John Cakebread on his experiences in the 56 mile Comrades Marathon.
Comrades Ultra Marathon 30 May 2010. A long run in the sun. Another hill, To be precise another hot hill inn Kwazulunatal, South Africa. It was to reach 25c later. A lot of sweating faces around me, each dealing with the demons in their heads. I was 4 hours plus into the 2010 Comrades Marathon and I'd lost count of the brutal climbs. So what? No one ever drowned in sweat. Crack on.
Start was at 0530 hrs on 30 May in a chilly dark Pietermaritzburg beside the Town Hall. Red brick and Victorian in Design. The largest brick building in the Southern Hemisphere. The materials and plans had been destined for Calcutta, but a Colonial logistics lash up saw it arrive in South Africa where it was duly built. Chariots of Fire music, a cock a doodle do followed by a far too close cannon blast and we were off.
Enter an Ultra in the UK and you will probably see less that 500 runners. 23,000 entered this years Comrades. 85 years the race has been run, up and down, to and from Durban. Steeped in tradition, it initially began to commemorate the South Africans who fell in WW1 and the race just grew and grew.
Fires along the roadside illuminated friendly people who made a big fuss and much noise. It was very cool so I kept an old fleece on for the first 5 km before donating it to an Indian girl at the side of the road. The less intense pace of an 89km/56 mile run allows some conversation, but the talking amongst the runners was more muted before dawn. I guess most were preparing themselves for the long day ahead, going over their plans and tactics, getting their heads right.
My master plan was to march the steep inclines and trot all the rest. 1400 metres up 2000 down. Piece of piss. I was born to do this. Why Comrades? I'd worked with many ex SA soldiers who had raved about their famous long run. I'd looked at it again a couple of years later but it wasn't feasible. Then the handbrake was off and I could give it a good bash. 5000 new runners were allocated places and those slots were fully subscribed in 25 hours. Training went well and proved to be injury free. Since September I had logged just over 2150 miles, maxing at 89 a week and with 23 runs of 20 miles and more. I'd never enjoyed such a long uninterrupted training programme. Sound advice from experienced Ultra runners Mike Trew and Kev Dwyer. Long Purbeck runs were broken up with Marathons and Ultras every month to ward off staleness.
The sometimes weird world of Ultra running was brought clearly into focus at a 33 miler in Kent. A lad from Plymouth had turned up late for the night run and asked to run the last 3 hours before cut off. His reason for being late was that he had run another Ultra earlier that day in the South West. What? Oh well, each to their own.
As the sun rose it began to reveal a stunningly beautiful countryside. I ran with a Zulu lad for a while discussing the word cup. We admired some Argentinian players but when Maradonna was mentioned we both burst out laughing. Great Player, now completely crazy. In different circumstances the Zulu and me could have been friends. It struck me that just over 150 years ago I'd have been running around these hills trying to slot this Zulu Impi before he skewered me with his assegai. Rorkes Drift was only 120 miles or so to the North. Plenty of bloodshed here in the past. Beer too.
The Comrades has a very humane, altruistic side and caters for underprivileged runners who are provided with mattresses, food, drink and security at the start. Previously they had slept on benches, under trees and were vulnerable to crime and the weather. For those in poverty, the hardest struggle is making their way to the start line. At 25 km, I approach Cato Ridge. Ethembeni School is for physically afflicted children who lined the road. Wheelchairs, singing. Shosazola, old mining song. Means hurry up and get to work. Blind Albino children. It seemed the worse their disabilities the bigger the smiles. I gave a previously unworn Grizzly T shirt to some little lad in a chair. Grasped his arm and carried on. A few runners were in tears. I moved out of there emotionally hijacked with a lump in my throat. There but for the grace of God go I.
My number was Blue for International with my name displayed on front and back. lots of runners talked to me. Craig who had completed 24 Comrades and Dave who had only managed 21. Lightweight. Some tough lads. Dave said the top 10% of club runners generally ran 2 Marathon distances over the week end. Food for thought. There were well organised water stations every 2 km. Water was in sachets, greener option I guess, stashed in troughs of ice. 10,200 10 Kg ice blocks along the route. 10,800 Kg of bananas. Salty baked potatoes. Salty oranges which was a surprise. Coke. I hadn't drank Coke since I was 16, but it felt good and I took it regularly. Yabonga, thanks.
The support was rapturous. Everyone willed you along. Such a big thing. The run is broadcast non stop live on TV in SA. Shortly before half way there was a massive geographical lump called Ichanga, which just went on and on. I wanted to trot all the way up, but before the crest most runners were walking so I fell in with the majority. Seemed like good sense. Felt strong and rewarded at the top.
Why run? for me it's straightforward. It's an escape from reality, a necessary departure from the constraints of life's routine. One foot in front of the other. Neither lies or deceit. Hard sport with no hiding. Transparency with precious little luck. Doesn't get much better than that. Halfway was was 4:23 hours, well within myself. So far so good. I was in the valley of 1000 hills. Very apt, no mis-selling there. Tortuous terrain. I took it easy onthe declines, trying to save my quads. There was an area called Harrison Flats, and you guessed it, very little of it was flat. I exchanged words with Germans, Japanese, Canadians, Australians, Irish, all sorts. Usually to the accompaniment of Vuvuzelas, SA horns which make an unholy racket. Knee deep in camaraderie. this wasn't a race it was a journey. We were all in it together.
