On May 31, I ran the Comrades Marathon in South Africa. This was my second Comrades. I also ran it last year. The course is point-to-point, but the direction changes each year. Last year’s race was a “down” run, starting in the highlands city of Pietermaritzburg and finishing in the coastal city of Durban. This year, it was an “up” run, starting in Durban and finishing in Pietermaritzburg.
The Comrades Marathon has a long history. It was first held in 1921, to honor the memory of fallen comrades who perished in World War I. It’s since grown to be the largest ultramarathon in the world. This year, there were over 22,000 entrants. By contrast, the largest ultramarathon in the U.S. has just over 1,000 participants.
In South Africa, Comrades is the highest profile sporting event of the year. It’s even bigger than the World Cup. All the local residents know about the race, even if they don’t run. For runners, it’s a rite of passage.
I’m not sure when I first became aware of Comrades, but it may have been back in 1998, when I read “Lore of Running.” It eventually became a bucket list race for me. I only planned to do the race once. Last year, as I started studying the elevation profile of the “down” course, I realized that the “up” course presented different challenges. It may be the same race in turns of its history and traditions, but the course has a completely different feel. Shortly after finishing last year’s race, I realized I would need to return to run the “up” course.
Here’s the elevation profile of the “up” course. There are hills throughout, but note that there’s a steady uphill trend in the first half of the race. The scale is in meters.
Now look at the “down” profile. It’s rolling for the first half, but turns steadily downhill in the second half.
The major hills have names, but those aren’t the only hills on the course. There are also numerous smaller hills. The course travels through the “Valley of 1,000 Hills.” It’s aptly named.
There’s a back-to-back medal for runners who do the Comrades Marathon in two consecutive years, but they have to be your first two Comrades races. Having run last year, I had to return this year if I wanted to get my back-to-back medal. If I didn’t do it this year, I would never get another chance.
The endpoints of the race are slightly different, depending on whether it’s an “up” year or a “down” year. The “down” course is generally about 89 kilometers. The “up” course is generally about 87 kilometers. I say generally, because there can also be slight differences from year to year. The exact distance isn’t sacred, but the start and finish lines are. You either run from Durban City Hall to the Oval Cricket Stadium in Pietermaritzburg, or from Pietermaritzburg City Hall to the Kingsmead Cricket Stadium in Durban. This year’s course was 87.72 kilometers because of construction detours that added 887 meters to the route.
Whether it’s an “up” or “down” year, most of the pre-race activities are in Durban, which is the larger of the two cities. I learned last year that the Durban Hilton is the most convenient place to stay. It’s across the street from the expo, and most of the events for international runners are held there. In an “up” year, it’s also within walking distance of the start. I made my reservation at the Hilton almost a year in advance.
While the course is challenging, that’s not the only reason this is a difficult race. It has a hard 12 hour time limit. When I say hard, I mean 12 hours after the start, the gun goes off and they block the finish line. Nobody else gets to cross the line, much less get an official time. The cutoffs are based on “gun” times (your time from when the gun when off at the start of the race). All runners wear timing chips, but it doesn’t matter when you crossed the starting line. The clock is already running. Runners in the last corral may take as much as 10 minutes to reach the starting line. A cruel reality is that the runners losing the most time are the ones that can least afford it.
To finish the course in 12 hours, you need to average roughly eight minutes per kilometer (or 12:52 per mile). While that’s not a fast pace, you need to maintain it for 12 hours on a hilly course. It’s not unusual for temperatures to get hot in the afternoon. That many hours running in the heat can wear you down. Also, for most of the runners, this is the farthest they’ve ever run.
There are six types of medals you can win, depending on your pace and how high you finish. The top 10 men and women receive gold medals. Other runners finishing within six hours receive Wally Hayward awards, named after a five time winner of the race. The next major cutoff time is 7:30. All other runners beating that time get silver medals. The fourth type of medal is the Bill Rowan medal, named after the winner of the 1921 race. To earn a Bill Rowan medal, you have to finish in nine hours.
Prior to 2003, the final cutoff time was 11 hours. Runners finishing between nine and 11 hours received bronze medals. Since then, the cutoff time has been increased by an hour, making the race accessible to more runners. To receive a bronze medal, however, you still need to finish within 11 hours. Runners finishing between 11 and 12 hours get Vic Clapham medals, named after the founder of the race.
When I ran the “down” course last year, I concluded that the gold, Wally Hayward and silver medals were all out of reach for me. The first cutoff time that was realistic was the nine hour cutoff for a Bill Rowan medal. Accordingly, that was my goal. I earned my Bill Rowan medal last year by finishing in 8:50:00.
The up course is slightly shorter, but has a more challenging profile. Until recently, I assumed I would be aiming for another Bill Rowan medal this year. It was only in the last week that it became clear that I wouldn’t be fully recovered from my recent groin injury. That left me unsure how fast I could realistically expect to run.
