True Grit: Comrades Marathon

It took six months and more than 2000 kilometres – most of it hill-running – to get my sister Sharryn Macgowan and I to the start line of the 88th Comrades Marathon. The gruelling uphill 87km ultra run takes place between Durban and Pietermaritzburg (every year the course alternates direction) on the East Coast of South Africa. And of the 18,000 entrants in this year’s event, 1463 were internationals, 185 of those from Australia, two of whom – Sharryn and I – were from South Australia. The reason: to celebrate my big 5-0!

At 5.30am, to the sounds of thousands of people cheering and singing, Sharryn and I set off –slowly. Two days earlier we had toured the course with Bruce Fordyce, a nine-time winner of the event, who warned, “Go out slow, girls, and if you think you’re running slow, SLOW DOWN.”

We knew it was an unrelenting climb to the halfway point at Drummond. Comrades features a series of famous hills dubbed the “Big Five”: Cowies Hill, Field’s Hill, Botha’s Hill, Inchanga and Polly Shortts. To get to Drummond, we needed to pass the first obstacle, Cowies Hill – about 140 metres in 1.5km. Then, the famous Field’s Hill, which is a stern test, with another 200 metres in 3km. After conquering its unrelenting gradients, we rounded a sweeping bend only to see Botha’s Hill looming ahead – 150 metres over a distance of 2.5km. Thankfully, after this we had a chance to catch our breath as we descended down past the Comrades Wall of Honours, a long wall covered in plaques with the names of former Comrades runners.

It was at this point I recalled Fordyce’s cautionary words, “Remember the race doesn’t begin until the halfway mark.”

By now it was a blistering 30 degrees, with 95 per cent humidity. And to make matters worse, we were up against a horrible head wind. With drink stations positioned every two kilometres along the course we took full advantage, alternating soaking ourselves with water at one station, guzzling down what we could at the next.

The elation of reaching the halfway point was quickly forgotten as the relentless Inchanga climb loomed, one of two major ups remaining. With the headwind in full swing I started to wonder if maybe a champagne and dinner would have been a more suitable way to celebrate the 50th!

Still, the support we got en route was phenomenal. Spectators yelled from the sidelines, “Go, Aussie, go!” or “Hey, GIDDAY, mate!” even “Sheila, love your work!” As we made our way to the 60-kilometre station we heard each runner’s name announced as they ran passed. Pride bubbled up inside as they yelled out our names and the crowd roared. I felt uplifted, despite having 27km to go, my legs screaming, and my body aching from the sun and heat.

As you run Umlaas Road and start the descent towards Little Pollys you can see the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg on the plateau against a hilly backdrop. We knew the finish line was way off in the distance and that this was of course, the calm before the storm.

Little Pollys is a hard climb of 1.5km, which is often mistaken for the real challenge: the monster hill lurking behind, called Polly Shortts. It is the ultimate heartbreak hill. The sight of Polly Shortts rearing up ahead is not for the faint-hearted. It’s not the highest point in the course, but it comes after nearly two standard marathons and is said to bring even gold medal contenders to their knees (the first 10 men and 10 women to cross the finish line receive gold medals).

Once you get to the top, there’s only seven kilometres to go. Sharryn and I kept pushing and focused of the hours we had spent away from family and the lovely words of encouragement they had given us.

When we entered this event our aim was to finish within the allotted 12-hour cut off time, but as we passed the 80km mark on top of Polly Shortts, we both knew we had a real chance of taking home a bronze medal (awarded to anyone who finishes before 11 hours). We didn’t say a word to each other – anything could happen out here, and we’d witnessed countless runners being collected by the medical staff.

As we came into the final chute, spectators in private sponsor tents were waving and cheering. We turned the corner with 500 metres to go, and as I grabbed Sharryn’s hand I couldn’t believe the noise from the spectators cheering – it was deafening. I looked across at the international tent, and there was my husband, Rex. My heart burst with joy – I thought, This is why we came here.

Sharryn and I flew down the last couple of hundred metres, hands raised, crossing the line together. As we bent down and kissed the ground, we looked towards each other, tears streaming down our faces. We had completed Comrades in 10:28.

RUN IT: comrades.com

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