Sunday June 10th, 1:30pm Somewhere between Pinetown and Durban, Kwazulu-Natal
Why do I do this to myself? This is just agony, purgatory. My right ankle is killing me. Every step brings a prick of wince-inducing pain. I can barely run. It is even painful to walk. My left foot hurts and there is something not right with my hip. This is supposed to be what I do for fun.
OK, Let’s think about it…I’ve run about 47 hilly miles. I have just ten left, only ten miles – there are three hours left before the final cut-off… I will do this.
I’d reached that critical point in the Comrades Marathon. After all the struggle, the hills, the worries – the doubts were finally over. I was at the point where I knew that I could walk to the finish and still complete within the maximum time allowed (12 hours). I term it the “Thank F**k for that” moment…
Let’s scroll back a little.
Flying out to Durban and meeting up with familiar faces for Comrades weekend felt like a school reunion. It was even better for me this year as I wasn’t alone.
We met up with friends Jock and Karen at Dubai airport and flew onto Durban’s King Shaka airport as the sun set on Thursday evening.
Lots of fellow Comrades runners were on the same flight, including the irrepressible James Love from Lancashire, replete with mini posse. He’d only returned from running the Everest marathon in Nepal a few days ago.
Comrades Friday meant strolling along the delightful beachside Promenade at holiday pace and attending the Expo. Jock and I picked up our numbers and goody bags and we all meandered amongst the snake oil stands before convening in the International café.
Plenty of nervous running chat ensued – mostly about injuries and worries about Sunday – will it be hot? – someone said it would be 30 degrees! (no way), there might even be some rain (please!)…
Being a Down year, one of the primary logistical considerations was getting to the start, 57 miles away in Pietermaritzburg in time for the Cockerel’s Crow at 5:30 a.m.
Thanks to Debra and Terry, Jock and I were offered a lift, allaying the worries about buying bus tickets.
We rose early and made our way the few hundred metres down the promenade to the start of North Beach parkrun, the busiest in the World. I made for the Suncoast casino, where the parkrun started the last time I was in Durban two years ago.
We hoped to start near the front so my partner could have a chance of a good time. Clearly, they had moved the start and by the time we found the new start line round the back of the life-saving station we were near the back of the huge mass of runners.
We squeezed our way as best we could through the throng, but were still a few rows back from the front when the speeches were delivered.
Hilariously, one of the guys on the microphone said “This is Durban, if you hear a gunshot, please feel free to run in any direction”.
Although we had to weave around lots of other runners, we still gave it a go and enjoyed being part of such a different parkrun experienc
The rest of Saturday was taken up with wasting time, meandering back to the Expo and just waiting for the big day. We watched the first South Africa v England rugby test in the hotel bar and then went up to bed.
I was tucked up at 9.00 p.m. laying motionless waiting for sleep that I knew would never come.
I may have dropped off to sleep around 1 a.m. Unfortunately, the alarm went off at 1:45 a.m.
Groggy, I wolfed down two pots of instant porridge in the hotel room and got my stuff together.
A gaggle of Comrades internationals met in the hotel foyer at 2:30 a.m. and then we drove up in mini convoy to Pietermaritzburg.
Armed with local knowledge, Terry led us right into the centre of PMB and incredibly dropped us off just 200 metres from the start line at about 4:10 a.m. It was chilly and I had not brought enough clothing to feel comfortable.
Jock and I had decided to run together and we made our way into the near deserted C pen with Amanda, a fellow Brit Comrade who was running for a back-to-back medal. We tried sitting on the edge of the curb, but it was cold and not at all comfortable.
I spotted that a Nando’s was open and that we could nip through a gap in the fences and get into the warm and enjoy a pre-race coffee, I’d brought 100 rand with me.
Much to the unbridled delight of a Scot and a Yorkshireman, the coffee and muffins in Nando’s were free and there was virtually nobody in there. We sat in the warm watching the pens slowing fill up as the time approached 5 a.m.
We got back into the pen and once they dropped the tapes between the corrals, we shuffled forward and I could see we were only maybe 100 metres from the Start line.
I’ve experienced the Comrades start twice before. It is still utterly spine chilling.
After the hubbub and the emotion of Shosholoza, the cock crowed and we were off, shuffling at first, then a slow walk and finally we broke into a jog as we reached the start line in two minutes.
Jock said we should aim to run at around 11 minutes per mile for the first few miles. I was happy to go with his pace. This was very sensible, but slower than most runners around us had set off and lots of people from other pens streamed past us.
