Comrades Ultra Marathon

A 54 mile ultra-race in Africa, in less than 12 hours.  

Isn’t that a crazy thought?  Who in their right mind would ever consider such torture?  Just to think about running a 26.2 mile marathon is a challenge.  I read once that less than .5% of the U.S. population has ever completed a full marathon, yet now I was contemplating running a back to back marathon with some more on top of that, all in less than 12 hours. 

This journey began to take shape as an idea some point back in September of 2018.  After the Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon in July 2018, I rested for a few weeks and then did some semi long runs to test the legs.  All systems felt great, so I signed up to run one of the few official marathons in Alaska, the Fairbanks Marathon.  I really had no expectations of signing up to participate in another crazy race.  I wasn’t ready to do any sort of fundraising campaign for a while since the Alaskaman happened only a few months prior. We had decided, Rae and I, to take some time off from crazy; I mean the incredible amount of time, finances and energy a big race takes from us….

So here is how things got crazy.

I remember having a conversation with my lady where we talked about the infamous race that “scared me” for nearly a decade.  The first time I heard about the Comrades Ultra Marathon was back in 2011 when my friend, and at the time my boss, Michael Chitwood and the one, the only Rusty Funk were trying to convince me to do this insane race with them.  [They have a gift of inviting, convincing, and persuading people to do crazy things on behalf of others.]  Up to this point last fall, I had run a few marathons and in each one of them my body took a hit while training.  During the actual races and post, my body and mind were exhausted and trashed.  To be quite honest, at some point I had decided in my mind that I would never be able or have any desire to run Comrades.  Add all the logistics and finances needed to travel to Africa to run this race, it seemed like an impossible task to accomplish. 

Yet, one chilly October morning of 2018, after a recovery run, a thought emerged, “what’s next?”. This thought was followed by a very wild thought, “the race I have been afraid of for so long.”

Wait…

Oh no…

What.  What if…

Just so you know, when a “what if” kind of question (often asked by my wonderful wife who loves to torture me) or a “what if” random thought (usually God speaking to me) emerges and it ends with an idea way outside my comfort level, outside of what we think is possible, it is like our family likes to torture ourselves by thinking somehow all these challenges are achievable. 

To make a long story short, Rae and I talked and decided that if Comrades was the next challenge, we were going to dream really BIG.  Thus came the CRAZY goal to get over 100 children sponsored with World Vision, on top of running Comrades.  It is interesting how when you begin to add flesh and blood to these outrageous ideas/goals, how different their shape and form can become from what you think.  For me, when I think of children who need someone to speak on their behalf, it becomes my big motivation, the engine of it all.  The reason why Comrades was even a possibility, the reason behind this madness, was being able to do something for children in need across the world.   

The journey, training and race has been one of the most challenging things I have ever done.  There are so many details about the preparation that goes into getting your mind and body ready for an ultra.  [An ultra is any race over a marathon distance.]  There are endless hours running, training, figuring out nutrition, etc.  Here are a few facts about my training for Comrades: 

  • From January to race day I officially logged over 1,100 miles in training
  • I completed 9 marathon distance runs [26.2 miles, one happened at the Dead Sea in Israel]
  • I had my first DNF [did not finish] for a race/training run in Tel Aviv, Israel.  It would have been my 10th marathon distance during training
  • In training, I ran a training run of 31 miles…twice 
  • I had a block of 8 weeks where each weekend I was doing at least a marathon at best up to a 31 mile run at worst for one day, followed by a full marathon the next day.

All of that on top of being a husband and father at home and a new role at work that required much more of me. 

With the help of my incredible wife and God’s strength we tackled each of the challenges leading up to race day, one day at the time.  This training season has been truly a process of consistency and endurance over a long period of time.  I personally have learned so much about the ability to take one step at a time, the patience required to have a BIG PICTURE goal and remain focused on the small and mundane, on the daily discipline of patience, on trust in the process that will eventually lead somewhere.  Running for the sake of running is not something I look forward to and yet somehow, I have found joy and purpose running for children in need and it truly fills my heart with so much pleasure and joy.

Then came Race Day.

