Comrades 2018: Real Comrades Champions

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[This page will be used to share stories of the inspirational Comrades runners. I am writing them up in the order I receive them as will share as many as I can before the 10 June cut-off.]

Couch To Marathon In Nine Months (With A Sign To Carry On Along The Way)

The Story of #7351 (Lauren Rayne)

Being the only girl in a family of five siblings, Lauren grew up tough. Being sporty was not a choice – it was a survival strategy!

After school she had sporadic bursts of fitness for “aesthetic” reasons – mostly focussed around whatever was trending at the time. Some of these sporadic fitness bursts did include a bit of running – a Two Oceans half 8 years ago and she even managed the full marathon at Knysna the following year. However, goal achieved, she stopped running immediately afterwards.

Comrades forms part of the DNA of our country. You can’t grow up in South Africa without following Comrades (many years ago when I was a boy it was the only thing worth watching on TV – most would argue that’s still the case). Lauren’s love and passion for the race is a South African stereotype, “I grew up watching Comrades every year. As an adult, I have crept out of bed every Comrades morning to watch the entire race from start to the top gents crossing the line. Screaming at the TV, crying when the winner gets passed because he is cramping and goosebumps solidly for 5-6 hours.”

I asked Lauren why she only watched until the top 10 men finished and she explained that this was probably a combination of the dominance of the Russian Nurgieva twins making the women’s racing “boring” (from 2003 to 2013 they won the race 10 times between them), being a busy career woman (who could only spare six hours for TV time on the weekend) and growing up with four brothers (see previous point of survival strategy).

Now Lauren has a big talking work colleague, Gerhard. Shortly after the 2017 Comrades, Gerhard loudly announced to the office that he would be running his first marathon in July and would love to run Comrades one day. The details are sketchy about who was the primary instigator and how the dare progressed but, very soon thereafter, an email was going around the office stating that “Gerhard and Lauren are running Comrades next year, anyone else want to join us?”

Running Comrades had been a secret lifelong dream of Lauren’s and all she needed was a little nudge to enter. Entering Comrades is easy – all you need is a credit card and an internet connection. Training for Comrades – well that’s a lot harder – and Lauren needed a lot more than a nudge to actually get out the door and start training. A few month’s went by and suddenly it was October.

Her very first run was a 4km in October and she proudly completed her first 10km a few weeks later. She spent the remainder of the year slowly increasing the mileage and gradually worked up to her first marathon in January at Johnson Crane – she described the run as a “shocker”, completing it in 5h40.

Lauren proudly displays her first 10km medal from October 2017 (photo supplied).

She knuckled down and her next marathon went a lot better – the tough Pretoria Deloitte Marathon which she finished in 4h56 to qualify for Two Oceans and Comrades (you must run a sub-5 marathon to qualify for both races). Things were looking good when she cruised around March’s Pharmaton Edenvale Marathon in 4h47.

Lauren (in the pink cap) poses with two of her four brothers after her first half marathon. (photo supplied)

A good Two Oceans and she would be all set for her first Comrades. Lauren has a senior management position with Cash Connect (a leading cash management and payment solutions provider). Unfortunately, she had the pre-race week from hell: Board meetings, month-end and this was also the week that her husband decided he’d had enough of corporate life and quit his job to become an entrepreneur. On top of this she picked up a calf muscle injury and spent what little free time she had at the chiropractors getting dry needling and Traumeel injections.

She had the weight of the world on her shoulders and, one day before the race, got the back spasm to prove it. Although she had nothing to do with the diabolical Two Oceans registration queues, she’ll take the rap for the long queues at the expo’s physio station – spending a small fortune on chain physio sessions.

She managed to get to the bottom of Chappies (roughly 20km to go) before her diaphragm spasmed. Note: I am assuming that the diaphragm in question is the one that is the, “Principal muscle of respiration. The dome-shaped, muscular and membranous structure that separates the thoracic (chest) and abdominal cavities in mammals.” rather than the birth control device (but I was too polite to check).

Unable to eat anything or drink properly, she “literally ran out of energy at 48km”. It was a long walk to the finish. With five kilometres to go, she realised she wasn’t going to make the seven-hour cut-off, but she wasn’t a quitter and pushed on to the finish line even though she knew she wouldn’t be getting a medal. At least she did her bit for the Cape Town water shortage – a combination of the intense pain and disappointment opened the floodgates and she cried all the way home eventually finishing in 7h15.

After the tears had tried, Lauren was able to raise a smile with her work colleague Gerhard (who completed his first Two Oceans) (photo supplied).

