On the evening of June 6th, Cam and I set off from Heathrow to fly to South Africa to run the Comrades marathon. Comrades is a 90km ultramarathon run on the roads between Durban and Pietermaritzburg. It is an iconic race – the largest ultramarathon in the world with over 20,000 runners – and it passes through an area of Kwa-Zulu Natal called the Valley of 1000 hills, which gives you some idea of the terrain. The race is unique in that it changes direction year on year between the two cities. This year was a so-called “down” run starting at Pietermaritzburg and ending on the coast in Durban. Next year will be an “up” run, starting in Durban and climbing inland up to Pietermaritzburg.
There are so many customs and traditions associated with this race, including the most spectacular atmospheric start in the dark at 5:30 in the morning, singing the South Africa national anthem and the Shosholoza, the famous cutoffs along the route, the entertaining pace buses, and of course the heartbreaking 12 hour final cut off in the Stadium itself. The South Africans are very proud of their race and treat the day as a public holiday. If you are a runner in SA the question you have to answer is “How many Comrades have you run?” – and if the answer is “none”, then “When are you going to run it?” If you are an International runner then you are welcomed like a good friend.
See the official video here.
Make no mistake: this is a tough race, but when asked, Cam and I will both say without hesitation that this is our favourite and we will choose to run it every year if possible. This year is Cam’s third Comrades and my fourth.
So what is it specifically about this race that puts it top in our favourites list and pulls us back year after year?
For sure it is all of the things that I mentioned above: the scenery, the challenge, and the traditions; but there is something else – and I realised it was actually there in the name itself, “Comrades”. For me this race is as much about the people we have met and continue to meet on the journey as the physical and emotional challenge of race itself.
I think that the majority of people who have attempted Comrades will agree that it is a place where you make friends for life. I’m not claiming that it is only at Comrades where this happens, but like any intense experience the people who are around before the race, en route and at the end to encourage and support, pick you up when you are struggling and share in the celebrations and analysis become important to you. You have a shared understanding of what you have been through. And this is so often hard to express in words to the uninitiated.
These friends were certainly important for me this year.
This was my toughest year yet. I had a goal of 10 hours, which I knew was slightly ambitious with the course changes; this was to be the longest down run on record because of a change of the finish venue to the magnificent Moses Mabhida stadium further into the city. Unfortunately in the days before the race I suffered with stomach problems which meant I started the race under-fuelled and probably a bit dehydrated. Despite this I got to half way pretty much on target but then failure to refuel properly in the second half of the race meant I ran out of energy and couldn’t take full advantage of the wonderful long downhill stretches in the later part of the race. I finished in 10:34. But the finish time only tells part of the story.
The first time I ran Comrades was in 2013 when I treated myself to the trip for my 60th birthday. I’d known about this race long before I was a runner and it had always intrigued me. I had only been running for two years and didn’t know many people on the running scene so I was travelling out to SA alone. Before going I joined a forum on Runners World – a new experience for me, hence the imaginative avatar of jacquiemillett – to find out as much as I could about the race. On the forum I learnt from and swopped anxieties with the likes of “Wirralian”, “possum hopper”, “running rodent” and “fido five dogs”. There was a moment of panic in the household when I took up an offer to meet some of the group in a pub in Richmond a few weeks before the race. Me: “I’m going to meet some people off the forum in a pub.” Martin: “Who will be there?” Me : “Not sure. Slow Duck, Ally of 1000 Hills and Windsor Andy”. Martin: “Phone me when you arrive!” Slow duck turned out to be a godsend: a green number (over 10 finishes) and a fountain of knowledge about everything to do with Comrades – I remain indebted to him.
That meeting was crucial to me having a brilliant first Comrades and sowed the seeds of lasting friendships. In 2014 Cam came out to run too, already having met some of the crew – and the crew inevitably grew as it has done each year since. For some the Comrades trip is the only time we see them, for others we bump into them at races back in the UK and around the world, but for others we are in daily contact.
Back to 2018: as always the meeting of friends and fellow Comrades started at Heathrow – 290 UK runners, but all seem to travel on same few flights. We picked up more at Joburg. This year Slow Duck aka Hideo was at Durban airport with a car to take us to our hotel. Sitting outside our hotel were two groups of friends, one American who we had not seen since last year, and others from the UK who we had last seen after VLM.
