After failed attempts at reviving my drive to write, at the hands of procrastination, I had decided to shut down my blog and put away my futile attempts at appearing wise. Ironically, what kept that from happening was procrastination as well. I ran a race a couple of weeks ago, which some of my friends have been curious about. My good friend, Nitesh, suggested I write about how it is to run for upto 12 hours in one of world’s hardest ultra-marathons. Which brings me to this.
On June 1 2014, I ran the ‘Comrades’ Ultramarathon in South Africa. The direction of the race alternates between two destinations every year, and this year it went 89km from Pietermaritzburg to the heart of Durban. Runners over the age of 20 qualify when they are able to complete an officially recognised marathon (42.2 km) in under five hours. During the event an athlete must also reach five cut-off points in specified times to complete the race, with the final cut-off for the entire race being at the 12 hour mark.
Considering the only running events I had participated in before this were a Half Marathon (21.1km, 2012) and a Full Marathon (42.2km, 2013), I should have probably understood that my body wouldn’t take this lightly. Fortunately, my over-inflated ego kept me from realising that I hadn’t done many running events before, until my partner, Shereen, subtly mentioned it in South Africa.
The first question is obviously ‘Why?’. The answer is different for every runner, and for me it was Shereen giving me a call one fine day and asking if I would like a challenge. The context for this was me complaining to her a few weeks earlier that a hike I did in Tasmania had not challenged me at all and left me disappointed. This was not a lack of modesty but perhaps my lack of understanding of the hike before I ventured on to it. Needless to say, the idea of running an ultra distance in what is termed as the ‘The Ultimate Human Race’ was too tempting to turn down. But honestly, what was more luring was the prospect of participating in an event with Shereen, which I had always longed to do. For those unaware, Shereen is a freaking rockstar and a two-time (so far) IronMan finisher. But that’s a discussion for another day…
With the amount of training I had put in, my goal was only to finish. Easier said than done. We got to Durban around noon on 30th May, and checked into the Hilton. The choice of accommodation was due to its close proximity to the finish line. There’s only so far a man can limp to. Catching up with known and unknown faces happened over the next 2 days. We also used this time to gorge on food and explore the expo. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough room to have a look at the course, which might have given me a tad bit of confidence and mental prep. Oh well.. gotta do the best with what you’ve got. The expo was quite well organised and nicely set-up. Although I wish there were more booths set up for the local runners. The queues for the local folks were crazy long and it seems almost wrong for the international runners to have it so easy in comparison to them.
The local runners’ queue at 0700Hrs, 2 hours before the expo opened on the last day
The Comrades was run for the first time in 1921, and with the exception of a break during World War II, has been run every year since. It seemed to fit well that we were running the 89km race on its 89th anniversary. Shereen was under the impression that I would be faster than her and hence, would pace her for atleast the first half. I was under the impression that we would both hold up the same and manage to keep a matching pace. Neither of us realised how horribly wrong these assumptions were.
Nothing says Good Morning like a 90min bus ride at 3.30am on a 12 degrees morning to the start line which happens to be 5 degrees cooler. We had a quick breakfast before that, headed on to prep up for the race and I topped it all up with a training montage video from Rocky 3. Had every intention of screaming out “NO PAIN!” as well but the video was getting me enough glances from others.
03:30 am Bus ride to Pietermaritzburg
We got to our seeding group, a modest F, a mere 10 min before the ceremonial singing of Shosholoza, followed by the South African National Anthem, ‘The Chariots of Fire’, and finally the sound of a cock crowing and a gun shot. This marked the beginning of ‘The Ultimate Human Race’. The international runners wore a blue coloured BIB with the number of Comrades run being displayed on it. Mine obviously showed ‘0’. This, coupled with the colour of the BIB, attracted well wishes from more experienced runners which was very welcome.
My longest run prior to this had been a 5 hour long training run. Although I felt my body would be more than ready for the distance, what I grossly underestimated was the terrain. The entire race is one hill after another. Uphill to downhill to uphill to downhill. The Up tires you out while the Down hurts your quads. The lack of training in this environment soon became evident when I noticed that I was slowing down and struggling to keep up with my normal pace. My pacing plan had been to walk for 3 minutes after every 8 km run. The idea behind this was to give the muscles a change of movement, drop the heart rate and let the muscles relax before reaching a point where I am forced to walk. Sounds good in theory, but I knew something was wrong because I was longing for these 3 min breaks by the time I crossed the 30km mark.
