If I were to choose a personal theme for Comrades 2014, it would have to be: You Shouldn’t Do Life Alone. I’m not going to bore you with the details of the journey down to Durban and then the journey to Pietermaritzburg or the church service the night before or the shared sleeping arrangements the night before or dinner or anything else leading up to my standing in the “pen” for G-batch, but those too consist of my not being able to do it alone. Remember I explained the batches previously in the blog about the starting pens at Comrades? It shall suffice to say, however, that I was way out of my comfort zone and my routine was thrown out of the window the night before Comrades. Except for the Catholic church. You can always count on McDonalds and the Catholic church to remain the same wherever you go in the world! Very comforting. So luckily I had a bit of Catholic church the night before Comrades.
I would have slept. Everyone says you don’t sleep the night before Comrades. I would have slept if it weren’t for the lady in the room next door talking on her phone the whole night. I would have slept if it weren’t for the fireworks at the Royal Show down the road at midnight and the person who got up at 2am to get ready for the race and the person who was texting next to me from 2.45am and the people who decided to get up at 3am to get ready for the race. I would have slept if it weren’t for them. But I managed to get about 4 hours sleep on and off so I was okay. I had slept well during the week so I was ready when eventually Caroline, Joseph, Phyllis and I decided we may as well join them because we couldn’t beat them. I hope our laughing and chatting woke up the lady next door. I was giddy with excitement. I was going to run the Comrades Marathon. Seriously! I was going to run the Comrades Marathon. All the preparation the year before and the diet and the early mornings and so on faded into insignificance because I was going to run the Comrades Marathon.
The setup at the start was a little like a rugby match or a rock concert where, depending on the block name on your race number, you were allowed to go into certain gates and walk around. We had to walk a few blocks down to get to our pleb starting pens. But then I was standing there. And I was all alone. Over the past few months, I’ve been training hard to get faster and faster and so all my usual running buddies were either those Illuminati from track who were in A, B or C pens or they were Cool Kids or K(ak)-Teamers like I used to be and were in H batch. I didn’t recognise anyone in G batch. So I stood there in the dark, cool Pietermaritzburg street alone, surrounded by hundreds of other people who were also excited to be running the Comrades Marathon. (I should but shouldn’t mention at this stage that I am aware that I was standing with some people who had registered their qualifying times incorrectly and had been seeded in G-batch but they hadn’t actually qualified to run Comrades at all….makes me sad, but I know that to get to G-batch you have to work really hard which I had and to finish after being in G-batch, you have to be prepared to work hard for another 12 straight hours in order to finish. I hope they also realise that now.)
The Comrades Marathon is nothing like you see on TV. TV is unable to capture the Comrades Marathon. Not even a little bit. That start is electrifying. The national anthem always brings me to tears. How much more so as I stood there surrounded by South Africa. The South Africa that I love. The South Africa that is not about colour. The South Africa that is many people from different backgrounds and differents cultures and different languages and different religions and different colours all in love with going forward in harmony. Running is a beautiful metaphor for everything that South Africa is at heart. I remember how we felt when we hosted the world for the FIFA World Cup. I feel that every time I line up for a race. Even more so now as I lined up for the most beautiful race in our country. The Comrades Marathon. What a privilege to experience that in my life. I wish that feeling at that start of that race on everyone I love. The national anthem was followed by Shosholoza which was fun and we all started ambling forward as the barriers between the batches were dropped. And then came the strains of Vangelis. The pure physical experience of that song booming off the buildings around you and up your legs into your rib cage is chilling and warming and enthralling and exhilirating and stupifying all at once. Then suddenly a scratchy vinyl cock crow sounded and the cannon blasted and we were off. I had started the 2014 Comrades Marathon. It still seems surreal to me.
