Come out to Cheer….

On the eve of my attempt to run the 89 Km Comrades Marathon from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, I met an elderly gentleman, who had completed the event more than twenty times. Our discussion was largely centred on the event and he was helping me to ease my anxieties. He gave me one important piece of advise “All that you need to run is till the start of Durban town. The crowd will ensure that you finish the remaining 9 km before the cut-off time.” It was so true the following day as it appeared that the people of Durban have conspired to ensure that I finish and get my medal. Such was the ability of the people to change the destiny.

When it comes to sports, history is rarely made in empty arenas. The greatest of the sporting actions invariably owe their greatness to the support of the audience. They have made winning teams lose and losing teams win. Even in the age of television coverage of sports from every nook and corner of the globe, watching a sports action live has its own charm. For many, it provides them with a life-time worth experience. Nick Hornby writes in his memoir Fever Pitch, which was inspired by witnessing the title winning match between Arsenal football club and Liverpool football club in 1989,

So please, be tolerant of those who describe a sporting moment as their best ever. We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium.

While it is easy to understand the rationale behind people spending exorbitant money to watch a game of cricket or football, it is often difficult to comprehend someone going to watch a marathon entirely free of cost. Sometime back, I asked a friend of mine to come out and watch a running event that I was involved in organising. He cynically replied that he finds more meaning in watching paint dry than seeing folks put one foot after another for 42 long kilometres. A marathon runner certainly lacks the artistic appeal of Zinedine Zidane or the controlled aggression of Malcom Marshall. Looked unitary, a runner many not provide you with an excitement or enthusiasm, unless you know them in person. But, there is more to marathon.

A marathon is a spectacle by itself. One gets to see a diverse set of crowd, separated by age, gender, caste, creed, race, nationality or even the shape of their body; yet united by a single pursuit to see through the distance.  Other than the lead pack of runners who compete for prize money, the rest of runners run their own race. For them, the race day is the crowning moment of all their training efforts over many days and weeks. Every runner has a story and the marathon weaves their stories together. Watching the entire city move in one direction, towards one goal, instils the belief that anything is possible if we collectively move together. Kathrine Switzer, often credited to be first women finisher of Boston Marathon, once said,

“If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.”

Marathons have their share of fanatic crowds too. The “Wellesley Tunnel” created by students of Wellesley College in Boston by standing on either side of the Boston marathon route has become an integral part of the event. London marathon once surprised the participants by having celebrity sportspersons handle their water station. The Comrades marathon in South Africa is often a symbol of unity in a country torn apart by years of racial discrimination. Cheryl Winn, who won the race in 1982, says

“It showed the country what it could and should be.”

Closer home, the Mumbai Marathon brings the best of the spirit of Mumbai. In 2009, I participated in the Mumbai Marathon, which happened to be the first major event after the city was jolted by terrorist attacks in November 2008. For the city, it was moment to stand as one and move forward.

This Sunday, Coimbatore will be hosting its own Marathon. With over 13,000 participants, it promises to be biggest sporting event in Tamil Nadu outside Chennai. The marathon, started in 2013, is organised in aid of the Coimbatore Cancer Foundation and has been growing every year in terms of the participants. It is also an opportunity for residents of Coimbatore to come out and experience what marathons are all about. These runners are none other than friends, neighbours, relatives, colleagues – ordinary people – collectively trying to do an extraordinary feat of completing the distance. Sportspersons rarely acknowledge or remember the audience by their first name. In marathons, runners will remember each one of their friends who came out to support them, however trivial it may look. For the crowd, it would be an experience that would be best left to witness than describe.

To close the loop on the friend I mentioned earlier, he did come out to watch a marathon in subsequent years and complimented, “Yes, there is something special in watching a marathon.”

An edited version of the blog above was published by The Hindu in the Metroplus edition of Coimbatore on September 29, 2017. The online version can be found here – http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/fitness/come-out-and-cheer-the-runners-of-the-coimbatore-marathon/article19768671.ece

 

A Comrade from Coimbatore

Ajay2

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.

Copyright ©2017 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

(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)

 

 

The Servarayan Hills Ultra

In the middle of the night, Aravind wakes up and yells, ‘Praveen…. It’s 3:30 and no one has got up.’ Checked my phone and the time read 11:59. Praveen jumps out of his bed to confirm the same. Aravind quickly realises that it is the second time of the dual time on his phone screen. Those were the scenes ahead of the inaugural Yercaud Ultra, later renamed as Shevaroy hills ultra before finalising the name as ‘Servarayan Hills Ultra’ (SHU) in sync with the original name of the hills.

