During the latter part of last year, my sister Fadeelah made the commitment to do what is known as the Ultimate Human Race, the Comrades 88km ultramarathon. The run takes place between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg, and it changes direction every year. This year was to be an UP run, starting in Durban and ending in Pietermaritzburg.
When she told me of her plans, it was an absolute no-brainer that I would also go to Durban, not to run it but to support and second* her on the race.
It was a long and tough journey of training for the race. No matter what your finish goal time is, whether you are going for gold or plodding along at the back of the pack, training for this race is always going to be difficult. Not only is it about managing the training load while staying healthy and injury-free, it’s also about getting sufficient rest and recovery during the training period, having immense discipline not to push on the shorter races beforehand even though you are probably the fittest you have ever been in your life, and managing the longest taper** that you will ever do for a race.
Psychological preparation was also key. In a run of 88km, your body alone can never take you the distance. Humans were not physically made to run much further than a standard 42km marathon. After that, your mind needs to take over when your body tries to force you to stop. It is an inherent self-preservation mechanism that your body uses to prevent itself from dying. Psychologically, you have to push through that pain, that fatigue, that voice in your head screaming at you: “What are you doing? I am about to collapse and succumb to the throes of death if you don’t STOP at this very moment!!”
We had many discussions and sometimes debates about her mileage, how long her longest runs should be, when her long runs should be, what pace she should be training at, how much recovery time is required after Two Oceans ultra, etc etc. Getting closer to race day, I was confident that she was ready, that she had done what she needed to, and that she was very capable of finishing under the 12hr cutoff. I also knew that she respected the distance, and that she knew what it takes. In saying this, we were also both very aware that ANYTHING can happen on race day. There are so many things that can go wrong, and being fit and race-ready is in no way a guarantee of finishing Comrades.
Her husband, Quaseem, was also going to run the race. Although I wasn’t involved in his training program and plans leading up to the race, I would be seconding him with supplies as well, and got a brief run down of his race strategy the night before.
Fadeelah, her husband, 2 brothers-in-law, and sister-in-law (Shameema) flew to Durban on the Wednesday before race day. Come Saturday, I hopped onto a plane to Durban, hired a little Suzuki car, headed through to our accommodation, picked up Fadeelah and headed to the expo to have a browse. That afternoon and evening, I did the last bit of planning. Seconding was a job I took very seriously, and I had to know exactly where the runners would be at what point, and where I had to be to meet them. I had planned to meet them at 3 points along the route, and then at the finish line in Pietermaritzburg.
Fadeelah also got a warning from me that if I should find her running anything faster than a 11:45 finish time pace, she would get a lecture from me from the side of the road. One cannot bank time on Comrades, and pacing yourself going slowly at the start is key. My little book had the earliest expected times of both Quaseem and Fadeelah at key points and every 5-10km along the route. I also packed the support box of their nutritional supplies, and some emergency kit like extra socks for each of them, muscle spray, Deep Freeze spray, Pain-Gone sport pen, and sunblock.
I dropped Fadeelah, Quaseem and Naasief at the start at 04h45, gave her a good-luck hug, went back to park, and watched the 05h30 start of the race. What a spectacular start! It took just over 11 minutes for all the runners to pass the point where we were stationed.
My lift for race day did not work out, so on the last minute I decided to do it alone. I used the route map supplied in the centrefold of the Comrades magazine to navigate my way around. Once you understand the map, it is actually not too hard to figure out where you need to be. Getting there, though, is sometimes another story.
The first stop I was to make was Cowies Hill, 17.5km into the race and also the first timing mat and cutoff point. It was surprisingly easy to access this point and get to the runners. I first saw Quaseem and Saied come past, right on planned pace, and then Fadeelah also came past later, with the Itheko 2.0 bus***. They were on pace for a good sub 12hr, so there was no need to lecture her about going too fast.
My next stop was to be Hillcrest, about 35km into the race. I couldn’t get to Hillcrest because I had to cross the route, which was impossible. I stopped at a point where the route was accessible, that I figured out was Winston Park, about 5km before Hillcrest, and just hoped that they didn’t pass yet. I was lucky that my timing was just right, and they hadn’t passed yet. When I spoke to Quaseem (while running next to him with the supplies), he indicated that he was starting to take strain. Hmm, I started to get worried, but hoped that it’s just a bad patch that he would recover from. Fadeelah looked like she was still going strong when she passed, I gave her some supplies, and watched them run merrily on.
I was going to go to the Green Mile next, a spectator hotspot at 60km (28km to go), but because there was so much time available between then and when they were expected to pass, I decided to go to Inchanga first. Inchanga is one of the hardest points in the race, just after halfway, and a monster of a hill. It was such a mission to get there. I had to cross the route in order to go further, which meant I had to drive about 10km all the way back to Pinetown, but then still could not pass. I realised I drove in a massive circle when half an hour later, I was back at the point where I had started. Urgh. Another 20km detour later, I was back on the highway, stuck in a bit of traffic, but well on the way to Inchanga.
