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by Michelle Carnegie
15 June 2018

It’s been nearly a week since Ann Ashworth won the 2018 Comrades Marathon…in style. The 34-year-old advocate broke the tape of her 7th Comrades race in a time of 6:10:04, the fastest time since Russian Elena Nurgalieva ran 6:07:12 for the 2012 Down Run (keeping in mind that course was 900m shorter as this year’s course).

Ashworth beat favourite Gerda Steyn by more than 5 minute after taking the lead 3 hours and 30 minutes into the race. She ran her heart out right to the very end. After the race she said no one was more surprised about winning the race than she was!

But with a support team consisting of 9 times Comrades winner Bruce Fordyce, legendary Comrades coach John Hamlett, a mental attitude second to none and a hunger to win the greatest ultra of them all, it was inevitable that Ashworth would win the Comrades Marathon. 2018 was her year!

Run24 chatted to Ann about the big day.

Q: It’s been nearly a week since you’ve become the 2018 Comrades Champion. What an achievement! Simply put, how are you feeling?
What a crazy week! I’ve been overwhelmed with messages, calls, emails and well wishes – it has been wonderful! My legs are surprisingly ok, although they might not be if I suddenly decided to go for a run.
Q: Lining up at the start of Comrades, what went through your mind?
Honestly, I was praying for a start different to last year (where I tore a muscle within the first 1km of the race). I kept thinking that if could just get through to Polly’s, I would be ok… but those first few kays were nerve racking. I was terrified.
Q: Did you race according to Coach Hamlett’s plan?
I did. John and I discussed pacing and strategy on Saturday afternoon and I have to say that I thought the plan was pretty ambitious. I repeatedly asked John if he was sure I could run that fast, like… was he really sure… really, really sure? My plan only went as far as halfway, after which John said he would give me further instructions depending on how I was feeling. When I didn’t see John between Cato Ridge and Huntley’s Hill (12km to go), I just did what I thought John would have wanted, having listened to him talk race plans with the guys. I saw John at Sherwood and Toll Gate, and essentially just did what I was told (which is quite a rare occurrence).  
Q: Hardest moment on the course?
The last 5km. John told me at Toll Gate that the gap was closing behind me, and that I needed to hussle if I wanted to keep the lead. That was huge pressure - I was utterly convinced that I was going to be passed on the grass!
Q: Greatest moment on the course?
Running through Hillcrest. The crowd support at Camperdown and Hillcrest was outstanding, but particularly through Hillcrest where I was also able to see my Mum. As I headed toward Winston Park, I overheard a lady say to her husband: “Do you think she’s South African?” And immediately I thought: “Um… ya!” followed by “Oh hell yeah, a South African has to win this year!
Q: How did you mentally motivate yourself while running?
The build-up to Comrades 2018 took me two years due to last year’s disaster. During that time I have relied very heavily on my family and friends for support, both financially and emotionally. No matter how hard things got for me: going without a salary, working and training hard, studying, writing exams… I always had support.  It’s hard not to be motivated by that – a burning desire to both justify means and to make the people who sacrificed and believed in you proud.
Q: When did you know that the win was yours?
When I crossed the line. John told me over and over that the race isn’t finished until you cross the line. I thought there was a very real risk that I would be overtaken in the last 5km and even entering the stadium I had no idea who was behind me, or how fast they were running. I had to run hard all the way to the tape. In hindsight, I wish I had enjoyed my time on the grass a little bit more. 
Q: The women’s field this year was one of the most competitive, making your win even more remarkable. Any thoughts on your competitors?
This year’s field was heavily stacked and promised to be a very exciting race. I was a little disappointed when both Camille (Herron) and Caroline (Wőstmann) pulled out because I was really looking forward to being part of what I think would have been the ultimate ladies race. Having said that, there was no doubt in my mind that Tanith (Maxwell), Gerda (Steyn) and Charné (Bosman) would be dominating the ladies race and that Alexandra (Morozova) and Sarah (Bard) would be very serious contenders. I think that it was the strength of the competition which made each of us lift our games. The finishing times this year were fantastic, and that is hugely positive for everyone.  

