From 3km to 90km in Five Years

The author and Paul at the Comrades Marathon.

Miwa Tonaki relates her amazing transformation from non-runner to Comrades finisher.

In South Africa, on Sunday 10th June 2018, I officially became an ultra-marathon runner.  I had finished the Comrades Marathon’s 90 km route in 11 hours 55 minutes and 43 seconds; less than 5 minutes before its infamously strict 12 hour cut-off.  If I’d missed it I would have no medal, no time, and none of the glory of completing the grand old race. I really wanted to finish this race as my partner, Paul Ogden, was running his tenth Comrades and was thus hoping to become a member of the Comrades Green Number Club.  When a runner completes ten Comrades their number is retired and permanently allocated for them for all future races. I wanted my first run to coincide with his tenth so that we could celebrate together. As Paul is a committed atheist, I could not tell him that during the race I prayed to the God of Comrades, if there is such a thing, to help me to finish the race. I discovered later that there might actually be one after all!

The Comrades is the world’s largest and oldest ultra-marathon race having been founded in 1921 to commemorate the dead of WW1.  There were about 20,000 entrants in the 2018 race, the vast majority being South African runners. The direction of the race alternates each year between the ”Up Run” (~87km) starting from Durban and the “Down Run” (now 90.2km) starting from Pietermaritzburg. My race would be a “Down Run” but that really didn’t make it any easier. This is the story of how I went from jogging 3 km to finishing Comrades in five years.

An Absolute Beginner, and the Power of Compound Interest.  (3km to Park Run)

Back in 2012 I had moved to the UK from the USA, to take a master’s degree at the LSE.  Before coming here I hadn’t been involved in any regular exercise for many years, except for an occasional yoga class. I liked the sound of running, but I couldn’t last for more than 5 minutes on a treadmill and I certainly couldn’t understand how people could run anything like the distance of a marathon.

2012 was, of course, the year of the London Olympics and the city was buzzing with talk of Usain Bolt and Mo Farah, amongst others, and that was the trigger for me to give running a proper go.

When Paul talked about his running, he gently suggested that I should start running short distance like 3 km just for fun.  I didn’t like the idea of anything “hard”, but I certainly could do something for “fun”. I bought some stylish Nike gear to give me a sleek city runner look – after all if you look good you feel good, and if you feel good it is easier to keep trying. So, in January 2013, I started going for a 3km jog twice a week.

3km was a good distance to make me feel great and yet not too exhausted. After a few weeks Paul suggested that I should try to steadily increase my running distance by no more than 10% every week so my 3km runs increased to 3.3km the next week and 3.6km the week after that.  He explained that it is effectively a compound interest calculation, having an accountancy background I found that convincing, so I thought I would give it a try.

Two months later I’d reached 5km and in March 2013 I made my parkrun début. The reason it took me so long is that while the compound calculation should work in theory there are many unexpected events in the real world which can derail it: sudden rain, late night out with friends, or even a full laundry basket. One of Paul’s pieces of advice was that it is fine to take a break once in a while, but just don’t stop completely for a month. I followed his advice and whenever I took a break I found it pretty easy to pick it up again. Clearly the power of compounding should not be under-estimated.

The Accidental Multiple-Marathoner (parkrun to London Marathon)

After getting comfortable with parkruns, I found myself occasionally running up to 7 km. This seemed to be the right time to step up and become a club runner so I joined Serpies in February 2014.  It felt like I had become a grown-up, finally moving from a tricycle to a bicycle. I started running two parks, two and a half parks, and with the Serpies/RAC group.  Running was becoming a proper part of my life and socialising after the run made me feel that I was becoming more of a Londoner too.  I was quite content with what I had achieved.

In the autumn of 2014, Paul suggested that we should go for a marathon holiday in Barcelona.  The Barcelona Marathon is extremely well organised and logistically it is very convenient. He then suggested that if I was going to be in Barcelona for the marathon that maybe I should give it a go too. Before I knew it I was gently training for a marathon which was being held in March 2015, and Paul became my unofficial personal trainer.

Besides Serpies, I had also joined KPMG’s running club.  The club announced that they were balloting for three places in the 2015 London Marathon. Since I had started training for a marathon anyway, I put my name into the hat and guess what, I won a place!  Oh, well… I had to take this opportunity otherwise I might not have another chance.  Only then did I realise that the Barcelona Marathon and London Marathon were only 6 weeks apart.  I couldn’t imagine how I would manage, but I had no choice – I would be doing both my first and second marathons in only a few months’ time.

Paul did a great job keeping me motivated for my training during that period. He encouraged me with compliments on how quickly I had improved and how good I looked.  He did also point out that I would regret if I didn’t do enough training as I’d have a couple of long races to reflect on it. To my surprise, I was able to finish both races within my target times, uninjured and smiling.

Ultra-marathoners – the new Normal?

Having done two marathons in consecutive months my confidence was sky high and I was not afraid of the distance anymore. My times were about four and half hours and, whilst it didn’t make me a fast runner, I had been resilient and I never stopped.  Once the big races were over my regular running commitments during 2015 were Sunday League cross country and the RAC/Serpie runs.  These two were complementary and helped me to balance both my training and social life. Whilst the running surfaces were self evidently very different the post-run socialising venues were very different as well. One was usually at a local pub which doesn’t mind a group of sweaty runners with muddy shoes and the latter was in a stylish bar at an historic club in Pall Mall. As an Okinawan I have never imagined myself in the UK running around in muddy fields aged over 50.  My image of the Britain before I arrived was afternoon tea, Shakespeare, classical concerts and other fancy events. But I have discovered that there is much more to British life than I had imagined.

