“I wasn’t meant to be here.”
That’s what I thought as I stood on the start line of the Comrades Marathon 9,000 miles away from home in Durban, South Africa.
And in truth I wasn’t, this was never meant to be on the cards.
But despite everything I’d made it and here I was on the start line of the largest and oldest ultramarathon in the world.
Not bad for a formerly overweight, out of shape asthmatic who used to get out of breath standing up or climbing the stairs.
It had been another busy year in terms of training. I’d come out of the back of Chester Marathon in October 2017 with a time of 3:18 which bumped me up to seeding group B in Comrades (less traffic to manoeuvre round at the start).
January saw me take part in the Inskip Half Marathon and bagging a course PB of 1:31 in nasty conditions weather wise.
A return to Blackpool and the Great North West was February’s offering and a time of 1:34 in not too bad conditions for that time of year.
March saw a return to Lancaster and the Trimpell 20 for a time of 2:41. The last few miles were disgusting as it took us into some of the heaviest winds I’ve ever ran in.
The end of March also saw me take part in the Hell on the Humber 9 hour endurance race, The Mad Hatter, knocking out 48 miles back and forward along the Humber Bridge in the allotted time it was another confidence booster leading into Comrades.
Manchester Marathon was up again in April and it was one of my most comfortable marathon runs ever. Finishing in a time of 3:24 and with consistent pacing throughout it gave me great confidence going into the back end of my training for Comrades.
Back to Lancaster to take part in the Three Bridges 10k managing 42 minutes and 34th overall in what was a slight change to the course.
May was all about taking it easy, finishing off my training and making sure I made it to South Africa in good nick. So nothing silly that month and no races for a change.
And so it was that I flew out from Newcastle on Tuesday 5th June en-route to Dubai for my layover. Flying is not my bag so it was a case of zipping up the man suit getting some films on and laying back and trying not to think about the fact I was 34,000 feet up in the air.
After landing in Dubai and clearing passport control I had about seven hours in the hotel to try and get some shut eye and rest up before the next part of my journey to Durban.
10 hours later I was back in the sky and experiencing 8 hours of turbulence, (Pass the sick bag). Again it was a case of trying to forget where I was and just chilling and watching some films.
Having landed in Durban it was a bit of a queue to clear passport control. Here I met a fellow runner called Eamon as we were both heading in the same direction we ended up sharing a taxi into Durban.
I’d managed to book into the Hilton for the first night so it was a case of grabbing a bite to eat and then a refreshing dip in the outside pool before bedding down for the night.
Thursday was expo day. But first it was a trip to the local supermarket to buy some much needed toiletries. I’d packed light with hand luggage only so needed to stock up on body spray, sun cream and the like.
Once I’d gotten that out of the way I headed to queue up for the expo to get my number and visit the novice tent to find out what I’d gotten myself into. In truth I already knew, I’d studiously looked at books, websites and videos of the route so I had a good idea of what was coming up.
In the queue for my number I started chatting to a couple from Australia, Steve and Molly, it was a nice little chat as we were queuing for some time and it was nice to get to know some people as I was out there on my own and I’m fairly introverted at the best of times.
We ended up grabbing our packs and going our separate ways. I had a wander around the expo then headed back to the hotel to pack up and move to my next hotel near the beach.
As it was, a while later, I ended up back at the expo to buy some memorabilia and pay for my bus tour ticket. I ended up bumping into Steve and Molly again and we swapped contact details in an effort to meet up again later at some point.
I headed back to my new hotel, The Bellaire Suites, and got sorted for my first Durban run. A warm 4 mile outing in the hottest part of the day to see how I would cope with the heat come race day.
There was a local supermarket around the corner from the hotel and my room had a fridge so I stocked up on water, fruit and food for the next few days and probably saved myself a fortune on dining out.
The sun literally drops out of the sky around 6pm and that’s it until around 5am the next day. I’d been advised not to head out on my own once it was dark so I ended up in the hotel room watching movies and doing some yoga.
Friday was my official do nothing day. I started the day on the top floor of the hotel eating my breakfast while looking out at the beachfront and the rising sun.
It was a case of just mooching about today, heading to local markets, getting a coffee or two and then heading out for a two mile trot late afternoon before heading to the supermarket to stock up on a few more things.
