Comrades Marathon

Comrades was the main goal race in my mind when I knew I would be in South Africa for a year. It’s the world’s oldest ultramarathon, running between Durban and Pietermaritzburg in alternate directions. It has been run each year since 1921, (when there were just 34 starters and 16 official finishers), with a break during WWII, making 2018 the 93rd edition. It is steeped in history, and the South African equivalent of the London Marathon with regards to it’s fame. Like how non-runners will ask runners in the UK “have you run *the* marathon?” as if London is the only one; here you will be asked as a runner if you’re doing Comrades, and then congratulated on your ‘marathon’ even though it’s more than two marathons long (but most races here seem to be referred to as ‘marathons’ including half marathons, 24km races and 10ks!), so its famous but most people don’t really comprehend the enormity.

To run Comrades, you have to qualify by running a marathon in under 5 hours, but the qualifying window begins only a week after entries open and goes on long beyond entries are filled, so many hopefuls will register and not manage to qualify. I hadn’t realised the qualifying window opened so late so initially assumed I had already qualified with my spring marathons then, on realising I still needed to qualify panicked and looked around for a race ASAP. I found one the next day in East London where I was staying and thought ‘perfect’, but then realised the ‘Master’s Marathon’ is for runners over 30 and I was still 29. I needn’t have worried as my work and race schedules worked well and I’ve since qualified 6 times. But the gruelling training and injuries will keep others from reaching the start line. And there’s the usual race day acute illness or life getting in the way somehow or another. Entries are supposed to be called annually at 20000, but apparently this year there were over 21000 registrations. I’m unsure of just how many started this year, but there were 16475 finishers listed inside the 12 hour cut off, and 16844 total listed on the results finishing in times of up to 12:45. Your qualifying time is reflected in your seeding batch with those just scraping 5 hours in the last pen, and people running sub 3 marathons at the front. My best time puts me in B seeding (sub 3:20), but this year I got myself into C (sub 3:40). Charity runners also all start in C regardless of qualifying time, and ‘green number runners’ all start together too.

Green number runners are people who have run 10 or more comrades races. Once you get your ‘green number’, it’s your personal number for life, so you get the same race number each year. And your printed number has a green background, making you identifiable to others. Like the Two Oceans race, the number of completed races by the athlete is in the corner of the number so you can run along in awe, spotting people on their 10th about to earn their green number, or even their 20th, 30th, 40th, and this year there was someone doing their 45th!

It’s referred to as the ultimate human race, and this year the motto was ‘asijiki’, meaning ‘no turning back’. Medals are awarded according to position and time. The top 10 men and 10 women get gold medals (and prize money); 11th place up to 6hrs (so a handful of men only as most years the top 10 women will largely take over 6) get a Wally Hayward medal; 6-7.5 hours get silver medals; 7.5-9 hour finishers get Bill Rowan medals (named after the 1921 winner who won with a time of 8:59); 9-11 hour finishers get bronze medals; and those completing in 11-12 hours receive the Vic Clapham copper medal which was added when the cutoff was increased from 11 hours in 2003. Those taking over 12 hours aren’t counted as official finishers and go home empty handed, but for anyone covering that distance it’s still such an achievement, especially when you consider the official cut off for the London marathon is 7 hours with medals and results going way beyond that, and this is a strict 12 hours for more than double the distance. There are also special medals for people running a back to back race over 2 consecutive years so one year up and one year down. They get their medal according to their finish time and then the back to back as well.

My training started in earnest in January after having some fun doing a fair few races when I first got here then a bit of recovery time in the last few weeks of the year. I’d been told, people should aim for a minimum of 1000km between 1st of January and Comrades. I made it to 692 miles or 1114 kms by the day before Comrades. I’m not one to go for minimum, but living where I am, its not particularly safe to go out running, so the majority of my midweek training was around a 1km loop inside the hospital fence. At least I’d have mental endurance down! Although actually my monthly mileage wasn’t far off the last 3 years, it was very skewed towards single long runs at the weekends when I wasn’t working and could get away either to enter a marathon; go to East London to join a local club run; or a couple of trips North to run the Ingeli forest mountain bike trails.

Like the London marathon, race numbers have to be collected in the days prior to the event at the expo. But you can do this at either Durban or Pietermaritzburg. Not wanting the temptation of buying things when I’m flying home with limited luggage soon, or fancying pushing through heaving crowds, I elected go go to Pietermaritzburg where there are hardly any exhibitors. I was able to park a 2 minute walk away – total dream. And being an international athlete, skipped go queue to go to the green number club room for my pack.

Entry for South Africans is just 460ZAR so about £26. For this you get a shirt, cap, all the food and drink you could need at the aid stations a long the way and a huge closed road race, as well as a medal and patch if you complete in the allowed time. International entrants’ fees are significantly hiked at 3300ZAR, but at under £200, that’s still cheaper than the New York marathon for more than double the distance. A bargain you might say… International runners skip the queue at registration, and enter international hospitality at the finish with a meal and drinks. The food and drink isnt worth it, but the finish line seats in the stadium and the queue jumping certainly softens the blow to the wallet.

Race evening, I stayed in Pietermaritzburg and I’m very glad because while we got up at 3 and left at 4am to get to the start, others had to catch the coach from Durban at 1am! We drove close to the start and Sandra had brought us little squares of foam to sit on. I also had a t-shirt and fleece over my kit to keep warm. Though the race starts at 5:30, the ropes between the seeding pens are removed at 5, so you want to be in position before then. The queue to hand in drop bags was silly and running on the usual South African sense of urgency. After waiting quite a while I realised people were getting their bags tagged at the front and stickers provided, but as an international runner, I’d been given my tag and sticker in my registration pack so I lobbed my bag into the truck and got into my start pen.

