Ai Comrades. You’re a race of many faces.
Prior to taking on the 2017 version, I said that I almost didn’t want to go back. Last year was such a good one. But back I went, after more than 1 400km of training and with all the familiar nervous energy felt at the previous 3.
The build up to Comrades 2017 was pretty good, and definitely more calculated than previous years. Q was preparing for his 12th after a two-year break, and there was some banter between us on who would cross the finish line first. There was less than a minute between our times at Oceans in March, which was the catalyst for the chirps. We even had a pair of Oakleys on the line… which was pretty brave of me! Q knows that race inside out, and he ran 1 800km in training. It was going to take a very, very good day for me to beat him.
My goal, other than a hopeful bum-tap-the-husband-as-I-pass-him plan, was to get as far under 9 hours as I could push. I was really quite confident that a Bill Rowan was on the cards. The idea was to reach half way in 4 hours 15 minutes, then tap it out on feel until the end with some reliance on the small downhills in the last 7km. I’d only done one UP Comrades prior, my very first in 2013. Comparisons were tricky, as the first is just a venture in to the unknown, and all I really remembered was a tummy disaster right near the beginning, and really painful blisters on the bottom of both my feet from about 60km. I finished that run in 10 hours 18 minutes.
Back to 2017. Q and I flew in to Durban late on Saturday morning. Coach and friend, Nic de Beer, had done my registration for me, and Q only had the swift green number reg to do. A quick stop at the GU stand for my usual Roctane gels, and we left the buzz of the expo to join Nic and Devon for a chilled pre-race chat. I’d had a bit of a cold in the days leading up, and the voices of doom were worrying me a little. Don’t race when sick, etc. I’d rested completely for 3 consecutive days, and we did a 2km leg loosener when we reached our accommodation in Durban. The legs could not have been more ready; I just wanted to run.
The race kit set out is where it all starts getting real. We had the welcome distraction of Heloise from TRAIL Magazine popping in for a visit and chat, but then it was back to the gritty stuff. Pinning on my number late afternoon I started worrying about my decision to run with my own water, and a hydration vest. It had worked brilliantly for Oceans, and I loathe using those revolting plastic sachets so I was planning to fill the pack reservoir with 1.5 litres of water, hoping to find a supporter with a hose somewhere along the route to refill. Born 2 Run Athletic Club had kindly offered to hand me bottles of Tailwind at three points on the route, so I was pretty sorted. But when my friend Karoline messaged to say that she would not be using her pack, I decided to do the same. Of course I hadn’t packed a running belt as back up for my gels, so was in a bit of a spin about how to carry what I needed without any seconders on the route. It also meant that neither Q nor I would have phones at the finish line; admin looming.
We ate our usual pesto and pasta, drank plenty of water, watched some silly TV then crawled in to bed with alarms set for 3am. I fell asleep feeling grateful to have found a partner that loves what I love, and I smiled as I imagined tapping his right bum cheek at about the 70km mark. Maybe, just maybe.
The 3am alarm is one of the worst pre-race moments. It goes off and your heart begins racing. I could just turn over and go back to sleep…
We got an Uber to the start. The driver was so amped; we were his second start line drop off. It was the first of hundreds of moments where I felt a sense of connection with our country. We’re great, you know. I know we have our shit, we have a highly questionable governance and no inspiring leadership from the top. We have crime, and extreme poverty as well as unquestionable inequality. But, we have some of the greatest people. We have humour, and tenacity. When we choose to, we can stick anything out together. Like, actually together. And around 18 000 of us prove that at Comrades each year.
Q and I were nice and early. My shorts pockets were bulging unflatteringly with their 7 gels. I had a bottle of water and a sachet of wet wipes because… 2013 tummy is a traumatic memory. After a portaloo visit, we entered C pen together and soon found our friend Ian Henry, lining up for his 10th. The weather was pretty mild, the vibe was pretty electric. There were three men to one woman entered this year. I knew a few of the women lined up, and I sat there thinking about all their stories. Tracy Leary, relatively new runner and mother of two daughters, going for her first. I wanted that medal for her, so badly. Devon Yanko, up in the elite pen, going for gold after a few months of life changes, travel and mixed racing results as well as injury. Di, also there for her first. A formidable athlete, well-known on the Ironman circuit, stepping in to the ultra-running zone. She’d had a break from competitive racing while she had her first baby, Declan only a year and a half and his mom was there, tackling this beast of a race right up in B pen. Karoline Hanks, mother and my fellow #plasticfreerunning warrior, also going for her first Comrades. Jen Skordis, mom of two small boys, going for her 3rd one. Rae-Lynn, taking her husband through his first Comrades. Candyce Hall, Nicki Hill, Kirsten Hopwood. I thought of my friend, Susan O’Connor and her friend, Retha, lining up without her. Sue was dealt a heavy blow just weeks before the race, on the sidelines with a cracked hip. The woman next to men, the one behind me, the one ahead of me. Eventually all our stories would merge in to one on that long road to Pietermaritzberg.
We moved forward as they dropped the tape, and suddenly it was time for Shosholoza. If the anthem sounded a bit lack lustre (my imagination?), Shosholoza did not disappoint. Full blown goosebumps, heart racing, palms sweating stuff. Some cried, some smiled broadly as they joined in the call and response style song. Shosholoza actually originated in Zimbabwe, and was sung by Ndebele all-male migrant workers in South African mines. The word “Shosholoza” means go forward or make way for the next man.
