I usually woke up every other hour the night before a race... Mostly to drink and to pee... But for Comrades 2011, I had a very peaceful sleep... Most probably too exhausted and disappointed with the football result of the Champions League Final played in the previous evening... I set my alarm to sound off at 3.30am but I was awaken by Ian's alarm at 3.00am... I lazed around in bed and to wait for my alarm to ring at 3.30am... I let it snoozed for another 10mins before dragging myself out of bed to eat my breakfast, which comprised of 2 cross buns and a packet of chocolate milk... I then changed into my running gear, packed my 3 GU gel into my race belt, checked and re-checked my checked-bag to be dropped at the start of the race: windbreaker, jeans, packet of chocolate milk, ZAR100 note... :) I also decided that I won't be bringing along my compact camera, in case I lost it along the way... After a quick visit to the toilet, I felt ready... Almost...
We left at 4.10am. Traffic was smooth and we reached the public carpark at 4.20am. Temperature was cool - about 12 degree Celsius. But when the sun was not out, it felt cold. Ian was well prepared. He had a tube of trash bags. I got one from him and used it to cover myself to keep warm. We then walked to the start which was just a block away. Before entering the race area, we saw the trucks for the checked-in bag and a long queue behind them! Luckily, we already tagged our checked-in bag with our given tags (apparently only the international runners were given the tags) and were able to handed in to the volunteers instead of joining the queue, who were awaiting for their bags to be tagged. :p Once we get into the race area, I went to the H seedings while Ian left for the E seedings. We wished each other good luck and reminded Ian that the meet-up at the International Tent after the race. I then sat down on the road with the other runners in the H seedings. I was worried about not finishing within the cut-off time. At 5.15am, the runners stood up and moved forward and I followed. By then, the runners were beginning to get more and more excited. Soon, the cock did the ceremonial crow and the South African runners sang their national anthem. At 5.30am sharp, the organiser sound off the gun which signified the start of the 2011 Comrades Marathon!
It took me slightly more than 6mins to cross the starting mat! In 2009, I chose to run a sub 4:40 marathon so that I could qualify for the G seedings. But I didn't bother to do that for 2010 and 2011. I reckoned it won't make any difference to save 2mins. However, I felt that the "traffic" was much more congested as compared to the previous 2 down runs that I ran. The first 2kms was really slow. I had to start-stop for numerous times to avoid bumping into the runners in front. Luckily, I was able to regain my consistent pace by the 3km mark. By then, I wasn't really looking forward to the km marker either - the Comrades Marathon uses the countdown km marker, which meant that the first few markers were 86km, 85km, 84km, etc... It was like staring into a horror movie, except that while most horror movies were 2 hours long, the distance on the Comrades Marathon markers only become "digestible" at around the 42km (the standard marathon distance) mark! For back-of-the-pack runners like me, it meant enduring about 6 hours of horror, doing the counting down till the 42km marker!
After running for around 5km, I found myself in an official buss. I can't really see the timing on the pacer's flag but I was able to somewhat maintain the pace. I tried following. It was hard but manageable. During the walking section, I saw that this was the 11:00 buss. I thought perhaps if I could follow the buss comfortably, I might aim for the Bronze Medal (for those finishing between 9:00hrs to sub 11:00hrs). But by the 70km mark (remember this was a counting down marker, which meant we had run almost 17km or there about [86.93km - 70km = 16.93km]), I felt that the pace was slightly too hard and if I were to follow, I might blow it in the 2nd half of the race. I decided to let the buss go. For the next 5-10km or so, I was huffing and puffing, till I ran caught up with a small group of around 6~8 runners. The leader of the group was giving out instructions on slowing down, when to walk and when to run. Suddenly, I recognized his voice! He was the pacer for the sub 12:00hrs buss for the 2010 Comrades Marathon! I didn't know his name but I could remember his voice and the way he motivated the runners. So even though he was not wearing the official buss this time round, I decided to stay close to him!
