When Fletcher was born I didn’t have any major aspirations from a running perspective – I’d been a runner before, having completed a Two Oceans Marathon in 2015, but I didn’t have any particular lofty aspirations once Fletch was born. Until the first time I stood on a scale postpartum. After that, I definitely had some running-related aspirations.
When Fletch was about 6 weeks old, I joined the gym and started running on the treadmill three or four times a week, alternating with swimming and strength training. When I went back to work, when Fletch was four months old, I started running with our club again two mornings a week and once on weekends. I was slowly getting back into it. We’d roped a few unsuspecting friends into doing the Two Oceans again with us (which happened in March of this year, when Fletcher was 15 months old) and we were all training together. Becs was going to do the 21km and I was going to the 56km ultramarathon.
Our year of training passed by in the blink of an eye, mixed in with milestones, teething, learning to sit, crawl and walk, and before we knew it the big day had arrived. On 31 March 2018, we left Fletcher with his aunt and Becs and I completed our Two Oceans journeys. But it wasn’t over… About 6 months before that, I’d (somewhat sneakily, although in consultation with Becs) entered the Comrades Marathon. For those of you who (a) aren’t South African or (b) aren’t runners, the Comrades is grueling (and many will – rightly – say downright stupid) road running race that takes place every year on the ±90kms stretch of road between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, each year alternating in directions. This year, was a down run, with the start in Pietermaritzburg and the finish in the Moses Mabida stadium in Durban.
So, after our Two Oceans journeys were complete, the real work started. The two months between Oceans and Comrades were a whirlwind of super early mornings, double-header weekends (which basically means running on both Saturday and Sunday morning), hills, hills and more hills. Becs was essentially a single parent in April and May, giving me the nights off when I was running the next morning (which was almost every morning). As winter got into its stride and temperatures dropped (I know some of you still consider 3ºC balmy, but for us “tropical people” that is flipping cold), running became harder to get up for, but there was a promise that it would all be over soon and our lives could return to normal.
I’m sure Becs has a different perspective on the last two and half months, but for me, it was both very difficult and very conflicting. It didn’t help that my Comrades training was coming to a head at the same time as two big projects at work, meaning I was working late and leaving home early. During May, I felt like Becs and I were ships in the night and Fletcher was a veritable stranger. I’d notice him doing something for the first time and comment on it and Becs would respond, “oh ja, he’s been doing that for a while,” and I’d feel like the worst mother. I didn’t even know my kid anymore. I didn’t know that he could blow bubbles in the bath because I always missed bath time. I didn’t know how many times he woke up during the night or whether he still had two bottles or only one now (I know he doesn’t need a bottle at night anymore, but trust me, it’s easier to give it to him than fight with him – but that is a post for another day). I felt like I was missing out on my son’s life. I felt like I was abandoning my wife, leaving her to do it all on her own. I felt like I was failing them in my pursuit of some achievement, some accolade for myself, but one I desperately wanted.
A week before Comrades, two kids in Becs’s class were booked off with Swine Flu (*face palm* right). Now, ask any Comrades runner and they’ll tell you, there are two things they dread in the final weeks leading up to the race – getting injured and getting sick. Ask any supporter of a Comrades runner and there is only one thing they dread – being the reason their runner gets sick because they’re unlikely to ever hear the end of it. With that in mind, the Tuesday before Comrades, Becs moved into the lounge. So now, not only was she a single parent, she was also sleeping on the couch – wife of the year, right? In my defense, I did offer to take the couch, her response (as always) was, “I’m not the one running 90kms on the weekend.”
On the Friday before the race, Fletch, Chet (Fletcher’s “bestie” and one of our running friends) and I set off in the car to drive down to Durbs. Becs had to work so she’d be flying that evening. When she arrived in Durban, I could see she was in a bad way. She had a fever of 39ºC – ask yourself, as an adult, when have you ever had a fever? – she looked like she was about to pass out. She was pale, pallid and really not herself. Despite how crappy she was feeling, she slept in the room with Fletcher and was on duty – insisting that I needed to get a good night’s sleep. On race night, Fletch went to stay with my folks and Becs (who was feeling moderately better and had at least managed to shake her fever) moved back into the room with me as Chet had moved into what had been Fletcher’s room the night before.
Race morning dawned – OK, no, I’m lying. We got up loooong before dawn. 01:30 actually. We had to be on a bus to the start by 02:30 and our supporters had to get ahead of the road closures to meet us in Cato Ridge – some 30kms into the race. We dressed, we liberally applied bum cream to areas that were likely to experience chaff, and many others that you wouldn’t think of, and we headed to the bus stop.
Arriving in Pietermaritzburg at 04:00, an hour an a half before the start, we began making our way through the streets, following the ±20,000 other runners heading towards the start pens. The atmosphere was electric – abuzz with nervous energy and excitement. We found our start pen and settled in for the long wait, snacking on our sandwiches and bananas while we waited.
Around 05:00, we discarded our Pick ‘n Pay packets of goodies outside the start pens (so as not to become a tripping hazard for other runners) and started shuffling forward with the crowd. Bunched together like that, the 3ºC weather didn’t feel all that cold. As the South African national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, boomed through the sound system, I took off my cap, closed my eyes and sang along. We continued to shuffle forward as Shosholoza pumped through the speakers, followed closely by Chariots of Fire. With tears streaming down our cheeks, we waited for the cock crow and the sound of the gun that marked the official start of the 2018 Comrades Marathon.
