Although I had a terrible day-before-the-big-day, on Comrades Up Run Day I woke up feeling nothing but positive excitement for the race. I’d managed to get about three hours of real sleep and another three hours of calm mind resting. Compared to last year, I was in perfect condition!
After hugs from my husband and my 13-year-old, I headed down to the Hilton lobby to try to find some friends. I wasn’t exactly sure where the start area was, but I knew I could follow the crowd and get there. I saw lots of US, UK, and Canada runners I knew in the lobby. I found Cathy, a Comrades veteran from Canada, who I knew was also starting in the CC corral as a charity runner. I also knew that she, like me, had been sick in the days leading up to the race. Furthermore, I knew that, despite her being more than 10 years my senior, we are fairly well-matched runners. She is also an incredibly calm and cool presence, so I was happy to latch myself on to her and feed off of her confident vibe.
The group of five of us arrived at the C corral at about 4.45am. We sat down on the road adjacent to the shongololo, chatted, and took in the increasingly amped-up environs. I really couldn’t believe how good I felt. Considering I’d not slept at all Friday night and was sick from Friday at 10pm til Saturday when I went to bed, I was really shocked by how energetic I felt.
At 5am we stood up and pushed forward as the corral filled. I ate my banana with no problems at all and was encouraged by how well it settled in my stomach. When the tapes between corrals dropped and the pre-race program began at 5.15, I was all smiles. I shook hands with people around me, nodded to the shongololo runners adjacent to me, stood proudly for the South African national anthem until I could sing the final stanza in English, heartily sang Shosholoza (where there may have been some gospel-like arms-over-the-head-waving going on), rode the wave of jubilation to quiet contemplation during Chariots of Fire, grinned during Max Trimborn’s cock crow, and then lept at the sound of the starting cannon. We were off!
It took only about 90 seconds to cross the start line. Because Comrades is timed gun-to-finish rather than via chip (mat-to-mat) and there are hard time cut-offs en route and at the finish, every second it takes to get to the start line is precious. As I hit the start line so quickly, I thought of all of the people who contributed to my fundraising for Wildlands which allowed me to start closer to the front. I wanted to make them proud. I also knew, however, that the first 42KM of the Up Run was far tougher than pretty much any other standard marathon in the world. With about 4000 feet of climbing in the first not-quite-half of the Comrades Up Run, I knew I had to pace myself from the very start.
I ran with Cathy and we chatted easily as the race wound its way out of Durban. There were cheering crowds, and I appreciated their early-morning enthusiasm. At 20 minutes, we were on a highway onramp, and I announced that it was time for my first walk break. Cathy walked with me, and I quickly learned the secret to her continual Comrades success is that she is a strong, fast walker who isn’t afraid of inserting walk breaks into her race in order to maintain a steadier running pace throughout the entire event. My strategy exactly! I told her that I wanted to start very conservatively and that my real race would start at the top of Inchanga (about a marathon to go from there). She agreed that was a good plan.
We had great conversation– only upon reflection did I realize that I have no idea what Cathy does as a profession. We were too busy philosophizing about life and running and community and humanity to be burdened by mundane topics like work. We did keep an eye on the KM TO GO boards, making sure that we didn’t get pulled out too quickly. We walked up the big hills– of which there are plenty, not just “the big five”– and ran comfortably on all flats and downhills. I was so appreciative to have a friendly, positive, resourceful, and experienced Comrade for the opening stage of the race.
We saw the 79KM TO GO board, and we had our first tiny celebration. I ate a quarter of my PB&J sandwich, happy that it went down easily. A friendly South African runner commented that he’d run next to me for the whole race so long as he could smell “that most beautiful smell of peanut butter.” His sincerity made me smile.
We headed up Cowies Hill, the first of the big five. We alternated running 100 steps with walking 50 steps. It was steep but short. I could peek over my shoulder and see the Indian Ocean in the distance. Sure enough, we were running away from it.
The sun was coming up, and it was clear it was going to be a hot day. I drank the Tailwind I’d brought with me to the start. Keeping well hydrated was going to be key. Even though I did almost all of my training in hot, humid weather, I was really hoping for a cooler race day. Oh, well. One of the great truisms of distance running is that you can prepare all you want to, but what you get on race day is what you have to deal with. And that’s just the way it goes. So I would have to focus not just on keeping my stomach happy with agreeable fuel, but I’d need to stay on top of the right balance of fluids, too.
