Running a Marathon and a few other things
It’s 2am on a Saturday morning, with less than 3 hours of sleep the alarm starts it’s shrill beeping. Not that we needed it to go off, after all, every runner will tell you that getting a good night’s sleep the day before a big race is a myth. My boyfriend bounces from the bed relieved to know he can now start his get-ready-for-race preparation. A routine that I’ve come to learn can be an art form all on its own. I on the other hand am not thrilled at the prospect of getting up, and even less so, to follow it with a marathon. I roll-over and cover my head with the duvet in a weak attempt to go back to sleep. Bang, bang, whistle, pour…coffee placed next to my bed. I know that’s the final gesture for me to get up and get ready, otherwise a currently jubilant runner boyfriend will not be so happy if we run late. Did those words just leave my lips, late at 2:15 in the morning? But yes I have been well indoctrinated over this past year since joining this strange world of running that even at 2am it’s very possible to run late.
2:45 we arrive at the stadium where the first buses are set to leave at 3 am. Boyfriend wants a good Comrades ceding so he’s adamant we get on the first bus so we can get a good starting position (especially now that Comrades has changed its rules to accept gun-to-mat qualifying times.) Another observation from joining the running community is how any change can freak out entire fraternities who will then spend hours debating and dissecting every detail of the change. After all, runners spend the better part of years planning and perfecting every item to maximise their race-day performance. You learn pretty quickly that even you, the minnow runner, will become surprisingly interested in shoes, nutrition, rules and race formats. At first eager to try new things, a few black toenails and sore tendons later, you too become resistant to change in pursuit of the perfect race-day.
But back to that later, as now I have my own battle of the sexes going on. Behest to me I brought a bag along to drop off at the running club tent (as part of pursuing my perfect race-day includes post run comfort) and forgot that no one would be there to lock it up…after all it’s 2:50 am in the morning. Boyfriend is now officially irate and convinced that we won’t make the first bus and starts to run up the road to find the bus. Indignantly I manage a little shuffle behind him. I am about to run my first marathon and the thought of excising any extra ounce of energy more from my legs than I have to is terrifying. Despite the fact that there are a good twenty buses lined up and empty. I hear my name followed by “we’re running late. Hurry up BABE!” (notice the emphasis on that last word).
3:55 So here I am, sitting amongst 120 runners on a bus making our way up a long hill to the top of a mountain so we can then run back down that hill, and we doing this for fun! Some runners sleep awkwardly against windows others are chatty, but mostly nervous anticipation filters through the bus. I look outside, it’s dark. I stare blankly into the night and can’t help thinking what the hell have I signed up for? After all, not too long ago if you had told people who knew me that I’d be running a marathon they would have either laughed, or quizzically looked at you as if you had some mental break-down. I weighed more than 100 kilograms at 5.4, and the last time I had exercised was over a decade ago in school. Even then I was more likely to be the last person to cross the finish line. So to find myself amongst literally bus-loads of crazed athletes who are most happy when they are either on the way to run or running, is frankly still scary for me.
4:50 Thank heavens we made it! I smile at boyfriend, happy to know that we are mere meters from the start and my uncalculated club tent visit didn’t ruin an otherwise loving relationship. Otherwise I am not so happy. I am nervous. I feel underprepared and unprepared. I had mostly followed my coaches program but I’d still only competed my first 30 km a few weeks before this. I am thinking about my bathroom routine which didn’t yield the right results and am starring to feel nauseous. As a side note to any future runners, no one can explain the importance of a good bathroom visit, the consequences of which, you quickly learn as a runner (or even pretend runner like me), can be dire. But I am here. I have looked at my watch every few seconds. Is it too early to program my watch for ‘run’ now? And then you are into the countdown.
5:38 BANG. Thud. Thud. Thud on the tar. Elbows bumping. Bodies tousling. Stop. Walk a little. Run slowly. Side-step. Side-step. Dodge that. We start to settle into a steady pace. Faster runners’ dashing by. Still more faster runners pass me. Nerves. Am I running too slow? My coach said start slow? One kilometre mark down. Wow that was quick! I settle into the pace and start to relax. I finally look up and notice the idyllic scenery of thick forest trees lining the winding road as it makes it way down into the beautiful patchwork of greens in the valley below. The scent is crisp, and smells like pine and conifers. I am comforted by the cheers of supportive bystanders wishing us well on our journey. I am surprisingly happy now. I am running.
6:32 Two bathroom stops. Hhhmmmm…a little worried but I’m still averaging a good pace. 9kms down.
7:50. NO water. Crap. Poor choice of words…isn’t this halfway?
08:30. Two more water stations passed with no water. Buks sub 5 bus has caught up to me. But I’m still maintaining a good pace despite no water and unable to stomach any nutrition. I listen to the buzz, chats and chanting and let the camaraderie of the running bus engulf me as it helps to consistently propel me forward. Another runner hands me a used bottle with some remnants of left over water handed to her earlier by a kind supporter. She encourages me to drink. I still feel nauseous but I’m thirsty so I drink. I hear Buks reprimand some front line runners to slow down the pace and we all follow suit. There’s still a long road ahead. I strike up a conversation with a fellow female runner beside me who I can see is taking some strain. We chat for a while and forget the road beneath us.
09:20 Fatigue has set in. It’s getting hotter. The bus has left me behind. Too many stops to now catch up with them. I see the white chalk on the road it reads 12km. It still feels too early to think about the finish. I push on, running slowly. I pass more runners who’ve started to walk. I think at least I’m still running. That gives me hope as my mind starts to wonder.
10:00 It’s well over 30 degrees now. The down run became flat and now it’s just feels like a steep unforgiving uphill. My brain stopped daydreaming a while ago and now I am focused. Completely focused on just getting to the end. My run is more a shuffle. Although I continue to push on I am very definitely in a run-walk sequence now. Every ounce of energy going into finding and focusing up ahead on my next landmark signalling where I will reward myself with a walk for a few seconds. I run the next few meters my body begging me to walk. I keep focused on the light pole up ahead. It gets closer into range. A few more run steps. My mind tells me, you’re close why not walk? I argue with myself that walking before my checkpoint would be cheating. The Mbombela Stadium is within eye-shot.
10:25 Seriously! You buggers, are seriously making me run round the entire stadium before I can finish. I hear some runners next to me talking about missing the 5 hour Comrades cut-off and saying but there’s next year. I’m a little disappointed too.
10:42 I see the last few hundred meters. It’s a bit chaotic with runners and supporters crossing the road of the stadium entrance. I dart to miss a few people. Can’t you see I’m running here I feel like moaning to them. But I’m even too tired to talk. I just want it to be over. I look at my watch the elapsed time says 5:05. I turn the last corner into the steel runway which guides us the final few meters to the finish. I hear the announcer but have no comprehension of what he’s saying. I’m now looking anxiously around. I don’t see him. He’s not here and my heart sinks. He’s been my biggest supporter and I wouldn’t have gotten here without him continually telling me “you can do it” and “I’m proud of you”. He’s probably tired of waiting and gone back to the club tent. Wait…I think I see him… I see him! He’s smiling. Tears run down my face. I am happy. I am a runner…