Comrades Race Report
THE ULTIMATE HUMAN RACE – IT WILL HUMBLE YOU
It all started on a walk with a 71 year old lady in the Italian Dolomites. Turned out we both had a passion for running and I asked her the fatal question “what was your favourite race?”. She answered Comrades and I looked at her blankly. She then went on to explain that it is one of the most iconic road races in the world. That was about 10 years ago and Comrades became a major bucket list item.
In terms of its standing, Comrades is way up there with the toughest road ultra marathons in the world. It runs 56 miles from Durban to Pietermaritzburg (up year) and then in the reverse direction the following year (down year). But don’t be deceived when you read “down year” as it involves about 30 miles of climbing almost 4000 feet before you really start going down, 6500 feet of descending which is an absolute quad and knee killer.
2015 was going to be the year I got to do my bucket list run. I took the plunge and entered never having run further than marathon distance before. I trained so hard from January through to April but then picked up a major injury that meant I couldn’t train for the last 6 weeks up to race day.
I was also using Comrades 2015 as a major fund raiser for The Children’s Adventure Farm Trust (www.caft.co.uk) a brilliant charity doing great work with disadvantaged and under privileged children. They have to raise £1m each year to operate and get no government funding. It’s a truly inspirational place to visit when the kids are there for holidays and Christmas parties as well as being heart wrenching when you hear the stories of the kids sufferings.
Thanks to the generosity of my many clients, friends and family I had raised over £7000 so I knew no matter what that I had, at the very least, to start the race. Deep down I knew it was going to be an unsuccessful attempt and so it proved as I had to withdraw due to the injury after 17 miles of slogging uphill. At the time I was utterly distraught, totally devastated and wanted to be anywhere other than watching the race unfold as a spectator. This meant so much to me personally and I had built it up as my ultimate life goal. There and then I made a mental pledge to myself and to all those that had supported me in raising funds for CAFT, that I would be back to conquer this run and fulfil the promise that I had made to my sponsors.
The minute entries opened I was in! I managed to run a good qualifying time at the Amsterdam Marathon in October 2015 and the training started in earnest in January 2016.
I adopted a different training regime this time round in order to avoid injury. My new mantra was “less is more”! I trained 6 days per week but only 4 of those sessions were runs. Joining Herbalife Fitcamp in Altrincham helped massively with core and leg strengthening once a week and another body weight strength session each week supplemented the running.
One significant incident, when I thought I had broken my ankle when slipping on wet leaves during a training run, threatened to scupper this years race but, thankfully, it was a bad sprain not a break and meant 6 weeks out but, being a stubborn runner, I cut that down to three weeks and trained despite the pain!
This year I chose not to raise funds for CAFT as I didn’t want to push my sponsors generosity any more. However, my justgiving page is still open, www.justgiving.co.uk/tonycollier4caft
From 1st Jan through to race day I ran about 1100km including the Manchester marathon, as a training run, and one 65km training run with my Styal Running Club mates supporting me.
We set off for South Africa on Wednesday 25th May and arrived 24 hours later. That was a long long journey.
Friday morning we had the excitement of the expo, picked up the race numbers (front and back in SA) and booked the bus to the race start. As we were staying in Durban and the start was in PMB I had to get out to the start with thousands of other runners which would mean a very early start on the Sunday morning and a 56 mile bus trip. A separate queue and registration desk at the expo for International Runners was a big help in speeding us through registration and the International Lounge also provided us with free refreshments.
Saturday morning was Durban Parkrun and me and Mrs C were taking part to try and set a Parkrun world record. In the end over 1700 finished!
Saturday night was a 6.00 pasta party and very early to bed. Up at 1.15 to smother myself in factor 50 and to lubricate all those bits that would chafe on race day (missed a few, very painfully!). 2.00am breakfast then a 10 minute walk to catch the bus to PMB at 3.00am.
Arriving in PMB the excitement and anticipation was amazing.
Into the start pens with 30 minutes to go and we started shuffling forward.
On then to the traditional start routine which meant the SA national anthem followed by the Zulu anthem Shosholoza which is incredibly emotional bringing many runners to tears. Then it’s Chariots of Fire followed by the braying of Max Trimborn’s recording of the crowing cockerel three times followed by the 10 second countdown and the start gun.
Starting in the third seeding pen meant it took 2 minutes to cross the line. Not a major problem for the faster runners but a serious issue for those towards the back. Comrades running time starts for everyone when the gun goes and finishes when they cross the finish line. If it takes 15 minutes to cross the start line you then have only 11 hours 45 minutes to complete the race in the very strict cut off time.
You then arrive at the first of the named big 5 climbs, Polly Shorts. The other named climbs are Inchanga, an absolute brute of a climb just before halfway and about 3 miles long. Then in the second half, Bothas, Fields and Cowies. Don’t be deceived though, there are probably well over 50 seriously challenging climbs that are long, steep and energy sapping!
The first 16km is basically a slog up to to the high point of the race at Umlaas Road. You get no reward for being too fast up to here.
