alsoran runners 2010 experiences:
Amit Sheth

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Comrade 21548
Amit Sheth
Novice from India
team sheth

It was the hour before the world awakes.  After one year of patience and toil, Neepa and I stood on the start line of the 85th Comrades Marathon in South Africa. It was bitterly cold and dark.

89 km of the most gruelling road lay ahead of us and the occasion called for focus, calm and self-belief.  It has been said that one can only train the body to run the first 65km of the Comrades Marathon, the rest is run by the strength of one’s spirit.

Sometimes in life, a single prayer, a solitary act or a brilliant idea can link a man’s strength to a transcendent force.  One has the inner strength to make a miracle a commonplace happening.  One deed, one lonely thought becomes omnipotent. But in the same vein, one idea, deed or act can destroy everything one has worked so hard to build.

On the 30th of May as I stood on the start-line, a random series of inept events to which my mind gave imaginary meanings had cast a spell of gloom on me.  Five days worth of events seemed destined to ruin Comrades 2010.

After an incredibly hectic and stressful month at work, my physical journey to the start line began as we bid goodbye to my parents. On Monday night, My wife Neepa, my daughter Namrata, my son Aryan and I were packed and ready.  As we climbed into the car, the sole of Neepa’s running shoe came off. Are we runners a superstitious lot ? I don’t think so. We rely on our hard-work and self-belief.

After a near traffic accident on the way to the airport, we reached the immigration counter.   The immigration officer saw the first passport and promptly threw it across his desk explaining that Namrata’s passport did not contain a South African Visa.  It was 2:00 am.  About 2 hours were left for the flight to take-off.  We had to face the possibility of leaving for South Africa without our daughter.  An hour and a hundred phone calls later he realised that he was reading the wrong date on the Visa. Already stressed out and tired we were finally on our way to South-Africa.

Thursday morning, was the official Ambassadors 5k run and as the Indian Ambassador for Comrades I was to participate along with Neepa.  The run was to start from the Hilton Hotel located exactly opposite the Comrades Expo.  So the plan was to finish the run and then go and get the running bibs and do some shopping at the expo.  We carried our passports and a lot of cash to the Hilton planning to keep it in the Hotel Safe Deposit box for the duration of the run.  Before we did that, the purse, containing everything was stolen. 

What followed was pandemonium and heartbreak and a police and Embassy routine which is best left un-described.   4 days after the Comrades, we were to fly to Italy to attend a wedding and the theft of the passports also meant cancelling our trip. 

We then decided to quickly visit the expo and take our bibs and the champion chip which has to be tied onto the shoe and which would give us our official race time.  It seems that through an oversight, my chip had not been issued.  Luckily my friend, Mbali from the Comrades Association was at hand to sort out the matter. 

She quickly gave my running bib to an official and asked him to get me a chip.  We found him an hour later walking around.  Not only had he not picked up my chip yet but he had lost my running bib which Mbali had handed over to him.

A half-hour later we found ourselves in an office trying to print a new running bib but when the official pulled up the registration data-base he found that I was not registered for the race.

I was now without money, passports, a phone, credit-cards, a driving license, a running bib, a champion-chip and a Comrades race registration.

48 hours later as I stood on the start-line, the accumulated stress and negative thoughts overwhelmed me. The negativity pressed down on me as if I was carrying a mountain on my back and I stood slouched.  I started thinking of Comrades 2009 when I had cramped and missed the 11:20 cut-off, getting a DID-NOT-FINISH tag.  I started convincing myself of a similar end this time. I lost all faith in my ability to run this race.  I started visualizing how I will feel  when I get picked up by the Bail Bus, I started to think of things I would have to say to my family and friends and perhaps more importantly how I will face not only my kids but myself.  I started to wonder whether I would be able to look out of the window of the bail-bus after it picked me up.  

The Comrades Marathon is so difficult that no matter how many times you run and finish it, you are never sure how you will run it the next time around.   I had run it once and already failed.  

I was scared of the race, daunted by its hills and distance which had destroyed me in 2009 and broken my body.   The scares of that day had never fully healed.  The race had broken me once, and now I was now scared beyond reason.  I forgot all the hard training, I forgot all that I had gained since last year.  I was terrified of this race, I was terrified of the distance, I was terrified of failing again.

I felt as if the race was already over and I was already in the bail bus.  I felt that I had no strength in my legs.

I was staring at the corpse of my desire.  I was finished with Comrades 2010 before it started.

The Africans sing a song at the start line. Shosholoza.  It is divine music, the Africans are wonderful singers and anybody who once hears the song sung together by 18000 people will never forget it.  The song roughly means:

Move fast on those mountains.... train from South Africa.
You are running away on those mountains....  train from South Africa.

