Through the bedlam and chaos, the screaming spectators, the over-enthusiastic pats on the back and the thick acrid braai smoke I could see the Caltex garage to my left, and ahead, not too far away, the summit of 45th Cutting.
My legs were heavy wooden planks and it seemed sharp knives were stabbing at my quadriceps muscles, but I was running strongly and purposefully and nothing was going to force me stop. The TV truck was ploughing a path for me through the wall of spectators. I was running the final stages of the 1986 down Comrades and I was leading, not by much, things were still very tight, but I was pulling away.
And then an overwhelming sense of déjà vu overwhelmed me. I had been here before, I had played out this scene before. And recalled that I had rehearsed this moment many times before, occasionally in my training runs on the Comrades route where I felt the pull and steepness of the road past that garage and again in my final drive over the route two days before race day. There I had made a mental note of the number of lampposts I would have to run past to the summit of 45th Cutting.
Most importantly, however, I had rehearsed this critical moment repeatedly in my mind, over and over, when on different training runs, I had fantasised where it would happen and what it would feel like to take the lead in the Comrades marathon.
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Every Comrades runner must now understand that the hard training has been done, the physical side of the preparation for the Comrades is over. It is impossible to get any fitter. It is now time to sharpen the mind, to gird the loins for the battle ahead. Some of that mental preparation has already been done. For weeks, no months, Comrades runners have been telling themselves they will be running a brutal 90 kilometre race at the end of August. Without knowing it they are now psychologically prepared to do battle. Now it is time to sharpen that resolve.
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This can be achieved brilliantly by:
1) Running on the route itself. Three weeks ago, I travelled to Durban with a group of runners who ran 30 kilometres of the Comrades route each day for 3 days. They all reported that this journey was invaluable. They learnt so much. We were not alone in this learning experience.
While we were exploring the route in one third segments each day, dozens of groups of runners trotted past us, all running on the famous road. We were witnessing dress rehearsals on a grand scale. Many runners argue that they don’t want to know what is coming. They prefer to remain in blissful ignorance. I think this is foolish. Understanding the geography and the terrain of a race is vital for a successful run.
2) If you can’t run it, drive it. The drive is an invaluable scouting mission. I recommend driving the whole route from the Pietermaritzburg City Hall to the finish at Moses Mabidha Stadium. (There are numerous route tours which runners can join. I conduct one).
In the same way that the run creates respect, the route tour reinforces how monstrous the down Comrades is. Travelling along the route with excited and laughing runners, but particularly novices, is an illuminating experience. At the start of the drive everyone chats keenly and jovially. There are plenty of photographs taken at the bottom of Polly Shortts and at Arthur’s seat but then the mood rapidly becomes sombre as the unnamed hills roll by and the seemingly endless journey unwinds.
At the conclusion of the journey everyone is silent and sober. Many runners are busy adjusting their running schedules and ETAs. No one is planning a faster race.
3) This is a positive state of mind for the race. A scared Comrades runner is a realistic Comrades runner, a realistic runner is a successful Comrades runner. A realistic runner starts the race cautiously and picks the pace up later. These runners become bolder and more determined as the race unfolds.
4) Every runner should try and get hold of some videos of past races. It is deeply inspiring watching Gerda Steyn making running up Polly Shortts look effortless or Bongmusa Mthembu powering his way through Pinetown.
But more importantly it is the spectacle of ordinary runners battling to the finish, air punching and raising their arms aloft that is so compelling.
5) Music is also motivating and should be a part of every Comrades runner’s arsenal. I suggest that runners choose an inspiring theme song. Any music that stirs the soul will work (I chose a theme song every year that I ran and my theme song became the goose bump anthem for that year’s Comrades, so Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic “will always remind me of the 1981 Comrades, and Pachelbel Canon in D the 1983 Comrades).
6) And finally, fantasise! In the next few days while out on a dark cold morning run, I suggest that runners let their minds wonder and get lost in fantasy and take them to 45th Cutting or Cowie’s Hill and that they picture themselves running steadily, one foot in front of another, towards the top so that on race day they will realise that they have been there before as I did in 1986.