The Ultimate Human Race
Comrades is more than just a ‘race’, it’s an experience. Like how they say Electric Daisy Carnival isn’t just a ‘rave’, it’s a festival experience. There’s events leading up to it, the actual event, after parties, and an ubiquitous feeling of togetherness sprinkled throughout.
With this year being its 90th year running, it is known as the longest, oldest running marathon in the entire world. The Comrades Marathon is internationally popular because of its history, traditions, and mostly because of its treacherous course. It is called a ‘marathon’ even though it is an ‘ultra marathon’ technically. There are ultras out there that are certainly longer or have more difficult elevation gains, but Comrades is special because it eloquently combines both ultra distance and insane elevation changes all mashed up in 1 ridiculously difficult race.
Everyone in South Africa talks about Comrades. They either are running it, have run it, know someone who’s running it, or sit and watch it every year as the entire 12 hour race is nationally broadcasted. It’s a big deal.
So what prompted me to sign up for this death march? I think the allure of Comrades springs from that nagging inner voice that says “Do you think you can do it?” Most people who run distance events in South Africa are training for Comrades, so it was easy to get swept up in the excitement. Being that I am living in South Africa, this seemed like the perfect time to take advantage and run the race.
Every year the race course changes from an ‘Up run’ (going from Durban to Pietermartizburg) to a ‘Down run’ (from Pietermaritzburg to Durban). 2015 was an Up Run and the course was measured to be 87.72 kilometers ~ 54.82 miles long.
I registered for Comrades in September, qualified for it in November, and since then have been training and running smaller races to prepare. I felt pretty good about the training program I was following, the only thing that had me nervous was the elevation gains and the fact that I live in a very flat area so I don’t have a lot of opportunity for hill training other than inclining the treadmill. Another Peace Corps volunteer was also running this race, so it was comforting to have someone to talk to about it and plan for it together. We headed down to Durban from Pretoria on the 28th, intending to take the final few days before the race to rest and mentally prepare.
Friday I went on the bus tour for international runners. The tour drives us along the race course and we had a director named Billy, who had run Comrades many times and gave us all the tips and tricks to running a good race. It helped a bit to physically see the hills and landmarks and to know what to expect come race day.
We drove to the Wall of Honor- where every Comrades runner has the opportunity to have a brick with their name and race number on it.
We stopped at the Ethembeni School for children with disabilities – a school that is directly along side the race course and the students look forward to seeing the runners speed by every year. We got to see the stadium where the finish line was, and we stopped to have lunch at the Comrades House – a museum commemorating all things Comrades.
After the bus tour we went to the Comrades Expo – a huge event where over 100 vendors present the latest and greatest in running gear, nutrition and technology. A place to buy Comrades swag and pick up any last minute supplies for race day. Saturday’s schedule was intentionally empty, not doing much besides laying around on the beach and mentally preparing. The last chance to enjoy full mobility before destroying our bodies 😛
The night before race day we had a big meal and went to bed by 8pm, knowing we had to wake around 2am. Finally race morning came! We puttered around getting ourselves ready, I ate my typical pre-race meal- a bowl of oatmeal with peanut butter, and we piled into the car to make the 40 minute drive into Durban city center. We found a secure lot to park in and had to walk only a few blocks to the start line. It was 4am with a very slight ocean breeze but rather neutral temperatures which felt good that early in the morning, but I knew that also meant the day was going to get very hot and we’d be running under a blazing sun. We all separated into our seeding batches based on marathon times. I was categorized into batch G for sub-4:40 marathon. The race didn’t start until 5:30am so I had over an hour to just stand there. That’s when the nerves hit me. I was about to run Comrades! AHHHH!!!
I saw the flag of the sub-11:30 bus and immediately decided I wanted to hop on it. The ‘buses’ are pacing groups that run the race with an intended finishing time and pace the whole way together. With a 12 hour cutoff time at the finish line, I knew 11:30 was cutting it close but figured that was my best bet at finishing. The bus driver, Wietsche, has run 37 Comrades and was well experienced in the undulations of the course, I knew I would have to put my trust in this man if I were to follow his bus.
