Showing up is a win.
if you missed the start of this 3 part blog series, you can start here.
The leadup to Comrades Marathon 2018 was filled with ups and downs of logistics. This time around it was my friend Bari and I heading to Durban, South Africa alone, opposed to the support crew we had with us in 2015. Going into this trip, I reminded Bari several times to prepare for the two of us to make this happen on our own. Making it happen is what we did.
After our arrival at the city of Durban on the eastern shore of South Africa, we proceeded to the expo. We navigated through all the hoopla relatively quickly, and after some last minute logistics, we returned to our apartment located along the seashore. We knew it was vital for us to get good sleep on this night, two nights before the event. We relaxed and off to bed we went.
I had woken at some point just before dawn still feeling restless. After some tossing and turning, I managed to fall back to sleep. And then, I was woken by a banging noise from an unknown direction as I rubbed my eyes to gather my barrings. I realized that the banging was coming from the balcony. I pulled back the curtain to hear a man saying, "your friend is trying to get inside." Get inside where I thought to myself.
I then realized that Bari was locked out of the apartment and it was now 3:30 in the afternoon. I opened the door for Bari, and we broke out in laughter over the whole thing. She had gone for coffee earlier in the morning, thinking I would be awake when she returned, so she locked the keys inside the apartment. Apparently, my body needed all that sleep after days of traveling and moving around. Had she not come to find me still sleeping, when would my body finally have woken up? I don't know.
Saturday evening involved preparing all the race gear and nutrition for the race. After a homemade dinner, we went off to bed as we had a very early wake-up. We needed to drive over to our transport which would be taking us to the start of the race. I'm never quite sure if I'm wholly sleeping the night before a big event like this. It always seems to feel as if I'm half awake. It's now 2:30 in the morning on race day. Time to rise.
We had prepared most of the gear the night before, leaving us with the task of organizing the pre-race breakfest to be eaten along the way. Race morning is all about efficiency. I like to have as many functions as possible on autopilot, leaving the mind to rest. We drove the short way to where we were to meet the ride that was scheduled to take us to the start line.
The start line was in Pietermaritzburg, about an hour away from Durban. We would be driving the reverse direction of the Comrades Marathon to get to the start. The planned departure times and arrival time to the start line appeared adequate to prevent missing the beginning of the race - so we thought. We were relying on two local people we never met to get us to the start line. They were chatty and excited to be helping out two Comrades runners. During the ride, we shared stories of our Comrades experiences, all while slowly getting pre race nutrition down our throats. I was feeling relaxed and prepared for whatever the day had in store for me. I had many thoughts, memories, and spirit of Comrades running through my mind. There's a mystical sense to this process that can be hard to put into words. All I can say is that it's unique.
As we made our way toward the race start with plenty of time remaining, the traffic came to a standstill. I wasn't worried since we had over an hour until the start time, and we were only a few exits away. However, the traffic didn't appear to be moving and the minutes were quickly ticking away. A few people started to run alongside the parked cars on the road to get to the start on time. I began to wonder if Bari and I would have to do the same. However, we trusted that we would be led to the start on time by staying with our ride. We were cutting it close. Apparently what happened was that instead of one exit being closed near the start line, two ramps were closed, leaving a massive backup of vehicles, including the official bus transportation backed up in traffic. I'm not even sure if the people on those buses made it to the start line on time. Welcome to Africa.
After finally getting off one of the remaining exits for the start line, some zig-zagging, twists, and turns, change of routes, we got let out of the car to run the rest of the way toward the start line. I had no idea where we were, how close the start line was in the midst of the early morning darkness. All I knew to do was run along the main road in the direction of all the other people running. The race starts in seven minutes. I'm running with my shoes untied and weave right and left along with all the other runners. Bari is with me until I tell her I have to stop at one of the toilets I see on the side of the road. I quickly wear off toward the toilet to take care of business, while Bari continues towards the start line. I didn't want to chance to wait to go to the bathroom because I wasn't sure where the start line was and what was available once I got there.
I now exit the toilet, go through some fence and finally encounter a race official belting out corral letters. I follow her directions for corral D to the right. Now, my assigned corral is F, since D is close to F, I figure it's close enough, and I dart in the direction instructed. It's now pitch dark, and it feels like some scene from a movie that involves a mugging in a dark alley. I hear "D" called out from somewhere and I run toward a street where the voice appeared to come from. I pass by the official that yelled out the "D" corral, ignoring the fact that my bib had F written on it.
I'm heading for the start line. Stop me if you can.
At the end of the street, I finally meet the corrals, and I make a left, guessing the start is in that direction. I see the lights coming from the starting corrals, followed by a sign for corral C. At this point it's madness, and nobody is checking the accuracy of the individuals corral. I enter the small opening in the fence as I'm greeted by the massive crowd of runners. I remembered that my shoes were untied, so I kneel down and take care of my shoes. After tieing up my shoes, I had a couple of minutes of taking in the atmosphere before the cannon went off, signaling the start of the race. I made it to the start of Comrades Marathon 2018. I made it, but I was wondering where is Bari in the sea of runners behind me. Was she even there?
