Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A wee 12 hour jog with my comrades

2am I wake up with a start. I am surprised that the alarm woke me because that meant I was sleeping. I blink in the darkness a couple of times and then smile.  ‘It’s here-finally’
I jump out of bed and start the day with a mix of excitement and trepidation. It feels like the morning of Christmas, except I had a two year wait for my present. We bundle into the hired car following the usual line of cars into Durban towards the parking garage. Sister Debbie realised that she had left her coffee and sandwiches behind so I give her half of mine. She must be nervous as she never forgets anything. Our group of five queue for the bus where we get split up. Silence falls upon us in the darkness as we all turn inward thinking about the long journey on foot. I notice the starry sky and the crescent moon looking cheerfully down on us. I hear Debbie sighing deeply and I look round and realise that she is stressing big time. It’s her tenth Comrades, a special one, but her stress is her taped-up knee. A ligament tear 9 months ago has rocked her usual easy running and after months of rehab today is the big test. I smile and she realises that she has sighed out loud again.  

The bus thunders into Pietermaritsburg and inches it’s way through crazy cars and blocked off streets to spit us out into the hustle of the start. Music blares through the city and people are everywhere. I am surprised that it feels so warm. The five of us line up in a dark side street for the portaloos and queue jumpers get shouted at from our desperate, patient line. Nature calls answered we quickly say our goodbyes and make our way to our respective seeding pens. Marlene, Jade, Cerlest and I have a long walk through the throngs of people to our pen at the back. I realise that we don’t have a long wait before the start so I switch on my watch. The crowd surges forward as the seeding pens get dropped and the TV lights feel closer to us slower folk at the back. Shosholoza starts playing loudly over the PA system and the hair on my arms prickles up in emotion. The crowd begins to sing together and some sway to the music. The national anthem pushes the bladder closer to my eye and then Chariots of Fire makes many a tear spill onto nervous faces. The famous cockerel crows and everybody raises their arms to start their watches. The gun goes, the crowd cheers and we wait. After a minute there is a slight movement and we start our patient shuffle towards the City Hall. Eight minutes later we are on the beeping starting line and I look back and see the sweeper car uncomfortably close to us. Spotting the TV cameras I tell novice Jade to wave and we wave our way through spectators who are cheering and whistling us through.

The streets of the city seem brighter this year and I am grateful that the weather is so mild compared to my last run. We turn into a side street and I hear the sounds of a bagpiper which pulls my tears again. Three barefoot runners pass us and I wonder how their feet will last over the long road. People begin to strip off the top layer of clothing as we make our way out of the city. I decide to keep my gloves on for the colder hills of Polly Shorts. I read the paper numbers of the runners in front of us and I tell Jade that it distracts me. We reach the cold pockets sooner than I expected and although colder, it was still mild. We see the long river of runners as the road begins to stretch out ahead and the sunrise creates the most magnificent tapestry of colours with the cloud as it inches it’s way into this first day of June.

The distance markers showed up quicker and I was pleasantly surprised by how good I felt. Jade was staying with us and Marlene seems strangely quiet. After un-layering our outer tops I realise that Jade had let us out of her sight. Marlene and I chatted as we neared the first of the timing mats and waved nicely for the cameras. Not long after that, she told me to go on as she felt I was too strong. I held back for a while and then remembered that she has great finishing power so I trundled ahead greeting lots of different club members along the way.
I walked the uphills and trundled the downhills towards the halfway timing mat and had a slight panic as I was a few minutes behind our ideal time. The festive atmosphere lifted my spirits and I spotted some familiar faces which helped morale as I was about to start the next marathon within this marathon. I walked briskly up the hill noticing how the seeding numbers had become diluted with faster runners with their plans radically shifted. I got to Arthur’s Seat quicker than I remembered and I realised I didn’t have a flower. I picked up a flower stem from the ground and went over to the hole in the wall and looked at my watch. It was still morning after all. I greeted ‘him’ and jogged towards the Wall of Remembrance and thought about absent runners in spirit. One runner was thanking his Comrades before him for starting this race and I nodded my head knowing that those few runners must be immensely proud of what this race has become.

