Friday 19 June 2015

Comrades 2015: Dig Deep

Comrades 2015: Dig Deep

My African friends have a way of explaining their troubles during Comrades.  They use a particular phrase.  Often times a friend who has had to fight fatigue, cramps, nausea or other traumatic issues during Comrades will say to me. “Amit, I battled from 60km onwards.  I had to dig deep” 

To battle! To dig deep! I love these concepts.  They mean to convey that you were suffering and you were in pain but that you went way within yourself and pulled out some courage and fortitude and perseverance to continue your battle.  The battle is as much with your mortal self as it is with the distance, with the hills, and with Time.

Digging Deep! I like that concept. Comrades is all about battling it out and digging deep. 

I’ve been digging away at this Comrades road for some time now; with mixed results. 

There are different ways to evaluate a race.  There is the tangible evidence and then there is the intangible.  ‘Time’ is pretty much the easiest way to explain how well or how badly one ran a race.  It’s pretty tangible.  An 11:52:17 Comrades would mean that I ran a slow race and just made it to the finish by not much more than the skin of my teeth.  People might admire me, my spirit, and my endurance.  But the irrefutable point is this: I was pretty slow. 

Another way to evaluate my race is perhaps to explain how I felt during the race. 

I have a history with Comrades.  It’s a love-hate relationship.  I love the race.  I hate my athletic ability.

Coming into Comrades 2015, I was so worried about my ability that for the first time in my life, I became superstitious. 3 Masters degrees and superstition!  Even I find that hard to believe. I started seeing patterns.  The pattern I felt, was plain to see:

2015: ???

There was another pattern which I saw:
2009: Stay in hotel: DNF
2010: Stay with South African Friend: Finish
2011: Stay in hotel: DNF
2012: Stay with South African Friend: Finish
2013: Stay in hotel: DNF
2014: Stay with South African Friend: Finish
2015: I was Staying in a hotel : ???

Of course there was another data point:
2010: Down Run: Finish
2011: Up Run : DNF
2012: Down Run: Finish
2013: Up Run: DNF
2014: Down Run: Finish
2015: Up Run: ???

I saw these patterns and as race day came closer, I ignored the months of hard work I had been putting into my training.  I started ignoring all evidence that clearly showed that I was a far stronger runner than I had ever been in my entire life. 

Then two week before the race, Comrades announced an additional distance of approx 900 meters and slightly more stringent cut-off times.  Norrie Williamson, a well respected Comrades Coach went apoplectic!! He said that due to these stringent cut-offs an additional 4000 runners in the last G and H seeding will get cut-off . 

This additional distance and Coach Norries predictions, when added to my own idiotic conclusions (based on observing cloud patterns in the sky) seemed to seal my fate. 

Two weeks before the race started. I concluded that this was another DNF.  And from that point on, the negativity just fed on itself.  My hamstrings started hurting, my back started hurting.  I went into the worst place someone can be in the days before Comrades.  

As the day drew closer I tried again and again to remember the amount of quality training I had done since Feb 2014.  It was not just that I trained hard in 2015.  I had totally changed my training regime since 2014 and that had worked for me.  I had a physically comfortable finish in 2014 and once again I knew in my heart that although I would not make any significant ‘time’ gains, I should be able to finish 2015. 

But the negativity was just overwhelming my thought process and killing the little voice in my heart which said that I should be able to finish.

I started the race conservatively. I took early walk breaks. I knew that the first 37 km of the UP Run are simply brutal and any mistake in pacing will be lethal.  I had hoped to reach half way around 5:30. I reached half way in 5:40 but I wasn’t too concerned because I felt fine.  I could recollect how I had felt at the half way in 2011 and 2013 and could compare my present state.  I told myself that I was OK.

The heat kept increasing and the sunlight was blinding but this time I noticed that there was no hot head-wind like in 2013.  I was very focused on eating real food as opposed to a lot of artificial stuff.  Every half hour I kept eating.   

All through the day, I could keep on moving towards PMB.  There were no real down moments.  There wasn’t a point where I thought that I can’t do this.  
There wasn’t a point where I felt I am in pain and I need to stop.

When the 12:00 hour bus caught up to me, I didn’t feel any panic. I simply decided to run slightly faster than them since I didn’t like getting crowded-out by the huge bus.  I may have felt similarly in the past years but in those years I didn’t have the ability to put the thought into action.  In those years I didn’t have the ability in those late stages to run faster than the bus.

