In Season One: Comrades Marathon

I enjoy it so much, but I do suffer, but I enjoy the suffering. Well I don’t know if that’s a good thing. But I feel so good about myself because I feel stronger, and I feel more tolerant, and more calm, and more peaceful because when I finish my run, I always feel that, yes, I am a better person.”

– Anjali Saraogi

Episode summary

In this episode, Anjali Saraogi, who lives in Kolkata, India, shares her first-timer experience of running Comrades, and why this race is so special to her. Anjali came to running in her 40s, and has become one of India’s best ultra-distance racers.

But Anjali had no idea about her long-distance talents when she entered to run the 2017 Comrades; at the time when she registered, she’d never even run a marathon.

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.

Within each episode, along with hearing one runner’s story, you’ll learn about an aspect of Comrades: the beloved startline traditions are featured in this episode.

Show notes and Recommended Resource

The recommended resource for this episode is the Fast Women newsletter, which comprehensively covers highlights of women’s competitive distance running, with a heavy US focus; and in this context, distance means longer track events, all the way through to the marathon, with a dose of some of the top news in ultra racing. This newsletter is thoughtful, smart, fair, and insightful, and is itself packed with resources. Every single week. There’s also a Fast Women Facebook group where you’ll find a great community of runners.

Dare to Run by Amit Sheth

 

Audio credits

Additional audio for this episode comes from SABC Sport 2017 live race coverage, as well as online video footage of the startline cock’s crow and Shosholoza. 

anijali-photo-for-sf-episode

Cherie Turner: Welcome back to Strides Forward, the podcast of stories about women and running, told one woman at a time. This is episode 2 of our inaugural season, and the theme of this season is experiences in and around the Comrades Marathon. I am Cherie Louise Turner, your host and producer.

Comrades is the oldest and largest ultra distance foot race in the world. It’s a 90km or roughly 56-mile road race that takes place each year in South Africa; the race turns 100 years old in 2021 and over 27,000 runners are registered for the 2020 event.
In this episode, we hear the story of a Comrades first-timer.

Anjali Saraogi: Hello my name is Anjali Saraogi and I live in India, in a city called Kolkata. I started running in 2015 November, I ran Comrades, 2017 June.

Cherie: Before getting into Anjali’s story, I want to make sure there’s no confusion about race terms. Because while this event is called the Comrades Marathon, it isn’t a marathon in the way that most people use this term. In almost all cases when someone is talking about a marathon, they mean a race that’s 26.2 miles or 42.2 kilometers long. The Comrades Marathon is an exception in this regard. And one final note about terms, because you’ll hear the term half-marathon used in this episode, that is referring to an event that is 13.1 miles or 21.1 kilometers, exactly half a marathon.

Now back to it.

In the previous episode, which features elite runner Devon Yanko, I discussed details about the Comrades course that give a broader context as to why this race is so challenging, beyond the fact that it’s 90 kilometers long, which, on its own, is tough enough.

Within telling Anjali’s story, I’ll take a closer look at the start line proceedings, a much anticipated part of the Comrades. It’s one of the many traditions that’s unique to this event. And I’ll get to more of those throughout this series.

It felt fitting to talk about the race start in this episode because Anjali’s story is filled with firsts and beginnings: in addition to her being a first-timer to Comrades, she was really a first-timer to running, period, at any distance. In fact, she was a first-timer to any realm of structured training and competition, in any sport. By her own description, before she started running, Anjali had never been an athlete beyond some relatively regular jogging and yoga. But like many other casual runners, she had considered much more ambitious running goals.

Anjali: It was always on my bucket list that I wanted to run a marathon. And I was quite foolish back then, I didn’t even know that a half-marathon was not a marathon.
So there was a half-marathon that was happening in my city, and I told my daughter I want to take part in this half marathon, but I don’t have the confidence because I’ve never trained and I don’t have the gear and all the people who will be taking part would be trained runners who have personal trainers, who have the right shoes, and they would have trained very hard.

So my daughter was very encouraging and she said you have nothing to lose. You should go try out. If you can’t run, you can leave the race, but at least you know you’ve tried. You’ll be happy because it’s something you want to do for yourself. And she also told me, “Mom, you’re going to win the race.”

