All posts tagged comrades

Races: #8. COMRADES

Published June 5, 2015 by kokoinsouthafrica

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.

Topographical Course

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.

Wall of Honor

Wall of Honor

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.



This lil guy was particularly excited to meet an American

This lil guy was particularly excited to meet an American


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 Last Supper.

The Last Supper.

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!!!

Before separating at the start line

Before separating at the start line

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.

Bunny Chow - a Durban original.

Bunny Chow – a Durban original.

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… 😉



Races: #7. Nguni’s 4-in-1 Ultra Marathon

Published May 4, 2015 by kokoinsouthafrica

From left to right: My Host Mother, me, 3 of my yoga students.

There were a few things that made this event special: 1. It was my first Ultra Marathon, 2. A fellow PCV came with me to run her 1st 5k and so did a few of my yoga students, 3. We celebrated Cinco De Mayo afterward! I love that my students are always down for new experiences, and I especially enjoy introducing people to the world of running.

We had to wake up at 4:30am to pick up some fellow runners and make the drive in time to register before the race started at 7am. As us runners gathered at the start line outside of Nguni’s, the race director took a few minutes to give instructions. He also touched on recent events regarding the xenophobic attacks that have been happening around South Africa, and how running is not a place for discrimination, it’s where all people can participate together in sport regardless of color or ethnicity.  We said a prayer, thanking the higher power for the opportunity and asking for strength and cloud cover, it was a beautiful moment to look around and see hundreds of runners all united under a common goal, independent of race.

The start gun fired off and away we ran! This course was pretty level, ebbing through some residential areas of northern Polokwane, it lacked the inspirational scenery that I usually look forward to. Also, not being able to run with music is a challenge I have had to face recently due to race guidelines, this is a psychological test that is not fun. The silver lining is the ability to make new friends and chat while running. I paced with a man named Walter who I also paced with at the MOTN marathon back in March. Seeing so many familiar faces at every event made me realize how small the world of running is.  Walt is a sweet old man and he inspires me- he’s over 50 years old and still kicks ass at running marathons! He is also preparing for his first Comrades, just like me.

I reached 21km around 2:05 and hit the official halfway mark at about 2:30, at which point I allowed myself to walk a bit knowing full well I was making decent time. The second half would be hot and grueling, so I made a plan with Luvo, another runner who paced with me until the very end. The aid stations were roughly 3km apart, so we ran from station to station, allowing about a minute of walking to drink after each station. This plan seemed to work well for us and we trotted along. The last 12 km or so was pretty rough, it was really hot- the clouds that had shaded us for the first 2 hours dissipated and there was no longer protection from the sun that was beating down on us. However, we knew we were going to finish before the 6 hour cutoff time, so we restructured our plan to allow us to walk for a minute after every kilometer. For me, the final 2 kilometers of any race feel effortless – by that point I am running on shear determination and my legs glide on autopilot, carrying me across the finish line. Before the race, my friend asked me what time I was hoping to finish with – I figured a 5:40 was pretty attainable for 48 km. I ended up finishing with a 5:57…which I don’t think is particularly impressive, but I’m happy I completed the first Ultra marathon I’ve ever attempted. A couple years ago I wrote down on my Dreams List that I wanted to complete an Ultra Marathon…I am deeply thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to take on that task and cross that entry off my list.

My favorite part of this race had nothing to do with running, but with the conversations I had with other runners along the course. Luvo taught me a lot – I told him I’m preparing for my first Comrades and he said he’s preparing for his 7th. :O I took full advantage of the fact that we were running together for those last 3 hours, and I picked his brain for tips on Comrades- both preparation and the race itself. Here are some of the most significant things he shared with me: Have a pacing plan going into it. Walk the hills- especially Inchanga, and literally everyone will walk at Polly Shorts. Hydrate in the beginning, even if I feel I don’t need to. Run through the pain. And my favorite tip of all- don’t look at anyone else while running…don’t compare myself to anyone, don’t get down about myself if another runner passes me, the race has to be ran for myself, not for anyone else.

