Nine Sherpas - My 9th Comrades

Sherpa. 1. a member of a people of Tibetan stock living in the Nepalese Himalayas, who often serve as porters on mountain-climbing expeditions.

Between episodes of the Walking Dead with the sound of waves lapping at the apartment's ankles, I noted a few thoughts about the race at hand. Writing before an event can be quite an eye opener for afterwards. It narrows the distortion between expectations and reality. We all lie to ourselves I guess. Taking notes helps keep you honest.

After my last sing-it-to-the-mountains post on the real meaning of Comrades, I chose to move away from linking Comrades to an alien invasion of earth in a blog post. There are parallels with District 9, sure. Probably too obvious. Too cliched. And I really wanted to write about Sherpas.

Sherpas you ask? Yes. Sherpas, I respond.

It was triggered by the thought of the Comrades bus drivers. The runners who forego their own race to pace a running bus according to a set time goal (sub-9, sub-10, sub-10.30, sub-11, etc). Selfless saints of the road.

And also by the thoughts of my brother, Alby, and I. Swapping the mantle of Sherpa every time the other imploded on the tarred road between Durban and Pietermaritzburg. The road is unforgiving we have found. Any weakness is exposed and magnified and brings you to your knees. As for any attempt up a mountain, having a guide is helpful.

And so with a flurry of finger tapping, I opted for a new blog title: Nine Sherpas.


Sagarmāthā means "Forehead in the Sky" in Nepalese.
Some sherpas call her Chomolungma: "Mother of the World".

Hardly anyone summited Mount Everest in the 2014/2015 climbing seasons.

A 2014 avalanche killed 16 Sherpas closing the climbing season on Mount Everest before it had begun. 3 more perished: one of altitude sickness, one in an accident, one by lightning.
In 2015, an earthquake epicentred 8kms below the Himalayas triggered an avalanche claiming 18 climbers. The earthquake was the worst natural disaster to ever hit Nepal. Around 9,000 deaths.
Mount Everest was closed for business.

Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary
Some Sherpas had already called the bad omens years before, convinced that Sagarmāthā didn't want them there. Without routes and ropes up the summit, it was doubtful whether future climbers would ever get a chance to climb. Some feared their attempts were gone forever.

In 2016, nine Sherpas headed up Everest to clear the snow and lay down fresh ropes to the summit. To cross the snow and ice laying across the 12 metre high Hillary Step which ridges to the top took the climbers four hours. Their valiant efforts opened up the route to the top. Madame Everest, unmoving and unperturbed, allowed many to climb her that season and in return took 6 climbers to her deathly bosom. 

Sherpas and mountains and quests to the top. It all reminds me of runners and hills and the Comrades.

Queen of all asunder

 Race Predictor

Beer Miler and that weak ankle

This would be my 9th Comrades. My 4th up-run. My race predictor function (which I found on my watch whilst uploading my stats to my smart phone in exchange for a free smoothie at the gym) told me that based on its internal calculations I was capable of a 19.35 - 5k, 40.37 - 10k, 1.29 - 21.1k and full marathon of 3.07. That's all good and well saying maybe-you-could maybe-you-might but until you do, how do you really know? I treated the information with caution. My gut told me that those figures were about right. Maybe could knock a few minutes off the 21k and 42k. If I got angry enough.

My running season volumes were unimpressive. 86k (January), 78k (February), 93k (March), 246k (April), 228k (May). A total of 731ks, ensuring I didn't even make the 800k-minimum on the Comrades predict-you-performance chart. Based on my speeds, the chart predicted I was capable of a 9.27 Comrades.
Bah humbug, I muttered to myself. What do the data scientists know? Should odds be stacked against you, even overwhelmingly so, is it not one's prerogative as an athlete of semi-intellectual yearnings to ignore those odds?


Lynotherapy track marks
In order to maintain a factual record (in case I try this again in the future), I need to come clean. My physical condition in the lead up to the race was not stellar. The ankle and calf had been through minor incidents, incidents elicited by:

(i) a shot at the African Beer Mile record (where for a few blessed minutes I was the new record holder until I realised - in a beer induced haze - that I had forgotten to complete the last lap);

(ii) a suburban accident where a boom gate had prematurely descended onto me, pushing me off my bike. At the time I was steering Ben's bike with one hand to Cub Scouts to pick him up; and
(iii) blowing out my right calf at the Soweto Marathon. 
Creaky ankle aside, I was in good nick.

