My friend Correne Kelly recently ran her first Comrades Marathon, I was so proud of her and blown away by her determination to succeed! Her goal was immense, the challenge huge, the work needed was mind-blowing but she did it! I asked her to share her experience and here it is!
So my good friend and avid blogger (I’m totally hooked on her daily news!), Bonnie Stuchbury recently asked me to write a piece on my experiences leading up to The Ultimate Human Race which suits me fine seeing as I’ve been threatening to blog about this experience for a long time! I often found myself during training, thinking about how I would blog that exact moment … the times I would hit the road for a short 8km dash before work and REALLY struggle … asking myself “HOW” am I ever going to endure 89kms of ruthless tar when I can’t even manage a little 8km around the estate without stopping to walk? It goes without saying though that “every dog has its day”. I mean, even the top professional athletes have their day (surely?) and it is with this thinking and my love (yes, some may ask how ON EARTH can you love running?) for the sport that has also taught me a great deal of lessons, one of them being endurance.
I’ve always enjoyed running. In school I never used to be good at all the other athletic activities … long jump, hurdles … hahahah, with these short legs?! But I was always right up there with the track team in terms of the 1200ms, cross country, etc. In fact, on the afternoons we used to head out into the koppies down the road from our school I used to keep up with the boys in our team, way ahead of everyone else. Also, as with I imagine 90% of us South African citizens, I grew up being glued to the TV come Comrades morning. My favourite part of the whole race was waking up at 5am, grabbing our Milo, putting a pair of socks on and grabbing my blankie and watching the start of the Comrades on SABC … thereafter checking out what was happening throughout the day with the leaders, etc and then of course the formidable part when the dude with the gun would turn his back on the finishing line and I would sit with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat watching all the last minute participants struggling to get over the finish line in the last couple of seconds. Over the years, we had family friends, my uncle and other acquaintances try it out, some completing it with flying colours, others missing it by minutes, others bailing half way … all the time, it never crossed my mind that I would one day complete this epic event. In fact, I always told people that I would NEVER do it, as much as I admired the people who participated, that I was of the view that the human body was simply not designed to run such distances. It was something that would remain as an interest of mine to watch on TV.
In January 2011, after a few of our good mates had taken part the previous year, my husband, Michael decided that he was going to give it a bash THAT YEAR! With less than 6 months to get himself ready he pretty much dove in head first and put in as much training and preparation as he could in between work, life, socializing, etc. Along the way, I would still run with him. I took part in a lot of 10ks, half marathon’s, many early mornings on the starting line, successful PB’s (Personal Bests) and thankfully NO injuries or niggles. Mikey trained his butt off, probably not as much as he should have but with his sheer determination and stamina we headed off for Durban 6 months later and I supported him as he hit the road from Durban to Pietermaritzburg on an 87,34km journey. Needless to say, the entire weekend was an incredible experience. Those in the know say that when you run the Comrades something happens to you within, you change somewhat as a person and it was that weekend as a supporter that something grabbed me … I decided on the Monday after Michael had crossed the line in 10:37 that I was going to run the down Comrades the following year.
Very often with commitments we make, thoughts we have and ideas that pop into our head 12 months before the goal date they never come to fruition … it was different for me though. I KNEW I wanted to do it and had every intention of lining up at 05h30 on the 3rd of June 2012.
Like I said I’d been running on a regular basis while Mike was training so to begin my program wasn’t a serious shock to the system. I continued to run as normal for the coming months. A 21km here and there, loads of 5 and 8km time trials (RAC on a Tuesday, our home club Morningside Runners on a Wednesday which by the way has the most difficult TT of all – LOTS of nasty hills, and the Wanderers on a Thursday). We live on a golf estate so also have loads of safe, open space to run around there. The perimeter of the estate probably gives you a good 10km run. Come January 2012 it was officially crunch time. Don Oliver, the well known former Comrades Marathon coach (19 medals) boasts an excellent program to follow in his book “Make Sure of Your Comrades Medal” …. I squizzed through this a couple of times to get the gist of what he was saying and simultaneously running as much and as often as I could. It’s true what they say about it becoming easier the more you run. Sure you have good and bad days, strong days when you kill an 8km time trial in 40 minutes and others when you walk most of it and finish in 50 minutes … my lungs and heart grew stronger and this is apparently one of the first and most important things that happens to you before your muscles and joints catch up. Cardiovascularly you become super fit more and more every time you hit the road while your muscles and joints are tearing and being repaired on each occasion but thereby also strengthening more and more. It was a great thought to be told at one of the pre Comrades seminars that right now (this was 2 weeks before the day) that you are the fittest you will ever be in your entire life. Wow! Now that’s an achievement!