Races are a platform not only for personal growth, but for sharing with and learning from other runners as well. We share the laughs, the pains, knowledge, and victories as we cross finish lines together. We come out of the experience with new friends who were strangers a mere 6 hours beforehand. I am thoroughly enjoying becoming part of South Africa’s running community, and I cannot wait to experience the shear volume and positive energy of Comrades, coming up on May 31st.

After the race, we piled into the car to go get lunch before making the 2 hour drive back. Once we arrived home, we immediately got to work preparing our Cinco De Mayo feast with my host family and a few other Peace Corps volunteers. Thankfully people send/bring me special key items from the States- like taco seasoning and Tapatio sauce, that coupled with my new found ability to make tortillas (thank you, Peace Corps), we shared a delicious spread!


Ready for our Cinco De Mayo feast!

Races: #4. SuperSpar Bela Bela Marathon

Published November 12, 2014 by kokoinsouthafrica

It was hot as balls, but I survived!

My first alarm went off at 1:50am and by 2am we were in the car and on the road. We arrived at the race site by 5, giving us just enough time to check in at registration, use the restroom and get ourselves prepared. My host mom gave me a big, warm hug and we wished each other good luck [she was running the 5k]. The gun went off at precisely 5:30 and away I ran!

The SuperSpar marathon in Bela Bela was a race of contrasts. The first 20km or so was pretty flat and I was feeling good about it. It would be quite misleading to any runners that hadn’t already studied the course map for elevation gains. I was constantly checking my posture and making sure my alignment was good. I knew that if I was kind to my body in the first half, it would be kind to me in the second half.

I was making good time strutting along the streets of Bela Bela, drinking water whenever it was available with an occasional cup of Coke. I never drink soda- I detest it- but when that’s the only option, I had no choice. I knew that my body could not survive on coke and water alone, and was wondering when the heck I’d find some real sustenance. Alas! An aid station that had banana chunks! I slowed my pace to grab some snackies, inhaled the banana chunk and washed it down with a gulp of Coke. Just then, Bassjackers EDCLV 2014 came up on my playlist and almost instantly my feet pick up faster, my body felt lighter and my stride easier. I love these moments in running, I live for these moments where everything in the universe aligns perfectly and the race doesn’t feel like a race but rather a Saturday walk in the park.

I tried not to get too cocky though, I knew the real race began in the second half, where I’d face over 200m elevation gain in less than 2km of distance. I knew that hitting a sub-5 hour marathon would mean I’d need to hit the halfway mark no later than 2 hours in, giving myself the remaining 3 hours to climb some hills. I was making good time, and was super happy when I hit the halfway mark by 1:45.  The halfway point was disappointingly anticlimactic, there wasn’t even an aid station, just a marker saying “21.1km”. At this point I could ease up on the gas just a bit, I had 3:15 allowance to cross the finish line, which may seem like a lot of time but the African summer sun had been high in the sky since 5:30, and I still had 8 or 9 hills to climb.


I came running around a corner and that’s where I finally saw it, the first daunting hill. I gasped, this was not going to be fun. Luckily an aid tent was right at the base of it and I decided to bust out a sports gel I had stashed in my shorts pocket. I gulped it down along with a sachet of water and began the monstrous ascent up the first hill. I have mixed feelings about sports gels. I appreciate the consolidation of so many nutrients in 1 pocket sized packet, but I loathe the stomach cramps I get while my body tries to break apart the sticky, gooey glob. As I was taking my time up this hill, I was wincing and gasping verbally because my stomach was turning and it hurt. I forced myself to jog through the pain, but that was an unpleasant 2km or so.

I got atop of the first major hill and knew the rest of the course would be a roller-coaster of hill after hill after hill. By this point I had gotten in the habit of grabbing two water sachets at every aid station. The first one I would drink, and the second one I would squirt all over my body in an attempt to cool down. Also by this point the aid stations had water-misters for us.

