October 2013… That’s when I first heard about Comrades Marathon. My uncle was pacing me in my first ever marathon on Rottnest Island. He chatted away to distract me from the pain and mention the comrades race he had completed 3 times over the years. Describing the up and down, the comradery, the crowds and the rituals. When I asked how far it was, he said around 88km. And I thought, there is no way I would ever be able to run that far… Fast forward to now…
I awakened on race day at 2.40am after a modest 6 hours sleep, I felt awake and refreshed. The time difference between Durban and Perth is quite advantageous as I would normally be awake for an hour already in Perth. I had slept next to my laid out kit and methodically got dressed, careful not to forget any accessories like my international tent wrist band, championchip timer and tissue paper body warmer. The hotel put on an early breakfast so I had a mix of cereal and a boiled egg as an afterthought. My friend Ian, his wife Minn, my Mum and I piled into a cab shortly after, and drove to the Hilton. Minn and my Mum were booked into a supporters bus tour leaving from there so we took advantage of the warmth and facilities. I was getting more nervous by the minute and was lapping up Ian’s tranquil veteran aura. Finally walking to the startline in the fresh pre-dawn air, I savoured all the last minute advice he spoon fed me.
The crowd was already amassing, each seeding starting pen fenced off with security and already long lines for the slower seeding portaloos. I said good bye to Ian at his seeding pen. I found some relatively quiet portaloos and then proceeded to D pen. The front of the pen was a crush of humanity so I hung out in the open at the back, where 2 tape strips divided me from the press of green bibs behind me. Green bibs are people who have run more than 10 comrades and my plan was to try and run with some similar paced Green bibs as I figured they knew what they were doing. The pen seemed to suddenly be full and I was swallowed by the crowd. Then someone broke the dividing tapes and I was pushed by the Green bibs surging forward into D pen and I was suddenly in the crush of the crowd.
I have never been surrounded by so many people, yet I felt utterly alone. My nervousness had reached boiling point and I just wanted to scream at someone to get this race started. But instead I tried to relax and let the comrades rituals flow over me. Queen’s ‘We will rock you!’, followed by the South African national anthem and Shosholoza, the beautiful deep Zulu voices reverberating from every side of me in the throng and into my chest. It really was magical and deeply viscerally moving. Yep, I was in tears already. As Chariots of Fire stirringly blared across over the crowd, I looked around and I spotted the Aussie Comrades Ambassador Bruce ‘Digger’ Hargreaves and 2 other Australian guys about 4 metres in front and to the right of me. It was so noisy he wouldn’t have heard me if I’d yelled his name and the crowd was so hard pressed I couldn’t have pushed through to him so I just bided my time, never wanting to start a race so badly.
Next minute the cannon fired and a huge flock of startled pigeons flew over as if it was a planned aerial salute to what we were about to do. And nothing happened… We stood there for maybe 20 seconds. Then slowly the crowd started to trickle forward at a slow shuffle. As I slowly manoeuvred my way through the now walking crowd towards Bruce, the pace was picking up to brisk walk and by the time I reached him we were jogging. I introduced myself again and asked if I could join his Aussie Entourage and he said for sure. I was really worried about pacing the first half of the race up those big climbs and was so relieved to be with someone as experienced as Digger. He was aiming for a 11.30 finish but I figured if I played it safe I would have the energy to make up time in the back half of the race.
As we ran through the dark streets of Durban, I found the pace comfortable. Bruce had a constant stream of people coming up to him to say hello and have a chat and wish him luck. I said “you’re a rockstar, Bruce!” We were now on the freeway and steadily climbing. My hill training had me in good shape and I felt like it was taking little effort at the pace we were at, but I dutifully walked when Digger told us to. His green and gold entourage consisted of Guy who I never got the chance to really chat with and Andrew from Brisbane who I soon found myself in step with chatting away. Already there were spectators lining the walls and bridges of the freeway cheering and clapping and yelling encouragement. Deep in conversation and still in a thick crowd of runners we noticed we had lost Digger around the 10km mark. We walked for a little bit but he didn’t catch us up and some other runners told us he was quite a few minutes behind so we pressed on.
