Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Comrades Marathon, 2011 Race Report

"Have you been training for Comrades long?"
"My whole life".

Riding the taxi from the Durban airport (about 35 minutes outside of town), my taxi driver asked me about my training. I felt like as soon as I'd heard about Comrades (probably in the 80s when Salazar won it) I was intrigued. The more I heard, the more I was interesting. But the race always seemed like a distant, unattainable idea. 54 miles--so far. And how would I get the time and money to go to South Africa? This year, everything seemed to fall into place. After finishing North Face 50 Mile two years in a row, my boyfriend strongly urged me to enter. "you can do it". Work very generously allowed me to work remotely the week before the race so I had time to acclimate to ~14 time zone differences, along with a different climate. And I cleaned out my frequent flyer account to get there! I told my taxi driver I'd be happy to finish, and it would be great to go under 11 hours. He said "9 hours or don't bother". Wow. Everyone's a critic, huh? I said when he ran 9 hours, he could challenge me.

On race day morning, I left the hotel carrying my "tog bag" (change of clothes and shoes for the end of the race) and started following the streams of other athletes heading to the start line, about 8 blocks away. Halfway there, I realized I'd forgotten to take my allergy medicine. #$@#!!! I debated going on without it, but not having taken it had hurt me so much in windy polleny St Louis Marathon, where I'd barely eked out my qualifier time for Comrades. I dashed back to the hotel, and got the desk to cut me a new key, then dashed upstairs. No time now for a tog bag--I'd wear my sweaty clothes home.

More confident, I lined up at the back in the "H" corral. Every runner is seeded based on their qualifying time, from "A" all the way back to "H". I'd expected a mob scene like Chicago, with pushing and race officials slamming shut the corrals. Much more low key, and I even had time to go to the bathroom. The cruel irony of Comrades is the slower you are, the more it hurts you to be at the back. The race is a strict 12 hour cutoff, GUN to GUN. So if it takes the H group 15 minutes to cross the start line (as it had in other years), I actually would only have 11:45 to finish.

As the local anthems played, it was very hard for me not to cry. I was so happy to be at the start-even just getting here felt so special. I told myself "no tears, save the water".

5 AM was still pitch black, and I'd wondered how I would see. The first miles (KM?) were all on city streets and highways lit by highway lights. The biggest danger was dodging the black burlap overcoats that runners were discarding. Even at the early hour, the street was lined with cheering spectators. As we rolled out on the highway, spectators were over us at the overpasses. It was like a highway too in traffic jams and oscillations from runners in front slowing down. At this point, the course was still packed. I cut off a guy, and he snarled something in Africaaner at me that I couldn't understand, but it ended with a curt "Edith". We'd gotten bibs for front and back, and he was calling me out!

As soon as I hit the first uphill where I was working hard, I decided to walk. And run the downhills. And walk. To South Africans, the day was a cool day. Coming from foggy San Francisco, anything over 70 is considered a "scorcher". I wanted to get in miles before the sun rose and it got hot. When the sun did rise, it was anti-climatic, rising behind us. Just as I thought the whole race would be on a highway, we got off on an exit and started climbing local streets.

I hit the first waterstop, where I was confronted with "baggies" of water and Enerjade, and cups of Pepsi. The baggie was sealed--just bite and drink! Except for I'd gnaw for a bit, get a snootful of liquid sprayed on me, then drink.

At the expo the day before, I'd hovered over the 11 hour paceband or 11:30 paceband, before settling on the 11 hour. Up into 20 K, I was a bit ahead of it. I saw my first "buses"--large bands of runners, moving together. They are a combo of an organized club (with set leaders who chant the pace) and assorted hanger ons who decide to "climb on". They would sing songs in unison and gnerally, have a good time! I was a little ahead of an 11 hour bus, and feeling good.

Then we hit the first named hill, that without undulation went up and up. Nothing I hadn't done before in the Marin Headlands, but I wasn't even thinking about running. In terms of grade and length, comparable to Randall Trail in the Miwork. The buses would jog and walk. I stuck with walking, and got left behind. Both men and women were wearing outlandish costumes with feathers and crazy hats. I asked a women why she was dressed like this "So my friends can find me". True, with 15K starters, finding your friends was a challenge.

A nice stretch through a suburby area full of families "barbing", then another hill. Then I was pleasantly surprised that even on an "up" year there were still lovely downhill long stretches that I could cruise down. The other runners were so friendly, saying "Well done Edith" or "where are you from Edith"? Eventually I realized my bib color was different, signifying I was international, and runners might be extra friendly due to that. I'd started stashing two baggies in the perfect storage place--my sports bra! One of Energade, one of water, so I always had one handy for a thirsty uphill walk. Suddenly I felt very sticky from an Energade that burst and oozed down me. I tried to hose off with water, but was just hopeful there weren't bees around.

