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Life and Business Lessons from Comrades

Published on: 11 June 2009

The mystique of the Comrades Marathon captures the imagination of South Africans around May/June every year.  The organisers call it ‘The Ultimate Human Race’, and many commentators and experts contend that it is the greatest ultra marathon in the world.  It certainly is the only foot race of 90km in the world that attracts around 13,000 participants every year.  In 2000 it attracted a massive 20,000 runners.  In addition to the runners, some 300,000 spectators come out to provide support along the route every year.

It is difficult to understand why.  Anyone who has tackled the epic challenge between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, or the other way around every alternative year, will testify to the gruelling nature of it.  How then can its popularity be explained? In my view, Comrades offers ordinary people like you and me the opportunity to do something truly extraordinary.  It offers a real challenge, and South Africans love a challenge.  The race belongs to the masses as much as it belongs to the 100 or so hopefuls who believe they stand a chance of winning.

In my late twenties and early thirties, I completed seven Comrades marathons – two silver, and five bronze medals.  Due to injury and other reasons I didn’t run again for nine years.  Between 2002 and 2004, I returned to complete numbers eight, nine and ten.  After receiving my permanent green number for completing ten runs I decided at the age of 45 to hang up my running shoes. That was until the 16th of February this year!  A good friend and old running partner called me and suggested we give Comrades 2009 a go, given the fact that we both turn 50 this year. It took very little to persuade me. I started training the next day. The harsh reality was that we had a mere fourteen weeks to race day, and only eight weeks before we had to run a standard marathon in under five hours to qualify.  The biggest risk was over training causing injury or illness due to over eagerness to get fit quickly.  This had to be managed well.

My training went reasonably well, and I managed to qualify in time.  My friend was less fortunate; he pulled a hamstring and had to withdraw.  I followed three simple yet strict principles, namely:

  1. Never train on sore legs, to minimise the risk of injury.
    This meant that some weeks I only trained once or twice.  Staying healthy was key as it provided the only chance of success.
  2. Scheduled regular (weekly) visits to the physiotherapist for a sports massage.
    This helped with my body’s recovery time and provided much needed prevention against injury.
  3. Employ a walk-run strategy.
    I read about it in a Tim Noakes article. The logic here is that I scheduled one minute walking sections every kilometre from early on in long training runs or races, to spread my energy levels more evenly over the required distance. This ensured that I avoided levels of total exhaustion from where it is almost impossible to recover.

The weekend before race day I seriously questioned my reasons for wanting to run Comrades again.  I’ve had a more than satisfactory running career and didn’t need to prove anything to myself or anyone else.    I also started doubting my ability, especially since I’ve battled to run long distances ever since I had a knee scope some four years ago.  Was I not too old?  Have I done enough training?  Those who claim to know reckon a minimum of 400km from January to race day is required.  I did a mere 384km.  Have I done enough long runs?  I only did one 42,2km race, three 21,1km races, and two 20km training runs.  The rest of my training consisted of 10km, 8km, 6km runs….

I can’t say I found satisfactory answers to my questions, but on the spur of the moment I decided to ask my friends, family, loved ones and business connections to pledge funds to the Starfish Foundation (who do amazing work with AIDS orphans), on condition that I finish and earn a medal.  This turned the week before race day into an exciting, interactive period where I received many messages of support, and more pledges than I expected.  My dream was to raise R100,000.  The fund is currently sitting on R120,000 and money is still pouring in!  In these tough economic times?  Wow, I am humbled by people’s generosity of spirit.

The day before the race consisted mainly of registration at the huge expo in Durban.  Being a green number runner, I was asked to register at the Green Number counter.  The gentleman who assisted me noticed that I was doing my first run in my green number, and greeted me with a warm smile, a firm handshake and a “Welcome to the Club, René!” This moment was a lot sweeter than I ever expected.  I can’t explain why.  Maybe the fact that this is one club where money can’t get you in had something to do with it….. Another exhilarating experience was my visit to the Starfish stand at the expo.  The ladies behind the counter were ecstatic to hear how successful my fund raising exercise was progressing. They gave me an orange wristband and insisted that I wore it during the race.

The 30 minutes before the start of the race was an awesome, humbling experience.  The organisers played the Ladysmith Black Mambaso rendition of Shosholoza over the sound system.  All 13,000 runners joined in.  This was followed by the national anthem.  By this time my whole body was covered in goose bumps and I battled to hold back the tears.  Finally, five minutes before the gun, the well known sounds of Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire filled the chilly early morning with warm emotions.  Then I knew: this is special.  I am one of 13,000 South Africans of all races and creeds, all walks of life – some rich, some poor – with a common goal, to get to Durban in less than 12 hours.  We are all equal.  Social status means nothing.  We are in this together, and we respect each other as athletes, co-runners, human beings.  The black lady in front of me turned around with a big smile and said: “You know all the words and the tunes.  You sing well”.  I acknowledged her compliment and silently hoped that my running would also be on par!

