Wednesday 2 June 2010

Giving it everthing at Comrades 2010

The winning painting in the Comrades Art Competition, by Henk from Kearsney Striders

I did a little hiking in the Drakensberg Mountains prior to the race

The lead men

Josh Cox soon before he started walking

Me in my fetching Kearsney Striders kit

Mike Wardian with 12kms to go

Near the end and really feeling it

Peter was a lifeline through the race and here he helps me stumble around after

Kami coming in strongly for 4th

A handful of people wore fancy dress - nice work!

So how was this year’s 55.5 mile Comrades Marathon different? Well, for starters it had been marketed as a big deal with twice as many entrants – around 23,000 of them. But for me, it was number four and the first where I felt I could really go fast and be nearer the gold medals for the top 10. I’ve written a lot about the race and it proved again why it’s my favourite race and why I keep travelling so far to run it in South Africa, as I’ll explain.

This time I had more friends coming over from the UK and Ireland and the fact that the race was much bigger than previous years meant I knew a lot more people who were running. The organisers had convinced everyone that 2010 would be special due to the FIFA World Cup being in South Africa two weeks later plus it being the 85th running of the race. I can see that the former meant the world spotlight was on the country but the latter reason seemed a bit dubious. However, the marketing had paid off and the race had sold out very quickly and had double the number of entrants in a typical year, with around 24,000 signed up. It also promised to be the Guinness Record for the biggest ultra in the world...but one thing I’ve learnt about Guinness is that any non-professional records are often dodgy (like all my weird records). In 2000 there were over 20,000 finishers at Comrades, but Guinness weren’t there to certify it so whatever the number in 2010, there would be a ‘record’ even with the Comrades organisers admitting it would be the second largest race in history.

But never mind the technicalities, it was billed to be something even more amazing than usual and I was very excited in the build up. I had some left knee niggles in the couple of weeks before race day, but these proved to be unimportant (they may be more significant for Western States since my knee is currently buggered, but I’m writing this just a day after the run so there’s bound to be aches and pains).

Comrades is the most elite ultra in the world, bar none. The quality of the field for the 89.3km (55.5 miles) is better than any other by far and includes ex-Olympians. Previous winners include running legends from South Africa, obviously, plus Alberto Salazar (quoted saying it was his best win) and Ann Trason. They were the only American winners in the race’s history but there had been two male Brits winning as well, back in the 60’s and 70’s. No British women had won. So I’d set myself the ambitious goal of getting a sub six-hour time, which I don’t think had been done by a Brit since that last win in the 70’s.

It would have been easier if it wasn’t for the hilliness of the course, but I’ve done it three times, with two in the downhill direction from Pietermaritzburg to Durban (4,700ft of climb, 6,600ft of descent) and one in the other direction (with opposite elevation changes). 2010 was another down run, making it two in a row instead of the usual alternating annually. I’m not sure why this was but it allowed the marketing people to offer a ‘double down’ medal to first timers (‘novices’ in Comrades-speak) in 2009 who came back.

Never have I wanted a result more, since breaking six hours gets a particular, rare medal – the Wally Hayward medal. Comrades has a lot of unique features, which I’ve mentioned previously, but one which is a real motivator for a lot of people is the medal system. There are different medals for the top 10 men and women (gold), sub 6h (Wally Hayward), sub 7h30m (silver), sub 9h (Bill Rowan), sub 11h (bronze) and the final cut-off of 12 hours (Vic Clapham). Some of those medals are named after previous winners. Bill Rowan was the first winner in 1921 and did it in 8h59m, so those breaking 9h are beating the time of the first winner. But my medal was named after Wally who was the first to break 6h as well as managing wins in the race 20 years apart.

My Durban friends were in attendance as usual and I stayed with Peter Pearse and his wife Annette. He was meant to be running but had been off-form in the recent Two Oceans marathon so decided to crew for me instead (‘seconding’ for me, as it’s referred to at Comrades). Another friend, Paddy, had also meant to be running but had just had eye surgery which wasn’t healing fast enough to allow him to get to the start line, so he also joined my seconding team.

