Comrades Marathon 2015

Wednesday, 25th May

A long flight to Durban via Dubai gave me oodles of time for movie watching and reading.

Terry Lonergan had suggested that I read a book called ‘The Ghost Runner’ by Bill Jones. It was the true story of a man with a name very similar to mine – he was called John Tarrant. He was branded  a professional after accepting £17 for expenses when a teenage boxer, this meant he had sullied his amateur status and was not allowed to  compete officially in running events.

He was a sad, tortured man, but a brilliant runner. He used to enter races as a ‘ghost’ – appearing at the start in long overcoat and cap, removing them at the last minute in order to run the race without a number. He won many top road races and marathons and later became a brilliant ultra runner, achieving world records for 40 and 100 miles. In his later career, he became obsessed by Comrades.

It’s a great book, thoroughly recommended, harking back to a completely different era and it included tales of runners like Bernard Gomersall – a runner from Leeds and a rival of Tarrant’s who won Comrades in 1965.

Friday, 27th May

The Comrades Expo was only a 10 minute walk from the hotel. There was a palpable hubbub in Durban – the population swelled by thousands of runners and supporters.

The Expo is a mighty thing, a melange of Corporate sponsors and snake oil salesmen peddling miracle cures for joint pains and pushing ointments that will allegedly make you run Comrades faster and pain free. Yeah right.

The official merchandise was very good quality, so I peeled off some Rand and purchased a few items, including shorts, kids’ T-Shirts (presents) and an illuminated woolly hat. Oh, and a plastic thing that enables you to fold your clothes really quickly and easily…

International runners are treated like VIPs at Comrades. There is a separate number collection desk, saving about an hour of queuing, the expo has a special café for Internationals and at the finish they lay on a separate International Finishers Tent. All in all, with a couple of minor glitches, the organisation is superb.

Background to the Race:

For those that don’t know, the Comrades Marathon is a South African institution. Despite the name, it is not run over the standard marathon distance, it is an ultramarathon – its length varying between 87 and 89 kms.

The race runs from Durban to Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal – or vice-versa depending on whether it is an ‘up’ run or a ‘down’.

2015 was the 90th running and the race is laced with traditions and quirks. There is a strict 12 hour time limit, from gun to gun and various medals can be won according to finishing position or time achieved:

Gold Medal                   –           The first 10 men and women

Wally Hayward Medal    –           11th place to sub 6 hours

Silver Medal                  –           6 hrs 00mins to sub 7 hrs 30mins

Bill Rowan Medal           –           7 hrs 30mins to sub 9 hrs 00mins

Bronze Medal               –           9 hrs 00mins to sub 11 hrs 00mins

Vic Clapham Medal       –           11 hrs 00mins to sub 12 hrs 00mins

2015 was an up year and the course was 872 metres longer than normal because of a diversion caused by roadworks.

4.45 a.m. May 31st outside City Hall, Durban

It was fully dark and was pleasantly warm. In the melee and noise outside the start area, I shook my friend Craig’s hand and wished him well as we parted – he made his way to the ‘C’ pen, I was in the ‘A’ corral. The entrance to the A pen was narrow and heavily guarded.  You weren’t getting in there unless you’d earned the right and had that beloved ‘A’ on your number.

I felt a little surreal as I stood in the pen. There were blinding arc lights on us, music playing and a huge amount of energy crackling in the air. I had plenty of time to calm my nerves and reflect on what it had taken to get here. I smiled inside, it felt good.

Race numbers show the number of previous Comrades you have run, so everyone knew that I was one of the 4,000 or so first timers in the 17,000 strong starting field. A white South African guy grabbed my shoulder and said “James – look around you man – take it in, enjoy it – you’ll never forget this day”.

There are certain experiences in life that are simply impossible to describe in words to somebody else. Seeing the Grand Canyon, the first time you have sex. Standing 4 metres from the start line of Comrades as the runners sing ‘Shosholaza’ is like that.

