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Comrades 2011

Andrew Smyth

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Andrew Smyth, 12317
Aussie novice!

Well now I am safely back on Australian soil I feel emotionally focused enough to tell my story of one of the most wonderful weeks of my life, my Journey to South Africa to run the Ultimate Human Race - Comrades 2011.

Whilst the Journey began in October 2010, the official trip began on the 25th May 2011 from Brisbane airport to Durban, via Sydney and Johannesburg. It was a long trip too, door to door it was something like 26hours.

There was already a buzz around the place. Approximately 20 people were travelling in on the same flight and sure enough, we all managed to hook up and chat about nothing other than running really!

Waking up at 5am in my Durban Hotel the next day due to jet lag wasnt good, especially as we only got to bed about midnight, but others had woken up much earlier. It did mean first dibs at the breakfast table (great omlettes, pastries, fruit, and coffee by the way) and it also meant we were first at the expo that morning. We all got our registration out the way and then I attacked the official merchandise store. 1 x hat, 3 x shirts, a coffee mug, 2 x bottles of 'official' Comrades red wine, some stuff for the family, and I was starting to labour under the weight of the bags. A few circuits of the entire expo and it was nearly lunch.

After lunch it was time for some R & R and then a jog on the shorefront with the Comrades "Ambassadors" - a term used for the reps around the world that do a great job encouraging people to come to Comrades and get an experience of a lifetime. Then drinks in the lounge where I met the famous Bruce Fordyce - 9 times winner of the race and still the 50mile record holder I believe. This was a pretty special moment.

Friday was the bus trip, and it was a bit like a trip through a battlefield from WW1 or WWW2. The bus was mainly silent as, shortly after leaving Durban centre, we started to climb, and climb, and climb. 15km of steep climbing before we even got to the first of the named hills, Cowies. To be honest, it didnt look like anything worse than what we had already driven over, then again, it didnt look any better. The bus continued up the route and I swear I dont think the driver hit the brakes in the first 40km. Digger, our tour director on this bus, continued to do a marvellous job scaring the shit out of all of the first timers. After visiting the Comrades wall of honour we then drove the 2nd half of the course and stopped at the finish line for lunch, all put on by the CMA for free for the international runners. It was then the long journey back down the road into Durban to end what was an intersting day to say the least. The course looked much tougher than I had anticipated and any prospective times went out the window right there and then, I just wanted to finish in one piece.

Saturday was uneventfull, mainly because of nerves and also because everyone was trying to conserve every ounce of energy for the race the following day. I was fast asleep before 9pm, which for me before a big race, is rare.

2:55am Sunday 31st May, off goes my alarm, and I jump out of bed ready for the race of my life. We assemble in the foyer for breakfast and all I see are tracksuit and skins clad runners walking around like lost puppies, nervously going about their business. The regular pre-race diet of honey on toast with a cup of tea and it was back up stairs to finish my preparations. At 4:40am Digger, Kiwi Andy, and myself headed to the start line. It was dark and cold, but there was no need to ask for the directions as everyone was heading to one spot, Durban town hall. Time flew, and we were in our "C" Category holding pen and then the SA National Anthem rang out. To be honest it was all a bit of a blur and before I knew it the gun had gone - we were off.

Now whilst Comrades is "chipped" there are no net times. Its 12hrs to finish the race from Gun time, no excuses. Anyway, we were off, and plodding along at around 6min per km pace. 10km down (or should I say up) and 1:05 on the clock. Not bad considering it took two mins to cross the start line. 20km down, 2:04 on the clock, and Cowies in the bag. By now I had already been welcomed by 50 or so spectators, and had been told how rubbish our rugby side was on numerous occasions.

30km, and things changed. It was 3:04 into the race and Digger and Andy 'dissapeared' and Brett Foote, another Aussie in the race, was suddenly beside me. He told me his heart rate was too high and he was dropping back a tad, so onwards and upwards I plodded. Fields was long and steep, and then I saw Botha's - holy cow. It just went on and on and on and this is where I first started to hurt. My glutes were locking up but I was determined to push on at the same pace. The relief of running downhill for about 8km after Botha's was undescribable, and as we neared the bottom I saw Inchanga, and what looked like a snake of people crawling and slithing up this mighty beast. It was massive, and daunting, and long, and painful. Once Inchanga had chewed me up and spat me out I had quickly forgotton I had gone through halfway already and started worrying that I still had a marathon to go, maybe 5hrs of running left. Thats a long way. Next was the Ethembeni School for disabled. We met them on Friday and its a real tear jerker. The happiest kids in the world being dealt the roughest cards. They change your entire focus of what it important in life. These kids stand beside the route outside their school and give high fives all day. I recognise some of them from Friday and I dont want to leave. I give a few of them a hug, a tear in my eye, and I press on, I have a long way to go.

