“This is my first and last race” was what I thought towards the tail end of Comrades training for 2016 , however lo and behold when I crossed that finished line , as soon as the pain subsided I committed to achieving my back to back Comrades 2017. I had such an awesome Comrades 2016 experience so I thought, why not again. Except 2017 had different challenges in store for me……
The journey getting to the start line of Comrades 2017 was challenging and I only truly gained respect for those battles after running the race on Sunday. Many have said that you have only experienced running the Comrades if you have run the uphill one. That is so true in all it’s entirety. Comrades has relentless unnamed uphills and I have only discovered them this year after running the uphill route. Every hill felt like a mountain to climb especially in the last 20km. The phrase for this year’s Comrades 2017 was “Zinikele”, It takes all of you and that it precisely did. It took all, everything and then more of me when I thought I had nothing more to give to finish this race.
Standing at the start line with my brother and brother in law was a very emotional time for me because my journey last year was a lonely lone ranger one – this year I had them to share it with. We have run so many training runs together, struggled at Vaal marathon to qualify and prepared together for this race and finally we were here at the Ultimate Human Race. We met our fellow Jozi runners and that made it so special to all stand together and share the start of this incredible journey. It was a surreal experience standing at the start line because it’s a moment in time that one has worked so hard towards, dedicated so many hours and kilometers and have made so many sacrifices just to be at the start line, yet time moves so quickly that you can not fully comprehend you are here, being part of this magnificent yet grueling race. Then the moment came to sing Shosholoza and the National Anthem and I had this big lump in my throat overcome by this overwhelming force and energy of being part of thousands of runners all standing there together in unity feeling the same as I was feeling. I was proud to be South African and proud of the journey it takes just to be at the start line of this race. The heightened emotional part of the start for me is when Chariots of Fire starts playing and tears started rolling down my cheeks because of an accumulative feeling of total gratitude of being part of this profoundly moving moment, the start of Comrades where we all start as one but finish alone and where months of training and sacrifice has brought us together. The sound of the canon blasted and signaled the start of this epic race.
There was an electric energy and jubilation as we started to take our first steps of these 86km that lay ahead of us. We started running in the dark and cautious of everything on the floor so as not trip or fall but it took a long time to eventually get open road to gain rhythm and momentum. Vishal, Kiran and myself ran within eye view of each other until before the first cut off and met with our fellow Jozi runner Nobantu. Checking my watch I realized we had only ten minutes to cut off and that we were cutting it very close and this set the tone for the rest of the race. I kept running from one cut off to the next always keeping in mind the time and kilometers to go for each cut off. The day was now going to be run against the clock with constant pressure to finish. I realised that we had 10 mins to the first cut off and told everyone around to pace up and that’s where we all started splitting up. I kept looking back to check if I could still spot them but eventually knew that I had to keep going. That was a hard decision to make since we started together and they waited for me when I needed a toilet break and now I felt like I was leaving them behind. Many have said that you can start Comrades together but we all run our own race. It is easier said than done because we have started this long journey 9 months ago together, struggled through many races together, ran strong at some races together too and helped each other during our long runs and now each person for their own, it just didn’t feel right. We had hoped to run until half way together. It took me almost an hour or two to eventually come to peace with it and I stopped looking back for them. But I ran with a heavy heart for a long time.
As I approached Fields Hill and the sheer enormity and challenge of this race hits you. It was virtually impossible to run up those hills with the blazing sun that early in the morning and the steep incline so I power walked most of Fields Hill. I had my moment of nostalgia from last year and how easily I ran down that same hill. Very early in the race due to the heat I knew hydration and nutrition was going to be key to finishing this race. I felt the heat the most when climbing the hills, the scorching sun and dry air made it more challenging up those hills. Approaching the second cut off I saw one of Jozi’s support crew and that was Basit. He was cheering us all the way and had this abundance of energy to keep us going from the very start when we saw him. I later saw Iqbal and he too was so encouraging and concerned of all us Jozi runners. Seeing them gave me the extra boost because they both were here supporting us in this heat although they both were fasting. They stood waiting for us although it was just a few seconds of exchanging a few words because we just had to keep moving forward. Those few seconds are crucial and priceless moments of the race.