Missing the Two Oceans cut-off by 15 minutes was devastating. She also knew that the dream of Comrades was done. If you can’t get a finish at Two Oceans, there’s no way you’ll survive another 34km over the Comrades route. She told anyone who would listen that she was done with running and resigned herself to the fact that the Comrades dream was remaining in the bucket.

Depressed and disappointed, Lauren boarded her flight back to Johannesburg. She struck up a conversation with the lady next to her on the plane as she looked like a runner. It turned out she was a runner and had also run Two Oceans. After some idle chit chat where Lauren covered the disaster of the day before, she moved the conversation onto Comrades.

Lauren asked the lady next to her if she’d run Comrades. She had.

Lauren asked the lady what here best time was. She said 6h12.

Lauren said she was asking about her Comrades time, not her Two Oceans time. The lady said 6h12 was her best Comrades time.

Lauren paused to reflect and, after processing this affirmation, said “That’s a pretty good time. What time did the winner do?”. The lady replied 6h12.

Now I mentioned earlier that Lauren only watches the first 10 men finish Comrades – and this explains why she had to very embarrassedly ask Caroline Wöstmann who she was (to Lauren’s credit she did know the name, if not the face!).

If you’ve just had the worst run of your life and you find yourself sitting next to Caroline Wöstmann, you do what any self-respecting runner would – and interrogate her for a solid two hours!

They covered every running topic imaginable on that flight. It’s always great to hear that one’s running heroes are genuinely nice people when the cameras aren’t watching. Lauren told me that Caroline “super encouraging” and said that she “had to do Comrades” and that “she’s come so far and can’t give up now.”

Aside: For the elite athletes out there who wonder what impact they can have on the average runner if someone meets you and has this to say, you are a true champion: “I was left totally inspired and motivated by her and the chance encounter. I have referred back to the conversation I had with her so many times since March to get me to where I am today in my Comrades prep.  I have even asked myself mid-run, ‘what would Caro-line do?’”

Lauren stepped onto that plane knowing that her Comrades dream was over. By the time she touched down at OR Tambo International, her head was back in it and she was committed to the Comrades goal again. The slogan for this year’s race is Asijiki – no turning back – and just as Lauren starting heading in the wrong direction, a Comrades champion was there to put her back on the right path again. Caroline Wöstmann might not be running this year but there is at least one runner who’ll be at lining up with the rest of us because of the 2015 Comrades champ.

Lauren is running with a group of runners for Just The One Foundation (http://www.justtheone.org.za/). If you are looking for a charity to support, this is one I would highly recommend. They provide full education bursaries for high-aptitude, currently disadvantaged children who would otherwise not get a decent education. Not only that, they also donate something even more important – their time to the kids for mentoring and support.

They got Bruce Fordyce to do a cameo video with them and Jonathan Kaplan to run for them – check out the awesome video here: Facebook Video

Posted by Benedict J L Jackson on Thursday, 7 June 2018

They have already raised over R50,000 for this year’s Comrades – meaning that Neil Massey (#23625) shaved his head.

Neil Massey looking smooth after shaving his head to celebrate raising R50,000 for Just The One Foundation. (photo supplied)

Another 50,000 and Ben Jackson (#21694) and Stu Fraser (#7517) will shave their heads as well. Lauren says that there is no amount high enough for her to join the boys in their head shaving shenanigans. Since she doesn’t watch the ladies finish Comrades, I don’t think it’s fair she starts going all ‘girly’ on us now. I think we should set the price on her head at R500,000 and, if this number is reached, she has to join the boys with a shaven head after the race!

You can donate on their web site (http://www.justtheone.org.za/) or via EFT on the details below:

Just the One

FNB cheque

Acc number: 62374379793

Branch: 250-655

The reference: your name- comrades

An Incredible Turnaround: Trading One Addiction For Another

The Story of #10391 (Darren Webb)

Darren admits he had an easy start to life. He grew up with a loving family and enjoyed the comforts of private schooling, overseas trips and all the luxuries one associates with the affluent middle-class. Life was almost too easy.

Darren played sports and had a large group of friends. He was fit and healthy. Life was good and the future was promising.

But Darren had a weakness – those who’ve been there would call it an indiscriminate disease, an addiction that does not choose age, race, sex, creed, religion or lack of religion. He starting using drugs at the age of 16 and continued for another 20 years.

He thought he had things under control. He still had a house (which his father owned). He had a job (working for his father’s company as this was the only work he could hold down). He still had a car (but was badly behind on the payments and was steadily getting deeper and deeper into debt). However, he was still in denial – he wasn’t a drug addict, drug addicts lived on the street.

