My Comrades Experience

By Pono Mogoera

I’m hard pressed to point to when exactly the road to comrades earnestly began. Late 2009, back when I thought round was a perfectly good shape to be in, my wife sat me down for a face-to-face and point-and-laugh (stolen phrase).

Needless to say my 2010 new year’s resolution included: attending at least a single world cup game; celebrating turning 30 in style, and hopping on my bike saddle for a few races. I had at the time started socially riding the Groenkloof trails with a friend on my 2005 Makro Raleigh dual suspension bike (it seemed so jacked-up back when I bought it), so I knew this wasn’t going to do.

So early in 2010 I hit the web in search for a new bike, but something also told me to also search for running races (they serve a funny brand of coffee in Necsa). On the day I identified which bike I wanted, I also found myself registering and paying for (…I still insist it’s the coffee) three half-marathons, the Johnson Crane, the McCarthy Toyota and the Phobian’s Deloitte.

Being a novice (and by extension a silly sod) I went ahead and registered for Akasia 3-in-1 42.2km marathon. I never completed a single full marathon that year, but those are stories for another day. In the same year, in my Necsa coffee stupor, I also committed to running the comrades in three years’ time. All this and not even a single ½ marathon completed, silly sod I tell you.

As the 2011 version of the Soweto Marathon approached I had still not ran a single marathon, so I figured that would be my first. I think it would have been easier to take a gun and shoot myself in the foot. I ran it with minimal training and aptly pulled my ITB muscle to render myself out of commission leading into 2012.

When 2012 kicked off I knew there was no turning back, so I let the injury heel, and began in earnest to training for the Comrades Marathon 2012.

Fast forward to June 3rd 2012, its 05:00 in the morning and I’m cracking lame jokes with an Indian and a Sotho guy (both of whom I’ve never met in my life before) in our F-group as we’re all trying to come to grips with the anxiety. The Indian guy declares to have completed six, and swears it gets difficult everytime. I don’t need to hear this so I pull a “hey, there’s that guy” maneuver on him whilst walking away.

After the France-SA 2010 world cup game I swore never to sing the national anthem without sufficient alcohol in my system. So when it starts playing on the PA system I squat and pull a straight face in order to keep the eyes dry till it ends. As if on cue, a few lines into it, they come gushing down my eyes, so I pull my sun-glasses over them.

I sit like this (even through the singing of Shosholoza) until Chariots of Fire finishes playing. As soon as I sit up, they come gushing down again, this time to the “boom” sound that has signaled the beginning of the race. It’s actually a scary sound, more like a canon than a 9mm pistol we’re accustomed to in some of the smaller races back home.

The realisation that one of the biggest challenges in my life has started sends blood rushing through my head, and now all of sudden I feel like peeing, but I trudge along. It is slightly chilly, and my long sleeve running top is coming in handy but the legs feel funny. I reduce it to the need to warm up.

It’s still dark and we twist and turn through Pietermaritzburg. I walk through even the smallest of climbs, and then we get to the apex of Polly Shorts (10km into the race). This is one of the famed big-5 hills of the race, but on the down-run it’s misleadingly easy to summit. Then we start descending this monster and the legs which I had earlier brushed aside as being cold don’t seem to be getting any warmer.

I had driven this route the day before, and when I got to this descend I had let the car roll, and it got to a speed of about 90km/h, only limited by breaking through the curvy section. This goes on for about 2km (maybe more) then we hit a small climb, known in comrade’s circles as ‘little polly shorts”. After little Polly, we head for a mild 5km climb towards Ashburton. Having reached Ashburton the road twists and turns through the Lion Park area, a somewhat flat section, before climbing again towards Umlass road.

We reach Umlass road, and see a sign that marks the highest point…aaah, a sigh of relief, because surely it can’t get any worse than this. I later realized someone lied and made a personal pact to come back and steal this sign. The course starts going through a series of mild ups-and-downs towards Camperdown.

At this stage I’ve ran about 20km and usually my body would’ve sufficiently warmed up and I’d have started hitting my stride. Not the case in this race, in fact it feels like the legs are getting heavier. I had earlier stopped to re-tie my right shoe laces, but now appears I’ve tied them too tight because the foot feels swollen. I keep trudging on, and start to anticipate seeing my wife who’s waiting for me at Camperdown. At least I can complain to her, because I doubt any of these guys would be bothered to listen to me.

I hit Camperdown at about 08:20 (2hrs 50 min running) on par with my running chart. I see my wife and we do a hug and kiss and I start whining about this and that. I ask her to bring all the remaining GU gels and muscle recovery sachets we had bought at the expo to Inchanga, because I’m starting to panic somewhat.

