Our journey to Comrades Glory by Sean Altren

Our journey to Comrades Glory

I knew three things about Comrades.
Firstly I had no desire of ever running anything more than 21ks. This I told myself as I drove over Ou Kaapse weg one September morning back in 2014..
Secondly I remember watching comrades earlier that year, the stragglers of the 2014 down run coming in, and at that time clearly remember thinking that these people were lunatics. From the comfort of my couch I couldn’t fathom the mindset of those crazies I was watching stumble in overheating and exhausted. To put it into perspective I did run at the time but was at a stage where I was pre- hydrating on energade for days before and taking footbaths to recover after doing a 10k…

Figure 1: Luke, myself, Devon and our friend Bertus on our first ever race, the Cadiz Milkwood 10k.

The third thing I knew was that it was my Grandpas favourite day of the year. This was something to do with him coming from Maritzburg and Durban and since he was a boy would watch from the side of the road around Lion Park. He just loved seeing the route and all the places so much that later in life when TV’s were invented he would sit and watch it non-stop start to finish year after year and even though no one in our family had ever attempted the run it was very special to him.
It’s funny how often in life as soon as you start thinking or speaking about something, it has the tendency to become a reality.
Jayde first mentioned the idea to us probably during one of our beach jogs. He had done it years before with his Dad and his stories of this were terrifying so none of us took the suggestion seriously. We knew he would be game but for the rest of us it was laughable and dismissed it immediately, it was just Jayde being Jayde. Yet… it persisted like a mosquito in my mind, ‘Can you imagine it?’ and I would daydream about the finish.
A few nights later we were at Jayde’s house for a braai but and as it turned out this braai had an agenda. A black finisher’s shirt with the gold Comrades emblem hung over a carefully positioned chair along with a mounted medal and backing photograph in a wooden frame. Race shirts and medals were of course the primary motivator for most races we were willing to spend money on and Jayde knew this well.
Beer was also a part of the plan and was generously dealt out along with promises of all sorts of fanfare and glory. By the end of the evening it sounded like a really great idea. I’m not sure if it was due to his excitement or just the idea of us taking on a ridiculous challenge that I liked but we decided not to think about it too long lest we get discouraged and booked for it that evening. 9 months to go, 90kms to run, the 90th Comrades marathon and we were in!
My Mom being an avid runner seemed to think we could do it and was genuinely excited; my Dad thought we were crazy. I didn’t know what to think as I honestly didn’t know whether it was possible or just plain stupid. Either way we were going to find out.
If I commit to something I need to go for it 100% and so following the next morning’s camel run, a whopping 16km, I immediately looked online for the next marathon that I could qualify in which happened to be the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon. I got a last minute entry that day and in two weeks’ time found myself lining up with chronic nerve induced stomach cramps for my first marathon. I somehow finished and actually qualified with a 4:51hr but in doing so hurt my knee so badly I couldn’t run for over a month. Not a great start to this but I didn’t care, I was now officially qualified.
We then went down one Wednesday evening and joined Fish Hoek Athletics Club where Jayde’s Dad Stephen was once a member and where Adrian happily told us on our first meeting that we had come to the right place, this is a comrades club… And what an awesome club it turned out to be! From being cheered through Fish Hoek as hometown heroes during Oceans to knowing everyone back home is sitting there tracking you whilst running the race I couldn’t think of a better club to be part of. We aren’t overly involved but the club caters for all which is great. I don’t think it is the top achiever in terms of overall athletic prowess but it has so much heart and character and (to me at least) that counts for so much more.
Thereafter started an amazing journey and the following months will live with me forever. Jayde, Devon, Luke and I along with a few others here and there started doing ‘chommie’ runs, early morning runs before work, running after work, exercises, stretches and sacrificed glorious beach days to pound away relentlessly at the tar road. Worst of all we started ‘eating right’ and obviously confused a lot of people with this new way of life I guess. I often just assumed fitness was something that you had as a result of being generally healthy and reasonably in shape until you start training properly and realise that you actually aren’t. You really have to work at it and we did.
That’s the thing; I still speak as an amateur in terms of experience, but Comrades as more than just the day, it actually starts when you first start training for it. All of a sudden every other run becomes secondary and the only thing that counts is Comrades. Everything is preparation for the one day. A marathon is just another run, the Two Oceans ultra becomes just a slightly longer training run. Your head-space changes and as I’d run along Sunnycove I’d find myself looking across the bay and up the coast knowing soon, very soon we will be heading that way and to what awaits. When work took me to different parts of the country training didn’t stop and I would find myself on the lonely roads of De Aar with no one around but confused sheep or somewhere between Laingsburg and Ladismith plodding hoping that Dawie Geelbeck whose farm I apparently just ran past wouldn’t take offense. I’d take comfort from the fact that Luke who was often also away would be doing the same, running loops around the hotel complexes and doing everything possible to keep up with the millage needed. My friends, the tambourine man, Dinilesizwe and JJ would bend my ear for hours back in the office, ‘what’s my weekly millage, am I using supplements, man I’m so nervous!’ and we would speak for ages boring everyone else around us as only runners can.
As I think of it the greatest blessing is being able to go on this journey with three of my best friends, Luke, Devon and Jayde (along with all the others supporting along the way without who it wouldn’t be possible) as we prepared our bodies and minds for the same goal, each with our very own struggles and unique stories.
I hadn’t been in Durban for almost 25 years and it was also my first time on an airplane which I soon discovered is literally a tin can with rockets strapped on the sides. All of this made for incredible excitement especially as we entered King Shaka International where a big banner hung in the entrance foyer greeting all the comrades’ runners. I had survived the flight! It was on!
We stayed on a farm in Wartburg, a new world with its sugarcane fields and valley of a thousand hills for a memorable couple of days until the alarm went at 1:30am that Sunday morning… It felt like the past excitement of Christmas morning as a child intermingled with incredible terror of what was to come.

