“Do you know what you’ve done?” asked a teary Roldha Orrie as she came to embrace me while I was resting immobile, waiting for a stretcher to take me to the medical tent an instant after reaching the much anticipated finish line of this year’s Comrades 89km marathon.
It was a question that left me dumfounded for just a fraction of a second. “Mmm, she’s right. It’s not bad for a novice whose last successful training run was in April”, I thought. I guess it had escaped my mind that other people might be as impressed by that as I was. It also proved that dear friends can care about someone’s race results as much as the athletes themselves.
My heart, though, sank when I heard about some of my favorite people exiting prematurely. I’m currently looking for a silversmith who can split my medal into little pieces so each one can have something to hang over their chests. They all deserve it as much, if not more, than me, considering that the road to Durban didn’t begin in Pietermaritzburg. It began when the first Comrades training got under way, 1000kms ago.
So what made it possible for me, a relatively inexperienced runner with limited formal race pedigree, to make the cut-off? So many things. Am glad to have the opportunity to write about them in this post.
The support and encouragement
They say that if you lack a skill you need to learn from those who have it; people who are as passionate about racing and Comrades as they are about breathing. To them, Commies is a must on the running calendar and perhaps, the only race worth running. So, I went to all those experts I now call my “extended running family” for advice in dealing with the regime and challenge that Comrades entailed. You could say there were two camps: those who believed in me and wanted me to do what I was capable of doing regardless of my disappointing Two Oceans Ultra time, and those wanting to safeguard me from any harm, as the consequences from an extreme race can cut one’s running future short.
Tasneem was key in turning my attention to Comrades and introducing me to the possibility of it. The relentless Orries were the fuel that powered my engine. Not only did they grant me unconditional love and countless hours of tips but also convinced me that I could run such a long distance despite my lack of record. Ashraf understood my essence and planted a seed of
self-assurance in my brain. He didn’t mention the failures of not running PB’s or missing out on some training runs or LSDs because of the rain, but fixated on the grit inside me that got me to South African shores.
Even the rational warnings of my beloved coaches Farouk, Isgaak, Rashied, Mogammad, and Frans, and of friends like Rafiek, EJ, Faizel, Renee, Ibrahim, Shaheem and Neezaam were all essential in preparing me to look at Commies from a sober and realistic point of view. Every single person in my “running community” was either confident I could do it or protective and wary about the beast I was about to take on. I’m so grateful for the conversations I had with Youssef, Muhammad, Tape, Aslam, Sadia, Sandra, Cassiem, Nadia, Fahdil, Refai and many others. All of them had an influence in the outcome that day, June 1st.
The absence of burden
I was driven by the pursuit of fun. I joined Itheko for the fitness aspect in Feb 2013, but stayed for the lovely bonds, purpose, and distraction it offered. Running not only became therapy, but it was fun. I was having a ball running and training for marathons until Two Oceans left me without a medal.
It taught me tons about myself as a runner. I learned that you must be true to yourself and the reasons why you started running. If your actions deviate from your priorities, you will feel the kind of stress that can create a weak constitution at races and a lackluster finish. I started getting “serious” about things and it was distressing me. So, I had to go back to my core values. I vowed that the day I stopped having fun would be the day I stopped running. There are other sports I like, so I could always go back to those.
The task of meeting other people’s expectations was sabotaging my intentions. Therefore, after some reflection, I changed my mission to fit me, not vice versa. I would go to Durban with the sole ambition to enjoy the Durban sun, and do a good 56km run or until bust. I wanted to just have fun, and I did, and it worked!
Durban is a lovely city and I fall in love with it more every time I go. The people are agreeable, the weather warm but not excessively so, and the beaches welcoming and endless. The vibe was palpably optimistic and from the moment we stood on KZN ground, I was revived. I strolled and meandered the promenade shopping for goodies; took a personalized car tour of the city with a kind local; treated myself to a Chinese herbal remedy that caused a few giggles since it looked a lot like goat droppings; tried my first and last bunny chow (ouch, that’s spicy hot! Once burnt, twice shy), and attended a delightful carbo-loading event with all my dear friends from a club that has changed my life. We stayed at a hotel on the beachfront and
we were living the good life, sitting on the veranda every morning, unapologetically having breakfast until it became lunch time, going for a jog whenever we wanted and feeling at home, like it was our backyard. The sea air does wonders for the soul and the evening waves of the Indian Ocean did my body good.
At 5am race day, I had a rushed approach to the pens, but I didn’t feel at all hyped or nervous like so many others describe.
Instead, I was self-possessed, collected, ready and whole. They say the most important day of training is the day before the race because many biological reactions take a few hours to process. This kind of rest and relaxation is an ingredient I don’t take for granted and one that I know made a difference in my overall health at the starting line.
I loved this race. It was well-organized with plenty of water and food stations, and sufficient physios along the road to assist those in need. There were salted potatoes and bananas to feed an army through-out the race and energy bars and oranges galore. But, the people and atmosphere was my Energade. From the starting gun, in the dawn hours, the masses lined the streets ready to clap and wait for thousands to run by. Pools of people swarmed along the sides of the road at every metre so one never really felt alone or bored.
