Comrades 2016 Race and South Africa Trip Recap
I have been wanting to put this experience into words for a while now. But I didn’t know where to start. So I guess I will start at the finish.
There was an incredible amount of emotion at that finish. Comrades was so much more than just a race. South Africa was so much more than just a vacation. It represented a pivotal life transition.
Rewind to 8 days before that…
Honestly just looking at those pics makes my throat hurt and eyes sting. It’s the last time I ever nursed Malachi. My 4th baby. My final child. It’s the last time I will ever hold a baby to my breast and nourish them with my milk. Breastfeeding had been a BIG part of my life for close to a decade.
Rewind even further back. When the idea of going on a 10 day solo trip to South Africa to run Comrades first originated as an idea, my initial thoughts were “That sounds amazing and I’d love to do that someday”…yet quickly thought of a dozen reasons why I shouldn’t go. Mostly it felt selfish to even consider… overly indulgent and completely impractical for a mom of four to go on a solo trip for 10 days. So I tried to push it out of my mind…
But I couldn’t shake it. I found myself googling Comrades on a regular basis. I was enthralled and fascinated by this event. (THIS VIDEO!) I chatted with a friend about it some…and expressed how much I would love to go to South Africa. That I had actually wanted to go to South Africa since I was about 10 years old and first learned about it at school.
“Do you not feel worthy? Because being a mom doesn’t make you any less worthy!”
*That* was like a ‘Wake the F up Sarah! Desire is a HEALTHY part of life! It’s ACCEPTABLE to pursue dreams!!
I thought about the timing of the race. My youngest child would be almost 2. My intent was to wean him at about two years old. And I knew once I weaned him I would begin the journey of reclaiming sovereignty over my body. Fertility. Childbearing. Breastfeeding. These had directed (and at points almost consumed) my life in many ways over the past 13 years. And soon they would no longer be present and would instead be a memory. That reality felt a bit monumental to me on the inside. Like a mourning and celebration all at once. And I decided I really want to honor and mark this transition in a special way. I wanted to go to South Africa. By myself. It felt like exploring a new place would allow me to simultaneously explore the shift that was occurring within me. Free of routine. Free of falling into patterns of behavior and/or thought. I would have the gift of space to seek clarity, wisdom, and guidance about where this new life phase was taking me.
I decided to talk to hubby about it. He’s a very supportive man. Incredibly so. His response was careful and considered.
“Why do you want this so much?”
And I explained the above to him. He paused. And processed my words.
“Ok. I understand. This is important to you. We can make it work”.
Next up was securing childcare. This felt like a daunting task. Who could I possibly pass the baton off too? It’s hard to temporarily relinquish the role of mother. And not because of the need to “control” but more so because the responsibility can feel so draining at times I wondered if it was even fair to ask someone else to care for my kids. This silly notion of needing to do it all on my own 100% of the time provided me with valuable insight into an unhealthy mindset that needed to change. So I bravely asked my mother in law if she would be available and willing to help us. Without even hesitating for nanosecond she said “Sure!”. My heart swelled with love and gratitude for her. I’ve known her since I was 15 years old and have always admired her confidence and positivity. She’s a truly unique soul and we are blessed to have her in our lives.
Next step was needing to run a qualifying race. I run a lot of races but hadn’t run anything recently that qualified. A quick search told me the Brussels Marathon was 2 weeks away. I decided I would run 18 miles the next day and if I could run it at the pace I wanted, I would register for Brussels with the intent to use it as my Comrades qualifying race. My long run went better than I expected. And so I registered for the Brussels Marathon while I was still sweaty from my run.
Now I needed a training plan. Comrades cutoff were likely to be a bit tight for me. Even on the down year. And I needed to train these legs for downhill running. You can easily trash overzealous quads on downhills which is often a deal breaker in ultras. Not having any legit hills within 100k radius, I joined a local gym to have access to different equipment for training. This proved to be a very effective way to crosstrain and prep the body for the Comrades course.
The trip was organized by a running club I am a member of called Run It Fast. If you are a runner and don’t know about Run It Fast, you’ll want to check them out ASAP! Be prepared to be highly motivated and inspired! The founder Joshua Holmes has a crazy impressive running resume yet remains super humble and encouraging of all running levels/abilities. Unfortunately he wasn’t able to join us at Comrades. His wife experienced a major health crisis shortly before the trip. You can read more about their story (and make a contribution if you feel moved to, as it still impacts them on a daily basis) here.
