A first hand account of the ultimate human race
For those not aware, The Comrades Marathon is technically an ‘ultra’, the distance being measured at approximately 88km on an ‘Up’ Year and 91km the following or on a ‘Down’ year. That’s equivalent 54-57 Miles or approx. 2.1 imperial marathons. Sounds relatively easy right? What could be so hard, I’d think to myself? I’ve travelled quite a bit, I’ve been to South Africa many times, I’ve done a little bit of running myself over the years, I’ve cycled from the top of France to the bottom and I have run longer than a Marathon several times before, and besides, I love a challenge. I start to do my research....
Acknowledgments & gratitude
Before we delve into my experience at the 2019 Comrades Marathon itself, I’d like to thank my friend and anglicised South African, Marc Starfield, who first mentioned Comrades to me in 2003.
I’s also like to thank Gus Davidson, a fellow Kenilworth Runners club mate, Comrades finisher and current club record holder since 2004. I’d like to thank Max Mladenovic from Knowle & Dorridge Running Club, a 2018 & 2019 back to back finisher, Baljit Chohan from Solihull (not affiliated) and also 2018 & 2019 back to back finisher.
I also like to acknowledge and thank Dave Pettifer, my Coach for his input, David Ross, the UK Comrades Ambassador, Mark-Taylor Weir, ultra-runner and Spine Racer for his support in the race build-up and prediction that one day I would run longer than a Marathon when I sat in his office many, many years ago and I’d just finished my first 10km. I didn’t believe him then, but how life is different and much better now!
In particular, I also like to single out the following very special people whom have I been running and/or crewing with over the years. All of those below have inspired me to run longer, further, in more challenging conditions and with more elevation including Michael Scandrett, a sub-24 Bob Graham Rounder, multiple Centurion & Thames Path 100 ultra runner; Richard Broadbent, the first man to actually show me you won’t die when you run on the edge of ‘suicide pace’; Andy Snow, another Centurion, ex. Army and master of making a brew and eating whilst on the go; Pamela Grimwade a fellow Kenilworth Runners Youth Team Coach, and, last but by no means least, another Centurion, Youth Team Coach & Club Mate Colin Bailey who in his own right is an outstanding ultra-runner, a great listener, supporter and encourager.
Summer 2018: 11 months before race day
Like most things in life it’s usually a colleague, an acquaintance or another club mate who mentions something in passing and it may or may not pique an interest at the time but somehow it sits in the unconscious brain until one day it becomes all encompassing.
I first heard about Comrades from a long-standing friend; Marc Starfield who emigrated from Pretoria in South Africa to Stratford-upon-Avon, England in the early 2000s and whom was an accomplished marathon runner many years before I’d even dreamt of putting on a pair of trainers (or ‘tackies’) to use the correct Afrikaans vernacular.
Marc would regale over dinner about the suffering, the heat, the hills and the elation of becoming a Comrades finisher. He would talk about the supporters lining the road from Durban to Pietermaritzburg all day, drinking beer and cooking steak on the Braai (that’s a BBQ, if you are not familiar with the local lingo).
Later on, I would learn about and met Bruce Fordyce (9 times winner). I’d chat to South Africans whilst travelling back and forth to Sandton, Johannesburg with work; and over the years some of them would tease me that a western marathon wasn’t really a marathon, but just a Greek, imperial invention and not a proper instrument for measuring your ability to suffer.
They would go on to their delight and downplay the Abbots World Marathon Majors, which most of you reading this will recognise as the London, Berlin, New York, Chicago, Boston and Tokyo Marathons and label them ‘minors’ in a typically, Boere, Afrikaans, dismissive fashion. They would of course reference the famous Coast-to- Coast Marathon (also in South Africa) but none of it seemed to compare with Comrades.
Tea in the dark
It is the summer of 2018; club mate Gus Davidson has just finished an epic single- handed sailing trip from the bottom of Spain back to the shores of the UK in extremely challenging conditions and he and I catch up a few days later and once he has his land legs back. We talk on the phone late at night and plan our support for Colin Bailey’s Cotswold Way 102-mile adventure. Colin’s Race weekend came around quickly and I find myself stood in a dark country lane in the beautiful English countryside, making tea with Pam Grimwade and Gus from the back of my Mini at about 01:00am whilst crewing for Colin.
Whilst we encouraged the occasional runner on and supplied them with directions or hot, sweet tea, we waited for Colin to come into view. In those moments, Gus tells Pam and I about the respect the Comrades race has not just as a running race but a social and cultural occasion that pulls a fragmented nation together. It’s called the “Human Race”, “The Ultimate Human Race” he said. Gus described the challenge, the electric atmosphere and the fact that the race crosses the political, racial and some of the deeply ingrained held beliefs of the 48 million ordinary South Africans from any cast, tribe or background and that this race is like no other.