There were cut offs now. Shown live on TV. Comrades is ruthless. Takes no prisoners. Go over the time and you're out, toast, history. Your number is taken and transport takes you to Durban. No ifs, no buts. I admire this. Pass is a pass, fail is fail.
At other big city Marathons, they'd be whining to the European Court of Human Rights. The temperature was rising.
Everywhere I saw drive and positive attitude. Impressive. The Km signs counted down and I realised I was now looking for them. Approx. 60 Km done. I was tiring and feeling it. The NLP motivation mantras came out. Dennis Trussler's never to be forgotten " It's going to get hard now " , the Mickey Mouse chant and smelling of hands. If nothing else, I am blessed with endurance. I'm just not clever enough to know when to stop.
My condition worsened and the old dead faces reappeared. People taken too quickly. At the next watering station I had the presence of mind to stick my head in a trough of ice. " Your'e looking good Johnny " some big Zulu mama bellowed. She must have been addressing some other Johnny because this one looked like shite. Michael Johnson contends that pressure is nothing more than the shadow of great opportunity. Well, everything was becoming more challenging for this call sign, for sure. The next few Km were a daze, moving on auto pilot, ripping along at least 12 minute mileing. The run was killing me softly.
At 68 Km I swear I was shot in the calf by an insurgent hidden in the crowd. Once I composed myself, I had no choice with the cramp but to start marching. 3 Km later there was a massage facility at a water stop. Some chunky nurse rammed a large lump of ice onto the offending calf. I could have wept with the pain. 4 or 5 times she repeated the treatment. And it worked. I walked a little more, broke into a slow run. Ace. The plan now was to run and march, not walk. Even with cramp, I could march 7-8 Km an hour. I felt better with myself DNF was not on. The road now became one closed side of a Motorway. I managed to jog about 4 Km downhill approaching Durban.
The walking had restored some awareness, but I was goosed. Heat. Some runners around me were covered head to foot in white salt from sweat. No wind, the sweat was not convecting away. Most were struggling, many in worse shape. You never really lose until you quit trying. I observed courage and determination on that motorway. A hard to find alloy called guts. Discipline, humility, application, they were all there.
On the outskirts of Durban, 7 Km out the running race abruptly ended for me and it became a forced march. Although I had cramp in both calves now, my quads were screaming at me. I'm marooned through and through, but I had to cut my losses and march. I'm not ashamed to say I hated going through Durban like that.
The finish is Sahara Stadium. International cricket ground. Thousands inside. I tried to run but every 5-6 strides the cramp struck. I stopped, looked to the heavens and ran again. The crowd chanted " Is that what you call running?" I crossed the line like the wreck of the Hesperus. 9:41. All the finishers were inside the stadium. I sat down and looked around. Some runners were in bits. Vomit, unconsciousness, stretchers, nausea, cramp, medics everywhere. After 10 minutes I was OK, probably because I'd walked 14 of the last 21 Km. If I'd run most of it I'd be distressed too.
A black lad with dreadlocks approached me. " Where did you get that?" We'd been at Aldershot together and had the same branding on the arm. We didn't know each other but had mutual acquaintances. He had been in Joburg for 15 years. Removals. we shook hands and couldn't stop laughing. "What do you think of SA?" he asked. I replied that a lot of South Africans are nails. Shaun nodded, " Your'e spot on ".
The end is milked for all it is worth. Queen's "We will Rock You" blasts out, then the crowd count down from 10 and on 11:59:59 hours from the start, the race director fires his pistol and the race is over. I saw a lad in a green vest with one foot on the line and he was turned away. They just don't give an inch. No medal, no time, no acknowledgement whatsoever for all that effort. Try again next year. train harder.
Back at the Hotel, Ann, a SA fitness instructor in her 50's from Joburg, walked over. She hadn't made it. Run quite a few before, but had thrown up early on, dehydrated and never fully recovered. Dipped out by 15 minutes. What could I say? she didn't have a shred of self pity. " Oh well, I finished. Might concentrate on halves" . Like I said to Shaun, nails.
As I demolished buckets of orange juice, a stream of matriarchs jogged along the promenade. Wall to wall designer labels. Fashion parade. A million light years different from yesterday.
My legs ached and ached some more. What had I learned? Nothing much new. Mostly confirmation. Rewards in running, as in life, come only in direct proportion to the amount of effort that is put in. Running tells you what you are and most definitely what you are not. What we are is what remains and my core values were still rock solid. I'll keep going in adversity.
I had little doubt that it was the hardest days work i'd done for 20 years. Character building or character stripping, I'm still not sure which. No regrets. Recommendation? Of course. If you like distance with heat and are prepared to take a chance with not acclimatising, go for it. Follow your dream. There's a training plan on the Comrades website. Be warned, cut corners at your peril. John Cakebread .