Monday, April 6, 2020

RunningIsLife Day 9: 2014 Comrades Marathon


For 10 days, I’m posting a running photo, along with a recollection of the race where the photo was taken.  Here’s todays photo:


Most of these posts have been brief.  This one is rather long.  This is a race report I wrote for the Comrades Marathon in 2014.  This was before I started my blog, so I can’t just link to it.

On June 1, 2014, I ran the Comrades Marathon in South Africa.  Despite the name, Comrades isn't actually a marathon.  It's the world's oldest and largest ultramarathon.  The first Comrades Marathon was run in 1921, which is before the word "ultramarathon" had been coined.  The first Comrades Marathon was held in honor of comrades who had perished during World War I, hence the name "Comrades."  It has since become one of the most prestigious ultramarathons in the world.  For many ultrarunners, this is a bucket list race.  In South Africa, you aren't considered a real runner if you haven't done Comrades. 

The course is point-to-point, running between Pietermaritzburg and Durban.  The direction of the race alternates each year.  Pietermaritzburg is a higher elevation than Durban, so when the race finishes in Pietermaritzburg, it's called an "up" year.  When the race finishes in Durban, it's called a "down" year.  This year was a down year.  The "up" and "down" courses are slightly different distances.  The down course is 89.3 kilometers, which is roughly 55.5 miles.  Regardless of which direction the race is run, there are five big hills and several smaller hills.  In a down year, most of these hills are in the first 50 kilometers and the remainder of the course is mostly downhill, as runners descend from the highlands to the coast. 

This was my first trip to Africa.  It was also by first trip to the Southern Hemisphere.  The Southern Hemisphere experiences winter weather while we experience summer weather.  June 1st for them is like December 1st for us.  Durban is a coastal city on the Indian Ocean.  It's about the same distance from the Equator as Jacksonville, Florida, so I expected the weather to be somewhat similar to Florida in early December.  I also had to remind myself that the days would be much shorter.  Sunrise at this time of year isn't until about 6:45 AM, and the sun sets at 5:00 PM. 

A few days before the trip, I went for a run with Patrick and Dillon, two other runners who were also doing Comrades this year.  Patrick is an experienced Comrades runner, having done the race three times already.  Dillon was doing his first Comrades this year, but he was familiar with the country, having been to South Africa several times. 

I traveled with Marathon Tours & Travel.  I could have made hotel arrangements on my own, but Durban has a reputation for crime, so I didn't want to be traveling alone on this trip.  We stayed at Southern Sun Elangeni & Maharini Hotel, which is located on Durban's North Beach.  There was also a group from Australia called Traveling Fit, which was staying at the same hotel.  To get to Durban, I had to take three flights.  First, I flew from Minneapolis to Atlanta.  Next, I flew from Atlanta to Johannesburg.  That was the longest flight I've ever been on.  It was 8,434 miles and took over 15 hours.  Both of those flights were on Delta.  Finally, I had a short flight from Johannesburg to Durban.  The last flight was on South African Airways, but I booked the entire itinerary through Delta. 

I was originally planning to check two small bags and carry a laptop bag onto the planes.  Then I discovered I would have to pick up my checked bags and re-check them with South African Airways after clearing customs in Johannesburg.  It took some repacking, and I had to omit a few items, but I was able to consolidate my bags so I could carry everything onto the planes.  That saved me time, both in Johannesburg and Durban.  My flight to Johannesburg was about 25 minutes late, so I was very glad I didn't have to wait for bags. 

I could have caught a taxi at the Durban airport, but I didn't know if all cab drivers were reputable.  Instead, I made arrangements through Marathon Tours to have a driver waiting for me at the airport.  It cost about $12 more, but it was safer and more convenient.  When my flight arrived in Durban, it was already 8:00 PM.  It had already been dark for a few hours, and I was tired after traveling for roughly 24 hours.  I had enough food on the flights that I didn't need dinner when I got to the hotel.  I was impressed that South African Airways provided a meal on a flight that took less than an hour. 

I left Minneapolis on Tuesday afternoon, but didn't arrive in Durban until Wednesday evening.  There's a seven hour time difference.  I was tired enough to sleep well that night, which went a long way toward getting my body adjusted to the local time zone.  I set an alarm to make sure I wouldn't oversleep Thursday morning.  My hotel package included an excellent breakfast buffet, and I wanted to be done eating before 9:30.  That's when our tour guide from Traveling Fit was leading a group visit to the expo.  Along the way, we walked past the stadium where the race would finish and the Durban Hilton where I would be meeting people later in the day.  After that, I knew how to get to all the places I needed to go.



At the expo, I picked up my race number and chip.  Comrades is one of the few races I know of that still uses ChampionChip, which is the original style of timing chip that attaches to your shoe.  Every runner is required to have their own chip.  If you don't already own one, you have to buy one with race registration.  While I was at the expo, I met several other runners from the US and Australia.



After the expo, I went for a short run along North Beach, which was right next to the hotel.  There's a paved promenade next to the beach that goes on for miles, making it a nice place to run.  This was my first visit to a beach on the Indian Ocean.  It was also an opportunity to spend some time in the sun.  Other than picking up my race packet, my goal for Thursday was to spend enough time in the sun to help my body adjust to the local time zone.  It was close to 80 degrees, and I could really feel the humidity.  I began to wonder how hot I was going to get toward the end of the race.



At 4:00, there was a reception at the Hilton for runners traveling with either Marathon Tours or Traveling Fit.  This was a chance to get to know the other runners in both tour groups.  Most of them were from either the United States or Australia, so everyone spoke English.  Their special guest was Bruce Fordyce, who's won Comrades nine times.  He narrates a course tour, and they still had one seat available for the Friday morning tour, so I signed up for it.  After the reception, I had dinner back at Southern Sun.  The hotel had several restaurants, and two of them had pizza.  Now I've had pizza in 16 countries.  I tried to go to bed a little bit earlier each day, because I would need to get to sleep as early as possible the night before the race.



