COMRADES ULTRAMARATHON 2008

June 18, 2008 at 11:27 am 3 comments

On Sunday, June 15, 2008 I challenged, survived, but did not conquer the Great Human Race, the one and only Comrades Ultramarathon.

Before I blast off like a starting gun and start my recollection of events from that day, it is only appropriate that I first begin with a short history of this legendary run.

The founding idea for the Comrades Ultramarathon is given to a man by the name of Vic Clapham, a World War 1 veteran who wished to capture the spirit of camaraderie and the grueling physical and mental pain of the war as a way to remember all of his fellow comrades. On May 24, 1921 that dream was realized when 34 men toed the line outside City Hall in Pietermaritzburg and prepared themselves to run the 56 miles to the coastal city, Durban. Except for the years, 1941-1945, during the second World War, the race has been run every year since 1921. This year, 2008, marked the 83rd running of the Comrades Ultramarathon. Over 11,000 participants started the race in the coastal city of Durban and climbed 900 meters to the finish line in Pietermaritzburg. Next year the race will alternate, as tradition, and will begin in Pietermaritzburg and descend to Durban. [If you wish to learn more about the race, you can visit the website at: http://www.comrades.com.]

Sunday morning, June 15, 2008 – 3:45am

My alarm sounded the bell and I rose without hesitation. Despite knowing the great physical challenge that loomed before me, I managed to quiet my thoughts long enough to get a few hours of sleep. Already I had my shorts and jersey laid out on the floor with number pinned on and timing chip strapped to my shoe. It was only a few seconds before I was dressed and ready for what lay ahead. In the 30 minutes before the taxi was to arrive and take us all to the starting line, I ate my traditional prerace breakfast, oatmeal and toast, and even managed to phone my family one last time. Because of the time difference, I was able to call them just before they headed off to sleep. Before they would even rise from the comforts of their bed, I was hoping to have completed the grueling 54 mile race to Pietermaritzburg.

-4:30am

The taxi arrived and 6 wide eyed runners, 4 from South Africa, one from San Fransisco, and one corn-fed Iowa boy, climbed aboard, united as fellow comrades under one goal. The city street lights shone brightly and beneath their glow, men and women of all types smiled and laughed with arms tucked tightly around themselves to stay warm in the early morning chill. The sun would not be joining us for another 3 hours.

-4:45am

We arrived at the starting location. The area was teaming with runners. Some of them sipping on steaming styrofoam cups of coffee and soup. Others standing in long lines to use the toilet. I myself made straight for the starting line. My qualifying time had been fast enough to get me into the first group of runners. I was situated right in the front with a perfect view to take in the whole experience. Once I was inside the small designated area I began eyeing up all of my fellow comrades. Some of them wore interesting head gear. One man was wearing a pair of bunny ears and another a traditional Zulu headdress equipped with feathers and porcupine quills. Many runners were sporting trashbags as a second layer of clothing to stay warm. Runners of young and old, jumped up and down and did all they could to stay warm in the confined area. Great spot lights shone down on us from the scaffolding. Commentators made humorous comments to quiet the demons in our head that told us to quit now before it was too late. Music blared from the speakers and colored balloons and banners waivered in the air.

-5:25am

We were packed tightly together, bodies rubbing against one another. The smell of body odor and sweat permeated the air…we had been contained long enough. We anxiously waited for the gate to open so we could finally burst forth into open space with room to stretch our legs and lungs. In the final minutes the South African National Anthem rang out, then the traditional double “cock-crow” from the speakers…”cock-a-doodle doo! cock-a-doodle doo!”, and lastly three minutes of the song from Chariots of Fire. And with that the starter raised his gun and fired and 11,000 runners and one wide-eyed boy from the USA dashed down the road in the dark, not knowing what to expect for the next 7 hours.