I was an athlete at the top of his shape so I couldn’t understand all the pains and niggles. In truth I was letting my mind play tricks on me, but I’d realize this only later.

We now head towards Cato Ridge and Harrison Flats, this 10km stretch is similar to the last, i.e mild ups-and-downs. The 1000 Hills Experience invokes nostalgia and ushers in Inchanga, but before that we pass the Harrison School of the Handicapped. These brave souls have braved the cold to come out and cheer us on…mxm, bloody wet eyes, um seeing an optometrist first thing when I get home. I splash water on my face to mask it all, and then proceed to give each child a high-five.

I meet my wife at the start of Inchanga climb, she doesn’t have the gels with her, and so I get animated. Whilst she’s off fetching them from the car, I take an opportunity to get Deep Heat sprayed all round my knees. The big Inchanga Climb starts, another member of the big-5, and what a climb. Run-walk-run-walk seems to be the order of the day, after summiting, the course steeply dips towards Drummond and the halfway point.

I start thinking there’s no way I’m climbing this next year. At the bottom of Drummond we start climbing again towards Arthur’s Seat and the Wall of Honour. I had stopped here the day before whilst driving the course and had earmarked a spot for myself, so I breeze past only checking to see if my spot was there.

We are still climbing, only now steeply trying to summit Botha’s Hill, I can almost see him waving his finger (of course I could be thinking of the wrong Botha), the 3rd member of the big-5. I’ve so far run only a small portion of all the up-hills and walked the remainder. We drop down the other side of Botha and pass the 56km mark (2 Oceans) before climbing again towards Hillcrest.

At the summit of the Hillcrest climb we’re met by cheers from Kearsney high learners. I’m running in front of these two guys holding up a cardboard sign (Kearsney Rugby 2-0 Sumtin High). What do I know about private school feuds….vokol(I’m a village high school boy)!! But that doesn’t stop me from basking in this particular spot light. I start giving out high-fives, etc, and taking the cheers in my stride. I’ve got a feeling some of them saw through me because they started leaving me hanging…smart asses!!!!

The cheers add some much need boost as we heard towards the stretch on the Highway, M13. Hillcrest reminds of Midrand, sandwiched between the two big cities Pietermaritzburg and Durban yet seems to have a soul of its own. It is here that I realize that I’ve been running a very physical race, and have not been allowing the mind to help out with the task at hand. I’m also starting to get light stomach cramps, so I decide to focus on this particular pain.

After passing the cut-off point at the 60km mark I reach for my 2nd Panado, I had taken the 1st before the race started, based on some anecdotal advice. We hit the highway shortly after the cut-off point, and head towards Kloof. We momentarily disembark the highway at Kloof to run on the Nedbank Green Mile, a 1.6km long spectator spot sponsored by Nedbank.

After all the fanfare we head back onto the highway down Fields Hill, the fourth member of the big-5. This downhill is one of the most camber ridden sections of the course. Now I start speaking in terms not suitable for such an unrated prose. I decide that I’ll later have a face-to-face and a punch-and-block (guessing he’s had enough practice over the years) with the race organizer.

We get off the Highway at Pinetown, and start those ups-and-downs of earlier, but now the legs are tired. The 11hr bus catches up to me with 20km of the race to go, and they duly tour past me, bastards! After the St John’s cut-off point we start climbing Cowies Hill, the last member of the big-5. Not a chance am I running this beast, so I walk the whole thing. I’m now fluent in French, but that brand of French you never want your children to learn.

We descend Cowies Hill and shortly hit the highway again, the 80km mark seems so far away. I try my best to squeeze runs in between my walks. The phrase: “No one ever finished comrades walking” is playing loud in my head now. I tell myself to shut up and keep running, stolen from somewhere I’m sure.

At the 80km mark it becomes clear that the light stomach cramps were an early warning to the now evident stomach constipation. How else do I explain the fact that I haven’t peed, farted for a while now nor hit the kak-box? When you’ve been on the road for nearly 9 hours and in this much pain, it’s funny the things one finds himself pre occupied with. I’m convinced I know what people facing any sort of execution think about in their last moments.

I reach the last cut off point at 83km with 2hrs to spare. There’s a series of not so funny hills that make me want to unleash the Gremlins on the organizer. At this point even walking fast is painful and the kilos seem to be passing by so slow. The chikita in the cleavage-revealing top tries her best to send a flirtatious cheer my way, I shake my head raise my arm( as in “whatever”) and move on. Six kilometers, 5 kilometer they go by and one stops hearing the cheers all together.

I try by all means not to count building blocks or 100m stretches, but good luck to anyone that can manage this at this stage. With 1km to go I can see the stadium, but not a 100 horses pulling that way would get me to run at this point.

