My Journey From the Couch to The Comrades Marathon…and Back to the Couch

Andrew laughed at me the other day. “How much longer till you’re back on the couch, SlowCoach?” 31 May cured me. It cured me of my long distance thing. Whatever the “thing” was because it was far from a love affair. More like an obsessive compulsion to prove no-one in particular wrong. I’ve found myself liking “long” runs less and less and in the past 4 months my definition of “long” has gone from thinking long meant 89km, to thinking that an ultra is way too long, to thinking that a marathon is totally inconceivable, to thinking that 21km is too fucking far for a normal person, to thinking that 10km is very far, to thinking that I can barely keep my sense of humour in tact for the duration of a 5km run. There are three likely reasons for this somewhat swift shift in “thinking”:

  1. Comrades was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life;
  2. I’ve taken to trail running and that requires almost double the effort over the same distance as on road;
  3. I’m injured.

Injured? Again? I hear you judge. I can hear your judgement. You think I’m like a soccer player (or a Samoan rugby wing as the case may be), rolling around on the floor, hypochondriatically. Yes. Injured, okay? You might remember that I ran Comrades with a pathetic self-applied strapping. That’s because my knee was sore, caused by a combination of ITB and shocking hip flexors. I’m guessing running 90kms with those two irritations probably didn’t help matters. But I took the obligatory two weeks off after Comrades, returning to running only because I had sold my soul to Comrades and so no longer had any friends unless I was running. If that weren’t a thing, I may have given up running altogether. So I returned to running and was happy to be mediocre. But I was sore.

Variety. Cross training. Coach, Ringmaster Dave, recommended I do a little bit of Cross Country running to get a bit of variety to help with the pain. I had missed the cross country entry deadline. There’s some funny pre-entry requirement for the season. I’ll find out next year. I’d missed the cut off so I decided I’d try a trail run. I didn’t have the pre-requisite gear, more about that in a bit, so I entered the Spur Winter Trail Series, seeded myself in the back batch (because I’m so slow) of the shortest distance available. The long distance allergy had already started to manifest itself.  Trail series hey? I know that Francis and Mike and Chrissie all rave about trail running. Pfsh! What nonsense, I thought. Trail running! Bunch of fucking tree hugging hipsters, wandering around outside in the bush, smelling the daisies and daring to call that running. I was certainly over road running and now I had no normal friends so I thought I better try something new. Enter Spur Trail Series.

My first trail race was the first in the Spur Trail Series. I went with Mike who turned into a pothead at some point on the drive there, waxing lyrical about the beauty of nature and Cape Town and how lucky we are to live here and the mountains and and and. I was like, Thank God I’ll be coming back to the city after this. The fresh air makes people nutty. We arrived. Early. Early enough for a cup of coffee. There was a toilet, complete with brick walls, toilet paper, a ceramic seat and a door that closed securely. I was impressed. I’m probably listing things in order of importance here. There were very good looking people. Crumbs! Bodies like real athletes were the norm rather than the exception as in road running. There is a whole other sub-species of runner at trails, I’ve come to realise. It’s a totally different vibe. Totally different culture. These trail runners look very impressive. They’ve got gear. They’ve got compulsory gear. I’m not joking here. For trail running, you have to carry a cell phone. You have to carry hydration packs (for certain distances). There is also non-compulsory compulsory gear. A buff is not in the rules, but you shouldn’t be seen without a buff. You just shouldn’t. A buff, as I always say, is a very versatile garment. You should, however, wear it on the outside where everyone can see your buff as it is a non-compulsory compulsory iteam of gear. Gaiters (I know right?) are not compulsory, but if you have gaiters, you’re hard core trail. (I had to look up the spelling of “gaiters”). Gaiters are a protective covering of cloth or leather for the ankle and lower leg. Gaiters keep snow and stones out of your trail shoes and burs off your socks. I got gaiters yesterday. I’m that hard core!

