I've recently gloated that I almost never get sick, so I guess I was due this. I’m currently en route from Atlanta to Portland after the 16-hour Jo-burg-Atlanta direct flight, which ranks as one of the worst flights in my life (and longest flight in the world), and I've had some doozies. A hacking cough and stuffiness has turned me into that person you glare at on airplanes—the one that you’re convinced is going to get you sick. I think I glared at a similar person en route to Durban on Thursday.
The day after a disappointing race is always a bit of a downer. Although I went into Comrades knowing some recent issues I've been having with my left hamstring/glutes/piriformis would either numb themselves into submission during the race which would serve as a last long run before Western States, or help me come to the decision that I'm injured and need some time off to get healthy again. My training the past few weeks has not been ideal, as tightness in my butt and hamstring has caused workouts to be painful, and easy runs to not be completely enjoyable either. So, I hoped that a good 2-week taper into Comrades would get me to the start line healthy, and a decent race would leave me confident about running Western States with time for a rest week before putting in a couple of weeks of final preparation for WS.
Niggles are common among runners, and I feel like I always have something floating around. But usually the niggle lasts a day or two and then moves on and a different niggle pops up. When an issue sticks around for more than a few days, I get worried, and this has had me worried for the last month, as it started as an issue back in early May and just hung on, getting progressively worse. It’s not a new niggle, but one in the past has floated around, and not been consistently an issue. One of the problems is I can't quite tell what the issue is--hamstring, glute, piriformis, It's painful in a few spots, and a bit difficult to pinpoint exactly. Some days in the pool seemed to help, but running hard would seemingly negate those recovery days, and have me back where I started. Training has not been ideal the past month, although I managed to stick sort of on schedule, with fewer hard sessions and long runs than I had hoped. I foam rolled a lot, stretched, did glute/hamstring exercises, saw my graston guy and massage guy, etc. I've had issues heading into other races, forcing rest and PT, hoping for a race miracle, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.
Adding to my pre-race worries, I started getting a sore throat on Friday night. I woke up Saturday not feeling hot and needing to swallow constantly, but there was nothing I could do, besides suck on zinc lozenges. Race morning, Sunday, I woke up feeling not horrible, so was hopeful that maybe I'd still kick it. Now on my way home, I’m fully sick, and as sick as I’ve been in a few years. I feel badly for the dudes sitting next to me, who will be lucky to avoid this thing, as I’ve coughed, and sniffled the entire way home. The guy en route from Jo-burg was apologetic after I was apologetic, and the guy en route to Portland gifted me an entire bag of cough drops. I avoided colds all winter when my roommate or work colleagues were seemingly always sick, so the timing of my first cold in a couple of years is just another frustration on a frustrating day. Alas, this is a bit of a pity party so far. Time for some positives….
For those unfamiliar with Comrades, the race is a point to point that switches direction each year. The race from Durban to Pietermaritzburg is a net uphill so called an "up" run, and the other direction, which we ran this year, from Pietermaritzburg to Durban is a "down" run. The terms don't necessarily completely describe the course because either direction has a lot of up and down (down run has around 4700 feet of up and 6700 feet of down). Many folks say the down run is harder, as it leaves you battered after a good chunk of the downhill comes in the last third of the race.
Race morning was lovely. Often the start can be quite chilly, as Pietermaritzburg sits up at 2,000 feet, but with lows only around 60F the night prior, it was a warm start. The start of Comrades has an energy that must be experienced to truly appreciate it. Running for the Nedbank elite team, we got a position right up front on the start line, which was a little intimidating, as the sprint off the front is something to behold. Everyone slows down in a race from the initial pace, although I have to suspect the Comrades slow down for most is even more dramatic, as the lure of the TV cameras off the front, and energy in the air, make it look like some are racing the mile. The entire race is televised, up to the 12-hour cut-off. Right before the gun they play Shosholoza, a South African folk song, and Chariots of Fire. The excitement builds, the start line grows more and more cramped as people push forward, and at 5:30 a.m. the gun goes off. Fearful of getting trampled, I braced myself for the push, and breathed a sigh of relief after the first block. Ian Sharmin came by and we chatted for a bit before he headed off. The first mile was 6:30, so knowing that the pace was a bit fast, I aimed to ease back into a more sustainable pace. Despite the quick start, I felt good, and my butt felt good and loose, and the next few miles clicked by under 7:00 pace.
It was dark the first few miles and when the sun finally did come up it was gorgeous. At this point, you're running through rolling farm country and the sun rises over large rolling hills to the east, off to the left hand side, showing off a landscape of big rolling green hills with brilliant pinks and oranges highlighting a few lone trees on the horizon line. I had a few Nedbank guys around me who seemed to be forming a little group around me, and at some point reminded them that they couldn't run near me, as pacing isn't allowed; it looks especially suspicious if a Nedbank woman is surrounded by a group of green Nedbank men. They disappeared, but when running with that many people (17,000 starters), you’re bound to be near someone.
There are steady ups and downs throughout the first 20K, and I felt good and was climbing well. The pace stayed comfortable and we averaged about 7:10 pace through about 18 miles. I was aiming for an overall average of around 7:30 pace, so while this was a bit quick, it felt good; 7:35 average pace was what I needed to go to get in under 7 hours, but I hoped to be a bit under that. Somewhere after mile 10 I made the first of what turned into 6 bathroom stops in the first 40 miles. A sore throat, the poops, and my hammies/butt had quickly tightened up after the initial loose first few miles. Speed is what typically doesn't feel good on my butt, and it was tight. Tight asses are not always a good thing.
