Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Comrades. The Ultimate Human Race.

Race reports are inherently self-centered.

"Hey people - read all about me and my run" !

So for those of you, and I wouldn't blame you, who don't really want to read this all - here's the recap in a paragraph.

I've run some of the largest and best supported races in the world.  I've run the 6 World Majors.  Many of my friends will consider that Boston, with it's traditions and knowledgable crowds, is the greatest race.  Others perhaps New York, or London. In the past I may have agreed,  But not anymore.  Comrades is bigger, and better.  If you have a running bucket list - put this race on it.  Somehow, someway, get yourself to South Africa and run it.  It's long, it's hot, it's hard, there are undoubtably going to be times it will suck - but from the singing of Shozaloza at the start, to the finish with a lap of a cricket stadium, and all the miles, support and camaraderie in between - it's a frigging amazing experience !  I promise you you won't regret it.  I ran it this year.  I plan to run it next year.  I suspect that may not be the last time either.

And now more about me and my Comrades experience….

History and Tradition

The Comrades Marathon is the world's oldest, and largest ultra-marathon race.

It's run over a distance of approximately 90 km / 56 miles between the costal city of Durban, and the capital of the Kwazulu-Natal Province of South Africa, Pietermaritzburg.

The direction of the race alternates each year between the 'up' run starting from Durban and the 'down' run starting from Pietermaritzburg.

The race was the idea of World War I veteran Vic Clapham, to commemorate the South African soldiers killed during the war. Clapham wanted the memorial to be a unique test of the physical endurance of the entrants. The constitution of the race states that one of its primary aims is to  celebrate mankind's spirit over adversity.

Comrades is a HUGE deal in South Africa.  Perhaps the biggest sporting event of the year.  People will watch all 12 hours of the race on television.  There's as much support for the runners struggling to keep on target for the very strict 12 hour cut off as there is for the elites at the front.

It's a right of passage.  Many many South Africans have run it at some point in their lives.  Often several times.

In other countries running a marathon is seen as a big achievement.

In South Africa a marathon is merely run to get a qualifying time for Comrades.

"So you run marathons ?  That's cute."

As a result - South Africans know the race.  Support the race.  Have pride in the race.

Similar to the people in New England supporting the Boston Marathon.  Except this isn't just a state - its the whole country.  It's the Boston marathon on steroids (sorry Alberto / Galen - too soon ?)

National heroes have been created, perhaps none bigger than Bruce Fordyce, who won the race 9 times.  Read more about him here - and later.

The race has many traditions, one being the way the race ends abruptly at 12 hours exactly after the starting gun.  Anyone not across the finish line at that second - and literally at that second - will be prevented from finishing, won’t receive a medal, and won’t be counted in the list of finishers.  People can run Comrades in 12 hours and 1 second - and have no official record. Brutal.

There are 6 different medals available, all based on gun time.

The first 10 men and women receive a ‘Gold’ medal - partially made with gold.  This is South Africa after all.

Then anyone else who finishes below 6 hours (a very very small number), will receive a ‘Wally Hayward’ medal.

A ‘Silver’ medal is given for those finishing between 6 hours, and 7 hours and 30 mins.

A ’Bill Rowan’ for finishing between 7:30 and 9 hours.

A ‘Bronze’ medal for 9-11 hours, and

A ‘Vic Clapham’ for anyone finishing between 11 and 12 hours.

And again - nothing for finishing at 12 hours and 1 second…

Training ?

Comrades had been on my bucket list for a while.  But 55 miles ?  That seems like a bloody long way.   I'm not a beardy running ultra freak.  I run marathons.  Better yet - I run half marathons... I don't know if I can actually run that far.

Still, after finishing the world majors, I needed something else.  Something different.

2015 was to be 90th running of Comrades.   That's a nice round number.  And it was going to be an 'Up' run.  On a work trip to Cape Town in 2012, some of the guys in the office had joked that 'the down run didn't really count'.  Ridiculous, as it is also very tough - but still - in the back of my mind I figured if I was going to go all that way - I needed to run the up run.

I didn't really follow a specific training plan for Comrades.  I wanted to run a good Boston in April.  Comrades was 6 weeks later.  So I trained for Boston, and added a little more mileage.  I didn't do any specific hill training - how hard could these hills be ?

