90km of Crazy
I know what I must speak on today, I can hear him tell me. I need to share this message. Someone needs to hear it. I bow and pray as I thank God for his message, as I begin to prepare my sermon for Sunday.
“We aren't running the Comrades marathon this year.” That's what we have declared multiple times to those who have enquired. “We are taking a gap year, and that includes running Comrades. I'll come back next year for number ten,” I confidently proclaim.
Then why is it that I find myself standing scantily dressed in running gear in the pitch dark huddled with 18,000 other nervous runners while the haunting strains of Chariots of Fire blast through the speakers at the start of the Comrades Marathon? Let's back up a bit.
It's a year of travel and adventure that we have planned. Getting in training for Comrades is not going to happen, and also after running 9 in a row a break will be good. Especially as there is only one word to describe the 90km experience for me - brutal! So we aren't running it this year. Well, that is until some crazy Aussie mates said “Hey we gonna come to South Africa to run Comrades...” so we couldn't let them do it alone. So we enter, you know, just in case they come.
The training is minimal as there are no marathons that seem to coincide with the out of the way places we are frequenting. No worries, I have plan. We're staying at Fanschhoek so I say, “Nicky, let's run a marathon.” Of course she's keen...and so after waking up a few mornings and looking at the dark world outside we roll over and say “maybe tomorrow”. But eventually “tomorrow” does come.
We set off from Franschhoek in the pitch dark using my cellphone torch for light. This is crazy! It's a simple plan - run 21km and turn around and run 21km back. Long story, short...42km is long, but we survive to tell the tale. And then a week later we do it again, but this time I feel like I've been beaten by an oversized wet porpoise. Eish! Comrades?
A few days later we find ourselves sipping wine and smelling the roses...literally, in the spectacular Kirstenbosch gardens. A message comes through from the crazed Aussies. “Sorry, we won't be able to make Comrades...” I do an Irish jig of joy. Well, that's off the agenda. I let the wine and roses wash over me. I'll drink to that.
We're back on KZN and Comrades is now drifting away into the void, where it belongs. We're headed to The Waffle House in Ramsgate. The prospect of a crispy Belgian waffles topped with icecream and honey lures us in. As we disembark from Pajey a friendly car guard says, “So are you running Comrades this year?” Huh? Who's this crazy dude talking to? “Umm, we're not sure,” I reply, still not sure why he's asking us this. “Well, if you've done 300km of training you're good to go,” he says. "I did that and finished in 11h25." We would be very happy to finish in that time...more than half an hour to spare, but that seems unlikely.
Ok, let me put this is perspective. Most Comrades runners do about 1200km of training runs between Jan and May. We, who like to come in fresh and undertrained, do about 700km...so 300km is very light indeed. I quickly check my Runkeeper app...we're closing in on 300km. But it's so little..and what's this crazy dude with the 8 month belly bulge know, even if he says he's done it?
“Let's do an ultra tester,” Nicky suggests when we are back at base camp in Cowies Hill “Let's just see how we handle it.” Sigh! And so we decide to test our bodies. You can't do this crazy Comrades thing without at least one ultra under the shoes. And so we awake before the roosters have even contemplated dawn and run for about an hour in total darkness before heading towards the Durban beachfront where we enjoy a short breakfast break before returning. 54km and it wasn't too bad...maybe it was the breakfast break.
But the fear gnaws. Yes or no? To run or not? We're enjoying ourselves in Sodwana, I'm trying to forget. Comrades is next Sunday. We attend a local church and God speaks.
“How many of you have heard God audibly speak to you?” asks the pastor. No hands go up. “How many of you would like to hear God audibly speak to you?” All the hands go up. “Well, if you want to hear God audibly speak to you, read the Bible out loud!” And how true that is. This is God's word. It is him speaking to me. And so I hear God speak.
“Fear not!” says God as the Pastor reads these words from the Bible. It's for me.
But he is not finished. His message is more direct than that. He continues, “run in such a way as to get the prize…Run like you are enjoying it.” What? This is not God speaking to me he's shouting at me. “Many people are running Comrades next week...” he continues. I'm stunned.
“There will be a wall. Press through it and before you know it you are in the stadium and it has all been worth it. Finish the race you've been called to. Listen to God when he speaks to you. He speaks to you through his Word. Sure he may also speak to you in other ways - directly, through nature, or even through other people. Listen.” It's God speaking directly to me. Wow! A peace I can't explain settles over me. Comrades is coming yet I feel such peace.
“It's last minute I know, but we've booked flights. We're coming to run Comrades.” That's what the crazy Aussie message says. After all this they're now coming. And that's how we find ourselves standing at the start of the 90th Comrades marathon, Nicky's 9th and my 10th.
Chariots of Fire fades away, the moment is here. The rooster sound crows through the speakers and seconds later the gun blasts heralding the start of our 90km journey from Durban to Pietermaritzburg.
We were never planning on doing this crazy run this year and so we have an H seeding...that means we are right at the back of the 18,000 field. When the gun goes we stand and stand and stand. It takes us 8 minutes to cross the start line and about 15 minutes before we can start to run. In a race like this, where 12 hours is the cutoff, those minutes can make the difference between a medal and no medal.
Finally we find some space and Nicky and I can run freely. We're feeling great as we move steadily up the field passing hundreds of runners. Yet nagging in the back of my mind is the wall. It's huge for me. Last year it hit at the 60km mark. That meant 30km of nausea, vomiting and walking - 5 hours! I don't want that. Yet I feel peace as we continue to push on. It's like we're flying.
We move comfortably through halfway in 5h20. We've made up loads of time. We're flying. Feeling great. The weather is not too hot and the up run, notorious for being brutal is feeling good. However at about 75km I meet the wall. It's what the pastor said. But he also said,”Press through it and before you know it you will be in the stadium.”
Nicky is, as always strong in this part of the race, but she stays with me. Nausea swamps me. Vomiting. Walking. Nausea. Vomiting. Yet before I know it we're over the daunting mountain called Polly Shorts and headed to the stadium.
The sound of that announcer's voice mingles with cheers and music pulling us inexorably towards our goal. We've slowed but have plenty of time now. As I enter the stadium I'm overwhelmed by the emotion of finishing my tenth Comrades. My children who have tirelessly supported us through the whole race with the selfless help of my cousin, are waiting. They hand me a banner and together with Nicky I round the final corner holding the banner high - “10 with God's Strength”.
There are no words to describe the feeling of finishing my 10th Comrades and earning my Green Number. They have all been a huge challenge, but somehow this is the culmination. My mind is racing, my legs are still running even though I'm standing still, my nausea fatigued stomach is still churning as I smile for the camera as I'm awarded my Green Number badge. It's over. Done in God's strength. Nicky and I have done it, and so too has the amazing Aussie-ex-Saffer crazy runner Roxie. The flood of joy is indescribable. Sometimes we just need to step beyond the line to experience the power of God - his love, joy and peace.
We finished...in 11h25. That's what the strange car guard said. Sometimes we just need to learn to listen!
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