Comrades Marathon – more than just a race


“A mentch tracht unt God lacht” – Man plans and God laughs.

My build up to Comrades was amazing, I ran some of the fastest times I’ve run since school. My 21km in January I ran in 85min, in March I took 30 minutes of my marathon personal best set one year ago, crossing the line in 2h53min. I ran a very easy time on a very tough Long Tom 56km finishing in 4h28min in 19 position overall without walking at all on the route.

I was ready for Comrades, I had done the hill repeats, I had done the tack work, I had run the long runs, I had done gym on average four times a week. I had pushed myself in every aspect and it was paying off, I was ready for Comrades, this was my year. Everything had gone according to plan, all the stepping stones I had put in place along the way, had been reached.

It started in October when I decided to see a dietician to get my body into shape and take off the excess weight I knew hampered me at Comrades. I had targeted Tough One, a 32km in November, wanting to run hard but not flat out as I was not 100%, this 32km would give me a good leap into January where I had targeted the Dischem Helpers run to my first sub 90min half marathon since my school days, I achieved this goal with ease, finishing in 85minutes. My next target was the marathon and with a previous best of 3h23 I felt that a sub 3 hour marathon was out a reach (although this time seemed to be a key to running silver) so my goal was to bring my marathon time as close to 3 hours as possible.

In January with not much marathon training, I ran a 3h03min marathon at Johnson Crane surprising myself with the ease at which this was run. A sub 3hour was definitely possible and I would target Vaal marathon to try and achieve this, giving myself enough time to train, this too would be my qualifying race. I ran a very comfortable Vaal marathon in 2 hours 53 minutes, running the last 10km’s at 4 minutes per km pace.

My final plan and test was the 5km time trial, I ran hard at the Edenvale Time Trial on the 13th April, finishing in 17min46sec, again the fastest I had run a 5km since school.

The hard work had been done and it was now into the taper, a period of rest and recovery with some faster quality sessions thrown in to ensure a well tuned machine for the day. A week into the taper I stepped on a large stone during a run bruising the arch in my left foot, that saw saw me out for 4 days and the balance of the week taken very easy. After two weeks the pain in the foot had pretty much disappeared and I felt rested and strong, perhaps the foot injury was a God send, forcing me to rest.

With two weeks to Comrades I was raring to go! I felt like I could break every personal best I had ever run, from the 5km time trial through to the 42km marathon, I felt I could easily knock off at least 5 to 10 minutes off my pervious best marathon time set only a few weeks back. But I would not test myself now, it was Comrades or nothing.

I had written out a Comrades intention statement, this statement was written as though it was the day after Comrades, written as though I was looking back on the race and I wrote knowing that I had run the time I wanted which was well within the Silver cut off time.

Into the final 2 weeks before Comrades, a sermon on Sunday and Comrades the following week. That Thursday saw me run my last 16km mid-week run, a run called Big-Fred, Big Fred is a steep 2km hill, I try and beat my time up Big Fred every week as I get stronger and stronger, this week, the last Fred, I would run hard, I would hit the hill hard and I would hold the pace for as long as I could. I ran up Fred in 9min13secs, more than 1 minute faster than my time a year ago.

After Big Fred it was off to the gym as usual, except something was different this morning, I felt tired and drained, like I wanted to sleep, I abandoned the rest of the training and headed for the mats were I would stretch, but all I wanted to do was sleep, in fact I think I may have fallen asleep for a few seconds on the mats. I headed for the shower and off to the office.

It wasn’t long, I was sitting at my desk and all of a sudden as if someone had lowered the sun I felt like I was burning up, my body started aching and my head started throbbing. I couldn’t believe what I was feeling, how was this possible, I had taken every possible precaution, washing my hands after using any equipment or shaking any hand, I had been taking Viral Choice and Viral guard and some other stuff the chemists take to avoid getting sick, but there was no doubt here, somehow a virus had infiltrated my firewall and I was shutting down.

Without wasting any time, I was off to my GP, he gave me a 3 day course of antibiotics assuring me that by Saturday I would be fine and that I could join the club once again on the road on Sunday. Thank goodness, I was worried that this was serious.

Friday night I could hardly sleep, it felt like I had swallowed razor blades and with every swallow I would wake up in a pain I had never felt before. Saturday morning I phoned the doc, I was supposed to be better by now, he said to me if I was still feeling that way I had a virus and there was noting I do but wait for it to works it’s way out of my system. According to the doctor I was still contagious and that meant that I would not go to the Chairman’s breakfast the following morning, there was no way I would risk passing this virus onto any of the runners so close to Comrades, they had all worked so hard. Chairman’s breakfast is a tradition at the club; a social run at the club followed by a breakfast the Sunday before Comrades. That afternoon as I sat in the coach speaking to Cindy and trying to come to grips with what was happening, I left the lounge and walked to my study fighting back the tears, feeling for the first time that I may well miss Comrades too, but I refused to mourn my Comrades; still a week away, I refused to believe that God would bring me this close and then abandon me and again I place Comrades in His hands.