His life had spiralled out of control and he was at rock bottom. He had no friends, no self-esteem and all but his closest family had completely cut-him off. He has two daughters from a previous relationship but his drug use jeopardised his weekly visitation rights. On the 31st of May 2016, his father staged an intervention.

Darren was given a choice: Go into long-term rehab or lose access to his daughters and be completely disowned by his family. It was a choice between life or life on the streets. Darren chose life.

He entered the South Coast Recovery Centre in Ramsgate which has a minimum six-month rehabilitation period. He spent a year there –saying, “It was the best and the worst year of my life”.

Darren hated being alone – but the inability to be alone was fuelling his addiction problem. The centre had a one mile circular track and his counsellor instructed him to walk around it – just one lap to start with. He hated it. He tried to run so he’d get it done quicker. His admits that his running efforts were pathetic – a few hundred metres at most. His body was in a terrible state; his legs couldn’t carry him far and when they did get going, retching would usually bring him to a grinding halt.

But then he started to enjoy the runs. He started getting quicker. He saw the laps as a challenge – and challenged himself to slowly increase his daily dosage. He found that the time alone helped him to think and cleared his mind. He would do several revolutions a day – at first just walking but then he started to run. He must have run around that track a thousand times during his year of rehab.

Some people don’t get running – they’ll ask you ‘what you’re running from’ or what is the point when you ‘just end back exactly where you started’. But Darren got running. Just as water flows and you can’t cross the same river twice, with each revolution of the track Darren slowly transformed himself. Running found Darren out there on a one mile track on the Kwazulu Natal coastline – and through running Darren eventually found himself. The person he calls the “real Darren Webb”.

The South Coast Recovery Centre in Ramsgate where Darren spent a year and found the “real Darren Web” (photo from www.scrc.co.za)

What was the first thing Darren did after leaving rehab? He went for a run of course – his first official race, 25km on the South Coast which he completed in 2h25. Some organisations recognise recovery efforts with chips and coins but Darren wanted medals. He ran his first marathon in January this year (Johnson Crane) and was “over the moon” to finish under 4-hours. Since then he’s run another marathon, two ultras and the Easter 100km (a massive club run covering 100km over three days in Randburg, Johannesburg).

Darren credits running with helping to turn his life around. Running exorcised his demons. He excitedly told me, “I have my family back, my friends are back, I have an amazing new job and an amazing girlfriend who also runs.” He has repaired his life and has a great relationship with his dad again – as a 6-time Comrades finisher they share a common interest and Darren gratefully accepts the advice and mentoring from his father.

Darren shares his joy of running with his daughters at the “Pyjama” Parkrun (photo supplied).

Darren has been clean for two years now. Almost two years to the day since he checked into rehab, he’ll be heading back to the Kwazulu Natal coastline. But this time he’ll be undergoing the much happier life-changing event that is one’s first Comrades – and will do so with a much healthier bunch of addicts.

Darren is keen to share his story to “show people that there is life after active addiction.” If his story helps to change the life of just one addict he’s succeeded. He’s knows that he “put his body through hell” and has had some really tough days in his life. He’s expecting the 10th of June to be the toughest yet – but also the best. You can support this his remarkable recovery by tracking #10391.

Darren shows off another hard-earned medal from the Irene 48km ultra marathon (photo supplied).

Keeping The Wolf At Bay: When Getting To The Start Is The Hardest Part

The Story of #5571 (Devlin Lakay)

You can’t judge a book by its cover – and you can’t judge a marathon runner by their physique. To look at Devlin Lakay, you’d expect that this muscular young man would be a shoo-in for a strong Comrades finish.

But looks can be deceiving.

At the end of 2016 Devlin ran his first marathon. He’s successfully completed several ultra marathons since then including Om Die Dam and Two Oceans. He’s approached his training diligently. He’s done the mileage. And he’s a member the best running club in the country*.

* Disclaimer – this last point is based on the very biased opinion of the author who also runs for Fourways Road Runners!

So what’s the issue?

Devlin has an illness. It’s not something you can see – it’s not even a wolf in sheep’s clothing. This is an invisible wolf that lurks in Devlin’s left kidney. A wolf that lies dormant for long periods but can stir and strike at any time. Unfortunately, ultra marathon running seems to rouse the beast. And when this beast awakens he’s bad-tempered, violent and ravenous – indiscriminately attacking healthy tissue and hungrily devouring Devlin’s protein stores.

