Thursday, June 30, 2016

Comrades Back-to-Back

Comrades is the World's Oldest Ultra Marathon.  2016 was the 91st running.

Comrades is also the World's Largest Ultra Marathon.  20,000 people attempting to run the 56 mile course in under 12 hours.

Last year I ran Comrades for the first time.  That race report is here, along with the history of the race and why it alternates between the 'Up' run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, and the 'Down' run from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.  I won't repeat that here.

As I'd said in that last race report, this is probably the 'best' race I've run, and I truly believe it's one race that every runner should experience at least once.  Yes - it's a long bloody way for most of us to get to - but it's worth it.  Do it.  You won't regret it.

Don't take my word for it - this site of top global running races calls it 'The Race Every Runner Should Run' - with the following opinion.

A handful of races boast a singular cachet among runners. The Boston Marathon is one. So too is the Badwater Ultramarathon, the 135-mile rite of summer that starts and ends at the lowest and highest points in the continental U.S, respectively. Others on the list include Athens, New York City and the Western States 100.

But the Comrades Marathon, South Africa’s annual showcase of athletic endurance and national pride run between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, stands alone in both its accessibility for and enduring impact on the everyday runner.

Damned right.

Comrades offers a 'back-to-back' medal for running consecutive races, and I'd also heard that to 'truly run Comrades', you needed to run it in both directions.  I'd decided to run it pretty much as soon as I crossed the finish line last year.

2015 was an 'Up' run, so this year was to be a 'Down' run.  The name 'Down' run is misleading though.  There's an awful lot of 'Up' too.  5,500 feet of climbing to be precise, with 7,500 of descent to destroy your legs while you're at it, mostly towards the end.

Due to the logistics of the start-line and finish stadiums, the Down run is a little longer than the Up.  Perhaps a mile.  90K compared to 88K.

I'd seen this image before hand - it doesn't do justice to how hilly the course it.  Note, the scale on the right is in meters.

Durban is a large western-like city on the coast of the Indian Ocean.  Pietermaritzburg is a smaller, more provisional town in land.  I'd decided to stay in Durban so I'd be close to the finish, but this meant an early start and a 60 mile bus ride to the start on race morning.

A few days before the race, we did the 'route tour' as I'd done the previous year.  This is something that I'd HIGHLY recommend.  If, like me, you've predominantly run road marathons - seeing the course will give you pause.  Likely far hillier than any road race you've run.

This time on the tour we had Bruce Fordyce as our guide.  Bruce won the race 9 times and is a South Africa sports hero.  This a photo of us in Durban outside the cricket group where the race finishes.

As Bruce pointed out continuously through the day - there's a lot of 'Up' in the 'Down run'.  No shit.

In my first run in 2015 I'd been nervous about running that far.  My previous longest run had been 33 miles, so getting to the finish was a big part of the goal.  While my marathon time of under 3 hours suggested I might be able to get a 'Silver' medal awarded for running the 56 miles in under 7:30 hours, I'd held back a little.  I was happy to run under 9 hours to get the next medal - the 'Bill Rowan'.  Get to the finish in one piece.

This year there were no such reservations.  Silver was my stated goal.  I knew I was on the cusp, and knew that I had a shot - albeit probably a long one given my lack of ultra experience.  Still, I planned to go out and put myself in position for it, and hoped to hang on.

Race Day

Alarm went off at 1:50am.  ONE FIFTY AM !!!  I'd left Denver less than 5 days before, where this would have been 4:50pm on Saturday afternoon.  Talk about a confused body clock.

I tried to do my normal pre-race routine.  Some cereal, a cup of tea - hoping to relax and 'take care of business', but my body refused to cooperate.  "It's not morning yet you idiot"...

The buses to the start left at 3am, so reluctantly I packed up to go, hoping to make use of the 'facilities' at the start.  That concern was soon forgotten as I couldn't find my bus ticket that I'd bought at the expo.  No ticket could be purchased on the bus, and no matter how much I searched, I couldn't find it.

With the time now past 3am, and the last bus at 3:30am, there was nothing to do but get in the bus line and hope.  Fortunately I was able to plead my case with the lady letting people on the buses and I got on.  Not exactly the relaxed morning I was hoping for so far.  It was about to get worse.

