REPOST: Comrades 2016

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

This article is a repost from Christina's blog, it can be found on 

Thank you Christina for letting us share your experience. 
They say that this race will humble you. That is very true. Here’s my side to the story.
When I used to compete in national athletic championships, and other meetings where stakes were high, I always felt like only few things could go wrong, and I was always totally confident, that I would be able to deal with any minor issues that would come up. And do my best.

Throughout my years of running, I never felt more insecure and unprepared (even though, I am always well prepared), than after I started running long distances. Maybe that is why I feel, I have developed many new sides to my running – as I realized that winning a national 100 meter championship is a relatively easy task compared to what I have dealt with the past two years.
Ultramarathon is defined as distances further than marathon. My friends from back in the “sprinting times” have difficulties in seeing the sense in my changed path.

Even though I am a rookie in ultramarathon, I know that there are lots of things that can go wrong, when preparing to run ultramarathon. Many factors are known, and it is also known that unknown factors can occur. Little did I know that my big event of this year, the Comrades Marathon, would include so many extra challenges. Nevertheless, the story I am about to tell you have a good ending.

The Comrades Marathon is epic. And I will try to tell you why. It is called the Boston marathon of ultras for several reasons. The race takes place in South Africa between Pietermaritzburg (PMB) and Durban, where there is an approximate distance of 89 K between. Every other year, the race goes from PMB to Durban (“downhill” with 1500 high meters down and 600 up) and every other year, in the opposite direction. To be a true Comrade, you are supposed to have run both directions. Achieving that is called ‘back to back’, and is honored by a special medal. The race is broadcast all day on national TV, and the live coverage is seen all around you.

This race is the oldest ultramarathon, founded in 1921, but also the biggest with a limit of 20.000 participants. The race differs from other ultramarathons, as the entire race is run on asphalt. But the most challenging aspect of this race is the cruelty of the ‘cut time’. There are six cuts along the route, where runners are (literally) swept off the course, if not clearing the set time limit. At the finish line, race officials ruthlessly block the way for participants that will not make it across 12:00:00 hours after the gun shot at 5:30 am in the morning. Needless to say, there are always runners making their way to the finish line 1 second later, and the last 20 people who have given everything they had to make the cut, are lying in piles just after the finish line. The sight below will stick with me forever.

We participated in the 91th edition of the race (cancelled a few years due to war), and had planned to go to South Africa on Friday evening, arriving early morning Saturday in Johannesburg (Joburg), take the day to do the 5 hour drive to Pietermaritzburg (PMB), collect our bibs before the expo would close at 5 pm, and then relax before making our way to the start at 5 am.

Little did we know that this plan was going to change, I don’t know how many times…
Here’s a quick recap of the major events taking place the last 36 hours before gun shot (and my accompanying mood in parenthesis):
  • Friday 5:30 pm: Enjoying a quiet time with a coffee at Copenhagen Airport, waiting for our flight to Frankfurt to catch connection to Joburg (happy on our way).
  • 8 pm: Captain announces, that due to heavy rains in Frankfurt, we are now being re-directed to Düsseldorf (WTF???)
  • 9 pm to 1 am: Bus from Düsseldorf to Frankfurt – no drinks or food on the way (slight panic)
  • Saturday 1:30 am: Lufthansa staff re-booked us to an early morning flight immediately, although this was initially said to be impossible (strangely relieved by the thought, that we would now be physically able to be in South Africa before the start of the race).
  • 2:30 to 6 am: A night at Marriot Hotel in Frankfurt (not really able to enjoy any of this)
  • 7 am: Breakfast in Frankfurt airport (first meal in 12 hours – yummy!!!)
  • 8-9:30 am: Frankfurt to Amsterdam (arranging with Joburg-friends to bring spare running clothes JUST IN CASE)
  • 10 am: Running to the gate for the KLM flight to Joburg (South Africa within range)
  • 10:30 am: Flight departure cabin attendants provides us with three seats each to be able to sleep (still not sure, if we would see the starting line, though)
  • 3 pm: (in a fantastic mood after 4-5 hours of sleep)
  • 9:05 pm: Landed in South Africa (actually relieved)
  • 10 pm:  Realized that our bagage was never loaded in Amsterdam (frustration, but kinda feeling that this was inevitable)
  •  10:30 pm: Met our Joburg-based friends, who had made plans for our further trip to PMB (such a relief that someone else took over the situation!!) Sunday 4 am: Arrival at highway stop to change into friends’ pieces of clothing to not run in denim jeans (beginning to look forward to running)
  • 4:30 am: Made it to the entrance where runners parted with their friends and family – only to be told “No bib, No entrance”. Calling for help in Durban (trying to wait patiently for response)
  • 4:45 am: Reassurance that our bibs were located and that we would be contacted….(waiting hysterically patiently!)
  • 5.10 am: We made our way to the closed VIP area, where we got our bibs, which was really not possible after 5 pm on Saturday, but HEY! – it happened. Friends among the organizers made this possible (crying of relief)
  • 5.21 am: All set with bibs on (HUGE RELIEF!!!)
  • 5:30 am: Amazing, amazing lineup with singing of ‘Shosholoza’, and the traditional playing of ‘Chariots of Fire’ before gunshot and start (impossible to describe the positive emotions)
  • 4.19 pm: Entering the stadium in Durban and crossing the finish line (feeling it had been an altogether PERFECT day!)
  • (Tuesday 10:40 am: KLM delivery with our luggage (time to wear make-up again, YAY!!!)
I know it is really weird to say this, but once the gun went off and the race begun, things felt easy. There were no more uncertainties, and we knew there was ‘only’ 89K ahead. I am grinning while writing this, but it had been SO hard work to get to the starting line. Obviously, we knew that there was also hard work ahead, but somehow, we were more familiar with what came next. Except for the heat which I will return to…

