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Comrades: The Finish

Before I get to the end, I found a video from the beginning. This is the shosholooza (mining song) that was sung at the beginning to start off the day- the lyrics expressed the hardships of working in the diamond mines. Currently, it is also used in pop culture to convey messages of hope and solidarity for athletes during competitions or in other times of hardship and distress. It was sung in the corral as we lined up and it was the coolest thing to hear first hand.

Now to the end:
I crossed the line and received my medal, a patch and a time-stamped card—they told me in case anyone “disputed” that I finished(?). Ok. They directed me to move along and I told them I wanted to wait for a friend. Happily, I saw Larry come across the finish line a few minutes later. I congratulated him and then we went our separate ways to recoup for a little bit. I made my way to the International tent where I expected to find Ross… but he wasn’t there. I stretched and waited for a bit, but no Ross, so I went to collect my tog bag. I grabbed my bag, took a quick shower, changed and headed back to the International tent where I found Larry. We ate and chatted and talked about where Ross could be. Ross had an old cell of Larry’s on him, but he couldn’t remember the number…
Larry and I happy to be done!
Cory had come through with a 9:13. We chatted and she told me how there had been two 9-hour buses. One official, one not. She had first ran with the un-official pace group until the pacer realized he wasn’t going to make it in time and took off on the group. She then hooked up with the official 9-hour bus and the pacer too, was going too slow to make 9-hours. At one point, the pacer tried to rally everyone to run the last 10 miles (after run-walking the first 44 at a much slower pace). Needless to say, no one could do it, and from there on out everyone was on their own. Cory wasn’t too fussed about it for herself (she had finished last year with an 8:59:59), but I thought it was sad for the people that had depended on the pace group. Another reason I haven’t ever stuck with a pace group…

After a little bit, Ross came streaming into the tent. I saw him right away and let him know where I was. I was so happy to see him and asked him what he thought I did it in. He said 10 hours and you could tell he was trying to be optimistic for me. He was shocked when I told him under 9! We talked and figured out where we had missed each other on the course and then he told me about the incredible traffic getting into Pietermarizburg and into the stadium. It didn’t surprise me, the stadium was busting with people— it was such a lively atmosphere—and there were only getting more people as the time went on.
The International Tent itself had a sweet set-up. It was half shaded, so you could be in the shade or sun. One whole long edge of the tent was facing the cricket oval, so you could see the finishers running their last lap. And there was ample room for everyone, with the best part, some BEAN BAGS. I was in heaven as I sat on one and ate my chicken pita, rice and drinking my Castle Lite. 
Me recouping in a bean bag.
As the time got closer to 12 hour cut-off there was such an air of relief and nervousness in the air, all at the same time. I kept seeing people coming into the tents with the largest grins ever—they had finished! And then other spectators glued to the track, just waiting to see their loved ones on the track- to know they are gonna finish. From where we were, we couldn’t see the finish line, but we had a clear view of a jumbotron televising the finish.

With about 10 minutes until the finish, the 12-hour bus arrived. PURE ELATION by everyone. I get all teary just watching it. These people have stuck together for 12 hours with one common goal, all supporting each-other and all finishing together. It is a beautiful thing. It takes over 2-minutes for all of the finishers to cross with their comrades.
Side note: South Africa televises all 12-hours of Comrades live EVERY year. 12-hours!!! On every station. I can’t even get highlights of the Boston Marathon here. Not to mention, they have record numbers of people tuning in every year in the 12th hour. (My dad watched some of it online and said it was really well done.)

As the time ticked down, everyone was glued to watching the finish line. They have a cut-off outside of the cricket oval that I think is about 2 minutes before the finish. Basically, I think they let everyone they think could POSSIBLY make it to the finish in. After that, runners cannot even try to get there.

As I watched people stream in the stadium, I was cheering “GO! GO! GO!” I had no idea who I was cheering for, but I just wanted them to get to that finish line. There were people sprinting, stumbling, hobbling and some even assisting one-another. It was an intense time of anxiety and joy at the same time-- and I didn't even know these people!