Traffic into Pietermaritzburg was slow going and I'm pretty sure our bus driver missed the  'buses only' exit specially cordoned off by the police to get runners to the start quickly.  We sat in a traffic jam not moving as the clock ticked down and the line of traffic stretching into the distance was at a standstill.

The race starts at 5:30am, but at 5:15am they take down the barriers between the waves, so if you haven't reached your designated area by that point - you start at the back.  20,000 people in front of you.  Not the kind of start I was looking for with a time goal in mind.

The time was now 5am and according to the person in the seat in front checking google maps, we were still 2 KMs from the start and not moving.

I, along with a few others, made the decision that running to the start would be quicker.  What was an extra 2 Ks in a day of many more ?...  Let's call it a warm-up.  Running 8 min / miles, dodging between people, cars and buses, I just made it to the start area before 5:15am.  Many others were not as lucky.

No chance to visit the facilities though - and frankly with all the stress that morning - it wouldn't have mattered anyway.  Just get to your starting batch and see how the day goes.

Last year I'd started in the front 'A' batch, but this year I'd been injured and hadn't been able to run the sub 3 required to get me there, so I was in 'B'.  Fortunately I got right up to the front of 'B' and when the barriers came down, I was mixed with the back of A.  Good to know for the future.

It was warm in the pack and I was sweating pretty badly.  My right ankle was also hurting a little.  I'd gotten Posterior Tibial Tendonitis at the end of March and had had to skip Boston to try and help it to heal in time for Comrades.  I'd packed a special compression support, hoping not to need it - but I sat down and put that on before the race started.

Then the signing started.

Truly an amazing experience and one of the highlights of the day.  Once again I took a camera along to capture it.  If you only watch a snippet of the video - jump to 1:35 in.  Shosholoza.  The hairs on my neck stand up every time I listen.  You HAVE to experience this at least once....  :)  There's nothing like this at any marathon major, and you'll get flash backs to this moment for the rest of your life when you hear that song again.

Then the cockerel sound and the gun.  Start the garmin.  Time to go.  In the official race start photo, I was just visible between someone's raised fingers !!

I was across the line in about 30 seconds, which is important.  Comrades is gun time only, so the medal you receive, and your official time, is based on that.  Just 30 seconds lost.

Up ahead I saw Elissa.  Someone I'd met through facebook and who I knew was also shooting for a sub 7:30 time for silver.  I also knew from her previous race results that she had a much better shot at getting it that me...  Despite that I chased her down and we ran together.

I got flash backs of the course from last year where I was running into town looking for the finish.  This year we had 90 KMs to go until we got to experience that again.

I'm posting my splits in miles as that's how my mind works.  56 miles to the finish line.  I knew to get a sub 7:30 hour time, I needed to average a little over 8 min/miles.  I also realized the first half had a lot more up-hill than the second, so I expected there to be some slower miles.  Just take what the course gives you.

Out of Pietermaritzburg, you start rising up heading for the infamous Polly Shorts.

Mile 1:   8:15 /mi
Mile 2:   8:12 /mi

It was a gradual uphill, nothing too taxing.  Another guy showed up who Elissa knew, and she introduced me.  Greg from Boulder, with a number of friends in common.  A small world indeed.  Greg and I were to run together for the next 20 K or so.

Going up to Polly Shorts it was getting a little colder.  Low 40s at the coolest.  Many people had gloves, sweat pants and hats on.  I was just relishing the chance to run in pleasant temperatures before it warmed up later.

Mile 3:  8:20 /mi
Mile 4: 7:58 /mi
Mile 5:  8:26 /mi

It was still dark.  There were street lights, so light was never an issue, although you did need to keep an eye out for pot-holes and discarded items on the road.  Heading up to Polly's Elissa pulled away and we didn't see her again until the finish (she made silver by 30 seconds - very impressive).

Over the top of Pollys and then plunging down to the bottom.  The last of the brutal climbs on the 'Up run'.  Now I was just trying not to destroy my quads with 50 miles of running still to go.

"How do you like your shirt ?" came a voice from behind.  It was David Ross, the UK 'ambassador' for Comrades.  He'd helped design the shirt I was running in.  A few pleasantries, and then David pushed on.  He'd run a number of sub 7:30 times for the silver medal previously, so I knew better than to try and stick with him (he also made silver).

