At 11k to go in a race where each of the 90 kilometers is counted down with a large sign, my teammate, also (in this race) non-teammate, also competitor, also friend, Devon, ran up beside me, ‘Everything ok?’, she asked. She waited for my reply, ‘Yes’, before she continued along to open the gap.
The next day, as we both sat at our respective team tables at the prize giving ceremony that celebrates the Gold Medal winners (top ten females and males), one of the speakers discussed the responsibility of government to provide support for athletics. She discussed sport as something that brings people - of different races, different nationalities, different genders, different sizes and ages - together. And while Comrades is one of the world’s most competitive ultras, what makes it so special is the humanity that arises from such a large diverse race. Where so many people, competitors and spectators alike, come together with shared goals, shared struggles, and shared celebrations.
We feel this togetherness in all sport, but Comrades is a special embodiment of this - the competition is fierce, but the camaraderie is equally strong. As we embark on a personal journey from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, we also embark on a shared one with countless shared experiences along the course, each memorable in a special way.
As Devon passed me on Sunday, we shared a comment about how hard the race was, how it was silly that we keep traveling so far for something that at times feels insurmountably challenging, for something that tests your body and your will for such a long time.
But as I sit on this return flight home and even though I have been awake for over 30 hours, and sitting for 19 in a very uncomfortable seat with my legs aching and my loose toenails throbbing, if I’m being completely honest with myself I’ll probably be back next year and I’m already looking forward to the next down year two years from now.
Coming into this past weekend, if you had been able to sneak peek into my mind, you would have known that I was hoping for a podium finish. It would have required a particularly good day of course, and maybe a particularly rough one for one of my competitors, but it did not seem unreasonable based on my fitness. I thought 4-5 position was a decent day. Something above that might have suggested I felt a bit off.
But Sunday, we raced and my competitors were strong and they remained strong throughout. I may not be the speediest, but I do tend to be strong(er). Usually I can rely on my ability to overtake people in the later stages of the race. But that’s why we race and that’s why it is fun - because on the day, there are so many factors that impact the outcome. You can be fit, but you also need to decide to accept pain, to challenge yourself to commit to the mental challenge. That’s why it’s exciting and why we keep coming back.
At the prize giving ceremony, we were asked by the head of the Comrades marathon to stand, recognize, and pay respect to the top three women. I’ve attended this ceremony two times prior, and this was not a typical request. He asked that we applaud them not because they posted fast times, but because they truly battled out there on the course. Because they persisted. Because they demonstrated respect for themselves and each other, as athletes. They did not settle, and in this, they pushed each other to some of the fastest finishing times in years (despite this year’s course being long.)
And even though I expected better placement, it’s really difficult to be disappointed with a Comrades race. Partially because it is so competitive, but more so because of the honor and privilege felt when you take part in such an event. Where your sport is respected, by the community in its commitment to spend 12 hours on the roads cheering and seconding, by the media in their full-day coverage of the event, by the government in its commitment to continue prioritizing the event, by organizations who provide prize money that is substantial and deep. Everything about the race reminds you that what you care about is valuable and respected. And with the amazing crowd support from start to finish - kids reaching out for high fives, women in dresses jumping in the race to run beside you, the intense encouragement that comes from tunnels of people screaming your name and calling for you to stay strong. That feeling is something that I feel is especially powerful at Comrades. And why, even though the flight is expensive, and long, and the road is unforgiving, there is something very special about this race that makes it difficult for me to want to spend my first few weeks in June doing anything else.
-Sarah Bard, Oiselle trail pro + ultra runner