Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Comrades: Race Day

The Comrades Marathon. Yes, marathon. Many of the marathoners I know would be annoyed by a race being called a marathon when it wasn't actually 26.21875 miles in length. This would be especially true for races that were shorter than this official and implicit length. Here in South Africa, they toss the label around, applying it to all sorts of distances. Legends Marathon is 42ish miles long while Two Oceans Marathon is about 35 miles. Big Five Marathon happens to be 26.2 miles, which they call a classic distance event. But on this day, I was running the 54.5 mile Comrades Marathon.

Elevation profile, named hills, and landmarks

I woke at 3:30am to start my usual race morning ritual of breakfast, hydration top-off, and multi-pooping. By 4:20am I was ready for the 15 minute walk to the start. I exchanged a quick  “goodbye, good luck, hope to see you later” with Amanda. With a hired driver, she was going to attempt to second me (cheer and support me) on the course. Not knowing the area, her day was going to be more complicated than mine. As I exited the hotel, I watch as a small Japanese contingent, dressed in fun costumes, posed for a photo in the parking lot. Runners were already trickling toward the start. The race would start at 5:30am.

Photo courtesy of  https://twitter.com/ILuvDBN

23,000 runners were named on the official start list. About 20,000 of them got out of bed and lined up at the start. As far as events of this size go, this one was pretty darn relaxed. The corral cut off time was 30 minutes prior to start. There were no bottlenecks and there was no shoving. The only issue I saw was a low number of portapotties. I lined up and peed once, but then immediately got in my corral rather than lining up to go again.

Many runners were sitting, patiently waiting for the race to start.  Others, like me, navigated their way towards the front. I wanted to cross the start as soon as possible. Official times of this race would be gun times, not net times like I’m used to. I was told I would clear the start for sure in under 10 minutes and wanted to squeeze all the minutes out that I could. I found a spot I was happy with and took in the sights. Thousands of smiling runners filled the street, donning their colors- their running club singlets. I read them to myself, happy that with a week in South Africa, I could recognize some of the locales.

Someone called out to me. “Joel. Joel!” I turned to see who it was. “Where is Brooklyn?” It was a tall Afrikaner from J’berg. He had completed Comrades 17 times. I could tell all this from his accent, his colors, and his bib. He knew my name from my bib and that it was my first run.

“New York!” I answered back and he nodded in approval.

“Ah good! Welcome!” Around me runners smiled.

One dude gave me a fist bump/thumb snap. “This is how we do it in South Africa!” His accent was of one of the nine official native languages (plus English and Afrikaans makes eleven total) in the country. The announcer asked us to greet the person to our left. I met a guy from Nelspruit, who was running his third. Then the official start ceremony began. I can’t remember the exact order of things, but Chariots of Fire was played along with the National Anthem, and Shosholoza.

Shosholoza is what stands out in my mind the most. The US Commrades ambassador gave us a heads up that this would be played and everyone would sing it. He was nice enough to share the lyrics, in Zulu, via the newsletter ahead of time so that we could learn it (or attempt to learn it, as I did). I later learned that is basically a pep rally motivational type song. The kids at the Ethembeni School performed it for us on the course tour the day prior. As I tried to sing along, I thought of them. It is their version that would ring in my head for the whole race and the rest of my stay in SA.

Then the rooster crowed and the cannon fired and we were off! It took only about a minute for me to clear the start line and immediately the cheering began. I set an easy 9:30 pace, but not two miles in, I had to pee. It seemed everyone did. Along with dozens of others, I pulled over as we climbed onto the highway heading out of Durban and just as I was about to go, I heard, “Not here! Not here! This is my home!”

A saw a man lying on cardboard, no doubt woken by this stampede of peeing runners. My heart sank. I quickly took a few paces away from his home, the concrete median of this particular on ramp, to relieve myself clear of his spot. But I could hear him trying to fend off everyone else who didn’t see him in the darkness. It was only 5:41 and the sun wouldn’t rise until 6:30 or so. His companion laughed as he carried on, “Not here! This is my home!” I carried on, too, running away from that reality and into the hills.

The first kilometer of Comrades. It would remain dark for another hour.

Not before long, the climbs began and I had to decide what my “easy” heart rate range would be. Just as quickly it was already past 160 bpm. During my long runs, I’ve been trying to keep my heart rate between 120 and 150. For a marathon, I let it rise to 170 for the first 18ish miles, then just let it go. I wasn’t sure what to do here in this 54.5 mile up-mountain run. Perhaps I would have preferred to stick to the 150 cap, maybe even a 160 cap, but I allowed myself a 165 cap on the condition that it would only hit this on hills and if I was riding 165 bpm for too long, I would walk. This seemed reasonable to me.

