Entering an ultra-marathon always seems like a great idea until the peak training arrives and you are starting your weekend long runs at 3:30am in the morning. Once you’ve started tapering and your training runs shorten in length the idea regains its lustre. You begin to envision scenarios of triumph over adversity and the glory of overcoming. This is aided by runners’ amnesia, which is a thing, I can assure you. After my first ever Comrades I told my family that I would never do it again as I wasn’t cut out for ultra-distance running.
Aside from research into how our brains selectively remember positive aspects of certain events, the fact that I’ve run 9 Comrades before but still thought it was a great idea is enough empirical evidence. The ‘great idea’ aspect of it runs aground on the morning of the race, as you contemplate the certain pain and trauma of the day ahead.
My tenth Comrades was 14 years in the making but I’ve never felt the sense of extreme dread as I did waking up this year. I was possessed of an overwhelming desire to simply call it off and stay in bed. Knowing the aspirational target I had set myself (to average 4:59 per/km for 90.186km) I knew that I was in for a traumatic day. Running at that speed for me requires pushing myself to physical, emotional and psychological limits that are not pleasant to say the least.
This year was always going to be special if I was able to finish, thanks to the presence of a yellow number on my Striders singlet. This signified that I was running my 10th Comrades and it was a constant source of support and encouragement from spectators along the way. The Green Number Club membership is afforded to anyone with 10 successful finishes. Your number is presented to you in gold with a single wreath to signify 10 successful finishes. Each successive 10 years will see another wreath added to your number. This years Green Number awardees details can be seen here. Much of the support came from older people who were wearing Green Number clothing or caps. Perhaps their running days were over but they were particularly vociferous and warm in their support of me encouraging me to “go and get that Green Number in Durban!”.
I did eventually get out of bed and my timorous soul had no choice but to go ahead with the race due to my fellow Strider Yvonne having arrived ready to set off from Hilton down to Pietermaritzburg for the start. If I could get myself to the start I would have no choice but to run. The journey down felt like that of a condemned man on the way to the gallows, such was my sense of dread and foreboding. I was incredulous as to how overwhelmed I was by these feelings and thoughts but unable to shake them.
Yvonne and I said our goodbyes quickly and wished each other well in the cold of the pre-dawn. I was left alone in a side street to contemplate the day ahead and do some belated stretching. Having an A seeding meant that I didn’t need to go to my starting gate too early as there is usually plenty of space. I met fellow Strider Peter Lewis in the start area and we settled into the pre-gun traditions of singing the national anthem followed by the working gang song Shosholoza. That is followed by the emotional strains of Chariots of Fire by Vangelis. When this fades the dawn is pierced by a traditional cock crow and then the gun which sounds like a cannon in the speakers. The start is chaotic and rushed and you get carried along the first kilometre with little control over your speed.
There are plenty of hills in Comrades that don’t have a name and the first such one came as we climbed through the suburb of Scottsville on our way out to the N3 highway and then a right turn into the industrial area of Mkondeni and the first of the 5 descents down Polly Shortts. Each year I take a warm top to wear and then give away. I always to know never to give it away before descending into Ashburton which is usually freezing and this year was no exception. At some point in Ashburton I lost contact with Peter and settled into my own rhythm. Comrades for me is never a race against people, but a titanic struggle against Comrades itself. Whatever happens to anyone else on the day is purely academic, as you can only do what you can to overcome the brutal course.
Chicken Farms and Sunrises
The run out of Ashburton takes you higher past Lion Park and past the chicken farms that dot the route in this section. At this point the sun rises and the view to the north west is stunning. From there on you progress steadily to the highest point of Umlaas Road 20km in and things start getting warmer. By then I had settled into a pace quicker than my goal pace in anticipation of the lost time on the huge climb up Inchanga and the climb up to Botha’s Hill after the halfway point at Drummond. Because of the undulations of the first half and the punishing descents of the second half Comrades down run is a difficult race to pace.
The first big climb (along with many other unnamed climbs) is the imposing Inchanga. Far into the distance you can see the climb looming up high and you can make out figures traversing the switch backs steadily climbing upwards. It’s best not to think about it too much and just keep moving forward, knowing that you’ve got some time in the bank to spend getting up the climb without too much damage to your hamstrings which you will feel further down the road. The down run consists of 5 big descents: Polly Shortts, Inchanga, Botha’s Hill, Fields Hill and Cowies Hill. Of the 90km a total of 56km is run downhill, and most of that in the second half on the Down Run.
I stuck with the silver bus (sub 7hours30min) but they had a strategy of running everything. I prefer to manage my legs up the climbs through a walk run strategy to try and prevent cramping in the second half of the race so I ran the flats and downhills a little faster than them to compensate. I always know how my legs are travelling on the punishing climb out of halfway at Drummond. This year the actual halfway was further up the road from the traditional halfway aid station and hullabaloo. I crossed the halfway point in 3h:43min which was on target.
