The Comrades Marathon in South Africa is one of the oldest and most historic ultras in the world as well as being the largest by far. Typically it gets entrant numbers similar to the big city marathons and capped entrants at 18,000 for the 2012 race. That puts it on a completely different scale to other ultras and only the Two Oceans Marathon (also in South Africa) comes close, although events like the Ultra-Trail du Mt Blanc are getting very large entrant numbers across multiple events.
For me, the thing that makes Comrades so special is the friendly, charged atmosphere that starts at the expo and goes through to the finish line. Comrades is THE endurance event for South Africans and past winners like Bruce Fordyce have become legends in the eyes of the nation as well as globally to some extent. The pre-dawn start line is particularly exciting and if you don’t feel the emotion as the locals sing their national anthem and the traditional song that was popularized by miners, Shosholoza, then you must be dead inside.
My love for the race started when I first heard about it from a South African friend while I ran a winter ultra in the UK. The following year I flew to South Africa and finished in 2007 in 7h09m, getting a silver medal for sub 7h30m, which had been my target. I’ve returned in the following four years for four more silvers, with a best of 6h01m in 2010 (my blog write-ups for those races are here: 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011).
I've also written posts on training for Western States 100, Flat 100 milers like Rocky Raccoon and the Marathon des Sables. At a later date I'll do a post on how to train for the Davos Swiss Alpine Marathon K78.
What's the race like?
- Alternating directions on the roads either from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, on the coast (the down run) or reversed (the up run)
- 55.5 miles (89km) for the down run with 7,000 feet of descent and 5,000 feet of ascent or reversed +/- over 54 miles (87km) for the up run as each direction has to start on a wide road and finish in a stadium
- Strict 12 hour cut-off with intermediate cut-offs
- Five major named hills (Polly Shortts, Inchanga, Botha’s, Fields and Cowies), but a lot of up and down outside them too
- Temperatures are often close to freezing in Pietermaritzburg at the start of the down then hot (85F or 30C) by the time you get to Durban or more pleasant in the other direction
- Medals depend on your finish time with gold for positions 1-10 (men and women), a Wally Hayward for sub 6h, silver for sub 7h30m, Billy Rowan for sub 9h, bronze for sub 11h and a Vic Clapham for sub 12h
- Multi-colored bibs for first-timers, international runners and relating to multiples of 10 finishes (based around green and stripes); the very cool one is yellow for those going for their green number (first attempt at a 10th finish)
- Once you get your green number, you keep your race number for life and nobody else will use that number, plus you keep that number before then if you don't leave too much of a gap in your runs
- Seeding pens based on qualifying times and they're especially important as overall times and cut-offs are purely based on gun times
- Big prize money attracting the best ultrarunners in the world, including Olympic marathoners, such as the men's course record holder for the up and down runs, Leonid Shetsov
- It's not that different to a hard road marathon and if you can finish one then it doesn't take much more training, with a similar plan but more focus on long runs
- Still include speed work, as for a marathon, but the long runs need to be slightly longer although not necessarily more than one run in the build up longer than a marathon (it will depend on your previous experience and whether you've run ultras before) - quality of mileage over quantity
- Back-to-back long road runs are excellent training but have to be weighed up against the time it takes to recover; two marathons on a weekend are particularly good and much less stress on the body than a 50-miler in one day
- Include some long, gentle downhills in your training to practice the pounding your legs will take
- Strength training on the legs is more important than for marathons due to the length and hills, but make the exercises specific to running, not just about building up big leg muscles
- Ideally get some heat training in for the final weeks, even if that's just sitting in a sauna, since the heat can take a lot out of you
- For Americans and Brits, not understanding kms can be an issue and the markers count down, not up. Make sure you know your conversion for 1 mile = 1.609km.
- Bad or inadequate nutrition will slow you dramatically. The tables are every mile or so and have plenty of food, but not necessarily what non-South Africans would expect (no gels, for example). So work out what you can stomach in advance then fuel early and often. If you need gels, carry them or have a crew (called ‘seconds’ locally) who can hand these too you.
- Practice hydration in your training runs and try to get an idea of which sports' drinks you can stomach best, ideally trying out the Energade drink that currently sponsors the race.
- The drinks are supplied in small sachets in the race, which you may be able to practice with in advance, but if not, my advice is to nibble the end to create a hole then squeeze out the liquid into you mouth - I find this so much better than bottles or paper cups, but some find it awkward at first.
- Not training for hills because it’s a road race will cause you significant issues – the course is significantly harder per mile than a typical road marathon.
- For most people, practice power-walking as you will walk and the more you can get better at this, the less energy and effort it will take.
- Like most ultras, people tend to go out too fast, but Comrades has hot spot prizes for runners who get to various points first and still finish which encourages extra speed. So make sure you have a plan and don’t get carried away as everyone around you goes past you in the first miles.
- The hills take a lot out of you in either direction and for all but the fastest runners, it’s best to walk early and often on them to conserve energy. The main reason for a poor time is slowing down considerably, not going out too slow.
|That's what you'll look like if you get a course record.|
- Make sure you have a good idea of where the hills are from the course profile, although the official one is misleading and an online profile from someone who has run it with a Garmin or similar is a better bet
- Take the downhill sections easy, especially early on and in the down run, as these can trash your quads and lead to walking. It’s tempting to try to catch up some time but practicing a relaxed downhill stride in advance, with minimal breaking where the legs absorb a lot of the shock, can still allow for good pace on those downhills. Fields Hill on the down run is the longest and still has a half marathon left at the end, so don’t push too hard or you might limp it in.
- Don't get too focused on a time or medal cut-off until very near the end - you'll run your best race and time by running by feel so that you're not adjusting pace constantly based on what your watch says.
- The cut-offs are generous and most people can make them if they pace sensibly and train well, but they are strict and if you're one second late, you miss out.
- Beware the chair, like in any ultra - if you sit down, you'll find it a lot harder to get going again.