Friday, 22 June 2007

Comrades, walk across the line!

I went down to Comrades Marathon this past weekend; my very first time in attendance. I’ve watched the race on telly since I was a youngster and so it was a treat to actually be down there, on the route, cheering for friends. We all know that the last half-hour before the cut-off is always an emotional crowd-pleaser as runners crawl, fall, stumble and are carried across the line. Traditionally, this is when the “Comrades spirit” is revealed as runners forfeit their own races to assist those in worse physical condition.

While it makes for entertaining viewing, I’ve never believed in the carrying-across-the-line thing; a race is only completed when you pass below the finish banner under your own steam. And, standing on the grass in the inner circle as runners poured into the stadium in the final minutes, watching the tv footage projected onto the big screen above the stadium, this was enforced.

If you followed the race you would know that two runners died this year. Media releases say that only 7 deaths have occurred in the event’s octogenarian history; yes, I also thought there were many more.

Media releases said that Willem Malapi, a 48-year-old runner from Worcester, had entered the medical tent looking for help when he went into cardiac arrest. He was transferred to St Augustines Hospital where he passed away during the course of the night. But Willem, a 14 times Comrades finisher, is not the reason for this posting.

34-year-old Michael Gordon was the runner featured on the television footage. Four other runners carried him into the stadium, one at each limb. Michael was positioned face-down, his head hanging. Not 2km before this he had been running steadily, cheering on his fellow runners. Carsten Frischmuth, one of the runners who helped carry Michael into the stadium commented, "When we got to one kilometre to go he started wandering all over the road and then collapsed inside the stadium. We had to make a call on whether we should leave him and call the medics or go on. We decided to help carry him through and make the 11-hour cut off”.

Standing on the field I watched as they carried Michael onto the track with 300m to the finish. I immediately felt a kind of panic, tapping Tim and saying, “Look. Look. There’s something very wrong with that guy. His head is hanging. He’s unconscious. Why are there no medical people on the field?”

This was no ordinary carry-over-the-line Comrades finish… it was very, very evident that something was terribly wrong and I couldn’t take my eyes from the screen.

Running at 10km/h it takes you just over 30s to cover 100m. This caravan was moving much, much more slowly. The seconds were ticking and the minutes dragged – and still there were no medical personnel on the field…

With 200m to go the 4 runners were battling. There’s a distinct difference carrying a conscious person and an unconscious person – and clearly Michael was unconscious. Conscious people grip or bend their elbows. The runners were battling to hold onto limp limbs. And when they finally reached the finishing line, placing Michael on the ground, his face embedded in the grass and did not turn to the side.

I saw a medic try to lift Michael’s arm and it slipped from his grip. They then moved Michael on to a stretcher, trying to lift him from under his armpits. His shoulders gave no resistance and his arms slipped through the medic’s hold. This was very clearly a dire situation.

Would the medics have been able to help if they were on the field earlier? Maybe, maybe not. What I question is why they did not run out on to the field to assist, not whether they would have been able to prevent him dying. A release I read mentioned something about how they let the runners compose themselves and cross the line first before rushing to their assistance… blah, blah, blah. When someone is being carried belly down, head hanging, body limp and pale they are never going to be able to compose themselves nor cross the line on their own! These people must have seen hundreds of shattered runners; surely they could tell that this one was different?

As for the four runners… my heart goes out to them. They tried their best to carry this poor man into the stadium as fast as possible; yes they hoped to help him get across the finish line before the 11-hour cut-off but their good-natured Comrades spirit probably escalated into panic as they realised that this man needed urgent medical attention.

While my first question was about the actions of the medics, my second is about this whole carrying thing. For reference, I’ve never been in such a state where I could not stand on my own two feet to get across a finish line; and perhaps this is why I’m unable to understand this whole phenomenon.

