From Non- Runner to Comrades Gold medallist
Part 1: From Non Runner to Comrades Finisher
Like many of my fellow runners my journey started on a very depressing Spring morning with a large pile of too small clothes at my feet. (Damn those winter fairies that sneak into your wardrobe and shrink all your summer outfits over the winter.) I took a long walk to the bathroom scale, dusted it off, stood on it and realised that it was time to make some lifestyle changes.
A year earlier I had given birth to my first child and the year had flown by with the stresses of work, motherhood and plenty of convenient trips to Macdonalds. Instead of losing my pregnancy weight I had gained a few kilo’s putting me at a whopping 17kg’s over my pre pregnancy weight. It was neither comfortable nor pretty. And so… with the blaring of my alarm at an hour I thought only the wicked were awake at, I got up and went for my first run/walk. It was a journey which consisted of 4 times around my 750m block and it was tough. But for some reason the thought of having to go through the rest of my life overweight was tougher, and so week after week I persisted and as the scale numbers decreased and my fitness increased I actually started to enjoy my early morning jogs.
Running is a truly amazing thing because to the unfit it can feel like torture but suddenly you cross over this barrier and it feels amazing. You reach this happy place where the world is at your feet and all your problems are can be solved. You can achieve anything and for me it was whilst running that I remembered a long forgotten childhood dream that I could one day run the Comrades marathon.
My Comrades dream had materialised when I was about six years old. I was awoken on a cold winters morning with the sound of the Comrades start line on the TV. I sat fixated in front of the TV for the entire day. After the race I stated that one day I would run the Comrades marathon to which my father replied, “No Carrie, this race is for serious athletes, not for people like you and me.” But the dream was there.
So after a few glasses of Champagne on New Year ’s Eve I bravely announced that my New Year’s resolution was to run the Comrades Marathon. My Comrades quest commenced two days later with a trip to my local running club, the Midrand Striders and what a rude awaking I received.
I had read online that the club runs were on Sundays so I dragged my sister out of bed and off we headed to the running club. A week or so earlier we had battled our way to the longest run/walk of our lives which measured 7.8km and after that achievement felt that we could conquer the world.
We were warmly greeted at the club by Penny Visser, Maz Moore and Chris Piers and we embarked on our first club run. The idea of being part of a club was exhilarating and kept us running, talking and asking questions of these super heroes who had all previously run the Comrades (And more than once!) Fortunately the pace was slow and included some walking but at some point my sister and I realised that we had been running for a very long time and seemed to be nowhere near where we had started. “How far do you think this run is?” my sister asked me. “I don’t know” I answered. We were both starting to feel a little nervous. I casually asked the question and got back a casual “About 20km’s or so” response. What more can I say, we hung in there and somehow got back to the club but it was a rude awakening as to what most club runners would call an easy Sunday “longish” run.
Runners are truly amazing people (even if I do say so myself) and each week at the Tuesday time trial I would eagerly listen to fellow club runners’ stories about their races, Comrades, etc. Everyone was so eager to offer running tips and share advice and very quickly I became a part of a running family.
My first race was the Dis- Chem half marathon which I ran with my sister. I have no idea what time we ran it in as that seemed completely irrelevant at the time. I was just so proud to have finished and of my medal. (I hung the medal on my front door for a week after the race – embarrassing but true).
After Dischem I ran the Pick n Pay marathon as my qualifier for Comrades and after finishing it I seriously doubted my ability to finish Comrades. If I felt that crap after 42km’s how would I ever complete more than double that distance? It seemed impossible. But once again my running family came to the rescue and I can remember fellow club member Sharon Newman comforting me by saying that, it seems impossible, but somehow on the day you just manage to do the impossible and finish.
