Zen

‘It’s like finding out there was a place on the other side of the world that holds the true roots of your sport’ – Scott Dunlap (trail runner)

Howzit? Where do I start with this Comrades 2018 summary?

This was my 4th Comrades after running previously in 2013, 2014 and 2017. Before beginning I would like to iterate that I realize that I am in a privileged position to be able to not just travel to these races for a few days, but to have the support of friends and family from across the globe in the months of training it takes to prepare for such an event. I am forever in your debt.

For those of you who are newbies here and have not read previous blogs, there is a plethora of information available across the internet on the race, but I will give you a very brief summary before commencing with my personal Comrades experiences. The Comrades Marathon was founded by Vic Clapham in 1921 to establish a memorial to the suffering and deaths of his comrades during the first world war, and their camaraderie in overcoming these hardships. He conceived of an extremely demanding race where the physical endurance of entrants could be put to the test. The constitution of the race today states that one of its primary aims is to “celebrate mankind’s spirit over adversity”. Aside from a break during world war two, the 56-mile race has been run every year between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, alternating each year between the cities, with one year known as the ‘up-run’ from the Durban coastline and the next year the ‘down-run’ from Pietermaritzburg (around 600m above sea-level).

This year was a down-run. Even though the down run does drop overall, it should not be considered an easy run by any means as will be elaborated upon later.

As mentioned before, prior the run itself there was months of training, with 2000 kilometers run since January. This consisted of all three major Israeli marathons, Tiberius (the qualifier), Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the pace-setters and all manner of other runs to prepare yourself for the grueling race-day journey ranging from hours of hill repeats to long distance runs from Modiin to Ashkelon and Jerusalem to Modiin. Whilst running is an individual sport, one must never fail to recognize there is a team behind them, whether it’s going out for run around the block or training the body and mind to cope with the longer distances. My team consisted, of my ever-supportive family, friends in Modiin and elsewhere who assisted by getting up on many an ungodly hour to driving support vehicles (the legend that is Daniel Cohen) to standing by the roadside in the middle of Africa, handing out food to the weary travelers. Orya, I realized it wasn’t the food/drink that was important, it was just seeing a familiar friendly face amongst the masses. Thx so much for putting up with Sam and my shenanigans!

With our chaperone, Daniel Cohen, somewhere between Jerusalem and Modiin.

As well as the running preparation, there was also cross training, nutritional strategy, mental focusing and of course general all-round health to try and maintain in the months leading up to race day. Thankfully I was able to consistently train in the build-up to the race.

On the plane on the way over I met two other Israeli runners, Boaz and Avi and as you can imagine the conversation was riveting (said no one ever). There were 5 Israeli runners who started the race, out of the 8 that registered. This was actually quite an impressive showing, being in 28th position out of the 80 Countries that had runners registered.

The Expo passed by fairy uneventfully, aside from meeting the 9-time winner and Comrades legend Bruce Fordyce. On the Friday before the race I dropped my phone on Umhlanga pier, which whilst frustrating to start with, actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as I felt like I was forced into withdrawal from the digital world we live in, which in a way liberated my mind and helped me focus on the task in hand. As the saying goes, you got to disconnect to connect.

At the expo, with the elevation chart behind us.

The traditional pre-Comrades Shabbat at Chabad did not disappoint with Shlomo and Devorah hosting over 150 people for the Friday night dinner at which Pat Freeman spoke, on the eve of her 30th Comrades finish! After Shabbat, the Shantall family (which I feel part of) and myself made our way up to the Tala Game Reserve, about half an hour from the start. This was a real added bonus to the trip as we were treated to nighttime sightings of Wilder Beast, Impala and Hippos (out of the water). It really was an awesome experience and something I will never forget.