Excitement and terror as we arrived at the start of the 2015 up run.

After months of training and sacrifice (and a near miss with buck on the way down to Durban) we found ourselves looking for a spot to have a wee in the town center. I’m sure the Durban shop owners wonder every second year what they did wrong in life to deserve the treatment their shop frontages receive! Anyway the birds were chirping as I had been told they would, it was warm, the pens didn’t smell too good and the tension in the air was palpable. Soon the anthem played, Vangelis followed, tears welled up, horns blew and all of a sudden the cannon went and we set off into the humid Durban streets not knowing where exactly we were going but aware it would be into the stratosphere of our running careers.
Truth be told I didn’t enjoy it. The first few km were more crowded than anything I had ever experienced and the hills seemed to never end. Often I get into a zone when running and can eat up a couple km’s without even knowing it but on that race every step was a conscious decision I needed to make as I stuck to my mantra for the day, ‘whatever you do don’t stop moving forward’.
I wanted to do it for my Grandpa and around 70ks I really wanted to do it so that I would after having completed it NEVER have to do it ever again. Every few steps I cramped. I thought about my bed only to fight myself not to lie down and sleep on the side of the road. I truly thought this is just too much, I can’t do it and started planning my status update on facebook explaining why I didn’t make it. Eventually I couldn’t even do a simple math sum to work out how far I had run and was properly buggered. I had drained my body and was exhausted, cramping, sunburnt and just fed up. I told myself though, just keep going, it is one day, you can rest everyone other day hereafter, just keep moving forward and get through this.
It’s amazing the delight you get when you see a fellow club member on the road! I had caught up with Beaumont and Keith with about 20 ks to go and Beaumont told me, ‘Stick with us and you’ll get there, Keith will bring you in’. The thing is you are still on your own legs and have to cover the millage yourself but he wasn’t wrong, it really does help being with someone you know even if you don’t know them besides from being from your club. I went up Polly Shorts next to Louie Massyn (something like 40 medals) and only when I got within 2 ks of the stadium realized I had enough time to walk if I wanted and as such had made it. As I entered the stadium I remember the late Graham Ross’s delight in cheering me on, he was genuinely so happy and I will always remember that about him. I started walking again until a random guy came up next to me and said come on lets run this! Shortly after myself and this stranger crossed the finish line hands held aloft and hugged like we had known each other for years. That’s happened each time I’ve finished since by the way. It’s as if you don’t care who it is you just need someone to hug!
Anyway lesson learnt as during the race I popped about 2 Myprodols, 3 magnesium tablets and 1 Panado. After walking around the stadium for half an hour looking for our club tent (tip: make an effort to memorize where this will be before running) I eventually found it and soon proceeded to vomit my lungs out. I got sick three times before I lost control of my bladder as well and needed to go there and then. I did this twice to some strange looks from passers-by (I couldn’t care by this stage) and then threw up once more for good measure. I could barely move and along with this my throat had developed a bumpy rash on the inside from sucking air for just over 11hours. I couldn’t drink anything and definitely couldn’t eat until late the next day. When I weighed myself on Monday evening back at home I was 6 kilograms lighter and the next 4 days were spent on my back. I was grey and felt like I had done something stupid and awful to my body. Which I had, but come the next weekend I was already looking forward to the next one…
The 2016 down run was an epic! I was in trouble at 30 ks with my feet feeling bruised underneath, a new and unpleasant experience, and my calves were way to sore for that point in the race. Funny enough an orange segment seemed to sort that out and I actually found the first 44 ks relatively easy. This year would be no tablets, no food either, just coke and water for me.
The down was so different to the up in so many ways it felt like a completely different race. The chill of Maritzburg in the morning with the darkness and mist and watching the sun rise as we descended Polly’s and headed towards Lion Park were memorable. The support seemed to improve along the route as well and all was going nicely until I hit a proper wall at 75 ks. All of a sudden I was once again done and the calculations started, can I walk it in? I had done this for about 5 minutes when once again who turned up but Beaumont and Keith…‘How you doing?’ they asked? ‘I’m kaput, my legs are done’, ‘Ok stick with us and we’ll get you in’. I knew this to be true. It was after all both of their 20th double laurels that they were going for and my back-to-back so we had to make it.
What happened next felt like the most epic 15 ks I had ever run…We seemed to take off sprinting as one of them would call, ‘Ok that sign’ and then we would put foot until we got there. We streamed past people, three bumblebees in a row, on a mission to the great hive of Kings Park. My suffering changed as soon I was heaving for breath from these sprints as opposed to suffering leg pain. It was as if the change of pace and running in with two legends competing in what would be their last run (so they said) completely re-energized me and those last kays were proper epic!