My sleep Thursday night followed a pattern that was becoming familiar.  I was able to get to sleep, but after two or three hours, I would wake up and have trouble getting back to sleep.  When I finally did get back to sleep, I would sleep OK for the rest of the night, but I had trouble waking up in the morning.  Friday morning, my alarm was set for 5:00, but I slept through it.  I realized I overslept when I saw light shining in from outside.  It was 7:00.  I had to really rush to get dressed and walk to the Hilton by 7:30.  That's when they started loading the bus for my tour.  I made it, but I didn't have time for breakfast.  I grabbed a muffin, which I ate while walking to the Hilton.



The course tour took about four hours.  We took a major highway from Durban to Pietermaritzburg and then following the course back to Durban.  Besides the five big hills with names, there are about 50 smaller hills.  There aren't any flat sections until the finish.  We made three stops.  First we stopped at a school for disabled children, which is right along the course.  Next, we stopped at the Comrades wall of honor.  Any runner who has finished the race at least once can have their name added to the wall for 400 rand (about $40).  I took pictures of the signs for Arthur Newton, Wally Hayward and Bill Rowan.  Our final stop was at the stadium.  The finish area was still under construction, but we were able to come into the stadium for a quick look.  At the start of the tour, we all got bag lunches.  It was enough food to make up for missing breakfast.  I also had enough food leftover to save for pre-race breakfast on Sunday.



Comrades is a major event in South Africa.  Everybody knows about the race, even if they don't run.  You're not considered a serious runner if you haven't finished Comrades at least once.  I was watching a TV show on one of the local stations, and they were talking about the Tour de France.  To convey how big that race is to the cycling community, they referred to it as "the Comrades of bicycle racing."



I noticed on Thursday that the display on my watch was getting faint.  By Friday, my watch battery was dead.  I also had my Garmin, but I didn't think it had a long enough battery life for such a long race.  When I got back to the hotel, I asked the concierge if there were any shops close by where I could get my battery replaced.  He said there were shops that could replace the battery, but they weren't close.  He called someone who could pick up the watch and bring it back later.  In the meantime, I was used my Garmin as a substitute for my regular watch.  I was low on cash, so I walked back to the expo.  I knew they had an ATM there, and while I was there, I could drop off my tog bag with clothes to wear after finishing the race.  Later, I went to a pasta dinner hosted by the hotel. 

Friday night I had no trouble getting to sleep, but my sleep was spotty.  I kept waking up and having trouble getting back to sleep.  It was the third straight night that I struggled to stay asleep during the early morning hours.  This was the most I've struggled with jet lag.  It's probably good that I overslept on Friday, because I got two extra hours of sleep that I desperately needed. 

Saturday was the only day I was completely on my own.  I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the hotel and then spent most of the day at the beach or relaxing at the hotel.  At 4:00 PM, I joined my friends Rocky and Narine and their baby daughter Sophia for an early dinner at an Italian restaurant.  I first met Rocky and Narine at Marathon de Paris in 2011.  There was an official pre-race dinner at the Hilton, but it didn't start until 7:00.  Rocky and I both wanted to eat early so we could get to bed early.  We couldn't get a full night's sleep, but we wanted to at least get some sleep. 

Sunday was race day.  I set my alarm for 1:30.  I also requested a wake-up call.  As it turns out, I was already awake by 1:30.  That gave me an hour and a half to eat breakfast and get ready for the race.  I needed to be downstairs by 3:00 to catch a bus to the start.  I had enough food leftover from Saturday to make a light breakfast.  The hotel started its breakfast service at 2:00 to accommodate the runners.  When I was ready to leave, I had a few spare minutes, so I stopped for a pot of tea.  The race organizers have buses to the start, but you have to catch them at the Hilton, which was several blocks away.  Marathon Tours arranged for a bus to pick us up at Southern Sun.  The bus cost $30, which was well worth it.  Aside from the convenience of being picked up at our hotel, we also had a bathroom on the bus.  That turned out to be important, as I never would have made it through one of the bathroom lines at the start. 

When we left Durban, it was cool, but not cold.  It was about 50 degrees at the start, but would warm into the mid 80s during the race.  For the race, I wore shorts and a singlet.  For the bus ride, I also wore gloves, sweatpants and a long sleeved shirt.  I would shed the sweatpants and shirt just before the race started.  Any clothing discarded in Pietermaritzburg or along the route was picked up and saved by local residents who need extra clothes.  There are many people who are happy to get the clothes, so nothing gets wasted.  I kept my gloves on at the beginning of the race, but put them in my belt later, as I got warm. 

The Comrades Marathon has strict rules about what you can wear.  You're not allowed to wear anything with a commercial name or logo.  This rule is aimed at professional athletes with corporate sponsors, but it applies to everyone.  Most local athletes belong to teams and are expected to wear their team gear.  A couple weeks before the race, Rocky gave me contact information for someone selling Comrades shirts and singlets for American runners.  I bought a singlet.  The front had an American flag, the Comrades Marathon logo and "USA" in big letters.  The back said "USA" and "Comrades Marathon" and had South African and American flags and the elevation profile of the Comrades route.  It cost $35, which included priority mail shipping.  I received it two days after placing my order.  I liked wearing a singlet that clearly identified where I was from.  People travel to this race from all over the world.  The crowds along the route are very supportive of runners from other countries.  After it race, it made a nice souvenir. 

Everyone's bib number indicated how many Comrades Marathons they had previously finished.  As the got to the start area, I noticed that some runners had bib numbers with different colored backgrounds.  I eventually figured out what each color meant.  In general, local runners had white backgrounds, while international runners had blue backgrounds.  Runners on the green list, i.e. runners with at least 10 Comrades finishes, had green backgrounds.  There were two other colors for runners who were reaching milestones.  Runners completing a multiple of 10 had pale yellow backgrounds.  Finally, runners who had their first Comrades finish last year and were attempting at back-to-back Comrades finishes had gold backgrounds. 

