This article originally appeared in the September 1997 issue of UltraRunning Magazine
I woke as the adopted theme music of the Comrades Marathon, from “Chariots of Fire, ” penetrated my hotel room. The music rocked the sleepy town of Pietermaritzburg from the City Hall building located on Commercial Way. I was a mere two blocks and eight floors up from City Hall and the start of this year’s race. I got a huge nervous jolt of adrenaline when I opened the curtains of my room and saw the street below packed with people. I checked my watch; it was 4:30 a.m. I had an hour and a half to get ready for the 6:00 a.m. start. There was plenty of time.
Nervous energy turned to fear as 1 warmed up with my husband Carl in the numerous alleyways that criss-cross the downtown area. The 89.9-kilometers (55.86 miles) course, which descends 2,000 feet to Durban, would be the ultimate test for my surgically repaired hamstring muscle. Only seven months before, during exploratory surgery, Dr. Steven Isono discovered that 90 percent of my biceps femoris tendon was detached from its site of insertion, the head of the fibula. What if the end result of starting Comrades was another visit to the hard operating table and not the soft grass that awaits the finishers at the Kingsmead stadium in Durban? Just as I expressed my anxiety to Carl, he took a spill on the uneven sidewalk on the way to the start. Was Carl’s falling an omen for the day? “I did not travel halfway around the world for you to start getting superstitious on me,” he responded. His last words of advice, as he ushered me to the start, were to keep my head in the race and stay focused. I did not realize it at the time but those last words would echo through my head like a broken record for the next six hours.
I was happy to see some familiar faces at the start. I gravitated towards Tom Johnson. The newspapers had reported that Tom was suffering from a slight hamstring pull. I was glad to hear from Tom himself that it was only a rumor. Maria Bak and her husband lined up next to Tom and myself. Maria looked down at the scar on my leg. There was no hiding that. I got a kiss and a “good luck” from Konstantin Santalov. The field of 14,000 runners lined up behind us on the four-lane road swayed to the theme music. The start of the race is downright electrifying. The countdown begins with ten seconds to go, and then the race starts with the shot of a cannon. 1 found myself joining the crowd, as I enthusiastically yelled, “Three, two, one,” and then blast off.
My comrades in arms for the day took off as if they were fired into the pitch black streets of Pietermaritzburg from the cannon itself. 1 was caught in the rapid current of runners. The sun would not shine for another hour. It seemed warm at the start but only two kilometers into the race we were encircled in fog. It was quite cold at 40°F, and it remained that way for the first 20 kilometers. I felt like a stupid tourist in only a singlet and shorts. The locals, I noticed, were all wearing gloves, long sleeve T-shirts, or garbage bags.
Valentina Liachova quickly disappeared into the crowd of runners ahead; 1 would not spot her again for 10 kilometers. Maria took a seat on my bus (a South African term for a pack of runners) and remained a passenger for 30 kilometers, as I set the pace at what seemed a comfortable four minutes per kilometer (6:26 per mile). As we ran down the backside of Polly Shorts, the notorious last hill on the up direction, Valentina joined the bus. The three of us “ladies” ran together, collecting passengers as we went.
Nike had assembled my seconding team (South African term for crew). The 18 guys who made up my team could easily have passed for a rugby squad. They were big men who liked their beer. Custom designed shirts were made for the seconds, so I would not miss them along the route: they were white with a huge pink swoosh and “Ann” printed across the front. With work shirts like this, my team was quickly renamed “the girlies.”
The girlies were strategically situated throughout the course at approximately five kilometers intervals. Their job was to make sure I got a bottle of Cytomax and a packet of GU while adhering to Comrades’ “stand-and-hand” rule. Seconds literally must stand with two feet on the ground and place objects (such as bottles) into the hands of runners. Traveling leads to disqualification. The girlies took their job seriously: I did not miss one all day; the hand-offs would have made a relay team proud.
At 30 kilometers, Valentina fell off the back end of the bus. One less passenger would not be missed as our bus had swollen to accommodate more than 30 passengers. The other notable change was that the early morning fog had burned off, accompanied by a welcome rise in the ambient temperature. Maria added some heat of her own— she moved to the front of the bus and assumed the driver’s seat. The pace remained the same at four-minute kilometers, but it was now clearly Maria’s bus. The pace was beginning to take its toll on me, as we were running over the hilliest part of the course. They say running to Durban is the downhill direction, but there are some rather nasty and challenging uphills along the way.
