BROTHERS IN ARMS
by Michelle Carnegie
13 July 2018
Four brothers, one dream: to finish the 2018 Comrades Marathon together. Quite a task, especially keeping in mind that firstly, not too many people can lay claim to have finished the gruelling 90km between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. And secondly, even less can lay claim to have tackled this enormous task with not just one, but with four siblings! And of course, as most Comrades runners know, the chances of crossing the Comrades finish line with whomever you started out is actually very small.
So when the four McConnachie brothers lined up side-by-side in an attempt to start and finish this year’s Ultimate Human Race, it truly was a memorable occasion. More even so because all four brothers live in different parts of the world and did not train together. So it’s certain to say each one of them had some doubts as they lined up. “I still can’t believe that it all came together so well and that we actually completed this as four brothers,” says Ross, the youngest of the brothers who lives in Durban North.
“It was amazing that we had all managed to overcome our own individual challenges to arrive at the start line. When the field sang Shosholoza and the National Anthem, there were tears in all our eyes. I was a very proud brother to be there with my siblings,” says Andrew, the oldest brother, who lives in Australia. Lining up at the start was surreal and he felt pretty nervous. “I couldn’t believe that it was actually happening,” says Duncan, who lives in Stockholm.
“From a statistical point of view the odds were against us all arriving at the start line injury free and healthy – and then finish the Ultimate Human Race together,” says Craig, who lives in Greenstone in Gauteng.
The big decision
So how did it happen that the four brothers committed to Comrades 2018? “From 2015 Duncan started running various European marathons. Then in 2017 he expressed his interest in running Comrades the following year. Ross decided to join him, after which I committed and then we finally all managed to twist Craig’s arm to complete the foursome,” says Andrew, who is no newbie to Comrades, having run his first in 1995 (8:20) and his second in 1996 (7:51).
“My journey started on the day the entries for Comrades opened and I saw some WhatsApp messages from my brothers talking about entering. Up until that point I had not even thought about running Comrades, but knowing that my three brothers were entering was enough to spark the thought that maybe it was a good idea. So lying on the couch in front of the TV I entered just to say that at least I had kept my option of running open. I then told my wife and she was the one who shared it with my brothers. So all that was left to do was to buy a pair of shoes and train,” says Craig.
Coordinating training schedules
As most Comrades runners know, very few runners ever have a perfect build up to a race such as Comrades. Life happens, people get sick, work schedules get hectic. And for the McConnachie brothers it was no different. Ross picked up an ankle injury in his qualifying marathon, and never really recovered properly from it. Craig fell while on site at work and had to wear a brace due to a partial tear in his ligaments. On top of that he then suffered from overuse injuries when he started running again. “Work got really busy and I eventually bought a pair of running shoes in December. The sales assistant was a bit amused that I was buying a pair of shoes for Comrades with not ever running further than 10km in my life. He suggested 2019 might be more realistic,” says Craig, who eventually managed to clock over 1000km from January to Comrades day.
Andrew suffered a bit from runner’s knee and some hip issues as he started increasing distance. “I managed to squeeze in 1300km between January and Comrades,” says Andrew, who nearly threw the towel in when he realised his children’s passports had expired and they would not be able to make the trip from Australia to watch their Dad run Comrades. “At one point I was even thinking of throwing in the towel, but both my sons came to me independently and told me that I had trained too hard and long to give up now! I couldn’t argue and committed running Comrades for them.”
Duncan’s training was pretty much trouble free. “The biggest challenge for me was finding the time between work, family and other commitments.” Then of course living in Stockholm made training for Comrades challenging due to the icy winter conditions there.
Craig and Ross, who both live in South Africa, managed to run their last long run before the big day together. “My last long run was the 55km route tester with the group Beloved Long Runs, which I ran with Ross. It was fantastic. As a precursor to Comrades this run got me even more excited and believing that we could do this,” says Craig.
The brothers followed each other’s training on Strava. “Following each other on Strava was really a great way of keeping up to date with how the others training was going. It was easy to send some words of encouragement and even provided a degree of motivation for my own training,” says Duncan.
The big day
Though Andrew and Duncan were probably the fittest and most prepared of all the brothers, they were on board to stick with Ross and Craig the whole way. Ross was very adamant to enforce a walk/run strategy. “My thinking was that this would greatly increase all of our chances of getting to the finish line. Of course I was carrying an injury so this played nicely into my hands,” jokes Ross. “The whole reason we committed to running Comrades was to experience the race together,” says Andrew.
And stick together they did. “At any given time we were at most 15m from each other, sometimes running in pairs having a chat whilst at other times running as four. The benefit was that when we got to the water tables you could send one brother in with an order of what you wanted,” says Craig.
