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COMRADES 2019 RACE DAY: FIRST HALF

June 14, 2019

So the gun has been sounded, and the elite runners have all started to scatter at breakneck speeds relative to the distance of this race. Meantime many of us mere mortals who can actually see the starting gantry for once are still waiting to get underway. It’s a standing start at first, but then after a couple of minutes where the faster weekend warriors have commenced the slow methodical walk towards the line starts. Many by this time of course will have started their watches given that the time limits and cutoffs run on a Gun-to-Gun basis rather than a Mat-to-Mat system (just another near unique feature of Comrades), but panic isn’t and can’t be part of the game. Trying to make up several minutes lost waiting to cross the start line in the opening kilometres is the greatest futility exercise in running. Simply speaking there are far too many people around to get into your own rhythm without compromising wise race strategy, and those that try more often than not finish their day on the side of the road rather than crossing the finish line.

After a delay of 9 minutes which is about the normal time it takes people to cross the line in the G Group (truth be told it was a little quicker last year although I was in a better position within the pen) it was time to smile at the camera, make sure I didn’t trip over timing mats/discarded warmth garments/road furniture, and begin the long uphill trek. In the city streets of Durban that comprised the first kilometre, it wasn’t uncommon for people to utilise the footpath in order to gain running room, something I even did as I negotiated the first corner. Fortunately this year it didn’t result in the bottleneck of 2017 when virtually every backmarker came to a standstill entering the freeway to take us towards the first cut off point. Sure there were those choosing to walk that section as advised by many coaches knowing the conservative game would give them an advantage, but apart from someone who took a tumble (perhaps being squeezed for room or tripping over a “cats eye”) everyone was able to trot freely.

There wasn’t a lot of drama in the pack before sunrise as the field steadily climbed towards the first of the major climbs in Cowie’s Hill. However some roadworks necessitated a slight change to proceedings. Without a lot of fanfare the cut off at Pinetown was removed on the Friday before the race, AFTER many of the runners had toured the course (I was with the CMA’s tour mixed in with Brits, Canadians and with a whole bus to themselves Brazilians, many other Australian’s toured with Bruce Fordyce who is the Comrades equivalent of Peter Brock, a 9 time winner). Some roadworks had substantially narrowed the course leaving organisers to perhaps take a common sense approach with the unforseen delay (I’m sure they would have banked on this area being totally clear on race day, as it turned out the passage was wider than it was on Friday and others just jumped the concrete blocks anyway searching for clear road). Every other cutoff was left unchanged but for many the early stress levels would be somewhat eliminated. I’m sure others unaware of the decision would have been left slightly confused when they expected signage denoting the approaching cut off at Pinetown only to find nothing.

After passing one of my “Demon” landmarks of where last year’s race had concluded (this will only be exorcised when I pass that point next year), it was onto the longest climb of the so called Big 5 in Field’s Hill. For most of the field it represented a chance to utilise the walk/run strategy that many a Comrades Green Number wearer had used over the years. Others such as the Bus Drivers pacing to certain times saw this as a chance to again make up time a little earlier than anticipated. It isn’t that strange in the early parts to see pace runners for a  sub-11:00 schedule leap ahead of those trying to break 10:30. It also isn’t strange to see many tacking onto buses perhaps underestimating how their race plan in conjunction with sticking with a pace bus doesn’t correlate with the driver’s. In any case, my plan wasn’t necessarily to run with a pacing bus as such, but to keep at least the 11:00 bus either behind me or in my sight knowing that I would easily negotiate a cut off point if I remain in front of several buses. That said it doesn’t guarantee much for the cut offs also apply to bus drivers, with some whole buses in the past being too slow to make cut offs eliminating a hundred or so from the race.

Last time I ran the UP run I was a little concerned that I was going too slowly as I passed the Winston Park cut off, the same cut off going the opposite direction where my momentum deserted me last year. Reaching the mark in a tick under 3:50, some 40 minutes inside the cut off, left me in a positive frame of mind. I hadn’t at that stage needed to take on board additional fluids with my first Lucozade bottle still largely untouched, the legs felt as though they had plenty to give, runners around me were as content knowing the chances to make up time were still viable, the crowds were offering their usual tremendous support…..life seemed very content as the approach to the steepest climb of the day, Botha’s Hill, began.

Again it was time to do more walking than running with the second half of the day in mind and plenty of time in the bank to prevent panic. Reaching the top was not that concerning, I was even able to chat with a couple of blokes who were having varying races (the Western Australian lad I encountered was in meltdown mode, encouraging me to keep going with my race while he tried to figure out his own predicament). Little did I know as I was about to descend towards the Wall of Honour and Arthur’s Seat that physical complications were about to compromise my efforts. As I had done in the past year or so, I had applied strapping below the knee in a bid to make what I believe to be patella tendonitis bearable (this is a self diagnosis), even if for the first time in many months I had to use K-Tape. Yet when I was going downhill I felt some pain after running for about 30 metres or so from the outside of the same strapped left knee. Forget trying to make up time on the downhill into the wall, the seat and Drummond’s halfway point as I had to do 2 years ago, I was starting to doubt whether I could make it past the halfway marker that I barely made in my other Up run attempt. At least with time on my side the knee meant I could greet Arthur somewhat properly by doffing the cap and saying “Good Morning Arthur” to see if it brought luck.

To understand more about the Wall of Honour and Arthur’s Seat, here’s something I recorded on the Friday as the tour stopped at these iconic locations.

By that stage I felt I had a couple of options. I could either succumb to the injury, leave the course and retire from the race at Drummond. I could see if there was any type of treatment available in the knowledge that there actually was a physio table located precisely where my 2017 race ended after climbing the famous Inchanga. Or I could just keep walking until the inevitable cut off arrived at Cato Ridge. In the end stopping couldn’t be an option with my split time at 5:50 being 20 minutes ahead of the cut off, and someone with old fashioned magic spray to numb the pain could help the knee issue. It did however mean that the knee brace I was wearing ended up being a calf sock of sorts, for spraying against neoprene would have been as effective as Pikachu using thunderbolt on a grass Pokemon. Yet Inchanga was next on the hit parade, and the many elevation changes that punctuated the remainder of the race remained.

 

TO BE CONTINUED…..

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