Friday, 29 May 2009

Comrades marathon, May 2009

Why no race compares to the Comrades Marathon

Now I admit that I have a bit of a ‘thing’ for one particular race, the Comrades marathon in South Africa. But I’m not the only one given that the average number of finishes is six, for men, and four, for women. So people clearly can’t stay away from it.

I only heard of the race back in 2006 when running an ultra marathon in the UK and chatting to a South African mid-race. When combining those two factors, his nationality and ultra running, one topic of conversation was always bound to pop up – Comrades. Despite its friendly-sounding (or communist-sounding, depending on your inclination) name, this ‘marathon’ is really an ultra marathon on roads, at distances varying around 89km (55 miles) each year.

That distance alone would normally be enough to put most sensible runners off and you might expect about 100 runners to attempt it if in any country other than South Africa. But the draw of the race is so strong that it attracts over 10,000 runners. That makes it one of the big international races and not many have more runners. So why does such a huge field get involved in such an extreme event?

Well, there are many reasons, but the simplest one is that it is the best race in the world, bar none. I’ll back this up with a(n admittedly small) sample of people I spoke to and know who ran it for the first time in May, 2009. They were all massively impressed by the quality of the organisation, the crowd support and the unmatched buzz surrounding the race. There is only one word which truly captures the scale and emotion of the race and I don’t use this word lightly. That word is epic.

What makes a race epic? It’s more than just scale due to the number of runners and the distance – plenty of races have that. It’s the excited conversation in the street with a stranger when they see you carrying the bag from the expo. It’s the chunky hills along the route which make most undulating road races look flat as a supermodel’s chest. But most of all it’s the camaraderie and support from fellow runners, the crowd and (it seems) everyone else in South Africa.

This solidarity really comes into its own as soon as you land in Durban, the home of the race. The city clearly looks forward to the race with eager anticipation and there’s sure to be plenty of runners on the internal flight into Durban. Then the expo has a sense of excitement mixed with trepidation and is so enjoyable that I went back to it three days in a row.

With a build-up over many months due to the training required, there’s almost a sense of relief when the race is just days away. No more hard hill sessions, no injuries and so much to look forward to on race day. So when I woke up on the morning of the race, was I bursting with adrenaline? Well, no, or at least not immediately. But that was only because it was 3am, the start of the race was an hour’s drive away and I’d just reached the point of full realisation that I had to stop talking about running 55 miles of hills and actually do it.

Although I’ve run many ultras and marathons, it still takes a lot of effort to not roll over and go back to sleep. Forcing myself out of bed at unusually early times of day with the prospect of a hard day’s work ahead is tough. But once up it is difficult to not get swept away in a sea of adrenaline. However, I usually try to save a little adrenaline for the race.

The 2009 race

2009 was my third year in a row at Comrades. It has become my most essential race of the year and a good run makes for a good year. PBs at other distances and other races are a bonus, but the whole point is to get better at Comrades. I’d felt this way since my first finish and even more so after meeting some of the elite runners after the race in 2008. In fact, I’d made a big promise to myself – to one day get a gold medal for finishing in the top ten.

Top ten finishes in ultras are generally not that prestigious. Some long races have barely more competitors than that number and rarely are there elite-standard athletes. In contrast, Comrades boasts the best line up of ultra runners of any race in the world. It includes Olympic marathon runners and many others who can break 2h20m and have the talent to translate this into fast ultras, which many can’t. So it means that finishing amongst those top athletes is extremely hard and requires under 2h45m marathon pace for over double the standard marathon distance and with some major hills.

Luckily I didn’t have to reach those levels this year to be happy with my race. Instead I’d set the ambitious target of breaking 6h20m since that was the equivalent of keeping up 3h marathon pace the whole way, which is a nice, round figure. I’d raced a bit too much in the build up to the event but was in decent shape and determined to run myself into the ground if necessary.

