9th June 2019
by Owen Delaney
I was struggling to come up with the words for this one, and gave up initially. But I'm giving it another go to try and persuade some of you to go do this special race.
Last year James Russell talked me into running Comrades with him. It had been on the bucket list for a while, but I needed someone to nudge me into committing and getting signed up. James had run it a couple of times before and he sold it well to me, but I don't usually take much persuasion with these things, especially when we're talking about arguably the world's most iconic ultramarathon. Also the largest with 21,000 starters, and now in its 98th year, the longest running.
The race has strict qualification requirements for marathon distances up to 100km, A marathon time of 4h50 or better will get you to the start line. Then there are seeded batches A-H in the race, and the better your qualifying race time, the better your starting batch. As the race is gun time only, the further up the field you start, the better your chances of achieving your goal, whether it's to just finish in the 12hr cut off, or you're going for a silver medal (sub 7h30). And with so many runners lining up, the minutes saved getting across the start line could make all the difference later on.
A 3h36m finish at the Bournemouth Marathon last year was my qualifier, which put me into batch C. Getting a spot in batch B wasn't going to happen without more quality in my training. And with consistent fatigue over the last 12 months, I wasn't about to start pushing my luck. There were a lot of unknowns for me in this race, from how I would cope with the heat (inevitably not very well...), to the impact to my legs of 87km all on road, and then there's the hills... So I had no real aspirations to do anything other than enjoy the experience and get myself over the finish line. Batch C would do me.
The variety of medals are a big draw for a lot of people in this race, with 8 available depending on your finish time, plus the additional back-to-back if you complete two Comrades in consecutive years.
I had a loose A goal of a sub-10hr finish and a Robert Mtshali medal, but didn't put too much pressure on it, leaving it to the Gods to decide my fate on the day.
After my DNF at the Arc of Attrition in Feb, I kept the training mileage to the minimum I could get away with, whilst still being just enough to get through London in April, plus a few decent hill sessions in to give myself a decent chance at Comrades. The hope was to avoid any injuries, and try to get my energy levels back to what they where in time for the race. The latter didn't work, so I'm stumped as to what the issue is, but an extended break from silly running after Comrades is probably a good idea anyway.
So there's a bit of background to the race and my build up to it, fast forward to the trip itself.
Lunch: eggs at Mugg & Bean
Dinner: steak at Piatto
James, Grant, Roger and I flew out to Johannesburg the Tuesday night before the race, spending Wednesday day and night with some friends of the Russell brothers, before driving down to stay in Durban for the rest of the trip. Thanks to Mike, Lynda and their kids Liam & Bella for putting us up.
Liam took us out for a little run around the lake near their house in Jo'burg, finishing up by Mike's kayak club. Mike has run Comrades a few times over the years, but these days favours its watery sibling, the Dusi Canoe Marathon, which follows a similar route to the run, from Pietermaritzburg to Durban along the Msunduzi river.
After the run, we headed to the mall for some shopping, then out in the evening for steaks.
Lunch: steak at Wimpy
Dinner: chicken at Nandos
James drove us down to Durban the next day in Mike's truck and trailer. Mike & Liam were to follow on their bikes on Friday. The drive should take around 6 hours. Providing you're not delayed by blowing a tyre, failing to find the jack and wrench to change it, unloading all your luggage onto the side of the road in the process...
Nice views at least on the long road down there.
Soon after getting to the house in Durban on Thursday, we made our way down to get registered at the expo. Much like any big race expo really, not much to report, wandered around aimlessly for a while, did some more shopping, left to try and find Nandos, got rained on and pestered by some locals.
Lunch: steak at Mugg & Bean
Dinner: steak & boerewors on the braai
The next day was spent driving the course, giving ourselves a feel for what lay ahead.
Treated to some beautiful views, looking down into the Valley of a Thousand Hills from the half way point.
The Wall of Honour is located at the halfway point of the course, where any runner can pay a small sum to get a permanent plaque with their name and number, alongside previous winners and legends such as Bruce Fordyce and Tommy Malone.
Speaking of Tommy Malone, winner in 1966, check out this heartbreaking finish from the following year where he missed out on gold to Manie Kuhn in the cruelest fashion.
Driving the course was worthwhile for the views, but not sure if I'd rather have remained in blissfully unaware of scale of the hills...
Starting at sea level in Durban, the half way point sits at around 700m above, with about 1.2km of climbing to get there...
They talk of the "big five" hills on Comrades, but in reality there's hundreds of the buggers out there, and very little in the way of flat as we know it. Even Harrison Flats is a bit lumpy.
We carried on the drive finishing up in Pietermaritzburg, where we stopped for some shopping. And by this point I was starting to worry, or I should say I was starting to worry more. The heat was always my biggest concern with this race, I'm crap at running in it. 18C in a British spring marathon sends me to the verge of heatstroke, and the forecasts were telling us it was likely to hit 22-23C on Sunday afternoon. Cool for a South African winters day, but a worry for a soft southern pom like me. So I took the drastic measure of shaving my head. Marginal gains and all that. Looking back on it, I think that may have been my best piece of preparation for this race.
