The Comrades Marathon: from the inland town of Pietermaritzburg, through the Valley of a Thousand Hills in the dry farmland of KwaZulu-Natal, and then down, down, down to the port city of Durban, sitting on the glistening shores of the Indian Ocean. It is billed as ‘The Ultimate Human Race,’ a tagline which seems like little more than a slick marketing slogan, until you complete the 89k journey on foot along with 16,000 other runners and realize that this 90-year-old event really does live up to the hype.
Anyone who knows me knows that my passion for this race is on a par with AJWs passion for the Western States 100. It’s a race I can talk about for hours, that I fell in love with on my first running in 2011 (where I placed fourth), and that I will encourage anyone to take part in–whether they have completed an ultra before or not. It’s also a race I missed out on in 2013 due to injury and as I started back on my return to running, I always proclaimed that if I could only be fit enough to run one race in 2014, then Comrades it would be. I was prepared to do anything and everything to make it to that start line on June 1 and under the instructions of Bruce Fordyce (nine-time winner), I was dedicated to showing up in South Africa “fit, strong, and uninjured.” Okay, he only mentioned those three words briefly in a Facebook message, but they stuck in my head in the months leading up to the race.
My training however was somewhat patchy; the stress fracture, I thought, was well behind me but each and every week it would seem that a knew niggle arose. Some pain in the tendons around my knee, a bizarre pain in my calf (which miraculously vanished after three days), and my ever-fragile sacroiliac joint and hamstrings also played up when they felt fit. A few speed sessions were missed, two long runs were nixed, and by the time I boarded the plane in Vancouver six days before the race, I was convinced that my fibula was starting to murmur at me again. It was hardly the perfect morale-boosting preparation, but I had to hold in the belief that it was good enough. I had knocked my half marathon time down by a full minute; I had posted my fastest speed workouts ever; and I’d run a 2:43:04 at the Vancouver Marathon four weeks prior as a steady training run. ‘Quality over quantity,’ I would keep telling myself in an attempt to convince myself of this new-to-me method of training.
As I stood at the start line at 5.30 a.m. in the dark streets of Pietermaritzburg I felt somewhat calm. This was the day I had been waiting for and yes, I was nervous but not as much as I often am. Was that good? I wasn’t sure, but I stood in the very front row at the start and stared ahead into the darkness of the race course ahead, You’re here, Ellie. You have actually made it to the start line of Comrades! This seemed somewhat of a miracle in itself and so I tried to appreciate the moment.
The first hour or more are in darkness and whilst there are street lights, their glow falls weakly into the inky darkness. I focused on watching my feet, hopping over speed bumps and just getting into a rhythm. I saw the Russian Nurgalieva twins, Elena and Olesya, zoom out ahead of me, but as I opened in a 3:43 kilometre I wasn’t going to pick up the pace to try and catch them. I tried to spot which other women went out ahead of me but in the darkness and mass of men it was hard to tell what position I was in. I had also seen Camille Herron (U.S.) zoom out ahead of me and as I passed spectators I would hear “good running ladies” hinting that Charne Bosman (South Africa) and another South African lady were tucked in behind me and keeping pace.
The distraction of the darkness meant that the early miles passed quite peacefully and calmly as the course rolled up as much as it rolled down. I focused on maintaining a sensible pace and not pushing the downhills, and as the sun rose and dawn broke over the farmlands I breathed in the smell of wood fires from the sidelines and soaked in the Comrades experience. This is what I had come for. But all too soon I felt that my legs just didn’t have the zip that they should; they felt tired and heavy and I wondered whether it was the taper, the travel, or the massage a week before. In all honesty I knew that it didn’t matter what it was–what mattered was that my legs shouldn’t be feeling this tight and stiff this early on. I had envisaged possible scenarios of my fibula playing up, of my training not being adequate for the race distance, and of my stomach not being happy, but I’d not envisaged just plain old dead legs early in the race. Before the race I’d resolved that I’d not come all this far (both in distance traveled and in injury progress made) to quit. I’d decided that even if a lot of walking was involved then I would make it to the finish line, but now I began to doubt if I would be tough enough to walk the remaining 50k or so to the finish. It was hardly an appealing prospect.
