My Comrades Marathon Experience 2017 - Clayton Kelly

My journey started 13 months ago. Retiring from rugby and needing something to fulfill that spot, one of my best mates, Chris Knez convinced me to do a bucket list. We discussed it and set ourselves our first few tasks: a marathon, a half iron man and a full ironman.
Watching the 2016 Comrades Marathon, as I do every year and seeing Caroline Wostmann collapsing, dropping down to 45th cutting and her determination to keep going. Then seeing the complete joy of the athletes that finished the ultimate human race. I knew I had to put this on the bucket list and do it the following year. The Comrades was now number one on the bucket list.
My mom completed the 1987 Comrades Marathon, finishing 19th. When I told her that I was going to take part in 2017, she was overjoyed! She immediately started planning for 12 months’ time. 2017 Comrades was to take place exactly 30 years after she completed her Comrades.
I was lucky enough that another one of best mates, Bryan Difford, is involved in a training squad and has one of the best coaches in South Africa coaching him for his triathlons, Travis Johnston. Travis himself one of South Africa’s best triathletes. I met with Travis, explaining my bucket list and proposed plans ahead. He explained it would be a long road, but he would definitely get me there.
The training was hard, but every time I went out things were getting better. It makes it easier when you see results. The bucket list training was slowly coming together.
We decided that my first marathon would be Soweto. A tough, but honest marathon. It was a relatively tough race, and I managed a 3:24 for my first marathon. My confidence was building.
Travis sent me my Comrades training plan. The many kilometers ahead were daunting but I knew they were achievable. A few injuries intermittently slowed my training down, but this was not going to stop determination. I managed to get to 1000km of the LSD (Long Slow Distance) training. I would have liked more kilometers in the legs, but felt confident in the overall program, with the many track sessions and hill work.
The time had finally come, Comrades week. The whole week was filled with excitement and continued building. Chris, Jamie, Sim and myself left for Durbs on Friday. We drove the route and marked out our game plan, saw the terrifying hills, and the “good parts”, and made our way to the registration. The Comrades Marathon Registration was an eye-opener. Thousands of people and every brand of running gear was there in full force. Realization set in that this one of the biggest events I had ever been part of.
We headed home and started preparing ourselves for Sunday. The girls were simply outstanding, waiting on us for our every need. They were the true heroes and deserve a medal when this is all done.

D-DAY: The day had finally come. Alarm going off at 2am, I jumped up and started shouting, “Its Comrades Day.” The nerves and excitement had set in. We jumped into the car and as one of my old rugby traditions, I started listening to my motivational videos. The one particular video is titled, The 40% Rule. Chris had sent it through to me a few weeks before. It’s a navy seal motto, that when you think that your body has nothing left to give, you have only reached 40% of what you are capable of doing. We both decided that this would be our motto for Comrades.  We told our loved ones that when you see us on route and we in pain, remind us of The 40% Rule.

We arrived in Durbs City Centre around 4am. The atmosphere is electric. Thousands of people singing and dancing, making their way to the start line. You can feel the excitement all around you. I gave my wife, Jamie, a kiss goodbye and she gave me some last words of encouragement. It was time to make our way to the starting pens.
I walked with Chris to the starting pens. It was time for us to go our separate ways. We gave each other a big manly hug, wished each other the best and went our separate ways.
I was heartbroken to hear that Chris had been forced to retire when the medics pulled off his back number a mere 25-odd km from the finish. An old rugby injury had flared up. His ankle was the size of football and looked more like an elephant’s foot, than a human foot. He is one of the strongest minded people I know and I have no doubt that he would finished, even if it meant finishing on one leg.

I was seeded in the A Pen and remember the boys a few weeks before, saying that I would stand out in that pen and that’s exactly what had happened. I arrived at my starting pen and the race marshal looked at me with a very confused face, checking twice on my race number that I was in fact in the A Pen. I walked in and it felt like all the eyes were on me. I was a head taller and was probably double the weight of most of the other athletes in this pen. I made my way through to the middle of the starting pen. With just a few minutes to the start, the South African Anthem played, which was followed by Shosholoza. The tears started to stream down my face. I has never experienced something like this, 20 000 athletes all singing, I had never felt prouder to be a South African. At that moment, standing in the crowd, listening to the stirring words of Shosholoza, I reckon you’d have had to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the soaring spirit. My tears kept coming as Shosholoza changed to ‘Chariots of Fire’ and then the iconic sound of the cock crow, a recording made of one of the very early participants of Comrades, Max Trimborn. Some background on this… Max struggled to contain his nerves at the start of the 1948 run, so he let out the rousing sound of a rooster crow. After hearing the rooster crow, the canon is fired and the Comrades is under way.
The adrenaline kicks in and the first 10km is blur - you are completely surrounded by runners and it is still dark. You have to keep reminding yourself of your well thought out plan, to slow down and pace yourself.

