It’s Sunday morning 1.00 AM in the morning. Our alarm clocks are set for 3.00 AM, but all the African runners in our hostel have decided that today is a celebration. At least, that is what I guess if I hear all the music coming out of the communal room. But that doesn’t matter because I couldn’t sleep anyway and it has to be a celebration today! Today is the day that I’m going to run “The Ultimate Human Race”, the Comrades Ultra-marathon. The last few days we’ve done all the final preparations and we’ve been looking forward to this day. It’s really beautiful to see how everybody here is talking about the race. It’s on the front page of all the newspapers, it will be broadcasted live on national television and every South-African, the customs officer, the taxi driver and the boy from the deli, ask me “are you running?” Hell yeah!
Last Friday we’ve checked the route of the run by touring car and it was really impressive. We knew from the Two Oceans Marathon in Cape Town last year that virtually flat means that is nowhere flat. And it looks a bit worse here, so we realize that next Sunday is going to be really tough. Especially now that the weather report says it will be 30 to 33 degrees Celsius. On the same Friday we’ve also picked up our numbers, met André from Run4Schools and paid a visit to the Comrades Museum. Saturday was a day of relaxing in a beach-club, eat a lot, drink a lot and sleep early. But… back to Sunday!
We met a cab driver the way before and arranged with him to pick us up a 4.15 AM in the morning. When we arrive at the reception desk of our hostel he was (to our surprise) already waiting for us. Nice! I’m wearing an old vest because in the morning it’s usually pretty cold and this way I can run the first kilometers with my vest and throw it away later. Yeah, no need for the vest. Early in the morning it is already hot. This is going to be a really hot day, I think. Result of our quick cab driver is that we arrive at the start an hour before. Usually I don’t like to be in the starting area that early, but today it is not a problem. Because of our pretty good qualification marathon we are in one of the first starting areas, before the large crowd. The previous day, we’ve studied the roadbook and noticed that the first stop with food is only after like a marathon. The first 19 stops only have water, Pepsi and Energade. So I’m carrying a bottle of energy drink and a bunch of bananas.
Twenty minutes before the start everybody suddenly rises and we get pushed to the front. It’s going to happen! The DJ stops playing music and the national anthem of South Africa is played. After the official anthem the unofficial anthem, Shosholoza, is played. This is the first time I get goosebumps. Every African around me is singing out loud. The finish with the Vangelis song, Chariots of fire, a song you hear more often at marathons. At the end of this song a rooster crows three times and a cannon firs. We’re off….
The first kilometers it’s a bit of pushing and shoving, but it quickly gets better and I can run my own stride after a few kilometers. The first thing I notice is the big sings with how many kilometers I still have to go. You don’t add up the distance as you see at most races, but you’re counting down. 86KM, 85KM, 84KM…. The signs are that big that you cannot miss them at all. And I’m also already sweating, that’s early. But it’s really hot. A lot of people are watching as we run by. I only know this from the finish of an event, not at the start of after 10 kilometers. “Did I see a barbecue over there?” Yes I did. The national sport of Braai is already practiced at six in the morning.
I can’t really tell a lot about of the first few kilometers. Everything went pretty well. In the Comrades you have five famous that have a name (and like a hundred without a name.) These five are like benchmarks in your race. The first one is Cowie’s Hill after about seven kilometers. I run this one, although that one of the golden rules of Comrades is that you never run up these five mountains. Let’s call it enthusiasm I still run with my running friend Janine and if you look at our numbers you can see that they are blue. This means we are international runners. You can also see our names and that it is our first Comrades race. For a lot of South African people this is a reason to strike up a conversation with us. They welcome us to their country, wish us good luck, give us some advice and (without exception) end the conversation with “enjoy!”
