Comrades Marathon is a 89K (56 mile) ultramarathon run in the southeastern portion of South Africa. Billed as The Ultimate Human Race, Comrades is the oldest and largest ultramarathon. I had first heard about Comrades last spring and was quite intrigued after reading up on the race via the Internet. Running legend Alberto Salazar won the race in 1994 and was quoted as saying it was his most satisfying win. Blog after blog, article after article, and a wonderful promotional video added to the allure, the toughness of the race and that was all the mental prompting I needed. The race is run between the cities of Durbin and Pietermaritzburg with the direction switched every year. In 2011, the race was a so-called "Up Run" (race start in Durbin). As the name might denote, the course climbs slowly and steadily, with the The Big Five hills waiting to greet runners (Cowies, Fields, Botha, Inchanga, and Polly Shorts). Honestly, last June 9, 2010, just hours prior to having my knee reconstruction surgery, I silently made a promise to myself that if I could be so lucky and blessed as to have the opportunity to run Comrades within a year's time, that I would do it. Fortunately, I was able to realize this goal and my lengthy post here tells the story behind the dream.The trip over to South Africa looked like this, starting on a Tuesday afternoon (5/24). First, I had a 4 hour drive to Washington, D.C. where my buddy Eva whisked me away to Dulles International (thank you, Eva!). There was then an 8 hour flight to Dakar in the country of Senegal. On the flight I sat next to a guy (Jan) who was in the South African army and was being deployed to the Mozambique border to patrol for poachers in Kruger National Park. Mind you, these aren't poachers like in West Virginia where a kid is sneaking behind grandpappy's barn and popping a deer. The poachers in South Africa are driven by the lure of big money for rhino horns so that some dude in the Far East can pretend he's having better sex. Accordingly, the poachers are, for all intents and purposes, a military unit with semi-automatic weapons, night vision googles, etc. Patrolling for poachers is dangerous work. Jan also told me that as an added bonus he had been charged by an elephant in his previous poacher patrol stint. And you think you are having a bad day when the newspaper is late on your doorstep?
In Dakar, the plane was boarded by security and searched for about 2 hours. Next, there was an 8 hour flight to Johannesburg with another 2 hour layover. Finally, it was an hour flight to King Shaka airport just outside of Durbin. I must give credit where credit is due; the "old school" service on South African Airways was outstanding and this made the two very long flights as comfortable as they could be. In any case, suffice it to say that by the time my head hit the pillow at the Hilton Hotel on Wednesday night, I was wiped as I was all but unable to sleep on the plane.
I awoke on Thursday feeling surprisingly good; I felt no effects of jet lag from the 6 time zone difference. After a light workout in the hotel gym, I decided to go on a hunt for food. Durbin is a city that sits on the coast of the Indian Ocean in the southeastern part of the country. The part of the city I was staying in was pretty developed with lots of modern architecture and skyscrapers. While I was warned there were also parts of the city that were run-down, even dangerous to venture into, I did not encounter these during my trip nor did I ever feel unsafe. Yes, I was well aware a priori that South Africa has a high crime rate but I personally decided not to let that be a major driver in my decision making process while I was there.
It turns out that there is a large Indian population in Durbin, which geographically makes sense. If you love Indian food, then you will love Durbin! I found this cool cafe near the hotel where I had the best breyani in years, a side of dholl puri, and a spicy tomato chutney. While I was eating, this woman came up to my table, sat down across from me, and struck up a conversation! Of course, I immediately suspected something but that turned out not to be the case; all she wanted to do was just talk. Quite interesting! In fact, I met a friendly guy under the same circumstances later on in the trip. I wonder what would happen in this country if I slid into a booth at Eat-n-Park opposite people I don't know. Perhaps this will be an interesting way to liven up my Friday nights?
After lunch, I wandered over to the Comrades Runner's Expo to pick up my race packet. Herein was aisle after aisle of gear, much of it crap, for almost every conceivable aspect of running that you could imagine and I'm sure a person could have spent an entire day doing nothing else but spending it at the expo, particularly if you are a gear-a-phile.
