Comrades Is Only The Beginning

Gesant Abed on his Comrades journey.

Gesant Abed on his Comrades journey.

My alarm breaks the silence of the quiet and cold early morning. But I am already awake, staring out on the waves rolling on an unfamiliar beach. I must have had an hour of sound sleep while the rest of the night was restless, as the mind continues to overthink. Despite this the day has arrived. A day which I have trained for, a day which is filled with the unexpected. Comrades – the ultimate race has arrived. A day which every cell in my body, every heartbeat, every breathe has prepared for. My tummy feels unsettled but my legs feel ready and pumped with anticipation.

After a quick, hot shower to wake me up properly, I slowly and quietly get dressed and prepped, trying not to wake my sleeping family; the smell of DeepHeat still strong in the air, my clothes all laid out in front of me. I am still trying to rid the mind from overthinking and staying positive for the task ahead. It’s like preparing for battle, every item carefully chosen to carry out its purpose, I tie my shoe laces and check my Championchip and I can’t help but think of when I started running.

My first pair of shoes, bought on sale, just for a personal experimental running study. My initial goal was to run a 10 km, flat out and non-stop. From that day onwards, every morning, before the break of dawn I would find myself half way around the technikon in District 6. Every morning 4km, with the smell of freshness, I would run a little then walk, run between poles, chasing the native tarentale, as everyone else were starting their morning grind. It was 2011 before the looming fast (Ramadaan) and before I joined Itheko, before I even knew they existed. This was a time when I thought running was an exclusive activity only for the fit and fast. My goal was simple, just run a 10km race by the end of the year. And so it went on as I was determined to reach my goal. After the fast, at an Eid lunch, one of my family members suggested I should join Itheko and explained that it would help me better understand running and assist me in attaining my goal. So it began.

It’s almost 3am and after getting a warm heartening send off from my parents, I made my way down for the one way trip to Pietermaritzburg. I queued, waiting for my bus rubbing my hands together to compensate for my extra short shorts. It’s cold, close to freezing. I wrapped my banana and muffin with its plastic bag in my pocket and then I spot the other members of the now famous running “bus”. I feel a little warmer in their company as we all huddle together waiting for the bus, all excited and anxious. Climbing on we get a sense of the nervous expectations and excitement that fills the air, but it is also accompanied by a sobering sense of fear. I grab a window seat, and try not to think about where we’re going. At this point it’s the hardest thing to do. The bus makes its way towards the start as I wipe away at the wet cold misty window and stare into the darkness.

Memories taking me back to the morning of my first wet and cold half marathon, 2012 Two Oceans, after months at the club. I didn’t miss one training run. No matter if it was a freezing cold day or if I felt tired from the daily activities, I would be there regardless. It’s during this time that I also appreciated the awesomeness of the moon. As funny as it sounds, it is here that I started to appreciate nature and the finer details of life. Before running, one would always take these things for granted. You would look at the moon for a few seconds heedless of this wonderful universe. Since I started running, be it early morning or late evenings, it was my constant running partner. During my training I was awestruck at the amount of people who ran, the different shapes, colours, sizes unconcerned of their speed and just enjoying themselves. It wasn’t just the lone speedster on Sea Point Promenade or the early morning trendmill runner, I had now become part of something bigger, a part of the running community and it has grown in leaps and bounds (no pun intended).

My first half marathon was wet and wild and I enjoyed every second. My time was an admirable sub 2h30m and the after effect was an entire day of sleep and “rehydrating”. Recovery took a week, but I had done it. Goals were being set and achieved, not realizing I had opened the proverbial running flood gates.

IMG_9187

We disembark the bus on the streets of Pietermaritzburg, crowded with runners and flanked by runners in meerkat poses “watering the plants”. We quickly make it to the back of the start pens, starting in group H. After we made fajr, we take the compulsory selfie and stand-by. The atmosphere is electric and filled with great excitement, I remember quickly disappearing to the toilet to get rid of the nerves. It’s just minutes before the official start. The national anthem is sung together in one unified voice, people are filled with pride and emotion, tears on their cheeks. I feel emotional but instead smile, just grateful that I made it this far. Some runners have come to settle some unfinished business, some are going for back to back Comrades and others it’s their first. Whatever their motivation, we are all standing together as COMRADES. Unsure of what the day holds, we can only put our trust in the Almighty and find assurance in our training. We can only hope for the best and prepare for the worst. As any experienced runner will tell you, on this day anything can happen.

Bang! The gun goes. This is it. The day which took many months of preparation is no longer a pipe dream. And now we are running and living that dream.

