Why runner needs brown dots, what do South Africans sing about, how to get into a porn-magazine, where 18 guys smoke and how to quickly get rid of the nails?

Comrades … 90-km dream of any marathoner. The legendary, the most prestigious and mass-scale ultramarathon in the world. For the past 90 years at the end of May in South Africa 20 000 participants and 3 000 000 spectators come to hold the longest running festival in the world!

I wanted to take part in this frenzy as soon as I found out about it after my first marathon in Paris. And I have been planning to run Comrades next year after the Ironman in 2015, but … because of the harsh marathon in New York, I fell out of the training process for six months and had to postpone my dream for later times.

And “later times” came.

Comrades differs from any other marathon not only by the distance, but also by… everything! And the preparation for the ultramarathon, of course, is also completely different …

Preparation

I started preparing for the Comrades from the middle of December. Liviu Croitoru, my coach, and head coach of our club Sporter, came to grips with the newcomers, and buried into the theory, so we decided to find for me someone from the ultra-marathoners.

Thus, the person training the dunce of me was Leonid Shvetsov, multiple winner of Comrades, who set the course record in 2007, which is still not beaten (the record is not beaten, not the coach).

We started to run, amounts – about 300 per month. The strategy was as follows: approximately once a month, we run a marathon in different countries to diversify the monotony of training. But with one condition – do not give 100%. Those who know me understand that it was a hard thing for me to do, but I gave my word, and away we go …

As a warm-up, I had the subterranean race – WineRun in the wine cellars of Cricova. Then, there was an uncomplicated major – Tokyo Marathon for 3:27, and after it – Marathon in Jerusalem. There, I tried a new format of marathon for the first time – maraFUN. Running in Hebrew 7:40 pace is fun (video).

After a short rest, I went to Rome, where I ran another hilarious marafun with friends, then went as a pacemaker to Chisinau marathon and a week later went to the United Kingdom. There, I ran at 3:26 one more major – London Marathon.

Form is excellent, the spirit is winning. And here I should have listened to the coach and not run until Comrades, but I just couldn’t get enough…

Banana excursus

My swimming coach, Victor Rogut, once said:

Athlete is like a fruit. Most importantly is to rip it from the branch right on time.

Half a year before the start, the tree, on which a champion will grow, needs plenty of water. Then, put the backup and whitewash it. When small, green bananas appear on the branches – protect against parasites, fertilize the soil and give a lot of sun.

And when the fruit is almost ripe – rip it off. Otherwise, it will rot on the tree. But, the fruit is not yet ready for use. Let it lie down on a table a few days and ripen. And then, when it will have brown dots on it, when it gets filled with juices, will be sweet and fragrant, and it will be clear that tomorrow it will rotten, this is the right time to devour it.

Same thing with the athlete – the last couple of weeks he has to ripen without heavy loads, eat a lot, sleep, and get covered with dots. Only a dotted athlete is 100% ready to race.

So, back to the coach: I still managed tp beg from him the participation in the Wings for Life in Georgia… The race was excellent, I ran 14th of 4000, but still the first in my category of 40-45 years. And Liviu even better – won the race!

And everything would be fine, if a week later I wouldn’t realized that I got a little overripe… Such a runner of second freshness. Such brown “athletes” are sold in the store with a 70% discount. But, I was still not completely rotten, so I took my belongings and with Vova Botezatu went to Africa.

Durban

Comrades is held annually between the two cities: Durban (at sea level) and Pietermaritzburg (700m above). And every year, the direction changes. Even-numbered years – “down” 88-89 km, odd – “up” 85-86 km.

For running in both directions, the runner will get a special medal – “Back to back”. This year, we start in Durban and run 89 km.

Durban is the third largest city in South Africa. At first, we thought that we were in Europe – white people, decent service, everything is clean.

But later, when we got in the slums, we saw a little bit different Durban – the poor, the black and not the safest.

Morality – stop wandering through unknown places, live in the civilized center and stop scaring people.

The day before the start, I decided to run on the sand. Generally, in Durban at the end of May (I do not know how it is in other period) people run more than walk. The crowds on the beach, promenade, on the roads and parks – I have never seen anything like that even in New York, which is considered the capital of running.

