Comrades was one of the toughest things I have ever done. And if you’re saying “Well – duh” to yourself right now, you’d be right of course. I mean, I knew it would be hard. Running 87km/54miles WAS going to be hard. I was trained and ready for hard, mentally and physically. But it wasn’t hard. It was brutal.
I ran the first half of the race conservatively, as required by the hilliness of the terrain. I came through halfway in about the time I had planned, 5:30, running and walking with the people around me. I was sore and tired, just as I have always been at the end of any marathon. But if I had thought beforehand that halfway would be a feel-good moment, I was wrong. In fact, this is where I hit my lowest point of the day. I realized: I am half way. Wait – I am ONLY HALF WAY???
Usually, halfway is a great place. Usually, you can start counting down the distance. Usually, you know that you can do this, once you get to halfway. But with this distance, the mere thought of halfway is just plain terrifying. I was in trouble, at that point. Physically I could go further, and I knew that. I was tired and sore but I had pushed through tired and sore in training. Mentally however, I was low. Down for the count.
And then the spirit of Comrades saved me. Around that halfway mark, at Drummond, the crowds were just amazing. They lined the streets and they cheered and screamed and shouted and clapped and the energy coming from them was overwhelming. And so I kept running, head down, just putting one foot in front of the other, carried by that energy, stepping over the mat at Drummond and pushing beyond. By the time the crowd thinned out and the next water table came up, I was well past halfway. I had less than half to go, and my spirits lifted, just a little. I wish I had a way of going back and thanking those people, telling them how much it means, them being there. I hope they know.
At 40kms to go, less than half but still an intimidating distance, I knew my support team was up ahead, around 10kms further. My brother Jaco and my sister-in-law Heather were waiting for me, and my best friend Doreth would be just a little further, too. They would have a cold drink, and salt, and encouragement. I focused on just getting through the next 10kms, step by step.
The route is truly ruthless – hilly and hot. The crowds thin out around the Harrison flats, and at that point I admit that I had mainly one overwhelming thought and that the thought was: “This was a stupid idea. How the heck did I ever think this would be a good idea? Why on earth does anyone do this? What was I thinking? This was the stupidest idea ever.” I started looking at the runners around me. The number of Comrades you have completed is given on your race bib. Most other runners have completed multiple runs before. Many were going for their 10th finish, indicated by their yellow bibs. I was incredulous. I wanted to ask them: Why? Why would you come back for this? Why, knowing what this is, knowing how impossibly hard this is, would you come back for this?
I’m not sure what kept me going. Run, walk, run, walk, water station, run, walk, run, walk. I wasn’t really thinking anymore, just doing. The water stations were great. The water was cold, the Coke was cool, there were Powerade and potatoes and oranges. I would take two bags of water: one for a few sips of water, one to spray over my face and my right buttock, which was hurting like hell at this point. Supporters along the road had big containers of salt. I would stop and they would pour salt into my hand and I would lick at this, body desperate to replace all the salt I had sweat out.
I settled into a rhythm. At some point, I was running quite well. It was painful and sore and uncomfortable, but my body went on auto-pilot and I kept going. Another great spectator spot around Cato Ridge came up, and the crowd carried me through that cut-off. I ran for about 5kms looking for my family – but it was so crowded and busy that I thought I had missed them. I was so tired, I couldn’t recall very clearly where they were going to be – by now the entire route had blended into one long never-ending string of names and kilometer markers. I was, in fact, looking for them at the wrong place and when I finally did find Jaco and Heather it was a great surprise, and a very happy moment. I stopped to grab the cool drink they brought, to lick some of the salt. I stretched out my legs. I smiled for the camera – tired but hopeful – and off I went.
About 30 meters later I had to stop running. My right leg was in severe pain. I tried walking – it was excruciating. The stretching had popped something behind the knee on my right leg and I could hardly move the leg. I stopped at the side of the road. I looked back. I considered limping back to them and catching a ride out of there. A supporter along the road, an ex-runner by the looks of him, saw me. “Walk it off”, he said, “just walk it off, slowly, just take it slowly, just walk it off.” I nodded, too tired to argue. I limped forward. The 11.30 hour bus passed me. I fell in behind it, started running. It was pure determination, at that point: I was not going to let these folks get away from me. And rather miraculously the leg settled back into a rhythm – muscle memory kicking in I guess – the pain subsided and I was back to running.
And suddenly there were 25kms left to go. This is when I knew I could make it. I had done this, before, many times, in training runs. I started appreciating the concept of back-to-back long runs – Sunday long runs on tired legs, after a Saturday long run. I could do this – 25kms on tired legs. I’ve done this many a Sunday.
Mentally this was a great point to reach. I breathed in deeper. I tried to relax. I try to tell myself: enjoy this! This is it – you’re here. Be present! This is what you’ve trained for, for almost a year! You’re doing it! You’re living your dream! Enjoy the moment!
