A Week Apart:- Durban Half Ironman and Comrades 2018

Quick flashback: I missed a slot to World Champs at January's East London 70.3 by 2 minutes and 11 seconds. Let me write that out: two minutes and eleven seconds. And now in bold: 2m11s. 

It's quietly unnerving especially after 5 hours of racing. No-one else was to blame. I messed up my tactics and blew myself to smithereens. Simple. Having thrown all my chips on the table as noted in my East London race report, I was prepared for the outcome.

However I had a nagging feeling I could qualify for Worlds at the Durban 70.3. Maybe.
The Quandary

Under ordinary circumstances, I would not advocate doing a Half Ironman triathlon (or 70.3) a week before an Ultra Marathon (or even a regular marathon). One may wing a Half Ironman, however, Old Lady Comrades at her voluptuous 90.184km's does not take kindly to bravado. You disrespect her, she'll crush you without mercy.

I was, however, in a quandary.

Durban 70.3 was on 3rd June, my last chance to qualify for Worlds. A week later on the 10th would be my 10th Comrades and permanent green number race.

A week apart. And therefore my quandary.

Natalie said something which I couldn't shake off, "Just qualify for the next 70.3 World Champs in South Africa." And I was stumped. World Champs has no set venue and rotates the planet. Last year it was Chattanooga, USA. Next year it's in Nice, France. This is the first ever 70.3 Worlds to be held on the African continent. It's unlikely to come this way again.

"So do both," said Natalie giving me a wink.

Oh what to do?

Don't get greedy, I thought, Be happy with your lot. You can't be strong enough to race a Half and then Comrades. It's too big a bite.

Not wanting to decide just yet, I checked in with my brother, Alberto. Not renowned for retreat or anything tantamount to common sense, Alberto's response was "Do both!"

I then turned for advice to my friend, John, a sage in such affairs. John thought a moment and responded: "What do you think the Vikings would have done when raiding the villages? Would they have taken a few days leave after marauding or would they have kept at it?"

The suggestions from Natalie, Albie and John percolated. A plan began to formulate.

Later on I would read an article from one of my favourite writers, Garrison Keillor, who summed it up best, "A man needs to extend himself when called upon."
The Plan: harvesting lightning
The plan was simple, yet elegant. Do a 12-week 70.3 training block. Run lots.

To survive Comrades I'd have to heal up as quickly as possible after the 70.3. I jotted down some points for after the triathlon:
  • leg rub down
  • ice bath
  • protein shake
  • good clean food
  • no alcohol
  • check feet for blisters (pop blisters, drain, clean, bandage, repeat til healed)
Followed by:
  • Dubbins leather polish for the feet before bed (sleep with socks so bed doesn't get dirty)
  • 2 x sports massages mid week (not too deep)
  • 1 x Lynotherapy session
  • 1 x easy run
  • early to bed
  • stretching
Part I - Durban Boardwalk (3 June)

Writing this, I am reminded of the 1979 movie, Alien. When John Hurt finds some large eggs on a foreign planet and everything seems to be going according to plan. But then he gets an octopus-creature stuck to his face. Luckily it is removed and things perk up. Feeling fully recovered, he comes down to eat at the staff canteen. But then suddenly - and no-one expects this - an alien creature bursts out of his stomach. And there's a lot of screaming and blood. And teenagers watching this are scarred for life.

I was 9k's into the run moving along at 4m48s per k. I was holding back waiting for the half way mark. At which point I would flick the nitrous and rip up the boardwalk. So far my race had been like this:
  • The swim was zippy and uneventful. I hung onto the feet of my mate Craig and let him tear through the course. I felt myself a pilot fish. Craig was 2nd in the age group. I was 3rd. 30m4s.
  • The bike was rolling and fast. I stayed aero - 38kph on the flats, at least 30kph on the ups - and tried to be brave and strong. 2h34m. 35kph ave. I made it onto the run in 14th place. 
After a few k's into the run Natalie called out that I was 8th.

The gods have been kind. It's incredible how good I feel. Someone up there likes me.

And then my Alien moment. 9k's into the run.

Not prepared to surrender
Still cruising at a decent clip, I tore open a gel and - not wanting to litter - slipped the torn off piece of gel packaging under my tri shorts. To reach, I dropped my left shoulder slightly. My hamstring immediately tightened into a ball. And out of nowhere a small Moby Dick with teeth like scissors ripped out of my right hamstring with a mixed spray of blood and whale oil. I avoided a face plant and halted, probing the hamstring to see if the alien would bite, or if the hamstring had been torn away from the butt cheek. Neither was true.

I tried to stand upright a few times. But a knobbly cramp reared its head out of my hamstring forcing me to bend over. A movement which repeated for the next unimaginably slow minute or so. As runners went by.

