“…Irresistible impulses seized him. he would be lying in camp, dozing lazily in the heat of the day, when suddenly his head would lift and his ears cock up, intent and listening, and he would spring on his feet and dash away, and on and on, for hours, though the forest aisles.” – from Call of the Wild by Jack London, 1903
For me, running has always held a certain primordial appeal. Man is made for distance running. We have an incredible capability to cool our bodies and we have within ourselves the aerobic potential to go on for hours. This is quite different from other animals. Do a quick search on “persistence hunting” and you will see that this unique ability allowed our ancestors to thrive on the plains of Africa. So it seems fitting that the oldest ultra marathon in the world takes place so close to the birthplace of civilization.
When I first heard about the Comrades Marathon I knew immediately that someday I wanted to participate. Not just because it is the oldest ultra, or because it is by far the largest (with over 15,000 participants), but because of the spirit of the event. It was started as a memorial to soldiers lost in World War I and it is known for the great camaraderie that exists between its participants. Unlike a typical road marathon which focuses on speed, the 55 mile Comrades course with its 5 major hills and countless minor is about finishing. The participants struggle together. They urge each other on and they seek to give more than they take away. They encourage each other to arrive at the finish before the dreaded 12 hour gun which ends the race.
The whole event is televised. Comrades is a South African jewel worth more than the largest diamond dug out of one of its historic mines. It is cherished by the people and this is made evident by the entire course being lined with cheering, singing spectators. The country gathers round to watch as the race ends exactly 12 hours from the cannon firing the start of the run. At this point the race director walks to the finish line, turns his back on the approaching runners, and fires his gun. The finish line is blocked. People still on the course are finished but they don’t get to be finishers… even if they were just one step short. Comrades is a race unlike any other.
Amy and I walked out of the hotel at 4:30am and headed for the starting corrals. As we opened the lobby door we braced ourselves for the normal mid forties temperature of the pre-dawn race morning. Instead, it was balmy. No throw-away jacket would be necessary this morning as it was already around 70 degrees. A warm breeze was blowing and would later present itself as a headwind gusting to around 15 miles per hour. I tried to put the temperature out of my mind as I made my way to the starting corral. My marathon qualifying time allowed me entry into the A corral right at the front of the race. This positioning is especially important for Comrades as only gun times are considered (not chip times based on when you actually cross the starting line like most large races). I pushed through a mass of sweaty bodies trying to get into the corral before the 5:15am deadline. I made it. The corral was full of lean, muscular runners. Most were obviously local South Africans but a few had the tell tale blue bib number of an international runner. I also saw several wearing the coveted green number which signified that they have suffered through this experience as least 10 times. Once a person owns a green number it is theirs for life.
Of course someone saw that I was a first time international runner and immediately asked me about my goal time. I have never been shy about setting lofty goals and sharing them with people. I don’t think that falling short of a goal is anything about which to be embarrassed, provided that you are properly prepared and that you have given it your best effort. So I told him that I wanted a Silver Medal. I explained that I had a sub 3 hour marathon time and that I had logged over 1200 miles of training since the first of the year and that everything I read said that I was capable of running the necessary sub 7 hour and 30 minute finish time to be awarded the coveted Silver. I knew it was a stretch and that it would be very dependent on the weather conditions and which of my “bodies” chose to show up on race morning. But even with temperatures already high an hour before sunrise, I wasn’t yet ready to abandon that goal.
As the start of the race approached we listened to the historic playing of Shosholoza (click the link to hear this magnificent song). It is chillingly beautiful as its lyrics call out in a mix of Ndebele and Zulu words,
You are running away
You are running away
on those mountains…”
Shosholoza is so popular that it is considered an alternative national anthem for South Africa. Most of the crowd of over 15,000 runners was singing along. I was mesmerized by the beautiful tune. It served to give me a feeling of euphoria and a sense of being invincible. Its siren call urged me to pursue me goal at any cost. I was lost in the beauty of the moment. After a brief period of silence, we heard the theme song from Chariots of Fire begin to play. And then the cannon fired.
I progressed out of Durban and uphill through the “45th cutting”, a distance of about 15k, while it was still dark. In the mid 1800’s the 45th Regiment of Foot of the British army used picks and shovels to cut through the hill and it is known as the 45th cutting to this day. As the sun rose, we pushed on toward Cowies Hill the first of the five named major hills on the course. What does it take to be a hill that earns a name in Comrades? Largeness. The infamous Heartbreak Hill of the Boston Marathon wouldn’t qualify. It wouldn’t even be an honorable mention. By the top of Cowies the sun was shining. I checked my Garmin and saw that I was about 5 minutes ahead of pace. The up run of Comrades basically begins with a full uphill marathon. The 45th cutting blends into Cowies which blends into Fields Hill which blurs into Botha’s Hill. On this ascent you pass through several towns: Pinetown, Winston Park, and Hillcrest. The residents of which are all lined up along the course cooking outdoor breakfasts of various meats and eggs. The scent of smoke and sausages might be enough to push the slightly nauseous runner over the edge.