With about a minute to go, the race director comes out in a suit. Stands on the finish line with his back to the crowd, gun in hand.
A number of security guards line up behind him, making just enough room to let the runners come through. As the time ticks down, the race director raises his hand with the gun in it. 
Keep in mind, people are still streaming into the stadium. We are not talking about a few people, we are talking about a few hundred people in the last few minutes. At precisely 12:00:00, he fires a shot and the security guards make a human wall—literally blocking people from finishing. They were SECONDS away. And not allowed to finish.

I think the last one through as gun goes off
She got through the human wall. See the guys in yellow block everyone behind her.
I tried to find a video of the finish, but couldn’t. Here is one who didn’t make it

The end of the race was the most heart-breaking thing, but also why a number of runners race it. I was shocked to see all of the runners still streaming in, I thought there would be 1 maybe 2, not the masses that were here. I was saddened to see the numbers that were just seconds away from their goal, but imagined they’d be back next year and would make it—making the victory all the much sweeter.

As the race wrapped up, they played the shosholooza again over the loud speaker as we made our way out of the stadium and it was the perfect ending to the day for me.

Comrades: The Race

The starting gun went off, although it sounded more like a cannon. Seriously, it was THAT loud. I started my watch. Even though Comrades is chip timed, it is really gun timed—from the time the gun goes off to the time the chip crosses the mat. Being in corral C, I started walking to the front with others. I am not sure how long it took me to cross the mat, maybe a minute or two. Then I was running through the streets. It was pretty slow, even in coral C, but that was more than ok with me, I didn’t think I coud run much faster and still achieve my goal of getting to halfway and feeling “good”.

Unfortunately, there is not much to say about the start of the race. We traveled through the city and it felt much like any other city marathon I have done. Except for the languages all around me. I had no clue what anyone was saying… and that was alright with me. So I just plugged along. Running. Not so fast, which scared me. I looked at my pace and it was rather slow. I wondered if my legs were going to show up today and told myself it was ok if they didn’t. I would be OK. 
As I continued on, there were ups and downs and I wondered if I had crossed any of the *hills*. Comrades is known for 5 hill climbs—Cowies, Fields, Bothas, Inchanga and Polly Shorts (which, for clarification, is NOT short). I went up some pretty sizable hills and wondered if any of them were Cowies. I felt like such a novice and did not want to ask anyone to show my ignorance. About 10 miles in, I saw it. Cowies. It was longer and steeper than the others. I got to the top feeling ok. It was there I saw Cory from the start. I asked her if that was the first big climb (secretly, I was hoping it was the second), and she just said that she intentionally DID NOT pay attention to the “big” climbs only because the course was simply filled with lots and lots of climbs, so she doesn’t want to get hung up on just 5. Great.

