I sit here beginning my race report more than a few weeks after the race. To be honest I’ve been avoiding writing it, the race wasn’t the awe inspiring, life changing moment everybody told me it would be. Yes, I finished it and yes, I was proud of myself, but afterwards I didn’t get that glow, the high, the feeling of invincibility, I just felt indifferent and depressed after all my training and months of anticipation. The race was disappointing, the course was disappointing, and I was disappointed I couldn’t post the time I really wanted (sub 10). All the veterans tell me my time was great for a novice, and I know they are right, but I still can’t shake feeling of just, well blankness. I can only think the sheer mental and physical effort cancelled everything out.
I’d been on edge for days, moody, selfish and anal to the point that I’d laid out my kit at home 3 days before I was due to fly to Durban, everything for the race was packed in my hand luggage to avoid it getting lost, I wore my running shoes, I watched the other runners on the plane also wearing their shoes. Mentally I’d organised my schedule, I’d land and go direct to the expo to register, meet Monique and later my sister from London and then go to the hotel in Kloof, unpack and then lay out all my kit (again).
I’d met another runner from the club who had given me a lift from the airport to the expo, and we’d arranged that I stay with him and his friends at their backpackers which was closer to the start than where my hotel was, it also meant that my supporters could go out and party and not have to transport me in the early hours of the morning. I sat down to my normal pre-race dinner (rice and mashed sweet potato) in the hotel restaurant, I’d asked earlier if the chef would possibly mind making me my special menu and I think he was pleased because he came out with the waiting staff to say hello. It was the fanciest rice and potato I’d ever seen decorated with a sprig of coriander.
I was up and ready by 3am and we were in the car and on our way an hour later. I was getting quite jumpy by the time we joined the queue into Pietermaritzburg the highway was solid in one direction, and like me in the back of each car was a runner, fretting. As we got to the city centre, the runners in the car jumped out and we made our way to the start. There were thousands of agitated runners milling about, I needed the toilet, but decided against joining another queue as I knew my pen would close in less than 10 minutes, and I couldn’t start at the back. I was seeded in D exactly halfway. It took me just over three minutes to cross the line after the gun went off, the unfortunate souls in H or even further back took more than 20 minutes. At Comrades, your time starts when the gun goes off, not when you cross the line. Believe me those twenty minutes even over the course of twelve hours could mean the difference between a medal and a DNF.
Due to its altitude Maritzburg is pretty chilly at 5am and I’d been told by veterans to wear extra layers of clothing, I also had gloves and a fleece hat. As you warm up over the next couple of hours (you run in the dark for quite a while) there are plenty of locals standing at the side of the road ready to collect your cast offs. Women with huge bundles of clothes shout and cheer hoping that you might throw your long sleeve top in their direction. This year Pietermaritzburg was mild, and I didn’t really need everything I’d brought with me. I sat listening to other runners chatting, but mostly it was quiet until we heard Chariots of Fire, Shoshaloza and the national anthem belting out from the town hall. The cock crowed (which I didn’t hear) and the gun went. I waited. We shuffled forward. Stopped. Shuffled. Jogged. Shuffled and away we went. In fact I noticed we hadn’t run much until the first kilometre marker appeared – the magic 88km sign. Another special thing about Comrades is that the marker boards count down, not up. So yes you are constantly reminded how much further you have to go, rather than how much you have achieved. Its very hard mentally to calculate your spilt times and this becomes a serious challenge to your focus in the last kilometres. I hadn’t planned what to think about this prior to the race, but during it, my bite-size-chunks theory kicked in. Whilst I saw every board I passed I purposely stopped looking at them, the only ones I registered were the nines, seventy nine, sixty nine, fifty nine and so on.
The other thing you do quite a lot of is talk to yourself, and its not always in your head. The pep talks, the mini congratulations when you hit a nine, the ‘Emma you are looking good, you’re feeling good, you’re going to nail this’ conversations you have with yourself are seriously as important as knowing you’ve done the training. The times when you want to stop, when you want the pain to go away, where you want to cry so much that you know you won’t be able to breathe if you start, are the moments when you bite your lip and you tell yourself you’re looking good. I probably said ‘I’m going to finish the Comrades Marathon’ a hundred times over the last twenty kilometres. Self belief is a powerful thing, but walking into work the following Tuesday and telling people you bailed, gives you far more reason to keep going.
None of this I knew at 88km. I just thought the race was going to be a longer version of Two Oceans, you know 56km and then all it is just another 3 hours. Pah! What a fool.