Race morning started stupidly early, as always. I was up at 3:30 then we were off shortly afterwards with Peter’s brother, Mark, also in the car and going for his 12th finish. Both of us were running for Kearsney Striders, a club based along the route with a maroon kit, in the same flimsy style as all male Saffer kits. We got there slightly later than planned and when I jogged from the car to the ‘A’ seeding pen I only squeezed in with a minute to spare, at 5:14. The pens were closed at 5:15 and music blared out into the huge crowd of runners and spectators in the pre-dawn, flood-lit blackness. It was a little chilly but promised to be good running conditions and not peak at a hot temperature.

Some people bounced up and down with the beats, some stretched with focused gazes, but all looked excited. It was the moment I’d been waiting for for a whole year since the finish line in 2009. Only a thunder cloud can emulate the electric atmosphere of a Comrades start line and there was palpable nervousness and anticipation in the air. I bumped into some friends just as we got closer to the 5:30 kick-off and I could see they were as up for it as me. We had the two iconic songs which epitomise the race for me – the local song ‘Shosholoza’, which I think has mining roots, and Chariots of Fire. Both permeated through my bones and I stopped bouncing around and stood transfixed on the invisible horizon as I thought about the task ahead.

It’s easy to aim for a time and to concoct a training plan which you think will get you there, but in those seconds before the starting cock crow and gunshot I fully appreciated what I was about to attempt. I’d have to run near to my marathon pace up and down big hills for six hours, averaging four minutes per km, or 2h50m per marathon. I’d also have to knock off 30 minutes from my 2009 time and that race had been near perfect for my shape on the day. So for just a few seconds I took a deep breath to set me up for the task ahead. A task which I’d talked up for months and which I finally had to back up actions. I wanted the challenge and knew I was in good enough condition to do it, but I’d have to absolutely nail my tactics. There could be no room for error, I’d have to push harder than ever before and I’d need a portion of luck. This day was a big, big deal to me.

So, no pressure then, eh? As that gun went off I just went over the start line in the mass of runners and settled into a pace which felt ok. After a few minutes I could check to see what that pace was, but I wouldn’t be adjusting it for a few kms until I’d warmed up. It was pitch black apart from the street lights and it felt like the usual midnight riot as we charged along the streets of Pietermaritzburg. Lunatic runners shot off like they only had a 10k to run. I allowed the crowds to surge past me and didn’t let them upset my pacing. Then I saw Kami Semick after a few minutes and had a quick chat before wishing her luck in her attempt at a gold medal before I went off ahead to start aiming for the pace I’d need to sustain all morning. There were three other top Americans running as well so there were potentially four gold medals which might head back over the Atlantic.

The supporters were well wrapped up in the morning cold but I was just about warm enough from the running. Many were huddled around fires and I loved the commitment for them to get up so early to watch the hordes of runners stream past and send us off on our epic day. I know the kids will remember it for the rest of their lives and that many will reach that start line themselves and think back to their first memories of the race and how it became an annual tradition to be involved.

But while they cheered I was finding things tough. That’s not the ideal start to the race when it’s such a long one, but I just couldn’t stick to the pace I’d planned on without it feeling really hard. You can’t push the pace early and feel like you’re racing in an ultra and need to generally get at least half way without it feeling too strenuous. But I felt like the constant climbs (the first 20kms are predominantly uphill to the highest point at Umlaas Road except for the killer downhill of Polly Shortts) and cold were making four minute kms feel like marathon pace, which is not sustainable for an entire morning.

Soon after the sun rose I saw Peter and Paddy in Ashburton at 15kms after a particularly challenging hill and told them that things were looking bad and that 6h10m-6h15m was a more likely target. I was three minutes over pace after that first hour and it hadn’t felt easy so I was probably being optimistic even telling them that timeframe. It’s always hard to predict how an ultra will go early on, but you can get a feel from the first miles. All you can do is keep running and see how it goes.

