Dreams don’t always come true, but sometimes something unexpected and amazing happens to us. This is the story of how Kashmira Parbhoo, average back of the pack runner, transformed herself into a Comrades gold medallist, and how she keeps challenging herself in all aspects of life.
It’s 4:45am on a weekday morning in Johannesburg. Like every other morning for the past two years, Kashmira Parbhoo sets off on her morning run with a group of friends, joking and chatting away at the break of dawn. After a kilometre or so, her 1.6m frame starts increasing the pace, ponytail bobbing in the air, running ahead in a distinctive style of short, fast steps with elbows seemingly fighting the space around her. No wonder her coach calls her ‘Duifie’ – when the wings come out she is ready to take off!
And taken off she certainly has. She has improved from running her first Comrades in a time of 10:42 to a gold medal-winning tenth position of 7:16, earlier this year, becoming the first Indian ever in the history of Comrades to place in the top ten. Not bad for someone who describes herself as a very unlikely medallist, who started running with her dad in her hometown of Lenasia, south of Johannesburg.
Kash, as she is known to friends and family, admits that one has to have a certain amount of talent to place in the top ten women at Comrades, but firmly believes she is an example of how an ordinary runner can achieve the extraordinary and excel beyond their wildest dreams by truly committing to the sport they love.
Her dad, Jaydev, was initially the runner in the family. By the time he came back from his usual Sunday morning races, she was still fast asleep in bed. “I would think he was crazy! Today, I’m the one thinking people are wasting their lives by sleeping when they could be running.”
Kash wasn’t very active at school, but as a B.Comm student living with her parents, she joined the newly opened gym in Lenasia. “I come from a very sporty family. My dad and uncles run and my brothers play soccer and cricket. I was the only one who was not doing anything!” Initially, she battled to run five minutes on the treadmill in the gym, but she persevered and promised herself that as soon as she could run 60 minutes, she would try running on the road.
Long distance running was, however, never an option. Even when she and her mom, Urmila, supported her dad in 2000 on the Comrades route, she never thought that she would end up running the same route nine consecutive times. “I was in such awe of all those runners, but never once did it go through my mind to run Comrades,” says Kash, who has great admiration for her father. He has entered Comrades 13 times, and finished five times. “He ran his first Comrades at the age of 50 and made his dream come true! I admire him for going back so many times and trying.”
She remembers one of her first runs with her dad. “Lenasia is pretty flat, there is one gentle hill of about 300 metres. The first time I ran up that hill and got to the top, I nearly threw up. I was bent over and heaving. A group of runners was coming up the hill behind us and I had to try very hard to act cool.”
She initially ran on the treadmill in the week and with her dad on weekends. Her first 21km race was in 2000 in Lenasia. She planned to run the 10km, but her Dad and then-husband-to-be, Umesh Dullabh, persuaded her to opt for the 21km. She finished in a respectable time of 2:07 but thought 21km was incredibly far. Little did she know that a couple of years later she would be running more than four times that distance, and finishing as the tenth woman at Comrades.
Her running slowly improved, but she nearly gave up after her first 32km race, the RAC Tough One in Randburg. She finished in a time of 3:46 and has no happy memories of that day. “I nearly died! I wasn’t used to the hills or the distance.” Luckily, she persevered. She kept on going to races with her dad, who according to Kash, decided for her that she was going to do Comrades in 2001. “Before I knew it, I was on my way to Comrades!” By then she was still just training in Lenasia, four times a week, with two rest days and races some Sundays.
Her first Comrades was, as it is for most runners, a painful experience from the 70km mark onwards. “I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ But when I finished it was amazing.” She continued improving, constantly chopping minutes off her race times. It was then that something powerful inside her awoke – a desire to achieve and be the best she could be, in sport and in life.
THE ART OF LIVING
Kash has a great passion for life and believes in making the best of every day and every run! In 2004, she attended a life skills course, which involved learning a powerful breathing technique that increases energy. She also learnt principles of effective living to get the most out of your life as well as some yoga and meditation exercises, which she still does today before her morning runs.
She believes the breathing technique, called Sudarshan Kriya, has helped her immensely in her running. “The course helped me in all aspects of life. Initially, I did not even think that it would help my running, but after I did the course, my running times dropped by over an hour. When people asked me what I did differently, I could only imagine that the breathing technique was one of the things that helped me improve.” She started including time trials in her training and the year after she did this course and changed her training slightly, her Comrades time dropped from 9:53 to 8:41, earning her a Bill Rowan medal.
“That was the best Comrades! I met Nadirshah Khan, the chairman of my running club (Lenasia), at about 20km to go. We ran together to the finish. I couldn’t believe I got a Bill Rowan. I was on top of the world! That year, I realised I possibly had some talent and if I wanted to excel, I would have to put more in. I couldn’t expect things to just happen,” says Kash, who admits to being in awe of Bill Rowan runners. “I used to think I could never run 6 min/km for 90km!”