Chariots of Fire, then the cock crows and we’re off. A first pump from my husband, and a cheeky grin, and he was gone. I won’t go in to too much detail about my first 4km, because the director of a certain race has pointed out that I mention this sort of thing too often (he he) but in summary, I needed the wipes and it was just as off-putting as my 2013 experience. I’ve toughened up though, and I know that it takes a lot more than that kind of situation to derail a race plan. I started in the 8:30 bus, but ducked off and returned just ahead of the 9 hour bus. My friend Reid found me, and we ran together until just before Fields. I got my first bottle of Tailwind there, and was feeling ok. I started a slightly unhealthy relationship with the 9 hour bus here. I was in, then I was out. I was ahead, then swallowed up again. They had this whole hand-holding thing going and I wasn’t so keen! I pulled back when one of the bus passengers said that they were actually on pace for 8 hour 42 minutes.
A while later I found Ross, Di’s husband. We have a recent race habit of criss-crossing a few times over a few km. We say hello and goodbye politely each time. The series of Jetline images of the two of us suggest I was talking his ear off for about 5km. I’ve since apologised. I went through half way with Ross, in 4 hours 24 minutes. I was not on track for my time goal. We had just discussed how we hoped both Di and Q were way out ahead of us having an incredible race, when I spotted Di walking one of the climbs. I don’t know which climb, eventually the “name the hill” game gets silly. Gutted, she had a lot of pain in her achilles and had decided to withdraw. Ross ran with her for a while, but she was done. Another 40-something km would have done serious damage.
I didn’t feel great or light at any point of the race. I had some fantastic conversations, and I smiled at the liars that said I looked strong. I high-fived the kidlets and laughed at some of the more inebriated supporters. I relieved my pockets of their gels until I couldn’t swallow any more. Then I got this weird chest pain. I ran with Andrew Harris for a while, he in his SA Flag running shorts. I wasn’t great company, but I was not going to give up. It became one of those races, where the goal is not to go to far over your original time plan. Where you know you’re just holding it together, and you stop doing the maths and just run. I saw Sean Falconer looming ahead of me on the mic at the base of Polly’s and I did crack a smile there. He gave me a huge hug and asked for a selfie. There is literally nothing like a familiar face when you are feeling like shit, and I thought he was really brave to be hugging runners that must have smelt so awful. “Q has beaten me, hasn’t he?” I asked with a smile. “Totally” said Sean. And I was stoked for Q.
I walked the whole way up Polly’s. I tried big strides and a heel strike to stretch my crampy calves. I had hoped for a very last surge of energy as I reached the top, instead my chest pain returned and I got all teary. The last few km were gross. I accepted a hug from Kim Boshoff, I ran slow steady steps to the finish, but I didn’t stop. I didn’t walk much either. I still had a little bit of fight in me. I can’t remember what song it was that played from a big ass speaker in a bakkie parked in a driveway, but it resonated on some emotional level and I remember having a little cry.
“You’re doing so well,” slurred some dude in a deckchair, on his 8th brandy and coke.
At last, the never-ending journey on the track in Scottsville Racecourse. I didn’t look up, other than a quick glance at my club directors, Allan and Hela. I heard Allan say I’d done well, but he knew I wasn’t happy with my time. I wobbled across the line, received my medal and then started walking like a drunk person. I was pulled over by an official, and I explained my chest pain. I wasn’t allowed to leave the area, and was pretty much frog-marched to the enormous medical tent. No phone, no way of telling Q where I was. I was put on a drip as they set up the ECG machine. The tent was relatively quiet, although I knew it would get crazy later. 400 runners ended up going through there that day. Not like the carnage of 2013, though. I had two trainee doctors, they looked younger than my daughter, a volunteer and a nurse buzzing around my stretcher. I was shivering. For the 10th time someone asked me my race number… 4590 I said, thinking of my dad. I asked the teenage looking doctor if I could use his phone. I called my mom, we both had a little cry. I asked her to try to contact one of my club members so that Q would get the message that I was in the tent. I was walked through to another stretcher to have the ECG machine connected. Vest pulled up around my neck, bra followed, nothing quite like being exposed to a tent full of strangers to end a long, tough day. Then the nurse pulled my drip out by mistake. Blood everywhere. ECG was repeated, and I was given the all clear. Second teenage doctor explained that I would need to pass urine before leaving the medical tent. I didn’t even vaguely need a wee. I was walked back to my original stretcher, where my yellow rose lay looking a bit sad about it all. A really lovely nurse was there; she has done 20 consecutive Comrades in the tent. She tucked me up under a space blanket, covered me with a grey blanket, made me tea, hooked up a second drip and told me about the winning lady who forgot to cross the actual line and risked losing her victory. 2 hours later I was able to have a wee, with one of the volunteers standing outside the portaloo holding my drip, listening out for the evidence that would set me free. Good to go, all I had to do was find my husband.
After a hug from our club chairman, when I had eventually located the tog bag area and then our tent, I started to feel normal. Q eventually tracked me down, and I was able to congratulate him on his amazing 8 hour 43 minute race. Before kakking him out for not thinking about looking for me in the medical tent. Our friends Pete (smashed his first Comrades) and his partner Thea drove us back to Durban. A tentative supper of rice crackers and Marmite, some Facebook disaster management as my darling mom had posted a plea for someone to get Q to the medical tent at Comrades. She also whatsapped the teenage doctor a few times. I love my mom. I won’t run without my phone ever again, promise mom.
So Devon got her gold, she came 10th. She’s amazing. Karoline smashed her first Comrades, finishing just ahead of Q. She didn’t bum tap him on my behalf, sadly. There were mixed results for the rest of the women that I knew who lined up. Some got their goals, some will come back again next year. Me? I owe Q a pair of Oakleys, and I’m probably done with the UP run. Bring on 10 June and another happy DOWN race.
17 031 people started the race. 13 852 completed it under 12 hours. I came 233rd out of nearly 5 000 women. There were at least 17 031 stories on the road, and a few from the sidelines, too.
Comrades, we’ve still got a few stories between us.