It’s been two weeks since the Comrades Marathon in South Africa. 56 miles on roads “down” from Pietermaritzburg, over hills, to Durban by the coast, including over 1300 metres of ascent (that’s the height of Ben Nevis!) I think I’m ready to write about my race experience. It’s a long post, but hey, it was a long race!
Race day minus two: flights and registration
I arrived in Durban on the Friday evening, after two eight hour flights from the UK via Dubai. On the second flight, I started to spot international runners on the flight: tell-tale signs such as their Garmin watches, wearing their race day trainers, or in one case, wearing flip flops that revealed black and missing toenails (a sign of someone who’s run long distances!) I had the tail-end of a cold, so I was extra careful to get lots of sleep, and had decided to forego all alcohol for the final few days before the race.
Straight out of the airport at Durban, I shared a taxi with three other international runners and we headed straight for the expo to register. International runners have a separate registration area to local runners, probably so the goodie bags can contain different brand products. I was not entirely sure what the bag drop facilities would be like, so had only packed a weekend pull bag, plus a small day bag. We registered, then I walked to my budget hotel near the beach front. I found a buzzing restaurant and started carb loading with a pizza.
Race day minus one: a final run and move to Pietermaritzburg
On Saturday, I forced myself to go for a short run along the beach front. Just 2 or 3 miles, to loosen my legs up after the long-haul flights. I felt fine, but I noticed that I had vest tan lines after half an hour in the morning sun – that did not bode well! In the previous 10 to 14 days, I had tried to get acclimatised to heat, which is no small feat in the UK. This involved running and spinning wearing too many layers and purposely not hydrating enough, or alternatively spending 10 to 15 minutes in a sauna after a vigorous swim session. All this to force my body to make physiological adaptations to heat.I just hoped that my hydration and electrolyte strategy for race day would be adequate.
On Saturday afternoon, I went for another quick trip around the expo, where I caught part of a talk by South African runner and nine times Comrades winner Bruce Fordyce. The best tip he gave the crowd was not to waste time standing still at the water and food stations. This was advice that I would make use of, not standing still at any of the stations, or indeed, at any point in the run.
I had another pasta meal at the nearby Hilton and then grabbed a taxi to my second hotel, in Pietermaritzburg. The hotel was almost exclusively occupied by runners, and I listened to the stories some of them had to tell, and the advice they had to impart.
One tip I got was to use the disposable fabric poncho and the gloves that came in the goodie bag, as it gets cool in the valley an hour or so after the start of the race. This was a good tip! I retired to bed by 10pm, to try and get a few hours sleep before the morning.
Race day morning
The morning of the race, I awoke at about 2.30am. Shower, race day clothes on, race belt packed and re-packed, with last minute adjustments. I carried a tube containing electrolyte tablets of varying concentrations, plus additional electrolyte capsules to swallow with water. In addition, I popped a slow release magnesium tablet in the morning – I wasn’t taking chances with cramps. In addition, my race belt contained my phone, a Peperami (which I did not eat), a couple of energy gels that were unnecessary, painkillers, emergency toilet paper, cash and a bank card. The belt had two pouches for little water bottles, which I intentionally did not fill as there would be plenty of opportunity to fill them during the race. I taped zinc oxide tape and Leukotape P round the tube of electrolytes, to deal with any blisters.
Race kit laid out
The hotel started breakfast at about 2am for runners. For breakfast, I had three small croissants with jam, and some juice. I kept a bottle of water with me to sip till the start of the race. By 3.20am, the first taxi minibus came to take us a few miles towards the start. With my sun hat on, in the dark cool air, wearing my disposable race poncho, carrying my pull bag and race belt, I felt a bit ridiculous, but it was too early to care. We got out close to the start, and within a couple of minutes I had lost the other passengers of the bus, who all had different priorities. It didn’t matter, thousands of runners were milling around, doing final pre-race rituals.
I found a bag drop and joined the throng of people handing bags in. My bag drop label denoted that I was an international athlete, which I would later find out meant that my bag would be delivered to the international athletes’ tent at the final destination.
We had to wear race numbers on our front and back. Mine was blue to distinguish me as an international runner, stated my first name in big print and stated “0 medals” in the corner, to indicate that I had successfully completed zero Comrades marathons to date. Throughout the day I would see runners with anything from 0 to 40 medals marked on their race numbers.