But despite my struggles the kilometres were still passing by, and I’d moved into third with only Elena and Olesya ahead of me. With these twins having dominated Comrades for the past decade it was hardly a surprise that they were ahead. By halfway I’d been maintaining a four- to five-minute gap on the twins for some time and although I was buoyed by the fact that I was now halfway done, my legs were still not coming back to me. I’d have a few positive kilometres maybe by seeing someone I knew at the sidelines or from hearing good music pumping from the numerous stations en route but I would soon forget those positive aspects and my mind would keep returning to thoughts of just how stiff and crampy my legs felt and how I still had really quite a long way to go. I’d become rather settled with the thought that if I came third then really that would be a pretty good result, all things considered, but I kept reminding myself of the talent of ladies behind me and if I started walking too much at this early stage then I could slip well back and move out of the top 10. But even that thought was often not enough to prevent me from walking; I was grateful that I was still running the downhills well but I was walking many of the uphills, however gradual they were, and was surprised that there weren’t women streaming past me given that my pace seemed to have slowed so much.
The crowds would lean in from the sides, their cheers loud and enthusiastic, music blaring. It was a street-party atmosphere but I was in no mood for partying. I couldn’t help but be annoyed that I was feeling so awful when I’d been looking forward to this moment for two years. I began to walk more of the hills and even some of the flats when I would take a bottle from the Nedbank crew, and as I did I began to hear the ever-increasing number of minutes that I was back from the Nurgalieva twins. This should have motivated me to pick up the pace but it just made me think that my pipe dream of winning this race was oh so fantastical. Patrick of Nedbank shouted to me that I was too far back of first and second to catch them but equally fourth was too far back to catch me. I just needed to keep ploughing away, one painful step at a time, and I would maintain third place. I tried to use each and every downhill to keep up a reasonable overall pace but then Ian Sharman zipped by me as I walked a tiny uphill and it was evident that my pace was not exactly race-worthy.
As I entered Pinetown some 10k or so to the finish, the crowds were loud and crazy, and my memories were of walking this hill in 2012. However I was now getting cheers from the crowds, ‘The Russians are fading, you can catch them.” Somehow out of nowhere I found the will, the energy, and the power to start running the hills. It was ugly running; it was a plodding gait and yet I was moving faster on the uphills and flats than I had been for the last few hours. However I was sure that from about nine minutes back of the lead at 15k to go that I was fighting a losing battle, but it was a battle that I wanted to be done, which was the reason to push the pace. I wanted to stop running so my legs could top seizing and also so I could at least show a respectable finish.
Very soon I was getting even more positive feedback from the crowds; it was evident that I was gaining significant ground on the twins and as I ran along the wide-open highway on the edge of Durban, some four or 5k from the finish, I looked up ahead and saw them, spaced 50 metres or so apart with the lead timing car and motorbikes following their each and every move. Even at that moment I didn’t think I could win. It was inconceivable that after such a terrible race that this was a possibility but something in me made me push as hard as I could all the same. Before I knew it I passed both Olesya and Elena. Was I seriously in the lead at Comrades? I really didn’t know what to think. So I didn’t think; I just ran.
I didn’t dare look back. I didn’t want to show that I was scared, but the reality was that I was terrified. In 2012, I came second to Elena by a mere 72 seconds and since then I had fought a stress fracture and many months of missed running and boring cross training and now I might be about to win my dream race and I was terrified that I’d let this–possibly a once-in-a-lifetime chance–slip through my fingers. I was scared to push the pace for fear of major cramping but I had to take a risk, as otherwise I knew I could still get caught. And so on I pushed with a newfound ability to run the uphills and new energy to push the flats. With about 2k to go I saw the familiar gait of Ian Sharman ahead of me; I focused on him and was determined to use him as a target to chase. I saw the timing car that I was now following go past Ian. Despite using every ounce of energy I had left in me I still managed an internal smile as I saw the shocked look on Ian’s face as I went by; he’d clearly and rightfully been expecting to see Elena!
As I entered the cricket Oval in Durban to complete the final few hundred metres to the finish I still did not dare let up. I consciously made myself look up and take a mental snapshot of the view ahead of me, to enjoy later, once I knew I had secured the win. I saw some Canadians waving a huge maple-leaf flag from the sidelines. I saw the yellow finish tape ready for me to break and I saw the confetti pour down. I’d won Comrades! Two days later I’m still wondering if it was all a dream.
Dream big, train hard, and fight until the finish. Never, ever give up.
Comrades Marathon Video Footage
Here’s a full replay of the Comrades Marathon, with lots of shots of Ellie and the women’s race. To see her last-minute pass and win, skip to 6:09:23. There you’ll see Ellie, wearing a white hat, on the upper left part of the screen. In about the center of the image, you’ll see Elena Nurgalieva running with another male entrant. Watch Ellie’s magic happen!