Great race report from HuRTs marathon man Terence Bell who has completed 6 marathons already in 2012.
The infamous Comrades ultra-marathon, known by all South Africans, is a gruelling 89km run through the streets, villages and neighbourhoods of Durban that tests the human spirit whether you are a first-time novice runner or an elite athlete – this year proved to be no exception.
It was the second-time running for me with another down run (route alternates up & down each year) commencing in the chilly hills of Pietermariztburg all the way to seaside city of Durban. It’s one ultra that continues to draw me back with its uniqueness in so many ways – the buzz & camaraderie on the start line, the mix of colours, shapes & sizes on the course, the supportive locals who create an electric atmosphere, the well-organised aid stations and efficient officials, the unbelievable talent at the front together with the inspiring stories at the back, the grueling course and its hilly hills, and finally not to mention the importance of the race to all South Africans who have grown up with the dream of running one day.
On race day I felt strong having an injury-free lead-up with plenty of marathon race-practice in Europe over March & April. I had an aggressive goal of 6:30hrs and I thought my only limiting factors were the lack of long runs (ie 50-60km’s) completed during training and my mileage of only 70-80km’s per week. But perhaps this was a positive thing as I wasn’t fatigued and was on the start line feeling fresh and race-ready.
The race started with a cockle-doodle-doo at 5:30am and ended half-a-day later in joyous tears. The first hour seemed to whisk by as I got into a steady rhythm and absorbed everything going on around me. In the windy cold dark morning hours it was great to see a slithering of people waving & cheering from their gardens to the thousands of runners who were passing through their neighbourhood. No doubt the locals were happy to return to the comfort of their living room to experience the race couch-side.
I felt at ease for the first undulating sections of the course, running comfortably at ~4:30/km pace with steady breathing and a relaxed upper torso. There seemed to be so many distractions with all the runners around that it was easy to forget the mammoth task at hand. Throw in a few more ups and downs with some long flattish stretches, the rising of the sun and the building crowd and the first marathon seemed come and go with ease. I was on track with my pacing running 2:58hrs for the first 42km’s and was looking forward to what lay ahead. I was through ‘wind two’ by the halfway mark (45km) at 3:13hrs and slightly ahead of my final goal with no doubts in my mind that I could run this race even splits. Having raced like this most of my life I am quite comfortable to hold back in the first half of races and either run very even or produce a negative split which I have done many times before.
With the wind at my back I ran strongly through to 55km on track with my pacing and proven nutrition strategy of gels every 45mins combined with plenty of electrolytes, water and bananas. At 60km’s the legs started feeling very heavy and it was only at this point did I feel the burden of the final 30km’s on my shoulders. With the hilliest part of the course to come and the constant winding up and down I realized I would have to pull back a bit to ease the pain. Over the next few km’s my calves started to whisper fatigue, then progressively got louder until they were screaming give me a break. It was at the 65km mark that the serious cramping set in and every step hurt. Forced to start walking some of the hills, I took inspiration from a fellow runner named Thuto who was in the same position as me. As a bizarre looking team of two – one broad-shouldered 85kg white man combined with one 60kg marathon-built black man – we walked, we jogged, we passed drinks back & forth, we treated ourselves to massage at two stations – but most importantly we urged eachother on, happy to just push forward towards the holy grail that awaited us at the Kingsmead Stadium in Durban.
With loud cheers from the sidelines and the call of ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie’ or ‘Go Bruce’ (supposedly all Aussie’s are known as Bruce), we both focused our concentration inwards to manage the physical pain & mental anguish that comes with ultra marathons. Passing through the final village we still had 20km’s to go and a rather steep downhill was the last thing we wanted, yet we rolled the legs down the hill wincing with every step, knowing it would all be over soon enough. With 15km’s to go and the midday sun beating down on the highway, I saw another Aussie runner Magnus suffering who had unfortunately blown up going for a top 10 finish. With a few words of encouragement I continued on my way along the final stretch of lonely highway before entering the city centre.
Running those final few km’s down Durban’s high street was one extraordinary experience – a sea of black people going absolutely wild, cheering and clapping like we were heroes returning from war. With a steely look on my face combined with a grin from ear-to-ear I plodded along shoulder to shoulder with my new running comrade Thuto. The final bend came and I was running on pure elation, totally forgetting about the physical and living the runner’s dream of crossing the finish line.
We heard a scintillating final cheer from the crowd as we entered the stadium and after a quick wave to the Aussie support crew I stumbled over the finish line ecstatic, overwhelmed and overjoyed. Within a second my friend Thuto hobbles over to me, throws his arms around my shoulders and in broken English says he has some tears for me. This has to be the true spirit of Comrades.
Final time: 6:39:35 hrs (Silver medal)
Average pace: 4:28/km
Final position: 123rd