Then we headed back to the house for a braai.
Breakfast: eggs & bacon at the Adventure Cafe
Lunch: smoked mackerel
Dinner: Baked potato & boerewors
The day before the race was parkrunday. And what better way to prepare for a hilly 87km ultramarathon than a nice easy 5km to energise ourselves. Bruce Fordyce says we should be resting, but what does he know...
There was a choice of around 8 events relatively close to where we were staying, but we opted to drive back up to the top of Botha's Hill and run Thousand Hills parkrun, a course with more elevation gain than the UK's hilliest Whinlatter Forest parkrun. The sensible choice, don't want to be exerting ourselves.
It was bloody lovely though!
The rest of the day was spent with the usual pre-race faffery back at the house. Mike and Liam went out on the lash, before attempting numerous last minute (ultimately failed) attempts to get the bikes on the trailer ready for the morning. The humidity and noise from rain pouring down into the small hours didn't make for a good night's sleep...
Lunch: 3 bananas, 4 salted potatoes, 3 fruit & nut bars, 1 lucozade (thanks Mike), 6 energade pouches, 6 cups of coke, and a large quantity of water
Dinner: many eggs
3:30am alarm, up and out the door by half 4, more faffing to get the bikes on the trailer, then Mike dropped us down at the start. Mike and Liam then drove the truck to the finish and took the bikes out along the course to crew us during the race. Seconding as they call it.
James and I queued briefly at the drop bag truck (yes a single truck) before announcing that we were internationals, thus allowing us to jump the queue. One bonus to the hugely inflated registration fee for internationals is that you get preferential treatment when queuing for things. Good job for us too as I'm not convinced we'd have got ourselves to the pens in time otherwise.
The start was crowded, as you'd expect, and humid, and it took a while to get myself into the batch C pen. But the pre-race buzz was amazing, and I felt relaxed and excited to get going. From around 10 mins before the start there rousing renditions of the national anthem and "Shosholoza" (try and watch this without tears forming), followed by Chariots of Fire, before the starting gun was fired. And we were off. And climbing almost immediately up the winding motorway.
We ran up, and up, and up. I walked the steep climbs and paced myself as sensibly as I could when I ran.
I didn't even notice Cowie's Hill as it just blended in with all the other ups.
I did notice Fields Hill though. Around 180m of vert along a 3km winding stretch of road. The camber didn't help my already twinging knees either. But I still felt strong at the top.
It stayed cool and overcast for most of the first marathon, before starting to clear and warm up at the top of Botha's.
By the time I hit half way, I felt physically strong still, but started to get stomach cramps as I tried to find a usable portaloo. For the next 10km I checked a few, but couldn't bring myself to use any of them. I'll spare you the details, but put it this way, some things cannot be unseen...
Things were getting desperate but I managed to deal with the situation adequately somewhere along Harrison Flats. Things improved again after. For a bit at least.
The day got hotter, and I subsequently started to struggle. My heart rate dropped along with my pace, but the heat was stopping me from being able to run consistently without feeling like I was going to pass out, so I just muddled along as best I could, enjoying the atmosphere, music, and cheers from the crowds.
After the highest point of the course at Umlaas Road, there was a nice steady net downhill for 5km or so before Little Pollys. So called as many think they've reached Polly Shorts when they start climbing it. But that beast was still to come. I actually felt alright on Pollys as most of it was in the shade. It's a steep climb, but the break from the sun made it feel bearable, and once I got to the top I knew I was well into single figure kms to go, and plodded along in towards Pietermaritzburg.
With a couple of km to go, the 10h30 pacer and his entourage passed me and I jumped on the back of the bus into the finish. It was a very cool sight of them ahead of me, with the pacer holding his flag aloft, and the setting sun burning through the smoke above their heads from the braais at the sides of the road. Reminded me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail for some reason. I'm going to remember that sight along with the feeling with them pulling me home to the finish line.
10h 26m 40s. A bronze medal. And it's beautiful.
Roger got a silver in 7h19
Grant got a Bill Rowan in 7h58
James got a copper in 11h24, unfuelled, which in my book makes it the performance of the day.
This was the best racing experience of my life so far.
Not my performance, that was as much as (or possibly more than) I deserved for my low training mileage, but the experience. Everything from the anthems in the start pens, to the crowds along the route, the views at the top, and the emotional finish at Scottsville Racecourse in Pietermaritzburg. I was welling up at the start, I fully cried at the top of Polly Shorts, and blubbed a bit at the finish.
And I've felt bloody marvelous ever since.
If I was only allowed to run one more race in my life, it would be to run Comrades again.
If I could tell you one race you should do in your life, it's Comrades.
2021 is the centenary year. Just sayin'.