The birth of another Comrades?

2010-06-01 00:00

Once the baby is born, most mothers declare “never again”; but pain is an odd thing: it fades, disappearing under the glow of well-being and pride. Comrades day, with its birth of the 89,25 km run from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, was no different.

In the days preceding the race I kept terror at bay by obsessing over details: my strategy for the day was broken down into 5 kilometre bits, then 2 kilometres, then one kilometer, each matched against the route, the pace adjusted and readjusted; all of which was redundant within 8 k’s on the actual day. The fridge was covered with lists: for food for Yves to give me on the route, things I had to take with me, hints to remember (including my mantra: “I’ve done the training, I can do pain, I can do this!”). On the day, the lists didn’t really match reality either – the potatoes, bananas and chicken packed for the route were tossed in favour of GU jellies and orange slices. I dumped the t-shirt, the gloves, the torch and a few other things within kilometers of the starter gun going off. So much for planning.

What had worried me most was that while I had done all the recommended training, Comrades is two marathons and a bit, and after a route tester run of 56.6 k’s, I could only shake my head at the sheer absurdity of another 33 kilometres. What had also come as a bit of a shock was the actual route that Comrades is run on. The route tester goes from Pietermaritzburg to Hillcrest, covering the Inchanga and Drummond hills. But when you’re running that road, those hills are not just hills; they’re mountains that stretch two to three kilometers at a time, and they start after you’ve completed a marathon …

When I expressed my doubts about the distance, everyone assured me: “The crowd will take you through”. But I’m not really a crowd runner. I rather like the stretches of solitary running when one disappears into oneself and the miles slip meditatively past. I also don’t really know how to talk to other runners on the road. It is a bit like being at a party but without the alcohol to ease inhibitions, so I usually nod and mutter something meaningless and then the other runner goes off to find someone more interesting to talk to. So I didn’t really hope for a lot of entertaining distraction on my expected eleven hours.

Suddenly the months, weeks, days, hours were all gone, and it was 5.15 am, cold and Inkosi Albert Luthuli Street, the sound of thousands of disembodied voices singing shosholozo and then the national anthem. It was a really soppy moment. Then the BOOM and the runners started shuffling forward to cross the start line – G batch seeding, where I was, took 6 minutes to cross the start. And for a long while, I marveled at the sight of a sea of heads bobbing under the street lights for as far ahead as I could see; and later snaking up towards Umlaas Road, Camperdown and Drummond in the dawn.

Was it painful? Yes, it was, especially the last kilometer. A fellow club runner, Dave, who had paced me wisely over the first half, pointed out that no matter how bad you're feeling, there's always someone feeling worse. And on the last 20 k's or so, there were people on the side of the road vomiting and others walking as though they were complete zombies. The fact that most of them were still moving forwards gives one strength. What is weird though is that there you are, running and walking along on auto-pilot, and the second you go over the finish mat, your legs say “right, that’s done”, and they stop working without further notice. I was like a drunk, stumbling and veering off at angles. The finish area is itself a revelation. It’s a very big space caged in with fences, and there are bodies and crushed roses everywhere; people who'd crossed the finish, stumbled into some free space, and fallen asleep.

This all disappears from memory as one relives the last kilometer, the moment of turning the corner and realizing you’re in the stadium, hearing the crowd roar (yes, even after 10 ½ hours), and you’re on grass and you’ve done what you’ve trained for six months to do. You’re home. My time: 10 hours 37 minutes, 20 minutes faster than planned!

From the very start, the support carries one. The roads are lined with spectators from 5 am to 5.30 pm. Following every step is the call: “C’mon lady! C’mon Hilton! C’mon Donna!” If I thought to walk, someone would urge me on. If my heart was sinking at the miles that remained, someone would notice and hand me an orange or offer a biscuit, or a sweet, or even a beer. The physical achievement is one thing but the crowd makes the runners heroic.

My family also blew my mind. Yves woke me up with coffee at 4.15 am (as he has on every training run) and was there three times on the route and at the end, in the traffic, to drive me home: a very long and tiring day. My son, Simon, in the early dark was at the first drinking table; my other son, Jono, was on a bridge in Durban in the late afternoon shouting “well done Mom!”, my daughter watched on a computer in Germany and went for a 2 k run to keep me company, my brother Chris, sister-in-law, Phil, and nieces, Ciaran and Riley, met me in Hillcrest. My mother made soup and sent multiple sms, my UK brother, Steve, mailed me my splits before I even knew they were available …. It all makes for rather teary wonderment even now. Here’s an email snippet from my Cate:

“ah mom! your email made me cry! i'm so proud of you, i'm quite overwhelmed... physio mike told you : your body won't break, it'll be sore, but just keep running. And you did, mom! you just kept running and running and running. your poor little legs. oh god! i just keep crying... mostly out of pride - you are truly the ambassador of perseverance and achievement to our family. thank you. love you. C.”

I think I come away from it absolutely amazed at what the human will is capable of. I worked hard to avoid extreme hardship through planning and preparation. But some people, and many who have run it before (which is even more amazing) come unprepared - under trained, nursing injuries, don't eat properly, over-run the beginning stages and then manage to crawl through to the end in extreme states of physical stress (dehydration, exhaustion, pain and nausea), and still finish. That is iron will.

So, the pain is fading now and I’m starting to think about how I might do my training differently next year …. The birth of another Comrades, perhaps?

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