And before I knew it Comrades 2009 was upon me. I have never been so scared and excited at the same time. Half of me was saying “This is Insane” and the other half “This is awesome!”. I will never forget standing in the D batch in Petermaritzburg that morning. It was cold and I was shivering but I wasn’t quite sure if the shivering was from the cold or my nerves. The thousands of runners around me, the dark and the lights, the playing of shosoloza, chariots of fire and the cock crowing, the gun firing and then the slow movement forward, the walk, crossing the start line, the jog and then finally after a few km’s the field thinning out enough to begin to run. The sunrise, the crowds cheering, believing in myself, doubting myself and believing again. The tears when I passed the disabled children from the Ethembeni school which made me so grateful that I could run, and the tears when I hobbled down fields hill, with my quads already cramping, feeling truly sorry for myself. The second wind as I ran through Pinetown to the cheers of the crowds and the absolute exhaustion whilst walking down the N3 towards Durban. The last 2km’s that felt like 20 and the medal, which was far too small for my forgone suffering, awaiting me at the finish line. And, the realisation that I had battled through what I once thought was impossible, I had completed the Comrades marathon, I had become a serious athlete. Never had I been so sore, so tired and so thrilled all at the same time. I had a goal, I doubted many times whether I could achieve it, but I did achieve it, and I learnt so much about my capabilities that day.
My time was 9hrs17min but this meant very little to me until later when I found out that two of the legends of our running club had run sub 9 hours that day and had received a special medal called the Bill Rowan for their efforts. I stood there looking at Tim Walwyn and Leon Baker’s Bill Rowan medals and the flame of desire for something greater was ignited and so the Journey to the Bill Rowan Comrades began.
Part 2: From Comrades finisher to Bill Rowan medallist
After receiving a bronze medal in my first Comrades and later learning that had I run 18 minutes faster I would have received a Bill Rowan medal my goal shifted from Comrades finisher to a dream of the coveted Comrades Bill Rowan medal.
At this stage however the need to further populate took preference to running and I made the decision to forgo my back to back medal and instead create life which in itself is a rather big achievement. It wasn’t easy watching Comrades from the couch that year about 35 weeks pregnant and highly emotional but it definitely made me even more set on achieving my goal. The 2010 Comrades was a down run again and I was eager to get back on the road and commence training for the 2011 up run and my Comrades Bill Rowan medal which I had by now had a year to convince myself was achievable. My second daughter was born about 2 weeks later and approximately four weeks after that she was in a running pram joining me on my journey.
The first Sunday in June 2011 was upon us before we knew it and once again I found myself at the start line this time in Durban and this time in the C batch. I was deeply concerned that I was being overly optimistic in my goal but I was even more concerned for my husband, Haiko, who had undertaken to support me on route with a 3 year old and an 11 month old toddler. Worried about the race and the kids had my stomach in knots and standing at the start line I felt nauseous and was experiencing stomach cramps. I can remember thinking that it was going to be a tough day but I had to get to the finish as quickly as possible to help Haiko with the kids.
So, as most ultra runners can confirm, ultra running is not the most glamorous sport, and there was nothing glamorous about my Comrades that day. About 5km’s in my stomach was insisting that I cease running and find somewhere to hide. After visiting nearly every portaloo and bush I could find in the first 20km’s I decided that this was not going to happen. I would keep moving forward until I saw Haiko and then bail on the race. He would understand. I wasn’t feeling well. It happens.
Every now and again your support crew fails you. And fortunately for me it was one of those days. Haiko had decided that the best way to handle two small children was to take them for a long breakfast and then catch me later on route. And so whilst they were having breakfast I was cursing and running and walking and hiding behind bushes and cursing. Life was not good and I was not happy and Haiko was going to find out exactly how unhappy I was when I finally found him. I had no idea what my average pace was and quite frankly I did not care. I was just praying that Haiko would be in the next crowd of people and that my stomach would stop giving me such a hard time.
When I got to Authers seat I saw a good friend of mine, Angela Fourie, supporting on route. I immediately stopped to give her my very sad story about how terrible I was feeling and that I wanted to bail. “Nonsense” she told me. “just wait, I have a whole bag of pills for runner problems and I’ll sort you out”. Out popped 1 x immodium and she shoed me off on my way. The next 20km’s didn’t seem to go much better and I was still determined to bail as soon as I found Haiko but somewhere between Drummond and Campersdown something changed. I can remember walking and thinking “This was a really kak idea, no pun intended. Where is Haiko? He is going to be in serious shit when I see him, no pun intended again.” At this stage I was seriously dehydrated and exhausted but too scared to drink or take any gels because of my stomach. When I passed a water table they were handing out potatos and I don’t know what possessed me but I decided that the race couldn’t get worse so I’d take a potato and to hell with it, I’d wash it down with some energade. All the advice of not trying anything new on race day suddenly seemed irrelevant.