My alarm went off at 3 am in Durban, South Africa.  The room was quiet and Rae and Velda were still sleeping.  Yes, somehow God provided for Rachel, Velda and myself to be a part of this Vision Trip Team World Vision puts together.  There are so many details about how the journey brought us all here but that will have to be a story for another time.  Back to race day, I got up, showered, gathered my gear, and headed to the lobby of our hotel to have breakfast.  I was about to join another crazy 11 Team World Vision runners from all over the states that had also decided to take on this challenge of running this race and finding sponsors for children. 

We prayed together, took a few pictures and loaded up on our bus that took us to the start of the race.  Durban is a modern city by the Indian Ocean in South Africa.  It had rained overnight so the streets were a bit wet and it was still dark by the time we got to our corral.  We could see the start line of the race about 2 streets ahead of us and behind us were close to 19,000 people waiting for the gun to go off at 5:30 am.  The anticipation was building and among our team of World Vision runners we were looking at our heart rate monitors, comparing how high our heart rates were.  We wondered if it was the humidity or temperature, but I honestly think it was a sheer sign of nervousness.  We waited for about 30 minutes where there was no space to move at all and then, the gun went off.  Cheers exploded among the runners and the people in front of us began to slowly move forward towards the start line.  At this point the only thought I had was “tick, tick, tick….the clock is running!”  We officially had 11 hours and 59 minutes to cross the finish line and become official Comrades’ finishers, a title very few humans hold.

Have you ever placed a ton of energy, focus, money and time towards a one day goal?  There is a certain level of risk on one day events like that.  So many things can go wrong leading up to or even on that day.  There is sickness, family challenges, financial, things that seem to come out of the blue, life never stops.  There were multiple times during training that I honestly questioned why I was spending 5 to 6 hours during my long runs on Friday, Saturday and/or Sunday, week in and out, away from my girls.  Time is one of my biggest assets; time with my girls is something I won’t get back.  I thought about all of this during the first few kilometers of the race.  [Since South Africa was a British colony, their method of measurement is the Metric system.]

At the beginning of the race, for the first few kilometers, most of our teammates stayed together.  We had on the team a few runners that had done the race in the past and then a bunch of newbies like me.  Each runner’s BIB number also stated the number of Comrades finishes so obviously I had a “0” on my bib. 

One special runner in our group was Brad.  Brad is a South African fisherman who supports World Vision.  He came across the team coming from the states for this race years ago and now each year makes himself available to share his expertise with us “the newbies”. 

He has finished Comrades 16 times!!!

Not a typo, sixteen times!

He is the proud owner of a “green BIB number”.  If you complete the race 10 times, the race officials will retire your number and grant you a green colored BIB.  If you see a runner wearing a green bib you know for sure that person has completed the race at least 10 times, therefore they know the course and what it takes to get to the finish line. 

So all of us were hanging close to Brad.  

From the get-go Brad mentioned his strategy was to run at a steady pace and whenever he came across one of the major five hills, he would power walk it to conserve energy.  Most of us thought he was nuts but on the course we all learned very quickly the reason why he did it: energy consumption.  He pointed out several times how people would attempt to run the uphill [and some nasty uphill at that] only to gain 10-20 seconds per kilometer compared to those power walking the uphills; the energy spent running uphill was so much greater and not worth it in the big picture.  

The Lord reminded me during the first few hills of the instances where I wanted to get to my destination quickly; I want to rush and try to control everything and yet, I have experienced and continue to learn again and again the art of patience and consistency over the whole run.  See, we all have a long race ahead on so many levels.  I am not a husband for a few decades but my commitment to my lady is one that must last a lifetime.  I am not a dad only for a few years, but I want to become a present dad till the Lord calls me to move into eternity.  I am a follower of Jesus, not because the title I have or my career path, but because I love Him.  I want to finish “the race” of life strong and with much more excitement and dependency on God than when I began it as a young man.  Energy consumption is not only critical when doing an endurance race, but it applies to all aspects of our life.  We must think about the long haul; I must think about how to pace myself to create a rhythm that is sustainable for years and years to come.  Anyway, I can talk about this for a while and maybe one day I will put my thoughts down on paper about this for my girls to read….