We left the freeway and were still climbing through the beautiful leafy suburban streets of Pinetown. We stopped and waited at the first portaloos but the queue wasn’t moving after a couple of minutes so we continued on and I ended up using a quiet drain cutting on the side of a hill. I felt so much better but continued to drink a packet of water at every station. They were a 250ml plastic tube of ice cold water that u had to bite the corner off to drink. Many a time I was accidentally squirted by a fellow nearby runner or myself. They also had ones filled with the local sports drink Energaid but I never tried them. These tubes slid in perfectly into the back of my race belt. The aid stations were about 500m long and very well manned and you barely had to slow down to access anything u wanted. All had water, coke and Energaid. The as the race progressed they also had real foods such as banana, orange, biscuits, crackers, sandwiches, potatoes and energy bars. Not to mention lots of club tents, pop up aid stations and just spectators offering other things such as salt, vasoline, muscle spray and massages in between. Spectators had penned out their little areas for the days festivities and brought bbqs and eskies. The smells of bbqing eggs, bacon, sausages and pancakes deliciously filled the air, many offering their brunches to the passing wave of runners. I was even offered beer early on by one merry chap. There were DJ decks thumping out dance grooves, there were bands pumping out live music of every kind, professional cheerleading squads with their impressive high kicks and choreographed routines and happy kids lining the streets collecting high 5s from runners. Only the very remotest of sections on the course through the hills had no spectators and that was simply because the roads were closed and there was no other accessibility and never for more than about a kilometre. It was like a carnival atmosphere pretty much along THE ENTIRE ROUTE and us runners were the parade.
Wearing my green and gold Australia singlet was brilliant. Most of the South Africans are part of running clubs and they wear their club shirts. Internationals were asked to wear their country colours and I jumped at the chance to finally represent my country in a race. From start to finish I had ‘go Aussie!’ Or ‘cmon, Aussie!’. I answered most with a thank you or wave/thumbs up (if my mouth was full) Other popular shouts were ‘Hey, aussie, sorry about the cricket!’, ‘Go, wallaby’ and my favourite and war cry of my people ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!!!’ With which you must reciprocate with an enthusiastic ‘oi! Oi! OI!’ Which even in my darkest and toughest moments in the race, I managed to do with what I hoped was much gusto. I know a lot of Australians find this annoying after a while but I relished and appreciated every single chant.
Another great thing is that the bibs are labelled with your first name, number of comrades medals, seeding, green bibs for those who have completed more than 10, blue bibs for internationals, yellow bibs for those about to complete 10 or 20 and red borders for those attempting their back to back. It just makes it so much more personal. Many runners and spectators alike would use my name to wish me a great first comrades. When it first happened it freaked me out that they knew my name until I remembered the bib. I found it easy to strike up conversations with other runners as I could talk about their previous races or where they were from.
A friend of mine had invented a game called Race Bingo, where she has a list of runner cliches that she has to spot during a race to win. Although I didn’t play this game there were a couple of things I had heard about and wanted to see, which I did. The green machine, or worm or snake, was a group of men running together as one in segmented green material covered frames, joined together in a long line. To me they looked like a big green worm. It must have been incredibly hard work keeping in pace together not to mention the weight, noise, vibration and chaffing of the frame. They only had little slits in the side of the worm to receive water and nutrition from their support runners they relied on who also warned the crowd of their approach as well. I spotted them first just before Fields Hill and ran with it for quite sometime until I pulled ahead of it on Inchanga. Secondly, I had heard about a man who was bouncing a tennis ball the entire course to raise money for childhood cancer. I spotted that nutter going up Fields Hill, dutifully bouncing his ball as he ran. I wonder if he had any regrets about his decision, as it looked like hell on his neck and shoulders. The man in full traditional Zulu attire was a little bit more elusive but sure enough I spotted him on Harrison Flats all feathers and leather over running gear. The last thing I wanted to spot was a bus but more on that later…
So Andrew and I had made it to the base of Fields Hill, which is about 21km in and it was the first of 3 major climbs I was worried about. I knew my Mum was waiting a kilometre or so past the top so I had a little incentive or reward for getting up this beast. I texted her to have my sunscreen and lipbalm ready and that I was about 35 minutes away. Andrew had us slowly jogging long sections with little walk breaks. About half way up, a joyful chap called Norman started chatting to us. He was from Johannesburg and said his 1 year old son was waiting at the finish line and that he was doing it for him and that he was going to cry when he saw his son and that he was going to run with us the whole way so that we could see him cry. I just loved this guys passion for life. Anyway, another piece of advice I’d been given was always do what the locals do and Norman was doing lightpost intervals. Walk 1, run 2. So that is what we did for the rest of Fields and I was surprised how quickly we chewed through it with barely any effort.