A cramp? Seriously? Cramps are for civilians and dehydrated body builders. Cramps are not for Vikings who have gone off marauding.

Still bending over, I swallowed the remainder of the open caffeine gel with one hand and with the other reached for an emergency Rennies from my back pocket. (Great tip Nige!) I tore at the foil and chewed the spearmint flavoured tablet. After a few seconds, the muscles in my hamstring eased and allowed me to stand upright. I shook my legs out and started up again. Within a few metres, I eased open the throttle and was soon back on 4.50s and on the plan.

That lasted for another two k's until someone shouted GO COWS! and I spontaneously did my cow horns over my head with my fists and dangling pinkies. As I did that BAM! The Alien cramp.

Someone up there is annoyed with me. This is payback for past wrongs. Vengeance is being extracted, one cramp at a time.

I had a chat with my hamstring, not unlike Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) speaking to Ash, her Science Officer on the Nostromo spaceship.

RobbyRicc: How do we kill it Ash, there's got to be a way of killing it, how, how do we do it?
Ash: You can't.
RobbyRicc: That's baloney!
Ash: You still don't understand what you're dealing with do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.
RobbyRicc: You admire it?
Ash: I admire its purity. A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality.

Once more to the breach, dear friends, once more.
The alien would rear its head six times stopping me in my tracks each time. Eventually I figured out, I need to avoid using the hamstring. Turning my feet in like a pigeon, I thumped the side of the thigh muscles as a wake up call, and shuffled forward. This worked, in the way spit and mud works to plug a dam, and after sputtering and grinding out a 1h49m run, I managed to get to the finish line in 5h01m. 17th place.

Slot allocation for Worlds was later in the afternoon. Only 10 slots for my age group. But many top athletes already had their slots. So I hoped for a roll down. My gut told me 50-50.

I had two conversations after the race that stand out.

Conversation #1: Alby phoned. I told him the race was terrible. Bad pacing, not strong enough. One of the worst races ever. An abject failure.

After hanging up, I went to the jam-packed roll down and wangled for myself the 8th of the 10 slots.

Conversation #2: I phoned Alby and told him that I had a slot to World Champs in PE on 2 September and that - with hindsight - I had executed a flawless race, was over the moon and that this was potentially the greatest race of my life. Ever.

In the early 2000's, the Comrades cut off time was increased from 11 to 12 hours. Since then some of the old school runners don't consider anything over 11 hours a legitimate Comrades finish.

Part II - Pietermaritzburg to Durban by foot (10 June)

The amazement that my body was in good nick and would survive my 10th Comrades unscathed encountered reality mid-way up Inchanga with the same grace as a marmot playing chicken with a freight train.  My quadriceps told me to go jump in the lake and those treasonous little tendons that connect the hips to the top of the quads pressed the "Eject Button" shouting "You are on your own Kimosabi" as they jettisoned themselves off into outer space.

That was the beginning of the downfall....

So many things happen over Comrades weekend you could write memoirs based just on the weekend's events. It's all peaks and doldrums, love and misery, deflation and elation, supporters and racers, broken people and rock stars.

This was the 93rd Comrades Marathon. It would be Alby's 15th run, my 10th. Completing it would ensure that I would join the Green Number Club and that the number #47714 - given to me for every run - would be mine. All that was to be done was to complete the 90.184 km's.

Our brother and manager, Stef, once again provided stellar advice. Aim towards the Moses Mabhida stadium. Don't stop til you're done.

Our training had its usual hiccups. Alby and his hip were having a trial separation and they weren't talking. My quads and I were still living together but sleeping in separate rooms.
We chose our pacing strategy: run 8 minutes, walk 2 minutes. Remain flexible. Change is inevitable.

We agreed to run in our Elvis suits for a number of reasons:
  • First, we are Cows and The Cows (who raise money for CHOC - helping kids with cancer) were honoured by being invited as an official Comrades charity.
  • Second, our training did not warrant a serious attempt at a Bill Rowan.
  • Third, Elvis suits are much easier to run in than cow suits.

As usual, we stayed at the home of our Pietermaritzburg friends, Nicholas and Nicky, who live not too far away from Polly Shortts. They're like family after the number of our sleepovers we've had at their place. While Nicholas stayed at the sportsclub to watch the rugby, Nicky fed us our traditional lasagna and sent us off to bed early.

Our 3am alarm went off and we realised that Nicholas (our driver to the start) was not yet home. Nicky went about making a few phonecalls trying to locate him while we wolfed down a breakfast and lubed ourselves up with fistfuls of Vaseline.

Nicky received a text from a medic. There had been a car accident and Nicholas was in hospital. His condition was stable. The mood changed from excitement and focus, to trepidation and confusion. A smelling salts moment. The seriousness of the race dissipated as it became apparent that this was far more important.

