It’s the morning of 1 June 2014. Hard to believe that I am finally in front of the town hall, in the small town of Pietermaritzburg in the KwaZulu Natal province of South Africa, surrounded by over 14,000 other runners at the start of the 2014 Comrades Marathon. This is one of the biggest events on the South African sporting calendar with 12 hours of live national TV coverage , 1.5 million spectators and is arguably the most iconic ultra marathon in the world.
Runners World says that if you only do one ultra, Comrades must be at the top of your list. I was born in South Africa and grew up with the tradition of Comrades. Having only started running 5 years earlier, after migrating to Australia, I knew that as a South African I couldn’t call myself a runner until I completed this event. This was a pilgrimage for me, a journey with many ups and downs, not unlike the course I was about to embark upon. With over 1300 gruelling training kms under my belt in the preceding five months, I was ready. I had it all planned out. I felt a tickle running down my spine and a surge of emotion when the first chords of the national anthem filled the early morning air.
This was followed by the traditional Ndebele folk song “Shosholoza” and Chariots of fire. Then the cock crow sounded, the canon boomed into the darkness and the clock started counting down to the 12 hour cut off! Both Tony and Stan warned me to be careful during the start as one could easily be injured or lose a shoe with the masses of runners pushing forward towards the start line. It took me just under three minutes of being pushed and shoved to get over the line and I started the “down run” towards Durban.
I had a clear strategy for this race and trained accordingly during my long runs in the preceding months. Run eight minutes, walk one and maintain a 6:30/km average pace. This approach would allow my body to recover continuously and get me to the 60km mark in a “relatively” fresh state with a chance to hit my ambitious target time of sub 10 hours. Very soon after the start however, I realised that it was a poor strategy.Firstly, it was too crowded to walk and secondly, any walking not used on the hills would be a waste of precious minutes. I decided to forgo the walk breaks in lieu of a slower running pace, maintaining the 6:30 average.
The energy in the field early on was tangible. As we passed through the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg, spectators started lining the roads in the dark with one person shouting, “Go Go – You’re almost there!”. Most of the houses in the suburbs were still dark, but one house had a booming sound system set up in the garden, blaring anthems at at full blast. The neighbours couldn’t have been too impressed but the runners showed their appreciation by cheering and whistling back to the occupants.
The countless hours I’ve spent on mental preparation reading race reports, training advice and listening to podcasts taught me not to expect a downhill race, in fact the first 56kms are mostly uphill. I didn’t realise however that, other than the start and the finish, the entire course would be either uphill or downhill with no real flats to speak of. My body was taking a battering and was more fatigued than expected when I reached the early 30s.
On the positive side, my achilles that was hassling me for the three weeks prior wasn’t hurting at all. As the temperature continued to climb towards the mid 20s, I decided to play it safe and let the 10 hour target go, refocusing on my sub 11 hour plan B. 11 hours was significant as it marked the cut off point for the race between 1928 – 2003. I was counting the kms towards Drummond which would mark the halfway point but first I had to get over Inchanga. This hill is named after the sound an assegai (traditional zulu spear) makes when it’s pulled out of an enemy’s body and made an impression on me when we drove the course a few days earlier.
The heat from the sun combined with the continuous incline and tired legs made it feel like it would never end. I eventually reached the top and looked down at the N3 highway that we crossed under earlier in the race far far below. As I rounded the corner however, I realised this wasn’t the crest at all! This hill was the gift that kept on giving and by the time I reached the real crest, the temperature had climbed to a sweltering 32 degrees. I eventually made it to Drummond, marking the halfway point. The next milestone was 20kms further, at the 65km mark where my parents were waiting.
My energy levels were rock bottom and I developed a stabbing pain above my abdomen combined with nausea that made its appearance every time I starting running. I would run for a few minutes until the pain became unbearable and then walk it off. Rinse and repeat. This continued as I approached and climbed up and over Botha’s hill. My average pace continued to drop over this period and I started to doubt whether I would be able to continue running much longer. I mentally calculated walking the distance to the finish with the time remaining and for the first time doubt entered my mind on whether I would make the 12 hour cut-off. The pain and nausea subsided as I descended Botha’s hill and passed through Hillcrest.
