An Uplifting Experience for Dan Yi in an Up Year

Dan Yi sealing his 79th overall, first American and silver medalist finish at the 2013 Comrades Marathon.

Dan Yi sealing his 79th overall, first American and silver medalist finish at the 2013 Comrades Marathon.

Our own Dan Yi ventured to South Africa to run the Comrades Marathon on June 2nd. We know he is fit, we know he is awesome, we know he has a great attitude but did we know that ANYONE could report having kicked it in after 54 miles? Could we have imagined he would say this was “the best running experience of my life”?

The Comrades Marathon was the brainchild of Vic Clapham, a fearless war veteran of both the Anglo-Boer and Great Wars who wanted to find a way to honor the bravery of his fallen comrades. By staging a brutally challenging race each year, Clapham thought this would be a living memorial, one that showed that the average person could put himself to an extreme test and overcome obstacles. The first race was in May of 1921. The tradition of the race, point to point from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, or Pietermaritzburg to Durban, has been repeated year after year, with the exception of the war years 1941–1945. It now attracts almost 20,000 people, pulling people from all over the world to test themselves over the brutal 87 kilometers. There is a strict cutoff time of 12 hours. So, one kilometer shy of the finish at 11:59 and sorry, but you are going home without the satisfaction of saying you completed the course.

The course alternates direction with an impressive net change in elevation. This year, with the start in Durban and the demanding escalation in elevation, Comrades is an UP year. And, Dan rose to the challenge.

Years ago Dan read an article in which Alberto Salazar recounted his win in the 1994 Comrades race. Salazar, a great heat runner, recalled the staggering physical challenge of the experience, including becoming delusional enough to hear voices. Then, there was Gareth Coville, another Dojo runner, who related his experience with the race. Dan was intrigued.

As he hammered out an impressive road racing career, Dan had Comrades in the back of his mind. With his recent strong performances at Boston and MCM Dan has concluded that the longer the race, the more competitive he is. Extend the distance beyond 26.2 and just see what happens…

His hunch proved to be correct. He keeps saying that “…this race felt strangely easier than a marathon for me. I never felt any moment of doubt where I thought, ‘oh my gosh, I can’t sustain this effort’ whereas in a typical marathon I feel this 2-3 times at least. And I felt fresher and stronger at the end then during any marathon I’ve ever done. It got to the point where I looked forward to the big hills or headwinds, because it gave me a better shot at passing more folks. Heck, I even kicked the last 300 m or so of the race; I’ve never managed that in any other race, haha!”

In addition to being “easier”, Dan has called this the best running experience of his life. Some of the reasons he cites are the strong tradition of the race and the feeling of support and love by the South Africans. He also went into the race with more curiosity than goals. What he found was a confidence that propelled him through the many miles. Always, in the back of his mind was the memory of his high school friend, Ben Horne, who died last year after climbing a peak in Peru. They were to have run Comrades together.

In the days before the race he stuck to his “crazy carb loading plan”. He reports downing lots of gels during the race to sustain his blood sugar levels, he drank sports drinks, ate handfuls of salt (!) and doused himself with water to keep cool. Recovery has been smooth, except for one nasty blister. He has spent the balance of his time in South Africa hiking mountains and reports only some quad stiffness. What a man!

There were many many positive experiences all rolled into one massive Comrades Marathon. In his own words, here are some of the highlights:

* standing on the starting line at 5 am with 18000+ other runners when all the South Africans start singing, at the top of their lungs, the old Zulu work song “Shoshelosha”, which has become an unofficial national anthem. White, black, Indian, it didn’t matter the color, everyone was united as one people facing a monumental challenge, singing this Zulu song at the top of their lungs. It was overwhelming.

* most race have one “named” hill. This race has FIVE (one is 3 km long!) and the rest of the course in between feels pretty uphill anyway. I joked to Jen when we drove the course that there aren’t five named hills, there is one, and it is called “South Africa.” proud to say I ran the entire way, including every hill.

* the twelve hour cutoff is amazing to watch. At the end of 12 hours, a man with his back to the finishers fires a gun. Anyone who has not crossed cannot, and is not a finisher. Around 11:55, an entire stadium full of people, including me, just start screaming at the top of their lungs, trying to impart a little bit of their willpower to help the runners along. This is no pity clap, this is just a desperate urge to see a person who has worked for 12 hours on the road go home with recognition from their effort. Incredible!

* international runners are treated like rock stars here. The race gives internationals a separate check in, a unique colored bib (so others cheer you on even more), and a separate tent at the finishline to watch the finish.

* the runners care SO much about this race. They wait in a 3-4 hour long line just to pick up their bib. Folks without much money nevertheless pretty much cleaned out the Comrades merchandise tent. Until recent years, thousands of runners with little money would come to the race and sleep under park benches and in alleyways in Durban just to run (most of these folks had no chance of winning, but rather just wanted to finish – these days, the race sets up free shelter and food for the many who can’t afford accommodations). It is hugely inspiring and motivating to compete against all these folks who care so much about this race that they will sacrifice this much. It makes the miles and workouts I put in seem insignificant by comparison.

* the race honors winners and perseverers alike. Anyone who finishes 10 Comrades, regardless of time, is inducted into the prestigious “Green Number Club” in a ceremony right after they finish number 10. They are given their bib number in perpetuity (no one else will ever wear it again), given a velvet green banner of their number, and are literally handed a membership card, which gets them into a special room of the Comrades Marathon museum, as well as a special finishline tent. I really liked how they make such a big deal out of the folks who may never win, but manage to persevere.

WRC sends him a HUGE mound of congratulations for his 79th overall, first American and silver medalist finish.