17:29pm, Sunday 11 June, Kingsmead Stadium, Durban: A bemused and bewildered crowd looks at an empty finish straight. The race officials brace themselves for a final finish line onslaught that never comes before shrugging their shoulders and packing up. The SuperSport commentary team, who had been building up to the emotional climax of the day, are stunned into silence. Mqondisi Ngcobo, Chairman of the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA), raises the final cutoff pistol and shoots a blank into the dusky Durban skyline. The cock failed to crow at the start of Comrades 2023 and, with most flaccid and anticlimactic finish in Comrades’ 102-year history, it would have been more appropriate had Comrades’ Chairman aimed the gun at his foot.
So much for a fairytale finish. When the clock struck 12 at the 2023 Comrades Marathon there was no Cinderella story. However, someone out there deserves the Giant Pumpkin Award for robbing hundreds of runners of their Comrades medal.
When responding to the perplexed question, “Why were there no runners in the last few minutes?”, Rowyn James (Comrades Race Director) responded that this was the result of, “A meticulously worked out final cutoff point time by the organisers where the time was reduced from 11h10 as in past years to 11h00 hours, mainly due to the reduced distance and taking into account a runner’s pace at that stage compared to their overall expected finish time.”
Lots of words, little basis in reality. This article aims to re-educate James on the meaning of the word ‘meticulous’ and provide some solace to the hundreds of aspirant Comrades runners robbed of a medal.
Entrepreneur Jim Barksdale once said, “If we have data, let’s look at the data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.” Fortunately, I have lots of data so this is one case where we don’t need to rely on opinions of the CMA.
Let’s start with the graph below showing the number of minute-by-minute finishers just before the final 12-hour cutoff. The green columns are 2022 data. Alongside are my purple projections based on the 21.6% increase in starter numbers from 2022 to 2023. The yellow columns on the right are the actual minute-by-minute finishers – these quickly go from skyscrapers to condos to vacant land.
Based on these calculations, 884* Comrades were missing in action over the last 10 minutes. A further 214 lost the chance to cross the finish line as The Last Post played.
* This number is probably too high based on the officially stated number of DNFs but I have been denied access to the full data set so cannot verify.
Where did all the runners go? The answer is that there was literally no one left on the road because almost every single runner* who made the final cut-off at Sherwood (6.39km in 60 minutes at a strollable 9:23/km) was able to make it safely to Kingsmead. Everyone else got a dishonourable discharge at the Pinetown and Sherwood cutoffs.
* One notable exception was Henri Zermatten, from whom we’ll hear later.
Below is some excellent analysis by Wits statistician, Mark Dowdeswell, showing the success rate of 2023 Comrades runners based on their split times at cutoff points.
The first graph shows Drummond (the halfway point) which is a ‘fair split’. Most runners go through Drummond with 10 or more minutes to spare and there are very few runners who go through in the last 10 minutes before cutoff and are able to finish.
The second graph, showing the final split at Sherwood, is in stark contrast. There is virtually no one that went though Sherwood that did not make the finish under 12 hours (as a comparison, in 2022, 532 runners made Sherwood and did not finish). A total of 1016 runners go through Sherwood in the final 10 minutes before cutoff and, of these, all but six finish. That’s an incredible 99.4% success rate (and a 100% certainty that the cutoff timing was absurd). It’s clear that the CMA took the popcorn bag out of the microwave before the kernels had finished popping.
How did the CMA get things so wrong? The table below provides a comparison of the 2022 and 2023 cutoffs. In 2022, the Sherwood cutoff was at 80.9km at a gun time of 11h10. This meant you had 50 minutes to run 9km which is 5:33/km – unlikely for someone at the back of the field but two people managed to go through the final cutoff with minutes to spare and earned a medal in 2022. The 2023 event saw runners subjected to double taxation, the cutoff was 10 minutes stricter (11h00) but the distance to go was 2.6km shorter (6.4km to go).
An overall average pace of 8:13/km was needed to finish the 2023 Comrades in 11:59:59. If life was fair and the math was done, this means that 21 minutes should be added to the final cutoff rather than 10 removed. I initially suspected that that the root cause of this problem lay in the poor quality of STEM education in our schools: With 10 minutes added (rather than subtracted), this would give runners 40 minutes at 6:15/km to complete the final 6.4km, still too strict in my opinion, but a much more reasonable equation. Sadly, I was wrong – this blunder was not a math problem, it was ‘no math was done, my opinion is good enough’ problem.