Everyone had to be in their assigned corral at least 15 minutes before the race.  If you were late to your corral, you risked having to line up in the back, which meant taking 10 minutes or more to reach the starting line after the gun went off.  All official times are measured from the starting gun, so any time that elapsed before you crossed the line is time you could never make up. 

There's an elaborate starting ritual.  Before the start, they play the South African national anthem.  Then they play a South African folk song called Shosholoza, and all the local residents sang along.  I didn't understand the words, but I was moved to hear all the local runners and spectators singing in unison.  Next they play the theme from Chariots of Fire.  After Chariots of Fire, there's a recorded rooster crow, and then the starter's gun is fired. 

The race started at 5:30 AM, but it wouldn't begin to get light out for another 45 minutes.  There were street lights, so it wasn't completely dark, but the light was dim.  I had to pay close attention to make sure I didn't trip on anything.  Some of the streets in Pietermaritzburg had medians, so I had to watch out for the curbs.  I also saw a few plastic bags discarded by runners.  When the race started, I went out at a pace that felt easy.  Other runners were passing me, but I made no effort to keep up with the pack.  There would be plenty of time to run fast later in the race, but I had to get there with fresh legs. 

Comrades is a long race with a difficult course, but that's only half the challenge.  It also has a strict 12 hour time limit, measured from when the gun goes off.  At 5:30 PM, another gun is fired, and the finish line is closed.  Nobody still on the course at that time will be an official finisher.  To finish in 12 hours you need to maintain an average pace of 7:30 per kilometer, or roughly 12 minutes per mile.  That may not sound fast, but most runners have to do a quite a bit of walking on the hills and in the late miles. 

There are six types of awards, depending on your finish time.  The top ten men and women receive gold medals.  Other runners finishing in less than six hours receive Wally Hayward medal.  Runners finishing between six hours and 7:30 receive silver medals.  Runners finishing between 7:30 and nine hours receive Bill Rowan awards.  Runners finishing between nine hours and 11 hours receive bronze medals.  Finally, runners finishing between 11 and 12 hours receive Vic Clapham awards.  My PR for 50 miles is 7:24, so the silver medal seemed out of reach.  Based on my recent race times, the Bill Rowan award was a reasonable goal, but I would have to work for it. 

There are pace groups for each of the major time goals.  In South Africa, they call each pace group a "bus."  The pace leader is called a "bus driver."  I considered running with the nine hour bus, so I could just stay with the crowd and let an experienced bus driver worry about pacing.  I started the race in corral B, while the official nine hour bus started in corral C.  Patrick was driving an unofficial nine hour bus.  He started in corral D.  Although I started at my own pace, if either of these buses caught up to me on the route, I would have considered joining them. 

Comrades is a huge race.  The largest ultramarathon in the US is the JFK 50 Mile race, with roughly 1,000 runners.  Comrades has over 20,000 runners.  That's comparable to a big city marathon.  To put it in perspective, this year's Boston Marathon had 36,000 runners, but they were divided into four waves of 9,000 runners each.  Comrades is like the first two waves of the Boston Marathon combined.  We were packed tightly into the start corrals, and it took about a kilometer before we had room to run without bumping into each other.  For people in the later corrals, it was probably much farther. 

The route is measured in kilometers, but they count down.  The first sign I noticed was 88 kilometers to go.  At that point, I had completed 1.28 kilometers of the 89.28 kilometer course.  I read my time, so I could see what my pace was over the next kilometer.  Mostly, I was just curious.  I was going to run by feel, expending the same effort going uphill or downhill.  I wasn't trying to stay on a specific pace, but I wanted to know if I was going way too fast or way too slow.  As I passed other kilometer miles, I noticed that I was going a little bit faster than the 6:12 pace I would need to average to beat nine hours.  My uphill kilometers were mostly between 6:00 and 6:12, while my downhill kilometers were around 5:30.  I didn't worry too much, because the pace felt relaxed. 

Five of the hills along the route have names.  In an "up" year, these are the five toughest climbs.  Since the hills aren't symmetrical, the named hills aren't necessarily the largest hills in a "down" year.  The first named hill we encountered was "Polly Shortts."  In an "up" year, this is the last big climb.  Because I encountered it with fresh legs, it didn't seem much different than any of the other hills we encountered early in the race.  The first 14 kilometers were gently rolling hills.  I chugged slowly going uphill, and cruised easy going downhill.  Twice, on small, but steeper hills, I took short walking breaks to keep from tiring myself out.  Each time, I counted out 60 strides of walking and then resumed running. 

The longest climb in a "down" year isn't one of the names hills.  It's the long gradual climb up to Umlaas Road.  This climb lasted six kilometers.  On a steep section, I took another 60 stride walking break.  Later, I broke up the hill by taking a bathroom break.  This climb had me feeling tired for the first time in the race, but I took consolation in knowing that Umlaas Road was the highest elevation on the course.  The next 33 kilometers would be rolling hills, including some tough climbs, but the overall trend was slightly downhill. 

The next part of the course that I recognized from the course tour was Camperdown.  This is a spot that's easy for spectators to reach, so it's the first place where there were large crowds.  Earlier in the course, we were running through fairly remote areas.  Spectators were mostly people who live nearby.  At Camperdown, we were met by friends and family of the runners.  The crowds were thick enough that they encroached slightly onto the roadway. 

I was still running at about the same average pace.  I knew it was a bit fast, but I still felt relaxed.  The only place I had felt tired so far was on the climb up to Umlaas Road.  I began to anticipate Inchanga, the next of the five named hills.  Inchanga made an impression on me during the course tour.  It was the one climb that I was worried would take something out of me.  I had only taken three short walking breaks, but I reminded myself that it would be OK to take more to get up Inchanga without wearing myself out.  As it turned out, I didn't need to walk.  It's a long climb, but not that steep.  Like the other named hills, it's a tougher climb from the other direction.  Although I didn't take a walking break, I did break up the hill with my second bathroom break of the race. 

