Following an exhausting Thursday at the office, early on the morning of Friday, June 3, Tanya Zarin’s head was fuzzy waking up from a wild dream.
In it, she had flown across the Atlantic, all alone, and ran almost 90 kilometres in the South African heat.
Odd thoughts swirled around in her head. Pietermaritzburg to Durban. The quest for salt. People collapsing around her. Shoes soaked in power gel. The Indian Ocean.
As she became fully conscious, reality kicked in.
It wasn’t a dream. These events indeed took place the previous Sunday, May 29.
The 47-year-old single mother of two from Surrey took part in the Comrades Marathon, the oldest and largest ultra marathon in the world, placing 7,632th overall (out of 16,807 at the start line) and 1,180th out of 3,559 female entrants.
Zarin ran 89.7 kilometres in 10 hours, 44 minutes.
When she signed up, the veteran marathoner had hoped for a nine-hour run, but the she injured a leg six weeks before the race. Some days, she could barely run across the street.
Zarin watched the previous Comrades races on YouTube and was worried.
“At 12 hours (the race cut-off time), this guy with his back to the finish line shoots a gun,” Zarin explains. “They’ve got all these people there to barricade. You’re not allowed to cross, you’re not allowed to touch, you do not finish, you do not get a time, you do not get a medal. So you’ve now run 12 hours…”
Up at 3 a.m., Zarin had barely made it to the start line at 5:30 a.m. – her bus was late.
She ran two kilometres just to make it in time for the start of the race.
She stood there, unsure of what was about to happen.
No team, no supporters, a questionable left leg and two sleepless nights behind her.
Normally confident and fiercely competitive, she describes her mental state at that moment as “a different place.
“My goal became to finish.”
Training for a decade
Rolling back the clock, Zarin began running in May 2006 when she had some spare time and was looking for exercise.
A former figure skater and coach, her competitive spirit made her bored with walking.
Before long, friends invited her to a 5K fundraiser on the Vancouver seawall.
“I thought five kilometres was gonna kill me – it almost did,” Zarin recalls.
Two months later, she was invited to a 10K race.
“They gave me the ugliest long-sleeved cotton T-shirt you could ever imagine, but when they handed me that shirt, something… dinged for me.”
She got home and immediately registered for a half-marathon.
At that event, she found herself tearing up at the finish line.
In May 2007, one year after she started running, Zarin ran her first marathon in Vancouver (four hours, one minute).
Before long, she was already registered for the following race before the next immediate race began.
Left: Tanya Zarin at home. Photo by Boaz Joseph
In 10 years, Zarin has run 39 marathons and “lots” of half-marathons.
She ran the Boston Marathon seven times in a row, from 2009 to 2015.
“I qualified (for Boston) this year, but wanted to do something different,” she says.
Enter Google. By coincidence, the Comrades Marathon – mis-named, as it’s more than twice the length of a regular marathon – is located in the second-furthest city in the world from Surrey, according to furthestcity.com
Needless to say, Zarin trained like never before, increasing from 60 kilometres per week to 120 or 130.
“Don’t look at my toes,” she chortles.” Some of them are black and some of them have black nail polish.”
Every kilometre was logged.
During one training run, while waiting at a crosswalk, a bus stopped and blocked her way.
To her surprise, the driver opened the door.
He yelled out: “How far do you run? I see you all over Surrey!”
Alone in South Africa
Zarin was already melting in long sleeves at the nine-degree Celsius start.
Before long, she handed her throw-away gloves and shirt to an old lady and girl on the side of the road.
Running day peaked at 29 degrees C.
“From 50 to 60K, the clock stopped. It killed me (running) through that section. But I expected that. I knew there was going to be a section like that and that was the one for me.”
Using a service for club-less international runners, she had three drop-bags of supplies to pick up at stations at 21, 42 and 63 kilometres. By the second station, she was sick of gels and began to get hungry. And she craved something she normally despises: Salt.
She found someone holding a box of boiled nugget potatoes swimming in salt – and sucked on the salt before eating the potatoes.
“I was laughing at myself. I though if anybody who knows me saw me right now, they’d be killing themselves laughing.”
The heat was taking its toll on everyone.
One man fell flat on his face on the concrete beside her. She remembers the sound.
“I decided I’m not going to let that happen to me this far away from home by myself. I need to be smart here.”
Later, she learned that 2,374 runners had dropped out during the race.
Her drop-bag at the third station at 63 kilometres had one extra item to pull her through: A note-to-self saying “no regrets.”
Sleepy and hungry, she soldiered on.
During one long climb, she recalls, a valley on her right looked like the Coquihalla Highway.
While she ran the uphills, downslopes were harder on her hamstrings.
Zarin is now frustrated that she doesn’t remember much from the near-end of her race.
Her thoughts were just “I’m hungry and I’m tired and I just want to get to the end.”
At their destination – extra torture – runners were forced to run around the inside of a stadium before they crossed the finish line.
“There are all these people screaming and you just, like, wow. It’s so overwhelming, so humbling. All the things that go through your head.”
The next day, walking like a penguin, Zarin dipped her feet in the Indian Ocean (photo above).
Three days later, she was back at work at the Corporation of Delta.
“When I look at some of the finish pictures – coming to the finish line – at Comrades, I still cry. I get goose bumps.”
Full event video below