The second mountain with a name is Fields Hill and this one is located around 20 kilometers. Here we start with the strategy of “walk and run” when we go uphill. All the African people are doing it and why not looking at the experts. Everybody who finishes the Comrades ten times gets a green number. If we look at these runners we can learn the tricks and finish our own Comrades. Cause finishing the Comrades is what I’m aiming for. I prefer to do it within 11 hours, because that way I get a bronze medal. Mountain three is coming up, Botha’s Hill. I’ve finished all my bananas and I’ve drunk a lot of Energade and water. I’ve also used a lot of water sachets as to cool myself down. Bye the way, I still don’t get that not all runs are using these sachets. They are amazing!
I’m starting to get hungry. I know that at the 40 kilometer mark the first potatoes will come. It might sound strange, but I’ve never been craving for potatoes more than at this moment. Every couple of kilometers there are stalls with boiled potatoes covered in salt. In between all the sweet energy drinks, powergells and Pepsi some salt is pretty nice. And with this heat and all the water I’m drinking some salt is essential if I want to finish. After another few kilometers the sign with “42KM” is coming up. Nice, one more marathon to go! I imagine that when I wake up one morning and feel like I feel now I’m not sure if I would go for a marathon. But I still feel pretty good and I’m confident I’m going to finish this thing. We’re on our way to the fourth big climb, Inchanga. It’s a tough climb, but when we arrive at the top most of the climbing is done.
Thinking about all the kilometers starts to fade, my watch says how far I am and the signs next to the road tell me how far I still have to go. In my head I try to remember Friday’s tour by bus and guess how where I am in the race. I know that with only 37 more KM to go there is a little school we’ve visited Friday. This is a school for handicapped people and albino kids. It was really impressive to visit the school and I know all kind are waiting by the roadside today. So when I see them I start high-fiving them for a few hundred meters. Beautiful! Just before the school I’ve dropped a flower at Arthur’s Seat. This is some South-African superstition. If you don’t do it, your second half of the race will be terrible.
This is the moment some problems are starting to exist. Janine and I are running together for more than 50 kilometers, but I recognize that I’m starting to feel a bit worse and the small gap between the two of us starts to grow. A few kilometers later I feel really down for the first time. My legs feel tired, I see the sign with “34KM,” a brutal wind starts to blow, I get sandblasted, the 10.30 hour pacers are catching up with me, I don’t know if I’m hungry of stuffed, it’s hot and this part of the run isn’t really inspiring. I don’t feel like running anymore. “Do I really have to continue for 34 kilometers in this heat?” “I’m I hungry or stuffed? You know what, let’s stop eating.” “Damn, I’m already catched up by the 10.30 group, I hope the 11 hour groups isn’t going to catch up too, I have to finish in 11 hours.” “Where are the beautiful views from Two Oceans last year?” “Why am I doing this anyway…” However, the good thing is quitting doesn’t even cross my mind. I know from previous runs that in a few kilometers I’ll be feeling fine again. This feeling is only temporarily.
It’s time to let the people around me comfort me. I start to talk to some African people running with me and realize that it’s not strange that I feel bad for a moment. A lot of people are having a hard time with this heat. After a few kilometers I’m feeling fine again and I’m happy again! The one thing I don’t like is that I’m starting to getting sunburned. Every time I eat a salty potato I feel the salt burning on my lips. Thank god for the sunspray-girls who spray me all over with sunscreen I also starting to feel some chafing under my arms because of all the water I’m throwing over my head. Vaselinewomen to the rescue! Both of my arms are being smeared full of Vaseline and I can continue. “There is no such thing as too much lube”. I’ll remember that one as wisdom of the day.
The bus driver of the tour told us that we should use the people next to the side of the road watching the Comrades. They can always help you. Ten kilometers before I stopped eating because I didn’t know how I felt. All the sugar, salt, water, potato and banana you are eating will screw up the signals between your stomach and your head. I couldn’t decide if I was hungry before, but now I know… I’m HUNGRY! I just passed a stall when I realize it. The next stall is also the worst one of the event. All right, plan B. Use the attendance. I decide to start eating everything people are willing to give to me. Licorice, marshmallow, potato, oranges filled with salt (really nice!), bread, bananas. The people are really nice and happy when they can help you, so I continue to eat. I feel my hunger disappear.