I said I have never run beyond maybe 7, 8 kilometers ever, and how am I going to win the race, I don’t even know how to run that distance. She said, “Just go for it.” So on her insistence, I took part in the race, and I did come third, I did get a podium. And let me tell you, getting a podium is a great high.

Cherie: It was a great high and also a great surprise because, when Anjali says she started running in November 2015, she doesn’t mean she started running to prepare for this half marathon, she means she started running at this half marathon.

Anjali: I was clueless as to what is going to happen, and what happens and what I’m going to do. I knew nothing about pacing, I didn’t have gels, I was wearing my daughter’s golfing T-shirt, collared T-shirt because I didn’t even know that you wear different kind of clothes when you run, special dryfit clothes. I was wearing her leggings and I was clueless. I was out there just to enjoy the race. And that’s what I did. And I think because I had no pressure, and I knew nothing about racing, that I could really run with my heart and enjoy it.

Cherie: In addition to placing well, Anjali learned that she really enjoyed running the longer distance, and she decided she wanted to take running more seriously, to see how fast she could get. So she set out to learn about running and training, but it wasn’t easy.

Anjali: All my support was the internet. I started reading up about running; I bought a few books. Because running is a fairly new sport in my country, and we don’t have coaches in Kolkata where I live. We do have many running clubs, but we don’t have any proper running coaches or anyone who is an authority on running, who has experience with ultras or marathons and one can get guidance from. So I had no one to turn to, no one to ask anything. It was all the net and the books I could read. That’s it.

Cherie: During this time of discovery, Anjali soon experienced something all runners are familiar with: she got injured. But rather than become discouraged, in this downtime, she became inspired to make her running dreams even more ambitious, and this inspiration came from an unlikely place, it was from a member of an online women’s forum that didn’t have any particular link to running at all.
Anjali: One of the ladies out there, her name is Manju Pachisia, she had attended a lecture given by Amit Sheth, in his book, Dare to Run.

Dare to Run is a book which talks about various races including the Comrades. And because she knew I was very passionate about running, and since I couldn’t run because I was down with this injury, she presented me this book and said it’s going to uplift you, you read it. And I think it was just something supernatural because I barely knew her; she was just another person in the forum. But when I did get the book and I read it, I was taken to another world because I never knew that races like this existed. And that is when I made up my mind that I have to run this race some day. I had not even run a marathon then, but I knew I would run the Comrades. I wanted to run marathon and then the Comrades

Cherie: Now, to run Comrades you actually have to run a marathon, sometime between the fall and spring before the race; and the Comrades usually takes place in June. When Anjali was qualifying, you had to run that marathon in under 5 hours; that time has now dropped to 4 hours, 50 mins.

For experienced distance runners, this isn’t a particularly difficult marathon time goal, but for those new to the sport, this hurdle alone can be a challenge.
And still, as wildly optimistic as it might have seemed to set her sights on running 90 kilometers before she’d even completed the marathon, Anjali was totally fixed on her Comrades goal.

Anjali: When I registered for the Comrades everybody around me, a lot of runners, told me that you’ll never do it because ultra marathons are not popular in Kolkata; well, back then they weren’t, and I had never run that distance, and since Kolkata is flat, it was a very big challenge for me to train for the Comrades because I don’t have access to hills. So, all the people around me told me that you’ll never make it, you’ll never be able to run this race.

Cherie: And what about closer to home? How did her family react?

Anjali: My husband was very supportive because I made him read the book, but when I told my parents about it, my father was very upset, extremely upset. He thought I’d gone mad. He thought I would die because he’d never heard of someone running 89 kilometers; the distance scared him a lot. But I was so passionate about running and I was so insistent, and I was working so hard that my entire family changed their opinion and views and became extremely supportive towards my running and supported me in my training.

Cherie: Anjali’s ran her qualifying marathon in 3:32, an excellent performance even for much more seasoned runners and of course well within the Comrades qualifying standards.

