It was 2016, my 3rd year at the Comrades Marathon. A stupid thing was about to happen just before entering my holding area at the start line.
The Comrades Marathon brings the most humbling experience for runners. This race is unique for so many reasons — its history, the 90k route across multiple hills, the people of South Africa, the tough endurance challenge, multiple intermediate cut-offs & the 12-hour cut-off for the race. The intense emotions at the start of the race and the victorious finish line at Comrades are unparalleled. If you are an ultrarunner, you must run this race at least once in your lifetime.
Anyway, just as I entered my D pen (the start line has multiple seeding batches based on the qualification marathon finish time between A-H), I was jolted and thrown forward when I missed a drain hole on the road intersecting with the footpath. The result – I fell and twisted my ankle. I started sweating, my heart beating rapidly, even in that cold Pietermaritzburg weather. I cursed myself for being careless when there was an hour more to go for the 12-hour race to start.
Fast-forward to 4.57 pm. After running for nearly 11 hours and 53 minutes, I finally entered the roaring Kingsmead Stadium filled with spectators and family members shouting and cheering for the runners to finish the race in the final few minutes. Within moments, I crossed the finish line with a feeling of conquering a war and walked away with a back-to-back “up and down” Comrades finisher medal.
How did I finish? Did I do everything right? Did I train well? Was I ready for a race this intense and this long?
Running an ultramarathon is nothing short of cruelty to the body, yet we love it. It is heartbreaking to see many ultra runners collapsing at various race sections in Comrades due to accidental falls, cramps & exhaustion, and inadequate preparation for such a tough race. It is a horror to witness runners collapsing just a few meters before the race finish line.
I couldn’t complete the 2014 Comrades Marathon down run due to a calf injury. So I worked my way up to fix my training. The run-up to the 2016 Comrades Marathon was a fascinating journey. With the Sub-4 time finish at the Mumbai Marathon in January, my confidence rose to a different level. I moved up to the D pen in Comrades start-line at Pietermaritzburg and targeted a sub-9.30-hour-finish.
My training went like clockwork precision from February 2016 to the beginning of May 2016. At Least that’s what I thought. In the first week of May, my glutes were sore and hurting for over two weeks after my training runs. I visited my sports physiotherapist. Problem alert: I had a tight ITB that needed immediate corrections. The rehab and stretch routines I followed left plenty of soreness, leaving no time for the muscles to repair and heal. So the next few weeks, I stopped running and shifted to swimming and cycling to stay active & fit.
The pain pattern was completely different within one week of starting my rehab. Mild pain in the glutes muscles turned to a stabbing pain at my right ITB and Piriformis even when I walked. I wasn’t ready, but I decided still to experience the race, irrespective of the outcome.
On the race day after I fell, I picked myself up, limped forward, mixed along with the other runners, picked a spot on the road, and sat down quietly while gently massaging my pain spot. When I removed my shoes, I could feel a swelling right below my ankle joint. I was furious and upset with myself. Nothing else mattered then, and I knew it would be a battle between me and the newly twisted ankle. Who said running a Comrades marathon was easy? The fun was about to unfold.
I scraped my original pacing plan and started focusing on running to finish within the 12-hour mark. Until 20-25 km, my ankle was hurting at every step, but I grew more confident to manage it well as I marched towards Durban. I had plenty of positive talks with myself to address the challenges the Comrades Marathon had to offer on that day.
Ultimately, I overcame my pain and returned home with more than a medal – an unforgettable, extraordinary experience.
Along with it, I also learned valuable lessons. Here are the three top ones:
- I thought I was strong and ready, but my physical foundation was weak. However, I was mentally strong, and I wish I had had the complete awareness of my physical limitations and addressed them before the beginning of my training block. I was attempting to fix my physical conditions a few weeks before the race day wasn’t the best thing to do.
- Opportunities don’t often come our way, but when they do, grab them and cling to them. On that day, I learned the importance of not expecting a perfect outcome; However, sometimes, the result may surprise you. After learning about my glute & ITB issue, I could have stayed home and cancelled my trip. I knew I might fail, but I went ahead to experience it. If I failed, I needed to understand how and why. On the other hand, being a self-experimenter, I could work around my limitations and experiment with my fuel & hydration plans for the 12 hrs duration, which went very well. I was strong mentally and did not stop due to GI issues, cramping, dehydration or exhaustion.
- Be ready to alter the goals. Ultramarathons teach us to have patience. Have a one-step or a one-mile-at-a-time approach. I went to race the Comrades Down run with a 9.30 hour-time target. But after I fell, I had to reconsider my goal. I scrapped my original plan and adapted to the race day conditions. In the end, even though the outcome wasn’t perfect, I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of the challenge I went through. If I ever attempt another race like this, I’ll not be afraid of adapting to race day conditions.
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I have learned the hard way throughout my journey, garnering knowledge over the years that I wish to pass on to others.
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