4th June 2015
And so, the big day dawned. The 2015 Comrades Marathon was to be run. And I was to be part of it! This is my race review of the Comrades 2015 Up Run finishing in Pietermaritzburg (PMB).
Thursday, we had visited the Expo in Durban and shopped for cheap drinks bottles at our base in Ballito. (Our friends had recommended staying further up the coast, as Durban doesn’t have the best reputation for safety).
Friday, we went back to drop the drinks bottles, made up with Endura rehydration and power drinks, along with Endura gels. I knew there would be coke along the way, but having tried that on one training run, it made me feel sick, so I wanted a back-up plan. I’d paid for a seconding service through Complete Marathons, and they have tables at strategic points along the way, where you can collect your own goodies. I’d dropped my portable charger in one of the bags, and knew that I could collect it around the half way point.
Saturday, I rested, as prescribed by my Comrades buddies. My throat felt sore, and my body lethargic, so I didn’t need any further encouragement. I unnerved the Hubstacle with my quietness, but he had his own concerns. He had to get us there, then find spotting points, then arrive at the end to collect me. Through parts of South Africa he didn’t know…
Sunday came. The alarm went off and I woke up realising I’d slept really soundly!?! The others knocked on our door at 3:30am and we headed off as part of a small convoy; pilgrims heading to Durban. The coast road got busier and busier, the closer we got to the city. (The opposite lane was devoid of traffic). We passed an esplanade resplendent with buses and people dressed in running gear. The coloured lights of the casino twinkled in the night sky to let us know we’d reached the city limits and we jumped red lights trying to stay close to the leading car in front.
We headed through the CBD, and suddenly careered to a stop, swerving precariously into the opposite lane to pull up against a stretch of pavement that wasn’t already parked up. Jackie, Amanda, Wimpie, Nico and then Marius emerged into the street and I realised this was as far as I was being transported. My legs were now my only carriage.
The atmosphere was buoyant along the street leading to the town hall, a party just getting into full swing. We walked as a tight knit little group, bursts of conversation, then quiet again. I realised there were metal corrals set up in the road, with marshals on the entry points. The group stopped, and I realised there was a hoarding inside announcing H. This was where they dropped me – I was in batch H – right at the back of the pack. Non runners weren’t allowed in and the rest of my crew were batches C and D, so they needed to head further forward. We looked inside, and Wimpie pointed to a guy with a pole sticking out of his arse (or so it seemed at first glance). “That’s Vlam. I ran the last 20 kays with him last year. He got me round. He’s a great guy.”
Dinner table conversation had discussed the virtues of running with a bus on Friday. Erik (silver medallist) had advised against it, fearing the demoralisation if you fell off the back, and the danger of elimination if not able to catch back up with the slow bus. But Jackie, as we stood outside the pen, told Wimpie, “that’s who Jo is going to run with”, and suddenly I found my resolve. This had been my plan for several weeks, and suddenly I knew that I had it in me to keep tight hold of the bus. And so I lurked nervously near to Vlam and watched as other passengers milled around and greeted him confidently. I shook hands with Diana and Louise and the guy standing next to me. A lady with an E on her number told me that she was starting with Vlam, because further up the corral they headed out too fast. Vlam, she told me, would hold a good pace. Her race number proclaimed that she had successfully completed 14 runs. I guessed she knew what she was talking about.
As we hung around waiting for the start I started looking at the race numbers on the backs of the other runners. The bib shows your race number, corral placing (A – H), nationality and how many runs completed. My number had a blue background, and I realised this denoted that I was an international runner. Green numbers were those who had completed 10 runs or more. And then there was yellow. I was struggling to figure that out, because some people with 1 run had a yellow bib, but others didn’t, and those with 9 runs also had yellow. Then the penny dropped. Yellow meant that you were on the cusp of a special award. Those with a 9 were chasing their promotion into the prestigious green number club. Those with a yellow 1 had run the Down Run last year and were chasing the special “back to back” medal. The non-coloured 1s meant that they had completed their successful run more than a year ago, so weren’t eligible for the back to back.
