Running Into Cancer – My Running Life – Part 6 – Marathon to Ultra – Comrades Part 2

After the devastation of injury preventing my dream of finishing Comrades 2015 I was determined to have another go. I had let down my sponsors and The Children’s Adventure Farm who I was fundraising for in 2015 and I had to put that right so planning started for Comrades 2016.

I got my entry in as soon as entries opened and then set about qualifying which amazingly took me back to Amsterdam in October 2015 where my marathon journey had started back in 2007. My Brother in Law, Dave, who lives in Amsterdam, was running his first and last marathon in his now home City. When he said “never again” afterwards I think he actually meant it! My Wife, Tracey, and I entered the 8k race as we wanted to be there to support Dave. About 6-8 weeks before the race I decided to switch from the 8k to the 42.2k race and plod round, given that I hadn’t done any endurance training for months, and just bag any time that got me into Comrades 2016. Only idiots attempt to run marathons on virtually no training, right?

I ran with Dave until about 20km and then he disappeared into the distance. I reached half way and realised that I could run the second half in 1:50 and get a sub 3:40 and a pen C seeding for Comrades. Taking things fairly easy I finished in the Olympic stadium in 3:33:50. Unfortunately I’d passed Dave about 2-3km from the finish as he’d been cramping up but he came in not far behind. The only time this old man would ever beat Dave!

Amsterdam really is a great marathon. Running into the Olympic stadium underneath the Olympic rings is a real highlight. I’d be back again in 2019 but this time I’d stick with the 8k as you’d never guess I’d been a half decent endurance runner by late 2019 such was the impact of treatment that removed your male hormones. Ladies have way more testosterone than I do nowadays and for us fella’s it drives every aspect of our lives. I no longer had that drive but I still had the desire to carry on running.

Comrades training started in January 2016 but this time I decided that back to back long runs on Saturday and Sunday were to be avoided so that I actually got to the start line injury free. There would only be one marathon in the first half of 2016 and as I already had a C seeding I really would take it easy whilst running Manchester again, bagging a time of 3:43:49.

The really long training run of close to 40 miles, running 4 times around the last 10 miles of the hilly Macclesfield half marathon course, came around again. I was going to try to run for over 7 hours and this was vital to my confidence given that it was the run that had really found out my injury in 2015.

Again my club mates gave me fantastic support with some of them running either one loop or two with me. The last loop was epic. I had a group of 5 or 6 running with me and I was pretty jaded by now. I’d been power walking all the really steep sections, a tactic that I knew I’d have to adopt on race day. We set off and the heavens opened with the biggest hail stones you’ve ever seen. They really hurt and were as far away from the Comrades weather as you could possibly get! We had a good laugh about it at the time and I was very grateful to have my mates with me when I finished. I’d run 38.66 miles at an average pace of 10:19 per mile and climbed 2,357 feet. My post on Strava that day said “Can’t describe how hard running 38 miles is, even running it slowly” Bode well for Comrades where I had another 18 miles still to go!

On 8th May my Strava post said “A real struggle! The recent high mileage has emptied the tank and it was warm! Need to cut mileage big time now! Comrades in less than three weeks!” That was an 18 mile run at 9:28 per mile pace. At least I listened for a change. It was time for a real taper down.

May 21st I popped over to run Pennington Flash parkrun as loads of Flashers were running Comrades in 2016. Ran a conservative time of 23:51 and had a good chat with the guys and looked forward to seeing them in South Africa. I’d die for a sub 24 minute 5k nowadays!

We arrived in South Africa on the Wednesday to try to acclimatise to the heat. Expo on Thursday to collect race number. Nerves really jangling as it was all getting very real now.

Comrades Expo 2016
1st part of the route
2nd part of the route.

I bumped into someone outside the expo that I’d met in the most unusual circumstances, Duncan Ross who is an airline pilot for Emirates. Duncan had flown into Manchester Airport and was out on a run and came running towards us whilst we were out on a club run. He noticed my Comrades shirt or hat, turned round and started chatting about Comrades. We have been connected ever since and his then partner, now fiancé, Gerda Steyn is a top South African athlete. She won the Two Oceans marathon in 2019 and then went on to win Comrades and set a new female up run record the same year of 5:58:53! I’d actually bumped into Duncan and Gerda at the end of the Dublin marathon in 2016 where Gerda had run some ridiculously quick marathon time. Duncan was to show me a massive act of kindness in 2017 that I’ll be forever grateful for but that’s a story for another day.  

This time I would have a jog around North Beach Durban parkrun along with over 2,000 other runners, the day before Comrades, in 26:59, another time I would die for nowadays. It was a great experience trying to be part of a world record parkrun attendance attempt.

Stunning North Beach Durban.

We decided not to do a course tour this time round. It had scared the crap out of me in 2015 and I remembered it pretty vividly.

