Monday, June 10, 2013

Comrades Marathon 2013 Race Report - The Ultimate Human Race

Comrades Marathon 2013 bronze medal

It finally sunk in. I have completed the Comrades Marathon 2013 in 10:47:20 to qualify for a bronze medal.

According to the announcer when I reached the finish line, this was the toughest condition for Comrades Marathon in 20 years. 32 degrees Celsius and strong dry head wind after a few hours into the race.

Profile Map of the "Up-run" route.

This year, Comrades Marathon is an "Up-run" from sea-level Durban to Pietermaritzburg about 640m altitude through many steep and long climbs on "Big Fives" hills and many other hills with no name. Total elevation gain is more than 2000m with elevation loss about 1360m. The official distance this year is 86.863km according to the final information given to the runners.

Coming into this race, I had tried my best to train. I am a low-mileage runner due to work and family commitment. My mileage for the past 5 months leading up to race was just short of 1000km. I spent my January nursing a metatarsal injury that prevented me to train and took a week off in March due to sprained left toe.

I wanted to join this run to gain new experience, move out of my comfort zone and take new challenges. I am not trying to prove anything or achieve any record or put numbers under my belt.

There were seven Malaysians registered for this run. This was the largest Malaysian contingent for Comrades Marathon according to the Malaysia ambassador Frank Chong, who was one of the members.

After months of training, we all made our way separately to Durban due to different travel schedule.

Malaysian runners in Comrades Marathon 2013. (from left: Roy, Wong, Francis, KK Yum, Frank, me, Chee Kong)

Fast forward to the race day. It was a cool morning around 16-18 degrees Celsius. We arrived at the starting line in front of the City Hall at 4:45am. We took some photos and chatted before start. By the time we tried to go into our respective starting pen, the entrance was jammed with many runners stuck outside. This was due to runners from the pen behind had moved ahead and into the pens in front. Chee Kong & I had to climb over the 8-foot fencing to get into the starting pen. A nervous moment there.

Photo taken with Goodwill before the race. We first met him two days earlier in Runner's World pasta party (Photo by Chee Kong)

The race started on time. I paced with Chee Kong from start. Both of us were trying to aim for a sub-9 hours finish.

I knew it was a long shot for me, but I thought I might as well give it a try. I had hoped that the weather would help a bit. It would be an extra bonus if I could do it. If I couldn't, I would be happy with a bronze or Vic Clapham medal.

From the start after we moved away from the city, we were gradually going uphill gently.

I was running quite well early on and trying to stay behind Chee Kong. Unfortunately I lost him when we took separate pit-stops to do our business behind the bushes.

After about 8km I saw my time was about 44mins. This was exactly as I had planned. Then the runners were exiting the highway and going to the trunk road into local neighbourhood.

This was where I started to see more and more supporters along the roads. They had set up tents, barbecues by the roadside and some brought own chairs and foods to watch and support. All of them were cheering for the runners. It was a great atmosphere, I was like the whole nation was supporting and cheering the runners. I read earlier, this race would be on national TV live, all 12-hours on it. A lot of South Africans would be glued to their TV to watch the race.

The climb was still on-going. Each time I made it to the top, there was another climb within the horizon. These hills were without names.

The climb to Cowie Hill was not too tough. I saw a familiar runner besides me, she was Celene. I said hi to her and asked her how she was doing. She said ok and slowly she surged ahead of me.

The next check point was at 70km-to-go mark after Cowies. I checked my time, and it read 1 hr 43mins, still on target for sub-9 finish.

We reached Pinetown (still climbing) and there were many supporters singing and cheering for us. But as we exited Pinetown and started the climb on Fields Hill, suddenly there was a dead silence. There were no supporters on the road there and the runners were not chatting and joking anymore. This was where it hit me: this would be long long day!

I walked most of Fields Hill, only ran when it was a bit gentle. I got some reprieve after Fields Hill but as the 60km-to-go mark approached, the crazy climbs continued.

It continued on and on and on until Hillcrest. Good support here from the locals. Some were calling me "Chinese", "Chinaman", "Bruce Lee", "Japanese", until one point in the race, I responded "I am Malaysian!" Others called me by my name which was printed on the bib. Very encouraging words from the crowd, such as "You're doing great!", "Keep going!"

