Interviewed, Races, Run

Tips on surviving your first Comrades by Thelma

Surviving your first Comrades
Thelma finishing her 3rd Comrades 2015 with 13 minutes to spare.

Thelma is a single mom with two grandchildren. In her late forties, she decided she wanted to become an ultra runner. In this year’s Comrades Up-Run she will be running her 5th. The goal, for now, is to reach 10. Each year the running the Comrades has been different. I sat her down for a quick Q&A just before Comrades 2016.

When the entries for Comrades 2016 opened and I entered, I reached out to her for guidance and advice. Then when I decided that it wasn’t happening this last year, Thelma was both supportive and disappointed with my decision but understood where I was coming from. There was absolutely no pressure from her for me to reconsider.

I know most of the Comrades runners taking part this year are tapering now as the race is but a few days away. I reached out to Thelma and asked if she would be comfortable sharing some of her personal insights for all the runners attempting Comrades for the first time this year. Thankfully, she agreed and this is her story.

EKL – ME and TT – Thelma T.

EKL – What’s it like standing in your allotted batch for your first Comrades start?

TT – “The start of Comrades is very emotional, suck it all up!  There is NOTHING in this world that you can compare your first Comrades experience to? As you clock the kilometres towards the finish, you will see runners struggling. It was difficult to see people struggling on the road, I acknowledged them, said a prayer for them and continued with my run. My advice to first time Comrade Runners is please, please do not help unless asked to or you are the first person at the scene of a fall. Offer your help and move on.”

EKL – Is there “stuff” you wish someone had told you before your first Comrades?

TT – “YES! Not to eat potatoes.  I found them heavy and they made me feel bloated.  Rather stick to what you have trained with. The spectators mean well and will offer all sorts of goodies along the road but be careful what you take from them.  Deal with the struggles you may encounter along the route. For example, if you are feeling bad, tell yourself it’s OK to feel a bit off, but don’t stay there for too long.  After 60kms Comrades becomes a mind game. Some stretches of road along the route are so boring, you must let your imagination run wild here, just to get through it! Be whomever you want to be and think whatever you want to think… oh boy! My thoughts took me everywhere…” *BLUSH*

EKL – You now have a few Comrades under your belt, runners belt that is :-), what have you learnt from each run that’s made the experience better each year?

TT – “A key takeout for me is that no matter how many kilometers you have completed during training, or how good your marathons were, or even what PBs you managed to improve on, only after the gunshot goes off marking the start of Comrades will you actually know how you are feeling and how ready you are for the epic journey YOU decided to embark on.”

EKL – I have to ask…Thels, why on earth do you put yourself through the “torture” year after year?

TT – “For me, running is no longer a sport, it’s a way of life.  I started running at the tender age of 48 and I have just gotten better over the last 8 years.  You just know that you have more mileage within yourself, so until I can truthfully tell myself this is all I have, I will keep running and enter Comrades every year!”

EKL – What do you prefer… the up or down run and is one better than the other?

Surviving your first ComradesTT“I enjoy the up run, yet I don’t enjoy running hills during training.  I don’t remember much about my first down run, I lost my brother a week and a half before that Comrades, so I only woke up when there was 11kms to go and I knew that if I didn’t sprint those last few kilometres, I would not make it. More importantly, I would not have honoured my late brother. That I actually made the finish line on time, also proved to me that I definitely have it in me to run more races. All I remember from that day, after realising that I might not make it, was me running on the highway and getting some weird looks from the runners. If looks could speak theirs would be saying “What the hell happened to you?” As I ran into the stadium that day, lifted my arms in sheer gratitude, I felt like a celebrity 🙂  I crossed the finish in a time of 11h47. More important to me was that it also meant I qualified for a back-to-back Comrades medal, that baby was mine!  As a side note, I had my best Comrades seeding that year, Pen F…. and it clearly almost meant zip… A year later my qualifying time was worse 4h40, just ten minutes to spare before the qualifying cutoff time. This time meant I started even further back in the starting pens, but I ran my best Comrades time yet, 10h30 and it was an up run! From my experiences, I don’t believe it matters where you start your Comrades. At the end of the day, you finish Comrades in your head.”

EKL – Can you be overdressed for the occasion?