Many things were still in my favour: brain had seen it before. Stress levels read Camomile green. Legs purred. Plus pacing will be easy:- walk often and early; don't mess with the hills; conserve energy. And - importantly - the Riccardi Brothers don't fold. Often. The Riccardi Brothers don't fold often.

The plan was simple:
4h12 first half (4.05 for first marathon)
4h36 second half  (4.28 for second marathon)

That's an 8h48 minute Comrades at an average of 6mins5secs per k.

Lyndsay Parry (official Comrades Coach) suggested a half way time of 4h22 to 4h27 for a Bill Rowan. Alby and I think that those times are better suited to someone who has done higher volume training and not suited to guys going in half baked. If you are confident in your speed and not your endurance, better to get yourself ahead of the game at half way to allow a conservative second half. It's either visionary thinking or the thinking of idiots. Suspicions suggest the latter.

So we used the 4h27 as our fall-back position. Worst case scenario and all.

More airbrushing required


The last time Alby and I had the pleasure of running the Comrades with a Buhr, it was with the twins, Steve and Keith. It was highly memorable watching the twins turn on each other every few minutes for some reason or other: the pace is too fast, the pace is too slow, the hills are too steep, the running buses are too close; the running buses are not close enough. Alby and I kept ducking to avoid the handbag swinging. A highly memorable run.  

For this year's edition, Keith "The Blur" Buhr would be the sole representative of the Buhr Clan. He was in good condition having completed a few long runs at 5 mins per k pace. However in the few days before the race his inner demons had surfaced and would not keep still. Self-sabotage was afoot. Keith decided to braai the day before the race - barefoot - and stepped on a hot coal. For  the rest of the day he walked around with his thousand-yard-stare and wearing only one sock.

The burn was not too serious. But it added to the mind games.

Keith, we agreed, would run with us until half way. After that he would be unleashed onto the course that remained towards his first Bill Rowan.

Last good luck wishes

What it Takes to Get up a Mountain
In 1953, the 38-year old Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and 33-year old Edmund Hillary were part of the expeditionary team led by Sir John Hunt to be the first to summit Mount Everest.  Tenzing had 6 previous attempts notched on his belt dating back to 1935.  Hillary, the 6 foot 5 beekeeper from Auckland, had recce'd Everest only once before.
To get them to the summit required 350 porters, 20 Sherpas and 10 climbers.

Expedition Commander

The Expedition Commander

My second eldest brother, Stef, is the key piece of the puzzle. He plays the role of expedition leader to the Riccardi Express. He honed his running skills from being privy to our various Comrades' attempts, including numerous bomb craters and sparse moments of running greatness. He is renowned for his annual gate-crashing of the highly-secured Green Number tent at the Comrades expo.

Stef tells a great story about Comrades. One of my favourites.

Every year we have an annual pre-race lunch with good friends, the Boakes, and are reminded by Doug Boake of his sub-7 hour Comrades. His sub-7, he swears, was done on a few hundred kilometres of running, and because he had a train to catch to get back to Joburg. His time? 6h58 in 1976. Incendiary.


The Boake's, The Riccardi's and Keith Buhr.
Doug is far left.
 With all the Boake-Riccardi talks of running lore, the rivalry inspired Stef to throw his hat into the ring. He contemplated running Comrades. 2 things over the weekend changed his mind.

1. Getting a crick in his neck looking up through the clouds to the cliffs of Inchanga. It was like sniffing smelling salts he recalls.

2. Bowlegged runners, broken from their race, leaned up against wee-walls, unable to step onto the ledge to relieve themselves. They held onto the wall with one hand and angled their pelvises inwards in order to hit the target. Stef watched on in amazement.

The events left him scarred. He knew then he was cut out more for commanding expeditions, than running. With Alb on his 14th, me on my 9th, Stef was lining up for his first 20+ run, having earned his double green the year before.