Aid stations were spaced roughly every two kilometers.  If you drink at all of them, you take in quite a bit of fluid.  So far, I had only skipped one.  The aid stations had water and several flavors of Energade in plastic tubes.  The tubes were similar to the bags used in Jamaica, except they were long and skinny, making them easier to handle.  You grab a tube from a volunteer and bite a small hole in one end.  Then you can squeeze the fluid into your mouth without spilling.  They made it easy to drink on the run.  The aid stations also had small glasses of coke.  At first, I was having Energade at every aid station.  Later I started alternating between Energade and coke.  I suspected I was probably overhydrating, but I also knew it was going to get increasingly hot during the second half of the race.  Knowing I would be running for at least four hours with temperatures in the 80s, I was reluctant to skip too many aid stations. 

By now, I had been running long enough that I needed intermediate goals to break up the run.  Ever since the 60 kilometers to go sign, I had been counting down the kilometers until it would be 42K to go.  At that point, I could tell myself I just had a marathon to go.  Cresting Inchanga was also an important intermediate goal, as it was the climb that had worried me the most.  In the next few kilometers, I reached two other landmarks. 

Shortly before the halfway, I reached a landmark known as "Arthur's Seat."  It's the spot where Arthur Newton once sat and took a break while looking over the nearby valley.  Newton was one of the pioneers of ultrarunning, and he won Comrades five times.  When passing Arthur's Seat, it's customary to tip your hat and say, "Good Morning, Arthur."  Failure to do so is considered bad luck.  While I'm not superstitious, I bowed to tradition and paid my respects to Arthur. 

The next landmark was the halfway point at Drummond.  Here the crowds were thicker than at Camperdown.  They encroached even more on the roadway, narrowing our clearance to less than one lane.  As I was going through this section, a race official on a motorcycle was passing through.  I had to slow down, as I found it difficult to pass between the motorcycle and the spectators. 

I reached the halfway mark in 4:16:23.  Before the race, I had used a pacing calculator created by an experienced Comrades runner.  To run the whole race in 8:59, it recommended running the first half in 4:32.  While it's tempting to run the first half a few minutes faster, a rule of thumb is that every minute you "put in the bank" in the first half will cost you six minutes in the second half.  I still felt pretty good, but I had to wonder what would happen in the second half.  Either I was crushing my goal, or I was setting myself up for a disastrous second half. 

A few kilometers later, I reached the 42K to go sign.  It no longer seemed like an important milestone.  I was now preoccupied with reaching the 37K to go sign, as that would mark the beginning the predominantly downhill section of the course.  Ever since I first studied the elevation profile, I viewed the race as having two major sections.  First I had to get through 52 kilometers of rolling hills with very little net elevation change.  Then I would begin the downhill race.  If I still had fresh legs I could make good time on the downhill.  If my legs were sore, the downhill would be slow and painful. 

To get to the downhill section, I still had to get through five kilometers that were trending uphill, including Bothas Hill.  I was careful to manage my effort through this section.  When I reached the downhill, I was pleased to discover that I was still running downhill kilometers as fast as I was earlier in the race, and I didn't find it to be uncomfortable.  I was beginning roughly 15 kilometers that was almost all downhill.  The steepest downgrade was on the section known as Field's Hill.  Field's Hill is a long steep climb in an "up" year, but it's a steep downgrade in a "down" year.  It was here that I ran fastest and started noticing it a little in my legs.  The remaining distance seemed manageable, so I wasn't too concerned.  With about 25K to go, I could see the ocean in the distance.  I also got my first distant glimpse of the buildings of downtown Durban. 

With 21K to go, I was convinced that I was going to run the second half faster than the first half.  I expected to finish in 8:30.  There was one more named hill.  I had to conserve my energy on Cowie's Hill, but after that it would be downhill again.  My recollection of the elevation profile was that after Cowie's Hill, it would be almost all downhill to the finish.  From the course tour, I knew there was a short but steep freeway ramp with 7K to go.  I also knew there was a long gradual hill that ended with 5K to go.  I didn't realize that there were a few other small hills before then.  During the course tour, Bruce Fordyce said that Drummond was the physical halfway point, but the psychological halfway point was at 21K to go.  I thought that was an exaggeration, but he was right.  I was about to find out why. 

I had always assumed that the challenge of the "down" course was that all the rolling hills in the first half can wear down your legs so the downhill that came later would be slow and painful instead of fast.  There's another challenge.  After 15K of continuous downhill, Cowie's Hill and the smaller hills that follow suddenly feel like mountains.  This is where I came apart.  I found the remaining hills to be increasingly tiring, and once my legs were completely fatigued, I couldn't run fast on the downhills either.  I realized after Cowie's Hill that I wasn't going to run negative splits.  Even running at an agonizingly slow pace, I would still break nine hours.  All I had to do was keep running at whatever pace I could manage. 

As I counted off the remaining kilometers, the remaining distance no longer seemed manageable.  Even with 10K to go, it seemed like it would take forever.  It didn't help that the heat had been wearing on me increasingly in the second half of the race.  To get electrolytes, I was eating boiled potatoes that were covered with salt.  I switched to taking water at the aid stations, so I could drink two thirds of a tube, and pour the rest over my head.  It felt like a death march. 

I recognized the steep ramp at 7K to go.  I got through the steepest part of it my taking a 60 stride walking break.  It was my fourth walking break of the race and the only one in the second half.  At 6K to go, I started the long gradual climb that would end as we went under Toll Gate Bridge.  I knew the bridge was 5K to go.  It was a long slow climb, but I kept reminding myself that it was the last significant hill.  Even with 5K to go, it seemed like a long way.  I felt relief at reaching the 1K to go sign.  I had walked this section before.  The only part that wasn't familiar was the last 400 meters inside the stadium.  I couldn't run very fast, but I was getting congratulations from several of the local runners.  They could see from my race bib that I was an international runner and this was my first Comrades.  They knew I was going to get a Bill Rowan medal on my first attempt, which is a noteworthy achievement.  One of them was doing his 10th Comrades, and I congratulated him getting his name on the green list. 