The other contentious change was the Pinetown split, once again at least 10 minutes should have been added rather than removed. If you went through Winston Park one second before the cutoff you’d need to run at 6:16/km or faster to make it to Pinetown before they shut the gates – that’s about two minutes per kilometre faster than the average pace needed for an 11:59:59 finish. This defies all logic.
Armed with this analysis, I sent off the graph and a set of questions to Rowyn James and Delaine Cools (Comrades Communications Manager). It takes a lot to astound me but I was genuinely stunned with the response from James. So much so, that I sent a reply asking that James reconsider his answers. I would prefer to play the balls-up rather than the man but it appears he’s happy to let his answers stand*.
* For the record, This is a portion of my subsequent reply to his answers:
“I respect the job that you do and have always enjoyed our interactions. I would like to give you another opportunity to reconsider your position and answers on this issue. I really don’t think your current answers will go down well in the running community. The lack of empathy towards Comrades runners with a genuine complaint really concerns me.
We can both agree that Comrades is the greatest ultra marathon in the world. There is a perception, which I agree with, that the CMA is not open to any feedback or constructive criticism (“Arrogant” is the word most commonly used). There are many people out there, myself included, that would like to see Comrades not only remain the greatest but continue to evolve and improve.”
We’ll tackle the questions and CMA’s answers one by one. Everything starts off rather civilly but it quickly degenerates…
10 Minutes Grace for Months of Training and Thousands of Rands Spent?
How many minutes grace should we give aspirant Vic Clapham medallists? Remember these are people, paying Comrades customers, from all walks of life who’ve spent thousands of rands just to make it to the start line, have persevered for over 11 hours on the road to get to the final cutoff and have endured many months of personal sacrifice to be within sniffing distance of a glorious finish at Kingsmead?
The Comrades Marathon brings R544 million per year into the KwaZulu Natal economy. Surely keeping the 12.45km stretch of road from Pinetown to Sherwood and the 6.39km from Sherwood to Kingsmead open would not make much difference to the Sunday evening traffic flow for an event that starts before dawn? Surely giving these athletes, whom Bruce Fordyce refers to as, “the true heroes of the race”, an extra 10 minutes is not too much to ask?
Never Mind the Faulty Starting Pistol here comes the Bollocks
The confidence (or arrogance) in this response is in stark contrast to the facts. We’ll get to the data shortly but let’s deal with the emotions first. Aside from getting “bollocks”-ed in the reply, James pulls out the ‘J-word’. Personally, I don’t get offended by the being called a ‘jogger’ but many people do. As with any word, it’s not the word itself but the way in which it’s used. In this case the context is clearly intended to condescend and insult a large proportion of Comrades’ customer base (close to 50% of the field finishes in the last hour). This is like the CEO of a bank that makes most of its profits from those in lower socio-economic rungs walking around in a “F#$% the Poor” t-shirt.
However, I took James’ advice to “go and pull the stats”. I wished he’d done the same before 11 June as it would have saved Comrades from this embarrassing debacle. The data is damning.
In 2022 there were 4080 Vic Clapham medallists, more than enough to provide a statistically significant sample size. The graph below shows the average pace of these 4080 runners in 30 second tranches. There are 1549 Comrades who run at a pace of 8:00/km or better and a total of 2263 athletes were faster than the average pace of 8:13/km required to finish the 2023 Comrades Marathon. Interestingly, the average pace required for a 11:59:59 finish in 2023 was 8:13/km which was the exact average pace of 2022 Clapham medallists over the last split (the median pace was actually faster – 8:08/km).
Bear in mind that the 2022 distance was significantly longer than the 6.4km final 2023 split and that many of these runners are not under 12-hour cutoff time pressure (i.e. I will walk a lot more for a casual 11:30 finish, whereas I will find the energy and speed to run if the 12-hour cutoff is tight). A good example of this is one of the ‘true heroes’ of the 2022 event, Gideon Smuts, who ran an average pace of 5:39/km over the last 9km for a 11:59:15 finish time.