Devlin suffers from Lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease, named from the Latin word for wolf (because a flare-up often results in a rash that appears like a “wolf’s bite” on the skin). When Lupus strikes, it is completely incapacitating. In a worst-case scenario, it results in extreme fatigue and the retention of water that will require dialysis to treat and renal failure if left unchecked.

In 2007 Devlin was feeling weak and sluggish. He went to the doctor, who referred him to a specialist. He had 12kg of water on the kidney and the specialist sent him straight into ICU – where remained for nine days. During his stay he was diagnosed with Lupus, a disease with no cure.

Lupus can be managed by using strong chronic medication and Devlin is fortunate that he responds well to the cortisone and Cellcept that he diligently takes. His body also responds well to running, although the strain of ultra marathon running can sometimes be a trigger. Some might think Devlin is crazy or even negligent to continue pursuing his Comrades dream – but ultra runners will understand that he is neither. He merely refuses to let a disease define who he is and what he can achieve.

There are people who’ve run marathons with prosthetic limbs, dwarfism and birth defects. These people are heroes but their unique challenges are obvious to onlookers and fellow runners alike. They are special people who deservedly get extra support and encouragement along the route.

Delvin’s debilitating disease is just as difficult, if not harder, to overcome but it’s invisible to the rest of us (personally I had no idea that Devlin suffered with Lupus until he shared his story with me). One of the hardest aspects of having an autoimmune disease is that, even those who do know you are suffering from an illness, find it really hard to empathise and understand your struggles as you look “normal on the outside”.

Devlin approaches the finish at this year’s Two Oceans Ultra Marathon.

Devlin entered Comrades 2017 but Lupus resurfaced shortly after Easter when he ran the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon (56km). Instead of running Comrades, he had to deal with the emotional roller coaster of watching on television. He tried to deflect his own disappointment with the achievements of others, constantly refreshing the tracking app and scrutinising the progress of his friends and clubmates. But his heart was on the road, he wished he was out there suffering and triumphing with the rest of us.

This year he made it all the way to the end of May. The hard training was over but after a club run around the “Cradle” in western Johannesburg he recognised the restless growling in his kidney. Devlin knows his body well and immediately checked himself into the Fourways Life Hospital. He has his nephrologist, Rachel de Zeeuw, on speed dial (and she’ll tell you that, “He’s a handful!”). Devlin didn’t ask her if he could run Comrades, he asked, “What do I need to do to run Comrades?” After a biopsy and a much longer taper than planned, Devlin has the medical all-clear to line up at the start.

Devlin (in the blue shirt and killer shades) enjoys a club run with his Fourways club mates.

For most of us, the build-up to Comrades race day is a little bit of excitement and a lot of nerves. For Devlin it’s much more than that. He knows that the odds are stacked against him – he just wants to get to the start. Devlin doesn’t want any special attention – he just wants to run. Devlin doesn’t want any sympathy – he just wants to be out there with the rest of us on a Sunday morning in Pietermaritzburg, participating in the greatest ultra marathon on the planet.

He might not be looking for recognition but he deserves it – look out for this brave athlete on Sunday and track his progress on the app. When you spot #5571, don’t just give him a cheer or a high-five, rather give him a wolf whistle. Devlin will see the funny side. He might have a dodgy kidney but he’s also got a big heart and a thick skin (you won’t last long at Fourways Road Runners without one!).

While most of us will just be monitoring the pain in our legs as we head to Durban, Devlin will be monitoring his whole body. He’s lived with the invisible wolf for over a decade now and knows its signs well. He won’t do anything negligent but hopes to keep the beast at bay for 11 hours on the 10th of June.

Everyone always talks about worst case scenarios but Devlin is an optimist. He prefers to talk about best case scenarios – and that’s a scene he’s visualised a thousand times – a sunset over the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban with a beer in his hand and a medal around his neck!

Will Heather Add A Silver Necklace To Her Jewellery Collection?

The Story of #11479 (Heather Walden)

Running a marathon is hard – but the training is harder. Running two marathons in a row (plus a park run) over a course whose hills are designed to crush your spirit on the way up and your quads on the way down –  well that’s a little tougher.  You don’t train for Comrades to finish Comrades strong, you train just to finish Comrades before Comrades finishes you. And if you’re not sick of running by the middle of May (when the South African autumn turns to winter and the tapering starts) you probably haven’t trained hard enough.

Jack Bauer needs a full 24-hours for the longest day of his life, Comrades runners only need 12. Running Comrades is the toughest day most of us will experience in our lives. But training for Comrades is harder. Most of us struggle to find the time and energy that is required for Comrades training – you have to be really selfish with your schedule to fit everything in. But when you’re a mother you can’t be selfish with your time. Training for Comrades is hard but there is nothing harder than a being a mother and training for Comrades – and nothing tougher than a Comrades-running mother!

