The Comrades Marathon is referred to as the “Ultimate Human Race” and for good reason. It is the only race where you must invest at least 3 to 6 months of your time and effort into training for a single day that will forever alter your life.
Having taken on this challenge before when I completed the Comrades Marathon in 2017, I decided to give it a go again. Some might say it’s slightly addictive. If true, I can certainly think of worse addictions.
Just two weeks before the race, my regular training partner Janeen has a freak accident. The middle toe on her left foot gets caught in a big wooden door and has to be amputated to the first joint. Her hopes of finishing a sixth Comrades Marathon are over.
Living up to its reputation, this year’s race was a real challenge. Normally, it takes place at the start of June. This year’s race was moved to the end of August, which meant that the runners had to prepare throughout the winter, which required waking up in the dead of night. On the plus side, it meant that the weather was milder and the sun rose earlier on race day.
So there we were waiting in line at the start of the race in Pietermaritzburg with 13213 eager runners. All with the same objective in mind: to arrive at the Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban as soon as possible, or at the very least, to arrive unharmed. I spot a familiar face from our club behind the start line, near the back of the pack. We decided to run together. Having someone you know can really help take your mind off the race and into actually enjoying the day.
We were energised by the music, which included Chariots of Fire, the National Anthem, Shosholoza, and the customary rooster crow. The gun shot. Nothing happened after the gunshot. Before we could move forward, we stood still for two full minutes. We wait seven minutes before crossing the starting line.
We run very slowly, almost at the back of the pack. The sun starts to rise quickly. We descend down Polly Shortts and “Little Pollys”. The highest point of the course is at Umlaas Road at 810m above sea level. Somewhere after that nature calls and I have to stop for a “break”. I promise to catch up with my companion. The view from the side of the road is ideal. There is privacy provided by a pre-fab concrete fence. It is just low enough to watch the passing runners. Just before I enjoy the break too much I get going. I catch my companion somewhere on a hill.
Just outside Camperdown, I see my family because my sister is jumping up and down, clapping her hands with glee. At Camperdown nature calls for the companion and we part ways. I carry on at the same pace.
The rest of the run is pretty uneventful through Cato Ridge. By this time, I’m comfortably getting through all the cutoff points with 40 minutes to spare.
At Inchanga, there is a sign warning runners not to run too quickly down the hill as the jarring motion can cause damage to their legs. Up until Inchanga, the race is fairly uneventful. Four emergency vehicles are descending into Drummond and are eager to pass us. When we finally catch up with them, a runner is lying motionless by the road. They are performing CPR. A cold shiver runs down my spine. We later found out that he was the second runner to pass away on that day.
The halfway mark at Drummond is very festive. Just after Drummond is the iconic spot called Arthur’s Seat. It is known to have been a favourite resting spot of the legendary Arthur Newton, five-time winner of the Comrades Marathon in the 1920’s. Legend has it that if you don’t greet Arthur, the second half of your race will be doomed. I greeted him just in case.
The hardest part of the race is the climb from Drummond to Botha’s Hill. A lot of walking takes place. I phone my wife to say I’m okay and am walking up a hill. There is a couple walking hand in hand. I texted a photo to my wife with the caption “This could be us.” Many foreign runners stop to photograph the valley. It’s not called the Valley of a Thousand Hills for nothing.
Somewhere in Botha’s Hill, I feel nature calling again. This is strange as I don’t have to go often during a race. I pull off the road and, instead of looking for privacy, I attempt to go right there next to the road. Now, I am usually a very private person and will only relieve myself when there is complete privacy. Luckily, it is a quiet patch with no spectators and only runners passing. I relax and wait for the pressure to pass. Nothing! False alarm. Could this be a simple case of stage fright? It must have been the weight of my storage belt pressing on the bladder. I return to the road, enraged, because my running belt owes me a minute for wasting my race time.
From Botha’s Hill, the descent into Hillcrest is pretty rapid. As I catch up with one of our club members outside Kearsney College, the descent into Hillcrest is hard and tiresome on the legs. When we reach Hillcrest, we see our club members stationed at the branded club gazebo. My wife is also next to the road. There is a very steep hill in Hillcrest. Somewhere in Hillcrest on Old Main Road, I lost my second running partner.
The run from Hillcrest to Winston Park is well-supported. From Winston Park, there is another steep descent down Fields Hill. These steep downhills don’t feel like much, but they do a lot of damage to the legs. I come across another club member going down Fields Hill. Just as we go into Pinetown, a familiar face pulls him off the road and my solo journey continues.
From Pinetown, the route is relatively flat and down. I see familiar faces who offer support and supplies. The climb up to Cowies Hill is not steep, but everyone walks it. There is lots of support on the road.
In Westville more familiar faces. By now my body does not want any more solids. Only fluids. I’ve had a good run so far. No pain except for a nagging blister on my left little toe. I think of Janeen’s toe and suddenly my toe feels better.
The last section of the race is a real slog. It’s not hard or anything, but mentally having done the mileage and with the legs taking a beating, it really takes every inch of your willpower. I keep going through 45th Cutting and up Tollgate Bridge. The descent into Durban is eerie as the weather has started changing and a light drizzle has set in. This has left the route devoid of supporters.
Running the last section to the finish feels like an eternity. When I can finally see the Moses Mabhida stadium lights and hear the announcer, I start running with new vigour. The atmosphere is electric. There are cameras and people everywhere as I dash over the finish line.
The funny thing with the Comrades Marathon is that it isn’t a glamorous race. If you want to run an ultramarathon that is more fun and glamorous rather enter the Two Oceans Marathon. You spend most the day out on the road from sunrise until dusk. You don’t feel fantastic afterwards. I wasn’t broken or injured but still very depleted. To fully recover after the race you need at least 2 weeks to recover from the fatigue. The muscle damage can take a full 3 – 6 weeks to completely repair.
It is also misleading to call it a “down run”. The route is mostly uphill until Hillcrest. Only the last 38 kilometres of the race are down.
When you’ve had a bittersweet experience, you instantly feel happy when you see a familiar face. It is impossible to forget what a wonderful country South Africa is when there are so many wonderful things and good people around you. It brings out the best in people. Everyone wants to help you and meet your needs.
This race could be a metaphor for life. You must run as far as you have ever run in your life to get there, only to discover that it is insufficient. It uses everything you have while also revealing qualities you didn’t know you possessed. It helps you put other aspects of your life into perspective, cultivates mental toughness, and increases your ability to handle difficulties.
The most important lesson is that everyone, in the end, runs their own race. It makes no difference what someone else’s time was – only that you finished the race.