Monday, May 23, 2011

Amby Burfoot's Comrades Experience - The Up Run

Every run is a new adventure, and every race serves only to expose some piece of us. The greater the race distance, the deeper the unpeeling. This makes South Africa's 55-mile Comrades Marathon a long and probing quest.

The distance alone makes the Comrades intimidating. The infamous climbs make it torturous. Midway, the course snakes upward through the Valley of a Thousand Hills, an English appellation as accurate as it is terrifying.

On Comrades Marathon morning in Durban two years ago, I walked out of my hotel's back door at 4:30am and followed everyone else towards the start a mile away. As I did so I had time to consider what had brought me there.

The answer couldn't be simpler. The way I figure it, Comrades has to be the world's greatest race. It's 55 miles long – the type of distance that usually lures about, oh, 71 runners. Comrades has enough magnetism to draw 12,000. Everyone in South Africa is a Comrades aficionado, thanks to the continuous 12-hour live national TV coverage. It has the most extraordinary traditions, like the matter of race numbers and their colours. International runners get blue ones. Runners in their 10th Comrades wear yellow. You complete 10 and you get a green number for all future entries. You own this number. No one but you will wear it again – ever.

At the start all ears eagerly await the sound of a cock's crow. In 1948, local runner Max Trimborn, one of 44 entrants that year, couldn't contain his nervous energy on the starting line. So he cupped his hands, filled his lungs, and issued a lusty rooster crow. The other runners so enjoyed this act that they demanded repeat performances in subsequent years. Trimborn obliged for the next 32, sometimes adorning himself with feathers and a rooster vest. By the time of his death in 1985, Trimborn's crowing had been preserved on tape. These days, greatly amplified, it still starts the Comrades Marathon: "Cock-A-Doodle...Go!"

But perhaps the greatest of Comrades rituals is the course switch. In odd years the course drops down 2,300 feet from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. In even years it reverses itself, scrambling up into the hills. I ran Comrades once previously, in 1993, a 'down' year; the race in 2006 was like a new and completely different experience, full of unexpected challenges.

A race this long demands a plan and a goal. I've got both, but mainly the latter. The plan is to take it easy. While I haven't done any long runs, I'm in good shape, based on a recent 1:29 half-marathon. I aim to extend my endurance with walking breaks. When I feel good, I'll run. When I get tired, I'll walk. You see how easy these ultra marathons are?

My primary goal is more specific: I want to run all the way up Polly Shortts. Animal lovers can name Africa's 'Big Five' in a flash: elephant, buffalo, leopard, lion and rhinoceros. Those who run the 'up' Comrades are just as quick with its Big Five hills: Cowies, Fields, Bothas, Inchanga and Polly Shortts, the last and most treacherous. When I first heard these names back in my college days I could barely suppress a chuckle. Polly Shortts? I couldn't picture anything but a girl in a miniskirt. (Hey, it was the 1960s, okay?)

The day before the race, I have lunch with nine-time winner Bruce Fordyce, now 51, a South African who's regarded as the greatest ever Comrades runner. I tell him that I simply want to run all the way up Polly Shortts. Fordyce's face comes alive, breaking into a wicked grin. "Oh, you'll not be running up Polly," he says. "By the time you get there, you won't have much run left in you."

The first miles pass easily, almost eerily. In these early miles, there's little room for walking breaks. The roads are narrow, the pack thick. After 5K, I spot several openings and scoot to the side of the road to walk for a minute or two. I seem to be alone in this approach. Everyone else is still running. That's okay. The more strength I save now, the more I'll have later, when I really want it – when I meet my Polly. A bright sun rises in the east, bathing the verdant countryside in brilliant colours. "This is easy," I tell myself. "You can do this all day."

At about nine miles, I reach the first hill, Cowies. It's no big deal – just a long, gradual slope up and around a big shoulder. I take a few short walk breaks. All fine. Just a few more miles to the half-marathon mark.

The first killer hill, Fields, begins at about 14 miles. It's long, steep, and grinding. Since almost everyone is walking, I decide to do the same and make some new friends. That's one of the great things about an ultra. When you go this long and slow, there's time for bonding. Comrades was started in 1921 to pay tribute to South Africa's World War One vets. These days, "comrades" refers more often to your training and racing partners.

I talk to two guys running together. The stories tumble out. One is running his fifth Comrades, the other is a newbie. "I had to find something to celebrate my 50th birthday," he says. "Some men get divorced, some men buy fast cars. I decided to run the 'up' Comrades."

Miles covered: 26.2Elapsed time: 5:10Mind: With the worst hills done and gone, maybe it's time to think negative splitsBody: Thank goodness the second half is mostly flatOverall: When this thing is done, it would be nice to take a vacation.