Support began to thicken as we neared the towns and I was amazed at the throngs of people patiently sitting and cheering. Music, braai’s, dogs, blankets, chairs, people of all ages helped me keep my pace. Some young girls had colourful wigs and I complimented them on their ‘cool’ hair. I curtsied before two older ladies with crowns on and commented on how good an older crowd looked sitting quietly in their chairs. A young man balanced on a high cement pole for a better look out and I commented that he would have sore legs tomorrow. He laughed and said
‘Not as sore as yours will be’.
I thought about that but was feeling physically alright. My mouth felt dry, but I knew it wasn’t thirst as the water tables were well stocked so I decided I needed some ice. It was humid but cloudy which mentally felt better without the sun tearing into my pale skin. I found some ice and crunched gratefully through the crowds of cheering people. The miles ticked by and I crossed the point where I had bailed in 2010 and silently I thought ‘not today- you are not’ and tipped my hat with a smile. Crossing the highway I knew that the Nedbank Green Mile lay around the corner and I was excited to be feeling so good at this point. I made the young ‘Elvis’ run a stretch with me and posed for some photos with some KISS lookalikes, the pipe bands were on a break but the dj’s played on. There were huge puppets that were so cool and I danced along the mile with a big smile on my face. I  felt sad that they couldn’t stay with me the rest of the way to Durban. We spilled onto the quieter highway and suddenly I felt lonely. Surrounded by runners I realised I needed to look for inspiration so I started reading names again and making a conscious effort to see and greet every supporter on this stretch of road. I started thinking about ice lollies and that became my focus. After three sellers not having an orange ice-lolly I almost gave up on the idea when I heard a far-off bell ring. I started shouting ‘Ola’ and barged through the supporters to the beautiful lady who had a selection that were R10- cheaper. Music to my ears and I pulled off the wrapper with delight as a spectator shouted ‘enjoy your ice-cream Cathie’. My mouth was full so I gave him a cheerful thumbs up! I walked my way through my lolly enjoying every icy moment before the trundle started again. I was hoping to hang onto some of it for my walk down the big Field’s Hill, but I was too far away.

I reached the hill and started to plan how I was going to do this. It is steep and the camber tilts rather harshly. So I decided to run until I could feel my inner brakes working too much and then walk. I walked a lot this way but I knew I had plenty time so I didn’t need to panic. Getting to the bottom I heard a noisier ‘Cathie’ than usual and I saw it was Jade. I was confused as she wore 'regular' clothes and only after I turned the corner did it really sink it who it was. I felt sad for a moment but she had looked so cheerful I thought she must be okay so I continued my way through a noisy Pinetown. On leaving the town I hit a bit of a mental slump. I walked, looked about, sighed and fiddled with my belt as a means of distraction. I heard a ‘bus’ behind me and panicked a little, looking at my watch trying to figure out all the numbers. A fellow runner calmed me down by saying this group were aiming for 11h30 so I relaxed knowing that I was okay. The bus sang behind me for a while and at the one water point I deliberately let them pass me. I ran behind alongside a Brazilian runner in a Santa suit. This distracted me as the crowd loved him so I let him entertain my mind for a while. At one stage ‘Batman’ appeared and I know it sounds like I was hallucinating but some people make their Comrades journey even tougher by running in fancy costumes. The little kids squealed with delight and I stayed between the two costume runners for quite a while. My head had cleared as Durban inched closer and the crowds thickened again with their support, food, drinks and smiles.

With about 5km to go I caughtup with the ‘bus’ again and I wondered what to do. I was running faster than they were but there was singing and they got bigger cheering from the crowds and the water points weren’t as crucial  so I decided to hang onto the back of them. It was easier to let them decide when to walk and when to run and when to breathe so I relaxed and joined in. The last four km board passed by and I thought back to a few short months when 4km felt so far and so impossible after my own injuries of neuromas and fascitis. I thought about my marathons that brought me to this point. Jackie, Arthur and Wally and all the distances in between and one part of me wondered how on earth I did it. The streets of Durban felt long as the floodlights of the stadium teased me from the left. I was considering leaving the bus and running on ahead but decided against it and to be patient. Finally- the last stretch of road and crowds cheered enthusiastically as our big group ran past. The sunset lit the sky spectacularly once more and it reminded me of the sunrise 11 hours before. We turned into the stadium and I held back wanting my sister to spot me in amongst the huge crowd to stop her stressing. I was here! The stadium roared at the sight of the bus and I spotted my sister in the stand, we both jumped excitedly and I waved royally as I ran past. I turned the last stretch and danced a little. Yippee, I was done, fourth medal at last! I spotted the red TV camera light and I blew a kiss into the lens not knowing if it was ‘live’ or on a commercial. Unbeknown to me, family overseas were ‘live’ streaming and they spotted me, so too, did friends and family nationally.

