In Season One: Comrades Marathon

I remember my good friend at work, she asked me if I was nervous, and I’m like, ‘Yes, I’m so nervous before Comrades.’ And she told me, ‘But why? Because you know how to run.’ . . . And I was like, ‘Yes, I know how to run.’ So now every time I get nervous, I just remember that: So you know how to run, so just enjoy it now.”

– Renata Vosloo

Episode summary

South African Renata Vosloo has loved running since she was young, and she had talent to run fast. For many years, half-marathons were her thing. But the pressure to run Comrades was so great, she decided, “Just once.” 

This story is about how Renata’s plan to run Comrades “just once” and crack the challenging 7:30 finishing time barrier has led to her becoming an elite runner for Team Massmart and knocking on the door of a top 10 finish.

Renata’s journey takes a close look at the many factors that contribute to a runner getting to the next level of performance. And it touches on what running brings to our lives, regardless of what our time and event performance goals are.

This episode is part of our first season, and the theme of this season is experiences in and around the Comrades Marathon, which is a 90-kilometer, or roughly 56-mile, road race that takes place each year in South Africa. It is the oldest and largest ultra-distance foot race in the world. 

Show Notes Recommended Resources

This episode’s recommended resource is Trail Sisters. There’s a lot to this organization, and they say it best: their mission is to increase women’s participation and opportunity in trail running through inspiration, education, and empowerment. 

The work they do makes trail running more accessible, welcoming, and enjoyable for women. You’ll find a lot of resources and information on their website, including articles, short films, ways to connect with local trail sisters, race reports, how to find a coach, and information about their grants and retreats, and more. 

For more, visit the Trail Sisters website: trailsisters.net.  

You can find our complete list of Runner’s Resources on the Strides Forward website. This is a list of blogs, books, newsletters, magazines, and podcasts (mostly) about running that are by women, focus on women, or both.

We always welcome suggestions for the resources page as well as feedback and comments about the podcast. Please feel free to contact host Cherie Turner at clouiseturner@gmail.com.

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Cherie Turner: This is Strides Forward, a podcast of stories about women and running. I am Cherie Louise Turner, your host and producer.
For the first series of episodes, each of which centers on one runner, I’m focusing on experiences in and around South Africa’s Comrades Marathon, the oldest, largest ultra distance running race in the world: Comrades is 90 kilometers or roughly 56 miles long and turns 100 years old in 2021. And over 27,000 people registered for the 2020 event.
In this episode, I take a close look at what it takes to go from being a good runner, a really good runner, in fact, to breaking into the coveted ranks of the elite field at Comrades. For that, I turn to the story of this woman:
Renata Vosloo: So I’m Renata Vosloo and we live in Gauteng is the province, and we call it Metrand, but some people call it Johannesburg North, but let’s say Johannesburg.

Cherie: Renata has been a runner since her primary school days. She ran track in high school, and then upped her distance to the half-marathon. Then in 2010, she took on Two Oceans, a much loved and prestigious 56-kilometer or 35-mile road race that also takes place in South Africa, and she’s returned to that event a couple times since. Whatever distance Renata chooses to run, there’s been one throughline.

Renata: My big thing is I’ve always loved running. It didn’t matter if I wasn’t good or not. It was always the thing for me. Training and running was always a passion for me,

Cherie: And while Renata loves to run no matter what, she does concede that:

Renata: I’m a little bit competitive my running.

Cherie: And where Renata lives, if you want people to see you as a serious runner, there’s really only one standard that everyone relates to.

Renata: In South Africa unfortunately, if they ask you if you’re a runner, and you say, Yes, and then they ask you the next question, Have you done Comrades? And you say No, they don’t think you’re a good runner.

Cherie: Renata became increasingly annoyed by this line of questioning, and the inevitable assumption that came with it.

Renata: And then I started thinking about Comrades and thinking, Sure it looks so nice. I just want to do it once.

Cherie: That was the plan, to run Comrades just once, and after becoming a mom. By 2018, Renata was the mother of two young boys and she decided that that was the year she’d take on this 90-kilometer challenge. To prepare, she looked at online training programs and ran with friends.

Renata: I just ran every day. Some days longer and faster, and other days slower but I just ran.I was literally counting the kilometers; kilometers were so important to me. I just wanted to do at least, I think 2 thousand, 200; that was so important.

Cherie: And she set a very lofty goal.

Renata: So I actually thought in all honesty, I can do a silver in my first Comrades. I got annoyed when people told me, you can’t really do it with your first Comrades.