Amazingly I started to feel better, in fact I started to feel fantastic. I’m not sure if it was the immodium, the potato or the Engerade but I was floating, I was flying, I was on top of the world.
I was pretty sure the Bill Rowan was off the table but it didn’t matter because life felt good again. I was at the Comrades and I was going to finish and that was enough. I finally saw Haiko in Campersdown. I stopped and gave him my sob story and he gave me a protein shake and told me that I could still make the Bill Rowan if I really pushed myself. After that Haiko really made up for missing the first 60km’s of the race. I saw him another three times between then and the end and each time he told me that I was going to make it and that fuelled me further. I felt so strong. I crossed the finish line in 8h33min feeling as though I could run further and became the very proud owner of a Bill Rowan medal. But more importantly that Comrades taught me to never give up despite the odds. I had come so close to giving up. If Haiko had been at the side of the road earlier I would have quit and I would never have realised that I could have achieved my goal despite the difficult patch I was going through. After that I decided that I would never give up on something again because I would rather finish a task after giving it my best and know that my best wasn’t good enough then wonder what could have happened if I had just continued.
Part 3: The next link in my Comrades chain
The absolutely insane idea of running a silver Comrades time (sub7:30) came about a week after receiving my Bill Rowan medal. We had spent a wonderful week at the coast with the kids and were commencing the long drive home. I had found my Bill Rowan medal in the cubby hole where I must have put it after the race and was admiring how beautiful it was with the bronze centre and silver border. “I wonder if a silver medal medal actually looks better than this one?” I thought. And then a crazy idea occurred to me and I said to Haiko’ “Do you think that it would be possible for me to run a silver Comrades?” In Haiko’s world everything is possible so he replied “Yes ofcourse you can”. And so the quest towards silver began.
I knew that running a silver medal was not going to happen by itself and that I would have to start focusing a little more on my training. I made two very important changes which made the world of difference to my running. The first was to invest in a Garmin watch. Being able to tell how fast I was running at any moment and get an accurate measure of the distance made a huge difference. I had never thought of keeping a log book before but now I had a log book in the form of Garmin connect and being able to analyse my splits in races and see my improvement was very motivating. The second change was introducing speed work into my training. I introduced a hill session each week which consisted of 10x 200m on a fairly steep hill which I would run up as hard as a could and I would run a race each weekend as fast as I could manage.
Whilst huffing and puffing up the 200m hill on my block I met one of my favourite training buddies Mariske Fouche. The hill was outside her house and I think that after watching me in fascination for a couple of weeks and deciding I must be insane she decided it might be a good idea to join me. She also had 2 Comrades medals to her name and It was great having someone to train with. We diligently did our hill work and pushed hard each weekend at our races. Occasionally we would replace our hill session for a track session or a time trial when things got monotonous and once in a while would miss it all together but overall I think we were pretty consistent and both saw massive improvement in our running that year. In 2011/2012 my half marathon PB improved from a 1hr48min to 86min and my marathon from 3hr35 to 3hr05. When Comrades came around I was confident I could run a sub 7hr30.
That Comrades was completely different to my previous two. I had a well structured plan and I was not going to deviate from it. I had set my Garmin to alarm if I went too fast or too slow and to beep every km, chime every 30min and perform some sort of whistle at 10km intervals. I had practised eating banana’s and potato’s and had learnt the names and positions of all the big 5 hills down to Durban. I was ready.
Rarely in ultra running do things go according to plan but this year they did. I met up with a great friend and training buddy, Leon Baker, on route. He was also aiming for a silver and we ran together for a while chatting, joking and passing time. I kept telling him to slow down until after fields hill as that is what the great Bruce Fordyce had written in his advice on the Nedbank running club site and, if anyone ever doubted it, Bruces advice was correct. We held back and both managed to comfortably obtain our Silver medals. I finished in 7hrs16min and Leon in 7hrs25min.
