The Comrades, South Africa

Well done Katie and Ian – proud of you two squaddies!
56 miles. If you say it quickly, after you’ve been drinking, it doesn’t sound too bad…. however, the night before the race whilst pinning numbers to vests, attaching chips to trainers and putting as much tape and voltarol on my dodgy ITB as possible, it suddenly sounds like a really long way indeed.
For those of you who have not been bored by this story before, we find ourselves in a hotel 15 miles outside of Pietermaritzburg on the South East coast of South Africa preparing to run the Comrades Ultra Marathon due to family commitments. Ian’s brother in law is a living legend. His name is Barry Holland. This year was an important year for Barry, the year of his 60th birthday and the year that he was to run his 40th consecutive Comrades marathon. To put this in perspective, Barry has run the Comrades every year since he has been able to – the minimum age for entrants is 20. No one else has ever achieved this feat. We couldn’t miss out on such an occasion, especially after the onslaught of emotional blackmail and jibes about 56 miles being “too far for the Poms”…!!
The Comrades is a point to point race, run between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. The route alternates every year between the “uphill” run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg and the “downhill” run between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. This year was a downhill year. Downhill – that must mean there’s lots of downhill sections shouldn’t it? Er, no, not really as it turns out! For a downhill course there was an enormous, never ending supply of uphill sections which lasted forever and ever and ever!
After waking up at 03:00, putting on our kit and surviving an edge of your seat bus trip from the hotel into Pietermaritzburg we find ourselves in the starting pens at 05:00 along with 15,000 other nutters. It is pitch black and there’s not much to see, but there is a huge buzz and the atmosphere is amazing. There are people singing and dancing. There is an overwhelming stench of deep heat. Ian’s brother, Bruce, is wandering around wearing a tartan blanket like a skirt and asking ladies if they want to see what’s under it… (shorts!) The South African national anthem signifies the start of the countdown to the start and then, before we know it, it’s time to go.
To be honest, I can’t really remember the scenery in too much detail. I can remember that there were parts with stunning views across the South African countryside and that there were parts in which the scenery was quite barren. We also ran through numerous small towns and villagers where there were huge crowds of supporters. What I can remember the most was the amount of support along the entire length of the course. Not one part of the 56 mile route was without spectators – people had driven out into the middle of nowhere and set up deckchairs, tents and braais (barbecues). There were loads of different types of bands, majorettes, school children, cheerleaders, lots of drunk people shouting at you to run faster while they drank beer and ate burgers, lots of kids wanting to high five you every 10 seconds. It was unbelievable.
It took a huge amount of mental strength to keep going and to get to the end, especially as we were both slightly injured before we even started. My ITB starting playing up at about the half way point and Ian had a dodgy ankle, but it was worth persevering to finish in the stadium in front of the massive cheering crowd. We made it in under 11 hours, which was our target (so that we got a “proper” medal). Finishing was very emotional, mainly because we were both so tired.
What was heart breaking was to see the poor souls who made it to the Stadium after the 12:00 time limit had expired. Comrades is harsh – if you get to the end in over 12 hours you get nothing, most people weren’t even allowed into the stadium and were turned away.
So, Comrades done. Tick that one off of the list. We’ve both said never again, although I am starting to wonder how much faster I could have run with a bit more training and without a dodgy IT Band and it will be Ian’s sister’s 20th Comrades in 2014….. and, of course, there’s always the Two Oceans to consider!

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