The first two hours were ran in the dark with lots of people around us. 20.000 runners is a big crowd, and even though there were starting areas, everybody wanted to get as fast as possible over the starting line, as the cut off time started at gun shot.

The first 15K were not too relaxed for me. I was trying so desperately to get into my relaxed running, but the nerves and the tension from the past 36 hours were hard to let go.
We had a plan to drink from the first water stations, and I swallowed something called Energade. Not ever tried them before, but it was the only alternative to water. At 12K my stomach cramped slightly, which almost made me cry as I know that a “small” thing such as stomach pain efficiently stop runners. One visit to the loo fortunately removed whatever was worrying me, and I left the tension between kilometer 16 and 17.

This race’s signposts marking the kilometers run were counting down. Around 20K the sun had come up, and my running went more smoothly – it felt as if the runners were going together. The bibs you are wearing at Comrades Marathon not only has your name on it, but by the glimpse of an eye you can also spot how many races one have ran, and if they are national or international. 25-30 times we were personally welcomed by fellow runners, who asked us where we were from, and wished us a great race. This happened mostly on the first half from fellow runners, but for the second half the crowd and cheering took over and kept meeting us with their warm greetings and welcomes. This meant a constant flow of energy from the start to the finish line!

After the first 20K we had found a steady pace together and followed “my” rule of running. Troels is a much stronger runner than me on the “shorter” (sorry for calling a marathon that!!) distances, and for the first 20K I was struggling to persuade him to follow the (=my) two rules of ultra-running which are 1) always walk up hill and 2) eat or drink all the time. After he let go of struggling against these, by e.g. asking me if something “really was uphill?” our running became more and more smooth with each other.

Needless to say, – this is the most fantastic way to be around your loved one…
This may sound weird, but if you are a runner yourself, you will probably understand: from the signs 72 and down to 53, time just flew and the signposts seemed closer to each other than 1K. I was a ball that was just rolling.

Comrades Marathon stretches over a far distance and many different scenes. The route cuts across trashy neighborhoods to the richest of the richest mansions, and you have several versions of nature with sugar fields and scenic hills taking your breath away in their beauty, if you were not breathless already.

The crowd differed equally, and in addition to the families in the morning, who were in their night robes to keep warm (it was around 3 degrees Celcius), you had men, women and children of all shapes and ages, dancing and cheering on most of the route. College students in their uniforms were throwing balls over your head, gumboot-dancing adolescents, and mounted police on majestic horses were supervising the runners too.

And lots and lots of South African braais (barbeques), beers and music met you throughout the race.
It was impossible not to feel supported by nature or people.
The atmosphere was so amazing.
This is Africa.

We did the first marathon in 4½ hours, and not even when we cleared half way in 5 hours and 9 minutes did I truly believe, that we would make it to the finish line.
I guess, I was anticipating unforeseen circumstances, that had filled my mind the previous days!
But there were no more surprises, thankfully.

Troels had been very strong all the way, and after 40K, the race was officially downhill. I just LOVE running downhill, as I have a technique where I save energy. I clocked a few K’s well under 5 minutes per kilometer, and even laughed while doing so. We were like two balls rolling down the hills; Troels even clocked one K in 3:21, this should say something about the extent of downhill in this race (I dread the thought of going in the opposite direction, but I guess there are people who are fond of running uphill – and I’ll let them enjoy that version of the Comrades!).

Having a partner to run with is essential in ultramarathon. Troels and I are new to each other, and given that his farthest distance was 60K up until then, we did not know how he would feel after this. I had cleared the distance once before, – not that it would make me an expert (if you are interested, read my race report from the 100K here). This as a  psychological preparation was valuable, and as it would turn out, I was high on energy from 65K and for 5-6K. That turned out extremely useful in our partnership, as Troels found a new version of himself here. A tired version.

