2014 Comrades Marathon, Favourites, Races

The Comrades Marathon (89.28km) 1 June 2014

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.

Running notes
Route: Pietermaritzburg to Durban
Distance: 86.28km
Time: 9:34:47
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

See my previous Comrades reports:
> Comrades Marathon 2011 (up)
> Comrades Marathon 2010 (down)


Race No. 8: Slave Route (10km) All aboard the beginner’s bus!

I wanted to run the Slave Route today as the start is less than a 2 minute jog from my front door. It’s also a great race. I decided not to do the 21km as I didn’t feel I needed to and instead opted to accompany five Atlantic beginners on their 10km race. We averaged 8 minutes a km which gave me plenty of opportunity to chat to them, not over do it and soak up the vibe. I do love this race for the lung-busting hill up Bo Kaap where you are rewarded by a koeksister (or two like I had today) at the top for your effort. My new friends asked me how I could breathe, eat and run to which I responded ‘I’m practicing’ between mouthfuls. The koeksisters were great and so was the sunrise over a chilly city this morning.

Running notes
Route: Grand Parade – Keizergracht – Roeland Street – Company Gardens – Wale Street – Bo Kaap (Bloem Street) – Wale Street – Grand Parade
Distance: 10km

Favourites, Races

Race No.7: Two Oceans Marathon (56km) – there really is nothing like downing a beer at 54km

Today I ran the Two Oceans ultra marathon for the sixth time. Every time I finish, I have a different story to tell and that is why I love this race.

Woke up at 3:30am and laid there for a bit thinking about getting up and then as usual faffed around the flat for an hour getting the kit on, applying vaseline to body parts and applying 3M micropore tape to other body parts. Tied the hair back, tripled checked the Gu, the door keys and got in the taxi to the start. Arrived at the starting area in Newlands early, found the secret toilet with no queue (my sister and I chanced upon this miracle last year) and I was set.

I was allocated to the C batch which is stuffed full of runners that have qualified with a 3:40 to 4 hour marathon and are looking to run a lot faster than I was today. The race plan went as follows: run/walk up the steep hills, run/walk down the steep hills and slip in under 6 hours feeling comfortable and ready to run further. On no account was I to shoot off like a rocket and f*** up my Comrades. Sounds easy right? Wrong. It was one of the hardest races I’ve ever run psychologically. To watch everyone pass me for the first 30km and hold myself back, to practice walking up a hill when I had the energy to run it and to walk down Chapman’s Peak when I usually fly down it at 5 minutes a km was an absolute feat of discipline. At one point when it got really hard not to let go I started talking to myself – ‘this is not your race, this is not your race’. Last year I smashed out a 5:18 finish. This year I’m fitter but I had to be slower.

The first 15km to Muizenberg dragged like hell. Every time I carbo load properly I feel like a slug. I bumped into Andreas (on his 10th outing) and then pretty much ran by myself to Sun Valley. I only started to feel comfortable at 26km when we crossed over onto Noordhoek Main Road. I do wonder why it takes me so long to feel okay, but feeling okay at any point on an ultra is a bonus. Up onto Chapman’s and now I break out the power walking. Arms pumping, chest out (Justin would be pleased), but I still felt like a twit for a minute of walking per 5 minutes of running. I ran with Craig to the summit and then again by myself down the other side. Kirsty caught me at the bottom and then I stopped to chat to a few of my club mates that weren’t running in Hout Bay. Why not? I had the time, and I’d already stopped in Claremont to say hello to Jill (and that was only 2km in). The long, boring meander through Hout Bay leads into the marathon mark and to the base of the second climb of Constantia Nek where I planned to walk again. I went through 42km at 4:11 – about 10 minutes too fast for my planned 5:55 finish, but what the hell, I was going to power walk up Constantia Nek anyway.

It was after the marathon mark that things got interesting. I saw my old work colleague and recent club member, James struggling in Hout Bay, he was on his first ultra and so I ran with him for a bit to see if he wanted some company up the Nek. If you have the misfortune of latching onto me in a race, I do warn you that I’m a bit of a pacing nazi. I always give people the option of telling me to f*** off or hang on. I gave James the outline of what I thought we could do to get in under 6 hours. He had stomach cramps, stitches and was generally having the worst day out imaginable. When he was running I noticed he was holding it together pretty well so the joints were still okay. We ran uphill for two minutes and walked for one, we made it up to the top in one piece and then we had 10km left. I did my calculations and pushed him hard from this point as I fully expected him to be slower over the last part of the course, but despite retching in the bushes his determination was amazing. We ran for five minutes and walked for one all the way to the M3. What an inspiration James was at this point. He fought all the way up the highway and I broke my ‘no walking on the M3’ rule because he was just so brilliant. On a number of occasions he told me to leave him (I hope he didn’t really mean that), but I wanted to make sure he finished well. Someone did this for me on my last Comrades and I can’t tell you how much that means when your day has gone to shit in every possible way. We got up the last hill (don’t look at it, we’ll just go slowly) and then I guided him onto the grass of the finishing field. Despite me waiting for him to cross first, he insisted we finished together.

