Comrades 2018: My Penultimate Run at the Ultimate Human Race
[MARATHON #190 / Comrades #9 / 10 June 2018]
The human brain is a complex network of neural circuits. The two most intense emotions humans can experience are ‘love’ and ‘hate’. Many people think that ‘love’ is the opposite of ‘hate’ but recent neurological studies have shown that the two are so closely related that they even run on the same neural circuits. A better opposite for both ‘love’ and ‘hate’ is apathy. Apathy is not a word one associates with running Comrades – but wild bouts of love and hate are likely to flow through the neurological pathways of one’s brain over the course of a very long day.
The scientific studies did determine one key difference: The cerebral cortex – this is the part of the brain associated with logic, judgement and reasoning – becomes largely deactivated during bouts of love but remains fully functional during hate. I am a rational, lucid and objective human being which explains why I seem to hate Comrades so much more than I love it.
My love/hate relationship with Comrades intensifies in the weeks leading up to the race as one starts to taper. The time freed up by reduced mileage is quickly filled up with few sprinkles of excitement on top of the cupcake of worry and dread.
Your body latches onto these dark feelings of impending doom as strange niggles start to surface – at any other time of the year they would be ignored but two weeks before Comrades your brain interprets them as a potentially career ending injury. Likewise, every sniffle and cough is interpreted as the onset of a terminal virus.
The Matriarch of Ultra Marathons
Comrades is the true matriarch of ultra marathons. Turning 93 this year, Comrades is by some way the oldest, by a long way the largest (with about 23,000 entrants, 20,000 starters and 17,000 finishers) and has the biggest purse (approximately R3million / $212k / £166k excluding value of the “Kruger Rand” gold medals containing an ounce of fine gold that are awarded to the top ten men and women).
For South African runners, Comrades is a rite of passage and the (very long) yardstick by which one’s credibility as a runner is measured. It’s the one race where the number of times you’ve finished is generally more important and impressive than the time you did it in.
Most people are polite enough to hold back on personal questions until they know you well enough – but not if you’re a South African runner. As soon as a new acquaintance determines that you are a runner (most likely because you worked it into the conversation), there is a 90% chance that the next question will be, “Have you run Comrades?” (and the question after that is usually, “How many?”). You can have run over 100 marathons and be asked this question by the office buffet speed-eating champion who is still working his way up to a first Parkrun – but if you haven’t run Comrades, you’ll get raised eyebrows and an accompanying look that says, “So you’re not really a runner then.”
An Early Commitment
This year was my ninth Comrades – and was the first time I showed enough commitment to book flights ahead of time (normally I leave it too late and it is cheaper to drive down to Durban from Johannesburg). I should point out that I must have booked the flights during a rare bought of irrational Comrades love. Having realised my folly, I did later overcompensate and tried to sabotage my Comrades run by doing a first adventure race the week before the event (but
unfortunately came through unscathed).
After the standard Kulula delay, I arrived in Durban late on Friday evening and headed straight to registration. There were no queues and I got my race pack in record time before heading through to the expo.
I’d got a nice surprise a couple of week’s beforehand when a club mate WhatsApped a photo of the June cover of Modern Athlete (South Africa’s largest running publication) and it had yours truly on the front cover. Being on the front cover of Modern Athlete in Comrades Month is the running equivalent of being the cover model on the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition (unlike another well-known running magazine, Modern Athlete does not airbrush their cover models which is probably why they chose to use a fully clothed picture of me).
Modern Athlete were handing out free copies of the magazine at the expo. As I walked passed, I remarked on the remarkably handsome cover model – the young guy handling distribution took a closer look at the cover, made the connection and I quickly rushed off before the autograph hunters* started harassing me.
* I have in fact signed exactly one copy of the magazine (for a German friend Ovidiu who I met for a beer the day after Comrades).
Getting To The Start
For 363 days of the year I am a happy-go-lucky guy: The Saturday before Comrades is the second worst day of the year (and preempts the worst). It’s impossible to relax, you need to steer clear of virus ridden civilians, scrutinise what you eat, reduce your beer intake, override the weird niggles that suddenly emerge in your legs, keep out of the sun, try to keep off your feet as much as possible, etc.
I’ve run almost 200 marathons and ultras but Comrades is still the one that keeps me awake at night. Surprisingly, this year I had my best pre-Comrades sleep ever – almost four solid hours of restless tossing and turning before the alarm went off.
Every one of my eight Comrades runs so far have been slower than the one before. This means that every Comrades has been a personal worst – and every time I line up at the start of Comrades I know it’s going to be the longest and worst day of my life.
