Zinekele: It takes all of you to become a Comrade’s runner. It isn’t lack of better words that the organizers of the Comrades use this catch phrase for the go luck running the Comrades. The meticulous planning, immense discipline, focus, sheer gritty determination and perseverance might not be enough to even get you anywhere near Pietermaritzburg, also known as the City of Choice that sleeps easy on Sunday evenings. But I guess hardly many were sleeping easy on the Sunday of June 4, 2017, when the Gun goes off at 5.30 P.M to signal the final cutoff after 12 hours of toil and pain.
Tears of joy and sorrow are shed as lifetime dreams are realized and crushed in equal measure. The number is in thousands of the wounded soldiers who have fallen along the 87km treacherous route to get here. The numbers that lie down here numb is uncountable. It’s a good omen that this happens in semi-darkness, as its winter down south and days tend to be shorter as many would not live to tell the horror stories of the past twelve hours. I had gotten there 2 hours earlier and I couldn’t stay long enough at the finish line at The Scottsville Racecourse. When I got there, the finish point was busier than the casualty section in a National Referral hospital during a National disaster as you can hardly walk 5 meters before meeting another wounded soldier on a stretcher; the fact that I can walk at a speed of 10 steps per minute is such a solace. I haven’t even gotten started with the horror stories so relax.
Running the Comrades is a life changing experience, which captures the incredible human spirit. Before venturing into it, make sure you are biologically useless; I doubt they give guarantees/warranty/insurance of your viability after a Comrades. How I know? Ever heard of don’t ask don’t tell? It’s your point to note (on the house).
My journey to the Comrades started after rather comfortably finishing Two Oceans last year; I entertained the thought of running the Comrades, and looking back I’m glad I never listened to one King James of following the OMTOM with Comrades. My obituary pages could have long been edited and published. After I limped out of the Nairobi Stanchart last year at 18kms with a shin injury, I took a long 7 weeks break that reduced my running only to the one on bar tables; here biceps are built and bottles down miles really count. Ooh yes, it was a really jolly good time. Be wary of the friends you keep, when I asked one John Kuria whether we should attempt the Comrades, the answer was a resounding, hell why not. But the good thing is we ran toe to toe every step of the training and you can imagine the mutual satisfaction when we toasted that beer on our bus ride back to Durban on the evening of June 4, 2017.
My first training run a mere 7km, was in the Archipelago that is Ssese Islands in the beautiful Banana Republic, and ended a month before Comrades with a 70km run in the revered Fluorspar, in the picturesque Kerio valley. In between, the Kantaria Hill in Limuru had become my every weekend butter and cheese. Other Highlights in the training include the dust biting Naivasha Relay trail from Kikuyu to Suswa, and another 60kms in Flourspar. In between, an uncountable number of 40kms plus runs which used to start earlier than 6 am. One that it can be unfair not to mention was the run on Easter Saturday that I combed the very scenic Kiambu-Limuru road through Ndumberi road in the search of the magic 70km mark. If you thought Otora’s support work was bad, try that support team called Wife. First, you will get a list of requirements for the support team that stretches from where you are reading this from to eternity; of course it’s longer than what the runner needs. Along the way, they will forget you and remember all the long lost extended family relatives and friends too. They’ll leave you for the dead and show up smiling, but since you need them more than they need you, you will curse and smile back. They will drive ahead, not the agreed 5kms but almost 7kms, and blame it on everything including a malfunctioning odometer, the very odd topography, road safety that doesn’t allow one to pack less than 500m from the last corner, selective amnesia and of course the devil. One thing that this run has taught me is patience. Be patient with all mortals, your body and even the distances. All this left me feeling positively confident that the challenge ahead of me will never be bigger than the strength inside me.
Touchdown in Durban is two days before the big day. The entire city is abuzz with the Comrades; this is the event of the year in Mzansi land. The following day is spent at the expo, but nothing of interest is going on here apart from the “party on” atmosphere to note. The “bus” leaders are all song at the Modern Athlete Magazine Stand. Comrades doesn’t seem to faze these guys. At the Novice Comrades stand, there is a 40 comrades marathon medals veteran. Yes you heard that right, four and zero, no space between them medals. You can’t help but admire this battle-hardened warrior. Outside the expo, a string of mobile bars are open and guess what? hundreds are “carbo-loading”. Stop right there. If your doctor told you that beer and running don’t do well together, perhaps he went to the same medical school with Mugo wa Wairimu, which is not very good news or else you told yourself that you can’t enjoy that drink and run. We spend the rest of the afternoon with one James Wahome and a walk to his hotel was our pre-run acclimatization run. We have a pre-race dinner and briefing and we call it a night. Not before watching the climax of the European football season that is the Champions League Final.
