This is my story of how being a Comrades runner helped save my life when attacked by a crocodile!

 I started running aged 43, after surviving a brain tumour and brain surgery, to combat severe post-surgical depression. In my tough 4-year recovery, running brought me great joy!

I entered my first half marathon in 2008 and by 2015, my first Comrades, which was one of the greatest experiences of my life, and forever, my favourite race!  

Now 61, I am a passionate, seasoned ultramarathoner.

On 30 December 2017, in a remote national park in Zimbabwe I was attacked and almost died at the jaws of a 3-metre crocodile. Out of nowhere it bashed into our canoe over half a kilometre out on a very large dam, then leapt out of the water and attacked me. It smashed my left arm, crushed my left hand, opened my chest and left thigh, then totally swallowed my right arm. 

Out loud, I said, “I am NOT ready to die. I have too much left to do!” It seemed un-survivable – but I would try anyhow! Somehow, I hung onto the boat and kicked and pulled towards shore. Bizarrely, the croc began swimming with me. My beloved friend, aged 90, also clung onto the boat and added to the effort, kicking and pulling.

We lost our oars in the shock of the initial attack. With my arm down its throat I stared the croc right in the eyes and told it out loud, over and over, not to eat me, but to let me live. Its grip steadily tightened through the 75-minute ordeal. A second big croc soon began following us. Survival seemed impossible.

On shore my horrified partner Sarah heard my screams and drove away for help; an hour’s round trip on terrible dirt roads.  We eventually grounded the canoe on some rocks near shore; then suddenly the croc pulled me off the boat and began to spin and drown me.

At that very moment, park rangers had arrived and fired shots in the air! As I was drowning, incredibly, the croc spat out my right arm!  I ‘swam’ 20 metres to shore with smashed arms and hands, gaping holes in my leg and chest, terrified a croc might grab me again. 

With just a third of my blood left, I amazingly survived ten hours before receiving a transfusion in hospital. My 90-year-old friend very tragically died not long after this ordeal from the shock. 

My survival odds were considered very low for the first week in ICU. However, much to medical amazement, I did not develop the expected sepsis, a huge risk from a croc attack, which very few survive.  

In hospital for a month, I had five operations to save my arms and patch up 66 crocodile bites and injuries. My incredible survival resulted from Sarah’s amazingly calm, quick thinking, which got help there just in the nick of time and an ambulance en route in the fastest time possible; and to my extremely high level of fitness, from being a Comrades runner! The medical team said this ultra-runner fitness saved my life!

I had no use of my hands or arms at all, and 24-hour nursing, for four very hard painful months, and three years of rehab for my hands and arms, but my leg healed fast. I began walking as soon as permitted in hospital, and every day thereafter, and by June 2018 was already running again!

I could not run Comrades 2018 but by August, ran a 17km trail race, and by November, my first marathon since the attack, and a personal best! 

Comrades 2019 was so symbolic for me – because I did not think I’d be there to run it! I even bettered my Up Run time by 23 minutes! While pulling to shore, I thought to myself, ‘If I survive, I’ll lose this arm; but I’ll still be able to run.’ And my mind actually turned to Comrades!  

I appear in the Comrades 2018 promotional video, finishing my 3rd Comrades, absolute joy written all over my face! The words that come up just before I do, are SO profoundly apt. 

They read, ‘Champions are not people who never fail, but people who never quit – people who never turn back’. I thank my Comrades experiences for the determined mindset and extreme fitness that helped save me in an impossible situation: Though it seemed totally hopeless, I am still here! 

Since then, I’ve successfully run several tough ultra-races, including two full Virtual Comrades, and in September, my first 100 Miler at Karkloof! I run every race in memory of my friend who died that day, and who helped save me, with his efforts to pull to shore.

 The winner of this month’s Arnica Ice hamper is Rosemary Mitchell.