Sunday, May 29, 2016

My Comrades Adventure

Let’s begin at the beginning with this story.  Why did I want to run the Comrades Marathon?  In high school, I was a “distance” runner where distance meant the 800 meter, 1600, and 3200.  (About ½ mile, a mile, and two miles.)  I thought that the 5K cross country race was long as I only ran in the fall to keep ready for winter and spring.  I still like my track workouts but have begun a true “distance” runner as a grown up.

In 2006, I got back to running and originally had my sights set on getting back to a half marathon.  Did that by Labor Day 2007.  One thing led to another and I ran my first marathon in 2010.  I thought that the marathon distance would be all I’d ever want.  Then, I read an article in Runner’s World by Bart Yasso about Comrades and thought to myself, if there is ever a race to run that would be it.  I already had work colleagues in Durban where the race either begins or ends and I could combine it with a work trip.

Years went by and I ran more marathons and I traveled around the world.  A year ago when my colleagues in South Africa heard about my going a couple other places to lecture they said I must return to South Africa to lecture.  I agreed as long as we could schedule it in the week before Comrades.  That was the beginning of the planning.  I registered in September.  Ran a qualifying marathon with what seemed like a lot of challenging hills in October, and started officially training right after the first of the year with the same coach who had gotten me to achieve my goal in Philadelphia in 2014 of running a sub-3:10 marathon.  I’ve enjoyed worked with Shannon and we have a very good rapport. 

I dedicated this to my Grandmother.  When she passed a little over a year ago most of her resources were gone.  With what my mother received from her estate she shared some of with me and my sister.  That paid for my training and registration and a few other expenses along the way.  I may take my Comrades patch (received at the end along with my medal) and leave it at my Grandmother’s grave.

In any case, the preparation did not necessarily involve a lot more miles than marathon preparation.  Just more strategic use.  Particularly with respect to hills.  Lots of hard downhills before long runs. 

So, I arrived in Durban late Monday evening, six days before the race.  Spent three days working with colleagues and PhD students on research projects.  Ate a lot of curry meals and a dish called samp.  Felt fine Thursday night.

Woke up Friday morning, 48 hours before the race and something had gone wrong with my stomach.  Big time.  I won’t describe in detail, but let’s say, I could only eat a little, what I ate soon came out the other end, and it was not pleasant.  Having that two days before a race is not ideal.  I didn’t take anything as whatever I have ever take for that tends to make my stomach feel like crap.  But having small meals and probably not enough liquid that day was not good.

Saturday morning, I woke up and felt somewhat better.  Did my last shakeout run.  Bought some Powerades to drink to get the electrolytes back up.  Went to an early dinner which was spaghetti and meatballs (beef and lamb) with my closest colleague.  And got about 5 hours of sleep.

Woke up at 1:30 after about four hours sleep Sunday morning.  I was getting picked up at 3 for a drive of about an hour in light traffic for a race that began at 5:30.  Lots of people were driving early.  Not surprising given 20,000 registrants for the race and the 16,000+ who actual began it.

When I got there, I checked my bag with stuff for after the race (very little of which I ended up using), put the sticker to identify the bag on the back of one of my two race bibs, used the portable toilet, and eventually entered starting area B.  I’d worked hard to qualify for starting area B, running a marathon in just under 3:20 in the spring.

In area B, I hung toward the back.  I didn’t want to get swept up in a rush at the start.  When the organizers released the ropes separating areas everyone pushed forward.  I don’t think I have ever experienced such a rush of people at the start of a race.  Definitely a different sense of personal space than at the start of races in the United States. 

The starting line was by city hall in Pietermaritzburg.  The front of city hall was lit with signs for the major sponsor (Bonitas) and the Comrade symbol moving back and forth across the face of the building.  For much of the time there was very loud music.  Much of it dance versions of US hits from the 80’s.  High energy.  Lots of excitement. 

Then the South African national anthem in three parts—Afrikaans, English, and Zulu.  Then chariot of fire.  And finally the loud sound of a fun with streamers.  It took a little time to get to the starting line (probably a minute) and we were off into the relatively well-lit streets of Pietermaritzburg. 

