In Season One: Comrades Marathon

It’s [Comrades] just an amazing thing to do. And to say that you did it; I’m still amazed that I could do something like that. That my non-athletic body can carry me through that. That it can just do it. And I think that that is the amazing part, that you can push yourself just a little bit more, not beyond your means but beyond what you thought you could do. There’s a little bit extra and you can try that, and they you are amazed at more things you can do.”

— Karen Williams

Episode summary

Karen came to running later in life and it took some encouragement. But she discovered that she actually enjoyed running, and even more, she developed a curiosity to see just how far she could go. We follow her journey from those first strides to her amazing Comrades adventure. Karen follows her own instincts to get her through this incredible challenge, and she brings a delightful sense of humor, too.

Karen’s Comrades journey introduces listeners to what it’s like to be among the final official finishers of the race. Comrades has a hard cutoff of 12 hours; runners who finish even a second after are not considered official finishers of the race. And Karen cuts that margin just about as close as you possibly can. The final moments of the race are emotional and intense, and Karen’s journey will take you there.

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-kilometre, 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.

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Full Transcript

Announcers: discussing the end of the 2019 Comrades

Cherie Turner: This is Strides Forward, I am your host and producer Cherie Louise Turner and what you just heard is the end of the 2019 Comrades Marathon. If you’ve been listening to the podcast, you know that this first season of revolves around stories that have a strong connection to Comrades. If you’re new to the podcast, welcome. For this episode, what you need to know is that Comrades is a 90-km kilometer or 56-mile running race that takes place each year in South Africa. It’s the largest and oldest ultra-distance race in the world. In 2021, Comrades turns 100 years old, and over 27,000 runners were entered in the 2020 event.

Something else to know about Comrades is that it has a hard cutoff time. The second the clock hits 12 hours, the finish gun goes off, and no more runners are allowed to cross the finish line. The steady stream of runners still pouring into the finish stadium are diverted from the finish line, and they don’t get a medal. They are not official finishers of the race.

This may sound harsh, and it is. It’s a very dramatic and emotional part of Comrades, and it also makes becoming a Comrades finisher very  meaningful. And experiencing these exact final moments in the 2019 Comrades, was this runner .

Karen Williams: I’m Karen Williams and I live in Cape Town, South Africa.

Cherie: And when asked about her experience in sports before running, Karen says.

Karen: I basically have no athletic background.

Cherie: Back before she started running, Karen describes herself as a couch potato, and she wasn’t looking to change that.

Karen: And then in 2011 my sister joined a running club, Itheko, and she said, They actually help you starting from nothing to becoming a runner. So you start to run slower than you can walk, just to start running and then build up from there. And she begged me to come join them and I was like, No, I’m not interested. I’m not a runner.

Cherie: Karen’s lack of interest was ultimately outdone by her sister’s encouragement. And she joined the running club.

Karen: Oh this is actually, it’s nice, because it’s something you can do. I never thought I could run. But they showed me how to start slowly and then building up a bit.

Cherie: Karen almost immediately realized that this running thing was something she could actually do.

Karen: So you push yourself a little, and you see, oh I can do that, or you see, Oof, this is very hard. I almost died, but I didn’t and I’m getting better.

Cherie: And she saw the greater benefits that running could bring to her day to day life.

Karen: And what I also found was that it made you feel so much better, it clears your head a little bit. It’s, I think the endorphins, I think that, it’s that that made me continue with it. Because you could have a bad day, and then you run and you feel so much better.

Cherie: Endorphins as well as shedding a few pounds were a welcome by product of Karen’s new interest, but there was an even more critical factor that kept her coming back.

Karen: Well in the beginning I was amazed that I could do it. And it was such a community of nonrunners trying to run. You know you would talk and you have this bond and you talk to new people, so it was all that. The camaraderie and our club helped a lot with training because I can’t run on my own I would never run, I would run to the corner and turn back because it’s just better for me to run in a group where we just keep going and motivate each other.

Cherie: And less than a year after Karen joined her club, she lined up for her very first event.

Karen: I could see that i could run a bit. I did my first 10km, I cried in the end; I never knew I could do that. And it was just amazing.

Cherie: But what Karen perhaps didn’t even realize about herself at the time was that she had a curiosity to see just how far her body would go.

Karen: I started with a 10 and stuck with that, and I thought, this is my distance, 10. And then I thought, let me try a 21. Oh, ok, I can do that. And then, about 4 years later, I thought, ok, let me try a marathon. I gave myself plenty of time to ease into things.

Cherie: But something that was going to take a little longer to ease into was her outlook on Comrades.

Karen: I thought it was a great race for crazy people!

Cherie: And she’d even worked out the logic of her take on the race.

