At Comrades 2015, as thousands of runners converged at Pietermaritzburg in a global kaleidoscope, a proud contingent of 33 finishers made sure that the Indian tricolor held its own in the crowd.
These runners did not just run their own race. With every stride, they ably shouldered the ambitions of thousands of runners from India, who hope to be in their shoes someday. Who better to inspire those who are nurturing Comrades ambitions, than those who have taken those very ambitions to fruition?
Through the monumental training sessions, the steadfast commitment, and the upheavals of race day – we spoke to 6 runners who successfully claimed a piece of history as their own at Comrades 2015. One of India’s most celebrated veteran runners, Ashok Nath emerged triumphant yet again, as the fastest Indian at Comrades. Ashok shares with us how a strategic approach took him to a sub-9 finish despite an injury. Mumbai-based Kiran Giri, made a fantastic debut at Comrades, with a dream finish of 9:49, making him the second fastest Indian at this year’s race.
One of the most inspiring runners on the Indian circuit, Bengaluru-based Vaishali Kasture led the Indian women at Comrades with a commendable 10:43:26 finish. We are delighted to report that Chitra Nadkarni, whom we featured in our Comrades special issue last month, made a fantastic debut by placing second among the Indian women with a time of 10:43:54.
Comrades veterans from India, Dilip Patil (5-time finisher) and Satish Gujaran (6-time finisher) both continued their noteworthy streak towards attaining the sacred green Comrades bibs.
We present to you the race testimonies of these 6 runners, recounted in their unique voices, which symbolize that no two Comrades races are the same. And yet, these individual races converge in the end, to personify an entire nation’s running dreams.
Ash Nath, Bengaluru
Comrades is a familiar battleground to me. My body and mind know what lies ahead. At the Comrades starting line, I am in my own zone, and all that happens around me doesn’t affect me. The atmosphere there is enthralling, but my focus is on what lies ahead. This year too, I felt like the most relaxed person at the starting line, as I don’t waste nervous energy dwelling on things.
I was prepared for the fact that this Comrades would be an even bigger challenge than usual. I was nursing an injury – Achilles tendinitis – that I was carrying into the race. Had it been any other race, I would have skipped the event, but given that the arrangements had already been made for Comrades, I decided to chance it.
I experienced this Achilles tendinitis injury on my left foot across the weekend after the Boston Marathon. There were just 4 weeks to Comrades, so I ended up returning to training too fast. This should be a lesson for any runner to not rush back too fast after a hard race – always allow for proper recovery time.
This meant that my overall strategy for this year would be dictated by this injury. When you have a foot injury and the course is 87K of mostly undulating terrain, it means no silly heroics like a fast pace or rushing down the hills, as both of these shift you to the forefoot and put pressure on the calves and ankles. I did not have any time goal, as I wasn’t even sure that I would last the entire distance. So, the plan was to just run very steady and keep my fingers crossed.
The tendon pain resurfaced from about the 20K mark, and frankly, I contemplated dropping out several times. Running nearly 70K more could endanger the injured tendon. However, I decided to stay on course and take it one km at a time. The strategy from this point onwards was to do a lot of walking between the 20-40K sections. Once I passed the halfway mark, I knew that there was no going back. I was going to finish the race, and directed all my focus towards this goal.
I ensured that I was fueling myself with a gel every 10K, and occasionally with water or an energy drink from the aid stations. I stuck to this until the halfway mark, where I consumed a boiled potato and some orange slices. Thereafter as the body became increasingly heated up, keeping down a gel became impossible and it was strictly a mix of energy drink and water till the end.
Two challenges were known to me before the race, namely my injury issue (Achilles tendonitis), and the fact that the body would heat up as the distance increased. The former meant strict adherence to technique and a very controlled pace. The latter required resorting to pouring water on the head & neck, rubbing ice cubes against the cheeks, drinking cola across the course and even holding the cold water pouches in my palms to cool the body. As for the hills, I was combating them by following proper hill running technique – hands in gentle upper cut with feet skimming the surface, and shielding the left foot from bearing too much weight.
The human brain is an incredible piece of machinery. It ensures that no organ in our body ever goes beyond the limits of its capacity. However, when the brain senses that the end is near, it releases its hold over the body. Unless you have foolishly pushed yourself too far too early in Comrades, nothing, not even fuel depletion, lactate buildup, or musculoskeletal pain can hold you back towards the end. The fresh wave of energy that you experience towards the end will take you through the finish line.