One interesting thing about the race.  The official distance given in the final race instructions was 89.208 km.  In the official results the finish was listed as 89.13 km from the start.  Not sure what happened to the last 78 meters, but whatever.  But the key was the the signs indicating distances along the way did not indicate the distance traveled but the distance to go.  It was like a thermometer (kind of like fundraising goals are shown) that was dropping the whole way.  I kind of liked it that way.  It gave a sense of what was left to finish the very long race.  I missed the first one and was pleasantly surprised when my GPS watched beeped at the first mile.  (Yes, I left my watch in miles because it is just easier for me to think that way).  It had taken 10:18.  But since Comrades is gun to gun I wanted to know my time from the gun and not when I actually crossed the starting line.  (I would eventually find out that I did get a “net time” in my results.)

The early going was beautiful rolling hills.  It was warmer than much of the spring had been in the United States but not summer pre-dawn warm.  And it was dry.  It was a pleasant run and the miles passed.  9:11, 9:14, 9:04, 9:21, 9:05.  All sitting in that sweet spot for running between 8:30 and 9 hours total.  So far, on plan.

There had been a quick stop to pee along the side of the road in the first hour and then a stop at a portable toilet at the end of the first hour.  My stomach issues were not totally returning but I was concerned.

This was the first race where I used a run-walk approach.  My coach had suggested walking up the steepest hills and walking the refreshment stations.  I did minimal walking in the first couple of hours.  That may have been a mistake.  I’ll certainly have a different appreciation for the importance of walking if I ever do an ultramarathon again.  (The jury is out on that one but it won’t happen any time soon as I know just what it takes and it was too much.)

Miles 8-13 were run at 9:12, 9:07, 10:00, 10:09, 9:22, and 11:27.  I believe there was another stop at a portable toilet in that mix.  There was also more deliberate walking through the refreshment stations.  I was still on track to run just under 9.

Let me describe the refreshments. Not much food early on but I used four of the six Stingers I was carrying.  (Little packets of a honey based mixture that provide 100 calories.)  I drank Coke because it was in cups.  Then they had sachets of water and Energade (the local equivalent of Gatorade of Powerade).  They were challenging to break open.  Sometimes, I used the water to keep cool.  Sometimes I drank it.  I drank a lot of Energade.  But I truly had to slow down to a walk to get the things open and consume them without wasting to keep hydrated and have enough calories in me.

The next seven miles were more favorable.  Stomach issues were beginning to subside.  (The foods once they started appearing at refreshment stations included banana, potato, orange slices (which I didn’t take), chocolate (which I took once and found it stuck to the roof of my mouth—bad move), and cookies.  I liked the bananas and potatoes as they were easy to consume.  Moist and soft.  And the bananas (from lesson one of child rearing) help to bind you up when you have stomach issues like I had.  Brilliant.  The times were 8:36 (took advantage of a downhill), 9:31, 9:17, 10:06, 8:48, 9:29, and 8:55.  That put me on track at mile 20 to finish solidly under 9 hours if I could hold it.

The rest of the first marathon was also okay.  9:56, 9:20, 9:27, 9:19, 9:29, and 12:24.  That last mile reflected the first of what I considered to be the really big uphills.  I was still on track for at least 5 minutes under 9 hours.  And when I had passed the sign indicating 50 km remaining, I did think “only a HAT run to go.”  (A local, trail-based 50K back home.)

My legs at this point had started to feel tight.  I began to question.  And my watch would only have so much more time as the battery with the GPS going has only about five hours.  The next hour was 9:29, incredibly 8:35 for mile 28, then 11:49, and 11:18.  30 miles in I was still just under 9 hours for total, but it was beginning to occur to me that running the remaining almost marathon distance in the same time was going to be more of a challenge than I had expected. 

Also, it was warm.  I wouldn’t say “hot”.  And I don’t want to blame the weather for my performance.  It never got blistering hot.  There was shade in many places.  And the humidity was low.  But I had not done a lot of running at this temp in a while.

Mile 31 was the last one that my watch captured fully at 9:46 and in the midst of mile 32, 5:09 in, my watch shut down.

It didn’t mean that I was without a watch.  I had borrowed a watch from my most frequent training partner and dear friend, Lauren, to bring with me.  In the end, I don’t have all the rest of the lap times as it seems to only show me the first 30 laps.  But it did allow me to track and plan as I continued.  At mile 31, I was just within holding 9 hours total.  But I was fading.

Most of the early miles were on back roads.  Kovin (my colleague in South Africa) had told me that much of the course was the old way from Durban to Pietermaritzburg before the “interstate” was built.  So, it’s kind of like PA 320 instead of I 476 near where I grew up.  But as we got closer and closer to Durban we moved to more urban streets and in several cases ran the on or off ramps and the “interstate”. 