I often joke that traveling to a race is more difficult than the race itself. This trip was a good example of that. To get to Durban from Minneapolis, I booked three flights on two airlines. First I was going to fly to Johannesburg on Delta Airlines, with a stopover in Atlanta. Then I had one more flight on South African Airlines to get from Johannesburg to Durban. I had to book that one separately.
When I tried to check in online for my first two flights, the Delta website said I needed to check in at the airport, so an agent could verify my travel documents. That surprised me, since I’m usually able to check in online for international trips. I thought it might just be a temporary problem with the website, but I called to find out. I spoke to someone who could see that their system didn’t like my passport info, but didn’t know why. Not knowing for sure if I had a problem, I got to the airport earlier than usual. I arrived at 9:30, even though my flight wasn’t until 1:00. That made a long travel day even longer. As it turns out, I had no trouble checking in at the airport.
My flight to Atlanta took off on time, but we learned during the flight that the Atlanta airport was closed because of a severe thunderstorm, and we were diverted to Memphis. We were on the ground for almost three hours. We eventually got to Atlanta, but we arrived four hours late. I had given myself a long connection, but it wasn’t that long. I missed my flight to Johannesburg.
Before we landed, there was a PA announcement that those of us who missed connections would be rebooked on other flights. Usually that happens automatically. You take your boarding pass to kiosk to scan it, and it prints out your new boarding pass. I was curious to know what my new flight(s) would be. There’s only one flight a day from Atlanta to Johannesburg. If they routed me through Paris or Amsterdam, it would probably take even longer, depending on connection times.
When I got off the plane, I went to a kiosk to scan my boarding pass. Instead of giving me a new boarding pass, it said I needed to go to the help center. The line at the help center was long. I went to the nearest Delta SkyClub, but there was a long line just to get in. Everyone needed help. It wasn’t just people from our flight. All through the airport, people needed to rebook flights. It was chaos.
I called Delta’s Diamond Medallion hotline. Their reservation specialist was able to help me find other flights, but couldn’t rebook me, because their system didn’t show my first flight as having arrived in Atlanta. It still showed us as “boarding .” She had to put me on hold while she found a supervisor who could fix the flight status. That took about an hour.
There weren’t any good options. The best she could find was a late flight to New York that would let me connect to a South African Airways flight from New York to Johannesburg. That would get me to Johannesburg at 8:05 Thursday morning. That’s about 16 hours later than my original itinerary. Routings through Europe didn’t get me there until 9:00 Thursday night, making it impossible to catch a flight to Durban the same day. It gets worse. On my original flight to Johannesburg, I would have been in first class. Delta tried to get me into a first class seat on the SAA flight to Johannesburg, but SAA wouldn’t confirm it. There’s a huge difference between first class and economy on overseas flights. I was counting on getting some sleep on that flight, but I can’t sleep in a regular airline seat. Still, it was my best option, so I took it.
The flight to New York was originally scheduled to leave at 8:49 PM. The only reason I could get on it is because it was delayed. It was now scheduled to leave at 11:45 PM. While I waited, I called Hilton to let them know I would be arriving a day later. My original reservation was at a rate that has based on a five night minimum stay. I couldn’t change the reservation to eliminate the first night, but they would hold the room for me, regardless of how long it took me to get there.
Next I tried to change my reservation for my SAA flight from Johannesburg to Durban, which I had booked separate from my Delta itinerary. I couldn’t change it online. SAA had a call center in Florida, but it was after hours. They wouldn’t be open until 9:00 Wednesday morning. By then, I would be in New York, where SAA had a ticketing counter.
As it got close to boarding time for my flight to New York, I went to the gate. I found out that there was going to be a further delay because they were waiting for a flight crew. The flight crew’s inbound flight had not yet arrived. Did I mention that the whole Atlanta airport was in chaos? We didn’t board for another hour. We took off around 1:00 AM.
I tried to sleep on the flight to New York, but I couldn’t get to sleep. I arrived in New York at 3 AM. I still needed to get a boarding pass for my next flight, which was now with SAA. I also needed to see SAA about changing my last flight. After asking the gate agent where I needed to go, I heard two other passengers asking the same questions. They also missed the flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg. Like me, they were on the flight to JFK and were booked on an SAA flight to Johannesburg. Like me, they also were continuing on other SAA flights that were booked separately. Like me, they weren’t going to make their connection in Johannesburg.
The three of hung out together in the gate area until the SkyClub opened at 5:30. We had breakfast in the SkyClub and went together to the SAA check-in counter, which didn’t open until 7:30. We got our boarding passes and were assured that our bags would be transferred to the SAA flight. To rebook our other SAA flights, we had to go to a different counter.
When I booked this itinerary last January, I tried to book it all through Delta. SAA is a “code-share” partner, so Delta should have been able to book it. When they tried, the SAA system couldn’t confirm it. That’s why I had to book it separately with SAA. I explained this to both the SAA and Delta ticketing agents. Once they confirmed my story, Delta agreed to take responsibility for the missed connection and the two airlines worked together to get me rebooked on a different flight from Johannesburg to Durban. Most of the flights were full, so I would have to have a seven hour layover in Durban. Because the SAA and Delta ticketing agents each needed to get approval from supervisors, so the whole process took about two hours. The good news is that I had confirmed seats on new flights, and I didn’t have to pay any extra for the change.