Saturday I was meant to be going on my bus tour. It would have meant getting up at 5am and missing breakfast at the hotel. I would have been cramped in a bus for hours on end and I wasn’t looking forward to it. The night before I’d watched a video by coach Lindsay Parry who suggested that one of the ways to destroy your Comrades was by getting on a bus tour the day before the event. I’d come too far to jeopardise it so I decided that I was going to have a lie in and get up for breakfast and swerve the bus tour entirely. I’d have loved to have done it but very soon I was going to get very acquainted with the route anyway and I’d seen enough videos to get a feel of it. I knew where the cut-offs were, I knew where to push and where to take it easy. Sunday was going to be a long enough day as it was without making Saturday a long day too.
I ended up catching up with Steve and Molly and lazing around by the pool at their hotel and having a good chat about life in general before heading back to the hotel to rest (I doubted I’d sleep and I was right).
Steve arrived at the hotel around 1am and we headed off to catch the bus to Pietermartizburg and the start line. Being complete novices we were on the first bus out at 2am. The bus was cramped and hot and the ride was bumpy but everyone was in good spirits.
Arriving at Pietermaritzburg at 3am we still had a few hours to go before the start at 5:30am. We had a quick chat and wished each other luck before heading to our respective pens.
Around 4:30am the music started and I was ushered into my pen (pen B). The pens soon filled up and were fit to bursting and then 10 minutes before the countdown began.
All of a sudden the crowd burst into song. It was such a moving rendition of a song that I later found was an old folk song called Shosholoza (which translated means ‘Keep going move faster on those mountains’).
And there was little old me, in floods of tears. It had taken a lot of hard work and sacrifice to get here and this song just summed it all up and absolutely hit me in the feels. Chariots of Fire was up next and my tears were still streaming.
“I wasn’t meant be here,” I thought to myself. “But I am and I’m going to bloody nail it.”
The cock crows which signals the start.
Legend has it that in 1948 on the morning of his eighth Comrades local runner Max Trimborn couldn’t contain his nervous energy on the start line. He cupped his hands, filled his lungs and let out a rooster crow. The runners enjoyed this so much that it became a tradition for the next 32 years and was then caught on tape and preserved for future events.
We were off.
I was off.
The last 9 years had built up to this moment, I was starting the biggest race of my life and I had 12 hours to get back to Durban knocking out just shy of 57 miles.
A mass of around 20,000 bodies lurched forward into the dark. Half of them would make it back and half of them would miss cut-offs along the way ending their race. It was up to me to be in the half that would finish the race.
The start took me through Pietermartizburg and up to Polly Shorts for the first 10k then down Little Pollys and the first cut off. Excited a bit at the start I was going a touch faster than I’d wanted hitting the first cut off at Lion Park in 1:26 a full fifteen minutes earlier than planned.
The next 10k was a touch of climbing but nothing drastic as of yet. I was en-route to Camperdown and Cato Ridge and the second cut-off just shy of 60km to go. Again it was a touch faster than I’d planned. The plan was to get here about 3:20 but I ended up hitting it at 2:49. I was definitely going too fast and I had time to play with so I made a concerted effort to slow myself down.
The next cut off was half way at Drummond. The cut off was 6:10 and it was the one I’d worried about the most. As it was, I needn’t have worried. As I made my way through Harrison Flats and Inchanga I ended up at the cut-off in 4:16. I had just under two hours to play with.
Once past halfway I was approaching Arthur’s Seat. The Arthur in question is Arthur Newton 5 times a Comrades winner. Legend has it that you doff your cap, leave some flowers and say “Morning Arthur” and he’ll see you right for the rest of the race.
With about 24 miles to go I approached Kearsney College where the Kearsney boys all the lined the streets and clapped every runner. This was such an emotional section of the run and yet again brought a tear to my eye.
Not long after this I happened upon new found friend Molly who also gave me a much needed cheer and caught a few photos of me.
The downhill part of the run was coming up and I had to make sure I was clever and not blow my quads by hitting it too hard with 30k to go. I hit the next cut-off at Winston Park in 5:54 sitting a good two hours ahead of the 12 hour cut off.
The next 10k took me through Kloof, Fields Hill and then into Pinetown for the next cut off. I arrived here in 7:16 still around 2 hours ahead of the 12 hour target.
