Earlier today I put up a picture of mine, running Comrades 2016 and described the 11 hours 56 minutes and 37 seconds I spent running towards the finish line as "temporary insanity".
I described it so in jest.
A friend on Facebook, Jane Anderson Bluegrace, then asked me the following question : "Tell us more about the feeling and spirit in that group around you as you all pushed to finish before the 12 hr "
I was taken aback by this extremely insightful question because it meant that Jane had given some deep thought to some of the most defining moments of the day for a sub 12.00 hours finisher.
The greatest personal growth that I have experienced for myself has been in that last one hour before the final comrades gun goes off.
The time from 11:00 hours to 12:00 hours for a just-sub 12:00 finisher is spectacularly unique.
For people who finish the race in any time over 11:50, the last hour is dramatically different than for those who finish it in a time under 11:50.
The experience of finishing comrades in its dying moments is unique.
A 10:00 hour or 11:00 hour or 11:45 runner won't understand what happens at this, the every back end of comrades.
The champions cannot even dream of it, in their worst nightmare.
However let me not speak for all but only for myself. I can only tell what I have felt and seen and noticed and experienced. ( I also know that the experience of people running with a pacer bus will be completely different from what I have experienced )
So what follows is my personal experience and observation which may be quite different for that of any another runner.
I have finished Comrades 5 times, almost all of them in a time of around 11:55 +\~ a couple of minutes.
Each one of those races have been extremely hard on my body but more so on my mind.
I have in each instance reached the 11:00 hour mark with about 7k to go. At that time the math is very simple. If I can hold about 8 mins a km, I know I can finish the race.
This is easier said than done.
After running 80+ km on an extremely hilly terrain, it is extremely hard for a runner of my speed and ability to hold 8min/km.
The problem is compounded by the fact that the last 7kms in neither the down run nor the up run are flat. There are small nameless hills in both.
With 7km to go I'm surrounded by hundreds of runners. I can see that all of them are struggling in some way or another.
80km into the race a comrades runners looks a certain way. An 80km run causes him to have a certain physical look which isn't found in a 21k or a 42.2k runner.
For one, he/she is wet with a combination of sweat and water. This is mixed with a certain amount of salt on the skin. But the mixture gives him/her a unique skin tone.
There is also the stench of fatigue, an overwhelming look of fatigue which is apparent in the way people are moving. Most heads and shoulders are drooping down. Many are walking with their hands on their hips. Some are moving ahead in really awkward postures. Those capable of running have their strides reduced to a shuffle.
Ever so often I will notice some one cramping or limping or falling down.
But at the same time there is a palpable sense of urgency amongst the runners. Everyone has been doing the math and they know what they need to do over the next hour.
I keep trying to keep moving. Every few minutes I look at my watch and see the average pace and the actual pace.
By now the garmin distance is off by almost 1 km from the official road marker distance. It causes real heartache to see that the road sign says 7 km to go while the watch says 6 km to go.
Besides, it seems that the next km marker just does not come. It seems it's taking forever for "7km to go" to turn to "6km to go".
The stress keeps increasing and the desperation is palpable all around me. I know I need to hold 8mins/km.
The problem is that lots of people around me at that particular moment (with 7 km or 6km to go) will not make it to the finish.
I am extremely tired now and tired people prefer walking. And at this point at every little incline there is a tendency and a desire to walk.
The problem is that most people around me feel the same way (or it is entirely possible that I might be only noticing the people who feel that way) and since they are walking I want to walk.
But one cannot walk at 8 mins/km and walking any slower means a DNF.
This then, is the hardest part of Comrades for me.
The ability to push my mind and body to run when every instinct encourages me to simply walk. The ability to push my mind and body to run when the people around me are walking is very very hard.
To give into walking at this point is the easiest thing in the world to do. After all, aren't so many people around me walking? They must know something. They must know that they can walk and make it. And so i figure I too can walk. I'm allowed to walk since all are walking !
But I also know this isn't true. I need to move at 8 mins /km and at every walk my pace falls to beyond 12mins / km.