My flight to New York didn’t leave until 11:15 AM, but I was now actually concerned about getting having enough time to get through security. The Delta ticketing agent walked with me and moved me to the head of the line, so I could make it. It’s ironic that I had to rush to catch a flight when I had an eight hour layover.
Despite not getting any sleep Tuesday night, I still had trouble sleeping on my overnight flight to Johannesburg. For most of the flight, I couldn’t sleep and felt miserable. I thought I might go two consecutive nights without sleep. Finally, toward the end of the flight, I fell asleep for about an hour. That helped.
I packed light enough that I could have carried my bags on all my flights, but I checked a bag for the flights that were booked with Delta. I did that partly so I wouldn’t have to babysit an extra bag during the long airport layovers. I also wanted to travel light because of my questionable right leg. As soon as that first flight was diverted, I regretted checking a bag. I had serious doubts about whether my bag was going to make it through all the flight changes. Sure enough, when I got to Johannesburg, my bag wasn’t there.
My running shoes, clothes and toiletries were all in that bag. I had my computer bag, which included all my paperwork and electronics, but other than that, I only had the clothes I was wearing.
I filed a missing bag report with SAA. Since two airlines were involved, I was worried they’d point fingers at each other. SAA took ownership of the problem. I gave them the hotel where I was staying, and they gave me a claim number and a phone number to call later in the day.
Not knowing if my bag would be returned to me, I started making backup plans. The shoes I was wearing were the same model of running shoes as the ones I planned to wear for the race. I could wear these shoes if I had to. My timing chip was in my computer bag. When I picked up my race packet, I would get a T-shirt and a hat. I could buy running shorts and socks at the expo. I would need warm clothes to wear at the finish, but I could probably find a store where I could buy some cheap sweats. I also might be able to borrow clothes from other runners. As for street clothes, I had already been wearing the same clothes since I felt Minneapolis. Continuing to wear them for three more days would be icky, but you do what you have to.
By the time I boarded my last flight, I learned from Deb that she had called Delta, and they had located the bag. It was on the next flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg, which would arrive around 5:00 PM. I was going to be in Durban by the time my bag got to Johannesburg. It was really fortunate that my flight to Durban was now part of the same itinerary. That meant the airlines would get the bag to Durban. If they left the bag in Johannesburg, I probably wouldn’t see it until I was on my way home.
After a seven hour layover in Johannesburg, my flight to Durban arrived without any problems. Before leaving the airport, I stopped at their lost bag desk to let them know what I had learned from Deb. Then I took a cab to the Hilton. I got to the hotel around 5:00 PM and checked in. At Hilton, I was treated like royalty. They upgraded me to an executive suite on the top floor. I found this in my room when I arrived.
I had a bedroom and living room with separate climate controls. I also had a large bathroom with separate tub and shower. I had a view of downtown Durban with the Indian Ocean in the distance. I could also see Kingsmead Stadium, where last year’s race finished.
After checking in and talking to the concierge about my lost bag situation. I went to a “meet and greet” reception in the Hilton ballroom for international Comrades runners. There were numerous notable runners there, including nine-time Comrades winner Bruce Fordyce.
The concierge staff at Hilton contacted SAA regularly to find out the status of my lost bag. Meanwhile, Deb, who was at home, was contacting Delta to find out what they knew.
I went to bed early and slept well all night. I woke up at 6:00 AM, which helped me to get in synch with the local time zone. Housekeeping gave me a comb and some extra toiletries, since mine were in my missing bag.
I was originally planning to go to the expo on Thursday, but I had to do that on Friday instead. I could have gone on Saturday, but last year the vendors were running out of merchandise by Saturday. There were at least two things I wanted to buy at the expo, and I didn’t want to wait until the last minute. Going to the expo on Friday meant skipping a course tour that I was planning to do that day. Since I’ve seen the course before, I was willing to let that go. Also, a friend of mine was able to go on the tour in my place, so it didn’t go to waste.
At Hilton, I was able to eat breakfast in the executive lounge. They served a breakfast similar to nice hotels in Europe. The lounge had a patio where I could see a wider panorama of downtown Durban.
After breakfast, I walked across the street to the expo. International runners had a separate line for packet pickup. The line for South African runners went out the door and all the way across the parking lot. Our line was short.
I remembered to bring my chip with me so they could verify that it was entered properly in their database. Comrades is the only race I’ve done where all runners are required to own their own timing chips. If you don’t already own one, you can buy one with registration. I bought one when I registered for the 2014 race. When I registered for this year’s race, I entered my chip code. I had to make sure I remembered to pack it.
When they scanned my chip, it displayed all the correct info, but the volunteers couldn’t find an envelope with my race number. Fortunately, they were about to get new race bibs printed for me. It only took a few minutes.