The pens filled up quickly, and there was a buzz in the air. Lights were being projected onto the red brick town hall and music was playing. Then they played the anthem followed by Chariots of Fire. It got a tad emotional. Then they play the sound of a covered growing. And bang, the gun goes off, glitter confetti cannon explodes, and we’re off!

It took me about 90 seconds before going under the start gantry and starting my watch, only to realise that was actually a gantry commemorating the start of the original run and not this year’s race. There was then a bottle neck before the actual timing mats for the start. But given times are recorded from the gun and not the mat, it doesn’t matter that my watch was ‘out’ as the clock was already ticking.

I started the run in my kit plus an old oversized tshirt and a big fleece. I’d been advised to keep it on as we start in the dark, and we’re supposed to run steady, with the coldest part expected to be at the bottom of Polly Shorts hill some miles in. I stopped for a toilet stop after 1 mile, gave away my fleece after 2 miles, stopped for another toilet stop around 6 miles and chucked my t shirt around 8 miles in. I was really enjoying the crowds, and now it was just getting light. I was running with a water bottle allowing me to breeze through the first few aid stations and not get caught up in that chaos. Soon, I caught up with the 9 hour pacer and stuck with that group for a while, but knowing I needed to refill my bottle at the next aid station, I moved just ahead of them to give myself time to faff and rejoin them after the water stop. But they didn’t catch me again (for a long time anyway, and then snuck past when I was in a portaloo!).

I worked my way along the course by finding people to chat to including someone from St Albans, Gary from St Neots, Matthew living in Chicago, Andrea (from Barry! Barry is a couple of miles from where I grew up!) wearing matching kit to mine, and later her brother Geoff. I spent the whole second half chatting to Phil from St. Neots, who I had chased down because he was wearing the same kit as Gary. I also saw Kirsten and MJ from East London; Ebeny who I had run most of the Cape Peninsula marathon with in February and met again at the end of Two Oceans in March; Tatenda, a Zimbabwean from Port Elizabeth who I had run with at the Heroes marathon in Mthatha in December; and Gareth who I had met at the Amanzimtoti marathon in October and the Deloitte marathon in Durban in February. What a small world considering South Africa is so big and there were nearly 20,000 in this race!

I also saw Tracy Hudson from AHP (Africa Health Placements, who sent me here in the first place), who had brought me a ginger beer and we posed for some photos.

My plantar fasciitis had been flaring up for a few weeks before the race and my dorsiflexion boot was at home in the UK. Of course, resting was not an option, so Dr Mupfupi assisted me in making a plaster of paris cast, which we then split so I could wear it at night only. I started the race and felt it, so I was worried how it would fare with 90kms on it. By about 20kms, my left ITB was twinging too. But despite, my panic, both problems just seemed to ease as the miles ticked by, and nothing else replaced them. My plantar fasciitis felt completely gone after the race in fact, in spite of the opposite of gold standard treatment (that is until my sports massage two weeks later which revealed its still very much there!).

Between about 40 and 50km, I had 3 toilet stops, and was flagging a little. So I stopped, took a (disgusting) caffeine shot, a gel, a coke, a water, some paracetamol and some Imodium; and then I was on fire! I caught up with Phil again and stuck with him from that point on. He said he realised the Bill Rowan was out of reach and so we were in no rush now and might as well run 11 hours since the medal was the same from 9-11. By my watch, I was still on for sub 9, providing I didn’t fade at all. Having run conservatively, and with the first 60km containing most of the climbing and the last 30km a lot of downhill, it wasn’t impossible, though not likely. But we stuck together, both walked when one of us needed a walk, and jollied eachother on when the walk breaks needed to switch back to runs and alone you might have been tempted to walk ‘just one more lampost’. We were picking people off as the distance wore on and I felt good. The left ITB and right plantar fascia pain were gone.

Coming into Durban and spotting the stadium, we could see our goal. The approach to the stadium was marble and when we got inside we both went for it. A superb sprint finish and feeling of joy to finish somewhere so big and full of crowds and cameras and lights. Wow!

I finished in 9:38:13.

4392/16844 recorded finishers (top 26%)

419/3493 recorded females (top 12%)

On crossing the finish line, we were ushered to a film crew for an interview, which was aired live on SABC (my colleague Dr Okafor was straight on the phone saying he’s seen me; Dean recorded it and sent me the clip; a nurse phoned me on my speed dial that evening when she got to work to ask if it was really me; and lots of running buddies and acquaintances have since told me they saw it too.

After our interview, we were up into the international hospitality box for you bag retrieval, the bar (we had fantas), cake and packed lunches. Then settled into the international hospitality section of seats in the stadium just behind the finish line to watch more coming across the line. I spotted Andrea and Geoff, the Welsh brother and sister coming through just a couple of minutes between them, and rushed to greet them when they reached the top of the steps. Just as we lined up for a photo, someone else’s supporters were walking past at he most opportunistic moment carrying inflatable leeks and daffodils so we had a perfect Welsh themed victory photo.

I stayed and soaked up the atmosphere until almost the 12 hour cut off, but not quite, having to work my way through the throngs outside hospitality to meet Sandra and her mum and boyfriend.

Such a brilliant day. I had said that I have so many races on my bucket list, I wouldn’t be doing this more than once, nd while I can understand locals doing it over and over, can’t really see the appeal of running all that way on tarmac. But I’ll be back for sure! I know I could take an hour off that time without too much work to get my Bill Rowan, and I want my back to back medal too. I won’t be here next year as I have a huge race in the pipeline for 2019, but watch this space!

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