Ernesto and G-Man - The Porters

The Cyclone

G-Man, the Angry Kenyan
Up in Joburg we run with a great salt-of-the-earth group of runners at Bedfordview Athletics. Two of our running partners, Ernesto "The Cyclone" Ciccone and Graham "the-world-famous-Angry Kenyan" Parker, drove down to support their team mates in the Coelho Club (a club for runners who eat rabbits). T'was a noble gesture. Camaraderie at its finest. They would keep an eye on us throughout the race and would not judge us too harshly when they found us walking and eating ice cream lollies up Drummond.
The Race (in a nutshell)
Two things of note occurred. Both within the first 30k's.
Thing of Note #1
Keith missed his gels at the 20k table. He had relied on his accounting background to precisely calculate his nutrition consumption: 1 gel every 45 minutes. 3 pristine gels awaited his arrival, but no table could be found. And, ever so gently, Keith began to unravel. 
Keith (his voice warbled with emotion): - Did you see the table? They have my gels? I've trained on these gels. Without them I am screwed.
Rob:- I've seen nothing. Don't place too much hope that you'll actually find them.
Keith (emotions kaleidoscoping between extreme despair and violent flare up):- I'll never make it. Where's the table? I'm dead. Dead I tell you. I'm not feeling well. Are you guys feeling woozy?
Alby:- We don't take gels. We scavenge. Keeps us in touch with our primal senses. Just take some sugar. That's all gels are.
Keith:-  Forsooth! My gels don't have sugar. They are isotonic carbo gels perfectly designed to cater for my first attempt at the Bill Rowan. Without them, all is lost. I have no chance. No chance at all.
Keith would break out into a soliloquy of Shakespearean proportions. To gel or not to gel. And so on. Alb and I picked up jelly babies, dropped by grubby children with sweaty palms, off the road. Try one, we would encourage Keith, revelling in the brief sugar quanta that would kickstart our neurotransmitters.
Up ahead we saw the Bedfordview Tent near the 30k mark.
Keith: A gel! A gel! My kingdom for a gel!
Rob: Withdraw my lord, I will find you some gels.
Keith (considering his wilting Bill Rowan attempt): Slave! I have set my life upon a cast, and I will stand the hazard of the die. 
Keith grabbed his gels, smiling like a child in a Roald Dahl book. Immediately his youthful exuberance returned, alleviated by positivity and the blessed gloop from the tubed casing.
Alb and I looked at each other and nodded. It was time to have a chat with Keith. He was strong. Way too strong. It was time he be nudged from the nest. Despite his protests of never abandoning his Italian brothers and some nonsense about standing on the heads of giants, we convinced him to use us as a slingshot to his Bill Rowan.
Keith would leave us at about the 35k mark and endure a magnificent run to bring in an 8.58 Bill Rowan. His first. Which he barely remembers as his memory sort of went black and he found himself in the medical tent with a drip in one arm, not quite remembering how his fist had ended up clutching the silver-bronze medal.
Thing of Note #2
I knew something was wrong the moment I looked to my right. We were in the thick of Comrades' chunky thighs. 30k's or so in. 60 more to go. Keith had taken off and was a glimmer up the road. The sun's rays were angling out of the sea misting the air with a thin layer of salt. It tingled the nostrils. And it struck me.

Where was Alby? 