Something changed in me that day. Before I never believed I could be a great runner. It was all about enjoyment and self fulfilment and competing against myself but suddenly I had this longing to be a top runner. I could see the top ten womans names on the same page as mine on the results list and I started to imagine how amazing it would be to get into that top 10, to have a Comrades Gold medal. It was something that had never even entered my wildest dreams a few years before when just being a Comrades finisher seemed like an impossible task. And yet it suddenly became something I longed for and obsessively began to think about. One second the idea seemed crazy and the next second it seemed crazy to not try. Again I asked Haiko if he thought it was possible and again he knew that I could achieve anything I wanted to. That was about as much reassurance that I needed to move forward in my journey.
Part 4: Searching for Gold
When in doubt as to how to train for Comrades who do you call? Nine time Comrades winner Bruce Fordyce. I was determined to figure out what I needed to do to get to gold and after retyping my email to Bruce about five times I finally pushed send. I almost fell off my chair when his reply hit my inbox. He suggested meeting in person at Café Fino at Wits and I was truly blessed to get first hand advice from such a legend.
It was also through Bruce that I was introduced to another legend Nick Bester who had also previously won the Comrades Marathon and was the manager of the Nedbank Running club. Nick offered me a spot on the Nedbank Green Dream Team (the elite team within the Nedbank running club) and I was truly on cloud nine. I felt a little out of place being on the same team as running legends such as Rene Kalmer, Christine Kalmer, Irvette van Blerk, Myrette Filmalter and later Charne Bosman who are far more talented than I am but it also made me determined to prove that I did belong there and to get that top 10 position in Comrades.
I think that Mariske had now decided that this was a little bit more then she was bargaining for in terms of a training partner and whilst we still remain great friends and have to occasional jog together my main training partners became Leon Baker and Duane Newman. We introduced a Wednesday long run and lots more in terms of speed work and I was consistently sore but determined to push through at all odds.
That year I learnt a valuable lesson. More is not necessarily better. About 8 weeks before Comrades 2013 I was diagnosed with a stress fracture and a broken heart. The stress fracture was caused from a combination of overtraining, and some core weakness and muscle imbalance from my previous pregnancies. After Dr de Jager from the Tuks High Perfromance centre (HPC) diagnosed my injury she suggested a full 6 week rest and then a rehab program at the HPC to correct the muscle imbalance and strengthen my weak core. I was heart broken that I would not be able to run Comrades that year.
I watched Comrades on TV with a heavy heart that year but was thrilled to see one of my hero’s Charne Bosman come in 5th position and claim the title of 1st South African woman to cross the line. Charne has a very impressive running history from the track to the marathon and had decided a year before to move up to the ultra distance. She came second at the 2 oceans ultra marathon on her first attempt at the distance and had now, on her first Comrades, claimed 5th position. It was highly inspirational to watch her performance that year and I knew that I wouldn’t give up. I would train smarter and fix my weaknesses and be back in the next year to achieve my dream.
Part 5: Finding Gold
To say I became a little obsessed in my vision over the last year would be a massive understatement. I ate, breathed and slept Comrades marathon. Haiko would politely nod and smile as just about every word out of my mouth had something to do with the Comrades. The days, weeks and months became a blur of work, kids, strengthwork, homework, sports massage and plenty of running in the dark to fit it all in. But a little bit of night running never killed anyone, in fact, it felt kind of awesome to be out there training in the dark dreaming of my future success.
And I had so much support. It was unbelievable to have so many people believing in me.
I made the decision to stop speed work and focus on building a base to avoid getting injured again. The idea was to introduce speed work from March which I believed was plenty of time to get enough speed before Comrades which was on the 1st of June. I just wanted to get to the start line uninjured to give myself my best shot at doing well.
All was going well and by the end of March with just a few weeks of speedwork I ran a PB half marathon and was feeling very confident. Charne Bosman had also asked me to join her on a 3 week training camp in April and I was certain that after training with someone of such a high calibre I would cruise through Comrades.
