Sunday 7 June 2015

I'm on the start line - lets do this!

I'm on the start line - let's do this!

It's 3.50 am on Comrades day, the 31st of May, and my phone alarm trills in the dark. After a reasonable night's sleep I put the kettle on for my instant porridge and start robotically preparing for along day ahead:

  • Factor 50 on all visible body parts - check
  • Vaseline on all invisible but susceptible body parts - check
  • Race kit including numbers back and front - check
  • Shoes with chip attached - check
  • Tog bag with warm dry clothes, recovery drink, painkillers etc - check
  • Comrades hat, sunglasses and Garmin - check

Ready for the off
This is really happening! I just have time to take a quick and nervous piccie for Facebook in the hotel lobby so that my friends and family can see that I'm actually doing it, having kept quiet about the race since I arrived in Durban due to the uncertainty of my injury.

As we leave the hotel it's dark but warm - no need for extra layers or body warmers before the Durban dawn!

As I approach the start area at City Hall there are people everywhere, walking in all directions, and the pens are already full. This is a record year for entries (22,400) so nobody is taking any chances. After a quick text, l find my club mates Olly and Carl siting on the ground at the entrance to pen C. It's so good to see them!

The next 25 minutes or so are spent excitedly chatting, soaking up the atmosphere and waiting for the much anticipated pre race atmospheric music. Olly and Carl are so excited - they video everything. First comes the South African national anthem, then Shosholoza which sends goosebumps over my arms and emotions are riding high in the pens. Then Chariots of Fire followed by Max Trimborn's cock crow which reverberates around the crowd. Suddenly the gun goes off and I shout to Carl to start his watch now rather when we run over the mat - the clock is ticking!

The three of us run together through the streets of Pietermaritzburg in the pre-dawn, taking it all in and reminding each other to take it steady. I have to keep pinching myself that I'm actually running Comrades, after all the uncertainty of the past few weeks. I tell myself - even if I don't finish, at least I had the courage to start.

Running along, we are amazed by the numbers of E and F numbers in front of us - how did that happen? We notice the first kilometre sign and someone shouts 'only 87 to go!'

As early as 4K in, we start the climb to Tollgate. It's surprisingly steep and we decide to start practising our run/walk strategy on this stretch. It feels quite odd to me as I never walk in a race - in the whole of Comrades 2012 I didn't walk a step, ran all the way. However, this time it's different. I'm carrying an injury and I have to be cautious plus the Up run is famously tough - 3000 feet of climb in the first 38K. To run all the hills this early on would be suicidal, according to all the experts.

Everyone is upbeat and the banter begins. A South African lady behind us remarks on my Union Jack vest and asks if she can come and have tea with the queen. Carl winds them up by claiming to Prince Charles' dad - "I'm older than I look!" He says.

The merriment continues onto 45th Cutting and we head into Westville for more climbing and occasional walking on the really steep bits. We are on our way to Cowie's and all of a sudden it's getting light. It's at this point that I lose Carl and Olly. They both opt for a comfort break and I vow to stay on the left hand side so that they can catch me up but I don't see them again in the race.

We run up and over Cowie's Hill and through the first cut off point (17k in & 2 hours 40. I'm through in 1 hour 54. Suddenly the cut off doesn't seem so generous!) We head into Pinetown where it undulates and I look forward to seeing my husband John at our agreed meeting point, Kloof, and proudly showing him that I'm still running. It seems to take along time for that to come and finally I spot him at Gilletts in his Union Jack flag and Almost Athletes vest and stop for a quick hug. It's 25k in and my legs already feel tight and heavy. Is it because I haven't run for 3 weeks I wonder? Or is my running gait different because of the injury? Luckily, the pain in my shin has turned to a low key ache but I definitely don't feel as fresh as I should at this point. Oh well, onwards up Fields Hill with a run/walk strategy as this beauty is steep and long. Botha's Hill beckons and they seem to be as one i.e no break between them. I'm beginning to understand the toughness of the Up run but I don't care because I'm still running.

