Friday, May 29, 2009

Move Swiftly on those Mountains

Comrades Marathon May 24 2009,

The Pietermaritzburg-to-Durban direction of the Comrades Marathon is referred to as the “Down Run” because the net decline in altitude is about 655 metres. But this net change is comprised of about 3,100 metres of quadriceps-jarring descents offset by 2,450 metres of climbs that reduce many runners to a walk. In fact the dramatic topography of the race’s path makes you wonder why anyone would ever consider having a footrace there in the first place. Although the Comrades is run on roads, it has the feel sometimes of a trail race. The length and grade of the climbs and descents can cause even veteran runners to quake in their Reeboks.

For this year’s Comrades I had much going for me. I felt I was in my best running shape ever, and had trained diligently all winter and spring with no injuries to speak of. I was well-rested and well-nourished. I had been looking forward to the race with an eagerness similar to that of my first Ironman. A guided bus tour of the route, sobering though it was, did little to dampen my enthusiasm.

The Down Run of the 89 kilometre Comrades Marathon begins in the cool darkness, at 5:30am in front of the Pietermaritzburg Town Hall; it is one of the most exciting and moving race starts I’ve ever experienced. The music is wonderful, culminating in a singing of the traditional South African folk song, Shosholoza:

Ku lezontaba
Stimela siphum' eSouth Africa

The words mean “move swiftly on those mountains”, an inspiration and a portent.

After the starting gun went off, the crowd of 12,000 runners was so dense that it took me more than six minutes to get across the starting line; this lag is significant and worth remembering, because many runners will need that six minutes at the end of the race to make the mandatory 12 hour cutoff. If you don’t finish in less than 12 hours, you haven’t finished at all as far as the Comrades Marathon is concerned. No medal. No results. No nothing.

The first part of the race was magnificent. It was a terrific feeling to be running effortlessly through 5, 10, 20 kilometres as a rosy pink dawn took shape to our left. Unlike most other races, the Comrades posts signs showing your progress in reference to how far you have yet to go rather than how far you have come (89k, 88k, 87k...). Each sign has an accompanying thermometer, which decreases in fullness like a fund raising graphic in reverse. The first big downhill – the saucily-named Polly Shortts – previewed the challenges to come, but at this early point it was just plain fun.

I was running exactly on my planned pace to finish somewhere between 11 and 12 hours. There is not a lot in the way of nutrition offered at the early aid stations, but I had brought a supply of gels with me and kept my carb intake at a good level. I found that I could walk briskly up the steepest hills at a strong pace. All was well.

At around 40k into the race I noticed that I was feeling some pain in my right forefoot; this is an old injury caused by a pinched nerve (neuroma) between the metatarsals, and one I had thought was dormant. I have only had problems with it once before, at the Ironman Florida 70.3 a year ago, and in that race the pain was so bad I had to stop at every aid station to massage my foot back into life. Likewise here, I had to stop frequently and my pace slowed down so dramatically that I only made the Halfway Point 6 hour cutoff by 5 minutes.

The pain grew more and more severe as I hobbled up and down hill after hill, and I saw my carefully planned time goals slip further and further away. I tried everything I could think of to alleviate the pain, which was by now spreading to my toes and across my instep: ice, extra padding, loosening my laces, tightening them…nothing worked for long. Eventually I could put no weight on my right foot at all. Finally after 7 hours and 45 minutes of running, with 55 kilometres behind me and 34 left to go, I made the sad decision to drop out of the race. I climbed aboard the ‘Runners Rescue Bus’, an un-air conditioned mini-van filled with sweating, suicidal dropouts like me; a cheery ride, you bet. We lurched and crawled along the race route to the finish and were deposited into the ‘Bailers Tent’, a depressing little fenced compound behind the stadium, well away from the official finish area.

Despite the disappointing and inconclusive result, my Comrades Marathon was a rich, vivid experience. It surpasses all other road races I have done in terms of excitement, challenge, tradition, colour and emotion. The Comrades must be run to be believed; no inspirational literature, advertisements or YouTube clips can do justice to the sheer magnitude and stark beauty of this race.

Naturally, having recorded my very first DNF in nearly 25 years of running I am tempted to climb right back onto the horse and return to South Africa for next year’s race, to complete what I started. But realistically, I will have to put any new thoughts of ultra running on hold until I can figure out a solution for my pinched nerve problem. If the true purpose of running is, as Bill Bowerman says, to test the limits of the human heart, I must - for the present at least - concentrate on testing the limits of the human foot.