The odds seemed stacked against me getting to the 2012 Comrades Marathon. Running Comrades is easy for me, getting permission from your wife to travel to South Africa and run it is the hard bit. Having pulled off that miracle I registered only to be diagnosed with a serious tear of my peroneal tendon (ankle). I remember clearly having an argument with my doctor in December 2011. He said “4 months off”, I said “but I’m going to Comrades”, he said “4 months”, and so the square off continued. My physio gave me hope, “2 and a half months” he said. That’s what I settled on and in early February I completed my first hour long run, 2 months behind Comrades schedule. I was out of shape and overweight after nearly 3 months of no training. Just what shape I would be in on race day was anyone’s guess.
The Impossible Dream
Since starting the journey to Comrades in 2003, I’ve long dreamed of joining the Silver Medal club. You need to finish Comrades in under 7 hours 30 minutes to be given a silver medal and to be honest I’ve never thought it possible. The effects of cramping past the 60km mark has always left me feeling that perhaps my genetic make-up precludes me from running faster over the Comrades 90km distance.
After getting back into training I ran my fastest ever 10km in early May at the Noosa Winter Festival to take out the M40-49 age group prize. This was an indicator that I was running faster than ever before, a good sign for a crack at silver.
The next complicating factor that arose weeks before Comrades was the birth of my first grand daughter, Indiana Hope. Indiana was born with a congenital heart defect, which meant that the left hand side of her heart didn’t function properly. She was admitted to the intensive care cardiac unit of the Mater Children’s hospital. As departure date for South Africa loomed it became clear that she was going to undergo open heart surgery. I stopped making any more preparations for South Africa like booking accommodation as I began to consider that the trip would not go ahead. I was also due to travel with a daughter and son-in-law. Her heart surgery went well and based on her post-operative progress we made the decision 24 hours before departure on the Wednesday to proceed. Saying goodbye to her in ICU was hard, but we were heartened by her progress.
Despite the long journey over and the usual excitement of registering at the Comrades Expo in Durban my head space was simply not where it usually is before a race of this magnitude. This in the end worked to my favour, as fear and over excitement can work against you in a long, tough ultra-marathon. Although I woke up gripped with fear at 2am on the morning of the race, I still arrived in a cool, calm, almost business-like attitude.
Although 18000 registered for this race the field on the day was 14800. The start as always is inspirational and includes the singing of the national anthem, the traditional working gang song Shosholoza, the pulsating Chariots of Fire followed by the traditional cock crow (originally delivered by Max Trimbourne in 1948 and now preserved by way of a recording) and then the massive bang of the starting gun and the mad dash off the line.
Thanks to an unexpected sub 3 marathon finish at the Brisbane Marathon I had an A qualifier start (starting positions range from A-H), and I crossed the line only seconds after the start and joined the mad dash to get ahead of the other 14000 runners heading out of Pietermaritzburg.
Lyrics of South African version of “Shosholoza”:
Stimela si qhamuka e South Africa
Stimela si qhamuka e South Africa
Wena u ya baleka
Wena u ya baleka
Stimela si qhamuka e South Africa
English Translation of “Shoshaloza”:
Work, work, working in the sun
We will work as one
Work, work, working in the rain
Till there’s sun again
Push, push pushing on and on
There’s much to be done
Push, push, pushing in the sun
We will push as one.
Marshmallow powered ultra-racing
This is the first year I’ve had support along the road courtesy of my cousin Greg who knows all the local roads well, and he was accompanied by my daughter Bethany and my son-in-law Kieran. They were supplied with a stock of my favourite South African lollies, marshmallow fish and mice, which proved to be a welcome change from the endless gels (11 in total).
My support team saw me on average every 20km and they were always a welcome sight, including at some places I wasn’t expecting them to be.
My nutrition plan was to take a gel every 45 minutes and one bag of Energade (sportsdrink) per hour. Water and sports drink are bagged in South African races, which is ideal. You tear away the corner of a bag with your teeth and drink away without spillage. The one bag of Energade per hour was designed to help the gel’s with electrolyte replacement. I don’t accept any fruit, lollies, potatoes or anything else handed out along the way. The golden rule of racing is not to eat or drink anything you don’t in training. I sipped my way through a few bottles of Energade in the days prior to the race to get my gut used to a different sports drink.
The night before the race I set my Garmin to show average pace per km. The goal was to even split the race at 5min per km, which would have got me across the line in time as the race is a little shorter than the full 90km. Unbeknownst to me I had disabled the backlight function on the watch so for the first 18km what I thought was 4:58 (good!) was actually 4:38! (bad!). I was worried that stealing this much time at the start would ruin my race at the back end, when the bank manager comes and charges excessive interest on your early withdrawals. It seemed as if it took about nearly 20km to slow down sufficiently until I got to the 60km mark and was managing 4:56 per km. The goal as the race went on was simple: don’t think or even look ahead too much, just peel away the km’s by letting them take care of themselves through consistent running, and always keep that average pace below 5min per km no matter what.
The start wasn’t particularly cold but my cousin Greg warned me that the sheer drop down the famous Polly Shorts would deliver us into Ashburton and its always freezing down there. He was right and in addition to the sharp temperature drop there were cutting winds that bit hard on the exposed ridges of the many uphills in the first half. I traditionally take a top I can give away to one of the many rural lads who ask runners for their warm tops. This was the longest I have run before being game to give my top away. I felt that I had enough issues to concentrate on without being freezing cold and my core temperature being too low.