On the 11th of March I entered my first marathon … 42.2kms straight from 21.1kms! Luckily the course was pretty flat. I struggled. My legs didn’t know what hit them after the halfway mark. I remember thinking to myself as I hit the second loop … this is the farthest I’ve ever run! I walked/ran the second half and came in at 05:06 … not bad for a first marathon except in order to qualify for the Comrades you need to finish a standard marathon in under 5 hours. I was however very happy with my achievement and wanted more, more, more! Mike was also very chuffed … he told me afterwards that truthfully he thought I wouldn’t finish having jumped straight from a half marathon! Thereafter there were a lot more shorter runs, lots of Saturday morning runs with some members from our club, lots of hill training (entails sprinting up a 300 to 400 meter hill and jogging back down – doing this repeatedly 5 or 6 times and then running the 8 or so kms back to the club).
After having run 3 marathons and two ultras (the Easter 100 over the Easter weekend … although we only ran on the first day which was 48kms … again going further than I ever had before and the Slowmag Ultra – 50kms (which killed me but really tested my endurance) I qualified officially and happily at the Wally Hayward which is the last long run before Comrades. This was an interesting run for me … it’s a level 1 which is “easy” but what made it extra special is that I jumped on my first bus. For those of you who don’t know the “running lingo”, a bus isn’t an actual vehicle with 4 wheels that you climb into when the going gets tough and you jump off when you’re ready to start running again (Hahahah), it’s actually a group of seasoned runners, lead by one particularly good and experienced runner (in most cases. I’ve heard some horror stories where the pace setter ends up bailing and everyone else misses their cut off!) and he will run/walk at such a pace with the correct knowledge to get you to the finish line in the required time. People feel differently about these buses. Some find it difficult/frustrating to run in the middle of a big group of people and sing and chant and clap your hands while you’re using all your energy to keep your legs moving forward … I find them very helpful when the going gets tough … it almost puts you in a “runners trance” and everyone around you sort of “carries” you through. Anyway, it was during this marathon than I jumped on “Jafta’s” bus … kept up with him in front of the bus and he lead me and about 20 other runners through the trying kms, up the last 500m hill aptly known as “Hakkin Hill” – a real killer when your legs are already tired and over the finish line to qualify for the Comrades in 4:43 minutes, seeding me in batch H – THE LAST PEN OF THE LOT ON COMRADES DAY. *Read: EEEEEEEEK!!!*
The whole of May was spent tapering (resting and healing your muscles). This proved frustrating at times because you’re always wondering (especially as a novice Comrades runner) if you’ve done enough. It was very tempting to hit longer runs here and there but also, very, very welcoming to do less than you had over the past 6 months. Especially during April when you have to clock most of your mileage (I ran 2 marathons and 2 ultras in April). The month of May was spent focusing on my diet (I began following the Paleolithic way of eating which is an entire different blog for another day!) but you have to cut out all carbs which is tricky when you’re supposed to be carbo loading for an endurance race. Luckily I am a relatively healthy eater so this too wasn’t too much of a challenge. You can get all the carbs you need in veggies like butternut, sweet potato, peas, gem squash, etc and I also included a lot of good fats in my diet (avo, olive oil, raw nuts, etc). Within a week my energy levels increased, my tummy was flatter than ever, I had no tummy cramps, bloating or anything. I started sleeping well and my head was clear! Paleo is DEFINITELY the way to go, especially with someone like me who suffers with PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome) and is thereby insulin resistant. It was only during my last few days that I added pasta, bread and potatoes to my diet, purely to increase my glucose levels and give my body something to burn for the first 90 minutes of the Comrades (apparently the body’s natural reserves will last this long during an endurance activity).
