alsoran runners 2009 experiences:
Lisa Jackson

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Lisa Jackson

I dreamed of running Comrades ever since my dad called us down to the lounge to watch a white-haired student seemingly effortlessly win the race every year in the 1980s. Our family used to cheer Brucie on in front of the TV and marvel as he sailed to victory over and over again. However, I am far from gifted athletically, being the kind of girl who wasn't even picked for the team, let alone picked last, so this seemed like an impossible dream. It didn't help that I studiously avoided exercise of any kind until after my 30th birthday either. But then, aged 31, I caught the running bug and surprised myself by becoming a marathon junkie, running at least one every year. My Comrades dream was reignited in 2003 when I interviewed a 54-year-old for my beginners' running book, Running Made Easy. Her tale of stumbling across the finish line with seconds to spare made me think, if she can do it, I can too (when she started training for Comrades, she didn't even know how to lace up her own trainers, so I knew I was ahead of the game!)
lisa jackson
Lisa Jackson

And so I signed up for the 2009 race. Words cannot describe the fear I felt as I started training - I'd never run faster than a 5h19 marathon, and my average pace for that distance was 5h45, so qualifying was my first hurdle. I spent days watching Comrades clips on YouTube while crying as I thought I'd never be one of those heroic finishers I saw on my screen. And then, miraculously, I qualified in 4h39 and my Comrades hopes received a huge boost. But, living in the relatively flat, mild UK, I was still in total fear of the heat and the hills. It was then that I discovered this alsoran website, which became an obsession! I read every one of Nikki's tips and stuck to my training schedule despite there being record snowfalls in London (one run involved running the same two blocks 80 times as it was the only piece of pavement I could find that wasn't covered in ice). And then I started corresponding with Nikki. She was unbelievably encouraging and I printed out one of her most inspiring emails and read it over and over again to myself, along with other inspirational quotes about running, to prepare myself mentally as we drove up to Maritzburg before the big day.

This is what Nikki wrote:

You are going to love Comrades!  It is a journey more than a race.
Don’t fret about it, be excited that you are going to be standing on the start line, brave enough to accept the challenge.  Then just go out and enjoy the day, knowing that the spectators on the side of the road are secretly wishing they were you.  Personally I believe running a hilly course is easier than running a flat course because you get some “recovery”.  Don’s charts build in all the hills.  The thing is, don’t worry if you can’t keep up with his chart during the early stages, I’ve found that I “catch” up later during the run.  What I’m trying to say is that it’s not all over if you fall behind on his chart.  Most important thing on the day is to BELIEVE IN YOURSELF and back the decisions you make. Comrades is about passing on the message – next year you will be encouraging others to do the same!

Well the day dawned and I was unnaturally calm. I donned my pink flamingo hat and got goosebumps as we sang the national anthem and Shosholoza. When I heard the cock crow, as I had so many times when watching TV as a little girl, I squeezed my sister Loren's hand and shed a tear as I couldn't believe I was actually standing at that start line with so many other people, many less fortunate than me, who'd all taken up the challenge of running six times a week for six months. I felt honoured just standing there - I didn't need to run a single step.

I'm usually a chatty runner but decided not to speak to anyone in case it slowed me down too much. After about 10km I started to miss the splits I'd worked out according to Don's charts and slowly I became more and more depressed about my chances of finishing. And then I bumped into Nikki who told me I was looking good and said every year she asked herself the same question: did she want to be anywhere else in the world except here on that day? The answer, she said, was always 'no'. In my head, with all my splits going awry and my blistered feet killing me because I was wearing THREE pairs of socks (don't ask - I broke every golden rule in this race!), I was screaming 'Yes, Nikki, in fact I can think of 1,000 places I'd rather be - even sitting in a traffic jam would be more fun!'

Nikki left me and by halfway I seriously considered pulling out to spare myself the pain of running another six hours only not to finish.
But then Nikki's words 'I’ve found that I catch up later during the run... it’s not all over if you fall behind on Don's chart' popped into my head, and I decided to keep going no matter what. (Nikki wasn't the only motivating factor, I must confess: the fact that someone at my running club had snorted in disbelief when I said I was training for Comrades also spurred me on as I was hellbent on proving him wrong!) Just after halfway I met a wonderfully chatty Canadian called Barbara whose excitement at running Comrades for the first time was infectious. With her fantastic tales to listen to (she'd travelled the world, done Two Oceans, was doing a doctorate) the miles flew by and before we knew it we were in Durban, crossing that line with the biggest grins on our faces ever. Besides that moment, the highlight for me was hobbling around the entire stadium looking for Nikki who'd invited me to meet up with her at the end and, when I'd given up hope of finding her, seeing her and the Fish Hoek gang. The huge hug she gave me (and the photo of it she sent me afterwards) are some of my most special Comrades memories. So if you're reading this and don't think you'll make it, remember these simple rules from the unsporty, unathletic, slow woman who did Comrades with a flamingo on her head:
  1. Listen to Nikki, she REALLY knows what she's talking about. She's the world's best unofficial Comrades ambassador.
  2. Listen to Don's advice - his programme really works (though you can play around a bit with his splits). He's done the race countless times and he's South African.
  3. The hills are your friends.
  4. Comrades is 80% in your mind.
  5. Nikki will help you believe you can do it - and you CAN! (see point 4)

Wishing you a race that will challenge you, redefine you and delight you. I hope to see you at the Expo, fellow alsorunners.
Lisa Jackson (Comrades runner)
London, 2009

PS Nikki was right about another thing - this year I've passed on the message and my husband Graham, my sister, her boyfriend, a Canadian friend, Bridget, and  my new Comrades friend Barbara and her husband will all be doing Comrades with me. And guess what site I'll be recommending as a regular pep-talk? Thank you, Nikki, for helping to make all our Comrades dreams come true.

External links: Official Comrades Marathon website

Copyright Nikki Campbell 2009