We were staying in a lovely hotel right on the beach in Durban and, as this was a down year, it meant a very early start on race day. Up for breakfast at 2.00am and then over to catch a bus to Pietermaritzburg for the longest bus journey ever. There was a lot of adrenaline pumping around the athletes on board. We arrived at 4:30am for the 5:30 start. Final ablutions done and then head into the starting pen. The awesome, spine tingling experience of the start, as I explained in my last blog, and then we are off.

Race ready well before dawn. Coated in industrial strength factor 50 sun tan cream hence the strange glow!
Spine tingling and incredibly emotional start at 5.30am in Pietermaritzburg.

It’s chilly in Pietermaritzburg for the Africans at around 12c but it very quickly got a whole lot warmer and would hover around 28c for most of the day. Controlling body temperature is a major challenge.

Watching the African sunrise was incredible. It’s a really beautiful sight that Tracey captured perfectly in this photograph. Tracey was out on the course having a corporate hospitality day. Luxury breakfast and lunch, free bar (not much use as she is t-total) and hopefully arriving back in Durban to see me finish. Thankfully this time I wouldn’t be partaking of the free bar!

Stunning South African Sunrise.

Comrades is a race that attacks all your senses. It’s a total rite of passage for all South African runners. You aren’t considered to be a “proper” runner unless you’ve run Comrades. Everyone comes out to support. It’s on TV wall to wall for the whole 12 hours of the race. The residents en route get out the Braai’s (BBQ’s) and you smell the bacon cooking for breakfast and then the meat at lunch time and as you pass them eating the food and drinking the cold beer its very enticing, it would be quite attractive to stop and sup a cold one but that was never going to happen, I was incredibly determined to finish.

I first caught up with Tracey, after her breakfast, at about the 17 mile mark. A quick photo and much needed loo break and we were back up and running again.

First meet up with Tracey at her luxury breakfast stop.

In part 1 I talked about National/International friendships and at 1 point in the first half of the race I caught up with Rebecca Parry a seasoned Comrades runner from the UK and we ran together and chatted for a while before leapfrogging each other for a few miles.

Posing with Rebecca on one of the long challenging unnamed hills.

You need very clear tactics for such a long, hot race. Mainly set off slowly, power walk the seriously steep hills. It has to be a power walk though or you lose too much time. Stay hydrated and try to get nutrition on board. Aid stations are very frequent thankfully, around every 2km. Water sachets in troughs of ice. Grab two, pour one on the back of the buff, drink one. 1km later turn the buff round so that the cooler water at the front moves to the back and repeat another 44 times! I was rubbish at food but there was a plentiful supply. I’m told that the hot salted potatoes were very good but I didn’t take food at all. I relied on energy gels and sweet drinks available at the aid stations. I was sugared out by the end.

Passing through marathon distance and one of the brutal named hills, Inchanga, there are a series of huge climbs and you’ve still got 30 miles to go! I had decided to use a mantra “perpetual forward movement” to keep me going and in the dark moments it helped. One foot in front of another no matter what the pace.

Reach half way and the Wall of Honour and Arthurs Seat. Leave a flower on Arthurs Seat, guaranteed to have a good 2nd half now. Only 3 of the massive named hills left.

Around about half way and still enough energy to pose!

Meet up with Tracey at Kloof after her luxury lunch. Thank God, a bit of shade. After hugs and kisses there’s just under 30k to go, 59k already run, but including two of the famed named hills, Fields and Cowies and the bulk of the route is on the motorway with brutal undulations and absolutely no shade. Another tip I’d picked up was to watch out for the cats eyes. They are huge and a massive trip hazard.

Tracey’s luxury lunch stop at Kloof. Only 17 miles to go!
Tracey’s luxury lunch stop at Kloof whilst I was slogging up hills. Hard life!
Comrades is a massive part of South African heritage.
Zulu dancers.
More dancers.

The organisers of Tracey’s day tour told her that I was on target to finish in sub 9.5 hours and her next stop was the race finish inside the Kingsmead Cricket Stadium in Durban. She was expecting me to arrive by 3.00pm based on a 9:30 projected finish time but as the minutes ticked on past 9:30 she was getting increasingly terrified that I’d had problems. Well I had, I was bloody knackered! I’d run back to back 4.5 hour marathons on a brutally hilly course in 28c of heat and the last 5k from the outskirts of Durban to Kingsmead was the first flat bit of the run. It was the slowest 5k I’ve ever run/walked. I’d completely gone, nothing left, nada, nowt, zilch but I was going to finish no matter how long it took. In the end it took over 40 minutes to reach the stadium from the 84km mark. Running into the stadium is quite an experience. Straight down the middle to the finish? Of course not. One lap of the stadium playing to the crowd and then a short finish straight. I never knew cricket pitches were that big! It took forever to get round.

