Most Australian marathon runners have heard about Comrades due to the strong South African influence in Australia particularly in running circles. For Expat South African runners living in Australia it is more than just a very long Marathon, it’s one of their national icon’s that they have grown up watching on TV and which the whole nation follows on race day.
Comrades had been on my race wish list for many years because it embodies the essential ingredients for a worthwhile event due to its history, traditions and challenges. This year turned out to be my best opportunity to enter as I had been injury free for 12 months and there were no family illnesses in the background so 2017 would have to be the year … even though it was an “Up Year” meaning 1.5 Km of vertical climb over 87 Km of horizontal ground.
For anyone who hasn’t heard of Comrades it’s the world largest and oldest ultra-marathon invented even before the word ultra-marathon existed and the event that is often called the greatest foot race on earth. It runs through the KwaZulu-Natal area of South Africa including through the Valley of a Thousand Hills. This year the start of Comrades was in Durban on the coast and the finish at Pietermaritzburg up on an inland plateau.
Not far from the Comrades course lie many battlefields of great historical significance including “Blood River” where the Dutch (Boers) Voortrekkers fought the Zulus in 1838 and many of the famous Anglo-Zulu war battlefields including Rorkes Drift (1879) made famous in the movie “Zulu” where 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded to Red Coat soldiers in a single day and the Zulus suffered terrible loss of life.
My trip and entry into Comrades was arranged by Travelling-Fit and the very capable Craig Herbert. Entering via Travelling-Fit enabled me to enter well after the standard entry period had expired and also allowed me as a first time Comrades runner to meet up with a few Aussie runners who were also on their own. Travelling Fit also arranged flights for me as I was going on a tour of South Africa after Comrades and my flights were a bit complicated so it also gave me the backup of a Travel Agent if a problem occurred while I was away. I was also fortunate to get a pep talk from Travelling-Fit founder Mari-Mar Walton who has run the event 3 times and that was highly beneficial in calming my nerves as I found that that a lot of the articles and descriptions I had researched on Comrades were lacking in specific detail including the my major concern which was “how bad are the Big 5 of Comrades and how do you run them?”
That same question would be answered in a different way 2 days before Comrades on the bus tour of the Comrades course arranged by the Comrades “Ambassador-at- Large” Bruce “Digger” Hargreaves from Brisbane, who had managed to get the 9 time Comrades winner and the legend of Comrades, Bruce Fordyce to lead us over the course. Unfortunately, all the comforting advice given by Mari Mar were soon dispelled by Bruce but that is part of the Comrades tradition to scare people about the Up run in particular and he did a very good job of doing just that, but with some great jokes thrown in.
Bryce Fordyce is still running and told us that these days he only has 2 speeds (fast and slow) due to a knee injury. He has been behind the amazing success of parkrun in South Africa which has one of the biggest weekly parkrun in the world in Durban on Saturday. After the bus tour I realized I would just be happy to finish in the 12 hour cut-off. Well done Bruce.
The alarm goes off at 3 am and I wake up after about 5 hours sleep which was better than expected. After 5 days in South Africa I was at the point where I just wanted it to start and get the event over with. Comrades was starting to feel like an exam that you had done more than enough study for and was starting to frustrate you. All the worry, stress, money and training was coming down to the next 10 hours and that family and friends would be following me on the Comrades on-line tracker during the afternoon and evening back in Australia …. so therefore no pressure, no excuses and no DNF.
Race kit for Comrades includes compression short tights and compression calf socks due to a calf problem in my qualifying marathon in Hobart, as well as my 2010 Athens Marathon from Travelling fit which is my favourite shirt and my signed Turramurra Trotters cap, Brooks Adrenaline shoes and two bum bags, one at the front and one at the back. Then I stuff all the food I can possible fit into my two (2) bum bags which included two peanut butter and honey sandwiches and 2 bananas to eat on the start line. This food was to be supplemented by a drop bag at the 60 Km mark that I had organised through World Vision at the Comrades Expo which also had sandwiches plus chocolate donuts and a sports drink.