Yercaud
Photo by Ram. From left, Ramani, myself, Aravind, Bala, Praveen, Mani and Kannan

Aravind has signed up to run the Comrades Marathon on June 1, 2014 and it was natural for him to be anxious about every run until his Comrades. He was not the lone Comrades participant in the trip; Shahid, Ram and Kannan were also gearing up for their Comrades experience. The SHU has been intricately connected with Comrades marathon in many ways. Back in 2012, a month after (miraculously) finishing my first, (only as well as last) Comrades marathon, I joined the Tamil Nadu Cycling Club (TCC) Weekend Ride in Yercaud. The ride captain was Vaz a.k.a. Vasanth who seems to know the roads in Yercaud in and out. He introduced me to the beautiful ~34K loop road starting from and finishing at Yercaud.

Elevation
Elevation profile recorded by Shahid’s GPS on the run. Ah! The obsession over miles and feet!

As we rode on the loop road, the frequent recurrence of peaks and troughs reminded me of the early stages of Comrades route with similar terrain. At the end of the ride, I was really eager to run the route sometime in the future. Few months back, Shahid and Paul were discussing about Shahid’s plan for Comrades training and was keen on running in Ooty. I discouraged him as neither the route profile nor the altitude suits a perfect training. A year back, few of us ran all the way up to Kothagiri from Mettupalayam and the route was inclined upwards from the start till the finish. It did look like a challenging uphill run but not the right kind of run for practicing hill running.

Source: http://www.comrades.com The map is only indicative and does not explain the actual peaks and troughs!

Training for Comrades is a challenge by itself and poses many hurdles. I had tried to summarise some of my thoughts in my earlier blog on Training for Comrades. The loop in Yercaud presented us with an ideal terrain for hill training. It had ample peaks and troughs with the elevation no more than 100m at a stretch. I shared the maps (courtesy: Vaz) with Paul and Shahid suggesting the loop and in addition, a downhill towards Kuppanur would resemble Comrades route. The ~26K downhill run features a steep climb of ~4K sandwiched between downhill run of ~11K each. At first, it felt like the challenge of running the Botha Hill in Comrades but later turned out to be a bad idea because of the steep inclinations and declines.

Apart from the Comrades participants, the idea was thrown open to a small group of select runners (chosen based on the familiarity. Given the risks involved, it was decided not to open to a wider group). Among the takers includes Manivannan, Praveen, Bala, Ramani, Paul and by default, myself! It was a no-frills run and very minimal effort was taken to organise the run. It was self-organised and self-directed by each of the participants. I reached out to Vaz for assistance in Yercaud and he took the risk of introducing me to Yeshwin. Yeshwin, originally from Chennai, has relocated to Yercaud and dabbles in many activities, notably, cycling. On explaining my requirements, he suggested me a nice house for all of us to stay. The food was to be taken care by his wife, Kavitha, who runs The Pear Tree Café at Yercaud. Thanks to their assistance, we managed to have a pleasant stay and wonderful food for those two days.

Pre_race_dinner
Dinner at The Pear Tree Cafe

Our plan was to start the run at 4:00 AM and had a cut-off of 10 hours to cover the total distance with an intermediate cut-off of 6 hours for the loop (later reversed to 5 hours and it still didn’t matter). Our route reconnaissance (recce in common language) on the previous day didn’t give us a good preview of what was in store, the following day. Moreover, with 7 of us cramped on a single car (and me getting the ‘business class’ front row by the virtue of having tall legs), it was difficult to feel the elevations and troughs on the route. We retired to bed early after a delicious dinner of sandwich, curd rice and chocolate truffle. It could possibly be the only event where all runners had the same dinner and stayed together. Guess, IAAF can take some lessons from us to avoid pre-race doping!

Photo by Ramani (No. 9). Thanks to Preeti and Anurag, we had those beautiful cloth bibs!
Photo by Ramani (No. 9). Thanks to Preeti and Anurag, we had those beautiful cloth bibs!

We got ready for the run in time at 3:45 AM. The two car drivers – Pervez and Abdul – reported in time at 3:30 AM. Their assistance on the run was immense. It was also decided to run in groups until the day-break for safety reasons. Running in the dark is a challenge and also a memorable experience. The challenge is of two fold – not to get lost on the route and not to trip down. The first challenge did not exist in this run. The route directions was just simple – Keep left always! The second challenge – well, only the medicines for bruises were available.

Route info
Giving route directions on the previous day

It seems to be an unwritten law that tripping in an integral part of Ultra-marathons. Every year, I am sure there are at least 100 runners who trip themselves over the cats-eye in Comrades. Although I was lucky to escape it in my comrades run, I suffered it at Coimbatore, two months after the Comrades! The honours on this run went to Shahid who had a nasty fall suffering bruises on his elbow. It looked distressful on the first sight but Shahid was not the one to be let down by it. He quickly recovered to continue with the run.