I also thought I’d take a snapshot of the athletes who finished in the last 10 minutes in 2022. Once again, data trumps opinions, there are several hundred (403 to be precise) runners that are able to maintain an average pace of 8:00/km or better over the final split. The average pace for this cohort is 8:07.9/km (which is faster than the full Vic Clapham sample). Once again, my opinion is that those on the slower, right-hand side of the curve are likely runners that went through Sherwood well under the cutoff time and therefore did more walking than those under time pressure.
However, we’ve established that opinions can fall apart once subjected to analytical scrutiny – so let’s see whether my hypothesis that runners will get faster under time pressure holds true. The graph below shows the average pace of the 215 runners that crossed the 2022 Sherwood timing mat at a running time of 10h45 or slower (25 minutes to spare) and finished. You can easily see that the graph is heavily skewed to the left – athletes under time pressure run significantly faster (in this case at an average of 7:34/km over the final split compared to the overall Vic Clapham average of 8:13/km).
QED. It’s clear that, contrary to James’ untested assertion that his “joggers” are “actually getting slower and slower the further they go”, the opposite is in fact true.
Even without rudimentary data analysis skills, the CMA could also have simply referred to the last two Down Runs that finished at Kingsmead for a like-for-like comparison. In 2016, 294 runners went through Sherwood between 11h00 and 11h10 and managed to cover the final 6.46km to earn their medal and, in 2014, a further 334 covered the final 7km after crossing the final split between 11h00 and 11h10. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
[Note: I have not done full analysis on the Pinetown split but would expect to find similar results.]
Route Cause Analysis
I’d estimate somewhere around 100 Comrades runners, directly impacted by these ridiculous cutoff times, have got into contact with me via social media, direct message and email. I’d call that a lot.
Who were these runners? In terms of experience, they ranged from novices to Green Numbers (the most experienced runner who contacted me had 36 finishes). There were runners going for their Green Number and those just hoping for a back-to-back medal to end their Comrades career. There were locals and overseas visitors who’d paid the R4500 ‘business class’ entry fee plus thousands of tourist dollars for a once in a lifetime experience. There were also the heart-wrenching stories of despair like that of Vanessa Briglal, who was running to commemorate the memory of her late husband as their anniversary was also 11 June. However, there was one thing that united them all – they were robbed of the chance to get a 2023 Comrades finisher’s medal.
For some of the comments from impacted runners see these links*:
* I would have invited Comrades to check out the comments from their customers but they unfollowed me on social media after I published this article: Money or the Goody Bag? The Great Comrades Refund Debate
Almost everyone that was cutoff at Pinetown complained that their GPS device showed that they’d run at least 1km longer than the advertised distance at the cutoff. The same comment has come from runners that completed the event and the Strava accounts of elite athletes (who would have followed the ‘racing line’ and would not have had additional metres at the start). Whilst the cutoff point is in exactly (no need for caps Rowyn) the same place as in previous years, there are various other changes to the route especially in the early section this year. GPS data will never be as accurate as an official measurement from a qualified professional but runners also reported that they were tracking in sync with the official board markers until around the Winston Park mark.
Official route measurements always trump runner’s GPS readings and I’d like to think that Comrades is indeed above reproach for something as fundamental as correct route measurement but, with other organisational basics having gone awry at the 2023 event, I am no longer taking anything for granted.
Basic 2023 miscalculations include not having the correct shirt sizes (despite having 30 years of precedent and runners selecting the size on their entries seven months beforehand), running out of silver medals (once again basic maths – adjusting the 2022 figures to allow for the shorter route and uplifting for the larger field – would have solved this) as well as back-to-back medals (not sure how this went wrong as it’s a simple case of comparing back-to-back entrants with back-to-back medal stock), and trying to squeeze 17000 runners through a 5m-wide stretch of road with three 90 degree turns in the first five kilometres (aside from causing standstill congestion, this is a major safety risk that was repeatedly raised to the CMA and ignored before the event)*.
* It should be pointed out that both appointed Technical Delegates, the internationally recognised and vastly experienced Anand Naicker and Norrie Williamson, resigned before the race because they felt that their safety concerns were being ignored by the CMA.