One of the favorite traditions of Comrades is corralling at the startline and singing the South African national anthem and Shosholoza – both of which I learned during my Peace Corps training. That was a very emotional moment- 17,000 runners all singing together before running the ultimate human race. Most people get a little misty, I know I did. Then Chariots of Fire plays over the speakers before the cock crows and the start gun fires off. At precisely 5:30am we began the slow shuffle forward, it takes a long time for that many runners to gain ground and spread out, for a long time we were shoulder to shoulder, front to back, making a very slow shamble through Durban. It took a couple of hours before I felt I had enough elbow room to actually swing a full gait. I followed the 11:30 bus for the first 4 to 5 hours- running when they ran, walking when they walked, drinking when they drank. It was hard for me to run a race that’s not my own pace, but at the pace of this driver whom I didn’t know and had to just trust he knew what he was doing. He was very funny, whimsical, and encouraging. I finished my gels rather early on (oops) and he gave me one of his Turbovites. That’s true Camaraderie right there. Climbing Field’s Hill was the first point that I really felt like the race was winning. And things only continued to get more and more difficult from there. After Botha’s Hill I had to stop for a porta-loo break and when I came out the bus had gotten way far ahead, I could see the flag in the distance but they were just too far for me to catch up. From this point I was on my own. And I was scared.
I trotted along, running the down hills and walking the ups, all the while I monitored my pace and made sure I was on track to hit all the cut off times. I knew the halfway mark wasn’t far ahead but I was so fatigued and really didn’t know if I could finish the course. Passing Arthur’s Seat helped my spirits a bit. I placed a flower down and said “Good morning Aurthur” (a Comrades tradition) and a burst of energy hit me, I felt good about having made it that far and I knew I would have a slight downhill run into the halfway point at Drummond.
Inspiration struck as I ran through the tons of cheering spectators at Drummond congratulating me on making it halfway! I passed the Polokwane Athletic Club tent and saw my friend’s boyfriend among the crowd. I stopped and had him help me re-pin my bib to the back of my shirt, it felt really good to know half the course was over, I had climbed 3 of the major 5 hills, and I was well ahead of cut off times. Immediately after Drummond we began the slow, steady climb up Inchanga- the Zulu word for knife with a jagged edge. Inchanga is a massive hill that zig zigs for almost 3 kilometers- and pretty much everyone walks up this entire thing. I saw everyone around me walking, so I did as well. I spotted a man with a green number bib (which means he’s run Comrades at least 10 times), I figured I’d talk to him for a bit- he’s done this so many times he probably would be a good person to follow (race logic!). He and I had a good pace going- a slow jog then a fast walk and did this all the way up Inchanga, then we separated at some point but I was thankful I had a wise runner to follow and learn from for a bit. As I came down Inchanga I ran into a woman with whom I was chatting with at the startline and who was also in the 11:30 bus with me earlier on. She too had gotten separated from the bus and was running solo. She said “I’m happy to suffer to the finish line together if you want”. I gladly agreed. Her and I ran together for what seemed to be quite a while. She’s an American ex-pat living in Singapore, her and her husband come to SA to run Comrades every year, this being her 5th year. We talked about everything from education to careers, culture, running, anthropology, economics, anything to keep our minds busy and off of what we were doing physically. I got a really bad cramp and told her to run on ahead, I didn’t want her to sacrifice her time to wait on me. She slowly jogged out of my sight and I never saw her again. I hope she finished. I heard a voice from behind call my name and I recognized this man who was in the 11:30 bus with me, he was also a first time Comrades runner, we ran together for a bit but I lost him somewhere on a downhill. I kept spotting runners I knew and finding people to chat with, running Comrades alone is a really hard thing to do so it helps to make friends quickly and keep the mental distractions flowing.
