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COMRADES 2017: THE RUN ITSELF, OR WHAT I DID OF IT TO HALFWAY

PREVIOUSLY ON THE COMRADES RECAP….(crap I’m sounding too much like a cheesy USA TV narrator of a 5th rate reality show)

The last few minutes of the buildup were taken up by Chariots of Fire, before at 5:30 AM a recording of the cock crowing three times and a single cannon blast meant the journey had begun…….

 

We were warned that it may take several minutes for runners from my start area to actually cross the start line, which in reality meant that in order to make the finish I would have to cover the course in about 11:52 with the timing mechanisms activated upon the sounding of the cannon rather than by when the runner crosses the start line. It was a steady start, waving to the cameras and trying not to get too caught up in the sounds of the start line knowing it was going to be a very long day ahead. At least I kept one of the West Australian crew I had started with in my sights, along with a Welshman among others, but we were all going at a similar pace. Fortunately there was running room for a while until the turn onto the freeways at an area known as Tollgate, which was just over a kilometre into the race. Usually the mass would charge up the slight uphill as one, but this time it was a louder screeching halt than Fred Flintstone ever came up with. We were basically walking for about 50-100 metres until the congestion cleared enough to resume jogging.

It wasn’t long before I found some sort of companion from Cape Town, one of the many that had come from that region let alone of the 19000 plus locals that started (and I’ve excluded the 175 odd Zimbabweans who are virtually locals anyway….well Aussies often claim Kiwis!) We tended to chat about life in Australia for the best part of 10km, jogging and walking as necessary. Sport was a topic, ranging from the real footy (Australian Rules) to Rugby Union which is immensely popular if not in decline. Other marathons such as the major South African lead in known as 2 Oceans also were on the agenda, punctuated by a stop at a refreshment station.

To say that this was a stock standard table of fluids is an understatement. These tables generally have water and Energade sachets where the athlete bites into the plastic to get access to the fluids. Naturally the water was generally used to keep the body cool with an occasional sip while the Energade was purely for oral consumption only. At later stations came cups of Coke (no not the Ben Cousins type, the stuff that you drink) which often came fizzy rather than flat and cool to cold instead of warm which I had trained with. Sometimes a variety of fruits such as bananas and oranges made an appearance, occasionally they were joined by salt and potatoes. Other items were offered at random out on the course, such as sandwiches, biscuits and icy poles (or water lollies as many refer them as). Of course there were also tables with creams (sunscreen and heat rub), bandages and Vaseline for those requiring running repairs.

I got a little surprise early on when I started to pass the 12 hour pace group (or bus as they are referred to in these parts). The surprise was not that I was running well enough to pass the big group who were motivating others through chanting in a language or accent that I was struggling to understand. Rather the fact that this group was actually ahead of the pace buses for an 11:30 finish so early in the race. The good news was that this was no cause for alarm for the only reason they would be in trouble with cutoffs is if the other groups had started so slowly they got too far behind.

Everything was looking OK until shortly before the first cutoff, scheduled at Pinetown just past the 18km marker. Cramping was something I had experienced enough in my time in sport, let alone running. Normally the calves would be the first to go, and the right calf started showing signs of fatigue. Then came the strange sensation of an area just above and on the inside of the knee that started becoming more painful than it normally was (otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered with wearing a brace over strapping). It wasn’t that I felt that any ligaments or anything like that was going to burst. Rather it was becoming rather painful trying to bend it to encourage movement. Assistance did arrive thanks to a random local giving the old fashioned magic spray to the area, which took a while to take effect but once it did I was on my way once again.

It was a largely uneventful if not slow passage towards the second cutoff, located a fraction shy of the 30km mark at what was known as Winston Park. There were 9 minutes to spare when I passed the timing trucks and crossed the all important mat that allowed my continuation onto Botha’s Hill. By that stage, I had done alright on Cowies which was the first of the 5 big climbs, and had battle through Fields, but the legs were starting to feel ordinary and the head after jogging for a period started to feel a little lighter. A few pauses and a walking session would shake those off enough to revert to Plan B using road signs as a guide. I may have gotten a few looks from other runners wondering what this dumbo was doing a countdown for but perhaps that kept my mind sane. By the time I had started climbing Botha’s though the legs simply didn’t want to climb any more. The entire hill was a torturous walk punctuated every so often by a cup of coke, a splash of water over the body, and a sip of Energade to try to get some sort of fluid balance.