At the entrance to the stadium I figure I don’t want the cameras capturing me walking, so I start running…#curses# this is not the final tunnel (more of that french), so I walk again. I only start running again once outside the final tunnel, and what a run I made of it. It was as if in a split second the pain went away. I was giving high-fives, jumping with joy, and then moon-walked to the finish line just for good measure.

If you’re not one for introspection, then this race is probably not for you. In this race, you’ve got 90km to face your demons and you will do so at least more than once.

The decision to run the up-run next year will not be made lightly……

………Pono

14 Responses to My Comrades Experience

  1. kwesi 11 June 2012 at 12:59 pm #

    Well Said. This was my first comrades too and much as i can’t remember any of the street names the one thing i can remember is pain pain & more pain. Let alone thinking i will never never ever allow my teammates to talk me into registering for another comrades again. But the sense of achievement & satisfaction when i think back at what i went through to conquer the comrades feels soooo much worth it….I’m slowly even warming up to the idea of doing another comrades in the nearest future.

  2. Mosdef 11 June 2012 at 1:58 pm #

    Well done Nitros… We are proud of you poi… Every South African must run comrades at least once… I’m sure doing exactly that, you have given us hope that it is possible if you put your mind to it

  3. Correne 11 June 2012 at 2:51 pm #

    Love it! You describe the experience so well! Its true what they say about us “silly sods” … on another note we eventually forget about the pain and only remember the good things … I have also seriously been thinking about running the up next year. There’s something about that achievement and sheer determination that seems to come along when you’re in the middle of running the absolute ultimate human race. When I think back 2 just over a week ago I actually feel warm and fuzzy inside! Madness.

  4. Ms. Eve 11 June 2012 at 3:30 pm #

    A very good read Pono. and thanks for the good laugh here and there.. I hope by now your injuries have healed. Congratulations to you all. I know for sure this one i cannot even dream of attempting!!!

  5. Refilwe 13 June 2012 at 1:23 pm #

    What a 1st time experience! I never thought I will run Comrades, I used to sit by my TV and watch the runners and waited for the last person to come in crawling or whatever. But this year thanks to a man who introduced me to running, my shape, spirit says it all. I nearly cried when I was feeling cold at Pietermaritzburg but as we started I was getting the feel of it. Unfortunately I did not finish not because of pain, but I had stomach issues and diziness. 2013 Comrades here I come!!!!!!

  6. Fran 13 June 2012 at 9:36 pm #

    Loved it! Laughed and cried! I am inspired! I have been running for years but have never had the courage to attempt Comrades, I think it is time.

  7. Garth 14 June 2012 at 4:08 pm #

    Haha, loved it Pono…I also had to go and check out your moon walk. Ran my 1st too this year and did not have that much energy left at the finish. well done and see you next year, I think!

  8. Peter 14 June 2012 at 5:34 pm #

    Great read. Strangely enough the Highest Point marker board has disappeared. A veld fire appears to have devoured it. No doubt it’ll make an appearance next year and remind us all that it’s all downhill from there. Right!

  9. Pono 15 June 2012 at 9:21 am #

    Thanks to all…and congradulation once again to everyone that stood on that starting-line. It still hurts in places I’ve never imagined…:-). There are certain muscle groups I never imagined could cramp:-).

    Only kidding, I’m ok now, I’ve earned enough e-bucks at the Makro liquor store, so I figure its time I go for a fun walk on sunday….

    ..I’m definately lining up for the up run next year. Hope to see you all there!!!

  10. Rael 22 July 2012 at 10:10 pm #

    Hi Pono,
    Very well written. Its very rare for someone to remember their first Comrades in such detail. The bastards in the 11 hour bus that duly went past you… Humble apologies, that was us. Next time either stay ahead of us, or please stick to us. We did walk quite a bit after Cowies.

    • Pono 20 November 2012 at 10:58 am #

      Hi Rael

      Hope you know I wrote everything here tongue-in-cheek…I already got my entry in for the 2013 version…but I still have a mission “steal-the-highest-point-mark” to complete…hahaha!

  11. Shana 19 October 2012 at 9:41 am #

    Way to go Pono!! It’s awesome that you remember so much! I can not wait to begin training after my pregnancy (everytime I start training my husband and I get pregnant…somethings gotta change!)! Comrades has been a thought in the back of my mind and I’m definetly giving it a go! You’re dipiction just inspires one!

    • Pono 20 November 2012 at 10:55 am #

      …hahahaha!, yeah Shana, something’s really got to give (excuse the pun)!!! Goodluck with your training…

  12. Sello 4 June 2013 at 5:47 pm #

    Well done Pono…I’m inspired, but lack the nerves

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