He tells me there is no medal if you don’t make the 12-hour cut off and the race organisers’ turn their back on you if you are 12 hours and 1 second. That’s barbaric I think to myself, but I’m intrigued. To make the failure even more cruel, you will be chaperoned away from the finish line and to add to your heartbreak, you will be watched by millions on live domestic TV and streamed on the Comrades Marathon Channel on YouTube.
I am not sure if it is fact, but several people keep telling me that 68% of starters don’t finish or make the cut off. Based on my own experience this certainly seems to be the case. ‘Year after year, the goodness in humanity comes to the fore at Comrades’, Gus tells me – ‘it makes Comrades the Ultimate Human Race’; ‘It is not just a race Ian’, he passionately declares. I’m instantly hooked. This sounds like a proper day out.
I read and read and read some more, I learn the background to the race. I cogitate for a few weeks. I don’t want to underestimate what I might be taking on, so I keep reading. I buy second hand books about the race, I read Comrades’ race winners accounts and borrow Gus’ ultra-book library.
I read about Fields Hill and the infamous Little Polly’s and Polly Shortts. I get stuck in. I uncover that The Comrades Marathon owes its beginnings to the vision of one man, World War I veteran; Vic Clapham.
The history of Comrades
After the outbreak of the Great War (1914-1918), Clapham signed up with the 8th South African Infantry which marched 1,700 miles through East Africa. After witnessing the hardship, and death of his Comrades he wanted to create a memorial to the suffering they had gone through, the lives lost, and to that, which left a most indelible impression on him: the camaraderie that he experienced despite such deprivation.
Vic Clapham approached the League of Comrades of the Great War for support of his dream, to stage a race between the South African cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban, a fitting setting for a memorial of physical and endurance and stamina. After his application was refused in 1919 and 1920, finally in 1921 the League relented and the Comrades Marathon was born on a loan of one pound for expenses that Clapham had to repay.
The first Comrades Marathon took place on 24th May 1921, Empire Day, starting outside the City Hall in Pietermaritzburg with 34 runners. It has continued since then every year with the exception of the second World War years, with the direction alternating each year between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, the so called ‘Up’ & ‘Down’ runs. In 2019, the race boasted a field capped at 21,000 runners, although I heard of plans to increase this to another 7,000 or so in 2020 to nearly 30,000 with a new double/double run format.
The race has gone through changes throughout the years; the cut off time changing from 12hrs to 11hrs and back again more recently. Women and non-white runners were first officially allowed to participate in 1975, and the race has become more inclusive every year. With Parkrun gaining momentum in South Africa this is inevitable in my view.
Runners completing 10 runs receive a Green Number and join the prestigious Green Number Club and keep their race numbers for perpetuity, the first to ever be awarded one, being Liege Boulle.
The race abounds in tradition with Lady Smith Black Mambazo’s Shosholoza and Max Trimborn’s recorded cock-crow being played at every race start as well as the theme tune to Chariotts of Fire (always a crowd pleaser).
Over the years, a number of runners have left their stamp on the race: 9 time winner Bruce Fordyce; whom I had the privilege to meet after this year’s race, 8 time winner Elena Nurgalieva; 5 time winners Arthur Newton, Hardy Ballington, Wally Hayward, and Jackie Mekler; 4 time winner and first to break 5hrs 30mins Alan Robb, and 3 time winner Frith Van Der Merwe who after over 20 years still holds the fastest ever time in the women’s race.
With 94 years (excluding the 2020 Virtual Legends 90km race in which I also participated) under its belt, the Comrades Marathon is the oldest Ultra Marathon in the world, it remains one of the toughest road races on the planet and each year reminds us that through adversity there is hope.
Build up: T-minus 9 months
In August 2018, and as part of my preparation for the Berlin Marathon, I ran the Thames Path Marathon in the UK organised by David Ross of Hermes Running. I met David at the start whilst we waited for the local Parkrun to finish-up and start the Marathon proper. I learnt David was not only the Race Director but also the UK’s Comrades Ambassador and single co-ordination point for most of the entries. Note: Other run tour companies can help you with a Comrades experience including our good friend Mike Gratton of 2:09 events. David talked about Comrades but I still hadn’t any clue what is was at that point.
September came and went, and I finished the Berlin Marathon, three minutes outside my PB. I am in pain. My legs are wrecked from a poor shoe choice and I’m paying the price for months (through February 2019, as I would come to learn).
