Tales of a Comrades Noob
By Fabio Costa
I’m standing amongst the crowds of runners all waiting for the start of the 2017 Comrades marathon. Brenden’s idea to have helium-filled balloons is brilliant and has insured that the small group of Jeppe runners have found each other in H block. We huddle close together. All of us drawing some comfort from each others presence. I know I do.
Front row from left to right: Rowan, Brenden, myself, Banele. Second row from left to right: Alicia, Natalie, Hilton. Back row from left to right: Heather, Meghan.
The sounds of Shosholoza start to ring out across the crowds. Everyone starts to sing. Everyone except the international athletes, they just smile and dance with the rest of us.
It’s not cold but I’m still all nerves and goose bumps. How can I not be? It’s been an incredible journey just to get to the start line! Like an emotional roller-coaster ride. The lowest of lows, followed by the highest of highs! What a trip.
Almost two years earlier, I arrived at the Jeppe Quondam parking lot an absolute noob with high hopes of running a decent 21km. My wife, Tracy’s idea to join a club. As always, she gets this one right too. Kim Pain quickly introduces me to the B-school captain Greg James.
“Hello Fabio…welcome. So are you planning to run Comrades?” Greg asks in his friendly manner. His first words to me.
“Comrades,” I gasp, “hell no!”
I haven’t even heard that word in years. It brings back memories of me as a kid watching the six o’ clock news seeing people crawling towards the finish line trying to make the cut-off time. The word crazy, springs to mind.
Greg laughs and introduces me to Pete McCann.
It’s not long before Pete takes me under his wing, it’s crowded under there, Pete’s harem was there first. Nonetheless, he guides me as best he can through those early days when I learnt that running and jogging are not the same thing. He gets my name wrong more often than he gets it right, but what can you expect from an old Athlone boy. I am one too, and he is Fearless and Faithful ’till the end.
As the training continues, 15km turn into 21km, and then even into 32km. I begin to learn that running is hard. Flipping hard! Little do I know at the time that I’ve only just begun to feel how truly hard this sport can be. Not just physically, but emotionally too. Ignorance truly is bliss. But even so, it’s the people I meet, these incredibly caring, funny, tough as nails, never give up, I’ll do it if you do it kind of people, that keep me coming back. I suppose it’s inevitable. A group of us decide to do a marathon. Our first.
Center: Bailey bringing people together.
Jacaranda. The name still blooms shivers down my back. I don’t realise it at the start line, but I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. How naive I was. The race starts with lots of fanfare and excitement. The beginning of a race is always fun. The real race really only begins later and with it, I experience the pain only a first-time marathoner can. More so even, I’m sure of it. I’ve never hurt this much. Please make it all go away. Never again! Why? Why am I doing this to myself? I hate this sport!
Somehow I get through it all and to the finish. Forty-eight minutes over my planned finish time. Forty-eight minutes! It’s a lifetime in running terms. Too slow to qualify for Comrades. Failure. Defeat. I take comfort in the fact that at least I finished and didn’t quit. I don’t realise it then, but this experience is a little golden nugget I will draw strength from on Comrades day. The support from Jeppe at the end is unbelievable.
Marcello pouring ice cold water on my neck after Jacaranda…heaven! Tracy always by my side. It’s her first marathon too.
Pick yourself up. Regroup. There’s still plenty of time. The new year sprints in. Time is not an endurance athlete. New focus. New energy. I’ve got this. I run, a lot. Can’t have a repeat of Jacaranda. It just won’t do. I’ve never been so prepared for anything in my life. I’m ready. My second attempt at qualifying is here.