Your early morning runs have to start a little earlier, your free time is non-existent and the day-to-day demands of just “being a mom” are unrelenting. Being a mother is a delicate balancing act – and Comrades is the large lopsided object that would throw most families right out of equilibrium.

This is the story of Heather Walden, a 45-year old mother of three who has been training for her 4th Comrades medal. Her story is an inspiration to all those talented moms out there who are thinking about getting fit again and dropping a few kilos (as well as the dads who give their wives the necessary support and encouragement to enable them to achieve their running goals). And if being a Comrades running mother isn’t difficult enough, Heather is hoping to crack 7h30 and earn her first silver Comrades medal as a Swiss-based expat.

When it comes to training for Comrades, us South Africans have it easy:
  • The race calendar is geared around Comrades, you can pick and choose from hundreds of well organised marathons and ultras to run as “training”.
  • All your running friends are doing it so there’s no shortage of training partners.
  • All your non-running friends completely understand why you become a recluse and leave the few social engagements you do accept shortly after sunset.
Some of the challenges for a Swiss-based Comrades runner:
  • The constant battle to resist the temptation of decadent chocolate intake.
  • They only stock neutral running shoes.
  • Finding races and running partners to cover enough training mileage.

How Hard Is It To Earn A Silver Medal?

I asked Comrades stats guru Mark Dowdeswell to give me the odds. At the last down run in 2016 there were 16807 starters (3559 women and 13248 men); 607 runners achieved a silver medal (16 women and 591 men): Just 4.5% of the men’s field achieves a silver medal but this plummets to a minuscule 0.45% for the ladies. Unfortunately, there is no data on how many moms earn silver but I expect they are about as rare as a Swiss war hero (you don’t win many battles when your only weapon is a small knife with a bottle opener and a corkscrew).

You can follow Mark on Twitter: @mrdowdeswell and on race day #4670 – the only thing he’s better at than stats is trolling Runners’ World South Africa (luckily they spend all their time airbrushing models and haven’t figured out how the “block” function on Twitter works yet).

Training Challenges

The European running calendar is slow to shake off the winter hibernation period – and in Switzerland you have to wait until April for their brief marathon running season to start. To prepare for Comrades, Heather travelled to the Milan Marathon and found another local 50km (where the field was so small she ran the whole way by herself). Undeterred by the lack of organised races, most of her training runs have been long solo expeditions through the beautiful Swiss countryside. On weekends her husband might cycle next to her or a running friend will keep her company for 10km. She has also done two 60km solo training runs (I’m guessing she just needed the peace and quiet – some mornings I’m pretty sure I could knock out a 60km training run and my kids still wouldn’t be ready for school by the time I get back!).

Heather finishing the lonely Bielersee 50km.

If you’re having a good Comrades your legs will last until Drummond (halfway) – and on a great day you might make it as far as Pinetown (70km in; 20km to go). After that it’s a head game. She feels that the long solo runs have increased her mental strength as well as her overall enjoyment of running – both are vital ingredients to reach your potential on the Comrades route.

Heather’s Road To Comrades

Heather’s “how I started running” story is a familiar one. After having her third child she decided it was time to get fit and drop some of the baby weight. In 2012 she joined Bootcamp with no intentions of doing any serious running, until her instructor said that she “looked like a natural runner”. The instructor was spot-on: Soon she was running 10km races and quickly progressed to knocking off half marathons at just over 90 minutes.

Soweto Marathon in November 2012 was her first. Up to this point, running had been easy but she smashed into the wall at 30km and had to walk the last 12km (my report on the 2017 edition of this tough but incredible race is here). It was another 6 months before she attempted another marathon (Vaal) – and this time had a much better run.

She was managing her running addiction well until she turned on the TV for Comrades 2013. This was the year of the 31C heat wave and 40km/h head winds (resulting in one of the highest ever drop-out rates). This would scare most people off Comrades but, seeing the runners battle through the worst that Comrades could throw at them, Heather was inspired to enter in 2014.

In the build-up to Comrades, Heather ran the Two Oceans (56km) finishing just under 5-hours and found it “harder than child birth”. Fortunately childbirth comes naturally to Heather and she got the hang of going into ultra running labour pretty quickly – highlighted by the successfully delivery of a healthy 8h34 Bill Rowan medal at Comrades 2014. In 2015 she improved her time to 8h04.

