I just got home from the airport and I’m heading off to coach my daughter’s U7 hockey team in less than an hour, so I know that this is just the start of a very long story. I’ll revisit the opening paragraph, the title and the theme a few times over the next few days before it all adds up to something that adequately describes the adventure that my dad and I just had.
It was sort of unplanned, asking my dad to second me at Comrades. I hadn’t really thought through what it would mean to either of us, but I knew from the first time I ran the race in 2013, in his number, that I wanted him there at some point. At the time of asking him, I was going for a definitive PB within a coached running programme, so I figured I would need all the help I could get.
Dad and I haven’t always sung off the same hymn sheet, but we do have running in common. And similar careers. And a great love of laughter, friends, family, cheese on crackers… and a microphone. And writing. And expensive shoes. Oh and we both get flustered when the noise levels rise. Who am I kidding… we are very much alike. We even look alike. I am just more emotional than he is. Quite a bit so. Until he is consumed by Comrades fever, apparently.
So as per the lengthy descriptions of #brokenbum in previous posts, for a time it was unlikely that I would line up for Comrades 2016. I missed around 200km of critical training in April, and I have been sitting on that doughnut cushion ever since. But I’m stubborn, and insistent. I managed a few semi comfortable 25 to 40km runs post #brokenbum, as well as a good few shorter ones and some aqua jogging, and figured I would go in a little undercooked and just give it a go. With my dad as my second; so special. He hadn’t been back to Comrades since he stopped running it in 1992. 1 300km of training is adequate, but I was lacking a few quality long runs.
Mom and dad arrived to fetch me at 5am on Friday morning. I kissed two sleeping children goodbye, and of course set the youngest off in a flood of tears because she was concerned I wouldn’t come home, ever. After some emotional squeezes and assurances that I would indeed be home, I kissed Q goodbye and mom drove us to the airport. One of my first thoughts was, “Shit, Q has to tie Emma’s hair in a pony for school… Can he do that?” And then it was boarding passes and a hurried airport breakfast, and a plane packed to capacity with runners on their way to Durban. I was asked by a fellow passenger what time I was hoping for, and I gave my usual story.
“During BBB (before broken bum) I was training for a strong sub-9 hour. Something like 8 hours 40 minutes. A Bill Rowan medal with change. But that is long gone. Anything under 10 hours and I will be thrilled. I’m totally chilled.”
I was quite chilled. I was also excited. I love Comrades and the two that I had done before were incredibly tough, as one would expect, but also really great experiences. Truly South African experiences. Levellers, game changers, journeys of learning.
We landed, and found our rented car; A Toyota. Dad is a VW man through and through. The poor car didn’t stand a chance. Much muttering and flicking of windscreen wipers when it should have been indicators, and off we went. Balmy Durbs as the Comrades fever began to creep in to our consciousness. 18 000 runners were feeling versions of the same buzz.
We went straight to the expo. Registration, including the part where I took my stinky running shoe off to scan the chip , took all of 6 minutes. Dad hates shopping, and crowds, and I was worried that he would want to get the hell out of there, fast. But as I took my race pack, and the printed numbers 4590 from one of the brilliant volunteers, I turned to see dad looking like a kid in a toy store. He was pretty much marching to the New Balance Comrades merchandise area in the way that some women approach a Woolies sale. I scampered after him.
“It has grown!” he said then, and a million more times over the course of the weekend. He bought a rather over priced, but damn fine looking, supporter’s top for himself, for the big day, and a Comrades tee for me. Then we were due at the Old Mutual Live radio booth for an interview with David Katz. Jeff Ayliffe had told him the story of me running in my dad’s old Comrades number. A great 10 minutes on air resulted. Some humour, definite chin wobbles, and the mood was set for the weekend. Whatever happened out there on race day, I was there with my dad, enjoying a rare father-and-daughter adventure. Memories to bank for life; I was amped. And of course I kept the family WhatsApp group fully updated.
We were staying with great friends’ of my parents, the Johnsons. Kelvin and my dad ran Comrades in the same era, so I was expecting numerous stories of bygone races; they didn’t disappoint. Tales of Comrades pre-supplements, nothing more than a couple of bananas during the race, and a bowl of pasta that could sink a ship, prior. Beer, lots of beer. They discussed their best times, their worst times, their training strategies. They laughed and transported me back to a time when my sister and I would draw good luck cards for our dad, and create elaborate posters for his return. When we got up early, ate toast with our mom and listed to Chariots of Fire as we tried to see our dad on TV. Surely he was in the front, trying to win?