Figuring that either the cutoff at half way was going to elapse before I reached it or I was going to be so narrowly in front I wouldn’t be making the next cutoff, I kind of resigned myself to pulling the pin at half distance. It was then I ended up with another club runner from Benoni who was in a similar predicament. We then tried to run/walk to some sort of schedule before the last refreshment station prior to the cutoff. He found his club tent with supplies, although whether he carried on from there is a mystery to me (it would have been unlikely). I at least carried on without any water for that station had exhausted their supply (an issue that wasn’t an isolated incident according to others as I discovered later). It was then where someone was yelling that the cutoff was 20 minutes from closing and there were 2km to go.

The short time frame meant that getting a flower and paying the respect to Arthur’s Seat that it deserves had to be forgotten for this year (for those that don’t know about Arthur’s Seat, please refer to the tour videos posted earlier on my blog). Yet I was able to utter out the words “Morning Arthur, your race has beaten me today”. Perhaps that would be the case, but a downhill section at least gave me a chance of getting to the midpoint within the cutoff. For that….well pictures (even moving ones) speak louder than words. Yes that’s me in the yellow top, cap backwards, knee braces on as the race clock ticked past 6:08…..

 

TO BE CONCLUDED……..

COMRADES 2017: BEFORE THE RACE

After all the talk, the buildup and the nerves surrounding the travel and other arrangements, the time had come to tackle the Ultimate Human Race. I’m going to split this race report into a trio of posts beginning with the pre-race, with the race itself to come after and post race and reflections coming later in the week. This event has so many elements to it for race day, it can’t be accurately summarised in a single post like the other events I do in Australia.

After having a plate of chicken pasta from the motel restaurant at about 7PM the night before (drowned in sauce), I managed to get into bed at about 8PM and fell asleep an hour or so later. Alarms were set at 15 minute intervals on one device and set at different times on the phone so I wouldn’t rely on a wake up call from reception, and thankfully a big fear of sleeping through all alarms to miss a race didn’t happen. I was out of bed at 2AM, and in the shower before 2:30 before the routine of strapping up and getting ready. Fortunately I was able to apply the timing chip to the shoe without great difficulty, even if it required a reapplication to ensure the tongue of my left shoe wasn’t loose.

Given that I only had regulation sized band aids I had to use 4 on each nipple to ensure the bleeding didn’t happen. I also decided to put a band aid on both big and 4th toes in an attempt to prevent blistering. The remaining spots where I thought chaffing would be an issue (which I have to say included the bit downstairs as I decided to wear the skins only without underwear) were smeared in vasoline. Both knees were given the kinetic tape treatment prior to the brace going on the right knee and the smaller bandage going over the left, making sure I did everything I could to help the part of the body that I initially worried about that would prevent me to make the distance. Then it was time to apply the zinc on the nose as well as the roll on sunscreen (SPF Factor 40+) to the arms, legs and neck.

Just after 3AM I wandered down to the restaurant for breakfast. If this was a regulation marathon distance I probably would now have worried about having anything substantial but this was a far from regulation marathon. I’m not sure if the 2 glasses of apple juice, bowl of cornflakes and a banana was going to be enough, especially compared to another runner who sat with me eating 4 eggs (can’t eat eggs for some reason), but that combined with the warm bottle of Energade (for those in Australia, it tastes a lot like Staminade rather than Gatorade or Powerade) would need to be what would keep me going for a while.

The only real stress of the morning was waiting for the Wi-Fi to kick into gear so I could get the map to where the start line was, Durban Town Hall. I was contemplating a cab or tagging along with others, but the costs and potential traffic wouldn’t have made it worthwhile. As it turned out I was able to follow a few other competitors also walking from nearby motels to get to the start. Certainly this wasn’t like Australian races in major cities where plenty of outlets would be open to supply drinks and toilets, the only open shop was a 24 hour servo with a toilet line well outside the door.

Thankfully I arrived with plenty of time to organise the drop off of my “Tog Bag”, which is the South African term for gear bag. I probably should have stuck the international tag on the back bib as opposed to the one on the front (there were 2 bibs we had to wear for the race, one for the front and one for the rear) but at least it was on a bib meaning I knew where my bag was going to be. I then thought that I would tack on to the back of a queue for the limited toilet facilities at the start pens, but upon seeing the area begin to fill rapidly plus the fact that I only needed to urinate meant it was better for me to enter start pen G.

Being in a start pen without knowing anybody could be a hard task, so it was a relief that I was able to find a group of Western Australians to at least tack onto. At least us Aussies could stick together! With about 30 minutes to go and having sat in the pen for a while, it was time to get up and squeeze in so others could get in. I looked down to see a local lass almost squashed in but she assured me she was OK, and there was still enough room for me to keep myself reasonably loose.