But an area that Anjali knew she’d need some help with at Comrades was pacing. It’s really common, especially in these longer distance races, for runners, even experienced runners, to start too fast, and end up paying for it later in the race. On the other hand, if you start out running too cautiously, you risk not reaching your time goal, and most runners at Comrades have a set goal time they’re aiming for.

So Anjali made a plan to run with a pace group or what’s called a bus at Comrades, even though there aren’t any motor vehicles involved. A bus is a group of runners all of whom have the same goal time in mind. They’re led by a captain or a so-called bus driver, also known as a pacer. It’s the bus driver’s job is to set a steady tempo that will get the runners in the bus to the finish line at a set goal time.

Anjali chose to run with the bus that would finish in 8 hours, 30 minutes. And while her marathon time was exceptional, 8:30 was an ambitious goal.
But before she could even start, Anjali had to squeeze herself into the densely crowded staging area with the thousands of other runners waiting in the dark of morning for the 5:30am start.

Anjali: Typically the South African local people are very tall and very big. Now I’m pretty small, and it was dark, so I was very scared of being squashed and trampled. But nevertheless I managed to squiggle through and make my way. I was sandwiched between the hundreds of South African people.

Cherie: All that was left, before the running began, was to enjoy those startline proceedings that Comrades racers look so forward to, hearing the South African national anthem and then a famous South African call and response song; traditionally sung by gold and diamond miners. It’s now considered a song of solidarity, and is so popular, many consider it South Africa’s second national anthem.

[Shosholoza plays]

[TV Host]: Getting to the startline in itself is an achievement, but then there’s everything that happens at the startline, the atmosphere, the 20,000 people all crammed together, singing Shosholoza, singing our national anthem, and then hearing the “Chariots of Fire.” It’s a really, really special time.

Cherie: And after “Chariots of Fire,” just before the gun, is the cock’s crow. This tradition dates back to 1948, when runner Max Trimborn belted out the crow while awaiting the start. It has been a tradition ever since.

[Cock’s Crow, gun goes off]

Anjali: And it just starts from there. And then you start running and there are people who are cheering. Everything is so overwhelming. You just want to soak in every moment, and you just want to enjoy and imprint every moment in your heart.

Cherie: Comrades will undoubtedly leave its imprint, in ways both uplifting and devastating. Most runners hit at least one point of reckoning.

Anjali: It was beautiful what the captain said is that we’ll all cross the line holding hands, and we will all have the same finish time. But the race was very hard, it was much harder than what I had expected it to be. I had trained, pretty much, but then again, I don’t think I had trained for as tough a race as it turned out to be. So there was this one time in the race when I could not run, and the bus driver, he had chosen a certain run/walk strategy. Now, I got very exhausted, and I could not keep up with the captain at a certain point. Now every time we would go from a running to a walking, the captain would shout out, “Easy, easy.” So I caught on that if anyone wants to walk, they shout out, “Easy.” And maybe the captain will change the strategy and convert the pace to a walking pace. So because I was excessively exhausted, and I didn’t want to run, I kept nudging him to start walking. So I started screaming out, Easy, when we were all running. He disregarded me many times.

And there was this one time when he just stopped and he said, You need to get out of the bus. I said, Why? And he said, You can’t slow the bus down, and I can’t jeopardize everybody’s time because of you. You leave the bus. So I didn’t want to argue, and I just stepped out of the bus, and I started running walking on my own. And I didn’t care that I was not going to reach my desired time of 8 hours 30 minutes because I was cursing myself, Why the hell did I come to this race if it’s so difficult. I’m never going to make it, I’m just going to sit on the side and wait for the sweeper bus to pick me up. So I was walking and muttering to myself.

But strangely enough, very soon I started running, and I also caught up with the bus, and very soon I found myself back in the first line with the captain. And I realized that it was me who wanted to quit because I wasn’t wanting to push myself harder. But where it came to quitting, I didn’t really quit. So I kept on and because I kept on and I was willing to embrace the pain that I got back to where I wanted to be.

And that is the beauty of this race; it is more than a race; it is a salute to the spirit of mankind. And it is a journey of the heart. It is not something that you just take part in because, you know, it’s just a race that just happens and you want to be fit so you train for it.