I am going through a difficult patch with work and ‘am looking for a new challenge for the following year. Registration opens soon, the event will sell out in a day or two and I need to commit to guarantee a place and secure all the paperwork on time to guarantee a spot. I skype another friend in the USA who is also considering entering, they commit, it’s a plan, and I send off my application after chatting with David and register. I think to myself, if I’m not fit by February 2019, I’ll defer entry to 2020 and do a Down run, that would be much easier – right?!
It’s the 23 October and my email confirmation and acceptance into the race comes through. I study the details and the links intently and learn I need to have qualified. To finalise my entry, I also learn that for the race itself I will need an ASA (Athletics South Africa) approved timing ‘Championchip’. Some week later, I also learn that I need a clearance from UK Athletics to race.
What’s a ‘Championchip’?
A Championchip is unique electronic identifier that attaches to your shoe laces and registers your time. Like most races. No chip = ‘No time and No position’. You can buy these in advance, have them set up and linked to your Comrades profile online.
From my own novice observations these chips cause quite anxiety among runners and this is how the Comrades system works:
If you own your own chip, and you registered it at the time of entry, then make sure you bring it. The chip will be double checked at International Registration. You cannot borrow or use a friend’s chip; they are already coded with your name and this cannot be changed.
If you own a chip and forget to bring it along with you, then you will have no choice, but to buy another one at The Comrades Expo.
If you don’t own a chip (that was me) and you ticked the box and paid for one on your online entry form it will be waiting for you to collect at the pre-race Expo at ‘International Registration’ with your race pack – phew!
If you don’t own a chip, and you didn’t tick the box to buy one, then you will be told this when you register and then directed to the ‘Championchip Stand’ where you will buy one, then you have to return to the International Registration to finish registration procedure.
That just leaves the small detail of qualifying and having UK Athletics clear me to run.
UK Athletics clearance to run
In April, I also solicit a letter from UK Athletics and ask Dave Pettifer (My Coach) to confirm I am who I say I am with UK Athletics and provide this to the ASA. All my paperwork is complete.
A coffee and the penny drops...
I take Gus’s book library back to him one Friday afternoon around Easter time and I settle
down for a coffee with him, his wife and dogs in the kitchen. They ask me about my training and how I am feeling. I tell them ‘I feel good and everything is on track’. I ask Gus to show me his Comrades cap, medal and photos, which he kindly does and I’m inspired but then come a series of bombshells and gaps in my thinking. He recounts the story of his 2004 Up race. I am mesmerised.
I learn the gradients are steeper than I had imagined. Imagine Common Lane in Kenilworth (times that by 5-20 in length) and times that by 5 reps in the first 30km and you’ve got the level. Hardly quick Marathon pace.
Gus reminds me to think about personal safety, what to drink and what not to accept from strangers. A lot of it is obvious but its’ a humbling reminder. We laugh as I tell him I feel safer in RSA than in the USA. He goes onto explain to me I will be cold at the start and after I have finished. He reminds me that by 05:00am of a May morning, the temperature in Durban can fall to below 5c or lower so I will need something warm to put on and throw away whilst warming up in Pen C.
Having said that, in 2015 it was about 20C and runners sat on the start line in vests worrying about how hot it was going to get. Days later I read in the UK & Ireland Comrades Facebook Members Page that others typically take some carboard or a newspaper to sit on and rest their legs ahead of the race starting.
He then asks about my crew and support. I tell him I am travelling on my own and am running on my own. There is a long awkward silence. Gus says nothing. We both know what this means. My chances have less than halved. I have put myself firmly in the the 68% of starters not finishing category.
Having crewed for others and run long I know the importance of company and support. And having a friendly face up the road. I will have none. I think to myself I am a blithering idiot. No matter, it’s too late to go back and likely no would come with me now, well no one I’d like to share the experience with and I could rely on at such short notice. It’s too much of a time and burden to ask someone else so late in the day.
Gus also encourages me to organise transport from the finish to a hotel at Scottsdale racecourse or back to Durban. I’ve also overlooked this simple fact that this is a point to point run. It will be me and my ‘tog bag’, if that makes it way to the International finishers area without going missing.
He asks me about nutrition. He talks about the Comrades Wall (not the ‘wall’ we talk about in marathoning terms), this is a physical, Commemorative Wall and the traditions I must respect including saying good day to Arthur at the halfway point, taking of my hat and I’d better learn the words to Shosholoza.
Two & a half months before
I’ve digested Gus’ feedback. I am running regularly again and clocking 70-90km weeks. I am on target weight. I am recovering quickly after long runs and hard efforts. I’ve planned and paid for five marathons and an 50km ultra during April and through the middle of May. I’ve cut back on alcohol consumption. I run Manchester Marathon in 3:41, slowing in the second half to what feels like a snail’s pace. I travel to Boston in Lincolnshire the following weekend to run against the wind in a much quieter, more traditional race for club runners and finish in 3:44.
