Comrades Marathon 2014 was always going to be a memorable race for me. This was the first time the sacred green and white of the South Pine Striders race kit would be worn by more than one runner in this historic race. It was an important milestone for our club from my perspective that we had multiple representatives in a foreign race, especially the historically significant Comrades which began in 1921.
The road to Comrades for the three Striders club members who made it was never certain. Corne Grotius running his first Comrades marathon had significant challenges to overcome with significant health issues within his own family taking priority. I was plagued with a hamstring tear meaning that outside of long runs little hill and sprint conditioning was done. Tony Banfield had career considerations amongst other things threatening to take priority. Therefore one of the greatest highlights for me was two days before the race, where all three of us found ourselves together at King Shaka airport outside Durban (along with Tony’s wife Gayle). We travelled into the race Expo together, a great privilege and thrill.
Another highlight was posing together at the Comrades Expo. We had finally made it despite all the challenges and doubts. There are few things more exhilarating for me than the Expo. The energy in the place is contagious and the excitement for the race builds with each minute. The merchandise store is another highlight for me, running consumer heaven!
As an African emigré the Comrades is a wonderful homecoming. An opportunity to reconnect with family and everything essentially African. A fusion of cultures, colours, creeds, traditions, nationalities and a unity of purpose that forges together 16000 runners with 1.5 million supporters in an epic day of struggle and celebration. There is quite simply for me nothing that comes even close to the epic and sensate exhilaration of this historic race.
My pre-race morning was marred by two rookie errors: forgetting my trusty Garmin and lining up without a water bottle. This meant that I was running blind as far as pacing was concerned, and that my pre-race medication and energy gel consumption went out the window.
The pre-start ritual of Comrades features the singing of the national anthem followed by the working man’s song Shosholoza.
Then the opening bars of Chariots of Fire begin, and a hush falls over the 16000 competitors. This fades out to the traditional double cock crow (a tradition started by competitor Max Trimbourne in 1948). In all my six Comrades starts I’ve had tears streaming down my face as the emotions flow. The starting gun follows the end of the cock crow and the race is on!
Running blind thanks to no Garmin I started slowly and worked my way through the field hoping to find my Striders brother Tony at some point. I moved steadily through the field until after day break and eventually came across Tony in the distance ahead of me. The sight of another Striders singlet at Comrades was a thrill. We came together along the road that goes past the chicken farms before Camperdown, with the valley of a thousand hills to our left illuminated by a rising African sun. Two Striders running side by side in the Ultimate Human race, a moment to treasure – just perfect.
After a few km’s I became separated from Tony and ran with a young physiotherapist from Perth who went on to run a sub 8 hour in her first ever Comrades. I passed through halfway 5 minutes off the silver medal pace but I knew I was in for a torrid second half. My lack of conditioning began to tell and at the 56km mark a deep cramp in my right quadricep took hold, one which I could feel to the bone. This plagued me for the rest of the race, slowing me down considerably as I sought blocks of ice to massage it back into action. Although there was no mental pressure, the physical pain was somewhat traumatic, as I was not keen to accept the resignation of walking. I simply had to keep on running and did what I could to unlock of the cramp whenever it set in.
Running blind became a huge issue in the second half as I was not capable of calculating what my average pace was, and therefore unable to work out if I could make the next medal classification after a sub 7:30 silver: (a sub 9 hour Bill Rowan).
The last few km’s into Durban prove to be hellish, but there was relief when I passed the 2km’s to finish mark with 30min in hand to make the cut off. My final lap was done holding a photo of my three grandchildren which had been affixed to the back of my number throughout the race. I one day intend to sit down with my grand children when they are old enough to understand and relay the stories of Comrades to them hopefully to inspire them to a life of adventure and taking on challenges.
I had the privilege of meeting another running brother at the finish, Alan Peacock and pose for a photo together. Our friendship was forged through Comrades after meeting at the Sunshine Coast Marathon in 2012 and it was a great joy to run one with him. Alan completed his back-to-back after his first Comrades in 2013.
Seeing Tony and Corne make it in at the finish and posing together for a photo was one of the great thrills for me in my Comrades history. I have had the privilege of running with fellow Australians twice at Comrades (Mary Jackson in 2005 before Striders was born), and I hope for more memories like this in the future.
As always, running epic events like this is ever done in isolation. Apart from the enthusiastic support of the estimated 1,5 million people lining the route is the generous support of family and friends back home.
This video shows the last minutes of the race. Scroll through to 11:58 to see the drama of the final few minutes as thousands are still trying to finish the race.
Thank you to my fellow Striders for your warm support and encouragement. I encourage you to give thought to making the journey to this historic and epic race. It will change you forevermore, and broaden your horizons. By Stan Fetting.
Correction: The first time ever there were multiple Striders representatives in Comrades was in 2012, when I ran with Tony Banfield. Therefore this Comrades was the second time the sacred green & white has been represented by more than a solo runner. Having said that, Tony and I didn’t see each other out on the road or before the race in 2012. Gathering together before and on race day made this one so much more significant to me.