It is a beautiful and very moving old mining folk song. A song of determination and defiance. I doubt that a video can convey the goosebumps on goosebumps feeling, but have a look at this (shot by Richard Williams):

Chariots of Fire played for three minutes and then at 5.30 a.m. the cock crowed and the gun was fired. I was over the start mat in about 2 seconds.  In the wide city centre roads of Durban, runners streamed passed me – dozens – then hundreds and probably thousands as I was engulfed by a phalanx of humanity.

A Comrades up run is all about hills. Lots of them. In fact the first half is virtually all uphill. This is the profile:

Comrades profile

I knew I had to go easily, really easily. I was jogging very steadily, but still the first mile was done in 7:51. That was OK, it was only gently uphill at that point.

After about 3 or 4 kms, we were on a wide motorway, the Jan Smuts Highway, climbing steadily out of Durban. It was very busy and many runners were still streaking past me – some with D or E on their number. I even saw an H runner within the first 10Ks, they should have taken 15 minutes to cross the start line, but maybe he jumped the queue.

I had a little iPod nano with me. I intended to record some audio or maybe video along the route.  The quality of these videos is poor, I am sorry about the finger over the lens.  Rather than try to describe my progress through the middle part of the race, I’m just going to insert these videos and let you hear me describe how I was feeling during the race.

Video 1: 2 Hours in:

Video 2:  2.5 hours in:

Video 3: Near halfway:

Video 4 – Harrison flats – 38 miles, 5 hours 52:

Video 5 – Just before Polly Shortts, 10K to go:

Video 6 – on Polly Shortts :

When I started, I harboured vague hopes of running a sub 7:30 time and getting a Silver Medal. I’d bought a pacing tattoo at the expo which I had put on my right arm.

I was behind at every check point and fortunately, I didn’t try to speed up to get back on schedule. I’d soon realised that silver was an impossibility.

I stupidly thought that a sub 9 hour Bill Rowan medal would be easy. The 9 hour time for this medal is significant because Bill Rowan ran 8:59 in winning the first ever Comrades in 1921, so anyone that gains a Bill Rowan can claim that they would have won the first Comrades.

Of course times were very different back then. There were no aid stations, every runner needed their own ‘seconds’ – which in reality would be a bloke on a bike with a bucket of water and a sponge.  Some also called into local shops and hotels to buy supplies en route.

As you see from the videos, by the bottom of Polly Shortts, the Bill Rowan medal was slipping away. The first half is all about hills. I thought it would get easier after halfway, but that wouldn’t be Comrades. The hardest hill in the whole race, Inchanga, is early in the second half, just to give one’s ailing spirit a thorough kicking.

There is a long undulating section at about 30-35 miles on the plateau called Harrison Flats. By this point I had been reduced to 1 minute on 1 minute off run/walking. My pace was way down at 12 / 13 minute miling. I had a terrible couple of hours.

It was hot and although I drank as much as I could at every aid station (there are 47 in total), I didn’t want to pee, not even nearly. I was going through the wringer.

I was passed by a huge group of runners – at least a hundred, maybe two hundred, tightly grouped, many chanting a Zulu song, chugging along the highway.  This was one of the legendary Comrades buses – the nine hour bus.

In simple terms, a bus is a pacing group, but at Comrades, it means much more than that. The driver will get to know most of the names of those in the group, he will check that all are OK. He will spell out the run/walk strategy and lead the singing, he will do everything he can to bring all his passengers in together. The bus even stops at regular intervals to allow any stragglers to re-join. They are a band of brothers.

The 9 hour bus had passed me whilst I took a drink and ate some potato at a station, when I caught it, I felt it was going too slowly, so stupidly I pressed on ahead of it. I was knackered, it was hot. There were still 20 hilly miles to run. What was I thinking?

A few miles later, the bus swallowed me. I was cooked, so clinging on to it was very hard. I was swinging on and off the back for ages – maybe an hour or more, I just couldn’t get in the group. When they walked, I ran to catch up, but they would run again and if it was uphill, I would need a walk so fell away again.