Karen: Why would you want to run the whole day running? It didn’t make sense. Who wants to do that? You must be crazy.

Cherie: But again slowly, Karen’s curiosity to push the limits of how far she could run began to build. She ran Two Oceans, which is 56 kilometers or 35 miles. It’s another of South Africa’s massively popular ultra running events. And another family member to turn to for Comrades insights.

Karen: And then, as I ran more, and as I talked to my brother who did it, I thought maybe one day, I will try it. But that wasn’t really a goal at that time.

Cherie: And that one day came about in a very simple way.

Karen: That also seemed like so much fun . . . I was going to spectate last year, and my friend said, Why don’t you just go run it. And I said, Oh, no, I could never. But then I thought about it, and the entries opened, and I thought, let me enter.

Cherie: But entering and wrapping your mind around the challenge that is Comrades don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

Karen: But I entered it, and I started to train with my club and every time I thought of com, I got so nervous, I wanted to cry. So I thought, I’m just not going to think about it. I’ll just do the training, got program, so I just went through the program and I didn’t think of Comrades for a long time.

Cherie: But blinders will only get you so far down the road.

Karen: But then closer to the time, I thought, I must get my mind right because going in like this, I won’t make it. And I even told my one friend, because we used to train together and we were both nervous and I said to him, Listen, if we go in that day and we think we’re not going to make it, we won’t make it. So we need to get our confidence up. And think that we will make it and we will.

Cherie: Now that Karen had decided to mentally embrace the challenge of Comrades, she was ready to talk about it, and sought advice from previous Comrades finishers.

Karen: They said you will get fed up, you will feel tired, you will feel like you don’t want to anymore, but you must just keep on going. Even if you go a bit slower, even if you walk, you must just keep going. Don’t give up. I think that was the best advice.

Cherie: Armed with advice, head wrapped around the enormity of the event, Karen was ready for race day.

Karen: The morning I was a bit nervous, but excited more. I was like, yes, it’s here now; I’m going to do this. Yes, positive, I can do it and I will do it. I was so excited. I felt good. I felt strong.

Cherie: Karen and her brother had decided to run together, but they also had a pact: if either one was faltering, the other one was free to carry on alone. The goal time was 11 hours 30 minutes, so they had a 30 min cushion to make the 12-hour cutoff.

Karen: We went through half, we were a bit behind 11:30 time, then he said, we need to make up a little time, saw big hill, and I said that’s not happening now; I think he thought I was giving up; I told him to go on ahead and I will carry on on my own.

Cherie: Karen had no intentions of quitting, but she also wasn’t game for speeding up. Her brother didn’t want to leave her, but Karen didn’t want her slow pace to put him in jeopardy of not finishing within the 12 hours. If she wasn’t going to make it, she wanted to do that on her own.

Karen: I said no definitely you must go, and I went up hill slowly. I continued on my own. I also said when he left, the only thing I can do now is to try my best, and that’s what I’m going to do.

Cherie: One foot in front of the other, in the heat, up and down hills without shade cover, Karen keep moving forward.

Karen: So I felt fine and I could continue. There’s a lot of ups and downs, not just in the race, but emotionally. Like later I felt fed up and like, why, it’s so long . . . when is the end of this race, ugh.

Cherie: And during this time when the going was getting tough, Karen remembered something a friend had said.

Karen: Before the race, my one friend said, you must get something that’s going to get you through. So you must think about what’s going to motivate you to do this race. And at times when it goes bad or it’s difficult, you must think what is, why am I doing this. So as I was running and I felt a bit fed up, I remember what he said and I thought, what is my, why am I doing this, and I thought and I thought and I couldn’t remember what was my reason, that thing that was going to push me through. I couldn’t remember what it was, and I just thought, I’m going to trust that I had a good reason sometime, that I can’t remember, because all this seems just like a bad idea. But I’m going to think that I had a reason and I’ll just continue with that in mind.

Cherie: So Karen had her mantra, sort of. And however she was making it happen, she was committed to continue. But the possibility loomed that she just wasn’t going to make it in time.

Karen: I did think at one stage, or at more than one stage that I was not going to make it.

Cherie: And when as she approached the final climb, Polly Shorts, which is just 10 kilometers from the finish, she got confirmation as to exactly how close she was to not finishing.

Karen: I saw the vans all the time toward the end. I made all the cutoffs and the last at Polly Shorts. I made with two minutes to spare.

Cherie: The vans Karen mentions, which are also called sweeper vans, are there to pick up runners who are being pulled out of the race. Along the route, you have to reach various intermediate points by a certain time to continue. The idea is that, if you don’t reach each point within the prescribed time, you won’t be able to finish within 12 hours.