After an hour’s preparation and bag packing I headed downstairs to breakfast and checked my bags in with the Travelling Fit representatives over in South Africa (Penthouse Travel) who were taking our bags to the hotel near the finish line in Pietermaritzburg. This was a luxury as all the other runners would have to wait for a bus to go back to Durban in the evening.
The little shuttles bus from the hotel to the start line left around 4.30 am and the trip only took 10 mins or so before being dropped. Then to the drop bag truck to ensure warm dry clothes would be waiting at the finish line. Then a short walk to the starting corals where I was starting in group C (Marathon qualifying time of 3:20 to 3:40).
I entered the start area in front of the Durban Town Hall about 5 am and therefore had one hour to collect my thoughts and to enjoy the atmosphere. First a few strangers from the U.K. next to me started chatting and they were excited that this would be my first Comrades and then put the standard pressure on me to run next year in order to a get a back to back medal as “to run only the up or the down is only half the race” …. apparently. This line is like a broken record around Comrades but I think it works in the back on people’s minds at some point after the race. Another common phase is “you only get one chance to run back to back at Comrades”.
Ryan Brown an American journalist whom I had met on the Comrades Course bus tour 2 days before who was on the outside of the fencing and she took my photo. She was following the race all day and getting as many photos and interviews as possible to help her prepare her article for USA Runner’s World magazine. I am still trying to get the photo she took but that is another story.
After that a South African man also on the outside of the fence who was holding his young children up high to get a good view, struck up a conversation. He had run Comrades twice before but was out this year due to injury but wanted his kids to see the start. As I spoke to him there were tears running down his cheeks and it really hit me just how much this event means to South African people and how fortunately I was to be starting in about 20 mins. I tried to cheer him up by talking about next year’s event being easier anyway which he agreed to.
From then on it was a bit hard to remember the last 30 mins as everyone packed in and the excitement built up but sure enough we heard the national anthem and then the famous recorded human “cock crow” impersonation by a man called Max Trimborn which
was very quick and then we were off. I crossed the line about 3 mins after the official start which was pretty good and the benefit of being in group C start rather than group H at the back which had to wait around 12 minutes to cross the line and this means they had only 11 hours and 48 minutes to get under the 12 hour cut off and receive a Vic Clapham medal.
Due to the 6 am start and being in winter the first 90 mins of Comrades is in the dark. The first 1 km is flat in the Durban CBD but then we start the first of the famous big 5 Hills of Comrades knows as Cowies which is in the early stages is all on the freeways of Durban. Spectators are a bit thin on the ground due to limited vantage points in the first 5 km’s but the overpasses are covered with people cheering and carrying on.
Cowies actually has 4 separate hills within it and the middle hill is known as the 45th Cutting which is an important landmark on the course at 200 m above sea level on a marker point on the pacing band I was wearing from the Comrades Expo. I get to the top of Cowies at 400 m above sea level without any issues using a little bit of the “walk-run” strategy advised by experience Comrades runners and which 90 % of the runners are following at this point.
Eventually the sun comes up over our backs while slowly climbing up the second major hill known as Fields Hill which peaks at 560 m above sea level which is a 250 m climb after a downhill over the top of Cowies. The last half of Fields Hill is the longest steepest part of Comrades in my opinion and using the “walk-run” strategy here is essential as there is still such a long way to go.
Over the top of Fields Hill is more steady climbing but not as steep which was welcomed at this point. Then the final push up a steep 5 km or so up to top of Botha’s Hill which I can hardly remember as one hill after another starts to make every hill look the same. Finally at the top of Botha’s Hill we reach the 42km mark and as I had learnt from Bruce Fordyce on the course bus tour before the event, I had just completed the toughest road marathon on earth which was great and now I had another 45 km of hills to the finish line. Everything was going well for me at this point I had some tingling in my right calf muscle on the downhills but no problems on the uphills which was a great relief. I had eaten one of the sandwiches I was carrying and a couple of small bananas given out on the course on top of the 2 bananas at the start line and was drinking alternate sports drink and water at the aid stations as per standard marathon hydration strategy.
