Comrades Marathon – race report

Hi all, I recently ran Comrades and as a few of you were interested in knowing more about it, I thought I’d pop some info on the site. Hopefully the below is of some use, particularly to anyone who wants to run it. If you have any questions or would like some more info, just give me a shout. Cheers-Martin

The Basics
Comrades is an ultra marathon run in South Africa between two towns; Pietermaritzburg and Durban (which is on the coast). It was started in the 1920s by a group of friends as a way of remembering comrades from the war, and has been run ever since (apart from a few years during the Second World War). There is a lot of basic info and history on the website, www.comrades.com
The route is between 86-89km, and switches around each year, one year running “down” from PMB to DBN (the course being 89km) and the next year running “up” from DBN to PMB (86km). The date of the race moves around but is typically late May/early June, the 2015 race will be 31st May. This is winter in South Africa and the start (especially for down runs) can be cold by South African standards, but on the whole the day is typically hot/baking by any UK standards.
The race is a South African institution and draws significant support along the route as well as being televised nationally, from the build up around 5am through to the final cut off. The race has a strict 12hour cut off and anyone reaching the end even a second after this receives no medal and gets logged as DNF. This always leads to a dramatic final few minutes. Medals are awarded to all finishers within the time limit, with different medals awarded depending on the time band you finish in. The timing is all “gun to line”, so your time starts when the gun goes off, not when you cross the start mat. If it takes you 10mins to get over the start, you’ve just got to make that time up on the course.
The field for 2014 involved 18,000 entrants, of whom around 14-15,000 started and about 12,000 finished. Typically around 50% of the finishers come in during the last hour, some in large “busses” led by pace makers.
The course is tough, whichever way you run it. It is all on closed Tarmac roads. There are plenty of route maps, descriptions and profiles online so I won’t go in to detail here, but the key points are: PMB is 600+ metres above sea level, Durban is at sea level, the 50ish Kms closest to PMB are hilly, not gently undulating but actually hilly. The 40ish Kms closest to DBN involve the majority of the elevation gain/loss (depending on your direction) and include several long stretches on the highway. There are five named hills along the route and they make you work hard whichever way you are going.
The down run is said to be more painful due to the amount of impact on your legs, in particular the eccentric loading on your quads and you pound down the hills. The up run obviously involves serious climbing. I can’t (yet) comment on the difference, but I can confirm that my legs hurt after the down; my knees ached for a day or so and leg muscles took several days to stop hurting as did my core and shoulders/upper back. My legs were still sluggish a couple of weeks later.

 

Entering and qualifying
Entering is easy, the applications open around September 1st and for the 2014 race took about 6-8 weeks to fill. I can’t remember exactly but I think as an international runner I paid Β£100-200 to enter including buying a Championchip (the timing chip they use, which you have to order). It’s a lot for a race but the internationals get well looked after with our own registration area at the expo (there was no queue, compared to a 2.5 hour queue for local runners), and an international tent for supporters at the finish, so it’s worth it. The race is also well organsied with closed roads and water every 2km or so etc. To qualify you also have to run a sub5hr marathon. You can do this after entering and submit your qualifying race details later. The time you get in this is used to decide which start pen you are put into, the quicker you are the closer the front you start. The obvious benefit of this is that the closer the front you start, the less time you waste crossing the line, which is important if you are chasing a cut off/close to the 12hr limit.

 

Training
There is a lot of advice available through the website and other sources (more on this below), I roughly followed the “Bill Rowan” training programme on the Comrades website (the Bill Rowan medal is awarded to those finishing between 7:30 and 9hrs, named after the winner of the first race who finished in 8:59. It’s a good target for someone with a 3:00-3:30 marathon PB).
I racked up around 110-120 miles per month from December to March, and then about 150-160 miles in April with the long runs, and tapering back down through May. Training was a mix of steady sessions (Monday club runs), hill sessions, and long weekend sessions. The longest one I did in April was about 29-30miles. I planned a 55km/33miler but curtailed it due to niggles. They don’t recommend doing much beyond this as the recovery time is too long, though I did do some “back to back” weekends with long runs (up to 18-20miles) on Saturday and Sunday.
I dropped speed work in the last couple of months to avoid injury. I also supplemented my running with weekly gym sessions including core work and leg strength exercises. I also did a lot of stretching and using a foam roller (roughly a couple of sessions a week) to try to stay flexible and injury free.
I tried to replicate the race where possible in training, so I did some hill training sessions on Box Hill (2-3 hours of 1mile reps up and down the zig zag… Fun?!) and long hilly runs with coke and boiled potatoes to refuel along the way as these are fuels commonly available in the race.

