Yesterday I started my ninth Comrades marathon. It was to be my fifth medal as I had a few Did Not Finishes (DNF) before but the goal shifted again when my first half of the tough 90km saw me have a very unusual discomfort in my belly.
My legs and feet were doing great, and my timings were fine but the nausea resulted in making me feel flat and bloaty. All through this yuck feeling, I was weighing up my choices and plans. Do I get in a ‘bailer bus’ and get a lift down for the second half or do I wait and see if it gets any better or do I make myself throw up? There were too many people throwing up so I scratched that option.
In running we have a thing called a ‘bus’ with feet. These runners are pacesetters who choose to devote their race to helping people get to their goal. I had seen a few sub 12 hour buses go past me so my confidence at finishing the race in the allotted 12 hour time was fading. But then a bus came up past me and I realised that I liked her pace, plus she was quiet. I was incredibly noise sensitive yesterday. I trundled along and made the halfway mark with my spirits lifting.
The second half of this race is actually my favourite. Scores of people give up their day to cheer us crazy, weary people on. It is fantastic. Music, applause, words of encouragement, smiles, food, salt, beer and drinks are all on offer and I love interacting with the friendly faces. The smell of braai meat really made me hungry and I thought that some sausage might help settle my stomach. Many people later, I eventually managed to get a small piece and it was delicious. Throughout all this interaction, I saw the bus leave me behind but I was feeling too good to worry. I stopped to buy an ice lollly just before a major long downhill and I greeted puppies and dogs with an ‘aw’ and some love.
On the long downhill the sea becomes visible if I remember to look. I pointed it out to some first time runners but I think they were oblivious to it. I remembered that in the next town there was a cut off point but I wasn’t too perturbed at doing the maths and figuring out my target because I had caught up with the sub 12 buses again. Feeling pleased that perhaps I might just be able to get this elusive fifth medal after all.
But as we entered the highway leaving the cheering festivities behind, my tummy feeling returned. I was doing the walk/run thing talking my options over in my head when a lovely gentleman started chatting with me. This helped me take my mind away from being too negative and the time passed quicker. He too had been having a tummy issue but he showed me his dad’s silver medal from a race in the ’60’s that he was wearing and we chatted a long way. My siblings were doing their first time Comrades support and I almost missed them because I was so engrossed in this conversation. I bade farewell to my new running friend and had a quick chat with the family. I warned them that I might not be in time for a medal but I really wanted to finish in the new-ish Moses Mabhida Stadium.
I ran off looking for my chatting friend but I wasn’t able to catch him. Someone mentioned the last cut off point which was coming up and I glanced at my watch knowing that it was going to be tight. My mind started to go between do I try or would I be okay being forced to get into a (real) bus. Dammit, I thought I need to try. But I forgot about the endless no name uphill that I couldn’t constantly run up. The people cheered me along and one lady said ‘the top is just over there ‘ so I dug in and picked up the pace. At the top I realised that I could see the activity and people were shouting out the time left. By now I could use the downhill and I started to sprint. On 80kay legs I was amazed at my speed and focus. I shouted at a fellow club member ‘come Spencer ‘ and galloped towards the man with the gun. The timing mat was before the cut-off line and the ten second countdown was being shouted out by the crowd. 4 seconds I flew past relieved that I now finally got through. Spencer made it with 1 second and we hugged each other in delight.
Spencer muscled down and continued running in an attempt to get his medal. My sprint shocked legs wobbled into a walk as I realised that the last 9km in less than an hour was almost impossible. I started remembering all sorts of feel good stories of the impossible but the long uphill on the highway slowed me right down and I realised that I was absolutely okay at not getting a medal. My goal was to get in the stadium. Darkness crept in as the clock seemed to speed up but the spectators remained cheering. I went past the old stadium with a good time and lamented the possibility of things being different. But it was not to be. As I walked towards the glowing stadium about 2 kays away, it started to drizzle. The weather report that I had been watching all week came true. I cursed the clouds thinking that getting into a car wet would be less than ideal. It gently spat for about 20 minutes and near the stadium it stopped. The crowds were moving in droves to their cars, many wearing their tiny medal. I had a slight pang of envy but it passed.
The last few hundred meters seemed to teasingly drag as runner after runner was being attended to by medics. I couldn’t allow any sympathy and I stomped into the last tunnel with tv lights screaming into my eyes. I knew the cameramen had stopped working but I waved anyway. The stadium opened up and ‘Tears for Fears’ sang a song from my teenage years. I gasped as I looked up at the amazing stadium spotting some stars between the clouds. I heard my tribe shout me as I had my rockstar moment while playing the air guitar. The sound, lights and soft underfelt had made the long slog all worth it. I had my moment. I made it. 90km officially but my watch had closer to 92km. The furthest I have ever been on foot. And what a glorious place to finish in.
Thanks KZN. Thanks body, thanks friends, thanks fellow runners, thanks strangers on the road, drummers, bands and last but not least the Scottish Pipers.