Although there is a specific meaning of these words for the South Africans, for me the song symbolizes my quest to move beyond my physical and mental limits, to climb over those mountains which hold me in chains.  There is a hunger for greatness in each and everyone of us and I too want to be better than I am, to stand taller, to be a good son, a good husband, a good father, a good citizen.  Running to me has been source of goodness which helps me lead a better life, to be good at everything else I do.  And here I was, standing on the start line of the Ultimate Human Race and I had given up before the start.

I started to cry.  For a long minute, I just cried without thoughts or feelings.  I felt my shoulders relax, the muscles in the neck uncoiled and I searched within for calmness in my uncertain mind.  The only thing in life that we can command is the Strength within.  How long can I run the tracks of my mind around these petty things?  

My fate is what my spirits’ strength can make,  my fate is what my spirits strength can bear.

“I thank whatever Gods may be
For my unconquerable soul
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul”
As the gun rang out and the crowd of humanity around me surged towards the start line, I reflected on the blessings which had carried me so far.

I thanked God for the wonderful friends who had helped me and Neepa train...  Ashok Captain, Sushant  Karkera and Prakash Patel.  I thought of the extraordinary hospitality that my brothers in South Africa, Vishnu Naidoo my host and Dr Sid Reddy had showered upon Neepa, the kids and me.

I reflected upon the wonderful 4:30 am mornings when Neepa and I would run-out and train, the countless overnight trips to run in the mountains.  The scheduling of work, the packing of bags, the arranging of food and supplies for the weekend of running. 

Neepa and I were no longer the people that set out on this journey.  The journey to the start line had transformed us.   Our values, our choices, our priorities had changed beyond recognition.  Our love for each other strengthened by this shared gift of running.

I thought about the wonderful spirit with which the children had supported us.  And now the two little souls were waiting for Neepa and me at the finish.

I washed my face with water from the bottle, a new sense of purpose was born within me, the good memories of the year quivered back to life, the timeless power of the spirit was stirred alive. 

The great and defining moment was now close at hand. 

I had recovered the runners habit...the habit of happiness.

I walked along with the mass of humanity towards the start-line.  It seemed as if I have just disembarked from a train and along with thousands of fellow passengers am walking on a narrow platform towards the single exit.  I could hear the sounds of a thousand shoes hitting the pavement, the heavy breathing and the chatting amongst the runners. The very loud voice of the starting-line commentators and the loud music filled the air. 

I was still wound-up from all the crying at the start and just beginning to relax.

I had started at the back end of the G seeding and Neepa at the front end of H.  As I walk ahead, the seeding merged and I saw runners from H catching up. 

Reaching the start line, I glance at my watch and it shows 10:15.  So finally I was off. 

We run into the night, away from the well-lit start area, there were crowds lining the sides of the street.  Within the first 500 meters I turned and saw that the 12 hour bus had caught up with me. 

I was delighted to see the wonderful faces of Clem Simpson, Vlam Pieterse and Roy Tolfts.  These were the Runners world pacers for the 12 hour bus.  Clem was a few meters ahead of his two colleagues and his first question to me was:

Amit, where is your wife? 

I told him that she must be around somewhere. After all, Bruce Fordyce, the 9 time champion, the King of Comrades had told me 2 days ago, Amit, if you want to complete the race. Stay with the 12 hour bus. 

After another 500 meters, I saw Neepa Ahead of us.  She had managed to reach the start-line in 9:15.  So a km into the race, I was finally next to my wife and amongst the pacers.  It was a still dark and cold and all around us runners were chatting and settling into their rhythm. 

The runner’s world pacers have a wonderful way of managing their run.  About every km or so, Clem would shout at the top of his voice: “AND 5...4...3 2...1... WALK”... and a few hundred runners around him would break into a walk.  Then again after walking for 20 to 30 meters he would shout, “AND 5...4...3...2...1...AND RUN’ and like an orchestra... playing to the tunes of the master conductor...the hundred or so runners would break into a run at a pace set by Clem.

“AND RUN”....

“The call that wakes the leap of human mind
Its chequered eager motion of pursuit,
Its fluttering-hued illusion of desire
Visiting our hearts like a sweet alien note”

And so we keep Running to the call....

