Comrades - 'The Ultimate Human Race', the oldest and biggest ultra in the world.
For years I'd had my eye on the race, probably since 2007 when I first started looking at the bigger one day events I one day wanted to run. In 2010 I decided to forego entering because I felt it was too much to travel and race well a month before Badwater. In 2011 I had a race number and went all the way to Durban to watch the race unfold, but had to let it pass me by with a fractured tibia. This year would be my baptism.
Comrades was 86 years old this year and had 18,000 people registered to run. Those are completely untouchable statistics in ultra land. Sparta might claim to be 2500 years old, but took a 2470ish year hiatus. Western States, the oldest trail 100, is a miserly 35 years old. In terms of field size, we are talking half the size of the London Marathon, but over twice the distance. It truly is the equivalent of any big city marathon anywhere else, but the South Africans embrace it as their own. Along with the 56km Two Oceans Marathon in Cape Town, Comrades at 89km is a major national televised event. The entire 12 hours from start to final cut off, are broadcast - live. I still can't get my head around any of that when I try to imagine it happening on UK soil - but the most incredible aspect of the race isn't the size, prestige, runners, location, difficulty or logistics, it's by far and away the support you receive from the crowds on route. I won't go on anymore about general Comrades stats, you can find them pretty much anywhere, instead I'll just talk about my experience of actually running the race.
Comrades alternates direction each year between an up run - Durban on the coast to Pietermaritzberg inland - and a down run as was run this year - from Pietermaritzberg down to the cricket stadium in Durban. This year I'd flown out with two of my closest friends, Rob and Jimmy - Rob was running his first ultra, Jimmy is responsible for having got me running in the first place by signing us up to the MdS in 2006 - and was making a comeback from a 5 year hiatus from ultrarunning. Staying in Durban we drove up to the race start 90ks away in a Nissan Micra with Dave and Mel Ross, another 2 close friends and incredibly experienced runners. Dave was running his 8th Comrades and gunning this time for a silver (sub 7:30), Mel her 2nd Comrades. Both have run well over 250 and 150 marathons respectively.
To make the startline and beat the road closures, we got up at 1:30am for a 2am departure and it HURT. I'd missed an entire nights sleep on the way out and this was a second dose of punishment in 3 days! When we got to Pietermaritzburg we head straight to Mcdonalds where we sat eating sausage and egg mcmuffins and drinking coffee, waiting out the 2 hours to the start. We walked up to the starting pens together and it was pretty cold outside at about 8 degrees C and most of the runners were dressed in hats and gloves.
To qualify for Comrades, you have to run a sub 5 hour marathon. How much quicker than that you run depends on which pen you are allocated at the start, ranging from sub 3 hour (Pen A) to 4:40 - 4:59 (Pen H). We all made our way to our respective pens, Dave and I managing to get our slots in pen A and the others ranging from B through to D, all pretty close to the front. It meant that of the 18,000 people, about 17,500 were behind us, held back by barriers and staring at us in the front like hungry wolves just itching to get forward and start.
Almost as soon as I got behind the barriers I bumped in to Terrence Zengerink. I first 'met' Terrence when we found ourselves running a section of the London to Brighton trail run together in 2007 or 8 (I forget). He had also blitzed our Thames Path 100 earlier this year in a stellar sub 20 time, managing to fit in a sub 3 hour marathon too on route to his 5th Comrades start. We had a good chat and it quickly became clear that our goals were pretty similar. We both had our hearts set on the much coveted silver medals given to those who complete the 56 miles in under 7 hours and 30 minutes (8 min mile pace), but were accepting that we'd have to see how things worked out as we went along and were prepared to work around that goal if it looked overly ambitious. I think we both felt pretty comfortable that the sub 9 hour time for a Bill Rowan medal (the next up from silver) was always going to be well within reach so to a certain extent we were pretty relaxed. We didn't expressly say 'let's stick together' because it's hard to commit to that if you've never run together before, but I think we both felt that we might just end up pushing each other along at least initially.
With 10 minutes to the 0530 starting gun, the music kicked in and the pens behind were released to join us in one heaving mass of pent up energy. The national anthem was followed by the incredibly moving shosholoza and then by chariots of fire.
As the countdown started the atmosphere was absolutely electric and something never to be forgotten. When the gun blew, Terrence started with the tips - avoid the central part of the road where the barriers get in the way, watch out for the discarded clothes and bin bags left behind by warmed up runners, watch out for the slippery cats eyes etc and instantly I though to myself wow this is GREAT I've got a Comrades pro running next to me for company!!!