And there is one final van that continues all the way to the end; it works as an indicator in the final miles, if you’re ahead of the final sweeper van, you’re probably going to make it, if you’re behind, you probably won’t. Karen had only two minutes of wiggle room, and 6 more miles to go.

Karen: But I thought let me still try. let me just keep trying and keep going. Walking and running just try to get there. Just try to go a bit faster.

Cherie: The pressure was on, but Karen realized one major upside to her strategy.

Karen: It wasn’t painful at all. I think I went slow enough to not have pain. I think that’s the secret. You must go slow, and then you won’t have pain. So I wasn’t in pain at all. After Polly Shorts, my mood was also a bit lighter, because it’s so close to the end, I made this final cutoff, I must now just make it!  And then I went a bit faster.  And then I was like, I’m going faster. I don’t know where that came from. But I just went a little faster than previous stretch.

Cherie: And as darkness began to fall, with an entire day of running behind her, and only a few miles to go, Karen powered on. It was now just down to whether or not she could get to the finish line before time ran out.

Karen: Close to the end, you run through a neighborhood, and people are outside their houses and they were very encouraging. And they are like, you’re rocking it, and I was like, yea, I’m rocking it!  Everyone so encouraging. But yes that sweeper van was still in front of me, I couldn’t catch it.

Cherie: With the final sweeper van in sight and energized by the enthusiastic crowds, Karen closed in on the finish, and the minutes ticked down. She went through the final tunnel and along the big sweeping curve that skirts the gathering areas outside the finish stadium where race finishers, friends, family and spectators have been congregating for hours, rejoicing and recovering, and cheering on all the runners who have yet to the finish but are so close.

Then Karen entered the grand stadium with the stands and the lights and the announcers, and the final push to the line. As the clock ticks down, the cheering intensifies, urging those on who will be among the last to finish, and there are dozens upon dozens of them. This isn’t the trickle of stragglers you might be picturing. There is a constant flow of runners trying to get to that finish line. Many are struggling and delirious, moving in the herkie jerky ways that only happen when you’ve pushed yourself to the very edge. Athletes stumble and weave, and crawl. Some fall and get up again and again, barely able to stand let along walk or run. And some just lay down and give up. And some, like Karen, are still running, picking their way around the thick tangle of those who had been running ahead of them.

And in the stands, everyone’s eyes dart from the runners to the finish line, where large display clock counts up the time, second by second.

Karen: aAll the people screaming and you see the finish line in front, with seconds to spare. Looking for timing mat to get over it. Trying to get to end, someone fell in front of me, make it to timing mat, and go over.

Cherie: These final moments of Comrades are at once heart wrenching and triumphant. This is a point of the race that’s made a memorable impact on nine-time Comrades finisher Cathy Hopkins talks about.

Cathy Hopkins: There is such love and warmth and encouragement and respect for the final runners. There’s nothing like coming in toward the end. There is just a, it is pandemonium, much of it is other runners, supporters, regular people who have never run themselves but are so, have embraced the race so much, they are, cheering you to finish the race.

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t shed a few tears watching runners coming into the stadium, almost bouncing like pinballs off the barricades because they’re having a hard time running a straight line or being helped by other runners, clearly looking like they’ve had a rough go of it.

Cherie: And the race announcers are there to cover every last step.

Announcers: announcing the end of 2019 Comrades Marathon

Cathy: They have 20, 30, 40 seconds to get to the finish line. And if you cross at 12 hours and 1 sec, you don’t get a medal. It doesn’t matter if you’re half a stride from the finish, you just don’t get that medal. And I think we’ve all in our lives had, I think it speaks to people because we’ve all had times in our lives when we’ve almost made something, almost achieved something and we haven’t, and we realize how incredibly difficult that is to deal with, and that it is part of life.

Cherie: As Karen closed in on the final meters of the race, she was surrounded by the chaos and carnage of those final moments before the finish gun transforms hope to defeat. The play by play keeps account of the last gasps of effort.

Announcers: announcing the end of 2019 Comrades Marathon

Cherie: Karen weaved around runners who were falling and crawling, and stride by stride she kept her focus on getting across the timing mat, until finally and not a moment too soon, she crossed over that magical threshold between those who made it and those who didn’t.

Karen: I knew there were only seconds but I didn’t realize it was only one second.

Cherie: Karen finished Comrade in 11:59:59. With a single second to spare, she had become an official Comrades Marathon finisher. But just behind her were all of those runners who didn’t, and the anticipation of just how this will all end is swapped out for the sounds indicating that this edition of Comrades has come to an end.

Announcers: announcing the end of 2019 Comrades Marathon

Cherie: For Karen, this moment was bittersweet.