We ran past the private boys high school, hi 5ing all the boys in their smart school uniform suits. Norman looked like he was gonna cry already. He said education is our future and he hoped his son would get a good education like these boys one day. Not long after that, Norman stopped for some leg spray and told us he would catch up but we never saw him again. I hope he ran well for his son and had a happy reunion. Andrew and I continued on and soon I could see the Complete Marathon tour flags, the company my Mum was booked on. She had dutifully fetched my sunscreen and lipbalm and Andrew used some of my chaffing cream. It was so good to have her along for support. We have never done anything like this before in my adult life so it was a real mother and daughter bonding trip. I really hope I will be able to do something like this with my children when they are grown as it has been amazing. My Uncle was supposed to have been with us too (running comrades 2017 had been his idea 2 years ago) but he has had a chronic injury throughout the last 9 months and was unable to qualify. It was very disappointing but simply fantastic to have my Mum with me.
We were around the 26km mark and I was still feeling very fresh despite all the climbing we had done. We bid farewell to my Mum and soon we were leaving the well groomed suburbs to enter the Valley of a Thousand Hills. Just before passed the Comrades Wall of honour (where a cutting has been dedicate to previous comrades runners. Any past comrades finisher can buy a brick and have it added to the wall in honour of their achievement), there was an aid station handing out plastic red poppies to leave at Arthur’s Seat. We ran past the Wall and then I queued at the seat to leave my flower and pay respects and hopefully bless the rest of my run. I’m not superstitious though…
Approaching the halfway point at Drummonds the carnival atmosphere reached fever pitch again. Club tents, aid stations, entertainers, and supporters lined the narrow road and bottlenecked the runners. We had somehow arrived there with the worm and the crowd cheering them was deafening. It was such a huge buzz at this point and I thought the I got through the hardest part of the race. A little further along, I noticed a club called Harmony Striders so I stopped for a photo. They were very happy to see me and the name on my bib and offered me beer as well. I declined and caught up to Andrew and so began our climb of Inchanga, the 2nd hill I was worried about. Looking up was daunting as you could see a line of running snaking up the hill into the distance. I took a couple of happy snaps then put my phone away and got stuck into it. Catching up to Andrew again, I could tell he was starting to fade fast. His walk breaks had been becoming more frequent and longer. We had a quick discussion and he told me to press on ahead as his ankle was becoming quite troublesome and he wanted me to have a crack at Sub 11 hours/bronze medal. I felt like a complete traitor but he insisted that he was only going to get slower, so at this point Andrew and I parted ways. I was so unbelievably fortunate that I had such a kind, experienced and good humoured pacer until this point. He really set me up for a fantastic run and I’m forever grateful.
Carrying on alone, I made it up Inchanga quite quickly. It surprised me how many people were walking the whole hill. I ran/ walked the entire hill, only walking in the shade (if they were big shady sections, only 20m or so) and I passed a lot of runners. After, came a long section of down where most of these runners bolted past me again. In the past I have tried to make up time by speeding up on the downs and paid for it dearly with acute injuries that have ruined my race, so I ignored the speedy downhillers and tried to take in the beautiful scenery. Spectators were few and far between here and the runners had become much more silent in there relentless march forward. It was around here that I started noticing the heat and humidity.
I was really looking forward to reaching the Enthembeni School. It was one of the comrades charities and kind of adopted by the international runners. We had visited the school a few days before and they had put on a show for us which had been very moving. The school accommodates many disabled and albino kids and I had loved the visit. We had all received a handmade bracelets and it was very special to me with colours to represent the school and comrades and the exact number of beads as kilometres in the race. A most thoughtful and meaningful gift. I knew all the kids would be lining the streets outside the school. Comrades is like their Christmas and the only gift they want is a high 5 from a runner. I had already donated money but I wanted to give them something personally on the day so I had worn my 3 RMA rubber bracelets to give them. But where was this school? I was sure it had been at the 50k mark. I started to panic. Had I passed it already and not noticed? Surely not? I asked a Scottish lady with a yellow bib about to complete her 20th comrades. Not far, she said, a few more bends. The sure enough, there they were, all those beautiful kids. I slipped the bands off my arm before I got to them and handed them out in between collecting high 5s and feeding from the energy of there bright smiling faces. I felt really bad that I only had 3 to hand out as I saw 2 albino boys fighting over one. I hoped they liked them as I had drawn real tangible strength from their joy and support.

