The South African fight for freedom is a story of the triumph of the human spirit. Prisoners jailed in various prisons most of them in Robben Island spent years and years for the sake of liberating their country from apartheid. It is a story of hope; hope that their struggle would liberate their country from apartheid, a hope that the likes of Nelson Mandela held onto for the 27 years he was in prison.
A day after another, year after year, century after century their hopes and efforts eventually bore fruits and South African apartheid rule came to an end. The darkness of Robben Island which was a place that prisoners were taken to have their spirits broken paved way to the celebration of the triumph of the human spirit symbolizing the ability of the human spirit to prevail over enormous hardship and adversity.
In many ways the Comrades Marathon parallels that resilient human spirit. The founders were right in branding it the Ultimate Test of the Human Spirit. One step after another, a kilometer after Kilometer, one full marathon and another, 20,000 runners set out to conquer the many hills, and descents to fulfill their dreams. Whether running for the first time (novice) or the 40th (Louis Massyn 2012) the story is the same. It is story of almost 90 kilometers. A story of six cutoffs, 12 hours and 5 big scary hills-Cowies hill, Fields hill, Bothas Hill, Inchanga and Polly Shortts in addition to many other small ones. A story of a race that starts before some people wake up and finishes after they have had breakfast, a snack, lunch, another snack and are about to prepare or have dinner when it ends. A story of screams in the bathroom during showering as water runs through the body and makes contact with many wounds caused by chafing from sweaty clothes in all manner of places. A story confirming that whatever the mind can conceive and believe, we can achieve.
Welcome to my comrades 2017 run. This year was the 92 edition of Comrades marathon- 87 kms from Durban to Pietermaritzburg-what they call an up-run. The campaign for this edition was aptly named Zinikele which is Isizulu for “It takes all of you”. This has a double meaning. One that it demands an enormous amount of discipline and determination from all runners and two it takes the commitment and dedication of thousands of people to stage such a race. I was taking part in this race for the second consecutive year having done the Durban to Pietermaritzburg 89 km run the previous year. This was one of the big to do items when turning 40. I also ran the Two Oceans 56 kms marathon in Cape Town and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro that year- My way of confirming to myself that I still got what it takes. Comrades was supposed to be a one-time activity, after all we only turn 40 once. This plan was however ruined when I saw one of the runners we had gone with wearing two medals instead of one. Long story short, Patrick had completed his second Comrades in consecutive yrs and for that he got a medal for completing the race and another for doing them back to back (2015 and 2016). I by default knew that God willing, I’d be on the 2017 start and hopefully finish line.
The training for Comrades 2016 had included long runs of up to 70 kilometers. This year however, I had London marathon scheduled for April 23 and was hoping to run the marathon in under 3 hours. As such, my main focus was on lots of speed training so my longest runs were 40 kms. I managed London marathon in under 3 hrs and only had 6 weeks to Comrades. I needed to get some level of recovery from the battering the legs got from the fast run so I took a one week break then on the 2nd week started with the three days, then 5days and back to the normal 6 days a week on the 4th week. My longest run was 27 kms 2 weeks to Comrades on the Mai-Mahiu-Naivasha road which has an elevation gain of 782m. In addition to the actual training, there were a number of webinars conducted by the official comrades coach, coach Parry which were very helpful.
I was running this years comrades with four of my friends-Nick,Wahome,Timothy and John..My Travel was on a Friday,a short pre race run on Saturday followed by collection of running bibs then race day on Sunday. As had been the case in the past, the organization was on point from the pickup at the airport,transport to expo and to the start point by our tours company Holiday Times, to the race organization.
The mood at the start was epic. From the music, the commentary and countdown to the race start. The interesting running kits and the jokes by the runners.” Stop stretching like a prafeshoonal(professional)” joked one guy to his friend in a heavy South African accent. Eventually we sang the South African Anthem, followed by Shosholoza ,Chariots of fire and the Cock crows. This Shosholoza song has a way of electrifying the crowd me included. There is a way it makes adrenaline flow through every runner. I would occasionally listen to it in the week leading to the race and this would make my blood boil with excitement. It had a way of recreating the start line mood even while away from it. The way the 20,000 runners sang it one hand on the chest and the other raised up high in the air and the eyes looking up made it sound like a war song.
When the gun went at 5.30 am, it was still dark but the street was well lit. I thought of the many kilometers that lay ahead. We were at km zero of 87.On a day that I don’t have to run for 87 kms, I struggle to understand how we gather the patience and mental stamina to set out and keep running to some place far beyond the horizon. The Comrades race markers are different from those in other races. Instead of showing the distance already ran, they have a picture of a thermometer showing the distance to go in the place of temperature graduations. Amazingly the human brain once programmed keeps you going. All other milestones like 10km, 21km, foil marathon, 50km etc became just another number on the number line with the focus being the finish line.
My race progressed well in the initial stages. The climbs were many and some very steep. The webinars had taken us through the route and we knew roughly what to expect when. But the expectation and feel on the body can be two different things. I had set out to walk for 1 minute after every 10kms and on the tough hills to save the legs. The webinars had stressed on the need to take it easy the first 37 kms and there was a good reason why. The climbs were quite steep and took a toll on most people. In one particular area around 22 kilometers, there were more guys peeing on the side of the road then those who were running. I wondered if the hill had a way of triggering urine. I wasn’t feeling pressed, but after passing a number of those guys facing away doing their business, I joined the crowd. Maybe this was a ritual that helped make the race easier somehow and I had missed that particular memo. It then dawned on me that only guys were lined up here. I wondered if the ladies also felt pressed but could not just go by the way side. This inhibitions would however diminish somewhere along the way and they too threw caution to the wind and would only turn their faces away or cover their faces with their hands and carry on with their business. The interesting thing with runners is that no one would be bothered and they would just carry on running. We were all fighting bigger battles of survival within ourselves and had no room for additional distractions.
