Our journey to Pietermaritzburg started in one innocent Saturday in June 2014 at Maiden Castle café following parkrun. Katherine had gone to compete in Comrades, but fell 20k in and had to curtail her race. Sisterly solidarity, sympathy and blind stupidity meant that by the end of a coffee and cake, Katie and I had signed 8 of us up to do it on her second attempt…despite there only being 3 of us at Maiden Castle that day!
Comrades is heralded as the Ultimate human race, and 2015 saw the 90th anniversary of an event started in 1918 to commemorate the 10 million soldiers who fell in the Great War. Little could Vic Clapham have visualized that when he founded the Comrades Marathon in 1921, that almost twenty three thousand aspiring athletes would stand at the start of his dream race in 2015.
The challenge is to complete 56 miles in 12 hours, with various check point cut offs along the route. Each year the race is alternated, the ‘up route’ from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, or the down route Pietermaritzburg to Durban.
Entries were lodged on the 1st September for Stephanie, Greta, Katherine, Kirsty, Katie, Jill, Jacquie and Alister…and the real work started; to qualify for Comrades you have to submit a sub 5 hour marathon from a recognized race. Training started in earnest, with Jill first to qualify in Belin in September, swiftly followed by Greta and Jacquie at Newcastle Townmoor Marathon in November.
Injuries plagued us; broken bones, torn muscles, strains, sprains, torn things all meant that for four of us at least, the start line looked improbable. Exercise is supposed to be good for you but we were dropping like flies!
In the New Year training (for those who could) started with a vengeance, and the great Jantastic. Sunday marathon training saw groups of up 20 meet at Broompark picnic area 8am come wind, rain or snow to put in the miles, and even those not doing Comrades went on to achieve great things, Katherine Preston on a sub 4 hour marathon, Fiona Kinghorn-Jones secured a GFA London place by running her first marathon in sub 3:45 at the Townmoor, Kelly Collier, Nicola Whyte, Karen Jones, Debbie McFarland and David Case with their first ever marathons (Paris, London and Manchester respectively), and great things will come to Kevin Wright training long and hard for his IronMan in a few weeks. We battled, we persevered, we swore, but we did it together. And we laughed, lots.
Running brings out many qualities in people; for me it was the comradery of my running buddies that got me though. Unable to run until mid-February after breaking my foot I had a physical challenge to achieve; qualify and train for an ultramarathon without pushing so hard that I break it again and do long-term damage, in 14 weeks.
My qualifying marathon was Manchester, paced round by my ultimate run buddy Greta Jones to a delightful 4:17 marathon. Now for the serious work. Training run distance moved to a minimum of 60 miles a week for Greta and me, and with an eye on the course profile, some horrid hill sessions. Jacquie and Alister and Jill subjected themselves to weekly marathon races starting with Paris, London, Manchester, Windermere and Milton Keynes, Jacquie pulling a 4:19 marathon PB out of the bag at London.
A concession made by the Comrades board in the week before race meant that qualifying rules were relaxed. Great news, and all 8 of us stood at the start line, 5:30am, 31st May in Durban South Africa singing the Shosholoza and listening to Chariots of Fire. Stood in the pen, you can feel the anticipation rising of the enormity of what is to come, the fear, the excitement, and the dogged determination that got you there. Tears flowed, and not for the last time.
The support along the route was phenomenal, for 56 miles South Africans lined the streets wishing us well, cheering and supporting, offering food, drinks and amazing calf massages! Our fellow runners were also hugely encouraging; you were never alone. The support back home in Durham was equally amazing, it seems like half of the County was watching and willing us on. Each of us cried buckets on the route, not out of pain or frustration but out of an overwhelming sense of being part of something incredible. We saw amazing vistas (when you ascend and descend nearly 7000 feet the views are fairly impressive in Africa!). I bawled so much as I passed an orphanage home for albino African children, it almost felled me.
Greta and I ran 36 miles together until she was caught by cramp and insisted I carry on. With a heavy heart (and a few tears) I left my buddy and ran 20 miles to the end. I finished my first Ultra Marathon in the stadium in Durban, to a roar from my fellow Striders and South African supporters as first club finisher at 10h:34m, a Bronze medal. Greta followed shortly afterwards at 11h:20m earning a Vic Clapham (Copper Medal). I will never forget the feel of the bear hug bestowed on me by Kirsty as I stumbled into the international athlete area after crossing the line, she literally swept me off my feet, and how I needed it.
Sadly, Comrades got the better of our fellow 6 runners despite valiant efforts. It was hard to see those runners who entered the stadium with a few seconds to make the finish line, knowing that they weren’t going to make the 12 hour cut off. I cannot imagine how awful it must feel to miss your chance of a medal after running 56 miles by a few seconds. We were prepared for it to be a physically hard race; I wasn’t prepared for the emotional outpouring I felt once was over, it is truly surreal to think that we did that. We ran 56 miles.
Apparently you’ve never really done Comrades until you have done both the ‘up’ and ‘down’ routes. The coveted Bill Rowan (sub 9 hours) is already calling me like a siren…
Stephanie “ultra runner” Walker