Back to the race. 

What truly helped me on race day was having a group of people around me encouraging me.  I only got separated from our original group of nine runners for maybe about 70-80 minutes early on in the race.  At first, I got a chance to run with our team leader Josh.  Josh and I are no strangers to one another.  Back in the day when I used to be a World Vision Staff in the NYC metro area I interacted with Josh often.  He was one of our rockstar team captains from a church in downtown NYC.  As matter of fact, when I was leaving my position at Team World Vision back in 2013 Josh was the guy I suggested as my replacement.  Now Josh has recently taken a role as staff at World Vision.  What a joy it was to see him thrive and lead us so well for the past 2 weeks.  Josh has the ability to make everyone feel honored; he is extremely pastoral and thoughtful.  What a guy!!

Back to the race. 

The group running with Brad was running at a comfortable pace, but I wanted to reserve energy and be very conservative early on.  So I slowed down and saw them disappear among the crowds in front of me, only to realize some time later that I had caught up and passed them without even noticing.  I decided from that point on to hang with Brad and the team for as long as possible without overdoing it.  We were probably running at a 9:30 minute pace.

Me running on Cowies Hill 0 07:28 am
Me running on Cowies Hill 0 07:28 am

As the race went longer our group began to get smaller and smaller.  At one point it was just three of us running together.  Everyone needed to run their own race, at their own pace, listening to their own bodies.  Yet, around the 35 kilometer mark we settled in as a group of five runners: Brad, Taylor, Kelsey, David and myself.  Thankfully, I did not cramp during the race but at one of the aid stations, I asked a volunteer to massage the back of my right leg because it began to feel tight.  Somewhere after the halfway mark the two girls, Taylor and Kelsey, were feeling so strong Brad told them to go for it.  He did not want to hold them back.  I wanted so badly to stay with Brad however, slowing down hurt more than running at the pace we had been running so I “drafted” with Taylor and Kelsey.  We maybe ran for 35-40 minutes when Brad and David caught up with us from the back.  I was so happy to be reunited and we began to believe we could all take it to the end. 

I do not think it is common for a group of five runners to stay together pretty much all day long on such a long race and finish together, yet somehow we managed to do it.  Together, we ran, we powered walked the big hills, we flew on the downhills, we encouraged each other, we joked about each other, we most likely cried together, we prayed, and we moved forward together one step at the time.  I joked often that I was drafting on all of them and to be quite honest, I was.  There was something I can not explain about us moving together as a team.  It was like the pack was creating this movement together; a reminder that we are meant to live this life together.  When we allow ourselves to isolate from the people around us, we lose something magical, we miss a sense of community, we miss an opportunity to help others and be helped by others, to encourage others and be encouraged by others.      

Group walking Polly Shorts Hill - 15:22 pm
Group Walking Polly Shorts Hill – 15:22 pm

As I mentioned earlier, the race is measured in kilometers.  Instead of the signs counting up stating how much you have run, the signs counted down each kilometer to the finish.  I remember so clearly passing the 50-kilometer mark (31 miles) thinking, holy macro I have never run longer than 31 miles at once in my life.  Each sign we came across after that point was new territory for me.  Can you imagine that?  Getting to the 50K mark thinking I still have 35 kilometers (23 miles) to go?  How will my body do here?  Is my body fully prepared for this?  Did I do my homework well?  Did I taper and rest well?  How will my body feel after 3 weeks of tapering, not running anything longer than 8 miles?  What if my body shuts down?  What if I did not intake enough nutrition the first 6 hours of the race?  What if I can not complete this?  So many questions and all new territory; I guess we/I needed to trust the process.

Trust is such an interesting word, isn’t it?  Imagine running five times a week for over seven months, increasing mileage a little at a time, while focusing on rest, nutrition, hydration, and core body workouts. You are trusting that in one single day all the pieces are going to line up perfectly.  Well, I have to say, all the training, tapering and rest did indeed line up perfectly for me on that one day.

