Tue, 4 June 2013 - 12:26 p.m. MT
Credit: Rick Ganzi, M.D. - AMAA - American Running Association
Why do I travel so far to do this race?
That one I think I can answer. I love this race. I love the people, the traditions, the whole experience. When it is held each year, I simply can't imagine anyplace I would rather be or anything I would rather be doing. Same for Boston. To me these are the two most special races in the world.
So on Sunday morning at 5:30AM I took my place alongside 15,000 other runners at sea level in Durban to begin an 87 kilometer (54 mile) run into the mountains to the town of Pietermaritzburg, 2300 feet above sea level. The course includes 7000 feet of elevation gain and 4700 feet of descent. The highest point of the course is at an elevation of 2800 feet and isn't reached until mile 43. I met my running buddy, Stu from Zimbabwe, in Batch A, the first corral. You need to run a standard marathon in 3 hours or better to qualify for Batch A. My London time just barely got me in. So I was there in Batch A with Stu and a whole bunch of really elite looking guys, which included 11 other Americans.
We sang the SA national anthem, we sang Shosoloza, we listened to Chariots of Fire, the cock crowed, and a cannon fired. Off we went. It took us 20 seconds to cross the start. There is no chip time at Comrades, so that 20 seconds was lost for good. Stu and I were both thinking about breaking 7:30 and earning silver medals, but fairly quickly his real intentions came out. He felt he had a chance to break 7 hours, and he looked so strong, I thought he might do it. We ran together at a very quick pace up the early hills. We were averaging about 7:45 per mile, but with the hills, I felt like I was doing speedwork.My breathing was labored, and I knew that that effort was too much for me. As much as I enjoyed seeing and talking with Stu, I knew I could never hold that pace for 54 miles, so 3 miles into the race I shook his hand and wished him well. My pacer was gone and I was on my own.
I settled into a more comfortable pace of about 8:30 per mile up those hills. My breathing relaxed, and I was able to start eating and drinking. Hydration would be key. The temperature was warm from the start, 65 degrees, warming up to 83 degrees with full African sunshine later in the race, the hottest Comrades in 37 years! As if the hills, the distance, and the altitude weren't enough, we needed one more variable to make it even more challenging! I realized early that silver was not going to be possible in such conditions, so I stayed in my comfort zone, ignored my watch and ran by feel. If it got hard, I would slow down a bit. If it felt easy, I would speed up. And I never missed a water stop, drinking something at all 49 aid stations!
Everyone in Batch A sped past me. Most of Batches B & C passed me as well. Many of the Batch D runners caught me, and by mile 10 I was running in a field of mostly Batch D runners. To qualify for Batch D, runners need to complete a standard marathon between 3:40 and 4:00. The pace we were running was faster than that, uphill, on a hot day, in a race more than twice as long. The people around me were crazy. They had no chance of holding that pace. By mile 10 I would estimate there were 2000 to 3000 runners ahead of me.
We began climbing some of the Big Five named hills: Cowies Hill, no problem, Fields Hill, damn that's steep!, but I cut my pace back and was fine, Botha's Hill, also very steep, and the carnage began. We were only 20 miles into the race, and people were suffering. Almost everyone was walking up Botha's hill, but I kept running, and I started passing people. At the one marathon mark, I was at 3:42, and I had climbed over 3000 feet. Shortly later, I was 3:49 at the halfway, just 4 minutes off from silver pace, but I would not be baited. I knew it would be craziness to try to make up those 4 minutes, so I stayed in my comfort zone and let the minutes fall where they may.
Shortly past halfway, I heard a loud call of "Rick". I looked to my left, and there was Stu in the medical tent with his shoe off having his foot examined. I screamed "F***!" very loudly and offered Stu my condolences. Stu's doc said "Well that fellow seems rather keen for you to continue". :-) I wanted to pass every runner in front of me, but not Stu! Seeing him injured was hearbreaking. It turned out to be a stress fracture in his foot, and he walked the final 20 miles on it to finish his 19th Comrades. Maybe not the smartest decision, but I'll never question Stu's toughness or courage!