As a mindful runner, I was watchful from early in the race to ensure that the pace was below the lactose threshold, along with regular fueling and making the necessary adjustments to my running form to suit the terrain. Honestly, I could have sprinted the final 5K, but I held back as a mark of respect to the 9-hour bus with whom I had hooked up from the 70K mark. That is the spirit of the Comrades – this connection with fellow runners that makes runners share a water sachet with someone in greater need, or offering encouragement to someone who is struggling.
As I closed in on a sub-9 timing, I felt a relief that I had achieved this feat despite an injury.
Post-finish, I relished the sweet tea as my body needed the liquid and sugar. I ensured that I stayed hydrated for the rest of the day afterwards, as it had been a long and hot race. An early dinner with protein was also part of the recovery process.
Overall, given my injury, Comrades 2015 was satisfying from a performance perspective. I was happy that my hypothesis was proven correct – that one could crack an ultra without heavy mileage in training.
In all modesty, I know that I should be doing a sub 7.30 at Comrades. At the same time, I also appreciate that there will be a learning curve, as each race has its own peculiar challenges in terms of distance, hilly terrain and heat. Each experience prepares you for the time when you will have cracked the best game plan, and are truly ready to run to your true capability.
That being the case, next year will see me at the Comrades starting line again.
Kiran Giri, Mumbai
I had always been athletic, but it wasn’t until 2007 that I got into running. In 2007, I ran my first half marathon, and I haven’t looked back since. I soon graduated to the full marathon distance. I started reading about ultras, and once I got connected with multiple Comrades finishers like Satish Gujaran, this only solidified my resolve to run the Comrades.
I was a bundle of nervous energy at the enclosure, as everyone counted down to the flag-off. The venue is absolutely exhilarating, and as you stand there with runners from around the world, you are overwhelmed by the realization that you are now a part of the Comrades’ 90-year old history. I felt fortified by the support and belief of my incredible wife, friends and colleagues. You train to get to the finish line at other races – Comrades is the only race where you train to get to the starting line.
I did not have a strategy set in stone for the race. I was holding on to the advice that experienced Indian runners had passed on to me, which was to run my own race at a pace that I was comfortable with. This was constantly playing in my head as we were flagged off.
Conditions were hot, and I was diligent in staying hydrated through the race by making regular stops at aid stations. At the advice of Dr Ajit Oak, an experienced Comrades runner, I was also supplementing myself with magnesium every 2 hours, to prevent cramping.
This worked perfectly until I reached Drummond, where despite my best efforts I had started to experience really bad cramps. Experiencing cramping at a crucial juncture like Drummond really messes with your mind. You are at the risk of losing your rhythm, and I began dreading that the finish was slipping out of my grasp. At this point, I had to tell myself that I had made it all the way to Drummond. After making it this far, it would be a terrible shame to not give it my all. The cramps wouldn’t let go of my body, but I managed to loosen their grip on my mind. I focused on the next challenge of the course – Inchanga.
Inchanga, one of the toughest hills was now right in front me, and I was still struggling with cramps and uncertainty. At this point, one of the other runners on the course reached out to me and told me to keep going. The kinship of running can cut across the boundaries of nationality, race, and language – which is the very embodiment of the spirit of the Comrades race. I don’t know if I will ever meet him again, but this unexpected ray of support from a fellow runner was just what I needed. Suddenly, I did not feel alone. That was the true turning point of the race for me, and it helped me push through even as I was cramping heavily.
One of my friends and my wife were driving along the entire distance of the course, and I was able to meet them thrice during the race. My wife had been a pillar throughout the entire journey of training, and seeing her root for me was like an elixir that propelled me forward.
When I reached the start of Polly Shorts, the sights around me were not encouraging. Polly Shorts is a very steep hill, and runners were limping and collapsing all around me. The silver lining came in the form of the wonderful spectators who were cheering and screaming themselves hoarse with shouts of encouragement. I even spotted some Indian families who called me out by name. Like a thirsty man who found an oasis, I let their support sink into me, and ran up Polly Shorts with renewed vigor.
