Three Strikes, Not Out – The Chronicles Of My 2018 Comrades Down Run
Had it not been the excitement at the 2018 Comrades Marathon expo, the pure joy of the coach, Madoko Ndlhovu, rallied by the Wonderpark Athletic Club members, along with many other runners, singing and psyching everyone up for the battle to come… Had it also not been the undying support and encouragement of team members and friends, well-wishers along the way, together with the support of fellow runners. But most importantly, had it not been by the prayers, the blessings of good health, relentless training, strict diet and supportive family… things could have turned out differently.
As usual, I set the alarm clock on Saturday evening for midnight before closing one eye to sleep, and keeping the other wide open to monitor the clock. But time stood still. It was the longest night in history. I made a few trips to the hotel window, looking down, in an attempt to see a car passing by, or even a pedestrian, security guard, anything. “Why am I awake in the land of the dead”, I asked myself.
Let The Running Begin!
Arriving at my seeded block, Gate F, I managed to see the coach just in time for the national anthem and the unoriginal Shosholoza song. The traditional Chariots of Fire was followed by the cock crow, and off we moved after the big bang of the gun. We slowly made our way to the starting line and after a couple of minutes we were able to shuffle, in the dark. The coach was surrounded by his mentees, most of them attended the Coach Madoko Ndlhovu Training Camp. “It is still a warm-up” he said after only 2km.
He asked me how I felt, and I could hardly respond because I was either going to lie, which would make my day miserable or mutter senselessly and lose my rhythm. Frankly, the past two weeks had been a disaster, with discomfort on the groin area. “For those who do not know me, I am Madoko Ndlhovu, can you hear me? Pick a partner and tell them your name”.
There was a babble and laughter. “You are out by 6 minutes”, he shouted.
We quickly dealt with Polly Shortts and headed towards Umlaas Road. The front row was now taking shape, Zandi (one of the other runners) doing what she practiced for a solid year, running on the left of the coach and Tuks (another one of the mentees) just behind the coach. By the 18th kilometre, Twice, the man who could not resist the Hey Wena Bus the previous year, by jumping up and down in the middle of Fields Hill, joined as well. And he did not disappoint. He did it again. Jumping up and down, and this time with some variation, pulling his right leg as in a waltzing manoeuvre, not once, but three times, leaving everyone stunned.
Vulithuba also joined, taking the tambourine duties and belting out his regular sound. The bus was now complete. I was feeling comfortable and raring to go, indicating to coach that I was more than ready to get to Moses Mabhida Stadium. The 2018 Comrades Marathon has now begun. Seizing all my senses and sanity, and encoring them in the deep trenches of my long held dream of running this race.
We ran up the Little Mpushini and reached the top to the satisfaction of Coach Madoko, who announced that we were only two minutes behind and we should be on target in the next few kilometres.
We faced Camperdown with the Grace of God. A cloud appeared from the heavens, giving all runners a cool shade to run up in solitude, meditation and assurance that things are not that bad yet. I ran two paces ahead the coach and Vulithuba as the bus was overloaded, with Twice directly opposite, on my left, always careful about the cat eyes.
“We have now gained three minutes, we are not walking until we reach halfway mark, Drummond”.
Another sub-11 bus joined in and passed as soon as we merged into an uncontrollable mega bus. We almost lost our momentum, slowing down for them to pass while others joining in and running with wrong partners. Just when I thought they were gone, they stopped, and they all started walking, starting the whole confusion all over again as we passed them towards Cato Ridge and to start the dreaded Inchanga Hills.
The run on the Inchanga Hills was getting personal. As we turned a corner to face one steep hill after another, I was reminded of the weekends’ 20 hills of Berg Street as well as Impala Liellie training, the 50km and 70km Coach Madoko Training Camp, which deliberately went up to Wonderboom and Tom Jenkins hills. They were in fact preparing us for this situation. I became so inspired, getting faster with every stride. Coach called me to order, “easy bra Kenny, you are fighting and I don’t like it”. I slowed down, still ahead in front of the bus, leaned slightly forward, flat footed, and went all the way up.
The Halfway Mark
After going down a bit we turned left, and I saw a road sign written DRUMMOND, in bold. My heart, my body and my soul, all responded in song as I was becoming stronger and stronger when approaching the halfway mark. There was loud music and the big number of spectators, welcoming us towards the purple Hollywood Bets colours, with the red mat, neatly laid across for runners to step on.
The feeling was unbelievable, I was born for this, born to run, and run the Comrades Marathon. As promised, coach allowed us to walk, and walk we did. Waving to spectators, friends and family. It was a well-deserved break to grab whatever one had planned with their seconders as well as a photo opportunity with loved ones. A minute later we started running again. Slowly approaching the WALL OF HONOUR with long trees up the hill on the left.
I tried to reclaim my spot as I was now at the back after spotting family members. Never stopping at the red decorative flowers or reading anything on the “Wall”, but slowly catching up to run in my favourite spot. Then all hell broke loose.
I suddenly had an excruciating pain in my stomach.
It was as if I swallowed a red hot iron. I knelt down at once, crouching and gasping for cold air, facing down. I immediately thought of my childhood fairy tale Tselane and the Beast.
In the tale, Tselane had chosen to stay in the forest, surrounded by long trees, and the only sign to open the door was when her mother brought food and sang “Tselane ngwanaka….Tswelane ngwanaka… e tla o tsee dijo o je”. Translated, it would mean that Tselane my child, come and fetch your meal and be fed. And she would respond, “Kea utlwa tlhe mma…kea utlwa tlhe mma… o re ke tseye dijo ke je”, also in song. But the story goes further, with the beast trying to imitate Tselane’s mom only to be rejected because its voice was too deep.
