It immediately hit me at around the 15-km mark; a sudden realization of the whole experience I was on. It was just after 07:00 am; we had been running for 95 minutes. The darkness of the Durban morning had disappeared. The sun was out, warming our shoulders, but the heat was not yet over-powering. The second of six very significant hills – Fields Hill – was soon approaching. Linda, our sub-10-hour pace-maker and veteran of 13 Comrades Marathons, stopped his staccato drum beat, ordered silence to the constant tambourine rattle, and barked orders into the air; ‘…and now we walk; we walk for 1 minute; nobody panic; enjoy the short rest. Don’t worry; from time to time walking will be part of our strategy today; think of it like we are putting the pieces of a puzzle together. And remember; today we go together – one step at a time.’
Amongst the bustle of the runners around me, the deafening cheers from the on-lookers, and the mouth-watering smells that wafted from hundreds of street-side BBQs, I contemplated the puzzle that I had started to put together 31 weeks ago, which had me at this very point in time. Today wasn’t a journey – journeys for me imply that one is typically in the hands of others, so as to get to a certain destination. Neither was today the final execution of a plan; plans in their most basic form are carried out by way of a methodical process, ignoring such components as the generosity of friends and the kind-heartedness of strangers. A puzzle on the other hand, defines most accurately for me the process of bringing something to completion, often through one’s hard work, but more commonly through the collective support of others and, as Sergeant Linda bellowed earlier, always by putting one step in front of the other.
The following narrative is my attempt at introducing all of the pieces of the puzzle that came together for me on Sunday June 4, 2017, allowing me to successfully complete a long-held dream; that of running the Comrades Marathon in South Africa.
In October last year, I asked Harrisson Uk to coach me and manage my training regime for 8 months until race day. Harrisson, an extraordinarily gifted man possessing no end of talents, kindly accepted. This was not just some random running guy who would e-mail weekly training schedules; this was the ‘real deal’; a fully-fledged and fully-committed coach who would manage my training, my mental and physical wellbeing and all things necessary for me to make it from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. Harrisson coaches many fine athletes in Tokyo, all extremely proficient runners, and all having achieved very high levels of success.
And then, as one day rolled into the next, he was my coach too. From day one, Harrisson took a genuine interest in me, my training, my work schedules; he afforded me the same time and level of intense support that he provided to all of his elite runners. No centimetre of any training run uploaded on my Strava missed his keen eye; instructions on cadence counts, scrutiny about course selection, demands for updates on my weekly weigh-in, questions on how many hours of sleep I was getting a night, how much beer was I drinking, what milk I was putting in my latte coffees, how was I feeling on recovery days. But, questions are questions and data is data; Harrisson is more than that; so much more. Out of data he collected, he looked for trends and constantly helped to provide solutions for all sorts of issues that arose during the course of my 31 weeks of training. Harrisson not only put the very first pieces of the puzzle in place, but with pin-point accuracy he added to it each and every day.
By the early part of 2017, I was clocking up nearly 300 km per month. I was enjoying some success with my racing. In October, I surprised myself with a 44:40 PB in a charity 10km race. Later in November, on a fresh Saitama morning, I took 5 minutes off my HM time, bringing down to 1:44:10. I was slowly seeing some results and gaining confidence in my races. But despite these small successes, there was one problem that remained badly unresolved; my weight.
When I committed to running the Comrades in September last year, I was 105kg. Years of business trips, hotel food, airport lounges, active socializing in Tokyo had lead me down a spiral of unhealthy eating, heavy drinking and unsustainable physical conditioning. That’s okay, I thought; being overweight was healthier than being a smoker, right…? Very true; and besides, even if I was the fattest guy in the shower room on Wednesday evenings, at least I was fit enough to enjoy my social running of marathons. These of course were all excuses which I desperately hid behind. But no matter how I tried to justify it, the elephant was always in the room and it wasn’t going anywhere. I alone could not solve this one, and Harrisson knew that.
Harrisson worked closely with me to untangle the quagmire of my eating / drinking habits. After various ups and downs, he was finally able to put the correct pieces together; 5 to be exact. (1) nothing white, (2) no calorific drinks, (3) green salads for lunch, (4) no fruit, and (5) anything on Sundays! For the next 5 months, these five rules dominated my eating habits.
Giving up carbs and fruit at breakfast was especially difficult; no more toast and thick spreads of peanut butter; no more Full English Breakfasts after a long distance weekend run. It took me a great deal of time to get comfortable with 3 boiled eggs, and some wobbling tofu in the morning. Lunch too was going to be a challenge; how on earth does one eat salad in the middle of day? Salad is great, but only when accompanied with a creamy pasta or cheese bagel, right?!. And of course, no more visits to my Tonkatsu local. I put an abrupt sanction on the terse Chinese waitresses who served great fried rice dishes near my work. Instead, I would browse the salad shelves at the nearby 7-11, and stock up on salads, eggs, healthy chicken and nuts. Step by step – piece by piece – I was breaking down my old eating habits, and my discovery of new foods immediately started to have impact on my weight loss.
