5.20am in the dark and humid streets of Durban. A mass of huddled 16, 000 bodies of nervous anticipation. 4th row back, side by side with Kami and Lizzy. A myriad of languages around. The South African national anthem sung. Chariots of Fire blaring over the speakers. Boom - the pistol is shot and we are off! A sprint start, picking up the feet to avoid falling in the crush of racers pouring forward, eager to make their way along the 87km of tarmac inland (and uphill) to Pietermaritzburg as fast as they can. I let runners pours by me, I keep an eye on Kami, hoping our starting pace might be the same, and I'm grateful it is.
I love the darkness, it hides the four lane highway of the opening kms, it brings a calm and a collness, it sets a muted tone which helps me to not go out too fast. I had agreed with Norman (Wilson of UK Ultra) to shoot for a 6h30m finishing pace, but to be prepared to reassess in the first 10km if it feels too fast. It will put me at two back to pack marathons at aroung 3h07 pace, plus a bonus 2.6km, oh and about 2000m of ascent and 1400m of descent thrown in.
I'm excited to be part of the Nedbank team, one of the main sponsors. I'm sporting their kit and in less than an hour it is light and my sunglasses are down and Kami and I are getting cheers for beong towards the front of the women's frield and for sporting our green Nedbank kit. For the first 20km I double fist packs of Clif shot bloks, take water from the aid stations and pop salt tabs early (no repear of AR50 here!). The water stations are busy so it's a juggle to try run the inside bends (the shorter route) and grab water too. I soon learn that if you pass the water station you grab at least 2 baggies, one for yourself and one to pass to another runner. It's just one early sign of the Spirit of Comrades.
kami and I exchange short conversations, the pace feels good and we hit the first nedbank station at 66km to go (Comrades km markers count down to the finish). i grab my first bottle of Clif dribk and a Clif gel. We are already climbing the first of the 'Big Five' hills - Fields. Many people come to South Africa to see the Big Five (lion, elephants etc). Comraders come to run the Big Five. I repeat their names in my head like a mantra, 'Cowies, Fields, Botha, Inchanga'. I don't bother with the final one (Poly Shortts); I know that once I hit that I will be in survival mode.
So far the hills are fine, typically a couple of hundred metres of elevation gain over 2 to 3km. They remind me of my training on Mount Norquay Road in Banff. Steady, runnable, and dare I say it - enjoyable.
I have my handwritten wrist band so I remember where the Nedbank support crew will be. This breaks the race down and the first time I spot Norman it is thumbs up, I feel good and I know I am around 6h30m pace (I have a few course graded splits noted too thanks to Norrie Williamson). The crowds are amazing; hooting and hollering, cheering and cooking up a storm on their braais. There are quieter sections to enjoy but we are passing through lots of villages and small towns and as we are now on narrower roads the supporters are close and the atmosphere is electric. The Spirit of Comrades.
With still more than half way to go my hamstrings, glutes and hips are beginning to hurt. It's nothing new and I know that although unpleasant, I can run through it. I am a step or two ahead of Kami for a section but from the cheers from the sides I know she is not far back. We are in 5th and 6th. I know the 'Russian twins' (Elena and Olesya Nurgelieva) and Lizzy are ahead for sure, and learn that so is Farwa Mentoor, lead South African female.
I have now fallen in with a male runner. Eloi is talking with the crowds and thanking them for telling him that he is 5th female. he is a joker and helps me to soak up the fun. As Kami passes me, Eloi jibes me not to let her go, but for now I have to. the legs are beginning to hurt and I can only hope that I might catch her later, but I am a little disappointed to have slipped into 6th.