Watching the dawn rise over the valley of 1000 hills was pretty amazing but you knew that the rising sun and heat was the next major challenge to face. It got really hot, 24c in the shade but with unbroken blue sky it was so much hotter in direct sunlight. Coping with the heat was something that I had thought long about. At every one of the c. 50 aid stations there was water sachets as well as energy drinks and the water sachets were a life saver especially when they came straight from the ice troughs. Poured 1 over the white cap I was wearing and another into the Buff wrapped around my neck and it worked wonders.
Eventually reached marathon distance in 4 hours 20 mins and then shortly after reached half way at Drummond, shortly after Inchanga. One lasting memory of the first half was seeing the 63k to go board and thinking its “only” a half and a full marathon to go!
The other big thing in the first half was passing the Ethembeni School for disabled children and giving high 5’s to the kids. The race raises loads of money to keep the school going and runners bring gifts from all over the world.
After Drummond it just seemed to get hotter and tougher. By now all the climbs were walked and even a bit of walking on the downs and flats was called for.
Mrs C was out on the course which helped a lot. I’d seen her after 21k and knew that she would be at 63k. By the time I got to that 2nd point I was pretty wrecked but she had my nutrition and hydration ready for me and sent me on my way with the words “come on, keep going, it looks like you can go sub 10 hours”. I was still thinking easier said than done!
From this point it’s basically 2000 feet downhill with three huge climbs still to do, plus a few very niggling shorter ones. The downs would crucify our quads but the ups were just power walks by this stage.
Shortly after Pinetown you turn on to the M13 motorway and run on this pretty much all the way down to Durban. It certainly wasn’t pretty and by now the pain had really set in but the determination level was pumped up to full and I was going to get to the finish even if it meant crawling there!
When you get on the motorway you do see Durban in the distance for the first time but wow, it looks a long way away! The lovely Indian Ocean is like a distant but welcoming beacon.
Stepping back a little,this race is truly iconic, it is watched from start to finish on South African TV, the whole course is lined with supporters having a Braai (SA BBQ) and drinking cold beer. All through the towns the run passes through there were bands, African choirs and school kids singing Shosholoza. It really raised the emotions to new heights. The race was established in 1921 to commemorate the fallen heroes of WW1 and has built up to 20,000 entrants coming from all over the world. Over 300 from GB, the biggest nation apart from SA. It’s almost certainly on a par with Boston as far as being iconic is concerned. I think the race gets into your heart and soul and starts to own you. It’s why people come back year after year to get their back to back medals (consecutive finishes), green numbers (10 finishes) and permanent numbers. I’ve run all 6 of the World Marathon Majors and got the certificate to prove it but Comrades well surpasses that and many folk who I’ve met on this journey just tell me it gets into your blood, the desire to keep coming back.
Anyway, onto the final chapter, the gruelling motorway and possibly the worst and most challenging climb of the down run, 45th Cutting. Can’t describe how tough this was. About 3/4 of a mile up a really steep motorway hill with no redeeming features. The power walk became a slow zombie like walk. But this is where Comrades camaraderie sets in and a lovely South African lady started chatting to me and telling me how well I was doing especially as a novice. She gave me loads of encouragement.
Then the 7k to go marker and I knew I could walk it and still get a solid sub 10 hour time. Then I went into full conservation “must finish” mode and pretty much walked about half of that 7k and only slowly plodded the rest. By this time you can see the floodlights of the Kingsmead Sahara Cricket Stadium where the race finishes, so near but so far!
2k to go and by now it was much more walking than running. 1k to go, must put some effort in, come on Collier pretend you are a runner. Stadium entrance now in sight, through the gates and then they make you run a quarter of the concourse before you get onto the grass. But oh no, you then run round the entire cricket pitch. Who knew how big a cricket pitch could be? Then you turn the final corner and the glorious sight 75 yards away of the finish line. Crossing the line with hands held high was one of the greatest moments of my life. The whole run was a roller coaster both in terms of the hills and emotions but now it was time for the tears to flow, pick up the medal and celebrate.
Met Mrs C in the International tent, where beer and food is provided for international runners, and it was fantastic to hear her say how proud she was of me.
Met a few other Brit runners and shared congratulations before getting really chilly and heading back to the hotel to watch the final minutes of the race unfold on the TV. At 11.59.59 the final finisher crosses the line before they block the finish line. If you are still running at that point you don’t count as having finished and you get no medal. Totally cruel but it’s part of Comrades folk lore.
Some interesting facts. Approx 25% of entrants don’t make the start line (the demands of training putting paid to their Comrades ambitions). 25% of starters don’t finish, mainly due to not meeting one of the 6 cut off times en route. The average runner loses 4.5 litres of fluid. I burned over 6000 calories. The medal is the smallest you’ll ever get for running.
In summary this is one of the most iconic running events in the world and one of the toughest. It is totally and utterly brutal. Coming from the northern hemisphere makes it even harder to cope with the heat having trained through a UK winter. Was it worth it? You bet it was. One of my proudest achievements. If you can beat this race you can take on most challenges in life and succeed!
It certainly humbled me and thousands of others!
Incidentally, adding this as an after thought, I finished in 9.46. Not bad for an old fella!