Tuesday, 18 June 2013

News Update....

Since I went straight back to work on returning from Comrades, I could almost believe that it never happened, but my energy levels may tell a different story. I am, however, being sensible and making sure that I recover fully as there is little time before my next big race.

The GB kitbox!!!!

British Athletics have recently officially announced the team for the IAU Trail World Championships, which take place in Llanwrst, Wales, on Saturday 6 July. I am delighted to have been given the opportunity to pull on a British vest again (and I have asked for a vest rather than a croptop, as I suspect that large numbers of midgies can be found in the Welsh forests).

GB & NI team for the IAU Trail World Championships:

Men                                                                               Women                                               
Lee Kemp                                                                    Tracy Dean
Ricky Lightfoot                                                             Fionna Cameron
Matt Williamson                                                          Joanna Zakzewski
Iain Ridgway                                                                Isobel Wykes
Andrew James                                                            Sandra Bowers
Craig Holgate   

Yes, I spelt it correctly!

"The course sees the athletes complete five circuits of a 15km loop in the Gwydyr Forest, with the underfoot conditions being a mixture of trail and forest tracks, including 558 metres of climbing."

In order to prepare for the race, I am going to have to swop my road legs for trail legs, with Likeys kindly providing me with some new kit and shoes to help the transition (no excuses for not getting out once recovered now!!!).


Sunday, 9 June 2013

Right to the line.....

An "expo massage" to  iron out the in-flight kinks
Lying in bed at 3:30am, after being woken by a text message from a clubmate already getting himself ready to go to the start, I cannot get my head around the fact that today is "Comrades Day". The day when I, along with 19,721 other people, will attempt to run 87 km from the sea-level City Hall in Durban to the cricket oval in Pietermaritzburg (at 650m of altitude) via a high point of 824m.

The stats for this, the 88th year, showed 18,259 entrants from S Africa and 239 from the UK, with 15383 males compared to 4339 females. 

By 4am, I've decided that I may as well get on with it and so get up, apply the P20 and Vaseline, then pull on the Nedbank Green Dream Team knickers and vest. Me? Knickers? Exactly.......so I quickly follow up with capris and a jacket!

Eating my porridge, bananas and honey at 4:20am, it was already feeling warm. Even though the previous day (June 1st) had officially signalled the start of winter, there had been many warnings about the predicted unseasonably high temperatures. I had tried to put that to the back of my mind and tune out to the comments about how tough I might find it having come from Scotland, where we'd just recently had hail and frost, but it was reassuring to know that the organisers had arranged for the 49 refreshment stations en route to provide 1,900,000 sachets of water and 935,000 sachets of Energade.

Wow - my name instead of a number!

We left the house at 4:40 to head down towards the start......and I panic-grabbed another couple of slice of toast, thinking it would be a long time until I had my next proper meal.
Arriving in downtown Durban, it was obvious that something big was about to happen. Despite the darkness of the hour, the streets were buzzing......with locals out for the atmosphere, cheery supporters and thousands of runners (nervous novices, relaxed regulars and everyone in between).
I stripped off, got a last encouraging hug from Dave Pearse (who would be seconding me en route) and headed into the City Hall. Sitting down with my drinks bottle, I was again amazed to see so many people running round and round the inside of the building. Did they not realise that they had another 87k to run so there was no point tiring themselves out before the start?

Walking down to the Elite start, and chatting to Holly Rush, I was reminded of my first Comrades.......as you never re-experience that feeling of heading off into the unknown. She was planning to run to her heart rate, while Gloria Vinstadt (a Swedish Comrades novice, though seasoned 100k runner) had decided that she would run to a 6hrs 30 finish pace. I had discussed some ballpark times that Dave might expect to see me on the route, but I was planning to run on feel. I knew that I was the slowest marathoner there, so I steeled myself for the fact that everyone else might disappear away from me at the start, hopefully to come back later on. As they barriers between the starting pens were dropped, everybody pushed forward. I don't like the pushing and shoving (or finding someone squatting down to have a pee on my foot) but I love the emotion you feel, surrounded by S African runners, as they play Shosholoza and Chariots of Fire.

The cockerel crowed and we were off.......or rather, everyone else was.......as the guy behind me grabbed my left arm and pulled me backwards to lever himself forwards. As I'd expected, everyone seemed to shoot off, but my plan was always to run my own race and start steadily, then see what happened later on in the day.

After about 100m, my friend Dan Robinson came up alongside me on my right, which was great, as if you run the "speed of chat", it helps prevent you going off too fast. Something didn't feel right, however, as within the first kilometre, I cool feel myself getting really warm with sweat beading already. In last year's "down" run, it didn't get warm until daybreak dawned and I wore gloves for the first 10k at least. 2011 had also been an "up" year, but I remember starting off feeling nice and cool. The fact that it was already so hot and humid at 5:30 am didn't auger well for the rest of the day.

As we joined the main highway out of Durban, Jacques Mouton appeared on my left. It was lovely to see him again, as I ran a good portion of last year's race with him, though he said that he faded significantly later on. Unfortunately our run together this year was even shorter, but we still managed a quick chat.

The support around the 10k mark (sorry the 77k to go mark, as the course signs are a countdown) was massive but I just about spotted Dave (who'd picked up Ruth to help support, then watched the start on tv at home, starting a stopwatch when the race went off so they knew exactly when to look out for me and where) and gave him a wave and a thumbs up as I was feeling great and in control of my running. One of the great things about having Dave second you is that (along with local knowledge both of having run many Comrades himself and of how to get to certain points on the course) is that he's rather tall, so you can spot him in a crowd.

I knew I would see Dave and Ruth about every 10k, at least initially, and they had an idea of what I might be needing at each point, as there is a strict "stand and hand" rule for seconders during the run. I knew I had to get across to the right hand side of the road before we turned to go up Fields Hill (the second named hill of the day - see diagram) but there were far too many men between me and the edge for me to get through. I had to do a big sprint to find a gap for myself, causing Dan to ask if I was planning a fartlek all the way to Maritzberg. Even having got to the edge it was difficult to stay by the kerb, but luckily I managed it so that I could grab both my sunglasses and a gel from the big guy. Two years ago I declined my sunglasses, not being used to wearing any whilst running, but found I could hardly see as you run directly towards the rising sun. Forewarned is forearmed and so I was glad of them this year. 

The day in profile.......

I had passed my first lady just before the start of the hill, but she came storming past me like a train halfway up. I enjoy the climbs on the course as they are one of my strengths, and so overtook many others (including another lady) in that 2km long climb. It was then lovely to pass through some leafy villages with great support and welcome shade, whilst the wolf whistles from the boys of Kearsney college helped put a smile on my face. More places gained on Botha's Hill, and it was a great confidence boost to hear the times that people were hoping to run as you passed them. Relaxing down the other side meant I again picked off several runners, including the lady who'd passed me on Fields. I learnt to ignore the comments from supporters along the route as, although they mean well, it is about the only race where you can hear that you're the 7th lady, pass 3 ladies, and then be confidently told that you're lying 8th!

I lost Dan after about 30k, but presumed that he was away ahead of me, and so didn't look back, just carried on at my comfortable pace. There is a big descent down into Drummond, which is the halfway cutoff point, and I knew that I was going to see my seconders near the top of the climb beforehand. I much prefer solid food to gels, and so had given them some homemade flapjack in a bag that they could hand me, hoping to use the downhill to be able to eat properly. Unfortunately, I hadn't considered differing versions of the English language. As I shouted "flapjack" at Ruth, she just looked back at me with a confused expression on her face. What they call a "flapjack" in S Africa, is what we call a "pancake" in the the Uk, and I should have asked for a "Jungle Oats Crunchy Bar"! When Dave explained, Ruth put on a great turn of speed to go past me on the hill and get ahead so that she could "stand and hand" me my longed for treat (along with a gel).

On the way down into Drummond, I caught up with a large group of runners and was surprised to see Marina Zhalybina in the middle of it. I had never been ahead of Marina in my life - she finished 3rd to my 4th at Comrades in 2012 and finished 1st to my 2nd at the World 100k Champs in 2011. Marina also owned no less than 11 Comrades gold medals, and so passing her did freak me out slightly. I was worried that I'd gone too fast and would pay for it later, and spent the rest of the day expecting her to come flying by. I had hoped to be working my way into the bottom of the top 10 by the halfway point, not be in the middle of it.

However, the timing mat at Drummond had a definite party atmosphere about it and so I enjoyed it. The song "Call me, maybe" was blasting out and so I ran through with a smile on my face, performing the actions to the song........though I made sure I wasn't doing this near the cameras, knowing that my father would be watching the race online at home, and not wanting him to think that I was suggesting that random people should ring me! I had 3:17 on my watch and although the true halfway is several minutes further on, I headed up Inchanga feeling strong, with plenty of running in my legs (and plenty of salted potatoes in my hands).

I had learnt the year before that when people shout what sounds like "go ladies!", it doesn't actually mean that there is another woman running on your shoulder, but when you pass and hear "yeay....a lady" only to then hear "and another one"......"and another one" a few seconds apart, you know the field is tightly packed. Listening out for these calls was a way of passing time on the long open stretch of road that is known as "Harrison Flats". By this point I had been running entirely on my own for some way, which unfortunately meant that I had to battle the increasingly strong hot headwind on my own.

As I neared Cato Ridge, I thought that Marina was making her move, but it was actually Irina (another Russian lady) who passed me as if she was running a 10k race. She looked amazingly strong......maybe it was the thought of a birthday cake at the finish, as not many people would choose to run 87 hard kilometres as a birthday treat! There was no way that I could have gone with her, but as I'd said before, I could only run my own race......and whether others had a better run was out of my control.

I had run most of the way with a distinctive purple vest of 'Turn to God AC' visible some way in front of me but I finally caught up with Stuart (the owner of said vest), which gave me a bit of company through the next stretch. Most of the comments were about the strong wind, as it even blew down barriers and signs along the sides of the road. Unfortunately, it did not blow away the smell of the chicken farms, so how the people managed to stay at the refreshment station there all day is beyond me.

I remembered struggling through this section 2 years ago and thinking how nice it would be to just stop and walk, but this year I felt stronger and suddenly I was passing the highest point at Umlaas Road, with the realisation that I had less than a half marathon left to run. Another runner (Michael Ndlovu) had come back to us by now. This was great because, as a seasoned runner of Comrades (wearing a green number) he anticipated our needs and would signal people at the refreshment stations ("tables") to get them to stand on either side of the road so that we could grab the "baggies" with each hand. It became my personal challenge at each table to have grabbed some bags of water from the first person, have opened them and poured them over my head and into my mouth, by the time I reached the last person, from whom I got another water and an Energade.

Strangely enough, I was looking forward to the infamous Polly Shortts as I knew it would be a chance to push on as you gain 100m over 1.8km, so in my head, my kilometre countdown was to the 10k to go point. This made the race end seem closer to me and I felt good watching the numbers tick down.

About 15k from the finish, I saw Dave and Ruth for the final time. While handing over a drink and gel, Dave told me that I was 8 minutes down on the 4th placed lady but that she seemed to be fading. My response of "I'm fading too!" caused Stuart to smile, but I wondered how much of that deficit I would make up, or if she would rally in the run for home.

I felt like I was running alone up Little Pollys and Polly Shortts, but  Stuart later told me that both he and Michael had tucked in behind me, to use me as shelter from the wind. In my previous 2 Comrades I had never walked a single step and so I was determined that this year should be no exception, which again enabled me to move up the field on these testing inclines.

At the top of Pollys, I felt great and so decided to pick up the pace and really work all the way to the finish. It was "just 8k" after all. Michael came with me, and though Stuart later said that he had thought he would be able to stick with me to the finish, I opened up a gap of 400m within the first km, and 4.5 minutes by the end.

It isn't the easiest 8k, as the support lessens after the crowds of Pollys because most people have gone closer to the finish so the are some quiet isolated open stretches, and the course definitely "undulates". At this point in the race, any slight change in gradient can feel like a huge hill, and twice the road does actually disappear down into a huge deep, so you have to really control your tired quads down to work up the other side.

We thought we were almost there, as the run in had seemed long, and the crowds were building up again, and so both of us had the same uncharitable thought (Michael expressing it out loud) when we saw the 2km to go marker. Even so close to the end, we were still grabbing as many baggies as possible both to drink and pour over ourselves, as the temperature was well into the 30s by now.

My super-seconders!

Finally we turned off the main road and had our last long descent, punctuated as it was with multiple speed bumps to trip up weary legs. The "Toyota mile" starts as you turn left into a 150m long avenue of palm trees through the mayor's garden. It seems very dark after the bright sunlight, but I could just about see a figure right at the far end as we entered. Michael confirmed my suspicions that it was Charne Bosman, the 4th lady (and multiple S African marathon champion).

I had the bit between my teeth now and powered down that avenue. At the bottom of it, the top 10 finishers of either sex are handed a red rose to carry round the final lap of the oval. This lap is meant to be for runners to "savour their heroic achievement". This was not my plan......I dug as deep as I could and carried on sprinting round that lap, overhauling Charne with 50m to go and crossed the line with a look of pure delight on my face.

I had finished in 4th place in the ladies' field, behind 3 extremely talented and experienced Russian athletes and, more importantly to me, in the top 100 of the field overall. Michael and I were both given the same time of 6 hours 53 minutes and 29 seconds, and you couldn't wipe the grin off my face as I caught with my awesome seconding team and other friends and runners in the international enclosure afterwards!
Having a laugh with my clubmate Craig (while someone is stretchered out of the International Enclosure behind us....oops!!)

The 2013 Comrades Marathon (the "Ultimate Human Race") has since been described as one of the toughest in its 88 year history, not only because of the searing heat but also because of the very strong headwinds. Indeed, 4,148 starters failed to finish within the 12 hour time limit, with about another 7000 finishing in the last 90 minutes, and 800 needing medical treatment.

The 10 female gold medallists
I, however, will remember it as the day I fought right to the line and did not give up. It would have been "easy" to have settled for 5th place but I wasn't prepared to do that, though admittedly what I thought was a sprint of Olympic worth was probably only a very slightly speeded up shuffle!!!

The British gold medallists!