Wollongong runner Michelle M. recently completed the 2009 Comrades Marathon in South Africa.

The Comrades Marathon is the world’s oldest and largest ultramarathon run over a distance of approximately 90 km (55.9 mi) between the capital of the Kwazulu-Natal Province of South Africa, Pietermaritzburg, and the coastal city of Durban. The direction of the race alternates each year between the up run starting from Durban and the down run starting from Pietermaritzburg. More information about the Comrades Marathon on Wikipedia

Having done the up run route before, Michelle returned to do the down run course this year and earned herself the Bronze medal. Even though it was a down run course, there are still some exceptionally tough hills to climb.

This is Michelle’s story, beware there are some gruesome details…

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Bobbing Head Glory


Decided to come back from Oz this year to complete my second Comrades marathon. Warren, my brother, also decided to come out of the woodwork and return to the event for his second medal after making his debut 11 years ago. When I claimed this would be my last Comrades run, he decided to run it with me. We were aiming to run the 89.17km in 9hrs 58mins. I know it sounds slow, but believe me, to keep going in a forward direction for that length of time is never going to be easy, never mind adding speed to the equation.

Preparations ahead of the day went off well and we were seeded in the same batch to start. We began at a comfortable pace, easing into the day. Pretty much exactly to our scheduled pacing, we were both feeling (and dare I say at this point, even looking) good. At halfway, 45km down, only one minute behind where we needed to be and things were looking fine. Still on track at 23km to go and I began to get waves of nausea hitting my stomach. There are always good and bad patches in races of this distance, so I try to ignore the bad things and they tend to go away if you dont think about them. No worries yet. At 22km to go, my main focus was to try and vomit, not a great sign, especially when no matter how hard you try, nothing comes up. By 21km to go (68km down) I started to feel a bit dizzy and sights were blurry. While my legs were on autopilot just wanting to continue running, the top half of me had other plans. The half a banana (the only solid thing I’d had to eat this far) was floating in my stomach amongst the water, coke and powerade I had been downing for 70km. At this stage I realised sub 10hrs was not going to happen and I told Warren to go ahead, he could still make the goal. He chose to stay. My eyes began to close involuntarily and at 16km to go, my head seemed not to be attached to my body – it was bobbing around from side to side, even when I tried desperately to focus. My star seconds, Greg and his mom, realised the problem when my smile had disappeared and they managed to see us every 5km til the end. Warren would spot them in the spectators, I would see 4 guys who were an exact replica of my husband, as well as 4 of his mom standing around him. Now, I do understand that to some of you, 16km to run seems like an eternity – to a Comrades runner, 16km is what you do after a 10 hour working day using as much effort as a non-runner would take to change tv channels with the remote. There was no chance I was not going to get through a simple 16km. Adopting a walk/run/stop to try vomit for a few seconds routine, I gave up and changed to the run/walk strategy. At 8km to go, I had given up all hope of being able to vomit and was actually jealous of the fellow runners hunched over baricades and in gutters puking their hearts out.

Anyway, managed to enter the stadium, just so glad when my brother took my hand for I feared in my disorientated state I would run straight into a sign board, or worse yet, spin around and start heading back in the wrong direction. Warren pulled me through and I was so happy that it was all over, I just wanted to go home. 10hours 46minutes, a safe bronze medal in the bag. But my big brother was watching and within a split second I had a medic at my side wth my brother explaining the problem. He offered me a stretcher to the medical tent – did I really look that bad???

I decided to walk (my bottom half was still good), although I probably looked rather drunk and I wouldnt have been surprised if someone had thought I had been slugging vodka rather than water all day. Admission to the medical tent was a scanning of my number and within seconds I had a bed as well as one of 41 doctors at my side. The medical tent looked like a war zone with bodies on stretchers, many comatose and some looking what I hoped was a whole lot worse than me. Yet all was calm and completely under control. First question, what is my name. Easy, Michelle. The doctor smiles, clearly I am one of the lucky ones who can still provide one-worded answers to questions. For some of the folk didnt have bobbing heads, theirs were just flat on their chests not responding to anything. Next question, about how many times on the run did you urinate. Easy again, once. (I guess bells should have started ringing here for me). And when was that, umm, bit harder, probably about 75km of running ago? (Ok, I realise now in retrospect) And did I drink, oh yes, plenty. Blood was taken and results at my bedside within 10 minutes. Drip up, magic medicine added to drip, blood pressure and pulse rechecked. Also bumped into 2 physios I know that head up the physo stations for the route etc and within seconds I had the best student at my side for 15 minutes, using about 250ml of Arnica oil, to rub my tired legs – I could handle this life I think as the nausea subsides. More magic medicine!!! As I slowly come around to seeing only one of everyone, I realise that I overhydrated myself. So my kidneys, brain and probably every organ I have were floating around in me like a toy duck in the bath. The specialist then did his rounds. Have you urinated yet, another easy question, no. Well, once you have you may go. Hows that for pressure? I am escourted to the toilet and pass around 10ml of some substance which I would rather not remember. The specialist is happy and I am free to go. Drip removed, space blanket wrapped around me, discharged with a click on the computer and I walk free to my family waiting outside.

It is only now, when I see my brother properly outside that I realise what he has done for me. Although having completed 89.17km, he looks like he just took a stroll around the block. I would not expect that kind of loyalty from any running partner, friend or family member ever. Sacrificing his own goal to ensure I was ok. I guess that is the spirit of Comrades, but it still brings tears to my eyes when I think of how he helped me through my bobbing head syndrome.

It will certainly be a day I will remember for ever, but I wont be back in a hurry to run. I know I said the same words this time last year, but that medical tent forced me to realise what and how much can go wrong. I have my up-medal, my down-medal and my back-to-back medal. For now, I am satisfied. All I dread is those official photos posted on the internet for all to see an unhappy, struggling, pale to grey kind of look on my face with closed eyes and a bobbing head. At least by then I’ll be able to look back and laugh.

Well, thats it for now. I’ll keep up with my cowboy style walk, running up and down the stairs (more painful but for a shorter time period) and I’ll have a smile on my face now. To everyone who was on the route to support, THANK YOU, the runners would never be able to do it with out you guys and I really appreciated seeing each of you. Hope you all have a great week ahead.

Lots of love and friendship,

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