The week after, I rise extremely early to drive Gregynog in Wales to knock out 5 mind blowingly difficult and hilly laps of a 10km course to finish 2nd overall in 6:09. To my dismay, this is not a UKA registered course, but they ho! that’s trail running. Whilst I am there, I do meet a ‘Comrade” who is proudly sporting his cap form 20 years before. Funnily enough he is also running the same course and on a very similar training cycle.
There is a week off, but I still put in a long one in and then travel to Stratford-upon- Avon for my second showing in the Shakespeare Marathon where I achieve a personal worst of 4:13. Little did I know at the time, there were several others whom I’d meet in South Africa who were also at Stratford but we didn’t know each other at that point.
One month before
Hereford Marathon is cancelled the following weekend by the organisers and I elect to not run the distance in training in favour of rest and shorter runs but on grass. Abbey Fields Mayday 10km loops (x6) should do the trick. Two weeks later and on 19 May I am at Windemere completing my final Marathon in 3:57 and the taper can begin ahead of race Day on 9 June. Note: The Windermere Marathon is far from flat.
Two weeks before
My flights were booked a long time ago, my hotel (Hilton Durban) is reserved and I’ve made sure I have two blank pages in my rather tired looking passport. For those of you not aware it’s common practice if you arrive at your International departure point with less than two blank pages, you will not be allowed to board, so my effort would have been over before it even started.
I begin to pack and put away the essentials. My race kit comprises, a lightweight white coloured hat, sunglasses, sun cream, sun block, salt tablets, double-lined shorts with pockets and a rear zip, GB & Northern Ireland shirt, Colin’s recommended ultra-socks, trusted old Asics 3000 GTs with 400km on them and, my Inov8 trail vest and a massive tub of sudocrem!
I book an appointment with a nurse and then head up to Bertie Road Medical Centre in Kenilworth to have my immunisations topped up. I haven’t been to RSA for 4 years so I need a Tetanus, Diphtheria and Pertussis shot. I then run in a light headed fashion to Club for a sociable 12km loop with the burgeoning 9-minute mile group; who seem to spawn in size week-on-week.
Three days before, I’m off
The weekend before is busy at home and at work and not ideal preparation. I fettle and make my last-minute checks, print out my paperwork and registration details and the on the way back from London after work, run The Banbury 5 mile on Tuesday night and surprise myself with a PB. I’m feeling good but a little antsy at not running as much.
The trip took approx. 23 hours for me door to door. I fly overnight the Wednesday before the race via Johannesburg from London. If you are considering doing the race and coming from the UK, there is also a direct flight from Heathrow to Durban (which somehow, I missed during my planning) so would suggest this if the timings work for you rather than have a layover.
If you haven't already got a transfer or travelling companion to share a cab from Durban Airport to your hotel, have a look around the boarding lounge in Johannesburg for your domestic flight and you are sure to find someone else who wants to share. Both of my flights en-route were busy with runners and plenty of Comrades caps were on show.
It is also worthwhile remembering that South African taxis generally only accept cash, therefore, if you are using a taxi for the airport transfer, you will need between R600- R800 in cash.
On arrival I learn some valuable things at The Expo. I drop my bags at the Hilton. The welcome is very warm. Woody (Alistair Kirkwood) has arranged for his mate Grant to check-in on me and remind not to wander round town with my phone and/or GPS watch on show etc. and we arrange to meet for a beer after the race.
The Expo has several queues. As an International runner the queues are much shorter and you are encouraged to shoot past the South African Runners to collect your race pack. Not very British, but nobody seems to mind, in fact, you are positively encouraged to jump the line.
I am told that if I am not wearing my International tent wrist band at the end I cannot get into the International tent and importantly, where my bag will be. Your tog bag will have a yellow sticker on it. This does not correspond with your race number. You will need to peel off the yellow sticker and attach is to the back of your race number so you can reclaim your bag at the end.
See pic below: The wristband on the left is for my bus, the one in the middle for my bag and the one on the right for access to the International Finish area.
Additionally, I am told not to rely on a non-runner to meet me at the gate, as this is difficult. That was academic for me. You can only get wrist bands at International registration for both yourself and those non-runners who maybe accompanying. You cannot buy these wrist bands on race day.
I go any buy myself a return journey bus ticket (600 Rand) and am given yet another wristband in case I lose my ticket during the race. This is not uncommon. I wander the Expo and meet Anne-Marie and Dave Goodwin from Massey’s, who are also running. We take pictures and do a little souvenir shopping. I resist the temptation to eat or drink anything given to me. There are weird and wonderful African remedies and potions on sale claiming to help you ‘fly through Comrades’. Gus has told me about these. ‘Just say no. He says’.