The families and residents of the Green Mile who were oblivious to our panting were braaing and toasting away in our name while all we wanted to do was join them! That was torture, but it was nice to have so many random people call out my name or as they referred to me: “the girl in the red tights!” It was here that the DJ called for applause as he prophesied over the microphone: “Folks, these guys you’re seeing now are the last batch who’ll be finishing the race. Folks, give it up for them.
They are safe from the next cutoff.” Hearing that ignited me to keep moving. But, the big boost was given by the entourage who flew to KZN to devote their day to cheering for us.
Their presence came in very handy when it came time to ask for a vigorous spray/massage from Yasmin and Wiesaal, which had a purely placebo effect given that my tights were an evident barrier for the icing agent to make contact with my skin; or getting a frantic bite of a life-saving KFC chicken from sweet Armien at Pinetown that quenched my ongoing craving for protein and fat. I remember how happy I was to see Fatima taking video; Ibrahim M and Togieda’s daughter – at whom I hurriedly flung my sweatshirt; and many other people who I saw for a fleeting second at a few spots. Irefaan was like a motivational lifeline as he squeezed me for a split second, providing solace from the aching. Like him, Zarina and Siraj would check on me and even though I was too dazed to specify what was wrong, I appreciated that they’d want to assist. Ridwan crossed my path propitiously outside a tunnel and gave me a needed pat on the back as he said with firm belief: “You’re gonna make it, girl! You’re gonna make it!” His words made me disco dance a few steps and not want to quit.
Seeing friendly faces, even from other clubs like ARD, who generously held out their dates to me, and Ommiedraai, instantly put a smile on my face and a spring in my step, if only for a brief moment. Then, when their faces were out of sight, it was back to focusing and contemplating the next mile. But those moments of joy and interaction were like hitting the refresh button on a computer screen.
I began the race running in an ideal space, in sync with Neezaam until he abandoned me for a more appealing toilet. My ego bruised, I then caught up with a very upbeat group who would chant: “Power! Energy!” Thereafter, I caught up with the fastest sub 12-hour bus led by Renee Nell. I ran with them for a couple of hours following her repetitive mantra: “Eazee…Eazee! Eazee now…Eazeee!”, but the hills were not easy at all, and were weighing me down, so I had to jump onto the slower 12-hour bus led by Derek. I lasted a bit with them, but then had to slow down some more towards the half-way point.
I charted another 5kms before I had the pleasant surprise of catching up with Adnaan who was temporarily troubled. We ran a brief period together, but he soon improved and shot off, never to be seen again. Meantime, I stayed entertained by joining a 3rd bus but even this bus got away from me. Luckily, at that point, I’d been found by my new buddy, Ebrahim, who kept me stable and in pace for the toughest of sections: Cowies Hill.
As we strutted onto the highway, we had to split up, but I was fortunate to be taken care of by runners from the Crescent sister club during the last phase who would constantly inquire about my energy levels and would assure me that we were close and had ample time. They were amazing and prevented me from going lazy. I am a social girl, and in this race, you should make the most of feeling the human ties of camaraderie or else, it’s not Comrades.
The Lack of Self-Dignity
Comrades is special not just because it tests one’s endurance, but because it tests one’s limits. You become so absorbed in your own world of pain reduction in your head that you forget all kinds of modalities of propriety. Being prim and prudish goes out the window when you are in dire straits and are willing to try anything to make the hurt go away. Just ask the girl at one of the first aid stations before Drummond, who was offering up a tub of ointment, whether I looked like someone with pride. I ladled a handful of it in despair and quasi-violently pulled down my tights in front of her to allow me to cover the inner thigh without skipping a beat. She wasn’t horrified by it, though, after probably witnessing hundreds do the same before me, but I was a little amused at myself for having no reservations.
My hourly toilet breaks were no fancier either. My body held up well for half the race and the fluids were filtered punctually. At first, I would carefully scope out the largest bush that was just perfect for my requirements, which was very time consuming. When your times are tight, you look to avoid any intervals. By the 6th occurrence, however, any cactus or scrawny aloe plant would do! It didn’t matter somehow who I flashed at the time!
In the end, all the respect you gain from wearing a medal you may lose when you’re carried to the emergency tent. Fortunately, my only issue was a calcium deficiency which brought on the cramps that paralyzed me. Nonetheless, I remember a loss of dignity lying flat on the ground, miserably holding onto a crumbly slice of bread, my only source of comfort, disregarding whether I looked decent for the photographers.
The Mental Disconnect
We were all nerves and excitement when we got in the car that morning to drive up to Pietermaritzburg. The only setback was having to purge my breakfast on the way there, but I was already in such a great mood, it didn’t deter me one bit.
Psychologically, I was in control and sure of myself. No force is stronger.
