While I’m still doing a very convincing impression of a paraplegic and my son is driving us back to Jozi (a place I really love), I thought I’d write this blog about my latest marathon on my road to the Comrades Marathon.
“So are you hoping to qualify for Comrades on Saturday at Kaapsehoop?” wrote Mike.
“Nah! Probably just same as usual: Don’t die! Don’t come last!”
On the one hand, I’m a realist. My personal best time for a marathon is 5:47:54. Yes, the lying runners I know all spoke about the fast downhill route that is Kaapsehoop Marathon, but 47 minutes is a shed load to take off a time over 42kms. More than a minute per km faster for the entire race. In addition, my shoes are not quite right yet. I’ve had abominable pain in my hip since April and, now that I’ve taken the orthotics out, my ankle pain and ITBS are back. So the realist in me recognises that I’m still broken and I’m still quite slow. On the other hand, the optimist and eternal romantic in me (you tell anyone about this quality and I’ll kick your teeth in) hopes, wishes, dreams that all those frikken glute and hamstring exercises done at 4am and the yoga schmoga are miraculously turning me into a runner. So every marathon is an opportunity to perform a miracle and run a sub-5 hour. The realist me is actually laughing out loud at the ridiculousness of that romantic dream.
I’ve really been looking forward to this marathon. I registered for it the day entries opened. The lying runners I know told me that Kaapsehoop is an awesome race: wild horses, beautiful forests, long fast downhill route. So oooh wow! What a great marathon to run! I asked my son, Frantz and his beautiful Bronwen if they wanted to come with for a nice weekend out in a pretty place and support me at the same time. They were keen and so we booked some accommodation and were good to go.
I’m not entirely sure why I want to run the Comrades Marathon. I’ve watched it every year since I can remember it being televised. Yes, I’m old enough to remember a time before TV. (Just cried a little there.) I’m always amazed by the magnitude of the race. It’s a very stupid undertaking, but every year, more and more stupid people descend en masse on kwa-Zulu Natal to run and walk in the footprints of people who used to run the 91kms between Pietermaritzburg and Durban in nothing more than a pair of Tommy takkies or All Stars! But two years ago, almost to the day, I had a mid-life crisis and announced my intention to run this Ultimate Human Race. The sceptical looks I got only made me more determined. And now I find myself on an emotional journey which far outweighs the physical one.
Today’s race was not lacking one atom of emotion!
Yesterday we took a drive up….and I do mean up….to the start of the race at Kaapsehoop Town because that’s where I had to collect my race pack. (Nah nah nah! I got a T-shirt cause I entered on day 1 and I got race number 99. Aren’t you consumed by jealousy?) Lol! I was aware, while we were driving UP, as I’m always aware, that downhill runs are not all downhill and uphill runs are not all uphill. I was aware that there were some pretty repulsive uphills in store for me. Just how repulsive was sneakily hidden from me in the beautiful forests! There were wild horses, one of which stuck his head in my open car window, gave my entire steering wheel a healthy lick and then turned his very smelly tongue towards my face. Listen horsey! No kissing on the first date! In addition to the very friendly wild horses, there were also wildly shagging dogs. Just a delightfully quaint wild and raw little place. It really is a delightful little village.
We also visited the finish at Mbombela stadium which was a very amusing sojourn. We weren’t allowed on the grass. Ever! Even today at the finish, we ran in, along the concrete in front of the stands and out the other side. A very burly Puma rugby dude yelled at us when we walked onto the pitch. Harumph! The change in altitude between Kaapsehoop and Nelspruit? 812 metres! This was bound to be a lot of downhill notwithstanding what I know about downhills.
Bronwen and I outside Mbombela Stadium – No Giraffes
All 3 of us outside Mbombela with Giraffe in the background
Frantz and Bronwen inside the Mbombela Stadium. Stay off the grass!
Let me tell you a bit about Evan. Evan has now, as I type this, run 107 marathons in his life. He’s in the 45+ age category (which makes him very old). He ran his first 25km race at the ripe old age of 13. WTF? I hear you say. Today he ran his 95th sub-3 hour marathon. So, essentially, when the majority of people are approaching the halfway mark, he’s finishing a marathon. The world record for a marathon is 2:03. So he’s not far off that ever! He has run 13 Comrades and says that’s enough. I think he’s also a lying runner, because these multiple Comrades runners can’t give up. They always swear blind this is their last and they’re NEVER EVER doing that to themselves again. At worst they take a year off and then they’re back again for the whole torturous affair! Evan is coach to many great runners. A real coach, certainly not a slow coach.