No Flowers For Arthur
The goal was to run through no later than 3:45 and no sooner than 3:40. Ultra-racing has plenty of factors that you can control: your training, conditioning, race strategy, nutrition, liquids, course knowledge, etc. There are factors out of your control: how your body reacts on the day, weather, accidents, illness, etc. There was one key failure this year: I forgot to find a flower to place on Arthurs Seat and instead was only able to place a broad leaf plant. Arthur’s Seat is situated just after Drummond/half way on the Down Run. It is literally a hole that has been cut out of the bank and is reputed to be a favourite resting spot for Arthur Newton, a 5 times winner of the Comrades. Legend has it that runners who greet Arthur and place a flower in his seat will have a good second half. I’m not going to blame Arthur for any disappointments in my second half but I sure wish I had a flower for the old man!
Leaving halfway I felt that I had laid the foundation of giving the silver medal (sub 7h:30min) a good crack. One way or the other (barring total disaster) I knew I was in for a fast time. I never allow myself to make assumptions about the finish time until 5km to go in Comrades and I am always grateful for each and every cut-off point that I reach along the way. Our bodies can do unexpected things when we put them under extreme stress so I’ve learned never to take finishing for granted.
What Goes Up Must come Down
After halfway despite the immanent onset of plenty of long descents there is a fair bit of climbing to be done up to the 3rd big descent of Botha’s Hill. This involves running past the raucous support of the schoolboys of Kearsney College who line both side of the route forming a human tunnel. Woe betide anyone found walking through this section. Botha’s Hill is a beautiful part of the course lined with large trees that form a canopy across the road affording plenty of shade. The locals stake their claim on the side paths by roping off areas and providing great support on the day.
Once you’ve reached the bottom of Botha’s Hill you have begun to understand the extreme stress that your quads are going to be under for the rest of the way to the finish. Of the 90.186km 56km of that is downhill running and most of that is in the second half. If you start the second half with trashed legs you are going to be in deep trouble.
After Botha’s Hill you head towards Hillcrest where the support is in plenty and it is a sign of the fanatical support that will line the route from this point onwards. There will be no suffering in solitude as there is always someone to encourage you and get you running again should you be found walking. With Hillcrest negotiated the pleasant village of Gillits and suburb of Kloof must be run through before the next big downhill and perhaps the most agonising of all: Fields Hill. This punishing descent is over 3km long. At the bottom awaits Pinetown, a regional town where many thousands are waiting excitedly for the arrival of runners.
At the other end of Pinetown main drag is the tough climb to the top of Cowies Hill. At this point in the race cramps began to gnaw at my hamstrings and I had to use the walk run strategy a lot more. The silver bus left me in their wake and although I kept them in sight just up the road from me the elastic band eventually snapped at the 75km mark and I went over the 4:59 per\km average.
The Final Leg
Cowies Hill is another painful 2km descent after which you find yourself on the highway heading into Durban past Westville. You can start thinking about the finish but there is still a long way to go. Stepping on a timing mat is always an emotional moment in Comrades for me, it’s effectively a sms that you send to your family and friends following. It say’s, “I’m alive” and it also shows your speed. Every timing mat that I cross is another opportunity to communicate and each one is appreciated.
Having slipped out of contention for silver at the 75km mark the focus was on not getting slack and taking whatever pain came my way, of which there was plenty. My internal bargaining was consistently “run when you can, walk when you must. Pain is not an excuse to walk, only severe cramping is”.
The Cruel Finish
This year’s distance was the second longest in the history of the race. Cruelly that saw us running past the traditional finish at Kingsmead Stadium and on towards the impressive Moses Mabhida Stadium which looms large on the horizon but somehow didn’t get closer no matter how much I ran. The new finish venue lacked the intense atmosphere of Kingsmead where there are thousands of people both in the stands and field. The finish venue was spectacular however and it seemed very similar to the finish of my qualifying marathon in Melbourne Marathon at the MCG. The cruellest cut off all is the final gun that goes off 12 hours into the race. Anyone not over the line (even meters away) is not allowed to finish and have not time recorded. See this years finish here.
Welcome To The Club
Prior to the race I’d received instructions as a Green Number runner to stay left at the finish. There was a reception team of Green Numbers waiting for me as I crossed the line who warmly congratulated me and assured me that my number was now mine permanently.
I was assigned to a handler and escorted up the long climb to the Green Number reception room where the greatest ever Comrades runner and 9 times winner Bruce Fordyce was waiting to welcome me into the club and present my Green Number to me in front of the photographer. Bruce appeared to have been briefed on my 10 Comrades and alluded to my previous silver medal. This was a deeply significant moment for me. As a young boy I had watched Bruce winning his first ever Comrades and in the subsequent years watched him take out the title and dominate.