I've started to adopt a marching strategy so that my walking pace is optimum. Having never done this before, I'm not sure how effective it is with my arms pumping and flailing, but having seen my sister successfully perfect the technique on a recent string of ultras, I feel it's worth a try. I march for the count of 60 and then run again and repeat, and repeat.

Having finally summitted Botha's it's onwards to Drummond, the half way point and 3rd cut off (45K in & 6 hours 15.  I pass through in 4 hours 53). In my mind I know that I can start counting down the Km's from here and I glance at my Garmin for the first time as I pass through the blast of noise at this key spectator spot. A quick bit of mental arithmetic tells me I could finish in under 10 hours if I could keep this pace going but I can't dwell on that. There's still a long way to go and of course more hills. I recall on the Down run my brother telling me at the half way point 'this is where the work really begins' and thinking 'what do you think I have been doing for the past 4 hours?' The thought of another 27 tough miles up ahead in these conditions doesn't exactly fill me with joy!

After Drummond comes a long winding climb to Inchanga which is fairly steep. The walk breaks become longer as the climbs spiral upward and the heat  intensifies. The water stations can't come soon enough and everyone takes 3 or 4 sachets to drink and cool the body. (I find out after the race that they ran out of water for the slower runners at the back and out of coke cups which had to be picked up off the ground and dusted off!) It must be close to 30 degrees and there's no shade anywhere. But, hey, at least I'm still running!

As we approach the top of Inchanga, I check my hand written route notes and ask a couple of South African runners hopefully: 'are we nearly at Harrison Flats?' 'Yes', one of them replies 'but they're not flat!'.

This is the bit that my pre-injury race plan told me I could run and gain some speed if my legs are still relatively fresh. No chance! It's like they've turned to wood and need constant coaxing just to keep going forward.  Run/walk it is then.

The 4th cut off beckons - Cato Ridge (57k in & 8 hours 10. I pass through in 6 hours 31). Phew.

Next we reach the chicken farms, a totally exposed area that literally hums in the midday heat. Not far to Camperdown now where I will see John again. And I know in the back of my mind that, with 25K to go at this point, I WILL make it. Seeing John is emotional and I tell him how much my legs hurt. 'Keep going!' He shouts. 'I'll see you at the finish!' He looks so pleased for me. The barrage of noise at Camperdown lifts my spirits and I try hard to run all the way through this key spectator spot and look strong.

Mentally I need the signs to be below 20K for my count down but they seem to take a long time to change. Between here and Little Pollys I pass Umlaas Road, the highest point and the 5th cut off (68k in & 9 hours 30. I think I'm about 8 hours here) and it's run, walk, run,walk and stay positive. I do not allow myself any negative thoughts or for my mind to drift off because I need to focus on managing the aches and pains and on getting to the finish. I need to get to the top of Pollys before the final cut off so that I'm definitely safe.

Little Pollys is the biggest misdescription I have ever heard. It's huge - and long. More marching and chatting to others who are ALL walking at this point, without exception so I don't feel so bad about that. Like a human snake, bearing upwards towards the sky and in unison we climb. Someone somewhere sings 'when the saints go marching in'. After a slight respite, Polly Shorts rears its ugly head into the sky but I don't care and I'm not intimidated . I just need to get to the top.
On the way up I check my watch and a sub 10 hour finish is still on - just. But I don't know much more running I can do. My legs - and ribs - are painful and stiff and running is increasingly difficult.  The mind strong and willing but the flesh isn't doing a good job of responding at this point. And I'm not alone - everyone around me is struggling to find the last few ounces of energy to keep going up this last hill.

My South African running colleague reminds me that there's no difference in the medal between 9.01 and 11 hours and tells me that even if we walk the whole way from here on in, we are guaranteed to finish. I can't believe it. I'm not hung up about whether it's a 9.59 or a 10.35. Today is about mental toughness and injury management and it will be a bronze medal that up until yesterday I didn't think I had a chance at. Now it's actually happening.