I continued on with Cory for a bit and then she went on her merry way. Mile 14 came fast and I was at the bottom of Fields Hill. There were plenty of spectators—including ROSS! He gave me a quick kiss and congrats and sent me on my way. Now Fields Hill is pretty long and steady and I had read that running up it was a big mistake, but I felt good, so I continued up, running. It was at this point where (a) the sun was really out and you could start to feel the heat and (b) I started passing people. Lots of people. It seemed like in the first 12 miles or so, everyone was passing me, and by everyone, I mean EVERYONE. Granted, my strategy was to go out comfortable, but really I didn’t think that I would be passed by soooo many people. Looking back, my first split (the top of Cowies) had me somewhere in the 4,0000th place. 
Me running up Fields Hill
I got to the top of Fields and Larry came running up behind me. We chatted, I asked him how he was doing and he said he’d do better after halfway and I couldn't help but thinking "halfway-- yes! just get to halfway!". About a mile or two later, we separated. I think it was somewhere after the top of Fields Hill where it started getting really pretty. I commented on the scenery and was running alongside Cory and she said “this is the prettiest bit”. Now, not realizing how Aussie-English varies from American-English, I started taking pictures thinking this *bit* would be over soon. But really, by “bit” she meant “part”. And the beauty went on for many, many miles as we ran through the “Valley of 1,000 Hills”. 
The start of the "pretty bit"
 In training I had envisioned this part to look like Quincy. Quincy is a road by us that is18 miles of hill after hill. This was nothing close… and I was thankful for that. The hills were bigger here, but way more beautiful. I would even venture to describe them more like mountains. It was along this part of the route, too, where we got our share of downhill portions. While I was thankful for the downhill portions, I couldn’t help but think, “Crap! This is just more I am going to have to go up” (the course itself doesn’t hit it’s highest point until about 10k from the end). 
Couldn't get over how beautiful it was up there!
More pretty bits
I hit Bothas Hill and was surprised on how big it “didn’t seem”. Don’t get me wrong, it’s big, but compared to some of the other “unnamed” hills on the course, Bothas just felt like it fit right in.
I think for me, this was my favorite part of the race. It wasn’t long before I came along the Comrades Wall of Honour (a wall that honors achievements of all who pass this way) and then I knew that we would be coming up to Arthur’s Seat soon. 
Comrades Wall Of Honour
 Arthur’s seat is described as “a niche cut into the cutting wall, which legend tells us was the spot where the famous Arthur Newton, 5 times winner of the 1920’s, used to sit for a breather while out running. Today runners are urged to pay homage to Mr. Newton with a greeting and a flower, which legend has it, ensures a great second half of the race.” So, great, where am I going to find a flower for dear Arthur? Oh look! There are volunteers handing them out! I got a kick out of this as I took one and continued running. It was still so beautiful, I had to stop to take more pictures. Then, it was time to toss my flower and tell Arthur what a stud he was and ask for his help along my second half. From there, it was down, down , down to halfway.
Me running with my rose
Paying homage to Dear Arthur
Halfway point in Drummond
 Yay! As I passed through Drummond, I was excited to be halfway… and feeling “good”. And then I saw it—Inchanga. The fourth hill climb and all I can describe it as was daunting. It was long and rose from out of a valley, but somehow I was also relieved that I was already at the 4th of the 5 climbs. I started up it, still running and that is when I noticed it. No one else was running. Like no one. I kept running, I felt like I could do it. But then I worried I was making some rookie mistake, so I walked a bit. Not much, but enough to ease my conscience.

As we made our way up the hill, someone told me, “when you reach the painted Indian, you are almost there.”

If by "almost" they meant, “you still have a quarter to half mile to go”, then I guess they were right.

Inchanga was also where I missed Ross! After Fields Hill, Ross had come straight to Inchanga, figuring it would do me good to see his face at the top. He was right, but since I didn’t know his plan, we totally missed each other. He caught the winners, Larry and a bunch of other runners, but not me. Oh well. He had fun.
Pict of some of the elites on Inchanga. They averaged 5-6 min/miles for the race. Crazy.
South African pride!
Larry at top of Inchanga
I got to the top of Inchanga and was happy to see a descent (even if it meant I would have to run back up somewhere else). At the bottom of the hill, there was someone bbq’ing (they call it a braii) and wanted to know what I wanted for lunch. While food did sound tasty all I could think was “no one’s eating that going this pace”. 

I looked at my watch and assessed what I wanted to do. I had crossed halfway at 4:20. And I was feeling good. I knew I would slow down some, but not sure how much. Although my sights had originally been on a 10-11 hour race, they now switched to a 9 hour race. Over the last few days I had come to realize there was something mysterious about going sub-9 at Comrades—a special medal and honour almost. The very first man to win Comrades in 1921 ran a 8:59, so to finish in sub-9, you receive the Bill Rowan medal. And I think it was at this point when I decided I wanted it-- the medal and the honour.

As I continued on, I had to focus more on my nutrition, by this time it was getting a little harder to ingest stuff and all. I was happy as a clam to see boiled potatoes dipped in salt on the course! Oh were these just what my system needed.

As I plugged along, I passed more villages and the spectators were awesome. There were a bunch of kids. Then we went by the Enthembi School for the Disabled and I stopped to get some pictures with the kids—they line the course each year and are a big encouragement to the runners.
Local kids spectating and cheering!
Enthembi School for the Disabled
From there on out, I was primarily concentrating on getting to the end. My race belt started to feel heavy and I was wanting to ditch it. I knew I would see Ross at Camperdown (about 12 miles from the end), so I kept asking people how far till Camperdown? I got to Camperdown and no Ross (he was still waiting to see me at Inchanga), so I went on.

Plug, plug, plug. 10 miles to go. I was doing the math in my head, if I continue at sub-10 minute miles, I will finish the race in under 9 hours.

