Read the preamble post Getting to the Comrades Starting Line to get the full understanding of the traditions and emotions leading up to the start of the race itself. Then come back here for the Comrades Race Report.
Comrades. Time to do what we came here to do.
Comrades Race Report
From F Batch, I was 5 minutes, 30 seconds before I crossed the starting line. Although runners wear timing chips in Comrades, the race is timed gun-to-gun. That means after 5 minutes and 30 seconds of running time, I was at 0.0KMs. And that’s just the way it goes. I had calculated 5 minutes in my race projections, so I wasn’t worried or annoyed by the slow start. Actually, I was pleasantly surprised with how relatively uncrowded it was to run once I got to the start line. I didn’t waste energy weaving through people; rather, I just bided my time on the right side of the road, trying to convince myself that my stomach didn’t hurt and running easy was the best thing I could do to make myself feel better.
I ran for 11 minutes before I took my first walk break, as I knew from the course tour I’d taken on the Friday before that there was a hill ahead. My loose plan was to run and walk regularly the entire distance. As someone who has been incorporating walk breaks into long distance running events her entire 20 years of marathoning, I knew I could hold a pace that would get me to the finish in under 12 hours (the race cut-off), and I’d hoped it would help me feel strong the whole way.
Mantra #1: Walk with purpose.
Unfortunately, my stomach was awful. After the first 30 minutes or so, the excitement of the start line pomp and circumstance had evaporated. My heart was sinking, and the nausea was preventing me from eating or drinking anything. I knew I was going to be in trouble.
And yet, the markers on the side of the road indicating kilometers to go kept coming. I never looked at my watch as I passed them, figuring that I was doing what I do could given my situation. The time didn’t really matter; I had no energy. I kept running and walking, willing myself to look up, soak in the atmosphere, high five the kids in bathrobes on the side of the road, and give a wave to everyone who shouted “Go USA” as I passed.
Mantra #2: Trust the training.
Around 1:50 into the race, I saw my dad up ahead. “I’m right behind you, Dad!” I shouted, and I felt a lift. When I caught up to him, he said, “My hamstring has been hurting only since about 3K into the race….how are you?” I replied, “Not so good. My stomach is still awful.” He saw I hadn’t been drinking– I still had most of the 500mL of Tailwind I’d been carrying from the start, and he told me I needed to force it down. I tried. At each walk break, I’d take a tiny sip.
Despite our less-than-stellar dispositions, we passed through the first cut-off point with plenty of time to spare. I can’t tell you how many people ran by us and chatted us up:
“Welcome to South Africa!”
“How are you enjoying Comrades?”
“Thank you for coming to our country!”
“What made you pick Comrades?”
And the one that I had been hearing from the start….
“Enjoy the journey!”
Around 2:30 into the race, at 67 KM to go (so 22KM or about 14 miles run), we arrived at the first location of our drop bags. We used the Bruce Fordyce Complete Marathons service, as we knew we wanted 1) access to our food, drinks, and other personal items mid-race, and 2) clean port-a-potties. I went into the lovely facilities– my first potty stop in more than 6 hours– and I knew that my not drinking much had caught up to me. Brown urine is never a good sign, particularly when you’re planning on running another 67KM. Having no interest in winding up in a South African hospital with renal failure, I downed a full bottle of water at the stop. Out of my bag I retrieved a half PB&J, a new bottle of Tailwind, and my sunglasses. All in all it was a 3 1/2 minute stop– longer than what I planned for, but we pressed on.
We were able to settle into a good rhythm, running and walking at regular intervals, and the KMs were clicking by. Dad was checking his watch to get the KM splits, but I was trying not to focus too intently on the details. I was using my energy to choke down my PB&J and keep the fluids going in.
Although my stomach was still pretty tender, I was cognizant enough to know I wanted to look good when we ran through Camperdown (about 59K to go). I knew that my husband and my mom would be there to cheer us on. Wouldn’t you know, just as we were approaching the town, my dad and I got stuck in the 12-hour bus (pace group). It was a huge mass of humanity, and while I respect their right to run together and encourage each other, it sure was annoying to want to pass the bus and get trapped by their walk/run timing. Just as we weaved through to the front of the bus, I looked up and saw my husband and mom. I waved and shouted; they waved and shouted. It was a quick love hit that I really needed.
Around 3:30 into the race, my dad started to fade a bit. He encouraged me to go on without him. I wasn’t feeling all that great, and I thought about just running with him as far as we both could make it. I just didn’t think it was really my day.
We continued to slow over the next 2-3 K, and my dad once again told me to go on. I protested, told him I still felt pretty lousy, and we kept running together.
More “U-S-A!” cheers from spectators. More “Enjoy the journey!” from fellow runners.
