I have run the Boston Marathon and the New York City Marathon and crowd support was crazy at those races. However, Comrades spectators take cheering to a whole new level! Comrades is not just a race. It is truly an experience. For starters, this is thee biggest ultra in the world, with 20,000 entrants. It is also the oldest continuing ultra in the world, starting in 1921 by a WWI veteran in memory of his lost comrades. The veteran, Vic Clapham picked the course (between the two cities Pietermaritzburg and Durban), because he wanted it to be “grueling” in honor of the suffering/hardships of his comrades. Comrades is thee most beloved of all events in South Africa, because it was an early exception to apartheid (racial segregation in South Africa which lasted officially until 1994). Comrades opened to all runners in 1975 because one of the local jurisdictions (on the course route) refused to grant a permit for use of their roads unless it was open to everyone. Non-whites and women had run the race prior to 1975, but were not “officially” recognized finishers. The race is lined with ENTHUSIASTIC spectators practically the entire way. My understanding is that for a long time, this was a “holiday” and all business/schools, etc were closed (I am not sure when this changed, but we saw that some businesses had signs on their doors that they were closed in Durban anyway because of Comrades). In addition, the race is broadcast for 14 hours straight on local TV. Yes…14 hours of only Comrades coverage (before, after and during). For the first time this year, there was also specific coverage for the ladies side as well.
Given that brief background/history, there is already a lot of emotion just toeing the line. Now add to it, standing at the starting line in Pietermaritzburg at the beautiful Town Hall. It starts in the dark at 5:30am under floodlights. The crowd sings the South African National Anthem which is sung with lots of emotion and respect. Then, a miner song, Shosholoza, is sung in a kind of an beautiful, erie, electric-feeling acapella. It sticks with you (I bought a CD with Shosholoza, because it struck me listening to it). It’s one of those songs that will instantly take me back to the race upon hearing it…one of those sensory cues that stays with you forever). The song is about diamond miners preparing to overcome hardships. After Shosholoza, Chariots of Fire is played and then a rooster crows (a tradition of a now deceased runner who used to crow before the start for years), and BOOM!! a cannon roars to start the race.
I had the privilege of racing on the Nedbank Team (I will write more about that later), which allowed us to start the race in front of the “A” seeded runners. Women who have run on the Nedbank team before warned me prior to the start that it would go out crazy fast. They basically advised me to abandon my race plan and run for my life until I could get out of the pack. NO JOKE. They were serious. Ellie Greenwood made a reference to cross country type running where, elbowing ensues in order to stand your ground. I was actually excited by the prospect of the start, thinking it would be fun. I grew up with older brothers and know how to shove and be shoved if necessary. The Nedbank women lined up on at thee very front of the start line for safety, but I opted to step back a few rows because I don’t have that kind of speed, and thought my chances were better further back. Well, as the start grew near, they dropped the ropes on the seeded runners and everyone moved forward until you were pressed together like sardines. I know what you are thinking…this happens at every marathon…NOPE. This is totally different. Men were pressed against me like they had ill intentions if you know what I mean. I was actually nervous that I might get trampled. So, to lighten the mood and try to garner good graces of those around me. I said “this is freaking me out.” One runner asked me if this was my first Comrades, to which I replied, “yes.” He said the same thing…”Go out hard…every year people get trampled.” The men around me were listening to the conversation. I said “I like you guys. I will gladly let you by me if you please don’t trample me. This is making me nervous.” The guys smiled and shook their heads in confirmation and even gave me a tiny bit more space. When the cannon BOOMED! I ran fast. A guy in front of me stumbled and just about went down, but managed to stay on his feet. I didn’t look behind me. I just ran like I stole something for the first mile to get out. My watch went beep: 6:48 first mile (sub 3 marathon pace). I knew I had to slow down. I surveyed the crowds and decided to slow my speed. I tried to settle into my pace, although I wasn’t exactly sure what that would be. A hilly race is like a trail race, you can’t just click off the same pace every mile. You have to run by effort and feel. My goal was sub 7:20 and top 20 women. Anything faster/better was a bonus.
