Comrades 56 miles, 29 May

Comrades 2011 report

Post script – a couple of weeks after this I did the Chiltern Chase (5k race). And my legs hurt much more in the days following that than they did after Comrades. Peed Skills!

So. Four months of training – or five, if you include the taper. Four marathons, two ultras, and 1100-odd km done. Gels packed, TWO pairs of shoes packed, dubious white powder (sport drink) packed, rice cakes, packed…

We flew down via Dubai and spent the night in the hotel *in* the terminal (a lot cheaper than upgrading to any flight class which comes with flatbed seats!). Then on to Durban in the morning. Only trouble with this was that by the time you reached Durban, it was too late to go to the expo and pick up the tickets for the course tour the next morning. So we had to meet Mbali (the longsuffering lady who looks after the international runners) by the tour coaches at 7am…uurgh.
We had booked with a tour group basically so that my other half would have someone to look out for him on race day. So we were booked into the Durban City Lodge, which was a couple of blocks away from the Expo. (If I were to do it again I’d book into the Hilton which is literally next door, especially as there is a big meetup there on the Thursday night).

Durban was like some big American cities in that we would stand out in a please-mug-me way if you walked, so we always checked with reception at the hotel before we went anywhere. A couple of blocks, in the day, fine, but when we went to Durban’s vegetarian restaurant it had to be by taxi.

Anyway. Coach tour. We were seated in front of a party from Scotland,who looked well prepared, and behind two guys from India who confessed to having a grand total of 400 kms’ training under their belts this year! (One of them did actually finish, and ahead of me, too!).
Now I had printed out Barry Holland’s Guide To The Up Run and pinned it up by my desk, measured the hills, and looked at it every day for months. So as these 2-3km hills came along I just muttered sagely to myself and ticked them off on my printout while everyone else looked worried.

The bus stopped in three places.
Number 1: the Wall of Honour, where Comrades finishers can have a plaque put up. That’s near The Valley Of 1000 Hills so the views are good.

#2: the Ethembeni School for disabled children. They line the route on race day and support the runners, and the runners support them. They put on a song and dance display for us which – speaking as an Auntie who has been to *many* performances – was very, very good.

#3 : the finish area at the cricket oval in Pietermaritzburg – we got tea and snacks in the international runners’ area and I checked out where the track backed on to it so that I knew where to meet John and pick up my Union Jack (bought at Gatwick on impulse!) for the final stretch.

Then we all fetched up at Comrades House at PMB and admired the memorabilia while failing to find the loo :/ (the coach loo had no paper or proper flush…). The picture above shows the sweep vehicle, which I took a picture of, hoping not to ever see it again!

Not too surprised by all that, we mosied over to the Expo in the afternoon. We knew (unlike the MarathonTalk duo!) that there was a separate registration area for “internationals”: crucially, without the two hour queue! I picked up my package and paid the 100 rand for John’s ticket to the international area at the finish, where he would be able to sit and snack as I toddled up from Durban, and settled down at a table with some UK runners I knew to shoot the breeze. Note: the tshirt sizing is UNISEX … I have a M and it’s huge on me…

There were lots of other tchotchkas in the package too… keychain, little duffel bag, and a mysterious neoprene square that baffled everyone. And if you wanted to buy a Comrades fleece or longsleeved top or whatever they had those for sale too, along with…stuff … (the Expo was huge, London size).

So Saturday I wasn’t nervous – grimly resigned, perhaps. But I was so wired I couldn’t drop off. Had I had some caffeine that day by mistake? My kit was all laid out, the 3:20 alarm call booked, my alarm set, but my mind was like a hamster in a wheel. I must have refurnished my whole house by the time my alarm went off.

Breakfast was just coffee and some vegan white chocolate. I saw one of the UK runners looking hilariously drawn and nervous despite this being his 12th. He hadn’t slept either…
I managed to get the sports tour minivan to the start (they were a bit vague about where to meet) and then trundled off to claim the place in pen D that I’d won by 59 seconds last autumn. Sat down … it would be a long wait….realised the loos were *outside* the pens and the coffee was making itself felt…aargh.