Evan slept on top of me last night. Wait! Did I just say that? What I meant to say was: I met Evan in the dining room of our accommodation (I will not openly advertise them here because they have these infernal birds which shriek day and night unabated!!) And it serendipitously turned out that Evan had the room directly above mine. So he slept in the room on top of mine last night. We joked about what a funny story it would make if he fell through his floor and my roof during the night, but, alas, it was not to be…the funny story I’d hoped to have. Evan and I were kept awake not by falling floors or ceilings or anything nearly as exciting. We were kept awake by peacocks in mating season. They sat on the roof of his room and every five minutes belted out this screeching sound which ripped us from any dream we might have managed to be having. So at 3.30am, Evan and I got up and were incredibly grumpy going to the start. Bronwen and Frantz kindly offered to drive the two grumps because their room was on the ground floor and they’d heard nothing the whole night. And so we headed off.
Brigadoon is what I was reminded of. I swear! I started a race in Brigadoon today. It was simply delightful. We sat in the car for a bit because it was rainy. Not rainy like Joburgers know rainy. It was a fine misty rain that kind of made you wet but not really. There was a thick mist that, although thick, did not feel heavy. How do I explain this? It was misty. It was great running weather because the mist didn’t lift for almost 2 hours and then, when it eventually lifted, it was overcast and cool. We got to the start a little early because I’m neurotic about being late and there appeared to be only one road in and out of Kaapsehoop. Evan joked in the car like he was a pleb runner like me. I just want to reiterate: 95 sub-3 hour marathons!! We’re in different leagues. If he’s in the A-team (which he would be), I’m in the M-team (which I would have been in in school had I got off the couch back then!). I dropped him off at the start in the front row and I squeezed my way into the back part of the crowd. Just enough to be sheltered from the nippy breeze, but not squashed enough to be trampled at the start. And would you know it, the start started us going further up that bloody hill!! The first 2km of the race were sheer uphill. But I’m good on the ups so no complaining there. I know that all those
liars runners had told me that this was a downhill race so I was sure to get some downhills soon. There wasn’t a damn wild horse in sight. The whole way. I saw and had to dodge a whole lot of horse shit, but no horses. Frantz and Bronwen claim they were around, but I never saw them. I made a point, this race, to look up and enjoy the scenery, but no horses. The scenery in this race is particularly beautiful. We contemplated our fortune for having been born in South Africa several times during our run. For the first hour or so, there was just mist. I chuckled to myself every time I saw someone dashing off into the forest for a toilet break (don’t you people do this at home?) I couldn’t help thinking “Gorillas in the Mist”.
We went up the hill, turned around and came back down the hill. The advantage of that kind of thing in the beginning of the race is you get to see the leaders and see who, from your band of mates, is in front of you. Evan passed by. He wasn’t the first-placed RAC runner but he was very near the front. We ran past the village and I heard someone call my name. I didn’t look back, thinking that all the mythical mistiness had me hallucinating, but then I heard it again. “Brenda, is that you?” I turned around and there appearing out of the mist, like the angel she was before, was Sponono. What an immense joy to see her! You’ll be reminded of our first meeting at my first official marathon here. She is waaaaay faster than me, having already run two Comrades marathons, but she was waiting for a friend who had also done a Gorillas in the Mist stop to catch up so she was just trundling along next to me.
Before too long, we veered off the downhill into the forest. I may have met God in person on that detour. That was an absurd uphill and it was another one of those detours like the start, up the one side and down the other. There was a bit of chaos with front runners almost running us over as they crossed the road to go back to the downhill main road. This uphill was ridiculous and I cursed the liars. I cursed them. I yelled out loud. You know who you are: Justin and Megan and Chrissie. You’re liars! We just went up and up and up and then just when I thought we’d reached a plateau, my dear sweet angel, Sponono, advised that there was another upper up just ahead. Evan says that he had to stop on that uphill and rub his calves. Let me tell you that, for a runner to actually stop moving forward, there’s trouble. At worst, most people walk when they’re in pain, but to have to stop and stretch or rub pain, there’s a problem. And we were at most 9km into the race. He wasn’t the only one. Many people stopped there and stretched or rubbed their legs. I didn’t cry or stop. I shouted out to God and I shouted at the liars (I hope your ears were burning), but I didn’t cry and I didn’t stop. And then we were going downhill. It was steep, I tell you. Steep steep. We actually had to be quite cautious. Running cautiously is hell on your legs. As opposed to other running which is dead easy.