Throughout the day I was able to watch my surroundings.  I was able to make judgements on what I needed to eat and on picking up the right number of water pouches. I was in charge of my senses.  This was not something I was able to do in the years gone by.

With 7km to go, I decided that in spite of the discomfort, I would no longer walk. I ran all the way to the finish. I ran all the small nameless hills in these last few km.  With 2km to go I had 20 mins to finish and I know that in the past I would have walked because I would have felt safe. But this time, I had the ability to think. I decided that I could keep running and I ran into the finish.  I had the desire to run the 2km even when I had the luxury of walking into the finish.

And yet, it was only when I entered the stadium that I truly believed that I would finish 2015.   

Knowledge of history can be a positive source of encouragement. But it can also destroy your present, if you allow negativity to overwhelm you.  I had been so destroyed by my past Up-Runs at Comrades, that I very nearly allowed it to ruin all my hard work.

The mind has the ability to destroy the body way before the body even gets tired.  In fact the mind will tire the body before such time actually comes.

So now I had finished another Comrades Marathon.  But in a way, it never is just another Comrades. 

People ask me my time and I have to say 11:52:17.  I cannot help but think that thousands of runners finished before me.  The number of runners who finished ahead of me were more than those who finished after me.  People who trained far less than me finished before me.  People who were novice runners finished before me.

But is that really a measure for me?  I think not.  Perhaps I need to measure myself, only against myself.

‘Time’ does not explain my experience.  For the first time, I kept running throughout the race.  For the first time, I was in charge of my mind and my body for the duration of the race.  Although I had no faith in my ability to finish, I knew that I could keep moving forward. 

For once, I was able to notice the day around me.  I was alone but I was with myself.  I was so focused that I only spoke to 3 people during the race.  I had 3 short, 1 minute conversations.  But I spoke to myself all day long.  I strategized and I planned my race as I ran it.

So how do I feel about my race finish time of 11:52:17 ?

I feel that it is not something to write home about.

All that hard work that I have put in over the last two years hasn’t yet translated into 'Time'.  It has however made a difference in how I feel during the race.  And I think that if I continue to work hard, the next stage of changes will happen and I now have faith that my time can improve. 

However, I think on these lines for a few hours and then again it hits me.  11:52:15 is pretty darn slow !

Will Comrades always be, for me, such an intense battle just to finish? Will I ever finish in comfort? Will I ever have time to go to the International Tent at the finish and celebrate with my fellow runners? Will I ever be able to sit back and relax on the finish-line and share war stories with my friends? Will I be able to meet my friends on the finish line before they all go home?

Will my time ever improve? Is this an adventure worth continuing? Is there anything left for me to prove to myself? Must I work so hard to just simply finish with a few minutes to spare? And on some occasion not even finish? 
Should I now decide to simply give Comrades a rest and go and run other races or do I need to seek my true fullest potential at Comrades?  Must I continue this insane slog at the same target?

I sit back and think.  I come to a conclusion.

I have to continue to Battle.  I have to dig deep.

Osho tells the story of the great Sufi mystic, Jalaluddin Rumi.  “One day Rumi took his disciples to a field where a farmer had been trying for months to dig a well. The disciples were feeling a little reluctant -- what is the point in going there? Whatever he wants to say, he can say here. But Jalaluddin insisted: "You come with me. Without coming you will not understand."

What the farmer had done was, he would start digging in one place, he would dig ten feet, twelve feet, he would not find water and so he would start digging in another place. He had dug eight holes and now he was working on the ninth. He had destroyed the whole field.

Rumi told his disciples, "Don't be like this idiot. If he had put all this energy into digging one hole he would have found water, howsoever deep it is. He has wasted his energy unnecessarily."

And that's what everybody is doing. You start, you go a little bit, and then you start again sometime later, or some years later. You go a little bit from a different direction.

These little bits are dangerous. Your effort should be concentrated, and once you start, then go on digging, no matter how long it takes”

I will continue to Battle.  

I will continue to dig deep no matter how long it takes. 

I will never give up.  

Comrades 2016, here we come. 


  1. what a wonderful journey you can take us through with your run and writing Amit. Simply awesome. What a great way to conclude a master piece of mind and a body duel by simply bringing in that Sufi focus. Yes you would continue to dig deep always and come out successfully. Best of luck and God bless. Srinath

  2. Great going Amit. i have said it before, standing on the comrades start line, is heroic enough - finishing it, is a whole another ball game
    well done . God Bless. VIVEK