While I was still a long way from having 25 km to go, I had read about Fields Hill the night before.  It sounded like a grueling downhill.

With 31 miles down, I had about 39 km to go.  I thought of it as four 10K’s.  My only indication of splits at this point comes from the report I got from the race.  Each runner wore a chip device and had to cross over mats at numerous points along the way.  I ran the first 16.52 km at 6:02/km.  That was just about what would get me to Durban in 9 hours.  I ran the distance from there to 31.55 km at 5:55/km.  Enough faster to make me comfortable with getting to Durban in 9.  I ran to 45.57 km in 6:06.  Then to 59.04 km in 7:05. 

I’d stopped one last time at a portable toilet.  The lack of toilet paper at a stop earlier was no longer an issue.  Apparently fewer people used them further along. And now I was ready to push. 

That is where I truly faded.  While the course is called “down,” every account notes that the first half doesn’t really seem down.  As I described it was rolling hills.  With the ups never seeming that challenging and the downs just nice.  The second half is definitely down but it can be punishing on the quads and there are plenty of ups that precede the downs. 

With 59.04 km done, I had about 30 to go—or 18.6 miles.  It was clear that I was not going to be able go for the 9 hours.  My legs were tired.  But I still had the goal of finishing.  And finish I would.  And while I would not get the Bill Rowan medal for finishing under 9, I could still get a bronze for finishing under 11.  And under 10 would be great.  In fact, some of the locals said that finishing under 10 on a first try is considered very good.

The idea of a 50/50 run-walk for 18.6 miles seemed crazy.  I’ll never have the data to know what I was doing but I do know this.   I walked a lot of those last 18.6 miles.  But covered the distance in about 3:40.  What the human body can do is amazing.

When I got down to 25 km (15.5 miles), I thought to myself, now it just five 5K races linked together.  I can do that.  And so I continued. 

I did feel a bit hot.  I could tell I’d gotten a bit too much sun.  The direction I was facing most of the day protected my tattoo.  The visor that came in the goodie back protected my forehead.  I’d had sunglasses on most of the morning since the sun rose.  But I got some extra sun on my neck.

One thing that was in the back of my mind the whole race was that a colleague had suffered cardiac arrest on an ultramarathon run almost a year to the day earlier.  That was sobering.  But clearly, I survived to tell my story.

I tried a nutrition bar at one point.  Bad idea.  It was too hard to consume.  I tossed it.

I stopped at two physiotherapy stations.  They rubbed in a local version of icy hot.

Several people along the way had handfuls or chunks of ice to offer.  I rubbed that on my head and neck and arms. It is hard to say how good that felt.

At several points along the way I crossed paths with some runners who changed “Keep running.  Keep working.” A call and response approach.  These guys also sang a song that Kovin told me was a traditional mining song about a train.

As I realized I would not hit 9 but could hit 10, I thought of a few things.  First, it could have been mental toughness. Second, there was nothing that Shannon could have done to get me more prepared.  Third, the number of factors that determined how I ran—stomach, weather, first time consuming considerable amounts of food and liquid during a race, first time with a run/walk combo, and hills that one cannot truly appreciate from the map but that are daunting—is large and I just have to accept.  Fourth, I complete and that was what it was mostly about.  My honor to my grandmother is complete.  And finally, I did feel joy.  I was reminded of joy when there were some ice cream salespeople along the course with their coolers that said “taste joy.”  I thought to myself, “feel joy”.  And despite the tightness, despite not meeting my time goal, I could feel joy.  Why?  Because I had the ability to have a dream, pursue a dream, and put down on paper why it is important to me to pursue my dream.

Getting back to the race, I also played leap frog with any number of other runners seeing them pass me and then passing them time and again throughout the race as we each took our own approaches. 

To 70.58 km (from 59), I sped up a bit averaging 6:57.  To 82.67 km I averaged 7:21.  That left just a little over 6 km.

When I got to five I had to think about what I wanted to do.  I would try to job the whole thing.  I could run-walk-run-walk-run or I could just see.  If nothing else, I wanted to make sure to run into the stadium at the end.

So, I thought I would run from 5 to 3.  However, there was the last refreshment area and I slowed during the 4-3 km.  I picked it up and jogged from three to two.  While walking from two to one, I felt chatty.  I asked on gentlemen how he was doing.  And there was a woman named Amelia with whom I had been playing leap frog.  She had one previous finish (you could tell from the bib).  We talked about finishing under 10.  She was one of those who told me that was good.  When we got to the 1 km mark, she said “Go for it.”  She didn’t have it in her.  I did.  The closing took runners to the stadium, about ¼ of the way around the outside, and then a good portion of a lap inside. 

