Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Why we run (Copenhagen, Comrades May 2015)

Last year’s Comrades was supposed to be one and done (like my first marathon, ha). As soon as I got there I met loads of runners from all over the world who were there for 3rd, 4th, 5th Comrades, like a college reunion, with a passion you don’t see at other running events. They all told me you haven’t done Comrades until you’ve done both the up and down courses, they are totally different. Plus, if you complete your 1st and 2nd year races consecutively, you get a special B2B (back to back) medal. You only get one chance. Moreover, this year was the 90th anniversary run for this, the world’s largest ultra, they expanded the enrollment to 24,000 from the usual 18,000 (about 22,00+ enrolled), a special even larger race with a special medal.

I am not good on hills or hot weather and there would be plenty of both (7000 ft up, 5000 ft down). Most runners go 20 min slower on the UP run than the DOWN, and I didn't have 20 min to spare. This year they extended the course by ¾ of a km due to construction, for a total of 87.72 km. I needed all the help I could get. I resolved to stop drinking the month before, and train on hills. This turned into stopping drinking the week before, and running a couple ultras the month before. Then it turned into not drinking the night before.

Still I was strangely anxious, I was in the habit of just showing up at the start line and seeing what happened but something told me that wouldn't work this time.... Maybe it’s just age…. or the fact that all my times are slower this year,
or as simple as I remembered how hard it was last year, and that was the ‘down” run. Uncharacteristically I prepared my “kit” night before, another first.

At least I thought I would combat jetlag by arriving the week before (and I could get to the expo before all the good souvenirs sold out). So I met Jenny, Vivian, and Sabine in Copenhagen the weekend before and ran the Copenhagen marathon, before traveling to Durban.  It is like a cross between Sweden and Amsterdam, with the biggest, (elevated!) bike lanes I’ve ever seen with their own speed signs
(62% of the population bike commutes), which I got try on a Segway tour,

a huge amusement park in the middle of the city, and the famous "Little Mermaid" of Hans Christian Andersen. I think it may be the world's cleanest city, opulent palaces and $$$.

Though it took 2 days and a 12 hour layover to get to Durban, it was still a shocker going from summer in Scandinavia to winter in Africa.  I was feeling a bit down after saying bye to the nieces. Susan my Canadian twin was not going this year, but running the entire Comrades course in sympathy on a treadmill while watching live streaming of the event. She had all the elevation programmed in. 

I didn’t feel like doing safari again so instead signed up to see more of local (Zulu) culture and Lesotho.

My tour guide was a native South African. He was a man of few words (not necessarily a good thing when you’re touring alone) and coughing/ sneezing the whole time, which made me paranoid with the race coming up. As we passed King Shaka airport, I asked him about King Shaka. Shaka (pronounced “shaga”) was born the illegimate son of a Zulu chief and a beautiful single woman, Nandi, on the eve of his marriage to another woman. He got his name “Shaka” which means stomach beetle because even when her belly got large, his dad denied the pregnancy, saying she must be bloated from the stomach beetle. Though he did take in Shaka and his mom, Shaka the illegitimate child was apparently mercilessly teased which led to his developing his fierce Napoleon-like personality which made him such a feared warrior. He is credited with inventing new battle techniques that united the once scattered Zulu villages, much like Napoleon. Apparently he handed the British their first defeat on African soil. My tour guide wondered aloud what this country would be like if Shaka were not assassinated. Clearly he was very proud of his heritage. Shakaland was built as the set for the 1980’s TV series “Shaka Zulu” and is a sort of “living museum”.
I totally have to watch Shaka Zulu now.

Walked around Durban city (and got lost for a bonus hour), the contrast with CPH was striking. There are tons of hitchhikers in the middle of nowhere, throughout the countryside outside Durban and Pietermaritzburg. I had heard it was not safe to be out alone after dark, and I don't think the big "T" on my back would help me.

The next day the tour guide picked me up at 6 AM to go to Lesotho.  

All I knew of Lesotho was it was the round country surrounded on all sides by South Africa. It was a 3 hour drive to Underberg, and when I got out of the car, it was cold enough to see my breath. It was 85 degrees in Durban but we were at altitude now. I wondered how a country like that maintains its economy… diamonds, not sheep….
Then it was into a 4 wheel drive SUV for the remaining 2+ hour drive up rocky roads through the Sani-Pass in the Drakenberg mountains (a UNESCO world heritage site), the only road to the Lesotho border.

It was just over marathon distance but the last 13k was switchbacks of up to 20% grade. Until the 1950s it was a single donkey wide; apparently the SA govt spent 8 yrs trying to pave the road in 3 stages, when they got to the middle section, a rainstorm blew the entire road away in 2 days, so they gave up. Our tour guide who was from Lesotho was quite chatty. You could tell he used to be a ranger because he kept stopping to point out animals way in the distance I couldn’t see.

