Friday, October 10, 2014

The 89th running of the Comrades Marathon... my first.

Durban, South Africa - we have arrived:

After a lifetime of dreaming, well over a year of planning, and roughly 20 hours on a plane, I found myself falling onto a runway at O.R. Tambo International Airport, Kempton Park, just outside of Johannesburg, South Africa.  I was here to run the 89th (56 mile) Comrades Marathon, with an ankle that had sustained a grade II sprain less than two months ago (a bit on recovery here).  Candace and I nervously and excitedly navigated the tarmac via shuttle, made our way through customs and to our connecting flight, headed for King Shaka International Airport in Durban.  

Wheels down at JNB

In the JNB customs line, I had the pleasure of meeting Dave Obelkevich.  With 38 consecutive NYC Marathon finishes, he owns the record for the most NYC Marathon finishes as well as the longest streak.  He was here for, I believe, his 8th consecutive Comrades.

After landing in Durban, we located a van/shuttle for hire and traveled another 30 minutes or so to the Durban Hilton, where we would stay for the next 6-7 days.  School children in uniforms, people coming home from work, and other pedestrians occasionally scampering across the freeway lanes marked one of the first and many reminders that we were in a foreign and unfamiliar place.  We were (I think rightfully so in many ways), concerned for our safety and were cautious about where to go and when we could go there.  Shortly after arriving at our hotel, being unfamiliar with our surroundings and transportation options, we felt a little trapped and feared that the first half of our trip might be spent in our room.  Thankfully, those feelings were short lived.  After a hearty dinner in the hotel restaurant and an equally hearty 11 hours of sleep, we awoke feeling refreshed and ready to explore.

We got to know the members of the hotel's front desk staff and the cab driver, who were extremely helpful in showing us the ropes of Durban.  We visited uShaka Marine World, surfed the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, strolled through the city's botanical gardens, saw our first wild monkey while exploring the restaurants of Florida Road, stood atop the arches of Moses Mabhida Stadium, took a day trip to the beautiful and terribly impoverished country of Lesotho, and on the eve of the Comrades Marathon, we even watched the Cell-C Sharks of Kwazulu-Natal at our first rugby game!

Bo and I at the Hilton.

We met wonderful people, enjoyed delicious food, and thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Durban!

-- >   Durban and Lesotho photos < --

Comrades - Race Day:

With some difficulty battling the crowds at the Sharks rugby game, we managed to find a cab and made it back to the hotel at 10:30 pm or so.  I got to bed by 11:00, slept like a baby and woke up at 2:00 am.  I took in some calories, was ready to go in 10-15 minutes, and strolled out towards the elevator, where I was pleased to see my new good friend Cathy.  Us runners shambled out of our caves and made our way to the lobby.  The last shuttles to the start, a 60+ mile drive away, left between 2:30 - 3:00 am.  Once outside and up the street a hundred yards or so, my jaw dropped as I my eyes found rest upon one of the most wonderfully decorated buses ever seen.  Airbrushed murals of Snoop Dogg,Tupac, and Eminem graced the back and sides of what I immediately knew was the bus that would drive me to Pietermaritzburg.  Cathy and I had banded up with other friends and loaded ourselves up.

I was unsure of what the day had in store for me.  Would my ankle hold up, would some other issue prevent me from finishing, would my pace prove to slow, allowing the sweep buses to catch me and force me from the course?  I was unable to imagine any of these scenarios and gave them little thought.  I had come a long way for this and was ready to endure and was not ready to stop until I reached the finish line at Kingsmead Cricket Stadium in Durban.
2:00 am, heading out for a 56 mile run through the Valley of 1000 Hills, from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa.