Then I saw it. Or thought I saw it. A big, big hill. “There goes my sub-9 race”, I thought. I asked someone if that was Polly Shorts. “No”, he said. “That is Little Polly. Polly Shorts is much longer and steeper than that Polly.” OK, I’m done now. I thought about it hard. I could risk it and really try to finish in under 9 hours and be heart broken if I didn’t, or take it easy from here on out and get a 9:05-9:10 time. But I really wanted that medal, so I decided to risk the heartbreak and I kept running. Kept plugging along, doing what I could. On the straightaways or downhills I was definitely running a sub-10 minute pace (even sub-9 and closer to 8s at times), but I didn’t dare and look at my watch when I was going uphill, I was too afraid of what it might say.

I got through Little Polly and was halfway up Polly Shorts run/walking when the 9-hour bus (pace group) came trudging up Polly Shorts behind me. Somewhere on Little Polly, I had heard two men talking about how they needed to stay ahead of the 9-hour bus if they wanted to finish in 9 hours. They commented on how the 9-hour pacer would book it in after the top of Polly Shorts and how they could not keep up that pace (the pace they quoted was in km/hour, so I wasn’t sure how “fast” it was, but from their tones, I understood it was pretty fast and did not have the confidence I could do it, either). So as the 9-hour bus caught up to me, I mustered up all the energy I could and kept running up Polly Shorts, making sure to stay ahead of the 9-hour bus.

Once at the top of Polly, it was 7 km to the end. Hallelujiah! And while it wasn’t ALL downhill, there was enough of it to make me happy. It was getting hot and I just wanted to be done. At every aid station (which were about ½ mile apart by this time), I was taking 1-2 Energades and downing them. All of them, and then needing more by the next aid station.

Larry caught me at an aid station with about 5 km to go. I was happy to see him, we ran for a bit together before I needed to take off. I just wanted to be done! I felt like “anything” could happen (ie, I could cramp with ½ mile to go) and then that would be the end of sub-9 race. So I went. I just wanted to be done. I ran and ran.

Where is the end? I thought. I knew that we would run around the cricket oval and finish in the middle—and that that stint was over ½ mile long. So where was this, I kept thinking… till I realized I was running ON the cricket oval. Silly me. There were fans and stands everywhere. I turned the corner and THERE was the finish line. I had made it! So, of course, I stopped to take a picture. 
 I had done it! Not only had I finished, but I had earned a Bill Rowan medal. In a race that is steeped in history and tradition, this meant the world to me! (more post race stories to come)

Comrades: Getting to the start line!

So my last post was all about how I felt ready for Comrades and whatever it would bring me. And I was. What I wasn’t ready for were flight delays and lost luggage. Agh!
On our way to South Africa, our flight out of Denver kept getting delayed, to the point where when we got to DC, Ross and I were literally sprinting between terminals in order to catch our connecting flight to Johannesburg. It was like one of those scenes you see in the movies where the actors get there as the flight attendents were closing the doors—only the actors were us and it was for real. Coincidentally, we made it to Jo-berg (and on to Durban), but our bags did not.

Just happy to be on a South African-bound plane
When I found out that I might not get my bags in time, I let myself absorb the information, then pulled myself together and formed a Plan B. I had worn my trail shoes and a pair of compression socks on the plane, so I could run in those. I then would purchase what else I NEEDED at the expo the following day. To help things, I met another runner at the hotel (Beth, my new SA BFF) and she volunteered to help out with anything extra I might need that couldn’t find. I ended up borrowing a singlet from her in case mine didn’t arrive. Regardless, I wanted MY stuff.

Side note: I have always heard #1 rule of racing is don’t race with anything new on race day. I have learned (via Franny—Marathon Tours Guide whom Beth was traveling with) that the #1 rule is actually don’t travel without your kit. I would have to say Franny knows her stuff because it was looking like I was going to be racing in all new apparel regardless of intent.

Ross and I spent Saturday morning at the expo with Larry and had a great time. 
What do you mean this isn't the right place for me?
Larry and I trying to figure out my pace...?
Beach = excellent place to relax
 Got some new stuff and spent the afternoon relaxing. Dinner was pasta up in the Berea with Larry.