Our individual ups and down were perfectly choreographed to complement each other, and it is not possible for me to describe in this blog, what a running relationship like we have now feels like. I can only wish for others to have a running partner like this, because you can achieve so much more with someone like this by your side than on your own.

And then there was the heat.
The sun did not go high on the sky as we are used to from Denmark, but even so, temperatures got well above 25 degrees in the middle of the day, and when we were unable to run in a shade from the trees, temperature was 30+. With 12K left, this hit me. First I got fractions of seconds with dizziness, and being a person who have never fainted, I did not know how to deal with this. I told Troels, and he just comforted me with some simple comments, that he was with me. Suddenly the finish line moved a bit farther than the 12K to go. We took some walking breaks (100 steps when the kettle was boiling a bit too hard), and kept going. Allowing ourselves to walk for a certain number of steps was an anchor, that the brain was happy with, and sometimes it is nice to keep your brain occupied with something “intellectual”, like counting steps, when it is about to persuade you to pull out. Our log shows that we clocked 7:25-7:30 per kilometer from 60K to the finish line.

I guess it must have been the heat, but the last 5K I felt tipsy. Totally as if I had had three gin & tonics. When I told Troels, he concluded that my liver was overwhelmed by the toxic agents, and could not clean out as efficiently, as I demanded. This was the first time he did not actually comfort me!
Spotting the 3K sign, I was bubbling inside from the knowledge, that we were actually going to make it well below the cut. All the uncertainties and the ‘mission impossible’ we had been on, were swept away, and I suddenly enjoyed this tipsiness. The last 2K spectators were shouting “go get your medal”, and that feeling was overly amazing!!!!

The final stretch is on Sahara Kingsmead Stadium in Durban, where you run around the last ½K. Needless to say, I have plenty of great memories from running around a stadium, but nevertheless, this ½K was the highlight of my life as a runner.
10 hours and 49 minutes after the gun shot (and 19 hours and 14 minutes after we stepped of the plane in Joburg) we crossed the finish line, and – when I see the video taken by a running magazine who reported our story – must say that we did not look like someone who just ran 89K.
The special spirit of Comrades lifted us, and we will never forget this amazing experience.
If you ever get the chance, go feel it for yourself.

I was observing the (South) African runners all along the race, and in particular after the finish. We were amazed to a state of shock, when realizing the effort of the winner. Here are some facts; he (David Gatebe) finished in 5 hours 18 minutes.
That is a marathon in 2:30.
Then another marathon in 2:30.
And then a 5K in 18 minutes.
Even on a flat course that is out of this world.
You need to observe and feel the African runners before you have seen “real” runners.
Just sayin’.

One of the most amazing things about meeting yourself so far outside your bodily comfort is how the body keep surprising me. For almost 20K in the first half of the race, I felt like I had wheels instead of legs, and I almost overreacted and wanted to run uphill. Fortunately I did not tell Troels and stuck to the two-step plan we had agreed on. The experience from this race affirmed me that this IS the best tactic. But I actually don’t think there will be any more ultramarathons. I feel that I have reached what I want to, and this feeling is more than nice, I can tell you.
(if you want to see our interview with Modern Athlete Magazine click here).

This experience would not have happened if it hadn’t been for the unstoppable help from Ultimate Sport’s Morten Toft; he not only prompted us to get on the KLM flight, he also made sure our bibs were taken aside after the collection was no longer open, he gave us a contact (and a backup contact) in PMB to have the best odds of actually making it. We were there 20 minutes to gun shot. Under circumstances like this, it is just not enough that your legs are ready. Morten was even sweet enough to wish us good luck. Thanks for both karmic and practical support!
It also would not have happened without our South Africa-bound friends who were our drivers through the night from Joburg to PMB, who dropped us off right outside the starting area, cheered and encouraged us with 26K to go and then picked us up outside Durban stadium at 5 pm. They slept in their car to make sure that we got to the starting line. Thanks to Lotte and Lauge for having the same energy and enthusiasm about us reaching the finish as we had ourselves!
And a heartfelt thanks to the guard who sympathized with us and let me go through the gate without the entrance bands. We are grateful that he was in a good mood.

If you are looking for an out-of-this-world positive experience running wise, you should take on the Comrades Marathon. There is an atmosphere I have not met in Berlin, San Fransisco, London or Copenhagen.
The spirit of the Comrades Marathon is special.
A lot of small things.
Which makes up this big thing.
I am half a Comrade now, but I don’t mind at all. From all that happened up until race time, I had more than the full experience. I don’t think running any other race will be a bigger experience. Simply put.
We could only have done it together.
We will never forget this.

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