by Susan Mazzeo
I am standing on the start line in Durban South Africa, again. It is 5:00 in the morning, but with all the activity going on it might as well be 12:00 in the middle of the day. Two years ago I was here, in this very same spot, sort of. I was actually curled up against the chain link fence trying to get the last bit of sleep before the start gun went off. I think I was really trying to block out what I knew deep in my heart was going to be a disaster of a day. This is Comrades. The Human Race as they call it. Their motto is Zinikele, South African for It Takes All of You. And it does. 87 kilometers starting in Durban and finishing in Pietermaritzburg. For the non-metric group, that equals 54 miles. The race runs between these two cities each year. So one year you go down, and the next up. This was an up year, which means we start at sea level and end 2,300 feet above sea level. There are 7,000 feet of elevation on the course and 4,700 feet of descent. The highest point is 2,800 feet. Oh, and did I mention the Big 5? Not the Big 5 you might find on a game reserve, but the big 5 as in hills, specifically: Cowies, Fields Hill, Botha’s Hill, Inchanga and the biggest of them all Polly Shorts.
Did I also mention you need to finish the race in 12 hours? If you do not you cannot cross the finish line. At 11:59 a human wall starts to hinge across the finish line blocking the runners from crossing as the clock hit 12 hours. And if that isn’t enough, there are six check points you need to make while on the course or you get pulled out of the race. Two years ago I missed the fourth cut off and wound up in a rescue bus. I was pretty disappointed. I went home thought about things and decided to give it another go.
So, here I am on the start line. But this time I am not curled up against the fence. I am participating in all of the pre-race festivities. I shake my neighbors hand, to the left, right and back of me. I join in the singing of Shosholoza, the South African National Anthem. It is 5 stanzas, each one sung in a different official language of the country. It is a musical lesson in multiculturalism and unity. The pride South Africans feel toward their country is so genuine. The entire field is singing and the energy is electrifying. Next is the playing of Chariots of Fire, then the traditional cock crowing, the start gun and the race is off. I listen to all the advice I had been given and do not go out too fast. The race actually starts off uphill and it is easy to get caught up in all the excitement and start out too fast. That is part of what happened two years ago and I was not about to let it happen again.
I plug along and before I know it I catch up with the sub -12 hour pace bus. That is what they call pace groups in this race, buses and the pace leader is the bus driver. Our bus driver is full of energy and positivity. I normally don’t like pace groups but I like her. We are a big group and still, she manages to remember the majority of our names. We use a walk run strategy, walk the hills and run the downs and flats. We don’t meander; it is walking with a purpose. She will count down from 10 and we know we will start to walk and she does it again and we know we will start to run. We pass the second cut-off and the runner next to me points out we beat it by 20 minutes. I vow to stick to her like glue. It is hot and the sun is relentless, but still our driver encourages us to look around and pay attention to the scenery. We pass through neighborhoods that remind me of Coral Gables in Florida. Comrades, to South Africans, is what the Super Bowl is to Americans. All South Africans are encouraged to run it and unlike the New York Marathon, which has very few New Yorkers in it and costs over $200 to participate, Comrades is made up of mostly South Africans, a little over 19,000 in a field of 24,000 and it costs them about 250 rand or $25. The entire race, all 12 hours is televised. And if South Africans are not running the race, watching it on TV, they are spectating along the course and I mean the entire course, all 87 kilometers. It is one long party. I saw one group with a full bar complete with stools, and Steve Miller blasting from the speakers they set up. Another had couches and coffee tables pulled out to the side of the road, and everyone it seemed, was barbecuing. The spectators are prepared for the runners too. They hand out all kinds of sandwiches, candy, ice pops, and my new favorite: salted oranges. On a hot day salt becomes your best friend.
We pass an all boys prep school, Comrades answer to the Boston Marathon’s Wellesley College and their infamous Scream Machine. Instead of screaming, these boys, who are dressed in their school blazers and striped ties politely encourage us on. Our names are printed on our bib s and I hear, “Go Sue- san” in their beautiful sing-songy accent. I hear “Welcome to South Africa”, “Welcome to our country”, a lot. It makes me think of what is happening at home. I am not sure we are so welcoming these days. This is the first race I have ever been in where I am the minority all the way around: race, ethnicity and gender. There are only 4,000 women in the race in total, 197 Americans and still I do not feel like an outsider. It is humbling and a valuable lesson.
The kilometers, which begin at 87 and work down, are clicking off one by one. I start to feel bad and I use every trick in the book I know. I pray: 10 Hail Mary’s, an Our Father and a Glory Be, the only part of the rosary I know; I smile at everyone around me, although I think it must appear more of a grimace; I talk to the runners next to me. I meet some pretty cool and interesting people. I remind myself it is okay to feel uncomfortable, after all I am running uphill in 80 degree heat. When it seems like this isn’t working, I remind myself how bad I felt two years ago when I did not finish. And then as if she can read my thoughts, our bus driver shouts out, “Sue-san, are you getting a medal today”? “Yes”, I shout back, “I am”.
At 42 kilometers, the halfway point we pass Arthur’s seat. Arthur Newton, five- time winner of Comrades was said sit in this very spot, a small hole in a stone wall and take a break to smoke his pipe. Runners passing this spot need to put a flower in the hole or at least tip their hat and say “Good morning Arthur” to ensure a successful second half of the race. None of us are taking any chances and there are many flowers placed and many “Good morning Arthur’s”. Shortly after that we pass the Ethembeni School. It is a local school for children with physical disabilities. They line the streets in their wheelchairs, hands held out for high fives. It is a good reality check to remind myself no matter what, I wake up the next day with two legs to walk on.
My mom came with me this year and she is waiting for me on the course with 25 kilometers to go. I see her just past the point where I got pulled out last time and it is a huge motivator to pass that point. She jumps in and runs with me a bit. I convert the kilometers into miles and realize I have 15 to go. This is a regular Sunday run at home and I imagine myself in Hartshorne Woods with my running buddies and I am having a lovely conversation with Molly, who trained with me every single Sunday. I know my family and friends are tracking me and I am determined to keep that line they are watching moving forward.
At 21 kilometers, my drink is waiting for me at a pre-arranged fuel stop. While there I am asked if I want a massage. “Yes”, I reply, “I think I do”. And two volunteers, one for each leg give me the best standing up quad massage I have ever had. As much as I would love to stand there all day, I have to get moving. I have fallen off the bus. I can see the flag way ahead of me and it seems like an insurmountable distance. Earlier that week I was reading about race day strategy and I decide to employ the recommended run 200 paces, walk 100 paces. Off I go, counting 200 running steps then 100 walking. Counting helps to occupy my mind and all of a sudden I am back on the bus. I climb on never to get off until we are finished.
Run and walk, run and walk and before I know it, there are 10 kilometers to go. Some the runner next to me tells me I don’t even look like I am sweating. I have to laugh since my visor feels like it is glued to my head and I might need to cut it off with a scissor.
Closer and closer we get until the only hill left is Polly Shorts. If you are at all familiar with Holmdel Park and its infamous 5 kilometer course with its uphill start then you will understand when I say Polly Shorts is like the start at Holmdel, on steroids, times five. And it comes about 50 miles into the race. I have run the Holmdel course many times and sometimes I get it, most times it gets me but on occasion it is a draw. Today with Polly, it is a draw and that is good enough for me. Up an over we go and through the last check point. I know now, there was no way I am not finishing.
We make our way to the Scottsville Racecourse. I can hear the announcer. We have run a steady race and have time to spare. I enter the fair grounds to a deafening crowd. They are blasting “We Will Rock You” by Queen and the spectators are banging in time on the boards lining the course. We round the track and there is the finish line. It is an amazing moment and I relish it. I can’t believe it. Finally after two years of waiting I cross the line and finish in 11:51. I hear a collective roar all the way from Fair Haven and Point Pleasant and Jupiter and Miami and Oahu and Hawthorne East Vic.
I normally do not care about medals, but this one I want. I worked hard for this medal. The funny thing is, it is the smallest, simplest medal I have ever received. I will treasure it always.
I make my way to the International Tent where my mom is waiting for me. I will tell you; you are never too old to have your mom take care of you. I am so happy she is here and so grateful we are able to share this. We make our way back to the hotel to a hot shower, a steak dinner and a glass of wine, all while enjoying the glow of a job well done.
The next day as I am leaving the porter congratulates me and reminds me, you are not a true Comrade until you run both the Up and the Down. Hmmmm…
Blog posts are written by Shore House members and staff.