-5:30am

Knowing full well that 54 miles was not a walk in the park distance and recalling the most frequent advice I was given from veteran Comrades runners…”START SLOW!”…I started slow. Despite having been situated in the A group, I found myself getting passed by hundereds and soon to be thousands of runners. Men and women came dashing past my left and right side. I continued to run my slow relaxed pace asking them, “where are you going in such a hurry? …Do you not know that we still have 50+ miles to go?” I laughed at their inability to restrain their excitement and urges knowing full well that I would be meeting them later down the road. At one point as I crested an early hill I looked far ahead and estimated at least 3,000 runners before me. I glanced back and saw bobbing heads as far back as I my eyes could reach in the dim street lights.

[I had chosen not to wear a watch for this race. So I will not be able to give my 5k splits like I had done in the Longtom Ultramarathon in March. One reason I did not wear my watch for the Comrades was due to the dreadful thought of looking down at my wrist in fatigue only to realize that another 4 hours of torture remained. I didn’t want to have the temptation to look at my time, rather, I chose to listen to my body and run the pace it wanted and not what my Timex desired.]

As I cruised comfortably through the dark city streets and out onto the free way heading towards Pietermaritzburg I caught sight of one man that I met in the starting area. When I caught him we ran together, making jokes and doing anything to keep ourselves from remembering that we were running. You see, the trick to running a 54 mile race is to run at least half of it without actually realizing that you are running. To do that, a runner must find distractions allowing their mind to wander in thought, to enjoy the surrounding scenery, and talk with other runners around them. We ran comfortably together until I grabbed hold a cold water satchet to drink and felt the urge to urinate. Damn! I hated having to stop to pee and despite suggestions from my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers…I was not going to pee while running, certainly NOT with nearly 50 miles to go. So I told my new friend that I must stop and promised to catch up later. Unfortunately, I never saw him again.

-7:30am

The rest of the early portion of the run was much the same. The sun finally came into full sight. I continued to run comfortably taking in water and energade (like gatorade) at every 2km support station. Without increasing my pace, I started to pass runners nearly as quickly as they had run past me in the early minutes. All of this just added to the joy and ease at which I was running. I cruised to Cowies Hill (17km into the race) at a time of 1:17.56 (7:30min/mile pace). I was in no hurry and felt good enough to run at that pace all day.

-8:42am (halfway point)

I think I got a bit excited and unknowingly increased my pace. The lure of slowing runners must have been too much. Along with the great crowd support and the not to distant halfway point I dropped my pace from 7:30min/mile to 7:15min/mile. At Drummond, 43 km into the race, my time was 3:12.41. As I came through the Drummond checkpoint I felt like I was floating on air. The bright green and yellow balloons and the large welcoming banner that loomed across the road were such a beautiful sight. It marked the halfway point and from what I was told…if you make it to Drummond feeling good, know that the hardest hill climbing is behind you and a good race is in the cards for you. I came through that checkpoint thinking just that. I was waving at the crowd, giving them thumbs up, and blowing kisses. I was on cloud 9…how quickly that was all to change.

-8:43am

As quickly as the excitement of finishing the first marathon came, I was quickly reminded that the next marathon was not going to be easy. Just around the corner at Drummond was the mightly Inchanga hill. I pressed forward and felt some pain in my left patella tendon under my knee. It was too early to start pushing through pain so I eased up and took the hill with ease. As I came to the top of the Inchanga Hill I started to descend and with that my knee pain disappeared never to return again. It was just one of those moments during the Comrades when different parts of your body say, “Stop! What are you doing to us?” and all the mind can say is, “Shut up! You’ll get your rest at the end.” I descended into a beautiful valley just in time to meet an old time train engine pulling cars of tourists. I waved enthusiastically at the conductor and passengers letting them know that I was having the time of my life. And up until that point…I was.

-9:55am

When I reached Cato Ridge, about 27km remaining in the race, in a time of 4:25.47 my pace was at 7:10min/mile. I had been running what I thought was the perfect race. Taking in plenty of fluids, gradually increasing my pace, and feeling strong. However, suddenly around Cato Ridge my body sayed “I am finished!” I hit ”the wall”. I don’t know why it happened. Maybe it was my improper training? Maybe I had eaten the wrong foods? Maybe my pace was too aggressive? All these things came into my head, but the answer didn’t matter at that point. I still had 27km to go (16.78miles) and my body was done. It was at this point that I finally had to stop and walk. I walked as quickly as I could which wasn’t all that fast. Spectators drinking beer and eating bacon and eggs yelled, “come on you can do it!” I smiled at them and said thanks, but deep inside my exhausted heart was saying, “Ha fatty, you wanna trade places?” A medical runner rescue van soon came buy and the driver asked me if I was okay. “Do you need our help?” she said. I politely told them I was fine, but my body said, ”Please help me!”