Holla if ya hear me

We rolled through the streets of Durban, past the Early Morning Market, onto the highway, and off to Pietermaritzburg.  The ride was uneventful, we talked goals and strategy.  People reminisced about Comrades past, warned of mistakes to be avoided, hills to be climbed, and chattered in order to settle nerves.  In an hour or so we were filing off the bus onto the streets of Pietermaritzburg.  The streets were bustling, with runners, locals, and spectators alike.  We found a nice stretch of sidewalk and got off our feet for a few minutes.  Maybe a half hour before the cock crowed (Comrades tradition marks the start of the race with a rooster's crow), we made our way to our starting corrals.  Most of our group gathered in the lowest seeded corral, in order to be able to start together, but given the unknown state of my ankle, I wanted every second I could get and opted to start in my assigned C corral (Comrades has a strict 12 hour cut-off, which is measured from the rooster's crow, not when a runner crosses the start, which can take up to 25-30 minutes).

Some locals celebrating and keeping warm, pre-race.

Superstar and Comrades veteran Cathy.
With 20,000 people registered for the race, the starting corrals were jam packed, but well organized.  People calmly allowed themselves to be herded into place, with the occasional straggler climbing in via the 6 ft. chain link fencing.  Without saying a word, we wished each other well and absorbed the atmosphere.  It was such a surreal experience to be among the mob, a Comrades runner, anxiously awaiting the start of an unforgettable adventure, which really had already begun.  Countless times I had imagined hearing Shosholoza while lined up to run "The Ultimate Human Race", the largest and longest running ultra-marathon in the world.  Now it was happening and it had me and many around me on the verge of tears.

Cramming ourselves in towards the start line.

Shosholoza and Chariots of Fire.... I could use a steadi-cam.

The rooster crowed.  I crossed the start line within a couple of minutes and was on the course.  I held two 20 oz. water bottles, a few gels, two Pro Bars and a pair of running pants that I had taken off just before the start.  The sun quickly sloughed away the darkness and illuminated the rolling foothills, which climbed to the Drakensburg Mountains behind us and yielded to the Indian Ocean and Durban ahead.  I needed to average slightly above a 12 minute mile pace, including any stops, in order to finish within the 12 hour cut-off and I immediately settled in near this place.  From the start, I gently ran 11 minute miles and walked any noticeable uphill stretches.  Admiring the different people from different walks of life and cultures, I trudged onward.  The registered field consisted of 18,000 South African runners and roughly 2,000 African and non-African internationals.  The diversity was wonderful and I was easily entertained by admiring all the different runners, or groups of runners, some donning traditional African dress, some in costume, some jogging while huddled closely together and chanting or singing rhythmic, meditative songs.

For a short time, I ran with a group led by an African man in a Santa's hat, who was gently rapping a tambourine against his thigh to the rhythm of his (and the 10-15 runners in his group's) footsteps, while chanting "work... work... work-work-work".

After 5-10 miles I was well warmed up and as I climbed Polly Shorts Hill, I removed my light jacket, handing it and my running pants off to some locals, who were collecting clothes for their families and friends.  Like many other international runners, I wore my country's singlet, which was quite a hit with both runners and spectators.  Frequently chants of "Obama Obama!" or the ever popular "U-S-A! U-S-A!" would break out, to which I would respond by smiling, motioning downward with my hands, and bowing my head while thanking them.  I always tried to tell them how happy I was to feel welcomed in their country and sometimes replied by chanting "Africa! Africa" or "S-A!  S-A!".

Early morning, early miles.

Beautiful countryside homes.

Through social media and the Comrades charity website, I had the pleasure of meeting Antony Clapham, the great grandson of Vic Clapham, who founded and was the first to run the 90 km Comrades Marathon on May 24, 1921.  We met in person at the pre-race pasta feed and again at mile 10-11 of the Comrades course!

Antony, en-route to his 2nd consecutive Comrades finish.
The miles continued to go by and I was feeling fine.  From time to time I would feel some pangs or mild discomfort in my injured ankle, but nothing lasting and thankfully nothing that seemed to be consistent or progressive.  I had heard and was now observing the fact that every kilometer of the race was marked and counted down with a large, numbered red banner.  From 89 down to 1, they were all marked.  I figure this could be used as torture or a way to help pass the time and distance.  With 85 k remaining, I decided to break the race up into a bunch of 5 k's and to celebrate the passing of each one.  Each time I saw a kilometer marker that was evenly divisible by 5, I enjoyed a small accomplishment and set out on the next 5k.  I climbed to Umlaas Rd, the highest point of the course at ~2,500 ft., and ran down to Camperdown.