I had befriended Karen at the start but during the ambling process we lost one another and I ran forward slowly and cautiously in this mass all alone. I ran cautiously because people get there at 4am and eat their breakfast and read the newspaper and wear a plastic bag to protect them from the cold and when they stand up, they just leave everything on the bloody floor. In the dark morning and surrounded by bodies, you could easily trip on something and fall before even going over the start line. For about two kilometres I ran slowly, cautiously. I met Wesley from Midack and we ran together cautiously for some time. I ran down Polly Shortts. Seriously! I ran down the Polly Shortts. My knee alerted me to that fact. My knees still hate the downhills which did not bode well for me on this, the down run Comrades. Just before the Lion Park timing mat at 17km, Wesley met up with friends of his and they ran ahead. They were going much faster than I would have been comfortable with at this point. I was already 10 minutes ahead of my timing band and I was mostly comfortable so I didn’t need to overdo it. So I was alone again. But that’s okay. I can run alone for hours if need be. The chicken farms stank, more so for me because, not only am I the quinessential city slicker, I was also very good at couch potatoing before this whole “run the Comrades Marathon” nonsense. There are no chicken farms near my couch.
And something about the chicken farms made my legs decide that this was not something they really wanted to be doing and they’d much rather prefer to go back to the couch. What? What do you mean “back to the couch”? We’ve got another 70 kilometres to run! Get a move on! Nope! Just like that. 20kms into the race and my legs had decided not to. I felt like Quasimodo dragging my hunch behind me. I ran a 25km race the other day. I’d run further than this. What was happening? Why wouldn’t my legs just get going. How I wished I could see my family. I knew they were going to be on the route and I prayed, as I followed the many signs to Camperdown that they would be there. And just around the corner, there they were. I wish I had a photo to show you what a beautiful sight they were to me. This will have to suffice.
So you can just imagine the joy I felt as I rounded this ungodly corner under a highway somewhere out in the Kwa-Zulu Natal nowhereland and saw this waiting for me. I ran towards them tearful and threw my arms around Ayrin, thanking her and God for being there.
(Oh ja, Frantz, Bronwen, Kirsten and Johnny weren’t at this first stop. They met me later.) My love tank all filled, I struggled forward. Still my legs were having a service delivery protest and my butt started to spasm. As I was running along the highway just after Camperdown (I ran through the Camperdown), I spotted Greg from Jeppe and I waved hello. He was taking a photo of a lady and he asked the two of us to pose for a pic. We did.
And there I met Lynn from Germiston Callies. Lynn and I would run the following 30 kilometres together, largely in silence. We simply took care of one another. Both of us were struggling with legs that just wouldn’t work and we both seemed to get over it at the same time. At Cato Ridge, Johnny and Kirsten surprised me by being at Comrades. What lovely friends to drive down from 2am that morning to follow me as I ambled along at a snail’s pace through the streets of the UmGungundlovu district and eThekwini. And I had no idea they’d be there. Everyone on the planet knew except me. Lol! They were at Cato Ridge with Frantz and Bronwen and Christien and again I was greeted with love and hugs and kisses and Frantz (my wonderful son) ran with me for a short distance to make sure I wasn’t dying.
Lynn and I carried on going. The “manual” I had read says, “As you reach the back of Inchanga, the party is unfortunately over.” But I live in Northcliff. Lynn and I ran up most of Inchanga. Drummond, however, brought us to a grinding halt. We walked ran most of that. Lynn was focussed on running. I was focussed on stopping. Wait! That made me sound lazier than I am. What I meant was, Lynn would always get us going after a walk. I would pick a spot in the distance for us to start a walk so we weren’t just stopping abruptly whenever we felt like it, but rather pushing ourselves when we felt like our legs were getting tired. I got some love from Joe from Golden Reef which filled up the love tank and I got to dance a bit to Love Me Two Times by the Doors. People laughed at my dancing, but what the dancing does is relax me and also engage other muscles while stretching some muscles which, while running, tend to get a bit stiff and short. In addition, it endears the crowds to me, further filling up my love tank. A Comrades runner does not live by GUs alone. At halfway, I saw Floris running in the opposite direction to me on the pavement. I called him. Floris is an Illuminati at track. I asked him what he was doing. He told me he was going back. He was done. I started crying. He had worked as hard as me. Was his race truly over? What hope was there for this Slow Coach if Illuminati like Floris had stopped going forward?