We passed a man going down the mountain on foot. “He is one piece short of the full box of chocolates” he said. Apparently the other villagers make him go >1000 ft down the mountain every day for firewood in exchange for booze, as they lived above the tree line and there is no wood in the village, and back up. The air is thin up there at 2874+ m and he was not carrying any water. I wanted to get a photo of him and the tour guide explained we should ask him permission. When we passed him on the way down, he stopped to give him an apple from his glove compartment. We also passed a runner doing repeaters up there. Apparently last year’s Comrades champion trained there, and there is an actual marathon (the “Sani Stagger”), 13.1 miles up and 13.1 miles down.

We entered a Lesotho hut where he told us the story of how the country got its independence and how they defeated the Zulus by setting traps on the mountain. The king was given a cone-shaped hat to represent the mountain, which has become a symbol of Lesotho.

We had lunch at the highest pub in Africa where I got to sample Lesotho beer

I was pretty wiped out when we got back around 6:15, but I made it to the expo before closing and I got a bunch of souvenirs before ordering room service, a local specialty called "bunny chow" which seemed to be curry in bread bowls.
The next day I went on the Comrades bus tour. This is where they drive the course and point out the landmarks, such as the wall of honor (any finisher can buy a brick for their name),
the Comrades museum (where you can see memorabilia from past winners like Arthur Newton who would ride his bike from Capetown night before,
and see a 3D topography of the course, if driving up the 7000+ ft of elevation on the bus didn’t scare you enough)
and visit the Ethembeni school, a school for disabled children which is independently funded by donations, such as those from rich international Comrades runners. Apparently Comrades is like the highlight of their year, they sing traditional songs/ dance and they can get like $25,000 in donations.

I sat in front of these 2 Americans on the bus lamented that I felt sluggish from sitting on tour buses all week running only once on a treadmill due to it being winter here (sunrise 6:40 and sunset 5:10). I wanted to shoot myself after 5k but I had a friend who was running the entire Comrades course on a treadmill. “Oh, the Canadian?” Apparently she is a FB celebrity!

That night was the prerace dinner where I got to see friends from last year’s Comrades, whom I had also seen at the Hoka Highland Fling 53 mile run in Scotland last month. Sadly also missing was Pete who had come all the way to Africa from England but was not running due to a fever and headache bad enough to send him to hospital. Caroline from SA won 6 bottles of wine and had brought a bottle from her wine cellar, shared the wealth.

The Park Run (free weekly 5k on Durban beach) Saturday again had like 2000 people, but the usual suspects were not there this year. It was again hot (85+ degrees) but race day forecast was supposed to be cooler by 5-6 degrees, chance of showers even. It was nice to get out….

This time the race start was ½ mile walk from hotel rather than 60 mile drive away, so I could sleep in until 4 AM and still easily make the 5:30 AM start. Ate leftover pizza for breakfast and dilly dallied before heading out into the muggy dark.

Something felt off from the beginning, not enough calories? I didn't want to eat anything, except the bacon offered by some Aussies grilling at the side of the road. I ran into a fellow MM who asked if there was food on the course, there was some in the 2nd half but he had not even brought a gel! I gave him some of mine that I probably wasn't going to eat anyway.

I had the strategy of going out slow, shuffle-walking the hills (there are half a dozen major hills, 85% of which is in the first 50k) so I would have something left for the end. Trouble is, even if I start slow, I manage to get slower. The 12 hour bus (pace group) passed me at 5:45 just at the halfway mark (even sadder than being passed by the guy running in a giant puffy rhino suit), and I knew I was in trouble once I lost sight of them, it is demoralizing to be dropped by a pace group or pace line, infinitely harder to catch once they are gone. With a marathon left to go, I only had to run a 5:30 marathon to still finish, most of the hills done, but I already felt doomed. It was then that Pete’s wife Mylene passed me, looking strong in her only 2nd ultra and would eventually finish. 

But as the day got hotter, I got slower and slower, my mind was distracted and the yawns started coming. I desperately wanted a Starbucks but instead ate a crap load of coca cola and didn't eat anything much. Nothing specifically wrong but every time I tried to go faster, I got dizzy. The crowds were incredible, loud, and energetic throughout the course but the encouraging words and random “welcome to SA” greetings from runners were thinning as I barely made the 4th cutoff by 1 minute and people behind me started dropping out due to futility.

With 28km to go I realized that it was now mathematically impossible to finish unless I sped up. This was the moment that divides true Comrades from others, to toil on with everything you’ve got, with no guarantee of success? Was I just lazy or as people have said, “really good at not caring”?

My one and only chance at back to back gone. Well it would not be the first once in a lifetime opportunity lost, and it would not be the last. Oddly I felt lighter once I decided to fail. I decided at least to get as far as I could get to the top of the last hill, the famous Polly Shortts; they would have to pull be because I was not going to drop. I don't think there's anything real noble about continuing on at this point since all I was doing was keeping the volunteers longer, but I just felt like I wanted to see what the last hill was about.

