Three days before Comrades I nipped into the Expo to collect my number. They make you feel special as an international runner with a special fasttrack queue that takes out much of the stress, and quite possibly, some of the fun. This left me plenty time to search for the Ethembeni School amongst the maze of stalls sprawling through the exhibition centre. I approached hesitantly, with my 4 carrier bags stuffed with pre-loved, hated-at-first-sight, and oh-not-another-tech-tee from years of racing around Durham and beyond. I’d been putting them to one side for a long time now, not really thinking through how I’d squash them into my luggage for the long trip to Durban. But squashed in they had been, and now I was a bit nervous. Perhaps the school didn’t have any crushing desire for a Durham City 10K t-shirt, or a Mad Dog 10K, or Blackpool Marathon, and would be shortly making that clear to me. But no. Apparently according to the nice lady I spoke to, they were all ‘awesome’. I was relieved as I had no plan ‘B’ if they were not wanted. After Comrades we were going onto Botswana where we had a strict luggage limit and I had visions of having to furtively find a place to lose several years of surplus running vests.
Two days before Comrades found us on the bus tour again. The Down Run this year. On a hot bus with a broken PA but this didn’t dampen the spirits of our hosts. Both Comrades runners, full of experience and enthusiasm. Once again we stopped at Ethembeni School for an impromptu concert.
The school is a wonderful place. A facility for kids with disabilities, including albinism, which can still result in them being stigmatised. The school has built up a rapport with Comrades over the years and particularly international runners. As the school principal candidly pointed out, the school enjoys donations and publicity the envy of its neighbours, simply because it’s on the Comrades race route.
The day before Comrades and it had to be the Durban parkrun. A carnival of controlled chaos with the bus drivers rehearsing their moves and runners doing their final kit checks. Despite having 2273 runners the organisers do an amazing job of running a tight ship. Should you wish to run it hard, the opportunity was there to do so. But for most people it was a jog along the seafront enjoying the spectacle and singing of the following day’s buses.
The night before Comrades we stayed at the Golden Horse casino in Pietermaritzbug. Last year it had been at the end of the race and had been surprisingly peaceful. This year, it was a much busier affair and not a lot of fun. A packed and cramped coach took us from Durban to the hotel where eventually we got checked in, were handed a free bottle of Energade, then queued in the restaurant for dinner. Our booking hadn’t been cheap and we were not too impressed with things so far. The night was short, and noisy. They seemed to be re-living the car-chase scenes from Grease in the carpark outside our room. Still, as we were up at 2AM there were not too many hours in which to be kept awake.
After breakfast I sat on the coach waiting for the avoidably late departure of the coach to the start. I’d have been better walking, and sat looking out of the coach window watching many people easily overtake the coach as they strolled to the Start. Eventually we were tufted out with not as much time to spare as I would have liked, and I went looking for the baggage bus. That was pretty amazing. I managed to extract myself from the crush without breaking anything, had a brief and hopefully forgettable detour via a portable toilet, then tried to find my starting pen. Time was counting down and there was a hellish crush at the entrance. The poor marshall tasked with policing the gate suddenly found herself forced back as the force of runners made a final push into the pen. It was pretty nasty. For many seconds I had no control over my movements; the marshall retreated to the side for her own safety and I was propelled forward into the pen by the mass of people behind me. I staggered into the pen, ducked to the side and got myself somewhere safe-ish. This was unpleasant stuff. My sunglasses had been smashed in the crush which had a surprisingly bad psychological effect on me. I’d had a bad night, and with just half an hour to the beginning of this iconic race I stood crushed in abject misery and grumpiness. All in all, I thought, this is a bit shit.
The ropes between the pens were dropped, and there was a lurch as the pens began to merge. Then there were a few moments of calm. Then over the PA it was announced that the national anthem would be played. I think they do actually play it over the PA – not that it matters. This was one of the many stranger-in-a-strange-land goose-bump moments that you experience in Comrades as an international runner. Proper singing. None of your Oggy Oggy Oggy crap here.
After the power of the national anthem came the mellowness of the Shosholoza, then a palpable expectant pause before the first notes of Chariots of Fire blasted out over the PA. I’m not a huge fan of this song, preferring Mr Bean’s 2012 Olympic variations over the cheesy original, but hey, when it’s 0530AM and dark and cold in Pietermaritzburg and you’re surrounded by thousands of fellow Comrades runners, suddenly it doesn’t seem cheesy at all. In a space of a few minutes my mood had changed. My tetchiness had been replaced by mellowness, and I wondered with interest how the long day ahead would play out. The cock crowed but I noticed some of the old-hands didn’t start their watches until the starting gun sounded a few seconds later.