And, in the next few hours, we were all holding hands because the captain said, This entire bus is going to cross the line, at the same finish time because we’ll hold hands, and nobody will put their foot across the finish line before. And that’s what we all did, and because I hadn’t quit, and I’d got back in the bus, and I had followed his orders and left the bus I had and recuperated with the walk that I needed, I managed to run, catch up with the bus, even so we hold hands with all those people and cross the finish line.

Cherie: Anjali crossed the finish line  with 60 other runners in her bus, all of whom clocked an impressive time of 8 hours, 38 minutes. This is the fastest time run by an Indian woman in the history of Comrades.

And Anjali even had a little extra energy to show her appreciation to the bus captain.

Anjali: Well, I just jumped and I hugged him. He is a tall, huge guy, and I’m tiny. He was in shock. What is this woman doing? But I didn’t care. I was so happy that I had completed the race in my target because 8 hours 30 minutes and 8 hours 38 minutes is the same thing when it’s such a hard race. And I just went and gave him this big, huge hug.

And I thanked him, for helping me, and for showing me the way. And I just thought to myself that, What a commendable man this guy is, this captain of our bus. Because this guy, who was also breaking in pain, and he was also suffering, refused to give in to his weaknesses. He refused to quit or be swayed by the distractions of other runners, people like me who were pulling him down because he had to take care of so many more people.

I feel that the Comrades is about community, and it’s about the spirit that unites people. I just feel like if all of us can appreciate that nothing comes easy, and that is what I learned from the Comrades. And that is the spirit that I admire and look up to, and I was so fortunate that I had that experience. And I wanted to quit and the captain taught me how I should not quit and how if I don’t quit, I will also be victorious. And that is why this race is also so special to me.

Cherie: Anjali’s continues to explore what pushing herself to excel in running long distances means to her.

Anjali: The thing is I enjoy it so much, but I do suffer, but I enjoy the suffering. Well I don’t know if that’s a good thing. But I feel so good about myself because I feel stronger, and I feel more tolerant, and more calm, and more peaceful because when I finish my run, I always feel that, yes, I am a better person, and I want to be the best version of myself that I can, and I want to be a nicer person and I that I can keep improving as a human being, and I know if I keep running, I’ll keep improving. I’ll be a better mother, a better wife, a better friend, a better worker, a better everything.

Cherie: She also continues to be a better runner. Most recently, in Nov 2019, Anjali competed for India in the Asia and Oceania 100km Championships in Jordan, where she was the 4th place woman and, with a finishing time of 9 hours 22 minutes, set an Indian national record for women at that distance.

This concludes Anjali’s story. You can learn more about this episode or about Strides Forward by visiting stridesforwardpodcast.com.

I recommend several resources on the website that are related to women and running, and each episode, after the story, like right now, I choose one of those one of those resources to highlight.

The recommended resource for this episode is the Fast Women newsletter, which comprehensively covers highlights of women’s competitive distance running, with a heavy US focus; and in this context, distance means longer track events, all the way through to the marathon, with a dose of some of the top news in ultra racing. This newsletter is thoughtful, smart, fair, and insightful, and is itself packed with resources. Every single week. There’s also a Fast Women Facebook group where you’ll find a great community of runners.

And, please stay in touch. You can reach me through the website, and I’m also active on Twitter under the name @stridesforward. I welcome all feedback, questions, and community building efforts and suggestions.

Thank you to Anjali Saraogi for sharing her story. Getting in touch with Anjali was pure chance, and I am so thankful for her saying yes to an overseas interview with a total stranger, that’s me, before I’d even completely formed the concept of Strides Forward. Her story continues to amaze me.

Thank you to Cormac O’Regan for the original music and sound design. Thank you to April Marriner of Bonfire Collaborative for the logo and website design; you can find April at bonfirecollaborative.com.

And absolutely, thank you, the listener. I’m so grateful you’re taking the time to go on this podcast journey. Please share and subscribe. I have many reasons for wanting to share these stories and a big one is that women’s approaches to sport aren’t heard or explored enough. Let’s work toward discovering more about how women navigate physical challenges, and what women bring to the world of sport. Until next time, this is Cherie, wishing you satisfying strides forward.

Recent Posts