Today, she is addicted to her Garmin watch and Excel spreadsheets with times of different races and training runs. At the end of a run, one often sees Kash running around the parking lot of the Virgin Active gym in Meyersdal to make up the last 200m or so of her planned distance!
CIRCLE OF FRIENDS
In 2007, Kash and her husband moved to Bassonia, where she initially ran alone. “I was a bit hesitant to run with other people because I thought I would not be able to keep up.” She was determined to improve her running and knew she had to run some time trials to increase her speed. She phoned Andries Venter, chairman of the Alberton Athletic Club, to get more details on the time trials. “I wanted to know if I could join the time trials, but was so worried about being last.” Little did she know that Andries would eventually be the one helping her improve her running even more.
Kash also met Cindy Beeming, a close friend today, at the time trial. Cindy told her about their running group that meets at 4:45 every morning and Kash joined in. “I just clicked with them. What I like about the group is that you can go ahead and run at your own pace or fall back. Today I can’t imagine not running with them.”
Cindy was following a running programme worked out by Andries, and Kash asked if Andries would mind helping her as well. And so a strong bond of friendship was formed between Kash and Andries.
Andries, an experienced runner of 25 Comrades, including 18 silver medals and a best time of 6:24, has been Kash’s coach since last year. “He e-mails me my programme every two weeks. Andries isn’t there to see if I follow it or not – it’s up to me to stick to it.” He advises Kash when to take it easy and when to push harder. “Andries doesn’t set goals for me. He knows what I am capable of and he doesn’t pressure me. Last year before Comrades, he asked me what time I wanted to finish in. I said sub-eight hours and I did! I finished in 7:56.”
Her programme incorporates a track session and time trials, and Andries is usually with her while she does her track session. “I believe in Andries and his programme. He is such an experienced runner and has a nice way of dealing with people. He is well read on every level of running. When he tells me to do something it’s because there is a reason behind it. He also takes into consideration my needs and capabilities. Above all, he has an unbelievable passion for running.”
She would not like a coach with a strong personality pressuring her. “That would just change my whole attitude towards running. It is so important to enjoy it. Running has become my passion. A lot of people ask me how I manage to be so disciplined, but when you love something you don’t need discipline.”
Kash’s heart was set on a Comrades silver medal this year, so she ran over 2 000km in training from January to race day and put in all the necessary quality sessions. “Andries did not ask me what I wanted to achieve this year and just gave me a time. I thought I could do it, but was scared I would disappoint myself and others. Andries didn’t put any pressure on me; he e-mailed my split times and just said, ‘I think this is achievable.”’
And so it proved to be. Few people, especially Kash, will ever forget her remarkable run at Comrades 2009. She surprised everyone, but most of all herself! Towards the end, spectators started shouting conflicting positions. “I heard someone say 12th lady! Later on some officials asked if I knew I was the tenth lady. Even then, gold didn’t feature in my mind. Ten or 100 people could have passed me. I just wanted my silver!”
When she ran into the stadium, she saw friends and people she knew clapping, shouting and jumping up and down.
KASH’S COMRADES RECORD
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“I still thought, what’s wrong with them? Why are they so happy?” Only when she crossed the finish line in 7:16, did she realise what she had achieved. “Suddenly I realised it was gold! After all my hard work, look what had just happened! I burst out crying.”
Kash was thrown into a world completely unknown to her. She was taken away for drug testing with the other top finishers. “Everything was so overwhelming. I got this card around my neck saying I was tenth. The testing went on and on and all I could think about was, ‘Hurry up. I want to see my friends finishing. I did not come all the way here to sit cooped up in a room. I want to see my friends run in!”’
For days and weeks afterwards, her cell phone kept ringing. It was especially the Indian community, and her hometown of Lenasia, that were proudest of their ‘Golden Girl’ as they called her. For them, she was a symbol of hope and hard work – because for the first time in 84 runnings of the Comrades, an Indian had placed in the top ten. Kash was inundated with radio interviews, she was asked to speak at schools and surprise celebration parties were held for her.
The proudest people were her parents and husband. Her dad keeps her gold medal in his TV cabinet at home and the first thing he does when anybody visits is show them his daughter’s medal. Her husband could not go to Comrades because of business commitments, but was no less proud. “Umesh has always been so supportive of me. He has been with me since my first Comrades. He understands running and knows what is involved. His support has made a huge difference in my life.”
Those who know Kash will tell you that you will never hear her brag and she always downplays her achievements. The nicest thing about her is how excited she still gets talking about running, and her hopes of improving her times further.
Next year will be her tenth consecutive Comrades and she hopes to better this year’s time. She realises she will face pressure at next year’s race, but says her goal is to better herself in all aspects of life. “All I want to do is to improve next year and run a better time. If my purpose at Comrades this year was to help and inspire anyone, then I have achieved my goal. I am God’s instrument in helping to make the world a better place.”
She believes nothing is impossible. “But you must know what you want. I still have to train. I still have to run up the same hills and feel tired. I still have to struggle and battle through some runs. A gold medal does not exclude me from anything.”