Finish area the day before race day.
Just entered the stadium. How big is this cricket pitch?

Crossed the finish line in 9:46 and was presented with a rose and my much deserved medal. I’d run 56 miles in searing heat on a brutally hilly course at just over 10 minute mile pace. I’d finished well inside the top 20% of the 50-59 age group and I was 59 years old and had fulfilled a dream.

Into the final straight.
Sub 10!
One of the best moments of my life.

Waddle my way to the International Finishers tent to reunite with Tracey. Grab some food and a cold beer. I was so looking forward to that beer but when I got it it was the sweetest lager and lime I’ve ever tasted. Utterly awful having lived for the previous 10 plus hours on sugary energy gels and sweet drinks.

The most awful sweet lager and lime!

Texted the family to say “I’ve only bloody well gone and done it!”

I savoured the moment, full of pride and beaming from ear to ear before I started getting cold as my body recalibrated its heat control and we decided that, rather than stay until the very end and the 5:30pm final cut off time, we’d head back to the hotel and watch it unfold on the TV. That was one of the most incredibly emotional few moments of my life. With 2 or 3 minutes left a lady entered the stadium with just a lap to run and her legs completely turned to jelly and there was no way she was going to get up and finish. Another runner stopped to help her which meant he also missed the 12 hour cut off and a medal. It was heart wrenching and led to many tears. Had to turn off at this point as I couldn’t stand any more emotion. Imagine running 56 miles and collapsing on the finish straight. I was utterly spent. Time for a much deserved beer, some food and an early night.

Ready for a few beers and an early night.

Monday morning the UK runners meet up for coffee and a photo. David Ross the UK ambassador organises all this and it’s fantastic apart from for those that didn’t finish like me the previous year.

A long boozy Monday followed, soaking up the sun before we headed off for another fabulous holiday, this time in Botswana. The medal didn’t come off for days though, it’s one of my much treasured possessions even if it’s no bigger than a 10p piece. It had been a dream for many years to win one and now I had one.

I wasn’t sure that I’d go back for another attempt but eventually the idea of another crack at the up run and the prospect of a final chance to win a back to back medal, awarded to those who complete consecutive up/down or down/up runs, became too great so I entered again.

I was 59 by now and would be 60 before the 2017 Comrades race and my age was starting to show in my times. I ran Dublin marathon in autumn of 2016 to try to get an early qualifying time and had a pig of a run to come in at 3:43:33. Okay, that was enough for a D pen seeding and it also got me a Good For Age time for an over 60 for the 2018 London Marathon but it was rubbish and easily the worst marathon where I was trying for a time. Also bumped into Duncan and Gerda after the race.

The turn of the year came and a niggling groin strain had started to develop. I ran the Anglesey half marathon in February 2017 and on a downhill section I experienced screaming pain from the groin for the first time.

Still, it was only a groin strain and us runners are hardy critters. We run through pain and it would wear off surely. It didn’t and I had a chiropractor treat me. She mentioned on one occasion that the lymph nodes in my groin felt a bit inflamed. I had no idea what that meant or its consequence. It would mean so much more in the months ahead though!

I ran Manchester and Paris marathons a week apart at the start of April as long training runs for Comrades. 3:47:59 and 3:49:31 respectively wasn’t too shabby but the groin pain was now being controlled by pain killers.

Early May bank holiday we went to Cumbria to see our new puppy and have a walk. When I parked the car for the walk I actually couldn’t get my right leg out of the car without being in a huge amount of pain and walking was agony so as soon as I got back I made an appointment to see a sports injury Doctor and we’d arranged an MRI scan. That was 8th May 2017. Surely a cortisone injection would sort it out and we’d fly out to South Africa on 31st May. Or so I thought!

I saw the radiologist and Doctor going in and out of each other’s offices for the next hour and, as I was the only one there, they must have been talking about me. I was still blissfully unaware of what was to come. I’d got round to thinking that the “injury” must have been worse than I thought and that Comrades and my back to medal hung by a thread.

Eventually the Doctor called my into his office and explained that the scan was showing something that he hadn’t expected but he needed some more tests to be done to rule out anything untoward so I was sent for a blood test and chest x-rays there and then. I noticed the handwritten letters PSA on the blood test form but had no idea what that meant so took little heed of it. I was told I needed to attend for a full body CT scan the following day, 9th May.

You can imagine how Tracey and I felt that night. It was utterly terrifying. Even an idiot like me knew that you didn’t need these tests for a groin strain but we still had little idea what was coming. That’s for another day and I’ll post the rest of the story tomorrow, 9th May, judgement day. A day that will stick in my mind forever. The worst day of my life and one that would change my life out of all recognition.

Published by Tony Collier

Diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer in May 2017 when I went from training for an ultra marathon to terminally ill in 36 hours. It was a pretty bad runners "groin strain"

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