You soon make it to 15km mark, the 1st of the Big 5 Hills, Cowies Hill. It is definitely the easiest of the Big Five, with steep gradient and just over 2km of climbing. This brings you into Pinetown. The support is incredible, constantly hearing your name and running club being shouted out. At the end of Pinetown was my first seconding point, where I collected my race belt and had the necessary carb drink.
The next stretch would bring you to the 2nd of the Big Five Hills, Fields Hill. This is definitely an eye-opener and the realization that Comrades has begun. Fields Hill is the longest of the hills, which stretches just over three kilometers, each bend in the road hiding another climb.

Once reaching the top, you greeted with great support again coming into Kloof and Hillcrest. This whole time you are still on a gradual climb, before coming to the 3rd of the Big Five Hills, Bothas Hill. I remember feeling my legs getting tired and feeling an old hamstring injury on the right leg and then an old quad injury on the left. This was not good. I had not even reached halfway and old injuries were already coming up. The support all along Bothas Hill is incredible, passing the Kearsney Boys all cheering you along. The atmosphere around you is what carries you up this monster hill. You have been climbing from 22km – 37km on various gradients, conquering two of the Big Five Hills.

Once reaching the second highest point on the route, it is mostly downhill until halfway. You pass two of the Comrades most significant places of importance.
On the right hand side, is the Comrades Wall of Honour. All past winners, green numbers, yellow numbers and other athletes that have paid to have them name up there after completing Comrades. The next place of significance is a bit further on, Arthur’s seat. You reach a small hole in the left bank, reputed to be the favourite resting spot of five times’ Comrades winner Arthur Newton. I followed the tradition of countless others, doffed my cap, and placed my flower by those left by other runners, and buoyed by my greeting ‘Good Morning Arthur’. Right now I was going to follow all the traditions, in hope that this would bring me luck for the next 48km that lay ahead.

On the drive down, we marked off a perfect point called Alverstone, 3km before the halfway point at Drummond, which is mostly downhill. This would allow me to have time to catch my breath and get ready for Inchanga, the 4th of the Big Five Hills.
I saw Jamie and quickly drunk my next carb drink, which just came straight back out. Not a good idea to drink quickly, especially after just climbing over 1000m. Grabbed my next race belt and my lunch “potatoes and half a peanut butter sarmie” and made my way down the hill to Drummond.
Running into Drummond is like nothing I have ever experienced before. You are surround by hundreds of people creating a tunnel and cheering you on. I saw my mom at the end of the tunnel. She run alongside me and I explained that the pain had not subsided in my legs and I was starting to fear the worst, and that I was only halfway. I explained that the race plan had to change and I need to see everyone as often as possible, to help me push through the pain. I gritted my teeth and started getting myself ready for Inchanga.

I began Inchanga and few hundred meters into the climbing the legs started to shake and my spirits began to drop. I had to dig deep, remind myself of the 40% rule and no matter what, failure was not on the cards. I decided that it would be a good place to pace myself, take it easy and get ready for the Harrison Flats, where I could make up time. I came up with the idea of running for 1min and walking for 15 secs. The plan changed as the gradient got steeper. I then marked trees and road signs. I finally reached the top of Inchanga and a water station. Grabbing the ice-cold water sachets, ripping the corner off and pouring over my head and down my back to cool down and get myself back on track. I made it down into Inchanga and a whole sense of emotion came over me, by the greetings of The Enthembeni School, one of the official Comrades charities, which supports disabled and visually impaired children, many of whom lined the sides of the roads, their hands stretched out, and eagerly supporting runners. I made a point of running over and high-fiving each one of the hands, to so how much their support meant to me and had lifted my spirits again.

