Helen Palmer (nice_cup_of_tea) wrote,
Helen Palmer

Why super Sal ran Comrades!

Hope you enjoy Sal's article on running Comrades-this will be published in a book about the race to raise money for the Ethembeni School. And in just in case me regular readers hadn't realised - this is my best mate and she is my inspiration :-) Oh, and I am the "supporter" who gave her the "long run" and ran the 2001 marathon with her!

Comrades 2008! By a non-finishing but happy tortoise!

I was first introduced to the great lady when I moved out to South Africa to work in 1999. Within a few days of arriving it was a public holiday and my new friends sat me down with a cool one and said, ‘you just have to watch this race!’ We switched on for the half way cut off and I was gripped.

I decided that I simply had to run this race one day.

Inspired, I started running in the hills of Zululand, usually accompanied by a gaggle of children and with the women asking me ’why?’. Back home I ran the London marathon in 2001. I had a great day, was in fine form afterwards but for some unknown reason put my running shoes in the cupboard and never got them out again.

Seeing the film ‘The Long Run’ was inspirational and emotional. It reawakened the dream.

In June 2007 my sister was diagnosed with cancer. Having lost our mother to this foul disease, this was utterly devastating. The morning after she told me I woke up at some ridiculously early hour. I just knew I had to go for a run. I found my shoes at the back of the cupboard and just ran and ran. By the time I came back, hardly able to walk, I had decided that I was going to run Comrades 2008.

And so the training began…

What to say? Hours and hours, miles and miles, lots of foul weather (British winter, yum!). Oh, and hills and hills and more hills. Not being a naturally speedy person and a complete novice it took me three marathons to qualify. Even then it was only just, crossing the line in London in 4.58. I started to make up new swear words when I realised how close it was going to be, I can tell you!

Training, training and more training but now in slightly better weather….

Hills, hills and more hills…

And one very tolerant and supportive husband who got used to my having to run every weekend, whatever we were doing, wherever we were. Oh and giving up many, many hours in the rain and hail to cheer me on during different races and feeding me chocolate cake when I got grumpy!

Comrades also introduced me to cyber networking! A great forum, new friends and a wealth of advice and support. Got to meet a fabulous coach, too who I stalked daily by email.

It was hard, hard, hard for those final weeks, training so much, being so tired and dreading being injured or becoming unwell.


On my way to South Africa with a great team of husband, father and best friend (who ran the London with me in 2001 and was responsible for making me watch ‘The Long Run’). Luggage full of nothing but running gear, in triplicate!

Expo was fun, walking down the centre with various Comrades landmarks and kilometres to the finish. Registration for the Internationals involved the luxury of our own relaxed area, tea and coffee and the so important Comrades running top. Lots of memorabilia to buy, which has since threatened to turn our house in to a shrine to the great race!

Chirpily we set of on the bus tour of the route. Finished off a little quieter and in awe! Had an amazing time at Ethembeni School; with their dancing and singing they have become an emblem of the race for me. Fun to see the Wall of Honour, to say hello to Arthur and to look around Comrades House in Pietermaritzburg. Over-powering to see the Flora mile and to walk under the finish just hoping to be there successfully on race day. Met lots of forum friends and lots of good lucks all round. I had to remind them of course that if they saw me, the tortoise, on race day then that was bad news for them! More pre-race fun at the Runners’ World Pasta Party and inspirational awards ceremony.

And so it arrived…

Race day…

Slept very well. Hurrah!

Final wee count of 3 (was anticipating 962,000,000 but the queses were too long!) and ready to race!

What a start. What a vibe. Chatting to everyone the minutes fly by. Suddenly we hear Chariots of Fire and a very, very loud gun. Simultaneously nearly 12,000 people start their watches, cheering and we are off. With everyone running past me I keep reminding myself of the golden rule, start slow and be comfortable. I soon meet the 12-hour bus and we all settle in to a regular pace. 45th cutting soon arrives; good job too as I have started to notice that even when we are not on a hill we were still going up hill! I start to fall a little behind the bus but keep them in sight over Cowies. The supporters in Pinetown are going wild for us at the back. A woman runs with me, calling my name. She can tell I’m worried about the bus and wanting to see my team. A generous spirited runner in a rescue bus knocks on the window and cheers me on. The sun and the heat turn up in flamboyant style to welcome us to Fields. I’m feeling good but the bus is slipping further away from me. Some wonderful comrades reassure me that they will come back to us. They don’t use London buses I think to myself!

Time is looking dodgy with those orange flags disappearing over the top of the hill but still just ok according to my pace band. I pass the first cut off at Winston Park with some time to spare but am slowing down and the bus is no longer in sight…

Why, why, why? Legs are not too bad, I’ve done the training and am feeling fit. Then I look behind me and realise quite how steep this old mother is. I look at my watch and do the maths, very little chance I going to make half way cut off. Now the heat really kicks in and I’m wondering if this is a hot Comrades or not (I hear later that it was, very). Still feeling good to meet my team in Hillcrest but I realise that the race is over. I’m at least 15 minutes behind the bus according to my team and although I’m feeling strong and ready for Bothas, running fast to get through half way cut off is beyond me.

I remember the goals I set myself at the beginning and the order of importance I put them in…

1) Remain uninjured

2) Get to the start

3) Enjoy the day

4) Finish the race.

So, achieving three out of four I meet my team, smiling. Timing is good, I calculate. We can get to the finish to see my speedy forum friends achieve their silvers. Some kindly policemen put us in the back of their van (only time I’ve ever been in one, honest!) and drop us at our car. I manage to stop eating marmite sandwiches just long enough to thank them!

And so we reach the finish, not the way I wanted to but my goodness it’s fun. Beer in hand I go wild for those amazing people crossing the line. Go, go, go! It’s seriously hot now…

Back in Durban we watch the finish on TV. A man repeatedly collapses just before the line with two minutes to spare. He manages to crawl across with only seconds left. What a gutsy finish. I can barely watch as the man with the gun turns his back and cut off is reached. I just hope that the runners who miss it have enjoyed their day as much as I did.

Over dinner I’m already planning the next attempt. It has to be uphill (I’m a stubborn human being) and I start talking about doing it in 2012 for my 40th Birthday. Plenty of time to become a speedier tortoise. We joke that we can simply cross out the 2008 on the wonderful supporters’ T-shirts that my friend brought over and use them again. Quietly, so that we can barely hear him, my husband says, ‘I’d love to do this’.

We’ll see you then!

Sally, London, UK
Tags: family, running, travel

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