Quite hard as I found out.  More on that later.

But I had put in about 1350 miles between January 1st and the end of May.  I'd read that 1,000 miles was the magic number - so I felt reasonably confident.

Like most big races, Comrades has a seeded start.  'Batches' instead of 'Corals', but the same concept.  But unlike other big races - Comrades is timed only on gun time - so the starting position was even more important.  In December I ran California International Marathon in 2.55 to get myself into the 'A' Batch.


Fast forward.  I landed in Durban on the Thursday afternoon.  The race was on Sunday.  8 hour time difference, and back to back overnight red eye flights.  Not ideal, but I preferred to do it that way so I could spend more time after the race in South Africa, than nervously before.

First impressions - it's hot here !  This would be a great place for a beach vacation.  Less so for a long uphill run.  As one of my facebook friends helpfully pointed out - 'What do you expect - you're running in Africa'.....

At least we were forecasted to get a 'cool down' to the low 80s for race day on Sunday...

On the Thursday night we went to an International Runners 'Meet and Greet', where I was lucky enough to meet Bruce Fordyce and he autographed a street sign for me (the other signature was Bernard Gomersall, the English winner of the race from 1965 and all around great bloke).

Fordyce still holds the official record for the 'Up-Run'.  5 hours, 27 mins, 42 seconds.

Think about that for a second.

That's quicker than back-to-back sub 2.40 hour marathons, with 5,500 foot of climbing !!!!  (55 miles remember).

The guy was a beast.

Friday we hit the expo.  The relative strength of the US Dollar compared to the Rand, meant that you could get more for your money.  So I got more...

Saturday we'd made the decision to take a bus tour of the route.  We were in 2 minds.  On the one hand it would be good to get an idea of what we were getting into.  On the other hand - maybe ignorance was bliss ?

In hindsight I'd recommend it.  But it certainly scared the crap out of me.  I think this was a good thing though.  It meant any naive ideas I'd had for a silver medal (sub 7:30) went out the window.  With temperatures forecast to be hot, with no cloud cover, and the course hillier than I'd expected - my goal was firmed up.  I decided that I'd be very happy with a Bill Rowan medal.  Sub 9 hours.

Race Morning

Comrades starts early.  5:30am.  It's suggested you're in your batch by 5am.  Work backwards - breakfast, taking care of 'business' and getting to the start - my alarm went off at 3:15am.  1:15pm in the afternoon according to my confused body clock.  Once again I thanked the inventor of ambien.

We left the hotel and caught a taxi to the start.  Even at 4:45am the batches were packed, with many people sitting down.  I said goodbye to my friends, and then made my way into the 'A' batch.  I sat on the curb near the back and waited.

At 5:10am they suddenly let down the barriers between other corrals and the runners from the lower batches surged forward.  I quickly jumped up and got in place so that I didn't end up too far back.

We were packed in like sardines.

With 10 minutes to go before the start, the singing started.  Firstly the South African National Anthem, and then Shozaloza.  This was one of the parts of the whole Comrades 'experience' that I'd been looking forwards to the most.  I'd seen haunting renditions from previous years and had learned the words.  The singing started, the crowd joined in.  I wasn't disappointed.  Truly something unique in running.  I had a small video camera and recorded it:

The final music was the Charriots of Fire theme.  We anxiously looked at the clock as it ticked close to 5:30am.  Then the cockerel sounded, or at least the recording of Max Trimborn, who in 1948 was so nervous at the start, that he cupped his hands and made the cockerel sound.  For years he was asked to do the same for future races, and now a recording of him is played.   Another tradition.

Then the gun.   I was only 30 yards back from the start line, although those first few yards were slow going.  We were so packed together if felt like we were moving as a single mass forwards.  Across the line and starting the garmin.  Whoops - rookie mistake.  Comrades is gun time.  I should have started the watch at the gun.

We ran through a wide mostly dark city street, with small crowds cheering.  I tried to take in the experience.  Bloody hell - this is Comrades !  People were flying past me on all sides.  I desparately tried to go slowly, and truly thought I was, although my first kilometer split perhaps suggests otherwise.

Throughout this write up, I'm inserting videos.  A lot more interesting than my ramblings….  This one shows the first few hundred yards as we worked out way through the dark Durban streets.