Going forward, I must remain diligent about keeping these pieces of the puzzle firmly in place, and learning to maintain a healthy and balanced diet…running or no running. Of all the help, advice, mentoring and support I received from Harrisson, I am most grateful to him for his commitment and dedication in helping me get my weight down, and putting me back in control of my diet and body.
The next piece of the Comrades puzzle fell into place through pure luck and good fortune; that was the other Namban runners who would choose to sign up and travel with me to South Africa. And oh boy…didn’t I luck out here…!
Yuichi Kanamori and I have built a strong friendship over the last 3-4 years. We share the same age, love for running and appreciation of rugby. Yuichi has an extremely elegant running style; straight back, soft gate, light cadence, low arm positioning; he almost appears to be denying gravity when he runs. In any photo, one will always see his incredible smile – impossible to replicate; a smile that reflects his positive outlook on life and running. I was thrilled beyond words when Yuichi decided to join me to South Africa to race the Comrades.
Yuri Kambara heard of our plans for South Africa at the Namban BBQ in October last year, and made a decision on-the-spot to join us. Indeed that is one characteristic, among many, which I admire about her; she is decisive, generous and focused. A sub-three-hour marathoner, winner of the New Caledonia Women’s Marathon, 3-time consecutive winner of Mt. Fuji mountain race. She is in my opinion one of Namban’s most celebrated runners. I remember thinking how excited I was that Yuri too would join us and don the Namban colours alongside Yuichi and I on Comrades Race Day.
Yukari Oimatsu had wanted to race Comrades for some time. Indeed it is a ‘no-brainer’ that an ultra-runner of her calibre and ability would sign up. A finisher of 13 x 100km ultras, countless full marathons and long-distance events. An woman with a Herculean-like spirit, Yukari always displays her will to compete right up to the very end. As we registered at the Comrades Expo in Durban, I got the feeling that the Comrades needed Yukari more than Yukari needed the Comrades. Lining up alongside Yukari in Block D at 04:45 that Sunday morning was one of the highlights of my Comrades experience.
As I write this narrative on my return flight to Tokyo, I can only thank them all – Yukari, Yuichi and Yuri – for being an unforgettable group of friends with whom I shared so many wonderful experiences. Bucket loads of fun. Too much laughter. Never enough beer!
There was one piece to the puzzle that we desperately needed help with; the ‘getting there’ part. South Africa is a long way from Japan. It is an unknown country to all of us. It has a reputation as a dangerous travel destination. We had no clue how to arrange our trip. Who should come to our rescue in the finest form possible; my son Jacob. Jake quickly got to work with all the travel, accommodation and logistics, and secured a phenomenal package at unthinkable prices. Thanks to him, we were able to fly business class on one of the best airlines (Qatar Airways). We were able to stay at one of the most talked-about resorts in South Africa (Fairmont Zimbali Lodge). We were able to have such a memorable trip as a result of his brilliantly thought-out arrangements. We are all so very grateful and thankful to him for this.
We were also extremely lucky to receive the support from our old Namban friend, John Tadman, who now lives in South Africa. John flew down from J’burg, hired a vehicle, stayed at our lodge, supported us all at various points during the race, also arranged a visit to the incredible Hluhluwe–Imfolozi Reserve Park. John’s contribution to the puzzle was incredible and every piece he laid was done with the hands of kindness and affection for the Namban Rengo Club runners. Much thanks to John, and best wishes for his first Comrades next year.
The very final piece to the puzzle – the actual running from Durban to Pietermaritzburg – was solely in my hands. I owned this piece of the puzzle and I needed to finish it before the 12-hour cut- off. The good news is that I made it, and in a surprisingly decent time. The details of how I ran, when I walked, what I ate, how many times I urinated, are not for pen to write nor for paper to record. What is important is the relaying of the special moments that can only happen in a Comrades Marathon; an incredible exchange of friendship with another runner, an act of random kindness from a volunteer, a hearty cheer from a complete stranger. Every Comrades finisher experiences at least one special moment that he / she will store in the treasure box of their hearts for a long time to come. Here is mine.
I am approaching the last and much dreaded Polly Shorts Hill, and I spot a runner. His race bib informs me of his name – Boysie – and the number of Comrades he has previously done – 39. Afterwards I would learn that Boysie is one of the most decorated Comrades runners, and has featured many times as a Comrades Ambassador in South African TV and print; a true Comrades hero. As I approach him from behind, I touch him on his left shoulder and congratulate him on his 40th Comrades, and I remark on what a special Comrades this must be for him today.
He glances down at my race bib, noting that this was my first. He then looks up at me and smiles; ‘Thanks, but you know, yours is equally as special; this is your first Comrades and you will never forget it. Enjoy your Comrades, Nicholas. Enjoy your first Comrades.’
Such a humbling moment, and such an honour to have Boysie lay the last pieces to the puzzle.
Comrades Up Run; June 4, 2017. 09:48:00