Comrades is run on a well paved road and there was possibly only one small pothole, the size of about one square/feet in the entire 89 km stretch and yet a few kms into the race, Neepas leg went straight into it.  I was just next to her and at such an angle that I saw her foot tilt and turn and heard her cry in pain and wobble.   I saw the pain on her face and felt incredibly helpless.  But she said it was ok and she soldiered on.  I looked behind us and saw that there were a few hundred other runners following us but all within about 500 meters from us and then almost nobody behind them.  We had no margin of error. I wanted to have her stop and massage her ankle but there was no time.  We had to keep with the pacers. 

I had seen Vlam’s pacing chart and he planned to bring the bus to the finish between 11:50 and 11:54.  How a man can plan an 89 km run with a margin of +/- 4 minutes is beyond my understanding.  I cannot normally plan my arrival at most business meetings with that kind of accuracy when held at a 20 km distance from my office.

The golden sun comes up in the sky and the road is filled with divine voices of the cheering clouds.

“There is a morning twilight of the Gods;
Miraculous from sleep their forms arise
And Gods long nights are justified by dawn.”

The beautiful landscapes come into focus, we are running well.  We are happy.

We reach the 10 km mark and suddenly Clem cries out: “BOYS ON THE RIGHT,  GIRLS ON THE LEFT”. 

He then runs off the road to take a pee break.  A dozen “boys” including me follow him.  Returning to the road I ask Neepa if she took a break and she says “Girls on the left?????.  There was no space on the left”.  But she says she is fine and we run along. 

I realize at this point that when I ran off the road a few small pebbles had gone inside both my shoes.  More so in the left shoe.  The first rule when this happens is to always to stop and remove the pebble because it will never ever go away on its own. 

But where is the time to stop and stare?

The pacers and the bus is moving....5...4...3...2...1 and every-time we pass a km marker, Clem shouts, “ Hey Ho, Another one bites the dust, Hey Ho” and a couple of hundred runners shout with him “Hey Ho”....and on and on we go..

Neepa and I make sure that we are within 50 meters of Clem. I keep adjusting my gait so that the pebbles move towards the edge of the inside of my shoe.  It hurts a little but I cant stop to remove them. No Time.  We are 15 km into the race.

The crowds around us see and recognize the 12 hour bus. They cheer us and chant:


All three pacers carry a flag attached on a long stick which is tied around their waist.  It’s much like the travel guide one encounters in a big city guiding a bunch of tourists.  Sometime they get a bit ahead of us, and then Neepa says “Amit they are getting away, lets go...lets go..and we speed up and catch up”

“I draw a wealthier breath
And in a fierier march of movements move.
My mind transfigures to a rapturous seer.
A foam-leap travelling from the waves of bliss
Has changed my heart and changed the earth around.”

I am a happy man. 

On the down Hills, Vlam shouts “EASY EASY DOES IT.....REMEMBER..... SPEEED KIIIILLLLSSSSS” and all the hundred runners Repeat “SSPPPEEEEDD KKILLLLSSSSS”.

I smile at this, because actually I would give anything to be able to run fast.  Yet I am actually running to the best of my ability, I cannot run any faster even if I want to.  To deny that which I would die-for is a one way we put a spin on our limitations.  

So I too shout : “SPEED KILLS”

The Kilometre markers in comrades count downwards starting from 89 km.  89...88...87... and each time we hit a marker, a shout goes out..”HEY HO...ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST...HEY HO”. 

Clem comes over and asks me to remove my heavy woollen cap. Says that i will heat-up.  I had still held onto the cap, 3 t-shirts and 2 pairs of gloves.  I now give the cap to a bystander and then over the next few km I get rid of all the extra clothes.

We hit the first carpet....62km to go at 3:32:18

Neepa and I were carrying water bottles so that we could run past some of the water stations.  We would run past the water station and start walking, waiting for the pacers to catch-up.  This gave us some extra time to recover.  After about 30 km, clem did not show up along our side after the water station, in-fact it was Vlam who then overtook us.  Neepa asked if we should keep walking until Clem catches up, I turned and looked but could not see Clem.  I told Neepa that we stay with the lead pacer and so we started following Vlam from that point. 

Running past the Enthembi school is an experience that no Comrades runner will ever forget.  Comrades  is an event where one is normally focused purely on oneself.  One is focused on the time, the pace, and the intake of food and water.  For the entire day, we more or less forget about our normal day-to-day life.  We become focused on the present like never before. 

The problems of the world are pushed away from our mind as we focus on our personal goals. At this point of the race almost all the runner are now slowly getting tired and are engaged in a personal battle with their body and mind.  And then suddenly at the Enthembi school the sight of the cheering school children in wheel chairs and stretchers and with many ailments brings us back to the real world.  They stand with outstretched hands giving runners high-fives. 

Tears flow down my face, Every parent understands how difficult it is when your child faces any disability.  The courage of these brave hearts makes me say a prayer for them and their parents. 