When we contacted the airlines after dinner on Saturday night, the baggage office was closed, so Ross jumped in our rental car and went up to the Durban airport to get it all sorted out—turns out our baggage was coming in on a flight from Jo-berg at 9:30 p.m. So, Ross waited to collect the luggage and then returned to the hotel around 11. I sorted out my race necessities by midnight, then… couldn’t sleep! I was so worried about only getting 3+ hours of sleep and here I was getting none. I hadn’t really felt all that nervous, so I wasn’t sure if it was anxiety, jet lag, or side effects from my malaria meds. Either way, I couldn’t get my body to rest. I watched the time tick down and thought “I am doomed”.

Ross woke at 3:15 as scheduled. We talked, I was worried. He was Mr. Pollyanna as we got ready and went for breakfast. At breakfast I thought about a conversation I had had with Nina the other weekend about how sometimes we think about what could have been “If I wasn’t sick…”, “if I didn’t get anxiety in the water…”, etc. I decided. “No excuses”, whatever the day brings me, it brings me. I am sure there were plenty of other runners out there who also didn’t sleep… after stressing out about lost luggage for the prior day. 
Me & Beth in our warm-up shirts, getting ready to leave the hotel
 The start was about ¾ mle from our hotel, so we walked on down. I had to say goodbye to Ross outside of the runners area and we both went on our journies for the day. Once inside, there was a jovial spirit and chatted it up with a few runners in the tog bag (drop bag) line.

Where I said goodbye to Ross

Comrades has a number of traditions, one of which is included on your bib numbers. The numbers are all color-coded (blue for international, green for runners who have completed 10+ Comrades, striped green for those going for their 10th, orange for those doing it for their back-to-back medal, etc) as well as information about the runner—their name, how many times they have run Comrades, which medals they have won, etc. This all made for some good conversation starters. 

Now, onto the corral. I got in there a little before 5 and people were a little more focused on the race at hand. I did end up chatting it up with Cory. She had her hair down, make-up on, and an Australian flag pinned to her waist. Crazy! This was her 4th time, so we talked about that and our expectations for the day. 
Side note: If you are going to run Comrades as an International runner, try to wear something from your country (like Cory's Aussie flag). Spectators will cheer for you like crazy. In Cory’s case, they often cheered “Go British Girl!”, but at least they were trying.

Prior to all of this, I hadn’t set any hard time goals for myself. It is hard in a race like this because it is longer than anything I have run in training plus the terrain is unknown and difficult. For those of you unfamiliar with the Comrades course it is extremely hilly and runs from Durban to Pietermarizburg (or vice versa depending on the year). This was an UP run year, so I would be running from sea level to about 2500 ft in the first 40 miles, then rolling hills till the end. I knew my climbing pace is a lot slower than my normal pace, plus I would not have the respite (downhills) I have when running normal hills to help lower the pace. 

That being said, my #1 goal was to finish enjoying the day. I had trained so hard, read so much about the race and I wanted to experience first hand all that I had heard. Second goal was to run it in sub-11 hours. 11 hours was the traditional cut-off time for the race before it was legnthened to 12 hours in 2003. Symbolically, I wanted to run the race by the standards originally set. (45% of the whole field finishes between 11 & 12 hours. It is that hard.) If I had a GREAT day, I was hoping for a 10-10:30. (Larry had talked me into getting a 9:30 and 10 hour pace bands and I thought he was crazy.) BUT, I also told myself, whatever happens, happens. I put in the training and if I end up with an 11:59:59—I would be happy! -- I would probably be pretty let down if I didn’t finish… but that would be a different story to tell.
From the front
Me on the inside
So, there I stood in the darkness, waiting to start with 54+ miles of uphill in front of me. The announcer started talking, then it was the South African national anthem. I stood there and had people all around me singing it—it was pretty awesome. Then it was the Shosholoza, a mining song/chant which expressed the hardships of working in the diamond mines. Currently, it is also used in pop culture to convey messages of hope and solidarity for athletes during competitions or in other times of hardship and distress. This is another Comrades tradition to sing it, both at the start and sometimes along the run (again, if you know the words, which I did not).
Very symbolic in nature of the Comrades itself. The city hall bell then tolled, the cock crowed (another tradition) and we were off!!!