The race packet included a T-shirt and an all-weather hat to wear during the race. For those who don’t like wearing hats, they also had visors.
The race packet also included a thick race program, a key chain, and numerous product samples.
I don’t usually shop at expos, but I wanted to buy a Comrades jacket. I had seen some nice ones last year. They had a variety of shirts and hoodies, but they didn’t have jackets this year. Something else I wanted to look for was a “back-to-back” plaque that shows the elevation profile of the “down” and “up” courses and has a place to display your two finisher medals and your “back-to-back” medal. I saw these at the expo last year. I found their booth at the expo, but they can’t make the plaque until after the race, because it includes your race results. Rather than pay for one at the expo, I picked up a brochure, so I could order one online after I got home.
Around 12:30, I got a call from the concierge desk at Hilton. My bag arrived, and they were bringing it up to my room. (Ignore the plastic wrap. That was added by the company that delivered it to the hotel.)
Now that I had some running clothes, I went out for a run. Some of my friends were recommending I rest all week, but I had two reasons for wanting to do one run before the race. First, my legs were stiff after all the time sitting on airplanes, and an easy run would help loosen them up. More importantly, I wanted to evaluate how running felt both with and without a compression wrap. After feeling discomfort after less than half of the Med City Marathon, I wasn’t confident that I could run 54.5 miles without wrapping my right leg. I also knew from experience that wrapping my leg would cause discomfort, and probably undue stress, in other muscles. Running the entire race with my leg wrapped sounded almost as risky as running the whole race without it.
I was considering wearing the wrap for parts of the race and keeping it in a fanny pack when I wasn’t wearing it. One strategy was to run without it as long as I felt good, and put it on to finish the race if I started to experience discomfort. Another strategy was to wear it on downhill sections, to protect the injured muscles from the extra wear and tear of running downhill. I would take it off during uphill sections, so the stronger muscles in my thigh wouldn’t be constricted when I needed them most.
I didn’t know how easily I could get the wrap out of a fanny pack to put it on during a race. I don’t like to try new things on race day, so I tried it out on a training run.
I started with the wrap in my fanny pack. The wrap is kind of bulky, so I could barely zip it shut. I started by running from the Hilton to North Beach. I’m familiar with this route, because I stayed at a beach hotel last year. There’s a paved promenade that follows the beach for several miles. One I reached the promenade, I continued to follow it to the north.
It was a warm afternoon, but there was a cool breeze off the coast. As I ran, I had nice views of waves crashing on the beach. I ran until my GPS read three miles. Then I stopped and put on the wrap. I turned around and ran back to the hotel. On the way back, I quickly noticed that my leg was sweating under the wrap. Besides being warm, it was also humid.
I ran at a pretty slow pace the whole time. Running without the wrap, I felt OK until the last minute or two. Then I noticed a vague sensation of fatigue in the injured muscles. It’s possible that my mind was playing tricks on me, but it was almost time to try the wrap anyway. I felt comfortable with the wrap, except for being hot. Nothing about this run improved my confidence. At least I knew that I could run with the wrap in my fanny pack and put it on fairly quickly if I needed it.
Later, I had dinner with my friend Patrick at Spiga. I didn’t realize until we got there that this was the same restaurant where I had dinner with some other friends last year. I even ordered the same pizza
Friday night, I got another good night’s sleep. I didn’t set an alarm, but I woke up at 6:50 and noticed it was getting light. I still felt tired, but forced myself to get up, so I would have a better chance for getting to bed early Saturday night.
I bumped into Patrick at breakfast. After breakfast, we walked over to the expo, and I picked up a bottle of Energade in the reception area for international runners. (Energade is the sport drink used at the aid stations.) I spent most of the day relaxing at the hotel and organizing my clothes for the race.
In the afternoon, I made another trip to the expo to check a gear bag, so I could have warm clothes to wear after finishing the race. You can check your bag at the start, but lines can be long. By checking my bag at the expo, I could save time before the race. Besides warm clothes, I also put my camera in the bag. I wanted to take pictures at the finish, but I didn’t want to carry it with me for the whole race. By waiting until Saturday to check my bag, I still had the use of my camera on Thursday and Friday.
Later, I had dinner at the Hilton. Most of their guests were there for Comrades, so they served a pasta buffet in one of their restaurants and their regular dinner buffet in another restaurant. I was told that both restaurants would open at 6:00. I wanted to eat earlier, but reluctantly decided to wait until 6:00. Then I learned that both restaurants were seating people at 6:00, but wouldn’t begin serving until 6:30. I could eat at the bar without waiting, so I had dinner there instead. I was surprised to see that they not only had pizza, but they had one with bacon and avocado. That seems to be my standard meal for the night before Comrades. I didn’t dine with other Comrades runners, but that’s probably just as well. I got to bed early, which was my top priority.
Sunday was race day. One of the nice things about the race starting in Durban was that I didn’t have to catch a bus to get to the start. I still had to get up early, but at least I got some sleep first. Last year, I had to be up by 1:30. This year, I was able to sleep in by comparison. I set my alarm for 3:30.
