I have always maintained that the worst days in one’s life are, in fact, the best days because it is on those days, where you feel at your lowest, where it seems things couldn’t possibly get worse, that you realise your strength and your resilience. You learn about new skills you suspected you had, but had never used. You begin to understand your resourcefulness and you break down barriers which you had unwittingly allowed to exist in your life. Sunday 31 May will go down, therefore as one of the best days of my life, because Sunday 31 May will go down as one of the worst days of my life.
I’m not entirely sure why that is. Thinking back, I can’t actually pinpoint what was wrong about the day. Physically, my legs kept going forward, reasonably pain free. I didn’t get cramps. I wasn’t nauseous. I wasn’t so exhausted that my body began collapsing. I did feel like sleeping at one point…but hey, it was 12 hours of running, who wouldn’t want to sleep? But on Sunday 31 May, I hit the absolute lowest point I can remember hitting.
I had some difficulty trying to find the best place to start this piece because the Comrades Marathon up run 2015 is one long blur of tears and love and hills and hugs from random strangers and friends and sun and horror.
A good place to start, I suppose, would be with the first love I found. Sponono and Doctor who had run with me on the most significant races of my life so far were in the same starting pen as me and I was overjoyed to see them as I arrived. I was also overjoyed to see Werner, my friend from track, a Running Junkie just like me, sitting next to them. Werner and I had run the last 10km of Colgate together. He had stood patiently by as I had nearly coughed out my aorta that day. What a friend! Then would you know, Janine, my fellow fund raiser for Sekolo Sa Borokgo and Ian who had kindly paced me on ELE in preparation for my first Comrades marathon came bounding up to Werner and I. It was Janine’s birthday too so I was just surrounded by people who love me and who I love dearly and there was an air of love around the place. When I first cried, it was because of the national anthem. I always cry when I sing the national anthem, whether I’m alone in my car or at a rugby match or at the start of a race. I really love South Africa and our national anthem is a symbol of how many people compromised and sacrificed and came together to give us a country that is beautiful in its diversity and in its imperfections. Some parts of the anthem stick in our throat, partly because they’re in a language that we can’t speak, partly because they’re in a language that we associate with oppression or violence, partly because they’re in a language that is difficult to understand. But we sing it. All of it. Even the parts that stick in our throats. So the national anthem always fills and overfills me with emotion. So there we are, Brenda, Werner, Janine, Ian, Sponono and Doctor and 16500 other people singing the national anthem and I’m already crying.
From there we started and headed out of town. We were going a bit too fast and Werner and I soon lost Janine and Ian who were racing ahead. I was going for a sub-10h20 and Werner was going for a sub-11.
We went up and up and up and up. Then we went up a bit more. A little down, landed me in the arms of Lisa and Bronwynne and my love tank was filled up again. That was enough to get me up the start of Field’s Hill. I joked with everyone that they should be on the lookout for my sense of humour because I had lost it somewhere on this hill last year. By the top of Field’s Hill, not only was my love tank depleted, but my ankle was swollen and throbbing and my sense of humour was gone again, never to return. I felt emotional. All the time. I kept weeping. I think Werner must have thought I was losing my mind. I thought I was losing my mind. And then it occurred to me. The feeling that was causing all the emotion was fear. I once ran down and up Polly Shortts for fun when I had been working in the area. It was a tough hill to run up then and now I knew it was waiting for me at the end of what was already proving to be quite a treacherous route. I was terrified that this was already so hard and we were only a third of the way and that the Polly Shortts end was waiting for us. We were at the top of Field’s Hill and my ankle was already swollen and sore. But I remembered how my butt had ached at 30km into last year’s race so I figured the ankle thing would disappear in just a few kilometres. (It didn’t disappear. Not even at the top of Polly Shortts, I should just add.)