Back to the running…. Here I was toeing the line with over 19,000 other hopefuls who were all champions just for getting to that start line. I actually think people are more surprised by the amount of people that would consider running than distance, rather than the distance itself! That it is beauty of this run, yes, I will refer to it as a run from now on rather than a race because that is what everyone aside from the top 10 are out for, a run with over 70 nations speaking who-knows-how-many languages. All of us united in our common goal and in our common desire to see one another achieve that goal. All of us Comrades.

The pre-race adrenaline was palpable, but still there was the traditional calm before the storm, with runners finding their respective pens, by 5:15, 15 minutes before the start. Shortly after the South African National Anthem was played followed by the Shosholoza (a song traditionally sung to express heartache over the hardship of working in the mines. The word Shosholoza means go forward or make way for the next man, it is used as a term of encouragement and hope for the workers as a sign of solidarity). Shosholoza was enough to give any grown man goosebumps and was followed by the classic Chariots of Fire soundtrack, the Max Trimborn Cock crow, the start canon and … we were off!

So, the first 7K was basically spent trying not to fall over, the thousands of other runners round you, in the near pitch black cold conditions (a nippy 6 degrees at the start). Unfortunately, it was here that I lost Sam, but we did both come out unscathed, which was an achievement in itself. I saw the 7hr30 pace-bus slightly ahead of me as we were leaving Pietermaritzburg and thereby confirmed that I didn’t lose too much time navigating my way through fairly treacherous conditions. I wasn’t too worried at this point anyway as one of the pre-race strategies was too make it to Umlaas Road @ 18K, the highest point of the course and to do a systems check then, before deciding on how to proceed. Yes, the run wasn’t all downhill at all – in fact it had 1,107 m gain, most of which was in the first half and 1,761 m loss.

The 7:30 bus

I got to 18K as the sun was starting to rise, over ‘The valley of 1000 hills’, most of which it felt like we were running :), feeling pretty much in control and still managing to keep tabs with the 7:30 bus. A couple of K later, I discarded my jumper in a charity clothing basket on the roadside and crept up to and put a few feet in between the bus and myself. I wasn’t pushing it, the weather was holding out and I settled into a rhythm and started to disconnect my mind from my body and enter a Zen like state, moving into stillness and peace, knowing this was just the beginning and it was important not to focus on the distance itself, but rather on the overall journey. 90K is a long way and even for me is an inconceivable and not so healthy distance and that is why I try and immerse myself in the experience and enjoy the spiritual side of it.

My nutrition strategies changed towards half way as unfortunately Orya, our seconder for the day, was caught in traffic, caused by the huge turnout. So, I took advice from previous years, and went to eating potatoes and bananas as staple and taking on more isotonic than water to help balance the carbs. The stations are roughly every 2K, so there was no shortage of support both nutritionally, emotionally and physically in terms of a quick leg rub every now and again, if needed.

I got through the half way mark feeling good and having the 4K climb into Inchanga behind me. This was a landmark moment and I decided to push at the same pace, knowing the brutal down-hill would start soon enough, after navigating Botha’s Hill and few more ‘unregistered’ hills. One of the highlights of the race for Jewish runners who were interested in getting a spiritual boost was fast approaching – That would be Shlomo from Chabad participating in his 19th Comrades! Here runners who choose to take a short break are treated to any manner of replenishment ranging from a simple hug, to giving some charity to the famous formula-one style tefillin pit stop, before continuing with the last third and probably the hardest section of the race.  It should be noted that it actually isn’t just Jewish runners who are treated to Sholmo’s hospitality – Shlomo epitomizes the Comrades spirit in that he welcome’s in any runner, regardless of background. A true mensch!  Aside from the Chabad there is support nearly the entire way, and people are always more than happy to strike up a conversation.

A Tefillin pit stop

About 6K after Chabad, whilst starting the ruthless descent of Fields hill, the 7:30 bus caught up with me. Instead of letting it pass I managed to stick with the few people who had remained with it, for a few K. Eventually the leader of the bus, did get the better of me and I slowly let the bus go, knowing that I was onto a good finish if I could keep it going just the way I was. It was about that moment, that ‘potential’ disaster struck. At 76K it happened….

