What if I told you that you should fly halfway around the world, board a bus at 2 a.m., run almost 90K up and down unrelenting mountainous terrain while living in fear of not making the 12-hour cut-off and being denied not only a finisher’s medal but also a chance to cross the finish line? Tempted? Then the Comrades Marathon in South Africa is the race for you.
Comrades was 86 years old this year. With a field of 18,000 participants, it is the world’s largest and most prestigious ultra marathon. Every year, the race alternates direction between an “up” run and a “down” run. This year was a “down” run starting in Pietermaritzburg and finishing in a cricket stadium in Durban.
This race draws elite runners from across Africa and, in increasing numbers, from Australia, Great Britain and North America. And it’s a race that reaches far beyond its participants. The entire 12 hours of the race is broadcast live with an average hourly television audience of 1.5 million viewers.
You have to qualify for Comrades, and depending on your qualification time, you are seeded in corrals “A” through “H”. Unlike most races, your result is based on “gun time” not “chip time.” With a 12-hour cut off, almost a quarter of the field does not finish; and the majority who do finish, cross the line in the last hour of the race.
My journey to Comrades was a road wrought with physical, psychological and spiritual turmoil. I am a recovering addict who has managed to stay clean and sober for 15 years, one day at a time. Before I entered treatment, I was suicidal, manic depressive, and so dependent on drugs and alcohol that everything else in my life—including my wife, my son and my health—took a back seat to the ravages of my addiction.
In my first year of a treatment program, I met two other men who, like me, were sarcastic, stubborn and runners. As addicts, we never do things by half: together we trained for our first marathon with the goal of qualifying for Boston. We met every Sunday, pounded out our long runs while discussing how to stay sober and become respected members of society.
Those long runs were instrumental to my sobriety because they taught me to set a goal, be on time for meetings and get out of my head and “into” my body. We all qualified for Boston in that first marathon and have stayed sober and physically active since.
My wife will attest to the fact that I’m a happy person and a better husband and father when I get out for my daily run. I’m not naive or self-deluded; I know I’ve simply replaced my addiction for drugs and alcohol with a running addiction. In terms of addiction though, it’s a sweet elixir, as it’s made me physically and emotionally stronger, allowed me to meet some amazing people and taken me to races all over the world.
Like most runners, I’d heard about Comrades and dismissed it as too far to travel, too far to run, and too crazy—even for me. But last summer dear friends moved from Canada to South Africa and invited us to visit them in Johannesburg. I investigated the Comrades race and the qualification process. I mentioned it to my wife, expecting her to laugh and veto the insanity, but instead she said: “Sure, why not!”
I’ve run almost 60 marathons and ultra marathons including Boston (six times), New York (five times) and Chicago. Comrades was going to take me out of my “comfort zone.” I needed to run farther than I’d ever run before on a course with a profile that looks like an erratic EKG and has a tragic side to its glory.
Most finishers, along with over a million viewers glued to their televisions, hang around for the 12-hour cut off. A minute before the cut-off, a race marshal walks onto the field and turns his back to the finish line. The crowd starts the countdown, until the marshal fires the gun and the finish is closed.
It doesn’t matter if you’re inches from the line, once the gun is sounded, you are not allowed to finish the race. You get no medal; and you have no official record of participation. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but that’s part of the allure of the race.
wo months after registering for the race, I started to worry about our safety in South Africa, my ability to complete the race and the exorbitant cost of the trip. I decided to back out of the race and do Leadville instead, but my wife convinced me to go to Comrades. Witnessing me living clean/sober for 15 years, she believes in me and sees my inner strength.
En route to South Africa, we planned a four-day stopover in Dubai. It was over 40 degrees in Dubai (even at 2 a.m.) and I was pig-headed enough to get in my daily run despite the extreme conditions. As a result, when we got to Johannesburg three days before the race, I was bed ridden for 24 hours with severe dehydration. With my race in doubt, my wife and friends pumped me with16 liters of fluid and rehydrating drugs from the pharmacy.
The next morning I was able to drag myself onto a flight to Durban to pick up my race kit. I thought there was no hope that I would finish the race.
Comrades is an epic race for many reasons including logistics. To get to the 5:30 a.m. start in Pietermaritzburg, we needed to board buses by 2 a.m. Some runners managed to get three or four hours sleep; others none.
The atmosphere at the starting corrals was electric. 15 minutes before the start, the entire field of 18,000 runners started singing the national anthem followed by the most moving rendition of Shosholoza. I was not the only one wiping away a tear at the majesty of this occasion.
We all took off into the cool darkness to the soundtrack of “Chariots of Fire.” Although 2012 was a “down” run year, the first half of the course follows long, nasty hills as you pass kilometre markings counting down from 89 to 1. I had read that the only flat part of Comrades is the last 300 meters of the race when you enter the cricket stadium. Truer words have never been spoken.
People line the streets for the entire course and the festivities are heightened by the ever-present aroma of their barbecues. As an international runner, I was assigned a blue race bib, along with my Team Canada singlet, meant I was greeted by “Go Canada” the entire race.
The mostly rural route has you climbing up and down past some pungent chicken farms until you hit the highest point of the course about half-way through the race. I was aiming for under 9 hours and 45K into the day, I was on target. But with 30K to go, my quads felt like Jell-o and my feet felt like minced meat. My pace slowed until I resembled the “Tin Man” from the Wizard of Oz. Before I started the race, I thought I would need to walk on some of the intense uphill sections; ironically, I was begging for uphills and crying on downhills.
With 10K to go, I knew the sub 9-hour medal was slipping out of reach, so I eased into the last hour and soaked up the camaraderie of the race. I talked to more runners in that last leg of the race than I’d spoken to in all my other races combined. We were not competitors but willing participants in one of the most challenging and life-affirming events of our life.
When I entered the cricket stadium, I was awed by the thousands of spectators and I felt a surge of adrenaline. I was no longer running on tired legs, but flying on the best drugs I’d ever taken: accomplishment and humility.
100 meters from the finish line I heard my wife call me name and that’s when I knew I had made her proud; Comrades had changed my life.
When my wife met me at the finishing line at 9 hours and 22 minutes, I broke down and sobbed uncontrollably. My journey to Comrades was built on overcoming depression, isolation, addiction and fear.
Then I sat down and said, “I’m so proud of myself for doing that, but I NEVER need to do that again!” Three days later, the pain was leaving my quads and I realized I had been bitten by the Comrades bug. I’ve signed up to do the “up” run next year, booked our hotel and started tweaking my training schedule.
As soon as I got back to Canada, I got the Comrades logo tattooed on my arm. Something so permanent in my psyche needed to be permanent on my body.