Next, I went for a light and short 2-mile run with the Comrades International Ambassadors down along the beach. It was a bit rainy but it felt good to stretch the legs a bit. African schoolgirls joyfully ran with us for a spell. One of the Comrades USA ambassadors, Mark Bloomfield, was present. Mark had very kindly and patiently helped me orchestrate this trip so it was a pleasure finally meeting him in person. I also had the pleasure of meeting the very interesting Muhammed Akil, a government worker from New Jersey, who had run Comrades before. Finally, there was a tasty dinner then straight to bed it was.
Friday morning, I went on another short run with Vera Murton from Boston, who was here with her mother Janet. Vera is a relative newcomer to ultra racing whom I met at the Glacier Ridge 50K in central Pennsylvania a couple of months ago. Imagine my surprise that day when I discovered she was running Comrades! In any case, armed with a coach and plenty of natural ability and speed, Vera won Glacier Ridge in the woman's category despite it being her first ultra! Wow! As we ran down on the beach to catch the sunrise and a few surfers, it was clear to me she was more than ready to tackle Comrades. I felt good too ... the hay was in the barn, so to speak.
There was then a large bus tour of the course for all the international runners (I believe there were around 1,200 total with around 200 being from the US). While I initially had my doubts about "walking" the course prior to racing it, in hindsight I was glad I went. I sat next to a nice gentleman by the name of Maurice Lee from Oklahoma City and this definitely enhanced the trip. Since Comrades is the world's largest and oldest ultra, there is a deep tradition and history behind the race that has been preserved in various aspects. The tour made stops at such landmarks as the Wall of Honour, and Arthur's Seat. One stop in particular was quite moving, the Ethembeni School for Handicapped Children. Here dozens of handicapped children came out to dance and sing songs for the runners. It certainly put into perspective just how lucky I was to be running this race. Next, there was a stop at the Comrades Museum where Zulu dancers greeted us in the front of the building. The tour concluded at the Pietermaritzburg Oval, a cricket stadium where the race would end. I took care to stay away from the finish line area lest I jinx myself!
Later in the afternoon, Vera, Janet and I went in search of some Indian food and afterward took a walk around an open-air market where vendors were selling bracelets, clothing, and other crafts. Personally, I found this to be quite an enjoyable experience. There was a band playing, billiard games going on, and people milling about ... lots of activity. Very cool!
On Saturday, I went on a safari about a 3.5 hour drive north of Durbin to a place called Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve. What an unusual way to taper for that big run - ha! The drive up passed through the heart of the Kwazulu-Natal Province of South Africa. We passed through miles and miles of sugar cane fields, tree plantations, and pineapple fields. Occasionally, we would pass bands of Zulu huts where people appeared to be headed off to work the surrounding land. There were several people I met in the van; notably, two personable runners from South Carolina, Rick Stroud and Winston Holliday. Upon arriving at the reserve, we were placed in an open-air jeep and off into the African veld we went. Suffice it to say I will never again go to a zoo. I sometimes joke that I hear the students at WVU proclaiming that a pencil is "awesome", or that their caffe latte is "awesome". Not even close. A wild rhinoceros trotting alongside your jeep? Now THAT is awesome ... We saw giraffes, an elephant, a hippo, nyala, zebras, wart hogs, cape buffalo, etc. It was actually overwhelming to see all this. The Zulu guide (Israel) was a walking encyclopedia of factoids and patiently answered all my questions as I was sitting up in the front seat with him. Eventually, we took a late lunch at Hilltop Camp in the northern part of the reserve which commanded a wonderful 360 view of the hills and grasslands. (For those couples out there, this would be a perfect place for a getaway.) By the time we broke camp and headed back to Durbin, it was well into the night.