The first notable downhill comes at 40 kilometers, near the halfway mark at Drummond (45.3 kilometers). Much to my surprise, Maria surged as we began the descent of Inchannga Hill. It was not easy to watch her pull away, but I felt it was wise to let her go. I was concerned that if I hammered the next five kilometers, my quads would be finished by the time I reached the unforgiving downhill section that greets the runners in the last quarter of the race. In five kilometers, I lost one minute and fifteen seconds, reaching the mid-point of the course in 3:00:40. From Drummond, the course then climbs seven kilometers up Botha’s Hill. It is a place to reassess one’s race; by the top I knew Maria had a gear I didn’t have. She put another minute on me going uphill. I did not know what was happening. I had beaten her in the uphill direction last year, but today she was clearly the better hill runner. She was now a whopping two minutes ahead.
Access points at Comrades are very similar to those at the American River 50 Mile. The route is blocked to traffic; a major highway parallels the route, with very few roads intersecting both. This makes following the race as challenging as running it. Carl and a Nike representative, Sue Nell, were hell-bent on seeing me at as many places as possible. Carl would spring out of the crowd like a jack-in-the-box along the course. It was always a pleasure to see him. Due to the stand-and-hand rule, there was only so much he could say as I ran by. For the first 40 kilometers he was yelling at me, “Remember my race at AR this year, stay focused.” He was telling me that one could feel bad (as he had felt at AR) and still run a respectable time. In addition, Carl had battled from behind to win. I would just have to do what he had done there—stay steady and not give up.
The distance between Maria and me remained two minutes exactly from 50 to 74 kilometers. I was getting tired of hearing “two minutes” from Carl and the crowd. I was running as hard as I could and was not gaining. Every time I decided second place was good enough, there was Carl popping out of the crowd telling me to give it everything I had. I decided it was imperative I reduce the “two-minute barrier.”
By ten o’clock the mercury had climbed to 80°F. I now had to contend with another obstacle—dehydration. I was grateful for the frequency of the tables (South African term for aid station) along the route (55 in total). Downing as much water as I could, my brain activity returned. Reality also set in. I was at the 74-kilometer mark and still exactly two minutes back. A change in strategy was clearly in order. I was still struggling on the ascents. It was evident that “up” was not the place to try to reduce the gap. The game plan I concocted was an “all-out-assault” on every remaining downhill. At the crest of each hill I got on my toes, lengthened my stride, and leaned forward: I really went for it. Persuading my quads and the bottoms of my feet to take part in this scheme was not easy. They were screaming at me to quit, or at least slow down.
Carl’s message was finally different as I approached the 77-kilometer point. 1 had made up 50 seconds. I was now down by just 1:10, but I was quickly running out of real estate. Eight miles were all that separated us from the finish line.
The spectators were really getting into the race. The crowd didn’t seem to share my concern that there were only eight miles left in the race. Women were running along my side hollering, “You can get her, girl, you can get her.” Their confidence was infectious.
At this point, I had one clear advantage over Maria—the luxury of knowing exactly where she was. For the first time since Drummond (45.3 kilometers) Maria was in my sight. She looked the same as when 1 saw her last—incredibly strong and smooth. She was running alone now, having long since discarded all of her passengers. As I began to nibble away at her lead,
I was confounded with fear. It occurred to me that 1 had no idea how 1 would respond to a fight to the finish. I was approaching unknown territory. In all my years of running ultras, 1 had never battled with a female competitor so late in a race. Nor had 1 ever felt such pain. My legs were taking a huge amount of abuse. I tried to convince myself that I was having fun in some sort of masochistic way.
On the last down hill, with less than six kilometers left, the moment of truth arrived; I passed Maria. It happened in seconds, but it seemed like hours. I went by, she stayed with me, I tried to surge, then she fell back. I knew we were both giving it everything we had.
The last four kilometers are pancake-flat. The course traverses the city center, finishing at Kingsmead Cricket Stadium. The crowds in Durban were deafening. I think I now know what it is like to run down First Avenue in the New York City Marathon. The reverberation from the crowd was a blend of my name. Maria’s name and “go ladies.” I had no idea where she was. I felt hunted and vulnerable. Fear was the fuel of choice and there was plenty of that to go around.
All I could feel was shock (and an insurmountable amount of discomfort) as 1 crossed the finish line, just two minutes ahead of Maria. The men’s race finished in almost identical fashion with Chari Mattheus taking the lead with five kilometers to go. Nick Bester, who had led by 17 seconds with seven kilometers to go, finished 2:03 back.
Racing Comrades in such a fashion, so soon after surgery, was certainly a risk. At the end of the day it was a risk 1 was glad to have taken. Winning certainly was a thrill, but more importantly, Maria and I demonstrated that the women’s race could be as competitive and as exhilarating as the men’s.