When I saw the sign for Fields Hill, I had to keep my wits about me. This was the hill I was most dreading. It is long. It is steep. It is *really* long (like 3KM of nothing but up, up, up). Cathy proposed we start out alternating 100 steps running and 100 steps walking. Solid plan. As we were ascending Fields, I saw several other international runners I knew. I shouted hello to Digger from Australia and Lorna from Miami. Then I saw Sherab and Ray, two Canadians whose intimidating training I follow on social media and who I’d met last year. We walked with them for a bit, step-by-step seemingly to never get any closer to the top of the hill. My legs started to feel heavy, and that worried me for the long day still ahead. As we crested Fields, I got an incredible confidence boost. That which I had most feared was conquered and done.
We saw the 69 KM TO GO banner and had another tiny celebration. I ate the next quarter of my PB&J and was feeling good.
Around 65 KM TO GO Cathy peeled off for a potty stop. I knew it was unlikely we’d find each other again, so I chose to be grateful for the comradeship we shared that set my day off on a positive start.
Around 62 KM TO GO I picked up the first of my three bags I’d packed to get me through the race. I grabbed my sunglasses, a bottle of Tailwind, a roll of Salt Stick Fastchews (electrolyte tablets), and another half PB&J sandwich. I was at the table less than a minute.
I kept up my run/walk as the terrain dictated. The KMs continued to click by, but I realized at 59 KM TO GO that I felt more fatigued than celebratory. I was sleepy. The no-sleep-Friday-night and no-eating-on-Saturday plus the waning of the adrenaline-filled start were catching up to me. Fortunately, I knew my family would be waiting to see me in Winston Park, just another few kays up the road. That kept me moving at a good pace, as I wanted to look strong when I saw them.
I ran with my head on a swivel as I passed through the throngs of spectators in Winston Park. My kids brought a Notre Dame flag to hold to make it easier to spot them. I never saw the flag. I never saw my family. I was well and truly bummed.
My emotional letdown combined with my physical fatigue led me to do something I usually reserve only for the late stages of an ultra– I drank a few sips of Coke. I wasn’t feeling hungry at all.
I hit Botha’s Hill and chose to employ the same 100 steps running/100 steps walking strategy that got me up Fields. My legs still felt heavy and my stomach was a little touchy, but for one of “the big five” it wasn’t bad.
At 51KM TO GO, the 11-hour bus (pace group) passed me. That was deflating. My original goal was to run sub-11, and I knew I had the training to do it. But once I had the awful 24-hours pre-race, I changed my goal to finishing and feeling good. Too bad I wasn’t feeling very good at that point. I knew I needed to keep eating and drinking even though my stomach had flipped. It was also getting hot and very sunny. I took a water sachet from almost every aid station– of which there are 46 along the route– to pour over me. I looked like a drowned rat.
At 50KM TO GO, I looked at my watch. I was right at 5 hours in to the race. That meant I had 7 hours to go. Rather than buoying my spirits– 7 hours is plenty of time for 50K– I started into a downward spiral of mathematical miscalculations. Long distance running does a lot of good things for my body, but it really messes with my mind!
Fortunately, right then I looked up and spotted my fellow Wildlands comrade Noeleen. (This is one of the great benefits of wearing a number bib with your name on it both front and back.) I shouted to her, and we both broke into a walk as we moved up yet another hill. I was trying to complain about my stomach and fatigue, but Noeleen would have none of it. She urged me to take in the scenery. I am grateful to have run in to her at exactly that moment on the course, as my hamstrings started cramping. I winced badly, but we kept walking and talking. I got very worried about adding cramping hamstrings to fatigue and a sour tummy. Noeleen wasn’t worried…we played a short game of “what if” regarding which house we would buy and what animals we would raise once we moved in. It was a brilliant way to shift my attention. We ran together for about 10 minutes before we got split up at a water stop. Truly, Noeleen was in just the right place at the right time to keep me from cratering.
