Are you mad! You are going to run how many kilometers? What are you trying to do? Kill yourself. Is your will ready..I don’t understand why you do this…These statements were running through my head as soon as I put off the alarm that marked the trip to the start line of the 89 Kilometers Comrades in South Africa. I had heard them way too many times after I declared my intention to run The Comrades.
I trying something different(or is it stupid) as I turned 40. I remembered the initial days when I made the declaration but once the hype was gone, the reality of the daunting task ahead was all mine to deal with. Like they say, commitment means staying loyal to what you said you were going to do long after the mood you said in has left you. I had remained committed.
I had put in lots of training in preparation for the race. My first test was a 70 km long run that I did in December 2015 that took me a little under 7 hours. This was to give a mental boost confirming that I could go that far this was followed by a 60km run end of January,50 kms end of February, 56 kms at the Two Oceans Marathon and a last 50 end of April.
This year 2016, the run was from Pietermaritzburg to Durban…what they call the down run .We had been warned that at some point we would be forgiven if we thought that they were lying when they called it the down run. The route was full of torturous hills.
I had read lots of information and tips about the race and had decided to follow every tip that could possibly contribute to my completing the marathon. I wore my underclothes inside out-they had said that the seams could cause serious chaffing over the distance causing bleeding. For the same reason we were to apply Vaseline (petroleum jelly) between toes, groin under arms and in between our backsides. I hadn’t run comrades before, who was I to argue or ignore the tips. I generously lubricated the areas, dressed, said my prayers, had a quick breakfast put elastoplast on my nipples and boom-I was set.
The van dropped us about a km from the start line. It was a bit cold, but we had been prepared for it from the number of newsletters that had been receiving from the organizers. The race was to start at 5:30 I got to my B pen at about 5am, did my toilet business and joined the rest of the runners.
The start line was filled with excitement and anxiety, the South African songs were like a ritual and the runners sang them passionately. I looked through my pace strips again. I had scheduled myself for 9 hours based on the training that I had done. Eventually the climax to the ceremony came. The famous Chariots of fire, Shosholoza, the National Anthem, the Cock Crow, and then the gun. The nightmare was now real.
The first one-kilometer was a bit slow. The crowds were huge and it was dark I had done the bus tour the day before to see the route but honestly I couldn’t remember any of what I was seeing. The one thing that the bus tour had made me appreciate was the intensity of the hills ahead-but even then going up and down the hills or even having seen them from inside a bus was nothing close to taking one foot ahead of the other to scale them.
My Achilles tendon was a bit uncomfortable. I had trained through the discomfort the last one month. The taper weeks had reduced the discomfort but the discomfort was back and this was a big .There is always an expectation that somewhere down the line something would give but l dint expect it to be at kilometer one. This is the phase in a marathon where I was supposed to be most comfortable .I thought about the many people who were genuinely concerned about this mad exploit and those who were looking forward to my success as proof that this was humanly possible. Humanly in the sense that someone they knew and had touched could do it.
I was doing this year’s race with Patrick and James. Patrick had done the race the year before and had been our mentor as we prepared for our first one. I learnt that Patrick was going to do The Comrades for the second time when we met on one rainy 12th December morning run. That was a great morale booster for me. Later on I learnt that James was going for the same race and together we formed a team with Patrick giving us the much required personal experience and tips regarding The Comrades.
Back to the race, by 5th km l was running behind my race schedule, mostly because of the huge crowd and partly caution due to the Achilles discomfort. Every now and then I would think about the kms left and would quickly dismiss it. Around the 7 kms mark, the descent was extremely cold. It was so cold that my eyeballs felt some pain if rolled them inside the socket. By about 10kms, the crowds were a bit spaced out and I was eventually able to catch up with my schedule for a 9-hour finish.
The support on the route was awesome the crowds were spread out on the entire distance-all cheering you on to make the finish a reality.A true spirit of Camaraderie and goodwill.There were families lined up on the streets with fruits, water, isotonic drinks, salts even beers. I guess one could find pretty anything they required in this race. There was lots of entertainment on the route with bands playing all sorts of music etc.