I cramped – The thing about cramp is it comes with zero warning. One footfall you might feel completely fine and the next it is like your legs just stop functioning and not in a nice way. They scream at you to stop doing what you’re doing – they have had enough – they are protesting and quite rightly so. The down-run, whilst statistically quicker is knowing for trashing the legs, with its relentless descents. I had been in this position in a previous Comrades and much earlier on, so at least I could console myself with the fact that I had lasted longer. That was not enough though. I could almost smell the Indian Ocean, which was quite impressive considering the amount of Arnica (A well-known herbal anti-inflammatory) I had covered my legs with. Spurred on by the local support I managed to put one foot in front of the other and even through in agony, begin slowly to try and walk the cramp off. Whilst my legs enjoyed the respite, by mind and my Garmin did not. After about 3K of going through numerous calculations of what time I would finish in, if I carried on the walking or slowed down further, my savior presented himself. Just a simple man on the side of the road doing his bit for humankind and my sanity. Up until this point I had been taking a tablet every hour containing Sodium, Potassium and Magnesium, but quite clearly it was taking too long to have any effect on my system, so when my man started pouring a mountain of salt into my hand I didn’t even hesitate.

This is what cramp looks like

I closed my eyes, shoved the salt in, gulped, almost gagged and then washed it down with some water. It was like I had been reborn – it could have been the direct injection of salt or the shock to the body of just swallowing a mouthful of salt – whatever it was, it did the trick. Within 60 seconds, I was on my merry way again even managing to have a laugh with a few of my fellow runners who had previously seen me pretty much stranded and were asking for some of whatever I had taken. There was another slight glitch with about 6K to go, but after taking a little bit more salt on board the sight of the Moses Madiba 2010 World Cup stadium was a glorious one and helped pull me in towards a storming finish. I never looked back and floated into that stadium. I had thought that a sub-8 was slipping through my fingers and was a bit surprised to see the clock on 7:51 as I was approaching the tunnel into the stadium. It is strange how people are surprised, especially with all the technically around. Maybe it is a case of not quite believing it or having to pinch yourself to confirm it is real. This phenomenon seems to include some of the elite runners as well as Steve Way the 3rd placed male, spoke about how he didn’t realize he was on the podium until informed by his trainer after crossing the line.

The floating finish

The Comrades truly tests your commitment, discipline, desire, determination, physical and mental strength to the upmost and more often than not, your success or failure rests entirely in your hands and how you cope and deal with these elements. I realized that I was more than lucky to have my fate on my side. One of the many thoughts that I had during the run, was of a very special friend and runner, who did not have fate on his side when diagnosed with leukemia last year. It is only through his and his families inspirational super-human resolve, that we are all lucky enough to have him with us and see him grow from strength-to-strength!

What an incredible experience the run was, including me probably doing more for the peace process than any of our politicians have done in the last 20 years, by having friendly exchange with a Palestinian flag waving supporter. Peace!

Performance-wise, I think this tops the lot so far and puts other achievements into perspective. Not that I am not proud of previous accomplishments, but the Comrades experience exposes how running itself unites people from all backgrounds, regardless of race, colour or creed. Those few precious hours on the road, where mankind unites as one. It is comforting to know we have this potential and I pray that we can work on actualizing this beyond the boundaries of the Comrades Marathon.

Job well done – Shlomo, Sam and family and myself
About the Author
Avigdor Book is a mechanical engineer by profession and currently is employed by Tufin Technologies as Director of Training and Knowledge. His main passion lies in marathon and ultra-marathon running, covering much of Israel’s beautiful land, on both road and trail. He has run over 30 marathons, plus many ultra-marathons worldwide and is forever indebted to his wife Alma and their three adoring boys, Boaz, Davey and Amit.
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