I suddenly think of my kids, I miss them, I want to hug them. 

I think of them waiting for us to finish.  A few days before the race Aryan my 8 year old had come and given me a page on which he had copied a prayer. 

He said I should remember it when I am running Comrades:

Walk with me O Lord
Through the darkest night and Brightest day be at my side
O Lord, Hold my hand and guide Me on my way.
Sometimes the road seems long
My energy is spent.
Then Lord I think of you and I am given strength
Stones often bar my path and There are times I fall
But You are always there To help me when I call. 

I say a thanks to the Comrades association for the wonderful help they provide for this school and I mentally send my good wishes to my friend Bruce “Digger” Hargreaves who never forgets this school.  I know Digger is somewhere out there on the road ahead of me, happily carrying his Australian kangaroo.

And then onto the notorious Inchanga, the very name sounds ominous.  The climb is hard, but i keep telling Neepa that there is a descent on the other side.

We reach half way in 5:52:33, as we run past the mark, I hear the announcer say “Stay with Vlam, Vlam will bring you in.  Stay on the Bus, Dont fall of the Bus.’

We have reached half way in 5:52 which means we have to run the second 45 km in no more than 6:08.  That’s almost equal splits and I am a bit afraid.  Because I wonder if we can pull this off.

I hear the half way announcer say, “Everybody who plans to reach the finish raise your hands”. 

A hundred hands around us go up, and although I feel that it is an extra effort, I raise my hand.

The pebble in the left shoe has somehow stopped moving, perhaps because the sock is now wet with sweat.  It is settling right at the front end of my foot, just behind the big toe.  It is hurting.  But there is no time to stop.  I wonder if it is already bleeding but....where is the time to stop and stare ?

From 45 km to 52 km , the climb out of Drummond defines the race.  It is, for me, the hardest part of the race. I am already tired, I have run the hardest marathon in my life and now I am in for a crazy undulating upward climb. It is here that i was destroyed in 2009.  The climb had so finished my strength that i had cramped at 52 km, the top of Bothas.

I keep telling Neepa, “Lets survive this climb and then from 52 there will be more downhills and we are strong on the down hills.  Lets stay with Vlam, Lets stay with Vlam”

The truth is that we are neither strong on the up-hills or the down-hills.  But we have to believe in  something.  There has to be some thing which gives one hope. So neepa and I have convinced ourselves that we can run down-hills.

The truth is that about 90% of all our training has been at about 7 min/km.  And today for the last 45 km we have run segments at 6:30 min/km, the down hills at 5:45 min/km and walked at 9:50-10:00 min/km.

And so up we go, ever so often I look at Neepa and she has gone quite.  I see the strain on her face, the veins on her face and neck are standing out.  She stares ahead.  She is silent.  I am in awe of her.  She has been running the fastest that she has ever run in her life.  She has sprained her ankle.  She tried spraying a pain killer she was carrying on her ankle but it unfortunately ran out right-away.  There is really no time for us to stop and take a massage from the physio’s on the road.  I don’t know how to help her except to extend my hand and caress her shoulder.

The crowds are shouting: “Don’t fall off the Bus, Don’t fall off the bus” and we find that the minute we loose focus, Vlam pulls away by more than a 200 meters and then we have to struggle hard to pull back.  Where is the time to stand and stare? 

And finally we pass the 52km mark, I know the point of the road where I had cramped in 2009.  It was from this point that I had cried like a small child all the way to 81.5 km before being picked up by the sweeper bus.  Suddenly as I pass that point a load comes off my mind, I had crossed the bridge and although I am tired, there was no specific injury except for that pebble.   

Passing the 52 km marker, my body relaxed, and I felt a deep peace.  For the first time it felt that the body and mind were totally attuned to each other, as if bridged together. They were not running in different directions.  At that moment I felt that I was totally “present” on that road.  I was no longer “thinking”.  I did not think of the past, I did not think of the future.  I was just there, totally aware of what was happening but not really thinking.  I moved ahead with sheer joy, I ran because running is my life, I ran because life is energy and energy is movement.  There was no goal, no pacers, no crowds, no noise, I just ran for the pleasure of it. 

I was so present in that moment, in those kilometres that I was totally absent. I was silent.  My mind was silent, my body was not there. There was no pain. There was nothing.  I did not dream, I did not think, I did not imagine.  I was conscious of everything around me, I saw the kilometres falling away but I did not think on them, I was conscious of the crowds but detached.  There was no mind to verbalize anything. It was as if I was in a deep sleep but at the same time I was totally awake and aware of everything happening around me. The mundane act of running was transformed into the sacred.