Training camp however, sounds a lot more glamorous then it really is. I took all my annual leave and pleaded with my boss to get there. In order to make sure that my work was in order before I left I spent the 2 weeks before incredibly stressed out. I arrived in Graskop ,with my kids and Haiko, feeling exhausted and ready for well deserved break from work and the stresses of everyday life. When Haiko and the kids went back to Pretoria I was kind of looking forward to the peace and quiet. About 2 days later I was missing them like crazy.
Training with Charne was awesome though. She has so much experience and is so willing to share her knowledge and I was truly grateful for the opportunity to train with her. What I learnt though a week later is that it is silly to run on someone elses program when your own program is working for you. About a week after we arrived I got a pain in my calf a few cm’s below the site of my previous stress fracture. I rested a few days but when I tried running again it was still there so I rested some more. We went back to Pretoria and I visited the physio’s at the HPC. It would start to feel better but every time I ran again it would return. I went to the Chiro, I did stretch therapy, it felt better, then I would run and it was back. At this point I was convinced it was a stress fracture but I didn’t want to find out for sure. I was determined to run Comrades anyway, even if I had to hop to the end. I wasn’t going to miss the race for the second year in a row especially not due to the same injury.
For those five weeks before Comrades I was a monster and I truly do apologise to anyone who crossed my path during that period. I was angry although not quite sure at who. I was determined and frustrated. I didn’t care and would run Comrades anyway. I did care because I had sacrificed so much to be back at where I was a year before – injured. And everyone was made to suffer with me, especially poor Haiko. When he told me I could still do it, I snapped at him that he was putting pressure on me to achieve the impossible, when he said it’s okay if I didn’t, I cried that he didn’t believe in me. I don’t know how he or anyone else actually didn’t lock me up in a sound proof, padded room or at least duct tape my mouth shut to stop the whining. I really am grateful for their patience.
And then Haiko solved my problem, with an audio book which we listened to on the way to Durban. It written by Scott Jurick, an incredible ultra trail runner who had won the Western States 100 Miler numerous times and held many other titles and course records at some of the worlds most difficult endurance trail running events. In the book he spoke of a time when 44 miles into the Western States 100 Mile race he had caught his foot between rocks and had literally heard the pop as he ripped the ligaments in his ankle. He had a choice to stop or continue, but chose to continue. He ran the next 56 Miles with a busted ankle and still won the race. That put it into perspective for me. You can chose to run through pain and I wanted to run badly enough that I was willing to risk needing three months or more to recover after the race. Whatever pain the race would bring I was mentally ready for. I would push through it and I would not give up.
Okay, so I’m not a complete martyr and I did something before the race that no runner should ever do but at that point I was desperate enough to try anything. I stuck TransAct patches all around my calf and then pulled on compression socks to keep them in place. I then popped a myprodol and did what every runner should do in that situation. I prayed for my leg, my kidneys and my dream.
I was still praying when I stood at the start line. I was scared but kept reminding myself to be grateful that I was at the start line. I may not be uninjured but at least I was there. I sang Shosaloza louder then the African men around me. I bellowed out the national athem, I felt tears in my eyes through Chariots of fire, the cock crowed, the gun fired and then we were off. My leg felt okay but I was infinitely aware of the TransAct patches and Myprodol I had taken to mask the pain. I chose to put those thoughts and any possible pain at the back of my mind and ignore it and I did.
A couple of kilometres into the race I realised I had a problem when I was huffing and puffing up Polly’s. A couple of girls I had met at previous races who were also top 10 contenders, but whom I had previously believed I was stronger then, were ahead of me and one of them, Salome Cooper, was deeply engrossed in a conversation with another runner. The fact that she was having a conversation and I was struggling to catch my breath made me realise that whilst I was fighting with my injury over the last five weeks I had probably lost a bit of fitness. We reached the top of Polly’s and the relief of the downhill that followed. I increased my speed on the downhill and decided to take a risk. All the advice I have read about the Comrades down run highlights being cautious on the down hills. I however knew that I was losing too much time on the ups and my only chance of getting into the top ten was to hammer the downs and hope for the best.