A bit of downhill after Hillcrest, where I started to feel some strains on my quadriceps muscles. I slowed my pace and took my second gel somewhere after 55km-to-go mark.
This is where (before Botha's Hill) I saw my wife, Chee Kong's wife and Cham. (Photo by Cham)

At the other side of Hillcrest, I saw my wife, Chee Kong's wife and Cham on the left road shoulder. I was so happy to see them there. They had planned to cheer us there. I didn't get anything extra to refuel my waist pouch as I thought I was still ok. Anyway, there were ample food along the route such as salted potatoes, oranges, chocolate, and bananas. If I were adventurous, Frank told me I could even ask the local supporters for a piece of their braai (barbecue steak).

The climb on Botha's Hill, the third registered hill, was brutal, I walked most of the way. It was steeper than I thought. Then some volunteers were handling out roses to the runners. I knew then I was approaching Arthur's seat and Drummond which was the half-way point.

I picked up a rose and dropped it off at Arthur's seat with hopes of good luck for the second half of the race.

But it didn't really got better as I approached the Drummond half-way check point with split time 4:28:54. My quadriceps and hamstrings were tightening more and more. Suddenly the downhill run at Drummond had become jogging pace.

I drank more Energade from then on. They were provided in plastic sachet of about 150ml. The packages were something like ice popsicle in Malaysia, except it was not ice but electrolyte/sport drink. Water also came with similar packing and were aplenty in all the water stations. There were about 48 water/aid stations in total.

I drank a lot of water and Energade in this race and ate bit-size food at some stops. The weather was getting hotter as the sun got up higher. At every water station, I also poured some water on my head and body to cool down.

From Drummond to Umlass Road (~44 to 68km) was the most torturing section for me. After the climb or shall I say, walk to top of Inchanga, my legs were at the verge of out of control. The cramps were hitting me badly at the quadriceps and hamstring and even part of the calf muscles. At this stage of the race, I knew any hope of a sub-9 finish was gone. I just wished I could finish with sub-10 or sub-11. I was also hoping Chee Kong, Francis and the rest of the gang were doing ok. I was hoping at least Chee Kong and Francis were still on track for a Bill Rowan medal.

Slowly the sub-9 pacers went past me and I couldn't follow. The run on flat roads and downhill became increasingly difficult. Finally I decided to stop and seek help at around 35km-to-go mark. Got some cooling gels and some rubs by the physio and my legs were better. "Gosh, I should have stop earlier to get this" I was telling myself.

Passing a handicapped school I gave the students high fives and thank you for their support. They were supporting the runners all these years.

Somewhere near Cato Ridge, I began to see some other poor children along the route who were cheering us. Some were opening up their palms to ask for something from the runners. I could only offer some of them the sport drink sachets or the energy gummies I got from the previous water station.

One of the many good things about this race was that other runners would come up beside you and ask how were you and wished you well. As I was one of the few East Asian-looking runners and running with a blue bib (rookie, or first-timer), I got a lot of encouragement from some experienced runners. These runners called me by my name (on the bib). I said. "Thanks!" to them and wished them well for their run too.

The run to highest point of the route (830m) was a painful experience. I had to walk and jog from Harrison Flats (not really flat at all!) to Umlass Road. There were so many hills at this section. So many runners from lower seedings passed me and I simply couldn't keep up. My walking pace was also slower than most of the runners. Suddenly I felt so humbled by the hills and the race itself. Some other runners (mainly green number runners) were in their fifties and sixties as they have age category number stitched on their vests (This is actually an IAAF rule to qualify for age category prizes). They were climbing the hills effortlessly, I tell you.

I had never suffered so bad cramps and walked so much in a race before. I started to wonder what had I done or hadn't do to deserve this pain. Why did I bother to sign up for this Comrades Marathon? Maybe Sundown Marathon on the same weekend was a better choice! Or just taking it easy at home could be more relaxing!

I knew the reason I was in this race. The purpose kept me going and I focused on the finishing despite the pain. It was a battle between the mind and body from then on.

Once I reached the highest point, it was slightly easier running downhills but I had to control the pace so that the cramps would not get worse. I stopped at aid stations where they have physio. I asked for some "relief" by ice rub-down or cooling gels. At one water station without physio, one volunteer literally pulled me aside and gave me some rub-down on my quadriceps with ice cubes. He could sense that I was in trouble after seeing me walking slowly. He told me "You will be on your way soon. Come, let me do this first!"

I was really touched. The volunteers were superb and so supportive. Even the local residents helped out at the water stations. I felt like the whole nation was behind me, behind the runners.

One local runner called out to me. His name was Goodwill. I met him two days earlier in a pre-race pasta party organised by Runner's World and took photo with him just before the race. He told me I was doing ok and should be able to finish it within 12 hours even if I walked all the way back. He said Polly Shortts was not far and once I reached the top, it would be only 8km to go.