Professionals, fat women, young and old, black and white, fast and slow – the whole city is teeming with runners. They talk about Comrades everywhere: on the streets, in the hotel, in the elevator, the whole town lives it. When a good runner dies, he, probably, gets namely in a town like this one…

EXPO

Registration was a great success. They had a separate window for foreigners, where you can get the chip, bib and backpack without a queue.

Separately, the fix the bracelet “international” on the arm, and now I can hang out in a recreation area (foreigners pay a lot more for the participation than locals). Here Vova got the bracelet “media” – now he is an accredited journalist!

At the expo, in addition to well-organized registration, I felt curious to watch the people in the Green Number Shop – shop where only runners with green number plates may buy food (these are given to those, who ran Comrades 10 times). It has its own elite party, special t-shirts, souvenirs and accessories. Something like a VIP terminal at the airport. For Marketing – A+..

But the crowd of runners is standing there, drooling in front of the boutique that sells boards for Comrades medals. Whole running life on one board. Are you willing to become a marathoner-numismatist – welcome to South Africa! I also dreamed a little, how great it would be to fill this board with different medals and then recall each race..

By the way, I have not told you that that at the finish of Comrades you may get 6 different medals, depending on the time of arrival:

I plan to run faster than 9 hours and, accordingly, I wouldn’t mind getting Bill Rowan medal. If they offer, of course :)

Back in reality, I went on to look for happiness in the expo and soon came upon the tent of Bonitas Comrades (ultramarathon sponsor).

It was offering a free medical examination – height, weight, blood pressure, pulse, blood sugar and hemoglobin. Making sure that I have enough health to leave a portion of it on the track, I went further.

Here are some more pictures from the expo:

In the evening, we went with Vovka repair my Achilles’ heel.

My problem with the heel lasts for several years – periodically aches after running. So, I decided, first, to buy it a silicone cushion into the running shoes, and, secondly – to tape it.

Vova, you’re f..cking great kinesiotherapist, the heel is the only body part that didn’t suffer during the race.

Evening

In the evening, on Saturday, I put all my personal belongings, and this time they were plenty, and I began to plan meals.

I hate gels, so I eat tasty stuff.

One day I asked myself, how many calories does a bonbon have? Soon, I knew that a conventional chocolate bonbon has 70 kcal. So, I need to devour 3 pieces per hour.

And, of course, you can get sick of even favorite bonbons after 40 kilometers, so I will be throw in the carbs, which I find along the road. I especially want to taste boiled potato with salt.

I took 9 salt capsules, one for each ten kilometers. Analgesic, loperamide, bars for a change.

In fact, when looking through the clothes, gels and sweets, I was not thinking about them. Frankly, I was very worried. Just like for the first time in the marathon of Paris. Will I make it? Will I distribute the forces correctly? And what will happen to me after 42?

And already before “falling asleep”, tossing and turning in bed, I came up with such a strategy-mantra:

do not oversleep. start. do not rush. run.eat. run. at five forty-five. walk. Wet yourself, do not vomit. keep pushing, moan, drag yourself.cross the finish line. and then lie for a long, long time. In general, do not screw it up.

Morning

The morning began at 2 am, when the alarm clock rang, announcing the beginning of a long day. I slept only 4 hours, but it’s not so bad. Pulling on my clothes, fixing 2 number plates on both sides of the body (I wonder why they need it?), and stuffing my pockets with bonbons, gels and salt tablets, went to breakfast.

Having stuffed my belly with porridge with jam, we, together with a dozen of other silent ultra-marathoners, went by taxi to the buses that should take us to Pietermaritzburg. From all over the city, runners were flocking and buses were constantly departing.

Plan

We drove an hour and a half, and I had time to develop a strategy for an unequal battle with common sense.

For now, it doesn’t worry about what is happening, but I understand that everything will change soon, and I need to be ready.

So, for a start, I decided to break the distance in 6 pieces of 15 km. Very comfortably. And call them like this: Warm-up, Half Marathon, Marathon, Hitch, Recreation and Finish. Do you agree that it doesn’t sound scary at all?