Mile 6: 7:59 /mi

At the bottom of Polly's we ran into Patrick - the US ambassador for Comrades.  I knew he was hoping for a silver too, although it was going to be a stretch for him as it was for me.  Patrick wanted to walk some of the hills to save energy, so as we headed up Little Pollys we wished him luck and pushed on.

Mile 7:  8:08 /mi

I'd started with a bottle, and was drinking a 'bag' of water at each aid station (although I did notice that aid stations seemed to be further apart early in the race than I'd remembered from last year).  Couple that with not having used a bathroom since before 3am, I realized I needed to pee.  I mentioned it to Greg, and he felt the same - so off to the side of the road we went.  As I'd been told the previous year - don't go into the porto pottys, they can be pretty bad.  Just pull over and use the bushes.  So we did.

Mile 8:  8:10 /m
Mile 9:  8:33 /mi

I was purposely running on the right hand side of the road.  As with most roads I trained on, there was a slight camber down to the side of the road so the rain would flow off.  My PTT injury always seemed to feel better with the camber that direction, so I sought out that side of the road as much as I could.

Mile 10:  8:49 /mi
Mile 11: 8:09 /mi
Mile 12:  8:06 /mi

Nothing remarkable about this section.  The road was mostly uphill after we'd gotten past Polly Shorts and Little Pollys.

I was doing my best to not go too fast on the downs to try and conserve quads.  The second half of the race had a lot of downhill, and I'd heard stories of people reduced to walking on the down hill because their legs were too destroyed to run.

Up towards Umlass Road, the high point of the course, knowing that Krista was going to be there - planning ahead - pulled down arm sleeves so she could recognize me by the flags, although it was far too hot to wear them down.  Note to self - don't bother to wear arm sleeves again !!

I mentioned to Greg that my quads were feeling pretty heavy, and he said he felt the same.  And still a long way to go.

On the course tour Bruce had pointed out where he thought our spectators would be.  Except they weren't.  I looked ahead through the crowds, trying to see the banner for 'Complete Marathon Tours' - the company we were using to help shuttle around our spectators.

Peering at the large crowds, I finally saw the banner and stopped for a quick hello.

Now some downhill finally.

Mile 13:  7:50 /mi

Half marathon done, still 43 miles to go.

Mile 14:  7:21 /mi

I remembered advice in a blog I'd read.  Take it easy to Umlass, float down to the half way at Drummond, but don't use up too much energy.

The miles were easier now though.

Mile 15:  7:51 /mi
Mile 16:  7:38 /mi

Back to undulating roads.  It would be this way until 33 miles in and the top of Botha's Hill.  That's where the 'down' really started.

Mile 17:  7:58 /mi
Mile 18:  7:49 /mi
Mile 19:  7:59 /mi
Mile 20:  7:52 /mi

I pulled ahead of Greg at some point here and was running solo.

But you are never alone running Comrades.  Throughout the race you're running with people, talking with people, asking them how they'd done before and learning from their experiences.  Truly everyone is a Comrade.

Now climbing Inchanga.  Much easier than running it the other way.

Mile 21:  8:18 /mi
Mile 22:  7:51 /mi
Mile 23:  7:32 /mi
Mile 24:  7:51 /mi
Mile 25:  7:52 /mi
Mile 26:  8:46 /mi

Through the marathon distance of 42.2 KM in 3:31, although that includes about 2500 feet of climbing for the 'Down run'. Equivalent to running the St George Marathon backwards.

Time to evaluate how things are going.  How are you feeling ?  Pretty good !  I can definitely keep going like this.  Try not to think that I still have 30 miles to go.

Mile 27:  8:05 /mi
Mile 28:  7:46 /mi

Coming up to the half way point of the race in Drummond and crossed a timing mat with banners.

Through the half at about 3:47, very much where I'd hoped to be.  The second half was meant to be 'easier' than the first, given it had a lot more downhill.  Well - 'easier' if you still have quads left.  I figured if I was feeling good, I could hopefully maintain the pace and if necessary pick it up to squeak under 7:30.

I remembered the course from the previous year - the Valley of 1000 hills.  I knew Arthurs seat was coming up so I took a video and made sure to pay my respects.

And then onto the Wall of Honour, paying tribute to runners who'd come before.

This video also gives you an idea of the heat and sunny sky without clouds...

