Right, where were we? After another tough day out at Boston Marathon, I returned to the UK for a short visit before it was time once more to make the 2019 Uganda Marathon, an exhilarating but utterly exhausting few weeks as always. Before I knew it, I was sitting in Entebbe, sleep deprived and foggy of mind, waiting for a flight to Johannesburg and wondering how I was going to go from running on empty to being ready to run an ultra marathon in 72 hours.
What is Comrades Marathon?
Comrades Marathon is the World's oldest and largest ultra marathon. Since 1921, runners have taken on the course of approximately 89 kilometres (55 mi) between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg (alternating between the ‘up’ & ‘down’ route). 2019 was the 94th running of the event. I was among 25,000 runners aiming to complete the up run within the strict 12 hour cut-off, starting at Durban City Hall and finishing at Pietermaritzburg's Scottsville Racecourse.
Comrades Marathon 2019 - 'Up' Route
2019 Comrades Marathon 'Up' route elevation profile
Comrades Marathon - Travel & Expo
Things got a little more concerning after arrival in Jo'burg. During my first day in the artsy suburb of Maboneng, I started feeling unwell. The dizzy spells that I had been experiencing prior to Boston had returned as well as some gastrointestinal grief and an unwelcome case of hives that covered my face, neck and chest. I was a right state. I had no idea what was happening and was not in a happy place with less than 48 hours to go.
Trying to travel and race around the world on a tight budget means making tough calls on spending. I had decided to plump for a $15 bus from Jo’burg to Durban over a $70 flight. This proved not to be the wisest of calls as the 570 kilometre, 7.5 hour predicted journey became a fairly miserable 10.5 hour slog. I arrived in Durban on the Friday night before Comrades feeling drained, anxious and generally not in the right frame of mind. I imagine this is the sort of moment where having a support team to take some of the burden and raise your spirits comes into its own but as a solo runner, I was very much on my own.
On the positive side, I had paid way in advance for a hotel in Durban so knew that I would be in comfortable accommodation with a hot shower and good food for a few days. I was also buoyed by being able to experience parkrun South Africa style the next morning (albeit at the earlier time of 8am) and looking forward to mixing with some other runners. I took the short 1km jog down to the start point of North Beach parkrun, passing many groups out on their shakeout runs, the South African running crews singing and dancing together as they ran. A huge crowd had gathered beneath a raised lookout at the surf club on the seafront and were treated to welcome speeches from the legendary Bruce Fordyce, 9 time Comrades winner and Tom Williams from parkrun. A group of almost 2000 made their way along the out and back 5km course on the promenade, many keeping their ‘powder dry’ ahead of the big run the following morning. I could tell that even taking it super-easy, I was not in great condition and this was weighing heavily on my mind.
After returning to the hotel for a sizeable breakfast, I made my way to the Comrades Marathon Expo. Upon registration, I was presented with my Comrades t-shirt & hat as well as some other goodies. I continued around the exhibition where I was welcomed into the ‘novice hospitality’ for first-timers which provided coffee & biscuits as well as a history lesson and some photo opportunities. As always these days, I was not in a position to go mad on the merchandise (although I couldn’t resist the official Comrades flip-flops) so after reacquainting myself with my old friend Nando's, I put my feet up for the rest of the day, hoping to recharge as much as I could ahead of my 02:30 race day wake up call.
Comrades Marathon - Race Day
The race day breakfast at the hotel was quite some sight. Three o’clock in the morning and runners of all nations gathered quietly and nervously at the buffet, some already in race kit displaying their national colours and many sporting varied levels of brightly coloured taping ranging from precautionary to mummification. As the athletes left the hotel lobby to make their way through the darkness toward the start at City Hall, the hotel manager was sending everyone off with bananas, water and good wishes.
4am. Runners were pouring out of the numerous accommodations and emerging from cars to join the river of people flowing toward City Hall. After moving through the crowded security check into the allocated starting areas, there were long queues to use the portaloos before arriving at the fenced off pens that were already jam packed with 45 minutes still to go until the start. By 5am the pens were full to bursting and it was shoulder to shoulder, loud music pumping in the still dark morning and the excitement rising. I was not feeling too great, a little feverish and unusually anxious but was still able to appreciate the wonderful atmosphere. As the start drew nearer, the ceremony began, a process that Comrades veterans are probably familiar with but was a first for me: Chariots of Fire, the South African national anthem followed by a rousing rendition of ‘Shosholoza’, the crowing of a cockerel (recording, not live) and finally the starting cannon.