A lot of people romanticise about the start of Comrades- I don’t. These naïve romantics acclaim the unfolding euphoria as the crowds chant Shosholoza – I sit there there sullen; they’ll applaud the growing exhilaration during the singing of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (South Africa’s national anthem) – I merely remove my cap and sulk; and they’ll enthuse about the exuberant anticipation while the slow, dour cords of Chariots of Fire ring out – I grimace and prepare for the worst.
Comrades does her best to stir up the emotions of the runners but her shrewd tricks don’t work on me. I am emotionally dead during the build-up to Max Trimborn’s cockcrow – my mind is in the foetal position and braces for the resulting shellshock as the cannon fires and 19,999 lemmings (and I) start our annual migration up and down the various cliff faces that constitute the road between Pietermarizburg and Durban. It’s hard to appreciate the impressive sideshow that the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) puts on when you know you’re facing at least 10 hours of pain, anguish and mental torture.
The musical foreplay is like applying generous amounts of lubrication before a prostate exam – it makes the experience mildly more pleasant but you’re still going to get horribly violated. Before this year’s race, Comrades had given me eight incredibly thorough examinations – and I can assure you each one was done with extremely thick fingers.
Jokes Aside: Prostate Cancer is most common cancer effecting men in South Africa (and second most common worldwide). Success rates when prostate cancer is detected early are 98% but this drops to 26% when detected late. The bad news is that you could be living with prostate cancer and have no presentable symptoms (most men have no symptoms when they are diagnosed); the good news is that testing is quick and easy via a Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) blood test and a Digital Rectal Examination (DRE*). All men over 50 (and those in high risk groups over 40) should be doing these tests annually.
* This is a euphemistic title. The “digit” involved is the doctor’s index finger – in my opinion a better acronym for this test would be FUBE (Finger Up Bum Exploration). This name change would also provide a lubrication manufacturer the opportunity to market using the memorable catch-phrase, “Make sure you lube before you FUBE!”
If you are in the UK, Comrades runner Tony Collier (who was diagnosed with late stage prostate cancer in May 2017) gives awareness talks – he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Basic Race Plan
People tend to overcomplicate Comrades day, my race plan on the down run is very simple:
- Run until half way (walking most support tables).
- Get to Drummond.
- Override the mental meltdown that happens at Drummond (whilst walking the hills).
- Start running again at the top of Botha’s Hill.
- From there, run the downhills and most of the flats – but walk everything that looks like a hill.
I am pleased to say that I executed this plan perfectly – my mental breakdown at Drummond was spectacular, as was the ability of my eyes to detect even the most gradual of inclines over the second half (I find new hills every year which ensures I don’t do any unnecessary running).
2018 Race Goals
I’ve been told that it’s important to have a goal at Comrades, here were mine:
- Finish in a strong enough physical state to enjoy a few beers afterwards.
- Break my record of eight consecutive personal worsts at Comrades.
There are some great route descriptions out there – I would recommend Dave Jack’s great Down route description – I’m just going to cover the highlights and lowlights of how my race went down this year.
Read More: Dave Jack (Comrades Green #482) has had his cerebral cortex well and truly hijacked by Comrades over his 60-year love affair with the race. His blog, “The Marathon“, is one of the best resources out there on everything Comrades. I would highly recommend it to anyone who is running (or planning to run) Comrades.
Running The Down Comrades in Five Easy Steps*
* The actual number of steps it takes the average runner to finish Comrades is about 120,000.
Stage 1. Getting to Camperdown (66km to go).
The King of Comrades, Bruce Fordyce, is fond of saying that the most important factor in becoming a great Comrades runner is to “pick the right parents”. You can’t pick your family but you can pick your friends. If you didn’t win the DNA ultra-running lottery, the next best thing you can do is to pick the right running club.
In South Africa the club culture is massive and there are plenty of fantastic clubs out there but you would be hard-pressed to find a better club than Fourways Road Runners. Every year Fourways put on three fully equipped support tables at Comrades and the first is at Camperdown. Camperdown is one of the best supported areas on the route and it’s great to know you’ll see some friendly, familiar faces and can restock on gels (Comrades is the only race I still use gels on), reapply sunscreen and even get a massage.
To get this point you’ll have survived the dark tripping hazards exiting Pietermaritzburg before sunrise, the icy chill as one descends Polly Shortts and summitted the highest point on the Comrades route (Umlaas Road). From Camperdown, the next big challenge is the monotonous boredom (and stench of chicken shit) through Harrison Flats.
This is also the best section of the route to find a friend and get some easy miles out of the way while you are still able to chat. I have made several social media friends since getting ‘Running Mann‘ going late last year. One of these was Gijs from the Netherlands – Gijs has a South African wife and a Comrades crazy father-in-law. I think his father-in-law only agreed to give away his daughter’s hand in marriage if Gijs promised to run Comrades. Gijs made good on the pre-nuptial agreement by completing the Up run last year and returned for the Down run and his back-to-back medal this year*.
