How Not to Run the Comrades Marathon
Durban, Thursday May 26 2016
A year on from losing my Comrades virginity, I was sitting in a comfortable Durban hotel room on the North beach front.
I can’t deny it, but I had a feeling of impending dread about the forthcoming Comrades on Sunday. Oh shit, I thought – I’m not at all prepared for this – It felt a bit like a student walking into an exam without having done sufficient revision – one might get lucky with the questions and get away with it, but deep down you know that you will probably get found out.
For those that don’t know, Comrades is an 89.2km race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. Despite being a down year (a net elevation loss of over 2,000 feet), the course still includes nearly 3,900 feet of ascent. To put it another way, it’s the same as running from Leeds to Wigan and climbing Snowdon on the way.
I logged onto the hotel wifi and checked my e-mail. My spirits were lifted by a lovely message from Bernard Gomersall’s grand-daughter, Beverley. She said that she had read and enjoyed my blog about last year’s Comrades and wished me well for my back to back run on Sunday. How nice of her to write to me.
One great thing about the Comrades weekend is the renewal of friendships. The esprit de corps amongst the international runners is huge. We were easy to spot in our regimental insignia of last year’s race T-shirt or the ubiquitous red and black UK & Ireland Comrades runners T-shirt that we all wore.
Craig and I were staying in the same hotel as Jock and Karen – wonderful friends we made at last year’s race. We shared lots of laughs as we caught up over dinner and drinks. This year only Jock and I were running Comrades.
We also met up with Terry – a friend of Jock and Karen’s, a tall South African fellow now living in the U.K. who was returning to try to gain his 15th Comrades medal despite being over 60. More about Terry later… Also staying in the Belaire was Debra, author of the definitive history of parkrun, who unfortunately wasn’t running Comrades because of injury.
Friday, 27 May
Expo day. Collecting our numbers and race packs was easy and smooth. The organisation at Comrades is superb. We met up with more friends from last year – most notably the irrepressible James Love, a marathon obsessed Lancastrian farmer and first Englishman to run seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. With James was a posse of Comrades virgins from Pennington Flash parkrun (self-dubbed as the Flashers)
With the Rand being so weak, anything South African made was very cheap for Brits at the expo – especially the socks. South Africans make great running socks and they were five pairs for just 150 Rand (£7) so I bought loads in a wide variety of colours. I also bought loads of ‘Racefood’ – a brilliant energy bar that I had only seen for sale in South Africa. Racefood bars are small and easy to eat, ideal nutrition for Comrades.
I’d pre-booked a bag drop service for the race, meaning I could leave three pre-packed bags which would be transported out to three points along the race route. Knowing that lots of energade, Coke, fruit and sweet stuff would be available at the Aid stations, I packed mostly savoury food in my bags – Biltong, salted cashews and trail mix, along with salt tablets and Racefood. The lady told me the locations of the tents – 21km, 45km and 67km. Maybe I should write that down I thought to myself…
Saturday May 28
I broke a World record! Well, I played my part in turning out at Durban North Beach parkrun, helping to swell the numbers to 1874 – the largest turnout ever at a single parkrun. I walked and jogged it with Craig, Jock and Karen in about 40 minutes. The winner ran 15:03. I bet he wasn’t running Comrades the following day (he probably was…)
Raceday, Sunday May 29
A minor problem at a Comrades down run when staying in Durban is that the start is 56 miles away. Hotels in PMB are booked up years in advance, so it means a very early start. My alarm was set for 1:25 a.m.
The red bars on my race number indicate I’m attempting a back to back .
I’d barely slept. I watched the first half of the Champions League final in bed, then turned out the lights only to switch the TV back on again when I couldn’t sleep.
The hotel put on a runner’s breakfast on from 1:30 a.m. I tried the local South African porridge. It looked thoroughly disgusting, like something you’d see in a baby’s nappy, but it was palatable.
I walked the one and a half miles to the bus pickup with Richard, a solo English Comrades first timer I’d met in the hotel the night before. I had considered arranging a taxi, the cost was reasonable but the last thing I wanted was the worry about whether the taxi would turn up. The bus was the correct choice.
The journey up to PMB was painless and passed pleasantly as Richard and I chatted. He was flabbergasted by the seemingly constant ascending, I warned him – there’s barely a metre of flat on the Comrades route.