Normally my wingman is on my right. Not ahead of me. Not behind me. But on my right. I know that he is there without having to turn my head. Our foot strike and arm swing are pretty much in sync. And now I was forced to turn my neck and saw that he had fallen back a foot.
The plan had been simple. Alby had relinquished the pacing duties to me. I erred on the side of caution. After 20 minutes of easy running, we employed a run-8 walk-2 minutes protocol. My watch kept an eye on the pace and slowly brought us down from a 6m20s to 5m55 average pace after 25k's. Every few k's or so I gauged Alb's heart rate and the sweat trickling down his temple. His heart rate in training had been pretty low, which was good. Mine a bit higher, which was not good. As the Shosholoza singing of the runners in the starting paddocks had died down at the start of the race we compared heart rates. Both read 72. A propitious omen.
The pace was sensible. Sensibilish. And we allowed the race to come to us. We were ready and engaged with what she had to offer. Her camber, her turns, her descents, the angles that lean to the heavens, her Afrikaans named roads pronounced with English accents (Kloof rhymes with hoof, Botha rhymes with motor) and her mountains sounding like the battle cries of Zulu warriors.
Inchanga, they tell me, is the sound a spear makes as it is taken out of the body.
Alby, I know, is famous for suffering in silence and has been known to implode like a nuclear bomb detonated below the Pacific. Whereas I whimper like a hungry puppy in a kennel (and let you know the immense pain that is permeating through the body, how it is like steel-ed knives penetrating the quadriceps, like child labour for men, allowing tears to freely stream down the face to extract pity from bystanders), Alby says nothing. Even when probed, he'll deny the pain because he thinks to do so will jeopardise the team effort. His selflessness is as noble as it is delusional. And therefore it is clear that he cannot be trusted.
Alb's falling a step behind was a sign of apocalyptic proportions. Although less than a ruler length, it was a chasm. And to me, tantamount to mutiny.
I turned to look at him. Sweat rate? Good. Relaxed shoulders? Good. Hands? Unclenched and relaxed. Mouth? Slightly open sucking in air as though it was his first no-oxygen Everest attempt. That aside, he looked like he was out for a jog.
Rob: What's your heart rate? Mine is 160.
Alb:  Mine's 135.
Rob: 135 is good. 160 is a bit rich. I feel good, but let's tap off. Still early days.
Alb: The watch says 135, but my heart feels like its 220. Could we have a quick walk?
Rob (voice breaking): 220? Walk?
Alb (starting to walk): I wanted to ask you, for next year's silver, how do you think we should go about it?
His last sentence was a bright light, flashing white-hot to reveal a black and grey globe of smoke and doom. The wind, hot and radioactive, caused me to wince and squint. No sound. Not a f*#$ing pin drop. And like that, I knew he was toast. And that meant I was toast. And that we could stop now. And the voices would leave me alone. And it made me happy.
Halfway and Beyond
Alby and I hit the half way mark at 4.32, 5 minutes off the 4.27 target. It sounds pretty close when I look at the numbers now, but really that 5 minutes is The Grand Canyon.
There was a significant slow down. We walked lots and spoke to everyone and anyone we could find. I told Alb about a few good books that I had read about human exploits and of how we are all powerful if we need to be. On the harder sections, I hummed an Arcade Fire song in my head We're just a million little gods causing rain storms turning, with my lightning bolts a glowing, I know where I am going. 

At some stage I saw my mate Jamie Wardell. Jamie had a cool looking kid with him. I said hello and told him I looked forward to his comeback once he had finished his breeding years. People laughed. And as I ran off, I smiled. And then I thought again and wasn't sure if what I said was as funny as I had meant it to be. And I worried about that for a bit. 
Up Inchanga, where spectators are few, the only sounds you hear are the chants of the running buses as they come past you like Zulu warriors in battle formation, heaving and shedding heat. A solitary runner looked at Alby and me and asked if we were brothers. He slowed down to walk and talk with us.

Lolly loving attention from her sweaty family
"It's good to run with your brother. I had a brother. We were twins. He died in 2001. We ran together for many years. Sometimes we ran a 6.28. Once a 6.29. Always together. Lots of silvers. Next year, I will be 60. And it will be good that I still run. But to run with your brother is good."
We shook hands and before he left I asked him for his brother's name. Fred is his name, he said. I am Derrick and he was Fred. That conversation stayed with me for a while.

 The clock would turn as it always does and we stopped caring about the time or the running. We were on cruise mode. And fully engaged in experiencing the day. Our eyes scanned the crowds for Stef and Lolly and Ernie and G. And for the Bedfordview tables. And for friends. 
Michael Peter, an old school mate who we had overtaken earlier that morning, came by us again and pulled us out of the doldrums. Come on boys, let's run he said. So we did. 

There was a bit of running. Not much.

Finishing strong: me, Alb and Mike

Dusk was closing in as we neared Pietermaritzburg. We had agreed to push for the sub 10.30. An arbitrary dangling carrot of time. We put the walking behind us and started running. Really running. Striding out. Chests heaving. Passing people. Chewing up the road. The strength was still in the legs and the hearts were strong. Michael was running like a champion. Alby and I were just running. Happy to have the opportunity to obliterate ourselves one more time.

The clock would welcome us in with a 10.27. Just a few arbitrary hours off our target time.

Later I thought about Sherpas and how they help other climbers and that it's sometimes a calling and sometimes just a way to make money. And how people help each other in tough times. Brothers. Friends. Family. And I thought of how competition is good, but sometimes it is not everything.
Norgay and Hillary, the first climbers to summit Everest, were asked who was the first and who was the second to summit the mountain. Their expedition leader, Colonel Hunt, was quick to reply "They reached it together, as a team."

Edmund and Tenzing

 With my lightning bolts a glowing, I can see where I am going,

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