Getting to the start of any of these monumental events is already a huge success. To get to the start takes planning for travel, putting in many months of intense training, commitment to the goal, navigating the unexpected events that come up in the midst of juggling training and life, on and on the list goes. Going into this event, I estimated that I can complete the 90 km route in approximately eight hours. That was a rough estimate without a detailed breakdown. Thinking about it and doing it are two different things. I did, however, know the pace required to achieve that result, which is 8:34 per mile. I also listened to a few podcasts that covered the best way to navigate the route. There was so much talk about the "down" run and holding back in the first half of the race. These suggestions also come with various perspectives with contradicting details that I often ignore for my own interpretation from what I read and hear, combined with my experience from training. For the moment, I was enjoying the atmosphere as I shuffled past the start line, chatted with other runners, and made sure to find space for my next step.
Since I made it all the way to corral C, I knew it was only a matter of time until Bari will be making her way up to me. I was intentionally holding back my race for her to catch up to me. It wasn't long, Bari was now calling my name as she zigzagged her way to me. We have united once again.
It was pitch dark outside as we ran together, watching our steps to make sure we didn't trip on one of the many road dividers or runners going at a slower pace. Early on in a race such as this, the crowds are still thick, and it's difficult to settle into a pace or find a rhythm to the run. People say that running the Comrades Marathon is like your entire lifetime unfolding in a single day. The day was just starting to reveal, and I was wondering how it would go. I felt very relaxed and kept reminding myself to stay that way, to hold back the urge to go faster or get ahead of the people in front of me. Bari and I were now running together for about seven kilometers, and as we started going down a steep downhill known as Polly Shortts, I let my body go with the gravity. That was the last I saw Bari on the race course. I shortened my stride to minimize the impact of the downhill and let the body go. This would be my approach for the rest of the race. I settled into a comfortable rhythm, focused on all the details of taking in water consistently, breathing easy, and relaxing my upper body. I was having fun meeting people along the way and having chats with them. We were all in this together. The kilometers were ticking off, I was feeling good. I was surprised at the length of the uphills and the steepness of the downhills. Then again, it has been three years since running this race, and I was running it the opposite direction.
As I was passing the 20 km mark, then 30 km, I started to break the race down into 10 km segments. Keeping track of the per kilometer pace, calculating the distance covered and anticipating the next checkpoint, was all starting to get jumbled in my head. I decided to just focus on the checkpoints that I had written on a piece of paper which would give me an idea of how close to an eight hour finishing time I was. I knew I was consistently behind pace based on the previous checkpoints. I was quickly learning that in a race of this difficulty and length, falling off the pace early makes it very unlikely to make up the time later in the race. Yes, the second half of the race consists of mostly downhill, but I wasn't sure how fast I would be able to cover those descents. I was content with staying in the presence of the current 10 km segment and making my way to the 50 km point where a crew of Comrades enthusiasts would have my remaining nutrition, and I could get them to rub some sports ointment on my legs to ease some of the tightness.
My legs were feeling a bit tighter than I anticipated, and as I was clicking off the kilometers in the 40 km segment, I realized something strange. I typically take my nutrition every one and a half hours, but on this day I was not desiring the planned amount of food. I didn't feel a drop in energy or the empty feeling in my gut. I just let it be once I realized that it had been a while since I took in something. Even my stomach was a bit off with strange noises, passing gas, and feeling empty, yet I didn't desire any fuel. There is no time to hyper-analyze any of this, except to keep moving forward and manage whatever comes up. I then forced a portion of the energy drink I use down my gullet. What came up next is a quick detour toward the toilet on the side of the road. No fuss, no tantrum, no questioning, just a standard #2, followed by a #1 and back on the course I went. This all happened just as I was approaching my support crew, and as I got back on the road, I see the nine-hour pacer with a large group passing by. I wasn't sure what to make of this. You see, this is Comrades, and it's pandemonium on the roads, it's hard to tell if the pacer is accurate. Are they running faster than the predetermined finish time? How accurate are these pacers?
I had no time to process this at the moment. My focus was on taking my remaining fuel from the crew. This exchange looked something like the pit crew at a Formula 1 race track. My flasks were quickly handed to me while another member of the team rubbed ointment on my quads and hamstrings. I was suddenly back on the road and tangled in the group of runners falling in behind the nine-hour pacer. At that specific moment, I found myself there with that particular group, so I ran along with them. At Comrades, these pace groups are called "buses" and the driver of the bus is the pacer at the front of it. On the pace flag of the bus driver was his name, Joseph. Joseph also wore a green number indicating he finished this race 10 times. Seventeen times to be exact, according to his bib having 17 printed in the lower left corner.
I thought to myself, I'm in good company. Once again, it was a reminder that we're all in this together. The support along the course was incredible. People line the roads endlessly. They offer their own food in addition to the race organized fueling stations. The people are everywhere shouting encouragement as they call out your name. This shouting doesn't end until you have crossed the finish line and gone to meet your supporters. The finish is still far away.
This is part 2 of a 3 part blog series featuring my experience of running the 2018 Comrades Marathon. You can read the next part of the series here.
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