I tried to run “easy, loose, light” on the downhills and walk “strong, fast, tall” on the uphills. My quads were more sore than I would have liked. With cramping hamstrings, sore quads weren’t what I needed. I wasn’t quite to halfway. I started eating my electrolyte tablets like candy, two or three with a sachet of water at each aid station. I gave away my PB&J and bottle of Tailwind to some kids cheering on the side of the road. They were grateful.
I rounded a bend and saw the Wall of Honor on my right. I took a moment to think of all the other ordinary people who accomplished a dream by running on this route between Durban and PMB. I also grabbed a flower from the roadside, as I knew Arthur’s Seat was coming up in another quarter-mile or so. I made my way to the left side of the road so I could lay my tribute on the ever-growing pile. I mustered a friendly, “G’morning, Arthur” in honor of the two-time Comrades winner who is said to have rested at this point in the middle of one of his winning races. I certainly wasn’t going to turn down any kind of help– real or imagined– for the second half of the race.
As we dropped down into Drummond (the celebratory halfway point, about 1/3 mile shy of mathematical halfway), the smell of the braais on the side of the road hit me for the first time. Rather than turn my stomach, they made me look up and smile and take in all the people who were out enjoying a beautiful sunny day and the spectacle of Comrades. The festive atmosphere in Drummond pulled me out of my funk. There were so many people at the end of this section that we runners couldn’t be more than two abreast. The crowds were loud and lively. I did not take any of the barbecued offerings from spectators– at this point, bananas and coke seemed to be the magical formula that was keeping my stomach from full revolt.
And then the 11.30 bus passed me. What? I was feeling better! I thought I was making good time!? I was confused and dismayed again. I knew that the bus drivers each had their own pacing strategy (many of them follow the “go out fast and try to hang on” method), but I couldn’t believe I was going to slowly as to be behind the 11.30 bus. No matter how much I did the math to try to console myself, I was so worried I was going to miss a cut off. It was deflating.
I knew that just after Drummond was Inchanga. Instead of feeling intimidated by the lurking, twisty beast before me, I reminded myself that as soon as I got to the top, I’d have four of the big five behind me. I just had to get there. My hamstrings were twingy, and I was afraid of them completely locking up as I ascended Inchanga. I took five 100 step running breaks on my long walk to the top. I was, once again, grateful that I am a strong walker, repeating my uphill mantra to myself as I climbed: “Mountain Goat. Mountain Goat.”
With 42KM TO GO, I reached the top of Inchanga where I had another drop bag waiting for me. First I smeared sunscreen all over myself, as the sun was intense. Then I eagerly grabbed my next roll of salt stick tablets. I went ahead and took my PB&J and Tailwind bottle, even though I didn’t think I wanted them. The port-a-potty was in use, so I took my first pee break behind a car.
After five minutes of carrying the Tailwind and PB&J, I gave them to another group of kids on the side of the road. Carrying them was making me crazy, and I didn’t want to be distracted by that. Besides, I knew the kids would be gleeful with the American treats.
I was still feeling sleepy and low energy, and I was starting to feel the heat a bit more. I took salt from a woman on the side of the road, and although the process was a little nasty– she poured salt into my sweaty and dirty hand, and I licked it off– it had an immediate placebo affect. I felt the heat less intensely, and my hamstrings– still crampy– ceased feeling in imminent danger of fully locking up.
Before I knew it, kids from Ethembeni School were lining the road. I gave high fives to every kid I could reach. Their smiles were a boost and their struggles an inspiration.
I continued to run every bit of flat (ha! ha! ha!) and downhill that I could, and I walked the uphills. I ate part of a banana or a few potatoes every other aid station. I kept the salt chews going down with water. The Coke remained delicious.
Coming in to Camperdown, I reminded myself to pick up my head and look around. This was the second location my family was going to be. After missing them in Winston Park (where they actually couldn’t get in due to traffic), I really wanted to see them. Not two minutes later, I saw the big ND flag my two younger kids were holding. I ran down the hill to them and gave sweaty hugs and kisses to all. It was a brief stop– no more than a minute– but I was so excited to see them.
I told my husband, “I hope I make it!” He told me that I had plenty of time. They were standing right at the 25KM TO GO banner, and I was bang on 8 hours. Four hours for less than 16 miles meant I could do 15 minutes/mile and still make it in. I knew that. But I was still so freaked out by being behind the 11:30 bus that logic meant nothing.