Over 21 miles you rise from sea level to around 2200 feet of elevation. By the time I crested Botha’s Hill I knew that I was in trouble. The Kearsney College boys school boys were out and cheering. They were all properly dressed in their blue blazers, white oxford shirts, and striped ties. They were giving such words of encouragement as “Well done” or “Good show chap”. In the bright sunshine I could see sweat glistening on their foreheads just below their finely parted hair. It wasn’t supposed to be this hot. I looked at my Garmin and pushed the button to display the temperature. It read 82 degrees. But body temperature affects the reading so I figured the actual air temperature at this point, about 8:30 am, was closer to 76. The hottest part of the day was still to come.
I was consuming two to three sachets of water or Energade at each aid station. The aid stations arrived about every 1.5-2 kilometers which is actually quite frequently. Sachets are small bags of liquid holding about 6 ounces. You bite into a corner, tear it, and then squeeze the refreshment into your mouth. Or sometimes, over your head and body. Over 2 million sachets of water and over 700,000 sachets of Energade would be distributed over the duration of the race. Let’s just say that I took my fair share.
In addition to the calories gleaned from the Energade, I was consuming chocolate gel from packets that I had carried across the ocean and was now carrying in my Salomon race belt. I was also eating small pieces of bananas whenever I could get them. With the occasional orange slice thrown in for good measure. That is until I was handed a slice that after biting into I discovered had some type of spicy hot salt brine encrusted on its surface. I quickly spat it out lest it should decide to leave my body of its own volition somewhere down the road.
After Botha’s it was about 8k of rolling hills but mostly descent through the town of Drummond to the halfway point. Just before reaching Drummond I passed the people handing out pink roses. Amy and I had learned the previous day during the course tour about Arthur Newton. Arthur was a five time winner of Comrades who was reputed to stop and rest at a small cut in the rock on the side of the road that is now known as Arthur’s Seat. Tradition holds that runners are supposed to throw a flower onto Arthur’s Seat and call out, “Good morning Arthur” for good luck in the second half of the race. But I was just barely on pace and I wasn’t going to slow myself down by moving over to grab a rose and then slowing down at Arthur’s Seat to throw it in the correct location. But a comrade that I didn’t know, knew better. He ran up from behind me with two roses and offered me one. I declined. He explained the tradition. He told me how his wife was running for her 10th finish today. He himself had over 25 finishes. He talked about the spirit of Comrades and the long held traditions. I was moved. His pride in the race and in his country was evident and inspiring. I told him that I had changed my mind and asked for the rose. To be honest I may forget many things about running Comrades but I will never forget throwing my rose on the pile and calling out to that ghost, “Good morning Arthur.”
Crossing the halfway point I was just barely on pace but it was even warmer now and doubts were creeping in about being able to maintain the pace. Logically I knew that it wasn’t going to be possible but I was still stubbornly holding on. It took the fourth named hill, Inchanga, to break the hold. Inchanga hill is named after the local town. Inchanga is both one of the poorest towns in South Africa and one of the most beautiful, being situated in the Valley of a Thousand Hills. By the time I reached the top of Inchanga I had moved from running up the hill to power walking. I didn’t need to look at my Garmin to know that it was hot but I did anyway.
Just down the road from the top of Inchanga I passed Ethembeni School in the appropriately named village of Hillcrest. Ethembeni is home to over 300 physically challenged and visually impaired children from across the Kindom of the Zulu. The name Ethembeni means “place of hope”. During our course tour the day before we were treated to special music and dance by the children including a rendition of the official national anthem of South Africa, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (“God bless Africa”in the Xhosa language). A collection was taken up from all of the international runners who participated in the tour and over $100,000 USD was raised in two short days! Now, running past these same children, I was a little embarrassed of feeling disappointed in not being able to maintain the Silver Medal pace. I remembered how blessed I was to be here and to be running and I decided to fully embraced a new goal. After the Silver Medal, the next level is the Bill Rowan Medal and it is awarded for running under 9 hours. After Bill Rowan comes the Bronze Medal for sub 11 hours and finally the Vic Clapham Medal for completion before the 12 hour cutoff. I did some quick math in my head and figured that I could power walk the remaining hills and run the rest and still come in under the 9 hour threshold. But the heat was still rising. And I was now more exposed to the sun and wind since I was at higher elevation on a long stretch of more level land. I couldn’t be certain of anything and nothing was to be taken for granted.