I crest Polly Shorts (80k) in 9 hours 15 and the final cut off here is 11 hours 10. Now I know I'm going to do it!

Made it!
Positivity and determination drives me on through Pietermaritzburg towards the finish. Every kilometre marker takes an age to come - there's even a steep hill here, can you believe it? 4K, 3K, 2K, and finally 1K. I'm within the golden mile and somehow I manage to keep running throughout the last k. The last 800 meters takes us through the entrance to the stadium where I see John shouting and waving. I run into the stadium where the noise is deafening. There are crowds of spectators all around, several deep and they are yelling - including a band of Brits with union jack vests on who are screaming at me. How far is the finish? I can't see it. Oh look it's round this bend and I can see the banner. I've only gone and bloody done it! Arms up, smile and absorb everything girl, you deserve it, I tell myself. It's all over. 10.20.07.

Never have I been so happy to cross a finish line and never have I worked so hard just to get to the finish. I'm one happy lady :)

Post script
You need to have a totally different mindset to take on a race with a profile and distance like Comrades with an injury, especially when you don't know if you will make it to the finish line. It completely changes any game plan you might have had. Comrades is a very tough race - both mentally and physically - and I do feel proud that I have completed it, twice. Thoughts of my supportive friends and loving family got me through the Up run. They never doubted me.

You might wonder why I did it in the face of injury when I knew I would not perform at my best? Because it's Comrades - the ultimate human race and because I love it.

Saturday 6 June 2015

Injury! Is my Comrades dream all over?

I think it's fair to say that my 2015 Comrades experience was not quite what I had planned.

Rewind to November 2014 when the decision was made to have another go at getting to the start of the Comrades Up run. I had entered the 2013 race after my 2012 debut (hoping to get my back to back medal) but sustained a stress fracture to my heel bone early in the year, putting me out of the race. I was disappointed but, thankfully, I hadn't booked flights or hotels!

Training started in early December, working on my base fitness initially and then building up weekly and monthly, following the Bill Rowan plan that I used in 2012 which secured me an 8.09 finish and an age category win.

Compton Downland 40
Races were booked, miles logged and cross training incorporated as the weeks and months ticked by. I worked damned hard and by the end of April had covered almost 1000 miles including 4 marathons (Malta, Stratford, Taunton and London), weekly back to back long runs and two 40 milers, one of which was the Compton Downland 40 at which I was first lady. I think I can say my endurance was improving!

And then came the glorious and much awaited taper. After months of building up the mileage and endurance it was time to attempt to run short and pacey to wake up the legs again. A local 10K was entered which went reasonably well (43.30) but the legs felt odd, particularly the left one which felt a bit unstable for the first mile or so. 'Probably just tiredness' I thought and dismissed it. Gave it a couple of days rest just in case and tried again on a 9 mile run. The legs again felt odd and incredibly tight. This was a warning that I should have heeded! Unfortunately, when everything is tired and achey it's hard to distinguish between fatigue and what might be something more serious. Two days later I could not run at all - my left calf/shin was too painful to run on, even for 2 steps on grass. Panic set in immediately. I only have 3 weeks to go and I can't actually run. This can't be happening to me!

Between that day and flying out to Durban on the 26th of May I did not run a step but iced, elevated and compressed my left calf/shin to within an inch of its life. A great Physio friend, Helen, massaged it, prodded it and pummelled it, assuring me that all would be OK. A second opinion also confirmed that it was probably muscular and didn't seem like a stress fracture. My chiro friend Cat even kindly employed her tuning fork on my shin - certain to cause pain if a fracture exists apparently - and that felt fine. But I was not convinced. Having been given a similar opinion in 2013 which turned out to be a fracture in the end, I was sceptical.

How and why could this be happening now? With 6 months of focused training in the bag, being more fit than I ever have been in my life, flights, hotels etc all booked too. The timing couldn't have been worse.

I went through so many emotions in the days leading up to the race: primarily worry that I wouldn't make the start line of this iconic race which means so much to me and the incredible disappointment and that would follow. My poor family and friends had to put up with me being quite a grump. I'm normally a very positive person, but this had got to me.