One more slow K, and Dad said, “You can’t keep losing 30 seconds here and there. You need to go on.”
I paused for a second, about to give in to the lousy feeling in my body, and then I decided to go for it. I didn’t know what to say. We had run together farther and longer than originally planned, but I knew leaving him meant he’d have a long, tough challenge ahead of him. I also knew I had to go get the job done.
So, with 57K to go, without a goodbye, I silently pressed forward and ran on.
Mantra #3: Every step towards Durban.
I kept to my run/walk intervals as the terrain and my energy dictated. I was so grateful to have been on the course tour because I knew I couldn’t run all of the downhills in the early part of the race and survive to run the real “down” part of the Down Run. I heard plenty of people comment all around me, “Where is the downhill?” or “I thought this was the Down Run!” but my careful study of the course (reading countless blogs, listening to lots of podcasts, and taking the bus tour) meant I understood that the real race started with 30K to go. I kept making steady progress, though I still wasn’t interested in looking at my watch to see how fast or slow I was going.
Somewhere around 5 hours into the race, I noticed that my stomach was feeling better. I’d been doing well drinking my Tailwind and grabbing water sachets at the aid stations. I got the hang of drinking out of the sachets quickly, and I liked that I could take 2 or 3 at a time, so I could drink one immediately, carry one with me, and squeeze another one over the back of my neck when I felt like it.
By this point in the race I’d sampled my first boiled, salted potatoes from the crowd. (Which, if you’re counting, now makes TWO things I did on race day that I’ve never done before.) The potatoes are a well-documented part of the Comrades experience, and I must admit that for someone with a touchy stomach, their blandness totally hit the spot. I was able to get some calories, carbs, potassium, and salt without further upsetting my stomach. All hail the mighty potato!
At the 50K to go marker, I looked at my watch for the first time in a long time. Mental math challenges aside, I knew I had 7 hours to go to make the 12-hour cut-off. This was the first time I thought, “Maybe I’ll finish this after all!?”
One of the most moving parts of the whole Comrades route is running by the children of Ethembeni School. The kids at Ethembeni are physically disabled or visually impaired, yet their joie de vivre is inspiring. When we stopped off at the school during the course tour, the kids performed singing and dancing for us. They also gave each runner a beaded bracelet in the colors of the SA flag. Their headmaster asked us to remember the children as we ran, knowing that they made the bracelets bead-by-bead just as we were going to complete our race step-by-step. As I came upon the school, I slowed to a walk so I could high five all the kids. I thanked them again for the bracelet. I soaked in their smiles and enthusiasm.
Mantra #4: Run with joy.
And then I started the long, slow slog up Inchanga. Comrades lore has it that Inchanga is a Zulu word for the sound a spear makes as it is removed from the body. (I have no reason to doubt this is true.) Although we’d already done over 1000ft of climbing, Inchanga was a special challenge. Run 100 steps. Walk 50 steps. Repeat. Repeat again. Repeat over and over and over for nearly 3K (almost 2 miles) at a more than 3% grade. It was long. It was hard. There was no shade. It was intimidating, seeing the road filled with thousands of runners ahead of me, snaking upwards and around the bend. I may not have been running very fast, but I passed a lot of people going up that nasty hill.
Mantra #5: Relentless forward motion.
At 47K to go– the top of Inchanga– I was able to retrieve my second drop bag. After a quick stop in the loo, I grabbed my new bottle of Tailwind, a half PB& J, a sponge, and a pack of S-Caps. One of the awesome Complete Marathon employees, Gill, smeared sunscreen all over my shoulders, arms, and face. The sun was out and strong, and a sunburn was the last thing I needed as a souvenir. Gill also handed me a bottle of water, and I used some of it to wet the sponge and stick it in the front of my bra.
Not five minutes later, I was running down the back side of Inchanga and saw a man really struggling. I noticed from his blue race bib that he was a fellow international runner. He was wearing an age tag that indicated he was 70 years old. I immediately ran over to him, asked if he was okay, and offered him my water bottle. “Really?” he said. “Yes, absolutely,” I replied. I handed him the bottle, wished him well, and immediately felt lifted by the spirit that defines Comrades.
Mantra #6: I am grateful to be a Comrade.
On the drop down to Drummond, I could feel the excitement of my fellow Comrades as we neared the halfway mark. There was also a bit of rare shade, and I drifted sides of the road to stay in the shade as the road twisted. The sun was strong, but I wasn’t overheated at all. Between the water I would squeeze on the back of my neck every 30 minutes or so and the cooling breezes– and the nearly complete lack of humidity– I dare say the weather was agreeable. Granted, I had the benefit of training through an Austin “winter” and spring, which offered me a lot of hot, humid weather to toughen me up. I was grateful that the weather was a non-issue for me.