There are no mile markers in Comrades - everything is in kilometers.  Rather than counting up, the kilometers count down, which is a little daunting at first, but as the race wears on the numbers start to appear more manageable.

To run a Sub 7:30 hour time, I knew that was a sub 5:08 average min / km pace (8:15 min/miles).  For a 9 hour time, it was 6:08 (9:50 min/mile).  I'd already ruled out the sub 7:30 time, so decided I'd look to run something in between.  Be comfortably under 9 hours, but not push it too hard and risk blowing up.  So my K splits *should* be in the 5:15 - 6:15 range, with a few over for the harder hill sections.

1 KM  - 4:09 pace.

Ahhh.  That's sub 3 hour marathon pace.  Maybe a little quicker than intended.  Dial it back a bit.

While Africans are by far the biggest contingent of runners, there are hundreds of international runners too.  I'd joined both the US, and UK and Ireland Comrades Facebook groups prior to the race, which provided valuable advice, as well as details on numerous social events during the weekend.  Both groups had created unique race shirts, which were very noticeable.  Within the first few hundred yards of the race I found 3 English guys wearing their shirts and ran with them.  They were all thinking of attempting a silver medal, but weren't sure with the warmer temperatures.  We all mentioned how we were already sweating quite badly.  The English typically lie by the pool in this weather - not run a long way.  Unless the police are involved.  I saw these guys afterwards - none had gotten their silver medal.

I started with a water bottle as I have done in most marathons, but drinking it quickly as I could feel myself losing fluids.

We hit the highway and immediately started going uphill, up to Berea.

A little down, then up again to the Durban Boundary.  The 'Up' run starts off going up pretty much immediately.

In Africa most westerners go on Safari looking for the ‘big 5’.  At Comrades - the big 5 are not what you’re seeking out….  the ‘Big 5′ as they are affectionately known - are the 5 main hills - namely Cowies Hill, Fields Hill, Bothas Hill, Inchanga and the famous Polly Shortts.

I'd studied the profile map before running.  I can tell you this doesn't do the hills justice….  Not even close.

As ultra runner Ian Sharman said after running it 'Not training for hills because it’s a road race will cause you significant issues – the course is significantly harder per mile than a typical road marathon.'   

Thanks Ian.  Wish I'd read that earlier in the year.

My strava post-race plot gives a better idea of the 5 main hills:

Another tradition with Comrades are the bib numbers, which you have to wear on the front and back.  Below the actual bib number is your name, the batch letter you're in, and also the number of comrades that the person has completed previously.  You can quickly see the experience and qualifying batch of everyone running around you.  You also know what to call them when you start a conversation...

The bibs are also different colours.  Blue for an international runner.  Green for someone who has run 10 or more Comrades.  Once you had a green number - that's yours for life.  No one would ever wear that number again, and you had your own special edition line of clothing and area at the start and finish of the race.

I'd been told to look out for the 'yellow' numbers.  Those were the people who had run 9 Comrades previously, and were going for the prestigious 10th and the green number.  Those were people who had the experience to know what they were doing, but were also very determined not to mess it up.  If you could find a yellow number running at your pace - you should stick with them and hang on.

2 - 5:08
3 - 5:25
4 - 5:48
5 - 4:57
6 - 5:21
7 - 5:49
8 - 4:46
9 - 5:17
10 - 5:24

Running with another English guy now.  He’s looking for a Bill Rowan too.  Notice the easy to spot shirts the British were wearing...

10K in.  Take salt caps and a gel.

You’re told not to think of the whole distance to go - which is difficult - since they count down the Ks from the beginning so you see every K.  I try and break it into 10k chunks.  So just 8 x 10Ks then 8+ more after that.

So we've run 1 of 9 chunks.

Somewhere around here the sun comes up.

Then up more to the first of the ‘Big 5’ Cowie’s hill.

Through Pinetown - where, due to road works, they’d added an extra 800 meters to the course - making it the longest Up Run on record.  Despite this - the finish cut-off remained the same.  Later in the day, watching the 12 hour runners desperately trying to make the final cut-off, I realized that many would have made it but for this extra distance.