Me, Doctor and Sponono emerging from the mist, probably around 15km
My brain reacts strangely to running. The emotion and philosophy centres get all the oxygen and the arithmetic and logic get sweet bugger all. 2kms into any race, I can’t add. I’m so irritated at races where they have the “kms to go” number instead of the “kms run” number because then I can’t figure out how far I’ve run and pat myself on my back. I really pride myself on being able to add and subtract and multiply and divide swiftly in my head, but 2kms into a run, boom! All functionality switched off. But I can consider the magnitude of the undertaking or I can contemplate the meaning of the “We Are One” written on another runner’s shirt and I can make a direct link between the shirt and the poignant meaning of it in terms of life and running and of course, I can weep with joy and fear and love and guilt and anger and disappointment and excitement and pride and and and. Whilst that is really lovely and probably makes this a decent piece of writing, it doesn’t help much when you’re trying to figure out if you’re going to blow a gasket at the 32km mark. And so God had sent me my angel, Sponono. She rocks! She had it all figured out as we ran along. Her friend, Doctor, eventually caught us and we all raced along at breakneck speed, up the hills and down the hills. I was getting worried. We went through the 10km mark at 1:03 which was a personal best for me and then Sponono and Doctor hurried me to half way by 2:16 which was another PB. I was worried that I was going to blow a gasket before the end at this pace. But I kept up with them. I walked more than they did, but I utilised the downhills better than they did and caught up with them whenever I’d walked. Sponono was holding back for me, but still watching the clock. She was amazing. Doc eventually hurried off because he was having to fetch someone or something and Sponono and I trundled along at a pace which she said would help us qualify, and we could work on our seeding at other events. What an angel she was. I struggled from 18km to 23km and she struggled from 24km to 25km where we met Frantz and Bronwen. Frantz came out and ran with me for a while. He is so lovely. I am so proud of my son. He is such a good human being. Everyone should strive to be like him.
Sponono kept checking in with me and checking on the times. There were times when we got quiet because it was getting tough. The uphills were long and dreary. The downhills were steep and long and the road camber was very steep from right to left which had you not only hurtling forward pounding your knees, but your ankles and knees were having to adjust all the time to correct your balance. It was very tough on us. There were times when you could hear our biting down. But whenever we were feeling down, we looked up and the forested scenery cheered us up. Sponono regularly spoke out loud to God which comforted me somewhat. She’s way more reverent and gracious than me. I generally yell “Why?” to God when I’m running. She’s not as petulant. The difficult maths km markers gradually became lower and lower numbers and, before we knew it, the 15km to go mark appeared below our feet. Sponono very factually told me that we were now at 15 to go and that had taken us 3 hours exactly which left us 2 hours to complete 15km. Could we do it? I had no response. I considered her words for at least a minute. She kept glancing at me, but I kept looking forward. Could this be a reality for me? Could Sponono have led me to a point where I could qualify for Comrades? I started to cry. She waited for a response, but all I could do was cry. What if a dream came true for me? What if I got what I wanted? What if I achieved something great? What if I qualified for Comrades? There would be no more excuses. What if I qualified for Comrades? What if I ran a sub-5 hour marathon? What if I didn’t fail? For 200 metres, tears fell from my eyes. I nodded and choked out quietly, “We can do it!”
With 10km to go, we had 1 hour and 20 minutes left. That seems like a lot for 10kms, but at the tail end of a marathon, it’s tough going. We both realised it, but our legs were finished. We did a bit of fartlek running and counting paces. But I was hurting. My heart and lungs were still in great shape, but every inch of my legs were hurting. My hip flexors were shrieking like those peacocks at the lodge and my calves….my calves. With 4km to go and 40 minutes to qualify, we hit an uphill straight from the fiery depths of hell. I tried not to look up, but Evan’s words from a Comrades talk last year echoed in my ears as they do on every uphill, don’t bend over when you’re running uphill because you’ll starve your body of oxygen and you’ll limit your lungs’ ability to help you. So I was running upright and the sun still wasn’t shining so I hadn’t needed to put my glasses on. All I saw in front of me was a steep hill. It was so demoralising. We were running less and walking slower. As we rounded the corner at about the 3km to go mark, I gave up. I told Sponono to go ahead and I’d catch her. I didn’t want my giving up to affect her ability to qualify because I knew she still had some meat in her fridge, but I was all out.
