze had gone up in smoke but I calculated that even if I walked the rest of the way I could still make the cut off time of 12 hours. However miraculously my running repair seemed to work and I gingerly started to run again and was able to do it without pain so I was soon pounding down the highway again and passing thought the 7km to go mark and taking the last real ‘up’ I suddenly realised that I could still make the magic 11 hours and at this time got my second (or third or fourth) wind and the lighting towers of Kingsmead Stadium seemed to have a magnetic attraction as I ran / walked the last few km to enter Durban and, passing 1km to go at 10:44, I realised that baring any serious accident the bronze was a reality even if I crawled the rest of the way. However remembering the advice in Don Oliver’s book, I focused on entering the stadium at a ‘dignified’ run and entering the cheer of the crowd was something I will never forget, and the feeling of true elation as I crossed the finishing line in 10:49:37 will stay with me as long as live. It is true when they say that you shed a tear, I could have wept with happiness as I was given my medal and Comrades patch and even now a week later, the medal has hardly left my sight and I am still on a high which will take a lot of getting down from.
To all those who want a challenge I say give Comrades a go it is indeed the ‘the Ultimate Human Race’
My thanks go to Di Rust and all at Travelling Fit for the organisation of the trip which made my Comrades dream a reality.
The above was written before I learnt the sad news that a 39 year old South African runner has died a week after completing his second Comrades. He apparently collapsed as he crossed the finish line and died of renal and liver failure. This is a sobering reminder of the enormity of the Challenge that is Comrades.