I returned to South Africa at the start of June for the second and final leg of my battle against one of, if not the greatest ultra-marathon in the world (certainly the biggest), the 55 mile Comrades marathon.
Run alternately from Pietermaritzburg to Durban (the ‘Down’ run) and Durban to Pietermaritzburg (the ‘Up’ run), Comrades has 20,000+ competitors running over some of the most brutal hills you will ever encounter. The down run has an elevation gain of nearly 4,000ft, and this years up run a mighty 6,000ft of climbing.
Last year I trained harder than I’d trained for anything in my life, and reaped the rewards with a time of 8 hours 40 minutes. This year was all about completing the job. No-one was going to tell me I’d only done the ‘easy’ down run!
Training was nowhere near the intensity of last year, and I arrived in Durban feeling under-prepared for what lay ahead. Too many missed hill sessions were preying on my mind. I knew I wasn’t in brilliant shape, but I’d pulled a respectable 3:25 marathon out of the hat at Stratford in April so there were positive signs.
There’s drama early doors on race day. As Big Kevin Boake and I head through Durban for the pre-sunrise 5:30 am start, I take a big tumble as I trip approaching the pens as crowds of runners push and barge through a tiny gap into our ‘C’ pen. I pick myself up with relief that I’m still in one piece and try to ignore the pain and re-focus, not knowing that the fall was the likely cause of the woes to follow later in the day….
With the start imminent, the traditional singing of the national anthem is followed by a 20,000 strong a capella rendition of the traditional folk song Shosholoza bringing the goosebumps out and the butterflies fluttering. Then we’re off. We run together for the first 3 or 4km, but as Kev chats to a nervous Brit making his debut I up the pace a fraction to cancel out the 2 minute delay crossing the start line (there’s no chip time – gun to tape is the name of the game). It’s not called the up run for nothing, as the climbing starts more or less straight away, and with just the odd exception, continues to climb for the next 23 miles! Everything is relative at Comrades, and though there are numerous hills that on any other day would make your eyes water just to look at, only five are deemed worthy of being ‘named’. Three come in the first half, Cowies Hill, Field’s Hill and Botha’s Hill. The mighty Inchanga follows just after halfway. The final nail in the coffin of any runner who has misjudged the pace is Polly Shortts which crests out just shy of 51 miles into the race and has broken world champions and Olympic medallists over the years.
I plod steadily uphill and am chatting here and there when two amazing coincidences happen in the space of two minutes. First I encounter a chap who was born and bred in the same town as me back home, quickly followed by another who is a Strava buddy from Zimbabwe whose mother turns out to have been born in Solihull! I run for about 10 miles with Simon the Zimbabwean and the miles pass quickly. We climb the dreaded Fields Hill. It’s a beast, and a couple of power walks are needed to break the sapping of the endless climb, but eventually we’re over the top. Before we know it we’re approaching the next ‘biggy’, Botha’s Hill and it’s time to concentrate as I know my wife Bev is stationed towards the top of the hill at an aid station manned by my adopted club for the day – Bedfordview. Luckily I know they’re located round a blind bend, so I can have another scheduled power walk just before the corner and then appear striding majestically, gazelle like towards them! A couple of chicken sandwiches, a hug and some magic spray on each calf and I’m off and heading to halfway. I arrive there feeling good and at 4 hours 23 am well ahead of my dream target of another sub 9 hour finish. With a large chunk of the total climb in the bank I’m beginning to get confident.
Never. Get. Confident. In. Comrades!
As I’m heading towards Inchanga I start to feel a pain in my hip, discomfort at first, but it gets much worse very quickly, so much so that within a mile of it starting I’m in agony. No exaggeration to say that I have never felt pain like it while running, it feels like someone has stuck a knife into my hip and is slowly rotating it round and round relentlessly inside the bone. Every step’s excruciating, and I’m reduced to a limp cum shuffle. And just like that the sub-9 hour finish has gone and the only question now is can I get through the pain and finish the race? It hadn’t gone un-noticed in my mind that I was now facing a pretty awful truth. I’ve got 27 miles to run, with the worst injury (in pain terms) I’d ever had, over the 2nd toughest marathon course I’m probably ever going to face – the toughest being the one I’ve just done!
Under normal circumstances faced with this position any sane person would step off the road and accept an honourable DNF without a second thought. But Comrades is no normal race, and no sane person would be running it in the first place! So on I shuffle!
Over Inchanga, walk, shuffle, walk, shuffle. I’m squeezing sachet after sachet of ice cold water onto my hip in a vain attempt to numb the pain. I see the 42km to go sign and realise I’ve only covered a couple of miles in what seems like forever. This is going to be hell on earth. I begin to notice that compared to earlier on I’m getting way more shout outs from the crowds at the side of the road. Every other person is calling out a variation of ”Go Max, you can do it!”. It’s a weird feeling because it’s giving me great inspiration to battle on, but at the same time I know it’s because I must look desperately in need of help!
Last year I experienced the sheer joy of running this race, but this year I’m getting the full Comrades experience – that point when everything is telling you to stop and give up, and having to summon up the sheer will to just keep going. The 9 hour pacemaker and his band of merry followers catch me, and I find one last effort and stick with them for 3km, but it’s no use, the quicker I try and go the worse the pain is. I can’t hold on and I start the long walk up Polly Shortts watching them disappear into the distance. It’s pretty steep now and my new challenge is to physically get up there as I’m so hampered I can only take short steps on my right side. For the first time I’m thinking I might not be able to ‘mechanically’ make it back even with all the will power in the world. Thoughts of crawling the last few miles are being considered at this point. But at last it levels off a bit after getting down the other side of Polly’s and the pain eases a little, there’s only 5k to go. Maybe it’s the ice cold water taking effect, or the emotion of the Comrades journey’s end, but I manage to get a bit more movement in the hip and at last am sure I’m going to make it. There’s no way I’m walking round the lap of honour in the stadium and so I shuffle in and unlike the floods of tears last year, I wave to the crowd as I cross the line in 9 hours 17 mins.
I’ve taken 4 hours 40 minutes to cover the last 26.2 miles, it’s an hour longer than any marathon I’ve ever run, but I’ve never felt a greater sense of achievement or been more proud of what I’ve done than battling through the second half of this race today. The crowd again have been amazing, even more vocal than last year, pushing me on during some very dark and desperate moments when I’ve almost stopped. I pick up my race medal and my special Back to Back medal for completing an Up and Down run in consecutive years. I stand still for a while to take in the atmosphere, then walk off the course. My Comrades journey is over, but after a total of nearly 18 hours over 2 years I’ve had perhaps the best highs and the worst lows of my running life. You can’t ask for more than that from a race. Comrades, it’s been a pleasure doing business with you. Who knows, maybe one day, in a few years’ time, we’ll meet again.