Ask any Comrades Marathon runner; it’s a gruelling race, no matter who you are
Running 90km over some of the biggest hills South Africa has to offer is no easy feat. Now imagine running 900km in the days leading up to Comrades, and then immediately after, you line up to tackle the actual Ultimate Human Race. Well, that’s exactly what Carla Molinaro did. But what makes her story even more incredible is that she finished the Comrades Marathon as 9th lady overall in a mind blowing time of 6:50. And this after she thought she might finish the race in just under 12 hours if she’s lucky.
“I didn’t look at my watch throughout the race and I just ran on feel as I felt so good. Coming into the stadium and seeing 6:50:31 on the clock completely blew me away. I had no idea how I had run that fast as a week before a 6:30min/km felt fast,” said Carla, who has just been signed as elite member of the Nedbank Running Club’s (NRC) Elite Green Dream Team. After her spectacular performance at this year’s Comrades she has now even moved from the UK to South African to focus solely on the 2019 Comrades Marathon, under the guidance and mentorship of Nick Bester, National Manager of NRC, and a former Comrades winner himself. Bester is also the coach of Gerda Steyn, who finished 4th at last year’s Comrades and second at this year’s race.
How is all started
Carla was one of six runners - Mike Sewell, Roger Cameron, Alex Tucker, Koot Steenkamp and Dave Chamberlain - who signed up to run from Cape Town to the start line of Comrades on June 10th. The runners all had their different reasons for doing so and originally wanted to run 90km a day for 19 days and on day 20 do Comrades. “This didn’t quite go to plan mainly because it was a ridiculous idea, but one where I wanted to see how far I could push my body,” says Carla.
She managed 4 x 90km runs in a row in the first four days…and then the injuries set in. “I tore my quad and got the onsets of shin splints. Both were pretty excruciating and made running very hard. However, I managed to find a physio and did everything that I could to get back on the road, I had a rest day, did some stretching, icing, taping, massage etc. and slowly over the next few days I could build the distances back up. After a few easy days I was back to running 50-60km a day. In the end I ran for 18 out of the 20 days and covered 900km in total.”
Carla describes it as one of the hardest but most rewarding things she has ever done. “To be mentally and physically tired and see your body break down was quite hard but I was amazed at how we all bounced back. With a bit of TLC we got back on our feet pretty quickly! I found it quite emotional having to call the support vehicle to pick me up after walking for 58km, as I knew that this meant that I had failed at the original goal. However I was pretty amazed that my body managed to do another 418km in 5 days over some pretty crazy terrain, and I just had to shift my goal for the project,” says Carla. Her aim after day 6 was to cover as much distance as she could and make sure that she could finish Comrades.
She never planned a fast Comrades race. In fact, initially she thought she would be happy with a sub-12 hour finish. “When I hurt my quad and my shin I was seriously worried that I wouldn’t make the cut-offs at Comrades as it was so painful to walk. But in that last week before the race I started to feel stronger by the day and thought if everything came together I might have a shot at a decent race!”
And what a race it turned out to be for Carla, who is South African born but as a 10-year-old moved with her family to Portugal and eventually the UK, where she has been living ever since.
“The day was a bit surreal, standing in front of the City Hall and watching how fresh all the other girls looked made me a bit nervous, but I felt strong. I decided that I was just going to run as hard as I could until I died! I hoped that this strategy would get me to the finish. Every step of the race hurt but nothing hurt as much as when I hurt my leg on day 5 of the Cape Town to Comrades runs so I could draw from that pain to get me through. I had also run 60km the Sunday before Comrades so mentally I found it easy to tick off the kilometers and get to the 60km mark. From there I only had 30km to go, it is crazy how your brain rationalises what you are doing after spending so much time on the road. I didn’t look at my watch throughout the race and I just ran on feel, as I felt so good. Coming into the stadium and seeing 6:50:31 on the clock completely blew me away.” Carla finished 9th lady, earning a gold Comrades medal and 150th overall.
She was ecstatic about this, but equally magical was the fact that apart from one all her teammates from the Cape Town to Comrades expedition managed to finish Comrades.
No newbie to sport
Carla is no newbie to sport. She grew up doing gymnastics and swimming before venturing into triathlon as she went to University. “I competed in triathlon for just over 10 years, in anything from sprint distance up to Ironman. I had some great races and represented Great Britain at Age Group level at a range of World and European Championships in some pretty cool countries around the world,” says Carla.
Then came the Glasgow Half Marathon in 2014 where she completely fell in love with pure running. “I had never had this love of running until this race. Up until then it was just one of the elements that I did as part of a triathlon. For the past four years I have run everything and anything from 800m on the track to 250km multiday events from London to Paris. I love exploring places on foot and I get a lot of joy from seeing somewhere slowly.”
It seems when it comes to careers Carla is just as adventurous. She started out in the Army where she spent 5 years as a junior officer, which included spending 6 months in Afghanistan. After the Army she was part of the Organising Committee for the 2012 London Olympics and Glasgow Commonwealth Games. “I then used that experience to do some coaching, personal training and event planning and my latest role was Head of Operations for M&C Saatchi World Services.” She left this job just before she came to South Africa for Comrades as she had been planning an expedition to run from London to South Africa. “That was going to be a 9-month project, however, I had such an unexpectedly great result at Comrades, and as a result got picked to race at the 100km World Championships. This gave me a confidence boost to think that I could be a good ultra distance runner, so I am going to take some time to focus on running full time for a while.”
The road ahead
Carla has moved back to South Africa and can’t be any happier. “SA has such a great running community and network. For the past three years that I have run Comrades the majority of my training has been commuting to work in London where the biggest hill has been a bridge! So to have the opportunity to train on hills, in good weather and at altitude is amazing, and I hope that it will only make me a stronger, better athlete.”
Fortunately she won’t be alone in a strange country as all her extended family and old friends still live here. “It feels nice to be back here and it feels like I am home.” She will be living between Pretoria and Johannesburg and her sole focus will be running. “I think I have a lot of potential and with the right training environment and teammates I’m excited to see where it goes.”
Her current training program reminds of Gerda Steyn’s program. Steyn is a huge believer in cross-training, hiking, a lot of trail running and even some very mountainous training and racing in France. Carla believes running on different terrains and varying her speed different have made her use her muscles in different ways to get stronger. “It also keeps it interesting and makes me excited about going running every day (well nearly). I believe that quality over quantity is the way forward. You still have to put the distance in but it is the quality speed and strength sessions that make you quicker. I come from a background of triathlon and I am sure that multi-disciplined sport has made me stronger. I am definitely going to put cross training in my programme over the next year as a way to keep the body moving but reducing the repetitive stress of running.”
Carla is very excited to train under Bester. “Nick has such an amazing pedigree; from the results that he has got himself to the athletes that he has coached. He has a very strong network of girls that I can train with, which is exciting. He also continuously gets amazing results from his team and I am hoping that I will develop as an athlete under his guidance.”
Short term Carla will be working on getting her speed up but her long-term plan is to improve on her 9th place finish at next year’s Comrades.
And what does someone who is used to the UK way of life and training look forward to most being back in South Africa? “The weather and the terrain. This is such an amazing country; you can run on hills, trails, and mountains and along the beach, all in the same day if you really want to. Even in the middle of winter the sun shines and I makes getting out the door to run very easy.”