Cherie: Renata’s focus was on earning the highly coveted silver medal.  This is awarded to runners who finish outside of the top 10 places but under 7hrs 30min. As of 2019, this medal is officially called the Isavel Roche-Kelly medal. The only higher achievement is to earn a gold medal, which only goes to the top 10 finishers, male and female.

As I’ve mentioned in previous episodes, something to know about Comrades is that the course goes point to point between the coastal city of Durban, and the smaller town of Pietermaritzburg, in the hills. Each year the race switches direction, making for up years, when it finishes in Pietermaritzburg, and down years, when it finishes in Durban. The up years have more climbing, and in down years, there’s more descending.

Also, the route the course takes isn’t always exactly the same, so the distance from year to year is slightly different. However, the down run is always longer than the up run, by about a mile-and-a-half. This reduces some of the downhill advantage of the down years. Even so, the down run is the faster direction.

2018 was a down year, so that did work in Renata’s favor, but to be abundantly clear, even with the downhill advantage, earning a silver medal is really hard. Looking back to 2016, the previous down year, there were only 16 silver medals awarded, out of the almost 3,000 women who did Comrades that year. That’s it. The upshot here is that silver medals are generally earned by runners within the elite realm of the sport.

Nevertheless, Renata showed up to the startline fit and focused on achieving her silver medal goal.

The race day plan was to run with friends, but because of the way the race is organized, Renata wasn’t in the same starting area as the people she was supposed to run with. So the agreement was to meet up out on the course.

Renata: I just thought, I’m going to see my friends, and I never did. So I was basically running on my own, which made me feel very insecure and unsure because that wasn’t the plan.

Cherie: Renata was running for her local club, the SunningHill Striders, and around 21 kilometers into the race, through the crowd of runners, Renata landed on a welcome sight.

Renata: I saw a guy in a SunningHill vest, and he saw me and we just immediately almost connected, and we were both going for silver.

Cherie: Renata and her Sunninghill teammate decided to run together, and as 10, 20, 30 miles ticked by they continued running fast enough to keep that silver medal goal time within reach. But to deliver an outstanding performance, you have to maintain your goal pace all the way to the very end. And Renata neglected a critical part of making that possible.

Renata: For that whole 91 kilometers, I think I had a half a banana. I was aiming for a sandwich but my dad fumbled, and I just dropped it, and I left. I think I had 2 GUs and a half a banana, which bit me on the bum as I bombed completely. I did so well up until 70 kilometers.

Cherie: At that 70 kilometer point, Renata’s Sunnyhill running companion wasn’t feeling any better.

Renata: We were both naggard, and I remember so clearly, we started walking and I told him, I don’t think I can do it. And he’s like, he can’t do it either. And we gave each other fist bumps to said, Well, it’s not meant to be today. And we gave each other fist bumps and we started running again eventually, and we finished together, and up until today, it’s one of my coolest moments because we became friends on Comrades route

Cherie: Great memories aside, Renata left Comrades dissatisfied because she hadn’t met her goal.

Renata: But I finished in 7 hours, 42, and then I told my husband, I think I can do a silver.

Cherie: Right so, those plans to run Comrades only once, those were tossed. Because, imagine, if she could get within 12 minutes of the silver medal with an unstructured training plan and eating close to nothing to get through the 56 hilly miles of Comrades, what time could she run if she did it all right?

Could Renata transform from being a really good runner to an elite runner?

And to help her find out, Renata turned to a woman who knows exactly how to perform well at Comrades: a running coach and the woman who won the 2018 Comrades, Ann Ashworth. And in November 2017, Ann had also founded South Africa’s only all-women’s elite running team, Team Massmart.

Renata joinAnn: That’s when I joined Ann, and I got a very decent, very hard program. The structure had a lot more quality.

Cherie: To prepare for the 2019 Comrades, Renata was no longer just going out for the hodgepodge of runs, some longer, some faster, some slower, some shorter, like she had when she was getting ready for the race the previous year. Every run had a specific purpose, and those runs were strategically laid out over many weeks so that Renata would get to Comrades as fast and healthy as possible. But the running was just part of the picture.

Renata: And then she introducers me to Team Massmart, which is amazing because there are so many different ladies with different backgrounds, different experiences in running.

Cherie: But that’s not nearly all. At Ann’s suggestion, Renata also incorporated many other tried and true tools that help athletes build up to elite-level performances.

Renata: She introduced me to a person who can massage. So now, every week I go for a massage.

Renata: She got us speakers to speak to us. Now it’s so amazing to know all these people who can get involved in your life and help you.