And the beer story? Well, I spotted my old friend Grant and his family at their spot 2km from the finish.  I stopped, grabbed the beer from his hand and downed it. Wow it was nice, but I did burp my way over the line. Beer is not generally not recommended as fuel on an ultra, but I was going slowly.

I finished comfortably, paced it well, took no pain medication (never run that far on nothing) and I know I could have run another 33km. Now I’ve got 6 weeks to nail it and stick to the plan.

Race notes:
Route: Main Road, Newlands – Lakeside – Muizenburg – Kalk Bay – Fish Hoek – Noordhoek – Chapman’s Peak – Hout Bay – Constantia Nek – M3 – UCT
Distance: 56km
Time: 5:50:21



Race No.6: Spar Ladies (10km) – Messed this one up nicely

So I’ll get straight to it. I went out too fast.

You’d think after all these years I wouldn’t fall for this rookie error of judgement. I’ve been running well, I’m pacing myself well, my times have been good, I’ve done two 10km under 47 minutes and I was going for a sub 46 minute finish. My time trial time the other week told me I could do it, and I knew this would be a flat course (I ran it last year) and a good opportunity. I spent some time last night looking at the km splits required so I was prepped.

Spar Ladies is an enormous race (about 22,500 over the 10km and 5km fun run), but they allow club runners in at the front so you don’t get caught with the walkers. I got there early, but I felt quite tense during the wait at the start as I was concerned about the size of the field and getting away quickly. I made my biggest mistake when I stopped thinking about my race plan and focused on how I was going to dodge the slower runners as the race got underway. I hit the 2km mark at 8:26 which is way above my pay grade and much faster than the 9 minute split I should have been running at this point. Even this early into the race I knew I’d stuffed up my chances. I did slow down a bit but by then I’d wasted my energy, I went through 5km at 22:07 (PB), but still 20 seconds too fast. I knew I had to hold it together during the 6th and 7th km but I just couldn’t do it, felt really foolish as I could see myself slowing down, and I didn’t have energy to push in the 8th and 9th either. Super disappointed as I watched the 45:59 turn over on my watch and I only had 150m to the finish. Final time 45:15. That is still a PB, and 30 seconds off the last one is an enormous improvement over the distance, but I wasn’t happy. The fact that I was more than 2 minutes slower on the second 5km says it all, 30 seconds gained at the 2km mark cost me the 30 seconds I needed at the end. It was a hard lesson and a good reminder.

Race notes:
Route: Cape Town Stadium – Beach Road – Promenade – Beach Road – Somerset Road – Cape Town Stadium
Distance: 10km plus 2km warm up
Time: 46:15

For additional punishment the ‘killer week’ had me running 22km today so I had to add another 10km to the end of the race. I looked like a tool pounding up Kloof Nek from Greenpoint in my AAC race vest with my Spar numbers still pinned to me, especially when a random running stranger stopped me at the tap at the top and asked me ‘what are you doing up here?’ (her mother was running the 5km race). I mentioned the C word and she nodded knowingly and said ‘I’m doing that too’, so there are other idiots out there apart from myself.

Running notes:
Route: Cape Town Stadium – Somerset Road – Buitengracht Street – Kloof Nek – My house
Distance: 10km (total 22km)



Race No.5: Tygerberg (30km)

Didn’t sleep well at all last night. The coffee shop (bar) over the road decided on another event with live music and even my earplugs couldn’t keep out the lyrics and the raucous laughter from the patrons out on the street. Grump. Swung my legs out of bed at 4am which gave me 50 minutes of faffing around before I needed to get in the car and drive the 20km to Parow Athletics Track. Was still in a daze when I arrived, woke up though when it started raining at the start line. Groans were audible over the announcer as the rain got heavier. Luckily we only had to put up with it for about 7km.

Can’t say I like this race much. Last time I did it was in 2008, and if I recall it was the first time I went under 3 hours on a 30km. The hills are vicious on the clockwise route that takes you out under the N1 and up into the Durbanville wine route. Long slow uphill pulls on the road between vineyards and then undulating hills into the northern suburbs. Once you hit the houses proper there are some nasty short sharp climbs and drops which are swear worthy. The best part of the race is the steep descent back under the N1 and the flat finish, but by this time your legs are really ****ed.

Glad to see the back of this one, but I was pleased with a 2:37:20 finish given the elevation and route profile.