The gun goes off at 5.30am, but I got into my pen a whole hour before. As the pen filled up we were herded further forward towards the start line, warmed by the crush of human bodies. A DJ voice greeted people and built up a sense of excitement. 19,000 runners. 7,000 first timers, almost 1,000 international runners. 12 hours from the starting gun to the finishing gun. 56 miles to Durban. Despite the hype, I felt oddly at ease. I had no pre-race nerves and I wasn’t even doing my usual ritual of tying and retying my shoelaces a silly number of times. I felt ready. Months of buildup for this race. At one point, my weekly mileage dropped to zero and I was told by an orthopaedic surgeon I would have to change my running style to adjust to my worn away knee cartilage
. And then building up the weekly mileage, steadily, doing longer runs – 26
mile training runs. Multi-day stage races
. All building up to this, the longest road running race I’ve ever done. I just wanted to cross the finish line within the twelve hour window.
Runners getting psyched near the start line, Pietermaritzburg
A few minutes before the race started, the usual sequence of songs and sounds began: we took our caps off for the South African national anthem, then the song ‘Shosholoza’, which is a stirring South African song which means “Move Fast!” Then they played ‘Chariots of Fire’. Then the famous cockerel crow and the starting gun. Within two minutes of the gun, I was over the start line!
My game plan was this: break the race into large chunks, then divide those chunks into bite-size pieces. Then eat it all up in under twelve hours. I broke the race into three chunks: the first twenty, which should be straightforward. The second twenty, which would be hotter and include quadricep-punishing downhills for miles. And then finally, the last 16 miles, the home stretch which would require the most mental fortitude.
The first twenty miles
Through Pietermaritzburg, past families in pyjamas, crowds lining the streets, over small hills and down into a valley where it cooled (as I had been warned by a veteran Comrade). Only as we started up another big hill and the sun rose, I took my poncho off, and threw it by the side of the road, where someone was collected unwanted clothing. Winding countryside, smooth road surfaces, keeping my pace steady and running uphill as well as down.
There were water stations every couple of kilometres. I skipped the first couple, but once the sun came up I made sure I grabbed a sachet or two of water at each water stop. (Each sachet was about 200ml and was easy to bite open).
I saw the first of a few “buses” – informal groups of runners led by a pacer (the “bus driver”) who motivates and paces the group. I had read that it’s not a bad idea for a novice Comrades runner to ‘hop on’ a bus, but I had my own race plan and didn’t want to have my pace dictated to me. I was soon getting close to twenty miles, at which point I decided I would let myself slow down on the uphills, as there were many more of them. I crossed twenty miles feeling strong.
The second twenty: this is when it starts to hurt
I broke this section into two 10 mile sections. The were slow and steady, but I kept doing the maths in my head, and knew I was doing OK. At the 30 mile mark I chuckled at the sign counting down just another 42 kilometres to go – just another marathon!
In this part of the race I was starting to think about food. There hadn’t been much on the first twenty miles, but I hadn’t needed it. I had been told about the famous boiled new potatoes sprinkled with salt, but I didn’t see many stations with them. However, the crowds of supporters were just amazing, in their support cheering us on and in their handing out of food, table salt and sometimes even drinks or ice lollies. I would sometimes grab a few crisps, or perhaps a wedge of an orange or half a biscuit, once every few miles, but that would be enough.
At around the halfway point we reached Arthur’s seat, a Comrades landmark where Arthur Newton five time winner of the Comrades used to rest, so its said. It’s tradition to bring a flower up to it and say “morning Arthur” for good luck in the second half of the race. I hadn’t picked a flower, but touched the rock and wished Arthur good morning, as did hundreds of others, some queuing to touch the precise spot.
By thirty miles, my biggest pain was coming from my adductor muscles on the inside of my upper legs. Short of waddling, I had to keep using them, so I popped the painkillers that I was carrying and kept moving. Within twenty minutes, the pain started to subside. I kept running. I remembered something a veteran Comrade had said in the bus to someone else “you will see these first timers, going off too fast, then walking by the time they get to 50km, unable to run any further”. That comment had worried me a bit, but here I was, running, and now feeling strong again. I even had one 7 Comrades finisher using me as a pacer. He caught up with me look enough to say “First time Comrades eh? You’re running pretty strong!” I nodded in appreciation of the comment, then stuck my head down and just kept running. I wasn’t running to impress him, or to prove the stranger on the bus wrong. I was running for me, and me alone. When the going got hard, I would bargain with myself – ‘just keep going to the top of that brow, then it’s downhill’. The crowds of supporters were great, continuing to hand out food, and every now and then I would hear part of a rendition of ‘Shosholoza’.
