Comrades 2019 – the race of my life!

It’s been exactly a month today since I ran the race of my life – the Comrades Marathon 2019, Up run, and just about the right time to reminisce about the life-changing experience.

The start point of the Comrades marathon 2019

I started running recreationally to lose weight…a sedentary IT job had taken my weight to 78kgs in 2005. And the hectic schedule at work and lots of travel didn’t help either. However, an official trip to Amsterdam got me in touch with a very fitness-focused colleague who pushed me to sign-up for the “Dam tot Damloop” – a 10k run – from Amsterdam to Zaandam! I never did run that race since my return back to India was scheduled just a few days before that 😦

Having trained by running around the beautiful Sloterplas lake (in Meer en Vaart, where I used to stay in Amsterdam) upon my return to Mumbai, I was looking for a place to continue running in Mumbai too. However, looking for a house to stay took higher priority and the weight soon climbed back to its height of 78 kgs. It’s only when I moved my residence to Borivali’s green neighborhood, which happens to, believe you me, share its boundary wall with the Borivali National Park (aka BNP), that I got enticed to visit the park, first recreationally with kids, and then in mornings to run! Finally, after trying many routes, I found a nice loop in the BNP to continue maintaining my 10k endurance 🙂

I have been running in ‘events’ for about 10 years now (not counting the occasional 7k Corporate Challenge in SCMM that I did as part of the team TCS)…never venturing beyond 21.1k in the first 5 years, and then sticking to the full Marathon distances in the Vasai Virar Full Marathon in December and Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM, earlier called the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon, or SCMM) in January each year. My running performance, and aspirations, found a turning point when I got in touch with coach Daniel Vaz (affectionately known as ‘Dan Sir’) and joined his training group, the Road Burners, in Sep 2017. The immediate next TMM performance showed an improvement of 36 minutes (from 4:58 in TMM 2017 to 4:22 in TMM 2018) owing to his guidance and focused training. It is here that I first heard of the Comrades Marathon and came to know that some of the Road Burners had done the Comrades previously, and some were aspiring to do it. A runner friend, Neha Lodha, had joined the Road Burners family a few months after I did, cracked the TMM in 4:14 hours and then took the plunge to do the Comrades in 2018 itself! And race she did, bagging a bronze medal and finishing the grueling 89k run in 10:44 hours. Crazy people, I thought!

I did not pay much heed to it until Nov 2018 when the Comrades excitement peaked within the group, with many of my running buddies registering for the UP run in 2019, and coaxing and cajoling me into registering for it. Aniket Save and Rajesh Iyer had already registered, some others were seriously considering it, and Neha was in it for a back-to-back medal. If you complete the Comrades run in consecutive two years, you get a third special medal called the back-to-back medal!

Aniket, Neha, Anand and Rajesh – after one of the training runs in BNP

Finally I gave in and registered, looking forward to the fun I will have during the intense training months with this eclectic group of super-committed runners. Neha, Aniket, Rajesh would show up for the runs, come rain or shine, and keep pushing me to put my best foot forward. We did our first ultra, the Tata Ultra Marathon, 50 kms, in Lonavala in Jan 2019 in decent time, and continued to return to those Lonavala hills once each subsequent month for progressively longer runs leading up to the final long run of 70 km in May. The Striders team, which took the pains of coordinating the run and logistics for support, were super helpful, and very well organized during these runs, sharing firsthand knowledge about the big C, and arranging all the supplies that 100+ runners would need over the 9+ hours of overnight run!

The longest overnight run in Lonavala hills – 70 km!

Barring the monthly long hill runs in Lonavala, most of our training runs were done in BNP and Aarey Colony. Mumbai is a relatively flattish terrain, and the nearest real hills are in Lonavala. Hence, the small hillocks in BNP and Aarey Colony had to do while they were neither of the incline or the distance that we were going to encounter in the Comrades race. Depending on what we had to do that day – hill repeats, rolling hills or long runs with some hills thrown in – as per the plan Dan Sir had specifically drawn out to train us for the Comrades race, we would show up at the start point around 4:00 am and start our runs…aiming to finish before the oppressive Mumbai sun became unbearable.