BOOM! The gun sounded like a cannon – I nearly peed myself, but fortunately my instinctive jump was all I needed to start my watch and we were off. Shuffling towards the start line, shoulder to shoulder with our ‘comrades’. The first 30kms passed in a haze, I remember snippets – chatting to one or two people as they passed us, seeing a few familiar faces and almost watching from outside my body as we moved from ‘Martizburg to Cato Ridge. When we saw the black and white balloons that signaled our people, our hearts swelled with happiness! Seeing Becs’s face, everything I’d been thinking and meaning to tell her up to this point went flying out my head. It was now sometime around 09:00, we’d been running for about three and a half hours and if I tell you I remember about 20 minutes of it, it’s a lot.
We set off again, not knowing exactly when we’d see our people again, but knowing that there would be a table set up by our running club close to the halfway mark in Drummond. We chatted happily as we clipped along through the sugar cane plantations, past the chicken farms and dairy farms, and past the porta-loos that smelt like dairy farms. Approaching Drummond, one runs through what is called the Valley of a Thousand Hills – it’s beautiful, with sweeping green hills as far as the eye can see, but it’s tough as nails to run through. We reached Drummond largely without incident, found the Jeppe table and gratefully accepted the goodies they had to offer us (including the advice). Somewhere between Drummond and the infamous Inchanga, we lost my brother, who dropped back to walk off a cramp and I didn’t hear him call out to me. Before I knew it, he was gone. Lost in the sea of pained faces around us. 50kms and almost six hours into the race, our party of three was now a party of two.
Not long after that, I lost Chet. I was now a party of one and I was a party of one who was nauseous and battling a running tummy. Not ideal at all. I popped a Valoid and an Immodium and had some watered-down Coke at the next water table – hoping that would settle the nausea. It didn’t. The 10kms from that point to the next Jeppe table where the longest 10kms of my life. When I reached that table, I was pale and deep in the hurt locker. Jo – one of the volunteers – told me Chet was just ahead and that she would wait for me at 67kms where we were expecting to see Becs and the rest of our supporters again.
In the seven kays that followed, I tried to keep myself moving forward, reminding myself every time I wanted to walk, that the more I walked now, the less time I could spend with Becs when I saw her. I fell into an uncomfortable rhythm. My uterus felt like it was trying to climb out through my Caesar scar. My ovaries felt like they were burrowing backwards into my kidneys. My nausea was horrific and the pain in my legs was searing. I began chanting a mantra to myself of things to get from Becs when I saw her – anti-nausea tablet, pain killer, deep heat spray for my legs, anti-nausea tab, pain killer, deep heat spray… on and on for 8kms. When I eventually spotted Becs and her balloons towards the bottom of Fields Hill, I have never been so happy to see anyone. I instinctively sped up, racing towards her before my legs remembered that it actually hurt to go faster.
I was so happy to see her, I almost forgot my mantra – anti-nausea, pain killer, spray. I’d had pain killers with me the whole time, but was too scared to take it in case I vomited again. I needed the anti-nausea pill first. While I was there, I changed my socks, which made the world of difference. While retying my shoelaces, my stomach muscle cramped – that is a feeling I won’t soon forget! I also got some reassuring news about my brother – he was ticking on nicely, not too far behind us. Grateful that he was OK and knowing he’d see our support bus soon, Chet and I set off again.
The next 34kms were very difficult, my nausea had not fully abated and I hadn’t managed to eat anything since halfway, meaning I was running dangerously low on fuel. At 75kms I had a quarter of a Marmite sarmie, which was like swallowing a clump of sand, my mouth was so dry. I was drinking watered-down Energade or watered-down Coke and vomiting every ±10kms. The last 2kms were killer and I was very grateful to Chet for keeping me going (and for stopping so many times, despite how difficult it was for her to start up again).
After 11 hours and 13 minutes on the road, we ran into the stadium, with our backs straight and our heads held high. We powered across the finish line, hand in hand with our arms raised above our heads in triumph. We had completed the “Ultimate Human Race” in a time of 11:13:37, a race run well above my pay-grade. Gareth came in at 11:40:56, having run almost half of the race on his own. He battled his demons and emerged victorious!
Next year we return to do it all again, this time in reverse (although Gareth is still, at this point, undecided).
On the way home, Fletcher spiked a 40º temperature, we had to stop on the side of the highway to give him an Emperped suppository. His temperature has normalised, but he’s still not a happy camper – coughing and generally miserable. To compound matters, he’s cutting his eye teeth. So with my 2018 Comrades journey behind me, Becs and I continue our parenting journey. Raising a boy obsessed with typical “boy” things – cars, wheels, bikes – the noisier, the better. He’s a climber and a character, strong-willed and headstrong (wonder where he gets that from) with a sense of humour and a loving personality. He’s destined for great things, for big things, bigger and better than anything I’ve achieved. Next year, through my training, I hope to miss less. I hope to be more present, to be a more supportive partner to Becs and a more patient parent to Fletcher. It’s tough when you’re tired and stressed to remember to be present, but next year, I hope to do it better. We can always do it better.