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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)


Karri said...

HOLY CRAP, Randi - That is freaking fantastic and amazing and WOW. Just wow.

Gaye said...

Awesome, Randi. Just awesome.