When I entered the stadium, I couldn't really pick up my pace at all.  I knew I had plenty of time, so I didn't need to worry.  Most of the other runners were passing me, as they sprinted to a strong finish.  I crossed the line in 8:50:00 and received my Bill Rowan medal.  I ran the second half 17 minutes slower than the first half.  I gave up all of that time in the last 21K.  I didn't crush my goal like I thought I would, but I also didn't have a disastrous second half.  I struggled at the end, but still beat my goal by 10 minutes. 

As I continued through the finish area, I received a Comrades patch and a yellow rose.  I couldn't bring the rose home, so I eventually gave it to a girl from a local family.  I was thirsty, but my first order of business was a bathroom stop.  I had wanted to make another bathroom stop during the race, but I was afraid my legs would stiffen if I stopped for a minute.  Next, I made my way to the international tent.  Comrades really caters to international runners.  We had our own registration line at the expo, we had our own well-stocked food tent in the finish area, and we had a separate tog bag check, making it easy to retrieve my bag quickly after finishing.  I remained in the international tent until the race was over.  I looked for other runners I knew, and I watched other runners finish. 

Most runners stay in the stadium after finishing.  The excitement builds as the various time limits approach and the various "buses" come into the stadium.  The excitement peaks with the approach of the final cutoff time at 12 hours.  A huge 12 hour bus finished with 10 minutes to go.  I saw hundreds of other runners finishing with less than 5 minutes to spare.  Then the gun sounded, and the finish line was blocked off.  The last runner across the line before the cutoff gets a special award.  Runners who didn't quite make it were heartbroken.  Some missed by seconds.  I saw one man crying 100 meters from the finish.  The course is unforgiving, the weather was unforgiving, and the rules are unforgiving.  They call Comrades the ultimate human race.  When you finish this race, you know you've achieved something. 

By the time I walked back to the hotel and got cleaned up, I wanted to eat a real dinner.  I got to bed a little later that night, but that's OK.  I could afford to sleep in on Monday.  I didn't fly home until later in the day. 

Now that I've run the "down" course, I realize that the "up" course is a completely different challenge.  While I initially only planned to do Comrades once, I'm now tempted to go back and run the "up" course as well.  If I do, it should be next year, so I can get the special "back-to-back" medal.  I'm hesitant only because the flights are so expensive.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

RunningIsLife Day 8: 2017 Mt. Charleston Marathon


For 10 days, I’m posting a running photo, along with a brief recollection of the race where the photo was taken.  Here’s todays photo:


This is one of the official race photos from the Revel Mt. Charleston Marathon in 2017.  This is a steep downhill race, with roughly 5,000 feet of elevation drop.  I’ve done four of their races.  Races like this have the potential to be blazing fast, but there’s no guarantee.  Running on a steep downgrade for 26.2 miles requires some technique.

My results in Revel races have been mixed, but in this one I had a great race.  By my fourth try, I had the technique down pat.  My goal was to qualify for the 2018 Boston Marathon.  I not only did that, but also earned guaranteed entry into the 2018 New York City Marathon.

Sadly, I can no longer do races like this one.  It was about a month after this race that I started experiencing symptoms of a herniated disc that required surgery.  I think the pounding my spine took in this race had something to do with that.  Now I’ve sworn off steep downhill races.

If you want to read more about that race, here’s a link to my race report:  2017 Mt. Charleston Marathon

Virtual Race Report: Quarantine Backyard Ultra


I belong to a community of runners who run marathons so frequently that it has become a lifestyle.  I last ran a marathon on March 1st, and it will probably be months before I run another one.  All races are cancelled for the foreseeable future.
Some runners are showing interest in virtual races.  A virtual race is one where you can participate from anywhere.  In general, everyone runs the same distance, but they don’t run on the same course.  They can run wherever they are.
Virtual races aren’t new, but they’re gaining in popularity now that conventional races are no longer practical.
I belong to several running clubs that count marathons in one fashion or another.  In the 50 States Marathon Club, the goal is to run marathons in every state.  In the 100 Marathon Club, the goal is to run at least 100 marathons in your lifetime.  In Marathon Globetrotters, the goal is run marathons in as many countries as possible.  Marathon Maniacs is more complicated, but the goal, generally, is to run marathons as frequently as possible.
All of these clubs have rules for what counts as a marathon.  It’s not sufficient that you run at least 26.2 miles.  It has to be an official race.  Each club has its own rules for what is or isn’t considered to be an official race, but there’s a lot of overlap.  None of them consider virtual races to be “races.”
In the past, I’ve never shown any interest in virtual races.  I’ve always thought of them as glorified training runs.  If I’m going to run 26.2 miles by myself, I can do that without participating in a virtual race.
Two weeks ago, I learned about a virtual race called Quarantine Backyard Ultra.  This one intrigued me, because of its format.  It’s a “last man standing” race.  I’ve never done one of those.
You have one hour to complete a lap of 4.167 miles.  If you finish early, you can rest until the end of the hour.  Then everybody begins another lap of the same distance.  You keep doing this every hour.  Why 4.167 miles?  That’s how many miles you need to complete per hour to run 100 miles in 24 hours.
Any runner who fails to complete a lap within an hour is eliminated from the race.  Any runner who fails to start the next lap on time is eliminated.  The race continues until there’s only one runner left.  As soon as someone is the only runner to complete a lap, the race is over.
I’ve heard of races like this before, but they were conventional races, where everybody is running on the same course.  Gary Cantrell (a.k.a. Lazarus Lake) has one called Big’s Backyard Ultra.  That race annually draws some of the best multi-day runners in the country, as well as a few from around the world.  I’ve followed that race the last two years.  Last year, Maggie Guterl lasted 60 hours, during which she covered 250 total miles.
Most virtual races are more about participation than competition.  The Quarantine Backyard Ultra promised to be an exception.  Most runners, like me, were just looking for a fun way to do a long training run, but there were also 22 elite ultrarunners.  I fully expected some of them to run for 48 hours straight, and it’s wouldn’t surprise me if the winner lasted for 72 hours.
Each runner was free to design their own course.  You could run 4.167 miles on a treadmill, or you could run a 4.167 mile loop or out-and-back near your home.  If you wanted, you could run some laps on the treadmill and others outside.  You could also switch between different outdoor routes.  The only limitation was that you had to start each lap from the same “start corral.”  I opted to do all my laps on a treadmill, so my start corral was the deck of my treadmill.