“Duncan and I were probably the fittest going into the race, so it was difficult in the beginning to find a comfortable pace which was good for all of us. This was made even more challenging with the congestion for the first 15km. However, we eventually found a middle ground and settled into a reasonable pace, always ensuring that we kept a good buffer between us and the cut-off times,” says Andrew.
The brothers experienced some doubts along the way whether they would finish together, especially when Andrew stepped in a pothole about 20km into the run, resulting in a sprained ankle. At around the 70km mark he tripped on a cat’s eye and came down hard on his wrists and left shoulder. “Shortly after this the reality that trying to finish with four independent runners - all of varying ability - was not a given, and for the first time the thought of us not finishing together entered my mind. It would have been impossible to leave one brother behind,” says Craig.
“I felt very worried at that point. I honestly thought that our dream of all finishing together might come crashing down. But Andrew battled on bravely,” says Duncan. Ross adds that Andrew showed tremendous grit to keep moving and to make it to the end.
The support along the way, especially from their family members - also motivated them to keep going. “The atmosphere during Comrades is simply unbelievable. The huge crowds, amazing water points and just a general buzz in the air makes this arguable the best ultra in the world,” says Ross. Duncan adds: “The support along the route is like nothing I have ever experienced before in all the races I have done. It seemed more personal. People calling out your name and shouting encouragement constantly.”
Inching closer and closer to the finish at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban was incredibly emotional for all the brothers. And more even so as they entered the stadium. “I think I mentioned to my brothers it felt like we were Olympians, and it felt like the stadium was packed. We came in as the sun was getting lower so the lights of the stadium were powerful,” says Craig. “I actually felt a bit sad that it was over, as it really was great to spend all that time together, something which rarely happens anymore,” says Ross. “The last 10km were pretty tough for me, but my brothers were all very supportive and got me through to the finish,” says Andrew.
“I was looking for my family. As a novice I realised that running Comrades is not only something you do for yourself, those around you live every minute and every kilometre as well,” says Craig. “Running through the tunnel into Moses Mabhida was pretty amazing, the atmosphere and vibe were electric and fortunately it wasn’t too difficult to spot our families in the stands. We all ran to our supporters for a quick photo and then we all joined hands and ran across the finish line together,” says Andrew.
The evening was spent with each other and family, reliving the day at length while tucking into pizza. “The following night we all went out for a celebratory dinner, celebrating Comrades, our Dad’s 70th birthday, our parents 46th wedding anniversary and Father’s day,” says Andrew. All four brothers paid tribute to their amazing families who supported them through their training and on the day.
And so life continues, but definitely differently
Finishing Comrades together has touched the lives of all four brothers. “Comrades was a life changing experience for me when I ran it in my early twenties. My Dad had run it when we were younger and I had such fond memories of seconding him along the route. Our great uncle Iain Jardine (one of the first blind runners to complete Comrades) had also left a legacy. Running with all of my brothers were equally as special and memorable, especially as I didn’t think it would ever happen. It was an honour to run with my siblings, especially with overcoming the rollercoaster of a run we had. I am so proud of all three of them! They all ran a great race and were pillars of support when I was going through bad patches. I love them all equally, but each in such a different way,” says Andrew.
“Throughout each of the McConnachie brothers lives there have been many memorable and extraordinary individual achievements. However this one is an achievement that we will always share together. To my brothers I would like to say well done guys. What a truly amazing experience it was running with you three. It really took me back 20-25 years ago when it was just the four of us on the beach together. I couldn’t ask for better big brothers that you three,” says Ross.
“Just to say I ran Comrades is special. To say I ran Comrades and finished with my three brothers is indescribable. The bond between the four brothers has always been strong. Comrades just affirmed it. So to all my brothers; let’s never forget what we have achieved,” says Craig.
“Comrades provided us with an opportunity to create a very special memory together, which will remain with us for the rest of our lives. I think it was also a special occasion for our parents as well,” says Duncan.
So, the big question: will some or all of them be lining up for the 2019 edition of the Comrades Marathon? Andrew says he might not be there next year, but he might be tempted out of retirement for the centenary edition of the race whilst Ross says he plans to run Comrades as regularly as possible. Duncan says he can’t wait for next year. “I think that running Comrades is just a part of a longer journey of how I want to live my life. At the end of the day it isn’t the races that are most important but all the hundreds of kilometres training and the health benefits it brings,” says Duncan.
Craig sums it up by saying: “I think Duncan has the ability to push himself harder and aspire for personal achievements. Maybe Ross and myself will tackle the Up Run next year together to achieve a back-to-back medal. There might come a time when we will all be at the start together, but with different plans.”
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