At this point my usual pre-race meltdown kicked in. I wanted to be at home, in bed, under the duvet.(I really do NOT do well without sleep). I wept into my soon-to-be discarded sweatshirt (which I didn’t really need as it wasn’t cold with everyone packed together).
Finally the start drew close. People sang Shosholoza (it is very catchy, I am ashamed to say that I have on occasion thought, “If I never hear Shoso-bleeping-loza again it will be too soon“…;). And the national anthem. And they played Chariots Of Fire. And the cock crow. They may have got it in the wrong order (“Welcome to Africa!”). But it was 5:30 and we were off, running in the dark through the streets of Durban, and throwing off our clothes to the waiting locals.

Some of the best advice I was given re. Comrades: wat
ch your step in those first kilometres. The cats eyes are almost handsized – so not only do you have to avoid them, you also have to hop over the people who didn’t and who have just gone flying! The tyvek “binbags” people had been wearing were treacherous underfoot too.

After a mile or so I saw a loo and dived in. It was blocked, full, and there was crap on the seat. Liquid crap. I hovered, peed, and was glad I’d left the tutu at home.
On escaping I remembered I’d stuffed the rest of my “breakfast” down my sports bra. I extracted it – melted but still in its wrapper – and let it go…

We climbed out of Durban on the dual carriageway. It was still dark. I didn’t feel particularly peppy. But here we were. Up ahead there were people hanging over the side of the slip road, cheering. It was the famous Vlam Pieterse (” ‘Ginger’ Peters” ) who has spent years running the 12 hour “bus” (pace group) but was injured late on this year and unable to do what he normally does, viz, steer thousands to a finisher’s medal. 6am though and he was out doing his bit anyway. Bless him.

The sun rose thank heavens but I still wasn’t feeling all that jolly. You can tell this picture is from early on because someone is still wearing one of the Bonitas-branded tyvek “binbag” body covers.

#5: I am forcing a grin in this photo because I saw the photographer 😉

#6: I was still anxiously looking over my shoulder regularly for the 11 hour pace bus.

Okay, for those who don’t know – Comrades is a race full of traditions. I’ve already mentioned the music and cockcrow at the start (it used to be a man doing the cockcrow, but, well, the race is 86 years old and…he died of old they use a recording of him now). So. Other things about the race. Comrades has different colour medals depending on where you finish.
Gold medals: The first 10 men and women.

Wally Hayward medals (silver-centred circled by gold ring): 11th position to sub 6hrs 00min

Silver medals: 6hrs 00min 01sec to sub 7hrs 30min.

Bill Rowan medals (bronze-centred circled by silver ring): 7hrs 30min to sub 9hrs 00min.

Bronze medals: 9hrs 00min to sub 11hrs 00min.

Vic Clapham medals (copper): 11hrs 00min to sub 12hrs 00min.

Prior to 2000, only gold, silver and bronze medals were awarded. The Bill Rowan medal was introduced in 2000 and named after the winner of the first Comrades Marathon in 1921. The time limit for this medal was inspired by Rowan’s winning time in 1921 of 8hrs 59min. A new copper medal, the Vic Clapham medal (named after the race founder), was added in 2003. This medal coincided with the increase in the time allocation for completing the event from sub 11hrs to sub 12hrs. The Wally Hayward medal, named after five-time winner Wally Hayward, was added in 2007 for runners finishing in under 6hrs.

Thank you, Wikipedia…! … and the medal is the same size (small!) and design as it was in 1921.
Those times are all gun times.(Which is why it’s handy to have a good qualifying time so you start in a better pen). You will notice it doesn’t say what you get for 12 hours or more…
…. which lead onto the tradition that really makes Comrades what it is: the cut-off. But I’ll get to that later… for now I want to talk about “buses”.

Another fine Comrades tradition, these are not your run-of-the-mill pace groups. These – particularly at the slower end – have traditions of their own. Each “bus driver” will have their own strategy, their own chants, and sometimes, so I hear, their own song sheets to hand out to the “passengers”.