Runners singing ‘Shosholoza’ at the Comrades Marathon start line
As I joined thousands in passing over the starting mat and moving into the dimly lit streets, I was still unsure of how to proceed. The immediate priority was just staying upright within the tightly packed bunch of runners. We began the first 5km of climbing and I decided to start out ultra-cautious at ~9.30 minute miling, assisted by the sheer weight of the crowd meaning it was difficult to move faster without some seriously risky zig-zagging. We would climb almost 200m in the first 10km and just after the first break in climbing, my condition started to worsen. I had begun to feel nauseous and experiencing stomach cramps and at 9km, would stop with ‘GI issues’ (I’ll spare you the gory detail), spending several minutes queueing to access one of the few (and well used) portaloos. After managing to get back into some sort of rhythm I made it as far as 28km, albeit feeling less than comfortable. After over 600m of climbing, during one of the longest uphill sections, I found myself standing waiting to use the loos again, briefly coming face to face with a very disgruntled chap crouched in a doorless portaloo who seemed to be having a similarly ‘difficult’ morning. At around 40km and just over four hours, nearing the top of another hill, I had to stop again. I walked back on to the side of the course feeling utterly wretched, watching runners stream by and looking to speak to a medic, all whilst considering having to end this ordeal after such a long time waiting to be here.
How I got going again after that moment is a bit of a blur. I recall peering into one of the horribly named ‘bailer buses’ that are located throughout the course to transport those unfortunate souls who are unable to continue, seeing an unhappy runner who had called it a day perched blank-faced and thinking that I didn’t want that to be the end for me. I remember uncomfortably waddling the few hundred metres over the top of that climb and then striking up a conversation with a couple of runners as I tried to work out how far we were ahead of the sweeper and whether I needed to start worrying about that as well. This chat probably changed the outcome of the whole race for me. It completely took my mind off my condition as I moved to a much calmer, stable state of mind. I spent an undulating section of 5km or so starting to feel much more optimistic and chatting with a South African chap named Glenn who had run the race several times. We passed halfway together and before long then it was just down to the small matter of a marathon.
Being able to run with someone who knew the race and had experienced the ‘Up’ run before made a massive difference, Glenn would introduce each bitesize (albeit big bites) block as we approached it and advise how to use the run/walk strategy to manage each uphill section, even pointing out landmarks to use as the beginning and end of each run/walk effort. Now that I had stabilised, whilst I still found the regular signs displaying the remaining distance overwhelming, for the first time, I was now able to appreciate the scenery and the amazing support on the side of the roads. After five hours, I had stopped wallowing in my discomfort and apart from a minor incident when I tripped over one of the garden fence height cats-eyes lining the middle of the road, was able to look outward and appreciate the experience. My will to finish and hope that I would be able to get round had returned.
I started to concentrate on fuelling properly which I had neglected whilst not feeling well, settling for water, bananas and in an interesting decision, some funky local meal replacement drink which I later discover is 'Mageu Number 1' - a fermented maize drink (this last one definitely breaking the 'don't try anything new on race day' rule). In between chatting about all manner of things, I would follow Glenn’s instructions about dealing with each block of the race. At many points along the course, supporters had abandoned their cars in droves on the side of the highway, parking them up on grass verges and wandering down onto the race route to offer their vocal support and various items of food & drink, some even setting up makeshift grills to feed friends and family. A lovely lady offers me a Marmite sandwich from a Tupperware container (who knew this was a thing?) and this is a game-changer. It tastes magnificent and it’s as happy as I have been the entire time. Every time we pass through one of the regular aid stations, I’m searching the outstretched arms of supporters and their plastic containers filled with fruit, sweets and sandwiches to see if I can find more of these magical Marmite sandwiches, even if they are cut into squares rather than my preferred triangles. Glenn spots some and I walk back to get us both one. As we pass 30km to go, I’m firmly on the Marmite sandwich and Coca Cola wagon, the mixture of salt, sugar & caffeine appears to be doing the trick of keeping me ticking over and I’m sure that if I can just make it to 21km out then I’m confident I can finish.
