The Comrades Marathon (89 km (56 mi (triple nested parentheses, really?))) is the world’s oldest (c. 1921) and largest (20,000 participants) ultra marathon. Something that really appeals to me about running is that everybody toes the start line together. If baseball is your sport, you don’t get to play infield with Nomar Garciaparra. With running, everyone starts on a level playing field. Sure, you’ll probably lose to thousands of people, but theoretically you could win! Though, you may have to enlist Tonya Harding’s services.
Loads of regular people run Comrades and the majority of them don’t win. This year, roughly 1 in 3000 people living in South Africa ran Comrades — a single race! Compare that to the 1 in 10,000 Americans who ran any of the hundreds of 50+ mile races to choose from in 2013.
Despite feeling super prepared and sticking to a sensible race plan, my race did not go well. But, who really cares? Race reports that dissect a disappointing race performance are usually boring or make silly excuses.
So instead, I’ll tell you about how using that age old trick of imagining that I was literally running for my life helped get me through the second half. At Comrades, markers on the road countdown every single kilometer to the finish. Starting with about 50 km to go, it was common to hear someone say, “Greg, you’re almost there!” With a lot of race left to go, I gave up on specific time goals and tried to maintain a consistent minimum pace like my life depended on it.
You see, I recently read a book called The Long Walk. Mild spoiler alert from here on out. In a dystopian future police state, there is an annual race among 100 lucky young men selected via lottery. There is no set distance, rather each racer must maintain a minimum pace throughout the event until only one is left standing. If you drop below pace, you get a warning. A pace infraction after three warnings buys you a “ticket” out of the race, which is something you definitely don’t want.
As I bumbled along struggling to muster a sub-10 minute/mile pace, the spectators went wild. Seriously. People came out in droves lining the whole course. They cheered my name as I shuffled by and made me wonder if I was winning the thing.
This was not the first time I was running for my life that week. We were preparing dinner outside on the patio while on safari in Kruger National Park, when a guttural growl came from the bush. Instinctively, we all darted for the door back into the chalet. Dave dropped what he was doing by the grill, Becca bolted so fast that her socks flew off, and I skinned my knee in the scramble. Being the fastest, Cassie made it to safety first. But, instead of ushering us into the chalet, she slammed the door leaving us to die outside. Then, from the darkness of night, a cute little bush baby emerged and our blood pressures returned to normal. I love you, Cassie, but I’ll never let you live this one down 🙂 I know, I know. If it’s not on Strava, it didn’t happen.
Toward the end of Comrades, more and more runners bought their tickets, lying in heaps on the side of the road. Reportedly, nobody actually died at this year’s Comrades, but these guys sure looked like death.
The end eventually came and everyone in our group crossed the finish line! We spent the rest of the night hobbling around with a renewed understanding of what it will feel like to be 100 years old.