I walked towards the drinks area and my head started to swim. I made the mistake of sitting down and sip some soup to stop the dizziness when now I realise I should have kept walking. As thousands of runners finished, thousands more lined up to meet their loved ones and walking anywhere was difficult. I had the togbag sticker and I contemplated how I was going to get there. Eventually a fresh-faced Debbie found me and she saved me the dizzy confusion of finding the bag. It took me ages to get across the bridge as I lay down on the grass for a while to get ‘grounded’ and found a ‘tums’ in my bag to settle the nausea. With my medal swinging proudly round my neck I made my way to my friends. Sadly we were greeted by some tragic news that Cerlest’s brother had died in the early hours of the morning in an accident. The remainder of the evening we sat sombrely as Jade arranged Cerlest to fly straight home. With bittersweet thoughts Debbie and I chatted in bed that night talking about our experiences. She had done marvellously and her knee had held up fine to clinch her 10th medal and permanent number. Marlene had gotten into a bailer bus in Pinetown with other runners and they picked up regret on the way to the stadium. Jade was happy but had a new understanding of what is required of her for next year. I was pleased with my own achievement. My goal was a comfortable finish, and I ended up having a marvellous day on this spectacular road. All in all it is an honour to be able to run this, a privilege that not everyone gets, but that every person should do at least once in their life. A day that is so hard to watch form the sidelines and is so much nicer to take part.
I can’t wait for next year! 

A tribute to my sister, coach... friend

I am blessed to come from a large family and I have an abundance of older siblings. I only have one ‘little’ sister, Debbie, and I am honoured to call her sister. As siblings, there was a love-hate relationship and for most of my young years it was more of a ‘hate’ or at least- despise. She was untidy, young, and whiny and I was responsible for her. We shared a bedroom and I had created an imaginary line that she dare not cross into my space. Yet, when she started school I remember bursting with pride as she raced the 60m sprint into first place with plaited pigtails flying in the wind. The gap was so large between us that I was off and out of home as she entered secondary school, I was so keen to set off into the big wide world. I was oblivious to most of her teen years, looking after my own adventures. But her teens came to an abrupt end when Mum died when she was only 19. The whole family stopped and then, cracked wide open, in the uncertainty of grief. Everyone scrambled looking for a place to hide from the pain, to hope that the gap would close quickly but knowing that our family was forever changed.
Debbie had her own little family with the unexpected gift of her baby daughter and she sought refuge in a different town where my Mum’s younger sister lived. Somehow she forged her own way and developed her new role as ‘mum’ in a very dynamic way. A strict mum, Kelsey was loved and encouraged by the love that she got from all in the larger, scarred family. A few years later they moved back to my town and I watched in quiet admiration as she worked, cared for, and raised her daughter without much help. One afternoon after Debbie had collected a very sickly, chicken pox toddler from our house, my husband, Nic, asked why I hadn’t offered them to stay over so I could support Debbie. I hadn’t thought of it but in the quiet of the night I went over his words and tried to imagine what it must be like being the responsible adult on my own.

Ten years ago Debbie started on a new journey, to start running. Naturally sporty and athletic with a determination that I never seemed to have, she joined a running club and started running mad distances and got fitter and fitter. She wanted to make one of her dreams come true, to run the Comrades marathon. So after many blisters and aching toes she registered and got herself qualified for her first race. There was no way I was letting her go down to Comrades by herself so our older sister, Mary, Kelsey and I booked into the special Comrades Train tour to support her. It was so exciting yet so nerve-wracking as our cellphone system didn’t tell us where she was on the road and only after an overseas sister had tracked her, did we know she had passed halfway. With 20 minutes before cut-off, her smiling face entered the stadium waving and we cried tears of relief and joy at her success. I remember shaking my head at how crazy she was at running so far but my chest soared with pride at my ‘little’ sister for being so strong.

Her next Comrades run, which was a ‘surprise’ to us all - as she said she was only going to do it once, she had changed clubs and found a lovely group of people to run with. She trained hard and seemed to glow and that year she set off on the club bus to run her second successful race. Nic and I picked her up from the bus stop where so many people were limping and groaning climbing down the stairs. A lovely father figure had taken Debbie under his wing and they had a tight group of three who ran together, joked together and succeeded together. Joe was one of a kind gentleman who seemed to be all heart and looked after all of us but he had a soft spot for Debbie and Alan and I must confess to sometimes feeling envy as they ran on ahead laughing and making long distances look like a walk in the park. Debbie’s third Comrades was joyful as she crossed the line with Joe, Alan and the others from their special group. I watched it from across the globe tracking them on the computer as red blimps on the screen. Debbie had shown that on Comrades she could run past a lot of the speedier men in the club and the further she went- the happier she seemed. Her fourth Comrades turned out to be my first attempt. After years of believing that I was not able, I attempted running and surprised myself at how much I liked it. After finishing her race, Nic and Debbie stood nervously at the finish line waiting for me who never arrived. They were heartbroken for me, I was delighted, I had run from Durban to Pietermaritsburg, more than I had ever run in my entire life on one race and I was smitten. The next Comrades race was bittersweet. Our mentor and friend, Joe had died and his absence was felt everywhere. This was Debbie’s fifth successful run and my first medal. We could feel Joe’s pride in our own hearts and his voice in our head.

The following year we had changed clubs and things were a lot different but in a good way. Joe was still missed but running helped us heal. Debbie showed how strong she was by continuing her marvellous running and making it  look so easy at the same time helping other runners. She is able to sum up a runner and their style and recommends what distances, training and speeds to do and for me, she has been uncannily right. Kelsey had developed into a feisty independent teen who no longer came on all the races. I marvelled at how well this little family unit had done and was very grateful that I could use my ‘coach's’ advice to great success.
The Comrades medals ticked off one by one and even foot surgery didn’t affect her success as she crossed the line for the eighth time. Her successful ninth Comrades was recorded as one of the worst races due to weather conditions being so hot. Over a third of the field did not finish yet Debbie jogged past an injured, non-participating me, looking like a million dollars. At the finish line she looked like she had ran a completely different race to everyone else and finished with her best time ever. The stage was set for an even better tenth Comrades!

In a moment, people’s life can change dramatically and Debbie’s took a sudden twist. Kelsey was about to leave for a new life in the UK and Debbie was asked to play netball for her work’s social team. An excellent netball player, she hesitated, afraid of possible injury. The hesitation wasted, she went on the court. Not even five minutes later, there was a strange sound and she was on the ground. A torn ligament in her knee. We both looked at each other in horror when she couldn’t pull herself off the ground. In that split second we both had images of her tenth Comrades and an impossible future with no running in it. After a visit to a surgeon who confirmed the anterior cruciate ligament tear, she was filled with new hope. The surgeon had recommended rehabilitation and a conservative approach which she duly did. With more patience than I ever would have, she stuck to her therapy regime and got more and more positive about herself and her life. Gingerly, she started running 7 months before the important Comrades. Building up distance. as well as muscles, I was impressed by her determination to not let this setback affect her. At the same time she developed a injury-comeback training program  for me and when I saw how realistic it was, I knew that I could just maybe, join her running Comrades.
The months and kilometres ticked by and the big day arrived. Nervous to the core, she sighed deep breaths on the bus journey to the start, anxious to get started and to see what the day would bring. I had a deep knowing that she would do fabulously, after all, this is her race, the race where the further she goes- the more she glows. I set off from the back of the race but I too could feel that this medal was mine. As I ran onto the final lap at the stadium I saw her in the grandstand jumping for joy that I had beaten the clock. I knew she had done it, but I no idea she would have run it so well. She broke her ten hour barrier convincingly and had had a fabulous run with very little pain. Her permanent ‘green’ number is hers and so well earned. Ten years of hard work, joy, pain, shock, grief, patience, perseverance, delight, fun – much like life.
Debbie has the green number for life, in life and with life! So proud of my 'lil sis'!