Standing amongst the throngs on a chilly May morning in Pietermaritzburg waiting for the starting gun, one is both inspired and in trepidation in equal measure. One banishes the thoughts of pain awaiting one and attempts to focus on the result: utter jubilation and delight at being able to conquer ones mental and bodily constraints.
The cheery optimism and torrents of excited talk attempt to dispel the daunting task which lies ahead. In South Africa, with its focus on the ultra distance races, has forged generation after generation of non-running human material into a cohort who through a dint of hard training and personal sacrifice will attempt – as per the Comrades motto – the Ultimate Human Race.
Being non-adept at ball sports and drawn into the sport by means of a challenge to finish a marathon within 4.5 hours, I now awaited my fate at the start of Comrades 1993, a down run.
Lined up beside me were my two training partners, Geoff and Debbie, both nonchalantly discussing inconsequential topics. I just wished that I could be as blasé or unaffected by the tension which abounded. Maybe it was just a charade like in the olden days where the mask hid the genuine emotion of panic and fear. Or maybe the trepidation generated fatuous discussions are a self-defence mechanism. Or perhaps it was merely a case of phony bravado.
The Chariots of Fire blared over the loudspeakers sending frissons of excitement through one’s body. I involuntarily shivered as goose-flesh enveloped me. Then it was the recorded cock crow of Max Trimborn and finally the cannon shot. As it reverberated around the canyon of buildings, a flock of pigeons scattered in fright and dismay.
Nobody moved. The shuffle forward would only commence in a few minutes. Eager to commence with the long awaited task at hand, the crowd bunched up as if that would make the runners exit the congested starting area more rapidly.
Finally the shuffling started. In eight and a half minutes we were finally under the starting banner and running. Like a dog on a leash, we were constrained by the masses of runners beside us. The maelstrom of runners surged forward. The first of the runners discarded their black rubbish bags used as extemporised jackets. Almost simultaneously the first of the runners fell on these mobile snares.
Being avowedly non-long distance running material how had I been ensnared in this quest to run 89.9kms when a marathon was the utter limit of my ability? Debbie, unaware of her culpability, should bear the lion’s share of that blame. Unwittingly she had drawn me into this expedition not by means of some inducement of whatever sort but rather a fragile male ego. On the shorter runs such as half marathons, I had always convincingly beaten Debbie. Whereas I would finish it in around 2:06, she would battle to break a 2:20, yet when she elected to enter the Comrades in 1992, it was not with the expectation on my part that she would complete it. With an 11 hour cut-off – before the standard in the new SA were lowered – in my opinion she lacked the speed to complete it within the cut-off. To my surprise and mortification, she completed it with 10 minutes to spare.
After forcefully making the case that she was slow, I ran the next Om-die-Dam race with her. For the first 32kms, I was like a chicken in cage, constrained and yearning to be set free. Her pace was excruciatingly slow but then as she continued to maintain her pace at a steady 7mpk, I wilted. I was forced to strain every fibre in my being to maintain that pace. Sensing my discomfort, Debbie slackened her pace to match mine.
To say that I was gobsmacked would be an understatement. What I never grasped at that juncture was the physiological differences between male and female runners. As the female produces more free fatty acid which is the primary energy source in ultra distance running and not glycogen, they possessed an unfair running advantage. In fact it was akin to imbibing their own legitimate supply of performance enhancers.
How could I be aware of such differences? Instead I berated myself for my cavalier running methods, my ill-disciplined carbo-loading and my dearth of mental fortitude. In spite of varying the ingredients and adjusting the formula in subsequent long distance runs, Debbie remained incontestably a better long distance athlete than me.
By now the snake of runners with the three of us trapped inside was wending its way down Little Polly’s. Wasn’t the downhill great? All that one had to do was to free-wheel and apply no effort and one ran at a pace that exceeded the pacing chart.
At the chicken farms, Debbie required the first of many such walks. Geoff berated her as he recounted the splits and pace required to achieve our goal. Debbie was nonplussed. What she did not take into account in her reply was that the up-run was 2kms shorter and hence the pace was comparably slower.
Personally I did not begrudge the impromptu break as my body was manifesting the initial inklings of fatigue. Nothing serious but a slight strain was detected. The crowds lining the streets of Camperdown raised our spirits and spurred us on. Unlike the local races, crowds filled the streets and form a small duct through which the runners could pass. Their encouragement would be the saviour of many a runner as their enthusiasm spurred them onwards.
By Cato Ridge, the strain had become apparent. Debbie, our pace setter, was taking inordinately long walking breaks. Geoff was chiding her – more persistently than mercilessly – as I secretly supported her whilst silently also recognising the veracity of Geoff’s line of thought. With an 11 hour cut-off, tardiness would never be accepted. The pace was paramount. Harrison’s Flats were purgatory. By now the sun was a bright yellow orb in the crystal blue sky and the heat radiated off the tarmac.
