We have just returned from another amazing trip to South Africa to run the 2019 Comrades Marathon. This year we were especially fortunate to also visit a game reserve in the Kruger National Park which made the stay all the more special.
Many of our readers will know that the Comrades Marathon reverses direction year on year. 2019 was an ‘up-run’ which means that it started in Durban and climbed inland up to Pitermarizberg. The ‘up-run’ is dominated by the aptly named ‘Big Five’ hills – Cowies Hill, Fields Hill, Botha’s Hill, Inchanga and Polly Shortts – but as this journey travels through an area called the Valley of a Thousand Hills there are plenty of others that don’t get talked about beforehand but definitely make themselves known on the day.
It is a brutal race and one that we have both taken part in numerous times before. It is hard to summarise the experience that is Comrades. We have tried to do it justice in the past. You can read accounts of our previous ‘down-run’ here and here, and Jacquie’s 2014 age-category win here.
We had mixed fortunes this year – Cam ran a brilliant 9:07 (1hr 44 mins faster than her previous up-run in 2015), Jacquie ran 11:33 (over an hour slower than her previous up-run in 2017). But Comrades is so much more than just a race – it is a long weekend of camaraderie, accomplishment, celebrations, pain and sometimes tragedy and heartache. It is a race that must be respected whatever your starting point. When running Comrades there is always more to learn, both about the event but also about yourself. We will try here to describe some of the highlights and learning points from our Comrades 2019.
As this year was an ‘up-run’ climbing the Big Five hills, and in homage to our safari experience, we are talking Big Fives. We will talk about our Comrades ‘traditions’, special moments and performances, learning points and favourite times in the Bush. We hope you enjoy reading about this Iconic race and consider trying it yourself sometime.
Our Big Five Race Traditions
Comrades is a race full of tradition. This is one of the things that makes it so special. From singing the Shosholoza on the start-line to taking a flower to pay respects to Arthur (the late Arthur Newton, five times winner of Comrades) at his seat half-way through the route – its hard not to be enchanted by these special moments.
Over the years that we have been returning to Durban we have developed (or adopted) our own traditions which add greatly to the enjoyment of our time there. Here are our Big Five…
1. Visit to the expo (Friday and usually again Saturday).
All runners have to visit the expo to pick up their race bib and checkout their champion chip. Fortunately as International runners we don’t have to stand in the long queues that often build up for the SA runners to get our bibs.
A visit to the expo is so much more, though, than number pick-up. Naturally there is Comrades kit and paraphernalia on sale as well as all the usual expo concessions; but it is also here that novice and experienced runners alike first get the real feel or are reminded of of what it is like to be part of the Comrades family. The expo can be busy and noisy but it is also buzzing with excitement. Runners of all nations mixing, chatting exchanging stories. The international area provides tea and coffee and a place to sit to meet others and ask final questions about the race, the route, the logistics of the day. Get a massage, buy some things from the charity stalls but also take some time to look at the exhibits of the race history. You are soon going to be part of that story.
2. Meal at Butcher Boys (Friday evening)
Butcher Boys is a restaurant on the Florida Road – a street full of bars, restaurants and clubs. Friday evening we meet for a meal with mainly UK runners alongside some other Internationals who have become friends along the way. It is a chance to catch up with some people who we might only see once a year at Comrades and others we see more often. But everyone is welcome. We try to encourage any novice runners we hear about to come along. It’s always a very lively affair.
3. North Beach parkrun (Saturday Morning)
There are now a number of parkruns around Durban but when we started coming out for Comrades, North Beach was the only one, and although many Internationals take the opportunity for a bit of parkrun tourism we prefer to stick with North Beach. The parkrun is an out and back along the ocean and on Comrades-eve it is the biggest parkrun in the world. To be fair it is a bit chaotic with many runners (joggers and walkers) new to parkrun and only one marshal out on the course but the finish funnel is extremely efficient and everyone with a barcode gets a time. The promenade is also shared with groups of runners from many countries – singing and dancing throughout their final pre-Comrades run. All this makes for a very carnival-like atmosphere and helps to distract from the anxieties of the day to come.