Soldiers… Comrades runners are like soldiers leaving home to battle their own demons and conquer their own fears. My excitement grew as dad and Jennifer sat town to produce the most detailed seconders plan in Comrades history. Hand drawn maps, GPS files loaded, Comrades spectator guide memorised. Dad was ready. Nervous, but ready. Wait! Who was racing again? Oh yes, me. Dad had more of a plan than I did.
I was completely spoilt by my hosts. My own room and bathroom with a whole spare bed for laying out my kit and nutrition 22 times the night prior. I ate well, slept well, and woke up at 2am on Saturday 29 May feeling great. I caught up on social media, got the coffee / breakfast / toilet ritual done in the correct order and well within the 3am cut off. Dad was up before me, preparing his “padkos” for a long day on the road. I walked in to the kitchen to find him grinning, just about whistling with excitement. We hit the road with a bowl of oats and honey for me to eat along the way, and pretty soon we were in Pietermaritzburg and it was go time.
Oh, hello butterflies.
I had about 40 minutes before the 5:30am start gun. I took a walk to the A,B,C start area and got in the loo queue. Wasn’t long before I was at the front of pen C. A step up from my 2014 pen D. E, F and G behind me. Some familiar faces around and that indescribable energy of the Comrades start holding us all together in a beautiful moment of unity and equality. Shivering with nerves and feeling the Pietermaritzberg chill I looked around at all the dreams painted on runners’ faces. You can feel them, on that start line. The stories, the training fatigue, the planning and sacrifices and the time spent preparing for this moment.
I chatted to well-known Cape Town runner Kathleen McQuaide who was next to me. She has a few solid sub-9 Comrades to her name, she is a petite lady of great strength, and I was sure she would go for a top spot in her category. She asked my plan and I thought back to the many times I had told people that I didn’t have one. I was too scared to have one. What if the broken bum couldn’t last the distance? I told her I would love a Bill Rowan medal (sub-9), but I said that I wasn’t sure if it was my day. I told her about the chair incident and missing Two Oceans. It was as close as I was willing to come to the truth.
My friend Joe had messaged me the day prior. “8:53 is your number. Go get it.” I wanted it.
“Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika” (God Bless South Africa)
Chariots of fire… and we were off. A sea of South African runners with plenty of visitors from afar. The crowds cheered, the confetti fell and the air was electric. It doesn’t get old. I bet that the heroes setting off for their 30th or 40th Comrades still love that start. Still cry.
I joined a bus of runners chanting and singing in Zulu at about 10km. The leader of this unofficial “bus” was a man called Boikie, according to his number, and he had a massive South African flag flying out from his back pack. This would become my running family until almost half way. They sang, they chanted, they paced us. They kept it steady at around 5min 30sec per km. Boikie slowed us down on the hills. The chant up every hill went like this:
The pack, “Easy”
The pack, “Easy”
I didn’t have to think. I just soaked up the calm of this group of runners as our feet tapped out a rhythm on the tar. Every so often Boikie asked if “our lady” was still with them. “Ye-Bo” chanted the bus. Each time we ran in to a large group of supporters Boikie would start up with a rendition of Shosholoza and the bus of runners would sing each line back to him. That iconic tune, and the huge SA flag had the crowds cheering up a storm.
At around 25km, near Camperdown, I was on target and feeling light and stoked. It was the first point that my dad would be, armed with a Gu Roctane, a pre-mixed bottle of Tailwind and a hug. I saw him waving madly and I lifted my arms up in the air to signal that I had seen him. I dipped out of the Boikie Bus but I didn’t want to lose them. A quick hug, my goodies handed over, and, as I tried to run away he ran next to me and passed me his Comrades badge from 1992; his last race. I chased the bus with tears streaming down my face. We resumed a steady pace all the way to 42km, where I realised the bus was just a little behind a sub-9 pace. I pushed ahead of them as Boikie’s deep voice called for his group of heroes to “Let our lady go!”
The pacing chart I read had said that in order to reach a sub-9 time on the down run, half way should take around 4 hours and 15 minutes. I reached half way in 4 hours and 22 minutes. I was on track. I wondered what my family was saying, if Q could see my plan and if he thought I had over shot it. I knew the family WhatsApp group was going mad. Mom and Q had planned to watch the race together, my kids were with their dad and he had promised to track me via the app so that he could give them updates. My sister and her husband were in Hermanus, tracking from there. I hoped that Caz was tracking too. I so desperately wanted to send them a message. “Hi guys! I’m having a blast.” But it was too early to call it and I had no idea when or if the #brokenbum would start giving me trouble. I didn’t have my phone on me anyway.