Even though it was just yesterday, the middle miles are all kind of a blur. I was frustrated in that I seemingly constantly needed to pull over, despite taking one Imodium before the start, and another about 15 miles in when things started to feel rough tummy-wise. I was eating and drinking, but doing so caused me to need to use the bathroom. We had handlers that were there to give us bottles roughly every 10K following the 20K mark, but there was also a ton of aid along the way. Comrades is one of the best-aided races I've run, with water/energy drink stops every 2 or 3K. The beverages are in little sachets which make drinking or holding them for later very easy.
I was in around 6th for the first 18 miles, but several bathroom stops in a row allowed for several women to pass, many of whom I must not have seen while in the port-a-potty right before half-way point, where I must have come in around 8th or 9th. I never saw Jo pass me, but did spot a few others from the bushes. I passed half-way in about 3:25/6, but that was after my longest bathroom break, so in hindsight, was happy with my pace through the first half, which was on-target for my goal of sub-7 and a gold medal, which the top 10 receive.
Zola Budd passed me somewhere in this middle section, running for Hooters. It was pretty amazing to be running in a race around Zola Budd, but she motored on, while I struggled. We finally came to the start of the downhill section. Often in an ultra, pre-race niggles will just kind of melt away with the miles, I think related to endorphins, or some aspect of body chemistry, but the miles were only adding to the discomfort, and my upper hamstring/piriformis was pissed. The two women who finished in 9th and 10th were running just in front of me, and I had passed them back on the downhill, and felt like I was getting back into a groove and that the Imodium seemed to have stopped the frequent stops. I was averaging 7:27 pace overall at this point but getting faster as we started to descend, so with the upcoming net downhill and fewer stops, was hopeful to stay under 7:35 pace which was the pace to get in just under 7 hours. Right around 23K to go, I felt a sharp pain in my left hamstring which altered my step. I kind of jerked to a stop and tried to start running again, but was obviously limping. I started to walk, quickly deciding that my race was over and accepting the fact that it was going to be a long walk. But, I had several hours to get to the finish, and I could walk, so I might as well finish.
This was right after 23K to go, and I don’t think I fully comprehended what walking in would be like. While the entire Comrades course is spotted with people, there are a ton of people in the final 23K, most of whom were encouraging me to start running again. “Come on lady, you can do it!” “Run lady, run!” “Don’t give up, lady!” “Run Amy!” In addition to the crowds, several runners paused to encourage me along, and several walked with me for long bits, but all eventually powered on running. While I appreciated their enthusiasm, this was hard to hear, as I couldn't really run. I tried to start running a few steps several times, but gave up quickly, as I couldn't run without pain.
A common Comrades tradition is to party with a braai or barbecue along the side, often handing out aid in the form of water, fruit or candy, in addition to the official race aid stations. One guy offered me a cup of water, and I asked whether he could spare a beer, which he was happy to do. This made me quite popular with the fans, and tasted damn good. Plus, fewer people shouted at me to run with a beer in hand. A few miles later I scored a second, and probably would have looked for a third and fourth, but I had to pee and was stick of stopping to use the bathroom after so many stops in the first half. I was also hoping to see a friend who hoped to finish around 9 hours on course and didn’t want to miss her with a stop.
It was a long walk, and while I tried to soak in and enjoy the energy around me, I was really ready to be done. The bathroom issues were over, but the sore throat and overall bleh were becoming more apparent. With about 10K to go I calculated that I could finish in under 9 hours if I kept my pace under 15 min/mile. Not that I cared about which finishers medal I got at this point, but with 8 miles walked, and 6 miles left to walk, I needed a goal. I picked up the pace and kept up a decent clip, feeling a weird bit of competitive walking come upon me, getting a few miles in around 13:40. The Km signs couldn't come fast enough, but I passed the 3 Km, 2 Km and 1 Km signs and finally entered the stadium, still walking and 2 hours later than hoped. By this time tears were streaming down my face. I was just so glad to be done and desperately wanted off of the course. It had been a long and disappointing day. I finished in 8:52 (?), 2 hours slower than my goal. While I felt deflated, at the same time, it was encouraging because while I’d worried before the race that top 10 was out of my reach, being there on that day, I realized that on a good day top 10 is well within my reach, and even top 5. Sometimes everything comes together on race day, and sometimes the cards just seem stacked against you. On race day, I didn't feel out of my league to reach my goal, I just felt like crap, both with some pre-race niggles that could have gone either way, and with a bug that has now taken over completely. At this point, I can’t wait for the plane to land and to make a bee-line for home and my bed and a long-overdue nap with my sweet kittens.
Once again, back to the positives….I feel fortunate to call Ellie both a teammate and friend, and I was thrilled to hear about her day once I’d finished. I was almost afraid to ask, as we’d both confessed our pre-race concerns to each other on Saturday afternoon, and she had some reasons for concern. But in true Ellie fighting spirit, she had what she called a bad race up to the point where she laid it all on the line and went for it. She reeled the twins (who have dominated the past several years) in in what (according to the Twitterverse) was the fastest closing split over the final 7 Km for either men or women. Incredible! Watching her finish replayed on the jumbo-tron afterwards with Ian following her in from behind, was awe-inspiring.
I do plan to be back at Comrades, if not next year, then at a minimum for the following year for the next down run. Seeing the race unfold, and feeling comfortable in the pace that it takes to run for gold, I’m confident that on a good day, or even a slightly less bad day, I can run in contention for a solid top 10 finish. Many thanks to Nedbank for allowing me to race for them and for providing logistical support in country—I know that they had high expectations for all of us, and I feel badly about the outcome.
Despite the race not going as planned, I had a great trip. I arrived in Cape Town on the Monday prior for a few days of rest and relaxation, and loved exploring the area around the Cape. I'll add some pictures once I'm back in the real non-airplane world.