My Comrades 2017 Up Run

An international Runners perspective – Anne-Marie Willicott

Running Comrades had always been in my blood and a very distant dream for many years. Having a brother with 9 silver medals and 12 finishes and a sister with a LV50 gold finish of 8:09 was a lot to live up to, but for me it was not about being able to compete at that level but just to be able to complete it at my very best with the best preparation possible. Having 60 marathons under my belt and a few multiday events would surely help with the journey I was about to embark on. Preparation mentally began back in August 2016 while I awaited the September opening date for entries. In preparation for this I began planning my race calendar for forthcoming 9 months leading up to race day. Also reading lots of blogs about the event and its magnitude and peoples accounts of how the races changes and consumes you for it’s entirety and makes you want to return again and again. This made me anxious and right from this moment I felt I had to give it more than anything I had ever done before.

A training plan evolved incorporating 6 days a week. A combination of structured running, gym and cross training began. September came and the online entry done and flights booked. Now I was committed. Having my hubby, Mark also doing it helped a lot as we were able to train together and be in sync with all the training, chat, pre and post runs. Nutrition plays a big part in taking on something with such magnitude. Having already been on a HFLC diet for over a year had helped but we were now looking at post run recovery and fatigue fuel to be able to cope with the back to back training.

January came and the race season started. A local 5 mile race, Linda Franks, run by my running club, Almost Athletes, was a good test to see how the training was going so a PB of 36:09 was a nice surprise. 2 weeks later at the Naunton nearly 19, I ran strong through tough off road terrain with my buddy, Fiona pulling me up the hills to a 3:12 finish. I ran Gloucester Marathon a week later, another tough course with 3 laps and very bumpy. Although feeling very tired from the outset, I managed 3:48 finish.

February came with a very good run at the Staverton 10 miler and another PB of 1:16. As my confidence built, the weeks turned into months and it all seemed possible. I decided to make Barcelona Marathon my target to qualify for a C seeding pen as Comrades, a target of 3:40. Unlike many other races, Comrades, although a chipped race, the finish time is from when the gun is fired at the start, so those crucial first few minutes to get over such a mass start of circa 20,000 entrants could make a difference to finishing, depending on whether I had a bad day or not. 54 miles in high temperatures and hills in abundance could make or break anyone. The last thing I wanted was to be in such a position not to make any of the 6 cut off points during the race, never mind the cruel 12 hour gun going off at the finish and to be turned away with no medal, which is what Comrades is so famous for. After all, this wasn’t called the ‘Ultimate Human Race’ for nothing.

March came and a weekend away in Barcelona with likeminded great friends, Fi and Matt was a great tonic. All set for a weekend of drinking, laughs and hopefully a PB C Seeding was about to unveil. Race day came and I felt pressured at the start. 3:39 was going to be tough as it was warm. A good start unravelled and a steady pace set. Unfortunately, not having researched the course came back to bite me. A distance of 26.74 on my Tom Tom brought me in at 3:41 and although a marathon PB, I was gutted for my poor research and the extra distance.

More good results were set at the Forest of Dean half marathon in 1:46, another course PB, and my next attempt for a sub 3:40 was Manchester Marathon. A late entry 2 days before and a solo drive up the day before in preparation. The day didn’t unfold well as it started with scaling a 6ft locked gate to exit my cousins garden. I fell off the gate while not clearing my foot and landed flat on my hip and side. I also bent my middle finger back which ended up black within the hour. This, together with the decision to wear a brand new pair of Hoka’s, what could possible go wrong ?. A tough run right from the start, I felt tired, sore and under pressure as the time was ticking for my body to be able to recover in time for the 2 months ahead of the tough back to back crucial training. A niggling calf issue that I’d been managing for a few weeks raised it’s head at 22 miles stopping me in my tracks. I was on for 3:38 pace so was torn between pushing on or stopping to address it. I had many people telling me in my head not to do today as it was too far into training to risk injury but my stupid head took over. I managed to massage the calf and stretch it out and start running again and I decided I’d lost my 3:39 dream, so I never looked at my watch again until the finish. A 3:40:19, although another PB, it wasn’t what I needed and I now had an injury! Gutted!! The usual ‘I told you so’s followed from the people close to me which was a bitter pill to swallow.

I went straight into survival mode and my plan of attack was to manage the injury, cross train and stay positive. I’d entered the race as a huge cost and this was not going to stop me getting to the start line in Durban.

Lots of cycling, pool running and gym work followed, with regular massage, Rossiter and physio sessions with my friend Jane, kept me focussed and motivated. This was not replacement for the high mileage pounding the streets I was missing. Watching Mark come back daily from his seamless training sessions didn’t help. After chatting to my brother, he suggested that doing a 55 km training run by extending the London Marathon was no longer an option! The crucial longest training run in preparation for Comrades was not going to happen. I had too much to risk. If my calf didn’t hold out, I would have just enough time to repair it before Comrades. Having already lost crucial training, this was not great mentally. London was tough. I managed sub 4hr but felt tired the whole way. I think racing Barcelona and Manchester with 2 3:40s had caught up with me. I think on reflection I was peaking and I found training from here on quite draining.