So as I lined up in my seeding pen at the start, I was focused and knew I’d prepared well enough to enjoy it fully. The guys around me were restless and dancing to the music booming out over the PA system through huge speakers just metres away. There were a lot of smiles and all runners had their race numbers on both back and front, as required. The numbers include details of their previous finishes and their seeding pen. There were many colours of race numbers, each meaning something different, such as for the number of times they had finished or to show they were an international runner. This is always a conversation starter during the race.

As we hit 5:15am the pen entrances were closed and anyone not there 15 minutes before the start had to go to the very back. That’s more of an issue than usual given that only gun times count and all the strict cut-offs during the race are based off the gun time. That includes the cut-offs for each medal category at the finish, of which there are five based on finishing times plus the hallowed gold which I coveted, but not that day.

The music switched to the traditional starting tunes. Firstly a heart-wrenching rendition of a local mining song called ‘Shoshalosa’ which many locals joined in with the singing. Then the classic ‘Chariots of Fire.’ Never do the classic piano and synth chords of Vangelis sound better than when crowded into the start of Comrades in the dark. Because of the Comrades memories this stirs, the song stops me dead in my tracks whenever I hear it.

And every Comrades runner knows that as soon as the song is over, the agonising months of waiting for the start are over. The next sounds heard are the traditional cock crow of a past runner who started the race for many years until his death. Then silence and the gun lead to the shuffle over the line for over 11,000 people who are willing to try their luck at a distance most would never attempt by foot. Fools! But what glorious fools.

It takes almost an hour to get light and the field is well spread out by that point. I’d reached the first steep downhill, called Polly Shortts at 8km, except the marker said ‘81km to go’, as it counts down rather than up. It’s very pleasant to run down that early in the race but when the course is run in the opposite direction, as it is every other year, this is the hill that finishes most people off near the end. I’d just managed to climb it the previous year using a walk/run strategy but 2009 was a down run and that meant that the hills included nasty chunks of downhill running. This becomes particularly thigh-destroying later in the race and the constant pummelling leaves most people crippled for several days.

It was at this point that I was starting to get into the race and enjoy the company of other runners which defines the race experience. I chatted to a local guy on his umpteenth race. And we caught up with a bus, as a group of runners sticking together is called, for two elite women. Although I was tempted to stay with them and benefit from their pacing and experience, I decided to push on since I was already going a little slowly for the time I was aiming for. I’d stuck to my plan of going at a pace which felt very comfortable and allowed me to talk freely but had been forced to reassess my target time downwards.

As the sun rose there were plenty of small buses I joined, but I spent the most time with two runners in particular – an American, John, and a Swiss guy, Roman. Roman was getting even more support from the large early morning crowds due to his leopard spot hairstyle and the Swiss flag on his chest. He told me at the end of the race that his friends who saw him along the course with Swiss flags had been hassled by a lot of runners. They’d confused the white cross on a red background for the Red Cross flag and had assumed there was medical aid being given out. Many had then stormed off in a bad mood when the unreasonable Swiss fans had had to refuse them first aid.

But he wasn’t the only one getting great support since I’d entered for a local club who had plenty of supporters by the side lines. Kearsney Striders had 61 other runners in the race, including several of my friends, but the male running kit for the club (which is compulsory to wear in the race) looks dated to an embarrassing degree. As my British friends later described it, it looks like a negligee instead of a running top. At least it didn’t look out of place since many other clubs had similar fashion issues, but I did have fun with it posing for some catalogue-style photos before the race.

Anyway, I was very happy to wear it during the race since I got non-stop shouts of support. Many also read my name off my race number to support me that way too. One of the magical parts of the race for me was when I reached Kearsney College at 38km to go. That point is 51km into the race and I’d had a relatively easy time up until then. I’d chatted with many runners and overtaken a lot of the ones who’d zoomed through the first sections of the course. Most of the uphills were over but I knew that there was a long downhill section to come on Fields Hill – the biggest of the main five hills.