We dropped into PMB at about 4:45 a.m. It was chaos – complete gridlock with runners and supporters everywhere. After the bus parked up, I found my bearings and made my way to the back of the A pen and sat down on the kerb to compose my thoughts.
The Comrades start really is something very special, just so energetic, so real, so human and quite emotional. The final few minutes before the gun are the singing of the South African National anthem Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, then Shosholoza and then a few minutes of Chariots of Fire.
The gun went early – at 5:29 am and all hell broke loose. I was pushed and shoved as hundreds of runners strained to get past me, “Come on guys, we are running 90K not 400 metres”, I shouted.
My race plan was simple – to run slowly and take lots of walk breaks right from the start. Comrades equates to 18 consecutive 5K parkruns so I planned to walk for a minute after every 5K plus to walk at any point when I felt my heart rate rising.
It was pleasantly cool at the start – maybe 8 or 9 degrees. Lots of the Africans were wrapped up in extra clothes, with hats, gloves and some even wearing full length disposable boiler suits. It was sure to get much warmer once the sun got up. Later, I saw one African chap still running in his boiler suit after 60K when it was 27 degrees!
The first few Ks to the top of Polly Shortts were gently undulating and easy. As we dropped down Pollys the temperature plunged. It must have been barely above freezing. My mind went back to A level Geography – this was a cold air sink and a temperature inversion I thought to myself. I regretted binning the cheap cotton gloves from my race pack before the start.
I stuck to my run/walk plan and found that I was taking at least one extra walk break during each 5K section. To make it easier, I’d set my Garmin to lap every 5K. The first 5K was completed in 27:15 – it had felt so easy. If I could average sub 30 minute 5Ks all the way then I’d get another Bill Rowan, how cool would that be…
Subsequent 5Ks were run in 26:36, 27:02, 29:02 (big uphill), 26:32. All on track, I was feeling good.
At 21K I got to the first bag drop. I was 6 minutes inside the Bill Rowan schedule. “You are looking good” the young woman said as she handed me my bag. I bet she says that to all the boys, I thought to myself. I took a big swig of energy drink and then filled my pockets with Biltong, cashews nuts and three Racefood bars.
If there is a flat section at Comrades, it’s for a couple of kms along Harrison Flats after Cato Ridge. The sun was up, the temperature was rising, but I felt good. I happened to take a walk break at the same time as a young woman from America, Amanda. We chatted for a while. She had run many marathons, including Boston. “I bet you think Heartbreak Hill is nothing after this”, she laughed “What’s the best strategy?” she asked me. “I’m not sure, but I think walking a lot is a good idea” I said.
I warned her that we were approaching the worst hill on the whole course, Inchanga, just before the plunge down to Drummond and the halfway mark.
I went through the marathon point, 42.2K, in about 4 hours. Worryingly, I found the long, steep descent down Inchanga really hard – my legs were starting to feel it on the downhills.
Just after halfway there is a famous landmark on the course – Arthur’s Seat. This commemorates Arthur Newton, a legendary English Comrades runner who won 5 times. Arthur used to stop for a quick sit down here on each of his Comrades races. Tradition states that if you salute Arthur, you’ll have a good second half of Comrades. Many runners place a flower or leaf on Arthur’s seat, so I picked up a leaf and muttered ‘Good morning, Arthur’ as I placed it on his favourite resting spot.
The next section is a lovely part of the course – the pleasant leafy run up to the top of Botha’s Hill. From the top of Botha’s its virtually downhill all the way into Durban.
Around this point, about 40K to go, I was aware that my body was beginning to falter. Running the descents was becoming increasingly painful, not just uncomfortable, but really painful. For the first time I was also aware that I was feeling the heat. I’d been drinking two sachets of water from every station. I changed my strategy and started drinking a cup of Coke, and taking three water sachets. One to pour over me for cooling, one to drink immediately and one to carry and suck on before the next station (they are about 2Ks apart).
Despite this, I was still feeling thirsty before I got to the next aid station. At last year’s Comrades, I’d becoming chronically dehydrated and had to be admitted to the medical tent and be put on a drip. I didn’t fancy that again, I needed to look after myself.
Despite slowing, I was still slightly inside the time schedule for a Bill Rowan (sub 9 hour) medal. I heard a low rumble and clamour behind me. I turned to see the nine hour bus approaching up the road.
