Comrades Marathon 2018, the 93rd edition of The Ultimate Human Race, a down run from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.
COMRADES 2018 “I AM IN”
So where does one start? I guess at the beginning. Oh, not talking about the race but referring to my experience of this iconic race.
I certainly won’t go back to the beginning of time, though I need to shed some light onto the build up to race day which takes me to the day I decided that I will indeed do the race. The truth is, when I committed to line up for this year’s marathon, I was very aware of two things; it was going to be a tough day on the road and a finish or a tough day on the road and a fail. It was my intention to opt for the finish, but the DNF (Did Not Finish) was as real as the first year, and this year, even more than ever before.
My training for this year’s race was the worst ever. I previously had never done so few kilometers for Comrades before, not even when I was injured in 2015, so I was painfully aware the odds were stacked up against me. I had so many setbacks over the past few months that the probability of failing was ten to one bigger than that of finishing. When one faces personal challenges, a relationship breaking up after 16 years, relocating to a new home a few months later followed by urgent surgery due to some serious medical issues, you are humanly derailed and led to a place in your life where you don’t want to be. The reality was, I was in that dark place and getting back on track was my responsibility and mine alone.
I looked at the down run profile of the Comrades marathon and recognized landmarks and names; Polly Shortts, Little Pollys, Lion Park, Umlaas Road, Cato Ridge, Inchanga, Botha’s Hill, Hilcrest, Kloof, Fields Hill, Cowies Hill, Westville, 45th Cutting, Tolgate. All these have a significant and special meaning for athletes attempting this iconic race. I cannot help but think how they also symbolise the landmarks and special places in our lives where we are challenged with the harsh and very real realities of life, and yet, with all the odds stacked up against us, we push on and find a way to manage these odds. We find a way of dealing with it and through whatever it is, we then find our wisdom & strength. We somehow manage to beat the odds, maybe not always, but most of the time.
AGAINST ALL ODDS
This year’s Comrades to me was one of those races where the odds were stacked so high against me that I could not even see the other race day challenges of the Comrades so called “Big Five” before me ( Polly Shortts, Inchanga, Botha’s Hill, Fields Hill and Cowies Hill ).
On the 10th of June 2018, I stood at the start of Comrades and I remember not having the slightest feeling of fear for what was lying ahead. In hindsight, I think this was because I knew that it was going to be a tough day anyway and adding fear and uncertainty would just be two more odds to have to fight later that day.
I remember singing “Shosholoza” with the other twenty thousand runners and thought about the translated English words of this song, wondering how many runners actually knows it. Roughly translated it means, “Go forward, go forward on those mountains, train from South Africa. Go forward go forward, you are running away, you are running away, on those mountains, train from South Africa” This song is an Ndebele folk song that originated in our neighbouring country Zimbabwe that later became popular in South Africa. I knew, all I had to do was trust myself, trust my own pacing, my will to finish and then do as the song says, “Go forward over those mountains like a South African runaway train.” One step at a time, left, right, left, right, and repeat to the end. A grueling 90.184 kilometers of torture was lying ahead and the plan for the day remained, “Just finish”.
On the back of this there was also the #Comrades4Bibles charity drive which I planned to do for the third consecutive year supporting the Bible Society of South Africa. This is another leg of my own charity “Run for Bible Rands” and money raised through #Comrades4Bibles goes towards the grand total for this charity at the end of the year. I also decided to dedicate this year’s Comrades to all those runners who were unable to run because they were sick, injured and/or because of other personal reasons and for those who were themselves were dealing with personal issues, challenges and hardships in various areas of their lives. I wrote down all these names and placed it in an envelope that was pinned to the back of my race number, so I knew, although this was my Comrades, my 5th attempt to finish the Ultimate Human Race, it was also for Bibles and it was in solidarity with those who faced tough times. For one day I was going to carry their names with me and symbolically carry their burdens as well on that day. Some may think this is silly and even corny, but that was fine, I knew this was what I wanted to do, and I did.