Rather than finishing at the Kingsmead cricket stadium in Durban, we were heading for a new finish venue– the Moses Mabhida soccer stadium. An iconic arch dominated white arena purpose built for the 2010 World Cup:
As this meant a longer route through Durban at the end, the organisers had changed the traditional route out of PMB in order to ensure that the distance wasn’t too far (It was still one of the longest Comrades courses ever at 90.184 km).
Rather than running through pleasant suburbs, we soon found ourselves running up a long narrow motorway off-ramp in near pitch darkness. It was extremely unpleasant, the road wasn’t really wide enough for the size of the field and the few temporary portable floodlights didn’t help much.
I enjoyed the easy early miles and we were on Polly Shortss as the sun rose, it was quite something:
We plodded on, knocking off consistent miles between 10 and 11 minutes. I had a heart rate strap on, and my pulse was encouragingly low, barely over 100 beats per minute.
I’d definitely drunk enough as I had to pee several times, the first time caused me to lose contact with Jock and James Love (who had joined us), I’d zoomed ahead for a bit thinking I could get the job done before they reached me. After not seeing them and waiting ages I was in the frustrating position of not knowing if they were in front of me or behind.
I upped my pace and searched for them, more likely to spot the lofty figure of James Love than wee Jock. I didn’t find them amongst the masses, but luckily we somehow made contact again a few miles down the road.
We were taking regular one minute walk breaks, but well before half way James dropped back and told us not to wait for him.
I recorded my slowest ever marathon at a minute or two over 5 hours, but I felt in reasonable shape, confident I could keep going at our steady pace.
Just after halfway, I stopped at Arthur’s Seat to lay a poppy I’d bought at the Expo and to pay my respect to Arthur Newton:
I’d forgotten how tough the climbs were after halfway, through the Botha’s Hill area and we were taking more frequent walk breaks. Most runners around us we walking all the uphills.
I was starting to feel fatigued, with the first pangs of ankle pain as the tendonitis niggled me again. I knew there were some long arduous downhills ahead, I was especially dreading the 4k down gradient of Field’s Hill into Pinetown that caused me so much agony on the down run two years ago.
The Botha’s Hill to Hillcrest area is a great part of the course for spectators – it feels like a leafy and affluent area. Rich people prefer living up in the cooler hills rather than the heat of Durban I guess. Many of them lined the route with beer and braais smoking away
In Hillcrest, Jock spotted a famous face in the crowd – South African cricket legend Shaun Pollock.
They say you should always keep moving forwards at Comrades. We broke this rule and turned back a few metres to grab a word and a photo with Shaun. He couldn’t have been nicer:
The dreaded Field’s Hill followed. I was starting to really struggle. I couldn’t muster much of a run so I was consigned to having to walk down most of Field’s Hill. I knew I was holding Jock back, he waited for me as we ran through Pinetown – with 21K to go.
We picked up Stuart, another Brit and mate of James Love who looked to be struggling like me. A few Ks later we let Jock slip away, we couldn’t keep up with his natural pace. I was in pain, but I am a little ashamed to say that I was a bit mentally weak.
Rather than taking walk breaks from running, we were taking run breaks from walking.
Both the 10 hour and 10:30 buses came chugging past us.
Stuart seemed to rally a little and I could tell he wanted to do more running than me. Sensing this, I implored him to go on. With 10K to go and three hours left he could still easily make it in with a sub 11 hour time. I said I was fine, I was happy to walk in and I knew I would make it OK. We shook hands and on he went
After a few minutes of walking on my own, feeling somewhat sorry for myself, I was engulfed by a huge bus – the 11 hour bus – maybe 80 or 90 people shuffling behind the bus driver, Jeff.
Fortuitously for me, the bus stopped to walk through a water point just after they caught me. I had a stern word with myself and decided to try and stay with the bus for as long as I could. I didn’t expect that I would be able to make it to the finish in under 11 hours, I would have to run something like sub 12 minute miles for that.
After a couple of Ks on the bus, I felt better. Somehow running as part of a huge group seemed to really help, especially as we were now on the horrible cavernous concrete motorway on the final descent into Durban.
We passed the last intermediate cut off at Sherwood, that coincided with the last climb of any consequence. My mindset changed, I resolved to finish on the bus. It was really tough, I was working really hard but felt I might be able to do it if I kept my mind focussed and ignored the pain in my foot and ankle.
I was constantly doing calculations in my head, it felt that Jeff was running too slowly – I’d thought he’d cocked up and we were going to miss the 11 hour finish. I should have had more faith.