Karen: I saw people right behind me, they closed it off right behind me and steered them off to the side, no medal and no finish line, so sad for me to see. You are really happy for yourself but sad for other people because everyone worked so hard to be there. Some people just don’t have a good day.

Cherie: One tick of the clock. It’s arbitrary really but also significant. Because if you do earn that finishers medal, it means something, to you and to anyone who understands Comrades, which includes just about everyone in South Africa, from the passport check agent at the airport to the taxi driver and hotel clerk to every one of the tens of thousands of runners in this country that has a deep love of sports.

And Karen had done it. For years, she’d built up her running distance and she’d put in the training for Comrades. She’d faced her fear of tackling such a big challenge, and set her mind to believing she could get the job done.

And when came to race day, she stuck with three simple but incredibly important tactics: she never gave up, she kept moving forward, and she ran her own race. When her brother wanted to go faster than she was comfortable with, she chose to go it alone. And she kept the attitude that had carried her through since she started this sport: as she would say, let me at least just try. And with that, she had earned herself a coveted Comrades finishers medal.

Karen: You get your medal and it’s such a great moment. And then you just want to cry; wanted to find family and cry. It’s just a lot of emotion. It’s a very emotional day, excited to fed up to happy to just wanting to cry, it’s just all of it.

Cherie: And like so many runners just after they finish Comrades, experiencing all that once was enough.

Karen: On the day, I was like never again.

Cherie: And then after a few days had passed.

Karen: After a few days, I decided to do it again.

Cherie: And to keep things interesting, there’s one certainty about Comrades you can rely on: it will never be the same run twice.

Karen: Although even people who do it 10 times say every time it’s a different run. You cannot think that you know Comrades now. because you never know it; it’s how you feel on the day, how much you trained, everything, how much you ate. Every time it’s a different race and you can never be sure. You can’t say because you’ve done it once, it will be easier.

Cherie: Comrades may never get easier, but there will always be ways to improve.

Karen: I would just think concentrate a bit more in the middle, not to walk too much there. You lose your concentration, you just, even though, it was hammered into my head, Keep going, go a little faster, don’t’ slow down too much, especially in that middle section.

Cherie: And however Karen approaches her next Comrades adventure, she’ll have the day to day benefits of running far that keep her lacing up.

Karen: And it just really gives you the time to clear your head, and get rid of not depression, but of not feeling well, it just clears everything and then you feel so much better . . . I think that’s the thing that keeps me doing it.

Cherie: And for Karen, just giving it a try, first with 10 kilometers then half-marathons, marathons, Two Oceans and now Comrades, she arrived somewhere she hadn’t ever thought she’d be.

Karen: It’s just an amazing thing to do. And to say that you did it. I’m still amazed that I could do something like that. That my non-athletic body can carry me through that. That it can just do it. And I think that that is the amazing part, that you can push yourself just a little bit more, not beyond your means but beyond what you thought you could do. There’s a little bit extra and you can try that and they you are amazed at more things you can do.

Cherie: This concludes our story with Karen Williams. I want to thank Karen so much for sharing her story. Something that really struck me is that Karen stuck to some very basic principles to achieve something spectacular–she kept a positive, curious attitude and she always kept moving forward. Something she said that really sticks with me is, “Let me at least try.” And to that, I think, because you never know. And, she also took her time to work up to a big goal. Great lessons for running and for life.

Karen’s story marks the second to last episode of our first season. Look for our final episode coming in a few weeks, where we feature 1982 Comrades champion and the current Comrades Marathon Chairperson Cheryl Winn. We’re very excited to finish our season with someone who has such a deep history and involvement with this magnificent event. I was honored to get to interview her.

And we’re looking forward to future seasons. We’re currently working on some new ideas, but we welcome your thoughts! Are there themes about women running long distances that you’d like to see us explore? It can be another key event or a broader theme like female running communities and teams or running and the female body. We’d love to hear from you.

You can Tweet to us or find us on Instagram @StridesForward. You can also always reach me, Cherie, through the website, stridesforwardpodcast.com. There you’ll also find full transcripts of all the shows as well as show notes, complete with all pertinent links. And you’ll find our Runner’s Resources page there.

Thank you to the Strides Forward team whose voices you experience in other ways with this podcast. There’s Cormac O’Regan who makes all of the music you hear and does the sound design.  And there’s April Marriner of Bonfire Collaborative; she keeps the podcast branding and website looking amazing. You can find April at bonfirecollaborative.com.

Of course, thank you to you, the listener. I really appreciate you tuning in and I appreciate all the feedback and comments. I love these stories and I’m always excited to know that other people are interested in them, too. Until next time, this is Cherie, wishing you satisfying strides forward.

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