Secondly, to plan the allocation of forces in the hills, five large (Big five Comrades) – Polly Shorts , Inchanga, Botha’s Hill, Field’s Hilland and the harsh Cowies Hill and a bunch of little ones. And, in general, I do not recall a single flat portion of the track. Sometimes, they even say that Comrades looks like a washboard. Yeah, the one, which will wash off the dreams of an easy race.

And when I was imagining myself crawling to the finish line, we arrived at the start. The streets are dark, even pitch dark. Runners flock like rivers to the start – in the spotlight I may see the arch, pens (I had C) and black guys, peeing write in every corner.

Time is running short, and I need to find my gate 15 minutes before the start – otherwise the gates will be closed, and you will have to start at the very end, and it will add tens of minutes to the result. On Comrades, there is no netto time (time from the intersection of the start line till crossing the finish line), there is only brutto (from shot to the finish line crossing), and no one cares, how much time you’re standing in the twenty thousandth queue before crossing the starting line.

I have time to run into the gate, breathe out, calm down. The mood is upbeat, cheerful, I would say, or even excited-inspired, from what will soon happen – because I have been imagining this day for the last six months.

I stand shoulder to shoulder with black guys – they are 10 times more than whites. Everyone is smiling, wish good luck. I remember New York – also dark and cold, and also shaking with excitement and anticipation.

The music starts to sound – first the South African national anthem, then the national song Shosholoza, which I have tried, as best as I could, to mumble with everyone, here’s its translation:

Go forward, go forward

To those mountains, Train from South Africa.

Go ahead, go ahead,

You run away,

You run away

To those mountains, Train from South Africa …

Goosebumps from this atmosphere, music and understanding that you are on the other side of the world at night, surrounded by blacks, singing their national song, to go in the longest journey of your life in just 5 minutes…

The traditional rooster’s crow sounds, which was first made by one of the runners in 1948, and …

Shot! 0-15km

Yey, I am thinking, the adventure started…

Dark, only someone’s running and breathing unevenly. We run in the dark on Pitermaretsburgu, locals greet us, who are not too lazy to go out on the road at night to support us. Some are with kids. Half past five in the morning. Mentally I am applauding.

Around I hear cloaks rustling, but I see only breathing shadows – black guys are hard to see at night. I run on my own at 5:30, easily, provocatively, admire the sunrise over Africa, all the systems are working fine – I do not want to eat, drink, number 1, number 2, or throw up and I easily run up on the first hill – Polly Shorts.

Start adrenaline evaporated, talks around stopped, just slapping legs, long shadows and the rising sun over Africa.

I see the sign of 80 kilometers – kilometers left to the finish line. Pff, Nonsense remained…

Close to 10 km, it got warmer, and everyone starts to undress, throwing jackets and sweaters to the sidelines. Immediately all the clothes is happily gathered by the audience. They are, incidentally, standing even here, far from the city.

I began to devour candy – my strategic reserve.

15-30km

I feel for 900 000 dollars, I can see people jauntily trotting alongside, while nobody is walking.

What struck me here – the feeding stations. First of all, they are 46 in number! on the track, and secondly, how well they work. You may even run without anything in your pockets – still every two km (10-15 minutes of running) you may use water, food, massage, doctors, police, and shadow, if you decided to take a nap.

Speaking of water. Wherever I would run, I have never seen such a convenient water supply. A plastic bag with a volume of about 150 ml. With your teeth you tear off a corner and suck water or isotonic, without spilling a drop, and at any speed. It’s simple. Startig from the middle of the distance, I took two at all stations – one inside and one outside.

Having nothing to do I am watching the runners and only now I understand why you need a ticket at your back. It’s simple – I may see who is in front of me. What’s his name, from which gate he is (and therefore his approximate capabilities), whether he is a foreigner or a local (by color) and most interesting – how many times he ran Comrades. I’ve seen guys with the number 30 on their number plates. Amazing.

During the hunt for the big numbers on the T-shirts, I did not notice how thirty km flew by. The next fifteen kilometers also promise nothing bad, we been there more than once

30-45km

Hills go one after another. Up, doooown, uuuuup, doooown. I was promised pain in the quadriceps, but so far, not to jinks it, they don’t hurt.

Bonbon fly it one after another into the furnace, but I would love some normal food. I was told a lot about the boiled potatoes in the Comrades, so as soon as I saw it, I stuffed my mouth with it. Yummy, I tell you, young, fluffy, with salt, um ..