So I knew I had a lot left to do and my legs were feeling tired and sore. The camber on many of the sections of road had damaged my left Achilles tendon slightly and that had led to pain in the bottom of my left thigh. Much as I usually love downhill and know I’m much stronger at it than uphills, I wasn’t looking forward to the remaining long run down to the coast. In fact, I started to prefer the climbs since they hurt less.

Then I had a moment in the race which will stay with me as a real highlight of 2009. I was given a balloon half a km away from Kearsney College so they would see me coming and cheer earlier. I approached them certain that I’d have to slow down later and wasn’t certain whether my left leg would hold out for running almost another marathon. But then something clicked in me and I embraced the support to get a massive adrenaline boost. As I danced through the tunnel of Kearsney students, encouraging them to make as much noise as they could, I started to believe that the race wouldn’t just go well but that I could speed up too. After the whacking high fives I was a new runner with fresh legs and I sprinted off down the course, flying past runners.

I hadn’t expected such a big pick-me-up and was thoroughly glad to have worn the retro Kearsney kit. And somehow that boost lasted me through for almost three hours until the finish. It helped that there were even more Kearsney supporters from that point in the course, but I suddenly felt capable of maintaining a faster pace. I didn’t even get on another running bus for the rest of the race, but focused on pushing through for the best I could eke out of my resurgent legs.

The last 38km didn’t go quickly but the huge crowd support and the feeling of moving through the field at pace kept me motivated. I’m used to running the last quarter of an ultra on my own due to small field sizes but Comrades always has plenty of people within sight. I received and gave out supporting gestures and calls to those I ran by. It took all my concentration to keep the rhythm going but the almost clichéd quote from Lance Armstrong went through my head that ‘pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever.’ I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who used that thought to push on to the end. Besides, the faster you go, the sooner the pain ends. I also thought often about my fiancée and was finding the race very emotional in my jaded state.

Entering Durban was as memorable as the last down run I’d completed, back in 2007. However, this time I wasn’t cruising and had to fight for every step. I hungrily searched for each km marker, willing them closer. With just 1km left I knew I’d make it ok and pushed on to save every last second. The crowds were a hazy background to my delirious world but a welcome one.

When I finally entered the Kingsmead Cricket Stadium for the final victory lap it was a very satisfying finish. My legs were so wobbly that I’m not sure I could have gone much further and it seemed that every last drop of energy had been squeezed out during the previous six hours and 29 minutes. I tried to sprint finish but couldn’t increase my pace much. Then I crossed the line of the ‘Ultimate Human Race,’ as Comrades rightfully describes itself.

At the end I was too exhausted to take in the whole experience but I knew that the coming hours and days would be filled with real satisfaction. My legs were shot, but they’d held out. The crowd had spurred me on to push my body harder than ever before. Plus I’d met inspiring people before, along the way and also in the finishing area.

That evening, I was even lucky enough to have dinner with friends and two of the race’s greatest performers – three-time winner, Helen Lucre, and nine-time winner, Bruce Fordyce. Bruce is a living legend in South Africa and it’s impressive for a slight man to gain such prominence in a rugby-obsessed country. I’d read his book and have the utmost respect for his commitment and achievements. However, since he stills runs Comrades and had finished the day with a bronze medal, just under ten hours, there was plenty of banter about my shiny silver medal. His great quip was that silver does tend to tarnish, leaving unsaid that his 11 gold medals obviously do not.

There’s a unique feeling to Comrades which causes people to come back year after year and still be as excited as a five year old on Christmas Eve. It’s not just one thing, but the combination of everything to do with the race. And when a city truly embraces an event it creates an electrifying buzz. It also helps that Durban is a great city on the sea and that I have good friends living there.

Running the race makes you feel invincible and capable of anything. It inspires people to push themselves to new heights. Although there will be many credible athletes going for those top ten spots in races to come, I’m determined to give myself the best shot possible of joining them. I’ll be returning to the beautiful rolling hills near Durban every year possible because there is no alternative. This race is in my blood.

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