Medal in the Bag
They say that by the Wednesday after the race, all the post Comrades talk starts to change from tales of pain and suffering to the plans and strategies for running the next one. I had said to myself that this would be my one and only shot at snatching a Comrades medal – a kind of ‘tick it off the bucket list’ type of attempt. I made the excuses that there are many other things that I would like to accomplish while I still have the legs and that the dedication and commitment needed to train for Comrades, takes up too much time. I was convinced that no matter what, I will never run it again. But after one week, the word – ‘never’ seemed a tad strong…
The whole Comrades experience burst into life for me while at the Expo on the Saturday morning. Wandering around, absorbing the atmosphere was surreal. The sheer volumes of people moving through the registration desks was both inspiring and frightening. I was there with some other comrades – my brother-in-law, Bertus (running his 2nd Comrades) and Willem (5th) and we were in great spirits the whole morning, managing to get registered and then wandering around all the stalls of people trying to sell you lotions, potions, beer and balance bands.
All under the guise of carb loading, we decided to have some of that nice Nottingham road brewery beer and, unfortunately, some dodgy falefels for breakfast and then plumbed for what could only be best described as a free leg shave that came with some muscle/ligament strapping – By the time we left the expo, I felt I was now ready. Motivated and inspired, 05:30 the next morning could not come quickly enough.
Three years ago I joked to my brother-in-law (middle) that anyone could run Comrades. Provided that they had a decent level of fitness, and that they monitor their fluids and electrolyte replenishment, they should be able to finish within the 12hour time limit. At 5:30am on Sunday, I was no longer so sure of that statement. There were masses and masses of people on the streets of Durban that morning and it made me realise that, just based on statistics, not everyone here will finish the race. I was now quite nervous that it might be me, making up the stats. Looking around at everyone on the street made me consider that, at the very least, each person here had one marathon behind them. Some of them would have had dozens of Comrades medals to their names as well. I was now in the presence of not just a bunch of randoms that fancied a little trot around KZN on a Sunday, but amongst a group of hardcore runners, about to attempt an enormous challenge. Thinking about what I had done in the run up to Comrades, I started to feel that I might have been underprepared with only one marathon and a furthest run of 45km under my belt.
But there is no looking back at that stage. Once the epic ‘Chariots of Fire’ rang out to almost dead silence, it was then that I could sense everyone putting their final focus into the task at hand. Tightening laces, scoffing down last bits of energy and praying to their gods… When that gun cracked out over the crowd, I had no alternative but to feel that I had done everything that I could have, to prepare for that moment.
It is without a doubt that the hills with no names are the ones that you must look out for – starting with the whole journey out of Durban to Cowie’s. For me, the first half of the race seemed to be a relentless battle against gravity. Just when I thought I was starting to get the edge, I got walloped by a stretch of tarmac that I could not see the top of, only hordes of people disappearing over the edge. I had felt reasonably good up until Botha’s hill, but from there on, my legs were becoming tired and heavy. By the time we were finally over Inchanga, the physical battle was well and truly lost and the mental battle began. We had all been full of jokes, stories and laughs up until then. But after Inchanga, it seemed at times like we were running through a cemetery. My wife had even joked to Bertus and Willem that they were brave running with me because of my incessant yapping, but they both laughed knowing that this race would soon quieten me down!
Prior to the race I had read the statement ‘Do not let the body control the mind’. It had stuck in my mind the whole week and from about half way on in the race, it very soon started to sound like a broken record in my mind. When I reached the 45km mark – the point where I was now doing my furthest ever run – there were still 42kms to go and my legs were in pain! To say that my new landmark was met with a bit of disappointment would be a huge understatement!
At 50km in, I had realised that we had not seen our wives since ±18km. We had hoped to have seen them at Drummond, but they were not there and Willem then started to prepare our minds for the possibility of not seeing them until the end. When I realised that the end was still a long, long way away, this was a huge psychological blow to me. For some unknown reason, the prospect of this was spirit crushing to me. Then I heard Willem say ‘There they are!” – no more than ten minutes after saying we may not see them again while trudging up Inchanga, the emotions were too much. It took me a little while to focus in on where they were in the crowd, but once I did, the boost I received from seeing my wife jumping up and down and giving me a huge hug is indescribable. After a big sweaty hug and her telling me that she was so proud, setting off again was easy. The previous 50kms were forgotten about, Inchanga was no more than an ever increasing, distant memory and it was now all about powering on to the finish.
After Polly’s (and the lies you are told from the people at the bottom about it being the last hill) we knew that we were homing in on a bronze medal. But for me, I was tired and it felt that the kms were not ticking down quickly enough for my liking. We had been overtaken by a large number of people, including a large 11 hour bus and as we reached the 2km remaining mark, I asked Willem what he had left in his legs. His response will live with me forever – instead of saying that he was shot to bits or exhausted, he returned with a sly – “Why, what are you thinking about?”. According to the split times, I estimate that we over took hundreds of people in those last 2km. We bounded into that stadium, so quickly in fact, that my wife never even had a chance to get a photo of us! We crossed the line in 10hrs 44mins with the last 2kms done in under 10 minutes!
It was a great privilege to run with Willem because he is an exceptional Comrade. For the whole slog, beginning to the end, he displayed the exact spirit that makes this race so famous. While I was often too focused on my own mission, Willem was handing out high fives to all the people supporting from the sides, always thankful to people shouting his name, giving him support and when he came across anyone that was struggling at the side, he did not hesitate to pull over, put his arm around them and offer support. One particular runner was struggling with about 14km to go and Willem’s words and actions of encouragement were just as inspiring for me – as I hope they were for the comrade who was battling. I still laugh now and will do for many years to come when I think about his Nigerian influence kicking in at about 8:30am. Having smelled all the food being cooked at the side of the road by spectators, Willem decided he was going to go and beg for some. He spied someone cooking some Wors and made a bee-line to their braai. After some haggling and begging, he caught up with us with a handful of freshly cooked sausage, only to be disappointed that it was the thin type and not very tasty! It appears that beggars are choosers!
Having not grown up in South Africa and not having any particular knowledge of the history of the Comrades, I had found it hard to think of it other than just another race. Even as I was scaling Inchanga or plodding along the Harrison flats, it was difficult to come to terms with this race as being something special, with a fantastic history and that I was going to be part of it. It just would not enter my head. But I believe that it is because you cannot appreciate this race with your head alone. You can admire and respect it but you cannot truly love it until you have that medal in your hand. My love for Comrades was affirmed during those last 2kms. I knew at that point that I was there, I had done it. The roar of the crowd while bounding down the last mile took away any feelings or memories of pain, leaving me to soak up the fantastic atmosphere and set this race truly in my heart. To go through this journey from sign up to finish with such a great friend made it all the more special.
It is definitely one of my greatest achievements and I could never have completed this without the support and encouragement of so many fantastic people – top amongst those being dear old wife! Without her support, I would never have even made it to the starting line.
Will I run it again? No doubt.