I slept, dreamt, ate and worked Comrades for a very long time. My bosses were (thankfully) very patient with me. There were times at work when I had serious porridge brain. Then they had to put up with the 3 days a week where I would bolt out the door at 17h00 to rush to time trial. One thing is for sure and that’s that I was blessed with the most incredibly supportive and patient bosses and for that I am extremely grateful. In actual fact it makes me even more driven to get back stuck in once I’ve fully recovered and go the extra mile for them. Thank goodness I enjoy my job!
2 weeks before we were due to drive to Pietermaritzburg our lift arrangements fell through. Due to unforeseen circumstances, our family members couldn’t drive with us anymore … this wasn’t too much of a panic. I knew someone would come through for us which led me to begin by sending out a “plead” to our closest mates. I tried to sell the free weekend as best as I could but because of the short notice no one could make the commitment to take 2 days off work, etc. I contemplated flying to Durban and buying us tickets to catch the Comrades bus which left from the Expo centre in Durban at 2am on the Sunday morning but then there are loads of costs entailed for the weekend (flights, accommodation, car rental) and the uneasiness hanging over your head of flight delays, getting caught in traffic on the bus, etc. Eventually, Mike’s cousin who runs his own business jumped at the opportunity and again, I will be forever grateful to Darren Williams for giving up his time and spend the weekend with us in Howick and Durban. Waking up before the birds on the Sunday in the freezing cold, dropping us off at the start and then keeping himself busy throughout the day. The entire trip was smooth sailing and we got around without a hitch. I’m hoping that as with me, somehow the Comrades bug has bit and he participates someday.
Now for the drum roll!!! The BIG DAY! To cut what you will have noticed is already a long story (I could write a novel on my experience!) short I’ll try and put into words exactly how it went down on the 3rd of June 2012. An overdose on Rescue Remedy the night before allows me to get 5 straight, unbroken hours of sleep. At 02h30 my alarm goes off. At this point I’m still feeling very calm, mellowed out. Possibly still from the rescue drops … Mike keeps asking me if I’m ok because I’m so quiet. I guess I was in my own little world preparing my head but was in all honestly perfectly content. We hit the road an hour later and after what seemed like a couple of minutes Darryn drops us off on one of the side roads to walk to the start. I can’t believe that this time around I AM ACTUALLY TAKING PART!! There are runners all over the show, some huddled in little groups under blankets trying to keep warm, others busy drenching themselves in anti cramp/anti freeze/anti chafe/anti sunburn/anti keel over and die lotions and potions while anxious friends and loved ones look on, waiting to drive away and meet them along the route to Durban while they RUN there, lots of last minute photos being snapped, goodbye hugs and kisses, tears and pats on the back … walking a little further on and closer to where it all begins there is a big group, 40 strong of random runners gathered on the side of the road chanting together, getting the blood flowing, toy-toying on the spot and as we walked past them to head to our pens all my emotions suddenly come rushing back … with tears in my eyes and a massive lump in my throat I grab Michael’s hand and say “this is it!” Alongside us we have our seeding pens – we walk past batch A – 2 meter high fences separating the spectators from the “Comrades” – in between each batch they had red and white tape separating you which would later be ripped out and we would all move forward – approximately 16 000 of us!
Come batch F Mikey says to me this is it … he has to leave me here. The rest of the day from here on, I do it alone. All our months of training and his support and encouragement along the way comes to this point. Like a mother bird who pushes her baby out the nest for the first time in an attempt to fly – it’s now my time to give this one a shot. ALONE! I move off 2 batches down to H … there weren’t many people standing there yet so I managed to get a spot close to the front of the batch. There are still people huddled around in groups, keeping warm under blankets, some quietly chattering. I overhear a two girls, complete strangers sitting on the tar in front of me, the one obviously an experienced Comrades runner telling the other, a first timer, all about the race, what to expect, etc … within a few minutes I look behind me again and the pen is packed – everyone has arrived and taken their position before they close the pens off for any more entry 15 minutes before the race starts. A couple of minutes later they remove the tape separating us and we all move forward. The event officially begins. 17 000 strong we stand, proudly singing the national anthem. There wasn’t one person around me who wasn’t singing on the top of their voice … they played Shosholoza thereafter which you know is always a crowd pleaser and next up the infamous CHARIOTS OF FIRE. Those of you who grew up watching the Comrades will know that when you hear this song you associate it with running – it was heart wrenching!! I jumped up and down with excitement and once again had to pinch myself and remind myself that I was about to set off and tackle 89.2 kms of road. There was no turning back now!! The cock crowed, the gun went off … and then we stood … it took us 6 ½ minutes to cross the starting line … and then we were off … a constant reminder in the back of my head to HOLD BACK, which was the most important piece of advice I had permanently been drummed into my head … to keep back even when I felt good because I was surely going to need every ounce of energy later on in the day.