We hit Inchanga, Eloi chatters endlessly and all I can do is make short replies and thank him for hauling me up the 3rd hill to Drummond. Half the kms done; now onto the 2nd, flatter half. Eloi is a like a pacer offering me advice. I tell him I am cramping, 'Ok just relax whatever is cramping'. I tell him that my hamstrings are hurting, 'We are all hurting, we just need to keep running'. I start to walk on a small hill, 'No, not yet!' I don't dare disobey, I run the hill and soon crest the top. Eloi is the epitome of the Spirit of Comrades.
Up ahead I see Lizzy, I soon gain on her and in the hubbub of a water station pass her without being able to exchange words. I am happy to be back in 5th and Nedbank crew advise me that I am 2mins back on 4th. We pass through the Green Mile (cheering section) with 25km to go. I am still working but I am beginning to get a second wind. I spot my parents with their Scottish and Canadian flags. I am waving at the crowds and just soaking up the noise and the energy.
We are now on rolling country roads. It's now just about clicking off the kms. Run steady. Fuel. Relax. Keep up the pace. Out of the blue I let out a yelp of pain. Blister! I'm annoyed, I'm not going to let something as silly as wearing socks too thick for my shoes and the heat ruin this race. I recall Gary Robbins writing about how blisters only really hurt when you start running on them and after a minute or two the psin fades away. Ok then, one more reason not to be tempted to walk. Thanks a lot GR!
We pass through the 22km to go mark and Eloi mentions, 'don't worry, everyone finds the last 2okm tough'. All I can think is that it is tough already and we still have 2km to go to get to the 20km mark! Keep on moving. Keep on moving. Keep on moving. For now I have gone off gels and bloks so my strategy becomes to grab two baggies at each water station, one of energy drink to take salt tabs with and one of water to pour over myself to keep cool. The temperature is starting to climb. By the time I get to 20km to go, 19km to go, 18km to go I am feeling stronger and stronger. The finish is now in my minds eye and I know I'll make it. At around 17km to go I slip ahead of Eloi, the field is now spread out so I am running solo but passing men reasonably frequently as there are always a few runners in view ahead. And in Comrades it's never realy possible to run solo, kids want to high five you, ladies call out 'go sista!' and other words of encouragement. I'm flying high on the Spirit of Comrades even if I am pushing hard.
At about 9km to go I hit the final hill, Poly Shortts. It is gradual but seems tough so I switch to run, powerhike, run, powerhike and keep up with the runners around me. But when I spot Farwa ahead of me I know the walking has to end. That's 4th place Ellie, just run! So I run. It's slow. It's not pretty. But I ease my way past Farwa and into 4th. Wow - Ellie gaining a position on a uphill, that's unheard of! Now I definitely can't walk! 7kms to go and I'm watching for every km marker. It's count down time. The road continues to roll but I continue to run and soon I feel that I am on the flats and descent into Pietermaritzburg. It's tough but it's awesome. Many people had warned me in the days preceding the race that Comrades is tough for newbies. Elena and Olesya (who one again claim top two spots) have raced Comrades nine time and have 2h26m marathon PBs. How do you go against that? I am (barely) a 2h49m marathoner and a Comrades newbie. But I've run a smart race, I've soaked up the Spirit of Comrades and I'm stoked to be powering into 4th place. For the final 1.5km or so I've got a motorbike literally 2ms in front of me and a TV camera in my face. Ok, time to enjoy - I might never experience this again! On entering the stadium I am handing a rose and hold it high as I enjoy the crowds, but I am also wondering how many corners there are before I hit the finishing straight. I chuckle to myself, the stadium is turfed - aaaaah, bliss - finally I am back on my natural running surface :)
What can I say? 6:32:46/ 4th place and 6mins back of Kami and 8mins back of the twins. I am delighted and now have the answer to my question, 'Why have so many people run this race 10+ times?' It's the Spirit of Comrades.
Big thankyous to:
- All of the Nedbank crew
- Norman and Anne Wilson
- Ma & Pa Greenwood
- Montrail/ MHW, Drymax socks, Clif, Sundog Eyewear.
- Eloi of Boxers Running Club.