I had more than enough food samples from my race packet to make an adequate pre-race breakfast. The race started at 5:30, but we had to be in our corrals at least 20 minutes before the start, and it was a 10 minute walk to get to the start. Since I checked my gear bag on Saturday and used the bathroom in my hotel room, I could go straight to my corral. I left the Hilton at 4:45.
Comrades has strict rules about what you can wear during the race. The rules are aimed primarily at the elite runners, but everybody has to abide by them. You can’t wear anything with a corporate logo except the hats issued to all runners. Those include a logo, but it’s a race sponsor who paid for that privilege. Runners from South Africa are required to be on teams, and they’re expected to wear their team race kits. International runners don’t have to belong to teams, but most wear some type of national kit. I wore the same singlet that I wore at last year’s race. It’s a Comrades USA singlet that was design by one of the other American runners.
Each runner gets two identical race bibs. You have to wear one in front and one in back. Besides your race number, the race bib has lots of other information. The B in the lower right corner indicates my start corral. The 1 in the lower right corner indicates I had one previous Comrades finish. In general, international runners are distinguished from South African runners by a bib number with a blue background. Local runners have white backgrounds. There are three other special background colors. My bib had a gold background to denote that I was going for my back-to-back medal this year. Runners who have already finished Comrades at least 10 times are guaranteed to get the same bib numbers in all subsequent years. Those are called “green numbers,” and they’re denoted by a green background. Runners who need one more finish to reach a multiple of 10 have pale yellow backgrounds. You can tell a lot about another runner from their race bib and their shirt. That helps us to encourage each other during the race.
In “down” years, when the race starts in Pietermaritzburg, it can be cold at the start. Durban is on the coast, so it doesn’t get as cold. At the start, it was a fairly comfortable 63 degrees.
Comrades has pace groups, but they call them buses. The pace leader is called a bus driver, and the runners who follow him are said to be riding the bus. There are buses for beating each of the major cutoff times, with the 12 hour bus being by far the largest. Pacing yourself well on the hills takes experience. The bus drivers have done the race many times and know how best to pace their groups to bring them in on time. Runners in the bus also encourage each other.
Before my injury, I was seriously considering running with the nine hour bus. It’s a big part of the Comrades experience, and it’s something I didn’t do last year. Unfortunately, I had no idea how fast I could run, and I also had no idea if I could run a consistent pace. It all depended on how my right leg felt and whether I needed to wear the compression wrap. I started the race without it, but I didn’t know how long that would last.
The start of the race follows a consistent ritual. First, they play the South African national anthem. Then all the local runners sing a song called “Shosholoza.” This is a local song that’s become somewhat of a sports anthem. That’s followed by the theme from “Chariots of Fire.” Next they play a recording of Max Trimborn’s two cockerel crows. Then the gun goes off, and everyone starts running.
At home it’s the start of summer, but in the southern hemisphere, it was only three weeks before the winter solstice, so the days were short. As we started running, it was still dark. Last year – when we started in Pietermaritzburg – it was completely dark as soon as we got out of the start area. In Durban, we were on well-lit streets until the sun came up.
There are numerous aid stations along the route. They’re close enough together that you don’t need to carry food or water with you. The first few aid stations, however, can get congested. I started the race carrying a bottle of Energade, so I could skip the first few aid stations, thereby avoiding the congestion.
There are signs every kilometer, but they count down. We reached the 87K to go sign so quickly that I never saw it. Early in the race, I wasn’t that concerned about my pace. I mostly wanted to go at a pace that didn’t feel tiring.
At 84K to go, we went under Tollgate Bridge and began the first noticeable downhill segment. I noticed some discomfort in my groin. Apparently it was going to bother me running downhill, but not going uphill. The first 35K was mostly uphill, so I was hopeful that I could get through that section without wearing my compression wrap. I was pretty sure I would need it later, but I was hoping to put that off. It was going to get warmer in the afternoon, and the wrap would get uncomfortable if I had to wear it for too long.
As I went by the second aid station, I emptied my bottle, and tossed it in one of the bins. I started drinking at the third station. Beverages available at the aid stations included water, Energade and Coke. The water and Energade were in plastic tubes, and the Coke was in cups. To drink from the tubes, you tear a small hole with your teeth and then squeeze the tube so the fluid squirts in your mouth. Most of the time I drank Energade, but I drank water if the water table was easier to reach. I had Coke now and then for variety. If you drink the same thing all day, you get sick of it. Later in the race, the aid stations also had oranges, bananas and boiled potatoes with salt.
The first of the named hills is Cowie’s Hill, but there are a few other tiring climbs before that. I broke up the more tiring hills by taking short walking breaks. I never walked for more than a minute at a time, and I usually took my walking breaks halfway up a hill. Cowie’s Hill rises 101 meters over 2.1 kilometers. By now, we had already climbed 300 meters, and I didn’t really find Cowie’s Hill to be any worse than the preceding hills.
