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Monday, June 3, 2013

2013 Comrades Marathon: "Never Limit Where Running Can Take You"

"Never limit where running can take you"...this is a famous quote from my friend and inspiration, Bart Yasso. I've heard him say it hundreds of times and it's a meaningful statement to me. When Bart says this, he's talking about the spiritual and mental benefits of running as much as the physical locations of where running can take us. 

It was Bart Yasso that sold me on the idea of going to South Africa and running the Comrades Marathon. He spoke about it with enthusiasm and passion. I was hooked by his sales pitch and I blame him for my misery. 

To say that the Comrades Marathon is a big deal in South Africa would be understatement. Comrades is a big deal on a global level. The Comrades Marathon is the oldest and largest ultra marathon in the world and is heavily steeped in tradition. Simply put, there is no other race like it.

Comrades is approximately 54 miles long and changes directions each year. The "downhill" course is run in even number years and the "uphill" race is run in odd number years. I would be running the uphill course.

To compound matters, this race is run entirely on roads. While I have been known to run the occasional road marathon, it's not something I work into my routine with any frequency. In fact, I've recently come to the realization that road running is not a strong suit for me. Nonetheless, I would be heading to South Africa so I could see what all the excitement was about.

To remove the forthcoming speculation and suspense...I DID finish the race. I was pleased that the race officials had the foresight to create a medal that complimented my race shirt so well! 

My diminutive finishers bling!

Side note: The Comrades finisher medal is among the smallest medals given out at races and is a big part of the race history and tradition. This medal has not been altered since the race began.


First off, getting to South Africa is an amazing chore all by itself. It requires four flights and about 27 hours of time in the air. Our route took us from Salt Lake City to Minneapolis, which is a typical layover spot for me anyway. From there, we flew to Amsterdam and enjoyed a long layover before flying to Johannesburg. We had to stay the night in Johannesburg before making our final flight to Durban in the morning.

Needless to say, we were exhausted when we finally arrived.

Within a few hours of getting to Durban, we headed to the race expo which was being held directly across the street from our hotel. The expo properly reflects the race and is an enormous affair.

Gotta love a race expo with a bar in it!

Experimenting with one of the many local beers.

The Comrades Marathon goes out of their way to cater to the international runners. We have our own area for packet pickup and they make it as simple and painless as possible. While we only make up about 5% of the race participants, we have the same sized area for packet pickup and just as many people to help us through the process.

Race SWAG!

After picking up our packet on Thursday, we had a few days to relax and enjoy the area. Because we're in the Southern Hemisphere, it's winter in South Africa but it didn't feel like it. The weather was perfect so we were able to walk the streets of Durban and enjoy the city.

Durban Skyline from the beach

A lot of surfing this time of year

The picture below was taken while we were in a local marketplace. Apartheid has been over for a full generation, but like most cities, there are well defined white areas and black areas. It's not a function of racism but merely a result of different cultures. This photo was taken in a marketplace and we were the only white faces in the crowd. We really enjoyed the dancing and drums and the overall enthusiasm of the crowd. It's just not something we could ever witness inside our own country.

Young boy dancing for the crowd

The race started at 5:30 AM on Sunday. The start line was only a few blocks from the hotel and I had planned to sleep in for a while before the race started. Due to jet lag, my sleep patterns were still screwed up so I ended up crawling out of bed at 1:30 AM. 

I wasn't nervous or anxious leading up to this race. There was nothing to suggest that this would be any different than other ultra I've run, and after all, it's only 54 miles. When I woke up and opened my window, I began to worry a little because the air was far warmer than the forecast had indicated. It was balmy and humid, already hovering around 67 degrees. It was only going to get hotter. 

My gear is ready to go!

Me and Jo in the lobby before the race

As I said before, Comrades has a lot of tradition, and along with tradition there are dozens of rules. One rule prevents me from wearing clothing with sponsorship or corporate logos on them. Never mind the fact that this race puts the REEBOK logo on all their swag and the NEDBANK logo on the race bibs. They want me wear their sponsors logo, but I am threatened with disqualification if I wear my sponsors gear. 

However, runners are encouraged (almost mandated) to run in their local running club gear. Fortunately, I was able to run in my Happy Utah Mountain Runners (HUMR) shirt and I was thrilled be representing them in South Africa. 