* If you complete your first and second Comrades in consecutive years you get a special “back-to-back” medal after your second run. This also provides the running connoisseur a sensible and sophisticated way to do Comrades – one up, one down and you’re done. Once you’ve done three Comrades, you might as well carry on, run ten and get your permanent Green Number. They did not have the back-to-back medal in 2003 when I ran my first Comrades (or I’m sure I would have been sensible and stopped at two).
Just before Cato Ridge, I spotted a “Gijs” number plate (your name appears on the race bib) that was attached to a Royal Dutch Oranje vest and we met face to face for the first time. The interesting thing was that even though we only had cursory online communications – our Twitter relationship primarily consisted of Gijs posting pictures of Dutch bridges and bemoaning the lack of hills in Holland – we were able to chat like old friends over 10km or so before I needed a body break and Gijs disappeared into the distance.
Stage 2. Getting Past Dummond (40km to go).
Comrades plays a lot of dirty tricks on your brain. This year they added one whole kilometre to the distance making it the longest run in 23 years (and third longest Down run ever). When the official distance was announced, current Comrades runners donned sack cloth and their loud lamentations and gnashing of teeth could be heard all over social media. Several Comrades retirees told us to get over ourselves. We did. However, it wasn’t the kilometre they added onto the end that screwed with our minds, it was the one they took away from us at halfway.
There is a spot in Drummond that serves as Comrades’ “geographic” halfway mark – it is a strategic point in the dip of a valley (more like a ravine) that lends itself perfectly to a halfway haven and the hosting of a raucous support table (for the last couple of years Hollywood Bets have done a great job here). It is usually very close to the true halfway mark but not this year – with the extended finish you still had to endure another kilometre of violent uphill before you were officially “over halfway”. This was a cruel and callous stunt to pull on the mentally fragile – and my mental state quickly progressed to “unstable” as I enjoyed my annual mental meltdown whilst plodding up the hills exiting Drummond.
Drummond is definitely my least favourite place in the world. I can tell you with the utmost certainty that there is a hell – and it is a series of hills just over the halfway mark at Comrades. You’ve just experienced the euphoria of crossing the halfway mark only to have the wind knocked out of you via a series of undulating monsters that punch you in the stomach and then knee you in the groin.
George Orwell’s “1984” is an oft referenced literary classic. One of “Big Brother’s” most sinister skills is determining your greatest fear (for the book’s protagonist, Winston Smith, it was rats) and would then torture you with that fear until you submitted completely to the Thought Police. If the Thought Police wanted to crack me faster than an iPhone screen in the hands of a toddler (and break faster than Billy-Ray Cyrus’ heart) they could just show me a picture of the Drummond road sign and I would immediately tell them whatever they wanted to know.
Comrades has a habit of exposing one’s weaknesses and poor life decisions. When I started my blog and on social media late last year I deliberated over what name and handle to use, eventually settling on “The Running Mann”. At Comrades I realised this may not have been the wisest choice.
Rob Schneider plays a character in “The Waterboy” who randomly pops up and shouts, “You can do it Waterboy!” to Adam Sandler’s title character over the course of the movie. “The Running Mann” sets the expectation that I’ll spend the majority of any given race actually running. This is not normally an issue, although I do enjoy a quick walk and a chat at most water tables (it’s just the polite thing to do), you won’t find me walking between water tables no matter what the route throws up. Comrades is different and demands plenty of walking between tables – the problem was that every time I was on a strategic walk break, this random guy (who even looked a bit like Rob Schneider) kept popping up shouting “You can do it Running Mann!” I had to plead with him to not disclose that he had repeatedly witnessed “The Walking Mann” at Comrades 2018.
The only solace is knowing that downhill respite lies ahead in the form of Botha’s Hill which (as long as you haven’t done anything stupid like run up too many hills in the first half) should allow you to get a few easy kilometres in. Some people complain about the steep downhills in the second half but, given the choice between slow uphill death marches and smashing my quads, I’d choose the latter option every time.
At least there are a few distractions along this section like the Comrades Wall of Honour (where you can purchase a brick bearing your name and Comrades number – and become another brick in the wall) as well as Arthur’s Seat.
Arthur’s Seat is named after five-time winner Arthur Newton. Legend has it that if you greet him warmly and place a flower on his seat he’ll grant you a good second half. In the run-up to halfway I forgot to find a flower so I gave him a leaf instead. I can confirm that Arthur doesn’t like leaves. Other people tried weeds and dried flowers but he doesn’t like those either. In fact, based on the responses received to my Arthur’s Seat post on social media, I get the feeling that Arthur is very fussy and something of a lady’s man! None of the men had good second halves regardless of the offering produced, whereas many of the women did (it could also just be that the ladies are better at pacing ultras than the men).