Running in the dark out of Pietermaritzburg was surreal. I was finally HERE! doing this race. People were flying by me now that I had slowed down. I was just taking it all in and trying to get my breathing slowed back down a bit. I was amazed that there were already spectators on the course. It was 5:30 in the morning. We had about an hour in the dark (starting in about 60 degree temperatures), and then the sun came out and rapidly started heating things up. I was worried about the heat, given that I hadn’t had hot temperatures to train in and only made it to the sauna once. So, I decided that I would just keep as cool as possible by dumping water on me throughout the race.
The fluids came in sachets, not cups. Sachets are like the toy water snakes from the 90’s. They are an oblong, kind of cylindrical bag of fluid. Generally, every aid station (there are 46 aid stations!! in 56 miles) involved the same ritual for me. I grabbed 2 sachets at a time. I would drink one and pour one on my head/neck. I ran like a wet rat for the entire race, but I was relatively cool the entire time. I was surprised there was actually more shade on the course than I imagined. I tried to run in the shadows as much as possible to stay cool. The temperatures were in the 80’s by early afternoon.
Each aid station had water and Energade. Later stations had Coke, fruit, chocolate, and biscuits. Unfortunately with 20,000 runners there is no way to get a drop bag on on the course. So, if you want other fuel, you either have to carry everything you want or have crew on the course. I had heard the course was difficult for people to get around, similar trying to get around a the Boston Marathon. So, my husband decided to volunteer with the Nedbank crews (he was at 60k to go and 5k to go). Nedbank had different crews, each 10k, starting 20k into the course. Thanks to Nedbank, I was able to pick up a bottle that I had prepared in advance with more Hammer gels rubber banded to it. It worked great. I carried extra Hammer gels in my bra just in case I missed them (which happened twice). But, ultimately, I was able to fuel with Hammer gels every 30 minutes, as well as Endurolytes Extreme, Antifatigue Caps, and Race Caps Supreme every hour.
My fueling plan worked perfectly. I ran well, backing off my pace 2 or 3 times for 5-10 minutes, when I thought my stomach was starting to get pissed off from the heat. When I have pushed too hard in the heat in past races, I have pushed my belly to a point of no return. I wanted to try to be hypervigilant and pay attention to my body to make sure I could adjust before it went to far. My plan worked! Backing off for a few minutes at the first signs of issues corrected it nicely. It is much easier to be preemptive than to have to deal with repercussions later.
A couple hours into the race, a blind runner who I read about with a cane for guidance passed me. He was going for his 10th finish. I would later pass him back, but I was amazed at him running 7-somethings on the road without much vision. After cheering for him, another runner said “Hey Traci, it’s me Jogbud.” “Cool! Wayne, from New Zealand, right?” I said. How crazy is that. In a huge sea of runners, we would come upon someone we knew. We discussed the last time we had seen each other (at the 24-Hour World Championships in Italy…we actually had exchanged jerseys), recent races we had done, etc. We shared our goals and found out that we were both shooting for approximately the same time goal. We ran together for awhile, but I had to let him go so I could take a pit stop. Eventually, I caught back up to him. We encouraged each other for probably 20 miles off and on. It was nice to have someone there to talk to, push, and be pushed by.
Along the way, the entire course was lined with THEE MOST ENTHUSIASTIC SPECTATORS that I have ever encountered in my life. It was LITERALLY like you were the BEATLES. More than 100 times, I heard someone personally cheer for me by name. People cheered for you at the TOP of their lungs, reached out on the course to touch you as you ran by, offered high-fives, offered their own food/fluids, and just CRAZILY CHEERED FOR EVERYONE! They especially loved the ladies. Given that there are ~20,000 entered runners and only ~5,000 of them are female, women got A LOT of enthusiastic cheers. Many people would cheer GO LADY, always in RESOUNDING VOLUMES! Once, a woman cheered so loud for me (a man was in between us), that a man laughed out loud out from sheer entertainment…I just simply said “boobs” and shrugged my shoulders. He burst out laughing even harder. All of the spectators were amazing, made me smile, made me laugh, and made the day go by so fast. I was unable to race with my iPod, but was glad I didn’t have it and didn’t miss it.