The hill that worried me the most is Field’s Hill. It’s a rise of 186 meters over 3.2 kilometers, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s actually the steeper section of a much longer climb. You’re already going uphill before Field’s Hill. Then it gets steeper. I felt like my pace was really slow here. After Field’s Hill, I was still going uphill. It just wasn’t as steep. I suddenly felt like I was going faster, which was a pleasant surprise.
Shortly after Field’s Hill, Patrick caught up to me. He was pacing for a nine hour finish, but started in corral C, so it took a little longer for him to cross the starting line. I was surprised to find out that even after Field’s Hill, I was still on pace for nine hours. I started running with Patrick and took walking breaks when he did.
At 56K to go, Patrick and I were taking a walking break, and the nine hour bus caught up to us. They had started in corral D. After that, we joined the bus. Patrick knew the bus driver, but had never run with a bus before.
For me, it probably wasn’t a good idea to ride the bus. This bus driver paces a bit aggressively, going a little faster in the first half of the race, even though that’s the half that’s predominantly uphill. For now, we were on a gradual upgrade section. Then we reached a downhill section. The bus kept a consistent pace throughout. Going uphill, I felt like I was working to keep up. Going downhill, I wanted to go faster, but felt boxed in. Then we reached Botha’s Hill, and I again struggled to keep up.
Our bus driver called an impromptu walking break, so the group could reorganize. Then he gave a pep talk about how we would stick together, encourage each other and not give up. The bus drivers don’t just set the pace. They’re like shepherds, and they tend their flocks.
Botha’s Hill is the third of the five hills with names, and it’s the last hill in the predominantly uphill section of the course. After Botha’s Hill, we were at roughly the same elevation as the finish. From this point on, there would be equal amounts of up and down.
Now we entered a section of small rolling hills. Surprisingly, I was no longer noticing discomfort in my groin on the downhills. Maybe it’s because I was starting to notice fatigue and soreness in other muscles. Maybe it’s because I was now caught up in the excitement of the race. I didn’t question it. I kept running without the compression wrap. I also started thinking seriously about shooting for a nine hour finish and another Bill Rowan medal.
The first half of the course is mostly through urban areas, so there’s constant crowd support. Later in the race, we would run through more remote areas, and we would only see crowds at the points that were most accessible. The crowds are thickest in Drummond, near the halfway mark. There are so many people lining the course that they crowd into the road.
Near the halfway mark, we passed the Comrades Marathon Wall of Honour. Each block in the wall has the name of a runner who has finished Comrades. Any runner who’s finished Comrades at least once can pay a fee to add their name to the wall. Sometimes families of deceased runners add them to the wall as a memorial.
Arthur Newton was a South African runner who was the best ultramarathon runner of his day. He won the second Comrades Marathon in 1922 and went on to win the race five times. Just before the halfway mark, there’s a notch in the hillside called “Arthur’s Seat.” This is the spot where Newton is said to have stopped to rest. It’s considered good luck to say, “Good morning, Arthur” as you pass this spot. Some runners also stop to place a flower. I’m not superstitious, but I’m a sucker for tradition. For the second straight year, I bid Arthur a good morning as I ran by.
We went through the halfway mark in 4:21. Patrick had told me our bus driver would take the first half fast, but I was still surprised to be nine minutes ahead of a Bill Rowan pace.
I was starting to fall off the back of the bus. Sometimes I would fall behind going uphill and catch up going downhill. Sometimes I would fall behind but catch up when they took a walking break. I fell behind for good on the climb up Inchanga.
Inchanga is the fourth of the five big hills, and it’s the first one that really looks imposing. I needed to take it at my own pace. I passed an aid station with ice cubes and put ice in my hat. By now, the temperature was climbing into the 70s, and it was a sunny day. You can get pretty hot on a long hill like Inchanga. The ice kept me from overheating on the climb.
After Inchanga, I realized I was never going to get back to my previous pace. My pace over the first half of the race had taken too much out of me. I still had almost a marathon to go, and I already felt like I was hitting the proverbial “wall.” I gave up on nine hours. I wasn’t even going to be close. The next significant goal was 11 hours, which is the cut-off to earn a bronze medal. With 40K to go, I figured out that I only needed to average nine minutes per kilometer to get a bronze medal. I started checking my watch at each sign. I was running between seven and eight minutes per kilometer. For the rest of the race, I only worried about staying ahead of an 11 hour pace.
After Inchanga, I was less familiar with the landmarks. The next major landmark I could remember was Umlaas Road, which was more than 20K further. The terrain between Inchanga and Umlaas Road was rolling, but with an uphill trend. None of the hills were long or steep, but when you reach Umlaas Road, you’re at the highest elevation on the route. Maybe it’s because I was already fading, but I found this entire section to be difficult.
I was counting down the kilometers, but it’s not very encouraging to say “only 30K to go.” It didn’t seem any easier when I converted to miles. I still had a long way to go. My legs were sore, I couldn’t run very fast, and I was hot. I knew I was well ahead of bronze, but I had to keep running. I only allowed myself to take walking breaks on hills.
