Why would I travel half way around the world to run The Comrades “Marathon” in South Africa? Not sure. Anyone who has ever run this race, which is the oldest and largest ultra run in the world, talks about it with a reverence and describe the amazing emotional and cultural experience.
This run has brought the best runners in the world to their humble knees and has allowed opportunity for generations of native Africans to train and test themselves against the best.
For about 25 U.S. dollars an African runner can compete. Before apartheid ended there were no other stage for the African runners and this was it…and it still is for many.
So on Sunday morning June 2 at 5:30 am, I lined up along with almost 20,000 other runners in Durban (sea level) to begin an 87 kilometer (54 mile) run into the mountains to the town of Pietermaritzburg, 2,300 feet above sea level.
This was less than 24 hours after landing in Durban and being greeted by my friend and host Zola Budd who unfortunately was ill the week prior and had withdrawn from what would have been her second Comrades. It was a tough decision for Zola with all the press surrounding her, but certainly the correct one as this course is unforgiving. The course includes 7,000 feet of elevation gain and 4,700 feet of descent. The highest point of the course is 2,800 feet at mile 43.
With a fast marathon qualifying time, I was lined up in batch A with a group of extremely fit looking Africans and 11 Americans; but this was my first Comrades and was prepared to let most of this group run away from me. This run was over 2 marathons and after 1 ½ days of continuous travel my body did not know if it were day or night.
But here I was. Chills went through me as we sang the traditional mining song Shosholoza, listened to “Chariots of Fire” theme, the tradition of the cock crowing, and then we were off. Never before have I witnessed such a mass of humanity running into the darkness. I fell into a comfortable rhythm of about 8:15-30 minutes per mile. Thousands of runners poured ahead of me and occasionally as we crested a hill I looked behind to see a stream of thousands more. The streets were already lined with spectators, which would be present along the entire 54-mile route. This is a special day to cookout, play outdoor music, and celebrate the camaraderie of Africa and the world which this race represents.
The village support was beyond anything I’ve ever witnessed. Thousands of children giving out oranges, bananas, water, cola, and a variety of other treats. Many jjust standing and cheering. All of these children although incredibly poor by US standards but looked healthy and vibrant. Almost all were of normal weight and effortless as they ran around. You knew you were running slow as occasionally a barefoot grade schooler would run alongside and easily spring ahead. Undeniably their lifestyles were healthier than ours.
The hills quickly became steep and the temperature warm and humid. It was 65 degrees in the dark at the start and rose quickly into the 80’s with full African sunshine. By reports it was the hottest Comrades in 37 years and this combined with an incredibly strong wind in the runners face that blew over almost every sign forced a third of the runners to either stop or get pulled at the check points for not making the cutoff times.
My strategy was simple from the start. Run in the comfort zone and ignore the watch. I kept my breathing at the comfortable 2-3 pattern (2 steps exhale and 3 steps inhale) even on the up hills. If the up got really steep I’d walk. This happened early in the run over the several named hills. Aid stations were plentiful; there were 49 of them. Water was in clear plastic satchels where you had to bite an end off and squirt it on your mouth or body. I squirted more on my body than drank, as this is the most effective cooling strategy. Late in the run as I got thirsty I would drink.
Since it is impossible to have any support crew on this route one must rely on what is at the stations. Although I never drink Cola I found the ice cold and caffeinated cups of the high-fructose stuff refreshing every few miles. I also enjoyed salt-coated baked potatoes, a Comrades tradition.
There are three named hills (Cowies, Fields, and Bothas) in the first half and by the third the carnage began and runners were walking and struggling with the heat, wind, and sun. By comparison each of these hills are 8-10 times longer than Heartbreak Hill in the Boston Marathon and steeper.
I hit the marathon mark at a little over 3:40 and half way in 3:43, but with the “Valley of 1000 Hills” ahead I knew I would fall from this pace, so the only goal was stay comfortable and smart.
The sharp downhills caused leg fatigue and cramping so I used a variety of strategies till something worked. I’d try speeding up and opening the stride more to loosen the fascia, change gait patterns a bit although never overstriding, walk, hydrate a bit, get some Coke.
The 4th named hill is called Inchanga and it hits hard with still 20 miles to go. The sun, heat, and headwind forced all the runners into a march. Gusts were over 30 mph would be present the final 20 miles. Mileage markers were blown over so you had little concept as to how far was left. My Garmin battery is good for 4-5 hours so navigation was now by feel and where the sun was in the sky. Drafting off others was futile, because even if I could find someone going my pace, he would break stride and walk shortly later, causing me to nearly crash into them. I chatted as I walked with runners from around the globe on the uphills.
At this point in the race my legs felt as if they were done, and the thought of walking in the sun for 15 miles was not appealing. So I kept the walk/run strategy and seemed to always find a bit of running spring left for one more go. I kept drinking, eating, pouring cold water over my head and body. With six miles to go the most difficult hill Polly Shorts awaits. For almost 2 miles I settled into the best power walk I would. The steepness of the hill eliminated any thought of trying to run. After cresting Polly, I resumed running and shuffled my way over the last few rolling miles.
Only after entering the stadium in Pietermaritzburg did I relax in my mind that the challenge was over. My time 8:23 was good for 820th place. It was my lowest finish ever for a race by far but one of the most rewarding and exhilarating experiences of my running life.
Life begins outside the comfort zone and so this day was spent living.
In one’s first Comrades you do not “race” it, you feel it and learn. The course is relentless as there are no long flat stretches to recover and feel a rhythm. There is a quarter-size medal at the end, which by U.S. standards would cause outrage among runners. Here folks cherish the color of their small medals which are colored based on finish time. The prize is not the medal. Being part of the truly epic event of humanity is. We are all Comrades.
After the race I returned to Cape Town where myself, Dr. Tim Noakes, Ian Adamson, and Zola Budd hosted a 3 day Sports Medicine and Running Course. Dr. Noakes is an icon in Sports Science having published 10 books and over 200 scientific articles. To share the podium with him at his institution was an honor. At the end of the day what we agreed on most was our interpretation of nutritional science: humans need to get rid of the simple sugars and processed foods.
In the little bit of free time I hiked to the top of Table Mountain with Ian Adamson and his adventurous wife Lea who scouted the route. I also witnessed Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years 23 hours a day in a cell 6 feet by 6 feet.
Special Thanks to Newton Running South Africa (Hilton and Lisette Murray, Claire Cousins, Benni, Anike, and Zola Budd) and Dr. Noakes and the Sports Science Inst of South Africa for hosting me and the Sports Medicine Conference. My lightweight Newton Racers pictured here on this hike up Table Mountain performed flawlessly, only wish I could say that about my body.
Finally, A few travel tips for these long journeys:
• Compression socks for the long plane ride
• Back joy seat (www.backjoy.com). My body is happy sitting on this.
• Good dark chocolate. Travels well and gets through customs.