Buses are famous at Comrades, but not without controversy. Some Comrades runners think they are inconsiderate to other runners, spreading across the road and denying other runners the space to run unencumbered.
I was almost pushed over at the final water stop as a few runners pushed their way to grab water. I wasn’t impressed; “For Fuck’s sake guys!” I shouted as I almost fell to the concrete.
We merged with another 11 hour bus as we ran past Kingsmead, the old finish venue, Comrades was cruelling baiting us: Look at where you used to finish.
The imposing Moses Mabhida stadium lay ahead of us, slowly growing in size as we inched towards it on a wide urban highway.
With the time elapsed at 10:50 we were on the approaches to the stadium. A number of seasoned black Comrades runners forced their way to the front of bus and linked arms, blocking the road. We were eased to a slow jog, then a walk, like a lion stalking its prey, savouring what lay just ahead.
It felt like the elders of the family were asserting their authority – we have brought you this far, we will pause for a moment and reflect on what we are about to achieve. There was singing and amazing excitement.
I felt strangely europhic and emotional all at the same time. I was relieved, delighted yet on the edge of tears all at the same time.
In days gone past I used to love watching the marathon finish on the final day of the Olympics. In those days, the winner would run into the packed stadium, flanked by motorbike outriders, and run a closing lap around the track. It seemed wonderfully romantic to me.
Finishing Comrades isn’t the same, not by any measure, but it is the nearest I will ever experience to the old romance of the Olympic finish.
We ran up a marbled stone ramp, through the darkness of the tunnel and then emerged into the morass of colour and overwhelming noise in the stadium. I will never forget it.
We ran a half lap around the perimeter track and finished under the gantry. I shook hands with as many fellow members of the bus as I could. All we said to each other was “Well done”, nothing else was needed.
My time was 10:54 – another bronze medal performance. I stopped my Garmin and laughed when it flashed up “Recovery time – 10 hours” . You have got to be shitting me I thought to myself.
After the euphoria of the finish, I found myself stuck in an almighty crowd just after the line. I don’t enjoy being critical, but the post finish line logistics for runners of my pace were a little shambolic. They could barely process us fast enough to keep the actual finish line clear, there just wasn’t enough room in a tight football stadium to get us through the line, present us with badges and medals and send us off to our correct meet-up locations.
It wasn’t helped by the fact that the pitch was out of commission. At Kingsmead, clubs were allowed to pitch tents and gazebos on the outfield and that gave the finish a wonderful festival atmosphere. By contrast, this new stadium felt sterile.
I eventually received my medal and was directed up into the dedicated Internationals section in the stands for a sobbing reunion with my loved one.
We waited for the final, brutal 12 hour cut-off and swapped war-stories. Jock had stormed it – 20 minutes faster than me, Stuart made the sub 11 easily, with 10 minutes to spare.
Thankfully, James Love made it again, just. He hauled himself over the line in a time of 11:54, having been passed twice by the 12 hour bus on the road. Well done sir!
I am writing these words over two weeks after completing Comrades. As always, it was an overwhelming and incredible experience. I am privileged that I am able to take part, that I have sufficient health and fitness to convey my body over a 90 km course.
I love the experience of Comrades weekend, I feel part of a small club of runners that know just how special this event is. Comrades brands itself as The Ultimate Human race, that is a big claim, but one that is justified in my view.
Somehow though I feel that Comrades beat me this year. I finished Comrades – yes, but I didn’t run it.
In my opinion, I simply didn’t do enough training. My injuries meant that I couldn’t do enough long runs. To well at Comrades, you need to do a number of back-to-back long runs – for example weekends where you run say 20 miles on Saturday and then 28 miles on Sunday. I didn’t/couldn’t do that and consequently I got found out.
My average heart rate was just 104 beats a minute so it wasn’t cardio vascular fitness that failed me, quite simply my legs weren’t up to it.
Will I do another? I am not sure, but probably not. I love running, but I am 52 this year and I have to seriously assess what I can achieve. Over the past two years, my body has broken down with injury a number of times when training for longer events like marathons and ultras.
However, I still feel I am very competitive for my age. My 5K and 10K performances are amongst the best in the county for my age group and are not that far off being competitive at National level. I think I could be a pretty good 5K 50+ runner, but I know I will never be a good ultra runner.
Comrades is wonderful, but utterly exhausting. More than two weeks after finishing Comrades in a very ordinary time, I still feel utterly shattered and barely back into running.
I’ll have a rest, a think and hopefully get back to running quick again soon.