We pass a sign that proclaims less than 21km to go and over the highest point of the course at 850m. I’m marvelling at just how the support can remain so constant over such a distance as we move through another packed and well-stocked aid zone. By now we’re walking any steep climbs and aid stations to save as much energy as possible. I see a lady offering a box of sandwiches and grab one, breaking back into a light run as I eat. As I move, I start to feel a burning sensation in my mouth. What on earth is this? I make some sort of grimace accompanied by the universally accepted 'fanning hand' cooling gesture and another lady laughs: “caught out by one of the chilli sandwiches, huh?”. Chilli sandwiches? I have no idea if this is another Comrades institution or a trick but it definitely takes my mind off the remaining distance for a few minutes.
I figure we’ve put enough distance between ourselves and the sweeper truck by now and try to work out a rough finish time to give me an idea of how much more time I’m likely to have on my feet. With the intermittent walking and constant hills, any previous experience of how long it takes to cover distance is out of the window and I really have no idea. I crudely estimate a finish of somewhere between nine and ten hours which would be over two hours inside the race cut off.
Two more ‘big’ climbs. Little Pollys & Polly Shorts. Both with highly misleading friendly names suggesting that they’re not much to worry about but in reality, quite the opposite. Polly Shorts in particular is a momentous battle. No spectators and a lot of runners in deathly silence, each fighting their own battle. I’m just staring upward and trying to maintain some sort of rhythm and stride to get me over the top. At some point on the climb I lose Glenn and look back but can’t spot him. I know that stopping now would be a bad decision so decide to carry on alone. I remember Glenn telling me that with around 8km to go, the crowds thicken again, the course evens out and you just have to grit your teeth and make it through. I pass through crowds of people sheltering in shade with chairs & picnics, seeking out the name on each runners bib and screaming encouragement at them. This energy helps enormously. I’d slowed down to 11-12 minute miling but manage to get back to 9.30 minute miles, although still walking anything that felt like an incline. I spot the entry into the racecourse and know that I must be down to the last few minutes of effort. The crowd swells and the noise is immense, all thoughts of failing dissipate in that wonderful moment where you know that you’re going to make it to the finish regardless. We move on to some sort of AstroTurf carpet which is spongy underfoot and my legs have a bit of a wobble as they try to adjust to the different, softer terrain. Noise, hitting the finishing straight toward a grand, red, wide finish line. I’m over, I’ve done it and am in disbelief. I’ve finished in 9 hours and 33 minutes but at this moment I don’t care. Five hours ago I thought there was no way I’d make it here and I’ve never felt like that before. Overcoming that self doubt is my success today.
Crossing the finish line of the 2019 Comrades Marathon
I’m awarded the Robert Mtshali medal. This medal is for runners finishing between nine and ten hours and commemorates Mtshali’s groundbreaking run in 1935 when he was the first (unofficial) black runner, finishing his race in 9 hours and 30 minutes. His efforts were not officially recorded as the government and organisers at the time decreed that in order to compete, you had to be a white male. Thankfully we've moved on from that nonsense. Well... most of us have.
I wander through the finish area and all I can think about is finding some shade and getting out of my shoes and socks. I locate the international hospitality zone, which, in a sick twist, has a bridge & steps to negotiate and am reunited with my flip flops. I have no appetite but am craving salt so inhale a bag of crisps before deciding that I wanted to make the bus back to Durban sooner rather than later to avoid the crowds. I find a bus and take a seat, forcing half a sandwich and a chocolate bar down as we start our journey back toward the start. I listen to runners sharing their stories and stare out of the window, catching the occasional glimpse of the course where many are still courageously battling against the clock. We arrive back in Durban in darkness and I take a ridiculously long, amazing shower before finally treating myself to my first meal in seventeen hours, a burger and a beer.
Comrades Marathon Up Run done. Mostly thanks to the camaraderie of fellow runners. A true spectacle and day that I will never forget.
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