I meet some of the Japanese team in the Internationals area. I feel overweight and out of my depth surrounded by such athletes. I then meet Max Mladenovic from Knowledge & Dorridge RC by the coffee stand and he instantly calms my nerves. We take a picture for the album and I remind myself I am here to soak up the experience come what may, after all, two thirds of starters don’t finish. I then start to worry that I have no contingency plan if I fail on the road. I make a note to add my phone, a credit card and cash to my race pack.
The pack now weighs over 2.5 kgs when laden with water, so much for hitting target weight I think! People around me are talking about the ‘tour’. I’d leant about this from the Australian Comrades Facebook group (they kindly let me in event though I am a ‘Pom’). You can buy bus tickets to travel the route 2-3 days beforehand. I made the conscious decision not to do this. I didn’t want to know what was coming. Besides, sitting on bus for 6 hours in that heat is not exactly ideal race preparation.
On the way back from the Expo, I meet Geoff Pearce from Australia and we buy food and supplies for our rooms thinking we won’t be able to move when we get back. We will unlikely have the energy to find a restaurant that is not full at midnight and room service will inevitably be very slow.
We go to the local market and dance with the small children. Geoff has brought some key-rings from OZ and starts handing them out. We are very popular, perhaps too popular for my liking. The atmosphere is great, Geoff is not one for keeping a low profile though. A tall man ask’s him for his trainers and watch and he utters the words “Comrades” and the mood changes for the better. We are treated like royalty. I am not sure this would be the case two days after the race though...
The day before: Parkrun North Beach, Durban
I have slept very well the previous night which was my number one goal and saunter down to reception at 07:00am to meet some Australian runners who are going to Parkrun. There are four Parkrun events in and around Durban. Parkrun in South Africa boasts over 1m registered runners but in practice this is 2-4 times that as the locals see no point in clocking their time at the end. Why wait in a line when you could be running or you don’t have access to a computer, a phone, a watch or don’t know how to get a barcode?
We walk the 2-3km to Parkrun North Beach, Durban and I meet more Australians and few English runners, a token Welshman and have my first experience running in a ‘Bus’. The Bus sings and chants and moves rhythmically for 5km. I’m enchanted. Geoff I have come in about 550th out of 2,000 runners and clock-in at about 33 minutes. A personal worst and I really don’t care. It’s all about tomorrow. We walk back to the hotel. We drink water mixed with Tailwind and SIS hydration tablets for most of the day and I make my final preparations.
As we get back to the hotel, we watch swathes of weary runners get off the tour buses, questioning whether we have missed the only opportunity most Internationals will get to stop and appreciate Comrades Wall and Arthur’s Seat (half- way point), because on race day we will have little time to stop and do that ourselves.
I am in bed at 19:30.
Race day, 9 June 2019
The alarm goes off at 02:00am. I wander down bleary eyed to R-level and to breakfast. Yes, you read that right, at 02:30am the Hilton are geared up with a special Comrades breakfast. The staff have come in at 10:30 pm the night before. I thank them all in turn. Comrades runners pack the place to the rafters from every nation under the sun. There is a marvelous spread and I munch why way through two bowls of oats with honey, two bananas, nuts, raisins, half-a-litre of cranberry juice and a bowl of cold penne pasta with olive oil. I take a coffee with me back to the room and four more bananas for my race vest. I have no milk even though I am craving some and take care of my ‘pre-race routine’.
I’m in the Lobby of the Hilton at 04:00am with some nervous looking people and some very nervous looking supporters.
At 04:30am, I pick up my newspaper to sit on and walk to the start with a throng of other nervous looking runners. Men and women are urinating in the street. Everywhere smells and not just of wee. I can’t eat my apple. I give it to a small boy at the side of the road. He looks sad. I smile at him. He runs off. It’s dark. I am careful not to step in anything. I finally find ‘C pen’ and wave Andrew (above and in the middle) off who is ‘pen B’. We wish each other well for the race and vow to meet in the bar tonight. I say a little prayer.
I am standing (not sitting). If had done, I would have been crushed. We all wait patiently for 45 minutes. I talk to the Africans around me who are wrapped up warm and shivering. We can’t understand each other but the nervous smiles are enough. I meet a Green number from J’burg (a +10 times finisher) he calms me down. It’s about 7C, I can’t help thinking, I hope it’s like this all day.
10 minutes before the start and with the whole field assembled in the streets we start singing Shosholoza. If this doesn’t get the hairs on the back of your neck standing up or bring a tear to your eye, you haven’t got a soul. I am now engulfed by the raw emotion of Comrades, and for a Virgin like me, the reality hits home, that I’ve made it. 1300km of training runs in 8 months behind me, 4kg lighter and an injury behind me?