Big day June 4 is upon us. Breakfast is at 3am. We have to leave to the start venue at 4am. Comrades “up run” starts just outside the City Hall in the City Centre. As you can guess, the city is jam-packed at that hour. The atmosphere is electric and before you know it, it’s 5.00am. Before the start, Comrades Veterans including past winners give pep talk on where to run and where to walk if you were running at all. Key words is don’t run or push yourself too early. At 5.20am the commentator declares no more talk. Action time. Four songs are belted back to back. Queen’s We will rock you, South African National Anthem, Shosholoza, and the beats to the Chariots of Fire. One of the things no one will ever tell you and you wish someone told you; carry your own tissue to wipe the tears as Shosholoza is sang. A passionate crowd of 20k plus singing in unison to declare the battle is on.
At exactly 5.30am, the gun goes off and the party is on. The big snake that is 20,000 runners starts snaking its way up to Pietermatizburg. When they tell you it’s the up run, they mean exactly that. We have hardly run 1km, yet the gradient has started to rise. It’s very dark but that hasn’t deterred the crowds who have turned up to cheer the runners. The running culture in South Africa is just out of this world. Support on this run is more than adequate; 45 water points means every 1.8km there is water and energy drinks, massage teams. This doesn’t include the hundreds of volunteers lining up the entire way with homemade food, others cooking food just to make sure you never lack on this journey. It’s their journey as well. I can hardly remember a km I ran without finding a group of volunteers saying a word of encouragement.
I will stick to the highlights from here on. One thing I can never fail to notice is the great literature that litters the whole way. The crowds are great artists. The terrain keeps at almost flat and gentle long climbs until the turn to the Devil’s Valley of a thousand Hills. First up, Cowies Hill is at 17km and is one of the five major Hills; too early to walk it, so it’s dealt with without much problems. The same applies to the Fields Hill, which is steep and unforgiving. Up next is the mother of all Hills on the course, Botha’s Hill. It’s the Steepest according to the literature for the run but by my own assessment, that distinction should go to the Polly Shorts at the very end. The hills leave us with well over 35kms covered.
Along the way, the crowds are chanting all manner of motivational words; you can run this. I couldn’t fail to notice one yellow yellow who said Timothy my Man. I momentarily stop and give her a smile. At least I have a reason to go back and do the down run next year. At the halfway line, the Inchanga climb looms intimidatingly and this coming at the half way mark you need something special to encourage you. What can do that more than a big placard written “you run better than our government”, how I relate with this. This was my first point where I got tempted to stop. Not that I had ran out of gas but rather the crowd was a spectacle. A string of size 8 ladies were all dressed in purple, or rather my eyes told me it’s purple, and they would rhythmically flash open their cover shawl uncovering the whole body, revealing their underlings. Ooh, what else could you ask for if that’s what awaits you up at the end. The run was said to be easier in the second half of the run, but to me it became tougher as the kms worn on. I cross the full marathon point at a commendable 4hrs 10mins mark. But the Inchanga hill does its magic on me such that as I reach the 60km mark, I’m already well inside 6hrs.
At 61kms, all hell breaks loose and a flash thought crosses my mind that my Comrades ends here. A sharp pain in my calf which goes all the way up the thigh to the groin. I stop and can’t even step with my left leg. Surprisingly, I don’t sit down but endure the pain. The next water stop is like 50metres away, so I hobble to it. Cramps have set in. In my short running life, I have never had cramps, but today it’s happening! Thinking fast, I ask for salt, and get Oranges laced with salt. I take a handful standing there, and mysteriously now I can step with my left leg. I walk to the massage team on the opposite side of the road, and they spray my leg before working on the muscles. I am advised not to run until it clears up. 27 kms to go but the good thing is I have over 5hours to do this. Question is, will the body accept this?