You could stay in touch with the RD and other runners using Zoom meetings.  There were so many runners that they had to create multiple meetings.  In all, there were more than 2,400 runners in 53 countries.
If you weren’t able to use Zoom, you could also participate on your own and submit your results after the fact to get included in the race results.  I was originally planning to join the Zoom meeting, but I decided it was more work than it was worth.  I wanted to be “hands free,” but I couldn’t find a good way to mount my phone to my treadmill.  I eventually decided to just focus on the running and submit my results when I was done.
At the outset, I didn’t know what my goal should be.  I haven’t been training for anything like this, but I’m in reasonably good shape.  From a standpoint of fitness, I assumed I was probably capable of running at least 100 miles.  There was just one problem.  Since December, I’ve had a mild case of Achilles tendonitis at the insertion point.  I no longer notice it during training runs, but I sometimes feel some tightness at the base of my Achilles tendon after a run.  I didn’t know if starting and stopped every hour was going to aggravate it.  If it started to bother me, I wasn’t inclined to risk making it worse.
I had a large canister of sports drink powder that I got as a prize at a race last September.  We had several bottles of Gatorade, but I wanted to start using my supply of sports drink powder, so I mixed up about two quarts and kept it in a large pitcher in our basement refrigerator.  I used it to fill a 20 oz. water bottle.  You know what they say about never trying something new on race day?  I was going to learn that lesson the hard way.  More on that later.
The race started on April 4 at 7:00 AM Mountain Daylight Time.  Everyone started at the same time, no matter where they were.  In my time zone, it was 8:00 AM.
I set up a laptop computer on a card table a few feet away from the treadmill.  I kept a tab open to the website for the race.  It had a big readout of the official race time.  The clock on my treadmill was about 20 seconds fast, so I looked at the laptop to know exactly when I should start the treadmill.
I almost missed the opening bell for my very first lap.  About a minute before it was time to start, I realized I didn’t have my water bottle.  I rushed to the refrigerator to get it, but didn’t get back onto the treadmill until three seconds before I needed to start.  I almost DNFed before even starting.
As I started my first lap, I set the treadmill to 6.0 MPH.  That’s equivalent to a pace of 10 minutes per mile.  I’ve been training at a pace that’s at least a minute per mile faster than this, so this pace felt easy.  In fact, it was much too fast.  At this pace, I would finish my lap in just 42 minutes and then have 18 minutes to stand around before starting the next lap.
Ideally, I wanted to slow my pace to the point where I was using most of the hour.  To complete a lap in an hour, I needed an average pace of 13:24 or slightly faster.  I can’t comfortably run at that pace.  It’s feels awkward, and it’s inefficient.  Instead, I alternated between running at 6.0 MPH and walking at 3.5 MPH.  I typically ran for a mile and then walked for half a mile.
After finishing each lap, I took a photo of my treadmill’s display, as evidence that I completed the required distance.  I used my phone to post this photo to Facebook.  That wasn’t a requirement, but it made it easy for friends to follow my progress.

I took another photo just before starting my next lap.  This showed I was back in my “start corral” in time for the next lap.  It also showed that the distance was reset to zero.  I did this every hour.
My treadmill was set up in the basement.  Upstairs, we had out thermostat set for 68 degrees.  In the basement, it’s typically about five degrees cooler.  I had a thermometer set up next to the treadmill.  Usually it reads 63 degrees.  Early in my first lap, it was reading 64.  By the end of that lap, it was reading 66 degrees.  I assume my body heat was warming up the air around the treadmill.
I had a fan set up on a stool in front of the treadmill.  It was plugged into a switch with a remote button, so I could turn it on or off without leaving the treadmill.  While I was running, I turned on the fan, so I wouldn’t get too hot.  When I took walking breaks, I didn’t need the fan, so I turned it off.
With the run/walk mix I was doing, I was taking about 50 minutes to finish a lap.  That was about right.  It gave me time to take my photos, refill my water bottle, go to the bathroom, spend a few minutes online, and still get back onto the treadmill a couple minutes before the start of the next lap.
I’ve done 24-hour races and 100 mile trail runs where you have to weigh in periodically.  During my second lap, it occurred to me I should be doing that, so I would know if I was drinking the right about to stay hydrated.  I didn’t think of that in time to take a baseline weight before starting.  Better late than never, I weighed myself after finishing my second lap.
When I finished my fifth lap, I had 20.83 miles under my belt.  If I was doing continuous running, I would’ve considered that to be enough for a long training run.  The run/walk/rest mix I was doing felt so easy that 20 miles this way felt as easy as 10 miles of continuous running.
By now, I was already feeling discomfort on the back of my left heel.  I was afraid of that.  Ideally, I wanted to run for at least 24 hours, but I knew that was a bad idea.  I didn’t want to risk taking a minor injury that had been healing nicely and making it turn into something much worse.  I wanted to run at least two more laps, so I would get beyond the marathon mark.  Then I’d take it one lap at a time.
Running on a treadmill can be mind-numbingly boring.  I find it helpful to listen to music.  We have a stereo in our living room with a five CD changer.  I have a remote set of speakers in my exercise room in the basement.  As I started my sixth lap, I had only a few songs left on the fifth CD.
I needed extra time between laps to go upstairs and put five new CDs into the CD player.  During my sixth lap, instead talking walking breaks of half a mile, I shortened my walking breaks to only one minute each.  That lap took only 43:25, which was by far my fastest.  That gave me more than enough time to change my music.  I had enough time left over to make and eat a peanut butter sandwich.  It was my first solid food since starting.
Before eating my sandwich, I weighed in.  My weight was down 1.6 pounds since my previous weigh-in.  I made a mental note to drink more.  Drinking more of my sports drink turned out to be a bad idea.  More on that later.
My seventh lap gave me 29.17 miles, which put me beyond the marathon mark.  It was time to start thinking about how much longer I wanted to run.  To the best of my recollection, the farthest I had ever run on a treadmill was 33 miles.  I wanted to go beyond that.  Eight laps would be 33.33 miles, but I tentatively set my sights on nine laps.  That would be 37.5 miles, which was more of a round number.  It would also be well beyond my previous best for a treadmill run.
Midway through my eighth lap, I started to find the pace to be tiring.  For the first seven laps, it was really easy.  I wondered if it was more psychological than physical.  Maybe my heart wasn’t in it, now that I knew I would be stopping soon.  I knew I could do a ninth lap, but I felt like I’d have to drag myself through it.  Instead, I decided to stop after eight laps.
After dropping out, we were each supposed to take a selfie with our homemade race bib and post it with the hashtag #QBdnf.  I did that.  Then I went online to fill out a form with my number of laps, so I could be listed in the race results.  My race was over, but the drama was just beginning.