I packed my race kit as normal, although my heart wasn't in it. I kept thinking that I might not get to use any of this stuff after all. We flew to Durban and arrived on the Wednesday before Sunday's race. Even during the flight I was religiously applying layers and layers of ibuprofen gel!

Number pick-up
On the Thursday, the expo beckoned. If anyone has ever visited an expo when they aren't running the actual race they will sympathise with how I felt. Instead of feeling excited and wanting to try all the samples and talk to everyone about their Comrades hopes and dreams, I was withdrawn and quiet. Even picking up my number at the International Registration felt flat because I had no idea whether I would be using it. How could injury have taken his magical time away from me? I felt very resentful but tried hard to hide it.

We came upon a Physio stand where taping was taking place. I decided to ask if they could offer me any advice. Joyce, an elderly Physio listened to my tale of woe and declared: 'we can't do much for you here with that injury. you need to go and see sports injury professional Mark Marshall. I rate him incredibly highly - he will sort you out', upon which she proceeded to phone him to see if he could fit me in that day.

An hour later I was on the couch in Mark's office in Durban's impressive Moses Mbhida stadium, with him expertly prodding my calf and shin. Within 10 minutes he delivered the diagnosis: medial tibial stress syndrome - aka shin splint. He explained that the sheath surrounding the shin bone sometimes comes away from the bone under stress, causing inflammation and bleeding inside. He could palpably feel the inflammation in a particular spot about a quarter of the way up. It all made sense - the tightness, the pain, the inability to run.

I hung on his every word, waiting for the verdict as to whether or not anything could be done or whether my fate was sealed.

It turns out Mark has previously lived and worked in the UK. He stayed in Winchcombe which is 10 minutes away from where I live when he worked at Cheltenham and Gloucester hospitals a few years ago. We struck up a rapport and I felt I could trust his knowledge, experience and advice.

He talked about a lower leg brace that apparently you can run with but which is only available in America. Then he mentioned a much respected colleague and radiologist, Dr. Z, who might be able to perform a cortisone injection to bring down the inflammation. He could do it himself there and then, he explained if I was 'a fish and chip runner' but would rather that it was performed with ultra sound for accuracy for 'an athlete like you'. Get me! I think he must have thought I was someone else :)

He reassured me about how common the procedure was and then proceeded to text his colleague asking if he could squeeze me in that afternoon. Within 10 minutes he had a response - if I could get over to the Gateway Medical Centre that afternoon he would do it. This would never happen in the UK!

By this time I was starting to see some light at the end of a dark tunnel. What if it actually worked and I could run? I tried not to get too excited and to contain myself. My husband John remarked that I smiled for the first time since we arrived in South Africa (apparently).

The procedure was pretty quick, not painless I might add, but it was very professional and accurately guided. Dr.Z gave me no guarantees and said normally you should a week for the cortisone to work but said I could possibly try a small jog/walk on the Saturday morning - the day before the race - to see how it felt. I needed to do that rather than turn up on the start line not knowing whether I could run a step. Oh well, let's keep everything crossed then!

At the start of the Durban park run
Saturday morning arrives, as does the Durban North Beach 5K parkrun which is close to our hotel and a perfect test. After all, if I can't run 5K then I can't do Comrades. Simple.

We park up and line up on the promenade outside Mugg and Bean alongside hundreds of runners, joggers and walkers, among them many Comrades hats and even shout outs for previous winners taking part.

Off we go and I'm nervous and scared to start running. After a little walk I break into a jog and I'm running. It certainly isn't fast or fluid but I'm actually running, for the first time in 3 weeks! The shin feels tight with a dull ache but not painful. I can't believe it - how long will it last? I stop after about a mile and walk a bit - just in case. Then back to a slow jog followed by another walk and then running again, enjoying every step. I think I may have cried a bit too. As the park run comes to an end John gives me a big hug and asks "well?" Without hesitation I reply "I'm doing it". And I'm beaming :)).