I am reduced to a walker for most of the remaining run, with bouts of runs in between. An average 5mins/km runner reduced to walking at a pace of 10 or 11 mins per km calls for a lot of patience with your body. At some point the pain is too much and the thought of throwing in the towel is more than entertained, but with the clock very much on my side, I kept pushing. The “buses” pass me one after another; the agony is multiplied by the number of people passing me. It’s almost a flat terrain, but focus is to get to the finish line. I vow to soldier on until the body completely says no. I stop at every water point and get a little massage and spray until I start running in bits.
Sheer determination and refusal to give in take me through 60-70kms, and now the real deal of the run. Little Pollys is on my face as the sub-10hrs bus catches up with me. I decide to run with it a bit. The good thing with these buses is that the leaders know where to walk or run. Just as I am about to let the bus go, the leader shouts we will be walking in 3..2…1. The entire group of 50 plus runners stop and break to song. A few meters and it’s pep talk time. The leader shouts we are on course, only you can mess this one. What follows is he counts 1-30 and the group run, brisk walk for a minute then run as they count 1-30 and before we know it, Little Pollys is done. At the top of the hill, a big poster is held; Zuma flattened the Pollys. The Up run is never done until Polly Shorts is done. The short distance between Little Pollys and Polly shorts is not manageable with my dead legs and cramps, so I stop and have my legs massaged. I let the bus go, but the only people who run up the Polly Shorts are the ones trying to win the Comrades or the ones trying to beat the second last cut-off at 11hrs 10mins at the top of the Pollys. The Bus is walking majestically up the Hill and I run-walk a bit to the top. At the top, its 81kms covered and Pietermatizburg is in the horizon.
6kms to go! A glance at my watch shows 9hrs 10 mins; even if I crawl I will get to the finish point now. Last prayers are said and I start jogging slowly, managing a 7 min split for the next 2 kms. The atmosphere is becoming lively by the meter and before I know it, I am running again. I even manage a sub 6min split and now the sub 10 bus is walking singing victory songs as they know they will do it. I’m not sure whether they intend to sprint the last 1km, in which case I would not keep up with them. Thankfully they never catch up with me.
On crossing the line I look to the heavens and say a little prayer, sign of the cross, and I couldn’t help get a little emotional. I had defied the odds and covered the last almost 30kms in pain. A look at the medal is so heartbreaking. It’s the smallest I have in my collection but none had left me a wreck like this one. I walk to the bag collection point and I have only one thing in mind. Go to the international Hospitality Tent and take my beers and walk to the bus for the long drive down to Durban. The scenes are horrifying, people lying still without moving. You can hardly walk five meters before seeing someone being attended to. I meet John Kuria and we decide this is too much and we need to leave. The walk to the bus is the longest I have taken. Back in Durban, the only thing I was able to do was to take a shower and get to bed. Sleep was not forthcoming, appetite was zero, and basically the entire body was in a shut down.
The long night passes and you can only limp to go and get breakfast. A few stretches and a shower help ease the pain but nothing more. The entire Durban is awash with people with funny walking styles. The Great people of the Limp Republic are out and about in the orange Comrade 2017 T-shirt written in bold at the back. The Ultimate Human Race. Some even got an upgrade; they have crutches. If you find a more humbling experience, do tell. The rest of the day is spent in Ushaka Beach with a beer in hand and body submerged in sand. Life is a beach. I have run and finished all the crème de la crème runs on the Swara calendar, and apart from Kajiado where I haven’t finished the longest distance, nothing prepares you to run the Comrades or gets anywhere near running the Comrades.
My journey to become a Comrades Marathon finisher has cut my body weight by double digits and basically changed my life. But you know what? I will be back for the down run next year. Any takers? But after that, I can’t promise I will do it again. It’s an experience that every recreational runner should have at least once in a lifetime. The break is on before I embark on other adventures. Next up, the small matter that is the great debut into the Majors awaits me in Chicago in October. In the mean time, I can find someone who can Vera Sidika my toe nails; I lost 3 in the process BTW. This reminds me of a big placard along the route that read “Toe Nails are for Sissies”. Go figure! To all those who encouraged us, even followed our progress online every step of the way and sent congratulatory messages. A big thank you. If you want a more detailed account, you can buy James Wahome a few gallons of wine, or better still, ask John Kuria out and don’t forget he prays facing a crate of beer. Kiss and don’t tell is a Greek vocabulary to them. I’m sure they have tales to tell. Keep running good people. See you when I can’t avoid. This will be soon. Am out.