My journey to this Green Number began 14 years ago as I registered for my first ever Comrades in 2004. I noticed the Green Number lounge next to the International lounge and saw that it always had two praetorian guards standing at the entrance smartly attired in official blazers making sure that only accredited Green Number club members could enter. The hair on my body stood up as I formed the determination on the spot to one day win the right to enter that lounge. I’m nearly there now. The right to enter has been achieved and all that is left is to get to my 11th Comrades and enjoy being allowed in. There’s only two gates I’ve ever wanted to be allowed through: the Pearly Gates and the Green Number Club gates. I’ve achieved at least one, and for the other I’m relying on grace…
Avoiding The Drop
In the last 5 years I’ve not been able to stand up at the end of the race. Research has led me to to think that there are two factors. The first is in relation to blood pressure and has a name: exercise-associated collapse syndrome. The second is avoiding dehydration, which all too easily done.
In an ultra-distance race the strain on the heart in terms of blood circulation is assisted by muscle contraction. At the end of a race the athlete stops and therefore so does the assistance to the heart. This can result in your blood pressure dropping suddenly. If you are dehydrated this can add to the problem of nausea. In previous years I have been hospitalised or had to spend about an hour in a horizontal position to normalise my blood pressure in order to be able to stand up. This year I made an extra special effort to drink more to the point of wanting to take a leak and I kept moving after the finish, as hard as that was.
My first Comrade training periods were to a large degree solo efforts. In recent years thanks to a growing number of my fellow club members taking on Comrades long runs have been done in company. We’ve also created flexible long run options so that other runners preparing for marathons can join us for at least part of our long runs.
This year it has been a privilege to run with Jason Mancktelow (preparing for a 100 miler), Rhys Nordstrom (Gold Coast Marathon) and also fellow Comrades 2018 team member Yvonne Baylis, Pamela Murch and Michell Stemmett. It has also been great to bump into other athletes whilst out on the run such as double Ultraman finisher Craig Lee. We suffered through possibly the worst summer training weather conditions I have ever known with extreme humidity making the early long runs hell. I remember a fair few long Saturday runs with Yvonne and I seriously contemplating the SOS of hailing an Uber. If it were not being a dripping mess of sweat the idea may have been acted on.
In the lead up and on the day we all received tremendous support from our family, friends and fellow club members. Hanging with my fellow Australian Striders in South Africa is a real thrill, and to see them cross the line and live the dream is sublime.
Coach To The Coaches
For the last 16 years my coach Graham Bliss has guided me from a very poor marathon runner through to being a coach myself. This year as always Graham has provided valuable oversight. It has been great to seek his counsel each week at interval training and to allow him to make the call on my speed training. Graham has tought me to read my body rather than my Garmin and is possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of training methodology, running stories and quotes. I’ve had the pleasure of introducing Comrades to him in 2005 and eagerly await his return to complete the Up Run.
This years training emphasis was fourfold:
1. Run enough km’s in training but not too much. A maximum of 1500 is more than enough. As it is through injury I missed out on running in January and early Feb so only completed 1200km but that was more than enough.
2. Keep average pace per/km in long run training convervative. This was achieved on most long runs over 35km. The primary energy system used in long distance running is aerobic so this is where the concentration needs to be in long slow distance training on the weekends and mid week.
3. Have a long taper. This year I managed a 9 week taper which I needed after the peak training period as my legs were feeling heavy and my body tired. This was probably the best taper I’ve done so far.
4. Complimentary speed interval training. My coach Graham Bliss has had me running relatively short distances for most of the peak training. The purpose behind this was not to add to the load and risk injury, and because Graham felt that not much more than 3km or 4km maximum was needed when considered in the context of all the other running I was doing. His point was proven by my parkrun pb 2 weeks before Comrades.
I arrived at the start of Comrades in prime condition, well rested and injury free. This is a big deal when you are training for an ultra-marathon in your fifties. We are more injury prone our middle age so necessary adjustments need to be made without sacrificing conditioning or speed.
The Journey So Far
A lot has happened since my first Comrades in 2004. Along the way a running club was born and that eventually led to a new career path and a business in the fitness industry. I’ve met plenty of amazing people along the way and been able to share the joy of running with them. This year was also the first time I’ve coached others online for Comrades and to share the joy with them after finishing helped make the whole experience extend way beyond my own achievements.
Going back to South Africa has always involved immersing myself back into my family which I left behind. Spending time with my parents, sister and cousins has meant the world to me. Most of my Comrades runs have been facilitated by my cousin Fiona & Greg (and girls, aka The Bailey Bunch). Greg has provided me with inumerable lifts to and from the race start and finish and been there for me throughout all the ups and downs of my Comrades career. I’m tremendously appreciative of all they have done for me. Connecting with friends has also meant the world to me. As an African, there is a feeling you get when you are back on African soil that cannot be put into words. To be able to be back in Africa and participate is such an amazing celebration of people is a great privilege and undertandably addictive.
There are plenty of running events which are ‘great experiences’ but the Comrades Marathon is a truly life changing event. If you ever have the opportunity to go, don’t hesitate. You won’t regret it, I promise. It is a fusion of cultures, creeds and colour. Everyone comes together as one to help each runner towards the finish line. The support is overwhelming and humbling and the cameraderie amongst runners is unique. The course is beautiful and brutal, and the finish is euphoric. That’s why they call it ‘The Ultimate Human Race’.