My legs were still moving okay. They were heavy and sore, and I was worried about the hamstrings cramping on Little Polly’s and Polly Shortts. I was also worried about my quads taking the downhill pounding after Polly’s.
Just keep moving.
More salt. More Coke. More water– one to drink, one to dump over me. More bananas. More potatoes. I knew that keeping the calories going in was critical to keeping up my energy in the final section of the race.
With 22KM TO GO, I picked up my final drop bag. I smeared on more sunscreen– safety first! All I took was the salt chews. I had another quick pee break behind a car, and I was back on the road. Within a minute, I passed the 11:30 bus. Thank God!
Since Camperdown, the crowds were thick, loud, and energizing. Again there were short stretches of the course where the runners were squeezed because there were so many spectators lining the roads. What a thrill! I tried to feed off the crowd’s enthusiasm as I knew that I still had several big hills of hard work to go.
At 16KM TO GO, I had another tiny celebration. 16KM is ten miles– an easy daily run.
At 12KM TO GO, I started feeling blisters. On both feet. That led to the age-old question, do I stop and address the problem, or do I just push through? I opted for the latter.
Then I saw signs for Ashburton. I knew Little Polly’s was imminent. Although “little” this warmup to the real Polly was a right beast herself. I opted to walk and then run for 100 steps and then walk again until I could muster the energy to run 100 more steps. My hamstrings were in knots, so my stride was quite short. I was also feeling the effects of so much uphill work in my shins, with my ankle flexion being quite painful. And, yet, I tried to not think about what was coming.
I took more salt at the top of Little Polly’s then ran well down to the base of Polly Shortts. I popped two salt chews and started to attack:
Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk. Run 100 steps.Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk. Run 100 steps. Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk. Curse the one person running strong like it was the Olympic Finals of the 1600m. Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk. Wave at the awesome ladies singing on the side of the road to cheer us on. Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk. Crest Polly Shortts.
7.5KM TO GO. I made it through the final cut off point with more than an hour and 10 minutes to spare from being cut. That meant that, unless the wheels completely fell off my sportscar of a self, I was going to make it to Scottsdale Racecourse under 12 hours. Still worried about my legs locking up, I ate a celebratory banana for potassium and a caloric boost.
I hit 7KM TO GO with 1:48 to go til cutoff. If I were better at math, I would have figured out that I could have pushed just a little bit and made it under 11 hours. But I was tired and am not that good at math after running for 10 hours, so I didn’t realize how close I was to meeting my original goal.
There was a man shouting “Welcome to Pietermaritzburg!” as we ran on one of the most runnable stretches of the entire course. The course was lined with spectators, all of them encouraging us in the final push. I knew I was going to make it, so I focused on smiling at the spectators, high fiving kids, and being appreciative of the whole experience. Besides, there were a few more hills that were just more pleasant to walk up than to run!
It was when I hit the 3KM TO GO banner and had just over 18 minutes til 11 hours that I realized I could (theoretically) kick it in an finish with a Bronze medal. As it turns out, though, I’m just not that competitive anymore. I remembered my goal of finishing feeling good. I wanted to savor the experience more than I wanted to put my head down, run hard, and hope my legs didn’t lock up. Just as I got to the Racecourse gates, just after 1KM TO GO, the clock turned 11 hours.
I knew there was still one good hill to go, as runners had to go down a ramp, through a tunnel, and back up to the circuitous finishing route. I heard my family call my name as I was walking up out of the tunnel. Unlike that early time in the race I wanted to be running strong when I saw them, I waved, smiled, and kept right on walking.
The finish of the race involved what seemed like way too many turns. (Even the women’s winner thought she’d crossed the finish line when she was still 150m short of it.) I kept looking around, smiling, and being grateful that I felt as good as I did. As the announcer called out my name and congratulated me on the success of my back-to-back finishes, I crossed the finish line of the Comrades Up Run in 11:04:22.
I was elated.
I saw the pen of people who were the last batch of Bronze runners. Good for them! I had no regrets. I earned my Vic Clapham. I earned my back-to-back. I am one of the Comrades of The Ultimate Human Race.