I met Celene again somewhere near Camperdown or after highest point. She was having major cramps and were walking. I told her to keep walking or moving and focus on the finishing and ignore the pain. Also I asked her to get some ice rub-downs in the next aid station. She did and was doing better after that. She surged ahead of me after that.

The head wind was blowing strongly at the Umlass Road section. It wasn't easy running against the wind when you have to climb the hills. The sub-10 pacer also passed me near the Umlass road. Once again, I could only watch.
Struggling on the hills with 15km to go. (Photo by Ria Bornman)

The race condition was getting worse. The sun was shining brightly and the temperature rising. The weather forecast was sunny with 32 degrees max, on that day in the winter! I began to see many runners also in trouble. Some were limping and stopping to stretch. Some just lying down on the road and waiting for medical attention (already attended by some other runners or supporters). One runner was puking on side of the road. Many runners were bailing out and were on the rescue vehicles. I have never seen such scene before. This was really unusual. I became more cautious.

Then a runner with rhinoceros costume also went past me. I guessed the rhino costume (I saw the same in the expo) that he was wearing was close to 10kg as it looked quite big and heavy. There were some runners running along side him. They were raising awareness about the illegal rhinoceros poaching in Africa. Hats off to the rhinoceros runner!

Finally, I reached Ashburton. Here there were two big climbs awaits the runners. The shorter Little Polly and the steeper and longer Polly Shortts. I had no choice but to walk all the way and hoped that I had enough energy to surge through the last 8km.

After reaching the top of Polly Shortts, I swallowed my last gel and began to run with the pain on both quadriceps. Hopefully I could reach the finish in sub-11 timing. Nothing would stop me, I told myself. I was battling the pain, the fatigue, the heat and the wind.

The road led me to the city of Pietermaritzburg. There were two more small climbs and I tackled that with all I had. The scene of me finishing the race was etched in my mind. The supporters were more and more and the cheers were getting louder and louder. The crowd was saying "5km to go!" (I passed Celene somewhere just before 5km-to-go mark), "3km to go!", and finally "One more km!"

The last km was painfully long. I swear it was the longest last km. I knew I was getting nearer as I could see fences around where I ran. A turn to the left led to a small tar road leading to side of a stadium but it wasn't! It was another 500m or so to reach the Oval stadium further down the road. Here I met Goodwill again, he said "You've made it!" After a left turn to the small road with Toyota banners on both sides I knew this was it. A right turn to grass surface, and I was on the final 200m home stretch. A slightly left bend after under a bridge then I could see the timing display on top of the finishing arch. It was the finishing arch of Comrades Marathon 2013. I looked up to see the race time was 10 hours 47 minutes. I was within the sub-11 hour timing.
At the finishing straight (photo by Cham)

Approaching the finish line.(photo by Cham)

It was an unbelievable feeling as I crossed the finish line. A brutally painful run for me and I was so happy to finish it, timing was secondary. I have to say, there were couple of moments when I thought I wouldn't. But I kept my focus and I did it! I ran the Comrades in the toughest condition in 20 years.

As I was passing through the finishing area, the officials congratulated me. And a volunteer probably in her eighties, put a bronze medal around my neck. It was then that the feeling began to sink in. I thanked her and gave her peck on the cheeks.

Then I met my wife, Chee Kong and wife, Francis, Roy and Cham at the finish line. Chee Kong and Francis got a bronze as well. I thought they could manage a Bill Rowan medal, but it was not to be. Celene came back with a bronze too. Roy pulled out just before Botha's Hill due to discomfort that he felt. I felt sorry for Roy. I knew he had trained very hard for this and came so far. I was lost of words to console him but to ask him if he was ok.

Frank, KK Yum and Wong later made it within the 12-hour cut-off. Wong had only seconds to spare when he crossed the finish line. Wong, Frank and Chee Kong earned their back-to-back medal by completing this race.

At the finishing area after the race.

It was such a humbling experience for me running the Comrades in the toughest condition. I felt so small in the hills of the Big Five and all other countless hills with no names along the 87km course. This Comrades Marathon has stripped me layer by layer, until to the point that I felt so "naked" and bare. The hills were so inviting, appeared so innocent and pure, waiting for me to conquer. But, it was the hills (and something more) that was in command all along. And I came to a point of without any ego, without any expectation and almost, almost without a purpose. Only left with mental nakedness, I reflected on myself and saw a part that I probably has not been seeing, what I was really made of. It was a small miracle, it was The Ultimate Human Race. At the finish line, I thought I would say "Never again!", but then I told myself "Perhaps next year, I will see you again, my Comrades!"