None of it worked. My mind and body was beyond all such motivational bullshit. I didn’t care that ‘this was it’. I didn’t care about my expectations or ambitions or dreams. I was tired and sore. Only one thing kept me going at this point: the thought of being done. I imagined the grass at the finish line. I imagined lying on my back, on the grass, with my family and friends there, and I imagined drinking a cold beer. I have no idea where the thought of a beer came from. I haven’t drunk a beer after a race in a long time. But that beer – that cold beer – I craved that beer, and the thought of it kept me going.
I saw Doreth. I was happy to see her, but I also told her immediately that I couldn’t stop. I was in a good rhythm, but even so I knew I was tired beyond all reason and if I stopped I may never get moving again.
I kept going. Muscle memory, one foot in front of another. I started making good time. I passed the 11.30 bus. Many people have congratulated me on the bronze medal – but it wasn’t a consequence of a good race plan or determination or drive to finish sub 11. No, the truth is that I hurt. Everything hurt. Running hurt, but walking hurt just as much. And if running was sore and walking was sore, then running would bring me to the finish faster – and all I wanted at this point was to finish. And so I ran.
20km to go. Another great spot for supporters. People shouting: “Come on Mariette, you can do it, looking good!” Hearing your name, people rooting for you – the feeling is amazing. It keeps you going. I huffed out a few thank you’s, and my voice sounded teary and desperate, every time.
15kms to go. The route remained difficult beyond belief. Little Polly’s made me giggle, due to the meme I saw of it on Facebook – someone pulling a disbelieving face when they’re told this is only *Little* Polly’s – not yet the real one. Have I mentioned that this route is a killer? Even Little Polly’s is brutal. I kept running and walking. Running and walking. More salted oranges from spectators, more wry smiles and more cheers.
And then came Polly Shortts. OMG. Polly Shortts, the dreaded and oft-cursed hill at the 10km to-go mark. It is the most depressing thing, the sight of that hill. A merciless and vicious 2km climb. And yet, if you’ve watched Comrades as many times as I have (since childhood, like most South Africans) you also know that Polly Shortts is the very last hurdle before the finish. Once you’re done with Polly’s a mere 7km stands between you and the finish line, a distance that is almost trivial for most people lining up for Comrades. And so up I went, walking Polly’s all the way, from beginning to end. Physically depleted, but mental strength returning. I spotted the 11 hour bus up ahead. I knew I was making good time. I’m a fast walker (long legs!). There were people along the road, cheering. My fellow athletes were almost all walking, cursing under their breath. I started feeling a deep connection to those around me – as if we were on a pilgrimage together. It made me think of my good friends Yandri and Sue, and the Camino.
And then finally – the top of Polly’s. Exhausted. I marched right up to the water table, pushed past the volunteer, grabbed two glasses of Coke, and downed one after the other, similar to how one would drink shooters, slamming the glasses down on the table. I drank those Cokes as if my entire existence depended them, and I don’t know that anything has ever tasted that good.
It was just auto-pilot from this point on. Just one foot ahead of the other. The support coming into Pietermaritzburg was fantastic. I remember smelling braai, I remember someone playing “Kaptein” loudly, I remember the sounds of drunk people having fun – cheering and jeering and shouting and joking. And then before I knew the stadium was there, we rounded the curve, there was grass underfoot, the clock overhead showed 10:58 and I stepped over the mat.
We walked forward, lining up at the gates to get our medals. As we stood waiting, I stood next to a young guy and I said “I can’t believe I made it” and he said “I can’t believe I made it either, that was very tough” and I said “That was very very tough” and we turned and we hugged – at that moment the most natural and spontaneous of gestures – just two people from different walks of life both emotional and raw and sore, feeling connected by that rawness and soreness and that incredible sense of astonishment that *we made it*. And that moment, I think, is what Comrades is all about. It’s about something that is so difficult, and so tough, that you really don’t think you are going to make it. But then you do. And the feeling is one of humbled thankfulness.
I did ask on Facebook – WHY, WHY do people do this race more than once? How can you be this beat up and sign up for it again? And the answer came: just wait and see.
And now I’ve waited 3 days, and I see. I do want to do this again. I’m not sure if I will or not – it remains a huge commitment – but I can understand the Why now. I don’t know that I can verbalize it. It’s the feeling of being humbled. It’s the thankfulness you feel, knowing that what just happened was somehow bigger than you, that any small thing could have gone wrong and derailed your day. It’s stripping away layers of mental expectations of how something will be, stripping away any sense of entitlement or accomplishment, stripping away pride, and to find in its place a sense of humbleness and gratefulness. Thanks Comrades – this will forever be a fond memory.
*With thanks also to my Mom and Dad who met me at the 30kms mark, although that part of the race (first half) does not feature in this story, as well as for the support at the end point. This is a long day for supporters – from 3am wake-up to 5.30pm race finish – I could not have done this without them!