At the first race, I wasn’t so hard core. I had ordinary long running leggings, my Comrades shirt, my road running shoes and socks. I think I had a buff, but only because it was still winter and very cold. I felt a bit under dressed. I met Lisa and Shaun. They’d run this stuff before (tree hugging hipsters) and so looked way more the part than I did. They had buffs. I met Kirsty. She’s Illuminati now so she always looks the part wherever she goes. Off went the batches. Lisa and her friend and I were seeded in the back batch so we waited and saw everyone else off. And then it was us. I don’t know why, but I ran fast. It’s not like I got faster than I had been, it’s just that I was able to go faster on the trail than on the road. I would run ahead of Lisa and her friend and then wait at the next corner for them. Then I would run ahead again and wait. I’m usually a similar pace to Lisa, but on the trails there was something different. I fell. In a forest. I fell over nothing. I was in a queue so there was no time to roll about on the floor like a Samoan soccer player. I fell in slow motion and jumped up swiftly. Limped two steps and carried on running. This is going to sound weird, but it was fun falling. I felt like a little kid falling while I was playing. In fact, the entire race felt like playing. I fully expected to look up and see my brothers running and laughing next to me. We grew up in the mountains and this felt like being a kid again, even the falling. I fell in love. There were no long horrible hills that stretched in a straight line in front of you, reminding you that you’re nowhere and you have still to battle Goliath before you can go home and sleep. The route was winding and undulating and there were rocks and streams and roots and trees and all sorts of cool stuff to run over, through and around. I felt 25 years younger. I know. That would put me at minus 1 years old, right? Anyway. I had so much fun and I realised that not only was it fun, but I was also kinda good at it. I’m still trying to figure out why I’m better at trails than I am at road running. More on that in another blog.

The second race in the series I was the 43rd lady home out of 244 and I was 11th in my age category out of 68. Illuminati Michelle had also raced that day and she had come 5th on our age category. We had both been caught up in traffic on one part of the trail that was congested because it was single track, so we both knew we could have fared better if we’d been seeded in a higher batch. Things were looking good. I went and invested in some good quality trail running shoes and dug out my buffs. I could get into this trail running thing. But my knee was sore. Even more so since my fall in the forest….if a slow coach falls in the forest and there was no-one to see….

Come the third race, I knew the morning drive out drill and I had become a pothead hippie like Mike.  We weren’t actually smoking pot, but we didn’t need to. We were permanently euphoric from the time we crossed the N14. This time Mike decided to race some supercars on the open road which led to our near death and the near death of several other drivers and bikers on the road, but that’s for a different blog. By the time the race started, I was amped up on ridiculous levels of adrenalin from the near death drive and I was so excited to be out playing like a kid again. I had a strategy this time. I was going to get past as many of the higher batch runners as i could so that I didn’t get caught in any traffic. I ran. I ran with glee and reckless abandon. I just skipped from rock to path to grass to rock. I was breathing like a steam train, but I was having so much fun. You want to hear something really cool? We’re standing at prize giving and we’re watching all the winners. Impressive athletes all of them. I had grabbed my pyjama top (a red well worn hoodie) on my way out the door in case it got a bit cold and after the race I’d gone to the car to put it on. So the announcer is calling out the names of the winners, Women’s Veteran’s section in 3rd place, SlowCoach. I was like, “Wow! There’s someone with the same name as me. What a crazy coincidence.” And then I realised that it was in fact, me that had come 3rd in the veteran’s race. The lady that came 1st had already left which left me and 2nd place on the podium. I came 18th overall.

Podium Pyjamas and Podium Pants

Podium Pyjamas and Podium Pants

We stood together on the top step of the podium for the photos. I looked at her jacket and smiled to myself. There I was standing in my pyjama top and she had on a Gauteng Hockey jacket. It was a funny moment, but it felt good. I felt like I’d got a small reward for all the hard work I had been putting into running. I still didn’t feel like a real athlete, largely because of my pyjama top, but I felt like I was doing something I liked and I was getting some recognition for it. My knee was even more sore now.

The final race in the series. Now I felt a bit competitive. I was a lot less relaxed and I was very focussed. This was going to be a long race by comparison. 9km. (Don’t laugh!) Oh my word! It was a brutal course. Long steep uphills, short, steep, raggedy, technical downhills, but I was doing okay. Then I fell. I really fell. I was racing a downhill at about 4:30m/km, thinking that if I fell on these loose rocks now, I would probably die. Turns out, I wasn’t thinking straight because I fell and I didn’t die. I knew I’d fallen hard and I was hurt, but I was racing and my ego was in charge instead of my brain. I got up, whimpered as I limped forward 5 steps and then carried on racing with a big, fuck you, attitude. By the time I got to the finish, the blood was seeping through my pants on my not sore knee and my knee (the sore one) had given birth to a round swelling the size of a tennis ball. I came 6th in my category and 21st lady overall. I was a bit disappointed, but I was happy that I could still walk, that I’d had a fall and still managed 6th place and that I’d carried on when I should have quit, 1) If I had a brain and 2) If I’d felt all Samoan sorry for myself.

Since then, I haven’t been running much. Every time I run, my knee gives birth to a tennis ball.  But I’ve come 2nd lady in a trail race and my knee has got worse and now my achilles is complaining and my glutes are permanently on fire. I’m starting to feel sorry for myself and I still don’t have any brains, but I haven’t quit running yet. I have not got back on the couch…probably only because I still don’t have any non-running friends.

Yours in the love of running and trails and daisies and mountains and gaiters and oh look, a trail race!

SlowCoach