The day rolled on and I caught up to the gold medal position women. After passing third place (a Russian lady, unsurprisingly, since they’ve dominated the ladies’ race, in particular), I decided that it would be more sensible to change my target to chasing down the Nurgalieva twins who have won most of the Comrades runs this century, usually around 6h10m. It helps to have something to focus on and I just didn’t think there was any chance of gaining the lost time back, even if I could get back on the required pace. The hills were proving too much of a drain and were slowing me down more than I’d planned on. They don’t relent and even the down run has significant climbs other than the five major, named hills. It may end at sea level, but it still totals 1,400m (4,700ft) of ascent. Not much for a trail race but a lot when compared to fast road races and enough to make it noticeably harder on the legs than a flat race of the same distance.

Somehow my legs seemed to warm up and start functioning better so that as I went through nearer to halfway, I was comfortably clocking kms just under the four minute pace I needed. It seemed quick but my breathing was relaxed so I just knocked out the distance and saw Paddy and Peter a couple more times before the first major uphill of Inchanga, which started at 39km in. I was able to let them know that things had improved and that I was maybe back in with a shot of the finish time they were expecting.

Inchanga was a beast, as always, but I managed to keep up a fair pace and pass people, especially those on walking breaks. The sun was out but it wasn’t too hot and there was a light breeze to keep it comfortable. Just after the top was the ‘47km to go’ marker, meaning 42.28km had been completed – a fraction over a marathon. I hit it around 2h51m. I could hear the speakers and MC at halfway from around a km away so I heard them announce the Russian twins going through just under 2h59m. That’s course record pace (5h54m for women) since the halfway mark is marginally over the true halfway by around 400m and faster than they’ve gone before. But at least I had an idea of where they were now as I went through in 3h02m.

It was a relief to go through the halfway corridor of balloons and Flora advertising boards and to be on a good pace, feeling fine. I’d told myself in advance that a negative split would be possible, like in 2009, and that I’d still be in with a shot of six hours if I went through in under 3h03m. But I’d hoped to not be too close to that time. In the year leading up to the race I’d heaped pressure on myself to improve and had made sure I let people know what my aim was, so that it would be more motivating and easier to stick to the training. At three hours into the race I seemed to be living up to the run I knew I had the fitness to pull off, but there was still the hardest part left and any problems could still add buckets of time to my finish.

Next was the long, hard climb from halfway up Alverstone and up the third big hill, called Botha’s. This is probably the hardest climb of the day on the down run as it’s far enough in that the legs are tired and has multiple climbs which sap the energy out of the legs. As I passed the ‘42km to go’ sign I saw I had exactly 2h48m to break six. Dead on four minute kms and the course is a big net downhill from that point, losing almost 2,300ft to Durban. Paddy and Peter saw me and handed me another gel, which helped, but my calves started screaming at me on that long climb.

Luckily one of the highlights of the course was up next. With around 38km to go there’s Kearsney College, the home of the Striders who I was running for. As I had a local kit on, I got a lot of extra support from those living in the area, mixed in with some surprise that one of the Striders was relatively near the front with the pros. The kit has lots of tiny white dogs on it and I have to admit I’m not sure the significance of dogs to the club, but it gives some supporters an opportunity to shout at me ‘Who let the dogs out?’ in various states of drunkenness while they sit by their braais (barbeques) lining the street. Another surprise around this point was passing the elite US marathoner, Josh Cox, who had aimed to win, but I went past him with 37 kms to go and he was walking (he finished in 6h51m, so did get running again, but his heart can’t have been in it any more).

As happened last year, I was handed a balloon shortly before the college so that the lines of school boys would see their runners coming and cheer loudly. In 2009 this had been a real pick-me-up and saved my race, but this time round I was already going well, even if my legs were complaining a lot more sharply than before. High fives were exchanged along the line of kids and I couldn’t help having a bit more spring in my step.

The next time I was due to see Peter and Paddy was soon after, around Hillcrest, where Peter lives. The support was most vocal over these kms due to the proximity to the college and I also saw Peter’s wife, Nets, and daughter, Em, around here. I only just caught them in the thick crowds and if people didn’t shout my name I had no chance of spotting them. This is a relatively flat section and I was flying, but trying to save something for the longest downhill of the day on Field’s Hill, from about 25km to go.