I began to trudge. That hill was so steep and it still went on for 2kms. at about 2.5kms to go, I could see Frantz and Bronwen waiting for me. I looked down. I said “Fuck what Evan says! Fuck what Sponono just spent the last 4 hours doing! Fuck everyone! And everything! Fuck this Comrades rubbish!” I bent over and trudged up that hill, crying big tears onto my running shoes that aren’t right yet. I knew I now had to go at 9 minutes per km to get to the stadium in time to qualify. I was walking at 11min/km and I just couldn’t run. I also knew that I would get into the stadium at 5:02 or something equally as cruel which would mean I just wouldn’t qualify and I would have to do this all over again some time before 1 May next year when the last qualifier is run. I just cried and cried. And the sight of my son didn’t help. How disappointed he must be to see me walking. Each time he’d seen me before on the road, I’d been running and mostly smiling. Here I was so close to achieving something great and I’d given up. I must be such a disappointment to him. He got out the car and ran over to me. “What’s with the walking?” he asked cheerfully, “Don’t make me take off my belt!” he joked. I laughed. I laughed away my tears and told him I was done. I just couldn’t run any more. “Yes you can! You’re nearly done. Don’t give up now.” And we ran together. Him in his flipflops and me in my shoes that aren’t quite right yet. Bronwen drove the car ahead a bit and Frantz and I chatted. I shouted at God one more time. “Why do I have to finish this?” I apologised to Frantz and told him he shouldn’t talk to God like that. He laughed. I’m sure God laughed too. Frantz had watched as Sponono and I caught up to and overtook other runners and he said there was a lady in a green shirt that I should be able to overtake if I hurried a little. Hurry? You’re kidding right? We’re talking about survival here and you’re saying hurry? I had to hurry, though. With 2kms to go, I was 17 minutes away from the stadium finish. It seemed like an impossible task, but Frantz kept going with me. Finally, with 1km to go, the uphill ended and a downhill to the stadium unfolded before me. That 1km still seemed like an insurmountable task, but my child was next to me. Then many little school kids were running beside me. I love young people. I love their positive spirits. I love their joy. I love the endless possibilities that they represent. I love the potential greatness that lies within each one of them. And I realise that my brief interaction with them may change their world. So I try to interact with them meaningfully and with love when I encounter them in life. I sprayed them with a water sachet I had in my hand and I laughed at them when they gasped. It passed the time but I was running at 6.15min/km with them at my side and we were happy. Frantz had taken his flipflops off (because now we were speeding! Kind of.) and he was running barefoot on the tar. Ouch! But he didn’t stop. He just kept with me, encouraging and laughing. And then we got into the gate of the stadium. He asked if I was okay or if I still needed him. Time was 4:46:45. I told him I’d be fine and thanked him with a kiss. As I approached the stadium entrance, my heart sank. It looked like I still had to do a lap on the grass and I just knew my legs wouldn’t get me there in under 5 hours. But then, because of the big burly Puma guy not wanting us runners running on his pristine grass, it wasn’t like that and I crossed the finish line in 4:47:18. I was overwhelmed with emotion. I had qualified for Comrades. I don’t know how to explain how this feels. It seems such a silly thing to get emotional about, but I know I can run Comrades. I know I have the mental will power to run Comrades, but I just never thought I’d be able to qualify because I’m just too slow. Just last week I got so depressed because I believed I’d never be fast enough and so all this running would never amount to a Comrades marathon. I believed that I just didn’t have the musculoskeletal system to support a sub-5 hour marathon.
Many people who had been part of my race as I made my way from Brigadoon to that place where thou shalt not run on the grass, greeted me and congratulated me at the finish, but all I did was cry and nod my gratitude to them. I searched for Sponono who had come in about 2 minutes ahead of me and I thanked her through my crying. I’m still crying, by the way.
We’re nearly home now and Frantz just broke about 70 traffic laws to get us out of a traffic jam on the highway because we have my sister’s black tie 40th birthday celebration to attend. I’m not crying because we’re breaking the law or because I have to put on a dress and high heels shortly. I’m getting a horrible fever because we’re breaking the law and I have to put on a dress and high heels shortly. I’m crying because the pressure is off for now. The constant berating myself for not being fast enough is gone for now. The resignation that Comrades will forever remain something I watch other people do is gone for now. The saboteur in me who wants me to fail so that I can believe that I’m a loser is back in her box. Those monsters are always there, voicing their incorrect opinion, but for now they’ve been silenced. I’ve qualified for Comrades. Piep piep! In addition to that, I’ve improved on my marathon time by 50 minutes in just 7 months. Granted it is alleged that it’s a fast downhill course and the weather was ridiculously perfect for runners so I could have expected a 30 minute improvement at best because of course conditions, but I’ve improved. I can feel how my muscles and bones have changed. I can feel how much stronger I’m getting. It’s amazing what you can achieve when you take and then acutally implement the advice of an expert like my physio, Clare-Anne.
I suspect that my paraplegia might be slightly worse tomorrow, but I’ve taken all the recovery stuff and I’m drinking loads of water so holding thumbs.
Yours in the love of running and overcoming.
The Slow Coach
Wild Horses in the Kaapsehoop mist