Hillcrest seemed to go on forever. We caught up with Isabel and Carl. Carl was nauseous. Isabel went ahead reluctantly and we took on caring for Carl. It didn’t last long. Carl was really not feeling well. Werner didn’t want to leave him, but I thought that he was on the verge of stopping so I told Werner that he was looking awful and we should go forward. Then I saw Leslie. He was bailing. At 30km he was bailing. I wouldn’t have it! Leslie is a great runner, but he’s been lazy. Admittedly, he’s been ill this past month, but before that, he hadn’t been trying very hard. This Comrades thing seems to come so naturally to him. I pulled him off the pavement and told him that he would not be giving up if I had anything to do with it. I dragged him along by the hand and Werner, Leslie and I soldiered on. I could feel how Leslie was scanning the surrounds constantly for his escape route and two water points later he took a gap in the water point chaos to escape my eagle eye and bail. I had seen him do it, but I decided it was no point dragging a person along who had already decided the night before that he didn’t want to be there. And through all this, it was still Hillcrest. Where am I, I asked? Hillcrest. What seemed like two hours later, “Where am I?” Hillcrest. What the fuck? How big is Hillcrest? We’ve been here the whole day! Werner kept looking out for the next big named hill. This must be Botha’s. This is huge. This must definitely be Botha’s. Nope not this time. Hill after hill after hill after hill. This must be Botha’s then. Nope. Not Botha’s. How could there possibly be so many treacherous hills and no-one’s named them? How could it be? I’m going to make it my personal quest to name them!
Hill after hill after hill buffered us like violent waves on a rowboat in the middle of the ocean. They just kept coming. Thank you to those of you who recognised me as SlowCoach and thanked me for my blog. I’m overwhelmed by the love that you gave me. Thank you. You were my real words of affirmation for the day and, in so doing, you filled up my love tank which, when you arrived, was always at an abysmal low. Each one of you made me cry! I got each of your names, but the near lobotomy has made me forget all but one of them. I’m so sorry. Please get in touch and let me know who you are. You had a significant impact on my run on Sunday and I’m very grateful. Marlene from Secunda, when you ran away from me, I was so pleased for you. I so wanted you to go and get your novice medal and I was so afraid that I was not going to make it. I’m glad you made it in time. You must be over the moon about your medal. Well done! You ran the Comrades Marathon. Nothing compares.
We were heading towards half way. I knew that Chrissie and Lizle and Lehlohonolo would be just before half way waiting with a hug. I desperately needed a hug. My love tank was empty after getting my hug from Bronwynne and Lisa at Westville and using up the words of affirmation from my blog readers along the way. I needed those hugs more than water. So I told Werner I’d run ahead to the RAC table to, amongst other things, reapply the strapping to my knee. I knew that just before the RAC table was a water point. We got to the water point and I told Werner I’d meet him at the RAC table. I raced off…it was a rare downhill. I had misjudged, however and I was still about 3km away from the RAC table. There was still another water point between me and the table and there was still another hideously treacherous hill between me and the table. How could I have been such an idiot? How could there be more hills? When was this relentless battering going to end? I had to keep running fast because Werner would be catching up and I didn’t want him to have to wait around for me at the table. As I got to the RAC table, the availability of love just overwhelmed me and I called out, “I just need some love, please.” Chrissie obliged and for a good two minutes, I hung on her shoulder, sobbing my eyes out. I sobbed, “This is too hard. Just too hard.” She just held onto me, letting me have my moment of drama and filling up my love tank. She then took me to my halfway pack, I took out my strapping and sorted out my knee like a pro. (Not exactly like a pro, according to photographic evidence supplied later.) Learning from last year’s mistake, I took what I needed (forgot to reapply sunscreen) and headed off again after a hug from Lizle and Lehlohonolo. Somewhere there, Werner ran past me, but I didn’t mind because my love tank was filled euphorically to the brim. That fuel was soon to be used up after Drummond as we started climbing the back of Inchanga.
It felt good to be a South African on Inchanga. Inchanga is spelled incorrectly. It should be spelled Intshanga. The way it is spelled means that is should be pronounced with a click sound where the “ch” is. So as we headed up the hill, I said out loud, “Yep. Intshangaaaa!” People around me groaned. A man behind me laughed and pronounced it “Inchangaaaaa”, complete with clicking sound. At which everyone laughed. Then a man next to me said, in a very English accent (he was probably not an English first language speaker), “Nkandlaaaa!” The entire group struggling up Inchanga erupted with laughter. Only South Africans would understand why that was funny. And, what’s even funnier, is that there were probably several different reasons why that was very funny to the people in that particular group. I was enveloped in the common love we feel for our country and our country’s diversity and how easily we can laugh at our collective selves. As we rounded the next corner, Buffalo Soldier by Bob Marley was calling out from a car on the side of the road. It was appropriate that many of us sang along. I shouted out that I was a proud African. I was proud as I undertook this unbelievable journey with compatriots and comrades from South Africa and around the world. When I remembered this moment, it was when Ntutu asked me how I managed Inchanga. I asked him, “Which one was Inchanga? Was it before or after half way?” I really couldn’t remember. The hills melted into one another and it didn’t matter what the name was. Polly Shortts was still coming and that is a notorious soul destroyer, so it didn’t really matter where we were or what the hill was called. The worst was yet to come and with that thought came another wave of tears.