The hills of Inchanga and Drummond were not too daunting because I knew that just after the halfway mark after Drummond, Chrissie and Lizle and probably my whole family and support crew would be waiting for me at the RAC support table at Alverstone. They were and they went mad for me. So mad for me that chaos ensued and I rummaged around in the pack I had left with Chrissie and took ….. nothing. I took nothing. I had lost all focus and I took nothing. Nothing to replenish my stores as I went forward for the second half of the race.
I have no idea what I was doing when this photo on the right was taken because it looks like I’m concentrating. Again, Frantz ran with me to make sure I wasn’t dying. He had seen me running this far at Kaapsehoop and I was close to death. Now I was 8km further than that and I was smiling. He was concerned that my smiles might be the quiet before the storm. Botha’s Hill was hard but Lynn and I were helping one another.
We never said a word, by the way. I know her name is Lynn. I know her mom and kids were at the stadium waiting for her. She knows my name is SlowCoach and that a whole entourage of people came to support me. The only other thing we know about one another is that we hate running with people who talk all the time. We would take turns getting water from the water points for one another and we’d help one another along. I think we ran along together until just after Hillcrest where she told me to go ahead. I’m not sure if that was because my regular surprised shout outs to the crowd to “Look at me! I’m running the Comrades Marathon!” or my constant asking her where we were, were irritating her or because she needed a break and I was feeling strong at that point. Either way, I ran ahead alone. Again.
And this time it was awful. I cried as I ran along. I felt so emotional about doing the Comrades Marathon. I felt moved by my family and friends supporting me in the way they were. I felt like this was too hard for me. I felt overwhelmed by the amount of work that it had taken to get me even this little way. I felt that there was still such a long way to go. I felt like I’d never manage. I knew that Field’s Hill was still coming and my legs were already complaining. I felt afraid. A bus beckoned. Not a running a bus. A giving up bus. How would I let all those family and friends down if I got into that bus? I remembered Jenny and my words to each other at the Easter 100. “THE BUS IS NOT AN OPTION, SOLDIER!” At times it seemeed like a bloody good idea, even though it wasn’t an option apparently. There were times when I was running forward sobbing great big tears into my sunglasses as I looked down embarrassed to show the multitudes of supporters how pathetic I was being. At one point I shouted at God, “I know I’m supposed to get to the finish, but would you help here!!”
The three kilometre drop down Botha’s Hill had torn my legs to shreds and they were barely hanging in there as I ran/hobbled on through Hillcrest and Gillitts. The crowds supporting were now somewhat drunk, but were being helpful. I was lucky enough to spot Nigel and Dean in Hillcrest and I got my love tank filled up again. Actually, I don’t really know where I was when that happened, but I think it was somewhere between Hillcrest and Kloof. (Dean, you really should stop smoking!) All I was worried about was that Field’s Hill was coming and I hadn’t taken anything from the halfway table. I had no Rehidrats. I had no GUs. I had no food. Nothing. Luckily, Nedbank’s table with surely the most attractive women on the route happened at that start of the Nedbank Green Mile and the beautiful Romy, Simonne and Willow filled up a bottle of ice cold water with Rehidrat and gave it to me. I thanked them and enjoyed the sights in the Green Mile. Actually, I think the Green Mile was on a lunch break when I went through because nothing much was going on. The same thing with the Kearsney Boys. While I was running along, a guy came up next to me and he was covered in salt. I looked at him horrified and asked, “Dude! Are you okay? You look like you’re dehydrating.” He agreed. I had taken two sips of the Rehidrat, but he definitely needed it more than me so I passed it to him and told him to keep it. I know he was really grateful.