I was aware that there was still a bit of climbing to do with Cowie’s Hill coming up but there was also still a fair bit of descent into Westville. I had one cut-off left of 50 miles which was at 45th Cutting.
I ended up hitting the final cut off in 8:53 still a good two hours ahead of the 12 hour cut-off. Whatever happened between now and the finish there was every chance I would definitely make it. I’d trained for a finish of 11 hours with an outside goal of 10:30. Both goals were more than achievable I just had to keep moving.
6 miles to go.
I was excited but still cautious. There was a still of lot of climbing to do and the heat had started to kick in which was causing me to fatigue a bit. I had 50 miles in my legs at this point and I’d never gone past 52 in anger before so the final stretch looked to be uncharted territory.
Into Berea and a few climbs into Durban proper and suddenly I was there. 2 miles to go and Moses Mabhida stadium was in sight. The walking had kicked in a bit more at this point and I’d all but given up on a sub 10 hour finish, my watch had also lost battery life at this point so I had no clue what time I was on or where I was in terms of mileage.
It seemed to take forever to get to the stadium when, with around 1km to go, a spectator shouted “7 minutes to 10 hours, the 10 hour bus is just behind you brother…move, move, move.”
A switch turned on inside and suddenly my legs were moving again. I don’t know where the energy came from but I wasn’t just running I was sprinting. My brain was trying to work out what was going on but my body had taken over at this point and I was flying. I have no idea how many people I overtook in that last kilometre but it was a fair few.
I hit the approach to the stadium and entered the tunnel into the stadium for the final 400m.
I don’t think I’ll ever experience anything like it again but the crowd roared, not just for me, but for everyone who was filing in one after the other. The afterburners were on and I was all out sprinting to the finish line.
I crossed in 9:56.58. Sub ten hours and more than I had ever dreamed of. My pace was consistent throughout and I’d consistently been 2 hours ahead of every cut off. I was chuffed to bits.
As I crossed the line a guy grabbed my hand and said, “What a finish boy, first time eh? Well, we’ll see you next year for your back to back.”
I’d done it, the dream was realised. It didn’t seem possible a few years ago, it seemed totally out of reach but hard work and determination got me here and got me to the finish line. But it wasn’t just me that had made sacrifices and helped me get here. My family (and particularly my wife) had put as much work and support into this moment as I had. Harky had gotten me into the best shape of my life, Alison the osteopath had kept my body in tip top condition and Wes had given me invaluable advice to get me through training and to the start line. I am so lucky to have a great support network of people willing me to achieve.
Molly caught me at the finish. I was a mess, I’m not sure what I said for the next half an hour but I’m guessing it wasn’t coherent.
I grabbed a coffee, had a little cry as I looked at my medal and sat down and got my shit together while I waited for Steve to get in.
Steve arrived around 50 minutes later and once he’d composed himself we sat down and discussed how disgusting, brutal, emotional and exhilarating it all was in equal measure.
We sat down for the next hour and watched the final seconds to the 12 hour cut off. It was as good as watching any film. We saw some runners enter the stadium at full sprint, willing them to get to the finish line in time, the 12 hour clock hit and the gun went off. A line of volunteers flooded the finish line and nobody would cross from here. Some sprinters collapsed where they were having given it their all to reach the end they’d missed out by mere seconds. One runner was fingertips away, having missed out by a second they were about to get a moment of infamy by being interviewed as the first to person to miss the cut off.
We were unable to get a taxi back so we had to walk two miles back to the hotel (not ideal). I ordered the biggest pizza from the menu and, no sooner had it arrived and I’d taken a couple of bites, the next thing I knew it was first thing in the morning and I woke with the cold pizza next to me.
It was time for reflection.
I hadn’t needed to get to Pietermaritzburg so early.
I was a bit too rapid in the first 30 miles.
I was also pleased I’d knocked in so much hill training back at home.
But at the utmost I was pleased that I’d put myself out there and gotten to know a few people. It definitely doesn’t come easy to me.
If you don’t respect Comrades it will both humble and destroy you in equal measure.
A week later, back at home, I was telling everyone I probably wouldn’t return for the up run.
A couple of weeks later I felt like Jack from Lost telling all of his compatriots, “WE HAVE TO GO BACK!!!”
With a back to back medal on the table I suppose I have to…
See you next year Durban…probably.