I think I knew our days were going to be aligned for sure when after a few minutes we both simultaenously pulled off the road for a pee, and then 20 minutes later, for a more substantial toilet break, and re-joined the road together. Initially we ran in the dark for around an hour, the throngs of people around us, at first all with A seed bib numbers on, then pretty quickly with B, C or even D on their bibs humming past us at incredible speeds. I can roundly say we got overtaken by 100s of people in that initial stretch, and went past very few. I thought we played it very sensibly. Downhills we were able to easily stretch away at close to 7 minute pace, uphills at perhaps 8:30s and as an average maybe 7:40 to 7:45 per mile almost without fail. We were consistent, I can say that, but we were pushing too.
Terrence let me know what the sights, sounds and smells of Comrades all meant, where the 'Big 5' hills were on the course and what to expect from much of the day. It was all totally invaluable information and I have to say, course knowledge at this race is absolutely crucial to having your best run. He had run an 8 hr time before and whilst Plan A was silver, Plan B was sub 8. I liked the sound of both.
A few big things struck me in the early hours of the race. The km markers counting down all the way from 89 to 1. The crowds lining the streets absolutely everywhere, cooking their Braai's (barbeques) and cheering you on no matter how you looked or felt. As an International runner I had a blue bib on to signify having travelled from overseas to race and with my name written below most of the people cheering below screamed out 'come on James!!!!' in my face as I came past. At first i asked myself wtf was going on but it really sent the shivers down my spine having a crowd like that behind you.
As the light came up Terrence and I were still together. Already maybe 20ks in we were passing people standing still as they'd gone out so hard. There were aid stations every few kms and they were all absolutely rammed with people handing out sachets of water. The idea is that you grab a sachet, tear off the corner with your teeth and then suck down the liquid, probably about 200ml. The benefits are multiple - no need to run with a bottle or bladder, no need to stand and drink or throw most of it down your throat trying to drink on the move, and you can run with them so you can hang on to one or two as back up in case you needed any on route to the next aid station. The first couple I bit off big corners and doused myself but I quickly got the hang of it.
Elena leading the ladies race early on
We wound our way down through some more rural areas but the crowds were as supportive no matter where you were. The first 30ks flew by but from the start I had felt fairly bad. A lack of sleep and some stomach issues had spaced me out a bit and I didn't feel particularly in control. Ordinarily the pace we were going would have felt fairly easy. It felt sustainable but it also felt like I was having to work a little bit too hard to stay honest with the schedule. No matter we pressed on through the stinking chicken farms and round some sweeping hillside roads towards halfway, following around 100 yards behind a massive group who were tailing Zola Budd in her first Comrades Marathon. At this point there were two major climbs, once just before midway and one just after and they certainly took their toll. We had already crested the highest point in the course, but the rollercoaster continued and on the second climb I dropped to a walk taking a pee and let Terrence move up the road. About 2ks later I caught him up and there was an enormous cheer behind us. We turned around just as Bruce Fordyce came through with about 50 guys pacing with him. He'd stated he was going for a silver in this his 30th Comrades (9 wins in there too) and he looked super strong on the road.
About a mile on from there, Terrence dropped to a walk and I pushed on a little and started to have the first and only short stronger patch of my entire race. For about 10 minutes I felt like I wouldn't pass out if I went much faster and made use of it banking some good miles. Reaching the 30k to go marker, I was passing more and more people but I knew my energy was fading as the heat of the day rose. It maybe got to around 24 degrees, but out there on the tarmac running hard with some heart rate drift to boot, 7:45 miles quickly became killer.
As I came through the Nedbank Green Mile I was met with girls hainging in enormous swings in the trees, loads of people outside fairly affluent looking properties and a fairly carnival-esque atmosphere. Just as I came out of it I saw Zola and Bruce running together, both clearly struggling a little and moved passed their group again.
Zola and Bruce finishing
Around that same point, within a couple of miles at least we came to an extremely poor area with an orphanage on the side of the road. The kids were out in force and the general atmosphere was just as supportive but more than a little heartwrenching as it was pretty obvious life was a little more of a struggle for those living around that particular spot. I gave a couple of the kids some gels, my race vest and some sachets of water as we came through and felt terrible that there wasn't anything more we could give other than high 5s and smiles. As we came to around 20ks to go there was an extended long downhill stretch which I believe is called Fields?! This was where I decided that 7:30 was slipping out of reach. Pretty annoyingly because it was a downhill, I was able to bank a few more 7ish min miles and keep under my 8min mile target but I just couldn't hang on to it on the flats and ups.