Motivated to do even better, she trained hard and brought her marathon time down to just over 3 hours. She was all set to take her shot at silver in 2016. Unfortunately, life had other plans: Her husband was suddenly transferred to Basel – with all the stresses that go with single-parenting and the logistical pressure of emigrating, she got a virus just before the race. She had a “bad run” finishing in 8h04 again.

Heather finishes Comrades 2015 in 8h04. She achieved the same time in 2016 and is hoping to run under 7h30 in 2018.

Back As A Tourist

Heather is back in 2018. She’s looking forward to having another shot at silver. But what she’s looking forward to most is running in South Africa again – the “friendliness of the people” and the “natural beauty of the route”. We often don’t realise what we’ve got until it’s not there anymore.

Heather is planning to “enjoy every moment” of her Comrades journey and “to notice all the things that I miss about my home country, that I will smile at the supporters and thank the marshals and water table volunteers.”

If your following Sunday’s race online, track Heather’s quest for silver by tracking #11479. There won’t be many ladies running at silver pace on Sunday –  and only one will be wearing a red and white Basel Running Club vest. If you’re supporting on the side of the road and see a smiling pseudo-Swiss lady taking it all in as she hurtles towards Durban, give Heather a “Howzit”. You’ll definitely get a return smile and probably a “Baie dankie!” or a “Ngiyabonga kakhulu!” in return. Your support might just give Heather the energy she needs to slip under 7h30, beat the odds and become one of the very few mothers with a silver Comrades necklace in their jewellery collection.

Heather relaxes with her greatest fans.

What a Difference a Year Makes

The story of #36811 (Johann Kotzé) with supporting role played by #51909 (Rupin Mehta).

Nothing highlights the difference a few seconds can make quite like the Comrades cut-off: The difference between unrestrained elation or crushing disappointment, the difference between the touch of a small medal or the weight of an empty hand, and the difference between having the longest day of your life logged as official finish in the Comrades annals or simply marked as ‘DNF’ on the annual results.

For overseas readers who’ve never witnessed a Comrades cut-off, they are brutal: The official timekeeper stands on the finish line with his back to the runners – intentionally blind and uninfluenced by the drama going on behind him – and fires the cut-off gun exactly as the clock strikes 12.

Comrades is no fairy-tale. There are no Cinderella stories when the clock strikes 12. Instead of a glass slipper, Comrades leaves behind a trail of haggard running shoes attached to the shattered legs of exhausted runners. The only consolation for those that outstay their welcome on the Comrades route is that they come back next year and try again.

Ever wondered what happens to the runners who just miss the cut-off? This is the story of one of them.

In June 2016 Hermanus Whaler (that’s his running club not what he does for a living), Johann Kotzé, was sitting on the bus heading to the start of his first Comrades. Everyone on the bus was full of nervous excitement – but Johann knew something was wrong when his excitement escalated to dizziness and a cold sweat.

The day started badly and got steadily worse. The lethal combination of a stomach bug, severe dehydration and cramps doggedly pursued Johann over 80 excruciating kilometres – all the way from Pietermaritzburg to 45th cutting. It is a testament to the willpower of this Comrades runner that he’d got this far. The next 9km would be the longest and toughest of his life.

By now Johann was cramping in both legs and, whilst trying to brake on a downhill, fell flat on his back. The cramps were so bad that he couldn’t bend his legs and he lay motionless on the ground, unable to get back to his feet. At this stage of the race everyone is fighting his or her own demons, running with tunnel vision towards the next marker be it a kilometre marker board, a water table or the next lamp post. The pressure of making it to the finish line consumes you.

But help came in the form of 4-time finisher, Rupin Mehta. Their introductory handshake was Rupin pulling Johann to his feet. Rupin saw a Comrade in need, grabbed an arm and refused to let go. They would shuffle a few hundred metres until the cramping brought Johann to a grinding halt – then a few hundred more – slowly grinding out the path to Durban. Several times Johann urged Rupin to leave him – worried that they would both miss a medal. But Rupin stayed glued to Johann’s side, content to play the supporting role on Johann’s journey.

They entered the stadium together and heard the announcer call out “70 seconds to go”. Finding some hidden energy stores they both lumbered towards the line. Another novice runner, Samantha Douglas, had just collapsed metres from the line. Rupin spotted her and finally left Johann’s side with, “I’m going to help her, just keep on going, you’re going to make it!”. Unfortunately, none of them would.

Rupin helps Samantha Douglas back to her feet (Photo Supplied)

Johann got cramp and tripped over the last timing mat just metres from the finish line. Unable to bend his legs and too far from the railings to pull himself up, he watched helplessly as the seconds ticked by and the final gun fired. He refused a stretcher but took the hands of the medical support team and walked across the line in 12h02.

