“There’s no race quite like Comrades.”
“There’s something about this race that just drags you back time and time again”.
Just two of the terrifying yet fascinating statements delivered by fellow runners as I trained with them on a hot Hatta morning some three weeks before the big day. During the past few weeks since I had taken part in the 56km Two Oceans Marathon, I had become completely obsessed with Comrades; this pilgrimage between Durban and Pietermaritzburg. When I wasn’t training, I was listening to podcasts, watching videos on YouTube and reading race reports about this somehow familiar yet completely alien event.
About The Comrades Marathon
Comrades is the world’s oldest ultra-marathon race, having first been held in 1921. The direction of the run changes on alternate years. ‘Odd’ numbered years are for the uphill run and ‘even’ numbered years are run in the opposite direction, downhill.
Vic Clapham is credited with organising the first Comrades race as a way of commemorating the South African soldiers killed during the war. It has been run every year since then with the exception of 1941-1945, due to the Second World War.
The race has a 12 hour cut-off (and several cut-offs along the route). After this, participants can no longer continue or claim a medal or official finish time. Different types of medals are given depending on one’s finish time.
The Comrades Marathon is also the largest ultra marathon in the world, with 17, 031 starters this year. With 13,852 official finishers, the dropout or cut off rate is around 20%, which demonstrates how tough the event is.
I had entered way back in November, on the proviso that I could always substitute my entry or just not turn up if I felt that I wasn’t capable of running the 86.7km uphill through the aptly named ‘Valley of a Thousand Hills’. After a successful Two Oceans, I decided to bite the bullet and go ahead with the race. A brief recovery period followed, but I was soon building up again in preparation for this incredible test of endurance on the 4th June.
The Start Of The Race
Before I knew it, I was in Durban with an awesome group of runners, most of whom had experienced Comrades before, and who very kindly helped me to relax and appreciate the enormity of the task ahead by taking me on a drive of the course or offering valuable words of advice.
After feeling strangely calm for most of the week, I woke up at 2:15am on race morning to find that my nerves, as if playing some evil game, had all decided to attack me at once. This culminated in me retching several times whilst slumped against the bathroom door in my hotel room. I desperately wanted to be sick but fought to keep my breakfast down for fear of losing valuable nutrition.
The Start Line
When I got to the start line, I sent my husband a tearful voice message telling him how nervous I was. I almost unravelled at the seams due to an enormous amount of pressure that only I had created. Thankfully, I found a small, quiet area in which to jog. I covered about 500 metres in tiny little circles, which calmed me down and helped me to focus on the task ahead.
I was in pen C, and got there early on the advice of several experienced Comrades runners. Dressed in my ‘throwaway’ sweater and pants, it was already warm and so I gave them to a man outside of the pen who was collecting them for people who would need them in the coming winter months. I sat down in my pen for a while before standing up once it got too crowded.
Before too much longer, the South African national anthem played. This was followed by my favourite pre-race song, ‘Shosholoza’. I had learned the words so that I could sing along, and it proved to be a very emotional experience. After this was ‘Chariots of Fire’, which seemed to go on forever, and then Max Trimborn’s cock crow followed by the starting gun. We were off!
Slow & Steady
The crowd surged as everyone fought their way to the start line. The race was gun to gun, so our time officially started when the gun was fired, and not when we crossed the start. I took me about 90 seconds to officially begin the race, and I was grateful that I had been near the front of my pen.
As runners battled past me in the first 10km, I really began to doubt myself. The route was uphill from the start, heading out of Durban on the motorway, and it felt tough, despite the fact it was very early in the race. People who had started way, way behind me were constantly overtaking. I thought about speeding up and even considered adjusting my 9-hour goal to a more realistic 10 hours, but in the end, I decided to just hang on in there. After all, I had seen the course, made notes and studied them, and I knew exactly what was coming. What lay ahead terrified me, but I knew that staying slow and steady was the only way to finish.
It’s All Uphill From Here…
The hills were relentless. Apart from a couple of short downhill sections, the first 35km was all up, rising around 700m from where we had originally started. I had my first planned 2-minute walk break at 8km and the second at 16km. I finally found my stride and on the first two major hills managed to run most of the way up in a nice rhythm. At 26km, I had a short toilet break and refueled. It was here that I realised I was constantly passing people (in particular the ones who had come flying past me at the start). I kept to my strategy of walking every 8km unless it was flat or downhill, when I waited for an uphill or a water station for my walk breaks.
