Comrades 2015 – The Up Run – Karen Galpin

I’m on the start line – lets do this!

It’s 3.50 am on Comrades day, the 31st of May, and my phone alarm trills in the dark. After a reasonable night’s sleep I put the kettle on for my instant porridge and start robotically preparing for along day ahead:

  • Factor 50 on all visible body parts – check
  • Vaseline on all invisible but susceptible body parts – check
  • Race kit including numbers back and front – check
  • Shoes with chip attached – check
  • Tog bag with warm dry clothes, recovery drink, painkillers etc – check
  • Comrades hat, sunglasses and Garmin – check

Ready for the off
This is really happening! I just have time to take a quick and nervous piccie for Facebook in the hotel lobby so that my friends and family can see that I’m actually doing it, having kept quiet about the race since I arrived in Durban due to the uncertainty of my injury.

As we leave the hotel it’s dark but warm – no need for extra layers or body warmers before the Durban dawn!

As I approach the start area at City Hall there are people everywhere, walking in all directions, and the pens are already full. This is a record year for entries (22,400) so nobody is taking any chances. After a quick text, l find my club mates Olly and Carl siting on the ground at the entrance to pen C. It’s so good to see them!

The next 25 minutes or so are spent excitedly chatting, soaking up the atmosphere and waiting for the much anticipated pre race atmospheric music. Olly and Carl are so excited – they video everything. First comes the South African national anthem, then Shosholoza which sends goosebumps over my arms and emotions are riding high in the pens. Then Chariots of Fire followed by Max Trimborn’s cock crow which reverberates around the crowd. Suddenly the gun goes off and I shout to Carl to start his watch now rather when we run over the mat – the clock is ticking!

The three of us run together through the streets of Pietermaritzburg in the pre-dawn, taking it all in and reminding each other to take it steady. I have to keep pinching myself that I’m actually running Comrades, after all the uncertainty of the past few weeks. I tell myself – even if I don’t finish, at least I had the courage to start.

Running along, we are amazed by the numbers of E and F numbers in front of us – how did that happen? We notice the first kilometre sign and someone shouts ‘only 87 to go!’

As early as 4K in, we start the climb to Tollgate. It’s surprisingly steep and we decide to start practising our run/walk strategy on this stretch. It feels quite odd to me as I never walk in a race – in the whole of Comrades 2012 I didn’t walk a step, ran all the way. However, this time it’s different. I’m carrying an injury and I have to be cautious plus the Up run is famously tough – 3000 feet of climb in the first 38K. To run all the hills this early on would be suicidal, according to all the experts.

Everyone is upbeat and the banter begins. A South African lady behind us remarks on my Union Jack vest and asks if she can come and have tea with the queen. Carl winds them up by claiming to Prince Charles’ dad – “I’m older than I look!” He says.

The merriment continues onto 45th Cutting and we head into Westville for more climbing and occasional walking on the really steep bits. We are on our way to Cowie’s and all of a sudden it’s getting light. It’s at this point that I lose Carl and Olly. They both opt for a comfort break and I vow to stay on the left hand side so that they can catch me up but I don’t see them again in the race.

We run up and over Cowie’s Hill and through the first cut off point (17k in & 2 hours 40. I’m through in 1 hour 54. Suddenly the cut off doesn’t seem so generous!) We head into Pinetown where it undulates and I look forward to seeing my husband John at our agreed meeting point, Kloof, and proudly showing him that I’m still running. It seems to take along time for that to come and finally I spot him at Gilletts in his Union Jack flag and Almost Athletes vest and stop for a quick hug. It’s 25k in and my legs already feel tight and heavy. Is it because I haven’t run for 3 weeks I wonder? Or is my running gait different because of the injury? Luckily, the pain in my shin has turned to a low key ache but I definitely don’t feel as fresh as I should at this point. Oh well, onwards up Fields Hill with a run/walk strategy as this beauty is steep and long. Botha’s Hill beckons and they seem to be as one i.e no break between them. I’m beginning to understand the toughness of the Up run but I don’t care because I’m still running.

I’ve started to adopt a marching strategy so that my walking pace is optimum. Having never done this before, I’m not sure how effective it is with my arms pumping and flailing, but having seen my sister successfully perfect the technique on a recent string of ultras, I feel it’s worth a try. I march for the count of 60 and then run again and repeat, and repeat.

Having finally summitted Botha’s it’s onwards to Drummond, the half way point and 3rd cut off (45K in & 6 hours 15. I pass through in 4 hours 53). In my mind I know that I can start counting down the Km’s from here and I glance at my Garmin for the first time as I pass through the blast of noise at this key spectator spot. A quick bit of mental arithmetic tells me I could finish in under 10 hours if I could keep this pace going but I can’t dwell on that. There’s still a long way to go and of course more hills. I recall on the Down run my brother telling me at the half way point ‘this is where the work really begins’ and thinking ‘what do you think I have been doing for the past 4 hours?’ The thought of another 27 tough miles up ahead in these conditions doesn’t exactly fill me with joy!