Before North Beach parkrun with the fast boys from Orion and VPH.
4. Post-race Breakfast at the Mug and Bean (Monday morning)
This is a long standing UK runners’ tradition. We meet for breakfast (or just a coffee or smoothie for late arrivals) at the very accommodating Mug and Bean. We exchange race stories, congratulate and commiserate where appropriate. Dave Ross, the UK Comrades ambassador, then attempts to herd everyone out to take part in a photo-shoot on the steps of the nearby Sun Casino. This can take some time and proves to be quite challenging for any (most) of those present with stiff and aching legs. Someone usually remembers to bring a flag – though it has been known to be held upside down some years.
When the photographs are over we stroll, in small groups, along the Ocean front (at a pretty slow pace!) to Joe Cool’s bar for cocktails, more food and more race debriefing. Runners come and go – some having a late start to the day, others flying home.
This is the place to re-hydrate and refuel, and is possibly your last chance to talk Comrades to your heart’s content without your listeners getting bored.
5. Monday evening meal (various venues)
Numbers are depleted. Some have gone home, others have moved on or are simply exhausted. Here we usually have the serial Comraders, the hard core, the runners who are not talking about whether they will be back the following year but when the best time is to book hotels, flights etc. for their return. The company is good, the conversation light-hearted but with a touch of sadness – Comrades is almost over for another year. It is almost time to say good-bye to our Comrades family. The evening ends with a final round of shots. The customary ‘Bob Marley’ was replaced this year with a new concoction – the ‘Double Down’ – because that’s what we all have ahead of us now. Breaking with tradition the next two Comrades will be down runs. More about that later.
One for ‘the road’ (all 90K of it next year) in the Belle Aires bar.
Big Five Special Race Day Moments
This is a hard one – there is obviously the amazing atmospheric and emotional race start, and for those of us lucky enough to finish, the ecstasy and relief when you finally get there – but so much happens out on the route. It is among the numerous acts of kindness, small moments of joy and humour and unexpected friendships that we find our special race moments. Here are just five…
1. Go Tannie!
Jacquie is used to being referred to as ‘mama’ when she is out on the course. Wearing her 60+ age-tag the supporters are genuinely delighted to encourage her on her way using what is a very respectful term of address. And looking at the final results there were only three women older who finished. This year Cam was a bit taken aback to hear the shout “Go Tannie” (auntie) on a few occasions – again respectful but also an acknowledgement that she is no longer amongst the youngest in the race. Experience has its benefits though; Cam was 6th British woman out of 70 starters including Samantha Amend and Chrissie Wellington both running for Nedbank.
2. Peter’s Green Number
One of the special memories for Cam came during the latter part of the race when she shared some miles with another UK runner Peter Russell. “It was late in the day when I was starting to find things pretty tough. I spotted the UK vest and pulled up next to him for a chat. We spent the final quarter of the race encouraging each other along, mainly up the hills. I was very appreciative of the company. Some of the most difficult miles passed away as we talked and laughed our way right up to the stadium. Peter was running his 10th Comrades, qualifying him for the coveted ‘green number’ status, but he was very humble about it and seemed more concerned and enthusiastic about coaxing me along. Congratulations Peter, it was lovely to share this special moment with you and I look forward to seeing you next year wearing your green number.”
3. Finishing with plane friend
On the flight from Heathrow to Durban I (Jacquie ) was sitting next to and chatting to a young guy who had run Comrades a couple of times before with a PB of 8 hrs 36. I was therefore really surprised to come across Matthew in the last 5k of the race – especially as I wasn’t running well. It was so good to see a friendly face. We ended up more or less finishing the race together and he was a great help negotiating the way to the International area of the stadium, which cruelly involves climbing some steep steps. Although neither of us had the best of races we were still smiling at the finish and there was a nice symmetry to the story.
