MY COMRADES JOURNEY – by Astrid Thole

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October 31, 2015 by DAVE JACK

Those who read my blogs on my association with Comrades over more than 60 years will know that I write all the blogs, but I came across this article written by Astrid Thole, whom I don’t know, and who quotes me and I went about contacting her because I think what she wrote is worth sharing.

This is her story.

 ASTRID THOLE

On the first day of June 2014 I had an important job to do.  Plain and simple.  I had to get from Pietermaritzburg to Durban in less than twelve hours.  I was a novice attempting my first Comrades Marathon!

I had a dream.  A vision.  And a goal.  To be the proud owner of a Vic Clapham medal six weeks before my 50th birthday.  I wanted to be part of the Ultimate Human Race! In Oprah’s famous words: “The biggest adventure you can take is to live the life of your dreams!”  I was about to go on my biggest adventure.

Seeded in batch C alongside many other runners on a bitterly cold and exciting morning outside the Pietermaritzburg City Hall, the enormity of my task ahead of me filled me with fear.  And excitement.  I was now ready.  Ready for the greatest mental and physical challenge of my life.

As I stood – just after 05h00 – shivering next to my fellow athletes I realized that in another twelve hours, my day would be ending.  Either in victory and personal fulfilment. Or in sadness and disappointment.  I was one of thousands of runners sharing the same goal. To complete The Ultimate Human Race!

I was running for charity, PinkDrive, which supports breast cancer awareness and offers free mammograms to women.  This charity is close to my heart as I had a cousin, Sonia, who passed away from cancer at the young age of 29. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 58, but was fortunate to have caught it in time. She has been in remission for 25 years. So I ran in memory of Sonia and in gratitude that my mom is a breast cancer survivor.

When you are seeded in your seeding pen and you see the faces of your fellow runners, the harsh reality of the distance you have to run hits home.  You realize what you have undertaken to accomplish.  You stand in awe of every runner beside you. You admire their strength and courage.  You understand what it took for them to get there.  You understand their fears and the sacrifices that they made.  Having watched the Comrades for many years on TV, I always wondered what every runner thinks and feels as they are lined up at the start. What goes on in their heads?

Now I know … having been there myself. You experience every feeling in the book.  … FEAR … ANXIETY … EXCITEMENT … PRIDE … JOY … GRATITUDE … HAPPINESS … MIXED EMOTIONS!

When our national anthem started I felt pride, joy and gratitude.  As we belted out the words of “Nkosi Sikelela Iafrika” tears of pride and joy welled up in my eyes.  I was so proud!  Proud to be a South African!  Proud to be part of this iconic and historic race!

Then we sang the melodic Shosholoza.  Excitement mixed with anxiety filled me now. Next came my favourite piece of music – the famous “Chariots Of Fire” and I relaxed.  Final prayers were said and I experienced the innermost calm and peace.

The famous rooster crowed.  Then the gun went off. It was noisy.  Cameras flashed!  Television crews all around us!  It was euphoric. The atmosphere was electrifying.  Slowly we edged forward and we were off!  All 14 600 of us!

And so I began my incredible journey on foot to Durban.  As I crossed the starting mat the words of running legend Alan Robb came to my mind.  I had the privilege and honour of meeting this great man at the expo the day before.  In his quiet and humble manner he told me: “Astrid, see your first Comrades Marathon as a day out on the road.  Doing what you love most.  And that is running!  While you are doing that you will meet and make many new friends and people.  Enjoy every kilometre.  If you believe in yourself and keep moving, you will finish it.  Your first Comrades will be your most special and memorable one.”

His powerful and encouraging message kept me going. All 89.2kms.  If one has faith and determination one can achieve anything!  Faith and prayer – both are invisible yet they make impossible things possible!  Words from a dear friend to me.

Comrades was an awesome and amazing race for me.  It was the best race I have ever completed.  It was a spiritual, mental and a physical journey for me.  I enjoyed every kilometre. Sometimes I ran.  Sometimes I walked.  And while I was running or walking I had time to reflect.  I learnt so much about myself and about life on this ultra. Comrades changed my life.

As I began my long journey to Durban I reflected about my journey and transformation from a casual walker to a runner.  My running story began in April 2012.  I joined the Mondeor Branch of RWFL with the hope of becoming a runner.  I met the most incredible, inspirational and exceptional man there.  Mike Foreshaw!

Mike was the branch manager.  Little did I know that meeting him would change my life forever. For the better!  Mike and I embarked on an incredible journey together.  This journey would see me to the start and the finish of the 2014 Comrades Marathon.  Knowing my background as a casual walker for 15 years he set about training me.  From a walker to a runner.

Mike was an amazing trainer.  He not only became my trainer and my mentor.  He became my friend.  He is truly one of a kind.  Without his valuable input, knowledge and expertise on running and training for Comrades I would never have made it to the starting and finishing lines. His guidance, concern, support and thousands of pearls of wisdom helped me achieve my first Vic Clapham medal.  Mike not only accompanied me to numerous races, he even ran certain races with me.  Always encouraging me!  Never giving up on me and always believing in me!