They caught me at the next aid station and as they stopped, I decided to jump on board. The driver was a tall white South African. I don’t know who he was, but he turned to his bus-mates and gave a jaw dropping impassioned inspirational pep talk: “You are hurting, I know, but we are brothers – we will finish together, we will help each other. Your medal is waiting for you!”
There were maybe a hundred runners in the bus and I joined them. It was fine on the flat sections at the top of Botha’s Hill, past Kearnsey college (all the uniformed public schoolboys turning out to cheer us on), but as soon as the road went downhill I was constantly drifting backwards in the group. It’s an awful feeling. I dug in and hung on for another 5K or so, but with around 30K to go the game was up.
As the bus ran off into the distance I realised that I was cooked. Extreme muscle fatigue meant that I just couldn’t run the downhills anymore. I wanted to run, I tried multiple times to run, but I couldn’t. My legs had ceased to function properly. Shit – it was agony.
I had plenty of time to think. I wasn’t going to get a Bill Rowan. The next medal is the Bronze for sub 11 hours. My body was hurting a lot so I had to find a way to get myself to the end without doing too much damage. It was going to be a long, slow trudge home – 18 miles. Hell, that could easily take nearly 6 hours. I’d already been running for 6 hours, so I might be in a bit of trouble with the time cut-off. That was a low point.
The worst 4 K of the whole race was a tortuous long run down Field’s Hill on a wide highway into Pinetown. It was virtually devoid of spectators and the road was steep with a pronounced camber, it was very painful to walk down. It seemed to take forever.
The road flattened a little through Pinetown. There were lots of spectators there, and lots of roadside Braais. I must have looked pretty pathetic. A shambling runner with an ‘A’ on his number walking amongst lots of D and E runners. Some wag at the side of the road said, “Come on guys, not far now”, a man next to me joked “when you feel like we do, that’s a very relative concept”. Indeed, I knew I still had hours to go.
Quite a few other runners saw that I was having a tough time. A gnarled old South African said to me “James, just get to the end and get your back to back medal”, “thanks, that’s what I’m here for”, I said
I realised that I had missed my final two bag pickups. I had been too self-absorbed to even spot the collection tents. Luckily, I had stashed plenty of food from the first bag and I had managed to grab quite a few more Racefood bars from the aid stations. I’d also eaten a few bananas.
Comrades distance markers count down the number of kms to go. Passing each one became a little victory.
After nine hour’s running, I saw the 10K to go sign. I had three hours maximum to cover six miles to beat the cut-off. I could almost crawl that. I knew I was going to make it. After nine and a half hours, my Garmin’s battery died. I hoped that wasn’t an omen.
The last descent into Durban is down one side of a cavernous concrete motorway. It’s awful – hard on the feet and baking hot.
Just before the final intermediate cut-off (7K to go) I heard a familiar Scottish voice behind me “Fuck me Taz, what are you doing here?” It was Jock, looking amazingly spritely. “Jock man, I am completely fucked, I just can’t run”. We chatted and Jock said he would walk with me to next bridge.
“You go on, please don’t wait for me”, I pleaded. I must have looked pretty terrible because at the bridge he said he was going to see me in. “You really don’t need to Jock” I said. “No, we’re Comrades, we’ll finish together” he said.
It was a massive help having a friend alongside me. I even managed to raise a bit of a jog on some of the uphill or flat bits. We only had one little incident when Jock fell – tripping over one of the notoriously nasty metal cat’s eyes on the road. He was a little shocked, but luckily managed to get his hands down to break his fall.
The final two kilometres are flat through a not too salubrious part of town before a final glorious turn where Kingsmead stadium looms into view. Running into a mighty stadium is a great way to end this epic race and as Jock and I slowly jogged around the perimeter of the cricket field we heard Craig and Karen screaming at us from the side:
We finished together, arms raised and joined in 10:32.30.
My day is summarised by my splits – a first half of about 4:15 and a second of 6:15. The last 7K took me over an hour. I think I cost Jock 15 minutes in the end, and a PB.
It was great to get the two medals and then meet up with Karen and Craig in the International tent. The atmosphere is very special. We caught up, ate some food and waited for the final 12 hour cut-off.