The support along this stretch was incredible with runners constantly being offered a piece of braai (bbq) meat, fruit or even beer by the spectators. Next up was the Nedbank Green Mile, an incredible stretch of supporters, bands with live music, food, drinks and girls lying in hammocks over the road high fiving the runners. It was great to see my folks soon after and I picked up some fresh gels and frozen water bottles and continued on to Fields Hill.
On the down run, Fields Hill is known to inflict pain and hurt on runners. Tim Noakes wrote: “It is here on this major descent, that I am joined by the final tormentor. The continual jarring of sharp descents from Inchanga, Botha’s Hill and Hillcrest has taken its toll on my quadriceps and every step now sends an ever more painful shock down each thigh. Were the human brain able to recall the pain of Fields Hill, no one would run the down Comrades twice.”
I don’t know if it was the frozen water bottles that I used on my face and legs to cool myself down, but I felt some energy returning as I descended Fields Hill. 21km to go. “A short half marathon to the finish. Go boytjie!” said a text message from my father-in-law. My body screamed at me to take a seat on the side of the road. A “bail bus” came driving slowly past us. The runners all around were waving it away with their arms, shouting obscenities with tired grins on their faces. I never saw anyone get in, yet it was full of sad faces staring out the windows. They’ll be back next year.
From about 15kms to go I’m continuously performing mental calculations on my chances to hit the 11 hour mark. I’m still hoping to make the bronze medal cut off but I’m not convinced at my chances. The ice bottles have long since melted, and the water I spray over myself from the water stations are doing very little to cool me down. I press on, running the downhills, walking the hills. The course has changed somewhat and we’re now running on the highway under full sun with very little shade cover.
Unbelievably there are still spectators on the side of the road, kilometres away from the nearest onramp. At eight kilometres to go I start to get sleep tired – this has never happened to me before but I have never run this far before. I recall a story Tony told me in the morning on the bus about assisting a female runner that started hallucinating from exhaustion / dehydration and needing medical attention two years earlier. I wondered how far away I was from losing it and I guessed that it couldn’t be very far. This is the pits. I don’t want to do this anymore. I can’t believe anyone would do this more than once?! Urgh!
With five kilometres to go, a park run feels like a 50km long run. I’m still running calculations in my head but the elapsed time counter on my Garmin malfunctioned and I don’t know exactly how much time I have. With two kilometres to go I’m done. I decide to walk one and then try and run the last one. I walk for a while and start running. 1km to go. The noise from the stadium becomes audible.
I see the Hilton Hotel that we left at 3am this morning and I can visualise the last stretch. Just before I enter the stadium, Tony’s words from the morning come flashing back: “The next time you see this, you’ll be very happy”. Damn right! As I enter the stadium I feel the rush of emotion drive out the fatigue. The thundering noise from the spectators and the announcers voice is ear-splitting as I run onto the field with 200 meters to go. I look at the faces of spectators, but it’s all a blur. I can see my destination approaching with the timer starting with 10. It’s what I’ve worked for, what I’ve dreamt of, not least over the past few hours. Then it’s over. I’m elated.
Three days later I’m back in Australia. I’m able to move around again without wincing at every step. Unable to hold a conversation on any other topic. I remember the sights, sounds and smells of the race. I remember the people, the other runners and spectators lining the course. I remember overtaking and mentally writing off a 75 year old runner with 35 medals 2 hours in only to be overtaken by him again at the five hour mark going up Inchanga and shaking my head in amazement. I remember high fiving countless kids on the sidelines. I remember watching runners helping other runners by giving them their water, gels, physical support or advice. I remember the feeling when I crossed the finish line. I remember the pain and the hurt but it’s good memories. I envy the South African runners who can do this race every year. I can do better. I already have new plan, and the up run looks like a completely different race. I can’t wait to go back and do it again.