11 - 5:28
12 - 5:43
13 - 5:03
14 - 5:07
15 - 5:22
16 - 5:47
17 - 4:52
18 - 4:57
19 - 5:06
20 - 5:12

Aid stations at Comrades are fantastic.  They're probably every 2 KMs, and they hand out bags of water, and sports drinks.  With the warm temperature, I quickly got into the habit of grabbing 3 water bags.  With your teeth, you tear the top corner - and can then squeeze out the water.  Much easier than the plastic cups of most marathons.  I'd pour the first bag over myself for cooling, and then run with the other 2, one in each hand for cooling, and drink before the next aid station.

Each aid station was run by a club, or company, and had different themes with enthusiastic volunteers.  This video from one of the aid stations gives an idea of what they're like.

20K - two more salt caps.  Another gel.

Brief respite - then up again to Fields Hill.   2nd of big 5.  The English guy is dropping back.  I look around and he says, "don’t worry - I’m right behind you" - but then don’t see him again.

There's a pretty severe camber on the road which makes the hill harder, so I get to the center of the road to try and minimize it.  The sun is now high and bright, and this is the biggest hill of the race.

Fortunately it's early enough that it's not too taxing.  Despite advice to walk parts of all the big hills, I've managed to run every step so far.  Or maybe that's not so fortunate...

I ran with headphones but never put them on.  There's no need.  There's support nearly the whole way, and it's easy to strike up a conversation with the people around you.

At this point I was running with a South African with the yellow bib - going for his 10th run.  He gave me some history of the race and the towns we were running through.

Again - South Africans are rightly, very proud of this race - and you'll feel that the whole way, from the support, to other runners seeing that you're an international visitor and wanting to make sure you're okay and help you through if needed.

Through Kloof

Through Winston Park.  Splits slowing for Fields Hill.

21 - 5:11
22 - 5:39
23 - 6:09
24 - 6:27
25 - 6:01
26 - 5:22
27 - 5:20
28 - 5:20
29 - 5:38
30 - 5:18

30K.  2 salt caps and another gel.  The gels aren’t sitting well.  So much for thinking I can get through an ultra just taking gels.  I start to throw up.  Not good.

Through Inanda. and then Hillcrest

Up to Botha’s Hill.  The 3rd of the ‘Big 5’.  The sun was now fully out.

Past Kearney College - a private school where the kids in Uniform were out to cheer us.  High-fiving as we go.

31 - 5:39
32 - 5:24
33 - 5:21
34 - 5:32
35 - 5:14
36 - 5:56
37 - 6:18
38 - 5:23
39 - 5:36
40 - 5:13

40K.  There's no way I can do another gel.  Very fortunately I'd stumbled across a company at the expo selling the 'Race Food Bar’.  I tried them and they seemed very bland, so I bought a box, and just before leaving my hotel room - I put 3 bars in the pockets of my shorts.  I decided to try one of those.  Almost immediately I got an energy lift, so I decided to take one of these every 10K, until I reached 60K.  I remembered that the company had an aid station soon after 60K, so I hoped to get more bars then.

They say not to do anything new for raceday - but in hindsight - this was an incredible bit of luck.

Through 41K and I still haven't walked a step.  I decide I'm going to make it past the marathon distance (42K) before walking, but then almost immediately hit another incline and decide that's stupid.  I walk for the first time.

Certainly not the last.

42.1 K at about 3 hours and 50 mins.

I’ve run a marathon and still have almost 30 miles to go.  A bit daunting.

Wall of Honor and Arthur’s Seat.  Arthur Newton was the first winner of comrades, and supposedly he stopped to rest at this spot.  Tradition goes now that you must put a flower or some grass at the seat, or you’ll have a terrible second half.  Apparently Arthur is a bit of a vindictive bastard.

Nearly everyone was running past, seemingly not noticing it - but I knew it was coming and had grabbed some grass fronds and placed it on the seat and touched the plaque (as the video shows…)

We were now into the Valley of 1000 Hills.  Here the road basically undulates continuously as we continued on our way to Pietermaritzburg.

Into Drummond and then the Halfway point

On the bus tour the day before we'd visited the Ethembeni School in Inchanga.  The School provides Education and Care for 270 Zulu speaking children age 5 to 18.  Many of the kids are disabled, but all were out on the side of the road to support the runners.  This is definitely a memorable spot - high-fiving the kids as we went.