Somewhere around 38km, kids were waiting for us. These are not just African urchins, these are children with disabilities from Ethembeni shelter. Comrades is one of the main sponsors of the shelter, and every year children are walked (some are brought) to greet the runners.

Another of the traditions of this iconic race – to treat these children with sweets, souvenirs or give some money. I gave them the remaining Romanitsa bonbons.

This is a very strong kick in the ass, when you think it’s hard for you, and then you see a child in a wheelchair, you immediately realize that everything in your life is beautiful and amazing, and stop, f..cking, self-pity!

Generally, there are lots of children in the Comrades. Schools bring here richly dressed students and those stretch their palms so that runners slap on them.

Local children running around barefoot – one lad ran three kilometers in front of me. Some groups sing and dance, I even saw one small theatrical performance. And each as one, wish you to run and not to give up.

Marathon distance is left behind, I ran it at 3:48. I am going for about 8:15. But I understand that this is a temporary phenomenon, it will soon pass and mentally add half an hour to the result. Well, 8:45 is also not bad. Ahead I have Inchanga Hill. And while I’m getting ready for the assault, I overtake a black guy with a prosthesis instead of legs… I’m tough! This adds strength.

I climbed Inchangu with an effort. There were first bad signs in the legs, pulse about 150, the heart is not strained yet.

Exactly in the middle of the distance, I ran into a wall. But not that one, not marathon one, about which they write so much, but the memorial one – Wall of honour on the Comrades.

It consists of boulders, on which the label is attached with the name and number of the participant. Yellow – for regular runners, green – for members of Green Number club (who ran the race 10 times).

If you run Comrades at least once – you also may order a cobblestone with your name.

45-60km

The sun was high, and we are starting to heat up, sweat, lose salt and get tired. This can be seen by the neighbors – at all stations we stop, pour water, greedily drink.

Here comes the 55th kilometer, I am keeping the average rate of 5:30, and storm the last hill before a looooooong gentle descent.

A song from a children’s cartoon is spinning in my head:

The sun rises, rises.

Legs hammered, hammered …

Happy faces all around,

Together we will “have fun”

Making friends with the whole world

This song will help us!

And the faces indeed are really happy. I have not seen anywhere else such support. Even the New York Marathon with its famous fans all over the world, got in my rankings to the second place. And the runners are not far behind:

It is something incredible – along the route of 90 km, people are standing almost in every portion of the road. They say they more than three million come here, and this is without counting the organizers and volunteers!

But it’s not even the number that touches, but the attitude of people towards you – it’s very sincere, friendly and open. These people do not just come here to shout “Come on, Bob!”.

They are preparing, bring food, water, ice with them, buy for their money Cola, gels, oranges, boiled potatoes, fry steaks, bake cookies and are naively trying to feed you with sausages and beer.

They come with their children, with the elderly, with friends and family, spread out beach chairs, grills, refrigerators with ice and spend all day in the sun, just to help somebody run faster. It is very cool, I instinctively felt this unity, this support, the sincerity, and it gave strength. Damn, how cool race this race is…

So, I fly down to the mark of 60 km. Feet begin to hurt, and namely there, where Leonea promised me. I try not to forget about the cadence – run down, moving legs often to avoid long painful heel kicks.

Feeling tired, legs begin to fill with weight, but, judging by what I see around, I am doing OK. On the side of the road, first Comrades victims began to appear. Someone is standing, someone is sitting on the grass and stretching the leg – cramps, some are just lying. I hope I have enough dope to reach the finish line …

60-75km

The sun at its zenith and begins to strike down. Feels like 30°. And you are running down, not knowing what is waiting for you – because you have never ran that far… and you only hear your steps, interfered with shouts of support from guys standing at barbecues with beer.

In general, for all 90 km, you are in the spotlight and constantly hear:

– Dmitri, good run! Dmitri, well done! Dmitri, look great!

The first 500 shouts make you smile and invigorated, next thousand leaves indifferent, then these verbal kicks start being a little annoying.

Especially at the 85th km, when you are in a semi-unconscious state, with stumbling feet and extinct eyes, trying to go from step to … quick step, and they shout “Dmitri, you look great!” – it is perceived as, well, to put it mildly, light sarcasm.

