Comrades

So there we have it! After 23 weeks of relentless slog, early January mornings, balmy February weekend run camps, April tune up marathons and Double Top ultras, the Comrades 2019 Up Run is now in the books. And what a journey it has been for 12 determined runners from Jersey in “the world’s oldest and biggest ultra race.”

The brainchild of WW1 veteran Vic Clapham, the first Comrades took place in 1921 with 34 runners taking on the route between the towns of Durban and Pietermaritzburg (87kms) as a show of respect to the fallen of WW1. WW2 aside, the race has taken place every year since with the route alternating between the “Up Run” (Durban to Pietermaritzberg) and the “Down Run”. Today the race boasts a field capped at 25,000.

As soon as we touched down in Durban on a bright Friday morning, the sense of pre-race excitement and anticipation was palatable. Up and down the North Beach esplanade, there were runners as far as the eye could see, jogging away the pre-race nerves, making sure the well tapered legs were up to the task ahead. There was a truly international flavour to proceedings with packs of Brazilian, Russians and Indian runners regaled in national colours, competing to capture the onlookers’ attention. Not to be outdone, the African runners lite up the early morning, combining rhythm and song whilst gliding gracefully along the beach front.

The sense of occasion continued in the Expo hall where excited runners waited in line for race numbers and goodie bags. Much like many Expos I’ve been to, the exhibition centre was littered with stalls promoting every type of running accessory from race nutrition in all kinds of weird and wonderful flavours to marathon underwear – who knew!? What stood out within the exhibition however was the history and heritage of Comrades, the pride with which South Africans hold the event and the impact the race has had, not only on the running community but South African society as a whole.  From the inaugural race in 1921 where only 34 runners took part, to 2019’s event which sold all of it’s 25,000 spaces in a matter of hours, though the years of Apartheid to the first black finisher to be recognised in 1975, the Bruce Fordyce glory years to the iconic green number (completing 10 runs), the event sits alone amongst ultra races as the oldest, most historic and prestigious.

Along with the heritage of the event and the 5 big hills a runner a must conquer in an up year as part of the 1700 metres net ascent, the race is infamous for it’s strict time limits with those that finish outside of the 12 hours, even by a few seconds neither being allowed to finish nor getting awarded a finisher’s medal. As the drama unfolds in the final few minutes, the race becomes compulsive viewing with runners stumbling, crawling or being dragged towards the finish line. It’s heartbreaking to see runners that miss out by the narrowest of margins after 12 hours of gruelling effort. As one commentator describes it, the scenes at the end of the race with exhausted bodies strewn along the finishing straight, resemble that of a battlefield. Indeed, it’s claimed that the on site medical facilities are only out-scaled by those in an active war zone. A comforting thought and pretty sure this fact wasn’t advertised in the pre race literature! What a fine mess you’ve got yourself into this time Bryan!

Race day eve started with a nice 5k warm up at North Beach parkrun, which was billed as the world’s biggest with almost 2,000 runners taking part. With Tom Williams (COO of parkrun and Marathon Talk founder) in attendance, his Dad, Brian and Bruce Fordyce undertaking tail walking duties, it felt like a really special 5k. In fact, it was Brian’s journey to run his first Comrades at the age of 73 that inspired me to sign up for the event in the first place. After a few weeks of tapering and with energy to burn, it felt good to open up the legs at parkrun, finishing with a sprint over the line for 23rd place. 

A relaxing day in the Durban sun followed by an early night was the order of the day in preparation for the 3:30am alarm call. Managing to get a couple of hours shut eye, I woke up tired and disorientated but the race day adrenaline soon kicked in and after forcing down some obligatory porridge with lashings of peanut butter, I found myself amongst the throngs at the start line. Having researched the pre-race rituals, I had an expectation of the atmosphere but nothing prepared me for the electricity in the air amongst 25,000 expectant runners as we bellowed out the famed Comrades marathon anthem “Shosholoza” (translated broadly as “to go forward”). So popular the song in South African culture, it is often referred to as the second national anthem! As my emotions got the better of me, I put it down the sudden realisation that I had a full day of hill running ahead of me!

It’s not long before the infamous cockerel sounds and we’re off into the dark Durban morning, pushed along by hundreds of runners from the pens behind, vying to get an early advantage. I promised myself a slow and steady start but it didn’t take long to get caught up in the excitement, running the first few KMs well below my target splits. Eventually finding my grove, after an hour or so, we’re approaching the first of the big 5 hills; Cowies. Having just seen my wife supporting from the sidelines in Pinetown, my spirits are high as I embark on the long ascent. As we approach the top, I’m feeling in good shape and can’t help questioning what all the fuss was about. As we scale the second of the big 5 a few kms later and I’m already fighting the urge to walk, I realise this could be a long day at the office! My first interaction with a fellow Comrade does little to raise my spirits – dressed in the colours of a local running club, my new friend Willoughby seems to be taking it all in his stride, floating along and waving to the crowds. He is vying for a silver medal himself (sub 7hours30mins finish) so when he casually skips away from me like this is a jog in the park, my head immediately starts to drop. 

I strive to make the next few kms about getting myself together, digging in and taking on fuel. I finally concede to walking the next of the big hills but when we reach the first marathon distance I’m buoyed by the time on my watch reading 3:37. It’s well reported that the first half of the up run is tough so to be on pace for a 7:30 finish despite how I’m feeling lifts my spirits. Perhaps a silver medal is not out of the realms of possibility after all! This is only reinforced by one local supporter’s show of faith in my new found freshness – reading the name on my race number he  confidently exclaims that “my efforts today will not go unnoticed.” By who, I’m not sure but it certainly gives me the lift he was clearly intending if only for a few short strides and as we approach Inchanga (hill 4), my legs have stopped working and my usually bouncy gait is replaced with a that of a turtle wading through peanut butter!