We arrived in Durban on the 6th of June, went to the Expo on 7th June, and had a short warmup run on 8th with thousands of other Comrades runners from the world over on the Durban waterfront promenade, and then relaxed watching the waves and the surfers, had a long siesta, fed ourselves tons of carbs 🙂

Group stretches and warmup at Durban waterfront, 8th June 2019
Many groups doing a practice run at Durban waterfront a day before the race

While we were focused on relaxing mentally and physically these blurry three days of long flights and a new city, three things stand out.

One was bumping into Admas Belilgne, the Comrades ambassador from USA and 9 times finisher at the Dubai airport just before boarding the Emirates flight to Durban. She gave a much-needed pep-talk and repeated the oft-repeated and most valuable Comrades advise ever, “take it easy in the first half!”.

With Admas Belilgne at Dubai airport, boarding Durban flight

The second highlight was an in-flight announcement by the pilot of the Emirates flight, “Emirates welcomes onboard all Comrades runners and we wish them a good run on Sunday”. The entire aircraft erupted in spontaneous applause and I had tears in my eyes. Most of the passengers in that flight were Comrades participants, and you could make that out from the insignia on their jackets or tees, their Garmin watches, their fancy running shoes, or their runner physiques!

And finally, in the long 9 hour flight from Dubai to Durban, we spent a lot of time pacing to and fro the ends of the aircraft. Of these, the two hours Aniket, Neha and I spent with coach Ash Nath were remarkable. A multiple time finisher, a well-renowned running coach, he amazed us with his technical knowhow of human physiology and potential, and stunned us with his humility. Standing next to the restrooms in the aircraft, sipping water from the trays that the airhostesses happily replenished, we got to learn about a thorough gentleman, and ourselves!

THE BIG DAY on 9th June 2019 was surreal at the start line. Twenty thousand of the world’s fittest, most positive, and most enthusiastic athletes in once place – the energy was palpable in the air. The music was energetic but the mind was calm, focused and positive. The MC kept the runners entertained, making us greet the other runners left, right, front and back of us one by one. Havana unana… blared the speakers! The barriers between the corals were removed and all corals merged into one tight mass of humanity at 5 am, making sitting impossible, and the entire mass started heading to the start line at 5:15 am. The weather was perfect, the race start time was ideal! The race started after the gun-shot following the double cawing of ‘cock-a-doodle-do’ and it took us about 6 minutes to cross the start line (since we were in penultimate coral G). In most races this does not matter but in Comrades, it does! The race starts with the start gun and stops 12 hours later…irrespective of when you cross the start line!

Less than 5k into the run, we saw the legendary Barry Holland running ahead of us, with the medal count of 46 on his bib! I pointed that to Aniket excitedly, and a co-runner mentioned that Barry is a legend in Comrades circles – not only has he done 46 successful runs, he has done them all consecutively…not missing a single year! A little later, while climbing a flyover, Neha asked us to slow down…saying “dheere dheeeere guys” and another runner picked up her words and started singing “dheere dheere se meri zindagi me aana…”…reminding ourselves to take it easy – dheere dheere – during the first half of the race. “They don’t call me Kishore Kumar for nothing” he quipped, not realizing that this song was performed by Kumar Sanu. It was so much fun continuing to hum that song for a while, and then picking up other running-related Bollywood songs, like “ruk jaana naheen tu kahi haar ke” and “chalte chalte mere yeh geet”! We made another Indian runner named Shivshankar, and, obviously, we burst into the song “Jai jai Shiv Shankar…”. Oh what fun!

We had planned to execute with a certain average pace per cut-off point and tried to stick to that. We were within the tolerance of a few seconds for most of the cut-offs and this made the race execution a breeze. The intent was to start together and stick together as long as we can, and running with Rajesh, Aniket and Neha – my buddies – for the first 40k was super-fun and didn’t seem like an effort at all! That also helped us reign in our horses and take it easy and stick to the pacing plan.

