I’d not intended running Comrades again. Twice is a nice number. You can run Comrades to the end of your days, but you can only get the back-to-back medal once. As a novice, by successfully finishing your first two Comrades. I got that last year, but at a cost. It had been a bad race. I had suffered badly and had a nagging doubt that I’d got things wrong. I’d hoped and believed that I was capable of sub-11 and a bronze medal, and it turned out I wasn’t. It itched.
So when late last year, I mentioned to Roberta that, given the chance, I’d do Comrades again in a blink, I detected a flicker of an eye-roll. Comrades is hard on the supporter. A 55 mile point to point, with no view of the race except the crowded finish. It’s harder on the supporter than the runner. And only a few months earlier I’d vowed never again. Never. Again. Too Hard. Then BA announced a new direct service to Durban and things gathered momentum and I thought, third time lucky. One more try at bronze.
I was a bit late to training, but I was structured and focussed. I hit my racing weight, and on the 9th of June, I was in my pen early, munching on a potato, and chatting to a novice South African lady who was telling me she’d be disappointed with anything over 10 hours. Nice problem to have. Bronze is sub-11, and although I suspected I might not be fast enough, I thought I’d get pretty close. My pacing and race plan was for sub-11.
For anyone planning Comrades there is a lot of good writing on the race. I’ve followed the official coach Lindsey Parry’s training guides but I’m also a big fan of the blogs of Norrie Williamson and Bruce Fordyce. On the whole I run a disciplined race and to a plan. I suffered hugely last year and had been puzzled. In an excellent blog post from March this year, Bruce Fordyce writes about his 1985 Comrades:
It wasn’t easy and flowing. I was toiling. I remember the sickening realisation: “You are not in control of this race.”
That summed up my 2018 Comrades. Many of us have mantras and mind games that keep us going when the going gets tough. And this has become mine. Whenever I feel something is wrong I say this to myself as a warning. Something’s wrong, and a rethink is needed. In a long race, even a slightly faster than planned initial pace can cause disaster further down the line.
Comrades is not flat. And the up-run is very not flat. Average paces are meaningless and I was following the pacing suggested by Norrie Williamson. Practical suggestions on where to be and landmarks along the course. I was on target pretty much until the half-way point, almost to the second
At the Ethembeni School I looked forward to some high-fiving with the kids. I confess to indulging in mild mischief here. There’s loads of ebullient confident kids, but there’s all the shy ones too, and the naked delight on their face when you single them out and go up to them and thank them for watching is fab. One lad was so excited he grasped my fingers and wouldn’t let go. Still, my ‘Ethembeni split’ was only 40 seconds so I wasn’t there as long as it felt, but moments like that are intensely emotional and help put the race in perspective.
The school is 36.5km to go on the up-run, and my pace had slipped a fraction. I refocussed and concentrated and tried to go faster. However, at Cato Ridge, with 30km to go, it had slipped some more. I wasn’t going to get sub-11. I wasn’t going to get bronze. I had a pang of disappointment but I knew I couldn’t go faster and maintain it to the finish. In the endgame you can see many that overstretch themselves only to find themselves overstretched in the grass at the side of the road. In an ultra your race pace is the pace you can maintain for the duration of the ultra. So there was no dramatic change in my pace, I just carried on running at the pace I know I could maintain. I was surprisingly upbeat. I was still in control of the race.
With about 20km to go and on a rare descent my legs were telling me an indignant and incessant tale of woe, but my running economy felt not too bad and my breathing was ok. My legs hurt, but I was ok with that. It was just a case of concentrating on a spot in front and keeping the rhythm moving. Then I became aware of a presence behind me. A bloody bus.
After my initial fascination with the Comrades buses in 2017 I have revised my view somewhat. They can be great. but then again, they can be a pain. Sometimes their pacing is good, and sometimes it’s not. And with the organisers squeezing more entries in each year, the roads are fuller, but not wider. I felt, rather than saw, the bus come up behind me and begin to envelop me. I was irritated but resigned to my fate. Resistance was futile. Soon my biological and technological distinctiveness was added to their own. I was assimilated into the collective. I became part of the bus.
But this wasn’t an official bus. It was smaller, leaner, tighter, and I wasn’t sure who was driving. Must be that tall lanky bloke. Except he disappeared after a few kms and the bus kept going. Then that bloke going for his back-to-back. Very impressive. But then, where did he go? I liked this bus. It had raised my pace a fraction, and I had struggled initially to hang on, but I was ok now. The passengers were quite experienced too, watching out for the cats-eyes and pot-holes and such that can be your undoing in a compact running group. I was also rethinking some of my pacing strategy. On a long steep hill, I usually walk the lot, as I can’t see the point of doing 20 paces running every now again and burning energy. But this was exactly what this driver was doing, and, and, I was quite liking it. In fact, when we hit the last of the Big Five, Polly Shortts, we did a walk-jog strategy that was, well, pretty hard, but I hung on.
By this time I had identified the driver. His name was Dean, and apparently, according to what was written on his Adventist running vest, Jesus was coming soon. Dean was certainly working a few miracles and I decided to try and stay on his bus to the Finish. In these last few kilometres Dean encouraged and cajoled us with a faultless pacing strategy and I found my atheism was more than a little challenged.
As we ran into the stadium we instinctively spread out in a line around our driver and then we were swallowed up in the crowded finish. I looked around for Dean; I wanted to thank him. I wanted to shake his hand. I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but this had been a big deal. I normally, and contentedly, run alone. But that bus for the last 20km had been an <ahem>, godsend. I couldn’t see Dean in the crush so I looked at the clock to check my time. 11 hours 40 minutes. 20 minutes spare. Gulp. That had been too close for comfort. Nearly half an hour slower than 2017.
But I was happy. I can’t think what I would’ve done differently. I’d done the training, lost the weight, drunk less beer, rested some more, had a revised plan, had arrived fresh, confident and positive and had gone out to get bronze. And I hadn’t got it. I’d hit my pay grade and wasn’t going to get any further. Time to move on.