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

 

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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

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 personal belief that I 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 beliefs 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 the friends. Raghav had already spotted me before the finish line and has announced my finish to everyone.

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 home food in Durban, thanks to the efforts of Sita. Our neighbour Gideon was extremely dejected with his performance finishing Comrades in 7 hours and 20 minutes! The following day, we had our ‘South Indian’ lunch with him discussing many interesting topics 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 you could feel that the day is getting over. Comrades happens during the winter time in South Africa and the days are short. It was one of those rarest days when I find myself starting to run before the sunrise and finish (hopefully the entire distance) after the sunset. With 18K to go, I could console myself that I had to run less than a half-marathon. It was somewhere around this time that my stopwatch malfunctioned and I have to reset it. Might 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 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

I had to finish 15K in the last 2 hours. After averaging 7k an hour for the previous 4 hours, I wondered where I am going to find that one hour to run the 8k. Comrades marathon finishes strictly at 12 hours. Not a second allowance is given beyond the firing of final gun. I still found an excuse in the 10 minutes that I took to reach the start point knowing well that such excuses counts for nothing. The rules are clear and there is no point in complaining either. Just 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. The best at that stage would be to find some extra energy and do one solid run to cover the distance. The final cut-off point was at Mayville, at a distance 7k to the finish line. The cut-off time for this point was at 11:20. The results page indicates that I finished in 11:03:29 although my personal stop clock (after reset) showed me that I have only 56 minutes left 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 and he was 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. I said to myself that if I ever trip, I am not going to get up again. There were familiar sights of exhausted runners on the sidelines. There were ample support from the crowd in terms of cheering as well as letting us know how much time was left.

At 5K to go, I had 41 minutes left on my stopwatch. I could suddenly sense that the crowd around me was thinning down leaving me with doubts that I am getting held back. The next 2 Km possibly defined my Comrades run. I decided to go all out this time and throw myself all out. Gathered all the energy, prayed to all the Gods whom I knew and stepped up my pace. I was running close to the middle of the road when one runner warned me about the cat’s eye. 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..

After running 84 Kms, it was impossible to say where I got the strength to run those 2 Kms under 14 minutes, possibly the fastest in the entire run. I was left with 3K to go and 27 minutes to the cut-off time. I decided to relax a bit but the crowd didn’t allow me to do. Every time, I choose to walk, someone on the crowd screams out ‘Run.’ One of the race marshalls told me that I would develop cramps if I choose to walk now. The next Kilometerwas done in 8 minutes and subsequent one in 9 minutes. Going by the sound, I could feel that I am nearing the Kingsmead Stadium but I couldn’t see it.

06beforekingsmead
Just before Kingsmead Stadium

With one Km to go and 10 minutes available, I thought I can walk the distance. Since I could not spot the stadium, I wasn’t sure if my calculations are right. Just before entering the stadium, I could hear someone announce that 5 minutes are left. I entered the stadium with Joey Tempest’s Final Countdown played on the loud speakers. The scene was unbelievable – I was running through a narrow track with crowds packed on each side screaming their hearts out for the runners. And for the first time in the race, I was running on a flat soft track! That song by Joey Tempest is easily an all-time favourite song of mine!

07kingsmead
Inside the Kingsmead Stadium

Although inside the stadium, the finish line was not yet visible. On the first sight of the finish line, as 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 regard. 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 distance. 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 – I hour of running at 8 Kmph and 5 hours at 7 Kmph. Running at 7 Kmph was translated into 1 minute walk followed by 1 minute run approach. Sadly, that one hour in which I can run 8K never happened.

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 largely depends on the food intake in the early stages of running. As you run, one frequently experiences sudden bouts of increase as well as decrease in energy levels. The key to completing the distance is all about holding your head 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 finish 8K. With 4 hours left, I had 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 overtaking each other and each time we pass by the other runner, some 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.