Comrades 2016 - Pietermaritzburg to Durban, Down run, 89.2km
It's a race that is steeped in tradition and history and as you stand on the start line at 5am you feel a part of it. As you stand in your seeded pen, the national anthem starts. Then next comes a traditional workers song, Shosholoza which everyone sings. Next is the haunting theme to chariots of fire. The hairs prick on my neck and you then wait for the gun to let you all run off into the darkness towards Durban, praying you will make it before the 12 hour cut off.
A moment of silence as we hear the famous cockcrow of Max Trimborn. It's 5.30am and you wonder what the road to Durban ahead of you has in store.
Bang. It takes almost 2 minutes for me to cross the line and I was close to the front. Runners at the back may take 10 minutes, which is really harsh since they need the time most. Having read loads about the 'down' run, I knew the majority of the first 20k or so were all uphill. How was this a down run?
So slow and steady was my strategy, run when I could, walk when a hill came and also stick roughly to a run 5k then walk 2 minutes and eat something. I carry my own food, mostly for the first half of the race but the feed stations are only about 2k apart so refreshment was always close to hand. Water, coke, energade, fruit, chocolate, biscuits and later in the race salted potatoes was on offer. And that doesn't include what the supporters offer you. Pretty much anything you ask for!!!!
I think at about 4k or so, a pace bus passes me. It's the 10 hour one. I had never used one before, but have seen when these groups reach the finish line there are hundreds of runners with them and it’s quite a sight. Although I didn't set myself a time goal, sub 10 would be good. But I feel they are running too quick up the hills for me so let them go. Perhaps I could catch up later on an easier part of the course?
An hour has passed and the first of the big 5 hills comes looming, Polly Shorts, about 8k done. In this direction it's about 3k all downhill but it's the up after that catches people out. It also gets cold as you drop down into the valley below; the sun is just rising so I keep my top and modified arm warmers on. Good call, it's too cold to run in just a singlet just yet. I stick to my original plan which is serving me well. Legs feel great, not working very hard and moving forward easily up the hills. Then nature calls and luckily I spot an unoccupied portaloo. Great, no waiting around. I leave feeling much better but to my horror the 11 hour bus comes past me. It's still early, perhaps 12k, but on the long straights I can see the 10 hour busses flag ahead shimmering in the early morning light. I estimate perhaps 800m?
The warmth of the day is starting so I ditch my layers and then set off in pursuit of the 10 hour bus. The next section, perhaps 20k or so was an easy bit of the course but even though I was feeling great, I knew I couldn't push too hard otherwise I would pay for it later in the race. I passed the first timing mat in about 1.56 and the bus seemed to be no nearer. Looking at the results after, it shows it is 3 minutes ahead. We were also getting to a part of the course where spectators could get to easily. It was heaving with people, all shouting with lovely tempting breakfast smells coming from their braais (bbq), so tempting. Such a buzz, but again you had to control running too quickly.
Yet more hills and still not much down but then Umlass Road and the highest point of the course comes into view. Along with it the horrid smells of the chicken farms. It was getting warmer and my strategy was still working well. I was at a point in the race where I could run the 5k easily and then walk a little bit. The km markers keep dropping. It's the only race in the world where you are given the distance to go instead of distance travelled. They were still big numbers, 69k, but I could see myself closing in on the bus. I kept checking my watch to slow myself down and if I was running too quickly would walk to recover. I was close. About 55k to go and I could see the flag of the bus ahead and the hundreds of runners covering the entire width of the road. Another walk. I knew I had to make contact before halfway since the following 12k was the hardest of the race. Yes. The 10 hour bus was doing its walk break. Made it. About 55k left.