At 5:30 am on Sunday, a huge crowd of runners amassed in their seeding corrals in the town center of Durbin. There is a protocol and history to the start of a Comrades race that I will dispense with getting into here but I will say I found the experience of listening to the crowd sing the South African national anthem to be particularly moving. From the time the cannon went off to when I crossed the starting line was about 2 minutes. This was tricky race for me to formulate a strategy a priori. There's a difference between a trail race for endurance versus a road race for speed. But factor in the long distance and the hills and Comrades becomes its own animal. All this being said, I felt prepared for what laid ahead, what with the all the quality tempo runs and hill repeats I had done for months prior. As much as it pained me to do so, I stubbornly stuck to 9 minutes miles as the initial stages of the race unfolded. Both sides of the street were packed with crowds, some quarter of a million spectators. This race is a huge deal in South Africa! I think Vera's friend said it best ... Comrades is like the Boston Marathon, the Tour de France, and the 4th of July all rolled into one. All Comrades runners have their first name printed on their bib. Also, my friend/running partner Tad Davis had lent me a singlet with a big USA logo. As I was running through what amounted to a tunnel of people in some instances, I heard "USA! USA!", "Go, Philip. You can do it!" I gave so many high-fives and acknowledgements to the young kids and the crowd in general that I eventually tired of it and had to stop. The crowd support was AMAZING and is something I will never forget as long as I live. It was kinda' like this rolling, surreal party. Beer was flowing, costumed people and tent canopies were camped out right up to the edge of the streets, and smoke from South African "braai" barbecues rolled across the course. (South Africans love barbecues!). Huge (and I do mean huge) aid stations were spaced every 2 kilometers; in fact, I didn't carry my usual pink handheld and opted only to carry a few Raw Bars and some Roctanes in my Fuel Belt pouch, along with some Endurolytes. From time to time, coveys of runners from athletic/running clubs from Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, etc., would appear beside me. In some instances, you would see their spotters or pass their own aid stations. Good grief, here I was, this lone idiot from the US, trudging along! Too funny! But man oh man, that crowd support ... I just felt so adrenalized! Up Cowies, Fields, and Botha I ran with no problems, ever climbing, climbing, climbing, with some great views of the Valley of 1000 Hills as my reward.
The aid stations were stocked with a ton of stuff. Water and Energade were dispensed, not with cups, but in enclosed plastic tubes (satchets) you bit the top off of. What a great idea I wish we embraced in races in this country. They are much, much easier to handle and carry with you, you can easily drink on the run, and they can be packed and kept on ice.
I passed the midpoint in almost exactly 4 hours and was way ahead of my anticipated race goals. Up Inchanga I ran but this time I didn't feel so peppy as I crested out. Unfortunately, a couple of things now conspired to send me into a dark period for a couple miles :-( First, Comrades is run all on blacktop. I don't do much road running back in West Virginia, much preferring trails. Accordingly, my legs were starting to take a beating, particularly my hips. The roads had a marked camber to them so I found it beneficial to run on the flatter berm. Running in the middle of the road, one stood a chance of tripping over "cat's eyes" reflectors. Second, it had become quite sunny and hot. It felt like the temperature was now somewhere in the mid-70s. I had not been taking in enough water (shame on me for drinking only to thirst) which, of course, sets off a chain reaction of unpleasant physiological events, chief of which was severe cramping in my right hip flexor and nausea. Having decided to throw a pity party for myself during this dark period, along came Andrea Moritz from Canada. I had met Andrea and her partner Marc Pelosse back at the hotel a few days ago. Andrea looked at me and said something to the effect of "Phil! Hang in there. You are in the game for a Bill Rowan!" In a nutshell, Comrades gives out medals according to your time. More to the point, those who finish from 11 hours to the cutoff of 12 hours get a finisher's medal, 9 to 11 get a bronze, and 7.5 to 9 get a so-called Bill Rowan medal, and so on. I guess I needed to hear this or perhaps I needed to see about as familiar a face as I was going to get halfway across the world because man, did I get fired up! At the next aid station I decided to wing it and try pounding a couple of Energade satchets. Be it the water, the flood of simple sugars, or the electrolytes, my body instantly came to life and I began to run at my race pace again. The miles rolled by as I ignored my sunburnt shoulders and the heat shimmers dancing off the blacktop. Up Polly Shorts I ran as I started to feel stronger and stronger. Crowds began to build and there were periods of time where I felt quite emotional as the dream I hatched almost a year ago seemed like it would be realized.
