Shosholoza, Kulezo ntaba, Stimela siphume South Africa, Kulezo ntaba, Stimela siphume South Africa, Wen’ uyabaleka, Kulezo ntaba, Stimela siphume South Africa
(Translation: Go forward Go forward, from those mountains; on this train from South Africa; Go forward, Go forward; You are running away; You are running away; from those mountains; on this train from South Africa) Source – Wikipedia
On June 4, 2017, when Ajay stood among the 17,031 participants of the Comrades marathon listening to the above song, it was an end as well as a beginning – the end of a rigorous physical and mental training for months together and the beginning of a 12-hour, 86.7 Km journey from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. This certainly was not on his mind when Ajay started running in 2014.
He registered for the 10K event at the Vodafone Coimbatore Marathon 2014. Unaware of how to train for a running event, he resorted to a 5K run, the previous evening, much like the last minute preparation for a high school examination! While the finish may not be impressive, it certainly got him interested in running. Joining the Coimbatore Runners, a group of recreational runners, he started training more regularly in 2015; and followed it with participating in many more events including the Coimbatore Marathon 2015.
In 2016, he set himself a target of ascending Mt. Elburus in southern Russia, the highest mountain in Russia and Europe with a height of 5642m. The high altitude trek made him believe that he can challenge himself towards higher goals. The Comrades Marathon is one of the most popular and oldest amongst ultra marathons (distances above 42.195 Km). Started in 1921 by Vic Clapham, a veteran of World War -1, the race is annually held between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, with the start and end points alternating between the two cities. During the World War -1, Vic underwent strenuous tests of endurance and he believed that this race must be a tribute to those soldiers and, “celebrate mankind’s spirit over adversity”. Since then, it has grown in stature to become a hallmark of endurance and toughness for anyone and everyone who pursues long distance running.
When Ajay heard it for the first time, he knew that this was the right challenge to take up. He attempted his first marathon (42.195 Km) in October 2016 at Bangalore and followed it up with marathons at Cochin and Dubai. His timing at Dubai Marathon helped him to qualify for the Comrades marathon (A runner must have run a marathon under 5 hours to qualify for Comrades marathon). Running beyond a marathon is not just about running and more about persistence and determination. Training for an ultra marathon requires both physical and mental toughness. It was here Kannan, a double Comrades finisher and a certified fitness coach, offered to train him. “Although I couldn’t follow Kannan’s training plan entirely due to professional and personal commitments, the guidance from him was immense” recollects Ajay.
One of the important challenges of running comrades marathon is tackling the hills. Often called the valley of thousand hills, the route is all about running up and down – all the way from Durban at sea level to Pietermaritzburg at 596m with multiple elevations and depths in between. His training runs at Yercaud and Kolli Hills helped him to get a flavour of the hills and he strengthened his confidence by running up to Kothagiri and back to Mettupalayam.
Training for Comrades is not just about the few hours of running every week by those attempting it. It takes a significant toll on the time normally allocated to our friends and family. Being a frequent traveller as he heads the business for HDFC in South Tamil Nadu, the limited time to spend with his family, which includes his wife Manju, and sons, Aadithya and Aaarush was soon becoming extinct. Their support and motivation was backbone to all the efforts of Ajay. He feels grateful to the sacrifices made by his wife, whether it was getting up at 3:30 AM to preparing his pre-run meal or boiling potatoes for nutrition during the run. Before the event, his sons presented him a hand-written greeting card which gave him the much wanted boost ahead of the run. “I kept looking at it multiple times and recollected it every time my energy levels were down during the run”.
Standing at the start line of the Comrades marathon is an experience by itself. In a country that is torn apart by lingual and racial conflicts, Comrades Marathon, for many, is a symbol of what the future holds. The collective rendition of the National Anthem and ‘Sho-Sho-loza’ is certain to raise the spirits of the participants and boost their hopes of finishing the run. “There is only to a certain extent that we can prepare for the run. In my case, it was 60 Km. Beyond that, one has to rely on mental strength and support from elsewhere to pull you through to the finish.” The first 14-16 Kms are usually spent with the crowd with little room to set your own pace or rhythm. Ajay felt comfortable as he reached the half-way mark within the cut-off time (Comrades Race has strict cut-off times and runners who don’t finish a certain distance within the pre-determined time limits will be asked to quit). As expected, his preparation helped him to cross the 60 km mark with ease. It was then, he needed to dig deeper to find the extra strength.
The spectators alongside the route take additional efforts to ensure that every runner finishes the event. They call out every runner by his/her name (written on the bib) to make them feel comfortable and homely. Most of them are knowledgeable about the race and give advice on the route ahead and time available– to slow down or to speed up. One of the spectator told Ajay that if he were to follow the runner ahead of him, he is bound to finish the race. Ajay went ahead and met Tshepo Joseph Shibambo, who assured him, “Be with me; I will take you to the finish line.” From that point to the finish line, with cramps challenging him in between, Ajay blindly followed him and managed to finish the race in 11:53:54!
The finish was an icing on the cake that had taken over 6 months to be prepared. The following day, Ajay was thrilled to experience the respect that people in Durban, from those selling burgers to cab drivers, offered him for his monumental effort. From that moment till he boarded the flight in Durban, watching many finishers and the sense of accomplishment in each one of them is a spectacle by itself. Most of them are just ordinary people of all sizes and ages who have challenged themselves to fight against adversity.
Where does it take him next? “Doing the down run next year ranks top on my list of priorities; then, there is family, work and other commitments before that” says Ajay. As the theme of this year’s run would suggest, “Zinikele – It takes all of you,” It did take all of Ajay and leaves him with memories for one life time.
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(And edited version of the Article appeared in The Hindu, July 1, 2017 – http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/fitness/ajay-varma-on-completing-the-comrades-marathon-in-south-africa-in-june-2017/article19186741.ece)