Near the finish Line - 16:20 pm
Near the finish Line – 16:20 pm

Comrades is the longest, single most painful day I have experienced in a race and at the same time, the greatest day doing a race. This experience was wonderful and challenging, and I would be lying if I did not mention that many times during the race, I had to hold back the tears.  It was a very emotional day for me.  I remember almost every kilometer and yet, it seemed like the whole thing happened in a blink of an eye.  There were moments of sheer joy, moments where I felt so strong, feeling I have reached my 24-hour pace and I could go forever.  There were other moments where I thought I had come to my end and just wanted it to be over.  Every time I thought about stopping, I reminded myself the reason why we as a family decided to do this.  Every time I had negative thoughts and wanted to complain about how much it hurt, I quickly was reminded that we were doing this to help children in need. 

The support all over the race was incredible.  One of my favorite cheer stations was World Vision South Africa.  They came out full force with a lot of staff and people cheering us on.  I also came across Paul and Lauren; friends from the states that come to South Africa to support an incredible ministry they founded and have invested in for many years.  They have no idea how amazing it was to hear Paul yelling my name from the crowds and seeing Lauren only a few feet away from me!  Lastly, seeing Velda and my lady multiple times during the course was awesome.  Rae has sacrificed so much time helping me train and get ready for this adventure and I am so grateful for all her support.  She worked so hard getting children sponsored, taking care of the girls while I was useless after long training runs, her attitude was always positive even thought she said “no” to many things she wanted to do. With all honesty she has the MVP player award of the Martinez’ team. Having Rachel and Velda in Africa with me is a memory I will never forget.

Less than 10 kilometers to the finish
Less than 10 kilometers to the finish

Entering the stadium in Pietermaritzburg was such an emotional way to celebrate this accomplishment.  The five of us were able to cross the finish line together!  We had completed 54+ miles of running! (my Garmin watch recorded 55.6 miles when all was done)

Completely exhausted and grateful after the finish
Completely exhausted and grateful after the finish

Once the race was over, we waited for all our team members to come join us at the international waiting area.  We had a few runners that were not able to finish the race due to either not making the last check point or deciding to stop due to a potential injury.  Regardless, we celebrated as a team because our trip really had just begun.  You see, the race was only part of what we had set out to do. 

Waiting for every runner to cross the finish line
Waiting for every runner to cross the finish line

The main race was and still is getting children sponsored so they can have a better future.  You might imagine the majority of our conversations were about the race but in reality, it was about how we could invite more people into this journey of sponsoring.  I believe so far as a whole team (runners and spectathletes) we have reached about 260 children sponsored.  We come from so many different backgrounds, traditions, races, and denominations and yet, we set out to do one thing together.  We are truly part of a team! 

The Runners Post Race
The Runners Post Race

What a blessing to meet this group of strangers [for the most part], to live together for almost 2 weeks in Africa, running an epic race, visiting 3 countries, witnessing the incredible work of World Vision in the field, meeting World Vision staff from different countries [staff who happen to be some of the most passionate followers of Jesus I have ever come across], experiencing God breaking our hearts for others and putting it back together, sweating, smelling bad, waking up in the wee hours of the morning and going to sleep late at night, and taking 16 different planes in one single multi country trip.  An experience we shared as ONE group; one I will never forget.  Before we were runners, we were simply a group of people responding to Jesus’ call to love children across the world.

Finish Line Medals - 16:26 pm
Finish Line Medals – 16:26 pm

Comrades may be over but the race against the evil cycle of poverty continues and our family is committed to continue to do what we can to help others less fortunate than us.  We are committed to allowing God to invite us to dream big and to inspire others to do the same.  We are honored to join Jesus in the renewal of all things. 

The picture below is really the reason we did this, meeting our sponsored child and her dad was truly the highlight of the trip.  Another blog post will be coming to tell more about the remaining of our trip.  So many stories to share, so many things to say.  I am sure it will take us some time to process everything we did, everything we experienced, in both Ethiopia and Kenya. 

The Martinez family with one of our sponsored girls and her Dad at the World Vision Ethiopia Head Quarters in Addis Ababa
with one of our sponsored girls and her Dad at the World Vision Ethiopia Head Quarters in Addis Ababa

If you feel led to join in the incredible journey of sponsoring a child, here is the link to do so: http://www.worldvision.org/juampamartinez

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