From the start, I reminded myself of how extremely important it was to break the race up into ‘bite-sized chunks’ and that is what I did. The terrain changes during the course of the day and the various stages of the race need different approaches and should be run differently. This is a golden rule that many athletes forget, sometimes even those who have been on this route far more times than I have. If you have a good day it does not mean you can just go out and be reckless. Comrades coach Lindsey Parry says this, “It is vital that your Comrades Marathon pacing strategy is well thought out before you start. Too fast and the Comrades route will slow you down later.”
I ran my first half of Comrades conservatively and felt great when I met up with our support team just before the half way mark. I have to say the severe drop into Drummond is always a personal highlight of the down run because I know just ahead, our amazing support team is waiting for us to give us that well deserved injection of positivity and encouragement.
NO AVOIDING THAT SO CALLED “SOLID BRICK WALL”
At around 80 km, a few steps into Cowies Hill, was the point where I hit my solid brick wall this year. I pulled off to the side of the road and leaned against a rail, just to take a break and refocus. This is where I my hand reached back to the envelope pinned to my race number with the names of people I was running for, saying, “God, I need your help, this is not just for me, this is for all these people fighting their own battles AND this is for the Bibles…” I was tired. I was sore. Field Hill already did its damage. My legs were heavy and hammered and I knew on the other side of Cowies the pain would get even more intense and real as we drop down towards Westville. I knew this was where the mental bashing would start. This was where Comrades became real. This is where Comrades gets real for most of us, because it is now no longer about the eighty odd kilometers we have already completed… it is about the next ten we still have to do. Runners often say your legs will get you to around eighty kilometers, your mind will then take you to the end. So true.
I got back on the road, struggled through the next thee kilometers and then the worst part of the race started, the last seven kilometers. I had no idea how far we were from the finish because the distance signs counting off the final kilometers were nowhere to be found. Apparently they were blown over by the wind earlier in the day and no one thought it was important to put them back up so we were literally running blind. I asked a few runners around me for their distance (on their watches) and everyone gave me a different figure so I knew the distance was not accurate. The route was in fact further, well according to our watches anyway. The only thing I could count on at that point was the actual time of the day so I switched my watch to that setting because I knew at 17.30 I needed to be at that finish line. It is horrible to run blind like this, not knowing what’s ahead. It was also a new finish venue meaning a new route to the end, so one could not even draw knowledge from any previous memories or experiences. Horrible.
THE FINISH IS NEAR, YET SO FAR
My first glimpse of the Moses Mabhida Stadium left me with even less hope that I was going to finish in time. It was already getting dark and that beacon seemed so far away. At that point, I just focused on slowing down my pace slightly, but keep running. I knew from my planning that an average pace of 07:55 min/km was going to be a close call, leaving little space for error, so I decided to make 07:40 min/km my aimed average pace. I ran at 07:39 min/km so in fact, I was according to my planning, still safe for a finish but the inaccurate distance info I got from everyone made me nip a bit. Was this going to be enough? Well, I decided to trust my own instinct, stick to my plan and hope it will be enough. Basically, I ran the last seven kilometers with the odd brisk walks at the water points, but no stopping, every step forward towards the finish. This was where the true meaning of “Asijiki” became a reality, “No turning back”.
I was overcome with relieve when I spotted the beginning of the TOYOTA red mile. I actually remember thinking to myself that there is just about 1.6km to go and then I am home. Entering the well-lit Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban stirred up a whirlwind of emotions in me and I was filled with pure relieve when I saw the first clock. I was safe! My race plan paid off, my pacing was spot on and I was going to bag that medal and I did. Again, I reminded myself of Lindsey Parry’s words, “It is vital that your Comrades Marathon pacing strategy is well thought out before you start.”
I crossed the finish line at 11:57:31. Mission accomplished. Fifth consecutive Comrades Marathon done.
THE TRUTH FOR ME ABOUT COMRADES 2018
Honestly, this was my most difficult Comrades Marathon ever. This race challenged me on so many levels, leaving me vulnerable to whatever race day was going to throw at me. Lining up at the start with a mere 534km on your legs was ten to one the silliest thing I could do, but I was determined to get to that finish in, in time, and I did it. Obviously I would not recommend such little training to anyone, ever. Comrades Marathon is more a mental thing than anything else, I can now vouch for that. You have to be fierce, strong willed and focused otherwise you will not survive This Ultimate Human Race.
