How did PROF CHARLES PARRY get all the way to Durban but not run a single step of the world-famous ultramarathon for which he had trained a whole year? He told THISLIFE ONLINE…
CHARLES, 59, is director of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Research Unit at South Africa’s Medical Research Council. He lives in Pinelands, Cape Town, is married to Rebecca, a clinical psychologist and private tutor, and they have two adult children
Charles in full stride at the 2015 Comrades Marathon: little did he know then what would happen the following year

‘THE THEME of Comrades 2016 was ‘Izokuthoba – It will humble you’, and I’m sure this was the experience of most, if not all, runners. It was certainly humbling for me!

After 11 months of good training, including speed training on a tartan track in Ireland in July and August 2015 and more than 1 400km under my belt since January, I was ready. I had completed my first Comrades the year before, the race numbers were on my vest, the chip was on my running shoes, and my pacing chart for a sub-9 hours 30 minutes was prepared.

Then tragedy struck! Less than 24 hours before the race, on the Saturday morning, I went for a gentle 3km jog along the Durban promenade. I was enjoying the beautiful day and soaking up the sight of hundreds of fellow Comrades runners doing the same as me when I tripped.

I still don’t know how it happened. In a split second I decided to do a controlled roll onto my right shoulder, something I’d done before and ended up with nothing more than a slightly bruised arm. But this time was different. My shoulder was very painful and I could tell the damage was serious.

Billing itself as ‘the ultimate human race’, South Africa’s Comrades (Ultra) Marathon presents the exhausting challenge of 89 long and hilly kilometres (56 miles). Commentators have been known to doubt the sanity of those who participate  |  Photo: Comrades Marathon Association

After a few hours in the ER at St Augustine’s Hospital and a visit to the X-ray department, I was told I had a partial dislocation of the acromioclavicular joint (where the collarbone meets the highest point of the shoulder blade) and that running the Comrades was not on.

I was injected with a painkiller and told that surgery might be required back home. Later that day, I thought I might still be able to run with a Transact patch, and went to bed prepared to do it if things didn’t look that bad: after all, one runs with one’s legs and it might be ok if I didn’t swing my right arm!

Any thoughts of doing this disappeared at 1.30 am on Sunday when my alarm went off (not that I had slept much). My shoulder was swollen, throbbing and seriously out of alignment. Comrades 2016 was not for me! I now had to follow through on hastily arranged plans to be a spectator. At least I could help my roommate get ready for his third Comrades, and hopefully his first one to actually finish!

The nerve-wracking start that Charles never got to in 2016  |  Photo: Comrades Marathon Association

I went back to bed and tried to get another few hours’ sleep, and after breakfast set off with three other supporters to Hillcrest. We were there for about four hours and it was great to be able to see the lead runners come through. It was really hot and I empathised with them all.

With my arm in a sling, I was able to run a little way with several runners I knew and hopefully was able to encourage those who were feeling nauseous, tired and hot. Though I couldn’t compete I was still able to feel part of this great event.

Later, we drove down to the stadium and I was able to see runners coming in for their Bill Rowan medals for sub-9 hours − including some running mates who had managed personal bests.

Comrades: early morning and already looking like very hard work  |  Photo: Comrades Marathon Association

It was very tough seeing people walking around with their back-to-back medals bouncing, and to think that I could have been one of them, but sadly that was not to be. I did, however, take great joy in seeing a close colleague win her first Comrades medal, celebrating with my roommate on completing his first Comrades, and later eating with fellow runners and listening to their stories.

‘It isn’t just about doing the race on the day’

Would I wish this on anyone? No – never! I was filled with emotion telling a fellow traveller on the plane back to Cape Town what had happened. It turned out that he had picked up a bad case of flu two weeks before the race, and had decided not to run for fear of damaging his heart. It helped me to hear his story and to feel I wasn’t alone in getting so close to the starting line.

Many people have Comrades journeys that don’t involve starting or completing the 89km, and these journeys are sometimes more difficult than those who get to finish.

Mid route: we have to admit, this looks like fun. Pass the endorphins, please |  Photo: Comrades Marathon Association

I still can’t believe that I got so close to running my second Comrades but wasn’t able to start. I was humbled, but not defeated. Doing Comrades is not just about the race on the day but also the many, many hours on the road with fellow runners and sometimes by oneself, in rain, mist, wind and sunshine. At Comrades 2016, I got to meet many very special people, made new friends and found a way to move forward despite unexpected adversity. In the end I didn’t need surgery and was able to run again a couple of weeks later.

I had planned to do the Comrades down run this year, 2018, to make up for the one I didn’t get to start. However, I had to let someone else take over my entry as I had knee surgery in February to deal with a torn meniscus caused by wear and tear and a twisted ankle. I’m now in a five-month recovery period doing lots of cycling on a stationary bicycle. It’s been disappointing but I truly believe we’re defined not by the bad moments we experience, but by how we deal with them!

Following God has helped me keep perspective, take myself less seriously, and understand that even with modest misfortune like this, there are lessons to be learned. Life is about so much more than our achievements and failures.’

Charles with family: ‘I had a lesson to learn about achievement and failure’
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