The "average pace" read out is slowly going to 8:00min/km.
At 8:08 mins / km, its a DNF and I know that my distance on the garmin is wrong and so I don't even trust this number anymore.
So I need to simply look at the "time of the day" and the distance on the road marker.
I know I need to run and not walk.
As the km go by, the math becomes more and more easier. But even with 2km to go I see people who are walking and I know that they might not finish.
Even with 2 km to go I have seen people lie down on the road or cramp and fall. How will they every finish ?
I have finished Comrades with less than 2 mins to go and I have know that hundreds of people ( or so I think ) just beyond the gate of the stadium won't finish if they are walking.
This then has been the biggest challenge for me in my 8 years of running Comrades. The ability to keep moving in the last 7km. The ability to resist the urge to walk when the clock is running out has been my biggest challenge.
Every bone in my body wants to walk because other people are walking but unless I run, I know can't finish.
It is only in the last 3 years have I been able to overcome this.
My finish-time does not tell the story of my journey.
It is easy for a detached observer to think that I haven't improved at all. It is an easy observation to make if one keeps my finish time in mind.
What is not easy to see is what has been going on in my mind.
For so many years I was destroyed in the last couple of hours of comrades. I simply looked at people walking and I walked. I didn't have the mental and physical ability to run in those last hours.
The math was always done. I always knew that to finish I need to run at least at 8 mins / km but I simply could not. There was no lack of motivation. There was no lack of desire.
There was a lack of ability. I would look at people walking and simply walk.
Yes, there are people who encourage you on the route. There are people who cheer you, who support you. There are fellow runners who want to wait for you, who would gladly carry you if they could , but one needs to be able to hang onto them. One needs to have the ability to keep moving with a fellow runners who is slowing down to take you into the finish.
My problem was that I was unwilling to take their help because I wasn't in a mental or physical state to assimilate the positive energy that they were willing to share.
I simply used to look at the people who had their hands on their hips and were walking. I was always one of them.
The emotional trauma of not finishing Comrades has been enormous. I came back after those DNFs and decided that I never want to be in that position again.
That is easier said than done.
I have struggled over the years but I have trained to the best of my ability.
In 2010 and 2012 my wife, all but carried me into the finish. Without her I would have just walked. She coerced me into running those last few km.
The last 3 years have been different because i made it into the finish on my own strength.
In the last 3 years I haven't felt the fear of those last 7 km. I knew that in those last 7km that I was capable of moving at 8 mins / km. I had it in me to run when so many around me were walking.
The finish time does not tell this story of the intangible progress.
Unfortunately, past performance is no indicator of future results and this rule is nowhere more applicable than at comrades.
2017 is an Up run. Normally ( historically & to the best of my knowledge ) a persons runs a down run slightly faster than an Up-run.
I finished this 2016 down run in 11:56:37!
3 mins and 23 seconds short of the final gun.
Now, that is hardly a cushion!
Even as I write this, I can feel my blood turn cold at that thought!
So to conclude, "what does it feel like to be a runner in those last moments of Comrades ?"
I know that Comrades runners are a special brotherhood. The last few kms and the last few minutes and seconds are the most emotionally stirring moments for those who finish and also those who do not finish.
The sights you see in those last few km stay with you forever. The runner next to you is your brother or sister. There is a special bond that you share with them. But some will finish and some will not finish. Some may help you & you might help some.
But many of your fellow travellers in those last 7km won't make it for sure and there isn't anything you can do about it.
You can feel their pain as you run past them. You can see it in the way their bodies move and you can see it in the dazed look on their faces.
You run past them and you know they won't make it. It is terrible.
I know how it feels to not finish. I have been there.
I have also finished and felt the joy and ecstasy and pride of finishing this unique and awesome race.
I am indeed a lucky man to have experience both.
A traumatic emotionally draining experience can add value and flavour to life. It is not necessarily a bad thing to not finish.
But I'd always rather finish.
And come to think of it. I'd rather not have all this drama in my life.
I'd simply love to finish a half hour earlier.