Comrades 2013

I realized that perhaps a detailed race report on my recent Comrades would potentially induce a state of stupor for the readers as the article may wind up as long and arduous as the actual race itself. So, I will spare readers the agony. I shall endeavour to summarize the main points, or you could always scroll to the end.....

For the curious, thanks to Wikipedia, you can read all about Comrades here.

This year, 7 brave (or insane) Malaysians took part in the 88th Comrades. Along with close to 16000 participants from all over the world, we embarked on a defining journey across the brutal hills of the Kwazulu-Natal province, South Africa.

The Up Run

Each girded with his own reasons for this insanity. Perhaps it's an endeavour to discover the limits of the indomitable will. Nevertheless, we were to pay for such endeavour. Some with a heavier price. But for all, it was the inevitable confrontation with our very own demons.

Chen Chee Kong, Frank Chong, Me, Wong Fook Seong, Celene Loo (from HK), Yum Kin Kok, CP Tan, Roy Yeow

2 June 2013. Race day. The morning air was dry but uncharacteristically warm. Our concern about a chilly start was duly abated. Whether that was a good thing remained to be seen....

Soon, the runners made their ways into the assigned corrals. It would be difficult to not get caught up with the elated mood of the hour: With 16 thousand strong, singing and chanting uniformly to the native tune & the National Anthem. This is the Comrades. And we stood together to commemorate the fallen soldiers. And in the modern term: it's the celebration of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.

But for a first timer, my thoughts were somewhat preoccupied and consumed by anxiety. After all, my race strategy was yet to be tested. And the verdict would only unravelled at some point along the journey to Pietermaritzburg, which is a good 87km away.

Then, the culmination of months of training came to this moment: The signature cock-crow resounded. Within seconds, the Canon "blasted off", releasing a flood gate of runners. The scene that followed could only be described as a stampede of wildebeest, as each marathoner race forward to embark on the long arduous journey. It was nothing less than spectacular.

Pace wise, I was hoping to maintain a 5:30min/km. But instead, at various points, I actually found myself doing sub-5:00 especially during the descends. Getting ahead of myself was easy, given the adrenaline rush of the moment. But I knew better to cash in too soon on that and pay dearly in the end. So, I readjusted. Slowing down was the prudent thing to do...

Cowies Hill came and went with no real drama. But soon, after Pinetown, Fields Hill imposed a daunting task. You must understand, these named Hills are named for a reason. With each hill averagely ranging 2-3km at one stretch, add in the steepness of the climb, you have yourself a task made significantly harder. And let's not forget that in between the 5 hills, there are countless other unnamed hills interspersed along the way.

So, I walked. And walked. Felt a pang of defeat and humiliation. The only consolation was seeing some other runners in the same predicament ....

At Botha's Hill @35km

At 35km, just shy of the half way point, I was still feeling relatively 'fresh' as Cham took some shots of me passing by. A moment later, I reached the half way point at 43+km @ Drummond in a sturdy 4:13. Felt great about my accomplishment. The exact pace as planned. Right! With this pace, I may just manage to bag myself a Bill Rowan! (Sub 9 hours).

So I thought.

People say that beyond Drummond, things should get easier. Somehow, I think I was either too gullible or was simply a willing victim of deception. IT DOES NOT GET EASIER! In fact, it gets harder. First of all, you just ran a marathon. Let that sink in for effect. Then, know that you have another one to go....

And the climb at Inchanga was brutal. Following that, countless unnamed hills awaited to relish in tormenting the runners. As if that's not enough, to add on to the carnage, right about this point, the heat was rising. The highest recorded on that day was 32 degrees Celsius. The strong headwind wasn't much help either. Along with it, random sandstorms rudely reminded us that we were at the utter mercy of the elements. It was turning out to be the toughest condition for Comrades in all 20 years....

Perhaps it was the exhaustion, or dehydration, or just the sheer distance, with 37km left to go, my thighs  began to seize up with cramps. I had not encounter significant cramps for a long time since 2009. Then again, I have never run a Comrades before this....

This was the crucial moment: my Comrades had just begun. The cramps was slowing me down significantly. And as I tried to go a little faster, it seized up again. So, I did whatever it took to keep moving. One step further is a step closer to the finish. Keep going. This thought was my constant companion. My only hope.