Then came the build up to the grand beginning of the journey. Often in Australian races there would be a combination of speeches from sponsors who probably were in it for a free feed or something like that, and the Mayor of Durban did make some sort of speech that was largely forgotten. But it was the last 10-15 minutes that would get any runner emotionally prepared. Rather than the Australian practice of playing crappy electronic doof doof crap before the horn, the PA started off with “We Will Rock You” which took the mind back for some reason to Under 12’s basketball in 1995. After that came the stirring National Anthem in the various languages that South Africans are known to converse in, before the traditional hymn called “Shosholoza” drove a number of competitors nearby to tears.

 

The last few minutes of the buildup were taken up by Chariots of Fire, before at 5:30 AM a recording of the cock crowing three times and a single cannon blast meant the journey had begun…….

 

TO BE CONTINUED!

COMRADES 2017: TOUR VIDEOS

The following is a series of videos that I took on the Comrades International Tour held on Friday 2 June 2017. Some of it is educational, some of it is emotional, some of it is the usual waffling that I go on with when I start rolling cameras, phones or in this case, the tablet. Therefore I apologise in advance if some of the quality is lacking in terms of video quality, shoddy camerawork or sound issues.

 

THE CHAMPIONS WALL and ARTHUR’S SEAT

THE HALFWAY MARKER

Obviously had a really good lunch, because I had no idea I was going sideways Mr Squggle style (Hence the narrow nature of the vision)! The restaurant/cafe/bar that is located here is in a great location with nice food, if I wasn’t so keen on getting to the finish the Roast Beef meal on Sunday for R190 sounds divine!

 

COMRADES HOUSE (PIETERMARITZBURG)

 

THE ETHEMBENI SCHOOL

A money can’t buy experience to see these kids, all of whom have some form of disability, sing and dance and smile their way through a performance that would put professionals to shame. I was happy enough to donate R200 to the cause, as its donations that are the sole reason why the school stays operational. Many of the kids in the videos will be outside the school on Sunday to provide a little inspiration for the long stretch towards the last climb at Polly Shortts.

If you wish to donate money to give these kids hope for the future, click on https://www.givengain.com/cause/4337 where any amount I’m sure is appreciated.

 

 

COMRADES 2017: RACE PLANS TO TAKE MY MIND OFF THE SCARY BIT!

I am typing this blog entry in the international terminal of Perth Airport. Never been so scared and excited in equal amounts in my life. Yes I’m a frequent flyer on the verge of attaining platinum status on the Virgin network, yes I’ve flown coast to coast and over big bodies of water in the dark before. But in an hour or so I’m going to be doing something I’ve never done, leave Australia to take on the challenge that 18000 others are taking on. I’d love to be involved in a conversation with 5 other like minded individuals that I can see are on the same flight, so even though I don’t want to intrude at least I won’t be alone when I get to Johannesburg.

All that aside, it’s time to reveal publicly the game plan for this weekend in terms of race day itself. Yes there are all the tours on the Friday so I can see first hand the course. Sure heading straight to the expo may seem strange to some but I know trying to check in at 10AM or so any morning is pointless (just can’t be done). Saturday is a lay day to end all lay days, not doing too much and getting to sleep ultra early the order of the day. What happens afterwards is in the lap of the gods prior to the Tuesday afternoon departure, although I suppose keeping you posted on what happens should be a priority (I’ve said that a few times before).

Knowing there’s at least one other runner (coming from Heathrow) staying in the same motel is an advantage, at least there may be some sort of arrangement made if not with the motel, with others. Hope to get to the start area between 3:30 and 4:00 AM, just to give myself time to get the gear (or the Tog Bag as it’s called) where it’s supposed to go, and get a decent warm-up in which given the weather forecast shouldn’t be a hassle that Canberra was (or for that matter what Melbourne was on Wednesday). What I have to also make sure of is to have a loo break well before standing in the start zone (PEN G) because once I’m in there’s no chance of getting out.

When the race commences what I’ll need to guard against is panic if others pass me. It’s going to be a long day of up to 12 hours on the road, so burning energy in the first hour can only cost me in the end. It will be the usual hydration strategy of waiting until a station around the 8km marker then taking every second station prior to about 30km. After that it will be every station for at least a drink of something, although there is no strategy of what I’m taking whether it be water (likely for Station 1), sports drink or coke (which may come a little later, importantly I’ve trained with it though so it shouldn’t be a hassle). In terms of food if bananas are available I’ll take them gladly, anything else I’m not as confident of taking on board. Having struggled to consume food during the lead in events and training the mind will need to be trained to eat.