As the sun began to rise, the cheer crowds began to grow. Many were out in support of their clubs and there were tons of running clubs. Some that I remember are the Old Boys, A.C. Orlando, Westville, Cool Runnings, Born 2 Run A.C., Harmony Striders, and Impala Marathon Club. The club names were fun to read and probably fun to call out. The crowds were pretty amazing and vocal, reading off and cheering clubs and runners as they passed. I received tons of cheers for “Joel”, a whole bunch of “Go Brooklyn!”, some “Brooklyn?” and even some “Go South Central!”. Many recognized what Brooklyn was and cheered with, “America!” and “Well done, Yank!”

Some local club singlets

I also got a lot of, “China! China!”, “Ching Chong!”, “Konichiwa!” and other racist kung-fu-like cat calls. It was interesting to observe that only the rural Black Africans did this. Perhaps I was a novelty to them; they probably only knew the rural village they live in or what they see on TV. Or maybe I'm just trying make excuses for these few racist dicks. At one point I was tempted to stop running and school the latest offender, but I didn’t. It’s not always as simple as that, I understand... and these cases would surely take more than the couple seconds I was willing to sacrifice. So I continued on running.

The day was heating up, but all was going according to plan. I was drinking and filling my water bottle regularly, though it took a couple tries for me to get down a process. The water (and Energade) was given out in plastic satchels rather than paper cups. Also, there didn’t always seem to be a method to the madness of these aid stations. In fact, I couldn’t find the fuel I was looking for. I wanted gels. I tried potatoes, but just didn’t seem interested in them. The fuel bars were the same, which I ate first. I was going through my Gus quickly and needed to find something to make up the 1,000 or so calories I didn’t have on me. I turned to bananas, potatoes (even if I didn’t want them), and Energade.

I had been squirting water on myself all morning, following the lead of the locals. Drink some, then squirt on head, back of neck, then quads and calves. I added shoulders, front of neck, and wrists for good measure. The temperature on the course peaked at 87 F according to my watch. We were doing this to cool off as efficiently as possible. My body wouldn’t have to process the water I drank to create sweat- I was doing this for it and doing it very regularly, all day. This didn’t please my nipples, which started to tingle in the not-so-fun way. My sides and stomach also started chafing. But thanks to volunteers with jars of Vaseline, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I was able to lather up periodically as I ran.

Cool off ritual

I passed Andrew’s Seat and saluted him with a tip of my cap, running towards Drummond, the halfway point and where I would get my first chance to see Amanda, if the logistics of her seconding (what South Africans call supporting on course) worked out. And there she was, jumping and waiving right before entering the center of town.  I stopped for a hug and kiss, happy to see she was able to make it. Anyone we asked for advice told us seconding on this course was near impossible to do and advised us not to try. We hired a car and driver for the day to take her around and drag my lifeless body back to Durban at the end of the race. It wasn’t cheap and there was no guarantee it would work. But that day, I saw Amanda six(!) times and it was so worth it.

Happy to see Amanda. Shorts already crusted with salt from sweat.

Halfway done. Just a marathon and a little bit to go. I laughed at that thought. My legs were already achy by mile 18 or so. I wasn’t sure if that was ok or not, but I was hoping they would feel fresh up until at least 30 miles in. Oh well. The sub 9:00 bus (pace group) passed me about a marathon in. I was hoping to keep them in my sights, but there pace was too much and they seemed to be walking on a different schedule than me. Still, I wasn’t giving up on my time goal.

I couldn’t rely on my Garmin pacing exactly because it was clocking just a bit off and this was going to be close. So I started counting down from 42K (a marathon) and tried to do math in my head. At this point, I think I needed to maintain around a 9:40 pace.

The Ethembeni School came up around this point and many of the kids were out cheering. I veered over and collected as many high-fives as I could. In fact, I had been doing that all morning and would be doing more of the same all afternoon. I didn’t just PR in high fives that day, I destroyed my previous tally which was probably about 30, done in the Boilermaker 15k in 2013. So many kids were out on the course, hand held out, and I was happy to make that connection. I must have gotten hundreds. It was awesome.

Amanda with China, our driver, guide, photographer, and cheering companion. We were lucky to find him!

At some point, my heart rate stopped climbing into the 160s. I was fatigued. So I stopped using my heart rate as a guide and started using my legs, picking a pace that still felt practical and sustainable. Also somewhere in this middle third of the race there were some actual flat stretches where I could sustain a pace of around 8:20. This was good because there were still some 12:00+ uphill miles in my future.

The volunteers were amazing. Not just those organized by Comrades, but the spectators as well. I grabbed my first potatoes from a local church, some bananas, and saw so many people offering little packets of table salt to runners hoping to fend off muscle cramps.