I was now about 31 miles into the run. The next 12 miles were relatively flat meaning that there was only around 1,000 feet of ascent and 500 feet of descent. These were hard miles for me mentally as I was forcing myself to maintain what had become an uncomfortable pace. There were also stretches of barren land and the wind was blowing up dust clouds and whipping them into our faces. Running through these clouds I would look down at the ground and use the brim of my hat to shield my eyes. It was impossible to see through the dust so watching the road was the best guide. During this stretch no matter how much I drank my mouth felt dry and parched from the dust and wind. I passed through the villages of Harrison Flats, Cato Ridge, and Camperdown before finally reaching the highest point on the course at Umlass Road (2657 feet). However just because I had reached the highest point didn’t mean that it was all downhill from there. I still had the mightiest of the five named hills remaining, Polly Shortts.
I had another 10k to go before I would reach Polly Shortts and it started with a 4 mile descent. I had gotten a bit of a second (or was it 6th or 7th) wind and I decided to push down this descent. I managed to run a low 8 minute pace with one mile in the mid 7s. I was passing a large number of people in the process and I gained some mental strength from the effort. At the end of the descent I began to climb Little Polly Shortts thinking that it was the real McCoy. I asked a veteran green number runner if this was the Polly Shortts. He just smiled… even though I am pretty sure that he spoke English. I soon arrived at the actual Polly and wondered how I could have been so foolish. The authentic Polly is named after a former local farmer who helped people up the hill after heavy rains when the road became very muddy. It was now paved so this service was no longer needed. The authentic Polly is a nearly 3 kilometer, steep climb that never seems to end. Once you have met the real Polly, you will never again be fooled by an impostor. As I power walked up I watched my Garmin and forced myself to maintain a sub 15 minute mile pace all the way to the top. Back before I started running ultras (only about six months ago), I would never have guessed that maintaining 15 minute pace could be a difficult task.
After cresting Polly Shortts you are in the home stretch, a 7 kilometer, mostly downhill home stretch. People will tell you that it is all downhill after Polly but be assured, these people are relativists. Two more sizable hills occur with 5k to go and with 3k remaining. Although nameless by Comrades standards, these hills would both merit acknowledgment on the course of any major world marathon. In addition to these final obstacles in my path, the wind decided to make one last effort to subdue us, and with a little help from fire. I could see a large cloud of smoke on the horizon and as I approached the smell of smoke became very strong. Soon the entire road was covered in a thick, billowing cloud. It burned our eyes. I was attempting to hold my breath and run at the same time. After several minutes the wind shifted and the cloud moved off the road to the left. I picked up my pace to get clear of the fire before the wind decided to assault me again. I found out later that one of the spectator’s cooking grills had thrown off an ember, the wind fanning it into an extensive grass fire along the route.
Finally I entered the City Oval, a cricket stadium which seats 12,000 people. It is notable for being one of only two first class cricket fields in the world that have a tree within the boundaries. The other is in Canterbury, but that is another tale. I completed my lap of the infield and crossed the finish line to great applause. It had been 8 hours and 53 minutes since the cannon had fired. I was handed a Bill Rowan medal, a finishers patch, and a yellow rose. Making my way to the international runners tent, I grabbed an Energade and laid down in the grass.
You would think that laying down after running 55 miles is a smart thing to do. Well, it is not. Within a few minutes my legs completely cramped and I had spasms in my lower back. I literally could not get up. I had this happen once before and I knew that if I could get some ibuprofen it would help me to get past the cramping faster. I asked someone to send the medical staff over. They came and I asked for some ibuprofen but they explained that they don’t distribute medicine. Instead they loaded me on a stretcher and carried me to the medical tent. I was laid down on a nice soft bed in the shade
and two assistants proceeded to message my legs with oil and give me cool drinks. Amazingly, this made me feel much better.
I know a good thing when I see it so I asked if I could stay there and rest for a while until they needed the bed. They agreed and I enjoyed a half hour nap before returning to the international runner’s tent where I would wait to watch Amy finish the race. While waiting I ate most of a sandwich and drank a cold Castle, a fine South African beer. It makes me thirsty just thinking about it now.
2013 Comrades Marathon
My time: 8:53:02
My overall place: 1,479
My gender place: 1,405
My category place: 441 (Males Age 40-49)
Total number in my category: 5,504