The beauty of running in the dark is realised when the day breaks. The joy of watching the day break is unsurpassable. For those living in the cities, their day break is often spoiled by the street lights or the lights from vehicles. One can never watch a true break until they get themselves in a totally dark place. The first two hours of the run was a very pleasant experience except for the presence the street dogs. There were more ferocious ones inside many fenced residences but the ones on the street troubled us by pacing us on the run. Living in a street where there are more dogs than humans, I found it easier to tackle them.

I had chosen to play the sweeper role on the run and the drivers were instructed that I will be the last runner. The loop looked like a dream route for every runner – very little traffic, no confusion about the routes, perfect blend of elevation and declines and a pleasant weather. Our original plan was to have a cut-off time of 6 hours for the loop which looked very easy to achieve. In hindsight, I thought a four and half hours cut-off (corresponds to 8:30 AM) with an added of incentive of getting a cup of coffee for 10 bucks at Sree Saravana Bhavan, Yercaud could have been a better challenge (The price of coffee goes up to Rs. 25 after 8:30 AM).

All the runners completed the loop with ease. Bala was keeping unwell and has to opt out before the end of the loop. It was a steep climb from the end of the loop (which was at the lake) to the start of the road leading to Kuppanur. While I was enjoying the running uphill, it was getting really tough running downhill. After running about 10Kms on the steep downhill road towards Kuppanur, I have to call my run off. This was the route I enjoyed riding a lot during the Tour of Tamil Nadu 2010. Little did I realise that it would such a bad route for runners. The steep declines were absolute killers and I neither had he physical strength to run down nor the mental strength to pull trough with the run. I was also scared that most of the other runners would curse me for such a horrible route. It gets worse in the last 10 Kms which was no more than a barren hill. Strangely, all those who finished took it up as a challenge and accomplished with ease.

Finish

I was happy for the Comrades participants – Ram, Aravind, Shahid for finishing the entire stretch. This was definitely a confidence booster ahead of the Comrades. The downhill run in Comrades is lot more easier than this run even if the route has another 28Kms to cover. Also glad for Kannan for finishing the difficult stretch of the route, even if he didn’t run the last few Kilometers.

Part 14 – Once More?

In the early morning thou wouldst call me from my sleep like my own comrade and lead me running from glade to glade.

As I was picking up my baggage from the international tent, a little girl volunteering there asked me if I would do run the Comrades again. My answer was ‘Never’; She responded ‘They always say that… and come again and again’

It is true that Comrades marathon is some kind of an addiction for variety of reasons and people run it again and again. Most of the Indian contingent last year appears again this year too. Here are top 3 reasons why I would like to do it again:

1. The Comrades Experience

The Comrades marathon is definitely one of its kind and is uncomparable with any other event. The organisation was impeccable, the volunteers were great and the cheering crowd all through the course made the event special. In one of the post-event mails, the  number of people involved was shared with runners.

Volunteers – 4850; Marshals – 800; Community – 100; Traffic & Law enforcement personnel – 350; CMA officials – 110; Media – 350; Broadcast support staff – 200; IT support staff – 90; Suppliers staff- 300; Refreshment station staff – 3550; Supporters/spectators atFinish Venue – 21,000; Supporters/spectators along the Route – 700,000; Peak TV Audience – 2.4 million

2. Medal Rush

Another feature of the Comrades is the different type of medals awarded. There are medals based on finish timing, repeat performances etc., If a Runner completed the downhill and uphill runs in two consequtive years, he/she gets two medals – one for completing and ‘one double’ medal. Strangely the shape and the size does not change much though.

3. Green Club

Finishers of 10 Comrades marathon are awarded a permenant number and a confirmed start at the E Batch. They are given a special bib to identify that they belong to the Green Club.’ I once remarked to a fellow runner that running is also a kind of religion with its own rituals, pilgrimages and penances. Similar to visitors in Sabarimalai who are accorded the status of ‘Samy’ or ‘Gurusamy’ depending on the number of visits, Comrades has its own features. And there are these ‘extremes’ like the TEAM UNOGWAJA who cycle for  1748 Km for 10 days and then run the Comrades on the 11th day.

And the top 3 reasons why I wouldn’t do it again…

1. The joy of first time

The joy of finishing it for the first time when the odds are staked against you is something that I would miss it again. It is very true that every marathon is a different experience and cannot be compared. Still, the joy of finishing two minutes to spare can never be repeated.

2. Familiarity breeds contempt

Getting familiar to the challenge can in a way make someone arrogant about it. So, the next time I run it and miss the cut-off, I can get way with it blaming everything else except myself. And if I am lucky enough to finish it again, it breeds even further arrogance. Importantly, it is the uncertainity that makes the whole event exciting. At the 6th hour mark, I was totally unsure if I can really run for another 6 hours as I have never done it before.