The hills generally sort men from the boys, women from the girls, wheat from the chaff and any other combination that you can think of. I have a trio of plans that I may try at some stage that I hope can work out, for a singular plan will obviously come unstuck.

PLAN A: Jog for a minute, then walk for a minute. This is a strategy I used with some success on the early part of the climb up Mt.Wellington in the Point to Pinnacle race in 2014. It may be handier to use this on the less steeper parts.

PLAN B: Refer to the landmarks. Anything will do such as a power pole, a road sign, a drinks station or anything else that may stand out. How often I’ll be able to use this plan will be determined on Friday, I may even have to buy a little notebook much like a golf caddie to work out when and where things are that may help.

PLAN C: Find a group and go with their pace. Usually this is the default for marathons where I’m looking for a time (Gold Coast if fit will be a perfect example in July). There shouldn’t be a problem with finding a group, particularly if about half the field finish in the last hour like I’m anticipating/hoping for.

PLAN D: If all else fails 0r I finish the last climb at Polly Shortts well before the cutoff, BALLS OUT and pray for a miracle.

 

Hopefully this will give an indication as to what I’m looking to achieve on the weekend. I’m starting to look forward to it, as long as I get across the Indian Ocean in one piece. Now to stay awake on the plane for a couple of hours to try to have some sort of acclimatisation plan as the 5AM landing time over there is closer to a 1PM time on the East Coast of Australia. Hopefully I’ll touch base when I get to Durban!

COMRADES 2017 – AND SO THE PHYSICAL PREPARATION CONCLUDES

RACE WEEK! RACE WEEK! RACE WEEK! OK so I’m not the next coming of the legendary Franco Cozzo who loves “Foot-Is-Gray” as much as I love the Footscray Football Club trading as the Western Bulldogs. Yet here we are in another airport terminal waiting for the first flight of several that will get me to the ultimate challenge, the Comrades Marathon in South Africa. Not much else can be done now apart from a few clothing purchases and the acquisition of a few other items that will be necessary. No point in training the house down this week because saving the gas for the big dance next Sunday is a must.

The last stop on the physical preparation calendar, save for perhaps a couple of short light jogs in Durban and perhaps one in Melbourne tomorrow should I get up early enough was the local Rocky River Run. Usually this would be a hard slog of a half marathon for me to kick the preparation for the Gold Coast Marathon into another gear (don’t worry folks, I’ll be doing the marathon on the Coast again this year pending death or serious injury). This year was a little different, dropping back to the shorter distance with this weekend in mind. Plus there was a little family connection running alongside my sister in law….well at least for a kilometre or so before the competitive juices kicked in.

Being the first competitive 10km race I had done in some time was different. Having to remember that you didn’t need to load up to the usual extent prior to half and full marathons can be challenging, especially after a long day at the other office (footy) and needing to eat something following a long day of being the everywhere man. Then of course came the usual pre-race routine which for the local event is different to others with a 45 minute walk to the start line before a light stretch prior to the horn to set us on our way.

The course this year was different in that sections of the course from the previous years had been rendered unusable due to the flooding prior to Easter. Instead of a single lap blast starting and finishing at the Victoria Park precinct, it was a 2 lap jam that started at the Mayor’s pet project on Quay Street. Stroking egos can be happy if it’s done the right way, although to be honest I don’t think the Mayor needed any more stroking of hers. Political opinions aside, the double crossing of the river remained, the narrow sector across one of the bridges continued to require patience (although thankfully this year we didn’t have to contend with prams wandering across to interfere with current racers when theirs was a little later), and the new course did allow for runners to look across the other side of the road to see how far they had left their mates (or in my case, family members) behind. Seven minutes may not seem a lot unless it’s a Grand Final or a delayed delivery of your pizza, but waiting that long after you’ve finished can seem an eternity, even more so when others in events you’re not even in are passing. That’s how long the gap was between family members, but we both finished without a pause which is a triumph for the sis if not bragging rights for me.

Well I tried blocking out the sun for the Sister in Law….it half worked!

As for my run, running around a 52:20 on the surface can seem a little slow given I’ve gone quicker in the past, even down to sub 48:00 in training. But there are other factors at play, such as

  • Not being fresh having played and umpired football matches the day before
  • The training period that I’m in with Comrades in mind
  • Narrow sections of the course where overtaking and impatience is not the order of the day
  • The lack of competitive running over that distance in recent years, where the 14km City2Surf in Sydney is generally the shortest distance I cover competitively in a year of running

That said the rhythm was stable throughout, the pace was comfortable enough to have a chat to other runners without sounding overly stressed, and most importantly the body came through without major hassles. The one thing I need to learn from this is to tape the straps of the knee brace that I’ll be using for Comrades so that the velcro isn’t scraping across the skin gap between upper leg tights and other knee (which will likely also be bandaged, to what extent at this stage is unclear).

