I realised today that you can only have the best race of your life when you have run your very worst on the same course. To truly know that the feeling of being on top of the world can only come when you have also seen the absolute bottom, to have touched the limits of of your physical and emotional strength, and nearly failed.
Every time you put yourself on the Comrades route it teaches you a hard lesson that you never see coming. In 2011, the race broke me because I didn’t respect it. Today I approached it as a partnership between myself and the road. I wasn’t there to conquer, I was out to negotiate.
I had an amazing race today because I changed my attitude. I went in with the knowledge that I was going to embrace the pain and the dark places. I allowed myself to feel it all and not fight any of it, I self-talked my way positively through the entire thing and I loved every second. That was the hard lesson from 2011 and it’s taken me a further three years of ultra distance running to master it.
This is my race report.
I arrived at the start early enough to walk to the front of my D seeding pen, no rush, no panic, just a quiet wait. I’d dropped off a tog bag, visited the porta-loo and was in my pen by 4:15am. Being late is every runner’s worst nightmare because you have to start at the back. I saw two A guys pass me 10km into the race because they had to begin their race at the back of H. When you run a sub 3 hour marathon and you have to push past 15,000 people to get to where you should be, your race is already over. As I was sitting on the road watching the clock on Pietermaritzburg Town Hall, wrapped in my old clothes and bin bags (it’s pretty cold at 4am) a guy came and sat next to me. He had absolutely nothing to keep him warm so I gave him one of my bags, my first Comrade.
The night before I’d written a race plan, which also doubled as a letter to myself. In it I broke the race into 10km portions and listed the key landmarks, hills and tortuous descents. I told myself how to focus, what my run walk strategy was and what I was absolutely not going to do (leg it down Pollys, Ingchanga and Fields Hill). I worked in the predicted temperatures to just accept what I couldn’t change (29˚ highs). I added a note to remind me of everyone with me and tracking me at home and most importantly I told myself to dig deep and push on the final kilometres, that no matter what, there is always something left in the tank.
I took that letter with me to the start and I read it two or three times sitting there in the dark, it definitely calmed me down and reminded me I had a plan and that I was going to reach my goal of sub 10 hours.
As the pens closed and the crowds moved forward to the start line, the national anthem began followed by Shosholoza. Chariots of fire played, the cock crowed and the cannon started the race. 5:30am and we were away.
It’s very easy to panic in these first moments. Firstly you don’t want to trip on an obstacle (kerb, discarded clothing, a water bottle, another runner) as the crowd surges forward. Secondly you want to cross the line in good time. I passed the timing mat at 1:44, other friends behind me said they had to wait 15 minutes to cross the start. The Comrades Marathon, like most races in South Africa, is gun to gun, which means if you start at the back you have less time to the 12 hour cut off. If you allow panic to creep in here and try and make up time by racing again it’s a huge mistake.
Seeing the sun rise over the summit of Polly Shortts (the first notorious descent 8km into the race) was breathtaking. Then according to my plan, I walked downhill. I watched hundreds of runners pass me as I gritted my teeth and instructed myself not to run. I walked to my watch. One minute walking, one minute jogging to the second for two kilometres. It was by far the hardest thing I had to do in the first half and I told myself over and over to ‘save your legs for Fields Hill’ 50km later.
Shortly afterwards I ran with Colin, an older gentleman with so many badges sewn onto his vest I couldn’t see which club he ran for. ‘Is there any race that you don’t have a permanent number for?’ I asked. He gave me some advice as he was running his 27th Comrades, ‘Any idiot can run 60km’ he said, ‘but it takes a special kind of idiot to run another 30!’.
The hills in the first 30km are brutal, every sharp ascent is matched by an equally horrific descent which over extends every single muscle in your legs. When I arrived at the first marathon mark I was hurting. ‘Embrace the pain’ I told myself. I also had to embrace the temperature because by then the tarmac was also radiating heat upwards.
I ran into Comrade No.2, Rianda somewhere around the marathon mark (an important milestone on an 89km monster run). As she turned to me with tears in her eyes, she said, ‘I don’t think I can do this, Emma’, to which I replied ‘Of course you can, why not?’. I walked her through the whole thing, told her on no account was she giving up, that she was amazing and we were just about to get to halfway (45km). ‘Look around, everyone is hurting, you can do this, I know you can’. I said to her (and myself) that the pain at this stage was normal and we just need to work through it. A friend once told me that when it gets really bad just imagine a piece of elastic attached to your chest and the other end tied to the finish, every step you take pulls you closer. That must have worked because Rianda gave me a hug at the finish line and thanked me.