Before I knew it we were 5 hours into the race (5 hours not sounding like a long time at all when you’re looking at 12 hours on the road!) and running through Harrison Flats (not even half way yet) I hit my wall … you would think running on a flat, unchallenging road would be easy but there was a dribble of runners here and there, a couple of meters down the road a paramedic van already having been pulled over to rescue a runner who had collapsed. It reminded me of a graveyard. Everyone around you is dead quiet, putting all their concentration into just getting through this. This was probably the only time during the race when I asked myself “what am I doing”. Thankfully I was pulled through this by a seasoned runner completing his 9th race. The one thing I found which helped along the way was when fellow runners would say stuff like “my word but you’re looking strong”, “you look super fit”, “you look so comfortable”. The camaraderie and the way people came together, black, white, Indian, South Africans, Americans, English, Chinese … I made so many friends along the way it seemed to make time go by way faster – just as I had been told it would!
Before I knew it I was at Drummond, which is the halfway point … just before crossing the cut off mat at this point, some spectators on the side of the road had a little portable TV and were watching the live broadcast of the leaders coming in – while I was crossing the halfway mark, in a time of 5:31, Ludwick Mamabolo, the first South African to take the title in 15 years crossed the finishing line! I was more overwhelmed and excited that a Saffa had taken it back to think about the fact that I was only half way!
I felt super strong crossing over at Drummond. With “only” another marathon to go (42kms) I was feeling great. Having fallen off the 12 hour bus a couple of kms back after being told repeatedly by surrounding experienced runners that they were running too fast for 12 hours I realized that I may be in a bit of trouble. Pain and all, I ran my little heart out to try and catch up with them and make it to the finish line in time. It took me 15kms to see the pace setters 12 hour flag flittering around in the distance … I ran / walked, walked / ran until I found myself in the back of the bus. By now I was SORE. I could feel the blisters on my feet developing. At one point I actually felt something pop, followed by cold liquid dribbling down the side of my foot. A blister had burst. This didn’t bother me in the slightest though. I stuck with the bus for a couple of kms, trying to rest my weary legs but when they stopped to walk I found I was walking so fast that it was actually more comfortable for me to run, so I did. I continued to run and left the bus and pressed on forward. With 7kms to go the crowds closer to Durban were growing larger and larger. They were going crazy with excitement seeing all these crazy runners who had made the journey to this point. I ended up catching up with the first 12 hour bus who were heading for an 11:50 arrival time … I stuck with them for a while and eventually found the stress to press on. With the intention of finishing with a bus of some sort I left both of them in the dust … shuffled my way to the finish line in a time of 11:41, my first Comrades marathon ever, having conquered it with 19 minutes to spare!! Entering the stadium all I could hear were people screaming and going absolutely berserk – on the side, there I see the face I left 89kms back in Pietermaritzburg, my husband, beaming from ear to ear (having come in 2 hours early in a time of 9:40) waiting for me … a couple of meters around corner after having enough energy (adrenaline) to leap over the finishing mat my medal is placed over my head (as if being knighted) and my legs stop … OH MY WORD!! THE PAIN!! THE EXHILRATION! THE EXCITEMENT!! A few steps later I fall into Michael’s arms in tears … every ounce of emotion, anxiety, pain and excitement flowing out. I sobbed. It was done. I had completed the 2012 Comrades Marathon!!