Comrades 2003 - by Joanne Kriel               <--Prev : Next-->

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 places.

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 world.

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 cheers.

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 half way!

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 line.

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!!!!!