It’s as if when half-dead Auschwitz prisoners were set free in 1945, and Russian soldiers would be patting them on the shoulder saying – You look great!

But in South Africa, they really want to support you, and now, after the race, I am ready to shake the hand of each of them. Thank you, you are the coolest!

Running down gets harder and harder. What a moronic idea to call this section “Rest”??? To the increasing pain in the quadriceps, pain in the big toe added. Smart people did tell me to take shoes half a size bigger. Well, I did take. But should have taken the entire one size bigger.

I endure. I began to sing softly

… We were remaining only three of 18 guys… 

Seems like it’s going away…

Close to 70 km, things are getting worse. Legs are wooden. Such a running in Pinocchio style … And then I see someone … masseurs! I hobble to them – guys, help out! Two from the box, like twins, jump and begin to cast over your pieces of wood.

Spray, massage, ice, massage again … I experienced such pleasure and bliss that my face at that moment could have graced the cover of any porn magazine.

Running became easier, but the last big hill is waiting for me ahead – Cowies Hill. The average rate is 5:35. I have some spare time, and it relaxes me.

Common sense, taking the opportunity, whispers:

– Go to step, we will make it in 9 hours, drop this venture with running, look – everyone is waking on foot for a long time.

– And indeed, they are walking … Okay, but only up this hill …

I am going up, occasionally making pathetic attempts to run up. Trying to have bite – to no avail, the body no longer accepts solid food.

75-90km

Almost everyone is walking now – it is a very good reason not to break away from the team, which I occasionally do. The rate drops to 6:30, I go up the hill without a twinge of conscience. Moreover, I am even looking for hills, to honestly walk them through. After all, walking down the hill is not a serious thing to do…

I never could have thought, how painful it could be to run down the hill. Each step is like a knife stab in the quadriceps. Overall condition is also not so cool, though I could use some cooling off now… Since it’s already 30 degrees in the sun.

I stop at every watering station, drink 2-3 glasses of cola (kids, don’t read this), pour 2 packs of water on my head, give a sad smile to people, cheered me, and, with difficulty (I actually heard it) continue my “running”.

By the way, once again get convinced that the best thing to drink for athletes during the race is cola. When the time comes that your body doesn’t let anything in, cola comes in, opening the door with its foot. Thank you. I even don’t know who, but thank you for this wonderful drink.

The volunteers are indeed great, realizing that not all runners after 75 kilometers understand why they are there, and they give you water, look into your eyes and shout – WATER! You focus, strain your brain, the image of water pack and the word “water” resonate, and you, joyfully smiling, grab it and pour it you’re your mouth. It, indeed, is important to articulate such things at such distances.

Time stretches like chewing gum. At the 82 km I note that the organizers have a special sense of humor – at the end they put the kilometer marks not each km, but each three kilometers. Why would they make fun of poor runners, it’s so hard… bad joke, really bad one… I see that my clock was also changed – kilometers also became three times longer.

Common Sense grins:

– Did you see yourself from aside? You look stupid – run, as a lame mare, hands are shaking, you can’t hold your head, your saliva flows. Yukky.

Let’s go proudly, and look at everyone in such a way that everyone understands – we are walking not because we are done, in fact we just want to pay more attention to the public and in general do not want to part from the race. Damn, how tempting it sounds … And logic. But too late. There were just 7 km left, and I hardly believe I can get any worse. And the saliva… I will wipe it off.

Finish

And here comes the Green Mile, the last before the finish line. Cute name, but Black would definitely suit it better. Because everything’s dark in front of your eye, , legs give away, fragments of a song are going on and on in the head – grove, 18 guys smoke, and about the second unnamed hill in the Comrades…

Here should be placed the photo of a meaningless and indifferent gaze, staring into infinity. But I didn’t care then, and I did not take any shots…

The motivation has totally disappeared. It has dissolved in liters of sweat and trampled into the molten asphalt of Africa by hundreds of thousands of steps.

And I do not care what will I have time, whether the finish is with or without a flag, place, medal, and even disqualification not frightened as the need to run at least one more kilometer.

There was no pain anymore – there was only viscous and complete emptiness.