I battled from the start.  It is dark and cold at 5h30 at the end of May in Maritzburg.  For some strange reason all my muscles felt tight.  I couldn’t find a comfortable rhythm, my breathing was erratic, I bumped into people in front of me, I urgently needed a toilet….I wasn’t happy.  I wanted to be somewhere else.

Matters improved somewhat after an hour on the road.  The sun was rising and I struck up conversations with the runners in my immediate vicinity.  The field was more spread out now, which allowed me to get into a comfortable rhythm.  My goal was to run the first half of the race at around 7min per km, which would get me to Drummond (halfway) in 5h15.  Anything under 5h30 would have been fine.  That would leave me with 6h30 for the second half.  The problem with the ‘down run’ is the fact that the first 21km happen to be more uphill than downhill, and I could see it in my running time.  I went through 10km in 75min and 20km in 2h30.  This means I was averaging 7,5min per km – slower than planned.  Even more worrying was the fact that my left hip flexor felt very tight.  In fact, it felt as though the muscle was going into spasm.

This was very disconcerting.  I was mentally prepared for setbacks, but not so early into the race.  This was a nasty curve ball and I was close to panicking.  I stopped briefly at a water station and managed to get hold of a block of ice the size of a cricket ball.  This I applied to the tight muscle.  It seemed to work.

Passing the Ethembeni School for disabled kids, around 35km into the race at the foot of Inchanga, provided fresh food for thought.  Most of these kids are unable to run.  The privilege of being healthy and able to be part of this great race was once again imprinted on my mind.  For a couple of hundred meters, the pain eased off a bit…

I went through Drummond slightly behind schedule in 5h32 and was already severely fatigued.  I battled to convince myself that I had enough gas in the tank to do another 45km in under 6h30.  To make matters worse, the first 8km after Drummond consists of a long, nasty climb commonly referred to as the back of Botha’s Hill.  I walked most of the time.  My only hope was that I would be able to capitalise on the long mainly downhill stretch of 20km between Hillcrest and Pinetown.  But I had to get there first.  I had to get over the back of Botha’s Hill first.

I managed to pick up the pace ever so slightly once I reached Hillcrest.  My enemies now were the pain in my knees and quads caused by the downhill pounding and the hip flexor spasms that persisted.  I had to dig deep, focus on rhythm and breathing, ensure my fluid intake at the water points were sufficient, and visualise myself getting to Durban in one piece.  I considered bailing a number of times.  The orange Starfish wristband around my left wrist reminded me of the noble cause of raising funds for the poor, less fortunate kids.  Kids who suffer due to no fault of their own.  I persevered, but the nagging thought of giving up persisted.

The uniformed boys of Kearsney College between Botha’s Hill and Hillcrest provided another example of the massive disparity between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in this country.  I realised, of course, that the friendly, energetic boys are not to blame for their privileged status.  In fact, we need more fine institutions like that where great leaders and sportsmen and -women are groomed.  But at the same time, we need less run down, poverty stricken institutions where future leaders and fine sportsmen and -women are a rarity.

Although I moved more freely now, I couldn’t help thinking that this is just not fair.  “Bad patches don’t last” is what most experienced runners believe.  The problem was that my whole race thus far had been one long bad patch!  The toughest section between Hillcrest and Pinetown is the 4km long steep downhill known as Field’s Hill.  I know it sounds contradictory, but this downhill stretch is particularly painful.  My legs were jelly by now, and my 104kg frame didn’t make matters easier on my knees and hip joints.  My only consolation was the fact that all the runners around me were taking strain as well.  An Indian gentleman on my left started talking to no-one in particular.  He said: “This is what people don’t understand, you know, when I tell them the downhills are painful, they just look at me and shake their heads”.

I reached Pinetown feeling groggy and very sorry for myself.  The race was turning into a war zone.  Disillusioned runners who simply had enough were standing, sitting and even lying all over the place.  I still had 21km ahead of me and I realised I had to make a decision to continue or not.  Simply feeling sorry for myself was not helping at all.  By now the KZN humidity and heat was becoming another complicating factor and to really make matters worse, my nose started bleeding.  From experience I knew the bleeding will only stop if I applied ice to my head and neck to cool it down.  That would not be possible whilst running.  I did grab some ice at the water points and tried to do the best I could.  A plug made from toilet paper had to at least prevent the blood from running freely…..not a pretty sight, I believe!  Nevertheless, I took a firm decision there and then that I won’t give up.  If I failed to finish, it would not be because of a conscious decision on my part.  In fact, the only way I would exit from the race would be on a stretcher!  I decided to run tall, to lift my chin, pull back my shoulders and remind myself I had a right to be here.  I was an athlete; no, a champion.