Wow. I couldn’t believe that I had made it all the way to the top of Polly Shorts! What I saw ahead of me was everything I needed to make the final push for the finish line. The panoramic view of Pietermaritzburg from the top is breathtaking, and now, I could visualize my destiny.
I was emotionally and physically drained, but I was achingly close. I kept willing the image of the finish line in my head. Soon, I could hear the drums beating and the sounds of cheering had reached a fever pitch. I dug deep down into the final reserves of my strength, and the next thing I know, I had finished. I looked up at the timing clock and felt stupefied that I finished in 9:47. I was stunned and overwhelmed with joy.
I remember lying down on the grass for ages, simply soaking up the moment and letting it sink into me. I had nothing left in me physically, and yet, I had never felt so complete in my entire life. When my medal came, I felt a deep sense of gratitude towards everyone who had helped me get to this point, especially my wife. Celebrating afterwards with the other Indian runners at the ‘Aches and pains’ party was an absolute joy, and the perfect way to end this magnificent odyssey.
It is not until you have had the honor of running the Comrades race that you can understand the true meaning of what it stands for. Comrades is not a race that can be measured in kilometers, it is one that measured by your own belief. It is a race that lets you live out an entire lifetime in the span of a few hours.
I am humbled that my footsteps are now enshrined permanently in the fabric of the Comrades history.
Vaishali Kasture, Bengaluru
I was going into Comrades 2015 with very little training for the ultra. I don’t even consider myself an ultrarunner – I’m more of a half and full marathon runner. I don’t train beyond the 35K distance.
I must admit that when I reached Durban, I was feeling overwhelmed when I heard about everyone’s training programs. I felt extremely underprepared and nervous. However, when you reach the start line, something magical happens. The collective energy seems to rub off on you. It’s as if every runner there is being buoyed by a mysterious aura.
I had some amazingly fast runners in my enclosure – big built and fit. I felt tiny, but just sharing the enclosure with these folks made me feel like I could do this! I knew that the race would get hot over the course of the day, but the weather was warming up even at the starting line. When the National Anthem played and the “Shoshaloza” song was reverberating through the loudspeakers, I knew that it was time. The gun was about to go off, and I knew that I would not be stopping for the next 10 hours. The energy in the pen is frankly, indescribable!
Honestly, I was going into this year’s race with no strategy plan. The idea was to make sure that I did not push myself too hard just because people around me were running hard. The Comrades attracts some incredible runners, and it is important to hold your own pace and not get swept up into running beyond your comfort zone. I was brisk walking up all the hills, and running the flats and the downhills.
For such races, my fuelling strategy is to avoid solid foods. Given the lack of training, I was just looking to maintain my sub-11 hour finish this year. I stayed well hydrated from the very start of the race. I anticipated that the first couple of water stops would be crowded, so I carried a water bottle for the first 20K. I also took salt tablets every 2 hours and had some of the gels that I had carried with me, as it is important to maintain electrolyte and hydration levels during such a hot race.
I was able to stick to my race plan for most of the course, until I got some severe toe cramps in the last 20K of the race. I think my toes were a little swollen and pushing against the front of the shoes. I had never experienced this problem before, but I couldn’t afford to get thrown off my game. I chose to push through the cramps and continue running. I did stop occasionally to stretch my toes if the pain got really bad.
I knew that these last few kilometers were going to be more about the mental than the physical. I had to play mind games with myself and remain positive. I started telling myself to run up to a particular point in the distance, and then promise myself a 30 second walk break after I reached that point. For the last 10K, I started visualizing myself at the finish line – lying down, relaxing, and celebrating.
“You start the marathon with your legs but you finish with your heart” – these words have always resonated with me. Beyond 70K, I ran the race with my heart, mind and soul.
As I reached the hallowed finish, I was incredible happy that I finished with a bronze. Sure, there was a twinge of disappointment that I could not maintain the same time as last year (I was actually 20 min slower than last year). However getting my 2 medals, denoting the back-to-back finish made me forget the sorrow of my timing!
We were staying at a dear friend’s place in Pietermaritzburg, so it felt great to relax after the race in the company of my friends and loved ones. We watched the historic 12-hour finish on TV, had a wonderful home cooked meal and slept off at 8 pm.