It was at this point that I realized why the Comrades Ultramarathon is coined the Human Race. The race challenges the powers and abilities of the whole human…body, mind, and spirit. Although my body had reached its limit, it was my other remaining parts, my mind and spirit, that stayed strong. Had the decision to quit been left solely to my body, I would not have finished the Comrades Ultra. However, because of the thoughts of family and friends supporting me and praying for me and the strength of God in my soul, knowing full well that with Him anything can be done, I was not going to quit. Quitting was not an option.

Soon after Cato Ridge I mustered the strength to continue running. The next remaining 3 hours were to be a living hell. I can honestly tell you that I have never done something so physically painful as what I did that day. My eyes fell on each kilometer sign…27…26…25…24. The kilometers seemed to go by so slow. At this point the burning sensation in my small toes finally told me the story of what was going on within the soles of my shoes. I felt a burst of fluid and pain in my left foot knowing full well that a blister had given up the battle. Before looking down at my shoe I tried to guess…”was it just fluid or is it blood?…I am going to guess…BLOOD!” Yep, I was right. I looked down only to find my relatively new white running shoes boasting a bright red spot near the outer edges of the toe. At some point later in the race, the same fate happened to my right foot, but I didn’t notice that one. I merely laughed it off and continued. Eventually the pain turned to numbness and was forgotten until later days.

-10:34am

I reached Camperdown in a time of 5:04.26 just before the highest point of the race, Umlaas Road, at just over 900meters. At that point I had started to slow my pace considerably and was getting passed by runners for the first time in the race, except for the early beginning. One Russian woman named Farwa who I had passed some time back caught up to me. I still had enough energy in me to increase my pace slightly to keep up with her, thinking that I could possibly get on television if I finished with her. However, as we reached the top of Umlaas Road and began to descend the hill, that woman dropped the hammer and left me and another guy in the dust with mouths agape. I never saw her again.

-11:59am

Finally the moment I had been fearing came and I reached the dreaded Polly Shortts, just passed Ashburton. Polly Shortts is a famous hill because of its length, grade, and unpleasant location in the race. When a runner, having completed 77 kilometers already, reaches Polly Shortts and lays eyes on the monster in his or her path, it crushes the heart. My goal was to not walk up the 2 kilometer hill. I ended up having to walk at some point but forced myself to run most of it. When I reached the top of the hill I found my time to be 6:29.46 (8:00min/mile pace). My pace had dropped considerably but at this point all my goals had been reevaluated. No longer was I shooting for sub 7hours, no longer was a expecting a silver medal, no longer was I hoping to finish…I just didn’t want to die!

Even though I saw the 8km to go sign and rejoiced in my heart, I could not get my legs to go any faster. I stubbled and shuffled my feet towards the finish all the while forcing myself not to walk. Over the final 8 kilometers I could only muster a 10:00min/mile pace. Runners came flying past me but I did not fight back. A child on a tricycle could have gone passed and I wouldn’t have cared the least.

-12:42pm (the end)

As I finally came to the end of the road and entered the stadium of fans and supporters. I tried to give them a show, but nothing was to be given. As they banged on signs and cheered with all their might, I ran with all my might which turned out to be very little. As I came around the corner I saw the finish line and closed my eyes and nearly cried at the sight I had wanted so desperately 3 hours ago and 16 miles back. I looked at the time to see 7hours 12minutes and knew full well that I had won my silver medal. I crossed the finish line and stubbled around disoriented and wanted nothing other than to sit down and die. I searched through my blurred and confused eyes for shade but found none. I located a porta john and sat inside and started to cry. Not from joy or excitement but from pain. I had never had so much pain in my life. After some time I decided that I had no desire to stay in Pietermaritzburg and enjoy the event…I just wanted to go back to Durban and sleep on a bed. I made my way for the buses. Slowly and unsurely, I climbed the formidably stairs to the parking area, but when I reached the information center they said the buses would not be leaving for another 2 hours. My heart was broken again. I asked some members of the South African Police Running Club if I could sit in their chair for a while and they offered me a mattress and blanket instead. They took me into their tent and laid me down. They iced my hamstrings which throbbed with pain and gave me a sausage on a bun, which my stomach did not desire. I am not sure how long I slept there in the tent, but I did sleep. To this day and forever, will I be greatful for the kindness that they showed me in caring for me after the race…exemplifying the true spirit and camaraderie of the day.

