By Fadeelah Kenny
I ran my first Comrades on 31st May 2015. It was tough! But not in the way I’d expected. Because it was the 90th edition of the Comrades marathon the number of registered athletes was more than 22 000.
I started running in 2010 and joined Itheko SAC. Running didn’t come naturally to me. I was never the athletic type, but after watching the Two Oceans half and ultra marathons I decided that if these very ordinary looking people could do it, I could too! It took me a year to run a sub-60 10km, and three attempts at the marathon distance over two years before I qualified (sub-5 hours). My running goal for 2015 was to run the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon after finally having qualified. But then someone *cough* Wedaad *cough* convinced me that I could and should do Comrades, so I made intention and entered.
Before the race I felt like my training had gone well. I had followed the Lindsay Parrey Finisher’s (sub-12) programme and had logged just shy of 900 kilometres of training from 1 January. I was careful to do what I felt I was capable of doing and not try and keep up with the mileage that my peers were doing. I also started doing strength training with a personal trainer, Grant Booysen, three months ago. So in the days leading up to the race I was feeling nervous but quietly optimistic about my chances of success.
Training is one thing, but race day is a whole other story. Pre-race nerves and the long taper leaves runners doubting themselves and feeling a bit under the weather at times. I stayed off my feet as far as possible, got some last minute taping for my tight back and made sure that between my two seconding teams, Rogeema and Shameema, I had everything I might need during the race. And boy, oh boy, did they help me get through the day!
On the morning of the race we went to the start early in order to do my usual pre-race routine: drop my tog bag, queue for the toilet and make fajr.
My bus – with Uncle Aslam Galant as bus driver, Abu Mowlana, Tape Bedford and Magedie Theunissen as co-drivers and Hasanain Abdullah as sweeper – were lined up right at the back of the H seeding pen. I was quite emotional at the start, enjoying the moments with all the usual soundtracks, ie the anthem, Shosholoza & Chariots of Fire being played.
We started off and moved off slowly, eventually only crossing the start line after 08m30seconds. The first 37 kilometres of the Up Run is almost all uphill, with 3 of the 5 hills (with names) being in the first half. It was very hard for me and I struggled to stay with the bus. On Fields Hill the bus split in two, with Uncle Aslam staying behind and I decided to rather walk the hill with him as the advice was to start Comrades conservatively.
At times when I was struggling, Uncle Sulaiman encouraged me to walk when I wanted to but to try and keep the bus in my sights. At one point quite early in I got a stone in my shoe and when I bent to take it out my right calf pulled stiff. After that I didn’t bend again during the whole race except the one time when nature called! We made the first cut off at Cowies Hill (17 kms) with lots of time to spare. This was a luxury we wouldn’t have later on! I was also pleasantly surprised to see a friendly face in my Tietie, Rogeema here at the first of three spots she’d second me at throughout the day. The next one was at Drummond (44.8 km), the “halfway” mark, where all the hype and fanfare and the Itheko support crew was amazing. I used spray for the parts of my legs that I could reach in five seconds, not doing a very good job of it in my rush to stay with the bus. I also took a 5 Hour Shot. I drank the whole bottle and after that I felt a lot better. Partly because of the shot and partly because the course “gives back a little” after 50km to about 65km. We passed through Drummond at 06h02:13, which isn’t ideal because it meant doing the second half in less than six hours on tired legs.
At Cato Ridge (57 km) we had 7:57:35 on the clock. That gave us just over four hours to do 30.7 km. The second last cut-off was at Umlaas Road (67 km) at 15h00 and we passed at 14h50. That meant having to run a half marathon in 02h40 to finish.
At the pace we were going the tracker app was predicting a 12h14 finish for us. I’m glad that I didn’t know this at the time. I would have completely lost my cool and probably would have just sat down and started crying. But instead I gritted my teeth, looked at the two yellow numbers who were running next to me and hung on. My logic was that Naz Mohedeen and Tape, both strong runners whom I look up to, were both running for their back-to-back medals and they looked calm, so that meant we would make it, right? Uncle Aslam kept us on our toes, keeping our pace down to a consistenet 7min/km in order to preserve our legs for the last push from Polly Shorts.