After Inchanga things changed. The hills had softened, but they were replaced by something much more daunting. The trees disappeared. The hills became long, winding roads through sparsely populated and meanly supported scenery which was in part agrarian and in part industrial. It was depressing. It was lonely. It was hot. I needed love. I needed a hug. I needed sunscreen. I needed something. In hindsight, my desperate search for sunscreen had nothing to do with sunscreen. (By the way, people who manage support stations, sunscreen is a good thing to have.) When I finally found someone with sunscreen, I was again moved to tears as she rubbed a little on my arms and shoulders with the compassion of Mother Teresa, filling my love tank with much needed fuel. I got a hug from the Nedbank table at 60km and some ice cold Rehidrat. What kindness to have remembered me. Thank you Simonne and Jo. Thank you for remembering my whimsical request. You not only saw to my hydration, you refilled my love tank. I got hugs from the Standard Bank table. Thanks Noleen. I got more hugs from a random stranger who was shouting about how much he loved each one of us. I thanked him as I ran past and then thought I may as well capitalise on his words. I turned around and asked him if he really meant what he was saying. When he nodded, surprised, I asked if i could have a hug, he obliged and I cried with joy at my love tank getting topped up by this kind (and very good looking) stranger on my journey. Just after I left the Nedbank table, electrolytes and love tank filled up, I felt somewhat buoyed. I saw Tamryn and she took some abominable photos of me. I looked like Quasimodo, I was so hunched over. My back was sore. She gave me a hug and topped up my love tank even more. (These photos would provide the evidence that my strapping technique sucked.)
And then no-one. The supporters thinned out. It was round about that point, as the last sub-12 hour bus pulled up to us and swept past us like a street sweeping vehicle that pushes debris into the storm water drain, destined never to make it to the end, that I felt the oppressiveness of the hot day. There was a silence amongst the runners now. No joy. No camaraderie. Heads were bowed. Feet were dragging, sweeping up the dust into our lungs. There was that fear again and in some, I could sense that they had lost hope. I can’t imagine how low the point is in life when one loses hope. I am a realist, but I’m an incredibly positive person who believes that inevitably good will prevail. We will have good things happen to us. Good people will know peace. Good people and good experiences are all around us. I never ever lose hope and Sunday was not going to be the day to start. But this was such a hopeless situation. Lifting my legs became nearly impossible. I can’t remember that they were sore. They were just tired, exhausted, sad. I looked at my watch. I had 3h20 to go to the cut off and I had 21km to run including the infamous Polly Shortts and the less notorious, but allegedly as brutal, Little Pollys. My maths brain had suddenly repaired itself and I realised that, although my usual 21km is an easy 2h10, I would have to put my legs into a new gear if I was going to make it in time. What was keeping me back at that point? It’s easy for me to think that my head was in the way, but really, I was exhausted. I wanted to give up. I wanted to stop. I wanted to take my right shoe off. I wanted to have a sleep. My knee hurt. I wanted to just give it a break. I wanted my love tank filled up by a hug or a touch of compassion or just someone telling me that I was a winner. Can I tell you what someone told us? You won’t believe what some spectators will say, thinking that they’re helping. “Keep going.” (Okay, well that’s a good idea.) “Don’t give up.” (I hadn’t planned to until just then when you suggested it.) “The 12-hour bus is ahead of you. You need to hurry up.” (Thanks. They weren’t exactly tiptoeing when they passed me, but thanks.) “You people will never make it. The 12-hour bus went by 10 minutes ago.” That one really got to me and I stopped and shouted at the guy, “Listen here, my brain is fried, but I didn’t have a fucking lobotomy on this race. That bus is NOT 10 minutes ahead of us and saying so is very cruel, you nasty shithead.” Then I burst into tears and hobbled away in what felt like a run. Poor guy. I’m sure he was just trying to help. But really! Can people not tell when morale is at an all-time low? Is that the way to lift spirits? I prefer the drunk supporters in Westville than the drunk supporters in that God-forsaken place I was in with 20km to go. Hmmm. Just looked at the map. Good people of Camperdown, you really need to work on your pep talking. Your village will be the better for it, I promise.