Finally, at about 55 miles, I could see the stadium in the distance where the race ended, I could hear the yelling, the din of people, of vuvuzela, of clapping, of hands banging on the side of sheet metal bleachers. Words denigrate the experience of running into that stadium out onto the track for that last lap to the finish. It was a very surreal experience ... seeing a weekend warrior like myself on this jumbotron ... all the people cheering and shouting "USA! USA!" ... of realizing my Comrades journey was about to end, at least for this year. I was waving, high-fiving, fist pumping, something I have been doing a lot of this past year as I just enjoy living so damn much.
I gingerly got myself into the International Runners tent and sat down sipping some water. Comrades rep Brian Swart was a man among men, getting me my drop bag and a cup of hot coffee to boot! Thank you, Brian! Vera came steamrolling in at 9:12 looking no worse for the wear. Congratulations, Vera, your running future is bright! In the spirt of Comrades, many, if not most, of the runners stayed right up until 5:30 PM to cheer on all the runners in their victory laps. Vera, Janet, and I yelled ourselves hoarse! Tom and Cathy Hopkins were another great Canadian couple I had met at the hotel and Tom was nervously awaiting Cathy's arrival into the stadium with camera in hand. She came in with a smile on her face. Congratulations, Cathy! Comrades has a very strict, if not harsh, finishing time. At exactly 12 hours, the executive director stands at the finish line, with his back to the runners, and ends the race with a gunshot. The first nonfinisher gets a handshake and nothing else.
Now for the nitty-gritty ... I came in at 8:44, good enough for a Bill Rowan :-) At 56 miles, Comrades was the longest distance I have ever run; the only datum I have to compare this to is a 50-mile best of 9:33. My 40-49 AG ranking was 438/6859 entrants and overall 1620/19592 entrants. (I do not know how many entrants actually started the race.) I feel very happy and personally humbled, the later not being words I say in a perfunctory manner.
The day after, Muhammed and I did some tooling around Durbin sightseeing and shopping for gifts. We ended up in the Victoria Street Market where the smart shopper can find good deals on day-old goat heads and fish with names I cannot pronounce. All kidding aside, shopping at the market was an enjoyable, if not interesting, experience, particularly if you want to bring something other than the usual gifts you see at the airport back to the US. Speaking of which, in a complete lapse of judgment or temporary insanity, I flew back to the US that evening, donning my compression socks, and I believe this flight was as tough as the race (smile). Do not, I repeat, do not do this! Take a week off after the race and enjoy all that South Africa has to offer.
These past couple of years I firmly resolved myself to do lots of travel and adventure, not as a way of escaping my life, but as a way of enhancing my life. As I have become older, I have observed too many instances with too many people who have become content to let their dreams and hopes die and pile up alongside their endless supply of excuses. Well, I for one, say the hell with that. There are no guarantees that any of us will ever have the time, wealth, and health, occurring together in the future, to implement our plans. You say that you just don't think you have it in you to pull off a vacation to a place you always wanted to visit? Then who else will do it? You say you don't have the time? Then when will that perfect time come? If not now, then when? You say you don't have the money? Then why can't you save the money? After all, there won't be a Brink's truck in your funeral procession. It's tough sometimes to overcome the gravitational pull of habits, to pull away from worshipping at the temple of work. But the price to be paid for these temporary inconveniences will be paid over and over again by what happens inside of you when you realize a dream. Your spirit and soul are intangibly strengthened by an order of magnitude.
It's time to end this "ultramarathon" post ... sorry! I figure I have milked this ACL injury for all she's worth -- LOL! In all seriousness though, I've had several people who have dutifully followed this blog. People I have never met. People with their own knee problems. My heart goes out to you and I hope that you find your own combination of patience, stubbornness, and love necessary to get you back to a place where you want to be. If a goofball like myself can do it, then you can too. Since exactly one year has passed since Jack Andrish worked his magic, I will thank this remarkable doctor one more time here (and soon, in person) and this will be the final time I ever comment on the topic in this blog.
In a few days, I will post a video of this experience to this blog and to Facebook. I also have some additional pictures posted here. So who's coming with me to tackle the Down Run next year?! Your first dinner of "bunny chow" will be on me and I'll throw in a night cap for good measure. Seriously!