During this time I had the privilege to get acquainted with amazing fellow Serpie runners like Eddie Brocklesby and Angela McGhee. Both ladies are over 70: Eddie is competing in Ironman races and Angela is an accomplished marathon runner.  When I was training for the Tokyo Marathon in 2017, I was introduced to Angela as she is determined to complete the Marathon Majors. If you complete the London, Boston, New York, Chicago, Berlin and Tokyo marathons you are awarded a great big medal.  Angela was a gold medallist for her age-group in the Berlin Marathon some years ago with a time much faster than my PB. She started running when she was over 60 having never done any sport competitively before that. Unfortunately, she was not able to complete the 2017 Tokyo Marathon due to her injury, but she went back and completed it in 2018. I knew that she would.

After talking to these ladies, and many of Paul’s other friends who are also ultra-marathon runners, it was natural for me to find another challenge. I always thought that these super athletes were rather crazy, but if you are surrounded by them for long enough they start to sound normal. Paul had been trying to convince me to run Comrades for a few years.  Should I say yes to Comrades? It was tempting but, once I said yes, I would have to be fully committed and it was a scary thought to run for up to 12 hours.

It was the day when Paul failed to complete a Thames Path 100 mile race dropping out at after 80 miles with a bruised foot and a golf-ball sized haematoma on his calf. We were all sitting outside a pub by the river in Oxford and Paul was talking to his friends about his injuries. At that point I knew that I would never be able to do a 100 mile race as it seemed so brutal “but”, I said to Paul, “I think I can do Comrades”.  His face lit up and he shouted with joy, “You shall do Comrades!”

Paul’s friends have a long-standing suspicion that this had always been his plan as he had been buying me gifts from many ultras. Indeed, I have several t-shirts from ultra-marathons, including Comrades, UTMB and MDS.  Now after I had suggested that I could do Comrades he kept telling everyone that I was going to run Comrades whenever he had a chance.  Had I been trapped by his cunning plan? In the blink of an eye my training had built up to running whole marathons on several consecutive weekends in the run up to the big race.

Shosholoza, Kulezo ntaba  (translates as “Go Forward, from those mountains”)

20,000 runners, mostly South African, were gathering in the dark, pre-dawn, streets of Pietermaritzburg. I was shivering in my bin bag: a South African winter’s morning can be quite cold. Starting time was 5:30 am and the DJ was playing the same sequence of tunes as always before the start of the race.  The highlight for me was Shosholoza, which is so popular in South Africa that it is often referred to as the nation’s second national anthem.  Since I had entered the race, I been memorising the lyrics and practicing the song. Now I couldn’t believe that I was finally standing on the start line of Comrades and singing with my fellow runners. Young and old, rich and poor, male and female… everyone is a Comrade on race day. When I did my first 3 km jog, I had never imagined that I would be in the start line of the most famous ultra marathon in the world. I was so thrilled about the journey ahead of me and I was determined that I must finish.

It was a “Down Race”, but the course was not all downhill by any means. It had enough uphills to really worry me, I could go faster downhill, but I was very slow uphill.  Soon the singing was over and we were off and running into a glorious dawn rising over the Kwa-Zulu Natal bush.

About half-way, that’s just over a whole marathon’s distance, I noticed a 12 hour “bus” approaching me. In Comrades, they call a pacing group a “bus”.  The Comrades time cut-offs are very strict and they will not let you even cross the line if you are a second over the 12 hours gun-time. I really didn’t want to let the 12 hour bus overtake me so I fought with my tired legs to speed up, but I couldn’t do anything. It felt impossible to pick myself up and run the second half faster than the first. I thought that my race was over, my thoughts turned to where I should bail out.

“Konichiwa” … I heard a Japanese voice shout from behind me. To my astonishment, it was Hideo Takano, a 17-time Comrades finisher who was awarded The Spirit of Comrades award in 2017, and one of our ultra-running friends. I just couldn’t believe it was him, “What are you doing back here?” I asked.  “I’m just going slowly because I have another hard race later in the year” said Hideo. “I’ll run with you to the top of the hill. At this pace, you can still finish with about 5 minutes to spare.” ,he said. He then explained that the bus I just missed was going far too fast and that there were two more 12 hours buses coming along later. The God of Comrades had obviously heard my prayers and sent Hideo to rescue me.

Hideo advised me to use a new tactic: power walking.  My legs were so weak after 45km that I couldn’t run uphill quickly enough anymore. I found that I could walk up hill quicker than I could run and, as a bonus, I could rest my running muscles for the downhills. After delivering his encouragement Hideo picked up his pace and I was left on my own again, but this time I knew what I needed to do.

My last 3 km was a very nervous run/walk.  If I cramped I would not have enough time to hobble to the finish. I kept an eye on the time and remaining distance and set my power-walking pace to ensure that I could make it. I entered the stadium with Chariots of Fire playing and 5 minutes to spare just as Hideo had promised. I was quickly re-united with Paul, and his green number, in the international runners’ section of the stadium. We had both done it and could celebrate as fellow Comrades.

Comrades is not just a race, but it is an event to embrace each individual’s effort without discrimination. For some multiple green number members (several have 40+ finishes) it is a lifetime commitment. People have said that life is a marathon. I would say Comrades is like life. You will experience ups and downs. You will sometimes become philosophical or emotional.  If you set your limit, it is your limit. Even I can do it. Anybody can do it. You just keep going and going, then you will finish. The Comrades medal is noticeably much smaller than most 10km runs award but it means a great deal for many of the runners including Paul and me.

Miwa Tonaki is originally from Okinawa, Japan. She lived in Hawaii, Manila, Tokyo, New York, and Arizona before she moved to London in 2012. Besides running, she enjoys sourdough bread baking and knitting.