The Comrades Marathon is the biggest, most competitive ultra marathon in the world. I grew up just 3km from the halfway point on the course, so I grew up supporting runners attempting this amazing feat of human endurance and camaraderie, and I always knew that one day I would give it a shot. After supporting four of my friends running the race last year, I decided that this year I would give it a bash to see what all the fuss was about.
This years race was an “up run”, meaning it starts in Durban at sea level and finishes in Pietermartizburg at 628m above sea level. Total elevation gain over the 87.7km course (about 800m longer than the usual up run distance due to road works in Pinetown) is around 1900m, and there are 5 significant named hills (Cowies, Fields, Botha’s, Inchanga and Polly Shortts), and countless other unnamed hills on the route.
Also running this year were 3 of my friends, Sean, Dave and Brad, all of whom have completed the race before. We decided to target a sub-11hr finish and thus get a bronze medal, so being an engineer, I developed a comprehensive race plan that would get us to the finish in around 10:30.
The day before the race I visited the race expo (fortunately I was able to register for the race at an early registration on Wednesday night), but it was really crowded so I didn’t stay for long. All the major sports shops, shoe manufacturers and sponsors were there, so I had a brief look around before heading back home to chill before the big day. Dinner was my favourite pre-race indulgence, pizza. Went to bed nice and early, but nerves meant I didn’t sleep well and was already awake when my alarm went off at 3:30am.
Race morning was clear and mild, and it looked like it would be a perfect day for running. The race starts at 5:30am, and you have to be in your starting batch by 5:15am. I qualified in F batch (sub 4h20 marathon), along with 2 of my friends, but I couldn’t find them amount the 20000 other people at the start. Finally, after singing the National Anthem, as well as Shosholoza and listening to Chariots of Fire, the cock crowed and cannon fired and the race began.
It took me around 6 minutes just to reach the start line, and the first few kilometres was just a teaming mass of people as 20000 people made their way through the streets of Durban. According to my plan, the first checkpoint was at Tolgate Bridge at 4km, and when I reached it, I was 6 minutes behind schedule (due to the slow start), but not a problem, still a long way to go! I took it easy, and followed my strategy of run-walking the hills from early on to save energy. The first 16km went by smoothly and quickly, and I soon found myself going up the first major climb, Cowies hill. This turned out to be an easy climb, and before I knew it, I was at the top and running down into Pinetown. The road works here meant a couple of detours with some gentle climbs and descents before the second and longest hill of the day, the notorious Fields Hill. 4km with 200m elevation gain, it can be a little intimidating. Again I followed the run-walk strategy, and by the time I reached the top, not only was I still feeling great, but I had pulled back all the lost time from the start and was only 1 minute of my plan.
The next section from Kloof to Hillcrest is a fairly continuous gradual climb, with great crowd support along the road side. I heard from supporters that my friends were 10 minutes ahead of me on the road, and I didn’t think I’d be able to catch them, so settled down to run my own race. Up to Hillcrest, there wasn’t much food on the route, and I was starting to get quite hungry, but fortunately they had bananas in Hillcrest so I got some down before the third named climb, Botha’s Hill. Botha’s has a steep section near the beginning, but isn’t too bad after that and once you reach the top, there is great support from the Kearsney College boys (my old school!) and then what I think is the nicest part of the race from Botha’s Hill to Drummond.
By Alverstone, I was surprised to see I had caught up to Dave and Brad, and heard the unfortunate news that Sean had dropped out after 30km. He had been struggling all day, and realised that this year was just not for him, and rightly bailed from the race. We were all a bit sad as we headed down to the halfway point at Drummond, but these things happen and sometimes it just isn’t your day and you need to make sure you don’t damage yourself by continuing.
At Drummond, my parents were waiting with a lovely Nutella sandwich, and the crowd support was amazing. I was still feeling really good, and we were perfectly on track for our target of 10:30. Just after halfway is the 4th climb, Inchanga. This is a challenging climb, and we walked most of it, but it still took quite a bit out of me and by the top I was not feeling quite so good. Fortunately there is a long descent on the other side of the hill, so this gave some time for recovery before the Harrison Flats section, which is anything but flat. This section is full of long, gradual uphill rollers, and the temperature was rising by now. We were all feeling a little flat, but continued with the run-walk strategy and tried to keep the pace up.
The section from Harrison flats to Camperdown seemed to pass slowly, we were passed by both 11hr busses who seemed to be going a little fast for our liking. At Cato Ridge, Dave pulled away from Brad and I. At Camperdown, they have the Nedbank Green Mile, which is packed with supporters and entertainment, the cheering crowds helping to keep you moving. From here its a 6km slog up to the highest point in the race at Umlaas Rd, and fortunately I started feeling a lot better and happier as we approached Umlass Rd. By the time we reached the top and start the long descent to Polly Shortts, I was raring to go. Brad was suffering with quad cramps and urged me to go on. By this point we were 14 minutes off our goal pace but a bronze was still achievable, so I upped the pace a little on the downhill and pulled away from Brad. With 18km to go, this might not have been very wise, cause after only about 2km I started to get a stitch on the long downhill, so I slowed again. I was very surprised when Brad caught me up again, and stoked to have someone to run with. This was when the race really started to get tough.
Before Polly Shortts actual, there is a hill called Little Pollys, which ordinarily wouldn’t present much problems, but after 78km, it hurt. We both struggled up it, and the downhill on the otherside hurt just as much. By the time we reached the bottom of Polly Shortts, we were both exhausted, and decided that we probably wouldn’t be able to make the 11hr mark, and so settled for a finish. We walked most of Pollys, and I tried to convince Brad we could still make a bronze, but he was really struggling with blisters and couldn’t run anymore. Near the top of Pollys we were caught by a bunch of guys run-walking their way up, and so I joined up with them as it was slightly less painful for me to run than walk.
By the time I reached the top of Pollys, I saw I had around 50 minutes to run the last 7km, mostly downhill, to the finish to get under 11hrs. I knew I would be really upset with myself if I didn’t give it a good shot, so I put my head down and ran. Those last 7km were probably the most painful I have ever run, my hips and right knee were screaming, but I kept jogging at around 7min/km pace. Two small hills around 3km and 2km from the finish brought me to a walk, and I wasn’t sure that I would be able to make it, but I pushed on and with 2km to go, I had 15 minutes to the bronze cutoff and I was pretty sure I would make it. The last km into the stadium was very emotional, and turned out to be my second fastest kilometre of the whole race. Crossing the finish line in 10:58:24 and earning a bronze medal was on of the happiest moments of my life so far, and was the perfect end to a tough, painful but amazing day of running.
Brad eventually finished in 11:25:30, and Dave finished in 10:55:11. I now see why people keep coming back to this race. The crowds supporting along the route, the athletes taking part in the event, and all the volunteers who provide the water, juice and food on the way, make this the Ultimate Human Race. I knew straight after the race that I will be back next year to tackle the down run, and I can’t wait to experience the sense of achievement you feel crossing that finish line again. This is truly an amazing race, and I would recommend it to anyone.
I must give huge thanks to my family for supporting me on the route and struggling through traffic to get to see me at different points and the finish, and to all my friends who supported on the roadside. It’s the supporters who truly make this race what it is, you guys rock.
Strava data here.
Shoes: New Balance Zante