Sunday June 1st 2014 was one of the best days of my life – it was the day I won my age group (60+) at the Comrades marathon. Monday June 2nd was possibly even better because by then it had sunk in!
I’m afraid this post is going to bit a bit self indulgent, but at 66 years of age I don’t think I will get many more times quite like this – so please excuse me for revisiting it.
The lead up
2014 had been a good year for me. I was running regularly and running well. I’d run both London and Boston in April and was set to run Berlin in September. There were so many races I wanted to fit in and time was running out. I didn’t start running until I was 57 years old and ran my first marathon in a time of 3:48 at Edinburgh in 2010 aged 58. As soon as I crossed the finish line that day all I could think about was when can I run my next one. The advice from the experts was two marathons a year. I started conservatively but was too impatient. By the time I arrived in Durban in June 2014 I had completed 50 marathons.
Training that year, from January to June, had included running 19 marathons, some of them doubles (Saturday and Sunday) and many of them hilly. I had qualified with a time of 3:53 at London. My last long run had been pacing The Liverpool Marathon (5:30hrs) on 25th May just one week before race day. Not a training plan you’d find in a text book.
This was to be my back to back Comrades and all the more special because Cam (my daughter), who had run her first marathon in April 2013, was coming with me. There was a reason for this other than her wanting to run Comrades. We need to go back to my first Comrades run in 2013 for that.
How to celebrate turning 60
In 2013 I turned 60 and thought that running the Comrades Marathon – an 87k road race in South Africa – would be a suitably memorable way to celebrate this milestone. I knew about the existence of Comrades – the World’s biggest ultra-marathon- before I became a runner. I’m not sure why, but even then it captured my imagination. It wasn’t until after I had entered the race and joined a Runner’s World forum that the enormity of the task hit me. Everyone I spoke to was much younger and seemed more experienced. I had also watched You Tube videos of the start and the promotional videos of the race – they were scary. South Africa is famous for its ‘Big Five’ – they had now become Cowies Hill, Fields Hill, Bothas Hill, Inchanga and the infamous Polly Shorts – the hills I would face on race day.
Beware of the Cat’s eyes
It was a few weeks before the 2013 up-run that I went to meet some of the forum members who lived around London. I think by this time my family thought I’d lost it – I was going to a pub to meet people who I only knew on-line with names like Slow Duck, Ally of not enough Hills and Possum Hopper! That evening Slow Duck, aka Hideo Takano, an experienced Comrades runner, told us about the history and traditions of the race. By the time I left the pub my excitement at taking part in such an iconic event was almost equal to my anxiety. Hideo gave us lots of useful advice including to watch out for the cat’s eyes on the roads.
Many of the roads in South Africa have a steep camber so it is more comfortable to run down the middle. Unfortunately that’s where the very prominent cat’s eyes can be found. At the beginning of the race every time I looked down they were under my feet. I even remember Douglas Mac Taggart (another experienced Comrades runner) running past telling me again to be careful.
2013 was horrendous weather-wise. Being a first timer I thought that 33 degrees and a 40 mph headwind was normal. By the time I got to half way I’d forgotten about the cat’s eyes as I struggled to keep going. I tripped on one of them. I don’t remember hitting the ground – just sitting there feeling a bit disorientated with some people around me. Then I remembered where I was and my first thought was “will I make the cut off?” When I stood my foot was a bit sore but I continued running and finished in a time of 10:42, coming 4th in my age group. I was ecstatic.
On the bus back to Durban the pain kicked in. I didn’t find out until I returned to the UK a few days later that I had in fact broken my shoulder, a couple of ribs and my toe. I eventually had to have surgery on my shoulder as it didn’t heal as it should.
Back to Back – Up and Down
After this my family thought that was my romance with Comrades would be over – but they didn’t realise about the back-to- back medals, and that to truly complete Comrades having run the ‘up-run’ I still had to run the ‘down’. When I told them that I planned to return Cam said that as I couldn’t be trusted on my own, she would go with me. I said ok but only if she ran too. She wasn’t too keen on the idea until it was mentioned that it would involve her getting a new Garmin with longer battery life. She was in!
So its now back to June 2014. I was much more anxious for Cam than for myself and she was terrified.
We’d had a really good few days pre-race, meeting fellow runners, casually making friends for life. I’d slept through most of the bus tour of the course on Friday – having had slightly too much to drink the night before – and Saturday evening we decided, instead of having an early night, to go to the Rugby. Not ideal prep for a 90K race!
Then it was race day. After a rather adventurous 3a.m. bus journey to the start in Pietermariztburg (the bus crashed through a roundabout throwing us all off our seats), we said an emotional goodbye and went to our respective pens – me D, Cam F (how things have changed – this year I am still in D but Cam is in B!).
It was a down-run – we were down hill runners. The weather was kinder than the previous year. I don’t remember much about the run except how stunning the countryside looked when the sun rose as we hit Polly Shorts, and feeling really strong in the last 6 miles. I also remember passing a female V60 runner in the stadium when I sprinted to the finish – at Comrades (and in South Africa in general) masters runners have to wear an age tag front and back when they race. There were 30 finishers in the category that year. What I didn’t know at that time was that this particular runner had been in first place. I won the category by 18 seconds. My friends in the UK had been tracking me and reporting my progress on Twitter (I had gradually worked my way up through the field. It was really exciting to read when I got home). Oblivious to this, I picked up my drop-bag only to find my phone ringing. It was Sophie with the news that I had won.
I was told by one of the marshals to report to the timing tent and on my way there I saw a very elated Cam finish. What a perfect day. We celebrated late into night. I got up next morning for an extremely early prize giving – surely the person who organises this has never run Comrades. As I left, Cam was just coming back to the room to go to bed!
Gary (Dixon) kindly accompanied me to a lovely award ceremony where the real winners actually stayed and applauded all the age groups. He took these photos that I will treasure forever. Though I say it myself, I was pretty nimble getting up and down the steps to the stage compared to some of the other runners!
The rest of the day was spent in a bit of a dream – lots of eating, lots of drinking, lots of photographs and best of all sharing our race day stories with other Comrades.
Cam and I are heading back to Durban again this year. My aim is to finish my fifth Comrades. Last year Cam ran 9:06 on a very long down-run – for her, Bill Rowan beckons. Only eight days to go. I wonder what adventures await!