Nothing much happened for a bit (although with the race being gun-to-mat – the clock had started ticking) but before long we all started shuffling forward. After the chaotic crush of getting into the pen, things were now quite calm and civilised. Perhaps it was all that singing. It was still dark and cold and I was wearing my long-sleeved Striders top. The one I’d never liked that flared out like a maternity dress but at my waist. After a few miles when things were feeling a bit warmer but still dark I lobbed it at one of the collection points at the roadside only for it to whack into the face of a volunteer who’d turned in response to my shout. I’m never going to stop feeling bad about that and it’s probably best not to think about where my old Strider top is now …
Slowly the light came up, and the sun rose over KwaZulu-Natal. It wasn’t forecast to be a hot day and running conditions were pretty nice. I wasn’t sure how race-day would play out but for the moment I was on my race plan and feeling fine.
This year my main objective was to get the back-to-back medal, a medal only available to novices who successfully complete their first two Comrades in successive years. An up run followed by a down run, or vice versa. I was pretty confident of achieving this goal, but my secondary goal was to get a sub-11 hour Comrades. I thought it was do-able. I’d done a lot of core Strength-and-Conditioning training and was generally fitter and lighter than 2017. I wasn’t complacent though. I knew it’d still be hard. I’d been reading Matt Fitzgerald’s “How bad do you want it” (worth getting for his account of the 1989 Fignon/LeMond Tour de France finale alone) and he warns that one of the main mistakes athletes make as their form improves is to assume that a race will be less tough. So I was ready for that one. As the day wound on I kept clear of the buses as their pacing seemed bonkers. I’d already passed, and been passed by, two different 12 hour buses and didn’t care for their pacing strategy. Too fast, too early.
Your number says a lot about you in Comrades and mine had two red vertical bands indicating that I was going for the back-to-back. It was a strange club and occasionally I’d make eye-contact with other back-to-back runners and exchange a brief acknowledgement. An unspoken communication that we were all there for the same reason.
The sun crossed the sky and on the long steep descents I was grateful for my S&C training as it allowed me to continue running with form where many others were now walking. On the long descent of Fields Hill within the last 30 km I edged past an 11:30 bus that was going for a walk-jog strategy, and kept my rhythm going. I knew things weren’t right though. I was feeling too fatigued too early. I knew that Comrades comprises a long, tough, steady end-game where your muscles are fatigued, but if all is well, your form, rhythm and breathing is retained. And I could sense that I was on the wrong side of the envelope.
An 11 hour Comrades is an average pace of 7:19 a km. As much as an average means anything in this race. You’re lucky if more than a few kilometres of the race are level, which is one of the things that makes it such a hard event. I tried to run as steadily and cautiously as possible but I could sense that I didn’t have the stamina I expected and that it was going to be a pretty rough old day. With 8km to go my Garmin showed that I was edging tantalisingly close to the psychologically magic pace of 7:19 and I tried to lift the pace a fraction. But just as it was looking like it was going to happen, we hit a long, draining climb into the suburbs of Durban, and it was game over.
I crashed and burned on this hill and at the drinks table at the top I knew the Bronze was not going to happen. This wasn’t a minor setback that I could recover from. My form had gone. My breathing was ragged. My rhythm was terrible. I wasn’t going to come back from this. The remainder of the race was simple damage limitation. Walking and jogging inelegantly into the Moses Mabhida Stadium and looking for the finish. With just 8km to go of this 90km race I could almost touch my target pace but by the final reckoning I wasn’t even close. The gantry clock showed 11:15 and a few seconds.
I crossed the line with mixed emotions. Part elation, part disappointment. Medals appeared and it felt good to be wearing two medals, the Finisher and the Back-To-Back. It’d have felt even better if one of these had been the bronze but that’s something I’ll have to get used to.
Sitting in the international section of the stand I peered over to the finish line as the 12 hour countdown grew near. I was struggling with two intense emotional reactions, one of which was completely unexpected. I hadn’t got the bronze, and I thought I’d been capable of it. I clearly wanted it more badly than I realised.
I puzzled over this. Perhaps it was because this is my first race for a very long time that hasn’t gone to plan. I’m much better at running even or negative splits, very disciplined, and it’s been a long time since I’ve ran a bad race. And this had been a bad race.
Suddenly a commotion from the crowd snapped me out of my despondency and with the seconds counting down a runner appeared on the finish straight being physically supported by two other runners. The crowd were on their feet and cheering them on, but there’s always one grumpy pedant who doesn’t join in and share the spirit of the moment. I leaned towards Roberta and whispered, “That’s against the rules you know. You must be unsupported”. Perhaps they heard, as I saw an official approach the runner, who dropped to his knees and crawled the last few metres, unsupported, over the line.
I settled back into my despondency and tried to unpick my race. What had gone wrong? Too much training? Too little? Too much beer? Too little? Taper too long? Short? It was difficult to shake of the feeling of unfairness and injustice. But it wouldn’t be racing if there was no risk, if everything was predictable. It would be pointless. And there’s a certain morbid fascination of going over a big race that has gone unexpectedly wrong and mulling over the possible reasons.
I thought of those few seconds that had taken me over 11:15 and could see they would have easily been eaten up by all that high-fiving of the kids as I weaved by the Ethembeni School. But I can live with that. I told myself to stop being an arse. The name Ethembeni means “Place of Hope” and their school motto Phila Ufunde means “Live and Learn”. Wise words. They’ll do for me.