This decision wasn’t completely uncalculated. Over the last year I had been working with a Biokinisist at the HPC by the name of Candice Attree. We had spent hours working on strengthening my quads over the year and I knew they were pretty well equipped to handle the brutal downhill running of Comrades. I ideally would have preferred to be more cautious on the downs but I was struggling to go under a 5:30/km pace on the up hills and had initially planned to average 4:30/km to guarantee myself a spot in the top 10. So I decided to go all in and take the downs at about a 3:40/km pace to make up the time I was losing on the ups and to deal with the consequence of this when I had to.
When I got to half way I was slightly behind my pace and my Garmin was measuring an average pace of 4:33. I knew my actual average would be a little slower than this as I forget to take the shortest route and seem to add a km onto my Comrades distance. But God had answered my prayers around my leg and although I didn’t want to concentrate too much on it in case I did feel pain again, it wasn’t bothering me at all. My fitness levels on the other hand were concerning me greatly as I felt extremely tired but I just kept telling myself to not think about being tired. “Just think about moving forward. Get up the up hills somehow and then use the down hills to make up time, and keep moving forward.”
Haiko was once again incredible on route and a good friend of mine Olga Firsova had joined him to help with the kids. Each time they saw me they told me how strong I was looking and despite not feeling strong it felt good to know that I wasn’t looking completely shattered… yet.
Somewhere after Pinetown I saw the bright Orange of Zola Budd’s Hooters outfit and to be honest I was shocked and incredibly impressed at the same time. I mean, she is 17 years older than I am and was ahead of me for over 75km’s of the race. She is a truly amazing athlete. She was walking and given the fact that I felt pretty shattered myself I decided that this would be a good time to be star struck and the huge fan of hers that I am. So I walked with her for about 100m repeating over and over in that what must be an annoying fan kind of way, how awesome and inspirational she is and yes… what a huge fan I am. But despite being such a fan, she was still another female athlete fighting for a gold medal and I wasn’t going to hang around being star struck this close to the end. So I put on my best attempt at the “I am feeling strong running style” and continued towards Durban.
It was now beginning to get really tough. My body was screaming “NO!”. My mind was screeching “YES!”. “I can’t” said my legs. “YOU WILL” answered my mind. It was taking longer and longer to get to the next km board but I was refusing to give up. My quads were starting to cramp and it was hot. I was thirsty but felt nauseous. I wanted to stop. I wanted the gold medal more. I was fighting with every step.
I had been following a run walk strategy throughout the race walking for about a minute every 30 minutes but now I knew that the 30 minute intervals were too long a period for my mind to keep focused. At 9kms to go I decided to walk every 3km’s to the end. “Just 3 sets of 3km’s” I told my weary body. With 6km to go I took a walk and then mustered up the courage to run again. I was relieved I had started running again when a motorbike pulled up next to me and I realised I was on TV.
So let’s be honest, no one really wants the country to see them when they are feeling completely shattered and taking every ounce of will power to keep moving forward, but then again, it is pretty cool to be on TV so I put on the most elegant running style I could muster after having run close to 85km and tried to hang in there. I am aware that it looked more like a painful shuffle but I was sore and tired. So sore and tired in fact that when it came to my next walk break with 3km’s to go I thought “To hell with the TV camera, I’m taking this walk, I deserve it” and so I walked on national TV , despite the shame I knew I would feel when I had recovered after the race.
When I crossed the finish line in 6th position to the announcement that I was not only a gold medallist but also the first South African woman home it was almost unbelievable.
Each Comrades I have run has taught me a valuable life lesson and this one was no different. I now truly understood that your mind is your biggest asset on an ultra. My mind had literally forced my body to keep on going. I may not be the most talented athlete but I am determined and that is why an ultra marathon allows me to do things I wouldn’t be able to over a shorter distance. You don’t have to be the fastest or the lightest to do well in an ultra marathon. You just have to believe and be willing to endure some temporary suffering for a sense of achievement and a sense of knowing that you came out of it a tougher, stronger person then before. The ability of an ultra to make you realise that you can do more then you thought was possible, you can go further, you can run harder, is what makes you realise that whatever life throws at you can be conquered.