June 29, 2016 by DAVE JACK
The 29th of May 2016 and the media and all who watch Comrades were set to see Caroline Wostmann defend her 2015 title when she won Comrades on the Up Run breaking the stranglehold the Russian runners had had on Comrades for so long and nothing was set to go wrong, but as the Scottish poet Robbie Burns wrote all those years ago “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry” and did they ever go awry on Comrades day.
South Africa watched TV sets in horror as Caroline was wracked in pain and the question was asked in thousands of homes around the country whether she was going to make it to the finish. The win was clearly, by now, out of the question and the country got together as one behind her, encouraging her to get to the finish. Forget the win – just finish!
Here’s Caroline’s story of Comrades day 2016.
In 2009 I ran my first Comrades hoping to complete the gruelling 90km Down Run. I doubted, I feared, I hurt, I cried and I conquered. When I crossed the finish line I knew I could do anything. No matter how tough a challenge life could throw at me I would overcome it. I took this awareness into everyday life and began to challenge myself to be better, to aim higher and to achieve the extraordinary in all aspects of my life.
After being blessed with the most incredible 2015, where I achieved more success than I could have ever imagined, I was left wondering if improving on such a year was even possible. Was it possible to get better? Perhaps the time had arrived to plateau – to aim to try to match my achievements rather than attempt to improve on them. The idea of aiming for better than what I would refer to as “a perfect year” seemed ungrateful and ridiculous.
The idea of remaining the same seemed empty and unfulfilling. I realized that although improvement might not be possible and exceeding “perfect” was unlikely, the choice to aim for more is possible and the challenge and the drive of it makes life more gratifying. The “What is more?” then became the overriding question. Should I aim for the Olympics? Should I aim to break the Comrades course record? Should I aim to do well in a completely different event?
Indecisiveness ultimately led to too much of everything and not much of anything, but the lessons learnt will drive me towards better and greater, for often it is our downfalls that precede our biggest victories. After going into hard training too soon after Comrades 2015 in an attempt to qualify for the Olympics during the New York Marathon I sustained an injury two weeks before race day. I pushed through the race ignoring common sense and spent the rest of the year recovering from a torn plantar fascia.
In January panic struck and feeling unfit and behind in my training I pushed myself harder. Niggle after niggle followed but after a breakthrough and a surprise win during Two Oceans I felt that I was back on track. I continued to push myself to the extreme until I could barely walk three weeks before Comrades. I then realized that I had to do something drastic to “fix” my over-trained body. An extremely aggressive three week taper resulted in me finally feeling springy and completely niggle free the day before Comrades.
Timing seemed perfect and whilst I had been considering plan B (a more conservative run) the spark for the extraordinary was reignited and the idea of chasing records took over. I looked over my two possible pacing plans. (Plan A: Record or Plan B: safe and conservative) the night before race day and decided to not decide. I would let race day decide. I was confident that the first 20km uphill stretch would enable me to decipher whether a record chasing day was on the cards or not.
After an awful night’s sleep I woke with a stiff neck and one hell of a headache. “Not a great start to the day”, I thought, “Looks like it will be Plan B then”. Not wanting to take NSAIDS I started frantically asking around for some Panados to ease my throbbing head. Eventually I was saved by Colleen de Reuck who gave me some aspirin. By the time we arrived at the start the headache had eased and Plan A was back on the cards.
The vibe as the start was as electrifying as always and I gave thanks for being able to participate in this magnificent event, for the people and the camaraderie, for the gift of being able to run. I prayed that everyone have a blessed run and that God’s will be done.
Win or lose I would give Him the glory and accept any life lessons He wanted me to learn. I sang with my comrades for my country and our unity as we stood at the start line, I felt goosebumps as Chariots of Fire boomed over the speakers, the cock crowed and then we were off on a journey of a thousand possibilities which taught me a thousand life lessons
The first 10km’s flew by and as I floated up the hills with my heart rate remaining well below my threshold level I was thrilled to pick “Plan A”. It was what I had dreamt of and worked for. I knew it was risky but it just felt right. It felt worth the risk. As dawn broke I found myself leading a large pack of companions as we entered the day with admiration for the beauty of the sunrise and the scenery and we sang a little song (Morning has broken).