And I was done.

Throughout, people had greeted me warmly.  Names were on the bibs so runners and fans could call me by name. Many did.  Several, seeing the blue indicating international runner and that I had zero medals welcomed me to South Africa.  Several runners struck up brief conversations along the way.

I received my bronze medal and patch.  And a flower.  And there were pictures taken like at the end of every big event. 

Afterwards, I went to the International Runners tent.  I must have looked a little dazed.  I asked someone from the organizers where the bags were.  I got my bag, got a cup of tea, and waited for Kovin.  I wasn’t ready to eat so we went out of the stadium.  Runners had to go up and down steps to get out.  A cruel joke. 

I waited while Kovin got his car.  Went back to the hotel and showered.  My pee was a color indicating moderate to a little worse dehydration despite all I’d pushed into myself. 

Kovin came back and took me to dinner.  I had taken just a few extra moments to get ready.  I was moving slowly.  Dinner was Italian.  A camembert wrapped in phyllo with cranberries on the side and a 30 cm flat bread focaccia with greens, parmesan, pecorino, a little pesto, and Parma Ham.  I polished off the whole thing and drank about a liter of sparking water.  While we were sitting at dinner we could see other Comrades runners in the parking lot.  The gingerness of the footsteps was a dead giveaway. 

I was more energetic at dinner than I had been any other night during the week.  Even Kovin noticed.  We talked about how “marathon” is a bit of misnomer for Comrades since every other “marathon” is usually the standard 42 km distance.  So be it.

My net time was 9:46:53.

My muscles still hurt like after my very first marathon. 

My 20-year-old sent me a message that my commitment to achieving a goal is inspiring.  Perhaps I helped him to set his sights with a laser focus on his goal of becoming a musician. 

Not much more to say.  A wonderful experience on a course that does take runners through the Land of 1000 Hills.

The race is advertised as “Comrades—it will humble you.” 

Yes, it did.

But the humility has so many lessons with it.  How to push onward.  How to adapt. How to make the most of a situation. 

All these will be things I take with me for a lifetime.  Along with the joy of the training and preparation and anticipation and all the great friend, family, and fellow runners who supported me along the way.

Quick afterthought--the old expression for brides in marriage goes "Something old/Something new/Something borrowed/Something blue."  Well, I'm not a bride, but this was a transformational experience.  I wore old socks.  But they have brought me through many of my marathons and remain my best pair of running socks by far.  The new was the visor.  The watch that was on the whole time was borrowed.  And the blue--my international number.  (Can you tell I like symbolism?) 

And my Romans 12:12 from before the race--I rejoiced in hope.  The hope of finding more important goals and dreams and being able to chase them.  I endured in affliction--the affliction of very tired muscles.  And I persevered in prayer of being able to finish and get on with all the other important things in life.  

And a final post-script--no chafing, all toenails in tact, no blisters.  One victory. 

Absolutely final--always keep moving ahead.  


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  2. You are amazing and absolutely inspiring. Thank you for sharing this story. I feel blessed and honored to have crossed paths with you on this journey we call life. And thankful to have had you as my academic advisor. I look forward to hearing about the next dream you will be chasing. Maryam Tabrizi

    1. Maryam--what a blessing it was to cross paths with you and with each of the doctoral students I have worked directly with as well as so many masters students I have either worked directly with or interacted with now in my administrative role for three years. It is inspiring to hear that even one person was touched by the story I shared. The next dream is a work one--finish what the Business School began and join the ranks of those that have passed the voluntarily accreditation process. I also share the dreams of those around me like my oldest son going into his junior year at a conservatory and trying to figure out how to make it in music and my middle one going into his junior year as a visual art student in high school and trying to figure out what to do with himself or my youngest and his sports. My next running dream--don't know. But I do have my eye on another ultra a year after we are done most of the work for the accreditation process. By that time, I'll be ready to train more seriously again. Always something new. That is how I keep on moving forward in life. Always exploring. Always trying. Never being satisfied to sit back and rest on my laurels. I look forward to hearing more stories of your success as well.

  3. Wow. What a journey. It's amazing what a determined individual can accomplish in a day. Your grandma would certainly be proud.