The sun was unmerciful. It was blazing hot and runners were slowly starting to fall apart. I saw runners collapsing all over the sides of the road. I gave everyone water as I passed them, knowing that could easily be me. This is what Comrades is all about – you help people and people help you. Every runner is your brother or sister and we all have the same single goal: to cross the finish line. My bad knee was acting up, I felt a sharp pain with every stride on my left leg and wondered how much farther this knee could carry me. Thankfully the spectators added an element of energy. The bibs we wore have our names on them and what country we’re from, as well as how many Comrades we’ve run. People were cheering my name- I knew it was the spectators trying to encourage me! I’d hear “Go Koleana Go!” and “Go USA!” from all directions. This helped a lot.
At around 67km there was a cutoff time- which I was fully ahead of and felt good about it. My body was in pain from head to toe by this point and figured I had the time to spare to walk a bit. But once I slowed to a walk, I couldn’t really pick up the pace again. Camperdown has 3 unnamed but significantly difficult hills, all of which I struggled to get over. Then comes Little Pollys and Polly Shorts. Once you climb Polly Shorts there is a cutoff time before the last 7km and the finish line. As I climbed up I knew I would miss the cut off time and be pulled off the course. This is where the water works started flowing full force. Jogging and crying, jogging and crying, I knew at 80k my race would end and I would not be crossing the finish line. That’s a sad reality pill to swallow. As I reached the cutoff point, dozens of other runners were there waiting for the bus to drive us to the finish line.
I climbed on board the bus and sat and cried. Tears of pain, defeat, sadness, joy, a mixture of everything the last 11 hours of running has caused me to feel. My race had ended.
The bus dropped us off at the finishing stadium and I worked my way through the crowds and into the International Runners tent. I quickly spotted my friends and they gave me a chair to sit down. We all talked about our experiences, the ups and downs, some of us crossed the finish line and some didn’t, but we all felt good about what we accomplished. There was a buffet line for us international runners, I was starving. I inhaled some butternut soup, spaghetti and Sprite (which I never drink, but my god was that crisp and refreshing!)
We made our way to the bus that would drive us from Pietermaritzburg back to Durban and sat in traffic trying to get out of the stadium for at least 90 minutes. I was so tired, sore, stiff, happy, sad, and more tired. I curled up in the seat and tried to take a little nap. We made it back to the city center, limped to the car and drove back to our little beach hut. Walking up the stairs was not a fun moment in time. Struggle bus!
First things first, I needed a shower badly, then we all made food and ate and celebrated a bit but we didn’t have much energy and passed out fairly early.
The days following were all recovery and massages, beach time, movies, and eating all the food.
Reflecting back on the whole experience, there are a lot of things I really enjoyed about Comrades, and some things that I was not very happy with.
Things I liked:
-The bus tour: great for mental preparedness
-Runners singing at the start line
-The encouragement of aid station workers
-Physiotherapy massages along the race course
Things I didn’t like:
-The spectators and their children crowding into the race course
-The timing system being gun to gun, instead of timing chip to mat
-The adjustments of cutoff times and the placements of them
-Not enough food in the first half
Here’s Comrades 2015 in numbers & medical statistics –
- around 23,000 people registered for the race
- about 5,000 of those people didn’t qualify to run it
- 17,000 runners showed up at the start line
- 13,000 finished the course
- close to 600 runners were treated in medical tents along the course
- nearly 100 runners were sent to St Augustines and St Annes Hospitals
- ailments treated were dehydration, heart problems, pneumonia, renal failure, low blood pressure; most were treated and discharged but 17 remained in the ICU
- the 1st male finisher was South African, and had a time of 5 hours 38 minutes
- the 1st female finisher was South African, with a time of 6 hours 12 minutes
Comrades was everything I expected it to be. I didn’t sign up because I thought it would be easy. I wanted to push myself harder and farther than I ever have – and I did exactly that. I ran 50 miles up and down hills. And although I didn’t cross the finish line, I’m happy I got to experience the magic of Comrades. It seems surreal to finally be done with it. The last 9 months has been all preparation, planning, organizing, and training for this 1 event, and now that it’s over, there’s this “what’s next?” feeling.
Right after the race my friend asked me if I would ever run it again, I told him ask me again in a few days because right now I’m saying definitely not, but I’m sure I’ll change my mind… 😉