Unforgettable moment finishing with Beaumont and Keith doing their 20th.

On finishing I found Jayde in the stands, he had done his leg in at 30ks and somehow limped the last 60kms. I saw Devon who had valiantly fought with a cold to the 70k cut-off. I then looked around for Luke who I had assumed had been cut off ages ago. It a long story but Luke has struggled with injury for months and although able to grit and take more punishment than any runner I know I couldn’t fathom he could still be going and as such it wasn’t even a consideration. I asked Gina where he was and to my absolute horror heard her say, ‘He’s at 81’… I was truly horrified. I couldn’t imagine the state the boy must have been in knowing the beating he usually takes on a standard marathon, let alone this.

Lukes 2016 Comrade’s qualifier FHAC’s Redhill Marathon where he dived across the finish line getting his ticket to Durban with under 10 seconds left.

The next hour and a half was a terrible mix of emotion as we tracked his progress whilst counting down the minutes. He had time, but in what state was he? In the end he ran into the stadium to a standing ovation from the Fish Hoek supporters about 7 minutes over the 12 hour cut-off. He made the distance, he made the run, he just missed the time in what he regards as the best run of his life having enjoyed every minute of it.

Bittersweet moments after the 2016 down. Luke was very dehydrated and Devon very sick.

The following months were a mix of deliberations. Some of us wanted to take a year off and hit the 2018 down run. Luke having come so close to getting his medal on his second attempt was having none of it and was adamant he was going back immediately. As such Jayde and me decided to join him once again for the dreaded up.
And so for this year’s run I decided to run with Luke to see if I could somehow help bring him in. Or at least be with him whilst we suffer along the road. As Beaumont and Keith told me last year, ‘You now know the way’ so I was hoping I might be able to help him as they had helped me previously.
My personal Comrades goal was achieved last year after doing my back-to -back up and down. I was also the first in my family to do the run and am grateful that I got to put a comrade’s finisher’s medal on my Grandpa’s neck. He has since passed away just a few weeks ago before this year’s race but whenever I spoke to him he always asked about comrades and that knowing that Luke and I would be running together one of the very last things he ever said to me was, ‘I’ll be running with you two this year’…
And so…the first 20 ks were easy and foolishly I thought ,’Haha were in today, we’ve got this’ until going down Inchanga when Luke’s legs locked up and he couldn’t so much as walk let alone run. We were half way there but moving so slow and Luke was in so much discomfort I considered packing it in. What’s the point in further suffering, we will come back next year anyway? But we decided we may as well get as far as we could so that we can at least tell those who asked that we got a decent distance in.
We did manage to find solace in the fact that we were still upright and moving forward where so many others lay in a pool of their own vomit on the side of the road. An American girl asked me whether she was getting sunburnt seemingly oblivious to the fact she was by 1 pm the colour of a pink highlighter. I replied, ‘Not yet, but you will be’. There was of course still the entire afternoons roasting for her to look forward to so I imagine she still looks like a boiled crayfish. The point is when we focused on the suffering of others we didn’t focus on ourselves as much and subsequently felt better. Perhaps a life lesson there!
This worked for a bit as we kept going and after an emotional arm-over-the-shoulder pep talk by some random dude along the route (wish we knew who that was) and me pulling my last trump card in reminding Luke where about our Grandpa used to live we seemed to get a second wind and were trapping along as hard as we could. Heather had given Luke salt pills, Nicky provided some inspiration and we managed to latch onto the heels of Nebreska and Henry for some added speed as we headed towards the great wall of Polly’s.