Q: Please tell us exactly how it feels to run into that stadium knowing that years of hard work have paid off and that you were about to fulfil a lifelong dream?
I was really emotional at the finish, a little dumbstruck, hugely relieved to be finished (and not to have been passed on the grass) and completely and utterly elated. I don’t think I have ever felt as fulfilled in my whole life. My ‘theme’ or inspirational quote for this year’s race (something I use to give myself a pep talk along the way) was: “God made me for a purpose. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.” I truly believe that God’s purpose was for me to win this year and in doing so, I felt God’s pleasure. Last year I was humbled, this year, I was rewarded. I am so grateful for that.
Q: What were your first words to John at the finish line and his first words to you?
I don’t think I said anything, I just cried. John cried. And then I said: “thank you”. John laughed and said: “GIC” (God is in control).
Q: When did you get to see your husband as he was also running?
David and I ran together to Cato Ridge where he slowly pulled ahead of me. I thought that he would just meet me at the finish, but I caught up to him approaching Field’s Hill. As I passed, David said: “I’m so proud of you baby” and I replied: “I love you. I’ll see you at the finish”. That was that.
Q: How did you celebrate that evening?
My awesome sponsor, Massmart, treated our ladies team to a lovely dinner in Umhlanga. Let’s just say the champagne flowed…Really special for me was my friend Clayton arriving on a plane from Jo’burg. He watched the race on TV and was so excited to see me win he drove immediately to the airport, hopped on a plane and met me at our accommodation for post-race celebrations! That was amazing!
Q: What makes a Comrades Champion?
Shoo, I don’t know… There is a proverb, which says: “it takes a village to raise a child”.  I think it takes a village to build an athlete.  There are so many people who have contributed to and been involved in my journey. I could not have done anything without my outstanding support structure. 
Q: Did you ever doubt your ability or training in the lead up to the race?
I trained really hard, really really hard. I ran to the point of exhaustion, tears and beyond. I ran through injury, through flu, through a tummy bug, through severe anaemia… there were plenty of things that went wrong along the way. But something I’ve always known is that there is no such thing as “the perfect build up”. Everyone has setbacks and trials and bumps in the road. You just have to do the best you can with what you have done.
Q: What makes Comrades the greatest ultra of them all?
I’m totally bias in this regard. Growing up in KZN… there is no other race that matters. For me, its two things: Firstly, the crowd support (not just crowds along the route, but the South African population in general). We really get behind Comrades runners, we idolise the champions and all secretly aspire to finishing the race. Where else in the world will you find 22000 entrants for a 90km race? It’s almost a part of our culture or heritage. Secondly, the camaraderie. I love the fact that people of every age, ability and speed can work together to accomplish a common goal. People of every colour, nationality, class and religion come together to support each other. It is humanity at its finest.
Q: Will you be back to defend your title next year?
Yoh, that’s loaded. The Up and the Down Runs are completely different races, so in my mind there’s nothing to defend until 2020. Will I be back next year? Absolutely – and I really look forward to seeing Caroline and Camille back then too!
Q: How do you recover? Any time off from work?
I had to take 2 months off work to train for the race, so I’m already back at the grind, but loving it. I really enjoy being an advocate! I’ll be resting this week and cross training next week. I’ll need to run again soon though, I need the stress relief!
Q: Anyone you would like to thank?
Massmart has been an outstanding sponsor. Their commitment to developing a ladies elite team has been an answer to our prayers. With their support we are able to ensure the team is coached, clothed and equipped with everything they need to reach their full potential. I am so grateful for their support – they really have facilitated my dream this year.
PUMA has also been amazing! I race and train exclusively in the PUMA Speed 300 Ignite and could not ask for a better shoe. PUMA has been exceedingly generous in their support and have even sponsored my husband and my coach. We are all very lucky.
New Nutrition (owed by my coach John Hamlett) has sponsored me with supplements this year. Their products are amazing and have helped me lean down and stay strong. I highly recommend these products.
Braeside Butchery, a local supplier of organic meat, support David and I with home grown meat, critical as part of a high protein diet. Thank you so much Caroline for your support!
At a personal level, I would be nowhere without my support structure – John Hamlett (the ultimate Comrades Coach), Pat Hamlett, David (my husband and the kindest man on earth), Carol (my Mum, chief second, PA and biggest fan), Bruce Fordyce (my inspiration, mentor, second and close friend), Gill Fordyce (the brains of the operation), Clayton Vetter (close friend and professional mentor), Anton Roets (close friend, sponsor and second), Dave Jack (close friend) and David Katz (team manager for Team Massmart, friend and second). 
A very big thank you also to Wayne Borowsky, David Peyton, Peter Baxter, Kirsty Weaver and Kyle van Heerden – the chiros, bios, physios and sports physician who keep me healthy and on the road.
Q: What would you say to those runners who did not achieve their Comrades goals this year or in some cases did not finish the race?
Comrades is brutal, because it happens only once a year. You can’t easily pick another goal and try again in a few weeks or months later; you literally have one chance a year. But, if it didn’t work out for you this year… that’s ok. You have 12 months to go back to the drawing board and try again. Don’t give up. Dreams do come true, keep chasing them.
Q: Lastly, please describe Comrades in three words
Mind over Muscle. 

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