This was my first time doing an organized group trip and I have to say I loved it! For so many reasons. Initially it just alleviated a ton of work and stress for me in figuring out any of the travel details. And from a cost perspective it really wasn’t any more than what it would have cost me to book/arrange everything myself so double win! Additionally it included a few ‘extras’ that I probably wouldn’t have explored on my own including:
- Cape Point Tour
- Township Tour
- Two Day Safari
There was also a shark dive included. But I opted out of that craziness and instead I did a wine tasting bike tour through the Stellenbosch vineyards.
Tony Sonnabend of UK International Sports Tours was the trip coordinator and did an excellent job. All the various aspects of coordinating a group of 22 went smoothly. And it was nice for me to just relax and not have to figure anything out. Just take it all in!
There was 22 of us total on the trip. Most of us were strangers to each other before the trip or perhaps only knew one another through social media or the virtual aspect of the Run It Fast club. But when you share an experience like touring South Africa and running Comrades, you develop a super special and rare connection with one another. I roomed with a women named Melinda. She is a pretty amazing person and I quickly developed deep admiration for her. I am so grateful to have spent time with her in Africa and keep hoping life will bring us together again!
We all met in Amsterdam to board a direct flight to Cape Town. So while everyone else had at least one or two connecting flights just to get into Amsterdam, I just had the short drive from my house to the airport. This meant I was fresh and full of energy, while the rest of the group already had several hours of travel under their belt and were feeling a bit jet lagged. It’s an 11 hour direct flight from Amsterdam to Cape Town. Which sounds painstakingly long but for me it was a total treat to fly without little ones. I read, dozed on/off, munched, and watched movies. It was actually super relaxing for me.
We were instructed by Tony multiple times to pack as light as possible. He emphasized this heavily in nearly every email he sent out. This made moving as a group much easier as we had a lot of traveling with in South Africa.
When we finally arrived at our first hotel and I opened my bag and immediately found this.
I sat on the floor. Read it. And cried softly to myself. I already missed my littlest one so very, very much.
My body was still producing milk and I’m pretty sure my breast swelled up with milk for him while I read this. I had brought my pump with me and knew I would need to pump throughout the trip. It would be a delicate balance of needing to pump for relief but not enough to stimulate milk production. I was a bit worried about how this would work, but like most things in life it worked out just fine. Even on race day I didn’t have any issues and only needed to hand express a bit near the end. By the final day of my trip I no longer got uncomfortable or needed to pump. Bittersweet for sure!
This was my very first time in South Africa. And the beauty of it astounded me. I literally had no idea it was going to take my breath away like that. And the food! Oh was the food ever delicious! The coffee too. I had the BEST cup of coffee I have ever had in my life at Truth Coffee. I swear I want to go back to Cape Town just to eat breakfast and sip on coffee there. I indulged in everything on the trip and just LOVED eating.all.the.food!!! Plus the company I shared it with made it extra special. Enjoying meals with other adults while sharing stories with one another. It was all so heavenly.
There are a lot of cautions about walking around Cape Town alone at night. After being there I would suggest you heed this advice. During the day I felt completely comfortable walking around on my own. And did a ton of solo exploring. BUT the city vibe definitely shifted at night. And while it didn’t feel violent or threatening, there are many people begging on the streets at night. And they will follow you. For kilometers. In groups. And persistently ask you for money. It’s a harsh reality that you will for sure experience in Cape Town at night. I was mostly in a mixed gendered group of 4 or more when walking late at night so I felt comfortable walking. However there is also the option of taking a taxi, which I never did but some of the people in our group preferred to do.
Touring the Langa Township was a very mixed experience for me. I was highly uncomfortable with it at first. I felt like we were making a spectacle out of the human condition of poverty. And racism. Even months later it’s hard to talk about or put words to the things I witnessed there. In the end I’m pretty sure tourism is a big source of income for the Townships so maybe it’s helping the communities? Or does it continue to suppress the residents and perpetuate the lifestyle? I honestly don’t know? I do know that our guide seemed genuinely welcoming and even prideful to show us her community; her home. She even introduced us to her son. We visited his childcare home. There was over 20 babies and 4 caregivers all packed into one teeny tiny room. There were babies were everywhere. Personal space did not exist. There was 8 babies all lined up on the couch napping together. It really made me wonder how this wired a child. This almost constant physical closeness with other humans. The idea that most everything is shared among one another because resources are too scarce and limited for individual ownership. For as crowded and unsanitary the conditions at the childcare were, the babies and caregivers all seemed very relaxed and happy. The vibe there was peaceful.
When we visited the school the children were very excited about our arrival. It was obvious they are used to visitors taking their picture. They greeted us with songs. They kept smiling and shouting “cheese!!!” at us. So I started taking their picture and showing it to them. Holy Moly! Suddenly I was backed into a corner surrounded by dozens of children wanting to see themselves on my camera. And being encircled by this large group of innocently happy and excited children was eye opening and uplifting. No judgments between us. Just joyful smiles and silly laughter.