Renata: So I also started seeing a dietician.

Renata: Ann would give us all these good books

Renata: I also started training with a personal trainer.

Renata: She gave me a lot of advice with my race food nutrition. So my nutrition changed completely.

Renata: We always joke and say, It takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a village to raise a Comrades runner as well. There’s lots of people involved.

Cherie: It would take a village and it would take paying attention to details.

Renata: Training with Ann, she forced me to run every 8 kilometers, I had to eat something. And luckily my husband is quite an intellectual; he loves new things. He read up exactly how much jelly babies I needed to eat every 8 kilometers.

Cherie: Renata’s personal trainer addressed typical weak spots for runners, which would help her get stronger and stay injury free:

Renata: start getting my core strength and your hamstrings and your glutes,

Cherie: And for the dietician, there was some fine tuning to attend to.

Renata: I’ve relatively always eaten healthy. I’ve never had eating disorders. I love my food, but I also love chocolate and chips and junk food, and I could see with my training, especially if the previous day I indulge in all these sweet candy, that I really battle.

Cherie: Renata could also rely on the support of her Massmart teammates.

Renata: There’s a big sense of community with just the girls. There’s just a lot of support. And because girls, we are a little bit more emotional; it’s a very caring environment. So I really love it. I wouldn’t like to run for any other club.

Cherie: It was also helpful that there were good places to train right out Renata’s front door..

Renata: We have a lot of security estates because of things happening in the country. It’s very popular.  I can if I want to, without doing too many loops do at least a 35-kilometer in this estate. So that is amazing. You can run any time of the day. It’s very safe.

Cherie: And she had someone waiting for her, bright and early, every single day.

Renata: I’ve got a very good training partner who literally lives 300 meters from my house. So every morning we meet each other. We just text each other the previous night and say, meet you at 5.

Cherie: It was with all that put in place, that Renata was able to step up her running game.

I was very blessed I didn’t get any injury. I didn’t miss one single session that she gave me. Which I also think a program is obviously structured to know when your body needs to rest a bit and when it needs to go. Whereas, when you train on your own, I just went.

Cherie: Oh, and what about Renata’s training fixation the year before, just focusing on counting how many kilometers she was running?

Renata: With Ann, I didn’t even count; I was too tired to count in all honesty.

Cherie: Even with all this support behind her, her family, her training partner, coach Ann, team Massmart, the person trainer, speakers, books, a massage therapist and dietician, running this much and this hard, and keeping up with the regime that allows you to keep pushing yourself week after week, while also being a wife and full-time working mother of two young boys, it gets to be a lot.

Renata: To be honest, towards the end of Comrades training, you sometimes wonder why you are punishing yourself like this, but obviously, there’s methods to the madness.

Cherie: And there’s her team to keep her spirits high.

Renata: There’s always someone training hard and telling everyone, No we can all do it. So when one girl feels down, there’s 2 or 3 others who can motivate. I think that sense of community also helps. To know, it’s not only for you. But you also want to go for team prize for Comrades so you run for a team, even though it’s an individual sport. So that motivates me. It also helps that I have a training partner that stands outside and wait for me.

Cherie: There’s also the extra motivation of being on a fully sponsored, invitation-only elite team.

Renata: Massmart looks after us, so you also have a responsibility towards them, so I always feel like, if I don’t feel like getting up; I don’t want to call it work because I don’t  see it as work at all but because they support us, it’s the same responsibility that I need to give to my boss. And I think the thing is, I know how good I felt after last year Comrades where doing a good time; it might not happen because you can never predict the day or injuries, but I would try and do anything in my power in order to achieve that goal again.

Cherie: And up until the day of Comrades, Renata takes every precaution to make sure she arrives at the start of the race healthy.

Renata: A week before Comrades, I walk with hand sanitizer the entire time. And I was very asocial. I didn’t go to parties the week before Comrades.

Cherie: In the lead-up time before any big race runners try to do as little as possible. It’s time to cut back on training, to taper and rest. Any athlete who’s been through a tapering period knows how truly unpleasant it can be. All that energy you’ve been pouring into exhaustive training now just gets pent up, and there’s no where for it to go.

Renata: I remember my good friend at work, she asked me if I was nervous, and I’m like, Yes, I’m so nervous before Comrades and she told me, But why? Because you know how to run. And when she said it, it was almost like the penny dropped, and I was like, Yes, I know how to run. So now every time I get nervous, I just remember that: So you know how to run, so just enjoy it now.