Shortly later I began climbing named hill #4, Inchanga, and the climate noticeably changed. The sun was now high in the sky and there was no escaping it. It felt like we were running under a heat lamp. Runners were suffering in the heat, and the carnage was worse than on Botha's Hill. The walkers were no longer walking, they were limping or stopping to stretch, and almost everyone looked really bad. I kept my stride going and passed a steady stream of people. The temperature had reached the 80's, and a hot, humid wind started to blow from the north. Normally, I would welcome wind on a warm day, but this wind was not a cooling wind, and soon it would turn into a persistent headwind, gusting over 30 miles per hour. Great! Just what we needed, one more environmental challenge! We would cover the final 20 miles into this powerful headwind. Drafting off others was futile, because even if I could find someone going my pace, they would break stride and walk shortly later, causing me to nearly crash into them. Fortunately, the wind aided me in my effort to ignore my splits because all the mileage signs had blown over and were either on their side or missing entirely. Remarkably, during these miles I saw an African woman carrying a huge cooler on her head. It must have weighed 30 pounds or more, but she balanced it on her head effortlessly with no hands as she walked into the stiff wind. Amazing!
By mile 40, I reached the town of Camperdown, and I was still running. Normally by this point in the race my legs are done, they feel heavy, and I feel like I am running in wet concrete, but not today! My legs still felt good. Normally the final 15 miles seem to take forever as minutes feel like hours, but again not today. The final miles kept clipping by much like the early miles. I continued to use my breathing as my guide, and I held a pace of 8:45 per mile. I kept drinking and eating and kept pouring lots of cold water over my head. I think I ate about 10 potatoes covered in salt, two bananas, three gels, and I drank a lot of sports drink and Pepsi. The real race may have been to see if my stomach could keep up with my sweat loss! By this point the Batch C & D runners had all fallen behing me, and I was running with pretty much all Batch A & B runners, and I was passing most of them.
With six miles to go, we reached the most difficult hill, Polly Shorts. I cut my stride way back but continued running. Everyone else was walking. It wasn't easy, but it didn't feel nearly as hard as it has in other years. I continued passing dozens of runners. After cresting Pollys with just 4 miles to go, there are only 5 or 6 killer hills left before the finish. I took them all in stride and was actually enjoying my run through Pietermaritzburg. The spectators were so encouraging and had been all day. I once again wore my USA shirt, and I must have gotten thousands of "Go America", "Well done, USA", "Welcome Yank", and many chants of "USA, USA, USA". Once again I got no anti-US backlash, just 100% support. I must have high fived a thousand runners. With just a few miles to go, most of the Batch B runners were gone. The few runners around me were almost exclusively from Batch A.
With 1.2 miles to go, I realized I was on pace to run 7 hours and 50 minutes, and for the first time all day I let my watch dictate the terms. I knew if I sped up, I could break 7:50, so I did. It really didn't feel that awful as I picked up the pace. My final kilometer was at a sub-7 minute mile pace. I entered the cricket oval and bounded my way to the finish. I jumped for the finish banner, touched it, and crossed the finish in 7:49:31. Then I broke stride for the first time all day. :-)
I was elated! I had run, IMHO, a smart race, I had felt strong all the way to the end, and I had run every step without a single stop or walk break. Nobody runs the whole way at Comrades. Even the winners sometimes will take a walk break. Running the whole way is something I'll take pride in the rest of my life!
My finish position was my best ever at Comrades, 479th overall! Even in my silver medal year, I didn't make the top 500. It wasn't my fastest Comrades, but it was definitely my strongest Comrades! I was 2nd place of the 216 registered Americans! It had been a difficult day for almost everyone. The winning time was about 10 minutes slower than usual. About 5000 runners who started did not finish. The people coming in at the 12 hour cutoff were really struggling. Runners everywhere were dropping. The medical team was overloaded with treating runners for overheating and dehydration. The headline in the newspaper the next day read "Heat to Blame for Comrades Toll". I talked to at least 100 runners, and I think I was the only one who seemed fully happy. It was, for me, my greatest Comrades!
Rick Ganzi, MD
President, Macatawa Anesthesia, PC
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