Nicky, however, is made of strong stuff. Without missing a beat, she commandeered the situation and told us we'd put her sleeping girls in the car, drop us off at the start, drop off supplies to a supporters table and then head to hospital to tend to her husband.

(We found out after the race that Nicholas had flipped his car down an embankment on a dark road and broken his neck. Miraculously, someone found him and called emergency rescue. There was no nerve damage and a week or so after Comrades would undergo surgery with "a cage and screws to his spine" and eventually take his first few steps a week later. It still blows my mind thinking about this).

We were rather dazed from our start to the day, concerned about Nicholas and Nicky and the girls.

And then Shosholaza was sung, followed by the South African anthem and the cock crow. And soon we were on our way down through the frosty dark to Durban with Chariots of Fire permeating the soul.

The weather was icy and we wore our fabric race covers for the first 15k's. As the sun broke across the hills, these were tossed aside and people came to the roadside to cheer. We put on our sunglasses and, despite the rough start, it soon became apparent that this would not be a normal day. In fact it would turn out to be one of the most memorable day of our lives.

Elvis Presley, it soon became clear, is big in the road between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. And when I say big, I mean behemoth. People from the entire smorgasbord of South Africa's colourful and varied ethnicities went wild. As we approached the first groups lining both sides of the road, people laughed and grabbed for their kids.

"Quickly, kids, come look at Elvis. And another one. He's also a Cow!"

Old ladies' eyes would sparkle, children would "mooooh!"with all their might and pretty girls would let go of the hands of their boyfriends and beam at us.

Pensioners called out to us, "It's now or never!" "Where are your blue suede shoes?" "We're caught in a trap!" "A little less conversation!"

The moment we threw out our arms in an Elvis karate pose, our red tassels would grab at the reflection of the sun and people lost all inhibitions and folded themselves in two they laughed so hard. Being two brothers who have been accustomed to being shunned by girls all of our lives, it caught us off guard that so many beautiful girls would call out to us, "Rockstars!" "You guys are sexy!"

One radiant beauty saw us and shouted, "I have seriously been waiting for you two guys my entire life!"

Our feeling was beyond elation. More like transcendence allowing us - for those brief moments of joy - to hover above the pain and discomfort.

Even towards the latter part of the course, where my quadriceps had packed their bags and moved into a motel, and my Achilles (a mean old ex) had gone full metal jacket and was sending electrical eruptions through my left calf, the supporters kept at it.

Walking up one of the hills, I could barely move my foot in front of the other without baring teeth. I noticed a guy in dirty jeans walking towards me. It seemed as though life had served this guy some testing times laced with whiskey, controlled substances and parole violations. He took one look at me, gave me a crooked smile and whispered, "Sex, drugs and rock n' roll baby. Sex, drugs and rock 'n roll."

I cracked up. My jawbones hurt from laughing. The humour carried me for the darker patches which lay ahead.

At the half way mark, where weakness resides, the road opens herself up and you endure.  
Alby wears #248 given to him by Trevor who left us
on 28 March this year for the Big Ultra in the sky.

Our average pace of just under 6m10s per k had started to erode after Inchanga and never regained itself. We lost seconds on every hill and my legs were unable to recoup any time on the downhills. On Fields Hill, I started to run with a hitch in my step as the Achilles beneath me began to disintegrate causing my hip to shimmy to one side in order to navigate through the discomfort.

"Look mommy, he even runs like Elvis!" shouted one little girl.

It's the little things that keep you going during the dark times. The little kid who hands you some sweaty jelly babies, the old ladies who smile at you when you do an Elvis pose, a salty potato, eyes of your supporters as they try to take away the pain. A few of the sub-11 hour buses came by with their singing and soldier rhythm. I could not muster the effort to hold onto them.

Alby kept pace a few steps ahead of me. He and his hip had reconciled their differences. Where I was faltering, he was like titanium. Like he was bulletproof, nothing to lose. And he kept chipping away at the course. Pushing when it felt like we could push no more.

I turned to him once we had the stadium in our sights, still a few k's down the road.

"Just so that we are clear, I don't give a rat's behind what time we finish today."

He didn't say a word. He just kept chipping away.

We entered the stadium, with its mesmerising roars and emerald grass. We spotted our wives, brother and friends, and smiles beamed.

The finish line was crossed at 10h55m. 25 consecutive runs completed between the two us.

Alan Robb (Germiston Callies golden boy and first runner to go sub 5.30 for the race) handed me my green number for a celebratory picture. I asked if Alby could join us. Alan Robb said no problem.

Afterwards Alby and I walked under the stadium to get our gear and, when all was quiet, he turned to me. It was the first time he had spoken to me in a few hours.

"No way on God's earth my brother runs his Green number with anything other than a sub-11."  

My precious

Elvis's have left the building.

     *Drop mike*
     *Walk away*
     *Wait for building to explode*
     *Don't look back*


East Rand Gold