The Starting line of the Comrades 2003
was once again the most beautiful moment of the whole race. Perhaps this
is because we are not running yet and not in any pain, but sometimes I
think the fear of the unknown and the anxiety of what's to come is even
more painful than the race itself.
13300 athletes lined the streets of
Pietermaritzburg in a cold 8 degrees, an icy and a dark Monday morning.
The Chariots of Fire theme song played for around 15 minutes and brought
tears to my eyes once again. We were huddled in amongst thousands of
athletes, it was so warm and such a peaceful moment. A kind of calm
before the storm. The one thing that I remember so well was the deathly
and almost disturbing silence amongst all the runners. It was quite
eerie and you could sense the fear amongst them all. It was a gut
wrenching moment, like being frozen in time.
It took over 5 minutes to cross the
starting line. A human snake had taken off for the 12 hour, 89.9km race
of their lives. Out of 13300 runners, only 750 did not finish. This was
perhaps due to the 12 hour cut off which was a new time this year. I
must say, it took the pressure off me knowing I did not have to kill
myself this time to get to the finish line on time. There was a 35%
increase in the number of women entering the race this year, which was
just wonderful to see. We were wall-to-wall runners for at least 75% of
the race, which made running at your own pace a little hard in some
The oldest man of 76 years was running
his 12th Comrades. The oldest woman of 74 years. The largest age group
was age 35-39. There were over 1500 novice runners (1st timers). A man
wearing a 1920's army uniform with helmet, back pack and gun in tow. He
ran the whole way in army boots. There was another man who ran the whole
way in his slip slops. I ran for quite a way with a man aged 74 who was
a fireball of energy and fun. All sorts of people from all over the
I caught a glimpse of the 89km to go
marker and almost had a fit. The harsh reality had hit me for the first
time in the race and I vowed not to look at another kilometre marker or
the clock until the first cut off point. We ran the first of the big
five hills, Polly Shorrts, just 9-km's into the race. This was a small
hill, which was quite insignificant really. Passed the highest point of
810 metres above sea level in the cold, wet and very dark early hours of
the morning. We ran through the first checkpoint of 17-km's in a time of
1 hour 55 minutes. I was very pleased with this time, very pleased
indeed! I ran with my running partner, Faith from Brisbane and we had
made a pact to stay together the entire way. This was quite comforting
to me. It was still quite cold and we ran with two windbreakers for up
to 2-3 hours. The gloves were a saving grace! Ahead, you could see a
human chain of heavy puffs of cold air. The air is so thin and cold.
I had to stop at the 20-km marker to
get band-aids for the blisters that were already starting to form on my
toes. I did not want a silly blister to decide my fate for me. They
never bothered me again thank goodness. We picked up another of our
running buddies at this point and the three of us ran together, causing
all sorts of havoc along the way.
29-km's into the run and for the next
20-km's we would run over many small hills, but we climbed quite a way
towards sea level. There were long stretches of lonely pathways, but the
scenery was spectacular. The Valley of 1000 hills, misty mountaintops
and the awesome sight of the human snake slithering along. We ran past
Sir Arthur Newman's seat, which overlooks the magnificent mountain view.
Sir Arthur Newman was one of the founder runners in the 1920's and he
used to sit here on his training runs to admire the view. I gave Sir
Arthur a flower (which is tradition for all runners) and asked him to be
nice to me along the way.
Once again, the crowds along the route
were fantastic, motivating and, of course, humorous to us Ozzies. Every
few seconds you would hear a cheer and feel the odd consoling pat on the
back (or buttocks as one man did to me!) The constant "G'day
Sheila, how's your sheep?", "You bloody Ozzies, you beat us in
every sport!", "Ozzie, Ozzie, oi, oi, oi" and the good
old "G'day mate, how's it down under?" Down under was starting
to hurt I would reply! It was fun and so motivating to hear all the
The water stations were placed every
1.2km's with all the food that an athlete's heart desires. Bon Appetite!
Water sachets, Powerade sachets, coke, biscuits, baked potatoes with
salt, noogy bars, sports bars, oranges and of course....bananas. I think
I might have actually gained some weight on this run. Each water station
had loud music, bands and cheerleaders. The medical facilities and those
good old physios.
39-km's into the race with 50-km's to
go and the second of the big five hills looming ahead....Inchanga. The
only good thing about this downhill of around 2-km's long, is the fact
that you are running towards the halfway cut off point of 45-km's.
Nothing else good about this steep and never-ending downhill. A few body
parts began to sing out at this point. A few quad muscles croaked, a few
toes began to curl, a few hamstrings began to tweak and of course, that
ever-intriguing mind starts to wander. The hardest part about running
long distance is your attitude towards it. The mind is in control of
your mood, your emotions and your physical status. Every now and then
your mind would like to have a say in this race and you find yourself
overwhelmed with emotion and quite impatient and annoyed with the
distance ahead. It is so important to get a grip and take your mind off
the run. Do whatever you can to beat it. Break the race down into
smaller distances that are not so daunting, count the number of runners
ahead that you wish to overtake or spot someone way ahead that you would
like to beat and stay ahead of the entire way. Small things that will
help you move forward piece by piece.
We reached the half way mark in 5
hours 21 minutes, 39 minutes ahead of the cut off time. I was so
thrilled with this time, so thrilled! Might I just add in here that the
winning male finished the race in 5 hours 41 minutes.....WOW! I was only
It was time now for some mental
uplifting and to focus on the second half of the race. This is the
hardest part of the course and contains 3 of the 5 big hills. Another 5
to 6 hours of running and the pressure of muscle cramps and fatigue on
the downhills. We had been warned that the race reared its ugly head in
the last 30-km's and that the word 'Comrade' would take on its true
meaning from here on in. I was happy with the time, my physical status
and overall attitude towards the race. We were at the bottom of this
long hill, half way and ready for the next half!
