The Comrades Marathon is a storied and treasured event in South Africa, with a history stretching all the way back to 1921 when Vic Clapham had the idea to honor the soldiers who fell during World War I. He endured a 2,700km march through East Africa during his service and he wanted to create an event that would represent a unique test of physical endurance to honor his World War I comrades. Since the first run on May 24, 1921, 300,000 runners have lined up to start this epic race and pay tribute to Vic Clapham’s vision.
The road to Comrades officially started with our running the Goodlife Fitness Victoria marathon on October 12, 2013. The Victoria Marathon was our qualifying race which would determine our seeding for the Comrades start. Seeding at Comrades is important since the race is run from gun to gun, with timing chips being used only to record that you crossed each timing point and also to record when you cross the finish line. The race also has strict cut-off points and a final, often heartbreakingly brutal, 12-hour finish cut-off, the enforcement of which is non-negotiable as an official walks onto the finish line and fires a gun at exactly 12 hours. Whoever has not crossed the line, whether one second or one hour from the line, is not considered a finisher. Starting the race with a low seeding can mean a delay of up to 10 minutes before even crossing the start line due to the large number of runners – over 14,000. In other words, running a good qualifier is a very good idea.
Unfortunately our plans to run a sub 4-hour marathon at Victoria fell apart at the 32km mark of that race when both of us had the wheels fall off as we were just not ready to run a hard 42.2km hot on the heels of our Squamish50 50 miler trail ultra in August. Our resulting seeding at Comrades put us in the second to last start corral and we lost over 7 minutes at the start.
Notwithstanding our disappointing seeding we had a good buildup leading to Comrades, running and hiking many miles in the most fantastic training locations imaginable: Peru (read about our Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu here), Patagonia (report on our 6 day trek in Torres del Paine coming soon!!), Ipanema and Copa Cabana Beaches in Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town (Table Mountain and the very impressive 56km Two Oceans Ultra Marathon). Having run just over 1,000km since January 1st, without any injuries, we both felt confident and ready.
Race day logistics
This year’s race was a down run, starting in Pietermaritzburg and finishing in Durban in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province (the direction of the race alternates every year). The race headquarters are in Durban, and there are buses that shuttle runners the 90 odd km to the start in Pietermaritzburg on race morning. With a 5:30AM start, the buses leave Durban before 3AM, requiring a tough 2AM or earlier wake up call resulting in a very, very long day. We thus opted to find accommodation in Pietermaritzburg. We were very fortunate to be put in touch with a friend of a friend who very kindly and graciously hosted us the night before and also arranged a ride to the start. Thanks so much to Sanjay Harilall and his lovely wife Rochelle and their little guy Reon for taking such good care of us on the stressful night before a long run. Thanks also to our friend Hardy Maritz in Cape Town for connecting us.
At the finish we had our families cheering us home – what an amazing situation for both of us to have parents, siblings and nieces waiting at a race finish – not something that we often get to experience. It was fantastic! In addition to family waiting at the finish we also got support from Richard’s brother Andre and his family at the halfway mark and other friends near Hillcrest, 33km from the finish.
In trail ultras one gets used to running with running packs and carrying a fair amount of nutrition and water between aid stations that are typically 10 to 12km apart, but in the Comrades there are more than 45 “water tables” each with plenty of water and sports drink (Energade) available – some of them also provide real food like bananas and oranges. Knowing how tough this road run is (Richard completed the “up” run in 2011), we decided that we wanted to be as light as possible and run without any encumbrances like race packs. We chose to fuel ourselves with Gu gels (the totally awesome Salty Caramel and Peanut Butter flavors) and Perpetuem Solids (by Hammer Nutrition), which we could easily carry in our race belts. Our aim was to take in around 200 calories per hour, and drink to thirst – a tried and tested strategy, albeit, this time with new fuel (although we did run a few training runs with the new fuel). We also planned to take 3 Endurolyte capsules (also by Hammer Nutrition) per hour to to help keep our electrolyte levels healthy.
Race morning arrived after possibly the best pre-race sleep either of us have ever had. We went to bed at 8PM the night before and fell asleep right away, only waking up to our alarms at 3:20AM. We felt rested, relaxed and ready. Breakfast was an old standby: steel cut oats, with chia seeds and soy milk with a cup of coffee.
Our ride arrived at 4:39AM, cutting things a little fine for our 5:30AM start, considering the traffic and road closures around the centre of Pietermaritzburg. And sure enough there was a little bit of stress in the car about getting to the start before the “seeding pens” were to close at 5:15AM, which would mean starting right at the back of the 14,500 strong field. As it turned out we did end up getting stuck in the traffic and opted to walk the last 1km to the start, perhaps not the best way to get set for a 90km day! We both remained remarkably calm about this, since there really was absolutely nothing we could about it.
Once we got to our corral, we completed our final pre-race equipment checks, and before we knew it the traditional singing of the African song, Shosholoza, began, setting the tone for the epic day that lay ahead. Next up was Chariots of Fire and then the South African national anthem, followed closely by the traditional rooster crowing and the start gun.