More gym, swim and bike throughout the next 2 weeks then I entered a 6hr timed event with club mate and friend, Jules Jameson. This was the best thing I did for my confidence. Jules was great company and reigned my in when needed. I only completed 28 miles but it was 6 hours on my feet in hilly, hot conditions which was great for my head. And no pain during or after so it was GAME ON!

The next few weeks were tense as he taper madness kicked in, but I had done all I could…Running miles, cycling miles, hours in the gym and hrs pool running.

The trip to Durban was seamless and stress free. Extra seats on the plane and it was my birthday so spirits were high…both metaphorically and physically! We arrived safe and checked in to the hotel on Durban sea front. Friday came and we met my brother and headed for the expo! Holy Sh*t! This real!! Nerves well and truly kicked in, to point of nausea. Tis is it, this is what you’ve worked, talked about and dreamt of for the last 9 months. From this point on I found myself withdrawing further and further into myself as the hours ticked by. Mark and Ian were well aware of this and assured me it as going to be fine but inside I was bricking it! Amazing expo and lots of chat with fellow novices and more experienced returnees. Some returning for their 25th, 34th and 39th Comrades…unbelievable!! Total respect. ‘it gets inside you’ they said ‘It will humble you’, ’it takes all of you’

Saturday morning was Durban Park Run. Nerves still very prevalent, I knew it was time to do this. My legs felt very heavy along the flat beachfront, but with 2800 runners ( A new Park Run World Record attendance) it was an amazing atmosphere. 3.1 miles complete, we chatted to other UK runners and headed to Mugg and Bean for breakfast. Spirits were high all around us. I struggled to eat as I was rally nervous. Ian and Mark decided it was a good idea for me to stay in Durban while they took a car to the finish in Pietermaritzburg. I was a good decision as seeing what was ahead of me tomorrow wasn’t going to help my already tense state.

It was lovely being on my own. I walked along the beach soaking up the atmosphere surrounding me. I went for coffee and tried to get my head in a positive state. An evening meal with Ian’s friend, Pete, who was running his 25th Comrades (OMG!) was lovely, and an early night beckoned. We got out kit ready and laid out on the bed, did the obligatory pre-race photo shot for social media and tried to settle ready for the 3:30am alarm call.

The usual crazy dreams of not getting to the start line, oversleeping, not making the finish, all unfolded throughout the few restless hours until the alarm woke us. I felt positive when I woke. I’d slept more than I thought. We met Ian in the lobby and proceeded to walk the 2 km to the start. It was already warm and it was only 4:30 am. Lots of banter en route through the streets. The locals were all out, some still drinking from their night out, shouting words of encouragement as we walked past, me in my Union Jack vest.

The adrenaline kicked in as we approached the start pens. I can’t believe I’m here at last! We quickly got in to Pen C and waited for the 15 minute countdown. “This is it!” Ian said “Time to make some memories!”

The South African national Anthem played and emotion was pouring from people all around me. This was followed by Shosoloza and I grabbed Mark’s hand desperately fighting back the tears. Chariots of Fire followed and famous cock crow by max Trimbourne. Countdown from 10, confetti everywhere from the start canon. We were off!

It took around 70 secs to get over the start line. Out of town and on the freeway we went until the first hill within 10 mins. This was one of the many unnamed hills. This wasn’t called the ‘Up Run’ for nothing. My heartrate was really high and I felt quite laboured. Busily watching the cats eyes I took a huge tumble on some raised tarmac and went down like a sack of spuds. Shit, it hurt! Ian and Mark picked me up and told me to keep moving. At this point I thought it was game over. 6 months of training and preparation and huge financial cost all gone in the blink of an eye. I’d hurt my left hand really badly, both my knees and my left shoulder. Ian got me to start running again and I tried to focus on just getting back into a rhythm. Lots of negativity was going through my head. Would I even make the 10km or first cut off point! Mark and Ian were puling away so I told them to go so I could just relax and do my own thing. It was light now and the temperature was rising, as were the hills.

It wasn’t long before the 10:30 bus was behind me, so I decided to hitch a ride and enjoy the company and banter. This was a great decision and one of the memories that will stay with me forever. I stayed at the front and got the pacers their drinks and food as we ticked off the fuel stations. Throughout the whole race I have to say how incredible and professional it all ran. Pretty impressive to have ice cold coke and water, even at 50 miles.

Just before Inchanga, one of the big 5 hills, the 10 hr bus went past so I was feeling good and said farewell to my new friends and joined the new bus. The 10:30 driver yelled “Goodbye Anne-Marie from Great Britain, see you later!” “Not if I can help it!”I shouted “Feeling good”

This bus was far quicker and more serious so I just tucked in and got on with the job. We climbed Inchanga quite quickly and I felt it in my legs at the top. I was feeling very strong mentally and was happy but tired. I had respected the tough first 43 km as I’d been told by many that if you don’t then it will break you on the back half. It was at about 50 km that I started to feel heavy and sluggish, so I decided to let the 10 hr bus go and just hang on to anybody that wanted to chat.