The marker boards at Comrades descend and have a temperature gauge which “cool down” as you get closer to the finish. A great psychological boost in this section is getting under 42 and having “less than a marathon to go”.
Stage 3. Getting to Pinetown (21km to go)
For me, this is the easiest stretch of the Down run. There are several easy downhill stretches where you can put one foot in front of the other and get some mindless miles out of the way. Provided you haven’t gone out too fast, this is where you can genuinely make-up time and get far enough into the race so that it becomes impossible to violate this year’s slogan, “Asijiki’ (no turning back).
One of many things that makes Comrades great are the supporters – their importance in getting the vast majority of the field to the finish line cannot be overstated. Apart from a few isolated stretches, there is great crowd support along the entire 90km – and knowing that you have friends or family watching out for you along the route is a great incentive to keep going. I’m lucky enough to have family who have been supporting Comrades since they moved to Durban 30 years ago. Seeing them with about 30km to go is always a big mental milestone and I enjoy a great deal of personal seconding at this point (stand and hand of course!).
This is also one of the most scenic stretches on the route as you run through affluent suburbs whose leafy avenues provide an opportunity to revitalise. South Africa is a country of many contrasts and you’ll get to experience plenty of these over the Comrades route. Perhaps the most striking is the difference between the two schools you pass along the route – Ethembeni (for handicapped children) and Kearsney College (an expensive private school).
Stage 4. Get To Moses Mabhida Stadium
The last of the Fourways Road Runners support tables is in Pinetown – after that I know I am on my own until the finish line. Shortly after the table comes Cowie’s Hill. I look forward to Cowie’s because it means a long, guilt-free walk where the thought or running even a couple of steps never crosses my mind. You also know that once you’ve got this far the worst is behind you and, although there is still plenty of pain and suffering ahead, your medal is waiting for you. Unless you are forcibly removed from the road, you don’t quit Comrades in the last 20 kilometers.
It’s now a trade-off between the comfort of walking and the pain of running (knowing that the more you run the sooner the torture will be over). A lot of this section is along boring stretches of highway. Everybody is hurting at this point as your body wants to shut-down and your mind is saying never again. For me this is where my simmering discontent erupts into outright hatred.
To try and get over myself, the tactic I use is to find distractions that will divert my mind from the excruciating torment Comrades is subjecting me to. When you’re over 80km into Comrades and feeling sorry for yourself, there is no better distraction than passing a one-legged guy on crutches – that’ll very quickly put your own pain into perspective.
The tablespoon of cement I took after my brief chat with Xolani toughened me up and got me to within 3km of the finish. At this point, I needed a top-up and this came in the form of blind runner Rethabile Taunyane (and his pilot Moshe Ngobe). I actually had to double-check who was holding the cane because Rethabile would smile and look directly at each person who cheered him on!
Stage 5. Finish the Damn Thing & Drink Beer
All the way back in 1971, the Persuaders knew what 21st century scientists have only recently been able to prove when they harmonised that “It’s a thin line between love and hate.” At Comrades, there’s 90 kilometres between hate and love. Once you hit the grass in Moses Mabhida stadium an amazing thing happens: all pain disappears, your bad mood evaporates and you are engulfed in the exhilaration of finishing Comrades.
My goal at this year’s Comrades was to avoid a ninth consecutive personal worst and finish with enough strength to enjoy a few beers afterwards. I am pleased to report that I unworsted by about 25 minutes and the beers tasted fantastic afterwards. Mission accomplished.
Six ‘Down’, three ‘Up’ – one to go!
As humans we have the fantastic propensity to forget intense pain. If not for this ability women would only give birth once, dentists would be unemployed and the Liverpool FC Supporters Club would not offer a renewal option. The fantastic propensity for humans to forget intense pain is the only logical explanation why thousands of runners return to the start line of Comrades each year – that and the ability of Comrades to slowly mess with your cerebral cortex and rewire the neural circuits governing one’s sound reasoning and good judgement.
Perhaps Comrades is an acquired taste. After nine runs I might finally be learning to tolerate this brutal event. This year’s race wasn’t all that bad – I definitely hated Comrades a lot less this year. On reflection, I really don’t know what I’ve been complaining about over this several thousand-word rant.
I normally say that the best thing about finishing Comrades is that you know you don’t have to run it for another year. I won’t go so far as to say that I’m actually looking forward to next year’s race but I’m definitely looking forward to earning my permanent Green Number at my last Comrades in 2019.
As for the supposed rule that “You must run one Comrades in your Green Number”: I counter this ludicrous urban legend with the simple response of, “That rule is only for fools and locals!” – and since I am neither, ten Comrades are more than enough.
Will 2019 really be my last Comrades? Can any South African runner resist the lure of the greatest ultra marathon on the planet? Am I a liar and a fool? You’ll have to wait until the next Down run in 2020 to find out.Follow Running Mann: