I recently accompanied my best friend of many years, as she competed in the Comrades Ultra Marathon in South Africa. So many people have asked about the experience, I decided to put the updates I sent to several of my friends on my blog. Hope you enjoy! Cheers, Amelia
Arrived in Durban after an incredibly long flight – six hours from SFO -JFK, fifteen hours from JFK – Johannesburg, and a final 1.5 hours to Durban. Surprisingly, every plane was packed full. On the flight to Johannesburg were a large group of college-age kids who were on their way to volunteer at various places in Africa. The girl sitting next to me had just graduated from Penn State and was heading somewhere around Capetown to volunteer for three weeks at an orphanage and the girl behind me was going to work at a Cheetah preserve in Botswana. They told me that groups of similar size leave for Africa every two weeks during the summer. What an incredible experience it must be for these kids and how impressive their desire to volunteer and make a difference is.
On the flight to Durban, Sharon sat next to a cute newlywed couple, Krista and Ryan, who were clearly also on their way to the marathon. It turns out that while they currently live in San Diego, Ryan grew up in Durban. Within ten minutes of conversation, they had not only insisted on giving us a ride to the hotel, but also invited me to hang out with their family on Sunday during the race. When we arrived, their family, including Mom, Dad, a sister and her young son, literally welcomed us with open arms – hugs all around, and without blinking an eye, piled our gear in their car and drove us to our hotel. Dad, who looked to be in his early 60’s, ran Comrades some time ago, and spent the drive telling us the history of the marathon and giving Sharon lots of advice on the race (don’t over-hydrate and be careful not to mix goo with soda is all I can remember)… Emails and phone numbers were exchanged, more hugs, and off they went. As a side note, the Comrades Marathon was started by a (white) South African army officer as a living memorial to the soldiers (comrades) who had fought so bravely during World War One. It’s somewhat unique because the route alternates from year to year – one year running 56 miles from the coast to the mountains (up) and the next from the mountains to the ocean (down). For the record, this is an ‘Up’ year, which is supposedly the more difficult. Excepting a five-year hiatus during WW2, it’s been run ever since, making this the 86th year. Until the end of apartheid, blacks were not allowed to enter, and women have only been included since the late 70’s (think that’s right, anyway).
Our hotel is downtown and right next to the exposition center where the event registration and pre-race expo is located. Sharon was anxious to pick up her registration packet as soon as possible, so after a quick shower (which felt awesome, by the way), we headed over to the expo center to begin standing in one of the longest lines I have ever been in. Fortunately, we soon found out that the line was for the approximately FOURTEEN THOUSAND South Africans who have entered the race, so we were able to bypass and go to the foreign registration desk – no waiting there :-)! Once registered, we wandered around the expo where there were lots of different booths and displays. In addition to the various running related paraphernalia, we noticed one booth that seemed particularly popular, with long lines on both sides of not only runners, but also families and kids. When we looked, I was quite surprised to see that they were all patiently waiting to get blood drawn. Turns out that it was a free cholesterol screening and clearly many of the locals were there to take advantage of the opportunity to be tested. To be honest, that was the first time it really hit me that while so much of what we have seen so far does not seem that different from the U.S., we really are in a different part of the world.
For dinner last night, Sharon had signed us up for a pre-race pasta feed (by the way, it’s pronounced ‘paasta’ versus ‘pahsta’ here) for the foreign runners that was held at a casino about a five minute cab ride from the hotel. We hooked up with a group who I think were from the same running club somewhere in the Midwest. It was an eclectic bunch, including a mother and her daughter (daughter running, Mom supporting), husband and wife (wife running, husband supporting), Sharon and I, and a few others, most of whom I never would have imagined as ultra marathon runners. The woman sitting next to me, who looked like a typical middle-aged suburban mom, was running her second Comrades. Apparently, the previous year, she had some problems and was unable to finish the race, and was back to give it another go. I asked her why she chose to put her body through such an ordeal (more than once), particularly when there was no chance of winning, and she started talking about how important it was for her to set goals that really push herself further than she imagined was possible. She said that she would not have been able to do it (including all the time training) without the support of her biggest fan – her husband (who had some health issues and couldn’t make the trip), and while he really doesn’t ‘get’ why she wants to do this, he understands and supports how important it is to her.
More later – time for breakfast and a walk about town.