Spectators are discouraged from coming to the race start due to issues with crowding. Jo and I walked down to the start together and she planned to return to the hotel so she could get ready to catch a bus at 7:00 AM that would take her to the finish line in Pietermaritzburg, which is about an hour drive from the start line and our final destination. I wouldn't see Jo again until I crossed the finish line and I would have no crewing or support along the route. This was an unappealing thought.

Where Jo spent her entire day waiting on me to arrive

This race places runners in corals based on established marathon finish times. The corals go from A-H and I was placed in coral "C". Standing in that coral was a surreal experience. I was flanked on all sides by tall, lanky, speedy looking Africans. They all seemed to know each other and I was the lone white face that had nobody to interact with. When Africans are together, they almost never speak English, so I didn't even have the benefit of passing the time by eavesdropping. I was truly alone amongst a sea of humanity. 

It was hot and I was already beginning to sweat. Hydration was going to be an issue and I forced myself to revise my race plan. I decided I would have to go slower than I had intended so I could gauge the proper pace and output of energy. It was definitely going to be hot and if I got overzealous, I would run the risk of a DNF. I would rather go home with a slow finish than no finish at all.

Waiting to start the biggest ultra on the face of the planet!
Photo Credit to: Em Gatland Photography

When they played the South African National Anthem, I was surprisingly moved. It's a lengthy song and the entire crowd was singing. It's primarily sung in the African language, but whites and blacks sung it in breathtaking unison. I had no idea what the words meant, but the emotion in the crowd was running high and it was an incredible experience.

Shortly after the anthem, we were on our way. Like any race with 17,000 runners, it was a slow start but the field opened up quickly. It was still dark when we got underway, but the street lights provided ample lighting until the sun came up.

Sunrise as we leave Durban
Photo Credit to: Em Gatland Photography

The race started off fairly flat and rolling for the first few miles. I once again realized I was a foreigner when a cascade of beeps starting to sound all around me. These noises were marking the end of the first kilometer. It would be a while before my Garmin made a similar sound.

We eventually began to climb the first major hill, flatten out a little, start a minor descent, then climb again. This is a process that would literally last for the entire 54 miles. This race tackles the five highest peaks in this part of Africa and that's why the "up year" is so challenging.

Passing through an early aid station

This hill lasted for 2 miles. Not steep, but still crushing.

I hit the 26 mile mark in good time. I was hoping for a sub 9:00 finish and I arrived at the marathon mark in 4:09. We were still hitting some major ascents and I knew I was going to continue to slow down as I went. I hit the 50k mark at 5:12 and knew I would be revising my race plan again.

Fueling and hydration were tricky because I was forced to rely on the aid stations more than I would normally. Without crew support, it's just too challenging to carry all my nutritional needs with me for that distance.

Comrades is famous for many things, and the crowd support is high on that list. The streets were lined with thousands of spectators and they were only absent in areas where access was nearly impossible.

Cheerleaders and media near the middle of race

Not a typical sight at an ultra

It was at mile 35 that things got really challenging. As the heat of the day began to reach its peak, the wind began to blow. It was a nice respite at first, but it soon ballooned into an unrelenting 30 mph headwind. This is a point to point race that runs in the same direction with very little deviation. The wind was blowing from the direction of our destination. There was no way to avoid it or combat it. We just had to deal with it.

If a 200 pound man faces a headwind, he can muscle on fairly well. When a 131 pound man is dealing with that same headwind, it's a different story. The wind was literally pushing me off the race course. I simply don't have the body mass to fight it off as well as a bigger person. I was in a desperate struggle and losing precious time. This is a fight that I had all the way to the finish line.

Most people really appreciate the crowd support and I totally understand that. As a trail runner and introvert, I would rather be left alone with my thoughts. I don't need external encouragement and frankly, I found it to be a distraction. By mile 40, I was tired of all the people along the course. I just wanted to sink into my own world and turn my brain off. They refused to allow that to happen.

Children begging after the aid stations for cookies and sweets
Photo Credit to: Em Gatland Photography

By mile 45 I resigned myself to a finish time around 10 hours. My battle against the heat and the wind was mentally devastating. I still felt pretty good but was struggling to get any kind of decent pace going in these elements. I was deeply frustrated and just wanted to get this race over with. I lost all interest in having a good finish and focused on ending the misery.