 

The next update will come in a couple of days, when I’ll share the plan to a finish for the big dance!

COMRADES TRAINING VLOG : 5 WEEKS OUT

Very brief entry recorded in Brisbane after a training run around Mt.Coot-tha on Saturday 29 April 2017. Expect another video recording to come in the next fortnight.

CANBERRA ULTRA 2017: AT LEAST I FINISHED (PART 2)

In drizzling conditions, the small band of troopers set off to complete the 50 kilometre challenge. Despite the conditions there was a decent throng present to see us off, many of them waiting for us to clear the start zone in order to prepare for their own 42 kilometre voyage some 15 minutes after our departure. The course hadn’t changed from the previous year, yet this year would probably be a bigger challenge given the weather conditions. At least the drizzle had cleared by the time we reached Parliament House just after the completion of the first kilometre.

I had settled into a steady tempo trying to run a pace of about 60 minutes per 10 kilometres (or 6 minutes per kilometre if you think that way). It was helped by a few fellow Comrades runners doing their training being in the vicinity, and for about the first 40 minutes I was able to judge the pace from them. Trying to explain the escape from the floodwaters at least ensured a relaxed atmosphere, although I was also at pains to tell the folks that I wasn’t intending to bring the rain with me.

There was an unscheduled pit stop after 8 kilometres as happened in 2015, although this time there was a toilet block as opposed to a big tree. Still the little pause in proceedings enabled me hit the first 10 kilometre split basically right on the 60 minute marker. I was still basing my pace off another runner until reaching the bridge at Kings Avenue, when the lack of recent training and long runs started to take a toll. Whilst stopping was certainly not an option, particularly after the DNF in 2016, my hamstrings were causing enough trouble for me to slow into a nursing pattern. Still I wasn’t in panic mode after a 63 minute split, so I was thinking that I could maybe make up some of the gap needed to get to the 5 hour mark.

On the run along Parkes Way, arguably the longest section of the event, I managed to catch up with the slowest pacing group for the 42km marathon event. Knowing they were unlikely to be told to remove themselves from the course, I knew that if I was able to stay near them if not in front that I would be able to finish. It also meant that I was also among the tail enders for the marathon, so at least if I struck trouble I could be able to wobble at their pace if needed. Sadly it was just after the turn at about 26.5 kilometres that the weather turned for the worst and the motivation of getting a time started to wane. It turned into a battle for survival rather than a challenge to vault myself up the starting order for Durban in 8 weeks time.

The plan therefore reverted to running as many of the downhill sections as possible, and perhaps conserving a little too much energy on the flat and uphill parts of the course. With no sleeves being worn, it was the coldest I had felt on any run between kilometres 30 and 36, and probably the most demoralised I had felt in many years. Certainly thoughts such as “Do I Have To?” and “What’s the point?” entered the mind, thoughts that I didn’t think I would consider happening at any stage during the preparation.

So the focus now, having long passed the point of wanting a time rather than just finishing, would be to bury a couple of demons from past Canberra Marathons and Ultras. It was all about passing points where I had hit difficulty in past years, and this year I took some pleasure in passing those points as well as letting anyone who cared (mainly the pace runners) know about the past demons. It did give me a slight boost but by the time I passed those points there was still over 11 kilometres to go.

Fortunately I was able to run the bulk of the remainder of the run with others who were managing niggles in order to make the finish line. The plan of running the downhills and the odd flat section before slowing to walking pace on the uphill sections was working. This could even be of more assistance for Durban in a number of weeks than I had hoped, for it’s almost certain that I would be employing similar tactics and plans for the many uphill sections of Comrades. There was enough energy in the legs though for a final push in the last kilometre, ensuring that my finishing time, however poor it may seem, would be quicker than anticipated at the 35 kilometre mark.

By the time the end came, the crowds around the finish area had thinned out although there still was a number of people around the area. The final pack up had commenced to the extent where my gear had been moved to inside the volunteer tent. The bands had all packed up, as had the exhibits around the finish area as a few of us late finishers. At least this time I had the satisfaction of actually crossing the finish line under my own steam as opposed to in the back of a van. In the end it was 50 kilometres in the bank that will surely hold me in good stead for Comrades, and it also will form a base for the next 4 weeks training with the week after basically all about recovery.

 

On the road from Canberra to Melbourne, I decided to record the following video that may explain some of the bogey points I was referring to earlier in this piece. It also explains the noise around me whilst recording, for it seemed something near the window may have needed fixing.