And then it happened. Field’s Hill. I’d had sleepless nights about Field’s Hill in the run up to Comrades. After my brush with death at Kaapsehoop, I’ve dreaded meeting similar hills. Everyone had warned me about it. It was as shit as everyone had said! Hill was steep. Camber was treacherous. My butt cried out. My quads squealed. My knees collapsed every tenth step or so. But I carried on running. I had to. I had 4.5 hours to do 28kms. That’s plenty! Until I ran into a brick wall. I looked around me surprised. Everyone was walking. Everyone. “What the fuck is this?” I shouted out loud to no-one. I apologised to the family standing on the right and told the young girls, “Never use language like that unless you’re running the Comrades Marathon!” Sheepish. Someone who clearly had more runs than me on this treacherous route announced emphatically, “This, my dear, is Cowie’s Hill!” Well, I may as well have tied cement bricks to my shoes. It’s a steep hill in a super hot humid shady little area. Just over one thousand people live in the area known as Cowie’s Hill and I’m sure 364 other days of the year it’s quite a lovely place. On this day it was an abomination. I walked like everyone else. 19 minutes per kilometre at times. 19 minutes per kilometre! Holy shit! Was I crawling on my hands and knees? Almost! Oh, how I needed my family now. How desperately I needed my empty love tank filled even just a little. Jonathan from RAC helped a bit. I whined to him about how I had made the stupid schoolgirl error of leaving everything at halfway and how I didn’t think I would make it without anything. He promptly whipped out a GU and returned the Rehidrat favour. There’s another one of those metaphors for life again…thank you Jonathan. You were a great part of my journey. We ambled along together and I told him how lucky I was to have the family and friends I have and how I was hoping to see them soon. And as soon as I put it out there, there they appeared. I ran up to them crying. My legs were so sore after Cowie’s. So incredibly sore. I ran into the open arms of Melissa and cried onto her ample and well positioned bosom. And an angel descended from heaven in the form of a Christien and sprayed the miracle drug onto my legs while I sobbed into Melissa’s chest. I gave kisses and a word of reassurance to my poor suffering son who thought that surely this was the end of my life. All were crying at this point. All were wondering why the fuck I would do this to myself. All were wondering what they would write on my tombstone. My love tank was full. My legs had received a shot of miracle drug and I ran away like I was setting off on a picnic in a beautiful green meadow. Pinetown is nothing like a beautiful green meadow and the crowds were now either drunk and shouting inappropriate comments or they were bored into comatose silence. But still so sweet and kind and generous. The people on this route are fabulous. The spirit that greets you as you suffer along lightens your load and fills you with energy and love. I hope they realise this and never stop supporting the way they do. Even the drunk and comatose ones.
After Pinetown, most of the race is run on the highway. You run on the highway. And the highway is steep, either up or down, it’s steep both ways even when you’re on the down run. It was in Westville, with just over 20kms to go that Warren ran up to me. He was running his fourth Comrades, but had spent a large part of the afternoon cramping. He had recovered and now ran with me. He kept telling me how awesome it was that I was doing so well. We both were. Just over 20kms to go and we still had three and a half hours to cut off. An easy task by any measure. Or so we thought. We took an aggressive lamp post approach, choosing targets in the far distance to walk from and starting to run at very close by targets. We were doing okay, but the distance markers were ticking past agonisingly slowly. With just 17kms to go, Warren told me to run ahead because his legs were cramping. I assured him he would catch me later. I picked up my free hug from the lady on the side of the road advertising free hugs and all her friends gave me a noisy hand or ten. It took forever to get to the 15km to go mark which is where I happened upon my dear dear friend, Doctor. Doctor and I had run together at Kaapsehoop when he and Sponono had so kindly helped me to qualify for Comrades. Remember?