A mile beyond the marathon mark, we run through the Flora Halfway Celebration, basically the longest balloon arch/water stop/musical revue I've ever seen. It's at least 200 metres from one end to the other. I drink a little Coke, eat half a baked potato (a Comrades speciality), and try to relax. This might be possible except for one supreme obstacle: Inchanga. It fills the view ahead, soaring ever higher like a rollercoaster on steroids. Yes, the scenery is spectacular, but an ultra crushes your appreciation for aesthetics. I walk most of Inchanga. It takes 30 minutes. All I see is black asphalt with narrow zigzag fissures. I'm still thinking: "Save yourself for Polly."

Beyond Inchanga, we pass the Ethembeni ('Place of Hope') School for blind and physically handicapped children. Its students line the roadside in their wheelchairs, with canes, on crutches. No Comrades runner, no matter how fatigued, can pass here without acknowledging their own good fortune. I jog over to the kids and give as many high fives as I can. These smiling kids are inspirational, but I'm sinking fast. I plod up four or five unnamed hills – things are starting to get fuzzy by this point. Each is followed by a punishing descent.

Miles covered: 39.3Elapsed time: Eight hours (2:50 for the last 13.1)Mind: This sucksBody: This sucksOverall: This – how should I put it? – sucks

Polly, Polly, where are you? I've been walking for three miles, from about the 45-mile mark. It's a desperate move – one that I hope will conserve what little strength I have left. Maybe, I tell myself, maybe I can still run up Polly Shortts.

A large sign announces the appearance of Polly Shortts. I lift my eyes – a mistake. Ahead is the sharpest hill of the day, rising upward until it slithers out of view. I'm guessing there's more of the same over the horizon. I see hundreds of runners. All are walking. And there is no chance, despite my resolve, that I will run Polly Shortts. My tank has passed empty. So I trudge onward, sidling over to a green-numbered runner, one of the veterans. I explain how, prior to today's ordeal, I believed the 'up' Comrades might be easier than the 'down'.

"Listen to me, mate," he says. "This is my 17th Comrades, and all those years I've heard runners talk about how the 'up' run is easier on the body. But I'm telling you, it's not. This 'up' run is just one big piece of hard work. It keeps coming at you and coming and coming, and it never gives you a break. Never."

I walk every step of Polly Shortts, and every step of the remaining six miles to the finish. As we get closer to Pietermaritzburg, the course turns blessedly, run-ably downhill, and I still can't break out of my walk. A spectator bolts from her lawn chair, and races to the sidewalk, her eyes fixed on mine. "You're a hero," she yells into my face. "Don't stop. You can do it."

Half a mile from the end of the race, I hear the first faint echoes from the finish line announcer. Here, in another 60 minutes, running's most dramatic moment will be played out. With precisely 11 hours, 59 minutes on the time clock, the director of the Comrades Marathon marches to the finish line. There, he turns his back to the oncoming stream of runners, raises a gun and waits for the seconds to tick down.

Pandemonium breaks loose. Thousands of spectators look to the frantic flow of runners struggling for the finish. Some are sprinting with joyously upraised arms, some walking, some literally crawling on their hands and knees. The crowd breaks into a rhythmic, throbbing chant: "Go...Go...Go...Go!" The atmosphere is electric, the suspense building. The national television audience skyrockets in the final minutes, as all of South Africa tunes in for the tense Comrades conclusion. Who'll make it? Who won't?

At 12:00:00 on the race clock, the gun is fired. The Comrades Marathon is over. Those who fail to break 12 hours will receive no medal for their effort. No time. They won't appear in the official results. They will become, in effect, a non-runner. You could tell your friends that you ran Comrades. You could say you finished in around 12:05. But you didn't. Because there will be no record of it.

There is some solace only for the first non-finisher. He or she becomes an instant hero, interviewed live on TV and pictured on the front page of every newspaper. To many South Africans, the Comrades runner who goes all that distance, for nothing, is more symbolic, of something, than the race winner.

I beat the 12-hour cut-off by 55 minutes, but I've also run the worst race of my life. When I finally reach the City Oval cricket grounds on the edge of Pietermaritzburg and run through the corridor of spectators thumping on tin advertising signs, I can only console myself that I didn't quit. Sometimes the best you can do is not very good at all, and those are probably the most important times to stick it out. But I've got what I wanted, what I wanted badly – a Comrades 'up' medal. Every runner should have one.

Miles covered: 55Elapsed time: 11 hours, 5 minutes.Mind: Nice to be sitting downBody: Not sure I can stand up againOverall: Thank goodness that’s done

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