The most memorable moments to me was hearing my name called out by random strangers along the way. "Francis, you can do this!" "You are doing great! Keep going Francis!" And I remembered an elderly man calling out to me as his gentle eyes fixed on mine, saying "Francis, You got this!" The tone of his voice was commanding and assuring. It was an infusion of a much needed bolus of courage straight into my heart. I almost felt that I was surrounded by angels. And God was cheering me on. You could say I was hallucinating. But in deprivation, we lose to gain so much more. I have lost a chance for a coveted Bill Rowan. My pride was crushed. My physical body contorted because of the cramps. Fatigue, like an consuming fire had engulfed me physically and mentally. Yet, in the midst of that, I was at peace. One thing I could say was that I was not fearful. And I had no doubts that I would finish. That stillness was almost surreal. It was not what I was looking for in a run like this. But it has found me.

Yeah, God was there. And He was with me.  

The final hurdle was Polly Shortts. It stretched far beyond what the eyes could see. And when you turn the corner, you are still heading up. Needless to say, I walked. And it was a walk that lasted an eternity. But I wasn't in any hurry. I even struck up a conversation with some of the runners as we ascended. Yes, we were all in the same predicament. Comrades in suffering....

Eventually, my watch decided to give up it's ghost as I reached the top of Polly Shortts @ 8:59 hours into the run. With about 7.7km more to go, I ran as much as I could. Expectedly, the cramp got worse. You know that when you have to walk even while going downhill. I didn't dare aggravate it lest I ended up on a stretcher and forfeit all the effort. So I walked-ran like a toddler just finding his first few steps. Along the way, cheers were growing louder as the final few km drew me closer to the end. "Almost there! Francis! You got this!!" "Just the last km to go! Francis Go! Go! Go!".

I reached the stadium. It took forever just to reach the finish. But finish I did. After a gruelling 9:58:29. It was over. IT. WAS. OVER. I stood there as I crossed the mat. Dazed and in disbelief. The support staff asked if I needed assistance. I must have looked like I was about to collapse. But I was just utterly relief. I wanted to cry. But somehow, even that required an effort which I no longer possess. But nevertheless, I was totally at peace.

The moments nearing the finish

I have conquered Comrades. Not in the most profound or glamorous way. But certainly despite all, in my frailty. It was indeed conquerable.

CP Tan and Celene Loo not in the pic. 

Another thing which makes Comrades truly memorable to me, is the beautiful friendship forged through this experience. We were welded together in the fire of hardship. The result: A camaraderie that is so profoundly solid and unique. It felt as though I have known these guys forever. I may sound a tat sentimental, but if you want some of that, try doing Comrades together with these folks. And you will know what I mean.

These are truly my comrades in the Comrades.

Next year, see you in the Down run!


  1. Wonderful write up. Despite all the SUFFERING, you are known widely now as a Comrades runner! As this year's tagline, U R ULTRAORDINARY! Catch up soon!

    1. Thanks Frank.
      You know, you are the back bone of the team. I am thankful for all the effort that you have put into this to make it such a memorable experience for all. We will do it again next year!

  2. Congratulations on your another acheivement! I enjoy seeing the update of the photos of you all very much, and reading from the lines to try to feel what you all experience there. It must be a lifetime memory. Being cramp for 37km is no joke, along those hills, in the tough weather, but you did it. Congrats again! Will always look up to you all, Comrades runners~

    1. Thanks Kent.
      Every experience in races is an opportunity to enrich our lives. Good or bad. Comrades in particular, has taught me something precious. I will always treasure it. Hope that you will join me some day :)

  3. Congratulations of your fantastic achievement, Doc. I was following the live feed of the event via Yim's FB page and was ecstatic to 'see' you cross the finish. Like I've always said, you're an inspiration, my friend!

    1. Thanks Nick. This one's a real toughie. Learned a lot from it though it was a painful process. Looking forward to next year. U shd consider this as your Bucket list. Definitely worth it. :)

  4. Good one, Francis, my comrade in Comrades! What a memorable and humbling experience that will last a lifetime!

    1. Hi CP, nice of you to drop in. We will definitely rock it again next year! :)


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