There was a part of the race and I can’t remember exactly where when I felt drained and down and I prayed, “God send me an angel to get me through this bad patch” and instantly I heard my name being called out from none other than my brother. A huge smile and relief boosted my body, morale and energy and we ran together for a few kilometers and again he waited for me when I needed a toilet break. Getting to the next hill was our final split for the day. I power walked up the hill and looked back and he said carry on and I always hoped that he was just a few meters behind me. Getting to Drummond I just prayed Vishal and Kiran would make the cut off and that marked the first half of the race and the part of the race that was most memorable because I shared it with them. We get to Comrades with the support of many people and the experience was truly memorable for me because this year I got to share it with them.
INTERVAL – while I wipe away my tears and sip on some water before getting to the grueling and brutal part of the race.
Drummond is the most vibrant and energetic part of the entire route. The loud music and the people lined on either sides of the road cheering runners on and calling their names to uplift their spirit. It was a perfect way to reach half way. There were a few down hills from there which brought great relief to me because it was only at the down hills that I could pace up and gain some time. After Drummond it was very apparent how excruciating this race is. There were many runners on the side of the roads cramping or just fatigued and had decided to call it. They started running out of water at the stations and this made it extremely difficult to keep cool. We had to use the dirty water to put over our heads so stay cool but at times we would run pass two water stations consecutively with no water to drink. They had ample Coke and Energade but after a while the coke wasn’t agreeing with my tummy so I stuck to Energade and by the third water point I was feeling sick of the Energade and felt like throwing up. I had seen many people do that during the race and so I started taking deep breaths to get over that feeling. Running the second half was just so pressurizing there was no time for toilet breaks and if I really had to it would only be after I reached the next cut off. I kept looking out for my sisters and my son after Drummond but I later found out that I just missed them at Inchanga. I know now that there was a reason why I didn’t see them that day – I felt so vulnerable, scared and drained that if I saw them I would have broken down and my race would have been compromised. Reaching Camperdown I saw Basit and Iqbal again and I could see in their faces as they saw in mine the sheer pressure, hope and will for me to finish this race.
From then on my mind was in over drive with mantras and motivational talks with myself. Legs were tired and sore now and my heart felt exhausted and my lungs shallow and runners were giving up and the strain of this race started surfacing blatantly in every way, mentally, physically and psychologically. There were so many rescue busses that look very tempting when you are in a state of exhaustion and so I just looked ahead and kept going. The dreaded thought of not finishing started emerging and then I had to dig deep down into my reserves to find the light to carry on. At 4 o clock the sun started setting and it became grey and cold very much like the phase of this part of the race. The dark, gloomy, excruciatingly painful and merciless last 1 and half hour to finish had dawned upon us. The sheer agony was etched in every single runner and I knew every runner was feeling the same as I did. All those You Tube motivational videos I watched started kicking in and I knew this was the time to define myself and the reason I already ran 80kms. The pain, fatigue and total torture of this race will subside once I cross the finish line and when I thought I didn’t have anything more in my reserves to carry on, I found the will to want to finish. I remembered my son’s prayer every night for me to finish and knew that he would be praying for me now too and all my friends and family glued to their phones tracking me and watching the race and praying for me and sending me energy and that moment I found a spark in me I never knew I had and I ran just like Forrest Gump I just ran and ran and prayed and prayed.
I saw the 12 hour bus just ahead of me with 4 kms to go and I felt relieved that I eventually caught up with the bus and that was the only ticket to finish the race. So I paced up and joined the bus. I have more respect now for the buss pacers and the runners who find themselves at this part of the race because these are the real heroes of this race. The one’s who have soldiered on, fought battles within themselves and all those unforgiving hills and still have the will power to just finish. The crowds were now fervently cheering us and that lifted the energy and morale of all the runners. You can almost taste the hope, perseverance and will power in the air in those last 2km’s. After a while I couldn’t cope with the stop start pace of the buss and I was filled with fear of not making it to the finish so I ran faster with every last bit of strength in me in me just to get into the race course and finish. The bright lights are such welcoming relief like a light at the end of the tunnel and getting to the final stretch the tears already started rolling down. I crossed the first red mat and saw the timer and final relief started creeping in that I had made it and this is real that I actually I finished. Inside I was bursting with every emotion possible while the tears were rolling down. I stood to receive the medal around my neck and never had that moment of receiving a medal felt so precious than that moment and when I received my back to back medal minutes after. I truly felt like a well deserved soldier waiting for that medal to be put around my neck. I kept saying to the marshalls and to everyone around me , “I worked so, so hard for this”.
At the end I remained true to the testament Zinikele, It took all of me….. it really did!
Comrades Back To Back Medal Runner Nita Kanjee