By Little Polly’s, the bus was 50 metres in front of me and I couldn’t catch it. I started to get very anxious. I knew the driver would have a few minutes in hand, but I didn’t know how much. I didn’t want to miss the medal by a few seconds – that would look really weak. I thought of my friends back home. I hoped some would be tracking my progress, maybe they realised what I was going through…

On Polly’s I realised that it was a simple formula. Six miles to run in less than an hour.  That will seem so easy to most runners reading this, but climbing a brutally steep 1.5 mile hill after running 49 miles and feeling hot and emotional, it was a bit of a crisis.

I hadn’t been able to maintain 10 minute miles for the last 10 or 15 miles – nothing like it. If I wanted to get a Bill Rowan medal, I would have to run all the way from the top of Polly Shortts with no walking whatsoever. Despite my mental fog, that seemed pretty clear.

I staggered up to the top of Pollys – there were 7.5 kms to go, just a parkrun and a half. The bus was nowhere to be seen.

An old South African spectator, sat in his garden tending his braai (barbecue), knew the exact situation I was in. “James, you’ll have to keep running if you want a Bill Rowan” he said as I passed.

I had only one thought in my mind – a mantra that I had on an endless loop – “Don’t walk, if you walk, you lose”.

On through the suburbs of PMB I ran. The last 7.5ks are meant to be gently downhill, and they are, excepting for the two or three beastly little climbs they put in just to break your spirit. They may be only 300 or 400 metres long and do not even register on the course profile, but after 50 odd miles they feel like mountains.

I’d almost given up looking at the watch. I was just praying for each K marker (they count down at Comrades) – 5 then 4, 3. I hadn’t walked, though every scintilla of my being was crying out for me to stop running.

At last I saw floodlights – that must be the stadium, oh glory be – but no, that’s a rugby stadium, there was still 1.5 km to go, we finish in a cricket stadium.  I made a left turn, down a long tree flanked boulevard. There were barriers up on both sides of the road – a good sign, I must be getting close. I glanced at my watch – 8 –fifty something – maybe 56, oh man, I need the finish now.

A right turn, then a sharp left and another right. I could hear loud music and the announcer. I looked down – I was running on grass! I was in the stadium, Oh I am actually going to do this! Around the perimeter I ran.  I tried to take it in, the crowd, the noise, the feelings, another 200 metres, then a final left hand turn and there was the finishing gantry.

As I crossed the line I turned to my right. All I wanted to do was to shake the hand of the man finishing next to me, a fellow comrade. I don’t know who he was. Comrades makes you do that.  This isn’t a normal race, you don’t want to beat anyone, and you just want every other runner to overcome this mighty beast. I’d made it, just – 8:57:27.

Comrades finish

As I wandered through the line, an elderly man in a green tracksuit came to me. “A Valley Strider from Leeds!” he said in a broad West Riding accent.

“Have you heard of Bernard Gomersall?”  Oh my goodness – the man from the ‘Ghost Runner’ book..

“is it you? “ I asked.

“Yes – I won this race 50 years ago”.

I was flabbergasted and a little dumbstruck. He embraced me and I think I managed to say something vaguely appropriate like “it’s an honour to meet you”.

He soon let me go – I later realised why. He was there as a guest of honour and was due to fire the 9 hour gun.

I shuffled through the funnel into an open tent. I was given a rose, then my finisher’s badge and a Bill Rowan medal was placed over my head:

Bill Rowan Medal

The cricket stadium in PMB is small and it was incredibly busy. Loud and absolutely thronged with people. I felt hot and confused, but I knew that I needed to retrieve my tog bag to get my dry clothes and in it was my International finishers area wrist band – I’d need that to get into the international tent.

I looked around and saw a sign for tog bags. I walked over. Your tog bag number is different to your race number. My tog bag receipt was pink 3391, I’d stuck it to the back of my race number.