He was wearing a yellowish number from a F batch. What was he doing here? Doctor explained that he was attempting his green number again because last year he had missed out on it. He explained that he had been running with Sponono most of the way, but was concerned about not making it and so ran ahead of Sponono. We agreed to help one another as we were both struggling. He told me to take the lead. How could I? Here was this incredibly experienced runner who had run this thing 9 times more than I had asking me to take the lead. The thought terrified me because it placed so much responsibility on my already whiplashed shoulders. What if I failed us? Both of us? At least if I just took responsibility for myself and failed, I would only fail myself (notwithstanding my huuuuge support crowd, waiting ever so patiently at the stadium). Here he was placing his green number chances in the hands of a total loser like me! He must have been dehydrated to the point of delirium. The thing about collective leadership is…(that’s for another blog, but you get my drift, right?)
Doctor and I carried on the lamp post approach. Before long, we were joined by Bra Zakes who had helped me out in Katlehong in December as we dished out sweets to the local children. Teacher Zakes is what I call him. He was also going for his green number. He joined us, accepted my lead and then proceeded to drive Doctor and I forward like donkeys. Warren caught up with us and the four of us sped forward. Doctor complained. So did I and so we told Teacher Zakes to run ahead. He did. He caught the first sub-12 hour bus. We didn’t. We let it pass us, but we were all starting to panic. Electricity and expectation were in the air as we got closer to Doctor’s green number and my first Comrades medal and Warren’s triumph over significant adversity. Warren was strong and so for the last while he took the lead. We ran over Mayville mat on a ridiculous hill at 10:46:38. It was there that I passed Karen that I had met at the start in Pietermaritzburg. We shared in each other’s joy at seeing one another so close to finishing. Doctor, Warren and I now had over an hour to finish just 8kms. Just 8kms. That’s a time trial. That’s just 55 minutes worth of running on a bad day. Ha! As we headed onto the main drag through Durban, the tendon on top of my left big toe started back to Joburg. We had been following a steady lamp post strategy, managed mainly by strong Warren, but with 2 kilometres to go he suggested we run from a point 100 metres ahead of us. My toe suggested I go back to Joburg or risk losing it forever. I chose the latter option and told Warren, “I’m sorry. I’ve got nothing more. My toe has left my shoe.” His disappointment was audible. Doctor was limping next to me. His relief was audible. We just couldn’t. But we walked steadily forward. The crowds were awesome and we couldn’t help but lift our arms triumphantly even though our athleticism at that point was anything but triumphant-like. I couldn’t believe it. I had spent 11:20 on the road from Pietermaritzburg and now I was going to finish the Comrades marathon. And I was going to finish it with good people who had been a source of fun and joy and enthusiasm and for whom I had been a source of excitement and determination and hope. My family waited and waited and waited. The sub-12 hour bus came in and they worried that, either I was dead because I was taking so long or that they had missed me in the mass of the bus that had just passed them.
I don’t know when it was that my legs involuntarily started running. I think it was as we turned the last corner immediately before entering the stadium. We smiled at the cameras and we cheered one another on. When I look at the photos today, there were many people around me on that grass as I ran (ran I tell you, my toe had triumphantly returned to the cheering masses) towards the finish, but I felt like it was just me. Those crowds, thousands and thousands of people were screaming and cheering for me. I was a hero. I had done something that no-one else in the world had ever done. I was a champion. I was awesome. I was a Comrades runner. I saw Chrissie screaming for me. I saw my beautiful beautiful support crew who had lived every atom of emotion of this day’s journey with me. I’m only getting overwhelmed now. At the time I was so filled with excitement and joy. What’s most surprising to me is that my joy wasn’t only about my medal, but also about Doctor and Warren’s medal. It made such a difference to me that I had crossed the line with those two champions. I will love them and love that moment for the rest of my life. Really. I’m overwhelmed now.
I ran the Comrades Marathon. No-one can change that about my life. If I die tomorrow, I will have run the Comrades marathon. One day I got off the couch and I ran the Comrades Marathon. This has been the 2nd most spiritual journey upon which I have embarked and the journey was not from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.