Monday morning came, and I felt no better, my throat was too painful to swallow, at least I was getting some sleep with the pain killers I was taking. Off to the doc once again, there must be something else, it felt like I had open sores down the back of my throat. Again he took a look, he seemed concerned by the amount of swelling in the throat and so he took blood and sent it off to be tested for various illnesses including Glandular Fever, giving me a second antibiotic in the meantime, this time a 5 day course.

I felt no improvement during Monday, but when I woke up on Tuesday morning I felt a little better and as I reached for my Black Berry to see what the Bible reading for the day was (I subscribe to an email list where I get send a verse every morning) I was amazed at the verse that lay there before me, John 5:6 “Do you want to be made well?” “Yes, Lord, I do, I want to run Comrades.” People have often shared with me how at specific times in their lives they had opened the Bible and a verse had spoken directly into their lives and situation. It had never really happened to me, God has spoken to me in many other ways but on this day, it was as though God had clicked send on that email.

I was getting better and there was still time before Comrades. Each day that week seemed to fly and crawl by at the same time, time was waiting for no man and the big day was drawing ever nearer, yet this virus was taking it’s time in working it’s way out of my body, and I now had a blocked nose which felt like it was turning to a head cold, but I kept clearing it with a nose spray and rising the throat with salt water. I would be going to Comrades and I would run, but I wondered if I would be 100% by Sunday and I had a question mark over running so soon after been sick, I did not want to risk my life or my running career.

Friday morning, this would see me together with thousands of other runners and supporters making their way to Pietermaritzburg, the alarm went off and again I reach for my Black Berry to check the verse for the day. Amazing, Psalm 31:14-15 “You are my God. My times are in your hand.” Again, as though God had hit the send button, a verse directed straight at me, I knew that I would be running on Sunday, God had confirmed it and whatever time I ran, my race was in His hand.

The weekend flew by, Saturday morning, I took the last of the antibiotic and went for a run, my first run in 8 days, could I even remember how to run? I felt pretty good on the short 2km run, even though my heart-rate had shot up to 190bpm, after I started up a hill thinking it was shorter than it turned out to be. I figured the fact that I never died on that run meant I would be fine for the 90km’s ahead of me the next morning. My legs felt very stiff and tight after the run and I thought it was a good thing I ran on Saturday to loosen then up before lining up at the start. I stretch them and tried to loosen them up and then stayed off my feet as much as possible the rest of the day.

I had run the route in my mind a hundred times I knew what lay before me and I knew exactly how I was going to get to halfway and in what time, that would set me up for my targeted finish time.

I woke up the following morning, I felt good,, I felt nervous, simply because this was Comrades, the culmination of months and months of training and hard work, but I also felt nervous knowing that I was still not 100% healthy, my nose was still blocked up and running like a horse at the local racing track, but I was confident that by running I was in no way putting my life or my health at risk.

My brother said a prayer for me, thanking God for this day and asking God to deepen my relationship with Him as He journeyed with me on the route from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. We got into the car and it was off toward the start, the closer we got, the more I could feel emotion welling up within me. I got out the car and fought back the tears as I said goodbye to my family and kissed my wife. I would see them along the route and I looked forward to that moment unsure of how I would feel alone the way.

I walked through the thousands and thousands of runners, the air alive with Comrades fever, getting into my seeding pen, I sat down 5 meters from the starting line and I thanked God that I was at the start. He had made me well and while I knew I still had a post nasel drip, I had been made well enough to take on this journey. The gun went and we were off, like a pack of hound dogs the runners around me set off, I held back getting into my comfortable pace just as I had planned.

“Not too bad” I thought to myself, “feeling pretty good, only 88km’s to go now.” But it wasn’t long, a km or two when I started feeling my left knee, which was odd as I had not felt it in any of my training coming into Comrades, and after a few km’s of running, around 6 I think, I could feel that my legs were not normal. The muscles, especially my hamstrings and calves, were extremely tight, but I figured I hadn’t run in a few days and it was cold, they would loosen up soon enough.

About 16km’s into the race I had been continually hitting my glutes and hamstrings, trying to wake them, a club member ran past me and asked what I was doing, he too believed the same thing I did, “They’ll loosen up.” I kept to my pace, feeling like my heart rate was comfortable and that my breathing was easy.

I came through halfway exactly as planned to the minute, on my watch according to my distance I had 3h30min, the halfway mark on the route saw me at 3h32min, I was well on track. But my legs were feeling “funny”, they had never felt like this before, tighter and tighter they got. Out of halfway I felt the early warning signs of cramp in my calves and hamstrings and I stopped for a moment to stretch them.