 

Other preparation
Through the last couple of months the volume of training caused regular niggles (mainly tendon issues in my feet and ankles) so I had fortnightly physio sessions to stay on top of this, and dropped the odd training session where necessary. I also spent a lot of time researching the route to familiarize myself with the course and the hills and what to expect at the start and along the way. People posted some useful course reviews on the Comrades facebook page, and there’s a website called Also Ran (alsoranrunners.info) which was a good source of information and tips. There were also monthly webcasts by the official Comrades coach, Lindsey Parry which would get put on YouTube (search “Journey to Comrades”), so I watched them to get more information and tips. Once we were in South Africa I also drove the route a couple of days before the race to get familiar with the roads and how long the hills were. This gave me a healthy respect for the run and made me realize the walk/run approach advised for the bigger hills really is a necessity.

 

The event
The day itself was fantastic. The start is at 5:30am, I arrived an hour before this to get my kit dropped off at the bag trucks and get into my starting pen and have time to stretch and relax. There is quite a lot of tradition and ceremony at the start, they play the South African anthem, another song called Shosholoza, and Chariots of Fire. They play a recording of a man doing a Cockcrow (another tradition) then an almighty cannon fires and you are off. The start is chaotic with people charging off as though it is a 10km, it’s dark so people trip on kerbs and black bin liners that people use to stay warm, but after a few Kms it settles down and the slog begins. The sun is up after a couple of hours and the heat starts cranking up. There are water points every 2km or so dishing out water, energade, sometimes coke, Vaseline, plus for the second half food like bananas, orange segments, boiled potatoes (some coated in salt) and chocolates. Along the way I ate a few potatoes, some orange segments, a banana and four gels. I drank an unmeasurable amount of water and energade, and also used the water sachets to douse myself along the way to stay cool. The water and energade are dished out in little plastic sachets that you rip open with your teeth, they’re probably not very environmentally friendly and litter the road before long, but they are very handy for picking up, drinking and carrying.

The crowd support pretty much throughout is fantastic. Your number has your name on it, along with how many runs you have completed, and identifies you as an international runner as well. I wore a Union Jack vest which I would highly recommend as I got tons of support and cheers of “Go On Brit”, “Do it for the Queen”, and “Come on you pastey pommie!” I also got a lot of people cheering my name which was really nice.

I hooked up with a guy from Serpentines about 5km in and ran together until about 50km. I lost him after that but chatted to other people along the way, particularly when walking up hills; all the competitors were very friendly and as you wear numbers on both front and back you can pick up people’s names and how many Comrades they have completed so you know who to ask about how long til the top of the hill etc. (many have completed ten or more comrades, for which they become part of the revered “Green Number club”. Remarkably there are quite a few runners with “double” or even “triple green”… Such is the appeal of this race in SA.

My qualifying marathon was a 3:17 at Bournemouth last year, which put me in the “B” pen, very close to the start (I was across in under a minute). I set out with three aims: 1. To finish. 2. To enjoy it. 3. To get a Bill Rowan medal. I was very pleased to achieve all three, finishing in 8hr 48min with a smile on my face.

 

The aftermath
As with most ultras the immediate feelings after finishing were a roller coaster or adrenaline fueled elation followed by nausea followed by cramps followed by hunger, repeated a couple of times. I was stiff and achey for 2-3 days but keeping mobile, stretching and using the foam roller helped resolve that. I managed to get away without losing any toe nails or getting any meaningful blisters, and only had mild chafing (I got through a lot of Vaseline on the road though). One of my feet still felt bruised when I walked on it for a week or so, but that improved with time.

Will I keep coming back to clock up ten runs and get a green number? I doubt it, it is a long way to come and there are a lot of other great races to do. However I will definitely be back… Since the course flips around each year I don’t feel like I can really say I’ve done Comrades until I have completed one each way… If you fancy it in 2015, I’d appreciate the company πŸ™‚