I felt a little bit queasy.  I had some rumblings in my intestines.  I went to the bathroom to take a dump.  I thought that would make me feel better, but I still felt queasy.
I mentioned the queasiness to Deb.  I told her I was trying a new sports drink for the first time and wondered if it somehow disagreed with me.  I thought I mixed it according to the instructions, but maybe I made a mistake and mixed it too strong.
I needed to sit down.  After resting for several minutes, I started to feel chilly wearing my sweaty running clothes.  I wanted to put on a warm bathrobe, but first I needed to take a shower to rinse off the sweat.  As I started showering, my nose began to run.  It was like turning on a faucet.  Fortunately, that only lasted while I was in the warm shower.  I dried off and put on my robe.
I felt really wiped out.  I wanted to lie down, but Deb was cleaning and had a bunch of stuff on the bed.  I went to our downstairs bedroom and climbed into bed without even taking off my robe.
My breathing was really labored.  I could get enough oxygen, but I had to breath heavily.  I used a pillow to prop myself up in bed.  That didn’t make it any easier.
I stayed in bed for the next few hours.  My shortness of breath made me really nervous.  I’ve been reading so much about COVID-19 and severe respiratory distress that it started to mess with my head.  Was I infected and I didn’t know it before?  Was this what it felt like?  Was I dying?  Physically, I didn’t feel that bad, but mentally, I was starting to panic.
Eventually, I came back upstairs and sat on the sofa with my feet propped up.  That felt much more tiring.  Deb put an oximeter on my finger.  My oxygen saturation was reading 95 percent.  My pulse was 65.  That’s a little high for a resting pulse, but not bad for so soon after an ultramarathon.
Next, Deb put a blood pressure cuff on me.  She took my blood pressure twice.  Both readings were higher that my usual blood pressure, but not alarmingly so.  Finally, she took my temperature.  It was 95.8 degrees.  That was really surprising.  I didn’t feel at all cold.
It was a thermometer we had never used before, so wondered if it was off.  I insisted that Deb take my temperature with a different thermometer.  That one also read 95.8 degrees.  It wasn’t the thermometer.  It was me.
We called the nurse care line for our health insurance company.  They contacted our local clinic, and a doctor there called us back about 15 minutes later.  I explained my symptoms.  Most of my vital signs were OK, but the low temperature was unusual, and my shortness of breath was distressing.
Deb recalled my comments about the sports drink and brought that up.  The doctor asked her to read the ingredients.  It included caffeine and taurine.  That got my attention.  I grabbed the canister and read the instructions.  Apparently, I never read the fine print.  I assumed this was a sports drink like Gatorade.  It was actually a pre-workout energy drink.  The instructions stressed that you should only take one 8-12 oz. serving per day.  I was drinking it for eight hours.  I consumed several servings.  It’s good that I didn’t run any farther, or I would’ve had even more.
In a way, it was a relief to have an obvious explanation for my symptoms.  I was overdosing on both caffeine and taurine.
The doctor wanted me to go to the ER.  I asked if urgent care would be good enough.  She said they would just send me to the ER.  She wanted me to go in and get an EKG and some blood tests, but I was reluctant.
It was already evening, and Deb would be going to bed in a couple hours.  We’ve both been “sheltering in place” for two or three weeks.  Deb didn’t want to go anywhere near a hospital.  She said she could drop me off there.  I really didn’t want to be at the ER by myself this late in the day with no ride home.  I remembered a time when Deb went to the ER and had to wait for hours to be seen by a doctor.  Even if they could see me right away, I’d be there for hours.
Against medical advice, I stayed home.  I wanted to wait and see how I felt after laying in bed for a few hours and letting the caffeine and taurine gradually work their way out of my system.
I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink anything since finishing my run.  I asked Deb to heat up a can of soup.  She told me when it was ready, but it took several minutes before I had the energy to walk to the dining room.  As I sat down, I suddenly felt feverish.  My forehead was sweaty.  Suddenly, I couldn’t imagine eating a bowl of hot soup.
After sitting in front of the bowl of soup for several minutes, I finally forced myself to have a spoonful of broth.  A few minutes later, I had another spoonful, and then a third.  That’s as much as I could stomach.  I finally had to ask Deb to put the soup in a container and save it for later.  She covered the bowl with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator.
I walked back downstairs, stripped down to my underwear, and climbed into bed.  I no longer felt feverish.  My heartrate was elevated from the exertion of walking to bed, but my breathing finally felt easier.  That was a relief.  I laid as still as possible.  After several minutes, my heartrate got back to normal.
Deb eventually came downstairs to check on me, and I told her my breathing was OK now.  Later, before she went to bed, she checked on me one more time.  My breathing was still fine, but I felt wired.  I knew I would be awake for most of the night.
Even though I didn’t have anything to drink, I still had to get up occasionally to pee.  Caffeine and taurine are both diuretics.  Even though I was somewhat dehydrated, they were still making me pass more fluids.  Ideally, I should’ve been drinking fluids to replace what I was losing, but even the thought of drinking something made me feel nauseous.
After each trip to the bathroom, I could feel my heart racing.  I had to lay as still as possible, so my heartrate would settle down.  I relaxed as much as I could, but I had no hope of falling asleep.
At midnight, I was wide awake.  At 2 AM, I was wide awake.  At 3 AM, I was wide awake.  After that, I stopped looking at the clock, but I was awake for at least two more hours.
Eventually, I fell asleep.  When I woke up, it was 7:00.  I probably slept for an hour or two.  That helped a little.  It was only because of sheer exhaustion that I was able to sleep.  I was still wired when I woke up.  After an hour of trying to get back to sleep, I finally got up.
Deb used the oximeter again.  My oxygen saturation was better.  Now it was 98 percent.  My pulse was still 65.  I didn’t feel great, but I felt a little bit better.  The caffeine and taurine were starting to work their way out of the system.  I wasn’t out of the woods, but I was improving.
I usually weigh myself in the morning before eating anything.  My weight was about five pounds lower than it was the day before.  One pound of that might have been weight loss from the running, but at least four pounds was water loss.  I made a mental note to drink at least eight cups of fluid when I could.  It wasn’t going to be easy.
I didn’t feel like eating or drinking, but I followed the same routine I would follow if I had the flu.  I nibbled on saltine crackers and drank ginger ale, a few sips at a time.
I only had about eight ounces of ginger ale left.  Then I switched to orange juice.  When I ran out of orange juice, I drank water.
By 1:00 PM, I managed to drink about a quart of fluids, and I ate about a dozen crackers.  I didn’t know if I was ready for a meal, but I reheated the soup.  The broth made the back of my throat sting.  It also made my nose run.  It took effort to finish the soup.  So far, I had replaced about six cups of fluid.
I felt like the caffeine and taurine were gradually wearing off, but I still felt shaky.  I also felt the lack of sleep.  I didn’t have much energy, but I kept chipping away at rehydrating.
I was curious to know what a last man standing race would feel like.  I didn’t really get to find out.  It should’ve felt really easy at least until the nighttime hours.  It probably would have if not for my Achilles tendon and my unfortunate choice of beverage.
Note to self:  never try something new on race day, even if it’s just a virtual race.