While I was going for silver - I wasn’t checking splits at all, wanting to go purely by feel.  I used the Comrades predictor app on my fenix 3 which took account of my current pace, average pace so far, the topology etc all into account and predicted the finish time.  I'd use it the previous year for the 'Up' run and it had been remarkably accurate.  That prediction was constantly hovering around 7:30, so I figured running by feel was working.

Only once did I check my pace band, right around this point on the race as we crossed a bridge.  I was 4 minutes quicker than the time I needed, although I later heard that the pacing band wasn’t very even

Still - I was exactly where I wanted to be and feeling pretty good.

I was now at  Inchanga and knew that the next 10K would be a grind, so I had to to just push on and not get disheartened by the hills

Mile 29:  8:36 /mi

Now we're starting to climb up Botha's Hill.  The 3rd of the 'Big 5' hills.

Mile 30:  8:47 /mi
Mile 31:  8:18 /mi
Mile 32:  8:28 /mi
Mile 33:  8:25 /mi

And over the top - now it's downhill.

Mile 34:  7:49 /mi

Ouchie.  Wait - we're climbing again, I thought it was all downhill ?

Mile 35:  8:57 /mi
Mile 36:  8:21 /mi

Despite the downs, I'm only running mid 8:30s.  My quads aren't letting me go faster.  Fields Hill is screaming downhill, but with close to 20 miles to go, I was half reluctant, and half incapable of running any faster.

It was also getting hotter, probably mid 70s air temperature but warmer on the road.  My tempe foot pod plotted this for the changing temps during the day.

Mile 37:  8:37 /mi
Mile 38:  8:25 /mi
Mile 39:  8:09 /mi
Mile 40:  8:46 /mi

I could tell I was starting to tire, but the predictor app still had me on target.

Mile 41:  8:29 /mi

I knew we were coming up to Kloof, the next 'spectator spot' for our 'Complete Marathon Tour' package.  I asked people around me how far Kloof was, but no one could help.  People come from far and wide to run this race, including South Africans.

Finally I saw the banner and again stopped briefly.  I told Krista I was starting to tire and wasn't sure if I'd make it.  Need to learn to banish those thoughts from my mind and suck it up !

Then into the Green Mile.  A loud mile with bands and crowds to try and pep up the runners when things are starting to hurt.

Mile 42:  8:28 /mi

Despite slowing, with 21K to go - 13.1 miles - I worked out I had 1 hour and 45 minutes in hand to get that silver.  Surely you can run a 1:45 half marathon Richard ?  Especially when it's net downhill.

Turned out I couldn't get anywhere close....

Mile 43:  8:56 /mi

Things were hurting and we hit yet another up hill.  I'd run 70K without having walked a step, but then we went under a road and turned immediately up the on-ramp.  Ugh - that's steep.  No real decision making - I stopped and walked.  This was the start of Cowie's Hill and my undoing.

Mile 44:  9:52 /mi

My predicted finish time was slipping away - my predictor app was predicting 7:35, then 7:40.  I realized I wasn’t getting a silver, so mentally left myself relax and walked a lot more.  If I couldn't get silver, the next medal was sub 9 hours for Bill Rowan.  I knew I easily had that, so why hurt yourself more than you need ?  This is where I need to improve.  Learn to suck it up and push through that pain and those doubts.  Walking is the easy way out.  This is where the mental part comes to the fore.

Mile 45:  11:18 /mi
Mile 46:  10:05 /mi
Mile 47:  9:33 /mi

Through this point I was running, then would walk a little, then run again.  I'd bargain with myself - run to those flags, and then you can walk.  It was getting harder and harder to start up running again after each walk break.

Just 8 miles left.  You have an 8 mile loop at home.  You've got this.  Calculating I could walk all the way to the finish and still get the Bill Rowan.  Stop that.  Start running !!

Mile 48:  10:43 /mi
Mile 49:  9:28 /mi

Down over the 'Durban Boundary'

Mile 50:  12:12 /mi
Mile 51:  16:51 /mi

16:51 ??  That's less than 4 mph.

I was parched.  The sun was out and hot, the blacktop of the roads radiated heat.  I knew I was de-hydrated.  At one aid station, instead of taking water, I took 2 bags of orange power-aid.  Suddenly I started feel better.  The stomach was heavy - as it was all day - hardly surprising given the lack of poop action (!!) - but I was able to run again.  Another note to myself - you still need to figure out nutrition.  You got a lift from the carbs in the drinks.  You should have been drinking these sooner !!