The downhill section after Botha’s Hill through to Drummond and past the famous “Arthur’s Seat” and the “Wall of Honour” was definitely the most enjoyable part of Comrades for me. I had plenty of energy to take good advantage of the downhills and flat and although still running conservatively I appeared to be making up time compared to other runners who were clearly struggling and they still had over 40 km to go.
The halfway point soon appeared and was the most impressive of the drink and aid stations with Coke putting on a huge display with water sprays ect ect. and lot of supporters and a great atmosphere and it was a great feeling to get to that point and still be feeling relatively strong. Clearly my training was paying dividends but was close to unchartered waters in terms of distance run given my longest event before Comrades was 56 km.
My drop bag with extra supplies was not far away at the World Vision aid station near the Enthembeni Disabled Children School at about the 60 km mark. This school is a charity supported by Comrades. I was really focusing on getting to this aid station but was worried that I wouldn’t see it and run straight past it. It seemed to be taking too long to get there but in the end it appeared on the left hand side. I was met by the World Vision volunteers with great enthusiasm and they were expecting me by name as they knew I was in the C group and had done their maths about my possible time to the 60 km mark. To my amazement they had opened my bag and put my drink in ice and it was so beautifully cold when they handed it to me. I was totally blown away by their kindness and to me this was the highlight of Comrades. They say you cry when you finish your first Comrades which would never happen to me but the World Vision aid station and their kindness was quite overwhelming.
The next challenge coming up on the Comrades agenda was “Inchanga”, No. 4 of the Big 5 which I think is the best name on the Comrades course and sounds very tribal and African. Inchanga is Zulu for spear I believe although there seems to be differing explanations about it. Going up Inchanga I was still feeling fine and could have run to the top if that was the end the race but with 38 k to go I took the run 75%-walk 25% strategy here although most people were walking more than running at this point. The next section down into Camperdown and up to Umlass Road was a challenge as it was starting to get quite warm and the road was never-ending and my legs were starting to get a bite sore.
At most point and not sure where it appeared from, I started running with the “9-hour bus” or pace group. This was a great experience due to the size of the group (up to 50 people at times maybe more) and the fact that most were black South Africans or other Africans who were singing songs to keep focused. No idea what the words meant as it was in either in Zulu, Xhosa or Afrikaans. After running with the “bus” as South Africans call it for around 10 km I started to get frustrated as the leader was tending to run through the drink stations too quickly and then walk on sections that were flat and were easy to run. He was timing the walks based on time only rather than course profile. For about 5 km I kept running in front of them when it was flat and let them catch up to me on the uphills and drink stations.
At some point the 9-hour bus got ahead of me and I let them go. I was starting to struggle and had about 15 k to go and just wanted to run the best I could on my own to the finish.
The fact that I was struggling with 15 km to go probably demonstrated my training was perfect for 70 km but not for the full 87 km however I was confident I could manage the pain in my legs which was the main thing slowing me down plus a bit a general fatigue. I also didn’t could not force myself to eat anything at this even though which would have helped.
My strategy at this point was to run all the downhills at a reasonable pace and then as much of the flat as possible but not to even attempt running any hills. It was fortunate that the downhills were only around 2 km long at any point as that was about as far as I could run downhill in one go without an uphill to give my legs a rest and for the pain to subside. My legs were also feeling stiff but fortunately no cramps but I had taken salt tablets a couple of times before this point. I knew that at some point in Comrades this was going to happen and felt relieved that Pietermaritzburg was not too far away.
There were more and more supporters out on the road as we reached the 10 km to go mark and at this point I felt bad doing any walking as this is not what supporters come to see but Comrades runners can only do their best after running close to 80 km. I hope they understood. Most of these supporters were in for a very long day as around 80% of the field was still to come through and most of them would be walking and not looking too flash.
Bruce Fordyce told us on the tour that we would all be walking up the famous Little Polly’s and Polly’s Shortts which was 100% correct. At the top of Polly’s you can almost look down into the finish at Pietermaritzburg but I didn’t stop to saviour the view. The online tracker said I stopped for 8 minutes at the top of Polly Shortts which must have been a power failure at the finish as I kept moving the whole time.
