I don’t know about you, but it feels to me like it’s taking forever to arrive at my description of the actual race itself. Come to think of it, that was exactly how I felt during much of the Comrades Marathon on Sunday 29 May – like it was taking forever!). So, just like on Comrades Day, let’s put one foot in front of the other and keep moving on …
In my previous two updates about the days immediately preceding the Comrades Marathon, I tried to keep you engaged (and entertained) by describing the humour in a number of incidents that occurred. When I think of the last day before the race, however, I cannot think of anything particularly amusing. Which fact, I think, is a fairly accurate reflection of my state of mind at the time: hyper-focused, hyper-serious, and hyper-pooping myself – no humour evident at all.
So in today’s update, regarding C-Day minus 1, I’m going to keep my elaborate descriptions to a minimum; instead, I will try write an account that will focus on a few of the key happenings of the day before one of the biggest physical challenges of my life. There will be a few points which, because of their relevance to the race itself, I will flesh out in a little more detail.
Saturday morning, 28 May 2011 I awoke at about 6:30 a.m. after a reasonable sleep. I ticked that Comrades preparation box – apparently two nights before is when it crucial to get a good sleep in, because almost no-one, so I am told, sleeps well the night before Comrades.
As previously arranged, at approximately 7:30 a.m. a producer from 702 Talk Radio called our hotel room. I sat on the edge of my bed and looked out on Durban harbour for the subsequent radio interview; an interview which was a disaster (in comparison to the fantastic 20 minute radio interview I had had in Johannesburg a few days earlier). I had originally been contacted by a radio show host who had seen my website and loved my story about my Dad’s and now my race #13 and my fundraising venture. But for some reason it was not he who interviewed me, but another presenter who appeared to have no clue at all about my story. The presenter asked me a few meaningless questions, and then cut me off after a minute or two!
Oh well, I suppose that’s the price we celebrities must sometimes pay for our fame J.
I pushed the disappointing interview from my mind and whilst overlooking Durban Harbour, I quickly put the finishing touches to my final pre-race update: Pietermaritzburg or Bust. (If you haven’t already read that update, I suggest you do so – it talks of a theme that is absolutely crucial to what happened for me on race day itself). At the same time, I was checking the fantastic supportive and encouraging comments and emails that you all were sending me.
With time rapidly ticking away, my Uncle Trevor and I drove down to the Durban beachfront – which has been magnificently redone, for last year’s Soccer World Cup, I am told. We walked along the promenade, abuzz with hundreds and hundreds of locals and visitors taking advantage of the warm weather – whilst the rest of the country shivered in a bitterly cold front. Black and white, young and old; walkers and joggers, cyclists and surfers; kids on scooters with ice-creams and tourists in rickshaws with cameras – all revelled in the sunny and balmy autumn warmth. And then there were the runners.
Short runners, tall runners; fat runners, thin runners. Men runners, women runners; veteran runners, novice runners. Runners in tracksuits, runners in shorts; runners walking, runners running. Comrades runners littered the promenade. And all these runners, even when incognito, by some primitive instinct seemed to recognised their fellow Comrades. The electric tension in the build-up to the Comrades Marathon 2011 cranked, increased and heightened all along the Durban foreshore.
In this setting, and with the Indian Ocean just a stone’s throw away, Trevor and I climbed the winding stairs to one of the many beachfront cafes and, as we ordered our brunch, watched the unfolding scenes below us. In the interests of strictly adhering to a scientifically planned and rigidly pre-determined diet, specifically designed to maximize my nutritional needs for the following day, I packed away a breakfast of buttered pancakes, topped with a Durban meat topping that shall here remain nameless, all generously embalmed in sticky maple syrup. Yummmmm.
With our stomachs pleasantly laden and a gorgeous, balmy day before us, it would have been the perfect setting to relax, chill, have dessert, a coffee and a smoke (NOT), and watch the world pass by. But I was tense and nervy, and itching to get back to our hotel room in The Royal. I even decided to forego a walk along one of the new pedestrian piers that juts out into the ocean. I was feeling the pressure of time ticking by, and I wanted to get all my gear ready and other preparations complete for the big day which was fast, only too fast, approaching.
My long-suffering Uncle, bless his patience with me, did not comment on my tetchiness and was happy to drop me back at the hotel, after which he excitedly headed off to explore the “New Durban”. Up in the room, I was super-focused – like a busy worker bee in the hive, moving about, shifting this from here to there, pre-cutting physio tape, pre-mixing drinks, pre-clipping my toenails, pre-packing the pouches of my running belt, pre-scanning my pacing-chart, pretty much pre-everythinging that could be pre-preed! Fortunately, all this frenzied activity helped to distract me from the seriously scary adventure I would be embarking upon the next day.