Johann refused the stretcher and is assisted over line by the medical support team two minutes after cut-off. (Photo Supplied)

Rupin sacrificed his 5th medal, finishing 21 seconds after cut-off with Samantha. However, he earned something more important than a medal – he became a hero. The video of him helping Samantha went viral and he received the 2016 Spirit of Comrades Award.

You can watch the video of Johann and Rupin parting ways as Rupin goes to Samantha’s aid here:

Comrades was started in 1921 by Vic Clapham to commemorate those who lost their lives in the First World War. Those who’ve been in battle form lifelong bonds with their compatriots. Running Comrades does much the same thing. Johann and Rupin kept in touch and met up for breakfast the day before Comrades 2017. They had very different race plans and were not expecting to see each other on the road – but fate had other ideas.

At one of the last water tables, just three kilometres from the end, they bumped into each other. Once again the ran into the stadium arm in arm – but this time there were smiles – and Rupin didn’t rush off to rescue any damsels in distress. He successfully chaperoned Johann over the line in a comfortable 10h27 to secure a bronze medal.

What a difference a year makes. Compare the pain and anguish from 2016 to the joy and elation of these two runners exactly one year later. (Photos Supplied)

This year, Johann is back to exorcise his down run demons. Follow this #RealComradesChampion on the 10th of June by tracking race #36811 on the Comrades.

If you’re struggling towards Moses Mabhida stadium on June 10 and raise your hand for support, hopefully someone will grab it. You might just get rupined by #51909 himself – but it’s just as likely to be another runner inspired by this story who’ll help a fellow Comrade out in their greatest time of need. And even if you miss a medal you’ll make a lifelong friend.

The Human Sosatie

The story of #49470 (Danie de Wet)

[Note: This is an excerpt from the JM Busha Marathon Report. Danie was the inspiration for this series. After our chance meeting I shared his amazing story on Facebook and Twitter and my feeds went ballistic. He has subsequently been featured in numerous magazines and newpapers (even the London Times ran an article) and has been contacted by various television and radio stations.]

A good technique for running through an industrial wasteland is to create a diversion by striking up a conversation with a fellow runner. I was busy thinking about my backlog of impending race reports (these days running marathons is easy – writing about them afterwards is the hard part!) when local Carltonville-based runner Chris de Beer yelled out, “Hey Running Mann, come over here and chat to my buddy – you’ve got to hear his story!” I gratefully obliged – and what a story it was.

Danie’s Story: You can knock a Comrades runner down but you can’t keep him there!

His buddy, Danie de Wet, has 6 Comrades finishes to his credit and was running JM Busha as a last gasp qualifier for 10 June. I am always surprised when people leave qualifying to the last minute and am usually sceptical of their excuses. However, I think Danie’s story about the time “(hy het) soos ‘n sosatie gevoel” (“became a human sosatie” – that’s a kebab of the skewer type for foreign readers) is a suitable exception.

Danie’s 4th Comrades finish in 2005.

In January 2015, Danie was helping to clean out some blocked drains 3.5km underground in one of the Carltonville gold mines when he slipped, fell and was impaled by a ‘gwala’ (a 1.8m long x 2.5cm diameter crowbar-like metal rod).

The Lodox Scan. The gwala went through his groin and out his left shouler – missing his heart by 5cm.

Two remarkable operations followed:

  1. The rescue operation to get him back to the surface alive before rushing through to the Milpark Hospital (3.5km is a long way underground and 1.8m of gwala is tough to get through tight spaces).
  2. The operation Professor Kenneth Boffard and his surgical team performed to successfully remove the skewer.

After two weeks in an induced coma, Danie woke up “deurmekaar” (confused) and minus one kidney but thanked the “Grace of God” for his life. It’s been a tough journey since then and last year he was back in hospital several times with stomach complications related to the original accident.

Danie’s co-workers chromed the gwala and mounted it on a stone with a biblical verse.

Danie finished 2017 feeling “very down” and his weight was “way up” (about 30kg heavier than his Comrades fighting weight). Luckily he knew of a great natural anti-depressant and weight loss program.

You can knock a Comrades runner down but you can’t keep him there! He talks fondly of “Ons Groepie” (Our Group) and the help and support that got him back on the road again. The JM Busha Marathon in Randfontein was Danie’s first since the accident and I am pleased to report that he got around the course comfortably under 5 hours to qualify for Comrades.

Chris de Beer takes a selfie with “Ons Groepie” (Danie is in the red top).