I was glad I went there, because I got the opportunity to give them both some supplies, and gave Naasief some cold orange juice as well. Fadeelah was still looking strong at this point, although her average race pace now had me worried. The race app was predicting a finish time of 12:08, which is 8 minutes after the cutoff and would mean she would not get a medal. I wasn’t too worried though, because the race gets easier after Inchanga. Your body, however, is already much weaker because now you are in territory of beyond marathon distance. Quaseem seemed to have gotten over his bad patch, but asked for Deep Freeze spray, and so I sprayed him. He was still ahead of Fadeelah, and looked ok. I told Fadeelah “See you at Camperdown”.
At this point I was getting thoughts of what I guess can only be described as arrogance. I thought “Wow, I am such a good Comrades seconder. I always see them coming before they see me, then I go to them and run next to them a bit, with everything in my little box. I give them ice cold juice, their own supplies and everything they ask for, I even open the packaging for them if required. They don’t even have to stop, ever. A Comrades runner mos can’t stop, that’s why you have to jog next to them. And I meet them on the route almost every 20km. I’m gonna try to get to another 2 points at least. If I was running Comrades, I would want a seconder like me”
It was now almost midday, and I was getting hungry. Camperdown (my next stop) was 15km away, which meant I had at least an hour to get there and still be early. And the way there is on the highway, so it should only take a few minutes (OR SO I THOUGHT). I took a 10 minute break and had a sandwich and juice before leaving. When I started driving, I was stuck in traffic from that very moment of pulling out of the parking. It took me an hour to get to the highway, which was 2km away. I thought it would ease then, but it didn’t. It got worse. The highway was bumper to bumper as far as I could see. Although I am a very calm person generally, I started panicking when 2 hours later, I had only moved 10km. They were now already passing Camperdown on the run and I was still 5km away. I moved my target stop to Umlaas Rd, a further 5km away. But the traffic did not ease up. My shins were even starting to cramp from the clutch-accelerator control movement. Being alone made it suck even more. I was solidly brought down to earth after the arrogant moment of just now.
At one point when the highway twisted and I could see for kilometres further ahead, I noted that it was still bumper to bumper, even in the horizon. I burst into tears and started sobbing in the car. I couldn’t even pull over, I probably wouldn’t even if I could because it would just cause further delays. I was crying for a few reasons, but one of the biggest was that I was powerless to help Fadeelah. She is out there running her heart out and I was supposed to give her stuff. I told her I would see her at Camperdown and now I am not even there. I was letting my sister down and I couldn’t bear it! What if Quaseem needed more pain spray like he did at Inchanga?!
Later when I had calmed down a bit, I checked the app again. They had now passed the Cato Ridge cutoff and timing mat, and her predicted finish time was now 12:15. When I saw that, I started crying again. Oh my word!! She is getting slower. Finish time is now 15 minutes after cutoff. What if she is slowing down because she needs gels, or 32GI chews that I have on me? What if she needs the pain spray for her legs or her back is acting up and she is suffering out there? And I’m stuck here in a car and at this rate will not even make it in time for the finish. What if she doesn’t finish, and then it will be all my fault?! *Roggie continues sobbing* I came all this way and I can’t be there for her when she needs me.
I. LET. MY. SISTER. DOWN.
It hurt like hell, and it sucked so badly!
I was chatting intermittently to a friend back home, who has done Comrades before, and who was also tracking a few people via the app, Fadeelah included. I told him about the fact that they are slowing down. He could see that too. He told me that they must just keep moving forward, no matter what. Yes, If only I could get to them to tell them that! At the Umlaas Rd timing mat, Fadeelah had now moved ahead of Quaseem. This had to mean that something not nice was happening to him, and I was worried that I didn’t know what!
Traffic eased up a bit later and it was free flowing for a few kilometres. Then it got congested again, and eased up at points. At this point I had made up my mind that if I can get to Polly Shortts (7km to go) by an hour before the finish cutoff, I would go there, even though it meant I would then definitely miss the finish. They need me now on the route, and I had to try my best to see them at least one more time. When I studied the map, I saw that there is a point at 10km to go where the route is accessible from a road leading from the highway’s offramp. I calculated that I could get there by 4pm, which was 90min before final cutoff at the finish. If I miss them and they had passed already, I would be happy in the knowledge that they had a safe window in which to do the last 10km in slower than 8min/km. That speed might sound slow, but at the end of Comrades you would be hard-pressed to be able to maintain even 8min/km. I made it there at exactly 4pm, and waited, and waited. At 16h08, I spotted Fadeelah coming.
I was ecstatic for seeing her because of 3 main reasons:
She had just over 8min/km to safely do the last 10km, which included the dreaded Polly Shortts hill
She was still with the very capable 2.0 bus driver, Uncle Aslam Galant. He is a legend and I knew without a shadow of doubt that he would finish
She looked strong!!