And so it goes on. Thursday and Friday are usually spent catching up with everyone, visiting the expo and lunches, dinners, drinks.
Saturday morning is parkrun (North Beach, 2,200 runners), more socialising over breakfast, lunch, then a calming down – kit bags handed in to be taken to the finish in Pietermaritzburg. Some runners go up to stay there to avoid the 1 am start; the rest of us try to go to bed ridiculously early, to trick our bodies into getting some sleep.
Race day starts with a 1am breakfast in the hotel. With encouraging banter a group of us set off together in the dark streets of Durban to get to the coaches that would take us up to Pietermaritzburg, and the long drive to the start. We are as shocked as ever by the struggle the coach has to get up some of the hills that we will soon be running. All is quiet as some grab a few minutes more sleep; most stare ahead wondering what on earth they are doing here.
We arrive in Pietermaritzburg still in the dark and bundled in layers of clothes. It’s time to say goodbye to Cam, as we head off to our respective start pens. I know she is going to have a good race, and she is with Jim so she’s not alone. I am with Tricia and Richie, and Geoff and Andrea – sister and brother who I met for the first time two days ago, and already friends for life. It’s 3am and we are sat effectively in the middle of road for 2½ hours chatting, laughing, allaying each other’s fears.
Quite suddenly, things start to happen. You can feel the tension and excitement rising. The announcers telling us how little time there is to wait. We say our last-minute wishes of luck and exchange hugs. We experience the emotional start together – then I’m on my own. But you’re never really on your own. Support is amazing en route even, in those dark hours of morning, and other runners from all nationalities will exchange a word or two or sometimes more along the way.
The first few miles are spent settling into the pace. I see the same people a few times – Tricia and Richie overtake – check I’m ok – how did they get behind me?
It felt good to be moving. The first kilometres pass – Comrades counts down not up, which is psychologically good. Soon one of my favourite moments of the down run: the sun rising as you get to the top of Polly Shorts, the African landscape lit up by an orange glow.
The first half passed quickly. I went through half way at 4:59 – pretty well spot on. Time to seriously refuel but finding that difficult – starting to struggle – already feeling low energy. Around this time I came across Rebbeca, Stuart and Debra – a real lift as we exchanged a few words. They seemed happy enough.
Further on I came across a fellow Serpie doing his first. I was able to assure him about what was to come, and in doing so reassured myself.
Not feeling too good but knew that at the bottom of Botha’s Hill a friend and previous Comrades runner was supporting – this kept me going even though in the end I missed her.
Then I really started struggling. Thought I heard at one cut off “you guys are fine – on for 11:30” – I knew I had slowed considerably but hadn’t realised that I had fallen so far behind. It had got to the point where I could no longer do the calculations to work out my finishing time. One of my usual strengths of keeping positive was failing me.
With 10k to go I could only run if gravity was pulling me down and was wondering if I would make it. Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder: Tiago – an amazing runner from Portugal with seventeen comrade finishes, who has become almost part of the family. There’s probably no one I would rather have seen at that point in time. I knew he had been helping pace someone further back on the course but they had decided to bail, so he caught me up.
Almost in tears, I told him I didn’t know if I was going to finish. He just looked at me. “Of course you will, and in a good time – we will finish this together” – and I knew then I would. A kilometre or two further on we met another UK friend, Anne Marie, also struggling, so we picked her up too. We got through the last agonising kilometres with Tiago constantly reassuring us. A favourite moment at 5K: Tiago turned to me and said “only a parkrun to go” – this from someone who has never run one but knew how important it was to me. Tiago’s one condition was that we run the last kilometre into the stadium. Which we did, whooping for joy. And what a finish – an amazing sight, and finishing next to good friends. All disappointment about time disappeared.
Now to find Cam (who had run an amazing race, coming in at 9:06) and others who had finished in various states of exhaustion and exhilaration, and time for another friend Bazz, a doctor, to step in and whisk me off to the medical tent for much-needed fluid. I missed seeing many of our friends finish but as is tradition we had the whole of next day from breakfast through lunch and dinner to relax with everyone and hear all their stories. We left South Africa on Tuesday with an even bigger Comrades family.
We stayed at BelAir Suites Hotel
We ate in Butcher Boys Florida Road, and Mugg and Bean Cafe, Sun Coast
We drank at Joe Cool’s, North Beach