My next plan was to use this bus to get me over the hard part of the course and then I would push on. But then we passed the Ethembeni School for disabled children. It's one of the charities that Comrades supports and we had visited there on the bus tour the day before where they had sung and danced for us. Very emotional seeing all these children with such hardship but so pleased to see us. All the children line both sides of the road with their hands outstretched to touch you. Even the ones in their wheelchairs. I walked and high fived every single child in the line. The energy they gave you was indescribable. The hairs on my neck stand up. But the price I paid was the bus had run on. Never mind, dig in and chase again. Back on it, and then the fun of the second of the big 5 hills comes into view. Inchanga. A slowly winding hill with switchbacks so you weren't sure where the top was. About 3k of climbing, still with the bus, nice and easy with a few walk breaks. Great. We are passing people as we go and I am thankful that I am with the bus now. And then as you reach the top the noise hits you before you can see it. In the valley below is halfway.
The time is 10.30am and the sun is now getting hot. On the way down to halfway, I get careless and stumble on a large cats eye in the middle of the road. There are gasps around as I try to stay upright and head butt a guy's elbow in front!! Luckily no fall, but I make my way to the side of the road to steer clear of those things. I knew about them but you tend to migrate to the white line. At the end of the race you see lots of people with bloodied knees and worse. I got lucky. If I wasn’t in the group I would have gone down.
Halfway. Another timing mat, about 4.58. Perfect. The best thing about the mats is they give you such a boost knowing people at home now know where you are. The crowds at halfway are huge. It's another cut-off point for runners not quick enough, that's 6.10 so I am well inside. But it's a carnival atmosphere with food, music, games for the kids and of course announcers encouraging the runners. As soon as he sees the bus coming he gets the crowd going who go nuts. It's such a buzz running through that cauldron of noise. Go bus, stay with the bus shout the crowd. I think it was there and then I decided to try and stay with this bus all the way to the finish. If it was like that there, what would it be like at the finish with thousands more spectators? But still 45k to go, so still more than a marathon, in that heat and with the hills to come, it was going to be tough.
Every so often the bus would walk a bit and then chant the bus drivers’ name. Amazing. Then came the next hill, Bothas, another beast. Again, felt ok in control and in a few k's time I had a friend waiting for me. Just hang in there. Down the other side. It was steep, stay in control. The downs were starting to hurt now and you actually fancied a hill!!!! Onwards into Hillcrest and my friend. About 30k to go. I knew where to look but was worried I had missed her. But no, there she was. Such a boost, quick hug, said I was planning to stick with 10 hours and that was it. The best piece of advice I ever received was from her Rob, her husband, who had run 20 comrades. Never stop, just keep moving forward he said. Such wisdom.
Out of Hillcrest we went, downhill past a well renowned boys school, Kearsney College. Like Ethembeni, all the boys were lining both sides of the road clapping and cheering. A bit of shade from the sun. Great it was getting really hot, perhaps 27 degrees or even more? Still we moved forward but people were starting to drop off. But the crowds were getting larger. Then onto the Nedbank Green Mile. A sponsored section of the route for a mile that was turned green and gold. Hundreds of people, lots of food, brass bands, cheerleaders both on the ground and in hammocks amongst the trees. Again the commentator spotted the bus and the place erupted. That mile seemed to fly by.
Then came the hill I was dreading and finished me off last time, Fields Hill. About 3k, all down on a steep camber. But at the top you could finally see where you were heading, Durban, 21k away. We walked a bit but ran more. The discipline of running slow enough was just what was needed. I didn't get carried away and chase time since that would be a huge mistake. But now my quads were starting hurt with all the constant pounding of the downhills. Where was that off ramp to get to the flat of Pinetown? After what seemed forever, there it was and underneath the motorway we went. The noise of the crowd seeing the bus come through was deafening. I had goose bumps and have never heard noise like it before. Concentrate, stay with it, only 18k to go, you can do it.
It was getting hard. I needed liquid and fuel but the bus wasn't stopping. I quickly had to get running again or that was it. Back on. A bit more flat to recover but then the last of the big 5, Cowies. A monster. Short in length but very steep and coming where it did in the race I knew it would be hard. But as we started to go up, the bus driver had another walk break. Great. I walked a bit quicker but then he started to run. Damn. Got to move again. The top was close and had a water station. We will run to that, then walk he said. Brilliant. Was feeling ok going up so pushed on ahead to get more of a walk break at the top. That was it. Top of the final named hill, 8k to go, less than an hour of running left. Watch said just over 9 hours. Hang in there.
