3rd June 2015
One cold Sunday in South Africa in 2012, I contracted an infection. It was called Comrades Fever. It rendered me unable to move, and for 12 hours I lay under a blanket staring blankly ahead, only vaguely aware of my direct surroundings. I was transported into a virtual world, somewhere several hundred kilometres from where I was, aware of drama and pain, heart-ache and elation, none of it my own, but somehow more tangible than my own existence.
The sickness left me as quickly as it had come. The next day I returned to normal health, and shrugged it off, thinking little more of it.
But precisely 12 months later, I was afflicted again. The weather had turned cold on the Highveld, where the thin air chills rapidly in the winter. My previous exposure, rather than increasing my resistance, had the opposite affect. I was paralysed again, lost my appetite and became completely incapable of engaging with my family, shooing them away and screeching maniacally if they tried to break into my consciousness, or worse, change the TV channel. The sickness lasted precisely 12 hours, then subsided.
This time, though, the symptoms lingered longer. I devoured Runners World articles to learn more about the illness, listened raptly to those who were more seriously affected than I and learned to accept that I had this thing.
The following year, we had moved away from the danger zone, and living in Australia, I should have been safe. The 12 month period came and went, and whilst there was a mild stirring of the infection, I was able to avoid being struck down for the whole 12 hours.
It was a false recovery, though. Whilst the normal manifestation of the disease had been avoided, a different variant had started to take hold, which whilst innocuous at the time, was more dangerous. I had started running regularly.
During my time in South Africa, I ran 10kms. Once. It hurt and it involved several walking breaks. A great antidote to Comrades Fever.
The antidote wore off in Australia: within 6 months of arriving on Australia’s dusty shores, I’d run a half marathon distance! (Yay for low altitude living, after life on the high veld)!
I gave 21.1kms another go (OK, 3 more, to be precise), just to check whether the first was a fluke. And whilst it caused my ITB to flare up, it seemed that I was capable of running half a marathon.
The silent virus, dormant for the previous 12 months, didn’t render me helpless on a sofa (I couldn’t find a TV channel that was transmitting Comrades race coverage, and I’m not tech savvy enough to figure out how to live stream it), but instead it manifested itself in me joining Operation Move.
My resistance was low – I was having a mid-life crisis. I was turning 45 and freaking out. In my year book on graduation from uni, I had written I wanted to run a marathon. I hadn’t. My career had stalled since arriving in Australia, and in a bout of self-doubt, I wasn’t sure what I’d actually achieved that I was really proud of.
So, I resolved that I’d do 45 things whilst I was 45. (Except I couldn’t think of 45 things! And what I could think of seemed to mainly involve running. And I wasn’t even a runner, to my mind). But boom! “Run Comrades” went on there…
And to run Comrades, you have to qualify. And that means running a marathon. In under 5 hours. Between August and May of the following year. And that’s precisely what I intended to do.
What a Godsend Operation Move proved to be. There I was, with no knowledge of how to actually train for a marathon. And living in a fairly isolated corner of Australia without a particularly big support network. And terrified that my running credentials didn’t fit me for an actual real life running club. (Too slow, too slow and too slow).
And then, suddenly, I was surrounded by a whole virtual running world. And it wasn’t intimidating. With Zoey’s training plan, her willingness to explain running jargon and coaching around why we needed to do each aspect of the plan she designed, stuff I’d read in magazines started to demystify. Add to that the ethos of support that Kate had grown Operation Move around, and some magic started to happen.
I found fabulous team spirit with my initial training group: we each had individual goals, but the first people I met – Leah, Katherine, the other Kate and Angela, Lee and Emily – cemented my commitment to my own goals. Suddenly, I realised that the things I struggled with – getting out of bed in a morning, running when my legs were tired, doing speedwork – were common. Everyone understood. And it certainly holds you accountable when you read online that one of the team got out there in a morning, despite having a night from hell with sick kids or some other significant impediment, and you just rolled over because the duvet was a bit cosy and warm!
The training group members expanded, and so did my support network. I found Treacy and Hex and Tina. And through the wider group, the beautiful souls that are Heidi and Jo, Gen and Danielle, to mention but a few. The warmth and wit amongst these peeps means I am accused of being a very negligent wife and mother, as I am so often chuckling inanely in front of my phone screen…
Zoey didn’t know about my sickness back then. so it was probably a bit of a surprise when I got back from Adelaide, having run a single marathon, once, in just under 5 hours, and announced that I wanted to run an ultra. And not just any ultra, but THE ULTIMATE: Comrades.