The next day, we attended the Bruce Fordyce after-party, where people swapped amazing life and race stories. I got the wonderful opportunity to meet and talk to Bruce, who is a living legend of the Comrades, having run it 30 times and winning it 9 times.
I was in transit 24 hours after I finished the race, so that was far from ideal from a recovery perspective. However, I made sure that I ate a lot of protein and continued to stay well hydrated. My body felt a little sore, so I kept icing it. Once I was back in Bengaluru 48 hours after the race, I did some recovery running and hit the gym to restart my strength training routine.
Like last year, my Comrades 2015 was an unbelievable experience. It is a true privilege to be a part of its long and illustrious history. You get treated very well, especially if you are an international runner. Given that this was the 90th
year anniversary run, it was a special race for everyone.
Will I be back next year? It’s too early to say. Training-wise and emotionally, Comrades is a huge commitment, but it is hard to resists its charms. In the next 2 years, I think I might attempt it one more time to try and improve my timing. Until then, one is constantly ‘in-training’ for it.
Chitra Nadkarni, Mumbai
The venue was electrifying. My skin was covered in goosebumps. As I stood there, waiting to start, the enormity of Comrades hit me in full force. Thousands of runners from countries all over the world, and here I was, running my first race. Scared, happy, nervous…all these emotions were building up to a crescendo inside me.
Thankfully, I was not alone. Dilip, a fellow runner from Topgear MIG and a veteran Comrades runner, was going to run with me. He had a pace plan that I fully trusted, which was to run with a slow but sustained momentum that would take us to the finish.
My fuelling strategy was in place, too. I was going to take a gel every 12K or so, along with oranges, bananas and boiled potatoes, which was the food that I was accustomed to eating while I was training for the event.
The start went swimmingly, and we were progressing at a steady pace. As the adrenaline of the starting line wore off, my emotions settled in and I was able to get into a familiar, steady rhythm. The fear started to dissipate as my training kicked in. Looks like we would make it just fine. But then, life and great races have a habit of throwing curve balls at you.
At around 24 K, Dilip had started cramping and it was clear to him that the cramps wouldn’t be going away on their own. It was important that he sought some intervention at the medical tent. Even though we had decided to stick together for the race, he told me to keep going without him. Leaving your running partner is incredibly difficult. It was unfortunate that I had to part ways with him at such an early stage, but he believed that I could finish the race, and I had to do justice to his belief in me.
It’s strange how you are surrounded by runners, and yet feel like you are running your own race. I soon came across Mohit, a runner from Delhi, and we started running together for a while. However, he felt that my pace was a bit too fast for him, and he encouraged me to go ahead at a higher pace that I was comfortable with. Very wisely, Mohit advised me to seek out a runner from my category (F) with the number 9 on their bib, which signifies that this was their 10 Comrades race where would earn their prestigious green bib. Mohit told me that someone who was gunning for their green bib would be the most determined to finish. I took Mohit’s advice, and soon enough, I was running with Gordon, a native South African who was fantastic company till Drummond. A 9-time Comrades finisher, Gordon was incredibly inspiring, and made me believe that there was no reason I wouldn’t finish with a timing that I could be proud of.
Another runner, Vinti, from Australia, was a fantastic running mate at the Inchanga hill. I was so engrossed in his company, that I didn’t even realize that I had finished running Inchanga, one of the toughest hills on the course! If there is anything that symbolizes the spirit of Comrades, it is this – transcending our differences as human beings, and coming together as collective souls, striving to be the better version of ourselves as we cross the finish line.
At this point in the race, I knew that if I sustained my momentum, I had a very real chance of getting the bronze. At the 69K mark, I met Sandesh, a runner from my group, and we decided to stick together till the end of the race. My group had been an integral part of my training and the journey to the Comrades starting line, so it was fitting that I could share the glory of the finish with a group-mate from Mumbai.
At around 73K, my quads were starting to feel a little heavy and sore, but I hadn’t experienced a single cramp so far. I was feeling positive, physically strong, and my entire mind had rallied all its resources to get me to that bronze.
I could try describing the moment of the finish as ‘awesome’ or ‘euphoric’, but the truth is, I will never be able to fully articulate what it felt like. Training for Comrades takes a lot of you and your family. You are even grumpy and irritable by the time you get to May, and you are wondering why you signed up for this ordeal. However, when I arrived at Pietermaritzburg, riding a crest with other runners who were experiencing the same groundswell of emotion, I knew it had all been worth it.