The beast eventually swallows a red hot iron to sing to Tselane in a softer voice, just like her mom, and eventually captures her. I really loved the story, fell in love with Tselane, and cried so much every time I read it. And believe me, I read this story many times, and many times I cried real tears. During my childhood days, kids were allowed to believe in such tales.
Only this time, the pain was real, my tummy painful and the 11h00 Madoko bus leaving me. I tried to stand up but I could not. A few minutes passed and I managed to stand up and walked slightly bending forward and holding my tummy with both hands. It was painful. I tried to drink water from a sachet I had, but the situation worsened. It was like I had just taken some corrosive solution, feeling it as passed my throat and landed in my stomach like a fireball. Some runners sympathised with me but could not help me.
I walked to the water point at Hillcrest, and grabbed mageu, water and Coke. I struggled to drink water and coke because I could not stand upright. So I squeezed mageu from the corner of the packaging and sipped. I saw red. My stomach was not running, only painful as though several knots have been tied randomly along my intestines.
Chethe saw me and offered me tablets, and another teammate gave me some powder to swallow. I was willing to take anything, but not a ride in an ambulance. I walked for some kilometres before the sub 11h30 bus came. I tried to run but failed. Bra Denis encouraged me, saying “don’t worry, you’ve got this one”. Moments later, I was able to run, albeit with a slower pace. Keeping the 11h30 bus in sight. Suddenly there was an unexpected bus 11h45 bus behind me. I walked deliberately so that I would start running when they caught me. But as they reached me, and as I was about to run with them, the pain on my groin area erupted. Forcing me to stop at my tracks.
In the past weeks, I managed this pain by running for about 2km and it would disappear as I get warmer. This time I had already done that and only interested in finishing. Supporters in Hillcrest encouraged me to push on. Calling my name, offering food, oranges, mageu and beer. I could not accept anything. Only if they knew what I was going through.
I started rolling on the start of the Fields Hill descent, running for over 5km without stopping. Hoping to gain the time that I lost earlier on. The road was broader, with acres of space for all runners. I could see Pinetown in the distance. I started walking as soon as I entered Pinetown. Running from this pole to that pole, from this hump to that car, and so on. I never bothered to run Cowies’ Hill. It was too much for me. Every time spectators called my name to cheer me, I gave a thumbs up and a smile, hiding behind my dark glasses.
Along Westville, just when I was happy to have recovered from the pains on my tummy and the groin, I felt some muscle pulling on my left thigh. I did not bargain for this. I stopped for a moment and immediately started to walk briskly. I had to fight against this by ignoring it while I walk and run. I heard Tuks well when he shouted “when your mind is weak, your body will suffer”, during the preparations for this event. We passed the tollgate and ran, and walked in the freeway. Those hills on the freeway towards the bridge were really unnecessary.
I was struggling, Two sub-12 buses passed me and I could not offer any resistance, but let them through as if I was a spectator. I held my thigh with one hand as I leaned on the railings on the road and calling it quits.
Moments later, the third sub-12 bus came. Tau, another runner I knew, was on the right of the driver, asking me questions without talking. I also responded in telepathy, there was no need to say anything as I hopped aside to let them pass. At the back of this bus was the Mashapu family, running as a couple as usual, offering support and encouragements to no avail. I could only walk slowly behind the running bus.
Another friend, Queen Tee Pee also came by for support but I let her go. As she started running, I noted she was identified as “Prayer” on her name bib. Just what I needed. I could not find words to pray. I started to mumbled “Just today, God, amen”. Thinking to myself how be it that I cannot pray. I thought I was a Christian all along. No. It cannot be. Christians can belt out an impressive prayer anytime.
It’s All Downhill From Here
I saw the lights and roof of the stadium a little further away and 9km left with only 64 minutes remaining. My legs were heavy and Tee Pee had gone to that bus, I could not even see her and the name bib. I tried to pray again, “Just there. Lord. God. yes, Jesus. Amen”, pointing at the stadium. I knew I had to do something for God to answer my prayers.
I started walking like a penguin cause my hips had enough. Moving the whole body with my left side and followed by my right side before developing this gait into a slow run. To manage the pain, I shouted to the amusement of all who wondered what was happening as went “heel, toe… heel, toe, 1, 2… heel, toe, heel, toe”. Shaking my hips like a hopeless model.
This was good enough to keep me running until I got to the tail of the last bus. By this time, they were walking. Someone blew the whistle and they started running again. I ran with them, but when they blew the whistle to start walking, I continued running for about 500 metres ahead of them. I also took a break by walking, thinking to myself that I will run again when the catch up with me. I could hear their footsteps as they were running towards me, and when they were in line with me, they stopped running and walked. So I walked with them. I was now in the front row on the right, swearing to myself never to let them leave me behind again.
We marched all the way to the stadium like victorious soldiers towards the outside stadium walls. Without talking, we continued to march, like the army of God marching around Jericho. The bus driver blew the whistle for the last time, and we ran into the stadium. The noise was amazing. I could feel the rumble on the ground, as if the walls were falling down. And in slow motion, holding hands up and waving to the crowds we crossed the finish line with four minutes to spare.
From this race, I learned that there is nothing like running the down run. It is as difficult, if not worse than the up run. Every race has its own challenges and equally, every runner has their bad day.
But honestly, it must have been by the excitement at the expo, the endless support and encouragement of team members and friends, well-wishers along the way, countless prayers from family and the love by other runners for me to successfully finish the Comrades Marathon in 11 hours and 56 minutes.