As I went through an aid station with 24K to go, I heard an announcer say that a bus was approaching. It was the 10 hour bus. With 43K to go, I was still with the nine hour bus. How did this one catch me so quickly?
I picked up my effort to stay ahead of them a little bit longer. At 23K to go, I was still ahead of them. At 22K, they were close enough that I could hear them chanting and encouraging each other. They were maintaining high spirits.
At 21K to go, I could finally tell myself that I only had a half marathon to go. That seemed manageable. It was obvious by now that I would break 11 hours by a fairly wide margin as long as I was mostly running. At 19K, the 10 hour bus finally passed me.
I only had about two more kilometers to reach the Umlaas Road crossing. Then I felt a twinge of pain in my groin. It was only momentary, but it wasn’t the vague sensation of soreness that I felt earlier in the race. This was more worrisome. A minute or two later, I felt another twinge. It was bothering me even though I was going uphill at a slow pace. I needed to start wearing the compression wrap.
I stopped and took the wrap out of my fanny pack. Standing near the side of the road, I wrapped it around my upper thigh and fastened the Velcro, so it was snug enough to stay in place, but not binding. I was near an aid station, and one of the volunteers asked me if I was OK. I told him I had a pulled groin, and I had been hoping to make it to Umlaas Road before putting the wrap on.
I was already hot, running under the afternoon sun. The wrap would make me get hotter. The aid stations weren’t very far apart, but I was feeling thirsty between aid stations. By now, I was drinking both water and Energade at each one.
When I crossed Umlaas Road, I could finally tell myself that the rest of the race would have a downhill trend. That doesn’t mean that it was all downhill. There were still a couple really tough hills remaining. First, however, I could enjoy a nice long downhill section, as we ran into a valley. The wrap slowed me down, but for the next few kilometers, I wouldn’t need any walking breaks.
The last of the named hills is Polly Shortts, but first there’s a smaller hill called Little Polly’s. Little Polly’s is only half as long as Polly Shortts, but it’s just as steep. I allowed myself more than one walking break. I did one minute of walking for each three minutes of running.
After Little Polly’s, I had to stop to adjust my wrap. I was sweating underneath it, and it was beginning to slip down toward my knee. I repositioned it and wrapped it nice and snug, so it wouldn’t slip as I ran down the other side of Little Polly’s. This was the last steep downhill section, and it was about a kilometer and a half long.
Polly Shortts is the hill that everyone talks about after finishing the “up” course. It’s a little over two kilometers long, with an average gradiant of 6.7 percent. It’s not the biggest hill on the course, but it comes at the worst time. By now, everyone is tired, and Polly Shortts is the hill that breaks them. I approached it the same way as Little Polly’s. Three minutes running; one minute walking; repeat.
After Polly Shortts, it’s only 8K to go. It’s still rolling hills all the way into Pietermaritzburg, but the downhills are longer than the uphills. I was sore and tired, but no more so than I was an hour or two earlier. The wrap slowed me down a little, but I was still making good time.
With one kilometer to go, I could hear noise from the stadium. As we got closer, we made a few turns and ran through a narrow pathway across the grass to get into the stadium. Once inside, we ran about halfway around the oval. On our right were spectators in the stadium stands. On our left were runners who had already finished.
As I made my way around the turn, the finish line came into sight. I finished in 10:12:25. After crossing the line, I received two medals. One was my bronze medal for finishing within 11 hours. The other was my back-to-back medal. Both medals were slightly larger this year because they’re special medals to commemorate the 90th running of the Comrades Marathon. This is only the fourth time in the history of the race that they’ve had commemorative medals. I also received a finisher badge, which is also a commemorative version. Finally, I was given a yellow rose. I couldn’t bring the rose home with me, so I gave it to a woman in the finish area who wasn’t running. Then I made my way into the International Tent.
International runners pay a higher entry fee than local runners, but they also get some significant perks. One such perk is access to the International Tent in the finish area. It’s basically a large VIP area for the international runners. Race officials can usually tell if you’re an international runner by the color of your race bib. Since I had a “back-to-back” bib, I was given a wrist band to identify me as an international runner.
Inside the International Tent, we had hot food, a variety of beverages, a separate gear retrieval area, and tables and chairs. After retrieving my gear bag and locating friends who had already finished, I refueled with pasta, beef stew, rice and beer. Then I started watching the race. From inside the International Tent, we could see runners going by who had about 100 meters to go. There was also a large TV screen where we could see runners crossing the line.
One of the traditions of this race is that you stay in the stadium after finishing. As it gets closer to the end of the race, the number of runners in the stadium keeps growing, and the drama builds. Each time a major cutoff approaches, the crowd counts down the remaining seconds.
The next major cutoff after I finished was 11 hours. About 15 minutes before their cutoff, the 11 hour bus arrived. They all received bronze medals.