Firstly… if I cannot get myself across a finish line then that finish line is not for me to cross at that time. I could not bear to be carried across the line though I would appreciate if they could notify the medics of my predicament*. Actually, even if I crawled across the line I would not be proud of my achievement. Crawling is not finishing. Whatever the reason: inadequate preparation, illness or just a bad day, if I want that finish I would have to come back another year to try again.
* In an AR this is a different situation, as you can’t trip-trap a few hundred meters to call on assistance. In our environment it is our obligation to assist any ill or injured racer to the best of our ability, carrying them if necessary to where they can be helped by professionals.

People who are carried across the line are in a sorry, sorry state. If you cannot stand on your two legs it is time to call it quits. I think this is like the whole Mt Everest thing where climbers turn back less than 100 vertical meters from the summit and vow to return another year; and they’re able to return because turning back saves their lives. This is why I have great admiration for someone like Alex Harris who came so close twice and nabbed the summit on this third attempt* (*I stand to be corrected on his number of attempts… but I think I’ve got it right).

Comrades, and other races, are just that – they’re races. Most come around again annually – like your birthday, Easter, Xmas and Valentines Day – and there are always plenty of others if you miss one. Yes, there’s the preparation, the travelling, the expense… but these are material elements and are irrelevant in the Big Picture. You only have one body and a race is just not worth blowing these on.

If your body fails, accept defeat gracefully. It happens. Instead learn from your experience, fine tune your preparation and be able to cross the finish line with pride another day.


adventurelisa said...

I just received a really lovely and interesting email from an adventure racer who ran his first Comrades this year. He ran with the 10-hour Bus. Some comments from his email included:

"Reading your Comrades blog, I agree that a helping hand across the line is not a real finish but where should I draw my line?

I ran the Comrades for the first time this year. Hooked up with the Sub-10hr bus because half-way through I realised I had no game plan and had better rely on someone else to pace me. I was ahead of them until then. Stopped to grab something to eat and they passed me. Chased the group until Hillcrest where I finally caught up. That was pretty tough going. Did not cramp but my joints took quite a pounding.

I too could not bear the thought of not finishing or embarrassingly worse, being carried across the line. So I made an effort to switch off the pain and hoped that the strange wobbly leg phenomenon that I had seen on TV so many times before would not suddenly happen to me.

However, while running with the bus, it started to plague me that I was cheating myself in some way by using them to get through the final stretch as it felt like I was literally being carried along.

...And so it was that I completed my first Comrades in 9hrs and 59 minutes and 3 seconds. Sore but still strong, with no wobbles.

On my own, I could have crossed the line a few minutes earlier but in retrospect it was the bus that got me there. I used them to push me the first half, I chased them the third quarter and they carried me the final stretch.

I replied: Having someone with you
talking you on, pacing you, or a group of friends running with you is a far cry to being physically lifted up and carried.
These pacing buses are great because they're guided by experienced people who know how to pace, when to walk etc. What a fabulous system to integrate novices and keep runners on target. Just think, with this experience in your pocket you're better equipped to do your own thing next year.

You have much to be proud of. Think of the bus as a pack of friends with whom you ran, not as something that pulled you through. The bus is a friend that teaches you how to pace on this mammoth race. If you'd been less capable you wouldn't have been able to keep up with them and that you finished so strong is testament to this.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lisa, I hear you all the way regarding when to call it quits. Its a personal boundary that each runner needs to define before starting a race so that if the time comes when you can no longer put one foot in front of the other, you have already made the desicion to put health before a risky finish. This takes discipline at a time when you cannot really concentrate properly and your focus is blurred or marred by the only vision you have which is crossing the line.
For this reason the cut-off points play an important role along the way in weeding out the potential heart attatck victims who probably would not stop on their own accord. Without the cut-offs, I think we would see alot more of these tragedies. So with the organizers putting measures in place along way, including +- 50 "bailers buses", its up to the runners to excercise self discipline or to advise others when enough is enough, even if it means calling a paramedic along the way to inspect a runner whom you think is at risk. I'm sure a paramedic has the personal skills required to talk a runner into "surrendering" if he/she thinks it to be in their best interest. I wonder if a paramedic is allowed to "diqualify" a runner that is in danger of collapsing but refuses to pull out ? That would be interesting to find out.
Please fellow runners, Excersise caution and look out for buddies that may need to hear from you that they are just not looking good. A little correction on your article Lisa, you mentioned twice the runners were trying to beat the 11-hour cut off, it was actually the 12-hour cut off.