Then onto the next of the big 5.  Inchanga.  This one was tough, partly because of my nutrition issues and with the hot temperatures.  I tried to bargain with myself - 'run to the 3rd telephone pole, then walk to the next one' - then repeat.

41 - 6:44
42 - 5:42
43 - 5:21
44 - 5:23
45 - 5:04
46 - 6:02
47 - 6:49
48 - 6:01
49 - 5:17
50 - 5:15

50K.  Another race food bar.

Past Harrison Flats.  Which seemed a bit ironic.  Nothing is Flat on this course.  It's either up or down - there was no flat !!

It was a hot day with no clouds, as this video shows.

I ran with a garmin temperature monitor on my shoe which provides a good idea of the temperatures we were feeling.  From the chart below you can see the warmth packed in at the start, then the mid 60 degree temperatures as we rose out of Durban, but as the sun came out and the day warmed up, the second half of the race was in the 80s and 90s.

It was a little more desolate at this stage.  Realizing this, the organizers put the 'Green Mile' at the 34K to go mark.  A section with large crowds and pumping music.  I at least tried to look happy for the photograph…

I've now run further than I've ever run before, and still 20 miles to go.

Through Cato Ridge @ 60K and took my final race food bar.

51 - 6:47
52 - 5:41
53 - 5:51
54 - 5:38
55 - 6:32
56 - 5:27
57 - 5:29
58 - 5:21
59 - 6:27
60 - 5:33

At 63K I run through the 'Race Food' sponsored aid-station and was able to get 3 more bars.  That should hopefully get me to the end.

Aid stations also had boiled potatoes.  I probably should have tried these, but I didn't.  I was able to acquire several sets of jelly babies through.  The problem was chewing them with a dry mouth.

61 - 6:52
62 - 6:29
63 - 6:42
64 - 6:52
65 - 5:46
66 - 7:32
67 - 6:34
68 - 5:28
69 - 5:52
70 - 5:45

Mentally the 60-70K point was the hardest of the race for me.  I was tired, hot, and my stomach didn't feel great - and it still seemed such a long way to go.  I knew I had plenty in hand for the Bill Rowan, so let myself slow.  I do remember around 68K I realized that it was 'just' a half-marathon to go, and that mentally gave me the kick to get back in the groove.  You can probably tell that in my voice in the next video clip - I was a lot more 'chipper'.

Then into Camperdown and past the Umlaas Road cut off, then up to the Highest Point of the course with the Water Tower on the hill.

Though Lion Park and starting to wonder about the infamous Polly Shorts hill.  Before Polly Shorts is 'Little Polly'.  If Little Polly was on the Boston course - it would probably combine all the newton hills.  Here it's given a demeaning name.

It's definitely not a 'Little' hill.  Many people were walking it, but somehow I looked ahead and kept going.  I made it a game to myself to run to the next pole, and then realized I was more than halfway up, so I kept going.  I wanted to be able to say I'd run up Little Polly, so I did.

Through the Town of Ashburton

Then I started wondering if I could run up Polly Shorts.  The 5th and final of the big 5.  To put it into perspective - even Bruce Fordyce on his record breaking run, walked sections of Polly Shorts.  Bruce was once asked if you could run all the way up it, and he replied - ‘you will walk on Polly Shorts’.  Bah - what does Bruce know - maybe I can run all the way up this one too ?

Then I came to Polly Shorts and quickly decided that was a stupid idea.  I walked / ran it.  More phone pole bargains to not lose too much time.

71 - 5:33
72 - 6:04
73 - 6:15
74 - 7:28
75 - 5:37
76 - 5:17
77 - 5:50
78 - 6:30
79 - 5:47
80 - 7:36

Once over Polly Shorts you're told that it's 'All downhill’ to Pietermaritzburg.

Except it's not.

There were two hills in the last 7K, that don't warrant a mention on the Comrades course - but they're as big as any hill in any of the majors.  By this point you just roll your eyes, curse a little, and run on.

So if you're reading this ahead of running the up run.  Don't be fooled by those liars !  :)

Running into Pietermaritzburg with large crowds at the side of the road, many out for the day grilling their BBQs, with the smoke often drifting over the road.  The smell of the food wasn't necessarily what my stomach needed at that point, but the end was in sight.  At least figuratively.