I not-so-secretly reckoned that on a good day I had a chance of a bronze medal (though Compton had impressed upon me that it might well not be a good day). I planned to trundle along until young Stu Wainright’s 11hr bus passed me, jump on the back, and hang on.
Of course what I had not realised was how many bloody buses there were! They tend to be for the medal-colour times (not sure for instance if there is a ten hour bus). The first 11 hr bus swept past me, but it did not have the young chap in yellow at its wheel I was looking for. He, it turned out, was driving a second bus (relief) and came along later. I introduced myself (we’d met on the Comrades forums) and glommed on the back.

Then we hit the 2nd of the Big 5 hills, Fields Hill. I’d planned to walk this. He jogged. I promptly fell off the back of the bus. Bugger.

Consolation prize: a clean loo! I ignored the signs saying “reserved for the use of employees of _____”, dived in, and started making exploding sounds.
Ten minutes and much flushing later I staggered out. But lo! What was this? *Another* 11hr bus? Oh joy! “You,”I confessed to them, “have made my day. Even if it all goes pearshaped I will remember this moment when I found you and had some hope again.”

The bus driver was Yusuf, from Cape Town I think, and there was his mate Denzil, and Pete the mv50, and Buhule, and Mbuso, and Amy, and a whole crowd. Comrades prints your name and a whole bunch of other stuff on your front and back numbers so you are all on firstname terms from the start.

This was the start of the middle third of my race and a jolly time it was too. We ran. There was a hill and we walked. We raised our arms, breathed deeply and stretched. At the top the countdown started: FOUR! THREE! TWO! ONE! RUN! and off we trotted. We high-fived the kids at the Ethembeni school. We collected a rose each and laid it at the hollow in the rock known as Arthur’s Seat, where the great Arthur Newton is supposed to have paused on training runs. We chanted: EASY! EASY! and I told them about Mick’n’Phil. We sang… okay that was me…but they didn’t seem to mind. We jogged through the aid stations, “grab and go” said Yusuf.
This would be a good time to talk about food and drink at Comrades. There are aid stations roughly every mile, with water, sport drink of a luridly hued local brand, cola (iced), orange segments, bananas, biscuits, and later on boiled salted potatoes, plus, whatever random bystanders press on you. The water and sport drink are not in bottles, cups or those unholy kidlike sachets, but in small sealed plastic bags, 200ml or so. Grab, bite,.squirt or suck. I usually sprayed them into my water bottle so I could add my Torq sport drink powder if I wanted (which I had done during that second pit stop). And there are “unofficial” aid stations as well – basically the bystanders will offer all sorts of things (including, according to the MarathonTalk guys, random painkillers… eek!). Warning – there are many roadside barbeques (braais).

We reached the “marathon to go” point in about 5:50. So a 10:59 finish might still have been on the cards, as the last half is, not easy, but easier than the first, and (Compton aside) my slowest marathon had been well under the 5:10 we now needed. But I needed it to be a “good day”. At about 60-odd kms done, I was throwing up orange segments at the side of the road as my bus disappeared off round the corner under a bridge, and clearly, it was not going to be a good day.

The best advice I got given about Comrades? Measure out a km (or use your GPS). Walk it briskly. Time it. Then when everything goes pear-shaped, you can look at the km markers, which, at Comrades, are “kms to go” rather than “km done”. You multiply by the minutes it takes you to walk a km. You add it to the time on your watch (which you should have started when the gun went!!). If the result is 11h-something – you’re good to go, you can walk to the finish and still get your medal.

I knew I could walk a kilometre in well under 9 minutes. I now found out that, while in a marathon my arithmetic is shot to hell, while walking I can multiply 27 by 9 quite easily! So, I walked the uphills. I broke into a jog-like motion on the downhills. And I would jog on the flat if the motion didn’t make me feel sick (which quite often it
did). Afraid of making my nausea worse, I stayed off the gels and sipped cautiously on oddments of drink – a bit of water, a bit of iced cola, even a bit of the lurid Energade which surely must contain substances long banned by the EU! I could have murdered some alcohol free Erdingger during the heat of the afternoon but sadly this they do NOT have. There were also great stacks of lumps of ice and this I stuffed inside my running kit, while using the water bags to spray my head. This helped with the sickness a bit.

