Sunday, May 27, 2012

Running Comrades

Back in 2002, I read The Lore of Running by Timothy Noakes, a South African physiologist. The preface of what’s overall a pretty dry book about VO2max and lactate threshold is a lyrical account of the Comrades Marathon, a 56-mile race in South Africa that’s billed as “the ultimate human race.” It seemed, literally, otherworldly. It was this mystical portrait of a formidable test of endurance, commitment and brotherhood. I was smitten. My friend Mark and I talked about doing the Comrades. We’d joke at races about the overblown prose Noakes use. Actually doing the race would periodically come up over the years, as we ran regular marathons and even strayed into ultras with a couple 50ks. For one reason or another, it never happened.

Next Sunday it will happen. Mark’s trained in the heat of Pakistan; I’ve run pretty much everywhere in NYC. It’s funny to think that a decade later we’re going to finally run this thing. I feel as prepared and as healthy as I could hope. I’ve done over 1,000 miles training since the start of the year. I’ve run the marathon distance three times. I ran 50 miles a few weeks ago in a bit over 7.5 hours. I ran over the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges probably 100 times. Perhaps more importantly, I have a running resume over the years that includes almost 25 marathons, three 50ks and the 50-miler. It’s safe to say I’ve prepared.

A lot of people find the idea of running 56 miles in Africa over extremely hilly terrain unfathomable. I get that. It’s not in reality. The thing I’ve learned from training is that anything is truly possible if you set a goal and work diligently to get there. I don’t know what next Sunday will be like. I suspect I’ll suffer quite a bit, even want to quit a couple times. I doubt I will. The main reason is I’ve been there and learned the value of persistence. My recent favorite distance saying is an ultra guy’s advice to think, “It never always gets worse.” The race itself, for me, is a bit of an anti-climax. The real story is in 12 years of preparation, going back to when I first ran a mile around a park in a not great neighborhood I was living in in southeast Washington DC on a sticky summer night. Since then I’ve logged tens of thousands of miles. I’ve failed quite a bit. I was dragged to the hospital twice for IVs. I once comically collapsed 100 yards from the finish of a marathon and was carried across the finish. I’ve hurt my ITB, both Achilles, my plantar fasia. I’ve endured dozens of ice baths, lost toenails, chafed nipples until bleeding and done self-surgery on gross blisters. Long distance running is about chipping away, narrowing down your goal and working bit by bit to get there. That’s for me what the journey’s been.

I can’t wait to stand in the predawn darkness in Pietermaritizburg and hear the Shosholoza and the cock’s crow that will mark the start of the race. Mark and I will then set out on a very long journey that I trust, through some good and tough times, will end in a cricket stadium in Durban. Until then I’ll remember what Noakes himself wrote that once got me so enthralled with doing this thing: “The continual jarring of sharp descents from Inchanga, Botha's Hill and Hillcrest has taken its toll on my quadriceps and every step now sends an ever more painful shock down each thigh.Were the human brain able to recall the pain of Fields Hill, no one would run the down Comrades twice. This then is the point each runner, from the first to the last, must pass if he is to arrive in Durban on his own feet. It is here, stripped of any of society's false privileges, that he finds no hiding place, no shelter of convenience. Face to face with himself he must look deep inside.”

If for some reason you’re up late at night or very early in the morning on June 2-3 (race starts at 11:30pmEST on 6/2 and should end for me nine hours or so later), you can track me on the Comrades site. My race number is 41179.