Chariotts of Fire then sounds out, I am crying, I don’t know why, the cock crows and we are off. Inevitably, like any large-scale race, someone face plants and everyone swerves out of the way. People with ‘Pen F’ numbers are flying past me 2km in. I can hear Colin & Mike in my ears.; ‘start slow’. I can hear Snow too; ‘Eat something’. I have an Orange SIS gel and try not to trip up in piss-soaked, plastic bags, newspapers and plastic cups which carpet the race route.
As my way starts to clear a little, I look up at the motorway signs. One of them reads ‘Pietermarisburg 85km’. I am near the front of the wave which is moving at about 17 km per hour (11 miles/hour) I drop right back to 7.5km/h (4.75 miles/hour) knowing this is the right thing to do and will pay dividends later in the day.
I smile to myself as we pass each Kilometer marker; which are decreasing in value from 87km and not increasing. That’s novel, I think to myself and a bit of a head-twister.
I sip on my water bottle which I will discard at 10km. We are on the flat section of the course, which is far from flat. (Imagine running up a motorway off ramp that is, pot- holed and off-camber for 10km. You get the idea).
To 10km, including Cowie’s Hill
I’ve reached my first mental milestone after an hour, just 8 more to go. I look around me. I try to soak it all up. Almost everyone is wearing a singlet/vest. I have a lightweight summer cycling vest to wick away sweat and protect from UV and a running T-Shirt on over the top. This combination works well with my race pack and prevents chaffing.
Nobody is carrying food or water. Strange I think. I must have made a mistake. How can they run for 12 hours without eating? I have already clocked that there is water table every 2km and food is on offer. I deliberately ignore the feeding tables in favour of my own water bottle, camelbak and pre-prepared food supplies despite the additional weight. The tables are extremely crowded at the start, there is no etiquette. Runners regularly fall and/or suddenly run sideways to grab a water sachets etc. I run in the middle of the road through every feeding station to avoid injury. The floor is still littered. It is impossible to run without running on discarded wet slippery water sachets.
Race supplied water is provided in a 100ml plastic sachets which you pierce with your teeth and either suck out of the bag or squirt into your mouth. These are handed to you. The opportunity to get sick is very real. None of the water table marshals wear gloves. I think about this dilemma for 25km and imagine the 5000 runners in front of me who have already touched these hands. I try not to focus on the dreaded trifecta of constipation, diarrhea and vomiting - and start to write poems in my head by way of distraction.
Eventually, my camelbak will run out and later in the race at 50km I will succumb to picking up water and eagerly drink it. I figure, even if I get diarrhea, I will only have 38km to go, so what’s the problem. This combination of tailwind, bananas and race supplied (not bottled water) is a unique gastro-intestinal experience as many of you reading this will know.
10-25km, Westville to Fields Hill
I’m feeling strong. There is a little cloud cover. There is no sun (yet) but it is humid. I remind myself to slow down and then all of a sudden I’m I front of a ‘Bus’. The 9-hour bus. The Bus is driven by Ryan who has 300-400 people behind him and his make shift pacer’s flag. I try to drop-in, but there is no space. I try to run on the edge of the Bus and the edge of the road but this is dangerous. The kerbs are very steep and the storm drains on the hills are proper ankle breakers with no covers. Occasionally, someone falls into one and their race is over. It is claustrophobic behind the pacer. There is nowhere to move. The air is hot. I can’t breathe. I feel sick. I want to be sick. I am going to be sick. I push my way to the left-hand side of the bus and run on the grass (also not a good idea, I think; but there are no snakes around, it is too noisy for them today).
I wretch and let the Bus past. I drop-in, eventually find some space, and work my way up Cowie’s Hill which takes me 52 minutes and finally the 9km hill is over. The nausea is gone and then the 10-hour bus catches me and passes. My morale takes a hit but I’m okay.
The Comrades course has five registered hills, called the “Big Five”. These are the stars of the show. In order of appearance they are: 1. Cowies Hill, 2. Fields Hill, 3. Botha’s Hill, 4. Inchanga and 5. Polly Shortts. Three of the “Big Five” are found in the first half of the race. From the base of the first hill, Cowies, to the top of Botha’s Hill you climb 502 metres in the space of only 22 kilometres. The reality though is that there are many, many more hills. Even the first 10km ‘flat section’ is uphill.
I reward myself with two bananas at the top of Cowie’s and mentally get set for Field’s Hill. I track a Russian shirt to the start of the next hill and pass him nodding as I do so. He swears at me. I say ‘good day’ back to him.