Vaal. If you say the name just right it rolls off your lips like a swear word. It’s very hot. Hot enough to fry a man’s brains. Ten k’s in and already its not going well. Nausea. This is new. Keep going. Push through it. Halfway and the nausea is gone but the pace is too fast. How can this be. I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be in my plan, time and distance wise, but physically, I’m done. Finished. Exhausted. Decision time, pull out now and finish the 21km or carry on? Maybe it’s pride. Maybe it’s stupidity. I choose to carry on. I can’t keep up with the Jeppe bus I’m on. Seeing them leave is heart wrenching. As they disappear in the distance, the first bit of fear begins to creep in. That day I learn that panic is not a runners friend. Another little nugget I will be using on Comrades day. By 30k’s the jig is up. I see Chantelle along the way, she’s also struggling. After a while she pushes on ahead, she’s stronger than me. The five hour bus has just come sprinting past me. I’m supposed to be way ahead of these guys. I’m having a full-blown panic attack! I can’t control my heart rate. My breathing is erratic. This is quite possibly one of the worst days of my life. That moment right there, when you accept the gut twisting reality of it all. I just can’t do this. I just can’t! Pure misery.
The big sign should read, FINISHED, I was done with this sport.
It’s tough to bounce back from this one. Very tough. In my mind it’s over. I tried. Couldn’t do it. Tracy’s support is absolute, resolute, perfect. If she’s not there I’m not running at all, and that’s a fact. My friends and Jeppe rally to my support. It’s truly incredible. Overwhelming even. I quickly forget about quitting, I realise it’s just not an option for me. With friends like these and a club like this, how can one? The pressure I place on myself is immense at this point. I almost can’t manage. I need release, so I run. I run and think. At least I’m thinking again and not feeling sorry for myself. What now? What are my options?
Only a week has passed since my disastrous qualifying attempt at Vaal. The thought of trying to qualify two weeks after Vaal at Om Die Dam is making me sick to my stomach. ODD is my first ultra marathon, it’s all just too much. I enter Sarens at the last minute instead. It’s only seven days after Vaal, but I’ve changed my nutrition, I’ve changed my running plan and I’ve changed my attitude. All with the help of Tracy, friends and club Legends. Pete Mcann gives me a good talking to and a running plan. “You’re an athlete now, go and run like one.” Great advice, thanks Pete.
From the start this race is different. I’m different. I’m still not sure if I’m going to go for it. The coach has given me a single brilliant piece of advice, “…as a runner you have to ask yourself if you can, or if you can’t do it, and you have to be brutally honest with yourself Fabio.” It’s my mantra for the first 21km. Decision time arrives, pull off at the half or go for it? I ask myself the question and take coaches’ advice, “…can I do this?” Only brutal honesty will do at this point. I have the usual aches and pains, but something’s different, I feel…good, strong and in control. I answer my own question by going left and for the full marathon. What a rush. I catch a small group of Jeppe club mates, we run together, their support is invaluable, essential even. I cross the line. The big clock says 4h49.
I still have to ask if I did it. I can’t believe it. I qualify. Success! Pure bliss.
From left to right: Tanja, Rachel, Heather. Out of picture are Rowan Natalie and Stuart. The Jeppe mini-bus that helps me to qualify.
One of the happiest days after Sarens marathon. Natalie also qualifies.
The funny thing is, that even after all of that, the pain, the misery, the early mornings, the real training is only just beginning!
As the training intensifies, I experience injury and fatigue. I also experience elation, I’ve never been this fit in my entire life. It feels good. Somehow I make it to the starting line of Comrades 2017. To any noob like me, thinking of running Comrades, know this, just getting to the start line is an amazing achievement.
As the sounds of Shosholoza fade away and a palpable excitement comes over the thousands of Comrades hopefuls (me included), Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika starts to play and before I know it, I’m singing at the top of my lungs with tears in my eyes. They didn’t lie, it truly is emotional. Wonderful. When Chariots of Fire kicks in, the tears are running freely down my cheeks. I’ve given up trying to control it and just give in. Its beautiful. Runners everywhere are hugging and shaking hands, all wishing each other well. What a feeling. I’m living in the moment. Glorious.
In the distance I hear the gun. Boom! Not sure if that was my heart exploding but the race has started. This is it. It’s difficult to put into words what I feel. It’s happiness with a mixture of scared shitless. Finally the moment is here…,”Lets get to work!” I will repeat this to myself many times today.