If you’re following Comrades from afar and want to track an authentic Comrades champion – his race number is 49470. If you’re standing on the side of the road and start to get weary after a long day of supporting, hold some energy back for a runner in a bright red Carleton Harriers vest sporting number 49470 – he could use an extra cheer as he approaches the Moses Mabhida Stadium. And if you’re a runner and think you can’t go any further on the 10th of June, remember that three years ago one of us was about to wake up from a coma after surgery that few thought he would survive – and before you quit, remember that Danie will still be out there battling towards the finish line, proudly carrying number 49470 to a seventh finish!

Aside: You can read about the original accident here and here and (if you are a doctor with a very strong stomach) in an article from the South African Medical Journal here.

Hitting the high street (Danie is in the red Carleton Harriers vest).

Amazed, astounded and inspired, I wished Danie well on his qualifying marathon and we parted ways as a stump-tailed lion welcomed us into Randfontein’s retail hub.

The Trial of Jeremy Knox (Comrades vs. Knox, June 2017)

The story of #39475

[Note: This is an except from the Bruintjieshoogte Ultra Report. Jerermy and I ran the last 12km together and I found his Comrades story amazing – and his attitude to epitomise that of the Comrades runner.]

On the sprint back into Somerset East, Jeremy relayed the gruesome story of his first Comrades. An American running friend recently asked me, “What makes Comrades great?” There are many factors but the runners – and the courage they display on the day – is a major factor (let’s hope the organisers of our major races remember that in their future decision making). Jeremy’s story was still fresh in my head and it bears repeating:

Jeremy had a great time over the first 60km of Comrades. In fact, he was having such a good time that he missed his club’s seconding tables (and his special jungle juice concoction). The novelty of one’s first Comrades starts to wear off after 60kms and, although this was the “Up” run, Jeremy’s day started going steadily downhill from there. Faced with the heat, cramps and prolific vomiting, he did the sensible thing and declared defeat – he even went so far as to remove his shoes before walking over to one of the bailing busses.

Luckily for Jeremy, this was an experienced bus driver who gave Jeremy a once-over and told him to put his shoes back on as he’d “seen much worse on the day”. Jeremy was too tired to argue and decided to think about life over a quick 20-minute power nap in the shade of a nearby tree.

On waking he calculated that he had 4 hours to do the last 30kms and got going again – but took almost 2 hours covering the next 10kms. His body slowly accepted the idea that he wasn’t going to quit and pulled itself together. But then came Polly Shortts – the last and most brutal of the Big 5 Hills on the “Up” run. Jeremy managed to summit Little Pollies and celebrated the achievement with another snooze on the side of the road.

The court transcripts from Jeremy’s Comrades trial. The real champions of Comrades are those who persevere and finish in the last 5 minutes!
He Gets Knoxed Down (But He Gets Up Again)

This time he was woken by one of the water table volunteers who was raking discarded sachets. A young spectator whispered “You can’t quit now” which gave Jeremy the motivation to dust himself off and have one last crack at getting to Pietermarizburg before the cut-off.

By now his watch had died and the sun had set so he was running blind, hoping to still somehow make the cut-off. It wasn’t long before another bus driver came to his aid in the form of Buks van Heerden, driving the “last chance saloon” 12-hour bus, which was packed with a couple of hundred runners (but there’s always room for one more). Jeremy climbed aboard and got his copper Vic Clapham medal with 5 minutes to spare. Whilst reclining in the comfort of a stretcher on the way to the medical tent, he reflected that the race’s slogan “Zinikele. It will humble you.” certainly wasn’t false advertising!

Jeremy summed up his story with, “It was tough but fantastic. I wouldn’t change the experience for anything in the world. And I can’t wait for this year’s race.” Like most Comrades novices, Jeremy’s plea bargain resulted in a one-year suspended sentence which means he will be returning to Pietermaritzburg for a retrial (and claim his “back-to-back” medal) in a month’s time.

Jeremy is a junior school teacher from East London. Most chefs dream of opening their own restaurant one day – I’m not sure if teachers dream of opening their own school but, if Jeremy ever does, I hope he calls it the “School of Hard Knox” and bores the kids to tears with tales of his ultra marathon adventures!

Update: Jeremy is running the 2018 Comrades for an amazing NGO called St Bernard’s Hospice and who provide home care and assistance to people who are suffering with terribly painful diseases like cancer. If you would like to donate to his cause (and make sure he doesn’t get caught napping at this year’s Comrades) you can do so here.

Jeremy Knox – received a suspended sentence at last year’s Comrades and will be back for the retrial in 2018.
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