She didn’t take anything from me at that point. I think I remember running next to her and her saying no it’s ok she doesn’t need anything. I told her You’ve got this! 10km to go, keep going. You’re doing great.
And I meant it, she was doing great.
I messaged Manie (my friend) to say she had just passed, and she’s with uncle Aslam, and she looks strong. He replied “Yes! They’re gonna make it!” I couldn’t really chat any more, because my phone battery was dying, even though I had already recharged it with the battery bank earlier.
I had no idea what had happened to Quaseem, and I waited until 16h30 before I left to see if he isn’t still coming. He had either dropped out by then, and if he was still running and not there yet the he definitely was not going to make it, because the Polly Shortts cutoff is at 16h30 and that was still 3km ahead. I felt so bad for him. What happened??
It took me another almost 2 hours to make my way to the finish stadium in Pietermaritzburg, which was only 10km away. Traffic was a nightmare once again. I tried to save my battery by turning my phone onto airplane mode intermittently. I was going to wait until 17h30 (the final cutoff time) to check the app again to see if Fadeelah made it. I could not risk my phone dying before then. When I opened the app, I saw that she had finished in 11h57m26s.
OH MY WORD SHE MADE IT!!!!
I was overcome with emotion again. I could not hold back the gush of tears once more. (by the way, this is from someone who doesn’t normally get emotional) This time it was tears of relief, of pride, of everything rolled into one. She did it! My little sister had finished Comrades!! I was so incredibly proud of her. I couldn’t be more happy even if I had finished Comrades myself. Oh my word I cannot describe how proud I was of her. For her to finish in that time she must’ve run that last 7km from Polly Shortts so incredibly fast, faster than any other section of the race! And that is a VERY difficult part because of the state your body is in at that point, and there are still hills.
The picture above with the finish time shows the soldier coming home from battle. It shows what most people see, admire and applaud. But the one below shows the soldier in the battlefield, it shows a glimpse of the story of what happened out there. It shows the story of an incredibly brave girl who refused to give up even though the odds were against her for most of the race. That is where I believe the real greatness lies!
The last column is the important one, the running pace. One needs an average of 8:05 to finish in time. She wasn’t running that pace for any split until the last 2 splits, which is about 7km each.
When I eventually got to near the stadium, I jumped the little Suzuki onto a pavement where there was space to park, ran out of the car, grabbed my backpack and headed to the stadium, running as fast as I could. My heart was pumping so hard in my chest, almost in my throat actually. All I wanted to do was get to Fadeelah, hug her ssooo tightly and tell her how proud I was of her. And also tell her how sorry I was that I couldn’t be there on the latter part of the route where I said I would.
I eventually found her and did what I wanted to do. I am not going to go into detail about that because this post is already long enough, but I do want to say that I’m so glad she didn’t hold it against me that I was MIA, they both said that I was a great support, which made me incredibly happy and relieved. I also found out what happened to Quaseem, he had to stop with 15km to go because he had debilitating cramp and could not continue. His other 2 brothers, Saied and Naasief, finished successfully.
Of the 17000 runners that started Comrades, each one has their story. And I believe that each one has an incredibly inspiring and powerful story. This is one race that will break you down, chew you up, and spit you out. It takes everything out of you. This is part of Fadeelah’s story, but it is not the whole story, it cannot be the whole story. It didn’t detail how she struggled in the first half, all the doubts she had to overcome, all the internal battles she had to face during the race, how she wanted to give up when she thought she wouldn’t make it, how she almost bailed when she saw her husband in distress, especially since at that point she already supposedly knew she can’t run fast enough to finish in time, how she had to push through the pain and fatigue to the finish line because it was now or never, how she had to listen to a spectator at the roadside who told them they can’t walk now (up Polly Shortts hill) because otherwise they wouldn’t make it, how she could not even bend down to tie her shoe lace on the race because her legs pulled stiff on bending, and how one of the things that kept her going when things got really tough was a specific person’s belief in her that she would finish, and that she could not let him down. It didn’t matter that she was completely and utterly broken at the end, that she collapsed immediately after crossing the finish line, or that she (or Quaseem) couldn’t eat solids for days after the race because even their insides were so raw and damaged. None of that mattered, because the Comrades marathon, the Ultimate Human Race, had been conquered!
I hope that her story inspires you. My hope is not necessarily that it inspires you to run Comrades, but that it inspires you to reach for your own greatness, to bravely face unchartered territory even though you are afraid, to go after what you dream of doing, and to never give up on what is important to you. That is my wish for you!
Oh, but let’s just get one thing clear. Fadeelah is MY sister, so I get the bragging rights. OK? Great, glad we’ve got that cleared up! ☺
*seconding – refers to meeting a runner at strategic points along the route and handing them supplies, support and whatever else they need **taper – refers to decreasing training mileage in the weeks leading up to race day, so that you can start the race well rested and fresh ***bus – refers to runners running together, usually in pursuit of a certain finish time (e.g.. a sub 12hr bus). The lead runner in control of the group, setting the pace is called the bus driver.