Although it takes a while, eventually I’m running. Good. This is why I’m here. Right, let’s go through the check list: plan; speed; nutrition; form; pace; mindset…for a while I’m so focused on how I should be running this race, that I forget that I’m running this race! What the hell am I doing? Look up! Enjoy this day my friend or otherwise it’s going to be a hell of a long day out. That right there, that choice I make, to enjoy the race, is the best decision I make all day. I lift my head and start to truly experience this incredible event.
That’s when the fun starts. Our little group at first starts running together, but it’s not long before we’re split up. At least I’m with Meghan, Heather and Hilton. I prefer running with mates, it’s just more fun for me.
“The first 42km of the up run is the hardest marathon in the country.”
I’ve heard that from two legends recently, Bruce Fordyce and Barry Holland. They are not liars. The going is hard but our run walk strategy is serving us well, thanks to Hilton keeping time for us. Of course the months of training helps too! The people supporting on the side of the road are just outstanding. It’s true that their support carries you for a long time. It does for me.
I’m so happy Meghan and Heather are with me, it just makes everything more bearable. We run and laugh, we run and enjoy, we run and live in the moment. The three of us, more than anyone, have trained together for this race. We’ve experienced each other’s journeys getting here. It brings us close. We’ve even agreed to run the whole race together. That’s going to be hard. From what I’ve heard, running together is not an easy thing. Also, “If you really want to test a friendship, try running Comrades together.” So we do.
Two thorns and a rose. One of our many long runs.
As per brilliant advice, we break the race down into 15km sections. That’s the distance between the Jeppe tables. We make Jeppe table one, the support from the Jeppe seconders is magnificent, really, flipping magic. I can’t thank all of them enough. Rinse repeat for all the Jeppe tables. Thank you!
Tracy, my biggest supporter is at 30km. When I see her, I realise I don’t want to disappoint her. Crazy the pressure I put on myself. She cheers me on, she says I’m doing well. I’ll take her word for it.
Soon though, the Big C starts to live up to its name. The legs start to take strain. Heather goes very quiet. We push on. The girls need to stop. Toilet break. The queue is long.
“We’ll catch up to you. Stay on the right.” Meghan says to me. Sure, no worries. But as I leave my friends and stay to the right, I can’t help but wonder if this is where we part ways? Hilton goes on by himself, he’s looking strong, I’ll only see him again at the end. As I make my way past the high school boys giving high-fives all the way down the road, I’ve resigned myself to run the rest of the race alone. So be it. “Let’s get to work!”
Running alone I use the crowds to my advantage. They call out my name like long-lost friends. I wave, I talk, I joke with them. I’m still present, still in the moment. Good! I don’t want to get lost in my head. It can get very dark in there. Then behind me in the distance, I hear a wolf howl! There’s only one person I know that howls like that, Meghan! As I turn around I see Heather too, about 50m back. They did it! They caught up, I can’t believe it. I will never doubt Meghan again, if that girl says she’s going to do something, bet your life on it she will deliver. We’re all smiles and high-fives. Sweet reunion. Damn I’m having fun now.
Soon though Heather is quiet again. At least at Om Die Dam she was swearing like a hard-core soldier. Now it seems she’s taken a vow of silence. This is worrying. Both Meg’s and I support her as best we can. Time after time though, I see her push on ahead, determined, stubborn. Brilliant. She doesn’t know it, but I draw strength from seeing her do this.
Halfway! Arthur’s seat.
“Good morning Arthur.” I say as per tradition, “I bring you two flowers, Heather and Meghan.” I wouldn’t want the second half of the race to be crap now would I? I see Natalie and Rowan briefly, awesome, they’re still in it.
As the 40’s turn into the the 50’s, we are all venturing into unknown territory. Things start to take on that surreal feel about them. When the 60’s come along, I start to draw on the lessons from my journey. The pain I feel is intense, but no more than what I felt at Jacaranda or Vaal. I take comfort in that fact. It’s like my body telling my brain it’s about to die, but the brain replies, “No you won’t, you’ve been through worse, carry on old man.” So I do.
Somehow, I’m still having a blast.
At 60km…still having fun.