I was on a bit of a high for a kilometre or 2 after the kids but then I crashed badly as I headed into Harrison Flats. It was really starting to heat up and there was very little shade. I felt like I was drowning on the air as I breathed. I felt like I was being punished for leaving my comrade Andrew behind. Why had I left him? He hadn’t slowed me down that much and we had been having a great time chatting away the kms. I was lonely again, even though there was still a steady stream of runners with me. I missed my kids, I missed my fella. I kept hearing songs my daughter loves and wished they had got to experience this crazy carnival of a race. My addled brain was astute enough to realise I still had 30 odd kilometres to go and it was very deflating. Even though it was flat and often downhill, I started taking little walk breaks to get my heart rate down. I was grabbing 3 water packets at every aid station. One for the head, one for the gullet and one for in between stations. I started experimenting with eating other foods. My gel nutrition had been on point and I’d been periodically having salt tablets too but I was actually hungry. I gobbled up salted spuds whenever I came across them, HEAVEN! Bananas were good and are an old skool go to race food for me. But the absolute genius food invention for me were the salted oranges. Whoever dared to dream about sprinkling ice cold orange wedges generously with table salt deserves a fricken medal. DIVINE!! I will definitely be utilising these for future summer races.


This section was all a bit of a painful blur. I had slowed right down, walking a bit, used the portaloos, stopped for pictures, when I got the fright of my life. I had just come down a long gentle descent and was thinking how unfair it was that I had to then climb the same distance up again with no shade when I heard an army of stomping, and singing and chatting behind me. I turned around and was faced with a wall of glistening sweaty flesh taking up the width of the road and solidly stretching back for about 100m or so. It was the Sub 11 hour bus. Firstly there, was a moment of joy. Yes! I finally got to see a bus! They are famous in South Africa and favoured by many runners to get them through a tough race and I really wanted to witness one in the wild so to speak. It looked like a lot of fun and they were all moving as one single minded beast. But the next moment was pure terror! I didn’t notice the SUB in Sub 11 hour. All I saw was 11 hour and my A goal slipping through my fingers. And also I thought if this mob swallows me, there is no way I’m going to get past them again. They were impenetrable and impassable in my mind. This bus catching up to me was the best thing that could have happened as it put the fire back in my belly and I resolved stay well ahead of it and not let it eat me. Luckily at this moment, their leader decided to walk up the hill. Phew!
And so I picked up the pace, trying to ignore the fatigue and the pain my knees and calves. Not long after that, I came to the second Complete Marathon Aid Station where Mum was waiting for me. I had been really looking forward to stopping here, reapplying my sunscreen and having a quick chat but I was on a mission. I told her I couldn’t stop so she trotted next to me for 100m or so and I tried to explain to why, about the bus and the sub 11 hour goal but all that was coming out of my mouth was word soup. I felt bad but I simply HAD to press on. As I continued there was the impending certainty that I was getting closer to the infamous Polly Shortts, the last of those worrisome hills in my head. I was getting desperate for a portaloo again and was keeping an eye out but there was nothing. I navigated Little Pollys, a kilometre or 2 before but knew I needed to go before the main event. I ended up ducking down a heavily wooded country lane hoping there were no predators in the bush to bite me on the bum. I continued on, vowing not to stop again until the finish line.
Pollys, to be honest, didn’t phase me that much. Yes, I was really tired, yes, it’s a long steepish hill and yes I really did have to walk little sections. But I was expecting it, I had trained for it and I genuinely enjoyed the focus of the challenge. I also REALLY enjoyed passing nearly everyone who was walking at that stage. There was one daddy long legged guy, who I intensely despised with all of my being, who was walking faster than I could run but generally, I think I was the one that people were intensely despising as I whizzed past them. There were no lampposts but there were cardboard bins at fairly regular intervals at the bottom and then rows of flags toward the top that I would run/walk 2/1 intervals between. Plus nearly at the top there is a tv camera beaming to the entire South African nation as added incentive to look impossibly fresh and gazelle-like bounding up the hill. That’s how I tried to appear and sure I absolutely nailed it. Please don’t anybody shatter this mental illusion of me prancing up the hill by digging up some footage of me somehow.