I kept seeing signs for "Valley of a Thousand Hills" which sounded ominously ugly. More beautiful up, more beautiful down, all so green and lovely it almost brought me to tears, though I needed the hydration. I thought of everyone who had helped to bring me to here, my aunt Carol who'd paced me at my qualifier at St Louis Marathon, my grandmothers who useda walker, my friends with injury, and I thought how lucky I was to get to experience such a grand run. Along this stretch, I saw the sad sight of two young child offering Enerjade--until I realized they were begging for Enerjade.

I crossed the hallway point about an hour before the cutoff, as the announcer helpfully pointed out that the winner had just finished (in ~5:35). Ok, I get it, I'm not running. Then there was the final big climb of Inchanga. I settled into a walk, debating whether my stomach was sloshy cause I was over hydrated or under hydrated. I felt a jot in my hand like an electro shock, like Greg had told me was a sign of dehydration. I fished out an Energade and drank it.

At the top, I was ready to run, but when I started I felt like absolute dogmeat and that the race was disintegrating. My foot had swelled, and my chip was cutting into my ankle with every step. My stomach still felt terrible. I spent a minute retying my shoes to a comfy tightness, then a 3 minute bathroom break. I drank an Energade. Ok, I was ready to go NOW!

Now I was in the "Drummond Flats", ~ 10 miles of rolling unshaded road. The 11 hour bus had passed while I was in the bathroom. I continued on, running the downs, walking the ups. When I was walking an up, a bus passed me. I expected the sign to say "11;15". The sign said "12 hours". Holy !##! I immediately tried to pick up the pace and managed to pass it back. I fell in with Sonnett, a four time finisher (as her bib said) "Why is the 12 hour bus sooo close? I thought I was on pace for 11:30!" "It's the under 12 hour bus, and it's the FAST 12 hour bus". Got it! I felt much better. Being on pace with a 4 time finisher made me feel much better.

This part of the race suited me--the long swoops reminded me of the rolling Marin trails, but with better footing. I kept passing and then repassing a cow. I finally asked "how many cows?" There were FOUR guys all dressed up like cows--I wasn't actually passing the same cow multiple times! On the long uphills, a sweep car would drive along, popping all the discarded enerjades.

Right around mile 40 I was sincerely wishing that the founder of Comrades had planned the race between two towns closer together than Pietzerburg and Durban. 54 miles? wouldn't 44 miles be more than enough? I'd run out of S-caps, and gagged down a truly horrible overly salted potato at the green mile cheering station at mile 43 (?) I was in a low contemplating the ten plus miles remaining when a college aged guy said exactly the right thing. "Go get your medal girl". YES. I'm GONNA GO GET MY MEDAL!!!

The rest of the race went by with me keeping an eye on my watch, trying to make sure I would beat the cutoff. I walked up Polly Shortts, then discovered I'd walked up "little" Polly Shorrtts (the mile before Polly). Determitedly, I strode on, past guys collapsed on the side, their race over.

Only 8 miles to go! At the beginning of the race, the thermometer style signs measuring down the kilometers had tormented me with how full they still looked. Suddenly, the kilometer "meter" looked very empty at 10K to go. Then my blisters popped with a jolt of liquid agony. OH NO. Was my race over??? I kept going, and the pain abated. If I had to hobble every step, I could still finish in time.

The air was hazy and the sun setting into my eyes. I could barely see, but I knew I was getting closer and started pushing. I could break 11:30! I started asking other runners "how long do we run in the stadium? How long is the lap"? I saw a stadium, and thought we were done, but we cruelly ran around that stadium. Suddenly I was on dirt in a cheering crowd. The stadium was DIRT! I was almost done! I was there!!! I heard people say USA and chanted USA! USA! I crossed the finish line and was so overcome and proud of myself I cried. Then I realized there was a camera and tried to smile for a good finish photo. Then I started crying again, so happy and surprised and thrilled and overcome. I had really done it. I had really, really, done it.

On my way to the international tent (run a race in South Africa, become a superstar!) another runner wanted their photo with me "because you're international". I posed for a few, then barely standing, went into the tent and watched the finish. Someone nicked my space blanket when I went to the bathroom, the bus line back was a 50 minute race, the bus itself was a two hour ride, and my left leg swelled alarmingly. None of it outweighed how happy I was.

The next day I limped down to the beach, a half mile, 20 minute walk for a quick salt water soak. Other blue shirted Comrades runners were there too, bouncing in the waves, and I joined the happy blue Comraderie.