Yours in running

adventurelisa said...

I received the following comment from another running friend, "Quite a number of Comrades runners will disagree with you about not finishing unless you can actually run over
the line.

Michael - re: 11-hr. I thought it was 12 too but newspaper articles and media releases said 11. So I thought it my mistake (it was a long day out there) and so I went with the official statement.

adventurelisa said...

I received the following interesting comments from one of my orienteering friends.

"Something I'm wondering about now: the deaths that have occured at Comrades, were they all male? That would beg the question: why? Do females have mentally a more life preserving approach? Or are some men just bent on death or glory? Is that a tendency in males, this attitude, or does it get inspired within certain cultural groupings?"

Anonymous said...

Really interesting reading your Comrades perspective Lisa, esp. the casualty concerns - 'walk across the line' brings back fond memories. I did my ten consecutive starting in 1992 and my last one in 2001. As the years went by my times got slower and slower, although I never walked across the line it was always a mad dash for ‘show’. From 8 hours to 10 hours 30 is a long day on tarmac.

However I feel pretty much the same as you regards marathons which are personal individual challenges and seeing a limp ‘body’ being carried across the finish line in that state is traumatic. I know every cell in my body felt as if it had been bruised after a Comrades finish – usually feverish and achingly sore one tended to get lost in the finish crowd with a long walk back to one’s second or transport. It’s a great event – yet just too crowded.

Anyway looking for more stimulating challenges was the birth of Skyrun which started with a jaunt across the top of the Witteberge in order to join the locals for the Wartrail dance on the 1 January 1991. The perfect isolation and incredible vista had me hooked in what was more of an individual mountain top spiritual pilgrimage, something the Mountain Club of SA do not encourage, especially on the individual traverse.

Realising that there was actually a feasible possibility of ‘others’ traversing the ridge line of this stunning mountain range got me eventually starting it up as a Skywalk hike and then a 'run'. In Fact Skyrun is a mountain top wilderness trek for most folk in another ‘universe’.

I honestly lost interest in Comrades and just found it got too crowded and too commercial. After completing my tenth and receiving my permanent number 14111 from Bruce Fordyce I in fact invited him to participate or even just observe Skyrun. Eventually once Skyrun got going we used to joke that in order to qualify for a Skyrun one had to complete the Comrades. Bruce I believe used to do rock art studies in the Wartrail and New England areas in his days as an Anthropology Student; it would be really great to see him at a Skyrun.

Anyway now Skyrun has become very much the total opposite of Comrades. Previous Runners World editor Helen Collins described Skyrun as “SA's Ultimate Ultra” which was also published in the Comrades magazine “Beyond 42”. Yet despite Salomon product sponsorship for the event, it is still very much clear of commercial hype and in fact fits in rather perfectly to the AR scene. A real fun event – in fact I’ve got it as the ultimate pub run, walk, crawl from the Mountain View - Sportsman’s Arms to the highest pub in Africa ‘Ice Station 2720’ at Tiffindel Ski. Recovery after a Skyrun is a lot more rapid I believe due to the difference in a softer surface yet tougher wilderness as compared to a pounding – jarring tarmac encounter.

Here you are able to 'walk across the line' feeling rejuvenated and usually high as the Lammergeyer, Black Eagles, Buzzards and Cape Vulture that soar at ridge skimming heights alongside one. At one with the Mountain Reedbuck as they bound effortlessly over the next ridge.

John Michael Tawse