Wednesday 29 April 2015

Becoming a true Comrades runner

The Up Run

It was a big decision for me to go back and run Comrades again this year.

I last ran this 90K ultra marathon in 2012 - the Down Run - with my brother Ian. You can read my blog about the event here.

For those you who don't know it, Comrades is the oldest and biggest ultra marathon in the world with a wealth of history behind it. The direction of the 90K route alternates each year between the Up Run (Durban to Pietermaritzberg) and the Down Run (Pietermaritzburg to Durban). Both directions are particularly challenging with over 2000 feet of climbing.

With my brother Ian after the finish
I had such an amazing experience and ran so much better than I had ever hoped I would on that day in June 2012. My training had been injury free, I felt fit and well and up for the race and I had my experienced older brother to support me on the route (he's a Comrades Green Number holder, having completed 12 so far). Even the weather was kind (well, to start with anyway) with a cooler, overcast start for those early hours coming out of Maritzberg.

I had set my hopes on a Bill Rowan medal (sub 9 hours finish time) and was therefore surprised and delighted to cross the finishing line in Durban's Kingsmead Cricket Stadium in 8 hours, 9 minutes and 25 seconds - incidentally, only a couple of minutes behind the great Zola Budd and former multiple race winner Bruce Fordyce! And the icing on the cake was winning my age category (something I refused to believe for quite a while when my sister texted me immediately after the race).

It's a common saying amongst ultra runners that you are not a 'true Comrades runner' until you have completed both an Up run and a Down run. Always up for a challenge, I entered again in 2013 for the experience of the Up. Unfortunately, after a couple of months of training through a hard winter I was diagnosed with a stress fracture of the calcaneum (heel bone) and reluctantly pulled out.

Hence why I am going back this year - it's unfinished business! Whether or not I perform as well as I did 3 years ago remains to be seen. I am 3 years older and the challenge of the Up is uppermost in my mind. I'm not a great hill runner yet I can't avoid the notorious climbs of this route - the first 40K is uphill!

I will let you know how the training goes, the big event itself and the recovery. Stay tuned!

My Comrades Down Run journey

This year (2015) I will be returning to South Africa to take on the challenge of the famous 90K ultra marathon Comrades - the Up Run. I will be documenting my training, the race itself and the recovery.

This is how I documented my incredible experience of the Down run in 2012:

Approaching Pine Town
The alarm trills at 3.45 am. I'm already awake however, having slept surprisingly well after a braii and pasta meal and a glass of good South African red. Porridge consumed, we get dropped off at City Hall Maritzburg and fight our way into Pen C. It's cold and dark, the mynah birds chatter in the trees and spirits are running high. At precisely 5.20 am, the tannoy blasts out the emotive 'Shosholoza, ku lezantaba, stimulate siphum Africa' and the crowd joins in, swaying in unison. Chariots of Fire follows - there's a lump in my throat. Suddenly we all move forward, there's a cannon shot and we are off. The journey begins.

The roads in Maritzburg are already lined with supporters, some of them in their pyjamas, and braiis are already lit. Some of the African runners are chanting - its eerie but very emotive. Avoiding discarded bottles and bags, we get into a steady pace, overtaken by the keen and the inexperienced. My brother and running partner, Ian, wonders how many of them will 'come back to us' later in the race.

Just 8K into the race we climb Polly Shortts which gives our first long 'down' and I ponder how cruel this climb must be on the Up run, over 80k in. 

The sun comes up gradually but it is thankfully still cold thanks to a large dark cloud - this is unusual for Comrades apparently but I thank my lucky stars that the impending heat is delayed. The road continues to undulate until we reach the Lion Park where the first of the big crowds are waiting and cheering. 

We are climbing now, heading the the highest point of the run, Umlaas Road. We pass the smelly chicken farms and head for CamperDown where huge crowds can be heard from some way off, and, as arranged, we meet and are cheered on our way by my husband, draped in the Union Jack flag. The signs say 60K to go- we are a third into the race.