Cherie: Even with calming mantras and soothing reminders, sometimes race nerves are just inevitable.

Renata: I never sleep well before a race. And then when your alarm actually goes off and you can actually get up, my first thought is, Why do I do it to myself? But then my husband is very positive, and he will fist bump me and say, Now you’re ready.

Cherie: And a little homegrown humor always helps.

Renata: My husband, always we have this joke. Before I go to a race, he always text me to say, Remember, you’re number one. It was a big joke from previous, when we still dated. And this became our thing now, so every time I go to a race, he’ll say, Remember, you’re number one, and we’ll both laugh, and that kills a little bit of the stress.

Cheire: And eventually the time comes when all that’s left to do is get yourself to the start line. And for the 2019 Comrades, Renata was in for a very different experience. She was one of the officially recognized elite racers, a select group of the top men and women. Instead of squeezing into the densely packed start corrals that the thousands of nonelite racers contend with, she and the other elites are escorted to the very front of the race not long before the start. And then, the familiar proceedings begin.

Renata: As soon as they start with all the music and all the songs, I’m like, OK, now you just must do it. So the nerves are there, I don’t even think how long the race is, I think, Just start. As soon as your legs will start running, they’ll remember all the training, and it will be cool.

Cherie: Renata was in the best shape of her life; she’d prepared thoroughly and trained hard, never missing a single workout of her rigorous training program. She’d earned her way onto an elite team and into the elite field of Comrades.

But never to be underestimated is that this race is tough, for everyone. This is where you test your limits, and that means there will be times when you have to dig deep and accept prolonged discomfort. And you have to remain determined to stay with it, you have to decide over and over again to stay really uncomfortable, for hours.

And, this year, 2019, was an up year, so it would be even more challenging to earn that silver medal: only 5 women had earned silver medals in the previous up run.

Renata: The first half is quite a climb and I remember, I was already tired. I’m like, I’m not even at the peak of this race. I was like, how I’m going to do it?

Cherie: Many runners credit the crowd support at Comrades for getting them through rough patches.

Renata: With us, the ladies’ names are big and the numbers are small. So a lot of supporters just call your name, even though they don’t know you because they can see, and because we run a little bit closer to the front with the girls, they are so supportive of girls, so they really cheer you on. And it feels like everyone knows you and you feel a little bit like a celebrity. You always just want to high five everyone, and I know last year’s one, beginning, I still do it, but then I get tired. But it’s actually amazing.

Cherie: Having personal attention along the way is always a big boost, too. At Comrades many runners have seconders, support crew that meet them along the course to hand off food or other supplies.

Renata: My husband is an amazing seconder; he would study the map, and I think I met him seven times along the route. And obviously every time I saw him, it doesn’t matter how I looked, he would tell me, I looked great, and I look strong, and I know, I see those action photos; I don’t look great. But just that mental thing, just  because he tells me that, I’m like, Yes, then I look great. Then I must just go.

Cherie: All that cheering and support are helpful, but they don’t remove the difficulty; this is where mental strategies become critical.

Renata: I had probably a slump of 10 to 15 kilometers. And then, I just said, just start focusing on the next 5 kilometers. So I just started focusing on that. And then I started passing girls, and as I started passing girls, I just thought to myself, You’re not allowed to walk. You’re not allowed to walk. Because if I’m going to start walking, I might start cramping and I won’t want to start running again. And then I just started picking up, and as I started picking up and passing the girls, it’s almost like I got like energy.

Cherie: Renata keep at this piece-by-piece approach, knocking off one 5k section after another; the up run has a notorious final climb, Polly Shortts, or just Pollys, which is the shortest of 5 major climbs of the race, but it’s also the steepest. Just about any Comrades racer you talk to about an up run has a story about their Pollys experience. It comes at about 10 kilometers or 6 miles to go and is about 2 kilometers long, just over a mile. Even runners who finish top ten have been known to walk at least part of the way. But Renata had her plans firmly in place.

Renata: And especially just before Polly’s, I could see how tired the girls became and with their tiredness almost, I’m like, but I’m not walking so it means I feel a lot stronger. And I didn’t walk at all for that 87 kilometers, not even on Polly’s.

Cherie: Renata finished the 2019 Comrades  strong, with an incredible time of 7:02:59, easily meeting her silver medal goal. But she was also tantalizingly close to doing even better, and only 7 minutes 23 seconds out of the top ten.