Over the next 24 months I underwent a huge transformation.  From a walker to a runner.  Having run 22 Comrades himself, Mike was the best person to train me for my first Comrades.  And so my training programme began….

Training was hard! Training was fun! Training was sore! Training was rewarding!  Training was a challenge! Going from a walker at the age of 47 to a runner was not easy!  Bearing in mind that I had never run a kilometre before the age of 47, I put stress on my body!

I entered a whole new world – the runners world.  I entered the world of speed work, splits, hill repeats, gels, energy bars, race food, stability shoes, PB’S and distances.  I learnt a whole new vocabulary.  Runners talk a different language.  I learnt it all!

I had many ups and downs whilst training and preparing for Comrades.  I had many disappointments.  And many victories.  I had many good races and just as many bad ones. I laughed. I cried.  Yet through it all, I learnt that every experience – both good and bad – made me more focused and determined to do Comrades in 2014.  You will never know what you are capable of if you don’t push yourself!

I learnt that no matter what your age or running ability is, you can still achieve your goals; provided you never give up. You have to put in the hard work, perseverance and commitment. 

Comrades 2014 had many highlights for me.  Too many to mention.  The two that will remain with me forever was encountering the Ethembeni school children and running the Nedbank Green Mile.

High fiving the Ethembeni school children and sharing in their pure delight and joy in seeing us made me so aware of how fortunate I am.  To have the gift of health. To be able to run and walk in a healthy body is a blessing.  Seeing these disabled children touched my heart and brought tears to my eyes.  You realise how fortunate you are to be able to run this race and to never take your health for granted.

My second highlight was running through the Nedbank Green Mile.  As I passed through this mile and ran in the footsteps of previous and current running greats and legends, I felt so humbled to be running in these legends’ footsteps. I was proud to be running as a South African.

All day long I met many different people.  I made new friends.  I encountered many men and women from all walks of life. We shared stories, water, sweets, gels, food, tissues, plasters and support. I witnessed the famous Comrades camaraderie and human spirit.

I learnt valuable life lessons on that day.  From realizing my own inner strength and ability.  I learnt that a person’s spirit will endure when the body wants to retire and give up.  I often thought of that funny runners joke which goes like this … The voice inside your head that says you can’t do this is a LIAR!

The entire day of Comrades I visualised myself completing Comrades.  I visualised running into the stadium.  I read a lot of articles on the power of positive thinking and visualisation.  That helped me when I hit the wall. 

Running the Comrades Marathon is hard!  It is tough! The campaign slogan – HARD IS WHAT MAKES IT GREAT – is the truth. It is tough on the body and on the mind!  To run The Ultimate Human Race, you have to dig deep.

When I hit the wall at 16km to go, I felt weary. The crowds at the roadside were wonderful!  They kept me going, shouting out my name and encouraging me. One man shouted out:  “Astrid, remember that tough runs don’t last… but tough runners do!”

Comrades teaches you to be grateful; grateful to your fellow runners on the day for all their support, advice and friendship.  You are grateful to your family and friends for waiting patiently in the stadium for you to come in; for all their sacrifices, support, help and faith in you. There were times that they had more faith in me than I had in myself.

Comrades teaches you about respect; respect for your fellow runners.  For those who finished and for those who did not. For having the guts to start and for attempting this gruelling yet extra-ordinary ultra-marathon.

Comrades reminds us to be humble.  When you have run and completed a race of this magnitude you can allow it to go to your head.  But as any Comrades runner will tell you, this race reminds you to stay grounded and humble.

I had a first, good, and enjoyable Comrades.  I did not suffer that dreaded cramp. I stopped only once on that entire route, making a visit to the porta loo.  My last kilometre was my best one.  Only because I knew I had made it. I entered the stadium elated and jubilant! I ran onto the grass feeling as if I had won and was the first person in! I finished in 11:40:03!  I was emotional!  Tearful! Overwhelmed! ….  And relieved!  I felt like a hero!

The loud shouts from the crowds, my family and friends was deafening.  As I crossed the finishing mat I said a prayer of thanks to God and thanked Him for getting me in safely and comfortably.  I had achieved my goal!  My dream had come true!

After that, it all became surreal to me.  As I received my medal and thanked the lady who gave it to me, I thought of Nelson Mandela’s famous words: “It always seems impossible until it is done.”  I felt so proud! 10 marathons, 5 ultras and 4 000kms in 24 months and I was finally a Comrades runner.

It was the end of the first day of June 2014.  I had completed my important job.  I got from Pietermaritzburg to Durban in less than twelve hours. I had successfully and triumphantly completed my first Comrades six weeks before my 50th birthday.  The miracle wasn’t that I finished it but that I had the courage to start it.

Comrades changed me.  It re-defined me.  For those of you who are inspired to run the Comrades I hope that these words from Martin Luther King will inspire you when you do it for the first time.  They were relevant to me on my incredible journey to Comrades 2014.

“If you can’t fly, then run.

If you can’t run, then walk.

If you can’t walk then crawl.

But whatever you do….

You have to keep moving forward!”

 

That’s what I did on the first day of June 2014!

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