A typical aid station.  Small, sealed plastic bags of water and cups of Coca-Cola were available at every one.

I had traveled 20 miles or so, I was on 12-hour pace, it was hot, and I was starting to feel nauseous.  I knew that bad nausea had the potential to derail my race and prevent me from finishing.  I figured I was low on calories and/or electrolytes and tried to eat a Pro Bar, but it was tasting horrible and I wasn't able to choke it down.  I drank some Coke at an aid station and it tasted great.  I decided to give my food away to children and rely on Coke and water for the rest of the race.

I later found that at ~1 pm, it was 93 degrees with 87% humidity.  Aside from a few short stretches, there was no shade on the entire course, the black pavement was fully exposed to the African (winter) sun.

Fortunately, my stomach quickly settled and even though I typically won't drink soda until the last 1/3 of an ultra, it was working today.  At every aid station, I would toss back a cup or two of Coke, drink one bag of water, and pour 1-2 more over my head.  This was working for me.  Onward, towards Inchanga, roughly the halfway point.

As I approached the marathon-to-go mark (42k left), I patted Arthur's Seat and for the first time, I started to gain some real confidence that I would finish.  My ankle was not an issue, my legs felt great, and I had 7.5 hours to cover 26 miles.  My slowest marathon to date had been ~4:40, and I had traveled ~400 miles the day after a 50k race for that.  It felt great to truly believe this was going to happen for me, but it had not happened yet.  The remaining 26+ mile stretch was not going to run itself.  I stayed focused and ran on towards Botha's Hill.

I saw a dead puff adder in the road.

Everyone was feeling the heat here.

47km down, 42km to go!

Climbing Botha's Hill

This studly barefoot runner and I were leap frogging each other for much of the day.

Cruising through the Nedbank "Green Mile".


Admittedly, having what felt like such a large cushion with 26 miles to go, I relaxed my pace a bit, which in the long run (zing) was likely a good thing.  I continued monitoring my watch, noting how many miles and how much time remained and suddenly, with 22-23k left, it seemed my cushion had largely vanished.  I determined that I had about 2:30 to finish a half marathon.  Typically, that kind of pace would be easy for me, but today I had 43 miles on my legs and although it had been manageable, the heat had taken a toll on me.  I figured I needed to maintain faster than an 11:30 mile for the remaining 13 miles in order to avoid being pulled from the race.

I started to panic a bit.  I was pushing hard and I was passing hundreds of people, but I was not moving significantly faster than that 11:30 per mile pace.  The bibs at Comrades display the number of races a runner has previously completed and as I feared for my own failure, I felt terrible for those with 9 (special awards are given to 10 time finishers) or 19 or more finishes, I couldn't believe that all of these Comrades veterans were not going to finish (since I knew I was in danger of not finishing and I was passing them).

Wanting to shed any unnecessary weight, I tossed one of my water bottles and a small waist pack to some children, who laughed, smiled, and excitedly ran off to show off their new things to their friends.  After a handful of miles of this, my legs began cramping.  My quads would nearly cramp on the downhills and my hamstrings and calve were cramping on the uphills.  My spirit weakened and my stomach turned at the thought of not finishing.  It was agonizing.

With 12 k to go, I had ~1:10 to finish, a ~9 min/mile pace.  Knowing that with my legs cramping whenever I tried to pick my pace up, I was starting to feel devastated and was losing hope.  And suddenly, as I stared at my watch, hoping it would tell me something different... IT DID.

At some point, I had confused the 12-hour cut-off with an 11-hour time.  I actually had over 2 hours to cover the remaining 10-11 kilometers!  I could WALK the ENTIRE way if I wanted and still finish.  Tears welled up in my eyes and I put my hand on a guys shoulder and said, "we have over 2 hours to finish, don't we?  We're going to finish!".  He replied "Yes, brother, we will get there.".  I explained to him the miscalculation I had lived with over the last 10-12 kilometers and we laughed, shared a one-armed, side-by-side hug and continued running towards the skyline of Durban.

The skyline of Durban, feeling close.