In my mind if we made it up Polly’s that was it, we would have an hour to do 8 ks, a challenge after doing almost 80 already, but it would be primarily downhill from there and with adrenaline going we should make it. Luke power walked that hill like a beast, angry and certain he had seen the 8 k sign further back but once up we were now in the home straight with the smell of victory in our noses.
The course with its new finish went underneath a railway line before going up another steep hill and as we got into this dip just a few kays out with every minute crucial Luke’s legs decided to look…Solid, debilitating cramps to the point where he couldn’t move… We stood there, panic in his voice as people streamed past on their way to their medals. I thought he was going to cry, not from pain but because he was so close and we were going to miss it because he couldn’t get his legs to un-cramp and move. It was absolutely heart-breaking and my worst memory of the race. I prayed so hard and after what seemed like ages and many passing runners shouting support, ‘come on guys’ he managed to start moving along and eventually even doing little runs.
It was now touch and go and every breath I could hear him wincing in agony all the way until I saw the 1 km board with the pace car parked next to it displaying just over 14 minutes remaining. “One more run boy! One more run and you’ve got this!” I screamed to him. If he could even run just a small part of that last Km then we had the time to comfortably walk it in.
And that is what he did and more. We ran past 1 km and kept going until I forced him to walk to prevent any potential last km cramp lockups. He was in pure survival mode and it was awesome! We caught up with the 12 hour bus under the bridge and followed them in run walking over the line in pure emotional bliss at 11:54 hr!
Jim Harwood was shouting for us on one side of the finish shoot whilst Jayde and Gina wear in tears screaming support from the other! I saw the TV camera and knowing our friends and family were watching at the club ended up raising my hands and just shouting at it. Luke was in shock, not just because of what he had done to his body but because he could not believe we had actually made it. Truth be told we probably shouldn’t have gotten there but it didn’t matter, we did! Tears of happiness and relief were shed and what a different feeling that was compared to the bittersweet finish of the previous year.

Lukes disbelief and my happiness as we came under the last bridge into the finish.

It’s now just over two week since the 2018 up run. We have burnt a hole in Gina’s couch from cigars. We have all been quite sick with colds. Party packs of Simba chips have been eaten guilt free as meals and quite a few botties of red wine have made their way down our throats only to sit in our foreheads the following morning. None of this mattered now though because we made it!
So next year, the 2018 down, is going to be the last one for us for quite a while and I am already looking forward to it. Training will commence soon and once again it will be all four of us, Jayde, Luke, Devon and I, (who knows maybe a few more if we can convince them) but hopefully at the end
of it there will be medals coming home with each of us. It will then be a nice break until we feel the need to make the journey again.
I struggle recommending the comrades to anyone I care about because I don’t want to see them go through that much pain and suffering. It is truly brutal. But at the same time I believe anyone who wants it enough can do it and in doing so experience one of the greatest adventures they will ever know. The memories we have now, not just of the race but the entire lead up from the training to the adventures in Durban and surround’s each year, I am so incredibly grateful for. I think it was Ali who said he hated every minute of training but decided he would do it now and live the rest of his life as a champion and I’m so glad decided to do similar and give it a go. Yes, it is a sacrifice not just to you but also on your loved ones, it is difficult and downright unpleasant at times but looking back and thinking of all we have gotten from it, the memories, the friends, the laughs and the incredible experience that Comrades is it really is something very special which I am incredibly grateful to be a part of.

The best part, doing it with your friends and having fun, Luke, Jayde, Devon and Me, port Run 2017.

 

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