I crossed the 42kms mark somewhere before the 4 hour the mark and was feeling okay. This was to change from the 50 km mark I guess, thanks to the fact that my longest run in the training was 42 kilometers in London. My calves and hamstrings were extremely tired and my quads started to cramp. I had carried some deep freeze spray with me but the legs were so battered they didn’t feel the freeze when I sprayed. Even the lumps of ice I squeezed through my tights and ran with them didn’t feel cold. The climbs and descents were not relenting. By the 60th km, the cramping was transitioning to the groin and I would have to reduce the strides every time it felt like the groin cramps were about to start. The steep descents would shift all the body weight to the toes and it felt like the toes would tear through the shoes. A number of nails felt as loose as milk teeth ready to make way for the permanent ones. I remember seeing one signage that read ‘Your toes will forgive you later”. They certainly knew what the runners go through. The Achilles and the sheen hurt too. Now there were less places not hurting than the hurting ones. It was amazing how with the combination of all that pain and tiredness I kept running.
Every time in a race, when one gets extremely tired, there is a strong voice questioning why you are running and if it was really necessary. When you start, you think about all the people out there who are looking forward to your finish and that keep you going. Slogans like “Remember those that you inspire and draw inspiration from them. They are waiting for you at the finish line. Find your grit and make them proud” flash through your mind. There is however a point in the run where one is so battered and you throw all caution to the wind. It is at this point that the inner strength carries you on in the middle of all struggles. At this point the targets set don’t matter. What matters is getting to the finish line within the 12 hours.
This point for me came around the 65 km mark and the race strategy fell apart. The hills were too steep and the legs were too tired. The 1 minute walk every 10 km was replaced by running 3 street light poles distance and walking one. Heading to Umlaas hill, that too went out of the window and it was replaced by run when I could on the hills but run every so often. The motivation this time being to reduce the time it took to do the remaining kilometers Here the people who brisk walked up the hill moved faster than those of us who ran-walked.
I had carried a concentrated solution of isotonic and would take a sip of it when near a water point and wash it down with plain water. I also had 7 Gu energy gels to take each 12 kms. There were also all manner of supplies- even alcohol from spectators if one needed. As my isotonic ran out, I started taking energade and coke plus a few oranges here and there. The support on the route was excellent as always with the entire route lined up with spectators whose main aim was to assist the runners get to the finish line. There was one place that had ladies in bridesmaid’s clothes and there was one with a brides dress. I didn’t see the grooms men or groom so wasn’t sure if it was an act or a real wedding. One of the almost collapsing, runners pleaded will one of the maids to marry him. The lady said a loud yes with a caveat.” Only if you finish the race”. Hopefully the guy finished.
Eventually I got to Polly shorts at around 8 hr mark. The hill wasn’t the steepest of the day but climbing it with the legs having covered 80 kms took a serious toll on everyone. Most of the runners walked. Some fast and some slow. Those who attempted to run would eventually be passed and they would never catch up. Finally Polly shorts was done. One runner cursed…. What is short about this hill? It should have been named Polly long.
With Polly short gone I found a new lease of life. The finish was near. There were no more hills. My pace improved again. I ran to the whole length of remaining kilometers. As I approached the Scottsville racecourse which was the finish point of the race, I could hear the music and the cheers from the crowds. The pains had magically faded away. I was however cautious not to get too excited and over speed lest I summon the cramps back. I could remember pictures of guys finishing on all fours and with Comrades, that was always a possibility even towards the end. When I crossed the finish line, the official timer read 8.44, ironically same as the previous year. I walked to the medal collection point, was handed one medal plus a rose flower and was directed to another area where I was presented with the back-to-back medal. Finally I had collected the price that brought me here. I took a photo with the medals on, collected my clothes from our tour company and changed into warm clothes and went to the international tent for a meal. Eventually all of my running colleagues finished within the cutoff time. I was happy to be part of this team-Team Kenya.Nick my training partner finished in 10hrs 38 minutes. A commendable time bearing in mind that many of our training mates were looking forward to his successful completion to confirm that they too had a chance of successfully finishing the race. I had inspired Nick but I guess the rest needed some additional inspiration.
We stayed on till 12th hour to see the runners who are normally considered as the heroes of the race. These are the guys who would have run for nearly 12 hours and would have made it past all cut offs on the route hoping to make it by 11:59:59. As the commentator began to count down of the last minute, runners some of them running in all manner of styles struggled to beat the gun. One runner fell just less ten meters from finish line. Other struggling runners in a camaraderie spirit picked him up and flogged him to the finish line and only dropped him after he had crossed the finish line. At exactly 5.30, facing the finish clock and away from the approaching runners, the race marshal fired the 12-hour cutoff gun. Some runners who were just about to finish fell to the ground. Others wept and others walked on to the finish line. Sobs could also be heard in the crowds as spectators came to terms with the fact that their loved ones did not make it to the finish line in time knowing how much sacrifice they had put in to get to the start line. Runners don’t make it through training alone but there are lots of people around them -spouses, children, friends, workmates, training mates, physiotherapists, well-wishers etc who in one way or the other contribute to getting them ready for the races. But rules are rules and 12 hours was the cutoff for this one.
As always I’m grateful for all the support from family, friends, training mates, workmates, well wishers and especially all those back at home who for 12 hrs stayed on edge tracking all of us. Most importantly thankful to God for seeing us through such a grueling run and coming out in one piece. As to the question of whether I will be in another Comrades now that the back to back has been bagged, the answer perharps is aptly found in this saying that “The more the difficulty, the greater the glory”. I’m currently basking in this glory and my new temporary penguin walking style, which I share with all those that took part in the race.