Around 30k to go, I knew it was mainly downhill…there was only 5k-ish left of climbing. I was really enjoying the downs and definitely picking up the pace. Whatever time I lost in the climbs, I more than made up for it on the downs. I was calculating my time and pace, and heard someone around me say he thought he’d be in at 7:24 (with about 10 miles to go). I definitely wanted to make sure I was in before 7:30 to get that silver medal (there are different medals for different finishing times):
Gold: 1-10 position
Wally Hayward: 11-sub 6
Bill Rowan: 7:30-9:00
Vic Clapman: 11:00-12:00
In the last 5k, I passed two more ladies. I didn’t know my position. I had been told a variety of numbers all day from 13-20, so I was just hoping for the best. I entered the stadium, rounded the corners and saw the clock. I sprinted a bit with what I had left to make sure I was in under 7:20…7:19:58 was my official clock time. I was 18th female and finished happy with a race for the first time in a long time. It was a fantastic day and I can say without hesitation, that after 130+ marathons and ultras Comrades was/is my favorite. I am not a big repeater of races, but I will be back and with a goal to break 7:00.
My husband and I went out to eat after the race and watched Comrades on TV. It was nearing the end of the race. It killed me. There were hoards of people trying to get in under the 12:00 time cut off. The streets were filled, wall to wall people running, trying to beat the clock. One woman fell in the stadium with 45 seconds to go. A man stopped to try to help her up several times, but she just couldn’t get her legs under her. He kept helping as the clock ticked down. He could have made it if he had left her…but he didn’t leave her. We don’t think either of them made the time limit. So many people got so close to an official time. There was a special award for the final official finisher. People over the time limit are allowed to go through the finish, but are not awarded with a medal or a finish time.
After the race, people who know you did the race, treat you like a rock star. Many people in the country who don’t even run, want to train to do Comrades one day. They know it is grueling, but it is a goal, because it is such a significant part of the culture and history. Comrades is an inspiring race that should be on everyone’s Running Bucket List.
In addition to this being the best race I have ever run, South Africa was the best vacation my husband and I have ever taken. The country is beautiful and diverse. The people are all friendly. Service and food was good. The value of the dollar is ridiculously good. We saw beautiful ocean scenery, lots of wildlife, SCUBA’d with seals, cage-dived with sharks, and went on a safari for several days. We would have never chosen to go to South Africa if it weren’t for Comrades, but we would recommend it to anyone.
HUGE THANKS TO:
Nedbank: It was an honor to run with the Nedbank team. I felt honored to be included with such great North American athletes as Ellie Greenwood (present, but didn’t race due to injury), Sarah Bard (finished 4th-1st USA female), Max King (finished 8th-1st USA male), Zach Bitter, and Cassie Scallon. I got to meet lots of international runners as well as Ludwick Mamabolo (South Africa) (2nd), Mike Fokoroni (Zimbabwe) (4th), Charne Bosman (South Africa), (1st female), Kajsa Berg (Sweden) (3rd female), Fikile Mbuthuma (South Africa) (8th female), and many other men and women from South Africa and Sweden.I appreciated the support, kit, and perks of running with Nedbank. They are a class act.
Altra: I LOVE MY Torin 2.0’s and wore them for the race. I proudly showed Zach Bitter and Max King my blister-free feet after the race! I can wear sandals now without people being grossed out by my feet!! Thanks for your support! The people/company is as great as their shoes!
Hammer Nutrition: I love that your products fuel me without giving me GI issues and taste great to boot. After the race, I had Strawberry Recoverite, Mito Caps, Race Caps Supreme, and Tissue Rejuvinator. Your products get me bouncing back quickly!
Drymax: I love the max protection trail socks and wear them for any ultra…blister-free feet are happy feet 🙂
Nathan Hydration: I didn’t need to carry anything for the race, but my packs (Vapor Airess and Zeal) and various handhelds have gotten me through training!
Running Skirts: I wore the Nedbank kit, but trained in your awesome skirts! I love the pockets to carry whatever I need and the fact I never have to use body glide, because I don’t chafe in your skirts! I donned your compression socks after the race and on the long plane rides to keep my feet and legs happy 🙂