-2:45pm

After 2 hours time I awoke and caught the first transport back to Durban. I reached Durban around 3:30pm overjoyed to be back. It would not be until later days, after the pain had subsided, that I would be thrilled over my performance and begin talking about The Comrades 2009.  I had finished the 2008 race in an official time of 7:11.31 in an overall place of 235 (53rd in my age group).   

Remembrance

As I close the chapter on the day, I just want to say that my heart (now fully fixed) goes out to all of my fellow comrades who ran that Human Race. Although I felt so much pain in my body following the race, my heart and soul rejoiced because I had finished and achieved my goal to win a silver medal. However, I met many fellow Comrades afterwards who not only suffered the pain of a broken body but of a broken heart and shattered dreams as well. One fellow comrade had suffered a relapse from his Yellow Fever vaccination and became terribly ill. Despite traveling from Australia to run the race and spending the many hours of necessary training, he did not get to participate in the 2008 Comrades. One other fellow comrade had managed to run 60 kilometers at a pace to reach his goal of 10:00 hours. However, after eating a banana he threw up and after that his body refused anything he tried to ingest, including water. He became severely dehydrated and his blood pressure dropped so low that medical support didn’t let him finish the race. Despite traveling from San Fransisco, USA to run the race and spending the many hours of necessary training, he did not get to finish the 2008 Comrades. Another fellow comrade managed to complete the race from start to finish, however, he completed the race in 12hours and 1 minute only to fall ONE MINUTE short of the cut off time. He was not given a medal for running the 2008 Comrades. These are just a few stories from some of the brave men that were willing to battle the Human Race and lost. I am sure that there are countless other stories from other similar men and women to tell. However, each of these fallen men were committed to returning again to conquer the great race next year. And I myself, having felt as though I was defeated by the race, have vowed to return next year and finish feeling victorious.

Thank you to all for your prayers and thoughts. It was your messages of love and support that made me get through the 2008 Comrades and reach new heights of personal achievement. God Bless you all.

[Because few people were able to come watch me run the race, I do not have any photographs to post. However, if you go to the website: http://www.actionphoto.net/ap.aspx and select the event “Comrades 2008” and type in my race number: 34312 you will see some pictures of me during the race thanks to Action Photo. ]

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Entry filed under: Running.

Pudulogo P.S. Plays Tough…PCV Proud as Ever!! Integrated? You bet I am!!

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sarah  |  June 18, 2008 at 5:05 pm

    Way to go Adam! You are a superhero. What an amazing experience. And a silver medal to boot. Not bad, not bad at all.

  • 2. megan  |  July 21, 2008 at 9:58 am

    adam … you are seriously on of the greatest, most inspirational people I know.
    Who ever thought that reading about someone running for 7 hours could be so entertaining??

  • 3. Sweder  |  February 7, 2009 at 10:22 am

    Congratulations Adam. Reading your story brought back all the emotions of my Two Oceans adventure in 2007, especially the desperation when your body starts to fail, and the numb feeling of . . . nothing at the end. It’s weird isn’t it? You think you’ll be elated, but that comes, gentler and more profound, some hours and days later.

    Good luck and God’s speed for future races.
    Sweder

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The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps

Here are some famous blogs to check out from three of my good Peace Corps buddies!

A.J. KUMAR ajinsa.blogspot.com JOEY CARDELLA http://njebe.blogspot.com SARAH HORNS http://hornzyinafrica.blogspot.com

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