Whilst on the topic of getting basic calculations right, take a look at the video below of the Sherwood cutoff (supplied by Brendan de Villiers). If you pause at the 13-14 second mark you can see that the official clock still shows 5 seconds remaining when the gun fires. I also found it rather disturbing observing the enthusiasm, zeal and outright glee with which the cutoff constables executed the orders of their Race Dictator in sending these Comrades for an early shower.
Note: I have confirmed that the runners in the video were indeed below 11h00 on the official timing data and were therefore incorrectly cutoff. Below is an eyewitness report from another cutoff point in Pinetown .
Before moving onto the next question, I’d like to deal with what is perhaps the one valid defensible argument in CMA’s misfiring cannon, “We published the cutoff times beforehand”. For the prosecution, I present these items of evidence:
- Many individual runners and the official Comrades pacers pointed out the later cutoffs did not make sense. They were all brushed aside or completely ignored.
- The official pacing charts never made it to the expo. The cynic in me wonders whether they were ‘deliberately held up at customs’ (the stated reason for their absence) because they’d include mathematically impossible splits for Vic Clapham medallists over the last two splits.
- Had a table view (like the one I’ve included in this article) showing the average pace and pace between splits been provided, there would have been a lot more people flagging the ridiculous Pinetown and Sherwood cutoff times.
- The official Comrades app still had (and still has) the 2022 cutoff times allowing for the extra 10 minutes. Several people have told me that they used this for their race day pacing calculations.
- If you do a Google image search of “Comrades 2023 cutoffs”, the 2022 data displays. Yes, the distances are different but there is no date displayed on the image so it’s easy for people use the incorrect year’s chart.
- You cannot rely on nervous Comrades runners, who’ve been bombarded with streams of pre-race emails and information, to take-in and remember every minor race day detail*. Nervous Comrades runners should however be able to trust and rely on the CMA to make sensible, logical decisions and have their best interests at heart.
* Take a look at this blog article I’ve written on this topic: Written Documentation is a Terrible Way to Communicate
Move Over Donald Trump, There’s a New Sheriff in Town
Although I am not sure of the need for the Trumpian tone of the response, I’m happy to confirm that there was no closing of the gates outside the stadium. There was however a barricade of bailer busses that the survivors of the Sherwood massacre needed to navigate through.
Like the Generals in the Crimean War, it appears that the bulging-bellied blazers of the CMA prefer to hang out well behind the possible reach of enemy fire on the lush Kingsmead grass for some TV time, rather than on the battlefield with their soldiers. Perhaps we should excuse the ignorance of our commanders-in-chief, such is their detachment from the charge of the Comrades brigade and the challenges experienced by the 17000 foot soldiers undertaking their mission to the finish line.
The best person to comment on the last few minutes of Comrades 2023 is 62-year-old novice, Henri Zermatten. Suffering from a severe case of ‘runners lean’ (caused by a tilting pelvis from an Achilles tendon injury that resurfaced during the race), he’s the only person who made it into Kingsmead after the final cutoff. His tenacity and bloody-mindedness should be applauded.
Zermatten told me he was harassed constantly during what runners are now calling “the sprint to Sherwood”. He elaborates, “The guys manning the bailer buses actually stopped me on three occasions to try to get me into the bus. They made it sound like you had to get in. I argued that I had enough time but they wouldn’t listen. Many runners got in under pressure, the time spent arguing was lost though.”
Many runners have complained of inference, irritation and harassment from the bailer vehicles. Zermatten’s response seems appropriate as a mantra for the running community should the myopia at Comrades House continue, “I told them to get stuffed and kept running.*”
* “Gcwalisa futhi uqhubeke nokugijima”, isiZulu for “Get stuffed and keep running”, should be a frontrunner for the 2024 Comrades slogan.
When he arrived at the entrance to Kingsmead, Zermatten found his way blocked by rows and rows of bailer busses and struggled to get into the stadium. Whilst the trumpet played the Last Post (and the CMA blew their own trumpets), CMA’s blazered brigade would have been better served lifting their heads from the buffet table to address what was going on around them. Henri says he was welcomed with open arms once over the finish line but, “For me to be the only one to cross the line after the gun is embarrassing for everyone.”