Climbing Bothas Hill and Hillcrest were my goals but the muscles in the legs would not respond after Drummond. I knew I could get there on my physical strength at a normal pace. Just as I was foretold, once you’ve done your marathon distance, you must switch into a different gear. It’s as if your brain starts to ignore your body. I never understood what running through pain meant, until Comrades. It means you don’t listen to anything your body’s clamoring at you; you are two separate entities.
I am not a mother, but I can imagine that giving birth being similar to Comrades. The first things to annoy me were my socks which were too big and would ride under my feet, making every step uncomfortable and, eventually, giving me a pins and needles sensation. Then, my groin started an 8-hour operatic aria in which it sang about its grief and suicidal tendencies, only to be closely followed by my quads’ identity crisis Schopenhauer style — they lost the will to exist. Lastly, my glutes joined in this cacophany of suffering and moaned and groaned about taking me to the CCMA because they weren’t made to work this hard or this long.
Luckily, my upper torso was not affected by the torment going on below and was able to keep myself upright despite the continuous PAIN. At Pinetown you see the cautionary cutoff boards egging you on, but you wonder: “Why is it taking so long to do 1km? Where is the cutoff sign?” It was like running on a treadmill and staying in the same place despite all your effort.
I realized then that no vitality drink or pill would help long enough to ensure that I finished the race. There simply were too many kms to go ahead of me.
Subconsciously pleased that my lower body had gotten me thus far, I moved into upper body mode. The bottom half could rant and rave all it wanted. I was not interested in its cries. I would use mental dexterity to play tricks on my psyche, such as, pretending I was on a training run at the club so that I could bring down my pulse and soften my posture. Whenever a car with a digital clock rode by, I’d look at the bright side instead of worrying. Whenever they called out my name, I’d grab that energy and make it last. I’d stay positive and remind myself of who I was, centre myself, and I’d be strong again for a few more minutes. Whenever I heard music I liked being played by spectators I would move my hips to the rhythm and pretend I was at a party. This made them laugh, which in turn lightened my mood. Smiling was instrumental in this mental game. Whenever my hamstrings were causing my pace to slow, I’d change my alignment so as to give them a break, but I never once considered quitting. My head was in charge and that was not an option after the 60km mark, but the hills kept on coming.
When you’re about to embark on the longest 21kms of your life, the last thing you want to see is a steep incline, but you had to do it, and walking it aided in releasing some of that tension in the muscles. Ironically, based on one’s 21km history, knowing there are 2.5hs to do 21kms puts one naively at peace, which helped pull me forth. However, little did I know that it would take all of the brainpower I could muster to do the final 10kms and narrowly make it. The greatest fear I had was to lose time and stop too often, so I chugged along, not panicking, and kept myself busy by picturing the end where friends would be waiting for me.
The 7km mark ushers you onto a slice of the highway I fondly call “hell”. I’d watched the broadcast on TV and was aware that once you’re on the highway, you’re almost home. I knew it was a long stretch but was resolute to attack it. It is mostly downhill and you hear your knees and joints getting angry and protesting at the speed you are setting like there’s an ANC rally in your pants. You don’t notice how much ground you lose when you’re fatigued and trying to up the tempo creates worse problems in your limbs. You keep asking yourself: “Is this a cramp coming on? Am I cramping?” It’s your body trying to take you out, but you answer “no”, and, block out the first sight of casualties lying along the sidewalk and thoughts of you being the next one. I wasn’t as much tired, as much I was in stinging pain. Every little stride and quad lift that would get me closer to the goal was like an electric eel travelling up my lower extremities. The final 4kms were eternal, but as soon as you are on the main road, with onlookers screaming jubilantly, your mind starts to loosen up and your adrenaline takes over.
I felt a burst of emotion as I approached the stadium and heard Nadia’s voice pushing me on. Familiar faces would pop up among the throngs and I was on a high. Once you frustratingly carve through the bottleneck created by walkers at the entrance to the Kingsmead Cricket venue, it’s like striding onto the stage of an epic movie where the hordes elevate you to new heights of exhilaration and euphoria. I made a dash towards the red numbers on the final clock, cursing it for being so unforgiving. The anger welled over into sheer relief and elation as soon as I hit the mat. I dove into an infantile ventilated wail that spurred some strangers to give me a hug of compassion. By the time I had arrived, my brain had no authority over my limbs anymore and there was a general strike, followed by a shutdown.
Commies is a good race for enduring folk. Why? Because it’s true that good things come to those who wait. You know it’s going to be a 12hr commitment since the time you step onto that road, and you’re ok with it. It takes vision, determination and self-talk but being able to tolerate the delayed satisfaction is important. As a slow runner, you don’t need to be told to hold back and that’s an advantage.
As much as I harp on about the trials of the 12hr pilgrimage, I can honestly say I would’ve done it all again the following day. That’s why I’d like to wear that Comrades number once again. My respect for the UP run is huge, so I realize that training properly and hard is non-negotiable, but I’d be willing to do it on condition that, you, reading this, sign up with me to spend a memorable day together.
By Analia Blanco