Making my sickness known – speaking it out loud – did nothing to combat the virus. It gave it the environment it needed to breed and grow and inhabit every fibre of my body. Every step of every run I took suddenly transformed into a step on the road to Comrades.
I tried low heart rate training, which I loved. Being inherently lazy, I enjoyed the removal of speedwork from my plan. But it was challenging, because my heart rate refused to stay low, and even the merest incline meant I had to walk. (Little did I know what valuable groundwork this would be 9 months later)!! I suspect I might throw some back into my recovery. A word of warning, though, this sort of training makes for a hard transition back to “normal” running. When my first 4 week Comrades plan arrived in December, it damn well hurt. Suddenly 24 weeks to train didn’t seem enough from the platform I was starting on. Talk about panic. But that is good for me – I’m one of those people who needs an imminent deadline to feel serious motivation, so it certainly got me out the door when I might otherwise have shilly-shallied.
I had a pretty good run over the following couple of months, until March arrived. I’d read online that March and April are the “key months” of Comrades training. And I couldn’t get out of the door. I felt tired and lethargic. PANIC!!! I felt like I was about to start with a cold, but it never seemed to materialise. I couldn’t figure out if it was in my head, or whether I genuinely had a virus. The sensible ones amongst you will be screaming, so why didn’t you just see your GP? The truth is, I have an aversion to going to the doctor. Whether it’s my training at the hands of the NHS not to waste valuable resources by making spurious visits, the knowledge that I am a massive hypochondriac, or just a general dislike of making appointments and having to remember when to turn up (disorganised? Moi?), I’m not sure. But March was a write off.
Then April came, and things resolved. I had energy again, and could run without feeling like I was dragging a ball and chain. (So a virus, after all?) My routine had gone to pot, though, and the days were getting cooler and the mornings darker. Perversely, the closer I got to the actual event, the harder I found it to motivate myself to get out of bed. It was terribly hard to get back into the 4 sessions a week. And speedwork seemed to be the victim. Hum. Funny that, hey?
There was a silver lining, though. Something that got me outdoors. Well, three to be accurate. Vanessa, Jacqui and Rachel. For the first time in my life, people suggested we run together, and I actually had the confidence to say yes. Jacqui and Rachel have pedigree as ultra runners, so were keen to organise long runs. And they know routes that I’d never have found on my own, so not only company, but varied places to run! YES!! (A lap round town is 20km, so anything longer just meant extra laps when left to my own devices). Ness is a fast runner, but her distance is usually around 10 – 14kms, so she was keen to stretch that out a bit and test how far she could get. This girl can really run, and no matter how far we went, she was there looking more comfortable than the one that was allegedly training for 89km.
These girls were my crutch towards the end, along with my Operation Move family, and I am completely indebted to them. My head had gone down, I wasn’t sure that I’d got enough kilometres under my belt and I was really questioning whether there was any point even joining the start line. Zoey reassured me that being well rested would be a benefit, but I still had huge doubts. But our flights were booked, a holiday arranged, and so, there was no backing out.
And so, we arrived in South Africa on the morning of 28th May, greeted by the warmth of the Durban sun and the cheerful South African disposition. It felt great to be back. Thursday, I registered at the Expo, saw my name on the wall of runners (emotional) and picked up my runner’s pack. I looked around and saw my fellow runners. They looked like Olympians and I felt a fraud. What was a regular Jo like me doing amongst these serious athletes? Who was I trying to kid? I shuffled around the exhibition, avoiding eye contact and hoping people would think I was just holding a goodie bag on behalf of someone else.
On Friday, Hubstacle and Herbert went to see the Sharks play at the Shark Tank in Durban. (My menfolk are huge rugby fans, and this was their first chance to see their adopted team play live on their home turf). I was invited over to our friends flat – probably the ones who infected me in the first place. Jackie was preparing to run her 9th Comrades and Amanda isn’t far behind. Their husbands have also run, but were providing support this year, and a couple of other friends who were running were invited, too. I was amongst silver medallists, Wally Hayward holders and yet, I felt accepted. They offered advice and battle tales over a dinner of braai and sparkling water. I was welcomed into the fold, and they told me they were proud that I had come to try. Then I was packed off back to my flat with strict instructions to DO NOTHING on Saturday – just rest. And that’s precisely what I did. I went to bed on Saturday, ready for an absurdly early start on Sunday. Sleep came easily. Finally, the tonic for my virus was about to be administered!