Karen Fuller, who heads up HomeAway’s global research department, is a running fanatic who logs about 45 miles a week around Austin, Texas. While that is impressive, in the summer of 2012 she ran 56 miles in one day during her first ultra-marathon, the Comrades Marathon, in South Africa. Here’s her story about the run and a trip of a lifetime:
What inspired you to participate in an ultra marathon?
I chose an ultra marathon because on a fairly regular basis, I like to try something that seems almost beyond reach; something that scares me. I specifically chose the Comrades Marathon because former colleagues at Reebok told me about it and made it sound like a wonderful experience. Comrades is billed as the "Ultimate Human Race" and is rich in South African tradition, from its origin as a living memorial to the spirit of the soldiers of World War I, to the course which runs from the Durban to Pietermaritzburg in the “up” years and from Pietermaritzburg to Durban in the “down” years, to the strict cut-off time. It is that 12-hour cut-off time that made Comrades an irresistible race for me. In this day and age, where we get a medal for just showing up, I liked the idea that there was a standard that you had to achieve, that showing up was not enough and maybe even trying your hardest was not enough. At the 12-hour mark, the official fires the gun and if you are not on the other side of the finish line, your effort does not get recognized. That is a powerful motivator.
What was the most surprising part of the race for you?
I wanted to have that moment when I thought, “Oh S#&%, what have I gotten myself into.” If I don’t feel that way every once in awhile I know I am not pushing myself and exploring my limits. Comrades presented many options for that moment – I figured that could happen during the tough part of the training schedule, or maybe at the start of the race, or maybe with 20 miles left to go on race day. Turns out that moment never happened- I literally had a smile on my face the entire time.
I kept smiling because I have run 25 marathons in my life, and it may sound redundant because it’s the Comrades race, but the camaraderie of the day was truly unprecedented to me. International runners wear a different color bib and repeatedly before, during and after the race, South Africans, including fellow runners, would express how happy they were that you came to their country and ran the race.
What was the energy like leading up to the race?
I traveled to South Africa with my parents, my sister, my running partner (Operations Controller at HomeAway, Karen Hatley) and her boyfriend. We arrived in Durban the Thursday before the race and stayed in a bed-and-breakfast about two miles outside the city. The race was Sunday, June 3 at 5:30am. Getting to the start required catching a taxi at 1:45am for the short ride to Durban, where we caught a bus for the hour and a half ride to the start in Pietermaritzburg. Arriving in Pietermaritzburg at 3:30am provided plenty of opportunity to soak up the excitement. At about 5:00am runners started lining up in their starting corrals and soon everyone started singing “Shosholoza” (an old African mining song), and the South African national anthem. The Chariots of Fire theme song ratcheted up the excitement and anticipation even more. Then we were off. The next 11 hours and 13 minutes (that’s how long it to me to finish!) were filled with a chorus of “well done” from spectators and other runners, water sachets, salted baked potatoes, Energade, hills, high fives and lots of running which ended in the Kingsmead Cricket Ground in Durban. An incredible experience!
So did the 11 hour and 13 minute finish time mean you won (we’re competitive bunch at HomeAway!) and more importantly, would you do it again?
In my view of the world, I won. I just had to beat that gun. Despite being told that I had to run a “down year” and an “up year” to be a real Comrades runner, if I went back I could never replicate the amazing experience I had this year, so I will have to do something different next time.
Finishing an ultra-marathon is a huge accomplishment, but sounds as though it was only part of the excitement, what are your thoughts on traveling to South Africa?
Following the race we spent two days at Phinda Game Preserve and then four days in Cape Town. The safari was one of my favorite experiences. In Cape Town we squeezed in many of the “must sees” including Table Mountain, Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years, St. George’s Cathedral where Bishop Desmond Tutu preached, Stellenbosch wine region (can I have the chocolate and wine pairing at Waterford Estate every day, please?), Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, and high tea at the Mount Nelson Hotel. Overall, it was my best vacation ever!