3. Other Challenges

Life is short and there may not be time to do many things. So, it makes things more exciting to look for newer challenges and not to repeat the same challenge again. Finishing Comrades just once may be considered as a stroke of luck which I never wish to deny.

After finishing Mumbai Marathon in 2006, I resolved not to appear again. Yet, I have run there for another 4 times since!

And the one reason that I feel is irrelevant to my decision – Cost/Investment. It does cost a lot to participate in the Comrades – Entry fee, flight tickets, stay and other expenses. Then, if someone is serious about running it, rather experiencing it, it is worth every Rupee invested for the cause. I don’t feel cost can be a deterrant for anyone to participate in the event. Being a ‘former’ investment analyst, I always feel that people ‘blindly’ invest/speculate their money in ‘so-called’ investments which fetch them returns occasionally and yet believe that their decisions are rational. Same is the case in Comrades, the journey by itself is the return you receive on the investment. I was not (never wished to be) sponsored for the event and had to use my personal savings for participating in the event and I am more than satisfied with the ‘returns’ from the event.

Comrades or no Comrades, all that I wish to be doing is to keep running for ever. As I rephrase one of Rabindranath Tagore’s quotes,

God praises me when I do good; but He loves me when I run

 

Part 13 – Yes We Ran

They guided me all the day long to the mysteries of the country of pleasure and pain, and, at last, to what palace gate have the brought me in the evening at the end of my journey

Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali
12With Medal
Picture after getting the medal

Sometime after finishing the Comrades Marathon, a friend remarked “I never thought you would finish the Comrades;” I cheekily replied “Neither did I.” Truth, to be told, finishing the Comrades has always been about one’s mental strength and a strong belief that one can. I couldn’t have imagined doing something like that years back when I finished my first marathon in 6 hours 45 minutes. A lot have changed in my running since then. It has changed from an individual pursuit to a collective effort, be it running a marathon under 5 hours or being a pacer for a 5 hour bus in a marathon. There were runners who always believed and instilled the belief in me. They inspired me to register for the Comrades; There was someone to help me train for the Comrades, be it running a marathon with me in Chennai or traveling to a remote place for training in the hills; They kept my belief alive when the visa was getting delayed until the last minute. During the run, as the clock was ticking towards the 12 hour mark, there were people back home refreshing their browsers and wishing that my name appears soon; Some of them glued to the internet broadcast looking out for me; And there was Ram and his family spending more time praying for me to finish than brooding over his misfortune. It was each one of them who helped me to run the Comrades and it was they finished the run through me… YES WE RAN!

Soon after finishing the run, I spotted Amit and Neepa ahead and we congratulated each other. I collected my medal which I first thought was a ‘sample piece’ and a much bigger one awaited me at the Tent; Only to realise it was all that you get for running for 12 hours! All the eyes in the stadium were glued to the big screen as the countdown for the 12th hour began. There were a few dramatic scenes like a lady collapsing a few metres before the finish with another runner picking her and dragging her to the finish line. It looked to me that it was some kind of a sadistic pleasure that most audience gets in watching the first person who misses the cut-off. I slowly walked into the ‘International Tent’ to pick up my belongings and meet others. Raghav had already spotted me before the finish line and has announced my finish to everyone.

Picture by Raghav as soon as he spotted me…

The medal was destined for Ram but he politely refused it and asked me to keep it. The next two days were spent in the company of Ram, Sita, Raghav and Meera. I was lucky to have some excellent ‘Indian food’ in Durban, thanks to the efforts of Sita. Our neighbour and saviour, Gideon was extremely dejected with his performance finishing Comrades in 7 hours and 20 minutes! The following day, we invited him for our ‘South Indian’ lunch, during which we discussed many interesting facets, about his running as well as South Africa. Some of his responses to our questions really impressed us. For instance, when we attempted to bring the topic of Apartheid, he stated his firm belief in Mandela’s vision of looking into the future and never look back at the past.

The following day, Ram and Raghav dropped me back at the airport.

DSCN7433
With Raghav and Ram at the Airport

Some of the other blogs I strongly recommend reading,

Amit’s story of My Iron Lady, The Comrades Ultra Marathon & Supraventricular tachycardia (SVT)  

Vineeta’s story of Ultra Insanity

Roshni’s moving tribute to all Gorkha Soldiers

Part 12 – The Final Countdown

It was past 3:00 PM and the sun was going down on the west increasing the anxiety. Comrades happens during the winter time in South Africa and the days are short. It was one of those rarest days where I find myself starting to run before the sunrise and finish (hopefully the entire distance) after the sunset. With 18K to go, the only consolation was that the distance was less than a half-marathon – Still, I have to finish it before the time runs out. It was somewhere around this time that my stopwatch malfunctioned and I had to reset it. I could have lost a minute or two in the process, causing further anxiety as every minute matters from here. Meanwhile Vineetha had run past me and not to be seen again. Neepa was running two races – her own race and the race to pull up Amit along with her. It has now become an all too familiar sight for me to see Neepa run ahead, stop, and call Amit to join her.