The next part of the race, Harrison Flats, isn't flat. Such a dumb name. Its like calling the Blue Mountains the Blue tablelands. Its constantly undulating, hot, and mentally the hardest part of the race. It goes on and on forever but I kept telling myself just 38km to go, 37, 36, etc. At 36km to go I had a chuckle to myself that I only had a marathon training long slow run left. What I had forgotten was I had already covered 51km that morning!! My aim was to get it to 21km to go, just a half marathon, and this would pretty much coincide with the highest point of the race - a real mental boost. But I was hurting, and hurting bad. I was still running except through the drink stations, but I think I had slowed to 6:30 min kms or therabouts. The only good news was that most were going slower. As we went over Camperdown and down the hill towards little Polly's it became evident that I was indeed passing alot of people, and this gave me a boost.

Polly Shorts came into view, the famed hill that breaks nearly everyone. 95% were walking but I refused. I had managed to catch Andy (Kiwi) again and we decided to walk 1 min, run 1 min, repeat till we got to the top. We must have passed 200 runners on that hill and when we got to the top we had just 8km to go (80km down). It was downhill from here and we were almost assured of a sub 10hr time. As this was my initial goal when I signed up, I started to get goosebumps. The crowd will you on, you kick up a gear, they give you more cheer, and up another you go. Its amazing and it truly shows the power of the mind over the body - a body that had pretty much shut down 3 or 4 hours ago. Even though I had picked up the pace, Andy had shot off into the distance, he was looking strong!

With 2 kms to go I cannot explain what happened. All pain dissapated from my body, and I felt like I was running a long slow run on a Saturday morning, somewhere around the 12km mark of a 36km run when everything just feel so right. I was floating, the crowds were cheering and I was picking up speed. As I took the right turn into the stadium a massive smile crossed my face like the Harbour Bridge and I knew I was home. I saw the Aussie contingent in the International Tent and ran over to grab and Aussie flag. I had never felt so pround before. 8 months, 1600kms, and countless hours of training all came down to this moment, this last 50m. I heard the announcer call out my name and I jumped in the air waving my arms crazily. I crossed the finish line in 9:43:23 and I had done it. I collected my very precious medal and made my way as quickly as possible to the international runners tent to check on my fellow Comrades. Some were in already, many were not.

To Geoff, Sean, Hunter, and Andy the Kiwi who were already home, congratulations, fantastic runs. Apart from hydrating and the fact I had consumed around 10 litres of fluid but passed nothing, I now started to worry about everyone else. First came Geoff Last, then Brett, then Digger, then Keith and his wife Carol, then Jon, then Paul, and numerous others inclduing the girls from the sunshine coast and finally, Jarred and Kerry from Vic. Everyone was home within the 12hrs, all getting their well earned medal. It was time to celebrate.....

Now I am back in Oz I think back to the South African guy at 10km who had recovered from a brain tumour (spending a month in a coma after the 2010 race), to the others who carried their jumpers and race bags the entire course, to the 1000's of well wishers along the route that just wanted to say thanks for coming, I shake my head in disbelief. I now grasp the enormity of the event, the signifigance that it has in peoples lives, the way it changes you and makes you more humble and gracious - it really does. For those that have a Comrades medal, I am sure you would agree. For those that dont yet, but have aspirations one day of making this pilgrimage, I suggest you just get out there and start training. 3.5 years ago I couldnt run 5km. If I can do it at 40, anyone can!

I hope to be back in 2012, health and finances permitting, and I hope that reading my story helps others reach their goals in their life too - whatever they may be.

Thank you South Africa, thank you Comrades, thank you Digger and other fellow Australian runners, and thank you to those that have help me prepare and have sent me good wishes! Collectively you have changed my life. 

External links: Official Comrades Marathon website



Copyright Nikki Campbell 2011
alsoran@webafrica.org.za