Soon, more and more runners begin to follow the sub 12:00hrs buss. I also found out the pacer's name - Jafta. According to his bib, he had completed 16 Comrades. I was able to squeeze to the front of the buss and ran almost side-by-side with Jafta. Many times, when the front followers moved half a step in front of Jafta, he would sound off a warning - "slow down", "hold back", "hold the line", etc. And we would immediately fall back. And when some runners asked him what buss were we running with, he would reply that this was the "sub-comfortable finish" pace buss. He also had a way of motivating the runners in his buss - always giving us a bait, or making us a deal. "Let's run for 4 poles", "Let's run to the next robot" (it took me a while to realise that the robot refers to the traffic light), "How about running to the next km marker" (which was visible and hence, not too far), "Let's run to the water station", etc, etc, etc. "Deal or no deal?" - well, the answer was clear! It was always a deal!
We passed the first cut-off at Winston Park at 9:10am, with an hour so spare. This was after covering 30km. The next cut-off was at Drummond, which was also the halfway mark. Before this, we passed through the wall-of-honour and Arthur's Seat - which is some kind of a "depression" between 2 walls and is rumoured to be a "resting spot" for Arthur Newton, who had won the Comrades Marathon 5 times. The rumour said that runners who greet Arthur with a flower placed in his "seat" will have a strong run in the second portion of Comrades. This year, the water station just before Arthur's Seat even offered runners a rose to pay our respect! After Arthur's Seat, we reached Drummond and just before we crossed over the timing mat (we crossed over at 5:33:33), we heard the winner for the men's category, Stephen Muzhingi, had won this year's Comrades at 5:32:45! The time now was 11:05, which meant that we had a spare time of 35mins.
After Drummond, it was a 3km of tough uphill to Inchanga! At this point, Jafta's instruction was to power walk. But it was still tough. The wonderful thing about running in a buss was that everyone helped out each other. I was running side by side with another lady, Bonny, and although we didn't talk much, we would take turns to look out for each other. At one point, I told her that I found it easier to run next to her than next to Jafta as I would get scolded whenever I stepped out of line. Sometimes, I would take additional water sachets for her and sometimes, she would do the same for me. Often, when the buss passed through a water station and everyone was everywhere, we watched out for one another and signalled to each other to go where Jafta was. At the 3rd cut-off at Cato Ridge, which had a cut-off time at 14:30pm, i.e. 57km after the race. We passed through this point at 13:30pm after 8hrs into the race. Now, the 12hr buss had grown bigger as Jafta picked up more and more runners, and encouraging them to join the buss. The 4th cut-off was at Umlaas Road Interchange, which was about 10km away and we made it in good time, at about 14:50pm. By then, we know we had less than half a marathon (around 20km to be precise) to complete! We also knew that the last big hill was Polly Shortts. Spirit was high!
After we passed the highest point in Umlaas, the route became downhill. Running seemed easier but Jafta reminded us not to sped up but just listen to the sound of our foot falls and let the rhythm guide us through. It was a good way of conserving our energy before our final climb to Polly Shortts. Polly Shortts was not exactly that difficult but after running for 77km, the almost 2km climb to the top of Polly Shortts was tough. I was particularly looking forward to reaching the top of Polly Shortts as a fellow runner told me that after Polly Shortts, it was all flats and downhill (something which I realised was not entirely 100% true). We reached Polly Shortts at 16:11pm, which meant that we had a comfortable 1hr 19mins to cover the remaining 8km and made the cut-off. It was certainly achievable if I kept my pace.
And indeed, I managed just that! Thanks to Jafta's conservative's running style and numerous power walk, I found myself with new found strength that I didn't experience in my previous two down runs. Instead, I had plenty of energy left in my tank that I was able to speed up with 6km remaining. At the beginning, I still kept the 12:00hr buss in sight just behind me. But after we turned left up a short hill and subsequently a right turn, I lost sight of them and decided to let go of the buss. I pushed my own pace a little and soon, the Cricket Oval in the Peitermaritzburg Stadium loomed just round the corner. As I entered the stadium, I could hear everyone, screaming, shouting and encouraging the runners from the spectators' stand. Some even extened their hands to high-five! At approximately 17:09hrs, after 11hrs 39mins 27secs of the sounding of the start gun, I had completed my 3rd Comrades Marathon! What a relieve! :)