05entering durban

The final target was to finish 15K in the last 2 hours. After averaging 7k an hour for the previous 4 hours, I was not sure where I am going to find the time to run that extra 1 Km. Comrades marathon finishes strictly at 12 hours. Not a second allowance is given beyond the firing of final gun. I started preparing my list of excuses for not being able to finish, including losing 10 minutes to reach the start point; knowing well that such excuses counts for nothing, except a false sense of moral victory. The rules are clear and there is no point in complaining either. I resolved that next time some one sympathises for the Proteas about the ‘apparent injustice’ meted out to them in the 1992 Cricket world cup, I would respond back saying ‘rules are rules‘ and they too apply the same in Comrades. I was not finished as yet and there was some hope. The final cut-off point was at Mayville, located 7k to the finish line and the time limit was 11:20. The results page indicates that I finished in 11:03:29. My stop watch, which conked midway, suggested 56 minutes to cover the 7K, translating to 8 minutes per Km!

Another stumbling block for a Comrades runner is the presence of Cat’s Eye – the blinkers on the road. Many times, people trip over and fall down causing bruises and sometimes even forcing them out of the event. At one point, Neepa ran past me, stopped and turned around to run back. I saw Amit down on the road after being tripped by the Cat’s eye. Neepa went back, picked him and they joined to run again. After running almost 80K, it was next to impossible for me to go back even a couple of metres, let alone pick up someone and run again. Should I ever trip, there was no way that I would get up and run again. It was becoming a familiar sight to see exhausted runners on the sidelines; and a few finishers sporting their medals, who had come to cheer us. There were ample support from the crowd in terms of cheering and also, letting us know how much time was left.

With 5K to go, the time remaining was 40 minutes as per my stopwatch. I could sense that the crowd around me was thinning down, leaving me with doubts about the time in my stopwatch. The fear had set in and the it looked like a make-or-break moment. This could be the one last chance of finishing the event before the cut-off time. I have run 84 Km, and here, I am left to either win it all or nothing. The next 2 Km possibly defined my Comrades marathon. I dig deeper, prayed to all the Gods whom I knew, and gave one final push. I recollected these famous lines from the movie ‘Chariots of Fire’

Then where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within..

Eric Liddel, Chariots of Fire

After running 84 Kms, it was unbelievable find the strength to run those 2 Kms under 14 minutes, possibly the fastest in the entire run. Left with 3K to go, I was back in the crowd of runners, and possibly another 26 minutes remaining. I wanted to relax a bit. but the crowd had other plans. Every time, I choose to walk, someone on the crowd would yell at me, ‘Run.’ One of the race marshalls adviced me that I might develop cramps if I slow down now. The noise was gradually on the rise and I could sense that I am nearing the Kingsmead Stadium.

06beforekingsmead
Just before Kingsmead Stadium

With a Kilometre to go and possibly 9 minutes available, it looked like a distance that I can walk and finish. Since I could not spot the stadium clearly, further doubts crept it. Just before entering the stadium, I could hear someone announce that it is five minutes to the cut-off. The entry into the stadium was surreal, to say the least. With Joey Tempest’s Final Countdown played on the loud speakers and the audience screaming at the top of their voices, I was running through a narrow track and I was fully charged up. And for the first time in the race, the terrain was flat!

07kingsmead
Inside the Kingsmead Stadium

The lap inside the stadium with the music and cheering was a moment to be savoured. But, it is not worth it unless I finish the run and the finish arch is yet to be visible. At the first sight of the finish arch, a sense of relief finally prevailed, and I was lucky to have the priceless moment captured in this beautiful image.

08kingsmead
Feeling a sense of relief

I finally crossed the finish line 11:57:57, 2 minutes and 3 seconds to spare.

09finish
At the finish

Joining the crowd of finishers

10Finish

Walking past the race director (in Black Suit). The Race Director, Peter Proctor does the (dis)honours of firing the gun at the 12-hour mark. He does that with his back facing the finish mile, so that he doesn’t see the disappointed faces of those missing the cut-off time. I was lucky that day to sneak in before he does his job.

11Finish

You can watch couple of my finish videos here

And you could watch Amit and Neepa finishing here

Part 11 – The Marathon Begins

After running for 6 hours and completing 46 Km, the first board I see was “43 Km More.” The Kilometer marker boards in most marathons will show you the distance completed. Comrades is a bit cruel in this aspect – They show you the distance that is yet to be covered. It makes you feel that all the distance that you completed so far is absolutely worth nothing. I have run 46K, yes 46K, more than a marathon distance and here I was looking at the board which says that I have to run a marathon. From that point, I took the approach of a chasing team in a one day cricket match. I need to cover a distance of 43K in 6 hours – 1 hour of running at 8 Kmph and 5 hours at 7 Kmph. I assumed that running at 7 Kmph will translate into 1 minute walk followed by 1 minute run. Sadly, that one hour in which I can run 8K didn’t happen any sooner.

