Saturday, June 09, 2012

Comrades running!

This year was my fifth time I came down to KZN to start this awesome race, which means that  for 5 years I have run a standard marathon 42.2km in under 5 hours. I read somewhere that 'If you qualified, you can do it'. This was very encouraging because there are moments in the days building up, when the enormity of the task hit me. Two out of my 4 years I didn't finish. Once because I was too slow, and the other because my heart was somewhere else but on that long road. It is those 'failures' that mess with my head. Those thoughts that skitter through the moments of doubt. In those doubts my body comes up with all plausible reasons why I shouldn't be doing it. But on Friday morning at 6am, I find myself giddy with excitement sitting on a plane waiting for take off. Running friends and other strangers all gearing up for the same goal, to get to Durban to do this thing!

On arrival in Durban we calmly make our way to breakfast at the airport. There is no need to rush and it is nice talking to everyone to see how the nerves are. In our party we had two men running their first race, Freddie, and Daniel. Daniel is staying with us in Umhlanga, and he doesn't really know us, yet, but we know that by the end of the weekend, we will have become running family. 
Lamenting the Joburg restaurant service, we eat our breakfast and the group disperses in the direction of the car hire. We all get issued our cardboard box sized cars and we head off to the Expo in the city.

The Comrades expo is where we gather to register our timing chips, ID and get our race numbers, t-shirts and goodie bags. This luxury we tend to take for granted but it is only in recent years that all of this has become necessary. 18 000 people registered to run this race, and it is expertly organised and handled with kind ladies at computer terminals. Exhibitors are on hand trying to share, demonstrate and ultimately sell us their wares. Everywhere I look, I see the similar expression of excitement and impatience. 12 months of waiting, and we want the race to start.

The waiting continues through a very sluggish Saturday, where we try to rest and keep our feet up, yet we wander around the shops willing the time away. Our party of 4 have lunch and plan what time to eat dinner and to get to bed. This year there was warnings everywhere about getting to the start early due to roadworks in Pietermaritsburg, and the media were of course, full of drama about the 'race not waiting for anyone at the start'. Our bus was set to leave from 2am so we decided on a 1am wake up call. We head to bed early and pretend to sleep. I toss and turn but I must have slept because I woke up a few times. 

Finally I hear movement, and it is time to get ready. Dressed and packed I eat my first breakfast of porridge knowing that by the time the race starts, this meal will be long forgotten. Daniel is looking a tad pale, but there is a twinkle in his eye, so we know he is ready. My friends, Marlene and Cerlest complain about lack of sleep, and Cerlest is still nursing a head cold feeling which can be caused by 'Comrades ghosts'. I am feeling excited, my doubts seem to have dissipated and I just want to get on the bus to start the day. We see lights on in other apartments and wonder if they are late night revellers, or long road travellers as we head out in the high full moon. 

The bus queue moved quickly as it seemed like there were hundreds of buses. We jumped in one and started the journey which would end with our return on foot. There was not a traffic cone in sight as were neared Pietermaritsburg, but there were lots of blue flashing lights so perhaps the traffic was expertly controlled as we arrived in the city 2 full hours before starting time. Us girls huddled under our blanket and we munched on peanut butter sandwiches as we watched runners gather together in the different starting pens. Being in the slowest batch we knew that starting way at the back meant that it would take some time to cross the start, but by now this no longer panicked me and we sat patiently far away from the beautiful Town Hall. The hours disappeared and suddenly everyone was on their feet singing the National Anthem. Nothing beats being in a huge crowd with the melodic harmonising and the deep rumbles as everyone sings together. I love to listen silently to the voices around and enjoy the goosebumps as the travel deliciously up my spine. 'Shosholoza' gets us stirred up and then 'Chariots of fire' messes with my make up. The 'cockerel' crows and the boom of the gun results in thousands of beeps as everyone starts their watches. We all look up from our watches as the PA pumps loud music out to send the fast guys out on the road. We wait at the back impatiently. After a few minutes the crowd thins and we move forward, crossing the line at around 10 minutes. The Vip's are on their feet, family supporters are cheering at strangers and everyone cheers as we cross the timing mats. The 87th Comrades marathon has begun for me. There is no impatient rush and we take care to avoid the discarded tops on the road. The city seemed better lit than 2010 and it was easier to navigate our way out. 

At the outskirts, the skyline lightened, but I could see a lot of cloud in the sky and someone mentioned the possibility of rain. I silently hoped not, as 89km is a long way to be rained on. The morning air was cool and as we went down Polly Shorts we hung onto our gloves and long sleeves because it could be very cold in the valley. One nice thing about the race numbers is that on them we have our name and on the back there is information, which means that a nosy parker like me, can find out things about our fellow runner without having to say anything. One man had three yellow stripes going down his number and I hadn't seen this before so I ran closer to see what it meant. 29 medals means that these stripes showed he was going for his triple green number. So I excitedly shouted this out and my fellow runners cheered. What an achievement. 