Race Statistics
Number of Laps:  8
Total Distance:  33.33 miles
Elapsed Time:  8 hours
Time Actually Running:  6:34:58
Average Pace (Including Downtime):  13:24
Average Pace (Excluding Downtime):  11:51
Fastest lap:  43:25
Slowest lap:  50:55

Saturday, April 4, 2020

RunningIsLife Day 7: 2015 Bahamas Marathon


For 10 days, I’m posting a running photo, along with a brief recollection of the race where the photo was taken.  Here’s todays photo:


This is a group photo of Marathon G,lobetrotters before Marathon Bahamas in 2015.   This was the race where the club had its very first annual meeting.  Unfortunately, schedule conflicts and other life events have made it difficult for me to get to any of the club’s other meetings.

Because of the covid-19 pandemic, club members are currently unable to travel to other countries to run marathons, but this photo is a reminder of good times we had in the past and will hopefully have again in the future.

If you want to read more about this race, here’s the race report I wrote in 2015:  2015 Marathon Bahamas.

Friday, April 3, 2020

RunningIsLife Day 6: 2018 FANS 24-Hour Race


For 10 days, I’m posting a running photo, along with a brief recollection of the race where the photo was taken.  Here’s todays photo:


Technically, this isn’t a running photo.  It’s a walking photo.  Earlier in the week, I posted a photo from my first ultramarathon at the FANS 24-Hour Race.  Twenty years later, I did the same race, but registered in the walking division.  The photo above was taken as I finished the lap that put me over 100 miles walking in less than 24 hours.

If you want to read more, here’s the race report I wrote for the 2018 FANS 24-Hour Race.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

RunningIsLife Day 5: 2005 Patriots' Run


For 10 days, I’m posting a running photo, along with a brief recollection of the race where the photo was taken.  Here’s todays photo:


In 2005, I ran a fixed-time race called the Patriots’ Run.  It’s held every year on September 11th, and you run as far as you can in nine hours, 11 minutes.  I wasn’t sufficiently trained for a race like this, so I went in with low expectation.

It was 90 degrees and sunny, and the heat started to wear on me.  Halfway through the race, I already felt miserable.  I decided to hang in there long enough to finish 50 kilometers.  Then I was planning to quit.

When I finished enough laps to complete 50 kilometers, I asked how many laps the leader had.  That’s when I discovered that I was leading the race.  I decided that you can’t quit when you’re winning a race.’

I felt miserable, but I pressed on for the remaining hours.  When I race was over, I retained a one lap lead over the next runner.  It was the first time I ever won a race.

If you want to read more, here’s a link to the Throwback Thursday post I wrote four years ago:  2005 Patriots' Run

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

RunningIsLife Day 4: Run Down the Aisle


For 10 days, I’m posting a running photo, along with a brief recollection of the race where the photo was taken.  Here’s todays photo:


My friends Heather and Patrick are both runners, and they wanted to get married at a race.  They wanted a format that would accommodate as many of their friends as possible, so they opted for a fixed time race.  Rather than finding an existing fixed time race in the Atlanta area that fit their schedule, they organized their own race.  They called it Run Down the Aisle.

The wedding ceremony was held in the morning in a city park.  Then we all began running laps through the park for the next eight hours.  Some people just ran or walked a lap or two.  Others ran enough laps to finish a marathon.  I alternated running and walking and kept going for the full eight hours.

I wasn’t in great shape at the time, but I have a lot of experience with fixed time races.  To endure the summer heat and humidity, I put ice cubes in my hat and let them melt on my head.  I finished the day with just over 39 miles.

If you want to read more, here’s a link to the race report I wrote four years ago:  Run Down the Aisle