Reaching the summit of Pollys there was only 7km left to run and mainly downhill. By now the downhills were torture on my knees and quads. Every time I tried to pick up the pace a little on a descent my legs would start to quiver. I started to really look forward to few uphill sections where I really felt I could turn on the gas. People were still walking the ups and I would whizz past. I couldn’t believe that people would walk this close to the finish! Seriously!?! There was less than a parkrun to go. So my last mental game was to not let any of the the people I passed on the uphills overtake me on the ever increasing downhills. This must have given me the adrenaline burst I needed because although I was in a world of pain I just couldn’t let anyone pass me, then I changed up the game and I wanted to see how many people I could pass, and I kicked it up a notch.
With 2km to go, the pain was excruciating and I could feel my emotions bubbling to the surface. The crowd buzz was so intense, I was getting so many ‘go Aussie!’ and ‘go harmony!’s that it was feeding my pace. Then one chap beamed a big beautiful smile at me as I ran towards him and SANG to me ‘Wel-cuuuum toooo Soooouut Af-reeeee-caaaah!’ With his arms out stretched. And that was it, the floodgates opened and I was in tears AGAIN! I tried to sing back to him ‘Thank- yooouuu!’ But my voice faltered and all I could manage was a salute and a smile as I sped past. Such a beautiful special moment between 2 complete strangers, I know that I will cherish that memory forever.
I was now running through the suburban streets of Pietermaritzburg. The afternoon sun was beginning to set. I could taste that finish line. Looking around me, I was still passing people and most of runners were C seeded so I knew I was doing good. A few people were running with me, caught in my wake maybe. I was stride for stride with one lady for a few 100 metres then I stepped it up a notch by quickening my cadence, as we entered the gates to the Racecourse. You have to go down a little hill under a subway to pop up into the racecourse then snake through a little labyrinth of fences to reach the finish line. Nearly everyone had told me to walk that downhill. Pffffft! I don’t know why. I maintained my pace down and then up into the course and then I gave it everything and sprinted the last couple of 100 metres. Tears still streaming down my face, my legs shaking with the effort but absolutely exhilarated by the crowd cheering. I heard my Mum yell out to me and waved. Came around one final turn and there it was the finishline clock was already past 10.45. I sprinted with everything I had and jumped over the line and half laughed and half cried maniacally as I queued for my medal. 10.45.39!!! Stopping felt soooo good and I laughed like a crazy woman some more. Then I felt really lonely again. Everyone was in there own little world or with their own little groups celebrating so I started making my way through the winding finish Shute at a slow shuffle.
I must have looked like a really lost soul because I heard someone yell ‘ hey Aussie’ and I looked over to see a man on the grass beckoning me with a smile and a wave. I plonked myself down next to him and he said ‘just sit here a while and decompress’. He chatted a while, his name was Chris and he was from Johannesburg, 54 and had just run his back to back comrades. We sat and shared battle stories from the day with each other and I really felt like I got my true comrades finishline experience with my comrade Chris who I will probably never meet again. Such is the beauty of Comrades.
I made my way through the crowd to the international tent, met up with my mum, and friends from Perth who had run, another RMA from Adelaide, and even Digger. I had some dinner and shared more war stories with finishers, and decided to make my way to the course fence to watch the final gun sound the finish of Comrades at 12 hours. It was really difficult to watch and deeply hea
rtbreaking. Any runner who has not crossed the line when the gun sounds is barred by a  human chain with their backs to them. It was brutal. To see those poor runners come within metres of finishing only to be denied, was simply cruel. Most just collapsed on the ground in an exhausted heap. My heart bled for them. So close, toiling through all those kilometres of heat, sweat and magnificent effort for nothing. I just hope that the disappointment of missing out this year will feed the fire of resolve to return and conquer the Comrades next year. It really is more than just a race, it’s an experience and I can understand why thousands of people keep coming back year after year after year. I know I’m thinking about it… anyone care to join me for the Ultimate Human Race in 2018? It’s a Down run!