Running notes:
Route: Parow Athletics Track – Bloemendal vineyard – Jip de Jaeger – Parow Athletics Track
Distance: 30km
Time: 2:37:20



Race No.4: Century City (10km)

I’m not going to lie to you, I did go out to beat the PB I got at Top Form 10km three weeks ago. I just can’t help myself.

I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t considering:
a) I ran the Peninsula Marathon two weeks ago and ‘they’ do say it takes at least 6 weeks for a marathon to leave the legs. Remember, the international elite marathon crew never do more than two a year and those boys are doing 150-200km a week in training.
b) I followed the Peninsula up with a 100km training week
c) I didn’t sleep well due to the bergies on the street having a fat conversation about god knows what at 3am
d) The start was a shambles

But I did come in at 46:58! So given the points above, not bad at all and only 13 seconds slower than my PB. Pretty happy with that as it demonstrates my training is going well and I’m managing to pace consistently. Speaking of which, I had two complete strangers stop me in the finishing chute, one slapped me on the back and the other shook my hand, to tell me that they’d stuck with me in the last kms in order to get a good time. This is not the first time its happened, but at least these guys weren’t breathing down my neck. There is absolutely nothing worse than being shadowed on a race. You can see them in the corner of your eye but they never overtake, you move to the right, they move to the right. Argh! Anyway, next time I’m going to take a sign out saying ‘Carpenter’s pacing bus R20’.

Running Notes:
Route: Couple of loops around Century City and Canal Walk Mall
Distance: 10km
Time: 46:58

Favourites, Races

Race No.3: Peninsula Marathon (42km)

So I surprised myself again this morning with a faster time than anticipated. After the initial euphoria of finishing the race and posting a good time wore off, I slumped into a mild state of panic. For the second time in a week I’ve underestimated my ability and done considerably better than I thought on a race. This could be one of three possibilities a) I’m peaking too soon and will be ‘over the hill’ by the time 1 June rolls around, b) I’m not capable of sticking to my race plan, and c) I’m not pacing myself well. Either way, it’s not good news. I need to give myself a hard talking to or rather as the South Africans like to say ‘pull myself towards myself’.

The forecasters estimated we were on for a 35˚ scorcher today. For the first time ever the race organisers warned us about staying hydrated, and the runners were buzzing with talk of a nightmare race. Everybody expected to post a crap time and to have to slog through temperatures that would have cancelled European races. It makes me laugh when I hear my mother tell me that the London Marathon is going to be the hottest ever at 24˚ and that they are bringing in tankers of water/more ambulances/the army/ in case someone keels over. Here, you just get a text message telling you not to forget to drink and you’re sent on your way. As a side note, the 2011 West Coast Marathon was run in 40˚ and a few people were forced to walk due to the heat, now that’s what you call ‘hot’ here.

Anyway, the gun goes on Somerset Road in Greenpoint at 5:15am, we trot off in the dark and by 4km in it’s so humid that we’re collectively leaving a trail of sweat on the tarmac like a snail with 2,000 pairs of legs. OMG, I’m not sure I can do another 38km like this. Luckily the heat that was trapped in the city bowl dissipated by the time we got to Woodstock. The wind kicked in and so did James Medcalf (an ex Quirk colleague of mine), he’d never run under 4 hours before so thought that the Carpenter bus was probably a safe bet. I’m not a huge fan of running with anyone on a race even if I’m taking it easy. I prefer listening to my own body, focusing on the distance and getting into the zone. Having to hold a conversation with someone for over 3 hours can be a bit much, although its a great fitness test in itself. If you can jabber on for an entire marathon it means you are working in your comfort zone which is where I needed to be.

Main Road, Lakeside, Muizenberg, Kalk Bay and Fish Hoek arrives. Temperature is climbing but the sea wind is masking the heat, I’m drinking more than usual, but i’m not suffering, in fact I’m feeling better on this race than any marathon I’ve run before. If you are having a shit day or racing for a PB it’s the equivalent of bleeding through your eyes (or any other orifice) it hurts that much. I’ve gritted my teeth and sworn my way around this precise marathon course before, it’s not fun, and I’ve scored my PW on it (4:29). Today though on my 5th outing, it felt like a training run. I loved it. James started walking through the stations and catching me on the other side. I didn’t see him after the 38km water table, and I coasted to a 3:50:15 finish. It was deceptively and worryingly easy today. Running psychology is fascinating. I spent years not getting close to my PB of 3:51:59 because I didn’t think it was possible. I smash it at Cape Town in September last year in 3:43:17 and now that I know I’m capable of it, I can cruise 42km inside my comfort zone nearly two minutes faster than I thought possible just a year ago. 45km done / 55km to go.

Running notes:
Route: Greenpoint – Woodstock – Wynberg – Lakeside –Muizenberg – Kalk Bay – Fish Hoek – Simonstown
Distance: 42km
Time: 3:50:15