Harrison Flats are upon us - a pretty uninspiring and flat landscape but a welcome relief from the climbing and a chance to get into a good rhythm. No time for comfort however as the  Valley of a thousand hills approaches and is true to its name. 

The next big hill will be Inchanga but first we must pass through the tunnel of cheering school children from the Ethenbemi Home. Ian high fives at least half of them and I wonder how long he will keep that level of energy up! The sun is fully up now and the heat is rising as we approach the infamous Inchanga hill. Luckily, it meanders so I can see exactly how long or steep it is. We chug up, fuelled by the Energade station on the lower slopes, and as we traverse yet another bend on our way to the top, it reminds me of Chapman's Peak on the Two Oceans race.  No time for reflection at the top as we head towards Drummond, the half way point of the race. I check my watch for the first time at 26.2 miles, just as a marker, and I note the time: 3 hours 43.

We descend into Drummond to the sound of cheering, clapping and horns. The crowds are incredible and my Union Jack vest produces shouts of 'it's the Queen!' and 'diamond jubilee!'. We are half way in 4.02 and I wonder what the 2nd half has in store.

The climb out of Drummond to Botha's Hill is long and tough. By this stage, many are walking or on the side of the road, getting rubbed down. I remind myself of the training I have done and refuse to daunted by the hard task ahead. We pass Arthur Newton's seat and the Comrades Wall of Honour which I shout out to Ian. 'what do you mean, you have hit the wall?' he mis-hears and runs on regardless. Just as well I am still feeling OK then!

Reaching Alverstone on a long climb, we Start to descend once more and my quads and knees start to complain. I ignore it, knowing full well that there is more torture to come. Onwards we run to Hillcrest and I look forward to seeing John and to counting down the last 30K.

From here on in the going gets tough with a long descent ahead on very tired legs and Ian tells me that that is where the work really begins. What does he think I have been doing for the last 60K - relaxing? From Kloof at the top of Fields Hill we now have 25K to go and in my mind I convert it to miles, separating it into 6 mile chunks. Anything to take my mind off the distance and challenges ahead when my body is tired and my legs sore. But Fields Hill takes no prisoners and the 3 continuous kilometres of jarring descent sends shock waves through my overworked quads and my poor knees. I am reminded that this is where the race is won or lost. Im not going to let it beat me - I can see the sea now so I know I am getting closer.

At Pine town we are 75K in. It's fair to say that there is not much chat going on between us from here on in but a mutual knowledge that we are in the way home. It won't be an easy ride, however, with 3 hills to go and more punishing downs. Onwards we push to Cowie's Hill and the ascent of 45th Cutting at 81K in. We are mostly on the highway now, the camber is cruel and it's very hot with the sun's heat reflecting off the asphalt. Throw in the harsh downhill slope and you have a recipe for smashed quads. Never have mine been so tight and so sore. Block it out !
Ian reminds me that we have Tollgate left to climb on the highway, with just a few Ks to go 'it looks worse than it is' he warns. It looks very long and very steep. What a cruel finale to the race. How to finish off even the steadfast competitor. With a massive effort we make it, and cross the flyover into Durban. I know I only have 3K to go but it seems like a mountain. Ahead of us we see The Golden Mile - adorned by yellow banners. Surely I can keep it going for the equivalent of just 4 times round the track? But ahead of us they open the barriers to let supporters cross and hundreds of people rush into the road from both directions, a constant stream of bodies which we run headlong into. At this point it's about self preservation and we are not about to let anything stand in our way.
Finally, the Sahara Kingsmead Stadium is in sight and we hear the roar if the crowds. It's just a half lap,of the track but it feels like so much more! The noise is deafening, there is colour everywhere and I know I have made it. We cross the line and I am instantly part of Comrades history, Queen of the road and invincible.
In the International tent after the race
For me, it's mission accomplished having run every step and every hill and securing my Bill Rowan medal. To achieve an 8.09 finishing time and 1st in my age category is far beyond my expectations. Comrades has taken everything out of me but given so much back. I will be eternally grateful.