At the tog bag area there were no pink numbers. I was in the wrong place. All of a sudden, I felt very weak. I held myself against the metal grille fence. There was a grassed area, so I laid down and hoped I’d recover a little.

I’m not sure how long I lay there, but I remember an Australian voice saying “Are you alright mate?” – “You should get yourself to the Medical Tent”

I realised that I was in trouble. Maybe I did need some help. “Where is it?” I asked. “Oh somewhere over there” and he vaguely pointed off to the distance.

I hauled myself to my feet. I was dizzy, this wasn’t great. I shuffled around aimlessly for a few minutes. Almost by chance I saw a sign for the International tent. By then I’d guessed that my tog bag would be inside the tent, I should have worn my wristband for the race, but I’d been given the wrong information by someone.

I thought if I could get in the tent, out of the sun, get changed and then get some food and drink inside me I might be OK.

The entrance was guarded by two marshalls.  I tried to blag my way in, I was aware that I wasn’t very coherent. The marshal looked at me and said “My God, are you OK?”  “No, I think I need some help” I said.

At that point he grabbed me and laid me on the grass. I was semi-conscious at best. I remember being rolled onto a stretcher. I was looking up – there was sky and trees and I was bouncing around, then more trees, then grey canvas. I was in the medical tent

I was rolled off the stretcher onto a bed. I saw the faces of two or three doctors. They asked me a few question – “Had I drunk during the race?” – “Yes- lots” I said.

“What have you drunk?” – “water, lots of it – and coke”.

“Have you passed water?” – “No, I haven’t”

I felt a sharp stabbing pain in my arm. I cried out in pain – he was having trouble getting the IV drip line in.

I saw the bag of saline above me. They had taken off my running shoes and I felt incredibly sharp cramps in both legs. I cried out in agony. A nurse grabbed my legs and yanked then upwards, bending my toes forwards. That did the trick. She kept massaging my feet and told me to rotate my ankles. The propped my legs up. That was better.

I was shivering, slightly at first, then shaking quite violently. They wrapped me in a thick rough blanket and then put a foil blanket over me.

After maybe 20 minutes or so I started to come round a little. I drank some water. They put another bag on the drip. I lay face up looking at the grey canvas. It was like looking at a movie screen.

I felt calmer. I was going to be fine. The events of the day started coming back to me. “Shosholoza” was playing in my head, images of the day, thoughts of my massive battle to get the Bill Rowan medal, thoughts of my friends and family back home.

I was lying in a field hospital, many thousands of miles from home – alone – yet I felt entirely content and calm.

I thought of the finish and meeting Bernard Gomersall.  Then the strangest thing happened to me. I started to cry – sobbing at first, but I couldn’t stop it.  I’m a dour Yorkshireman, I don’t cry. This was weird.

A nurse put her hand on my shoulder, “Are you OK?” she said.  “I’m just a bit emotional.” I replied. It had been quite a day.

I calmed myself and drank another bottle of water. The doctors said they wouldn’t discharge me until I had urinated. I had drunk two bottles of water and had two full bags of saline dripped into me.

I looked around, the tent was very busy. A senior doctor came around and was basically telling the other doctors that they needed to move people on if possible. They asked me if I wanted to pee.  I decided to tell a fib and say that I did, I thought they needed the bed. They wanted me to prove it. I said, honestly I feel OK.

The Doctor said that if I could put my shoes on and walk OK, then he would let me go.  It took quite a bit of time, but I managed to get my shoes back on. They took off the drip and then a nurse walked me back to the International Tent.

I looked at the time – nearly 4 o’clock. I must have finished just before 2.30 pm. I’d been in there for over an hour.

I felt much better. I got into the tent, retrieved my stuff and changed my top. I got some hot food – stew and rice.

As I was getting a cup of tea I chanced across Tom Williams of Marathon Talk. He said that his wife Helen was sat right there and I sat with them.