Renata: When I finished, I was actually disappointed because I saw the two girls finishing in front of me on the television afterward, and they looked naggard, and I didn’t look that tired; I was very tired, but not as tired as them. Then I thought I probably could have pushed it a little bit more, but you also don’t know. You might push too soon and then your whole Comrades is past.

Cherie: Of course, that questioning disappointment over missing out on a place or two was only a small slice of a much larger experience.

Renata: But just to know all the training paid off; you’ve done it. It doesn’t really matter your time. Just to know, it’s actually frikken amazing to run that far.

Cherie: It’s probably not surprising to learn that Renata plans to run Comrades again. With the confidence of seeing hard work pay off and knowing that there’s likely more where that came from is strong motivation. But there are also the daily rewards of a consistent and challenging athletic pursuit.

Renata: I don’t know if it’s just like letting go. All the stress of the previous day at work or home or . . . when you run you don’t have energy or time to think about the stuff that stresses you out. You get perspective on life again. It’s actually not that bad, it’s fine. My thing is just focus on your run; you don’t need to have a care in the world.

Cherie: And sometimes the benefits of running, they’re not just good for you; they’re good for those around you, too.

Renata: I think those hormones are also helping your mood. It’s also a big joke with friends of ours: If I get grumpy, my husband will always tell me, So when last did you go for a run? So, it’s definitely for me, it’s a diffuser of my mood.

Cherie: And as runners will point out again and again, there are so many lessons from running that you can take into your everyday life.

Renata: You almost learn patience; you know you can’t just go from 0 to hero in a week. It’s that every day, keep showing up, do your best, and eventually you’ll get there. And learned a lot of commitment and determination and almost mind over matter; anything is possible, if you have a positive mindset and you are prepared to work hard. And that’s like for your work as well, with your family. There’s obviously days that you’re so tired, and you feel like, Why am I doing it? And then I just tell myself, Well, tomorrow will be a better day. Just sleep it off.

And my family is so supportive of my running, I feel like I don’t want to let them down. They suffer with me, in a sense, when they hear my alarm go off; mommy’s out running, but they’re so proud of me, you almost run for a better purpose, a bigger purpose. And I feel like that’s in everyday life, you learn commitment with your work; you have a family, you learn to prioritize very well. So I know when I’m running, I’m running. As soon as I step into the house, after a shower, now I’m a mom; I do puzzles, I read. And then I get into my corporate clothes, and now I go to work. I forget about the session this morning, or my calves that’s burning or whatever now. I need to work, and then I get back home again and then it’s kids. I try not to multitask. I’m focused now, so let’s do it. Same with the training; I can’t even think about it. I need to get up at 4:00 or 4:30, get up, do my thing because that’s the only time I have. If you really want it, you must just make it work for yourself. I think mine is discipline and prioritizing and patience; the most valuable lessons I’ve learned.

Cherie: And this is where we end Renata Vosloo’s story. For more information about this episode or about Strides Forward, please visit stridesforwardpodcast.com.

There, you will also find an ever-expanding list of resources about women and running or women’s sports more generally. Every episode I highlight one of those resources.

And for this episode, it’s Trail Sisters. There’s a lot to this organization, and they say it best: their mission is to increase women’s participation and opportunity in trail running through inspiration, education, and empowerment.

The work they do makes trail running more accessible, welcoming, and enjoyable for women. You’ll find a lot of resources and information on their website, including articles, short films, ways to connect with local trail sisters, race reports, how to find a coach, and information about their grants and retreats, and more.

One of the initiatives I particularly like is the Trail Sisters Approved standards for races. This helps identify races that prioritize the experiences of women as much as they prioritize the experience of men. Makes sense to me. We all pay the same amount in entry fees, so it stands to reason we should all get the same consideration. The website also has a robust race calendar, and you’ll see a Trail Sister Approved graphic next to the races that meet the standards. Also to know, the Trail Sisters network includes the US and Canada.

You can learn all about Trail Sisters at trailsisters.net, which I will link to in the show notes.

As always, I welcome you to please stay in touch. I can always be reached through the website, or you can find me on Twitter; I’m @stridesforward.

Thank you to Renata Vosloo for sharing her story. And thank you to the Strides Forward team whose voices you experience in other ways with this podcast. There’s April Marriner of Bonfire Collaborative; she keeps the podcast branding and website looking amazing; and there’s Cormac O’Regan who makes all of the music you hear and does the sound design.

And thank you to you, the listener. I really appreciate all of the feedback and support. I truly love these stories and I love knowing that they’re making connections with listeners around the world. Please let me know what resonated with you. Until next time, this is Cherie, wishing you satisfying strides forward.

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