There were times when I ran 4K in 30 minutes only to slow down in the next 30 minutes due to a steep uphill or downhill or due to lack of energy. In ultra marathons, most of the energy to run the distance is sourced on the run. It depends on the food intake in the early stages of running and the metabolism levels. As you run, one frequently experiences sudden bouts of increase and decrease in energy levels. The key to completing the distance is all about staying focused during these phases. At the end of 7th hour, I had completed 53K and has now crossed the Botha hill.

03after halfway

It was here that I heard someone cheering for me ‘go Balaji go.’ It was Ram in the pick-up car indicating that he has dropped out from the run. My heart sank low on seeing him. A sense of guilt engulfed me as I felt that I made a mistake in leaving him back. Then, this was one of those runs where I was not even in control of myself and there was little that I could have helped him. Picked up some courage to tell him that I will finish for him even if I wasn’t sure of that outcome

The next cut-off point at Winston Park and the runners have to reach the place in 8.5 Hours. I could clear this cut-off point comfortably by finishing 58.27K in 07:43:59 (Another 30.9K to the finish in 4 hours and 15 minutes).

I still could not find that elusive 1 hour in which I can run 8K. With 4 hours left, I need to finish a distance of 29K. The Indian contingent running along with me were Amit, Neepa, and Vineetha. Going by timings, it looked like we ran the race together. But, each one had a battle of their own and were fighting towards the finish. We were going past each other in turns, and each time we pass by the other runner, words of encouragement were shared. I checked with Amit if there are any cut-off point that I should worry about in the remaining distance. Amit advised me to just be with the crowd and I can see through to the finish.

04green mile

 The run from the half-way point to the Cowies Hill goes through some scenic country-side locations. On of them was through a village called Kloof where the sponsors had created a ‘sponsored mile’ giving an unique feel to the event. Most sponsors usually concentrate on the start/finish area of marathons ignoring the route in between. The next cut-off point was the Cowies Hill (Distance completed – 70.97k; Distance to go – 18.2K. I think the cut-off time for this point was 10 hours from the start. I managed to cross this point at 09:30:39 which leaves me with a distance of 18K in the next 2.5 hours.

Part 10 – Endaro Mahanubhavulu Andariki Vandanamu

My running plan was pretty simple – 89K in 12 hours equals to 5 hours of running at 8 kmph and 7 hours of running at 7 kmph and never to run beyond 9 kmph. Sadly, it didn’t turn out to be that easier. Also, I had to cover up the 10 minutes missed at the start line. The first 4 hours was relatively a satisfactory one. There were obstacles like bad weather conditions and crowded route that slowed me a bit down, which later turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

At the end of four hours, I spotted Ram and caught up with him. He looked very tired considering that he had slept for just 2 hours in the preceding 30 hours! We were having a nice chat and running together. We went past picturesque locations taking photographs and chatting about every topic on earth. He had his music player glued to his ears (not to escape from my conversation) and the next song on his playlist was from the Pancharatna Kriti of Saint ThyagarajaEndaro Mahanubhavulu. Knowing the first few lines, we both tried singing the kriti loud enough to attract strange looks from our fellow runners. It is a very beautiful song with a deep meaning. The meaning of the first line is given below

Salutations to all those great men in this world!

That song seems to be apt for the occasion. On that day, each one of those who ran, volunteered, organised or even witnessed the event would have experienced a sense of greatness about themselves. It was great to be part of a event like that in a country torn by conflicts between different ethnic groups. This was a moment when people rise above their petty differences to come together as one nation. In addition, the presence of runners from many countries vouched support for the Nation once isolated from the sporting world. The fifth hour went smoothly running with Ram and we covered the required 8K. We also agreed that only both of us wear the minimalist shoes and it was a bad decision indeed.

We were approaching the next cut-off point at the half-way point at Drummond. It was here we experienced the ‘real’ challenge of Comrades – The Inchanga Hill . A steep climb followed by a steep slope downwards. The climb was so steep that any attempt to run it was futile and most runners opted to walk and A day before the Comrades, we got introduced to Anand Sookraj, a Comrades Green Club member with over 17 finishes. He suggested that we shuffle between run and walk in these hills to retain the momentum. Shuffling is more rapid alteration of run and walk, say 30 second run and 30 second walk or lower. Also, I realised that I feel better running up than running down with my shoes. It was here I had to break away from Ram and go alone. If I had to walk the distance, there was no way that I would regain my run after the hill. I was also sure that Ram would recover in the downhill, something that I was not capable of.

