Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Comrades II The Down Year

After completing the Comrades Marathon (Ultra Marathon) last year.  I was undecided whether I wanted to do this race again.  While I enjoyed the experience, it is both difficult and expensive to make the journey to Durban South Africa to participate.  Since the cost of entering is the least expensive part, I entered before the November 30, 2011 deadline.
My motivation to do it again was threefold, 1. I enjoyed the experience and time in South Africa 2.they give a back to back medal in addition to a finisher's medal 3. to again challenge myself in this difficult ultra marathon.
While I entered the race, I didn't decide definitively to do the race until February 2012.  The race was June 3, 2012.
I made my flight reservations, but still didn't have a hotel two weeks before the race.  I was less than pleased with last years hotel, the Hilton was too expensive for my taste, and it's more difficult to find rates for hotels in South Africa than in the US.  Most of them required that you request the rates rather than providing them online.  In the end I found a hotel on the beach that was previously a Holiday Inn and had a good rate.  Plus it was within two blocks of the bus pickup to the start, and I felt like I could walk back from the finish.
As I said in my title, this was a "down year."  This race runs between Durban and Pietermaritzburg.  Last year, the "up year," the race started in Durban and finished in Pietermaritzburg.  A net gain in altitude of 2300 feet.  So this year that was the net drop.  I had a hard time last year and finished in 11 hours and 11 minutes.  Comrades has a strict cutoff of 12 hours gun time.  You wear a chip but that is only to automate the process.  Once the gun is fired, you have 12 hours regardless of how long it takes to cross the start mat.  In my mind I thought that since this was a down year, I'd be able to finish in less time.  One thing to note, while the up year is 54 miles, the down year is 56.  The reason is that you start at City Hall and finish in a Cricket Stadium.  So while I finished in the Pietermaritzburg Cricket Stadium last year, the start was at Pietermaritzburg City Hall.  Same thing in Durban.
My travels took me from Oklahoma City to Atlanta, then a 14 1/2 hour non-stop flight to Johannesburg.  From Johannesburg to Durban was a little over an hour flight.  I had no travel problems, and made it to my hotel around 11 p.m., around 28 hours after leaving Oklahoma City.
My hotel was all that I hoped, and I had no problems there.
Then next day Friday, June 1, 2012, I went to the expo.  International runners have a separate area to check in, which makes things much easier.  One small snafu, runners are seeded in corrals A-H.  Last year I was seeded D, this year based on last year's finish I was seeded G.  But my finish time at the Oklahoma City Marathon qualified me for D again and was within the qualifying period.  I sent this in before the deadline, but when I checked in, they still had me in G, and told me I could not change it.  Oh well.
Because I stayed in Durban, this meant I had to take a bus to Pietermaritzburg for the 5:30 a.m. start.  And due to road construction, it was decided that the buses would leave at 3:00 a.m.  I arrived at the start and it was chilly there.  It was warm in Durban, and I had decided not to take anything but what I was wearing in the race and a poncho included in our "swag bag."  Even with the poncho on, I was cold.  Others were also cold and so several of us got together to share the warmth.
Before the start the runners sing "Shosholoza." an old Zulu mining song, and its title means, roughly, "Keep going. Move faster on those mountains." It's followed by the Chariots of Fire theme. But all ears eagerly await the next sound, a rooster's crow.  Then the gun for the start.  Last year it took me less than 3 minutes to cross the start, this year it was over 10.  And even after the start I could tell the difference in the runners.  These were the "less seasoned" runners.  The weather was cool for the first 20-25 miles with cloud cover and a cool breeze.  But it started to clear and the temperature was rapidly rising.  I felt ok but never great.  I had hoped to finish under 11 hours, and caught the 11 hour pacer around mile 30.  I hung with them for a while but finally had to let them go.  While this is a "down" race, the first half is still very hilly with steep ups and downs.  When I did get to the downhill part, my legs were tired and hurting and I was unable to take advantage.  Even though my time goal was out the window I still had to concentrate on finishing in less than 12 hours.  Around mile 50 I did start to feel a little better, and was able to run more than walk.  With 5k to go, I knew I had it made, but was still hurting.  I finished in 11 hours 34 minutes.  I got both my medals, and thought about going to the International tent for something to eat.  Instead I decided to start my walk back to my hotel.  I enjoyed the finish line, but knew that more people finish in the last 30 minutes than any other block of time.  And I didn't want to get caught in that crowd trying to leave.  I got back to my hotel, and every local tv channel had the race on.  I watched both the last person finish, and the first person not to finish.  When the Race Director fires the gun for the finish, they put a barrier across the finish line and you cannot cross.  The first non-finisher is almost as big a celebrity as the first place finisher.
I cleaned up, went to bed and got some much needed rest.  I was heading back to the U S the next day, not a wise decision, so I got up the next morning packed and headed to the airport.  While the flight between Atlanta and Johannesburg was 14 1/2 hours, the return was over 16 hours because of headwinds.  Again the travel was uneventful, but I got sick on the return.  Probably a combination of my long race, and then being in confined quarters with so many people.
Despite all this I returned home with no injuries, no problems, and the satisfaction of knowing that I've completed both the Up and Down years of the oldest and largest Ultra Marathon in the world, Comrades.