After 3 weeks of taking a break from running, I am now back to training. I am trying to get back in the groove after all the overwhelming excitement of Comrades – it still feels so surreal. I am a changed runner and a changed person after Comrades.
Before Comrades, when I would run in Mumbai, I would never ever talk to anyone. I was such a serious runner! All that changed during Comrades, and I am so glad that it did. At important junctures in the race, when I needed impetus, wonderful runners offered me company and buoyed me to the finish. It’s amazing how the human soul finds a way to express solidarity with complete strangers.
As for the next Comrades, honestly, I am still not sure. Currently, my focus is on recovering, getting back into the groove of training, and enjoying this achievement. Sometimes, all you need to do is savor the moment.
Dilip Patil, Mumbai
1300K of training between February to May, challenging hill running sessions in Lonavala and Mumbai, blistering speed workouts – all the hard work came flashing to my mind as I stood at the starting line of my fourth Comrades race. Along with the adrenaline and excitement, came the insecurities and demons too. At the back of my mind were the cramps that I had suffered from during my two previous Comrades races. I was physically prepared for them this time around. I had put in the necessary training. I was also wearing compression gear to combat the cramps. Now, all I had to do was convince my mind that all would be well.
I started running with Chitra Nadkarni, a fellow Topgear runner, and we were proceeding according to plan. For the ‘Up’ run, runners have to constantly encounter hills for the first 40K. At the end of three hours we had found a happy rhythm and crossed 24K. So far, so good. And then, what I had dreading all along happened. I felt a stinging pain in my quadriceps. It was the horribly familiar pain that was an ominous precursor of cramps.
I felt that the best course of action was to try and nip the pain in the bud by visiting the medical aid center. I told Chitra to go ahead – this was her first Comrades race and I did not want to jeopardize her bright chances.
The road ahead now felt more daunting and intimidating than ever before. 60K is a long distance to cover on any day, let alone with the burden of cramps. Physical pain aside, it makes a huge impact on your mental state. It erodes your confidence and silences you inner voice. I had the sinking feeling that it was all over for me. But somewhere in me, I knew I owed it to myself to finish. We runners always tell ourselves, “Pain is temporary, pride is permanent.” I knew that if I could withstand the pain somehow, it would vanish the moment that I crossed the finish line. However, if I did not finish, I would be bogged down by the word ‘DNF’ for the next 12 months of life. I could do this. I had to.
I got both my quadriceps strapped. I resumed running cautiously, but half a kilometer later I realized that it was going to be difficult to continue running. At this juncture, the other option I had was to run/walk. I placed some ice pieces between the strapping on my quadriceps and the compression gear to control the pain. Now was the time to soldier on. The weather conditions kept worsening throughout the run, as it got hotter and hotter. Every 3K, I was gulping down a sachet of water/sports drink, and made sure to pour some water on my head to regulate my body temperature. Several things were playing on my mind. Two weeks before the race, the Comrades officials announced that runners would have to cover an additional distance of approximately 1K and slightly more stringent cut-off times. Norrie Williamson, the famed Comrades Coach, said that the new cutoff times could dash the finish dreams of around 4000 runners. I did not want to be a part of that dire statistic, as another faceless runner who missed the 12:00 hr gun.
At 2:30 pm, I was at the ’18K to go’ mark. Finally, the light at the end of the 87.7K long tunnel. A finish now looked like an achievable prospect. I had 3 hours in which I had to cover 18K. I could now afford to run cautiously, in order to not aggravate my injury any further.
The emotional roller coaster of training had reached a breaking point for me. What was the point of running with injury and pain? Why did I choose to put my body through this? These questions became irrelevant and demons were slayed for good, as I crossed the finish line at 11:27. For the fourth time in succession, I had finished the Comrades race.
The pain was forgotten. My mind was hazy from emotion and euphoria. Like a true battle-hardened Comrades runner, I was already thinking about how I would deal with the cramps next year. All the pain, the sacrifice and training – I was already willing to go through it all over again.
Such is the romance of the Comrades. Once you fall in love, you have to keep coming back.
Satish Gujaran, Mumbai
If there is anything that running at Comrades 5 times has taught me, it’s that you cannot take anything for granted. Every Comrades run is unique and unpredictable in its own way. You can’t just prepare for the race itself – you also need to prepare for any eventuality that it can throw your way.