Around this area we also passed Quaseem, who was walking at the time. I pulled over for a few seconds to check in with him and tried to get him going with the bus but he urged me to go on and that was the last time I saw him on the road.
The spectators and roadside commentators were amazing, just urging us to keep going at every point and not to stop. At many points it was touch and go for us. I was so tired and didn’t know what to expect further down the road and whether I would be able to have a strong enough finish to stick with the bus. What kept me going were the supporters saying “Don’t stop, keep moving!” There was a sign on the side of the road that said: “You don’t have to go fast, but you have to go!” That was just what I needed!
At 15km we had two hours. I remember telling someone, “We can do this!” not fully believing it myself, but it helps if someone gives you confidence at that stage. I just wanted to get to Polly at this point!
I was relieved when we approached a hill and someone said it was Little Polly. We walk-ran it and I fell back from the bus as I just couldn’t muster the strength to keep up. At this point Ramzi, who was seconding his dad, gave me some encouraging words to keep going. Up Polly Shorts I just walked the whole length as I was out of it at that stage, almost too tired to do calculations but I knew that I wanted to put as much time between me and the cut-off as possible. At cut-off that would mean only 50 minutes to do 7.5km. Not usually a tough ask, but huge after running for 80 kilometres!
I got to the top of Polly Shortts (79 km) at 16h33. This left me with 57 minutes to do 7.5km. When I got to the bottom of Polly into Pietermaritzburg I though that I could walk a bit. Which was crazy, but I was so tired my brain wasn’t functioning rationally at this point! Luckily a spectator on the side of the road shouted: “You can’t afford to walk now. You walk at 10min/km, and you need to do at least 8min/km now to finish. You need to run!” I actually needed someone to spell that out to me! Allah bless that man. That got me going and I ran and ran and ran! I did walk momentarily on the hill. Yes, there’s another hill after Polly! It just doesn’t have a name.
But besides that brief walk to get my breath back, I gunned it. I thought: “I have to pull out all the stops now.” I was relatively uninjured, I didn’t feel any blisters, and there was no reason to save my legs anymore. They were already sore and I could always recover but I’d never get this chance to get that medal again! To finish my first attempt at Comrades and also to get back to back before Comrades will be in Ramadaan. I passed so many people on that stretch, many of whom I’m sure didn’t make it. Only at the 1km mark when I had 10 minutes left did I allow myself to slow down, but only slightly. I still almost couldn’t believe that I had it in the bag!
The entrance to the stadium took forever but eventually I got onto the grass and the lights. The whole stadium was on fire. The announcer was saying “If you don’t know what’s happening, the 12 hour cut off for the race is going to happen in the next 5 minutes, these are the last of the finishers coming over the line.”
I just couldn’t stop smiling! I saw the 12-hour bus crossing the line ahead of me so I slowed down a bit. And all the while smiling from ear to ear! I did it, in 11h57m26s, with 2 and a half minutes to spare before the final 12-hour cut-off! Alhamdulillah!
When I stopped after the finish line I became dizzy and half collapsed. I was so exhausted I just wanted to lie there and fall asleep. But nothing mattered.
It didn’t matter that they had run out of medals (Shukran Sulaiman and Abu for giving me yours!), it didn’t matter that I couldn’t get up off the ground without assistance, it didn’t matter that I had two huge blisters on my feet, or that when I tried to have my first solid meal my throat was so inflamed that I couldn’t swallow. Because I had pushed the limits of what I thought was possible. I was a Comrades finisher! Alhamdulillah
No Comrades journey is possible alone. It is only through the constant support of many people that I was successful. My parents, who don’t understand our craziness, but love and support us through it all anyway, my husband Quaseem, sister Rogeema who went to great lengths to support and second me on race day, Shameema and the numerous Itheko supporters who gave us strength when ours was just not enough anymore. To KenFac running club, Two Point Oh and the Mohennys who I do a lot of my training with. You are all my rocks!