The pace slackened imperceptibly again. Geoff’s admonishments became more mordant. Finally as Inchanga approached, the pace quickened, more from a collective realisation that too much time had been wasted in the past 10kms than we could truly afford. Like demons, we sped down Inchanga. The kilometre boards took on a life of their own as they sped past us. There was no attempt at applying the brakes but the legs muscles applied the first of their sadistic stabs in their futile attempt to convince us to slow down.
Not a chance. This was our only opportunity to recover some of the lost time. Drummond, at half way, was crossed in 5:17. That meant that we were marginal finishers at best. Allowing us to finish in 10:50 would mean the second half would have to be accomplished in just over five and half hours.
The pressure was now inexorably on. But first there was the little matter of running up to Alveston, the longest climb of the race past Arthur’s Seat. Now it would be the Army method. Rigorous maintenance of our speed up the hill would be required: run two poles, walk one ad nauseum.
Geoff cracked the whip. Beeps of Florida Running Club was ahead of us in a Florida bus. Suddenly she was down and out for the count as if pole axed. Ambulances were summonsed.
No time to tarry.
Stick to the pace.
Don’t get distracted by inconsequential matters.
Focus and yet again stay focused.
For the past ten kays the blister under my right foot had steadily grown larger and more insistent on attention. No time for TLC. Only time to forge ahead. But by now, as if to protect my sole, I semi-limped. With 40kms to go, the prognosis was poor. But like all Comrades runners of yore, one lives in a fantasy world of invincibility where one is super-human and is able to endure the worst that one’s body can throw at it.
Ignoring it did not help. It just selected a wider blade before it repeatedly stabbed me again and again
It was incessant.
But I was made of sterner stuff
I would show my body who was boss
And it certainly was not the blister
By now, I ran with a pronounced limp. My will power to continue was being sapped by this alien object under my foot. Geoff was relentless as his drove the 3 man bus at a steady pace, never faltering or wavering.
Debbie was also in pain but not complaining.
Finally we were at the top of Botha’s Hill. The pain was now unbearable. I had to relieve it in any way that I could but what? Bailing was not an option. I had by now completed 55kms and was not about to squander such a run on a not-so-niggling blister.
Suddenly in a drive-way I spotted a woman in her tennis dress with racket in hand walking.
I veered off the road and ran up to her.
Geoff and Debbie sailed right on intent only on finishing
In a tired rasping voice, I exclaimed, “Can I please have your tennis socks”
Coolly, as if donating a pair of socks to a stranger was an everyday occurrence, we sat down together on the grass and she took off her socks.
I, on the other hand, almost fell down.
I was unable to squat and any attempt to do so resulted in cramping.
I removed my running shoe.
The sock and the shoe were covered in blood.
An instantaneous decision was made.
I would put the fresh sock on but then put the blood stained one on again over it as a cushion. Between cramps, I managed to get both pairs on.
Finally, I attempted to stand up again.
I was stricken with cramps and fell down again.
In my agony whilst rolling on the ground, I shouted, “Now I won’t make it. I won’t finish.”
As locals, they were inured to the human suffering and had obviously been exposed to countless similar cases. In a quiet tone, her husband helped me to stand up and enjoined me to walk until the cramp abated and then to slowly start running again.
The first 200 metres were purgatory.
The stabbing pain was like a machine gun firing non-stop.
But the pain would not subside as instructed.
There was only one tactic left.
Block it out.
I attempted to step more on my left sole than my right
But nothing worked
By now, the intensity of the pain had subsided somewhat.
The natural endorphins had resolved the problem.
Not that it was fine, but now I could focus my willpower on running again and not feeling sorry for one self.
Self-pity never worked and never will.
It was just a case of stumbling along with pain in the thighs, pain in the calf muscles, pain on my soles, pain in my shoulders, in fact pain everywhere.
I was a ball of pain.
Fields Hill arrived. On my pacing chart this is where I would make up time as I was a natural downhill runner. My body loathed up-hills, so now was its chance to recoup ten minutes and deposit it in my bag of spare time which had long since been depleted.
A replenishment was called for.
Now I would just have to perform.
As the hill grew steeper, a strange overwhelming sensation enveloped my legs.
They were frozen solid.
With every step waves of searing pain would shoot up them.
Something would have to be done to alleviate the situation.
Something novel, something that I would spontaneously have to invent while on his descent to purgatory and Pinetown.
The gradient grew ever steeper.
I tried zigzagging across the road
I tried splashing water on my calf muscles
I tried slapping my thigh muscles
There was one last tactic, the last resort of a broken runner: just endure the pain
Eventually the bottom of Field’s Hill was reached and the flat started again
But even the slightest uphill now seemed like a monster hill.
I was sorer than I had ever been in my life
I was nauseous
The Coke was now a vile tasting poison of saccharine sweetness
The first serious doubts entered my subconscious.
Another 25kms was just not possible in my current condition
I was engulfed in self-pity.
I doubted myself
I justified why I should bail
I mulled over it
I tangled with the consequences
Then I thought of Debbie
How could I let that woman beat me when I was a better runner than her
I always beat her by at least 15 minutes on a half marathon
I raged on, cursing at myself, at the stupid race and who cared if I bailed
Even time that I attempted to walk, the crowd would not let me.
