From ‘The Toughest Footrace on Earth’ at the top of Africa to ‘The Ultimate Human Race’ at the bottom of Africa in seven weeks

What the hell was I thinking !! …. nothing was ever going to be able to follow my running journey of 2016, however 2017 is certainly giving it a good crack.

After coming out of MDS relatively unscathed other than less skin and nails on my toes, attention necessarily turned to preparing for a road race like no other, and one that I didn’t really know how to prepare for.

Good friends with valuable experience and advice accompanied me along the way and provided much-needed support, I was going to need it. Having only ever run up to 30 miles on the road before, this was going to be an eye opener …

And so the short period between the two races was predominantly spent trying to concentrate on hill training in preparation for the over 5000ft I’d need to climb in South Africa over the course of many hours and 54 miles.

Comrades is a race steeped in folklore, a major historical event in South African sport and a race that will literally bring you to your knees if you don’t pay it the respect it deserves ….. it also brings out a camaraderie in its participants that will be hard to find in any other race.

The Comrades Marathon was borne out of the tragedy and devastation of the great war. When the smoke cleared from the battlefields of that terrible time a young soldier by the name of Vic Clapham had a vision to create an event that would create a positive legacy and try to recreate the camaraderie he and his comrades experienced during this time. Despite many obstacles and some opposition, Vic Clapham eventually gained the approval required to stage the first Comrades Marathon between his home in Pietermaritzburg and Durban on May 24th 1921. Traditions grew from the inaugural race and survive to this day, making Comrades a very special race indeed.

Sixteen people finished that inaugural race. Almost 14,000 people completed this years race, a true testament to Vic Clapham’s visionary idea and a legacy indeed to him and his comrades. The Comrades Marathon is the oldest and biggest ultra marathon in the world and is considered worldwide to be ‘The Ultimate Human Race’

So, accepting that I would be going in to my first ‘road’ ultra somewhat unprepared physically I tried to prepare myself mentally for what was to come. My fellow BCRC comrades were a much appreciated and valued source of advice and reassurance.

Alison and I travelled out to Durban via Dubai a few days before the race and met Danni there to prepare for the race and complete the registration process to get our race numbers.

A tradition of Comrades is that the run alternates between an ‘up run’ from Durban to Pietermaritzburg and a ‘down run’ in the opposite direction. Whilst it would initially appear that the down run, being predominantly downhill, would be an easier 54 mile race (!), opinions differ greatly with many runners preferring the ‘up run’ due to the toll taken on the quads from running downhill for such a long time. This year was an ‘up run’ of 54 miles with an elevation gain of over 5000 ft.

Alison and I, joined by Damien another BCRCer took a coach tour of the course on the Friday to familiarise ourselves with the route and learn a little more about the history of the race and the impact it has on the communities it dissects. It didn’t take us long to appreciate that this course would test us to our limits come race day. With the coach struggling to climb some of the hills, Damien and I being novices to Comrades gave each other increasingly nervous looks !

However, a real highlight of the tour, and one that moved everybody and helped put things into some perspective, was a visit to Ethembeni school which the race passes by around the halfway point. Ethembeni is a school for physically disabled and visually impaired children and is a truly inspirational place providing education and shelter for children who for many reasons aren’t able to live at home. http://ethembenischool.co.za/

The children gave us a warm welcome, with a child representing each country wishing us well for the race wherever we had travelled from. They performed some traditional dance and song for us and gave each runner a much valued bracelet of beads, 87 beads representing the 87 kilometres we would run come race day. It was nigh on impossible to be unmoved by the hope that radiated from the staff and children.

After leaving the school with more motivation, if it were needed, we continued our journey to Pietermaritzburg and a visit to Comrades House, a museum dedicated to the history of the race, and a chance to buy the obligatory merchandise. Returning to Durban we ran the gauntlet of the Expo, collecting our race numbers without too much bother and spent some time buying yet more merchandise …… it’s tradition ! ….. and grabbing a bite to eat.

Saturday morning and more glorious weather, an indication of what we were due to expect on race day, saw team BCRC turn out early for the local parkrun along with over 2000 other runners ! …… definitely the biggest parkrun I’ve ever been part of. A post run breakfast with fellow UK-based comrades and a hearty lunch saw us relax for the remainder of the day in an attempt to arrive at the early start in a fit state to run.

Despite falling asleep to the sound of waves from the Indian ocean crashing on to the shore, as per usual I didn’t manage too much in the way of sleep and was up around 2.30am for my go to delightful pre-race pot of porridge. Fed and watered and all kitted up, I met Alison and Danni in the lobby from where we joined the steady swarm of people attracted by the hope and potential glory of the Comrades start line.

It was already warm enough at 4.30am to wander around in T-shirt and shorts, with the forecast only showing that the day was going to get hotter as it and we progressed. Splitting up as we approached the start at Durban’s City Hall, Alison and I made our way in to our respective start corrals allocated on the basis of your sub 5 hour marathon qualifying time.

I met Damien in my corral and things started getting real ……….

….. thoughts turned to the children at Ethembeni School and their rendition. With the theme to Chariots of Fire and Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika, the South African national anthem also played and sung, the enormity of the task ahead as we drew closer to the traditional cockerel crow and start cannon became palpable. I was about to become part of the tradition of Comrades by running its 92nd edition.

The cockerel crow and the start cannon filled the air and along with 17030 other runners I tentatively made my way along the early kilometres of the course in the fading darkness of the previous night. Making the most of the early lower temperatures I made pretty good progress at the same time trying to preserve some energy for the 24 miles I’d never run before on top of the first 30.