Life became joyful.  I again ran gently at a 12 minute mile pace.  I congratulated my fellow runners as they did I.  I urged those who were sitting or lying down to get up and keep moving, however slowly.

I ran on an overpass, overlooking the the Early Morning Market, bustling with shoppers and traders, that I had past on the bus over 13 hours ago.  I followed an arching off ramp down to the city streets of downtown Durban.  With three miles to go, I approached the group of African runners, led by the man in the Santa hat, and settled in with them.  He was still tapping his tambourine on his thigh and was now chanting "doo ittt, doo itttt, doo ittt, doo ittt, do-it-do-it-do-it-do-it doo itt, doo itt".  People where shouting cheers to them in Zulu.  A few times some spectators would shout out some Zulu song lyrics and the group would sing back, completing the lyrics.

I ran past the Hilton, crossed the street, onto the sidewalk, and into Kingsmead Cricket Stadium.  Spectators crowded the stands and the perimeter of the the ~400 meter finishing chute, cheering on their family, friends, and fellow Comrades.

It happened.  I ran on the field.  I circled the stadium.  And on one of the most memorable days of my life, I passed beneath an arch, made a left turn and ran across the finish line of the 89th Comrades Marathon.  No shit.  It was incredible.

Victory is mine!  Note my man with the Santa hat and the tambourine on the left.

Eleven hours, eleven minutes, twenty-seven seconds

This remained around my neck or in my pocket until I got home.

My official time was 11 hrs, 11 mins, 27 secs.  The finisher's area was fantastic!  I reunited and celebrated with Candace and friends.  I refueled and relaxed and utterly enjoyed the experience.

Hari, who I met a few days earlier, ran a few miles with me during the late miles of the race.

Our course tour guide and 15 time Comrades finisher, Hideo

I was so glad to have met and pal'd around with Cathy.

Ankle swelled a bit, but nothing major.  It felt fine the rest of the trip.

Feeling accomplished, enjoying some late night coffee, fries, and drinks at the Hilton.
I picked up two newspapers the next day.

A few days later, eyeing a herd of cape buffalo.
I surfed, watched a hippo cross the road in front of our car, ran with my new friends Mike Wardian, Jo Meeks, Sandra (who got to summit Kilimanjaro a couple of weeks later!), saw lions, elephants, a cheetah hunting at night, and rhinos, all in the wild.  I pet a cheetah, had an argument with a monkey, and stick fought with two Zulu warriors.  It was an unforgettable trip and I can't imagine it having gone better.  If for some reason you've made it this far... thanks for reading! :)

Oh... also, I wound up in New Balance's "Spirit of the Comrades - 2014" video.  I'm at ~3:17!

-- > More pictures from Africa < --


Unknown said...

Thanks for posting Paul... I went back to run a down run in 2010, after a 22 break. I promised myself at that time, that I would return for the 100th running of the Comrades, at age 70, but your blog and those videos have me all fired up to go again sooner. And yes I admit to shedding tears in both the first and second video you posted... for those that have never run this race, just do it - create probably the most emotional memory you will ever have, in your running experiences.

GoPaulGo said...

Thanks for reading, I'm glad you enjoyed the post! Congratulations on your two Comrades runs and I very much hope that you're able to make it back for a third! I hope to return for another as well. And yes, even only ~4 months removed from the race, when I watch that video now, I can't believe I was there and all the memories and emotions come flowing back. Absolutely a must-do race/experience for any runner!

Anonymous said...

Hey Paul !! Awesome report. I am about to do my first comrades this year and after reading I couldn't be more excited

Unknown said...

Hi guys, can I check whether there's any coca-cola bottles given to you guys for the 2015 marathon?

Unknown said...

Hi guys, can I check whether there's any coca-cola bottles given to you guys for the 2015 marathon?

GoPaulGo said...

I'm not sure about the 2015 race. in 2014 (the year I ran), coca-cola was poured from 2-liter bottles into cups and was available at every aid station.

Pauline said...

Fantastic to read about your run. What an achievement.

GoPaulGo said...

Pauline, thanks and glad you enjoyed the post! What memories! :)