The run goes through beautiful valleys and busy motorways. But the support of the energetic crowd seldom wavers. Kudos to the organisers for setting up the race well with regular aid stations and plenty of support crew. Around the 30km mark, I had no doubts that I was holding Shereen back a lot and suggested repeatedly that she leave me and go on. She was adamant on sticking with me despite all my attempts at making her run to her body’s strength (downhill running is her forte). We crossed the halfway point at around 5Hr27Min mark, 27 min behind the initial plan. At the 52km mark, Shereen mentioned she had to head to the restroom. I assumed she wanted me to keep going considering she would be able to catch up to me. This was the point where we lost each other and got separated for good. A blessing in disguise, since I later found out that when she couldn’t find me, she took to her own pace and finished the race in 10:50 to score the bronze medal.
Post the 52km mark, my aim was to reach the end no matter what. I had every intention of earning my chilled post-race beer and I wasn’t going to let aching quads stop me from getting there. The crowd support was always helpful with locals giving me updates on how far I was to the next hill or aid station. I saw a man have a seizure on the side of a road and few others collapse around me. Tried to help some but the official medical teams were more than prompt to take over such situations. Also saw a few “bail buses” on the side that were ready to take any competitors who were either not fit enough to continue or had chosen to stop. I made sure I ran away from them as fast as my tired legs could carry me. As they say, “Pain is temporary. Regret is forever.”.
At this point, I knew one thing that could really put an end to my struggle would be muscle cramps. I was prepared with a nutrition plan and was persistent at not slacking on that front. My rough goal was to get around 100 calories in every 45min. After about 4 gels, I couldn’t stand the thought of another one so decided to substitute the source to other means like oranges and bananas that were being distributed through the aid stations. In addition, I consumed a salt pill every 90min with a regular intake of electrolytes based on how I was feeling at the time. This regiment sure helped out as I had no cramps throughout the day, and was able to stay well hydrated at all times.
At the 8.5 hour mark, my Garmin died and left me to my primal senses. That’s when I resorted to asking the crowd for regular updates on time. Matching these with the distance markers along the way gave me a rough idea of the pace I needed to get to the finish line. The moment when the markers went to single digit distances was when I knew I had only a final stretch to conquer. No turning back now! The 5km had a ginormous speaker playing ‘The Final Countdown’, which was drowned out by my screams to know the time. I realised I had 50min to the final cut-off. On any usual day, this would have been a laughable target. But today was a totally different affair.
I found runners lying down defeated 3km from the finish line. I wondered how it would be to be so close and yet unable to reach your long awaited goal. No way was I sticking around to find out! The last 1 km was a waddle-run that ended at the Durban Kingsmead stadium in the midst of a roaring crowd.
I crossed the finish line at the 11:48 mark, 12 minutes before the cut-off. I found some familiar faces and inquired to see if Shereen was alright, only to find her later with the bronze medal around her neck. So proud of her phenomenal performance despite the slow-down for the first 52km. At 11 hours 58 minutes into the race, all 100,000 people in the stadium focused on the finish line. At 11 hours, 59 minutes, 45 seconds after the cock crowed, the chairman of the Comrades Marathon Association took up his position on the finish line with his back to the finishing runners, raised a pistol, and fired a shot into the air, at precisely 12 hours after the cock crowed that morning. Instantly the finish line was blocked and no medals were awarded post this point. We saw some folks crawl to the finish line, some collapse a few meters behind it and yet others barely make it. It sure was an intense moment.
The Grim Reaper
This race was a humbling experience and I’m grateful to Shereen for sticking around for a good part it and pushing me on. Around 11-12 thousand participants completed the race this year, and I am thankful to be one of them. The first pee after the race was a glorious one since it told me that my kidneys hadn’t given up on me. That’s always nice to know. I am also told that I am the youngest Indian, at the age of 25, to finish the Comrades. Nice as it is, I would love to see younger boys and girls from my country participate in international sporting events. We have enough talented folks over there to dominate any sport given enough effort.
I am told Comrades is more of an addiciton rather than a race. I have also been asked if I will be back next year. There’s that ‘Back to Back’ medal which lures me a fair bit… but the commitment to the training is not something to be taken lightly. Guess time will tell.
I’m the less attractive one. The one pretending he isn’t in pain.