I feel great again and I’m on my way to Umlaas Road, the highest point of the Comrades at 870 meters above the start in Durban. When I arrive there I only have to climb to tough hills and then I can cruise to the stadium. I see the 10.30 pacer again. Here name is Brenda and I decide to follow Brenda for a while. That way I will finish way before 11 hours and still have some margin if the two Polly’s will break me. But Brenda is a bit to quick for me and I decide my margin is big enough. “Half a marathon in 3 hours, that’s easy right?” Earlier this year I ran 1.25 hours on a half marathon, but still I’m a bit insecure. The reason might be that I see people collapsing around me. They are laying down on the tarmac and can’t continue. “That won’t happen to me, will it?” Let’s drink another Energade and “shower” myself with some water.
The climb to Umlaas Road started and I feel fine. I see more people on the ground, but they don’t need my help or water. I also see people dragging each other to the top (literally.) After the highest point it’s downhill and then only two more climbs. I fly down and it feels like I’ve only been running for 30 kilometers. I can keep up this pace for a while, no problem. The first climb, Little Polly’s, won’t show up. Until… Everybody stops running all of a sudden. Little Polly’s has started. After Little Polly’s the real and final climb is there, Polly Shortts. Everybody is walking and I see more and more people laying down, exhausted and willing to give up. Everybody tells them to get up again and start running; “Keep on walking, every step is one step more towards home.” When I’m at the top of Polly Shortts I realize that it’s all downhill now, except for a few minor climbs. I’m glad I’m almost there, but I won’t want this event to be done. This is so amazing!
Two kilometer before the finish line it is so busy. I’ve seen this before today and only know this from the Tour de France. I feel like riding my bike on Alpe d’Huez in a stage of this cycling event. I realize that I will finish in 10 minutes and I have only been running for 10.25 hours. I have a big smile on my face, so happy. With only one kilometer to go I see the cricket stadium and I raise my arms for the first time. The last kilometer feels like I’m in a trance. In between the trees on Mayor’s road I enter the stadium. The crowd is going wild and is cheering a lot. This moment can last forever… I see the finish and with my arms raised I cross it! This moment is hard to describe. I’m overwhelmed with emotions, this feels so good. They give me the smallest medal I’ve ever seen and I’m happy. In the international tent I see Janine has finished a few minutes before me. Our other running buddy has finished an hour before. We all made it and earned the bronze medal. Mission accomplished!
After finishing we waited for the last participant to finish. The limit is 12 hours and the stadium starts counting down in the end. The crowd in the stadium explodes at 12 hours and it’s heartbreaking to see the participants that have run for 12 hours in the bloody hot sun not getting a medal. Next year another chance…
The day after I feel amazingly great. I slept well, have no headache because of dehydration, don’t have any blisters and only a bit of myalgia. Maybe run faster next time. My phone has exploded because of all the support messages. Really cool guys!
Now I’m waiting for video and pictures of the race. I like to thank everybody that supported me. I’ve never had more comments on a Facebook post. I raised more than 500 euro’s for my charity, Run4Schools. Thanks again!
Only those who go too far will find out how far one can go – T.S. Elliot
There is the last question. What’s next? My new hobby is obstacle running and in August I fly to Scotland for Tough Mudder. In October I have an obstacle running marathon. However, I also like the ultraruns. All the people in Africa ask me to come back for the downrun next year. But I’m not sure yet. I have decided that 87 kilometers is not too far. The magical limit of 100 kilometers is within reach… This is a nice thing to discuss with my running buddies and some cold beers in the sun this afternoon.
Almal dankie en tot vinnig in Nederland, Dirk