Comrades 2015

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.

The Ultimate Human Race

The Ultimate Human Race

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.

On route to the start line

On route to the start line

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.

Me at the halfway mark, still with a smile

Me at the halfway mark, still with a smile

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.

Extremely happy to finish and get a bronze

Extremely happy to finish and get a bronze

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

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Winter Trail Challenge 2 – Hilton College

The 2nd race of the Winter Trail Challenge 2015 hosted by KZN Trail Running took place at Hilton College on Sunday 24th May 2015. There were 4 events on offer, a challenging 22km or 12km trail, an easier 10km “Comrades” course for those wanting a gentler option, and a 5km kids race. The 12km course dropped down into the Umgeni river valley, while the easier 10km course stayed on the top of the hill. The 22km course completed both the 12km course and the 10km course. With Comrades only a week away, I decided to save my legs and stick to the easier 10km course.

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It was a beautiful sunny morning, although still a bit chilly when all four races started simultaneously at 7:32am. I set off at what felt like an easy pace, and surprisingly started to pull away from all by one other person in the field. After running together for about 1km, I realised that the pace was maybe a little fast for me, this supposed to be an easy run with Comrades a week away, so I eased off a bit and was soon passed by the leading lady, and the 3rd placed man after about 3km.

The course went through the forestry plantations and stuck to the forest roads, which made the running easy and cool. We descended gradually for around 7.5km, with a couple short uphills, but nothing too challenging. The running felt easy and I really enjoyed the forests and views over the Umgeni valley once we got out of the trees. After 7.5km, the course started to climb with a couple of short, sharp hills, mostly scattered with boulders, so I walked the steeper bits to save the legs. Having run this same course last year, I knew that once we got back into the trees, it was a gentle downhill to the finish, so I took it easy until the top of the hill, and picked up the pace once we go back onto the forest roads. In the mean time, a couple of guys had passed me, but I was feeling really good and having a great time.

The final 1km to the finish passed uneventfully, and the race finished back at the Hilton College Gym. Final race distance was 10.8km, and my finishing time of 56:36 was good enough for 7th place overall, 4 minutes behind the winner, which made me pretty happy seeing as how it was supposed to be an easy run, even though most of the fast guys had opted for the 12km or 22km course.

The 22km race had a small but very competitive field including Jonathan Edwards and Claude Eksteen, however a couple of the front runners went off course during the first 12km loop and ran a few extra kilometres. This didn’t stop Solicitor Manduwa from winning the race in a very quick time of 1:46:45, more than 6 minutes ahead of 2nd place. Trish Balhmann won the ladies race in 1:59:41.

I really enjoyed this race, and it made me feel really confident for Comrades. My legs felt good, and the pace felt easy. Strava data for the race is here.

Shoes: New Balance RC1400v2

Full Race Results

Winter Trail Challenge 1 – Maweni

The Winter Trail Challenge 2015 race series hosted by KZN Trail Running started off with the Maweni trail run just outside Pietermaritzburg on the 16th May 2015. The race starts from the Maweni Trail Centre, and there were two distance options, either a 7km or 14km event. With the Comrades Marathon only 2 weeks away, I decided to do the 14km event, but to take it really easy and use it as a training run.

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The weather on race morning was chilly and overcast, pretty much perfect running conditions. Around 100 people lined up for the start of the 14km event, and at precisely 7:36am the race started and we set off. The pace was pretty quick up front, and for the first 1.5km the course followed a jeep track slightly downhill, which turned out to be a good warm-up for the first climb of the day, a 100m climb up steep single track. Fortunately it was only 700m long, but my calves really felt it, must be too much road running recently. With Comrades in mind, I walked the hill, and once we reached the top, the trail flattened out again. The views from the top over the Umgeni river were spectacular, I almost tripped over rocks a couple of times being too busy admiring the scenery.

What goes up must come down, and a steep decent back off the hill followed, leading back to the start line after around 5km into the race. A small climb through the sugar cane, a sharp descent, and some paved farm road led us to the Faulklands Farm house (where race 3 of the series starts). Another small climb led to the start of the valley top single track at 8km in, which runs along the edge of the Umgeni valley. I really love this section, fast, flowing, rocky in places, and mostly downhill. Unfortunately it ends after just 3km, and the climbing starts again.

My legs were feeling a little tired at this point, probably from fairly heavy (for me) training the last few weeks, so I took it really easy up the climb (around 90m over 2km), walking the steep bits and jogging the flat bits. once at the top, there is another nice downhill single track section for about 1km, so I put the hammer down and just had fun flying down the hill. Then some gentle rolling trail through the forest back to the trail centre and the finish line.

The final course distance was 15.1km according to my Garmin, and my final time was 1:33:45, which I was quite happy with having taken it fairly easy and walked most of the hills. My final position was 32nd overall, the race being won by road speedster Jonathan Edwards in 1:02:43, with Keren Worlock winning the ladies race in 1:16:11.

My legs felt more tired than the should have, so I decided to really cut back training over the next two weeks to make sure I’m 100% ready for Comrades.

Strava Activity – Maweni Trail Race

Shoes: New Balance 1210v2 Leadville

Hydration system: Salomon S-Lab 12l 2014

Full Race Results