The first marathon was dull and uneventful, I monitored my speed, breathing and fluid intake, was conservative on the hills (though not on the downhill of Polly Shortts which I paid for later), and generally slower than I wanted to be. I had two pit stops, said hello to a couple of AAC runners, took in the crowds and the music and plodded on. I noticed the sunrise, the stench of the chicken farms, the famous places on the route profile I’d memorised, Umlaas Road, Camperdown, Cato Ridge. I made halfway at 5:05, I knew then I wouldn’t make sub 10:00 and threw away my pacing band. Drummond, Bothas Hill, Kloof, I was now in unchartered territory as I’d never run this far before. With 30km and more than 3 hours to go you now want it to be over. Clare and Monique were waiting and gave me the lift I needed to get going and see them at the finish. I visualised the second part of the route, the downhill with a notch up to Cowies and then straight into Durban. I wasn’t feeling great, but I still felt good to finish. Then you hit the steep downhill of Fields Hill, the start of your problems and essentially where your body gives up and your mind takes over. After 6 hours of undulating hills and flat sections your skeleton has to cope with the jarring, bone shattering downhill on a three lane highway with a sadistic camber. I ran on the side, in the middle, by the drainage, nothing helped, you just can’t find a piece of level tarmac. On and on and then you see Cowies Hill, the last serious climb. I walked up the whole thing, dumped my sense of humour as well as my running cap, and carried on.
You learn the true meaning of endurance when you have 9km to go, you’re running on the highway into Durban and you’re surrounded by concrete and the detritus of the 5,000 runners who have already been here. You’re tired, your bones are tired, your heart and lungs are tired, you’ve wondered a thousand times if the distance has caused permanent damage to your legs, what if you’ll never run again? And on you go. ‘Chip away’ a friend of mine and 16 time Comrades runner told me the week before. I didn’t know what he meant until the Durban approach. I’d been run walking for more than 20km at this point due to the excruciating pain in both knees. I’d never had pain on a race – yes a bit of soreness the next day, but this was new. The pain meds I’d brought with me worked up until 60km in and then didn’t scratch the surface. I’d stopped thinking about the finish way before. I’ll run to the next rise, that house on the left, that tree, that road sign and then I’ll walk. I made sure the walk was short and I’d pick a new marker, and then I’d push again. Lifting the legs after a few seconds ‘rest’ brought a new kind of pain because in that time the muscles stiffened. My feet were also swollen to the point I stopped and had to bend down to loosen my laces. I felt angry as my body was letting me down. My muscles felt great, my energy was great, I just couldn’t run. ‘Where the *%£@ is the kilometre sign?’ I grumbled, ‘Where the $%*@ is it?’. You scan the highway in front of you for the elusive sign, and there it is. You hit the double marathon mark with 5km to go, and you don’t even give a stuff, don’t care that most people won’t run a marathon in their lives, and you’ve run two in the same day. You’d thought about this amazing, inspiring, significant point the day before and now you wouldn’t notice if they had a brass band out with your name on it. So yes, you chip away a hundred metres at a time, bite size chunks, road sign by road sign.
Off the highway and now in the streets of Durban. I run crawl my way towards the stadium biting back the tears, I know the TV cameras are out and I promise myself I will run when the left turn appears that leads to the finish. I didn’t need to do that because outside the stadium, the sound just hits you, the roar of the crowd just loosens your legs and away you go. I felt like I was flying all the way to the finish line. 10:26:57.
So yes, I didn’t get that glow, the high or the feeling of invincibility, but the one thing I did get was an appreciation for the simple things. A cold potato caked in salt that is so delicious after seven hours of running you want two, a pink marshmallow, an orange quarter sharp enough to cut through the Coke, Energade and Gu that you’ve been swallowing for nine hours. The simple fear of slipping on a water sachet. The township kids lining the route with their tiny hands outstretched in the hope you’ll touch them as you run by. A stranger calling your name, spurring you on from a water table they set up at 2am just to help you finish your race. Your broken body that just did an amazing thing and can still walk to the car.
Clare and Monique take me straight from the stadium to dinner which consists of beer and steak (in that order). I can barely cross the road and climb the kerb without help, I’m still wearing my kit, my hair is matted, and the salt is encrusted on my face. Some of the diners look up as I hobble past, and I feel proud right there that I did it. I ran the Comrades Marathon.
I get back to Cape Town, find the empty hook in my cupboard I screwed in nearly two years ago and hang my medal on it. Everyone asks me if I’m going back next year to do the up run, I think about my medal and reply ‘there’s only one way to find out if I can get a better time’.
Route: Pietermaritzburg to Durban
Height climbed: ?m
Time started: 05:25
Total time: 10:26:57
Total distance: 89km
Temperature: Varied across the terrain
Runner’s condition: See above