One of the many novelties of Comrades, unlike other long distance events, is that the distance markers show the number of km remaining, not the number already run. This little psychological nuance does not help my mood and when I look up to read 38km to go, I’m starting to question if I’ll ever make it! 

A fellow international runner (denoted by blue race number) is adopting a similar walk/shuffle strategy to me although his shuffle resembles a much much more of a jog than mine and as we criss cross for the next few kms we strive to encourage each other on. Australian Ashton is also running his first Comrades but if I think I’m finding it hard going, it pales in comparison to the drama unfolding in his race. Conscious that I haven’t seen him in a while, when he taps me on the shoulder and I ask how’s it going, he informs me that he’s just returned from wretching at the roadside. This must have done him some good me and he wishes me luck as he strides off into the distance with a renewed sense of vigour. Thinking I won’t see him again, it’s only 10mins later before I pass him on the roadside keeled over in a whole world of trouble.

Slowly but surely the kms are starting to tick by in what can only be described as an ultra marathon shuffle. As we crest yet another hill (they only advertised 5!) I laugh out loud at the sheer absurdity of this course particularly when a local veteran shouts out that “it’s all flat from here” knowing full well the notorious Polly Shorts is yet to come!

32kms to go – that’s 20miles. I try to frame the remaining distances into manageable chunks. 25kms that’s 5 parkruns. There were 17.5 parkruns at the start so I must be making progress. Realising that my silver medal is long gone, as we approach 21km left after 6 hours running, I set out on a new goal – sub 8hours would be super respectable for a first attempt and with 2hours to go, I know if I dig deep I’ve got it in my locker. Armed with this new sense of focus, my legs start to feel lighter, the undulations in the road less frequent, the crowd louder. I hear my name being called more often; rather than being overtaken, I seem to be progressing whilst all around me are faltering. For the next hour, I focus on running a consistent pace; not wanting to leave myself too much to do in the final kms to achieve my readjusted goal. 10kms remaining now and just less than an hour to go – I can do this. I find new reserves of energy as we approach the last of the big 5, Polly Shorts; a 1.9km steep incline at the 80km point. This final challenge is infamous for sorting the wheat from the chaff and deciding past victors. The stories of Bruce Fordyce breaking his rivals on this ascent throughout the 1980s are legendary. As I scale this last test, running much more easily than I have for the past 5 hours and begin the decent into Pietermaritzberg, I realise for the first time that I have got this. The last few kms are bliss; I’ve got the bounce back in my stride, the crowds are getting even louder and I find the energy to acknowledge their cheers with a customary thumbs up. 3km to go and with 18mins it’s now a question of how many minutes within 8hours I can chalk off. As I approach the Scottsville Race course, having just passed the 1km to go marker, my speed increases to match the noise of the crowd. Under the bridge, a twist and a turn later and there it is, the finish line in all its glory. I pick up speed further and then into an outright sprint for the final 100 metres to cross the line in a heap as the clock ticks 7hours55mins. I’ve done it!

My emotions get the better of me as I’m handed my Bill Rowan medal (named after the winner of the inaugural event). Now I understand why Comrades is called The Ultimate Human Race – that was brutal. I funnel out of the finish area into the arms of my wife, my emotions getting the better of me again. The race chewed me up and spat me out but I’d given it my all, left everything out there and feel a deep sense of pride as finishing.

The afternoon gets better each time a fellow Jersey Comrade crosses the finish line in various states of disrepair and culminating in the last of the 12 with a cool 15mins to spare before the 12hour cut off. The perfect example of optimal pacing and a fantastic achievement by all celebrated into the early hours of Monday morning with steak dinners all round, beers, cocktails and the compulsory 6 bottles of rose! 

And what became of the Comrades I met on the track? As I approached Pietermaritzburg, I was surprised to find Willoughby the local runner, resigned to a walk and looking a lot less fresh than he had 70kms down the road. Given how sprightly he’d been earlier, I was not expecting to see him again but the this race can get to the best of us – despite this, he finished in 8hours15mins which was a PB. It was not until a few days after the race that I learned of Ashton’s fate – tracking him down on Strava, I was delighted to learn that despite his stomach issues, he’d gutted it out (so to speak) and got over the line in 8.5hours – a truly remarkable effort! As for Brian Williams, the septuagenarian, completing his first Comrades at the age of 73, despite his son Tom’s best efforts to slow him down, and the slow meander around Scottsville to lap up every ounce of the incredible atmosphere, he finished in an astonishing 11hours 45mins – an inspiration to us all!

As the dust settles on this epic experience and I’ve begun to appreciate why the race is so revered around the globe, thoughts of coming back in 2020 are increasingly popping up. Out on the track, I would have laughed at the absurdity of putting myself through what felt like an all out ordeal. On reflection, and despite not getting my silver medal, I’m immensely proud of what I achieved on this famous Durban route. The saying goes “you haven’t run Comrades until you’ve run Comrades,” there’s something strangely enticing about getting my back to back medal and with it being a down run next year and the British & Irish Lions in town, that would be an epic adventure...

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please look out for my next entry following the North Downs Way 100 on 3rd August!! 

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