Friends, in our lives we will encounter our very own Polly Shortts, Little Pollys, Lion Parks, Umlaas Roads, Cato Ridges, Inchangas, Botha’s Hills, Hilcrests, Kloosf, Fields Hills, Cowies Hills, Westvilles, 45th Cuttings and Tolgates, but know that how we approach these, how we see them as part of the bigger picture, that will determine if we will make it to the end. Sometimes life gets tough and you are faced with real life obstacles, challenges, and have to make life changing decisions that will forever change the course of your being. Just do it and focus on that beacon that is looming in a distance. Fight and push forward towards that goal so you can ultimately conquer and taste the victory. Don’t give up. Don’t quit. Don’t let anyone else define your destiny.
One of my all-time favourite quotes is from Nelson Mandela who said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” The seemingly impossible is something you can accomplish. Maybe you’ve tried it before, maybe not, but it’s important to remember it can be done, and that very thoughts should drive you.
RUNNING FOR A CAUSE
I also once again realized the difference it makes in your motivation levels when you run for a cause. It makes you more stubborn (yes I said it) and also more focused, because it is no longer just about you, it’s about others, in my case, those who so generously gave towards #Comrades4Bibles and those names in that envelope pinned to the back of my race number. This elevates your wanting to get at that finish and all the doubt, the pain and suffering and even moments of self-pity, and let’s be real, even the thoughts of taking the easy way out and quit, disappears into thin air as you refocus and remind yourself why you are actually doing this.
In closing, again the words of Shosholoza”, “Go forward, go forward on those mountains, train from South Africa. Go forward go forward, you are running away, you are running away, on those mountains, train from South Africa”
I want to thank my family, friends and even strangers who have so faithfully supported me over the past few months but more so during the last few weeks, days before and on race day. It was you believing in me when I didn’t and I guess even the unuttered thoughts and moments of doubt, that made me push myself to limits that I did not even know existed. To God, all the glory, all the honour, all the praise and my deepest gratitude for allowing me to continue on this 2018 Comrades journey, for using it as a tool to not only make a difference in people’s lives through Run for Bible Rands and #Comrades4Bibes projects, but for using it also as a tool in my own life to bring healing and a better understanding of who I am as a person with God compared to who I am without Him. Today, more than ever before, as I sit here typing this document, I cannot imagine my life without Him.
MESSAGE TO FELLOW ATHLETES
Last but not least, to every single athlete who have conquered Comrades Marathon 2018, The Ultimate Human Race, congratulations and well done. Whether it was just a finish, like me, a personal best or personal achievement like a green number or even double green, way to go, you’ve done it. To those who did not finish or maybe not achieved their planned goal, for whatever reason, it does not matter. Congrats to you for making it to the start and for pushing yourself to places you’ve never been before. If it was a tough day on the road, and it certainly was for me, then that is what Comrades brought to your day. Please remember though, whatever it was that prevented you from not achieving your goal or not making it to that finish line does not define you. What defines you is the fact that you stayed true to yourself and you had the mere guts to line up for this iconic race. It was Colin Powel l who said, “There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure”. Ten to one, not reaching your race day goal or not finishing, had nothing to do with you not preparing and or not putting in the hard work. The fact is and remains, race day is always unique in every possible way. Learn from this experience and do it different in 2019.
Editorial support : Karen Clouter, Madoc, ON, Canada
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You can still use this link https://form.myjotform.com/81141565181553 if you want so send me a personal message, or if you supported the #Comrades4Bibles cause then please tell me why you did. Get in touch, I love to hear from you guys.
Run for Bible Rands continues and we as athletes, runners, walkers and Park Runners, will continue to make our miles and moment count for more than just a medal as we donate R1 for each kilometer we do in official races every month to the Bible Society of South Africa. So far we have raised R 9, 076.10 though this charity and this will make available a total of 153 FREE Bibles to those who needs it most. You can join us in making a difference. Just follow the link above and sign up.