Within the International Tent, I spotted runners who I didn’t expect to see so soon. That wasn’t good news. There are several places along the course with intermediate cutoff times. If you miss a cutoff, you have to stop, and you get transported to the finish area. At least four of my friends missed cutoffs. Two traveled from the United States to run Comrades for the first time. The other two were veterans.
This is my friend David, who has finished Comrades several times and is working on getting his green number. We were on the same flight to Johannesburg and hung out together in the airport. Last year I got to see him finish about five minutes before the final gun went off. This year, he was already in the International Tent when I got there. He missed a cutoff.
In the last hour of the race, the parade of runners coming into the stadium got thicker. Roughly half of all Comrades finishers take between 11 and 12 hours.
As the 12 hour cutoff approached, there was much more drama. The 12 hour bus was so big that it took several minutes for them all to stream by.
There were quite a few runners close behind them who still made the cutoff. With 30 seconds to go, we all counted down. As the countdown begins, you realize which runners have time to finish and which ones don’t. Soon they realize it too. This was the look of disappointment when these runners realized that they were only 100 meters away but wouldn’t finish.
When the final gun goes off, the race officials immediately block the finish line. Runners still making their way around the track aren’t allowed to cross the line. Runners are still coming into the stadium, but none of them will finish. Runners who just made the cutoff are exuberant. Runners who just missed are heartbroken. They’ve been out there for 12 hours. They ran 54.5 miles. They didn’t finish.
The call Comrades “The Ultimate Human Race.” There are tougher races, but I’ve never seen one that’s more dramatic. It’s one thing to run it. It’s another thing to watch the finish. It’s an experience.
After the race, we still had to get back to Durban. The race provides buses back to Durban, but some of us made our own arrangements. After the race, we had to locate each other and meet our van driver outside the stadium. It’s a long ride back to Durban, and traffic leaving Pietermaritzburg was slow. By the time we got back to the Hilton, it was almost 8:00 PM Inside the hotel lobby, they were handing out plastic bags filled with ice cubes. I brought one up to my room and used it to ice my injured groin muscles. They didn’t bother me as much as I expected, but it was still good to be able to ice.
After icing, I took a quick shower to rinse off the salt. Then I met some of the other runners in the bar to celebrate. I didn’t need much more food, and I didn’t need any more beer, but you don’t come back from something epic like Comrades and just climb into bed.
I got to bed late that night. It took a while to wind down and fall asleep. Then I woke up at 5:20 and couldn’t get back to sleep. I was really tired on Monday and wondered how I would do on another overnight flight.
After eating breakfast and packing up, I took a cab to the Durban airport. This time, I didn’t check any bags. I suspect my suitcase might have been a little over the weight limit for hand baggage, but nobody questioned it.
As I was waiting in the gate area for the long flight from Johannesburg to Atlanta, I had a pleasant surprise. I was paged. When I booked this flight, I wanted to use a global upgrade certificate, but there weren’t any seats available for upgrade. I asked to be put on the waiting list, but I wasn’t optimistic. I realized when I was paged that my upgrade must have cleared.
Of course, nothing is ever easy. The gate agent said that she could see I was on the waiting list, and she was ready to clear my upgrade, but my certificate was never activated. She needed to know the certificate number and she also needed a redemption code. I had to call Delta’s Diamond Medallion hotline again. Then I handed my phone to the gate agent, so she could get the numbers directly from the agent on the other end. I didn’t pay for an international calling plan, so that was probably an expensive call. It was worth the cost. They still had to wait for a supervisor to come and do something, so I was sitting in the gate area for about 30 minutes while everyone else boarded the plane. It was worth the wait. An upgrade on this flight meant a seat that reclines completely flat. I was not only comfortable, but actually got a few hours of sleep.
After arriving in Atlanta, I still had one more flight to get home, but that was a flight I’ve taken dozens of times. More importantly, there was no drama.
In South Africa, you’re not considered to be a real runner until you’ve finished the Comrades Marathon. Purists would say that you have to finish within 11 hours, which was the cutoff time for most of the race’s history. That’s why it was important to me to at least get a bronze medal. There are also some who say that you have to run the course in both directions. Now I’ve done that too. No one from South Africa will ever doubt that I’m a serious runner.
Now that I’m a back-to-back Comrades finisher, I can finally cross this race off my bucket list. I have friends who are going for their green numbers, but I can’t imagine doing that. It’s a great race, but the travel is too expensive to keep coming back.
I’m a bit puzzled about my groin injury. When I started to notice it less than three miles into an easy training run, I was concerned. When I noticed it again so early in the race, I was worried. Then it seemed fine for most of the race. Then it bothered me late in the race. A day later, I wasn’t noticing any discomfort walking around. Is it possible that I ran 87.7 kilometers without making it worse?
I have a physical therapy appointment tomorrow. Then I’ll have a better idea where I stand. For now, I’m cautiously optimistic, but I’m going to be careful. My next race isn’t until June 19th, but it’s a rugged trail race. I need to be 100 percent healed.