As the buildings and people lessened the wind picked up and began to mess with me. I don't like wind at the best of times and this icy cross wind was threatening to blow my hat off. The sluggish sun also took it's time to appear and the menacing clouds seemed to be sneering at me. I kept me long sleeves on and hoped that this would not be the first Comrades since the Eighties to get rain. The wind blew some of the distance markers over, and I gave a thought to the fast front runners which may be more affected than me by this wind. We caught up with some club mates and I tried to 'slipstream' behind them as we passed the chicken farms. The road ahead, as far as I could see was littered with runners weaving their way to halfway and it is an awesome sight. 

Pacesetters with '12 hour' flags ran in front and behind us, and our own 'bus driver' Vlam was injured again, so we knew that these replacement runners may not be as experienced as Vlam. We chatted about their pace and we agreed that the first bus definitely seemed too fast so we ran at our own pace keeping an eye on the back bus. Marlene was complaining of tiredness and at one stage said she feels like she should just close her eyes and run. I kept an eye on her and tried to distract her, but I must admit the wind was really irritating me. Cerlest had left us fairly early and she was doing her second race to get her 'back to back' medal so it was a surprise to me to see her pink cap not long before half way. She was also battling and was feeling not good. We ran together for a short time and I noticed the last pacesetter pass us and I decided to keep him in my eyesight. I knew my friends had it in them and Marlene often comes up from the back to join me 3 kms from the end, and  I thought about my bailing in 2010, so decided to keep on moving with the bus. 

At the halfway mark I felt relieved, like I somehow knew that this year I could do it. Plus the sun was out nice and strong and the wind had died down. The supporters began to thicken and my head cleared as I made my way up that dreadful hill past the halfway party. I ran comfortably and took stock of my body. Not too bad, my feet were the only real complainant, but everyone was feeling sore, so I was feeling 'normal'. I caught one of the clubmates from earlier, Kobus, who was having a bit of a sugar rattle. I walked with him and we chatted, well I think I may have done all the chatting. We reached Botha's Hill and the crowds were amazing. I waved at people and smiled as they shouted my name (from my number) and I joked that I felt like the queen. Kobus wasn't yet convinced. I told him to use the crowd, to make eye contact and feed off their energy. The confused look on his face was priceless, I then said to smile. He said he doesn't feel like smiling so I said 'pretend, fake it till you make it'. It must have worked because he was waving and in the photos and videos afterwards, I could see him smiling! 

We passed the place where I got into the bailer bus in 2010, and I gleefully showed Kobus, feeling very relieved that there would be no need to do the same this year. We plodded onwards. The great thing about this race is that the crowds really make the most of it. There were pretty ladies dressed up as nurses, guys in afro wigs, bands, schoolkids, girls suspended in hammocks over our heads from the trees, braai's, families on couches, deck chairs and dogs. I love dogs and I love admiring how calm these dogs are. The cuter they are the more excited I get. Marlene knows this of me and usually humours me, Kobus, however, kept saying 'huh?' as I pointed them out. As we neared Field's Hill, the famous downhill which can wreak havoc with the legs we were running between the two buses. We decided to go out in front of the bus, as they were beginning to slow down too much. The view from the hill is amazing and we were excitedly cheering the sea. One foreigner remarked at how good our spirit was and we chatted with him for a time. We paced ourselves down the hill and met up with a 'sea' of people as we entered Pinetown. Fantastic, I had to hold myself back because I knew we would make it and I wanted to rush off.

We weaved the roads on and off the highway and we reached the edges of Durban. Chatsworth people were out in their droves, singing and clapping, offering us all sorts to eat and drink and it was fabulous to see how they kept the cheering up for us slower runners. On the last highway stretch we ran from bridge to bridge, walking underneath the bridge than run again until the next waving crowd. The city twinkled like a present in sparkly paper, or maybe it was the tears in my eyes. We ran onto the last 2km stretch now fully comfortable inside the medal. Cheering people encouraged us onto the last Toyota mile and we turned for the last time towards the stadium. The lights were on for the tv camera's and we felt the lumps in our throats rise as we turned in. The squeals from the teammates up above as they recognised us made me wave frantically and I pointed out the tv camera's to Kobus and instructed him to wave. The 'finish' sign seemed to have angels singing above it (well in my head anyway) and we crossed the line 11 hours and 38 minutes after the start. Sweaty, teary hugs, posing for pictures and medal round my neck, I felt the joy of the finish. 

I made my way to the togbags and found it strange to be walking normally. Thoughts turned to my friends and I knew they would do it, which they did. Unfortunately Cerlest was taken to the medical tent and was put on a drip for dehydration. She later appeared at the medical tent door, smiling but pale and we gently made our way back to the car. Daniel had done a superb time for his first Comrades and got his Bill Rowan medal which means under 9 hours, and our friend Anita had a marvellous 20th Comrades too, Freddie had his first Comrades medal, and most of the back to backers got theirs . What a long exhausting, exhilarating, amazing day!

Later I was talking about our bodies and how awesomely brilliant a mechanism, and how astounding our physicality is. Comrades is the spirit of Ubuntu and the spirit of the essence of human beings. While running we can get ugly, gritty, pained, competitive and appreciative. Yet someone falls down and we are all concerned. When you run Comrades I  'see divine essence' in the runners, the supporters, the helpers... man it is that fragility that strikes me, and keeps me coming back for more.

Bring on 2013!

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