Drummond. Halfway. 5:55. I was hoping to be there in 5:35, but given how lousy I felt just an hour before, I was thrilled to still be in the race.
As we climbed out of Drummond, I knew we were nearing Arthur’s Seat. As part of Comrades tradition, runners leave a flower here, the site where 5-time Comrades winner Arthur Newton was said to have a mid-race rest and pipe. I saw a single yellow sunflower– my favorite color and my favorite flower– on the side of the road. I wandered into the bush to pick it so that I could leave it for Arthur (and, as legend has it, ensure his blessing on the second half of my race). As I passed, I tossed my flower onto the piled, tipped my cap, and gave Arthur a hearty, “Good morning, Sir!”
We then ran past the Wall of Honor, commemorating Comrades winners and finishers. There were so many plaques with so many names. I thought of these people, each with a story to tell. What’s the attraction for so many regular people to undertake such a grueling race?
Izokuthoba. It will humble you.
Honestly, I don’t remember much from the Wall of Honor (just past halfway) to Hillcrest at 32K to go. I knew I was taking s-caps every 3 or 4 aid stations, drinking Tailwind and water, eating boiled potatoes, and walking and running. I still wasn’t looking at my watch. I felt much better, and I was running by effort.
“U-S-A!” chanted the spectators. “Thanks, Y”all!” I’d smile and wave.
I do remember passing the 38K to go marker and thinking that I was in new territory– every step I took would be a new personal long distance. I tried to be motivated by that rather than be terrified by it!
The crowd support continued to be incredible. I honestly don’t think I went more than 15 seconds without someone shouting my name, cheering “Obama!”, or “Run, Hillary!” The number of people having braais (barbecues) on the roadside was unbelievable. Their constant enthusiasm was inspiring. Every version of “Shosholoza” sung kept me moving forward.
I’ve run Boston and New York and London marathons. I know big crowds. Comrades was a World Marathon Major on steroids. For 12 hours. Want to feel like a rock star? Run Comrades?
A few Ks before cut-off at Winston Park (somewhere around 32K to go), I looked up and saw my husband and mom. I wasn’t expecting them at that location, so I’m glad we caught each other. I was feeling much stronger at this point. I was thrilled they saw me when I was running well.
I was feeling more confident I would finish under the cut-off. But I knew I still had a long way to go– 32KM to go is about the distance I run for my longest long run before a standard marathon….it’s no gimmie distance, especially on legs that had never run this far before.
Mantra #7 (my usual marathon mantra for miles 18-23): No whammies!
My pre-race strategy was to run conservatively for the first nearly 60K and let the race start in the final 30K. Fortunately, with a much happier stomach, strong legs, a cheerful spirit, and the bulk of the climbing behind me, I settled in to a 3 minutes run/2 minutes walk pattern. I knew I didn’t want to focus on the HOURS on my watch when I checked the time, so I looked only at the minutes as I meted out my intervals. I was running smooth and strong, and even my walking was at a pace where I was passing people who were running. At long last I was in a good rhythm and finally able to enjoy the journey.
My third drop bag was at 26K to go, in the middle of the Nedbank Green Mile– a large spectator section with tons of music, crowds, and theatrics. After grabbing my final bottle of Tailwind, another half PB&J, and a new roll of s-caps, I used the toilet quickly and was back on my way. I had my head held high, enjoying the spectators literally hanging out in hammocks above my head, marching bands lining the streets, and the hundreds of hands available for high-fiving.
Already buoyed by the crowds of the Green Mile, I was so excited when I moved into the next stretch of the course where Shakira’s “Waka-Waka” was blaring. The PE coach at my kids’ elementary school uses Waka-Waka as a warm-up dance song, and I was immediately transported to the school gym filled with smiling kids moving their bodies with youthful enthusiasm. I threw my hands in the air and danced my way along the grandstand, high-fiving the kids on the edge.
Mantra #8: Noah. Owen. Rosa.
As I passed 25K to go, I knew I could finish in just three more hours. How’s that for the relativism that running ultras introduces into concepts of time and distance?!
I was moving along steadily. The course was much more runnable, but I kept my walk breaks. I wasn’t strict with the timing of the intervals, instead choosing to work by effort. My pre-race hope was that I could finish feeling as strong as possible. As it turns out, the key to this strategy is feeling really lousy at the start….I’m one of the few people who can say I felt better and better with each KM I ran.
And then I got to Field’s Hill. It’s 3KM (1.8mi) of downhill, which sounds awesome. As an added challenge, the road camber along Fields is significant. This means that not only are you trying to run as smoothly as possible downhill so as to not invite cramping in the big leg muscles, the small muscles in the lower leg are working like crazy to stabilize your ankles. Thankfully, I’d been warned about this aspect of the Comrades course ahead of time; unfortunately, that knowledge didn’t make the actual running easier!