After the arduous climb and downhill run, I reached the half-way point in 5:47:27 (The cut-off time was 6:10). Ram finished a minute later. The half-way point was at a distance of 44.97K from start and with another 44.2K to go. Mathematically, I had to repeat the performance from the first half to ensure that I clear the distance smoothly. I managed to comfort myself by recollecting that I had actually run it in 5:37 (10 minutes to start) and the next half need to be finished in 6:12.

After the half-way point starts the Botha hill and another steep climb needed to be tackled. A fellow runner commented here ‘They call it a downhill run, eh!’ Downhill or uphill, the only truth about Comrades is that the route is not flat except for the finish area at Kingsmead. At the end of the 6th hour, I have finished only 46K and there was another 43K – a little over marathon to go.

02first hill
At one of the climbs

 

Part 9 – The Courage to Start

One of the most often quoted words of John Bingham, a popular writer amidst runners is

“The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.”

More than my courage, it was indeed a miracle to see myself at start. It has been a long journey to the start line. If the visa drama to reach South Africa wasn’t enough, there was another unfolding for me and Ram at Durban. Unexpected turnaround of events saw me settle down with Ram and his family at Durban. Living close to the beach, we tried to relive our Colombo Marathon memories and decided to run on the Durban beach.  Ram found a few rocks from where he could pose again for a pix but the waves weren’t strong enough.

Further confusion reigned during the day before marathon. We had to change the house on Saturday afternoon and all our plans have to be changed. Ram was in a hurry to reach the airport to pick up his family and we had no idea of how to reach Pietermaritzburg, where the race was scheduled to start. It was then our neighbour, Gideon walked up to us and offered his help. More about his priceless help in Ram’s blog. After a dinner in an Indian restaurant, we settled down to catch up sleep for less than couple of hours. At 1:30 AM, we were scheduled to depart from our place to take a bus. This wasn’t exactly the kind of pre-race evening that either of us would have preferred. The Zulu prayer and the warmth of the fellow runners on the bus helped us to forget some of the the tough times leading to the run and look forward to the run more positively.

Elevation profile of the Route

We reached Pietermaritzburg well ahead of the start scheduled at 5:30 AM. The weather was about 6-8C which was extremely freezing for someone like me who has lived most part of my life in tropical conditions. I was well equipped for the run with 5 layers of clothing covering my upper body – the compression shirt, the actual running shirt with bib, an Auroville Marathon shirt, an old track top from my college days and the official ponchos supplied with the race kit. I had planned to wear a track pant over my running shorts but our Gideon suggested that applying vaseline would do instead.

Ram and I, before leaving the home

The start at the Comrades Marathon is segregated based on the qualifying times.

Timings
Qualifying timings for various distances. Source: http://www.comrades.com

Unable to get a good qualifying timing, I ended up using my Hyderabad Marathon timing for qualification and could start only with the ‘Janata class’ or Batch H. Ram with his better timing at Hyderabad started with Batch F. Lower seeding puts you in back of the pack and hence, a delayed start. The cut-off for Comrades marathon goes by gun timing. Starting at ‘H’ meant that the 10 minutes I took to reach the start line after the start gun was fired would not be adjusted in my final time or in the cut-off times. The good thing about starting with ‘H’ batch is that you would be starting with a similar set of inexperienced, first time comrade runners with no one exactly knowing what they are heading for. In Comrades, two sets of Bibs are given and have to be pinned both front and back. It contains details of runners including the number of medals won by them.

My Comrades Bib
My Comrades Bib

There were some funny interactions with fellow runners and many of them  wondered about how I am going to run with the minimalist shoes. One of them asked if I feel cold in those for which I replied that my legs are numb already. Another one questioned where I am from. On answering that I am from India, she wondered if I am from ‘Durban India.’ True, there  were many people of Indian origin at the start and only a few of us were from ‘India India.’ Standing alongside an equally anxious first time Comrades runners were really exciting.

At 5:20 AM, the organisers start playing the three music tracks leading to the run. First, the theme music from the movie Chariots of Fire composed by Vangelis followed by the two National Anthems of South Africa. Irrespective of the meaning, the rendition of National Anthem by the packed crowd left goosebumps on me. The start happens in front of the Pietermaritzburg City Hall. With 18,000+ runners packed up on a road with buildings on either side, the acoustics left the scene simply electrifying.

