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My Comrades Experience

Covid has changed so many things and one of the those I’ve missed most these last two years have been the Comrades marathon – even just watching it every year has been uplifting. Nevertheless, we keep holding out hope that it will make a huge comeback by next year!

Comrades ultra marathon was by far one of my most memorable achievements. It was both the hardest thing I have ever had to do (physically and mentally) and the most rewarding I ever experienced.

Where it started

I always dreamt about running the Comrades since I was a young girl. Of course in my dreams it wasn't nearly that hard and I always finished first. The reality was very far from it.

My running "career" started 12 or so years before running the Comrades and gradually moved from 10km races to a full marathon. My first marathon was so unbelievably exhilerating and I felt so good at the end of it that the idea of actually doing Comrades became more of a reality than ever before.

I was sitting at work one afternoon and made the decision right there and then. I registered for the race and was so overwhelmed that it brought tears to my eyes and a big lump in my throat. I think deep down I knew what commitment it would take to finish and it was so daunting and extremely frightening to think of it. I entered to run the best race I could, not get sick, not get injured and not fall by the wayside. I entered to finish. And that is exactly what I did.


Training for an ultra marathon takes every ounce of self-discipline you can muster and for months I walked around like a zombie every day. Some days I had to fit in three runs to make up the distance for the week while still working full time. I also did strength training twice a week to help build endurance. It becomes very important to look after your body and your mind, find what works for you and what keeps you going. So every act in every day becomes important. What you eat, when you eat, when and how you sleep and where your mind is at.

Race day

Race day arrived and we were up before the crack of dawn (I couldn't sleep anyway because of the excitement and nerves). The drive up to Pietermaritzburg from Durban seemed to last forever and I tried very hard not to think about the fact that I had to run all the way back in one day. Upon arrival at the starting point I could feel the static electricity in the air. Thousands of runners were humming like a nuclear power station.

My partner and my sister came with on race day and they were under strict instructions when they encounter me along the road and I am crying or want to give up, they have to tell me to "suck it up" and get on with it! No sympathy.

Troubles also started immediately, the zip on the back of my pants gave way. Luckily I brought a spare everything and luckily my sister was still in the vicinity and I had to make a quick wardrobe change in the parking lot.

Then it was off to the starting block and this is where the adrenaline really starts pumping. Runners were jumping up and down and by the time we sang "Shosholoza" (song by Helmut Lotti) my hair literally stood on end.

Then that much dreaded and anticipated gunshot went off and total chaos and bewilderment ensues. I felt like a deer caught in the headlights, not quite sure which way to run and literally fighting every step for a bit of space in which to move.

A couple of kilometers on I started getting into some sort of a pace. I also realised that I was feeling very nauseous and battled to get any liquids in. My heart rate monitor showed my heart was pumping much too fast and I was draining my energies too fast. I decided to slow down, figured I had overdid the carboloading (as a novice) and as there was still a long way to go, I still had time to recover.

One of the most precious moments were when I passed Ethembeni school for the disabled. It is home to about 300 disabled and disadvantaged children and "Ethembeni" means "place of hope". Well for me it really embodied all that is Comrades and if I had liquids left in me, the tears would definitely have been rolling. I felt so humbled and blessed as the children line up next to the road with their hands outstretched so they can touch you as you run past. Here they were sitting in wheelchairs and they cheered us on as if we were the heroes when they have so much to overcome on a daily basis.

My stomach eventually settled after 38km or so and I felt more comfortable and confident about the race. I had also decided to go it completely natural as far as supplements went, frightened that anything strange might start me up again. So, I only partook in orange slices and small pieces of potato and this kept me goint throughout the whole race.

I was going stronger now and my determination hardened. I am doing this thing. Then comes the dreaded climb up Inchanga and the back of Bothas Hill. It just keeps going up and up and up. I started feeling the strain on my legs. It was also heating up and it is very disconcerting to see people literally falling by the wayside, hitting that dreaded "brick wall". My luck was in though and a group of runners from Mamelodi (a suburb in Pretoria close to where I grew up) came past with a drummer in the group. They told me they had just the right beat for me and so with beating drums, lots of laughing, singing and groaning we all reached the top of Botha's Hill in time to hear the announcement that a South African athlete had just won the race. I thought if one South African can make it there first, this South African will make it there as well.

People sometimes ask what thoughts go through your mind if you run for hours on end. Quite frankly, not much. The only conversation I had with myself was along the lines of "suck it up" "come on, keep going" "don't give up" and "one foot in front of the other". It does not leave much room for deep philosophical thoughts or solving all your life problems. It is, however, something close to meditation as you are very present every step of the way, feeling every step echoing through your body.

The next highlight was doing the "green mile". My family was waiting for me here and I wanted to laugh and cry, hug them and go home with them, which of course wasn't going to happen. So we only exchanged a few words and it was back to the road.

I thought that whatever time I lost in the early stages of the race I will be able to make up for when I hit Fields Hill. I am a downhill runner after all. In theory that was a wonderful idea. In practice after almost 60 kilometers there is no making up for lost time. Round about this time it becomes very hard to discern what is aching the worst. Every step is painful and it actually doesn't matter if it is uphill, downhill or flat, it all feels like uphill. A friend of mine described it as 'even your hair starts aching'.

Next came Cowies and I was blessed with an ice cold lolly-pop which boosted me for a few kilometers.

By the time I had 10km to go, I was literally finished. It took everything I had to just keep moving forward. I tried to not think at all and just kept my eyes on the edge of the city and towards the sea knowing that is where I needed to be.

Then rounding that final corner I knew I had made it. Just a few more steps. I went through the "smile zone" just before the end and at least I could still muster up a good one. There is a rule in our club that I was made to promise on before the time and that is that you can walk all you want before you enter the stadium, but if your feet hits that grass, you dig deep for that last bit of energy and you run until you've crossed the finishing line. I did not disappoint!

I know they say it's silly if you come in near to cut-off time to throw your arms in the air as if you had just won the race, but I could not help myself. For me, I had won, I had won the months and months of training, all the difficulties I had in the beginning of the race and I made it all the way to the time...for me this was my win!

A few tips if you consider doing this yourself :

1) Train hard and train enough;

2) Visualise reaching the finish line every training run you do – positive thinking is very powerful and just what you'll need on race day;

3) Surround yourself with people who will believe in you, encourage and support you and make sure to thank your loved ones afterward, because this takes commitment from everyone in your immediate vicinity;

4) Use two pairs of shoes while training – so that you have a spare pair ready on race day (you can never predict what happens);

5) Take two of everything you need, two shirts, two pairs of pants, two pairs of shoes (see above), etc.;

6) Take something warm for the morning of the race that you can get rid of along the way (whatever you throw down during the race gets picked up by those less fortunate – so donate);

7) Never stop moving, do not get a massage, stop at a water table or for family. Keep moving forward, every second counts and the longer you stand still, the more difficult it will be to get going again and you might just open the door for cramps as your muscles relax and cool down;

8) Do not run if you are sick or have an injury, this race will multiply whatever is wrong and you might end up doing permanent damage;

9) Do not make use of anti-inflammatories or any other pain medication (if you need these, you should not be running) – they can damage your kidneys and other organs and you might end up in hospital instead of at the finish line;

10) Soak up the wonderful energy around you and enjoy every moment – it is not called the world's greatest race for nothing!

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