The heat continued to build up to midday, and I started picking up 2 to 3 water sachets at each water station. I’d spray one over my heat and back, drink another, and fill one of my small water bottles with the third, mixed with half an electrolyte tab. By the time I was approaching the forty mile mark, this had become an all-consuming task – by the time I was done drinking the bottle, it was time to grab another three sachets. If you’re thinking that this was excessive, all I’ll say is that by the forty mile mark, must have had dozens of these sachets (each about 200ml), and still hadn’t felt the need to pee. It was just that hot.
The final sixteen miles: constant forward momentum
I wanted to break this section down into six, six and four miles, but honestly I was starting to prefer the kilometre countdown markers, which were starting to seem less daunting. There were beautiful sweeping downhills, for miles. Earlier in the race I’d taken one uphill too fast and had struggled to recover. Now, it was the downhills where people were going down gingerly, some even walking. I didn’t want to waste an opportunity, so I ran. It hurt, a lot. Each time I landed the force made that leg’s quad scream as it absorbed the shock. But I was going close, and I wasn’t going to stop. I thought of friends, imagining them running with me, with me spurring them on. I imagined family, waiting at the finish line. If it wasn’t a steep uphill, I was going to keep running.
I was at fifty miles. I was in striking distance of the finish line. I had started to see more people in a bad way, including one person curled upon the grass by the side of the road retching, and many runners seemed to be in their own little world.
The final ten kilometres weren’t easy. I recalled another pearl of wisdom from yet another veteran Comrade, which went along the lines of “you will want to stop, early in the race and later too, but it’s later in the race that you will have to fight that much harder to keep going”. I heeded those words, and I did not stop. I would adjust pace for gentle uphills, which I realised I could still run up. There weren’t any steep hills in the final few kilometres, so my pace stayed steady. Short of a disaster (which, admittedly, could still happen), I knew I could even walk to the finish line before the finishing gun went off. As I ran, at one point I let out a bit of an uncontrolled laugh and a lady running next to me looked at me. “I’m going to make it!” I exclaimed to her, pleasantly surprised at my own revelation. She smiled, and we kept running towards Durban. The sun wasn’t as high in the sky now, and the smell of braais (South African barbecues) was getting stronger as groups lined the streets, cooking, eating, drinking and cheering us on.
A couple of kilometres out from the finish, I did the maths and calculated that I would be running an extra half a mile. I finally stopped bargaining with myself to run that little bit further. I knew I had this in the bag, and I was going to run all the way into the stadium, round the track and to the finish line. So that’s just what I did.
Athletes and supporters in the Sahara Stadium Kingsmead
The finish line
I ran to the stadium gates, past crowds of people cheering, round the back of the stadium, through the entrance, then the final three quarters of the stadium, which was laid with grass, to the finish line. I was euphoric. I hugged the lady who gave me my medal. I stopped to take stock of what I’d just achieved. As a Comrades first timer, I felt I had done myself proud. I felt much like I did after my first ever marathon
– initially uncertain whether I could actually run that distance, and then having done it, feeling mentally stronger for having accomplished it.
Everything had worked. My electrolyte strategy. Eating. Drinking. Staying injury-free throughout the run. Staying blister-free. Not having any stomach cramps or a slump in energy at any point. It was, for me, a perfect race. It’s two weeks later, and I’m still chuffed.
I stopped into the International Runners’ tent in the stadium to get food and drink, and collected my pull bag. I cheered on other runners right till the finishing gun went off. I checked into the Hilton, where the staff were used to dealing with Comrades runners and handed me a big bag of ice and a tube of Deep Freeze for my muscles. I had an ice bath, then a normal shower, a steak dinner with a glass of wine, then retired to bed. My legs hurt, and I struggled to find a position where I could sleep for more than an hour till they stopped hurting. I ended up sleeping with my legs vertical, resting against the headboard!
For a couple of days after, I couldn’t take the stairs, and every now and then my legs would almost give way under me, just when walking down the road or in the office. I thought about my upcoming races – during the Comrades I had thought about how pointless it was that I was about to do another ultramarathon in less than three weeks. It took about a day to decide that it wasn’t such a bad idea, and a few more days to decide that it wa a good idea!
Thanks, as always, to the race organisers and volunteers for a well-organised event. To the thousands of people who lined the course, cheered and fed me snacks, without which I would have been low on energy. Last and not least, to my friends who ran with me over the last six months -you were with me as I ran in to Durban.
I think the Comrades takes a particular mindset: the second half of the race is all a mind game. The slogan for the 2016 Comrades was ‘Izokuthoba
‘, which means “it will humble you”. Looking back, I feel humbled for having run it, and privileged for having been able to complete it. Would I go back next year to do the ‘Up’ run from Durban back to Pietermaritzburg? Sure, if I’m not already doing another race closer to home!
Keep believing in what you can achieve