About km 68, already mathematically impossible to finish under the cutoff, and I happened to see a runner lying on the ground. He was stiff as a board, apparently his legs both decided to cramp at the same time. This gentleman was from Namibia and running his first, and 2 black South African runners (one of whom was also running his first, the other was C-corral seeded and running his 6th) were standing over him. I pretended I wasn't a doctor and tried to offer him a pay day bar (salt) but he couldn't eat anything sweet, and to stretch his leg (he screamed in pain so I desisted). I gave him a sip of water and some advil and the 4 of us waited several minutes for the ambulance. I knew he would be ok because he was mentally very clear, though he could not move without triggering cramps. We just kept him company. It is easy to be generous when you have nothing to lose by helping out, would I have stopped if I had just 5 min to go or not finish the race, especially with 2 guys already helping?

Then the other 2 runners took the DNF van but I kept going. I looked behind me and there were literally 2 people behind me because everyone else had taken the DNF van. Finally just before polly shortts (8 km from end, last hill) the van gave me no option but to stop since I had already missed the last cutoff. 

Also in my particular van was a 70 yoM trying for #30 (triple green bib), and at least 1 other runner going for his back-to-back, as well as several novices and more experienced people. I sat between 2 young guys, a Brit who joked this was the farthest he'd travelled for a training run, and a SA man who wondered how he was going to contact his ride since he left his cell phone with his friends; we tried to call from my phone but no answer. Once we got in the park, which took another 1/2 hour, there were mobs of people trying to locate their families, no traffic control, sheer chaos unlike the Durban finish.

The van driver told us we were to walk our chip over the "bail mat". But instead of following the rest of the van, I booked it for the porta potty where I learned that I had been drinking too much and eating too little. Then it was to find the so-called "bail mat". The clueless volunteers led me this way and that for nearly 45 minutes, and finally I happened upon the medical tent where volunteers (rightly so) impatiently took down my chip # while trying to take care of actual sick people. All around were people limping, lying on the ground, being carried by loved ones, even. The there was a mile long queue for the buses to Durban because it was gridlock exiting the park. I so desperately wanted to get on a bus that we actually walked 1/2 km to buses stranded outside the park, only to realize they have NO TOILETS on the bus. I thought I could get by with crossing my legs but no. 

This guy sat down next to me who was really chatty, but I was practically grunting with the effort of not peeing in my pants, and I knew there was at least 90 min drive back given the traffic. He told the bus driver my situation, and at first opportunity, the bus pulled over so I could be on the side of the highway. There were a shit ton of cars but I didn't care. I peed out like 2L, cars honking, and probably sprayed my shoes judging by my smell when I got back on the bus. My chatty seat mate was almost more than I could handle but I was so grateful that I didn't have to shove something down my pants like my water bottle and hope for the best.  This guy was apparently the LAST PLACE FINISHER wow. He is from Capetown and babbled on an on, about how he entered 5x/ but DNFd 2x, including his last up run 10 yrs ago where he missed the finish by 6 seconds! I remember seeing him on the course, but he made the Polly Shorts cutoff with 5 min to spare, sprinted the last km in 3.5 min. He was full of stories like how he was mugged at the ATM en route to Comrades and they took the last 200 ZAR (about $20) in his account, how he is sharing a hostel room with several other runners for $6 a day, and how many runners in SA dream of running Comrades but cannot afford housing, transport, or registration fees for the required qualifying marathon. He also babbled on about how he met all these famous people including Obama and other celebs when he worked security for the SA military, stuff about SA politics, I was dizzy trying to stay awake. He asked for my contact info; I pretended I was not carrying my phone but did give my real #.

I finally had my post-race pigout followed by airport beer. I did feel a little lame wearing the race shirt with zero leg soreness, among hundreds who clearly had run hard. Had I really given it my all?

Reading the community newspaper special about Comrades there were plenty of articles by people who had DNFd, including one by a woman who DNFd her 12 th Comrades and was comforted on the bail bus by a man who had DNFd 3 times and had yet to finish a single one. There are many tales of runners forfeiting or nearly forfeiting their own races to help a fellow comrade across the line, like the idea of the race when it was forged by military vets in 1921. Like other ultras, it teaches you to be grateful for the kindness of strangers, respect your fellow runners, and be humble, but of my 250+ races (78 ultras) to date, I have to say Comrades is unique. People from hundreds of nations, all walks of life, all ages, and very proud South Africans. I won't pretend I'm not disappointed, but I do feel like I got much more of the Comrades spirit by being in the DNF van and talking to locals than last time, and already hope to go back.

1 comment:

  1. Don't ever forget that your lost once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity is a never-in-a-lifetime-opportunity for many of us. perhaps only a small consolation but I love reading your globe-travelling adventures.