25 – 40km, Fields Hill & Botta’s Hill
Both Fields Hill and Botha’s Hill feel like long, steady pulls, but are not necessarily crippling. Fields’ Hill is similar in profile to Illmington in Warwickshire, running up from the village to the aerial masts, but 5 times as long at 3.7km. I rest briefly at the top and eat again but continue walking. I think of Andy Snow and wish I had a cup of tea and lemon drizzle cake. To no avail, the reserve Mini cheddars come out – yum!
Botha’s is steeper. I adopt a walk/run so I can eat more, drink more and maintain a salt tablet every hour. My pack is getting lighter. Halfway is coming up. I get a mental lift despite the strong sun and the rising temperature. It feels like 27 or 28C but I resist the temptation to check my Garmin in case it is actually higher. It’s not midday yet and it will get hotter so what is the point of knowing the temperature?
I pull out my cap and place it on my head. I start sweating profusely and despite buying waterproof sun cream it is impossible not to wince as the sharp sting from the cream runs into my eyes. 5 or 6 km passes and I can see properly again. I chat to a South African couple who both have green numbers. They tell me to slow down. I’m on for 4.15 marathon time. They are right. I bring my heart rate down from 157 bpm average to 130 bpm. There is a long way to go.
Halfway & Arthur’s Seat
Just before halfway and after the Comrades Memorial Wall, I approach 'Arthurs Seat’ on the left, where legend has it, that former Comrade great Arthur Newton used to rest during his training runs.
I pick a flower from beside the road, and leave it on the seat as a mark of respect, I take off my cap and say ‘Good morning Arthur’, as do the majority of others running
beside me. Arthur was a 5 times winner of Comrades in the 1920’s, Arthur is widely acknowledged as being one of the ‘fathers of long-distance running training’.
After the halfway at Drummond, I enter the Zulu homeland and many of the Zulus are actually running Comrades. The atmosphere is electric. All through the field the Zulu’s form small groups. I tuck in behind one for 10km or so as they approach Camperdown with about 25km to go. The next two-hour section seems to go quickly through Harrison Flats and onto the fourth big hill Inchanga. The less punishing course profile is welcome respite, despite the heat.
I pass two Austrian MV40 shirts whom I’ve be unable to catch for 30km. I get a great mental lift. Those around me are now slowing. I am regularly passing people now despite not increasing my pace. I breeze past the Austrians and remember to speed up as I do so preventing them from attaching themselves to me. I move to the other side of the road just to make it more difficult for them. I open up 50 meters and then settle back down to my own 7:00mins/km rhythm. I eat again, swallow another salt tablet and think about what to do at Inchanga... The tailwind tastes disgusting now. I am sick of it. I want something different.
70km and 17k to go
Inchanga passes with a steady 20-minute effort. I navigate the schoolchildren, the offers of massage at the side of the road and the goats in the road. There is no tree cover. It is very hot. This feels like ascending Mont-Ventoux on a bad day on the bike I think to myself. I catch the negativity and remind myself there are just two hills to navigate; Little Pollys and Polly Shortts. I reflect on Gus’s advice. ‘Go slow. Pick a lamp-post/telegraph pole and set your mental markers as to when you will run and when you will walk’. Be disciplined. Don’t deviate’.
At each table, I stow water sachets in my hat and then burst them periodically to cool down. Each time my cap heats up again I repeat the process until the end. Reluctantly, I try and squeeze water from the sachets into my mouth without letting the warm, vile tasting bags touch my lips. The sun cream has washed off now and I can feel my face burning. I take sun block from my backpack and smear it all over my face. I give the rest to and Afrikaans lady from East London Running Club. She says; ‘thanks’ but, says she would have preferred a beer. I look like Shane Warne I think to myself.
13km Little Pollys & Polly Shortts
Little Polly’s is not a registered Hill. It should be. It’s awful. I catch a glimpse of the “Bailer Bus” waiting like a praying mantis at the side of the road and joke with the driver that I don’t want to ever see him as I crawl past at 12min / km on the steeper sections. Other people are in tears at the side of the road. Every 300-400 metres or so, there are people lying in the grass at the side of the road, injured, tired or exhausted. Occasionally, an ambulance or medical car comes through and we make our way to one side of the road. The field has really strung out now. I am catching B vests.
There is drone above us as we all ascend Little Pollys. The drone is getting lower and lower. I wave at it. It circles four of five times streaming the misery of this climb to YouTube for everyone to see. I make sure my face says I am not in pain, even though I am. It’s not a specific pain. It’s just fatigue. Everything hurts. I look for things that don’t hurt. My feet are okay I think to myself. I focus on that for 20 minutes. I concentrate on the feeling of each of my toes for 2 minutes in turn.