Perhaps a bigger question is, why were there bailer busses and taxis on the route interfering and endangering the runners? Enquiring on this issue, James’ responded, “We have not had our de-briefing sessions yet with either the bailer bus portfolio or traffic management authorities so am unable to answer.”
Fair enough – so I thought I’d help him out. According to a volunteer managing one of the bailer busses (who’d prefer to remain anonymous), “We usually try to get off the route as early as possible to avoid inconveniencing the runners. This year we had a pre-arranged route which took us off the [running] route. However, on the day, Metro Police refused to allow us to use our route, forcing us to make another route on the fly, Metro Police also didn’t allow us to come in [to the agreed cutoff points] as arranged, forcing us to stay on the route.”
I’ve received video footage of bailer busses interfering with runners from as early as the 30 kilometre mark in Cato Ridge. The clip below is courtesy of Comrades supporter, Taction Mafatle, taken just before the Pinetown cutoff.
Comrades pays the various traffic and police departments about R1million* for race day services. The fact that they deviate from the agreed race day plans would be something that would concern me as a race director. I would be all over this one race day, rather than nonchalantly waiting the post-race debrief.
* I also have it on good authority that the change of route in the early kilometres of this year’s race through the narrow roads that caused major congestion and potential safety issues was a ‘sticky tape solution’ as a result of the traffic police not erecting the barricades in time on agreed Pietermaritzburg access roads in 2022.
What Me Apologise?
A nice simple response on this one. You can lead a race director to the data but you can’t make him think. This is not just a middle finger to the runners but complete detachment from race-day reality and the responsibility to one’s client base.
The CMA, the well-paid custodians of the oldest, largest and greatest ultra marathon on the planet don’t see any problem here. Sadly, that is the real problem.
Getting Running Mann-splained
Although my questions were “tiresome and irritating”, and James is a busy man, he did find the time to denigrate himself and dish out some unsolicited advice.
I have thick skin and therefore ignored the flattering insult of the first paragraph. However, I do agree with James that you have to take the good and the bad with social media. There is a lot of false information and reality distortions from the “ill-informed and clueless loudmouths” out there. For example, James’ own Twitter profile states that he’s a “statistics geek” which is clearly untrue.
I focussed on the final sentence, taking James’ advice to heart, hence this article. Despite being denied access to the 2023 data set to perform the suggested “informed calculated statistical analysis”, here’s hoping that you found this lengthy and detailed article both educational and enlightening.
The Sound of Silence
The only thing quieter than the last 60 seconds of Comrades 2023 is the silence of the Comrades Marathon Association. A minute of silence is the customary sign of respect for people who have died. Perhaps the silent 60 seconds at the end of Comrades 2023 was appropriate way to honour the hundreds of should-be Vic Clapham medallists who were shot down on the road to Durban by their commander-in-chief.
The data does not lie. The data does not deny. The data does not ignore the facts. What will the Comrades Marathon Association do with the data? The data does not have the ability to apologise. Will the Comrades Marathon Association?
I was originally going to start the article with this segment but decided to removed it because (a) Piet Wiersma subsequently clarified the entire non-issue with the drinks and (b) I wanted to get into the meat of the article faster. However, I like the writing so thought I’d pop it in here…
10:43am, Sunday 11 June, Kingsmead Stadium, Durban: Spectators at Kingsmead were treated to a thrilling commencement to finish line proceedings as Tete Dijana held off a last-minute surge from the Dutch runner, Piet Wiersma, to win the 96th edition of the Comrades Marathon. With a chip on his shoulder (and short one energy drink in his belly), Wiersma almost overhauled the nervous Tijana, who has probably spent more time at the chiropractor than the physio after Linda Blairing* the last five kilometres as the Dutchman tried in vain to hunt him down.
* that’s an Exorcist reference for those wondering
A lot can change in seven hours…
Whilst the Comrades 2023 cutoff debacle is a lightbulb that cannot be unscrewed, I do have an idea for some form of consolation for the impacted runners that I will cover in a future article.
If you’d like to like to make a difference, you join the Comrades Marathon Association by filling out this form which gives you voting rights at the AGM in October. The cost is R50 (email on form for bank account account details). I am told that form and deposit would need to be submitted before the end of June to have a say at the next AGM.