“The first 42 kilometres of the up run equate to the hardest standard marathon most runners will ever run.” Bruce Fordyce
The ultimate human race
The Comrades Marathon is an ultramarathon of about 89 kilometres that takes place in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa every year between Durban and Pietermaritzburg. The direction is alternated yearly and known as the “up-” or “down run”.
The race was the brainchild of Vic Clapham who wanted to create a living memorial to commemorate South African soldiers who had lost their lives in World World 1. It was first run on 24 May 1921 when 48 runners entered but only 34 ran.
To take on the Comrades marathon is no small commitment. Little did I know but it is advisable for novices to clock at least 1000 kilometres in training mileage from January to the big day. This equates to between 60 and 70 kilometres per week. Most athletes will stick to a running programme that has 3 weekly short runs and 2 rest days. Then over weekends the back to back long runs are where you push your limits. Running on tired legs and a worn body gets you out of your comfort zone and ready for race day.
I had tried to qualify for the Comrades in November 2016 but failed with a 05:17 attempt. This was a particularly tough route so I set my sights on the Hillcrest Marathon in February 2017 to try again. Everything conspired together and I scraped through with a 04:55 qualifying time. It was a great relief to know that I had made it but the borderline time was also all but reassuring.
The pressure to train for Comrades is very real and to paraphrase the Comrades coach Lindsey Parry – “The fear of running 87 kilometres should get you out of bed in the morning”. This is very true and being nervous and anxious about this hairy sporting goal therefore motivated and got me to train. A lot of runners also experience restlessness and bad sleep in the days leading up to the race from having a lot of pent up energy and a dramatic decrease in running mileage. A lot of nagging questions also clog the mind, most notably – “have I trained enough?”
Getting to the start at a decent time was a top priority. With around 17 000 runners lining up at the start it is a hive of excitement and potential chaos. We got to our seeding batch well ahead of time. The seeding batches close 15 minutes prior to the race. My running partner, Hugo had qualified in a better time so he was in the G batch but opted to start with me in the last batch so that we could run together. This helped to keep our morale high for most of the first half.
At 05:15 the music started pumping over the PA system. Anything from Queen’s We Will Rock You to Chariots of Fire gave us intense goosebumps. The highlight must be singing the National Anthem at the top of your lungs with such a big crowd. In the final moments the infamous rooster crow by Max Trimbourne is sounded and the starting gun fires. Then… nothing. For a full few minutes we don’t move or walk shuffling towards the start line. As we cross the start line I look down at my watch and a full 8 minutes has passed!
The highlight of the race was seeing our friends and family at Westville. They had set up a Comrades party next to the road with a gazebo, live television feed and breakfast going on a gas braai. As we passed we were cheered on very loudly and I high-fived a whole row of people. My sister, Tania had even made a sign with my name on it! Lots of runners jokingly claimed that the sign was in fact made for them. I felt like a celebrity and lots of fellows runners were in awe or confused at the reception we had gotten. This was a much needed energy boost for the things that were to come.
The first 39 km of the race are probably the hardest. We took it super easy and kept to a pace of 7.32 minutes per kilometre. Lots of people were running faster and were eager to make up time lost at the start but we fought the urge and kept to our race strategy. At around 21 km into the race we reached Fields Hill which is 4 kilometres of very steep climbing. After having a half marathon on the legs this was no easy feat and we walked all the way up. Comrades legend Bruce Fordyce said that if you are able to chat and share a joke up Fields Hill you are going to have a good race. We were still in good spirits and as a result this was very reassuring!
This is how the rest happened:
A way past Kloof my partner Hugo starts cramping badly. His quads are locked in spasm. I do not want to leave him because we are in this thing together. After some deliberation we decide that I will push on ahead. It is an emotional and a reluctant goodbye. Later I learn that he made it all the way to Botha’s Hill but just missed the cut-off. Amazing effort and feat to even get that far on by far the toughest section of the race. But the rest of the day is only beginning.
There is a spot known as Arthur’s Seat close to the Comrades Wall of Honour near the halfway point at Drummond. Legend has it that Arthur Newton, a 5 time Comrades winner would sit here and rest. To ensure that you have a good second half of the race I also uttered “Good morning, Sir Arthur” just in case since I saw many runners placing flowers at this spot. They were the bead and wire flowers that street vendors often sell and were available for runners next to the road to take.
Time looks like it is running out and I wonder whether I will be able finish in time. I see many people passed out next to the road from exhaustion or dehydration. A few athletes are administered drips next to the road. Some are bent over in anguish while they bring up whatever contents their stomachs had still managed to cling onto. It try not to look. At Polly Shortts I realise that I will have to run all the way to make the finish in time.
Somehow I find the strength to push on – either by some miracle, divine intervention or sheer willpower. I run all the way with a body running on fumes and a mind in tatters. The atmosphere at the finish is electric. The stands are packed and people are on their feet, shouting and screaming. It is a scene of absolute pandemonium. The clock says there is still 5 minutes left to cutoff. I push on and finally finish at 11:56:13! Somewhere in the chaos I am a changed person. It is not beautiful or glorious but it was worth it.
First of all, I looked at my mileage stats and realised that I had only done 674 kilometres in training, including the Comrades. Therefore, on paper I should not have finished. Thank goodness I did not realise that before the race!
The Comrades alters your being in a very profound way that I don’t fully understand yet and as a result there are a lot of life lessons to be learnt out on the road. You will get to know yourself better and what you are capable of. You will see the best parts of your personality exposed and your worst. And then when you think you’ve found peace and reach the ultimate human race achievement the nagging question remains – would you do it again?
Runners who have done the Comrades a number of times still worry that they might not finish the race. It is such a long distance and there are so many variables that if something goes wrong on the day you have a very good chance of not finishing.
What did you think of my Comrades story? Let me know in the comments below.
Check out this cool 3D visualisation from the Strava data using Veloviewer.
Official website: http://www.comrades.com/