They goaded me onwards
The shouted raucously calling me all kinds of unrepeatable names
I smiled at them
And I waved at them
My rage subsided and I was at the bottom of Cowie’s Hill.
I made a deal with myself.
I would walk lots of the uphill but I would – god dammit – run all the way down the other side
Whatever happened, I would just run and run.
But first I had to walk up Cowies.
While I was walking, I could take a leak.
I ducked behind a line of parked cars and with nary a care in the world started urinating
There squatting next to me was a female intent on the same mission as me.
In our shared pain, joint ablutions were tolerated.
Then as I crested the hill, it was payback time.
Again I did the maths.
Even at this stage of the race, I was a marginal to doubtful finisher
But I would soldier on unremittingly.
My indefatigable spirit never wavered
Down the insidious hills I ran
Every slight uphill would offer some respite in the form of a well-deserved walk.
Forty Fifth Cutting arrived.
In the attempt at recouping and even building a reserve margin, I had overdone it.
Not to overstate the case, I was well and truly stuffed.
I was finished
There was nothing left in the tank but raw willpower
The same bargain was made as at Cowies Hill.
I would walk it and then from the crest I would run to the bottom of Tollgate Hill.
While attempting a brisk pace up the hill in my limping fashion, a marshal pointed directly at me and shouted, “You are totally marginal. You have to run NOW!!”
Of course he was correct.
In my mind, I replied, “STUFF YOU BASTARD. I WILL WALK NOW AND WHEN I GET TO THE TOP I WILL RUN ALL THE WAY DOWN JAN SMUTS AVENUE”
Whilst my very soul wanting to remonstrate with this impertinent imbecile, I would not remonstrate.
Perhaps it was unbearable lassitude or perhaps in was pointless wasting the iota of willpower and energy remaining.
So I just ignored him like a smellt beggar on a street corner.
But I would walk up the hill.
Now I became apoplectic with rage.
How could a bloody marshal tell me what to do
At the top, I started running again.
I was sore
It was excruciatingly sore
But I ran
I kept going
Was I equal to the task at hand?
I ran past a water table as there was no time to stop
I was totally behind schedule
On the 400 metre uphill on the N3, I walked.
I was nauseous again from all the effort
The bailing bus parked in serried ranks beckoned me
They whispered things which I dared not listen to
They promised an end to all my pain, all my suffering and all that I still had to ensure over the last 8kms.
To prevent temptation I walked in the middle of the highway against the Armco barrier
Then it was time to run again
Down Tollgate I charged
The soles of my shoes were slapping the tarmac furiously
I was mystified
How was that possible?
I listened again
What was happening?
Then it dawned on me through my pain befuddled brain.
My foot was loose on my ankle
The tendons were so loose that they could not hold my foot up
That is why my foot was smacking the ground with such a force
Between bouts of nausea, I stumbled on
Delirious from pain, I cursed again
What an asinine race
Why was this race a South African male’s rite of passage?
Why couldn’t I just stop without any consequence?
Self-pity welled up again
Down West Street we ran
It was almost deserted.
Litter swirled in the street from a cool sea breeze as the last of the spectators wended their way home.
It was extremely tight
I could not relent
I was in sight of my goal so I had to stumble on
Barely compis mentis, I entered the stadium.
According to my watch, there were only a few minutes left.
The crowds were screaming that the cut-off was neigh
My brain realised that but my bodies would not respond.
I started walking
The shouts of encouragement became hysterical warning of the dreaded monster
I attempted a shuffle, more a stiff legged movement than a run, all in a vain attempt to assuage my calf muscles attempting to cramp
The finish line drew near.
Two minutes to spare
I had made it
With a minute to spare
I never ever had any pretensions of being a long distance runner, but I had decisively proved my point albeit in searing pain and distress.
I had completed Comrades within the 11 hour cut-off
That Comrades, the 1993 edition, would become both my debut and my swansong,
all in the space of 11 hours.
Other Articles on Running:
My Comrades Marathon: An Abiding Memory
My Comrades Debut and Swansong, all in one Race
My Running Redux
The Journey from Searing Back-Pain in late 2013 to Running Races again in Respectable Times
Poisoned Chalice or Fool’s Errand?
Report back the Dawn to Dusk 80km Running Race in August 2013
My Mid-Life Crisis: How did I attempt to regain my lost youth?
What did it take me to get over my mid-life crisis in my early forties?
Ashley Wood – In Memoriam
IoT: What impact will it have on Road Running?
The possibilities of the latest technology – the Internet of Things – are ruminated upon
A Drab and Unremarkable Race with Pretensions: Gauteng Sports Challenge
Gauteng requires a big city marathon on the scale of the London Marathon but the Gauteng Sports Challenge doesn’t fit the bill
A Running Experience: A Hill too Far
On this day, the Loskop 50km ultra marathon running race had one hill too many, Faraday’s Hill. It was to be my nemesis.
The First Time
Andre Hydenryck – In Memoriam