Finally I caught sight of the Nurgalieva twins ahead and a few guys who were sticking with them for pacing. I’d expected to see them within the first 10km, but they’d really pushed the start and opened up an unsurpassable lead in the ladies’ race. At 26km to go I was in their ‘bus’ (as a pack is called over there), watching their unmistakable waddling style of running and the lead car with cameras and entourage attached. I’d planned to run with them for a bit, just for the novelty of running with race leaders in a professional race, but they’d slowed from their initial cheetah pace. I only ran with them for about 100m before deciding they were going too slowly and would upset my time goal since they clearly weren’t going to make six hours this time and were running about 15 seconds per km slower than I wanted.

So I pushed on again and soon hit Field’s Hill after a couple of bridge crossings over the M13 highway. I couldn’t see the twins behind me and the runners were now very well spaced so I could barely see a single runner ahead or behind. From this point the aim is always to catch all those people who went out too fast and I was gradually catching each runner who came into view.

The hill lasted almost four kms and really pounded the thighs. Some guys were walking down it, and these were speedy runners. The big danger in the race is to run Field’s too hard and end up with exactly a half marathon left but no legs to do it on. For many, this is the hardest section, but I always look forward to a chance to catch up some time. I’d lost maybe a minute from the climbs in the second half, so wanted to use the downhill to catch this up, plus a bit extra, then I’d still be needing the four minute kms for the last 21km. If it had been dead flat, I think this would have been possible, but at the bottom of the hill I could feel that my thighs were causing almost as much tight soreness as my calves had for a while.

I had a decision to make – to go for the 1h24m final half marathon and hold nothing back or to just jog it in and accept a slower, easier time, but still aiming to beat the twins. Since I’d already gone through several decision points in the previous hours and had cranked it up each time, it was a foregone conclusion which I’d choose. Motivation was the key now. How badly did I want it? One question showed me the way forward – could I live with a half-arsed attempt once I finished? If I felt I hadn’t given every last drop from my heart, I knew I’d have to think about it until I returned to the race. But if I used the after-burners all the way, I’d know I’d given it my all and could be satisfied.

The fatigue and pain was making me more emotional, as was the elevated heart rate from the higher effort level. Suddenly I knocked out the pace I would need for a few kms through Pinetown. If I just took it 5km at a time, maybe I’d make it. This soon switched to taking it every km at a time as I needed immediate feedback and targets to stop me dropping off at all.

Unfortunately, the task then became harder with Cowies Hill looming ahead. Although not the biggest hill, it is steep and added more seconds to a km which would mean all the remainder would need to be faster. Doubt crept in again as the task seemed impossible. I was going as fast as I could and barely breaking the four minute kms, but would now need to eat away at the additional time added on in the last few uphills.

The road kept going and I didn’t slow down as it was generally flat or easy terrain. Paddy and Peter were at 12km to go and gave me my last two gels. The first one went down immediately and gave me a huge boost with a faster km. Another fast km followed it and I saw I’d have 38m30s to do the last 10k. Doubt entered my mind again, but all I could do was take what I could from the day. Maybe I couldn’t run almost six minute/mile pace to the end and maybe I could, but I was definitely going to try.

That’s exactly what I did for a km and I started to believe I might actually pull off my target time. I’d never have believe it after the first hour of running, but I’d pulled things back to this point. However, Comrades wasn’t going to be kind to me and out came one of the nasty, sharp and unnamed hills which I’d completely forgotten about, at 45th Cutting. What needed to be fast was instead a hard slog uphill and meant I’d need to get around the speed of my 10k personal best for the last 8kms. I’m an optimist, but not enough to think I can finish an ultra with a fresh-legged 10k time. From this point I knew the finishing time would start with a ‘six’.

But what’s the point of wasting a hard day’s work? I kept on hammering along as if that slow km hadn’t happened and it paid off with an unexpected twist near the end. Of the two elite male runners from the US, I’d passed Josh Cox earlier but not seen Mike Wardian. I thought he might be in amongst the gold medallists, but then I caught sight of him at 6km to go. Given I’d not seen him before, it meant I was catching him so I had one last incentive – to overtake him. He was still passing other runners, but they were all so spread out and it took me a km to catch him. I said hi but was unable to manage much of a chat and he clearly didn’t want to be overtaken by a white boy (only two guys ahead of us at this point were white and both were Russian ex-winners), so sped up.