After Drummond comes a long winding climb to Inchanga which is fairly steep. The walk breaks become longer as the climbs spiral upward and the heat intensifies. The water stations can’t come soon enough and everyone takes 3 or 4 sachets to drink and cool the body. (I find out after the race that they ran out of water for the slower runners at the back and out of coke cups which had to be picked up off the ground and dusted off!) It must be close to 30 degrees and there’s no shade anywhere. But, hey, at least I’m still running!

As we approach the top of Inchanga, I check my hand written route notes and ask a couple of South African runners hopefully: ‘are we nearly at Harrison Flats?’ ‘Yes’, one of them replies ‘but they’re not flat!’.

This is the bit that my pre-injury race plan told me I could run and gain some speed if my legs are still relatively fresh. No chance! It’s like they’ve turned to wood and need constant coaxing just to keep going forward. Run/walk it is then.

The 4th cut off beckons – Cato Ridge (57k in & 8 hours 10. I pass through in 6 hours 31). Phew.

Next we reach the chicken farms, a totally exposed area that literally hums in the midday heat. Not far to Camperdown now where I will see John again. And I know in the back of my mind that, with 25K to go at this point, I WILL make it. Seeing John is emotional and I tell him how much my legs hurt. ‘Keep going!’ He shouts. ‘I’ll see you at the finish!’ He looks so pleased for me. The barrage of noise at Camperdown lifts my spirits and I try hard to run all the way through this key spectator spot and look strong.

Mentally I need the signs to be below 20K for my count down but they seem to take a long time to change. Between here and Little Pollys I pass Umlaas Road, the highest point and the 5th cut off (68k in & 9 hours 30. I think I’m about 8 hours here) and it’s run, walk, run,walk and stay positive. I do not allow myself any negative thoughts or for my mind to drift off because I need to focus on managing the aches and pains and on getting to the finish. I need to get to the top of Pollys before the final cut off so that I’m definitely safe.

Little Pollys is the biggest misdescription I have ever heard. It’s huge – and long. More marching and chatting to others who are ALL walking at this point, without exception so I don’t feel so bad about that. Like a human snake, bearing upwards towards the sky and in unison we climb. Someone somewhere sings ‘when the saints go marching in’. After a slight respite, Polly Shorts rears its ugly head into the sky but I don’t care and I’m not intimidated . I just need to get to the top.
On the way up I check my watch and a sub 10 hour finish is still on – just. But I don’t know much more running I can do. My legs – and ribs – are painful and stiff and running is increasingly difficult. The mind strong and willing but the flesh isn’t doing a good job of responding at this point. And I’m not alone – everyone around me is struggling to find the last few ounces of energy to keep going up this last hill.

My South African running colleague reminds me that there’s no difference in the medal between 9.01 and 11 hours and tells me that even if we walk the whole way from here on in, we are guaranteed to finish. I can’t believe it. I’m not hung up about whether it’s a 9.59 or a 10.35. Today is about mental toughness and injury management and it will be a bronze medal that up until yesterday I didn’t think I had a chance at. Now it’s actually happening.

I crest Polly Shorts (80k) in 9 hours 15 and the final cut off here is 11 hours 10. Now I know I’m going to do it!

Made it!
Positivity and determination drives me on through Pietermaritzburg towards the finish. Every kilometre marker takes an age to come – there’s even a steep hill here, can you believe it? 4K, 3K, 2K, and finally 1K. I’m within the golden mile and somehow I manage to keep running throughout the last k. The last 800 meters takes us through the entrance to the stadium where I see John shouting and waving. I run into the stadium where the noise is deafening. There are crowds of spectators all around, several deep and they are yelling – including a band of Brits with union jack vests on who are screaming at me. How far is the finish? I can’t see it. Oh look it’s round this bend and I can see the banner. I’ve only gone and bloody done it! Arms up, smile and absorb everything girl, you deserve it, I tell myself. It’s all over. 10.07.20.

Never have I been so happy to cross a finish line and never have I worked so hard just to get to the finish. I’m one happy lady 🙂


Post script

You need to have a totally different mindset to take on a race with a profile and distance like Comrades with an injury, especially when you don’t know if you will make it to the finish line. It completely changes any game plan you might have had. Comrades is a very tough race – both mentally and physically – and I do feel proud that I have completed it, twice. Thoughts of my supportive friends and loving family got me through the Up run. They never doubted me.

You might wonder why I did it in the face of injury when I knew I would not perform at my best? Because it’s Comrades – the ultimate human race and because I love it.