The training that I undertook between February to May went swimmingly, without any hiccups. I was in good shape for the run. I was mentally committed. I had not endured any major injuries. I was ready to add another notch to my goal of acquiring a ’10 finishes green bib’.
Then, two days before the race, I started experiencing a pain in my calf muscle. On one hand, I was glad that I caught the injury before the race, which was a relatively better scenario than it surfacing unexpectedly on race day. On the other hand, this threatened to throw a major spanner in the works. I was going to ice it and tape it carefully, and do everything I could to prevent the pain from flaring up, but this was the kind of injury that rears its ugly head post 65K or so. I chose not to dwell on it – I simply couldn’t afford to.
I have now been at the starting line of the Comrades race 5 times, but the incredible spectacle never fails to move me. The beating drums, the swaying dancers, and the restless energy of thousands of runners waiting to be unleashed has a way of making the entire venue radiate with its own aura. For some reason, my Garmin was refusing to start, which presented another worry. Would I be able to pace myself efficiently? Would this throw off my timing strategy?
Never mind, this was not the time to let these concerns distract me. I had to be present and focused at this moment. This moment was mine to seize – I could not let anything get in the way.
With my calf firmly taped, I stuck to the strategy of conserving my energy at the start, and to keep running at a consistent, comfortable pace. In the back of mind, I knew it was inevitable that the pain would flare up at some point, and I had to cover as much ground as I could before getting to a juncture where I had to pay some attention to my injury.
Being familiar with the terrain certainly helps you prepare for the course itself, but there is always a chance of the weather playing spoilsport. We all anticipated that it would get hot, but this time around, it got really hot. I was careful not to overhydrate, but I did get a few sips of water at every other aid station. Most of it went towards keeping my core temperature down, by pouring it on my head.
Of course, the Comrades race is more than the hardship of the course. The crowd support all along the course is the stuff of legend. It is mind blowing that people come out in such numbers and stand at the sidelines for hours, all to encourage complete strangers from all across the globe. There are also running groups like the Hillcrest Villagers which bring in such a wonderful energy with their banter and good will. When you are tired, hot and worn out, such glimpses of pure joy infuse you with a new enthusiasm for the run. This year, I also encountered a colorful runner from Australia who kept calling me out by name from behind. He asked me, looking utterly stupefied, “You came all the way from India? You mean we are not the only crazy ones who turn up from afar for this race?!”
At about the 65K mark, my calf had started to give off signs of trouble as expected, but with a bit of tape at the aid station, I knew that I could pull through to the finish. Thankfully, my tried and tested strategy for the hills was working as planned. I was mentally dividing each hill into 3 parts. I was conquering each hill by running a little at the start, walking for most of the middle, and then running again towards the end.
medal felt like a talisman that I had proudly earned – a burnished reminder that all the training was completely worth it. My calf was badly swollen, but there was too much celebration around me to dwell on it. At the ‘Aches and pains’ party afterwards, it was good to be reunited with other Indian runners, celebrating each other’s victories over good food and camaraderie.
My calf remained inflamed for about 10 days after I got back to Mumbai, but the injury eventually went away after treating it to icing, natural springs therapy and massages. I now feel like I have recovered enough to start training afresh for the Indian running season. Starting with the BNP Endurathon in July, and going all the way to SCMM 2016 – it’s my favorite time of the year! It’s good to be back home, and back in my element. I will be happy running in India, until it is time to claim my 7th Comrades medal. Till we meet again, South Africa.
The contingent of Indian finishers at historic endurance races like the Comrades grows bigger each year. The Mahajan brothers just claimed the mantle of being the first Indians to finish the iconic RAAM cycling race. Every year, new endurance events are added to the Indian athletic calendar, across grueling terrains in various corners of the country. It is clear that talented Indian athletes are ushering in a new revolution of endurance sport. As a company that is passionate about making quality sports nutrition products accessible to Indian athletes, we are proud and heartened to see that athletes are making scientific nutrition and fueling a big part of their training regimen. We wish to do our part towards this revolution, by continuing to innovate and bring out world-class fueling products that can ably sustain these extraordinary athletic endeavors. We thank the community for their continued support.