"Comrades is a great 5k. The problem is the two marathons you have to run to get to the starting line" - Unknown
I don't know the origin of that quote, but I can wholeheartedly agree.
For those that are unaware, the Comrades Marathon is an 89k (56 mile) road race in South Africa. It's also the largest and oldest ultra marathon in the world, and is the largest spectator sport in South Africa.
Simply put, the Comrades Marathon is a big deal.
The race course alternates each year between the "Up Year" and the "Down Year". I need to tell you right up front that I have run both courses on consecutive years and I can barely register a difference in the level of difficulty. So if any of you are planning to run Comrades on an "easy" year, you just forget about it. This was the down year and I still had more than my fair share of hands-on-hips climbing along the way "down".
Pietermaritzburg City Hall
Being the down run, we were bussed inland to the start line in Pietermaritzbug and would be running back to Durban, which sits right on the coast of the Indian Ocean. The bus ride went well once our driver calmed down after getting lost a couple of times. Few things can start your day like a bus full of Africans yelling at each other.
Before I dive into the details from my race, I would like to share a few interesting facts about Comrades:
1. Runners are not allowed to display sponsor or corporate logos anywhere on the body.
2. Each runner must OWN their own timing chip and have it registered with the race.
3. Each runner must wear TWO bibs, unfolded and unaltered. One on the front of your shirt and the other on the back.
4. Runners must be registered members of a running club, unless you're an international runner.
5. Runners must run a qualifying race to register, unless you're an international runner.
6. The race has a firm 12 hour cutoff, at which time the finish line is closed and any remaining runners are barred from crossing the line. No finish time, no medal, no sympathy.
It's also important to note that it's wintertime in South Africa. To some people, that fact may suggest cold temperatures and possibly good running weather. This is true...if you're an African. For local runners, they're in the coolest and most hospitable time of the year for running. For North Americans, we're just emerging from our winter and not yet acclimated for hot weather running. Despite being winter, it's still 80+ degrees in the shade, and much warmer on the race course.
The race begins at 5:30 AM and I was comfortably nestled in my starting corral by 4:50. It was already warmer than I wanted it to be.
I have completed 156 races in my life and none of them can rival the spirit of the starting line at Comrades. The start line has a calm sense of enthusiasm, friendship and warmth, unlike any other event I've been a part of. It's an experience you have to enjoy firsthand to fully understand.
My favorite part of the pre-race ritual is the singing before the start. It's a beautiful song and despite my inability to understand a single word of it, I find it to be very moving. You can watch the video I took below.
After the anthem is played, the runners are sent off, accompanied by the ever faithful serenade of Chariots of Fire. This too has become a tradition at Comrades, and as soon as the song begins, the runners are pushing toward the front.
As a 135 pound white guy, I found myself wondering how more runners aren't crushed to death like this. It was akin to selling Justin Bieber tickets outside of a Canadian junior high school.
The first few miles are run in darkness. There's enough lighting to run without incident, but just barely. The real problem was the TV cameras, which aimed bright lights right into your eyes along the course. Whenever we approached a camera in the darkness, I tucked in behind a taller runner so he could shield me from the blinding glare.
As the sun came up, I was happy to see overcast skies because this would significantly reduce my exposure to the heat of the day. The clouds are our only real option for shade all day long. I was sincerely hoping it would remain cloudy during the race. However, unlikely...
Coming to a Checkpoint
Unlike a lot of runners, I don't race with a GPS watch. I prefer to wear a cheap digital watch, and if I'm so inclined, I can calculate my splits in my head. This is also a great way to occupy my mind during long races. For this race, I vowed to only allow myself to look at my watch at the end of every 10k split, otherwise, I may over think things, which is never good.
At the end of my first 10k split, I realized I was on a very solid but comfortable pace. Pleased with my progress, I went back to ignoring my watch.
At the end of my 20k split, I was also pleased by what my watch revealed. And again at 30k! I was having a great run! I was comfortable, moving quickly and having a fantastic time interacting with other runners and the spectators. I began to think I might have a spectacular day. I should know better than to ever begin that line of thinking in an ultra.
Somewhere in the South African Countryside
"KAY-LEE!! KAY-LEE!!! GOOOO KAY-LEE!!!" That was what I heard from the crowd all day. It never got old and the pronunciation of my name forced me to crack a grin every time I heard it.
