Comrades Marathon Starting Line

I had two goals going in to Comrades: 1) Finish. 2) Feel not completely terrible doing so.

I’m here to tell you, I achieved 1 1/2 of those goals.

If we start the story from when I awoke on race day, that’s really when I went to bed on Saturday night.  I didn’t sleep a wink.  Saturday afternoon I had what can best be described as an anxiety attack.  I couldn’t eat.  I couldn’t drink. All of my energy was expended in the prevention of vomiting.

I have never experienced such a crisis of confidence before, and all I could think of– amidst the chorus of voices in my head telling me what a fool’s errand I was on– was Izokuthoba…It will humble you.

Far more than a gimmicky marketing slogan for The Ultimate Human Race, I was experiencing izokuthoba before I’d even run my first step.  Hours away from the race start, I knew that despite my careful and consistent training, there were a million things out of my control that could render all of my time, effort, money, and mental gymnastics of just getting to the Comrades starting line null and void.  As someone who likes to be in control of her well-planned life, I was facing the great unknown.


So, there I found myself at 2.45am on Sunday, May 29th in the lobby of the Durban Hilton, dressed in my race clothes and warm throwaway outer layer, waiting for my dad so we could walk to the bus that would take us to the start in Pietermaritzburg.  My husband had tried his best to calm me down and reassure me before wishing me luck, saying goodbye, and sending me off to run.  As soon as my dad saw me, he said, “You still feel awful, huh?”  It was an honest assessment, despite my best attempt to fake-it-til-I-make-it.  I had a bag with various foodstuffs– none of which appealed to me– a bottle of water to drink on the bus, and a bottle of Tailwind to carry with me for the first few miles of the race to avoid the crowded early aid stations.  We followed the throng of runners to the bus queue.

In a crazy small world coincidence, we queued up for the bus behind four runners from Houston, two veterans and two novices.  I didn’t have much desire to chat, as my stomach was still really queasy.  I kept telling myself to just get on the bus, close my eyes, and the excitement of the start line would snap me out of my funk.

Instead, I spent the bus ride trying to keep warm, as the a/c unit above my head was missing the panel to control the flow of cold air.  Underneath the icy blast, my body was shivering and my mind was chattering non-stop despite my best efforts to use every calming technique I could think of: tapping on my collarbone, pranyama (alternate nostril breathing), mantra repetition, and good old deep breathing.  I could hear my dad talking with the Houstonians.  As we were nearing Pietermaritzburg– a journey which took far longer than it should have and left us scrambling for the start line– my dad kindly asked our fellow Texans for some Pepto Bismol for me.  They didn’t have any, but one guy offered up some ginger capsules he carries in case of nausea during the race.  Ignoring the #1 rule of racing “No New Things on Race Day” I happily accepted.  (And felt guilty about it, hoping I wasn’t ruining his race before it started.)

My dad and I said our goodbyes and parted to enter our starting pens.  He was able to start ahead of me as a perk of his incredible fundraising efforts for the Wildlands Conservation Trust. We had a plan to run on the right side of the road so that I would see him when I caught up.  I reminded him of our plan and wished him luck.  As I walked back to my F seeding batch, I remembered that I’d never drank the water I had on the bus, nor had I had anything to eat.  I tried to psych myself up to eat something….anything….before the start.

I stood in F batch behind a couple from Australia and two South African guys.  They were all veterans and shared their enthusiasm for Comrades with me.  “Enjoy the journey!”  It was a refrain I’d hear hundreds of times that day.

At 5.15am, the barriers between seeding pens were dropped, and we all squished forward.  I knew I had to eat something.  Two bites of a lemon Luna bar and one swig of water.  That was all I could get down.  I grabbed my bottle of Tailwind out of the bag and handed the rest of the food and water to a teenage boy just outside the runner’s area.  I peeled off my hoodie and sweatpants and gave those to a lady walking by with a garbage bag, collecting the discarded clothing.  And then the voice of the PA Announcer swept over us.

Comrades Marathon Starting Line

I looked up and saw the lights in the distance sweeping over Pietermaritzburg City Hall, the start line of the race.  As part of my race preparation, I watched You Tube videos about the start of Comrades; I was prepared to participate in the traditional singing that unites the runners before the journey.  I willed myself out of my head to enjoy the buzzing atmosphere.

It is impossible to describe what 18,000 runners singing the South African National Anthem sounds like, but if you’ve ever been to an American road race where The Star Spangled Banner is sung by a mic’d soloist and the runners are silent, you have no idea the energy I’m talking about.  In South Africa, the anthem is five stanzas, each one sung in a different official language of the country.  It is a lyrical lesson of multiculturalism and national unity.  I managed to learn the final stanza– in English– and sang it heartily.  My South African Comrades patted me on the back and smiled broadly when they heard me singing.  The tremendous pride in their eyes was touching.

(That’s not my video…I’ve pulled it from You Tube, where it was posted by a fellow Team USA runner.  That runner is clearly faster than I am, as he was seeded in A Batch at the very front.  From my start vantage, PMB City Hall was blocks and blocks in front of me.  But please note how many people are singing loudly– and these are the fast folks, the ones who are normally too cool and too into their run to participate in the pre-race festivities.)

Next up was the singing of Shosholoza, a traditional Zulu song sung by miners returning home after working in the SA mines.  Its call and answer format, driving beat, and lyrics that roughly translate to a slow-moving train meandering through the SA mountains have made its singing a stirring part of Comrades start line tradition.  Once again, people were singing with gusto, arms in the air waving, and feet moving to the beat.  It was not unlike a spiritual revival.

When the theme to Chariots of Fire played, the runners let out an initial boisterous cheer and then became eerily silent.  The reality of our collective undertaking was like low-humming static zipping through the crowd.

And, finally, the recording of Max Trimbourn’s cock crow sounded loudly, followed by the firing of the starter’s gun.

Comrades.  Time to do what we came here to do.

Read the next post for the full race recap!  

And then find out what happened after the race.