4. Helping Hands
While struggling to keep down any fluid during the run, funnily enough, I thought that maybe I could drink some beer. I mentioned this to Hideo when I met him on route. Immediately he conjured up a cold bottle of beer from the crowd. A real life saver. Gary Dixon did the same for me further down the road when I came across his pace bus.
Later on when once again I was struggling to eat or drink I noticed someone selling ice lollies on the side of the course. It had never occurred to me to carry money with me but I did happen to have 20 Rand. Ice lollies were 25 Rand. The seller took pity on me and gave me one. I had just taken my first bite when another runner came up to me and asked if I had anymore money because his friend was also struggling. Unfortunately I didn’t. A few steps further on I saw his friend who was in much more trouble than me so I went over and gave him mine. He was so grateful – he came to find me later to thank me. It felt good to pay it forward and gave me a much-needed boost too. This is the stuff of Comrades.
5. No rest…..
The final special moment on race came after the finish when we were travelling back to Durban in a mini-bus along with some runners from Victoria Park Harriers. The team had done exceptionally well claiming three silver medals and 3rd (Paul Gaimster) and 4th Brits home. Neil Cook and Duncan Steen had brought their young families along as support team. It had been a long day for their partners and the children but the bus journey, as always, took forever. The children needed to be entertained. Neil was in a good position with his son happily watching Peppa Pig on an iPad but poor Duncan, having run 87k in 7hrs 22min, was implored to read a series of stories for most of the 87k home. Most entertaining for us especially when he tried to skip bits and was corrected!
Some pretty special t-shirts!
Obligatory pre-race photo – all looking quite sprightly for 4:30 a.m.
A very special photo – Mother and daughter with Father and son – well done Brian and Tom Williams!
Big Five Learning Points
As we said earlier there there is always more to learn about running Comrades and lots of things are known once but forgotten in the euphoria of finishing this taxing race. Here are some of our learning points from this year’s run. They are not all new.
This race is unpredictable in terms of performance like no other we know. Regardless of your qualifying time, training, confidence or lack of it, there are always surprises on the day – good and bad.
2. Don’t assume everything stays the same (aka Breakfast on race day would have been useful)
When we arrive in Durban each year to run Comrades it very quickly feels like we never left. Everything is so familiar. Nothing has changed. Last year we stayed in a different hotel but this year we returned to the Hilton. In previous years we have collected breakfast-bags on the morning of the race (to take away and eat on the journey or in the pens), but this year we arrived in the lobby at 4:15 to head off to the start only to find no breakfast-bags. Too late to make other arrangements we set off to run 87K with nothing to eat except a few ginger biscuits that were meant for the first 10 miles.
3. Make sure your drop bag tag is safe (perhaps don’t stick it on the back of your race number as instructed)
We had one drop bag between us. Cam stuck the tag on the back of her race number as we were sure she would finish first. When she arrived at the Scottsville Stadium the tag was nowhere to been seen. In the hustle and bustle of the race and the constant dousing with water to keep cool it had become unattached. The search for the bag amongst 20,000 others took some time – especially as Cam did not realise that there was a separate international bag drop. We did find it eventually but not having it or a phone left Cam a bit cold and anxious wondering what had happened to me.
4. Make use of nutrition bag drops on route
There is plenty to eat and drink at the very frequent aid stations on the Comrades route. The water is ice cold, there is coke, cream soda and sports drinks every 2K, together with fruit, dry biscuits, salted potatoes, sandwiches and so much more. However if you want to stick with the fuel and drinks you are familiar with then there are a number of companies and some local running clubs who, for a relatively small fee, will place three drop bags out on the course for you. Fuelling on long runs has become more of an issue for me (Jacquie) even in the last year but I knew the sorts of things I was craving and certainly next year will make use of one of these services.
5. Take the money
It is probably a good idea to carry some cash on you during the race – even if its to buy an ice lolly for someone else.