It’s a hard race this Comrades up run. Physically, not nearly as brutal as the down run, but emotionally, it can kill the most interminable spirit. Looking up is eventually not an option because all it does is demoralise your soul. There is little respite from the relentless hills and when the respite from hills finally comes, the road is lonely, boring, hot and the support is sparse. I’m not kidding. If you look at the times of the majority of the runners, the flattest part of the route is their slowest, some slowing by as much as 2 min/km over that stretch. That’s how you know that this race is not only about what your body can do but also about how your mind can cope with the relentless onslaught of one after another of the biggest hills imaginable and then deal with the loneliness and the boredom of the route. Yolande Maclean’s words rang true in my head, “You can run as far and as fast as you let yourself.”
Just after that nasty man, I came upon Michelle Stowell. I’m not sure if I ran up to her or if she ran up to me, but we met. We had met earlier when her and her newish husband, Ashley, had been struggling along together. Ashley had not been feeling well and they were taking a walk/run strategy. I hadn’t kept up because their running was too fast and their walks were too frequent and too slow. Our timing just didn’t align. Now, as Michelle, now alone, and I faced this horrible fate, I asked her how she was doing. She told me that she was struggling because her ITB was giving her trouble. My knee and ankle hurt, but they didn’t. I’ve run with more pain than I had at that time, but for some or other reason, I wasn’t going forward very well. I prayed out loud, “I know you want me to finish this, and I’m still not sure why, but please could you help me?” It wasn’t in my usual petulant shouting that I do to God. It was just a little cry for help. It was at the bottom of a hole, with no clear way out, begging for a little mercy. My very own Domine, quo vadis moment. I reached into my pouch in front of my vest and pulled out my timing chart. On the back of my timing chart was a little card with words that were sent to me by my colleague, Vernon. They were innocuous words sent to me with love and I had promised him I would carry them with me on the day. I hadn’t looked at them once, but now they begged to be read.
“Your biggest challenge isn’t someone else. It the ache in your lungs, the burning in your legs and the voice inside you that yells, ‘I can’t!’ But you do not listen. You just push harder. Then you hear that voice fade away and start to whisper, ‘I can.’ That’s the moment you discover that the person you thought you were is no match for the person you really are.”
Those words lightened my feet and I started running with purpose. I told Michelle she’d catch me later. I came to the 20km to go mark. Looked at my watch and told myself, “You are not going to miss this. You are not going to be cut off. You will not give up. You will not resign yourself to this fate. You can still stand, so you can still walk. Get a move on because you are never going to come back here to redeem yourself.” I started running. Properly. I knew Polly Shortts was coming and that was going to slow me down so I had to hurry it up. I passed people who I shouldn’t have passed. They were better runners than me. They had worked harder than me. They were more experienced than me. I tried to help some of them, but they didn’t want this to be over as badly as I did. I overtook the last sub-12 hour bus and then I made it my mission to increase the distance between them and me with every step. They were on a very wise run/walk strategy as they had been the entire day, but I just wanted this to end. I prayed again. “This is really hard. Thank you that you’ve helped me, but I still need help.” I thought I had taken all my energy gels, but glanced down and remembered the one in my cleavage. I took it out and wolfed down the cappuccino taste. Nom nom. It kicked… like it does and I hurried forward a little more. The praying became a conversation in my head, with my imaginary friend and I realised why I had come to this place at this time and why I was feeling this way.
Then it happened. Little Pollys. It is waaaay worse than Polly Shortts. It’s shorter, but it’s very steep. But I was determined. I was not going to let that bus catch me. I was not going to get cut off at Polly Shortts. I was not going to miss the end by a few seconds or minutes. I was not coming back. “Please can I ask for your help again?” I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was Carl! A comeback like the Rolling Stones, he was! Carl was in front of me! When I had left him in Hillcrest, he looked destined, in the short term, to vomit and, in the longer term, to quit. But here he was. In front of me. Well done Carl! You are my hero of the day. Truly, you showed such amazing grit and determination. We ran walked together for a short while, but I was in a hurry now. I was so inspired by Carl’s determination. I encouraged him to hook on to the bus that was just behind us and I was going to go ahead. I could see the next sub-12 hour bus in front of me and I suddenly became afraid that I might get stuck in the traffic of these two busses in the final stretch and miss the final gun. I ran all the way up Polly Shortts and, as I crossed over the timing mat and looked at the big incriminating timing car sitting there, waiting to mercilessly cut people off, I smiled because I knew that I had recovered and made up lots of time and this was almost in the bag now. But this was no time for complacency. I prayed again. “Thank you. Thank you. Please just keep me going.” I had heard about a few sneaky hills near the end and I was afraid that, with my love tank running on empty again, I would lose my mind and give up on one of them. So I carried on racing. The crowds were shouting and encouraging me.