The elevation profile from the top of Polly Shortts to the finish looks predominately downhill but it felt either flat or uphill and I was walking even 25% of the flat bits and all the uphills again. With 3 km to go I summoned the will power to say to myself that I would not stopping again before the finish line. Certainly the last 1 km or so was a lot easier knowing the finish line was so close. It’s very strange how the human body and minds works together sometimes.
The finish into the Pietermaritzburg Racetrack involves going down under a tunnel to get under the racetrack and coming back up again inside the track to the finishing line. I expected to cramp coming back up the tunnel but I didn’t and finished in relative comfort in a time of 9:44 without any tears and the medical staff waved me on rather than into the big tent hospital they have at the finish line. I was happy enough with my time and although I had lost touch with the 9 hour pacer I was comforted by the fact that a lot of the other people on the bus finished with or after me. Possibly by trying to keep with the bus a lot of people including myself had over extended themselves a bit too hard I am not sure. There is a Bill Rowan medal for anyone who runs under 9 hours and when that slips away and lot of people are content to coast home for a bronze medal.
Not long after I crossed the finished the line and making a slow walk back to the International runners area, a huge man came out of the Rotary tent and not looking where he was going stepped on my already very sore left foot which resulting in me screaming at this man who was totally oblivious to what he had done and without apology headed off. That was certainly the low point of Comrades for me and highlights why in an event like this the general public should be kept away from runners who can hardly stand up let alone avoid elephants without eyes.
Following this morale crushing incident I made the slow and painful walk to the International Runners area which required going up and down about 30 steps on a temporary crossover of the finish line. Not sure who the genius was who came up with that idea.
The International Runners area was meant to be a VIP area from what I could work out but there were so few toilets you had to wait 20 minutes and there were not enough chairs so we had to sit on the ground and all the bean bags were taken by non – runners before any of the runners had finished. How considerate of them. There were no officials to install or keep law and order.
After a short while I met up with a couple of other runners I had meet at the International Runners night, including Robert Gatto from Washington DC who was on his 4th Comrades trip and David Gonzales from Mexico City who was a very unassuming man who reluctantly told me (after I figured out why he had had a very quick trip to the Australian Alps one year) he had done the 7 summits and had summited Everest 6 times. I later found out that in 2013 he was the first person ever to summit Everest from both sides in the same year!!!. He told he is now bored with high altitude climbing and is concentrating on other extreme sports including but not limited to ultra-marathons. Marathon de Sables was his next major event and he was also interested in solo long distance sailing. He has never run the Everest Marathon because he says he is always feeling too weak after reaching the summit although the time is normally perfect to do both.
We waited in the International Runners area and watched the big screen nearby as the countdown started for the 12 hour cut-off. This is the highlight of Comrades for the TV audience as the cut-off is strictly and brutally enforced leaving some very fortunate runners who sneak under 12 hours to get their medal and the unfortunate runners who narrowly miss out. After a few power failures that resulted in the big screen going down, it was sorted out and just as it was getting dark and right on 6 pm we saw the gun fired and human wall coming across to prevent any further finishers.
And that that was it for the Comrades 2017 Up Run except of course the many people still making their way to the finish line with dejected looks on their faces. Well as they say in football, “there is always next year” to make the 12-hour cut-off and get a Comrades medal.
The next task was walking across the race track, through the training yards and to the hotel which was not easy due to stiff bodies and seized-up minds. The hotel was part of a casino and they had guards with machine guns in the carpark which didn’t like to be stared at which was a bit unnerving. I had dinner with the other Australian Travelling-Fit runners and we were all concerned about Lin from Melbourne who had had a bad day but finished and ended up in a hospital in Pietermaritzburg. We didn’t get to see him before we had to leave on our pre-booked buses down to Durban Airport the next day but Craig Herbert from Travelling-Fit advised that he was now fully recovered.
Some of the other Australian runners were staying on to do a “Safari” and I had booked to go on a 10 day tour of South Africa starting in Cape Town to complete my South African education.
Now I have to put my thinking cap on and ponder the big question – do I attempt the back to back next year ? Everyone knows I have only done half the race and you definitely only get one chance to do back to back at Comrades right!!!!