Big Five performances
Everyone who completes Comrades is a winner, as are those who try and fail but give it their all. This section is really just an excuse to highlight some of our favourite performances this year – not necessarily the fastest but all achieving in their own way.
Ruthy Taylor for running a gutsy first Comrades despite problems during training – pictured here with a very proud Jim Murray.
Stephen Schless, a friend from the Netherlands, with his Silver medal for running 7hrs 12min – a 1hr 43 min PB for the up-run.
Jarryd Hillhouse for perfectly executing his sub 10 hr race plan to take home his back-to-back medal and joining in so wholeheartedly with the weekend’s activities.
Hideo Takano for following his coach’s instructions and taking the race easy with Western States looming – giving him even more time to be helpful and to encourage others. Couldn’t resist an opportunity of again showing this photo of Hideo being presented with the Spirit of Comrades Award.
Gary Dixon who successfully brought home the 11:30 pace bus in his own inimitable style.
Big Five Moments from the Bush
As we said earlier, this year’s trip to Durban was followed by a short stay at a very special safari lodge in the Kruger National Park. What a contrast it was from the hustle and bustle of Durban during Comrades week. Our stunning surroundings, both natural and man-made, were imbued with a sense of peace and tranquility and we were looked after exceptionally well. The food was incredible – we’ve been tempted to put whiskey and condensed milk in our porridge on more than one occasion since returning home! The perfect place to rejuvenate our minds and bodies while surrounded by nature at its most raw. Again it is difficult to do justice to this experience in a few words so we are going to pick some of our favourite moments. There were so many to chose from.
The Game Drives
We are cheating here but we would like to include all the game drives in one special moment. Bumping along the dusty trails in the bush with good company, amazing scenery, very knowledgeable rangers and not knowing what you will find around the next bend as an experience is hard to beat. We did see all THE Big Five and so much more – including a fellow Richmond parkrun runner on a passing Land Rover!
The Intelligence of the Elephant
We could watch the elephants playing together for hours. They were very aware and knowing. Whereas most of the other animals paid no attention to us even at times when you might expect them to be wary, the elephants seemed to be clued up to our presence. Their look suggested they were assessing us and certainly their behaviour when we came across them with their young left no room for doubt. They weren’t aggressive but let us know by their posturing where we could and could not go.
One of our all-time favourite facts, or possibly theories, is that one reason for the Zebra evolving stripes was because they provided them with a unique air-con unit – a method of thermo-regulation. The dark stripes get warmer than the white and the hairs there rise up, creating small vortexes where hot and cold air meet, and act as a fan to cool the body. And the particular stripe patterns, like our fingerprints, are unique to each animal!
We loved watching the giraffes wandering so gracefully round the reserve and drinking (in a very ungainly fashion) at the waterhole. Another of our favourite facts was about the difference in their walking and running techniques. When giraffes walk they move both legs on one side of their body and then both legs on the other side. This, apparently is unique to giraffes. However when they run they swing their rear legs and front legs together like other mammals. This this might cause them some confusion if they tried Jeffing!
Protect and survive
We learned a lot about the cycle of life on our game drives but one of the main points that came across to us was about how important it was for animals to protect themselves from injury – probably more important than getting food. The weakened animal is prey for the predator so they will avoid injury at all costs. Maybe this resonated with us a bit as we recovered from the massive assault on our bodies that is the Comrades marathon. Not that we are expecting to become anyone’s meal in the near future, but it brought home the importance of looking after ourselves to avoid injury to run again. Cam was certainly looking after herself on this morning game drive with blankets and sheepskin hot water bottles!
Well, that’s our round up of Comrades 2019 complete. The next two runs are going to be down-runs. 2021 is the 100th anniversary of the Comrades race and it is deemed preferable to finish in Durban for extra celebrations. This also means that anyone doing their first and second Comrades in 2020 and 2021 will get an additional, very rare medal – the ‘double down’. Surely that clinches it – see you all there!