The world seemed full of opportunity and the road before us inviting and exciting. I was enjoying the vibe, the crowds, the journey and the km’s flew by. As we went into Drummond and the halfway mark I felt that a much faster second half was on the cards and the idea of making the impossible happen was becoming real. This vibe continued until around 60km’s into the race when suddenly I got my first warning sign that things weren’t going to be as effortless as I had been dreaming.
As I started venturing down Fields Hill my quads started to hurt and tighten. I calmed down by reminding myself that I was 60km into the race and some pain and discomfort was completely normal at this point. My quads tightened further and I realized that they had started to cramp.
I panicked and instead of using logic and slowing down, my adrenaline at the thought of failing surged and I followed it at an insanely fast pace down the most brutal and unforgiving hill of the race. I can run through this I told myself. My mind is strong. My legs will just have to keep moving. The cramps started to move into my calves and a case of musical cramps soon unfolded jumping from quads to calves to quads.
I was in Pinetown and reassuring myself that I just had to hang on for an easy Monday morning run and I would be at the end. I thought, “Let me get to Cowies and then I will take a walk, calm down and reassess my situation”. Halfway up Cowies I took a long walk with a massive debate unravelling in my head. “Obviously the record is off the cards”, I realized, “I will just jog to the end. My legs are broken, but focus, ignore the pain, just run.” I started running and the cramping set in again.
I was trying to zone out from the pain but simultaneously trying to take every ounce of help I could get. “Maybe spraying water on my quads will help” I thought. “Perhaps I should drink some Energade and gets some electrolytes in”. I tried to move to a water table at some point and found myself causing a massive pile up of motorbikes. “I must be dreaming”, I thought.
Then, “Ouchie, cramp – quad, cramp – calf, did my stomach muscle actually just cramp? WTF”. “Okay zone out and just run, ignore it. Strong mind, strong mind.” Suddenly I found myself on the floor. My legs had buckled under the cramps and I had fallen over. “And when you fall what do you do? You get back up. “I told myself and I walked and reassessed again.
I knew that it was unlikely I would win the race in this condition. I had no idea what the gap was but it suddenly seemed irrelevant. The only thought in my mind was “I won’t quit, I won’t give up, I will keep moving forward, I will finish.” I ran until I cramped and then I walked until I cramped less.
The crowd stopped me from collapsing to the ground as the carried me forward with their cheering and singing. I felt betrayed by my body and yet I have never felt more loved and supported by thousands whom I did not know offering me the best of their compassion. I forgot I was in a race for time or position. I was solely in a race for survival and the camaraderie of the thousands who were with me on my struggle –my compatriots, my friends.
When Charne Bosman passed me and went into the lead I felt grateful and happy that she didn’t suffer as much on her journey as I had. After I reached the grass field I had relief in the knowledge that should I collapse, crawling to the end on grass would be far more comfortable than on tar.
When I crossed the finish line I learnt that winning is not about coming first but rather about challenging yourself to the limit, pushing the boundaries and walking (or crawling) away from the experience a better, stronger person. Failing to achieve my goal on race day, in a strange way, made me realize that I can do anything and that nothing is impossible. God may not have given me the day I envisioned but he allowed me to witness the human spirit at its best, he allowed me learn about perseverance and he taught me how to act when things don’t go my way.
I couldn’t help but laugh after I collapsed to the ground after finishing. On my hands and knees I laughed with relief that I had made it, I laughed about the bizarre events of the day and I laughed because in my obvious and clearly evident physical weakness I had never felt stronger or more empowered. I was humbled. I was a Comrades Marathon Finisher.