The race was underway, and the excitement was palpable, but unfortunately we hadn’t started moving yet, and wouldn’t start moving for at least another 5 minutes. We finally crossed the start timing mat a full seven minutes (and another 800m farther) after the start gun – we were finally on our way! (We had thus already walked close to 2km before we even crossed the start line, when including the walk to the start area).
The first 8 to 9km was run in the dark through the city of Pietermaritzburg and the wide streets provided sufficient space for the large number of runners to move quite well. However this changed when we started approaching the outskirts of the city as the runners were squeezed onto the narrow two lane road leading up to the first of the five named hills, Polly Shortts.
The first timing mat was at 17.5km and we hit it in 2:12, a pace of 7:35min/km – on the slow side, but with the seven minute delay at the start, and the congested running, we were on the right track heading towards our goal pace of between 6:44 and 7:04min/km for a 10 hour to 10:30 finish.
Despite this year’s race designation as a “down” run into Durban, the first half of the course includes some serious uphill running. It’s not surprising then that the majority of the race’s big climbs occur in the first half and we were quite pleased to hit the half way mark in a time of 5:24 for an average pace of around 7:12min/km – our average pace was slowly approaching our goal pace and we were both feeling pretty good. At this point it felt like we were still running well within ourselves in order to have something left for the second half.
The second half after Drummond started well, having gotten a great boost from seeing Richard’s brother, Andre, and his wife and two little girls on the side of the road. We cruised out of Drummond feeling strong and optimistic, knowing too that we would see more friends at Hillcrest in less than 10km. Running into Hillcrest requires going up and over another of the big five hills called Botha’s Hill. The course then drops viciously into Hillcrest before a small incline takes you out of town again.
Unexpectedly, Hillcrest, which Richard was looking forward to reaching all day, provided by far his worst moments of the day. We had been doing a good job of keeping up with our nutrition, alternately taking a Gu gel and three Perpetuem solids every half an hour, totaling 200 calories per hour (we did also drink the sports drink offered on the course which added more calories and more carbohydrates), but in the heat of the day, which reportedly reached 30 degrees celsius, we just couldn’t stomach the Perpetuem anymore. Richard hit a patch where puking seemed inevitable and his general disposition turned a degree or two cooler than optimal. Bev, as always, had morphed into “RaceBev” as soon the start gun went off and she was solid, steady and steaming ahead as if she was at the 5km mark and not the 56km mark.
Up to this point we had been following a 9:1 run:walk strategy, also used on our long training runs, (i.e. running for 9 minutes and then walking for 1 minute), but Bev quickly realized that Richard needed a mental boost and she very smartly suggested we drop to a 5:2 strategy. Using this approach, and finally getting a Gu Peanut Butter gel down, saw Richard battling through the Hillcrest low patch, emerging with a new lease on life, feeling (relatively) great and starting to smile as the kilometers ticked on by. The news that fellow Vancouverite, and all-around wonderful person, Ellie Greenwood, had won the women’s race provided yet another boost!
Hitting the Nedbank Green Mile at roughly 63km provided another major boost. Nedbank pulled out all the stops and provided a sensory experience second to none: there were huge puppets, singing and dancing cheerleaders, super loud music, the biggest South African flag imaginable, and before we knew it we were on Cowies Hill; the last of the named hills, and things were looking up with roughly 20km to go.
Fatigue had set in though and even though we both felt great emotionally and had no tweaks or issues, we did start moving a little slower and our goal of 10 to 10:30 started slipping into 11 to 11:30 territory. All that remained now was a lot of steep downhill as we hit the N3 freeway on our way into Durban. Seeing the “Welcome to Durban” signpost provided another huge boost and the spectator quotient started rising sharply. There were people everywhere, cheering us on and providing welcome distraction with their loud cheers.
Exiting the freeway was followed by a cruel, short, but incredibly steep climb into the heart of Durban. This last climb did however provide the mental pleasure of knowing that the remaining 3km were all pancake flat. Soon after cresting this hill we saw the finish stadium for the first time and amazingly, our fatigue started to melt away.
We knew our families were waiting for us at the finish and we could now start to feel the lightness that comes with achieving a huge goal. Admittedly, we were not going to reach our 10:30 objective, or come anywhere close to it really, but finishing this run in under 11:30 was still going to be a major achievement for us.
We entered the stadium, reached for each other’s hands, as we had so many times throughout the day, and ran the final 350m holding hands; Richard grinning from ear to ear, as he was about to receive his “down run” medal to add to his “up run” one, and Bev fighting the overwhelming emotions of completing her first Comrades. Running the final 350m at Comrades is hard to describe, the crowd is huge and loud. Everybody is cheering, and the feeling of satisfied accomplishment is almost palpable – and unfortunately, the finish line finally comes too soon. Richard’s dad managed to see us coming down the final straight and got a great shot of us.
Upon crossing the line the first to see us was Bev’s dad, Scottie. Scottie, also a Comrades finisher, gave us a huge bear hug and the pride he was feeling for his daughter was undoubtedly visible all the way to the moon. Before long we were joined by my brother, sister-in-law, their two girls and my dad as well as Bev’s mom. What a wonderful way to end an epic 90km run.