Helen had hoped to run around 11 hours and when she said she had run 10:11 (10:03 chip time) with a negative split I was amazed – that is simply brilliant. What a run. She is now easily the fastest Comrades runner in the Williams household. Absolutely brilliant Helen, doing that so soon after having Aston is simply awesome.

As we swapped war stories, Tom whipped out his iPhone and recorded us chatting – it was played on this week’s Marathon Talk podcast, so if you want to hear my inane rambling listen to the show here:  episode 282 – about 1:05:45 in.

I was obviously concerned about my mate Craig. Knowing how hard I had found the race, I was desperate to learn how he was getting on, we were getting on towards the final cut off.

There was a tablet computer set up in the tent with live tracking. I tapped in his name. He had gone over Polly Shortts and his estimated finishing time was 11:41.

I went to the fence to watch and cheer him in. 11:41 came and went, the clocked ticked on. With five minutes to go I was getting very worried when I finally saw his beaming face  as he jogged to the finish. I screamed his name to get his attention. There were literally hundreds finishing just before the cut off – there are at least three 12 hour buses. He made it with 4 and a half minutes to spare. Brilliant.

After Craig finished we managed to meet up in the massive throng and exchanged stories. We met other friends Karen and Jock, whom we’d bumped into at the Durban parkrun on Saturday – Karen is Craig’s neighbour from Rochdale. Of the 352 UK runners what are the chances that two are neighbours?

Now we had the logistical nightmare of getting back to Durban on one of the buses.  The next three hours were hell. The queue for the bus was hundreds of metres long, the crush to get out of the stadium was very worrying, made worse by collapsed runners at the top of the stairs.

We eventually got on a bus with Karen and Jock. It was insanely hot, there was no air con. The bus didn’t move for 90 minutes because of the traffic jams. Worryingly Craig was taken ill on the bus. He felt sick and fainted at the back of the bus. I asked for some help – did anyone have any water??

I thought I would have to get him off the bus and back to the Medical Tent somehow. Against a massive tide of thousands of people, I didn’t know how that could be done. I talked to the driver and Karen spoke to somebody off the bus. We got some water. Craig came round a little. We got the windows opened and fanned him as best we could. He laid across the back seat and he said he would be OK, but I was worried.

After an eternity, the bus started inching forward. Once we eventually started to move,  fresh air rushed into the bus and Craig started to feel better. The journey back took nearly 4 hours in total, the worst thing about the whole trip. I don’t think the stadium at PMB nor the town itself is big enough to cope with such a large Comrades field.  However, it didn’t spoil the day.

We hobbled back to the hotel and went straight to bed. It had been quite a day.

Final Thoughts

If you are reading this and wondering whether you should try Comrades, then just do it.

It was the best race I have ever done without a shadow of doubt.  They talk a lot about the ‘spirit of comrades’.

Phrases like that are often mere aphorisms, but for Comrades it is utterly accurate. It is a festival of humanity taking on extreme adversity. In such circumstances, great things happen. I was privileged to be there and experience it.

As for my own race, well I got my butt kicked. Comrades battered me and then dangled a Bill Rowan medal in front of me.  I am more proud of my effort in the final 10K of Comrades than of any other single athletic achievement in my life, nothing else comes close.  I will never be able to describe how utterly broken I felt with 10K to go, knowing that I had to somehow get running again – and speed up.

Will I go back?  At the finish I was certain I would never return.  But now, a few days later, I think a back-to back medal would be a very beautiful thing indeed…

To all that have sent messages and the people that tracked me during the race, I thank you.  To my friends who helped with training, especially the ones that joined me on long runs – Hannah, Nobby, John S, Myra, Ian, Joel and others – I was thinking of you guys at times when it was really tough – thanks for your help and good wishes.

Thanks to everyone who has read my blog. I’ve enjoyed writing it and I hope it has given some insight and help to others who want to achieve certain goals in running.

I’m going to stop writing it. For now anyway.