I made use of the fuel stations, potatoes, coke, oranges, Energade and bananas as I was so conscious of not burning out. The potatoes were hard to get down but they worked. I’d now been running for over 6 hours and still had at least another 4 to go. I decided to break the last 30 km down into 6 Park Runs in my head and started to sing songs to myself to pass the time. It was at this point where I started to struggle and I felt quite lovely. Silly really as I was surrounded by 1000s of like minded people with whom I had so much in common, yet I felt this way.

I missed my running buddies Fi and Jane, with whom I’s shared so many memories and tough runs with in the past. They would love this race in it’s entirety like I have grown to. I never felt at any point that I wouldn’t return and I now understood why the labels it had earnt were so true. It was really hot now and I was constantly flushing my legs and head with ice cold water and placing ice blocks under my hat.

I chatted to quite a lot from 60 km. People from all over the world telling me how ‘it gets inside your skin’. “Yep” I said “I’m already planning my down run next year for my back to back medal” “Gott be done” they said.

By this point, with 70km down and ONLY 17.7 km to go, it was a case of run the flats. Walk the hills and survive each kilometre. I looked at my watch around 8 hours and hoped Mark and Ian were in their last hour to get their Bill Rowan. This was all new territory for me as the furthest I had ever run was 33 miles. As I hit the 50 mile mark I gave myself a “Whoop!”. Home straight now, only just over 4 miles to go and I’ll see my family and that famous finish line I’d dreamt about for years. Toughest bit of the race mentally and physically but I’ve got this. I’m going to finish and I’m not chasing the 12 hour cut off which, after my fall over 9 hrs ago I would have been more than happy with. 1km marker. Holy Shit! Soak it u, smile for the TV camera, try and look like you’re enjoying it! Arms up as I passed. People at home are watching you and some had done a whole days work while you were running ’Crazy really’.

I ran under the highway bridge and up my last bloody hill! 6,600 feet of ascent in my legs, 30oC heat, my body was battered but I’ve made it. I managed to hold it together quite well as I entered the racecourse at Scottsville Petermaritzburg. I slowed down to soak up the last few hundred metres of the finishing straight and take my glory. I had worked so hard for over the last 6 months. Pumping my arms as I crossed the line. Priority in hand, I stopped my watch and walked forward to a lovely lady who embraced with a huge hug and a fresh yellow single rose! It was at this point that I broke down into a sobbing mess on this lady also named Anne-Marie . She got it full throttle. 10 hours 13 minutes !!!!! Absolutely amazing journey! By far the toughest thing I have ever done in my life and I did it all on my own……. So proud!

Medal placed around my neck, I proceeded to shuffle and find the International tent to seek out my family and share our elation. Crossing the bridge and the stairs was hard as my legs were already seizing. I spotted the tent and desperately looked for a familiar face in the crowded tent! I saw Ian in the far corner and yelled at the top of my voice “I F…ing did it” We hugged the life out of each other and Mark too! We exchanged times and I was so happy for Mark to have got what he worked so hard for and the fact that they shared a unique experience together till the end! It was at this point I started to feel a bit wobbly. Mark quickly got me a cup of sweet tea. It was very surreal at this point, I was sat just trying to absorb what I and everybody around me had just achieved. I couldn’t believe it was all over, it seemed like I was out there forever, yet it had gone in a blink of an eye.Everywhere around us, chaos was unfolding, reminiscent of a conflict zone. People being stretchered everywhere with vacant faces and drips in their arms. People being ill, crying, shrieking, sirens going off!

After an hour we decided to make our way to the exit, trying to avoid getting caught up in the 12 hour cut off and onslaught of 1000s of spectators too. Getting to the car was a marathon in itself. Only 2km away but it took us 40 mins. It was on exiting the racecourse, a gentleman ran a very large (full) wheeled suitcase over my left foot!! Like I haven’t been through enough already. It swelled up really quick and after a stressful nausea filled journey back to Durban, I could barely walk on it. 2 weeks post Comrades it is still swollen and very sore so a second opinion is in order after a visit to A & E showed no break. No running for a while!

The following day was lovely as we went to Mugg and Bean to meet all the Uk and Irish runners. Later on we were passing the bar where Bruce Fordyce and the ladies winner Camilla were and decided to pop up and take a look. To our surprise they were still there so we managed to get some great photos with them both and some signed road signs from the route and a great chat too.

We are home now so it is time to rest the body and the mind (until September of course when we will await the opening of entry for The Comrades Down run 2018 on June 10th 2018) and I can give it what I set out to do and hopefully achieve my Bill Rowan.

As an International Runner doing Comrades for the first time, I can honestly say there is nothing I would criticize or change. They do an incredible job and the local crowd support surpassed all of my expectations and more. So I Thank You Comrades, you did exactly what you said it would do !” Zinkale” “ You took all of me, you humbled me, but you did not break me! “ I will nurse my wounds and the scars will heal but my memories with stay with me forever for me to tell my grandchildren in years to come.