Great Traditions and Famous Faces
Near halfway is the famous Arthur’s seat. It’s situated just before Drummond (half way) on the up run and just after Drummond on the down run. It is literally a hole that has been cut out of the bank and is reputed to be a favourite resting spot for Arthur Newton, a 5 times winner of the Comrades.
Legend has it that runners who greet Arthur and place a flower in his seat will have a good second half. I always make sure to do this and this year was no exception. It’s mainly the overseas runners who do this, it adds to the charm and traditions of the race for me.
With 42km’s to go Zola Budd steamed past me but she faltered up the next big climb after halfway. Zola is a former Olympic track and field competitor who, in less than three years, twice broke the world record in the women’s 5000 metres and twice was the women’s winner at the World Cross Country Championships. Budd’s career was unusual in that she mainly trained and raced barefoot. Her achievements on the track were often overshadowed by the political controversy she aroused during her short stay in the United Kingdom. The greatest controversy however was her clash with Mary Decker the USA favourite for the gold medal in the 1984 Olympics, which ended with Decker out the race and Zola 7th.
Zola and I exchanged positions a number of times and it was great to hear the enthusiasm from the crowd for this farm girl who took on the world’s best barefoot. Zola eventually faded behind me (the price you pay for trying to pass a Strider) and she finished alongside the greatest ever Comrades runner ever, Bruce Fordyce in 8:06. Zola lives in the USA now and is an ambassador for Newton running shoes.
Each time I crossed the timing mat I knew that it updated online and knowing that there were so many family and friends following lives it was always a great moment to hear the timing beep, as good as an sms back home. The pressure grew as the race went on. The further I went inside the silver time the more of a disappointment it was going to be if I faded at the end. I began to be paranoid that I would run into the stadium and miss the cut off by a few seconds.
When my grand daughter become gravely ill, Comrades itself to a large degree lost its meaning for me personally. Large endurance events by their nature require a fair deal of your emotions and visualization prior to the event in order to complete the arduous training. Once Indiana was hospitalized my training became a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. When your greatest hopes and prayers surround the very life of on of your own family members issues like races take their rightful place in terms of order of significance – way further down the priority list.
Having made the decision to proceed with my travel to South Africa and participation in the race I now wanted to do something special in tribute to Indiana, and to one day sit down and relay the stories and show the pictures of ‘Indiana’s Run’. As the km’s peeled away the pressure to accomplish this also grew. I play a lot of psychological games with myself along the way. When there’s 50-something km’s left I reason that it’s a long training run, 40-something a ‘not so long’ training run, 30’s is one loop of my long Saturday training run, 20’s is an ‘easy Saturday’ and once I’m in the 10’s its simply a run to Maccas and back!
These are the messages I send back to the extremities of my body which are sending distress signals up to my brain. I was well aware, that like many around me, I could easily blow up. One another day perhaps that would have happened, but this day was different. It was one of those days you have every now and then in running, where you push yourself to new limits and the body comes along with your head and your heart.
Closing In The Impossible Dream
At the 5km to go mark the bunch I was running around began to talk to one another. We encouraged one another that we had a silver if we kept the pace at 5min per km and helped encourage those who were suffering. An anonymous group of runners who until then were locked in the solitude of personal struggle became a band of brothers supporting each other to the end.
The last big climb before the end is the imposing run up 45th cutting on the highway into the city. As you approach the crest the high rise buildings of the city rise out of the tarmac. This is followed by a punishing downhill delivering you into the bowels of the CBD and a long straight 2nd last km followed by a sharp left turn and the run down the stadium road.
I had made a pact with myself at the 5km mark that there was no way at all I would walk, under any circumstances, and somehow I pushed through the trauma of what was happening in my legs. I went to some new places I haven’t been before and I’m not in a hurry to visit there again!
Coming into the stadium I got hold of a picture of Indiana that I had taped to the back of my race number and held it aloft along the finish lap first for my supporting family members in the International Tent and then across the line.
I had to return to the city of the race start that afternoon and we set off on the journey back the way we came seeing the race still in progress at various points along the highway. After a long, deep, healing bath I settled down to watch the end of the race the final minute where a race official stands with his back to the field and fires the gun at exactly 12 hours, with runners only meters away from the finish not allowed to cross the line. It’s a cruel but honoured tradition and one that every runner knows.Here’s what unfolded for one runner in 2011:
More than 50% of the field runs in between 11 and 12 hours so there’s always plenty of people who miss out. I can never watch this spectacle without weeping, as I know just how long and punishing the run is. To miss out by only a few seconds would be heartbreaking.
This was the first year that we had 2 Striders running in kit in the race, flying the flag. Tony Banfield returned to Comrades after a long absence and punched out a hard fought 9:21. Tony was a great help to me in the final stages of training for Comrades. We completed a number of the peak training period long runs including a mammoth one of 68km. Tony’s encouragement is felt by many in the club and his companionship through some hard training weeks was greatly appreciated.
As always, the encouragement of my fellow Striders means a great deal, especially when you are far away, in a world of hurt. You always know that your club mates are cheering you on and this makes a huge difference. We encourage and inspire one another to achieve and to challenge ourselves.
On my return it was fantastic so see my little grand daughter 2 weeks on looking somewhat different to the little girl I left behind. In her short 2 months alive she has done Comrades many times over and she will always be an inspiration to me with her sheer will to live and her fighting back against the odds to survive. She is a special little person and I gladly dedicate and attribute to her, my greatest ever running day.
I would heartily recommend you consider doing Comrades. South Africa is at its best on Comrades day, a fusion of colours, cultures, creeds, abilities and inspiration. It is a race with a magnificent history, and honoured traditions, a race like no other.
If you would like to do it, here’s some inspiration:
For the technically minded here’s my splits: