Where do I start? At the end is an ideal place to kick this off. I cried. For the first time in finishing a race, a few real tears rolled down my cheeks when Mrs T finally found me. I was overwhelmed by emotions that, at the time, I didn’t understand. Thinking about it now, they were from both sadness and joy. This race got to work on me from the beginning and discarded me like a piece of used gum.
Despite Emirates business class travel, I slept for a total of a minute on the way over, in fact in the 3 nights before the race, I had a total of one night’s sleep. That is no excuse, more of a note to self to travel out earlier to a race this far from home! The 1:30am rise out of bed to catch a bus to the start didn’t phase me, I hadn’t been asleep, but I selected the only bus that had been transported from 1950’s Bangalore. Maybe sleep is important after all. We were the second bus to set off, but about the 30th to arrive in Pietermaritzburg. It was cold at 3am, the 3 quid shit catchers (grey joggers) and 4 quid t-shirt form Primark were partially doing their job. There were still people in single use black bin bags around the start area, I hope these will become a thing of the past on the race start lines. My own discarded clothes would at least be used again by those who need clothes in SA.
Time went quickly before the start. I chatted to a few other guys and I was given some good advice by an English guy who could clearly spot my Comrades virginity. Before I knew it ‘that’ tune from Chariots of Fire was being blasted out the PA system, then Shosholoza, the cockerel calls, then the gun (click here for a wee video of the start). It was 5:30am. This was it. 7 months of meticulous preparation by my coach Paul Giblin (@pyllon) and I was in fantastic shape. Having put down a 7 hour 100km earlier in the year, I was confident that I could run quick at Comrades. The last 6 miles of the 100km were my slowest and I knew what I was capable of over a race that was 10k shorter. I set off around 4 minutes a km. This was a few seconds per km too quick, but I remembered thinking the same at the Anglo Celtic Plate and so take a quick look at heart rate and it was in a similar place, so I knew pace was good at this stage of the race. I monitor heart rate for the first wee while just to make sure I am not overcooking it. That became difficult on the big climbs, but I tried to wait until the ground levelled out to look again, but it never did, and I just went with feel.
Don’t be fooled by the term ‘Up Run’ or ‘Down Run’ when Comrades is being described. Net down or net up is probably a better description and either way this is a brutal course. For example, the down run has half a dozen long slow climbs with some short sharp downhills, then there is the final 20k downhill after running 70k. There are still some sharp and longer uphill sections in that last half marathon. It’s not a pancake flat route, quite the opposite, for a road race.
We leave Pietermaritzburg and join the northbound carriageway of a 4 lane motorway. It is still pitch black and the only lights are those of the vehicles going in the opposite direction. The motorway is completely closed for the race as are all the roads of the race. The only noise I can hear are the impact of running shoes on the asphalt.
I won’t describe each section of the race, other than to say that I hadn’t quite understood the amount of climbing involved in that first half of the race, or the pain in the quads I would incur on the last 20k downhill. Anyone contemplating a Comrades finish would be well advised to work on these in their training.
I had no idea of my position in the race at any point, there are simply too many people. Steve Way was unaware his own position and the man ended up on the podium!! It was unimportant, I was here to run a time, to soak up the experience and put those months of hard training to the test.
After a particular climb, I turn a righthand corner with a few other guys around me and I can here a familiar voice shouting on me. Confused, I look across to my left and there was Mrs T in the middle of the road with my first instalment of Active Root and Honey Stinger gels.
Phew, if she hadn’t seen me, I would have missed this checkpoint! Consports were an SA based company who were offering a couple of packages for the runners and supporters. For runners, there were 3 checkpoints where you could pick up you own sustenance. For the support there was a champagne breakfast and a lunchtime Braai (BBQ)!!! They were very good and I would suggest to anyone coming to Comrades to give them some consideration if you don’t want to rely on the provided energy drinks and food.
Around 40km into the race, I felt a little twinge in my right foot. It was like I had stood on a sharp stone on the ball of my foot. I ignored it, thinking that is what must have happened and it would subside, but these roads are clear of debris. Around marathon distance I picked up some more Active Root and Honey Stingers at the second Consports checkpoint. At 50k I was still running strong, I remember looking at my watch here and seeing 3:24. I was running well and on target and we had almost completed all the major climbs of the race. That “stood on a stone pain” hadn’t subsided and ignoring it became increasingly more difficult. A couple of kms later I felt and heard a pop in my foot and I was running with a limp. I stopped for a pit stop and had ideas of taking my shoe off to see if there was something stuck in the shoe. I knew there was nothing in my shoe, my thoughts turned to utter disappointment and feelings of anguish flooded me.
Feelings of jumping into a bailer bus lasted a millisecond. This wasn’t a bad patch that I would overcome eventually, this was an injury, this was an injury that was going to end any time goals that I had, this was an injury that wasn’t going to stop me finishing. No way Jose! I could still move forward, thoughts flitted between people I know who’ve gone through similar tough times in races recently and my own previous form when picking up an injury in a race (I’ve bailed). I was not going to stop. Too much time, money, training, effort and emotion had been invested in this race. This is the game of chance we all play. I had unfortunately drawn the go to jail card, but I wasn’t out of the race.
At 64km there was another Consports checkpoint and I was walking as I approached. The look on MR T’s face said it all. She was conveying exactly how I felt inside. She asked if I wanted to pull out and got an immediate and flat NO in return. I took more Active Root but I didn’t want any more gels. My body was now not burning through the calories and the thought of any more semi solid food made me gag.
The last 26-28k were torturous with frequent walking breaks from the hobble that I could manage. I worked out that if I could run on my heels and avoid too much toe off the pain was bearable, but a return to any half decent pace was out of the question.
I’ll say at this point I’ve never experienced anything like the crowds. For almost the full 90kms there were people lining the route. From whole families out in their pyjamas at 5:30am in Pietermaritzburg to whole schools, dressed in full uniform creating a tunnel of noise, to groups of friends sparking up their Braai and drinking beer. It was friendly, fun and fantastic. At the end of the race I didn’t feel that this race was anything ‘special’, I suspect my thoughts were being ambushed by emotions. On reflection, and now that the rawness of that emotion has passed, I can honestly say this is a special race.
The old finish is a stone through away from our hotel, the new finish being about 2-3kms along a main road in the city of Durban. I run past my hotel and wish I was in there, I wished that there had be no change to the finish and I had no more kms to run (I might have broken 7 hours too LOL). But I had another 2kms to run and I must finish.
As I approached the Moses Mabhida stadium I was in excruciating pain, I was now very worried about the damage to my foot. Thoughts of stress fractures, broken metatarsals filled my head. The crowds lined the road kept me going. The noise as I approached the entrance was deafening, people were hanging over the railings to high five you, the stadium was nearly full and I had 200m to the end. I made it! A few minutes over 7 hours. Nearly a full hour slower than my original game plan, but I was at the end and I had a silver medal around my neck. I had kicked the white towel out of the ring at round 7 and I’d boxed on to the end of the 12th round. Yes, I’d lost on points, but I was still standing.
I was disappointed, upset, saddened by how the race turned out and at the same time proud that I could muster the resolve, tenacity or plain doggedness to finish in abject and dismal circumstances. What I’ve taken away from this race is far more than I could ever have expected had the race gone to plan. I’ll be able to take this experience into each and every race in the future and that is what I am thankful for.
As always, my rock, my support, my best friend and my wife, Mrs T was there experiencing this with me and my two girls were always in my thoughts. During the race I was tormented with thoughts of having to tell my eldest I’d pulled out of the race. The trepidation and anxiety of that was a major driver.
There is so so much more to tell, so many thoughts that I could spill out of this head, some great, some not so great. The post race scenario, feeling lost, medical, argh, but I am going to leave it here. Maybe another time.
I’ve now been asked a thousand times if I will go back and do the ‘Up Run’ next year. You get one chance to get a back to back medal. South Africa is a really long way. There were a lot of sacrifices made by me and my family and a lot of people not mentioned on here helped out with childcare and logistics. I would love to go back, I have a ghost to settle in South Africa, but I am not sure I can ask nor expect these sacrifices again. We’ll see….