The Safari was one of the parts of the trip I was most looking forward to. And it far exceeded anything I could have ever imagined. First off I was still on a huge HIGH from running Comrades (see race recap below). The bus ride to the Safari resort was just beautiful. I sat in the back of the bus with Jeff, listening to the Avett Brothers on my phone, each of us wearing an ear bud from my headphones. We didn’t talk much. Mostly just stared out the window, soaking up the beauty of it all. When we arrived at the resort they gave us a brief orientation of the agenda and then gave us our room assignments. We had a little bit of time to explore the property before they served lunch. The property was incredible. The food was amazing. The people working there were gracious and kind. They are genuinely passionate about the wild game at their park and ensuring and protecting a high quality of life for the animals. I was extremely impressed with the game park and give it a rating of “outstanding”.
I feel like I could go on and on and on about the Safari experience but the pictures below speak for themselves. They were taken by Jeff Genova. He’s a super gifted photographer by profession who is also a crazy cool human being. His humor and energy made the entire trip extra fun for us all! When he showed me a few of the pics he took on his fancy schmancy camera, I quickly decided to put my lousy camera phone into my pocket and simply enjoy the safari. I would leave the picture taking to the professional.
We spent two amazing evenings surrounded a fire, drinking wine, and stargazing the most spectacular night sky you would ever see. It felt incredibly intimate. And when I was ready to say goodnight I would crawl into my lovely little bed and drift off into dreamland. I’m pretty sure I slept better there than I ever have in my life. I told my husband that I didn’t even know what sleep was until those 2 nights of sleep there. It was a combination of things: A comfy bed all to myself. The mere SILENCE of the place. No noise pollution of any kind at all. The darkness of it. Spending the day outside in all that fresh air and sunshine. And recovering from Comrades. And just overall this feeling of peace and serenity within me.
The expo/bib pick up before a race usually helps replace nervousness with excitement. This was true of Comrades even though my nervousness level about this race was higher than the norm. I felt the cutoffs might be tight for me unless all elements lined up and I could run steady throughout. I had a rough race strategy in place derived from talking to people who had run it, reading race reports, and the Coach Parry website. But there was no way in heck I traveled all the way to South Africa to DNF. And I would likely not ever have the opportunity to be back on the course. This was it. This was my chance to run Comrades and cross the finish line.
After the expo we went back to the hotel, relaxed, and got together our race gear. The hotel fed us well that night and the following morning. The buses arrived early and brought us to the start line. At the start we each had to part ways and go to our assigned corals. The 10ish minutes leading up to the gun start are incredibly moving and powerful. The chanting touches something deep within you. It’s both soothing and uplifting all at once. Even now whenever I hear the songs I get the chills from it.
The gun goes off and so it starts! Finally. All those months of anticipation and training and planning…and the moment had finally arrived. I kept telling myself;
It’s just running Sarah. You know how to do that. Just move your body. Be steady and smart.
And I did. I held a solid pace. I kept all the info in my head about fueling. About not going too fast on the downs. Where and when on course to hold back. When to push hard. I followed my race strategy to a T!
I also told myself to absorb the experience fully. The people. The landscape. The traditions on the course. Touch Arther’s Seat. Take pictures. Talk to the Green Bibs (runners 3 wins or 5 golds or 10 plus medals). Interact with the spectators. And I did! All of that!
There were so many times I was hit with emotion on the course. Tears would well up inside me and I would be in total disbelief that I was in South Africa. Running Comrades. With people from all over the world.
My bib was blue with a zero on it. This informed other runners and spectators that I was an international runner and it was my first Comrades. The bib color, # of finishes, and name on bib is a wonderful system! It lends itself to lots of interacting on the course. Many of the experienced and accomplished runners were encouraging and supportive to us newbies. Their little tokens of wisdom and motivation carried me throughout. I also sensed a great deal of pride from the locals that an international runner traveled all the way there to experience Comrades.
The spectators! Oh were they ever awesome! Just so full of energy and enthusiasm! Cheering us on for hours and hours as runners passed. I fed off their energy. I accepted offerings of food when feasible to let them know their support was appreciated. The aid stations at Comrades are plentiful and very very efficient. They use these little plastic bags of water that are icy cold. They are easy to grab and drink on the run. I would grab 2 at every aid station. One to pour on me and one to drink. The weather was actually perfect for running, but it was a lot warmer than my body was used to and I wanted to keep cool.