3K to go.  That’s just 2 miles.

The KMs were ticking down slowly, but I was very much under control.

Finally - there was 1K to go.

I saw a clock ticking past 8:27:30 and knew I was still 800+ meters to go and that the sub 8:30 wasn’t going to happen, so I got out my video camera and decided to enjoy it and record the run-in.

If you want to get a feel for the last 4 minutes of Comrades - here's your chance.

Into the tree lined finish area that felt like Aleah Drive at Kona - or at least what I imagined it to feel like.

I could hear the crowds and announcer in the Oval Cricket ground used for the finish.

Out into the Oval - do a two thirds counter-clockwise loop around the out-field.

Crowds cheering.

Past the international runners area.

Into the finish straight - and over the line.  Finally it was over.

81 - 8:57
82 - 5:30
83 - 5:25
84 - 5:34
85 - 5:22
86 - 5:06
87 - 5:47
88 - 5:39
89 - 4:06

I’d run 55 miles and gotten the Bill Rowan medal that I'd set out for.

The distance - while daunting before hand (I'd only ever run further than marathon distance once, and that was 34 miles) - was manageable.  Could I have prepared better for this race ?  Absolutely - but I don't think that detracted from the day.

Other than the stomach issues from the gels, I'd never really been in trouble.  Backing off and running for a sub 9 hour time had meant the race was a lot more 'pleasant' for me.  Unless you're sure you can make a faster medal time - I'd recommend this approach.  At least as a rookie when you're probably underestimating how hilly the course is.

If you want to see it on Strava - here's the link.

The medals at Comrades are likely the smallest you'll ever be given.  In 2015 they were larger than previous years, but the inner ring of the Bill Rowan is still about the size of a US Quarter coin.

But that doesn't matter.  The smallest in size, but the largest in terms of memories and experience.

Comrades offers a 'back-to-back' medal for running the Up and Down in consecutive years (doesn't matter which order you run them).  But you can only get it once - and it has to be the year after your first run.  I couldn't go back in 2020 and 2021 for instance and get it.  Great marketing by Comrades !  So I'm planning on going back in 2016 for the down run, and the back-to-back medal.

(UPDATE - this is the race report from the 'Down run' in 2016)

Now that I've seen the course, and realize how serious those hills are - I've already made this my goal for 2016.  Forget Boston - that can be a training run, or warm-up race.  I'm concentrating on Comrades.  My marathon time suggests that a Silver Medal will be a stretch, but if training goes well, and the weather is cooler - it's a possibility.

So that's going to be my ultimate goal next year for the Ultimate Human Race.

As I mentioned at the start - this is definitely the 'best' race I've done.  Sure, that's subjective - but based on the overall challenge, the history, the crowds, the experience, the camaraderie, the course, and everything else - it stands above all others for me.

But don't take my word for it.  Ellie Greenwood said

'It is billed as ‘The Ultimate Human Race,’ a tagline which seems like little more than a slick marketing slogan, until you complete the 89k journey on foot along with 16,000 other runners and realize that this 90-year-old event really does live up to the hype.'

Or trail runner Scott Dunlap, who said

'it's like finding out there was a place on the other side of the world that holds the true roots of your sport'.

You have to go run this !  But don't wait too long.  I suspect you'll want to run it again.  And remember you need to run it 10 times to get your green number…

Post Race

I staggered into the International Runners Area and collapsed in the shade drinking sports drinks for an hour before I felt good enough to recover my tog bag and get some food.

Another aspect of Comrades is that nearly all the finishers wait until the end in the stadium - cheering in the people ahead of the 12 hour cut off and gun.  It was heartbreaking seeing people finish right after the gun - knowing what they’d gone through - and that in a normal year with the 800 less yards, knowing they’d have finished with a good 5+ minutes to spare and got a medal and official time.

Some statistics.

74.1% of the 22373 entries started the race and 78% of those who started finished, with around 3570 dropping out or failing to meet the various cut off times along the route.

Despite the second largest entry ever the total number of finishers fell 1337 short of the 2010 Guinness record of 14343 finishers.  I've got to assume the warm temperatures, and the extra 800 meters we had to run, were partly responsible.