So many runners succumbed to cramping and so many volunteers were spraying down runner’s legs with anti-cramping stuff. I’ve never seen anything like it in any other race. I must have seen hundreds of runners getting treated along the course. As I passed the Comrades provided physio services on the course, I had to look away. Dozens of runners in pain were being worked on. I was afraid even thinking about cramps would allow them to manifest in my muscles.

With about 30K left, I ran out of salt tabs- all 27 of them. Wow. I had been drinking a lot and frequently, chasing each bottle with three tabs. I was amazed at how much I underestimated my hydration needs for the day. I still had about three hours of running to do and it was hot. I started drinking the Energade as my primary hydration only taking occasional sips of water, but still squirting it all over me to cool down.

As the road sign says, 21 KM (half marathon) to Pietermaritzburg

At about the same point, I started noticing pain in my IT band. The roads were often cambered and this was starting to have an effect. With 21K (half marathon) left, the pain was substantial, and I needed 9:30 miles to go sub 9 hours. I developed a new mantra, “There is no pain... only Zuul” ...I was Zuul.

With less than 15k and still needing 9:30s, I saw Amanda on the course once again. I was pushing through the pain, reaching for that sub nine finish, racking up some 8:20 downhill miles knowing that more hills were in my path. Amanda ran with me for a bit, encouraging me. My legs were fried. Could I hold on? Yeah, maybe... man it hurts, but just maybe I can... Then suddenly a realization hit me: I had to poop. Soon.

With Amanda accompanying me a bit, I was cruising.
If I stopped to poop, that sub nine was surely going to be out of reach. Could I hold it? Could I hold the line (my pace) and hold my bowels? I decided no. At the base of Polly Shortts, the last named hill, I stopped and waited in line for about five minutes for a portapotty to do my business. When I emerged, my legs were done. I couldn’t get them going again. With 10K left, I walk up that damn hill.

Walking was painful; running was more painful. I crested the top of the hill, running, hoping my legs would warm up. I coasted downhill as runners began passing me, doing about an 11:30 mile while running. My legs were toast. I carried on for maybe a kilometer, then walked for a bit. I kept this up over the last stretch, not wanting to succumb to taking it easy and prolonging the finish, but struggling to push through the pain of running.

All throughout, other runners and the crowd supporters continued to encourage everyone. I got a lot of “congrats!” and “almost there!” cheers. Even though I was still miles away, the “almost there!” cheers felt right. One person offered, “Brooklyn?! You’ve come too far not to finish now! Well done!”

With three kilometers left I spotted a runner stagger to a wall to brace himself with while he dropped his shorts and squatted. I looked away knowing what was coming, hearing an explosive poop happen. That could have been me, I thought, as I hobbled on by. If I were at all second guessing my stop at the portapotty, that gentleman and his movement cured me of that. I made the right call.

I ran the last kilometer or so, holding on long enough for the excitement of the finish to take over. Amanda again was there to cheer and snap one last pic. I waived as I turned the corner and rounded into the final stretch. Finish line in sight, I felt an overwhelming rush of emotion and held back tears. Just paces away, I walked over the line, arms stretched out, with a big smile on my face.

The last stretch to the finish.

With better pacing I could have done it in under 9:00. Also better nutrition, but not for lack of calories. Though my energy was good for the entire race and then some (it was my legs that were fried), taking in so much of that Energade doomed my bowels. I'm not sure how much of it I drank, but if I were to guess, I'd say at least 10 satchels. If I had carried more salt with me, I wouldn't have felt compelled to drink so many.

I thought my plan was conservative, but not too conservative. And it turns out it was too aggressive in the start. I think if I walked more of the early hills, slowed up a bit, I would have had the juice to hold the line. If you're curious, here's the Garmin data (fyi, I forgot to turn the watch off after).

Pooping happened with about 10k left

It was my first ever event like this, and honestly, I’m not sure anything really compares to it. It felt very inclusive- an event not just for die hard runners even though you'd think only die hards would take up this distance. The cut off time was extended an hour so the race could be more inclusive. The qualifying time of a 5 hour marathon is there simply to be sure you can finish the event by the 12 hour limit. Of the 20,000 that lined up, only 13,000 finished.

The morning after, I listened to many runners tell their tale of where the sweeper bus picked them up. Still, they wore their Comrades race shirt proudly. One woman chatted us up at breakfast- over the years she had completed seven, though she started nine. I had originally put my medal on that morning, but soon took it off. It felt boastful. Too many had fallen short.

In Comrades, it is an honor to be able to complete the race, but anyone who is brave enough to line up at the start, regardless of how the day goes, is considered a winner. This is a sentiment that isn't often emphasized in the races I've done. Maybe it's a cultural thing- South African vs American or ultra distance vs classic distance- or maybe it's a uniquely Comrades thing. Whatever it was, I liked it.

Comrades was overall one of the best experiences of my life and I hope to be back. Perhaps in 2016 for a down year and back-to-back medal... and another shot at Bill Rowen.