Lessons from the Comrades Marathon

Last Sunday, I made it to the start line of the Comrades Marathon – the world’s oldest and largest ultramarathon – for the first time. Unfortunately, as fate would have it, I did not make it as far as the finish line, and was not able to hang that longed-for medal around my neck.  

After struggling with severe sciatica from four weeks before the race, and grappling with tightness and inflammation in my right hip flexors, I found myself in bed battling the ‘flu virus three days before the race, and then additionally a stomach bug with two days to go to race day. Clearly, 2019 was not going to be my year, and I began trying to make my peace with that.

Fortunately, however, my fever broke with one day to go, and, with my heart no longer at risk, though still struggling with my stomach and hip, I was at least given the green light from my doctor to get to the start line and experience the magic of being some small part of this “ultimate human race.” I didn’t expect to make it far (though of course a small part of me still hoped for a miracle that might somehow get me to the finish line), but hoped to get at least as far as my home town of Hillcrest, 30kms into the race. I had promised friends and family that I would take it as easy as my body needed me to, and retire as soon as I felt my health was in any serious risk in any way. 

I will be forever grateful that, despite the circumstances, I made it to the start line that morning, and experienced the challenge, the pain, and the joy of this phenomenal display of human connection, determination, effort, support and emotion. 

Ready, set….

I made it only as far at 50kms, but soaked up the amazing experience as consciously and gratefully as possible, and spent a fair amount of the time noticing the lessons I was learning along the way, which I thought I would capture here:

  • The camaraderie and spirit of the Comrades Marathon truly is incredible, and utterly unique. 
  • Even though many people may have told you that the first 38kms of Comrades is uphill, and you’ve seen the route profile, and you’ve been told that the first 42,2kms of the race is one of the toughest marathon routes in the world, you don’t actually believe how tough it is running all those hills until you experience it. 
  • Doing relatively easy marathons to prepare for a Comrades up run isn’t doing yourself any favours. Sure, you can pick a nice fast course for ONE of them to get a good seeding time, but make your other marathons and long runs as tough and hilly as possible – you need the mental and physical preparation! My attitude to marathons will never be the same again. 
  • I found myself craving real, solid food (rather than the gels and energy bars that were easy to carry with me) much earlier in the race than I had anticipated, and hadn’t prepared for that adequately in our support plan.
  • I felt much more relaxed once I had persuaded my sister (with whom I ran an amazing Two Oceans this year, enjoying every step of the way together) and my training partner to run ahead and leave me to slow down and go whatever pace I could manage. While I loved their support and caring, I knew I needed to slow down and I wanted them to each have the amazing race they had trained so hard for. This wasn’t a selfless act: it took the pressure off ME, so I no longer had to worry about slowing them down or taking whatever stops I needed along the way. They both ran incredibly well all the way to the finish line 🙂
  • It was warm and humid at the start when I expected it to be cold, and I got very cold later in the day when I had expected to be hot, but had by then discarded my arm warmers and had to just shiver. Prepare for anything!
  • Even if you feel at peace with your decision to withdraw from the race on the day, knowing its wisdom and logic, you will still grieve for the loss of the dream of crossing the finish line that you have held close to your heart for years. In my case, the grief hit me the next morning in waves, but by Tuesday I had managed to find my calm perspective again. It’s okay to grieve for something you have worked so hard for, for so long, and still couldn’t achieve.
  • There are a few thousand runners who don’t finish Comrades every year, after going through their own personal struggles both physically and psychologically. For many people, that is just part of their many Comrades experiences – that one or two years that, for whatever unique reason, the finish line was out of reach. Most of them come back and run many more Comrades, learning the lessons of humility, acceptance and the determination to get back up and try again, and they are able to offer great wisdom and empathy to those of us for whom this is a new experience. I stand in excellent company.
  • This was the first running race I have ever not finished, once having started (though there are a fair few I have entered and then not been able to start due to illness or injury), and it certainly gifted me with empathy and understanding for others who have, for whatever reason, not been able to finish a race.
  • Arnica Ice is truly an amazing thing, and the physiotherapists along the route could have been wearing angel’s wings for the relief they brought, however brief the respite lasted!
  • Climbing slowly up Inchanga (the fourth of the “big five” hills of the Comrades up run), someone near me shouted, “Look left everyone! Look at that beautiful view! Look at our beautiful country!” While many were too exhausted to raise their heads, I let out a whoop of joy and felt my spirits soar, despite my pain and knowing I wouldn’t be able to go much further. It’s a wonderful thing to call out and invite others to and share a moment of beauty with us. 
  • The steady rhythm of a tambourine beating time for hundreds of determined feet can be incredibly soothing to the soul.
  • Unfortunately, due to my stomach bug, I had to explore rather a lot of Portaloos along the route. The queues got shorter as the race went on, but the quality of the toilets deteriorated from flush systems to smelly long-drops, as did the state the thousands of runners before me had left them in – in fact, some toilet stops I had to skip completely due to the insides of people’s stomachs being plastered dramatically all over them (I actually don’t even know how it’s physically possible to make quite such a mess, however bad your diarrhoea might be). Carrying your own sanitary wipes and toilet tissue is essential (fortunately I had enough), and all Portaloos are NOT created equal!
  • A number of songs played along the route brought tears to my eyes, and hearing Ndihamba Nawe as I came through my home town, cheered by hundreds of friendly faces along the way, made my heart tight with emotion, wanting to etch the moment deep into my soul.
  • I truly now understand why Comrades runners have such a deep-seated fear of the flu, above all else. Next year I will have a much more effective health-boosting, flu-avoiding strategy, which I will sit down and plan with my doctor before the new year creeps over the horizon. 
  • Running to raise funds for a charity you care about adds a rich additional level of satisfaction to the experience, and being fortunate enough to run for the Hillcrest AIDS Centre Trust – very close to my heart, after having worked there for a number of years – was a particularly special experience. The effort they put into making the experience unique for their runners is quite remarkable, down to the smallest and most personalised of gifts, and the hero’s welcome we received running past the Centre on race day. 
  • The support of partners, children, friends, club mates, family and strangers pouring in before, during and after the run was truly, deeply heart-warming, and something to be grateful for no matter HOW the run goes on the day. 
  • Perfectly boiled sweet potatoes with salt is THE most heavenly food to eat on an ultramarathon!
  • Quotes and songs that lift your spirits and keep you getting back up and trying again, with an open heart and good dose of perspective, are worth keeping around. “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” ― Theodore Roosevelt
  • The relentless, beautiful, indelible progress of time will sweep me towards next year’s start line day by day: older, wiser, and even better prepared.

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