So, this was the last third of the race – basically, a death march. Thousands of us lurched along like zombies, swinging our arms to keep our walking speed up and limping as all our old injuries started to play up (ow. my hip…). We talked to each other to keep our spirits up, and one South African runner used her native powers of bossiness for good to try and keep me going… “NOW WE RUN” [fx… drags me along while my face rapidly goes green]. Bless her. It’s during this phase that the spirit that the race is famous for really comes to the fore. So many runners gave me support and I tried to give it back when I was feeling good.

The last of the Big Five hills came into view. Polly Shortts. It’s preceded by Little Polly’s (which has houses on it – real Polly’s does not). Pretty much everyone walks up Polly’s, even some of the elite. You do a lot of walking at Comrades. One of the two septuagenarians on our tour had done well because, he said, “I was in the Parachute Regiment and learned to march quickly!”. At the top the sun was setting and this made it hard to see – I had to be careful where I put my feet, as a fall at this point could cost me my medal.

By this point I was in the state that the Buddhists call Nirvana and the British call “past caring”. I knew I would get my medal, and frankly no longer gave a stuff about my finishing time. The photo above shows the rather fake run I broke into at the top of Polly’s … it didn’t last long.

By the time I got into Pietermaritzburg it hurt even to jog the downhills. I checked my watch and thought, “stuff it” and marched on past the cheering supporters lining the route as night closed in. I wanted to save my energy for a bit of flag-waving down the finishing straight (didn’t want to waste that £1.50 at Gatwick!).
At last, into the stadium and spotted John where we’d arranged for him to be. Bless the man. I collected a kiss and the flag and then shamelessly showboated round the last few metres of the route, trying to salvage something from the race!

The end of the race is the usual experience – like being a ball in a pingpong machine – medal, badge, over to the International Runners area (if you’re from SA you must belong to a club to enter Comrades and the clubs all have gazebos at the finish, so the IR area is for those poor souls with no gazebo).
Found a bunch of other UK running friends and sat with them while John found his way back through the crowds. I was now feeling increasingly cold as night had fallen and (due to the ice and water during the race) I was soaked through to the skin. Luckily he’d left my kit bag with them and I put on tracksuit bottoms and a top but underneath I was still wet. Remembering my thoughts earlier I got John to get a beer but I took one sip and then felt sick again. The interval following, until we got to our hotel in PMB, was extremely unpleasant as I was wet, shivering, and nauseous (luckily, threw up outside the stadium rather than in the minibus). In the hotel I finally went for a wee and yikes! it would have been an 8 on the standard urine colour chart.

– seriously, I had to flush twice to clear the loo…. I promptly poured myself a large glass of water to drink in the LARGE HOT BATH (mmmm). The feet were OK though – a blister or two but nothing serious. And a postscript highlight to my trip – the next day I met my second cousin (who lives in Durban) for the first time – we compared family noses (large!) and it was lovely.
1) Our vegan ultrarunners like Anna, Mitso, Joe, Hallam, Chris and Alison are, well, dead tough. There is nothing like lurching along stiff-legged and stiff-armed at the end of an ultra to make you realize how hard these things can be.
2) At the end of it I had NO DESIRE AT ALL to go back, even though if I did I would qualify for a “back to back” medal. Now, well… it’s bugging me that I didn’t get a bronze, and I keep on thinking of the things I’d need to learn (mainly “not throw up”) to do that… so I probably will go back…
3) You don’t need to go on a sports tour (and in this case I wish I hadn’t)
4) It was a bad idea to start getting up early in the last few days to try to acclimatize to the early start. I should just have been getting as much sleep as I could.
5) I really, really enjoyed training for Comrades – yes, even parts of the Compton 40!.
and lastly
BRING BACK THE LONDON TO BRIGHTON ROAD RACE PLEASE! The competition is Comrades (£££) and Connemara (££), you could charge quite a lot for traffic control and it would still be relatively cheap for us runners!