Little by little the time slipped a few seconds away from me and I was forced in to the dilemma of smashing myself to pieces to run a 7:40 or taking it that little bit easier and running a sub 8 - both for the same medal. I dumped countless sachets of water over my head but just couldn't seem to keep my temperature down so I ended up slowing to 9 minute miles and watching that elusive silver slip out of grasp.
With around 10ks to go I was slaloming across the road trying to pick the tightest lines whilst staying out of the sun but we'd reached a stretch of open motorway and there was no escape. I dropped in to the bushes for another pee and when I came out Terrence came passed me and with no flamboyance just said 'come on dude let's finish this together'. He muttered something too about not worrying too much about going sub 8, but we'd talked at the beginning about how great it would be as Plan B just to dip under that mark, however arbitrary, so we dropped the hammer a bit and started to push the average pace back up.
7ks to go and we were banking a precious few seconds here and there against the clock. The downs continued as we looked out across Durban, but there were a couple of pretty stout little hills to work up all the same. We kept each other going really well and pretty soon the km markers disappeared down to the final two as we made our way over the flyover and down in to Durban city centre. The roads were lined with people and we could see a straight shot km dead ahead of us. Turning the final corner with 1km to go we had 7 minutes to cross the line under 8 hrs and we could finally relax knowing we had it. We ran under some giant showers over the road, into the stadium flanked with people in the grand stands and eventually across the line in 7:56 and change. I think we were both pretty wiped. Nothing dramatic but I felt overheated and a little sore but I loved the whole experience.
Terrence on the left - A runner, me on the right - A wannabe
Ian had said to me before the race that until you run Comrades, you just won't appreciate what an extraordinary event it is. I totally agree with that. The support you receive on the roadside is so overwhelming it actually tips you towards getting almost emotional with it all whilst you're running. No matter where you are in the field, the crowd appeared to be going just as nuts.
No getting away from it, this is a pure road run though and if you're not a road runner, this will come as a rude awakening. I would like to have focused much more on the race but I've enjoyed just running a bunch of trail events at my own leisure this past 2 months. Running a 100 miler three weeks prior isn't great practical training but I enjoyed both equally as much for everything they offered up. Such vastly differing experiences but both totally life affirming and thoroughly awesome.
This is a must do race for all ultrarunners out there, but more than that and as per the race motto it's a must do race from a 'human spirit' perspective. Whatever South African politics have held in the past, present or will hold for the future, this race brings everyone together. Never have I felt more welcome at an event or more included in the overall experience - and there were 14,800 of us running.
In terms of times, the South African male winner came over the line in 5:31, the female winner for the 7th time was the Russian Elena Nurgalieva in 6:07, narrowly pipping Ellie Greenwood for second by around a minute. Great running from both of them. Dave Ross crept over for that much deserved silver in 7:24 at his 8th try. Terrence and I finished 950th and 951st respectively in 7:56:40 (NINE HUNDREDTH!!!!!!). Peter Bowles a Serpie traveling with us in his longest ever race ran a stellar 8:02. Rob in his first ultra of any distance 10:02 which was a phenomenal effort considering he'd been injured for months in the run up, and Jimmy came home in 11:27, wiped out but still smiling.
Ellie and Elena
Comrades has one final sting in the tail and that is that at 12 hours dead, the gun goes and the finish line closes. We have the same rules at our events but are less brutal with how we go about it. With back turned, the finish line captain shoots the gun and people just yards or even inches from the finish are prevented from officially finishing the race. Something like 50% of people come in during that final hour and many are inside the stadium when time is called. I would have been devastated had that been me but the guys and girls who just missed out took it in there stride and relished the applause of having travelled 55.95 miles in 12 hours from dawn until dusk.
All in all this is a hard race. The course is hilly. We're certainly not talking Western States or worse here but there are very few areas of flat and not looking after your quads on route leads to big problems. If you've looked before and thought nah it's too far and too expensive, think again. The flights are economical if you book in advance and South Africa is not overly expensive to visit in terms of food and accommodation prices and is one incredible country with a lot of hope for the future. What you spend will be worth it in spades.
Credits: All photos thanks to Terrence Zengerink and family.