To be honest, I expected a personal best for this almost 90km race. I hoped for a very realistic 9hrs45 or a fantastic 9hrs30. I have run the Comrades three times previously, and bettered my time on each occasion.
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (II Timothy 4:7).
To be honest, I expected a PB (personal best) for the almost 90km race, the Comrades Ultra-Marathon.
The Comrades is an iconic race in South African and also the world! Runners’ World magazine declares it the unqualified best ultra-marathon in the world. Up 20,000 participants run two full marathons back to back and some more kilometres, just for good measure! And this year, over half the marathon was uphill.
To be honest, I expected a personal best for this almost 90km race. I hoped for a very realistic 9hrs45 or a fantastic 9hrs30.
I have run the Comrades three times previously, and bettered my time on each occasion.
For the 2013 race, I trained much harder, by far. I also trained smarter.
Everything demonstrated to me that the 'perfect' race was in store. No injuries. No sickness. Training went perfect.
It was not to be. It proved to be a very very hard race, the hardest I had experienced.
I did not achieve a personal best. In fact, not even close. I came in at 10hrs43, only five minutes faster than my first and slowest Comrades race! I barely got the coveted Bronze medal for under 11 hours.
Yet, despite not achieving my goal, I felt more elation at the finish, I felt more gratification at the finish, than I had felt the three previous times.
You see, for my first three races, I finished comparatively comfortable.
This race, I was shattered at the finish. I was a physical and emotional wreck.
Upon crossing the finish line, I quickly alternated between heaving and crying.
My first three Comrades, because I did not comparably suffer, I did not "get" Comrades. I did not understand the nostalgia, the sentimentality, people have for the race. I did not understand why it was so mystical, so life transforming. I did not really "get" why people waxed so lyrically about its power. My first three Comrades, I was not particularly "needy"; I did not require the seconding and the support I received from my family. It was nice, but I could have relied on my own power. This time was different. I so needed my wife and daughter to help me get to Pietermaritzburg.
Because I suffered so bad, and I finished, I do understand Comrades, finally.
I suspect that the winner (5:32), Robyn (9:07), me (10:43) and Clinton (12:00 plus) felt more or less the same thing at Comrades. Not because we won or didn't win. Not because we were fast or not fast. Not because we achieved a personal best or did not achieve a personal best. And not because we finished in under 12 or did not finish in under 12 hours.
I suspect we felt the same because we suffered, mightily, and still persevered, and did the absolute best that was possible, at that particular time.
I suspect the feeling of elation, pride and relief was the same for the winner, as was for me, as was for Robyn, as was for Clinton - though we were all at different places and at different times. We persevered and accomplished beyond what we thought possible while we were enduring.
I vomited a lot at Cato Manor. I could not eat or drink; my stomach was trashed. It was hot; it was windy.
However, my wife and daughter were always ahead of me. They supported me and gave me encouragement when I most needed it. They gave me precious fuel for the journey.
So, for the first time, I "got" Comrades. Comrades is about 'solidarity'. I understood that sometimes in life you have to depend on others to get you through. And it is not always about 'me'. I think my wife and daughter were as tired as I was at the end. Traffic and stress, worrying and driving, queuing in lines and for well over 15 hours from the time we left home to when we returned. It was exhausting for us all. My whole family got a Bronze medal.
And what about the ten year old kid who rubbed ice into my calves to prevent them from short circuiting (they were going bonkers!)? If I did not have an ice rub, by calves would not have made it the last 5 kilometers.
And what about all the people supplying me with salt and potatoes? Water and Poweraide? What about the people who brought Vaseline for me to use, so I still had some skin left in Pietermaritzburg? What about the marshals and the police, everyone who kept us safe and on route? What about the stranger on the road with plasters for my blisters?
So, for the first time, I "got" Comrades. Comrades is about overcoming suffering. Rarely is something worth doing easy. If it is difficult, it is usually worth doing. That is what I learned. Comrades is not about winning or losing or silver or bronze. It is about training for six months and running a race that is as difficult for the winner to win as it is for the slowest to cross the line in any time. Both suffered, and persevered. And it was worth it.
If any of you consider doing Comrades in the future (you have to be 20), my advice to you is, "get" Comrades your first time - don't wait until the fourth time to understand its power!
But, some of us are just as slow runners as we are slow learners!
Love always in Christ,
Scott Couper serves with the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA) as a Development Manager of the Inanda Seminary. Susan serves with Inanda Seminary, Durban, South Africa as the chaplain.