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.