I started out using my usual gels that I use for marathon running despite the 46 well stocked refreshment stations that line the route providing water, around 30,000 litres of coca cola, 3 tons of boiled potatoes, 800kg of bananas and 8 tons of oranges along with a variety of other sweet treats. I did make good use of the water available at these stations offered in small tube-shaped ‘bags’ which you just bit the corner off of for hydration or cooling. As the temperatures rose into the high 20’s a good hydration strategy soon became essential.

I eased through marathon distance in around 4 hours 19 minutes, a comfortable marathon time for me and so I wasn’t unduly concerned at my pace as I knew the majority of the ‘big’ hills were in the first half and behind me. A common mistake of a Comrades novice I understand !

We made our way to Pietermaritzburg and over the legendary Comrades hills, names ingrained in ultra running lore …… Cowie’s, Botha’s, Drummond, Inchanga, Polly Shorts and her deceptively named sister ‘Little’ Polly’s where I asked a fellow runner “if this is Little Polly’s what the hell does her big sister look like ?” which elicited a brief chuckle between strained breaths.

Support along the course from fellow comrades, supporters enjoying early morning barbecues or ‘braai’s’ and volunteers was outstanding. For such a long race, it was just lined and encouragement was shouted throughout, helped by the fact that our names were on show on our race numbers both front and back. The race numbers also showed the past experience of each runner, denoting how many previous Comrades had been run in addition to whether or not the runner was an international runner. My BCRC T-shirt also garnered many a comment.

A highlight of the support for me was seeing the children of the Ethembeni school lining the route outside the school. I stopped for a few emotional moments to high-five the kids there which we were encouraged to do during our previous visit. It was around this point I ended up with blurry vision for some reason ! …….. it happened a few other times along the route, notably at around 26 miles when I could hear ‘I just can’t help believing’ by Elvis Presley being played over a loudspeaker.

As the race progressed with the temperature increasing the brutality as well as the beauty of the race, fellow comrades began to struggle and I started taking more regular walking breaks, especially on the remaining hills. The fact that this event is known to have the world’s largest temporary medical facility outside of a conflict zone says much about the strain that attempting Comrades can put on the body. It would transpire that by the end of the day, for whatever reason, just over 3,000 of the starters would not get a medal this time round. Around 400 of those were treated at the medical facility, slightly above the average for Comrades reflecting the conditions. 80 were temporarily hospitalised, 40 of whom were admitted, all but three had been discharged by the Tuesday after the race.

I’d gone into this race much as I had with MDS, just wanting to return home with a medal. However, unlike MDS I knew I had the potential to run a ‘good’ time for me as this was all on road, and so I headed out looking to maybe go under 9 hours despite my inexperience at this distance and with these hills.

Another unique feature of Comrades is that different finish times dictate which medal you get.

  • Gold medals: The first 10 men and women.
  • Wally Hayward medals (silver-centred circled by gold ring): 11th position to sub 6hrs 00min
  • Silver medals: 6hrs 00min to sub 7hrs 30min.
  • Bill Rowan medals (bronze-centred circled by silver ring): 7hrs 30min to sub 9hrs 00min.
  • Bronze medals: 9hrs 00min to sub 11hrs 00min.
  • Vic Clapham medals (copper): 11hrs 00min to sub 12hrs 00min.

It soon became evident around the 35 mile mark that I wouldn’t go under 9. I wasn’t particularly disappointed as by this time I knew I would at least finish, even if I resorted to walking my way in for the remainder of the race.

My gels got discarded after halfway in favour of boiled potatoes, biscuits, sweets, coca cola and pretty much any other goodies I could lay my hands on to keep me moving forward. I’d heard a story of an experienced comrade at a previous edition even stopping at McDonald’s along the route to get a burger and milkshake, and being pushed to the front of the waiting queue when the customers realised he was still part of the race ….. Alison in true ultra style resorted to an ice lolly around the 45 mile point …. I still have much to learn about nutrition for ultras !

With approximately 5 or 6 miles to go and with sub 9 hours a distant memory the sub 10 hour pace group, or bus as they’re called at Comrades, went past me.

I wasn’t having that ! I knew sub 9 would have required perfect conditions and probably better preparation for the whole race, but I knew I could pull out a sub 10 if I just dug in. So soon after they passed me I passed them and was soon joined by a UK runner, Rebecca, a friend of Danni’s who I’d met before the race, and in true Comrades spirit we ran the final miles together keeping the sub 10 bus a healthy distance behind us. We both finished in 9 hours and 53 minutes, cheered into the finish at Scottsville Racecourse by Danni and his merry band of supporters to immense relief and emotion.

There’s generally only one thing to do when you cross the finish of a race like Comrades, actually most races, and that’s to hug someone so that’s what I did ! The relief of finishing was overwhelming and after being presented with my medal and taking a moment I made my way to the International runners compound to reunite with Danni. I promptly hit the deck !

Damien had a great race finishing around an hour and a half before me and Alison followed not so long after creating a BCRC hat-trick of Comrades ’17 finishers. Another new Comrades friend we spent some time with before the race and introduced to us by Danni, Holly, also had a great race finishing shortly after Rebecca and I.

After some refuelling and watching the finish of the race, with the contrasting emotions of the pure elation of those just finishing within the cut off of 11 hours 59 minutes and 59 seconds, and the utter devastation of those just missing out, we made our way back to Durban both exhausted and jubilant.

A couple of days by the beach with much food, beer and wine was definitely in order after such an amazing race.

The strapline for this years race was …… ‘It takes all of you – Zinikele’ ….. they’re not far wrong there.

I was told before I travelled out to South Africa that this race is different, it gets under your skin. I said I’d do it once …….. ahh, what do I know ……