60km done and I would see my dad again soon. Passed Botha’s Hill, Hillcrest, Winston Park and in to Kloof. Everything was sore. There was chafe, my left knee was giving me hassles on even the slightest camber. The Nedbank Green Mile couldn’t have come sooner. Bands of every kind, mime artists, huge crowds. There was creative branding and enough clever posters to keep my mind off the sore knee. Suddenly I saw my dad again – arms in the air, big smile. I tearfully told him I was tired. He told me there was no pressure, just enjoy the last of it. We didn’t mention the Bill Rowan possibility once.
There is no shortage of crowd support at Comrades, especially on the down run. South African families of every socioeconomic group come out in their thousands. Not just to cheer and shout, but with cooler boxes of ice for the runners, pots of Vaseline, huge salt shakers for cramping, sunblock. You need only raise your hand as your calf goes in to cramp and someone will be there with gel or ice spray and an offer of some kind of sustenance. In addition to all the official aid stations and medical tents on the route, the supporters create an element that carries you onwards when your body feels depleted. South Africa at its best. Pinetown didn’t disappoint.
I knew I would see my hosts Kelvin and Jennifer at Cowie’s Hill. They would hand over my last bottle of Tailwind with just 17km to go. They were out to support their daughter, Leigh, doing her first Comrades. I had a sudden surge of energy coming out of the dreary section just beyond Pinetown. Bring on Cowies, the Johnsons. Plenty of downhill on the way, I just had to keep it together. I heard someone tell a fellow runner he was 12 minutes ahead of a Bill Rowan. I let that sink in.
Bursts of running with a few walks got me through another 10km. The crowd doesn’t let up. “No walking now Kim! You’ve got this! Sub-9 in the bag! RUUUUN!” It is amazing. Those crowds are amazing.
With just 7km to go I saw a familiar figure in Celtic Harriers club kit ahead; Nicholas Lykiardopulos. Aka Dopo. In 2015 I was unable to run Comrades due to injury, and Dopo had taken my entry on the substitution system. He had a horrible race that year so he was there with a monkey on his back. His big smile was exactly what I needed for the last painful stretch. “Just run!” said Dopo. So we did. We climbed the awful little hill up to the Pink Drive water point which is 3km from the end. Sean Falconer, editor of Modern Athlete Magazine was there, resplendid in his pink tutu. He welcomed Dopo and I as his Cape Town friends and as we high fived Sean “Ek will huis toe gaan” boomed from the speakers behind him. Oh yes, huis toe indeed.
1km to go. Sore feet, aching quads, nausea.
And then suddenly we’re on the grass and its a Thuderstruck / baby laughter / first kiss / popcorn / sunshine moment all wrapped up in one indescribable force. I didn’t know our exact finish time yet, but I could see my dad and club chairman, Allan, shouting from the Wild Runner gazebo. I popped a cheesy air punch. Dopo turned to me and said, “Either you go first, or we cross the line together. You decide.”
“Together”, I mumbled.
You have to look up, and try to take it all in. I saw Gordon Graham on the mic, an old friend from Radio Algoa days in PE. He welcomed me in by name and gave me my last high five for the day. Dopo and I linked arms and looked up as we crossed the mat.
8 hours 50 minutes 48 seconds. I couldn’t believe it.
I stumbled through to get my first Bill Rowan medal and thanked Dopo for an incredible last 7km. We parted ways and I went looking for my dad. He popped up in front of me. More tears, big hug.
I made it over the walk way to our club gazebo. Miranda and Caroline were already there; both had fantastic races. My coach, Nic de Beer came over with a congratulatory hug. He had a 6 hour 25 minute day out. He’s a machine. Dad and I wobbled to the car soon after. Done. I was in a weird, fuzzy daze. Completely spent.
Reflecting now, I’m not sure why it all went so well. Perhaps the forced rest during the #brokenbum phase was exactly what I needed. Perhaps having my dad there, or the complete lack of pressure. Maybe it was Joe’s message the day prior. Or a combination of the above plus great coaching, support from Q and the kids, and a good head space on a perfect weather day.
If you are fortunate enough to have your parents still with you; find an adventure to share. Do it. Book it. Ask them for it.
If you are fence sitting about running this race, looking at you Carol Brink, don’t hesitate. It is a day when South Africa and its people are at their very best. It is a day of facing fears and learning important lessons about yourself. Lessons that can be applied to every other element of your life.
Comrades. The Ultimate Human Race.