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The Road To Comrades

June 9, 2008

It’s hard to believe I’m running in this years Comrades Marathon.  Firstly, in January I didn’t expect that I would be able to run again, and feared that my running days had come to an end.  That was thanks a debilitating achilles tendinopathy which left me hobbling like a very old man as I got out of bed in the morning.  Walking to the kitchen to have breakfast was a challenge enough without thinking of running.

Another factor was that Comrades was only ever going to be a detour on my way to Zimbabwe.  The trip to Zimbabwe has been shrouded in doubt for a number of reasons, and my journey there was only really confirmed at the end of April.

As far as running is concerned I set myself some ‘tests’ during April to see if my legs were going to be up for a 90km ‘Up Run’ at Comrades.  The two main tests were the Pinnacles Classic and the 60km Comrades Long Training Run.  The Pinnacles Classic is an insane race, and this year it mirrored Comrades in that most of the sever hill climbing is in the first half.  I tried as much as possible not to ‘race’, and only to use it as a training run and was very pleased with how it all went.  I ran a good fast race and was especially pleased to run a much faster second half after recovering from some of the appropriately named climbs.

The second big test was my 60km long run, which I did on Friday 2 May in and around Warner, Joyner, McGavins View, Bullocky’s Rest, Cashmere.  I have a 30km loop which I do twice.  I handled it in 5:21 and only felt a bit rough in the last few km’s coming along the roller-coaster hills of Kremczow Drive.

I entered at the 11th hour on the last night before the cut off.  Since then I have been ‘tapering’, which in the initial stages still involves big distances [45km, 35km, 30km].  I’ve only had one hiccup, a calf strain last Thursday whilst running fast 400m intervals at a Striders morning session.  Absolutely insane thing to do at this stage, but all is well now after some days of angst and doubt as to whether I could recover or not.

I fly out this Thursday, arrive Friday morning in Johannesburg, fly to Durban, register and then try and take it easy on Saturday without walking too much in readiness for the uphill.

Here’s more details about the race this year:

The Comrades Marathon ‘Up Run’ is by no means a race for the faint-hearted. Known as “The Ultimate Human Race” it consists of 54km of energy-sapping uphill running and provides an ultimate tests of human endurance. Many  runners  claim  to  prefer  the  ‘Up Run’  over  the  ‘Down Run’, while  logic  dictates  that when  all  else  fails, gravity will pull you downhill, while only sheer guts and flagging energy reserves can power a runner uphill in the final stages of a Comrades Marathon ‘Up Run’.

The start for the ‘Up Run’ is at sea level on West Street, Durban adjacent to the picturesque City Hall. At 05h30 in the morning it is dark and cool. The finish is 86.75km away in Pietermaritzburg at an altitude of 605m. But in order to get there runners will climb a total of 1,778m over undulating terrain, only reaching the highest point on the route which is 824m at approximately 67km.

Along  the  way  runners  encounter  five  major  hills,  popularly  known  as  the  “Big  Five”.  The  first  of  these  is encountered approximately 14km from the start – Cowies Hill, a moderately difficult climb, rising approximately 137m over a distance of 1.5km.

Runners reach the next major climb – Field’s Hill at approximately 25km. Field’s Hill is considerably taxing, rising 213m over a distance of 3km, on bad camber. It offers a foretaste of things to come and is generally the stage at which a somber mood descends upon runners.

Botha’s  Hill  offers  the  third  serious  challenge  with  a  somewhat  lesser  altitude  rise  of  approx  150m  over  a distance of 2,4km, but is nonetheless taxing. It is followed by a relatively pleasant 7km descent to the Pick ‘n Pay Half Way stage of the race.

No sooner do  runners pass  through  the Pick  ‘n Pay Half Way  than  they are  faced with  yet another  relentless climb,  that of  Inchanga, 150m over 2.5km. By no means a  formidable ascent on  its own, after 45km of mostly uphill running , Inchanga can be mind-blowing.

Once  Inchanga  is  crested  the  route  follows  generally  flat,  occasionally  undulating  stretches  of  road  for approximately  20km  before  gradually  climbing  up  to  the  highest  point  on  the  route  – Umlaas Road  824m  at approx  67km.  Thereafter  another  gentle  descent,  not  to mention  a  little  killer  hill  –  Little Mpusheni  –  which doesn’t even crack the Big Five.

Finally, the ultimate in Heartbreak Hills, the most infamous hill in road running – the wicked Polly Shortts. It lies in wait 80km  from  the start  in Durban and  is often  the make or break point  for novices and seasoned  runners alike, even the top contenders. The climb is 133m over a distance of 1.8km, a positively formidable obstacle to any runner with two back-to-back standard marathons behind them.

At the top of Pollys, it’s still not over, as runners still face two more small steep climbs up hills which do not even warrant names on the run in to the finish.

At some stage during a very long day, the temperature will probably have peaked at approximately 30 degrees. The  fastest  runner  will  reach  the  finish  in  just  under  5½  hours  at  approximately  11h00.  The  last  runner  to officially  finish will  reach The Oval  in Pietermartitzburg after dark at 17h30, as a winter evening chill descends upon the stadium. Twelve thousand runners will have started in Durban in the morning and approximately eleven thousand of them will reach the finish to be awarded medals for completing, “The Ultimate Human Race”.

This will be my fourth race, and my second uphill.  My first ever Comrades in 2004 was the uphill, and it was a torrid day.  The main reasons was conditioning, and also the fact that of the 90km, 54km are uphill, and most of that in the first half.

It is an unexpected privilege to be there this year, and I’m hoping to make the most of my opportunity and have a memorable day – for all the right reasons!

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