This was the pacing plan:

Cutoff Average Pace

1 – 7:40

2 – 7:20

3 – 7:25

4 – 7:40

5 – 7:20

6 – 7:40

Finish line – 7:20

This plan was, to be honest, derived from Kashyap Modi’s plan of 10:55 India bus. He had done all the leg work of studying the terrain between each cut-offs and arriving at the right pacing plan. I reduced a few seconds per cut-off average pace to aim for a fast finish, with his bus being my plan B. Kashyap has been a constant presence in all the training long runs we did at Lonavala and always happily sharing his Comrades experiences and knowledge with us. Of all he has freely shared, online and in-person, if there’s one thing I can never forget is the risk-return analysis of running the Comrades race. And I quote, “If after all the long runs and training, you stand injury-free at the Comrades start line, the only reason you will NOT finish is if you over pace your first half! And the risk-return ratios are not in your favor. To reach the start line you have sacrificed your family time, sleep, money and opportunity to do something else more worthwhile, now please don’t throw it all with a DNF only because you did not rein-in yourself in the first half of the race. A chance of getting a faster finish by 10-15 mins is not worth taking, you could end up with a DNF if the cards are not dealt in your favor.”

Kashyap Modi and Satish Gujran sharing their experiences and answering questions before the overnight long run.

The race was fun all the way…I soaked in all the positive vibes from the supporters, thanking them for each shout-out I received, and there were many. I must have got like 500 shout-outs for my India tee, some taking the pain to read and shout my name too, and on several occasions I had some random supporters running along and asking if I needed anything to eat, anything at all. Some of the cut-offs point support stations were super fun, like the half way point supported by Hollywoodbets! There were cheering crowds along almost the entire route, and families, including small kids having picnics in the grass and offering food and drinks to runners. The views right after the Harrison flats were amazing of the ‘Valley of a 1000 hills’…and those horse-mounted policemen and women on the Harrison flats were a sight to behold too. In a distance this long, you are so aware, so alert to your surroundings, so positive about everything that is happening, there’s hardly any other experience to compare it with.

The run was fun!
And the smiles says it all…the finish line is here!

Somewhere after that I noticed an onset of cramps in my thighs, which I chose to endure and manage by adjusting my run-walk ratio, and then found a physio who happily gave me a good rub-in. I was not sure what the bluish gel they were using, hence I asked him to just use ice for the rub. I do not like my skin burning as it does with Volini or Relispray, and later realized that the gel they were using is more of a cooling body balm. At another physio rub-in that I requested, I okayed him to use the cooling gel and continued. The hamstrings behind my thighs were cramping now, but only during walking – they didn’t complain while running!

Having met my cut-offs, give or take a few seconds, after the top of Polly Shortts I decided to let loose and give my best to the last 7k or so remaining in the race. This turned out to be my best lap during the race! Towards the finish, when the race entered the race course in Pietermaritzburg, my legs found a new strength…smiling and waving at my wife Veena – the pillar of my support during this arduous journey, who was standing in the stands cheering me on – I made a final dash to the finish line. At the finish line, It was the most emotional finish line I have had…

At the finish line, I chose to not sit or lie down, lest I need to be carried away on a stretcher. I saw many runners opting to sit after the finish line, and, not being able to get up, had to be carried away on stretchers! I waited for my buddies to show up at the finish line, give them warm congratulatory hugs (and warn them not to sit down!) and generally enjoy the emotionally charged environment at the finish line. As the clock struck 1730 hours, the countdown started with a gloomy music that soon ended into a deathly silence…as if mourning the fate of the folks who gave it all they had, reaching the finish line just in time to miss their all-important medal 😦

After crossing the finish line…of the race of my life!
The much coveted Comrades bronze medal!

The walk to the international hospitality area was a pain…with so crowds and a painful staircase on scaffolding to climb to get into the international hospitality area. The refreshments were okayish and we focused on getting back to Durban as fast as we can, after ensuring we had enough food for the long 1.5 hours journey back home, to a hot hot shower and ample salve l-)

All in all, an amazing journey to a worthwhile goal. Can’t thank enough my family, comrade friends and dear coach, for their love, support and faith!

Dan Sir giving final tips before the team leaves for Durban. A super-coach, whose superb training saw 100% of his runners crossing the Comrades finish line this year!

If there is one learning I want you to take away from my Comrades journey, it is that, with expert guidance, a written down plan, and a focused mind-set, any goal, however lofty, is achievable. All the very best to you, for achieving whatever is your Comrades!

Update – 28 Jul 2019

And my wife and kids surprised me with this last evening!

The Comrades Cake! 😍

Thank you Ms Jeeva of Morish Bakes for making this bespoke cake…the quality ingredients showed through in its amazing taste! And was a hit at the get together!

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