Now, in the midst of my increasingly panicky preparation, something happened that was to significantly affect my entire experience of the Comrades Marathon the following day. I had been excited and proud at the idea of wearing my West Australian Marathon Club running shirt, as I am quite strongly identified with Perth and WA. But when I pinned the large Comrades race numbers (#13) to the back and front of this tried-and-tested running shirt, the race numbers completely obscured the WAMC logo and writing – so that I would be running, in effect, in a plain blue shirt, with no-one able to identify where, or which club, I was from.
The day before I left Perth for South Africa, I had received in the mail a running shirt in the Australian colours with the Comrades Marathon logo on it. When ordering that shirt, I simply thought that it would be nice to wear as a T-shirt in the days before the race, but I had had no intention at all of wearing it on race day itself.
Panicked at the pressure of the minutes and hours ticking away, after a few moments of distressed dithering, I made the snap decision to wear this yellow and green shirt – that had never even been washed, never mind worn. In so doing, I was breaking a cardinal rule of Comrades Marathon lore: do not do or wear anything “new” on race day. I thought of all the potential painful consequences that might lie in store for me as a punishment for my temerity in breaking this basic Comrades rule. “To heck with it,” I thought – I did not want to run in a plain blue shirt, and I wanted some kind of identity with Australia. So, I went ahead, pinned my numbers on, and the word “Australia”, topped by a jumping kangaroo against the five stars of the Southern Cross found on the Aussie flag, were clearly visible above my race number 13.
That’s all about this for now – you can file this information away for when you read my description of the race day itself.
My Uncle returned to the hotel at about 1:30 as we had to be at the Comrades Expo to meet some of the representatives of Rockies – The Rocky Road Runner Club – who, arranged by Denis Tabakin, had kindly agreed to have some of my carbohydrate gels, drinks etc. ferried to the two Rockies watering points along the route the next day.
Every year since 1985, Rockies’ members, especially those running the Comrades, raise funds for the Ethembeni School for physically disabled and visually impaired children. This school, for about 300 kids, lies along the Comrades route and as the runners pass by, the children line the road, on crutches, in wheelchairs, with their disabilities visible to the world – and they shout for and cheer the runners on.
I was to meet the Rockies’ representatives at the ceremony in which they handed over the funds raised. This handover was preceded by a “mini-concert” performed by the kids of Ethembeni. The concert, speeches, and handover were moving and inspiring and, I know, gave me an even more powerful boost the next day when, at about 50 km, I passed by and “high-fived” these disabled kids along the roadside.
I had intended to purchase some Comrades gear at the Expo, but the queues were so incredibly long and I had so much to do, that I scrapped that plan and headed straight back to the hotel. Aside from needing to do more prep, I was also hoping to get a sleep, a “nanna nap”, that afternoon to compensate for an expected sleepless night. An early dinner was planned for 6:00 p.m. so that I could be in bed by 8:30 at the very latest (I would need to wake up at 3:00 a.m. the following morning to be at the Start and my seeding pen by about 4:45). Needless to say, the afternoon sleep never eventuated. The time seemed to slip through my fingers like beach sand through one’s toes. What I remember of that afternoon was having a bath, a hot bath (an essential point this – file it away in your memory banks for my post-race update) and taking a few calls from some well-wishers whilst in the bath and with shampoo in my hair.
The last thing on my to-do list for Saturday was a very special dinner.
Those of you have read my webpage The Prags and Comrades Legends, might recall the story I narrated of my Dad and Jimmy Pershouse. To repeat it briefly: on my Dad’s very first run in 1956, when he was lying on the roadside wishing he was somewhere else very, very far away, along came complete stranger James Pershouse. Jimmy ultimately got my Dad up and running and ensured that he got to ‘Martizburg in time to get a finisher’s medal. My Dad and Jimmy subsequently became very close friends – a friendship which continues to this day. Throughout my years of childhood and even adulthood, it was always an exciting event when “Uncle Jim” came up from Durban and stayed over at us.
So, on the eve of my first Comrades Marathon, 55 years on from that first meeting of two other Comrades in true Comrades Marathon spirit, my Uncle Trevor and myself were to meet Jimmy and his wife Margaret for dinner.
Jimmy and Margaret came to the Royal, and we all sat in the posh old restaurant where there was a special pre-Comrades buffet.
It was a very emotional evening for me; Jimmy told me how much he misses my Dad (who now lives in Sydney) and that he regards him as a brother. Re the Comrades Marathon itself, Jimmy had lots of helpful hints for me, but what made the deepest impression on me, was witnessing Jimmy’s incredibly optimistic and fighting spirit. This attitude was evident throughout our dinner and time together that evening, as I witnessed Jimmy refusing to give an inch to creeping age and its effect on him.
Well, that pretty much sums up my day before Comrades. There followed an emotional goodbye to Jimmy, catching the lift back up to room 1462, a few bits ‘n pieces and then to bed at about 8:40 p.m. With me about to visit The Sandman is where I will leave you – until my next update, when my account of the “Real Thing” begins …