Quite a long climb up towards the
third of the big hills, Botha's hill. 42-km's to go! That was nothing!
Just a marathon to go now. I told the girls that it was just like waking
up with a bad hangover and running a marathon, nothing to it! They were
not impressed to say the least. The climb up was pretty hard, long and a
bit of a drab. The run down Botha's is a gradual decline, but it is
long. At this stage, we decided to join the 11-hour human bus to take
our mind off things. This is a bus that you hop on and join in the fun
for a while. If you join this bus, you are guaranteed to get across the
line in 11 hours. They sing songs, make jokes and have a lot of fun.
They constantly move forward by walking and running every few hundred
metres. The bus moves at a great rate and if you fall off it, you are
not likely to get back on again.
We came to another very long climb up
and down hills for about 5-km's heading towards the worst of the
hills.....Fields Hill. The long climb up through Kloof and towards
Fields Hill was quite a fun part of the race. The runners start to sing
and make funny comments along the way. It is a very quiet part of the
run with no crowds lining the streets due to the terrain and
inaccessibility from the highway. We are alone, just us athletes and the
adrenaline overdose that makes us all a bit silly. There are many
cameras placed along this part of the course and it was time to show off
in front of the cameras. We can't run up this hill, so we have to show
off our athletic ability somehow. Show off, act like a clown and do
anything to attract the cameras attention. A bit of fun and quite a
tension relief for many of us.
There was a young runner sitting on
the side of the road with his head between his knees. He lifted his head
and had such a sad look on his face. It broke my heart. I asked him what
was wrong and he said he was suffering from cramps in his quads. I told
him that was no reason to sit there and to walk alongside us whilst I
offered him my cocktail of pills and drugs (approved by the drugs in
sports assoc I might add!). He walked with us for a while until he felt
better and I was so pleased to see the strength and determination of an
athlete shine through. I never saw him again, I do hope he finished.
At the top of Fields hill and the
moment we had all been dreading! Fields hill is not a long descent, but
a very steep one. The camber of the road is just awful and it places a
lot of stress on your legs at this point. We are about 25-km's from home
and starting to feel a lot of pain in the quads, calves and hamstrings.
My feet are getting very sore and the ankles are aching with every step.
My feet have swollen so much that I feel like they are popping out of
any gap found in my shoes. My legs did not feel very stable and I felt
that they might collapse underneath me. It was quite an odd feeling
indeed! Some people were walking down the hill backwards which I thought
was quite a good idea. I was not game to walk down the hill and it was
more painful than running.
20-km's to go and heading towards the
last of the big 5 hills, Cowies Hill. There are a lot of up and
downhills still to come and a long way to go. We broke the 20-km's down
into smaller and less daunting distances and tried to imagine we were
starting a half marathon race. It was at this stage that the race plan
took a drastic change. My running partner Faith was suddenly not feeling
well and became quite nauseous, pale, cold and low in energy. She looked
awful and I was so worried about her. A long way to go when you are
feeling so awful. You just want to lie on the side of the road and go to
sleep. Is this a time when an athlete pulls out for their own safety and
health, or is this a time when you haul their ass across the finish
line? My choice was to stay with faith and help her in her worst time
ever. This running partner of mine is made of sterner stuff. I am so
impressed with her determination to keep moving forward. It was no
longer a race for time, but a race to beat all the odds. Fight to stay
on your feet and fight hard not to pull out. I think that this race is
hard enough to finish when you are feeling OK, but the true test of any
athlete is when they have to tough it out under such extreme
circumstances. She is a gutsy lady! The only goal now was to get across
the finish line together.
Fields Hill and the last major hill.
17-km's from home and a hard few climbs towards the 10-km marker. We had
to walk a lot more now and the pain in my legs was getting worse. The
last 10-km's of this race is like running through a war zone. A lot of
people start to fall by the way side at this point. So near to home and
yet so far! Runners are faced with cramps and all you can see are
runners having their legs rubbed with ice and voltaren gel. Some people
are vomiting, others are walking aimlessly like lost souls and the
painful expressions on the faces of many are just too much to bear. The
worst feeling is when the 'bale' bus goes past loaded with runners who
have been forced to pull out so close to home. They sit with their heads
down low and they will not look up at you, it is too depressing for them
to see the others running.
The crowds are wonderful at this point
and will do anything to lift the spirits of the runners. They offer ice,
salt, lollies and fruit. You do not want to know about food anymore.
Tummies are bloated and water is the only thing that you can face. They
yell and cheer and drive you on as hard as they can. What started out as
an enthusiastic response of waving arms and bright smiles, has now been
reduced to a grimace and slight wave of the finger, if you can.
Faith and I finally made it to the
finish and boy did we do it tough! It took us a long time to complete
the last 10-km's, but we did it. Coming into the stadium has to be the
most gut-wrenching experience. We cleaned ourselves up, wiped off all
the vomit, dirt and mud from our faces and put on our proud smiles. We
ran together linking arms and threw our hands up in the air across the
Every runner on that course is a
winner and if you ask a Comrades marathon runner why they do it? they
will answer...."Because we can!"
Here's a little something to make you cry........ The 76-year-old man, the oldest man on the course, has run his 12th Comrades marathon. He ran 11 comrades prior to this one and never made the cut off of 11 hours. This year, his 12th Comrades and a cut off of 12 hours, he finished in a time of 11:59:59. Just one second to spare! He has finally finished a Comrades Marathon and he has finally got his medal. NOW THAT"S DETERMINATION FOR YOU!!!!!