On June 1st I ran in the 89K Comrades Ultra in South Africa. It was so much harder than I thought it would be. I’m feeling better now, but I was pretty battered after the race. Everything hurt. Even my eyebrows. Toenails. Earlobes. EVERYTHING.
It really was an amazing race, though. Unbelievable to see such a huge crowd, 18,000 strong. It’s a point-to-point race between the cities of Pietermaritzburg and Duban, with the course alternated every year. This was a so-called “down” year, as there would be a net drop into Durban. But as I would see, there was still a huge amount of uphill running on the course.
My friend Lloyd Henry ran with me for the first 50K. As background: the race organizers give out different medals for different finishing times: winning medals, gold to top 10, silver after that, bronze up to 11 hours, then a different medal for 11-12 hours. And the cut-off is brutal: they do a countdown to the 12 hour mark, and when they fire the race-ending gun, the race is truly over. The finish in is a big stadium, and it’s a strange kind of shadenfreud to see the runners struggling to make the cut-off and failing. On the news later that day they showed a runner just feet shy of the finish line, then collapsing in disappointment when the gun sounded.
I knew about the cut-off beforehand, and I was determined to not get shut out. My plan was to go slow but keep up a steady pace, maintaining a 9:30-10 minute per mile pace, allowing for some walking on the toughest of the five big hills on the course. As the race unfolded, I saw beautiful panoramic views of the Kwaza/Natal countryside – just what you would expect the African countryside to look like. There were also thousands of supportive spectators cheering us on.
When I was about a half marathon away from the finish (the markers count down, not up), I realized the at bad as I felt – and I was quite sore and tired by that point – I had a shot at the bronze, even with walking. But things weren’t going to be quite so easy. Embedded in the middle of the roadway are small metal-encased reflectors called Cat’s Eyes. I was warned about the potential for tripping, and in fact I saw one woman face-plant very early on. And that’s exactly what I did, too, with just 4K left. I landed flat on my belly. The race is known for the comeraderie of the runners, and sure enough, 2 other runners were on me in a flash helping me to get up.
Luckily, I didn’t have any real injury to prevent my finishing, though my big toe was bruised afterwards, and my left palm was sore. But I caught the sub-11 pace group and stuck with them for a while. This gave me one of my great race experiences: the pace group started singing the unofficial anthem of South Africa, Shosaloza, as we ran. I don’t know the words of the song, since it’s not in English, but it sounded beautiful.
I held pace and earned my bronze medal, and enjoyed the great post-race food and a massage. It was perhaps the most difficult race I’d ever ran, but it is also now one of my favorite race memories. A race not to be missed if at al possible.