Update – July 2017

You can listen to the music at the start line here:

The race start sharp at 5:30 AM and I took 10 minutes to reach the start line from my batch. Majority of the Indian runners, Amit, his wife Neepa, Roshni, Ajit and Vineetha were placed in the batch H. As we were running towards the east, I was keenly looking forward to watch the day-break. The weather threw some new challenges in heavy cross winds, something that I have not prepared or looking forward to. I had decided to run-walk the distance starting with a 4 minute walk and 1 minute run and hope to do 8K an hour for at least 7 hours. The crowd and the narrow roads gave me very little chance to choose my pace and walk breaks. I decided to just stick with the crowd and was able to navigate smoothly. I also met up with the fellow Indian runners during the run and exchanged my pleasantries. I reached the first cut-off point well ahead of the time, completing 26.77K in 3:26:51.

I am running on the extreme right with a black cap and grey Auroville Marathon shirt.

 

Part 8 – Cutting it too Close

Not everyone who likes to be an Indian would prefer to hold an Indian passport. Apart from the hassles that one gets involved in procuring it, the real reason has been in the poor consular relations established by Ministry of External Affairs all over the world. Many countries improved their diplomatic relations to secure on-arrival tourist visas for their citizens. The Indian passport holder rarely gets such benefits in most countries. Until recently, Sri Lanka was one of the few countries to offer on-arrival visas for Indian tourists but has stopped since, as it was not reciprocated. Getting a visa involves more hassles with the agency that handles them than the consulate or embassy as such. My personal experience in getting visas (luckily not many though) has never been a pleasant one. From the specifications for the photograph to the supporting documentation (like a letter of employment for a 4-day visit), it has often been a pointless test of resilence, largely harassing ordinary individuals. Sadly, most anti-socials by-pass these requirements easily as we see in many instances.

The South African visa process wasn’t any different. It was managed by an agency working out of Mumbai and Delhi, and is normally supposed to take five business days to process a tourist visa. I had booked my tickets to leave Chennai on Tuesday, May 29, 2012 by the early morning flight. I sent my visa application on May 14 to a travel agent in Chennai who would be helping me with filing the application in Delhi. I was expecting it to be filed the following day but it got delayed due some glitches relating to the support documentation. It looked to me that the reason for visa was fairly straightforward. I had provided adequate proofs in form of my ticket, confirmation of my entry (which carried my passport details too), and bank statements for a year. Also, my ticket was clear that I am not likely to be spending much time in South Africa except for the event.

Ideally, it would have been best for me to receive my passport (with visa stamped) at the Delhi office of my travel agent by Friday, May 25 so that I can collect them at Chennai on the following Monday before departing on Tuesday. The events leading to my actual departure were as exciting as the Comrades Marathon itself. It would be best for me to narrate the flow of events chronologically.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The visa was not processed and no intimation at the Delhi Office. The visa processing agency refused any other assistance and it was impossible to contact anyone else for any kind of help.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Decided to throw a final dice by changing by ticket from May 29 to May 30 giving me an extra day of comfort.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Nothing much can happen on a Sunday and hence focused on my morning run. It was my final practice run and was glad to do it well. There were plenty of good wishes from my friends keeping my hopes alive.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The passports are usually dispatched at the noon time to the agents and it was another day of disappointment. My ticket was scheduled for Wednesday morning and I wasn’t sure if I can fly, should my passport get released the following day. The travel agent assured me that they can make the arrangements for me to receive my passport in Chennai if they receive it in Delhi the following day.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Ram called me in the morning to check about my visa status. I informed him that if I don’t receive my passport that day, I am going to cancel my entire trip as I did not see any point in waiting further. He suggested that I postpone the ticket to May 31 and travel along with him. I felt that there was no point in doing that as I am only delaying the inevitable. Also, after all these excitement, if I stuff it up on the run, it would be even more embarrassing. Ram insisted that I do this one final change for him and reluctantly, I agreed to do the same. He further suggested that I can stay with him until his family arrives, which was scheduled on June 2.  I had originally planned to stay with Bala, brother of another Chennai Runner Ranga in Durban. But for that call, I wouldn’t have made that trip. The ticket was postponed again to May 31 and it turned out to be another day of disappointment on the Visa front!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The day started with me not knowing where I would be the following day. An easy run that morning cleared my head a bit and prepared myself for any possible outcomes. At 1:00 PM, I find that my passport has been released and ready for pick-up at the Delhi office. I contacted the agent and asked them about the next steps to be taken. They instructed their Delhi office to collect the passport and immediately dispatch the same by Air Cargo. The passport was scheduled to reach the Air Cargo Office at Meenambakkam at 1:00 AM, the following morning and my flight was at 4:15 AM. I left Pondicherry late evening and reached the Old Airport at 12:30 AM to collect my passport, and yeah, the stamping was there! Proceeded towards the International Terminal to take the flight along with Ram.

Shahid enquired about my trip that evening and I informed him that I am on the way to cargo office to collect my passport. He send a text message back ‘Cutting it too close.’ Little did I know that would be case about my Comrades Marathon too a few days later!