I had a quick pit stop after Drummond and there was Comrade No.3. ‘Hello Emma, looking good’ says David sitting on the verge as I ran past. ‘What the f*** are you doing down there?’ I said as I ran back to him, ‘Get up!’. ‘Oh I’m just having a rest’ to which I said ‘No you aren’t, run with me’. David is our club’s racing snake, runs races every weekend and should have easily smashed a sub 8:30 today. ‘Don’t feel very well’ he said. ‘What have you eaten?’ I said, ‘Nothing’ he said. ‘For god’s sake eat a potato for me please’. That made him laugh and we ran together for a bit. I don’t think he ate the carbs though, but he did finish.
After the joy of the halfway point it all gets a bit hard. Over the next 20km I noticed I’d stopped talking to people, I barely raised my arm to acknowledge the supporters who called my name or said ‘Go lady’. Of the 15,000 runners only 4,000 are women so the crowd tends to support the girls. It gets depressing when every town has ‘hill’ in it, Bothas Hill, Hillcrest, Fields Hill, Cowies Hill. Allowing any negative thoughts in at this stage could derail my plan. So I forced every can’t into a can, 42km to go was just a number, just another marathon ‘you’ve done plenty of these of course you can run another one, do it. Go!’.
I could feel cramps pulling on my shins so I walked for 60 seconds. I asked a family for salt, and then I walked again for 60 seconds. I timed every walk by my watch, not a lamp post or road sign which can easily become 5 minutes. Walking was only permitted on steep downhills or uphill sections, I was pretty tough on myself.
I held on for 65km before I took some pain killers. Yes some people manage to run the whole thing without, but just try running down the camber of the universally hated Fields Hill with excruciating joint pain. 20km to go came and went. With 15km to go I realised I would safely come in under 10 hours unless something very bad happened. I caught the back of a sub 10 hour bus doing a huge amount of walking. Many runners were struggling to stay with it and from the back it looked like the Walking Dead. I walked up one of the hills on the highway with them, pushed to the front (there were in excess of 200 people crammed together) and ran away from them as soon as I spotted a gap . The amazing thing about the buses is the cheers they get from the crowd. One supporter yelled ‘it’s a bus, it’s a bus!’ as he pushed children and other small creatures back up onto the pavement, ‘get out of the road!’ Towards the end the buses can be 500 people strong. Literally a wall of runners with the bus driver bringing them home. They really are amazing.
Durban in sight and 10km to go. So I started asking myself what my 9 hour Comrades looked like. I visualised the finish straight in the stadium, the lights, the noise, the cheering and spectators banging on the advertising boards, but most of all I imagined the clock with a 9 on it. Now it was up to me to decide was it going to be in the 30s, 40s, 50s? ‘What do you want it to be Emma?’. At the 10km board I checked my watch, 8:28. My pea sized Comrades brain told me to go under an hour for the last 10km. I mean who does that after running 79km? Of course I went for it. On that last 10km I clocked 1:05, a herculean effort that I will never forget. I ran past people who were walking, I even ran up a hill and I sped up over the last 3km. I wanted a time in the 9:30s so badly I was able to ignore the pain and just push, it seemed there was a lot left in the tank.
Around the bend, under the stadium and I saw the grass. There is nothing like it. The roar, the feeling of invincibility. I had done it again, I had run the Comrades Marathon. I waved to people as I ran on the finishing straight. I smiled my way round the stadium and there was the clock and it had a 9 on it.
Comrade No.4 will always be Brian. A stranger, a race volunteer who told me ‘Why do you think I love working at the finish area?. He’d spotted me crying as I received my medal and gave me the biggest hug as I sobbed on his shoulder and told him I’d run the best race of my life.
Route: Pietermaritzburg to Durban
Time started: 05:30
Time finished: 15:04:47
Height climbed: 1800m
Average speed: 6:25 kmph
First half: 4:49
Second half: 4:45 (negative split)
First marathon: 4:30
Second marathon: 4:35
Final 10km 1:05