With 18km to go, I reached the dreaded Cowie’s Hill, the last big hill on the down run.  I decided to walk the full 1,2km.  I sent an SMS from my cell phone to my fiancée, my kids, family and some friends, saying: “On Cowie’s. 18km to go. 2h50 to 12h cut-off. Going to be close.”  I basically had 9,5min per km to finish under 12 hours, which was more than my average running time of 7min53.  That sounds good on paper, but on tar in the Durban heat after slogging it out for 71km, I was still very unsure.  Once I got over Cowie’s, I managed to put in a couple of 7min kms, which helped the cause along nicely.

I reached 45th Cutting (12km to go) after 10 hours of running.  My fiancée was standing next to the road cheering me on.  I walked a couple of metres with her and with all the courage I could muster I told her I will finish in time.  The tough part of this story is the fact that although I only had 12km to go, I still faced in the order of two hours of running.  It was 15h30.  It was muggy, I was hot and tired and my nose was still bleeding.  I ran past a medical station.  One of the paramedics noticed my bleeding nose and offered to assist me.  I was concerned that they might decide I’m unfit to continue, so I just kept quiet, put my head down and continued running.  I was now in extreme ‘vasbyt’ territory.  All the runners on the road were quiet.  Everyone was focused on simply putting one foot in front of the other, moving forward at all costs.  I reached the 5km-to-go board on the stroke of 11h00.  Only severe cramping or some other unforeseen disaster could still prevent me from finishing in time. The last couple of kilometres were reasonably uneventful.  My nose miraculously stopped bleeding and when I saw the one km-to-go board with 27min to cut off, I knew Comrades 2009 was in the bag!

I can’t explain the relief and elation when I entered the stadium with a big smile, punching the air in sheer delight.  It felt as though the 50,000 frenzied supporters were all shouting for me! I finished in 11h41.  It was a hard day at the office, to say the least.  The Ultimate Human Race? Pretty inhuman, if you ask me!

My Comrades experience in a way resembles a micro version of life itself, with many lessons.  Here are a few:

  1. Everything starts with a dream. Dream big.  You only have one life, so make it count.  We often under achieve, because we think small.
  2. Stick to your game plan. Both my training and the race itself had clear guiding principles and realistic goals that I stuck to religiously.  The amazing outcome is that the end result was very much in line with my game plan.  In life and business, it also helps to have a clear vision (dream) and strategy (plan), and to stick to that plan!
  3. Adapt to unforeseen obstacles. Although we plan for setbacks, we are often confronted by curve balls we could not foresee.  I didn’t expect hip flexor spasms or nose bleeding problems.  I had to deal with it.  The temptation to panic was strong, but I had to stay calm and find innovative solutions to overcome the setbacks.  In the case of my bleeding nose, it seemed more serious than it really was.  I basically put a tissue plug in my nose and carried on.  Sometimes we face obstacles in life that look worse than what they really are.  We should just ignore them and continue regardless.
  4. Never ever give up. My race turned out much harder than I expected.  I could easily have given up.  Life, and business, often threatens to pull us down.  Things often don’t turn out the way we planned or hoped.  Sometimes we feel like giving up.  Don’t.  Hang in there.  Bad patches don’t last.
  5. Make the most of every opportunity. Instead of this just being a race for personal reasons, it turned into an awesome opportunity to raise funds for a very worthy case.  I never expected the generosity of all the kind donors.  It was highly rewarding to turn ‘just another race’ into a serious fund raising opportunity.  How often do we miss the opportunities that life or business present us with?
  6. Celebrate your victories, big or small. Once the job is done satisfactorily, it is time to pop the champagne.  It is important to enjoy the satisfaction of success.  It takes a lot of hard and smart work to complete any worthwhile task successfully.  Enjoy it.  You deserve it.
  7. Be grateful. I encountered blind runners along the way.  We ran past disabled kids. We have so many blessings to be grateful for, for one our health.  How often do we take it for granted?  The unselfish support from my fiancée during and after the race that allowed me to focus on the job at hand: would the entire ‘expedition’ have been possible without it?  Life has taught me the value of gratitude.
  8. Show kindness. It costs so little, yet it means so much.  The kind words of the lady in front of me before the start of the race left me with a warm feeling about our wonderful rainbow nation.  The world is full of harshness and over competitiveness.  We can make it a better place by showing kindness, because kindness begets kindness.
  9. Be generous. This is a lesson I learnt fairly late in life: to give is a blessing.  The generosity of all the donors made me realise more people than I expected have discovered this.  Don’t cling to your earthly possessions.  The joy derived from giving is highly rewarding, and in a strange way people who give easily always seem to have more to give!
  10. Never stop learning. Despite my ten previous races, I still learnt so many things on the day – about people, their fears, their joys, their challenges.  I learnt a lot about the Starfish Foundation and the work they do.  Finally, I learnt that the true heroes of the Comrades are the sloggers who sneak in just before the 12 hour cut-off time!

I would like to hear from you if this story touched you or if you have comments or questions.

Kind regards,

René Otto