TT – “ 🙂 Yes, just as much as being under dressed can be a problem too. My advice would be, to try and wear a very light, warm top with a zip, so that you don’t have to battle to take it off over your head once you get warm.   An unwritten Comrades rule is that runners give their warm tops the spectators… It’s a long way to carry an unnecessary top!”

EKL – Let’s talk nourishment before, during and after the run … What do suggest?

TT“I personally don’t usually eat before a run, but if I feel hungry I have a boiled egg with an avocado. During the run, I carry some biltong and dates (I don’t normally even eat them, but they are delicious on Comrades and give you power) with me and whatever energy drink you have trained with. I usually buy small zipper bags and put 1 scoop of energy drink in them.  When I get to a water point, I add the water to the zipper bag, make sure it is zipped (closed) properly and make a small hole in one corner. I usually run for 30 mins holding and enjoying my drink.  After your run, definitely a protein shake and a chocolate Steri-Stumpie(shop bought milkshake)…yummy!”

EKL – What should a first time Comrades runner expect on the day?

TT“Goosebumps, porridge brain (you suddenly forget stuff) and plenty of strange-looking runners around you.”

EKL – In your opinion, should a first time Comrades attempt be the up or down run?

TT“It really doesn’t matter, as both the up and down run routes have their own set of challenges. In time, you will find the route you prefer. ”

EKL – Any do’s and/or don’ts for a first time Comrades Runner?

TT – “Do: Enjoy your first Comrades, don’t put any pressure on yourself. Just make sure you make all the cut-off times with some time to spare.  Be mindful and stay present. Do remember to acknowledge your support team on the route, it’s as much a long day for them as it is for you. Again…Enjoy the experience damn it!

Don’t: Surround yourself with negative people the week leading up to the Sunday of the run.  Do not carry any stress with you into the race. Do your utmost to park it until the 30th May 2016…Thank me later :-), don’t tie your shoelaces too tight, it gets hot during the run and your feet will swell and you will be very uncomfortable.  Stopping your run just to redo your shoelaces during Comrades is no small job and you just somehow don’t get it right!

EKL – How early should one make their way to the start and to the starting pen?

TT “Get to the start at least 45 mins before the gun goes off and go to your starting pen.  Try to get as close to the front of your pen as possible. There are just too many people at the start, it will just cut down on the time you spend trying to make your way around runners or tripping over plastic bags. Yes, plastic bags J, some runners start with plastic bags and tear them off after the first few Ks. Just be careful of them.”

EKL – You started the run, and you’re at the 50km point into your Comrades. About 39kms still to go. The first time Comrades runner’s mind starts playing games, telling them to stop or quit. Any wise words of encouragement?

TT“Just remember this …Your mind is a liar!  You can listen to it telling you that and perhaps you do feel like stopping, it happens….acknowledge it and then make a very conscious decision to change it, just as you would, change a radio station.  DO NOT ignore it! The voice in your head will not go away….So listen to it, but there is another voice too, the one that’s from deep within your soul. The one that makes you tick… This voice will be telling you a much different story, that’s the voice you need to listen to, as it will be saying…YOU CAN MAKE IT, KEEP RUNNING…”

EKL – Are you aiming to complete 10 consecutive runs?

TT“Yes, that’s my goal!”

EKL – How many Comrades have you completed so far?

TT“This year I will be running my 4th (2016), but to be honest it feels like I will be attempting my first down run… When you hit the stadium, remember to feel the grass at Kingsmead stadium under your feet, look at the clock and prepare yourself for a feeling like no other!  There is no word in the English language that can accurately describe euphoria that overcomes you as you digest and register that YOU have just finished your first Comrades Ultra Marathon! NOTHING!”

Thelma finishes off by saying… The night after the run (yes, please do sleep with your medal you worked freaking hard for it 🙂 ) write your experience down whilst it is still fresh in your mind.  Who you met on the road, how you felt at certain places during the run, what the start was like, what you ate, and what mind games were going on in your head.  Put that piece of paper away or if you’ve used your tablet, save the document. Six months later bring it out and read it. I still get a lump in my throat when I read mine.” 

Thank you for sharing your time and these insightful words Thelma. All the best for your up run on Sunday my amazing friend!

Everyone running the Comrades 2017, I wish you all a really great run and FUN day on the road.

You all rock stars!