It’s 7.30pm Saturday the 9th of June 2018, and the alarm is set for 12.30am; as the race motto has it, “Asijiki” – no turning back.
I struggled for a while as to what perspective to write this post from. I could give you a blow by blow account of every kilometre as we counted down from 90! Perhaps slightly tedious; at the very least lengthy; but fortunately for readers my memory of the race is not that good.
As mum said when we are asked “What is your favourite marathon”, there is no hesitation – this is the answer: Comrades. So what makes Comrades so special? There are many reasons. Mum has talked about the five-day party that never fails to deliver, the ever-growing number of friendships that are made on every trip to Durban, and the uplifting renditions of Shosholoza and Chariots of Fire at the beginning of the race each year. But I realised there is something else that makes Comrades very special to me personally. Having running over 100 marathons, without wanting to sound blasé and of course always respecting the race – whichever and wherever it may be, 26.2 miles is a distance where anything can happen – I have become used to completing marathons. But Comrades is something else.
So here I was heading to bed at an unnatural hour to wake at an unnatural time to run an unnatural distance in a race in which many better runners than me have found themselves in trouble. Most people who have run Comrades would, I think, agree that this particular combination of distance, hills, weather conditions and of course personal motivation makes it one of the most unpredictable races around. Marathon time is certainly an indicator of how you might do but not as reliable as one might expect. So there it is: Comrades is special because I am fearful of it.
I have run Comrades twice before, both the up and down run, and both times I was satisfied with my performance. However, in hindsight I would say that both those races were successful but also restricted by my anxiety to complete rather than compete. This year I hoped to overcome some of the fear that has held me back.
So as one may have predicted, 12.30am came and so did the alarm. We were already awake but I was surprised that I had managed to sleep on and off for a few hours. If I was nervous before, this was it at its most heightened.
An amusing and somewhat surreal 1.30am breakfast with the team helped to distract from the nerves and a seamless journey on the bus continued to ease this feeling further. Sandwiched on the bus between Mum and Jim – two people I respect and who have always encouraged me, whilst having more in faith in me than I do myself sometimes – I suddenly picked up another anxiety. I don’t want to let them down!! I realised at this point it was time to start challenging these feelings positively, as past this point worry would only have a negative effect. I talked myself through the reassuring facts I could muster: ‘You have done this distance before’; ‘Anything quicker than 12 hours will be amazing’; ‘You are stronger than you think you are’ but most importantly ‘These two believe in you and will be proud no matter happens’. I very much resonated with the quote ‘It’s not a miracle I finished, it’s that I had the courage to start’. All reassuring thoughts, but I realised that this was the ‘complete, not compete’ mentality taking over.
Pietermaritzburg was cold but we were wrapped up warm (at this point only willing to think through the positives) but I was thrown by a moment which I had expected to come a lot later but I knew was inevitable – time to say goodbye to mum, as my start pen was one way and hers another. Hugs and messages of love exchanged we were off. Picking up a slightly quicker marathon time last year had seen me seeded in C pen – something I had never dreamed of before. That was where the ‘fast’ runners went, but luckily for me I know some pretty fast runners, so the baton was passed to Jim Murray and he would now be responsible for me and for listening to me. Hard to believe but nerves do make me slightly more subdued (I did say slightly). So there we were, me and Jim just hanging out in the streets of SA at 3am putting the world to rights. I have to thank you here for that morning Jim, your company brought comfort during those hours.
Once the gun had gone, amazingly so too did the anxiety. I had a job to do here and now I was excited but also calm. I don’t know if it’s ok to say I went on to have the race of my life? But I did – I finished the longest Comrades down run in history in 9hr 6min, which was a 1hr 28min PB.
Reflecting afterwards on the event I tried to work out what I had put this success down to. It definitely wasn’t hill training as I hadn’t done any; it wasn’t an increased mileage in training, because that hadn’t happened either. Instead I think it was experience that has come over the past few years spent running. I have gained the ability and confidence to break a larger task down into smaller more manageable pieces, and I know my strengths and weaknesses: I would struggle on the ups and capitalise on the downhills. For most of the race I was able to keep negative thoughts at bay, but when they did occur I knew how to deal with them and knew that they would pass. It wasn’t until the last few kilometres that I needed a mantra to keep me going. As I ran into the stadium I was chanting out loud to myself ‘The sooner you get there the sooner it will be over, the sooner you get there the sooner it will be over’.
I must have been so focused on my task. This year the only person I saw on the course and exchanged words with (that’s right 8hr 58min without talking, a PB of a different sort) was Mark, who later causally confessed ‘Yeah, when I saw you at half way I thought you were toast!’ An observation I was glad he had kept to himself until Monday morning but as always it’s so lovely to see a familiar face.
So fast forward 9hrs 05 minutes and I found myself entering the stadium. As I mentioned before I have very little memory of what happened during the race and how I had managed to get there in that time, but this was it: for the third time I was about to finish Comrades, and in a time that exceeded all my expectations. The excitement saw me muster up a short sprint finish before crossing the line, hitting my watch and falling to the floor in tears. I knew this time I’d done more than completed the Comrades marathon.