The morning is cold and dark, as we pass the City Hall and make our way out of Pietermaritzburg, on the national road we have a backdrop of one of the most beautiful sunrises painting the sky a rich, reddish-orange, which glows on the road ahead filled with runners and a common goal. I am running on the “bus” affectionately known as 2.0, with fellow Itheko runners, but ultimately friends, along with the odd stray club member. We soldier on, cracking one or two jokes and chanting encouragements united in this common goal, one direction.

We consume the kilometres slowly but consistently, the odd runner darting off to relieve themselves. The road ahead is always lined with supporters looking on with respect and admiration. I eat the provisions I carried, always being reminded by Wedaad, Uncle Abu, Uncle Aslam or all at once to eat something. They mean well, as I know I need to get my body refuelled before my body is aware of it.

We pass the marathon mark and you can’t help but think there is another marathon about to start. I am feeling good, but the day is heating up quickly and the air humid. Slowly we carry on with a resolute combination of running and walking.

When I think back to my first marathon, it was by far the best marathon and running experience and I was so delighted with my sub 5-hour time. Mind you, I was exhausted after 42km and my legs needed a week’s rest before I thought of attempting another run, but here, today, I was about to run another. I didn’t let that thought phase me, and rather let it power me through to the finish.

Now the hills start rolling on and we are on our way to Drummond, heading towards the cut off, the halfway mark. The humidity is starting to take a toll on my body. My legs were still strong, however my lower back was feeling the strain. The next water point I drink a sachet of water and use another two over my body and we carry on. Consistently I am trying to cool myself down. Around lunch time the halfway mark appears in the distance. On the hill ahead I see our Itheko supporters and my family, what a welcome sight, and this sends some comfort through my body. We walk up that hill with purpose, as I try to eat my KFC hotwing and a date, while my sister tries to spray DeepFreeze on my legs, missing the spot half of the time.

IMG_9186

The half way “pitstop” felt frantic but it’s difficult to stand still, let alone eat something. I hope the supporters understand the marathoner’s predicament, as I know they spent the day rushing to intercept us and waiting for hours and for the short moment we pass, we only grab one item or worse, ignore them.

At 57km into the race, I was hitting the wall hard and the heat left me feeling drained. I asked the bus to slow down just enough for me to recover. Astonished by my request, the bus slows down to a walk and then we run on. I take a Rehydrate and some water at the next water point and get my now stiffening hamstrings an ice rub from the volunteers. This is where I started to lose the bus. I tried fighting back but they slowly got further and further away. It seemed hopeless, I couldn’t push anymore and I was already digging deep. I proceeded to walk up the next hill and around the bend. At this time it dawned on me that I was alone. This is when your mind plays further tricks on you. My legs and back were screaming for me to just stop, trying to convince me of the real reason for running. What is the point?! Why do you want to run another 40km? It’s a marathon! I walked for another 2km when Aunty Togieda ran past me and I was glad she was still in it.

It gave me some inspiration, along with all the supporters still believing and cheering you on. On this section, one moment stood out; a little boy from the surrounding homes, shouted in the most cutest voice “where is the spirit! Go for it”. It made me smile a bit. I thought this little boy was right, this is part of it. All these supporters truly believe I can still do it, despite the pain, despite my complaining muscles. My mind and heart was still resilient. I was hitting another proverbial wall, so I took a run up to break through. It seemed like that rough patch was over.

Along the way, I catch up to Uncle Zaid from ARD and we run and walk for about 5km together, running between robots and poles. I remember looking at my pace chart and telling him the finish was still possible but he was looking stronger so I encouraged him to go ahead without me. Alone again, I slowly but surely continued. I cross a bridge and over to the infamous Nedbank Green Mile, is where I got my second wind. I felt energized and strong, the cheers and encouragements were non-stop, with random people shouting my name and believing in me. I pulled myself together, looked at my pace chart and set my watch to the next cut-off at Cowies Hill – I needed to make that cut off. I started to run at a pace of 6:30min/km feeling good despite the pain. I caught up to Kady and I offer up my company for the next leg of the race, and in the nicest manner I was rebuffed and encouraged to proceed. I came down a steep, cross-chambered road with the view of Durban on my left, towards Pinetown. I try to motivate every struggling runner I overtake. When reaching the bottom of this freeway there was a left into a wide main road and I estimated the 72km cut-off was about 7 minutes away. I grab a date offered by a group of energetic ARD supporters and run towards the underpass. A little bit further my sister runs out of nowhere and sprays my legs yet again and gives me something to eat and warm 32GI. They ask if I am okay. While I hide my suffering, I managed to crack a smile and give thumbs up then swiftly lower my head and soldier on.