But at 70K into the race with lots of downhill already on the legs, I knew that running and walking Fields was the best strategy for getting to the bottom without completely trashing my quads or pulling a hamstring once I got to the bottom. I picked out a road sign in the distance and ran to it, often pushing myself another 25 steps past my mark. Then I walked for 100 steps. Picked out a new target and ran. Walked 100 steps. I made it down Fields with no cramping (which I later learned was quite extraordinary), and I was able to run smoothly.
I was still drinking water and Tailwind. I was eating boiled potatoes. I kept chewing the S-caps.
At 16K to go, I realized I was now 10 miles from the finish. I can do this.
15K to go. I can do this.
I had a few twinges and niggles, but they left as soon as they came. I had plenty of fatigue, but no real pain. Soreness? Oh, yes. But nothing was really hurting. There was a nasty blister forming on the inner heel of my left foot, but I didn’t want to stop and sit down to bandage it, for fear I’d cramp.
Mantra #9: I am doing this.
Cowies Hill. The final hill of the Comrades Big Five in the Down Run. 100 steps running. 100 steps walking. Repeat. Even at this rate, I was passing people. So many people. They didn’t look like they were having fun anymore.
I could see Durban in the distance. There was a light headwind, but it didn’t bother me. I enjoyed the cooling breeze and the salty ocean air. The city and the sea were magnets, pulling me in.
10K to go. Nearly 2 hours til cut-off.
Just keep going. S-caps. Water. Tailwind. Smile. Wave. “Thanks, Y’all!”
Mantra #10: To finish is to win.
I knew I was close, but I also knew I could use a little more food to get me across the finish line. On the highway into Durban, I saw a group of spectators who had pans of different foods. I asked for potatoes. “No, sorry, only bananas and oranges.”
A minute later, I heard a voice behind me: “USA Karen….I have potatoes for you!” A man ran up and held a pan of potatoes in front of me. “God bless you!” I said, grabbing two and smiling as I shoved them in my mouth.
This is Comrades.
8K to go. 5 miles. An easy morning jog. (In fact, very, very few of my training runs in the last year have been this short.) I know from my studies of the course, it really would be all downhill from here. My quads were holding strong, but I was tired. I know I have plenty of time before cut-off……not so much I could walk in from here and make it, but if disaster were to strike, I would have a fighting chance.
I was walking and running, telling myself that every long stretch of running banked more walking time if I needed it later. I didn’t want to run too long at once, though, and invite problems. I was deep into new territory for my body, and I didn’t want to ask it to do more than it could handle.
6K to go. “Hello, Karen! Where’s your dad?” I made a quick guess that this cheerful lady I’d never seen before but who seemingly knew me and my story was Noleen, a South African woman my dad befriended through their fundraising efforts for Wildlands Conservation Trust. I told her I left him long ago, and I wasn’t optimistic for him. I asked her how she’s doing. Not a good question. I kept running and walking, leap-frogging Noleen for a few KMs. We were both weary and ready to be done.
5K to go. I could walk in now and make it if everything fell apart. But no need! I was still running strong. The course was running along a highway now, so I was running to an overpass, walking for 100 steps, running to a road sign, walking for 100 steps. There were cars parked all along the highway, with crowds cheering us all the way in to Durban and Kingsmeade Cricket Stadium.
As the course moved off the highway and on to the city streets, the crowd thickened. I took off my sunglasses so I could fully appreciate the scene. So much cheering. So much clapping. I was still able to run strong, and I wanted to look good for the supporters.
2K to go. Smile and wave. “Thanks, Y’all!” Wave and smile. I threw the sponge that had kept me cool to the side of the road. Despite my weariness, I was of sound enough mind to know I didn’t want the sponge giving me a lumpy uniboob in my finish photos.
We made a hard left turn onto the road where we could see the stadium in the distance. I ran to the 1K to go sign, then took my final walk break.
As I entered Kingsmead, I made a conscious decision to lift up my head, raise my eyes to the rafters, and take mental snapshots of the scene. The packed crowd and their thundering cheering was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Running on the grass felt like jumping on clouds. As I ran by the International Tent, I scanned the crowd for my family. No luck. That’s okay. I’m a citizen of the world at this moment.
With arms raised in triumph, I crossed the finish line in 11:25:45.
I earned a Vic Clapham medal, named in honor of the founder of Comrades. It was his desire to create a living, moving tribute to those lost in WWI. As a citizen of the world, grateful for the freedoms and opportunities I have because of those who fought for liberty, I am humbled.
Read on for the post-race recap.