Every time I checked my pace I was pleased. I had opted not to run with a pacing group but instead hold pace on my own using my Sunnto.
When I was about 5k out I knew I was finally in the homestretch!! I relaxed quite a bit and somehow this lead to my stomach getting really upset. I suddenly felt super nauseous. Running didn’t feel good so I switched to walking. I kept stopping to take some deep breaths wondering if I was going to throw up. These last few kilometers were pretty slow for me. I didn’t need to rush because I was well within the cut offs and I honestly didn’t overall care too much about my finishing time.
At about 1k from the finish line, a runner I had played leap frog with throughout a majority of the race came along side me and gave me some words of encouragement. Somehow his voice gave me a boost and I picked up my pace again. When I entered the stadium I was completely overwhelmed. Emotions flying in all directions. The noise level was astounding. Visually it was almost too much to take in. Crossing that finish line was truly amazing. The theme of 2016 was Izokuthoba; meaning ‘It will humble you”. And it did. I crossed that finish line not with pride, but with complete gratitude.
Once I made my way to the international tent I met up with the other runners from my group who had finished or dropped. And I still felt really yucky. I didn’t want to eat or drink. I just wanted to curl up in the fetal position and breathe. The amount of noise and stimulation was a bit overwhelming to me after such a long and hard physical exertion. When my group was ready to head back to the hotel, I told them to go ahead without me and I would grab a taxi when I was ready. They of course didn’t listen.
We’re not going to leave you!
Guys come on! I am perfectly capable of getting a taxi. I just want to lay here alone for a bit.
The ground is really cold. It’s getting late. You should come with us now.
I refused to get up. Next thing I knew 4 guys were picking me up and putting me on a stretcher and whisking me away to the medical tent.
I could tell my friend Jeff was trying to keep up with them, but they were like literally running with me on this stretcher. And Jeff had just completed Comrades in 7h51m (Yeah. The guy is wicked fast!) so no way could his legs keep up. The unfortunate thing was he had my bag. With my phone and my money. Which was kind of tricky because I had no idea what the name of our hotel was to tell the eventual taxi driver. Or any way to contact any one. I didn’t want Jeff to try and wait for me. I wanted to communicate to him to leave and I would met everyone back at the hotel.
When I got to the medical tent they wanted to give me an IV. They said I was likely dehydrated. I refused any treatment. I kept saying “I just want to lay here for a bit. I will be ok in a few minutes”. I also asked them if they could somehow page my friend. But when they asked me his name, I for the life of me couldn’t remember. I don’t know why my brain wouldn’t work and I feel awful admitting this, but I couldn’t pull up his name in my head. They asked if there was someone they could call. And I explained that I didn’t have my phone with me and that I don’t have any phone numbers memorized.
Finally they said there is someone named Richard here for you. Huh? Who the heck is Richard?! And then the nurse handed me a phone. Hello?!? It was Tony. The trip coordinator. He explained that they were all back at the hotel and Richard would be waiting for me in the discharge area. Ohhhh, *that* Richard. The one from our group who I spent the last 8 days with, lol. Richard also had my bag with him. Which was great because I so desperately wanted to contact my husband.
The nurse convinced me to get an IV. She said I am pretty sure you will feel better within 10 minutes. So I finally obliged mostly because I just wanted to leave. And she was right. Shortly after getting the IV I felt much better. I found Richard and we cabbed it back to the hotel together.
That night I couldn’t sleep. Despite being super tired I had a hard time getting settled. It was like I could not shutdown my body after all that movement and stimulation on the course. I tossed and turned in the bed all night. And was counting down the seconds until breakfast opened. I was soooo hungry!
At breakfast we all of course swapped race stories and just shared in the overall comradery of the event. It was so great to have people to process the experience with. And the exchange of reflections continued throughout the remainder of the trip.
Final Days and the Return
The very last day in Cape Town I decided to spend on my own. I hiked Table Mountain. Other people from the group did as well, but I went my own pace. When I finished I decided to head over to Water Front. I stopped at a running store along the way and bought myself a new hydration pack as a souvenir.
One thing I very quickly realized postrace is the esteem of Comrades. Everyone there knows what the race is. And they don’t care what your finish time is. They honestly don’t even seem to care if you finished. You say you were at Comrades and there is automatically respect given. And it’s not a “put you on a pedestal” kind of thing. It’s a deep reverence for the event itself. And how it unites people. There is obviously still a great deal of segregation and racial tension in South Africa, but on the Comrades course 20,000+ people from all walks of life come together to share in the experience.
*IF* you ever had the desire to run Comrades I really hope you get the opportunity to go! I am beyond grateful for these 6 people that made Comrades happen for me.