Gesant4

I make it over the Cowies Hill cut-off with 5 mins to spare. I walk a little, check the pacing chart and reset my watch to make it to the next checkpoint. Things were starting to get tight and there was 17km still to go. I walk-run up Cowies hill. Damn, did that hill seem steep and it rose again for about another 800 metres. It was testing my hamstrings and lower back. Then the gradient changed, going into a downhill, then all of a sudden I hit another highway. Here I felt like time was against me, with the odds really stacking up. I had 5km to go to the next cut off. The volunteers were starting to pack up as I become part of a thinning herd of runners. While the unsupportive “support buses” tried to convince runners to stop and complete the way to Durban in that cosy bus. They asked me at 3 different points to stop. I felt the pain in my muscles and my feet burning but I wasn’t going to give up. I pass the “10km to go” board, almost off the highway in Westville. And then at 16:50 they stopped me and convinced me its all over, they explained it was for my own safety and that they had to open the road. And my race, my comrades journey, was over.

All at once all, my muscles pained as my heart sank. The Ultimate Race, Comrades, was over for me. I was glad I made it this far but sad that the bus caught up to me.

The bus is on its way to Kingsmead stadium, to that elusive finish, the bus filled with disappointment and tiredness. The day was over, the race was over. I find my family, and I could see the worrying support in their eyes, they were so happy to see me still standing and proud that I did so well. I think for them, this was a huge experience and insight into the spirit and mind of a runner.

Comrades is truly a humbling experience. You gain so much respect. Over a space of 12 hours one seems to have matured as a runner and moreover as a person. I have seen people put aside differences just to help each other, random supporters who can see the pain and worry in your face and spur you on regardless. I have seen things a young man shouldn’t see, and I have witnessed qualities of humanity we once thought lost. All this and more experienced in one ultimate race and every runner has their experiences.

For the most part, this is clearly not a story of success. This is not a typical ending where one has overcome adversity and attained that goal. However looking past the details, you would find this is but the beginning. Over a short period of time, I have reached and continue to surpass my goals. Every day is filled with new opportunities, new challenges. And I never back down from a challenge.

Gesant1

Running has taught me to appreciate those who believe in you, friends and family who support you and help others attain their goals. I hadn’t realized that with the small steps I had been making, from my first 10km to my first marathon to this first comrades start, I have been inspiring so many people. It was unreal and for the most part I felt unworthy. I started where you are and had a very long road to run to get to where I am now. I always ran with the idea that I may not be the fastest; and I know I won’t win any races, but as long as my legs work and the heart pumps with strong determination, I will be racing and enjoying it, no matter the conditions.

I cannot find enough words to thank all the people around me, you all know who you are, but firstly I have to thank the Almighty for granting us this amazing life and experience. For granting us to meet each other and granting us courage and steadfastness in our intertwining path.

Then I would love to thank my beloved parents and family for all the support, late suppers and always fresh and clean running kit. A huge thank you to all the supporters, for every rub on a cramping muscle, a sip of an ice-cold 32GI, and Sunday morning LSD bollas and of cause coffee conversations no matter how latte.

A huge thank you and Shukran to my fellow runners and friends, the bus, for those who open their homes at the oddest hours of the day, from the 5 min/km group to the 10 min/km group , every kind encouraging word, every light-hearted story and joke. The help and assistance through the moments when things seemed impossible and bleak. To members of this club and other clubs, thank you for the running advice, company and memories.

I am so happy and proud of how far we have come, just think back to how hard that first cold early morning runs were, how long your first 10km used to take, how painful post-races were. Let us not forget how far we have come and stay humble.

Finally, I would like to congratulate the Comrades’ finishers, the two timers ;), or wherever you found yourself on the way to Durban. The journey was long and hard but we were brave enough to take up the challenge. Though the day ended early for me, I’m elated at the thought that my fellow comrades have made it and I take great joy in the thought that they have attained their goals and we shared in this amazing experience.

As for my journey – this is only the beginning, and I am glad you are all part of this beginning. This is a wonderful journey. Over the past 3 years, through this simple activity of running, we have experienced so much and discovered even more. Regardless of your journey, be it around a track or on the hills of Durban, it becomes part of your life.

In the end we only regret the chances we didn’t take. Comrades 2015 here we come.

So the journey continues.

Our journey continues.

From the silent runner,

Gesant Abed

More runners’ stories…