Then things started to happen. The crowd shuffled forward, and even though we were H, we suddenly moved into the G corral. Then nothing. Then more shuffling forward. And suddenly, music blared out, and people, so many people around me, starting singing. It was their national anthem. I stood quietly. Then Shosholosa was sung. Again, I stood quietly, unsure of the words and tongue-tied. Rather than feeling subsumed into the group, I felt alone. And even as Chariots of Fire was played, I didn’t feel as emotional as I had imagined I would. As I had hugged Hubstacle, then Herbert, then Jackie, then Hubstacle. before entering the pen, then I had felt emotional. But now I felt strangely detached. The cock crowed and I listened for the gun firing, but didn’t notice it amongst all the bruhaha. The E batch lady told me to start my watch – I’d missed a minute already!! And so I stood there, with my watch started and my feet glued to the ground, the crowd around me strangely still. Nothing was happening, only the clock was counting down, until suddenly something gave, and there was a small surge forwards. Slow and deliberate, trying not to stand on the heels of the person pressed close in front, or trip on all the litter that lined the road. We made a little progress, then stopped inexplicably, the crowd bunching tight together. Then we started again, this time more relentlessly until finally the start shute came in sight and as we finally stepped on the mat, we all hollered in delight and waved frantically at the spectators lining the street at 5:30am. “Do you have a T-shirt for me?” they responded. A wag further down the road, “I want some trousers. I don’t want a T-shirt. I already have. I need trousers”. But we shuffled past at our snails pace, leaving him to his hunt for clothing.
As we managed to pull into a gentle jog, our leader suddenly left the course and dashed into a side street. Abashed I looked away, as I realised he was availing himself of the nearest lamppost. Eyes straight forward, we rounded a bend, only to be greeted by a wall of backs, decorated with running numbers, lining the wall on the side of the road. Comrades standing shoulder to shoulder, finding some relief. I jogged along, wondering where Vlam had got to, realising it was difficult to pick anyone out in the half light. I kept moving, trying to find a shirt or face I recognised from the start line, but with no success. I kept moving forward – difficult not to as part of the throng, becoming more anxious that within 15 minutes of passing the start line, I’d already lost my bus.
Then, just under Tollgate Bridge, as we were heading up to 45th Cutting, I spotted a tall, athletic guy, who’d been at the start, chatting with Vlam. He was a little behind me, so I moved to the side and slowed slightly. Then suddenly, further behind, I heard Vlam’s voice boom out “Take a deep breath in”, and in celebration I flung my arms above my head and did as the man instructed. “Relax”. And so I did, and allowed my pace to fall back into step with that of the rest of the 12 hour bus. “On the count of 5, we will walk! Five. Four. Three. Two-one. Ahoy!” “AHOY!” And so we walked. “On the count of 5, we run! Five. Four. Three. Two-one. Ahoy!” “AHOY!” And off we trotted again. “Be careful,” shouted Vlam. “SPEED KILLS!” responded his passengers. And so, we fell into a routine, singing “Who let the dogs out?” to any spectators who had brought their pooches to observe the colossal human millipede trudging through the outskirts of Durban, taking deep breaths in with our arms in the air and chanting to Vlam’s call. Spirits were high, there was vitality in the affirmative “ahoys” as we changed pace and we waved and smiled at those who had come out to watch.
The pace surprised me. With the regular walk breaks, it was really pleasant. The climbs through Westville went unnoticed. My legs felt strong, although I felt lightheaded and slightly nauseous in the early stages. A headache came on, but I was carrying paracetamol, which quickly eradicated the pain. And then I became more concerned to see if I could spot Hubstacle and Herbert lining the streets. I had no idea where they were planning to pull in and watch, so I was scanning the crowds trying to spy them, but to no avail. The distraction of crowd spotting and being part of the bus meant that the first check point was already on us, and I was still feeling fresh. We’d been going for 2.5 hours and covered 17kms, but it felt like we’d only just left the city.
Vlam’s strategy is walk up all the hills, with little smatterings of running thrown in: 20 steppers or 10 steppers, depending on the gradient. Take on plenty of water, he counselled. It’s hot out there today. And it was. The energy to get hold of the water sachets at the water tables was frantic. I heard a girl talking to a friend on the phone saying she wasn’t coping with the heat. Grab icy cold water sachets and hold them in your palms, I whispered to her, it will cool you down. (She found me at halfway and told me it was working, and that she was doing fine now). I was worried about over hydrating, so always grabbed 2 and just held them in my palms or squeezed them over my skin, sipping sparingly just as we reached the next table.
Cowies Hill came and went, and suddenly I realised that in my head I’d built up the hills to the size of Mount Everest. And they weren’t. The gradients were similar to those I’d trained on back home; it’s just that they were longer. The possibility of doing this thing crystalised.