Would you know it, the rumours had been true. Jesmond Rd. This was when I called out in anger. “Why? Why would you do this to me? Why can’t I just get a break here?” I wailed, loudly. Really loudly. As I hurtled down to the bottom of Jesmond Rd, running under 6min/km, I bawled out in tears, “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t go on. This is horrible. I hate this race.” I’m sure that the people watching on the side of the road must have thought I’d gone insane or my dog had died or something. I was wailing out loud. I could barely see where I was going through the tears streaming down my face, salty and hot. It was all very dramatic! Why was I wailing? Well, for starters, I was hurtling down this road on a knee and an ankle that didn’t want to be attached to my leg any longer and the steep downhill of Jesmond Rd had an equal and opposite uphill to get into the main road of the stadium. It was an horrifically cruel sight as I turned into Jesmond. I could hear the stadium. I could smell the stadium. I could hear the second sub-12 hour bus in front of me but I still had a veritable mountain to climb before this horrible horrible horrible day was over.
I was determined now. I was done. Jesmond was over. The bus was in front of me and I was hurrying. They were “And we’re walking in 3..2..1!” walking. Walking? Do you people have watches? This is not the time to be 3..2..1 ing. Get a move on! And of course, they were spread right across the road. I pushed down the side of the bus and carried on hurrying. A man came running from behind me and pushed through the front row of walkers and I took the gap he made, apologising to the people as I snuck past them. They shouted at me about how rude Joburg people were. I just said, “Listen, some of us have somewhere to be and I apologised to you.” He didn’t hear me. I didn’t care. This misery was nearly over. I caught up with Ian. That took my breath away. He must have had the worst day imaginable if I was catching him. Ian is a terrific runner and my day had been horrendous. If I was catching him, how much more horrendous must his day have been? Ian, you too are my hero. We ran together for a bit, but the speed humps (I’m not using a metaphor here, they were just little speed humps that one drives over when one is being slowed on purpose by the road builders) were very taxing on our legs and feet. We groaned as we went up. We groaned as we went down the other side. I had a little laugh at our collective groans on these insignificant little molehills. Ian told me to go ahead. I did.
You know, all I felt was gratitude. I didn’t feel relief. I didn’t feel a sense of achievement. I didn’t feel impressed or amazed by my achievement. I didn’t feel that euphoria I felt last year. All I felt was gratitude. 31 May 2015 was one of the hardest days of my life. I think it may be the hardest day I can remember. I know that I have had lower moments in my life, but on 31 May I didn’t lose hope. I came close, but by the grace of God, or sheer stubbornness, I didn’t lose hope. There were people that lost hope that day. My heart aches for them because I had a fleeting moment where I knew what that might feel like.
I am loved. I really am loved. I have a loving family. I have two beautiful sons and a wonderful niece who love me. I have friends, colleagues and staff who don’t just like me, they love me. I’m very loved. If you’ve ever read or been made to read Gary Chapman’s book, The Five Love Languages, you’ll understand how I found out on Sunday, 31 May that I am a Physical Touch and Words of Affirmation love language speaker. The love I received on that day, in person and remotely from all those watching my timing updates with excitement, horror, desperation, relief and joy will remain a lesson to me forever. 31 May 2015 changed me. Last year I ran the Comrades Marathon. This year I met the Comrades Marathon. The SlowCoach that lined up for Comrades 2015 is dead. Today I can still walk, but I have had a significant spiritual, physical, emotional personal experience. An experience which has at once unlocked a person who I suspect always existed, but upon whom I’d never really had to call and which has forever set that person free. It’s been a funny week since Comrades because life, for the rest of my world, has continued as normal, but I am a changed person. I have to realign my surroundings with this newly found me. During that long chat with my imaginary friend, I realised things that I need to do in my life and the fact that I am not going to be doing Comrades in 2016 will give me time for these things. A new life emerged for me on 31 May 2015 and I got two coveted medals.
I am forever grateful for the love and encouragement I received in so many forms from friends, family and strangers alike. All I really needed all along was love. Without it, who knows how this story would have ended? All any of us really need is love, from others, from ourselves. What a beautiful world it would be if the world were like the Comrades Marathon.