At about 20kms, the archives tendon had eased off, step-by-step I found myself at 42 then 45 which was halfway through. My plantar started paining at around 50 kilometres and I had to stop at physio stations to get a deep freeze spray every now and then.The pre race tips had stressed that whatever we did, we had to keep moving towards Durban even if you were limping. I remained focused and kept moving. I was still feeling strong save for the leg issues. We had also been warned that at one point the legs would feel so tired we would think we were injured. The point was to distinguish between injury and fatigue and keep telling the body to shut up and run.
At around 63 kilometers got to the steepest descend of the race. Over 10 kilometers of steep descend with a few hills in between. The bus tour guides had told us that this was the part of the race where most runners got injured trying to make up for lost time by racing down the descent. Down hill is my strong point but even then I treaded a bit cautiously. The in between hills were very tough on the legs and I had to run-walk on part of the climbs.
Eventually we got to a place where we could see the town of Durban and the body suddenly had a new charge of energy. The road winded into town just as my watch gave a battery low warning. I looked at it and it was reading 86 kms. I had only a few kilometers to go. I could hear the music at the stadium. A second charge of adrenaline went through the body and I increased pace passing a number of people as I entered the Sahara stadium. The crowds were cheering wildly. I was sure that the crowd that was following me on the race tracker back home were cheering too. I crossed the finish line 8 hours, 44 minutes and 41 seconds after the start gun at Pietermaritzburg.
I had set a running time of 9 hours and had managed to finish well within that time. I was excited. I had conquered this crazy “thing” and survived-it was a miracle.I reflected on how amazing the human mind functions.
Three years ago I had struggled to cross from 21 to 42 kilometres and here I was 2 yrs after the big cross over running 90kms..A real proof of what the human body is capable of when you are determined and set your mind to do something. This success was not mine alone. It belonged to many. It had taken a lot to make it, God, the support of my wife and kids, family, friends who kept praying and some who for good reason hoped that I would change my mind before race day, my training mates who accompanied me on the runs, especially Nick who kept me company in all the long runs, Mburu the guy who drove behind us in the long runs distributing water and fruits for many hours in the long runs, the physiotherapists who made sure that the body did not break down and Patrick and James who we had walked this journey together.
Some few photos here and there and I went to the international stand where l linked up with James who had already finished and were joined by Patrick after.
We ate and then stayed on to watch other runners coming in. The crowds would count down wildly as the clock ticked down to the next half hour interval mark -9:hrs, 9:30 ’10 e t c
The climax of the run was however the 12-hour mark. Those last minutes to the cutoff were full of drama. Runners who could barely stand would come in on almost all fours to beat the final gun. About 2 minutes to the 12 hour mark, a guy with a gun to mark the cutoff walked to the finish line facing the clock and away from the incoming runners ready to do his job-to mark the end of the race. He too had agony written in his face. He was the guy charged with condemning the runners coming after the 12-hour medal bracket
At exactly 5:30, 12 hours from the start gun, his gun went off. And with it the hope of a 2016 medal for all those who hadn’t crossed the line. Those who came in within the first few minutes past The gun were dead finished. They had obviously pushed so hard the last few kilometers with the hope of making it. I thought about all the training they had put in plus the 12hours of torture they had gone through only to miss the medal . These to me were the heroes of the race.
The journey to the hotel, which was about 2 or so km, was tough. All of us were walking like penguin’s .We had conquered through and so we carried our limping with pride. Anyone who saw us limping congratulated us .If was a mark of bravery. I knew that this sweat pain marked the beginning of another comrades. I had already made up my mind after seeing Patrick wearing his two medals one for finishing and the other given to back to back(consecutive year) finishers . I knew I would be back again but for now l had a penguin walking style to deal with.
We got to the room showered, I got lots of ice from the ice machine, filled the bath tub half way with water, poured the ice in, doused myself in the tub and began the recovery process. This challenge had been conquered-and with the conquering; the next challenge had already started beckoning.