And when we got to Fields Hill. And at that point I thought I was going to be running that hill for the rest of my life, because it is just unending. Not only that, but it sits at about the worst possible point in a run, for me. I ALWAYS fall apart somewhere between the 20 – 30km point. And if it wouldn’t have seemed too utterly shameful not even to make halfway, I could have quite happily climbed aboard the nearest bailer’s bus and had a nice ride to the finish line. But when I saw one, I quickly averted my eyes; don’t look; don’t look. The glimpse I caught wasn’t inviting. Dejected people, dreams robbed, sitting glumly waiting for the remaining seats to be filled before being hauled off to contemplate where it had all gone so horribly wrong.
We marched on, relief flooding our limbs that Fields Hill does eventually end, giving out onto flatter terrain. My head was filled with Lindsay Parry’s words read in an article the previous day: the first 37kms are the hardest. The toughest climbs are behind you from this point. So, if I could just get to halfway, that would mean I’d done the worst.
Halfway came and went. I was slightly aware that we hit the mat after the 6:00:00 point – the usual cut-off. The speakers were telling us the men’s race had already been won. A South African winner. I wondered how the women’s race was playing out? My stomach was starting to give me some hassle, but whilst I was still running strong (and walking stronger), the little voice in my head kept reminding me not to lose the bus. Particularly now. Now we had work to do to regain the time we had dropped early on. The water points were getting chaotic as the heat of the day started to bear down and the hoards of runners were getting desperate for something to rehydrate them and pour over their heads. And so, getting to the water was taking as much time as was available. Liquid bounty retrieved, I would look up and see Vlam, and his son, Andries already heading off along the road at a trot. Queuing for a port-a-loo wasn’t an option, I needed to follow my leader.
I was keeping an eye out for the Complete Marathons tent, as it was supposed to be around the halfway point. But I was jostling for position amongst the increasing throng hopping aboard Vlam’s bus and I didn’t know where it was. I’d nearly missed the first tent at around 25kms and pissed a few runners off as I veered across their path, tracking backwards to get to it! The second tent I completely missed, which meant my portable charger sat unclaimed. But whilst the thought of being unable to track my longest run ever had kept me awake at night in the weeks leading up to this point, it was drowned in irrelevance at that moment. The bus, the bus. That was my only focus.
The kilometres seemed to tick by smoothly. I reached 50km and realised, with a small secret smile of satisfaction, I was heading into unknown territory. We kept moving and I heard Vlam call out that we’d reached the 56km point – equivalent to the Two Oceans distance (the other iconic ultra in South Africa). Vlam dropped back around this point, and as he was running amongst the little group that I was running alongside, he called out “you back markers will have to pick up your speed now. We have some work to do.” I was offended. Back marker? Huh! I was part of the bus, wasn’t I? But I knew we were going to have to dig deep, and as we headed off, I looked at the pace and realised we were running 6:10’/km. I saluted Zoey at this point, and realised I should have worked harder at the tempos and speedwork, but what I’d done was holding me together. When the cry of “ Walk in five. Four. Three. Two-one. Ahoy!” came, my response became a grunt. Of relief. But it was enough to recharge before the pace picked back up.
We approached 60km and the dinner table talk played back in my head. The 60 – 70km point is where the demons wait. I looked for them, but they weren’t there. 61km, they were still in hiding. And so they were at 62km and 63 and 64. But at 65km, hammering down the hills was starting to take it’s toll. I’d clocked 5:25’/km on one stretch and I started to search for reasons why I could bail. But as my mind reached for reasons (excuses), I remembered a Facebook post from Jo. OpMove will be waiting for you at 60kms and pushing you up those hills. (I had no idea how literally this translated to a whole gang of fabulous team mates refusing to go to sleep on a Sunday night because they were glued to the online tracker and Youtube!) I must have felt the universe vibrating as they shouted at their screens and frantically checked with each other over FB for updates on whether I was still moving. How could I explain it to them? What would I post on Facebook? I wasn’t collapsed in a heap, I wasn’t even injured. I was just a bit “meh”. I grumbled to myself that 87 kilometres was a distance only to be travelled by car. Wheeled transport is very underrated. I certainly won’t do this again. I must write on Facebook that the OpMovers must prevent me going crazy in September and entering again. And as I mentally checked myself for some niggle that might mean I had to be carted away – not bailing, just rescued, you understand – I realised I’d run 70km and still felt in good shape. And then, the distance markers changed. 19km to go. Only 19. We were in the teens and I was still running! What the bloody hell?! And that’s when I knew I really truly could do this, and the switch flicked.