There were tons of motivational signs set up along the race course, and I always smiled when I passed by them. They said things like-

“With every up there is a down”

“Enjoy the down”

“Remember why you started this”

By 27km I hit the last switchback on the hills and knew I would be doubling back all the way up and down to the first hill. For a bit I had been pacing a pack of 4 guys, 1 guy had set a cadence for his group by tapping a small tambourine against his leg. I stayed close enough behind that I could hear the chime over my headphones, and keeping this pace was helping me a lot. We didn’t stay together through the end, but there was a solid stretch of distance where that consistent chiming pulled me through the hills.

I saw the 30km mark and I still had 1:45 allowance left. I slowed my roll and just tried to enjoy the ride. It was hot, I was tired, but I had plenty of time left on the clock and didn’t feel the need to push myself any more than I really had to. My only concern was finishing under 5 hours, and I was on pace to do so. Eventually I passed the 32km mark, then 35km, and so on. I ran when I wanted to, walked when I wanted to, and stopped to chat with people at the aid stations. All the while I was checking my watch and making sure I was pacing myself appropriately. By 37km I decided to just run the final 5km and finish feeling good. We had come down the final hill a little ways back, and now we were on flat ground once again, I thought this final stretch would be a piece of cake. The only problem I faced was that my body was dyyiinnggg for some salt, but all that was available was soda and candy. I pushed past the cramping, but I would have given anything for some salted potatoes. I passed an aid station that had Simbas (similar to Cheetos) but I didn’t have enough saliva to chew them, so I just sucked the powder off and spit them out as I ran.

Then, I could see the finish line! Finally! It’s an exhilarating feeling to run with your eyes closed. It’s pretty stimulating. I did this for a minute or so as I approached the finish line. I opened my eyes as I came around the last bend and it was a straight shot into victory! This is exactly what I wanted, a sub-5 so I could qualify to run Comrades next year. Exact finishing time- 4:57:14. I don’t think my time was particularly impressive but I did what I set out to do, and I was incredibly humbled by the fact that the 1st place finisher had a time of 2:32:39 – he finished in like half my time! Gheez!

Personal victories for this race:

-Did not need to use my knee braces or my inhaler

-Finished without any blisters!

It’s the little things… 🙂

Races: #2. KLM Half Marathon

Published August 25, 2014 by kokoinsouthafrica

South Africa has offered me some really sweet opportunities to combine my passions, in this case- running and education! The KLM Half Marathon is a race that raises funds for the Kgwale Le Mollo Foundation– an organization that was started by Peace Corps volunteers, and its focus is sponsoring well deserving children to attend higher quality learning institutions that develop them into the future leaders of South Africa. The KLM Half Marathon is an annual event, volunteers have been raising money & running this race since 2005. I love races, and this event provided the opportunity to run for a great cause!


This guy was the first male PCV finisher, crossing the finish line at 1hr:36minutes! I came in as the 2nd PCV finisher, 1st female, with a time of 2 hours.

This guy was the first male PCV finisher, crossing the finish line at 1hr:36minutes! [Impressive] I came in as the 2nd PCV finisher, 1st female, with a time of 2 hours.

The course wasn’t too difficult, the race was basically road running through the Polokwane area which had some windy points, some small hills, and a lot of barking dogs along the way, haha. The Polokwane Athletics Club was kind enough to host us at the Peter Mokaba Stadium as well as providing hydration throughout the course and post-race. They even prepared some braii (BBQ) for runners to replenish themselves right at the finish line!


Some PCVs at the finish line!

Some of the PCV runners at the finish line! Will-busy inhaling a hotdog.



There were several PCVs who came to be our cheerleaders, there was a huge group of them cheering us on as we crossed the finish line! Afterwards we had a full day of BBQing and hanging out, celebrating our victories and enjoying the sunshine.


Me & my cookie post-race!

I really enjoy events where PCVs can get together and raise money while having a good time. Many, many thanks to my loved ones back home, whose generous donations qualified me to participate in this awesome race. Collectively we raised well over $3000, and all funds go directly into education.

I met someone from the PLK Athletics Club who has completed 13 Comrades races, he is definitely someone I will strive to learn from. After finishing this race in my goal time, I feel confident in running a  sub-5hour marathon to qualify for Comrades – The Ultimate Human Race!