We were really hoping Terry would make it. Karen checked the tracking app. Terry had made the final intermediate cut-off at 7k to go with a couple of minutes to spare. He had 50 minutes to get home, it was going to be tight.
Intense excitement and tension built to the 12 hour cut-off, there was still no sign of Terry. With about one minute to go we saw a close up of Terry on the big screen – he was just outside the stadium, I knew then that he wouldn’t make it, it takes at least two minutes to run into and around the stadium.
I saw something utterly remarkable in the last few seconds before the final gun. With 60 seconds to go, in the throng of runners approaching the finish, a female runner fell maybe 100 metres from the line. She tried to get up, but her legs buckled again. It was heart-breaking to watch, there was no way she could get up.
Amazingly a male runner stopped and tried to haul her to her feet. She was too heavy, he couldn’t get her up. He tried again, no chance. He would definitely have got his Comrades medal, but he missed the cut-off because he tried to help her in the shadow of the line.
You can see the heartbreak on the race video – go right to end at 11:59:
What an amazingly selfless thing to do. I found that moment very profound – a distillation of what is good about human beings. I’ve since asked myself that critical question – what would I have done in that same situation?
I really don’t know. I’d like to think I too would have stopped and tried to help, but then again I wasn’t faced with the ultimate test. I hope that his incredible gesture is recognised in some way.
Terry missed out by one minute and twenty seconds. I later learned that it had taken him 4 minutes to cross the start line. He also suffered cramp in the final few kilometres which cost him a few minutes. Comrades can be very cruel.
The elite races were amazing. In the male event, the South African David Gatebe won in a record time of 5 hours 18 minutes. That is absolutely insane – it represents 5:40 miling! On that course that is superhuman.
The woman’s race was utterly enthralling. In the absence of the Russian Nurgalieva twins (excluded because of the doping ban on Russian elites) and reigning down run champion, Ellie Greenwood (injured), the massive favourite was defending champion Caroline Wostmann.
Caroline had a 12 minute lead with 10K to go but then she fell apart, having to walk frequently and even falling over several times. She was also involved in an unfortunate collision with two TV motorbikes who nearly ran into her as she tried to get some water.
Caroline is the darling of South African running community. A fulltime working mum, who only started running to lose some weight after having children six years ago, she has improved to become a World class ultra runner and won Two Oceans and Comrades in 2015 and Two Oceans again earlier this year.
If you want to see the embodiment of determination, humility and sportsmanship, watch the race video from around 5:40.
During the last 10km, Caroline was wobbling and staggering and looked to be in a terrible state. She looked embarrassed by her predicament.
She was caught with about 1.5K to go by her friend Charne Bosman who eventually won by over 5 minutes. Caroline eventually crossed the line only to fall again, yet her main concern was to crawl over to congratulate the women that had beaten her. I think a lot of footballers should watch this to see what sportsmanship is.
I was so affected by Caroline’s determination and sportsmanship that I sent her a message on twitter. She even liked it.
Immediately after Comrades, I felt very disappointed by my effort. I’d run OK for around 50K, but then extreme muscle fatigue overwhelmed me and I had to walk most of the way home. I thought that 10:32 was a rubbish time.
However, after arriving back home and reading back on my blog, I feel proud that I took part and that I finished. Clearly, injury prevented me doing anywhere near enough training and I paid the price with a long and painful experience.
Comrades is utterly addictive and despite the agony, I loved the whole experience. I can’t convey why, you’ll have to try yourself to find out.
My theory is that perhaps we now have such easy comfortable lives, we never have to experience any real physical difficulties. I remember reading Brave New World by Aldous Huxley when I was younger. In that World all pain had been removed, there was only ‘pleasure’. Consequently, everyone was completely miserable.
Comrades magnifies the ying and yang of struggle and triumph. The pain and anguish of completing Comrades amplifies the elation of the finish. I had five hours of physical purgatory at Comrades, but now I can’t remember the pain, only the wonderful memories of finishing with Jock and the laughs and shared experiences with great friends the whole weekend.
I’m not a very good ultra-runner. My best times prove that I’m much better at shorter distances – 5K to 10 miles. I’m not sure I’d want to try other ultra-races, I have been spoiled by Comrades. Jock’s ambition is to gain a green number for completing ten Comrades (he’s got three medals now). He’ll be well into his sixties, he’s got me thinking…