Before I knew it, three hours had passed and I was feeling absolutely fine. The support along the course was amazing and I grew in confidence. I was averaging about 6:10 per km but there was a long way to go with some big challenges ahead. I tried to ‘just roll’ down the down hills rather than hitting them hard, trying to keep fluid and relaxed.
When we reached halfway, I still felt great. However, I also knew that one of my most feared climbs, Inchanga, was to come. I had a strategy for the final two hills of the ‘Big 5’. The last hill is called Polly Shortts and one of my dogs is called Polly. So, that was dedicated to her. This meant that Buster (my other dog) had to have a hill dedicated to him too! As he is a big dog, I dedicated Inchanga to him. It may sound silly, but it worked. They are both rescue dogs and had a horrible start in life, so I just thought of them and kept going, repeating their names out loud. I used a 2 minutes run 1 minute walk strategy, and linked it to my treadmill ‘hill’ intervals in training.
I remember passing 56km and realising it was the farthest I’d ever run. The whole time I was stressed as I knew I was on course to finish in a time of just over nine hours. I also knew that there were some nice downhills towards the end of the course, during which I hoped I could make up time. With 25km to go, I tried to speed up a little.
There was a rough patch heading up to the highest point with 17km to go, but I was aware that after this there was a nice long down. I was hurting by this point. Mainly my feet, which was weird but I ignored it as much as I could.
With 15km to go, I had about 1h 29 in which to do it if I wanted to scrape under 9 hours. This would mean running slightly faster than 6 minutes a km, with one major hill left and some nasty steep sections (although these were only a couple of hundred metres long). I couldn’t bear the thought of getting a 9:02 or something (and therefore just missing out on a Bill Rowan medal), so I decided to push.
Luckily, there was a nice downhill section where I overtook lots of people and then Little Polly’s (a hill), followed by another down and then the last major hill, Polly Shortts. I had originally intended to walk most of this, but I knew that I was going to have to run as much as possible. I alternated by running three minutes and walking for one, thought about my dog Polly, and finally reached the top!
The Last 8km
Next, there was a great downhill section where I made up some time. My knee and hamstring were hurting but by now there was 8km to go. I had just under 45 minutes to do it. This meant I needed to run significantly under 6:00/km.
As my watch sounded every kilometer…80, 81, 82…The thought of how far I had run was beginning to play on my mind. To combat this, I imagined that I was out on a standard 8km morning run. This part of the course was when I averaged 5:27/km. I honestly don’t know how I did it or where I found the strength to speed up, but I did!
There was then a REALLY nasty steep 200m climb and people who didn’t know the course saw it and just laid down on the side of the road. I was so glad I knew about it and could prepare mentally. I ran the whole thing. From there, it was pretty much up and down and the last 5km seemed to go on forever. I remembered my coach’s words: “run smart and run tough”. Onwards.
Two To Go…
With 2km to go, I had under 14 minutes remaining. For the first time, I felt a sub-9 hour time was truly possible, but I still didn’t ease off. It was a real feeling of now or never. I was either just going to make it or just going to miss it.
1km remaining, and I had 8 minutes left. I felt ok and pretty much knew I could do it, and so eased off a bit as I didn’t want to trip or suddenly get cramp. I also knew there was one more steep, 60m uphill as the route takes you under the race course that you finish on.
To the left, I heard one of the Dubai supporters shout my name as I ran towards the finish and kept on running beyond the timing mats until I was sure it was over.
I Did It!
Exhaustion and disbelief made for a very dazed finish, but I was so so happy to have just made it in a time of 8:56. Getting a Bill Rowan was always going to be a big ask, but somehow I had fought without giving up or talking myself out of it. I watched the 9 hours cut off and the people who were a couple of seconds too slow. “That could have been me,” I thought.
I slowly made my way to the tent for international runners. In there, I celebrated with those who had already finished and waited for the rest of our group. It was a strange feeling; I was absolutely exhausted but high on caffeine and in shock over my performance.
There’s no doubt that the Comrades Marathon is a tough run. One must be dedicated to their training in order to complete the race before the various cut-offs. During the run, there were occasions when I really questioned what I was doing. However, the phenomenal support of so many different people was enough to pull me out of any low points.
Although I did read some complaints from slower runners regarding the availability of water towards the end of the race, I was not personally affected. From my point of view, it was an incredibly well-organised event. In fact, I am already thinking of coming back for the Down run in 2018!
Comrades captures your heart, makes you believe in yourself and strengthens your resolve during tough times. Upon finishing, you really do feel that you are capable of anything.