Sachets of Water and Energade on the Course
I checked my watch again at the 50k split and noticed I was pretty close to a PR for that distance. I was still feeling great and I was in a good place mentally. I was fueling and hydrating perfectly and it was paying off.
As you can see from the picture above, water and sports drink (Energade barely qualifies as a sports drink) are served in plastic sachets instead of cups. This takes some getting used to because you have to tear the sachet open with your teeth so you can get to the contents. But this also makes them portable. I was grabbing several sachets and stashing them in my waistband so I always had water with me.
In addition to fluids, the aid stations had small amounts of candy, potatoes and bananas. Far fewer options than what you would find at any American ultra.
Local Children Begging For Candy and Food After the Aid Stations
The moment I had been waiting for came suddenly, and without warning at the 55k mark.
I began to feel very hot, like I was cooking from the inside. The sun was no longer being concealed by the clouds and I was overheating badly.
I slowed my pace in an effort to reduce my body temperature, drank more water and began to apply ice to my head and neck whenever I could find it. Despite everything, I couldn't get my temperature back down and I began to worry about more serious problems.
I wasn't dehydrated and I still had a lot of energy. My fueling strategy had been perfect. I was still sweating properly, but with no air movement, I just wasn't getting the cooling benefit of my sweat.
My 60k spilt was brutally slow and I felt like crap.
But...I Wasn't the Only One
I stayed focused and worked diligently on improving my situation. I was hoarding ice in my shorts, my shirt and under my hat. In these later miles, there are water sprays for the runners to pass through and I made a point of parking myself under them for as long as I could tolerate.
Cheerleaders Failed to Cheer Me Up...It Must Be Bad!
I was still running but my pace was ridiculously slow. All I found at the end my 70k split was more disappointment.
At the 75k mark, I began to come back to life. I tested my condition by slowly picking up my pace and things began to perk up again. After 20 kilometers of doctoring myself, I felt like a new runner. Unfortunately, I had lost a tremendous amount of time on the clock and there was no way to overcome that reality.
I pressed on toward Durban with deliberation and confidence.
As we got closer to downtown Durban, the crowds grew and so did the support. I was among the few runners that could still maintain a decent pace, so I was getting more than my fair share of attention, which I really needed at that point.
The Distant Durban Skyline Under the Bridge
Entering downtown Durban was intense. The crowds were thick and the noise was earsplitting.
I began to see familiar landmarks and I knew the finish line would be coming quickly. I began interacting with the crowd again and feeding off their enthusiasm.
Human Suffering Meets Compassion
I Don't Have Words For This
The race ends in the local cricket stadium and soon enough, I was rounding the final corner and entering through the gates. After a parade lap on the perimeter of the cricket field, I could see the finish line and the race announcer was calling my name over the address system and letting the crowd know I was an American finisher. The stadium lit up with cheers as I made my way to the line.
Coming to the Finish
I found my way to the International Runners Tent, found my bride, my beer and soft piece of grass to sit down on.
Scene at the International Tent
Happy to Be Reunited
Jo and I relaxed and watched the rest of the race unfold while meeting up with friends as they finished their own races and came into the International tent. This is a race that a lot of runners plan and prepare for during their entire running careers and watching the culmination of that effort is pretty amazing.
We watched from the infield until all our friends made it in, then we walked across the street to watch the final moments of the race on TV, and from the window in our hotel room. Witnessing the final moments of the Comrades Marathon is something we didn't want to miss.
As promised, the finish line was closed at the 12 hour mark and hundreds of runners were shut out. Still on the course and knowing their race is over and their dreams have vanished, you can see the devastating emotions rise up in every runner on the course.
Runners Heading to a Closed Finish Line
I didn't have a goal for this race, so it's not fair for me to say I was disappointed. In fact, I feel quite the opposite. I feel pleased that I was able to battle through a terrible low point and rally my way to the finish. All things considered, I am very satisfied with my finish time and how my race unfolded. It's races like these that inspire confidence in my running and my technical abilities and I need that confidence for my future races.
Jo and I truly love South Africa and we're happy to have had an opportunity to return for this race. I achieved my goal of finishing both courses on back to back years and now it's time to find another international race to fixate on.
Thanks to all my friends and sponsors that have been so gracious and supported Jo and I along the way. Next up...the Bryce 100!