I was snapped out of stupor by a yell – DIMAAA!

I turn around and see Vovka, who is waving with the flag, run to him, he throws me the flag, which does not reach up to me and falls to the ground. It would’ve seem, so what? Pick it up and run forward, huh? Well the, try to sit down after the 90 km of running.

While I was lifting it up, the audience, that was standing near, increased their vocabulary of the Russian language for a dozen words, the meaning of which should never be found out.

The flag unfolding probably took forty minutes, according to the internal clock, and here I’m getting to the stadium, raise the flag, accelerate, and, making the classic face of “I am finishing as if I ran the hundred-meter race at a pace of 7:40,” cross the finish arch.

Rest

They hang a medal on me and… Here should be a description of what happened between the moment I crossed the finish line and the rest area, but it is not here, because I do not remember this period, sorry… Yet, it definitely did take place, because I did come there somehow.

So, I am lying on the grass and looking at the sun. I am LYING and smiling at the sun. And I don’t have to run anymore. This is the most wonderful feeling that I experienced in the past, uh, I do not know, maybe 4 years, when I ran my first five km on the pulse of 200 and fell after the finish.

I was not alone – someone leaned on my shoulder, to sit next to me, someone is lying with his face down, one man is throwing his shoes over the fence, someone is carrying a tray with food and drops it, shortly speaking – it’s a zone for cripples. The fed, gave water, and a yellow rose (what was that for?).

In general, the organization of the event is amazing – everything’s at the highest level. The rest area, hot food, beverages, logistics, everything’s done great. I would put 6 stars. Surprisingly to see something like that in Africa. Not less fantastic than marathons of New York, Tokyo or Ironman in Zurich.

And while we’re boozing, 12 hours after the start, the most dramatic part of the race unfolds at the stadium in Durban – Comrades 12 cut-off. Exactly at 5:29:50 pm Judge, standing with his back to finishing runners, to be unprejudiced, raises the gun and the countdown begins. 10, 9, 8 … Stadium roaring, finishers are sweeping their legs to make it on time, 7, 6, 5 … – spectators in the stands get up, some runners fall, someone crawls, 4, 3, 2 … – shouts in chorus the crowd of thousands, the last who made it falls in the hands of judges, 1, 0, Ca-Boom, and at the same moment the marshals join hands and close the finish line.

Generally, there are two main characters on “The Comrades” – the winner of the race and the first person that didn’t make it in 12 hours. He gets nothing, but becomes a celebrity, they take a TV interview with him, his photos are published in the newspapers, and he gets respect from everyone.

He has been training for the entire year, dreamed about this day, ran 12 hours in a 30-degree heat, broke his legs, did not give up and believed that he will make it on time, he ran in a semi-conscious state, and … and … just one second wasn’t enough for him to get a medal and write his name in the finish protocol.

How ironic.

By the way, according to statistics, from 20,000 starters, about half of the participants finish between 10 and 12 hours, and about 15% do not manage to run out of the 12 hours.

P.S.

So, what we have lost: the black nail – one piece, water-blister – two pieces, torn quads – a pair, and badly bruised immunity (as it turned out later).

And I lost the video … I was running with the GoPro, periodically shooting my “happy” sweaty face and the African landscape. But sometimes I wanted to have a general plan, so I periodically harassed running alongside to shoot me. Well, I should have been more attentive to what buttons they pushed… And medals awarding is a complete Epic Fail: I handed the volunteer girl my camera with the wrong side, in the end – that’s what I saw at home:

But it’s all the little things, the main thing is that I got the thing, why I come here. For me, Comrades became to running restart, the competition, which to some extent draws a line under all the result I achieved earlier. This is probably an update of my running firmware. Now, I am an ultra-marathoner. And now I know what is beyond 42 kilometers.

I know that the pain comes and goes, that the main thing in the race is the strength of character, rather than the quadriceps, and that if you can run – you already have to be grateful to heavens.

And the Marathon Des Sables, which I’m going to run through next spring, no longer seems to be something impossible..

I fell in love with this race from the first sight – a real Competition. With yourself, you’re your fears and pain. I will surely come back here. And I hope that not one, but with my Comrades and a whole kilo of Romanitsa bonbons…