And then......the spell broke.

As we reached the last-cut off, 7 km short of the finish line, I felt the body disengage.  This cut-off point was where I had been picked up by the sweeper van in 2009.  We now had about 70 minutes to reach the finish and I was done.  I felt confident that I could now finish the race and somehow that robbed me of my focus.  Now suddenly the body knew its pains and the mind was overwhelmed with thoughts. 

The head felt so heavy that I thought I would like to dismantle it from the shoulders and put it aside for a bit.  The muscles of the legs were all moving individually to their own tunes.  I stated getting afraid that they were about to seriously cramp.  The pebble in the left leg was now so fully embedded in my flesh that I felt that I was stepping on a nail each time I put my foot down.  The concoction of water, powerade, coke, energy gels, bananas, potatoes and oranges in my stomach threatened to spill out of my mouth at any moment and a slimly mixture kept coming right up my throat every few minutes.

And Neepa on my left was picking up speed.  She started looking as if she was just about to start Comrades.  She hair, her face, her gait were that of a supermodel about to step out on a cat walk.  She started saying, “lets go Amit, lets go Amit, lets run past the pacers, lets go its only 7 k to go”. “Neepa, I am done, we can walk it from here” I said.  “No No the kids are waiting, I want to run fast”.

“I think you should go ahead” I said.  “No, No, common” she said.

At 5 km to go, she hit the cat-eye in the middle of the road.  She flew face down into the pavement.   Her sunglasses flew 5 feet ahead of her, the water bottle backwards.  She screamed as she fell. 

In less than 10 seconds she was up on her feet, there was blood on her elbows and knees.  I ran back to pick up the water bottle so that I could wash her wounds.

As I picked up the bottle and looked back at her, I saw a sight that I will never forget as long as I live. 

In the movies, there is a way the surgeons hold their hands up when they enter an operating theatre wearing their surgical gloves.  The two hands are held up, bent at the elbows, much like the way when Mohammedans pray. 

Neepa was running, her hands held similarly up, bent at her elbows and she was blowing at her palms which must have been burning.  I had to sprint to catch up with her.  I poured some water on her hands and knees and then she said, “Lets go, Lets go”

“Like a tree recovering from a wind
She raised her noble head; fronting her gaze
She stood there, unearthly, sombre, grand”

With 3 km to go, she was running 20 to 30 meters ahead of me, then stopping and shouting “common, common, lets go, lets go”.  I told her, “go ahead” and she says, “no no lets go in together”.

Every Indian knows the legend of Savitri and Satyavan.  It is a story of love conquering death.  Savitri forces Yama, the God of Death, to give back the life of her beloved husband. 

I knew then that the writer of Mahabharata who recites this legend must have known some woman like my wife.

With 2 km to go, we jog past a woman, who is lying on a stretcher on the side of the road and is being administered oxygen. Another 100 meters later, we see another jogger cramp and fall backwards.  She was immediately helped up by runners around her but cannot continue ahead.  For a few seconds I ponder upon life’s fragile littleness.    

Neepa is again urging me on.  I tell her that the pebble is hurting and she wants me to remove it but I am afraid of cramping.  Finally with 1.5 k to go, I give in and we start running, faster and faster.

With 500 meters to go we enter the stadium, 30 seconds behind Vlam and Roy, pacers to whom we are indebted for life. 

The noise is deafening, I start shouting like a mad man and shaking my fist at the shouting spectators.  There are hundreds of runners around us, just like the passengers getting off a train on a platform at peak office hour.

Passing the International Stand, I see my friend David Bree from Australia who had finished in just over 9 hours and who has been waiting for us to come through.  We look at each-other.  I recognize the joy and relief in his face. We both let out a primitive shout.  I know at that moment that this road is where I belong, these are my friends, this is my family. 

Neepa searches in the crowd and finds Namrata, runs to her and takes the Indian Flag, and we run together, body near to body, soul near to soul. Moving as if tied together by a common breath and will.  Hands twined together, like the earth and the sky. 

I hold up the Indian flag. We cross the finish line together in the same time of 11:50:53.

We hug and then walk towards the finishing chute and get our medals.  Walking out Neepa starts dancing to the music.  I fall to the ground and out comes a volcanic eruption of a nasty tasting concoction.  But I smile even as I puke because I am thinking of something she has told me in the last few minutes.

“Amit, we will have to train harder for the up-run next year”

I love this life, I love my wife.

Buy the book "Dare to Run" for more from this exceptional writer.  Click here for more information.

External links: Official Comrades Marathon website

Copyright Nikki Campbell 2010