As the morning went on, I became more and more aware that I had a very real problem in that these legs were not going to loosen and that I was in for a longer day then I had initially planned, but still I kept going, very slow at times. There were places and hills where the legs simple refused to go and I was forced to walk, giving the legs a break but not making it any easier to get going again, eventually with about 15km’s to go, I walked into a physio station to get a rub down hoping that that would relieve the stiffness and enable me to get going again, a 15km walk to the finish would take a very, very long time.

The rub down did nothing and I felt as though the legs had seized, I saw my wife and my brother with about 14km’s to go and they were urging me, “Come on, keep going, did deep, you can do it.” But I couldn’t, Comrades had asked some tough questions, and I simply had no answers, apart from, “I can’t, these legs simply won’t go.” As if by divine intervention, my brother said, “Come, there a cooler box up ahead” A complete stranger on the the freeway, had a cooler box with some arnica oil along side, after asking, my brother took some and began to massage my legs, getting deep into the aching muscles.

That was just what I needed, and I was able to get a jog going, it was slow, but at least I was moving, I said to myself, “You can’t stop, you have to run from here to the finish, if you walk you’re tickets” but somehow I felt or at least my mind was telling me that running from here to the finish was wishful thinking. Anyway, for now I was going.

I knew there were hills still to come, 2 tough ones, one at 45th Cutting and Toll gate hill and a few smaller ones in between, I hit 45th cutting and said to myself, “Run for as long as you can into this hill” and then when I felt, “ok, you can walk now, ” I said to myself, “just a bit more, you can run just a little more,” and then when my mind said, “ok, that’s far enough, you can walk the rest,” I said to myself, “you’re almost at the top, only a little more left, you can run it” which I did, I ran the rest of the way to Durban. The last 2km’s went on forever and all I wanted to do was walk, but I kept going.

As I entered the stadium I knew that I had missed my goal by more than 30minutes, and for that I was bitterly disappointed, but at the same time as I ran onto the grass I knew that I had done my best on the day and I would lift my hands both in victory, but more so in praise, thanking my God, my amazing God for carrying me all that way, not 100% fit, my nose ran the entire way (it was the only part of me that ran the whole way) but He had carried me, I was in one piece and I would not end up in the medical tent. The Bill Rowan medal consists of 2 pieces of metal, a bronze piece and a silver piece, that was typical of how I felt, both disappointed and happy at the same time, it was weird feeling, I had taken 40minutes of my previous best time, but I knew that I was capable of better.

No two Comrades marathons are the same, the last 3 races for me, had been just that, a race, but this Comrades was a journey, as I look back over my journey, one week down the line, I realize that God was very much in control. I realize that I needed to get sick one week before Comrades, God had some amazing lessons to teach me, if I never got sick I would have properly run the time I wanted, or come very close, but I realize that I would have missed out on some amazing life lessons, which God could only have taught me in the way things panned out.

In the week that has passed I have realized that I have to train the mind and that I have to overcome the mind, when difficult situations come, be they on the road of Comrades or on the journey of life, and those difficult questions are asked of us, if we do not have an answer the mind will simply stop us in our tracks, prevent us from seeing God’s hand at work and will not be victorious. I know now that somewhere between Botha’s Hill and Pinetown the pain in my legs caused my mind to will me to stop, to throw in the towel, but I also know now that it is possible to overcome that evil, that mind that seeks only to destroy us and prevent us from reaching out God given potential, that mind is not of God and we do well to focus on Him and learn to defeat it. The Christian journey is a fight, it’s not easy and there are many moments that leave us stumped in life, we have to have an answer and I believe that that answer lies in the strength that God gives us to overcome. It’s the same strength that kept Jesus on the cross in our place and it’s the same strength that will carry us though any pain we may face.

If we live our lives trying to please others we will not have an answer for those difficulties. On the road I remembered all the people I wanted to show I was capable, all the people I wanted to prove my worth to, and when the pain came, I realized that I had nothing to prove and that “showing” them was not an answer and that “showing them” was suddenly not that important and that would not carry me to the end. Once I came to that realization I had to start digging for an answer, I had to find something deep within that would keep me going, in the end I wanted to finish, I wanted to finish in the best time I could on that day, I wanted to prove to myself that I could face defeat head-on and still find something within.

I am already focusing on next years Comrades, I’m already beginning to plan my path to that event and I believe that when the 29th May 2011 comes around next year, I will be in a far stronger, far better place than I was this year.

God has been with me every single step of the way, for me, running is more than just running, it’s a spiritual discipline, a discipline in which I am able to connect with God in a very real, raw way, and the lessons that I learn through running and the lessons God teaches me on the road, God takes those lessons into my life and I’m a stronger and better person because of them.

Am I disappointed that I never reach my goal? Of course I am, but I wouldn’t change the outcome of this years Comrades for a 1000 silver medals, the lessons I take away from a God who cares enough to teach me, are invaluable!

– Ray Orchison

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