Then onto Westville, on the motorway but still incredible support. My quads were really hurting but otherwise not too bad considering, but again the bus kept going through the water stops where I needed to walk and take on fluids. It was really hot and used the cold water sachets to cool my neck. But the bus was going. Push; run a bit quicker which felt strangely easy, I guess using different muscles to accelerate back helped ease the pain elsewhere. 6k to go, nearly there, you have come this far, don't lose it now, you will only regret it in the morning. Damn, another feed station and another walk. This time a bit longer and the bus was going away, perhaps 100m or so. It's now or never. Push. Don’t let the invisible elastic band break or that was it. The people on the road are shouting, stay with the bus, go. Off I went in pursuit again. Yes made it again, just before another hill, only short but it hurt. Now just one more was left to negotiate between us and the finish. Tollgate, 5k to go. Another feed station, but luckily the bus driver was slowing to make the time, so I could walk alongside.
That is it; it really is all downhill from here, 2.8k to go, no more feed stations. I knew from watching previous Comrades, as the buses made their way into the stadium, the runners all ran together stretching out across the road. You have come so far together; nobody cares about the few seconds’ difference. I fancied being part of that first line so managed to get myself in the front. What that meant of course was that I had to run the final 2k without stopping.
By this time every step was sending pain through my quads, but the support from the crowds who were now barriered off as we ran through Durban was stunning. Huge cheers when they realised we were the 10 hour bus. Then the final km banner came into view. Keep in line, keep in line was the shout, some runners were going too quick. I was still at the front. Then we rounded the corner and onto the grass at Kingsmead stadium. We were still in line and the crowd and commentator was going nuts. 300m left. So noisy, try to take it in. The pain had gone. And then onto the home straight, nobody was in front us, just us and the finish line getting closer. 9.57.22. That was it. We had done it as a team and we hugged the bus driver. An incredible effort to run that far, over that terrain and at such an even pace.
Even though this was my slowest Comrades, it was by far the most enjoyable. I never thought running with a pace group would work so well and be that much fun. The crowds certainly were noisier than if you were on your own. An experience I will treasure forever.
As I received my 4th bronze medal, it still looked as amazingly beautiful as ever and is emotional when it's put round your neck. So proud.
And then to try and hobble to the international area for some food and to collect your bag and to take in the atmosphere of the rest of the race. But as the clock counted down to 12 hours and with hundreds still streaming into the stadium, the tension cranked up a notch.
What makes this iconic race is the 12 hour cut off. If you are 1 second over you are classed as a DNF. Harsh but we all know the rules when we sign up. We shout out the runners, go on, run, don't walk. Still they pour into the stadium. Less than 2 minutes to go. The noise was incredible. Last 60 seconds. You knew the runners passing you wouldn't make it. Some cramp and fall and can't get back up. 10, 9, 8... the crowd go nuts. 4, 3, 2, 1...That's it. The gun is fired by the referee who turns his back to the runners. At the finish line all you can see are bodies collapsed everywhere. They made it, just. The final runner to make it is interviewed on TV, as well as the first not to finish. This year it was a guy who was going for his 10th and his permanent green number. Devastating. Some people around me had tears in their eyes with all the emotion. The last post is then played. Runners still pass. They want to finish for pride even though they won't be recognized in the results. The crowd still shouts. Incredible. Human spirit and camaraderie at its best.
There is no other race in the world where this drama gets to be played out each year. It is an absolute privilege to be part of the day. Stunning.
And after the euphoria of the day and the last 6 months of training, that's it, all over - well at least until January when the cycle begins again!! 4th June 2017 anyone?
Right, now to learn to walk again.......