From mile 45 to the finish, I witnessed massive amounts of carnage on the race course. Runners were dropping to the ground, being drug off by medics and a massive evacuation was underway. Ambulances were hurrying up and down the race course, dodging between runners and spectators with a load full of victims packed tightly inside. I had never witnessed so much human suffering in a race of any distance.

I crossed the 50 mile mark at 9:25 and felt hopelessly defeated. To make matters worse, I had two of the steepest and most brutal climbs to face before the finish. During the climbs, I was somewhat shielded from the wind but was unable to run the steep ascent. Once I crested the top of the climb, I was instantly battered by the headwind, so getting a decent pace on the downhill was equally difficult. Nothing was working in my favor.

Entering the long parkway to the Cricket Field and the finish

I had been hunting for a beer for the last 6 miles and was coming up empty handed. There were big crowds all along the course and they were grilling food, partying and enjoying the race. Yet, I couldn't bum a single beer from any of them. My final hope was the long chute on the way to the finish. Again, I was totally skunked. At that point in the race, it's the only thing I had to look forward to (oh...and seeing Jo too!).

Coming to the finish

Sometimes, at the end of a particularly challenging or iconic race, I can get a little emotional. I've even shed a triumphant tear or two as I crossed the finish line. That didn't happen at Comrades.

100 meters to go and damn happy about it

I crossed the finish line in 10:19:01. Far from what I expected, but I was happy to have completed it.

Sulking

As I said earlier, the carnage was rampant. About 30% of the field DNF'd. It was amazing to see so many athletes literally drop to the ground and not be able to continue. It was unlike anything I had ever seen and I have no interest in witnessing it again in the future.

Here are a few pictures to illustrate it....

 Photo Credit to: Em Gatland Photography


Photo Credit to: Em Gatland Photography

                                      
Photo Credit to: Em Gatland Photography


Photo Credit to: Em Gatland Photography

After finishing my race, I finally got the beer that I had been craving for so long. I relaxed and mingled with other runners in the International Runners Tent. Everybody had similar stories to share and it evolved into a sea of commiserating.

As stated, Comrades has a lot of tradition and I wasn't leaving for the hotel until I witnessed the end of the race where the most brutal piece of their history shatters the hopes of so many runners.

This race has a strict 12 hour cutoff. At exactly 12 hours into the race, an official goes to the finish line, turns his back on the remaining runners and fires a pistol signifying the end of the race. At the exact same time, a throng of burly men block runners from crossing the finish line. It's a crushing blow to many runners that fought it out all day long, and it's almost as hard to watch as people are streaming toward the finish with the last bit of energy and resolve, only to be stopped just as the gun goes off.

The photo below shows a few runners that arrived one second too late. They won't collect a finish time or a medal for their efforts. Several hundred runners continued to arrive with tears streaming down their faces and a look of total crushing defeat.

DENIED!
Photo Credit to: Em Gatland Photography

South Africa is a beautiful and diverse country. I'm extremely grateful to have had a chance to come here and experience the race, the local culture and interesting countryside. It's unlike anywhere else I've every traveled.

I'm also glad I got a chance to run the Comrades Marathon. However, I sincerely doubt that I would ever run it again. I had heard so many amazing things about this race that it was impossible to ignore its calling. I also witnessed the fanaticism first hand in the days leading up the event. This may be one of the most popular ultras in the history of running. This can't be denied.

This is the clearest distinction between trail runners and road runners that I have ever seen. This is a road race and it finds very wide appeal amongst that particular crowd of runners. This is THEIR ultra. A trail runner won't find any of the qualities in this race that would excite or impress them. But this race has every exciting quality that can be found in a modern road race.

I am in no way disrespecting this amazing race. It, like American River and JFK, simply do not represent what I love about my sport of ultra running.

I'm happy for the experience and I'm even happier to able to check this one off my list. Jo and I are eager to be heading to Arizona next weekend for a trail ultra on familiar trails. After a short string of road races over the last four weeks, it will be a very welcome homecoming.

Happy Trails!