I have another salt tablet. 2 hours to do 13km. I’ve got this. One more banana left. I start to offload unnecessary items in my back pack to save weight. I eat the ginger biscuits but it takes me ten minutes to eat two of them because my mouth is so dry despite consuming 5.25 litres of water and 1 litre of Gatorade in the last 8 and half hours or so..
There is a group of African ladies dancing at the side of the road shouting ‘ are you ready for Polly Shortts?’. I tell myself I am.
This is the only thing between me and the finish. Polly Shortts is neither lady like nor short. It goes on forever. It gets stepper and just when you think you’ve crested you haven’t. It takes me 21minutes to do the 2km climb. Finally, I meet a group of costumed, super heroes at the summit offering refreshments.
I crest, I can see Pietermaritzburg. I am going to do this!
7.5km to go
The last cut off before the finish itself is about 7.5km and just after Polly Shortts. There are still a couple more hills to run, but relative to what I have just done, these will look like speed bumps on Strava. Imagine running Tainter’s Hill in Kenilworth six or seven times, and you get the idea.
At 4km to go there is party by the side of the road and giant of a South African man hands me two 500ml cans of Castle lager, pats me on the back and says; ‘sorry about Brexit, you’re welcome here!’ His mates are rolling around in laughter. I drink them both in one go. 500 metres later, I am drunk.
I fly the last 4km home and as I get closer to the finish and the larger the crowds become. People are shouting my name. ‘Go Ian! the Virgin Go!’, “First Timer Go!”
Note: each race bib carries your name, your race number, the amount of Comrades you have completed and the colour denotes your status. The colour White for South Africa (which I find a little ironic). Green for more than 10 finishes and Blue for International. The number ‘0’ meant lots of people cheered for me as a Virgin.
And nothing, I man nothing I have ever done before could have prepared me for the last 600 metres.
I knew the finish area. Those of you who know me well, know that I have worked in the Casino industry and have been to Scottsdale Race Course several times and the Golden Horse Casino with work in a previous life. This time, it was very different though. Magical actually.
I ran down the hill with a black man who I cannot remember his name. He was going to give up. I said he wanted to die. I said he would not die if he got to the gates of the race course. That last 1km was very painful for him. I on the other hand was inebriated.
We entered the race course. I could hear the finish line. I knew we had done it. I couldn’t stop myself welling up. One more little effort under and up the other side of the tunnel. The crowds were 5 or 6 deep and all screaming. I was elated. I held his arm aloft across the line.
Nearly a year of effort for this moment.
I finished 6,264th in 10 hours, 13 minutes, 4 seconds. I earnt a coveted Bronze medal on my first showing. All I could think about when I crossed the line was that I had not been to the toilet since 04:30am, some 12-13 hours ago. ‘I am hydrated though’; I remember thinking. ‘The salts tablets worked. I am not hungry’. I thought to myself ‘shall I round it up another 13km?’ and smiled a happy smile to myself.
I am safely installed in the International finishers area. I have been reunited with my tog bag. I put on dry clothes. I eat a chicken wrap and then Headcount starts. People around me are starting to wonder where is “George”, where is “Shirley”? Are they still out on the course? The clock ticks relentlessly towards 12 hours and the tension builds. In the last hour, over 5000 runners will cross the finish line, some run, some sprint, some walk and some crawl, and some won’t beat the clock.
At 11 hours 58 minutes into the race, all 50,000 people in the racecourse complex are focused on the finish line, it takes the tail-enders about 5 minutes to run from the gate to the finish (longer if they are crawling. You are not allowed to help them, you must finish under your own locomotion), and now those out in the streets know they won’t make the final countdown.
At 11 hours, 59 minutes, 45 seconds after the cock crowed, Cheryl Winn, chairman of the Comrades Marathon Association takes up her position on the finish line with his back to the finishing runners, raises a pistol, and fires a solitary shot into the air, at precisely 12 hours after the cock crowed that morning when I left Durban.
Instantly, the front row of the Springboks Rugby team block the finish line. It’s over, no more medals, no more finishes this year. This solitary shot, not only echoes around the race course and up through the race course and into the streets of Pietermaritzburg, but via television across South Africa, and via the Internet around the world.
The runners trapped on the wrong side of the finish line are devastated.
They sit down, and ponder their situation. To some, it’s months of hard training, and long miles for no Comrades medal. To others, it’s a lifetime dream of finishing Comrades shattered, but all vow to return again and win the most coveted medal in World Running, 'A Comrades Medal'.
It is so, so very cruel to watch. These shattered runners will take weeks, months and maybe years to cope with this disappointment, and to virtually all, the only way to truly erase this disappointment is to return in the future, and beat the Grim Reaper who cruelly fired that final shot.