Lessons Learned (this is really just for me for next year !)

- Don't rely on gels - you can't stomach them for that long a race

- Practice solid food.  The 'Race Food' brand was a great find, and are small enough to be able to carry. Experiment with others.

- Hydration at Comrades is very good.  Instead of purely water, perhaps try mixing in some of the sports drink bags as you go to help carb levels (in lieu of the gels)

- You really can get 2nd and 3rd winds !  At 50K, 60K, 70K and 80K - you were looking at walking - with that race food, you seemed to get a lift each time.  Again - nutrition nutrition nutrition.  A huge part of an ultra.

- Think about walking on some of the earlier hills, and consuming the solid food as you do it.  Easier to chew / swallow while you're walking, and conserve energy for later when it gets harder.

- The bib numbers are huge - so if you print a race shirt - make sure you have room to fit the bib on it too

- There is no need to run with music.  If someone feels they really have to have it - pack some earbuds in a pocket, but the crowds and the camaraderie all the way through - you'd miss out on too much

- Wearing a hat helped a lot.  Having a buff was less useful.  Too hot to wear it

- Packing food and gels into your shorts makes them extra heavy - especially when weighed down later when damp after throwing water over yourself.  Make sure you TIE THEM UP properly…  you spent half the race trying to pull them up...

- Starting with a water bottle was helpful to avoid the first crowded aid stop.

- Do take a gatorade bottle again (from US).   A baggy t-shirt in lieu of the banned trash sacks helped for the 'portable porto potty' trick.  You're in the batch a good 30 mins before the start.

- Take a ruck-sack, or bigger bag - that you can use to check as a tog bag.  Put water, more food, and perhaps a hoodie in there too for post race.

- If you use the comrades app on your watch - realize it's not accounting for the extra distance that you'll invariably run, so add a few mins to the predicted finish time.

- For people tracking - if no link on Comrades site - go to YouTube and type 'Comrades Marathon' in search

- If you need to pee in the last 30K and are close to a cut-off - then maybe hold off and don't lose that minute....

- Wow.  This really is the Ultimate Human Race.


  1. Hi,
    My name is Gordon Polovin. If you check out past results you will see I ran from 1980 - 1986 (Fordyce era). All silvers. My average time was reasonably below 7 hours and 5 of the 7 medals all sub 7's. I agree that this is the greatest of all road races by a long way. Your account was interesting to anyone but very informative to anyone wanting to run for the first time. I note you want to run in 2016 and I hope the following helps: You have passed the biggest hurdle - your first Comrades. Now you can take more risks. Your time of 2:50 means you can run a Silver with around 15 minutes to spare. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. You will run 2nd half slower than first so account for that. You must do strength training on your quads to account for downhill pounding. If you are not prepared for that it will take you out of Silver contention. Gels: Drink only with water and no other drink for a stable stomach. Believe in your ability. I saw many runners with lesser times make Silver by simply believing they could and dispelling self-doubt. The standard marathon time doesn't lie so you need to trust in it. If you want any more info on training schedules I followed contact me. Thanks for your input once again.

  2. Hi guys, did you guys received a coca-cola bottle for the race in 2015? Thanks!

    1. I don't think so - although I don't drink it so may have given it away if I did... you should find the Comrades group on Facebook and ask there. A lot more people who would know.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. This is a fantastic account of the race, Richard! I've run Comrades a number of times and this captures so much of it really well. I will look forward to sharing this page with some of my clubmates here in the UK who are thinking of coming down with me next year (2017). I hope you have a great downrun! Your marathon time definitely suggests a silver is very possible. Good luck!

  5. Richard: this is one of the best account of Comrades that I have read. I have just registered for my first Comrades (2017) and I'm doing fair bit of 'couch reading/training' and your write up is just what was looking for. Though I will be aiming to 'just finish' unlike you! Thanks again and keep running and writing. Mumbai, India

  6. Wow just loved your race recap! Found it so informative and entertaining.

  7. Great write up. love the Video's. I did 9.23 that year and going back for a Bill Rowan this up run.

  8. P.S. Thanks for the strava share...helps looking at the grade on the hills...Garmin doesnt include Gradient %