I had just enough left in me to go clear of Mike (he finished just over a minute behind me), then I could only see two more people ahead on the long straight on Pine Street, so set off after them to take my mind off the cramped, screaming muscles. On the final turn I caught the last of them and I could barely hear the roar of the crowd as the cricket stadium lay ahead with the finish. Looking at my watch, I’d almost got under six hours, but instead I heard the countdown for the Wally Hayward medal cut-off just as I started running round the inner side of the cricket ground and before I broke inside on to the grass. Each cut-off time on the finish has the race director face away from the runners, do a countdown then fire a pistol. I was nowhere near but was still the only one in the stadium, making me the first of the silver medals – a dubious honour.

My friend and one of the race commentators, Helen Lucre, later told me that she’d had a minute or so of TV footage focused on me as I ran through the stadium and missed the medal cut-off by 73 seconds, so I’ll have to look that up. But it was a victory for me as I ran my best ever race, the hardest effort of my life. I didn’t get the time I wanted but I was within spitting distance of it. And I did a negative split, overtaking people non-stop from about 90 minutes into the race and not being passed once from then. 24th overall, out of over 16,000 starters is something I’ll treasure...until next time as I know I can go much faster (but not until I’m better trained and definitely not this time around). As ever, the race left me more highly motivated than before and with a desire to reach the highest level I can. I’ll never forget it and I’ll return every single time I can. My addiction to Comrades is total, but also totally understandable to those who’ve ever been part of the race.

Kami finished 4th for the ladies race in 6h32m and Lizzy Hawker from the UK was 6th in 6h39m (both are past 100km World Champions). The Nurgalieva twins finished within a second of each other in 6h13m and Stephen Muzinghi of Zimbabwe won his second consecutive Comrades in 5h29m, with the last male gold medal being 5h48m, just 13 minutes ahead of me...


  1. Ian - found your blog the other day after googling you from the Western States start list. While the list counts two UK starters, I'm actually a third who is registered as a Coloradoan (where I currently reside). It appears that Jez Bragg is out with an injury, so we'll be the only two representing.

    Great run at Comrades. Let's hope you've got something left for States so we can bring home a couple of 'gold medals.' Hope to see you out there. Nick

  2. That's an amazing run! Congrats! Good luck with WS! Need some advice on training will write to you. Cheers Athreya

  3. Ian, What a story! You are a truly amazing athlete! Congrats!

  4. Ian, yeah that was an incredible result & recap...great stuff.

    Rooting for you at WS100, will be there pacing Joelle Vaught of Idaho.

    Will G.

  5. Thanks, guys. Just got to hope my legs are recovered by Western States now. Had to put it out my mind to focus on Comrades, but now it's all about those mountains.

  6. Ian, brilliant run and great race story.
    Brings back memories of my 2003 'down run' except I was as near to the back as you were to the front!
    Hope 'Stormin Norman' takes note, you should be in the U.K. 100km squad.
    Take care and have a good run in Western States.
    By the way, are you submitting the race report to Serpentimes?

  7. Amazing performance. Congratulations. Don't worry about missing that target of 6 hours. Next year your eyes will be on a gold medal I can imagine.
    Getting fit for the WS now after giving 100% to the Comrades is of course a hard piece of work and requires a bit of luck too. Fingers crossed you stay injury free!

  8. I saw your finish live on TV (internet). It was so exciting and I could not believe how close you came to the 6h mark! Superb performance to give 100% all the way. Best of luck with your other planned races.
    Silke (wife of middle aged guy from Double Marathon)

  9. Hi Ian

    Came across your blog the other day, and have just read your report for the Comrades Maratnon. An awesome result.

    We met once a few years back in the Three Forts Marathon, where you walked up the hills and took it easy as you had Belfast the next day. Looking at your blog, its amazing how you get around. You have ran so many races since then.

    Well done with your racing and your race reports. They are superb reading.


  10. Great result once again Ian and a great read too. Having been entered in the race but not able to make it to SA I watched the whole race live on the web. I was rooting for you as that 6hr mark came and then seeing you come in just over a minute later was quite amazing. It was obvious you had laid it on the line... 24th is some stunning result and you took some major scalps. Very best wishes for 'WS'