Thursday, June 5, 2014

Comrades - An unexpected reaction to a legendary race

I've known about the Comrades a Marathon since reading "A Step Beyond" when I first became an Ultrarunner.   The book has a chapter on must do races.  The Comrades is #1 on the must do list.

The specs a history of the race are the subjects of numerous books.  It's the world's oldest and biggest ultramarathon.  18,000 participants.  89k. (Around 56 miles).  It's a road race that changes directions annually.  One direction is more up than down. The other is the opposite.  This year was a down year.

It took forever to get to South Africa.  From Chicago to Munich to Johannesburg to Cape Town where I spent a week relaxing, touring and running along the ocean.  To say it was beautiful would be an understatement.  Within hours I was in love.  From the coastal scenery, to the roadside zebra...the sights, sound, smells and tastes were like nothing I have ever experienced.  By day two my wife and I were already discussing the next time we visit.  I could write three blog posts about the first week of this trip alone....but we had to leave Cape Town and fly to Durban for the race.

We arrived two days before the race and were warmly welcomed.  The whole city was about Comrades.  Everyone was wearing Comrades apparel.  The energy was intense.  The whole town was buzzing.

In the morning I had the pleasure of doing a shakeout run with some of the other Americans, Michael Wardian and British phenom Jo Meek (who would go on to finish 5th).  They were so nice.  It was amazing.

The expo was typical.  Booths of vendors, chaos, excitement, energy.   There was a great display of the history of Comrades.  Many people complained about the lines and the fact that a lot of the race branded products were sold out.   It didn't seem too unusual to me.   It became clear that this race is extremely important to it's participants.  In fact, your bib indicates how many finishes you have.   It also indicates your name and whether you are an international participant which provides a good conversation starter during the race.  "where you from Scott?"

I woke up at 1:00 am.  After a breakfast spread put on by the hotel we (me and a small group of strangers from Germany that I found myself with) headed out looking for the buses.  It took some scaling of fences but we got it done.

After an extremely long bus ride through Durban I found myself at the start of the race, in Pietermaritzburg jamming into my corral.  It was interesting being around so many different people, different languages, etc.  The excitement was extreme.

The start of the race was amazing.  Chills.  We started with the National Anthem.  followed by the song Shosholoza.  Everyone was arm in arm singing.  It was moving. I cried a little.  After this they played a traditional recording of a rooster and the theme from chariots of fire.   Then a cannon blasted and off we went.

We started in the dark.  We had to stay on out toes to avoid tripping on the clothing on the trail.  I quickly learned a few things.  1) this race was not going to be easy; 2) the "down" run wasn't really down, or all down, or didn't feel down.  This race was brutal.  It was warmish, in the 80's and we were constantly either running up (too steeply) or down (too steeply).   My goals going into this race were to : 1) finish; 2) NOT spend my only run across Africa worrying about my time.  I accomplished both.  (11:03ish).

A few initial observations.  No headphones allowed and people really didn't use them.  I felt self conscious about it and only used them twice for about 15 minutes.  The race was painstakingly marked by kilometer (which I have no sense of).  I didn't like that aspect.  I like not knowing.  Also, aid stations were every couple of kilometers.   They served water and an extremely sweet endurance drink out of plastic tubes that you had to bite to squirt water out of.  They also had some random fruit, potatoes and energy bites.  I also had some GU's.  The spacing and type of food effected me, but not to a degree that it made a difference.

People were extremely friendly.  I met many people while running.  I even stopped at one point to meet a Doberman and her owner was the head of a Doberman Rescue in SA.  With the exception of the presumably drunk person near the end that yelled "be a man and run faster," every single person running, spectating and/or working at the race was AMAZING and acted as if my finish was personal to them.  My bib had my name and people used it.  I can't say enough about how important this event the entire country.

I struggled.  I figured I would take it conservative until the halfway point and then cruise the down portion comfortably.  From a running perspective none of it was comfortable.   4,000 feet of vertical climbing over 56 miles.  It was crazy.  I wasn't prepared for it.   I did quite a bit of walking.

I made it to the finish in 11:03.  The race ends through the streets of downtown Durban and then into a huge stadium which is PACKED.   Everyone was screaming my name.  It felt like I won the Super Bowl.   I'll never forget that.

I learned a lot about life, the world, and myself on this trip.   In Cape town we stayed in a really upscale area and only saw the poorer neighborhoods on occasion (and quickly turned around).  During the race the magnitude of the poverty many South Africans live in completely devastated me.  I made a point of high fiveing every child on the course that was near me.  Sometimes with two hands.  Sometimes to the detriment of my race.  They wanted anything I could give them, but they settled for a touch.  They collected the clothing we threw away, they collected the unused water tubes and food.  I looked deeply into their eyes as they sang Shosholowza to me.  I thought about them every time I heard that song for the rest of the race and it brought me to tears.  I spent much of the race in a state of extreme sadness.   Seeing the wealthy folks later in the race only made that feeling worse.

I realize the race brings money and good to the community.  I know only a few of you will really understand this, those of you who have been there.  There's nothing wrong with the Comrades.  It was amazing.  But I can't lie, the poverty and sadness ruined the experience for me.  I completely broke down in tears of sadness at the finish.  I will forever be haunted by the looks on their faces.  I'm crying as I write this on the plane ride home.  A part of me is ashamed to live in a world where it is OK for people to live like that.  If I ever return it will be with something more for that community than high fives.

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