With my spirits uplifted, I began the Harrison Flats. I had marked this on the drive down, as a place to make up time. Keeping an eye on my watch, my pace per km starting dropping. I was happy and started to get into a nice rhythm again. Suddenly an indescribable pain hit the back of the leg, which almost brought to me stop. I gritted my teeth and tried to get going again, but there was nothing. I calmly starting talking to myself, reminding myself all the hard work I’ve done, the early morning track sessions, the countless hills sprints and the hard work that my coach, Travis had put in. Now is not a time to give in. I pushed on and was quickly sucked up by the 8hr bus. I did my best to try stay with them, but I was in a dark place and needed to escape it quickly. The midday heat was well above 30°C. My nutrition had failed me, nothing would stay down and the only thing I could stomach was Coca-cola mixed with water. Everything was starting to become a blur. I remember seeing my dad and the panic on his face. He sprayed my legs with deep heat and rubbed them trying to ease them. The pain let up for a bit and I managed to get going through the rolling hills.

By the time I got Cato Ridge, the word had spread and my entire family were there to support and provide any medical attention I needed. I remember I came around the bend and I heard loud cheering and my name being shouted. I looked up and saw tears in my wife Jamie’s eyes and emotion set in for me. I was quickly surrounded by family, who rubbed the legs, gave me the cramping tablets and held me up, so I could change my socks. My feet felt like I had been running on hot coals for the last 20km. I could not stand upright, as the pain in my legs would not allow me to. My dad had befriended a supporter who he had borrowed an ice bucket from so that I could soak my head with the ice water sponges. I was coming alive again. My mom and dad reminded me of the 40% Rule for the day and everyone cheered me on as I left.
I felt rejuvenated, the legs had not come back yet, but the pain was slowly subsiding.

 The next 20km was by far the hardest of my life. There is no way to describe the emotions and the dark places that you to go. I came up with a great way to suppress the dark emotions and keep going. The best way was to talk to myself, occasionally shout, it was here that I saw the real Comrades spirit, as fellow runners would run beside me, repeating what I was saying, and giving me words of encouragement. I saw my family another two times before I got to Little Polly’s. Each time just building me up and getting me going.

At Little Polly’s I was sore, but it is was bearable and I was in my stride again. I went through Little Polly’s steadily, getting myself ready for Polly Shorts. The last of Big Five Hills.
As the official 2017 Comrades’ guide states, “much has been written about Polly’s. Much has been spoken about Polly’s. Horror stories have been told about Polly’s.” It goes on to describe it as “Only a hill on the old road between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, but what a hill it is”.
I was nervous about Polly’s, so I adopted the run 2mins, walk 30 seconds strategy. I did not want to ruin my race with 8km to go. This rule did not apply when I saw the TV cameras at the top. There was no way I was walking on TV. I suppose this did play to my favour as I got some TV time, waving at the cameras. Many people that saw me on TV commented how strong I looked. I can say that that definitely was not the case, but glad I looked as strong as I had wished. The next few kilometers were not easy, but I could finally see the light. I was going to finish my first Comrades in under 9 hours and get the Bill Rowan medal, which was my ultimate goal for my first Comrades. I could feel the emotion coming over me. Except, Comrades was not finished with me yet.

3km from the end at the last water stations, the legs collapsed again. Unbearable pain and uncontrollable leg shakes. I stumbled to the water station, grabbed the Coke and water, however it came up again. This was the fifth time I had thrown up throughout the day. With the swarm of other runners I had moved away from the water station, it was too far to go back. In the Comrades spirit, a fellow runner came up to me and squirted 1 bottle over my head and gave me the other to sip. I was rejuvenated again. The crowds had lined the streets, encouraging you to dig deep for the final 2km.
Running into the racetrack, I realized what an incredible day it had been. Although I had a terrible day in the office, having my family being there the whole way, helping fellow runners and being helped by them. The support from all spectators that cheered you on throughout the day. Emotion started to set in.

I came round the bend to the final stretch and could see the finish line. Looking along the sides at all the spectators, I spotted Jamie 20m from the finish line. She had tears in eyes and was waving uncontrollably.  The tears started to flow. I run across the straight and gave her hug and a kiss. “We did it, we did it!” I said.  She quickly chased me off so I could get across the finish line.
It is an indescribable feeling of accomplishment, being able to push your body beyond any limits it has ever been to and coming out on top with everything that tried to bring you down in the day.

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