Mile 52:  11:01 /mi

Mile 53:  11:01 /mi

Consistent in my slowness !!  This was the last little climb up to Berea - over the top - and it's a gradual downhill to the finish.

Suddenly a woman overtook me and said 'Are you Richard' as she passed ?  I was walking and she kept running.  It was Vicky, a woman from the UK who'd signed up last minute to the race and who I'd 'met' through one of the Comrades facebook groups.  I knew she was a 3 hour marathoner, but she'd said she was taking it easy at Comrades.

Determined not to let her get away, I started running.  Half a mile later Vicky was walking and as I ran past her I told her to push on.  She did, and I knew she was running just behind me and that helped motivate me to keep going too.  Afterwards we both thanked each other for the push.  I'm sure I finished a good 5 minutes earlier because of this.  Which also shows me that I could run, despite the pain.  Should have started this earlier !

Mile 54:  8:44 /mi

Heading down into Durban now.  Running with 2 guys approaching the last mile in wide city streets with big crowds.  All 3 of us bitching about how badly we were hurting and how we'd never run the race again.

Then I thought about the finish, knowing we'd run into a big cricket stadium with crowds and get a lap of honour.  I told them that we we're about to get our reward for the pain, and they both agreed.

I pushed on and left them behind.

Mile 55:  8:31 /mi

So you can run 8:30s eh ?  Just takes a bit of motivation and determination.

I ran past the Hilton hotel and headed the short distance towards the stadium.  Barriers up along the road with large crowds cheering.

Once again I took out my video camera and decided to record the run in.

If you want to experience the last 500 yards of the Comrades down run, heading into Kingsmead Stadium - here's your chance !!  :)

Otherwise - here are some photos...

Into the stadium, running round an in-field loop they had created with crowds on both sides.

Mile 56:  8:59 /mi

And finally over the line.  8 hours, 10 mins, 56 seconds on the gun.

And 2 medals.  My Bill Rowan for finishing in under 9 hours, and the back-to-back medal for running the race 2 years in a row.

Far slower than the 7 hours 30 I was aiming for, but I had no real regrets.  I'd put myself in position to get it, but at the end of the day wasn't good enough.

Two female friends both got silver medals - and both run predominantly on the trails.  I'm starting to think that trails - particularly hilly trails - build the type of strength that is harder to come by purely training on the roads.  If I come back and run this again, I want to get out and run more trails in preparation.  Once again, and despite best intentions, I wasn't prepared for those hills.  Particularly the downhill.  This is applicable for both the Up and Down runs.  Both have significant climbing and descent.

I need to learn to get mentally stronger.  Hang on for longer when it's hurting.  Ignore that voice telling me to stop.  That's the one big lesson for me here.  I was capable of holding it together and running faster those last 10 miles, but once the silver medal was gone, I let myself take it easy.  That's my only real regret - not knuckling down and running a sub 8 hour time.  Maybe next time...

Although I did get one record that I hope never to achieve again.  56 miles and no poop !!

Repeating myself, but this race is amazing.  It's long, it's hard, and it's going to hurt, but to experience the journey with all the fellow runners, with knowledgable crowds, finishing in a stadium - this is hard to replicate.  Still the best race I've run.

South Africa is an amazing country.  So many things to do and see while you're there.  After the race we headed to Cape Town for some R&R.

I'm pretty sure my Comrades career is not over.

1 comment:

  1. HUGE congrats Richard, reading your two Comrades recaps back-to-back is an amazing journey, and I can't wait to run this race myself. Bummer you had to forego Boston to stay healthy, but so glad you now have two Bill Rowans and a back-to-back medal to show for your patience.

    Having been there myself on other race days, you were stressing me out as you recounted sitting on the bus crawling toward the start line. Nothing like a brisk 2K warmup to start a 90K day! Gotta ask, which course direction would you recommend for a first-timer? Obviously each is its own unique challenge, but sounds like the Down course may have taken a bit more out of you this year. Or maybe that was more the weather's fault? In any case, thanks for the excellent narrative and inspiration that I’ll be revisiting once I start to plan my own Comrades adventure. Maybe we'll meet in South Africa!

    (And appreciate your linking back to our article on RaceRaves, glad to hear a two-time finisher agrees!)