The stars aligned and as we got to a water point on a long flat stretch, an empty toilet materialised right in front of me. I ducked in and got tangled amongst my shirt, bib, bum bag (those tissues I was carrying hid from me, I swear) and do you even know how hard it is to pull your knickers up when you’re drenched and have run 70 something freaking kilometres! Anyway, apologies to all the OpMovers tracking online that thought I had jumped aboard the bailers bus when I went AWOL at around Lion Park, or wherever it was. (The landmarks aren’t marked as you run the route, just distance markers, so I was pretty unaware what stage of the run it was)…
I hit the road and could see Vlam’s flag in the distance. Between him and me was a guy running in a rhino head. Catch the rhino, I told myself. So off I went, tracking a rhino. Just another foreign poacher on the hunt for quarry that would lead to riches. (Except this hunter meant no malice. And the prize was a copper medal, nothing more). Once I’d hauled him in, it was another push to get back to the bus. And so on I pushed, dodging through human traffic to get close to the “flame”.
Back with the bus, we ran towards Little Pollys. Andries had taken over a lot of the chants, and his favourite was “Power.” “Energy.” “Energy.” “Power.” I hated it, but somehow it kept me energised. And I kept reminding myself that pushing down the hills and along the flats would have its reward. We had to pull 10 steppers out of the hat up Little Pollys, then zoom down the other side, but when we got to the bottom of Polly Shortts Andries called the bus to a walk and that’s what we did. All the way to the summit. What a joy. It was nearly as much reward as being given a medal at that stage, because honestly, there was no more run in my legs for a hill that steep. But we walked briskly, because we all knew that at the top of the hill was our last checkpoint and then only 7.5km until we reached the finish.
The announcer, as we passed the mats, told us we must keep running now. There was no time to waste if we wanted to make the finish. We had one hour left, so we needed to maintain our pace. We heard that it was a South African clean sweep, with Caroline Wöstmann winning the women’s race. Then off we went. I would have written ‘off we sped’, but that would be a downright lie. We weren’t speeding, but we were moving. Relentless forward motion.
Andries shouted that the stadium was somewhere up ahead. I didn’t catch what he said, but I saw stadium lights and guessed that’s where he meant. YES! Not too far. Only I had guessed wrong. The stadium with the lights was reached and passed. Oh! But up ahead, I realised the crowds had got thicker. And rowdier. I hi-fived a bunch of little kids and chucked them my last water pouch. Their little faces beamed like I’d thrown them gold coins. I hi-fived a group of ladies drinking beer and singing by the roadside, and kept moving forwards. I didn’t pick up any water at the last water station figuring it was cool now and there’d be more water at the end, so I ran through. It was only further down the road that I realised I’d lost the bus. AGAIN! And this time I couldn’t see Vlam’s flag anywhere. Had I missed them and they’d run ahead? Or were they slow through the water tables and I was ahead? My watch had given out at around the 70km point, so I had no accurate way of gauging how much time I had left, so there was nothing for it but to get to the finish line. I couldn’t afford to wait for the bus, just in case it was ahead of me already.
And then at 2km left to go, my legs didn’t want to run one more step. I asked a guy near me what time it was. We still had 20 minutes. So it was safe to walk. And walk I did. Run, the spectators shouted. Don’t stop now. It’s OK, I thought. I have time. But then, I realised that maybe I should run. So I pushed back to a jog and as I rounded a corner, there was the 1km marker and I realised this path led to the stadium. And so I kept running. And I ran into the stadium. I looked for Hubstacle and Herbert. I ran under arches. I looked for Jackie and Marius. I looked for the finish line, but it seemed to be nowhere to be seen. I kept searching the faces of the crowds. I kept looking for the finish. And finally. Finally, around one last bend, there it was. I surged forward and the timer showed 11: 53: 26 as I crossed the line. I had done it. I had really, truly done it. I had no words. No words for that moment. But it was a primal sense of satisfaction deep in each fibre of my body.
People tell me that running Comrades changes your life. Does it? I think it’s too early to tell.
All I know is that this sickness started with me being prostrated on the sofa. And that’s where it ended. I felt no pain on the run, but have since lost 1 toenail, with 2 more on their way out. There is chafe in unfathomable places, especially as it seems I managed to run 87.7km with my bra inside out. (No nipple chafe, though, so that was a result). I appear to have sprained my ankle and my legs are only just returning to near normal service. So this post is brought to you from the comfort of a sofa overlooking the ocean. 🙂
Did I say the sickness ended? Ah. That might have been a slight error. You see, there’s a back to back medal with my name on it. And besides, EVERYONE knows the Down Run is easier…. So just remember, those that are feeling the initial tell-tale signs that you’re catching the bug:
But I didn’t really tell you about the spectators, did I? I’ll interview a couple I know, and get back to you. xx