Day 11 – Chris’s Story
Comrades Day. Most of you know the importance of Comrades Marathon. It is the oldest, and largest, ultra-marathon in the world. Comrades has an energy that I can only try to describe. Every year since the start, in 1921, the race has switched directions; one year runs from Durban to Pietermaritzburg (Up run) and the next will be from Pietermaritzburg to Durban (Down run). The motto for the 2016 down run is Izokuthoba – “It will humble you”. When Phil Masterson-Smith rode his bike from Cape Town to PMB, in 1933, he ran a down course. I was excited to complete the challenge like the original Unogwaja. The down year is said, historically, to hurt more, while the up year is said to be more tiring. The down year has 4,700 feet of climbing, and 7,000 feet of descent. The race sells out at 20,000 each year, with many people still looking for a spot.
The morning of Comrades, we woke up, just like every morning prior, got ready, ate, and walked towards the start line. We met up with the Red Love Train members at a Caltex, and made our way to the start as a mass of red-footed fanatics. As we waited for the race to start, the nerves started to swell. With the musical rise of the National Anthem, chills overtook us. Then, Chariots of Fire played. The iconic crow followed, then came the gun. We were off.
With the massive amount of people, it was almost impossible to keep track of everyone. Several of the group broke off fairly early, leaving about half of us managing to stay together. This group was led by Wisey and Migs. Eventually, another small group broke off of this group, led by Brundle and John. Everyone in the race had the same plan – walk the ups, run the flats and downs, conserve energy for when it will get warm later. 5k in, I could already feel my quads tightening up. The the 10 days of biking was showing much earlier than I anticipated. At 10k another Unogwaja and I got separated from the group. That Unogwaja stopped to look for the group behind us, but all I could do was keep going. I hollered back to my teammate, and kept moving. I felt that I had to constantly keep moving forward or I would not make the strict 12 hour time limit. For a while after that, I was alone. After 10 days of being a team, it felt strange to be alone, even in this massive crowd. Sporadically, I’d spot someone I knew – a support crew member, a family member of another Unogwaja. It was a very welcome sight every time I saw someone I knew, regardless of who it was. I was hurting, but every support crew and red love train member I saw brought a new wave of energy. I ran with Andrew (a red love train member) for a while until he stopped off to talk to family. I couldn’t trust myself to stop. Luckily, I soon saw Jessica. Her smile was the biggest boost yet. I was able to see Jessica twice, support crew twice, and Theo and family (Amanda’s husband) several times. Every inch of the course, every year, is covered with people. It’s one of the most beautiful aspects of Comrades. You run past countless kids giving you high fives, school bands playing, thousands and thousands of spectators. Ethembeni School is a special place; all the students are disabled in some way, and they are all out cheering you on. There is a pureness in their joy that I can’t describe, but will always cherish.
Eventually I made it to Fields Hill, the major decent of the course. This is where Greg (Unogwaja) and Dan (Red Love Train) caught me. Greg pushed on and Dan stayed with me. I was crumbling fast. My knees were barely operational at this point. Towards the bottom of Fields Hill, Migs blew past me. He was battling his own knee issues, which began around the half way point, so he had to pick up the pace to stay comfortable. Dan and I spent a fair amount of time together, until I eventually admitted to him that I was just doing everything I could to make it to the finish, and he shouldn’t do what I do. We had about 15k to go. It would take about 200 meters for me to get my knees to bend each time I started trying to run. With about 5k to go, I realized I was going to make my unofficial goal of under 11hrs, and decided walking was my best chance of finishing somewhat functional. Comrades hands out different color medals depending on your time, and sub 11hrs was a long shot in my mind. As I came into the stadium, I was doing everything I could to simply stay upright. I saw a lady hanging on the fence and I tried to help her up. She walked a few steps with me only to run back to the fence to projectile vomit. Once I was in the stadium, I was able to hobble-jog around to the finish. I was in bad shape.
I crossed the finish at 10:37:09. Our photographers were able to get a couple of good photos of me, whereas the Comrades photographers caught the pain. I made my way through the finish chute, received my medal, walked past the back to back tent, and made my way out of the area. I heard my name yelled, and saw Jessica and Nicky. I had to be set down on the ground once I made it where the group was. Migs, Greg, and Nat all finished ahead of me. I was brought water, food, and beer as we waited for the others to finish. All in all, we had a very successful Comrades. I was helped to the car and made it to the hotel. We had an amazing dinner and a fun night of good friends, family, and stories. The next morning we woke up, had our debrief and went our separate ways.
Thinking back, I wish I would have taken better gearing, so I could have helped the group more on climbs, and I wish I had been more confident enough in my running, so that I could have stayed with the group to help motivate people. Basically, I just wish I could’ve been more to everyone involved, as they were so much to me.
We are all still in contact through a chat we are all a part of. I am not the most active; mostly I’m just really bad at staying in contact with people, and I’m absolute trash at social media.
No matter how much I write, there is no way to really describe Unogwaja or the truly life changing events that take place during the process. Even though I don’t stay in constant contact with the others, I know that I have friends for the rest of my life in them. I encourage everyone to do what they can to be a part of Unogwaja at some point in their lives. The selection process will start soon for next year, and Comrades entry opens around August. You can get information on joining, as crew or team member, HERE.
Ultimately, Unogwaja is here to support education efforts in South Africa, through The Light Fund. According to the website, “The Light Fund generates financial support for community based organisations in South Africa which focus specifically on education, skills development and most critically on ensuring that the responsibility and action lies with the people being supported and at no point does the support take this responsibility and accountability away.”
“Empowerment and self reliance is at the core of each of the organisations that are supported by the Light Fund and become known as Unogwaja Lights. The Light Fund aims to identify and support more Lights across our country firmly rooted in these principles.”
You can donate HERE.