Again, I can’t thank the Jeppe volunteers enough. To have an ice-cold towel thrown over you or your neck massaged is just indescribable. Pure pleasure. But even their hospitality comes to an end. Go! Move! Go get your medal! We’ve outstayed our welcome. We have four hours left to do 28km. Meghan breaks it down for us perfectly, all we have to do is run 7km each hour. Yes! We can do that. At least one of us is still thinking straight. Nice one Meg’s. “Let’s get to work!”
We make the first 7km with three minutes to spare. Fantastic! Three minutes to put into the bank.
Cha-Ching! Right…next 7km. At 70kms I see Tracy’s beautiful smile again. She’s cheering me on like a crazy woman. I love it. I can hardly imagine how difficult it’s been for her to get around. We kiss. I just can’t let her down. We crack on. Throughout the day we’ve seen and visited with other Jeppe runners, it’s so cool to see someone you know along the route and catch up. It’s always the little things that help the most. Banele has rejoined our group. We share a few words, we both agree that this is hard. Understatement of the running calendar! In the distance I see a Jeppe vest. And so we catch up to the legend, Big-G. He’s very quiet, suffering in silence. We’ve used his knowledge, given to us not more than three weeks earlier, to break the last leg into smaller hourly chunks. Thanks Big-G! He joins our little mini-bus.
We make it to 75kms! Say it out loud, seventy five kilometers! Wow! If you’ve never done it before, to give you some perspective, imagine running full boys three times (Jeppe 20km training route) and then a mini boys once! (Jeppe 15km training route). It truly is mind blowing. Big-G spots Aunty Denise heading away from the 75km table and calls her back. Lucky for us she comes back. Another club legend. She joins our bus. Rowan, Natalie and Banele are with us too. Thankfully Denise takes charge. I willingly give up my body and mind. I don’t want to think anymore, I just want Denise to tell me when to run and when to walk. It’s so much easier being a mindless drone at this point. So she takes control. You’ve been an inspiration getting here and you’re an inspiration now. Thanks D.
We keep moving. I’m not going to pretend it isn’t so very hard at this point. Each step is pure will power. The pain is…special, to say the least. Denise makes sure our bus stays together. If you’d like to know the answer to the question, “Who fetches after 75km at Comrades?”
Denise does, that’s who! What a remarkable lady and friend.
Run! Walk! Run! No one says a word. We all just follow orders from drill Sergeant Denise. I keep asking, “are we going to make it?”. It’s touch and go, we just don’t know. Then…disaster! A giant knot in my right hamstring. My worst nightmare, cramp! I can’t run anymore. I pull off to the side and I can feel the panic starting to well up inside of me like an angry volcano. Is this it? Is this how my journey ends? Seven kilometers from the end. But that’s when I recall Vaal…panic equals death. So I calmly stretch it out, take out my magnesium spray and take some. (Rowan thank you!). I start running again…no good. Keep calm. Stretch again, more spray, try again. If my journey has taught me anything, then surely it’s to never give up, never stop. I start up again, yes!!!! I’m back in business. Let’s get to work.
The road is so busy. So many runners everywhere. Lots of busses overtaking each other. It’s pandemonium. Except for the Jeppe mini bus, we’re all business, professional even. All that training does pay off. I see a few sorry souls on the side of the road, their race is over, so close to the end, it’s just not fair. Almost home. Just a little further.
Then we’re in the stadium, it’s very trippy, somehow I can’t accept that we’re there, I keep asking, “did we make it?”. I look to the right and the Jeppe tent erupts at our entrance. Glorious! Magical! Incredible! Then I hear my name, Tracy shouting louder than anyone, she’s unbelievable. My wife, my friend, the real reason why I am where I am right now, about to finish the Comrades marathon! Thank you baby.
And then, it’s done, I cross the line, we all do. There are no words that can describe that feeling, so I won’t even try. Suffice to say that there are many emotions. But I guess this whole journey has been just that. Many emotions.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
We did it, we beat the odds. Heather, Meghan and I. We trained together, we ran Comrades together and we finished together. What a cool story.