In this article, I’m going to share some of the tips I gained in the process of training for my first ultramarathon; Comrades Marathon in South Africa. If you’re wondering how to train for an ultramarathon, I hope some of this will help!
After several decades of competing in endurance events, from Ironman triathlons to cycling the length of the UK on a single gear bike, 2012 saw me attempt my first Ultramarathon. I picked one of the most iconic and epic ultras in the world; the 56-mile (90km) long Comrades Marathon in South Africa.
I’ve never been to a race with such much media coverage and excited chatter from the minute you arrive in South Africa until after the race has finished.
However, the epicness of the event is about more than just scale, as there are far longer races and races with three times the 18,000 entrants that Comrades Marathon attracts. The whole race from start to finish is covered live on SABC, South Africa Broadcast Corporation and is watched live by millions of viewers.
When I say the whole race – that is the whole twelve hours, as anyone who fails to finish inside the 12-hour cut off does not get to cross the finish line. Nor will they be awarded a medal for their efforts. Do you need any more motivation?!
Every year, the run changes direction, with 2012 being a “down run” from Pietermaritzburg, at an altitude of approximately 2200 feet, to the city of Durban which is at sea level.
However, there is a significant amount of “up” in the “down run” and vice-versa. The whole route is extremely hilly!
There are about 400 yards of flat road in the 56 miles. In total there’s 7000 feet of descent in a down run and about 5000 feet of ascent.
To put this in perspective, Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland, is 4409 feet high.
How to Train for Comrades Marathon
I thought this write-up would be was an ideal opportunity to put together my top ten tips for running the Comrades Marathon. Many of these tips will, of course, apply to many other ultramarathons:
1. Train Your Legs for Both Uphill & Downhill Running
The Comrades Marathon is an extremely hilly race. So, training for Comrades means you have to train for the hills. In both the up and the down run it was the eccentric loading of the quads during the downhill sections that took their toll later in the race for myself and many others. Practice running downhill in your training for Comrades marathon, and be sure to strengthen your legs for downhill running.
2. Practice Your Target Ultramarathon Pace
Something I failed to do this properly was to train at my specific race pace. If you can run at 10:00 per mile pace during the race you will do well in Comrades – but it is not that easy to do.
Pacing plays a part for all races but especially I think in ultramarathons. The cut-off, that some 2,000 of the 18,000 runners in 2012 and 9000 in 2013 failed to make, is 12 hours. If simply beating the cut-off is your goal, you need to learn to run at that pace.
3. Build on Your Existing Marathon Fitness
You need to do a marathon to qualify for Comrades. I used a tried and tested marathon training plan to run a road marathon in April, then used the following six weeks to work on building long slow miles prior to the ultramarathon.
4. Double Run Days & Big Training Weekend
I found back to back runs as a great way of getting the mileage in. Both double run days, 40 minutes steady in the morning and 40 minutes steady in the evening, but also running back-to-back long runs on Saturday and Sunday.
My biggest sessions were 20 miles on a Saturday, followed by 20 miles on a Sunday. I also had weekends where I ran a 10 miler on Saturday followed by a 32-mile run the next day.
All these long ultramarathon training runs were paced at about 10 minutes per mile.
5. Look Forward to a Warm Welcome!
Despite there being 18,000 runners only about 700 in 2012 were not from South Africa. As an “International athlete” (their name not mine!) you are extremely well looked after.
6. Wear Extra Layers to The Start
The race starts at 05:30 and for the “down run” starting at 2,000 feet, it is advisable to wear something warm to throw or give away at the start. In the race bag there was a thin warm-up type top but each year I also wore a long-sleeved run shirt, which I gave away on the route.
7. Party at The Aid Stations
The aid stations are fun and well stocked with a whole manner of things and although I carried a couple of bars you could pretty much rely on those stations for all your needs.
8. You’ll Meet Lots of New Friends Along The Route
I ran with two guys, Mlungisi and the fantastically named Knowledge who had 22 and 21 finishes respectively – one runner was completing his 46th Comrades. You can tell from the colour of the race numbers how many times competitors have finished so don’t be afraid to ask advice.
9. Don’t Race Your First Comrades Marathon
If you want to truly “race” Comrades I would suggest going and just “doing” the race at least once first, or preferably twice, once in each direction, to learn what it takes before your big attempt at a certain pace.
10. You’ll Find Inspiration at Every Turn
Be prepared to be inspired by the experience. The crowd support along the whole route, the local and national interest is unbelievable. It is a national institution.
There is nobody running in fancy dress, no one doing it for charity, it is just thousands of runners running whilst being watched by what feels like the entire country.
There were twenty-eight pages of coverage in the national newspaper the next morning with every single finisher’s result – be prepared to be blown away!
So the big questions: Did I finish and would I do it again?
I loved every single minute of my first Comrades marathon, even when the pain really kicked-in! I finished in 10:05.
Would I run Comrades Marathon Again?
Before the race, I suspected that the lure of a back-to-back Comrades medal might tempt me, but I was sure that we would have to wait months, like childbirth, for the painful memory to subside before a decision was made.
I didn’t expect that by breakfast on the day after the race I was already planning my return!
On 2 June 2013, I completed the “Up Run”.Last updated on March 2nd, 2021.
Great write up Neil. Hope to see you there in 2013
Thanks Nikos, you’ll certainly see me on the start line in Durban, 2013 for the up run.
Thanks for the article I do have a questions –
* You finished in just over 10hrs (well done) what time do you normally run a standard marathon (42km)?
Just interested to get some idea to see how hard the 12hr cut-off time is.
I am in about 3hr marathon shape but the aim for Comrades was in no way to race it. All I wanted to do was finish and “enjoy” the experience. The race I described was the 2012 down race; I ran through halfway in about 4hr 20min but a swollen achilles slowed my progress. It’s a very doable race if you pace it sensibly which I would recommend for full enjoyment. The support from the spectators is like nothing I have ever experienced,
Nice race report and super advice. Comrades is a bucket list item targeted for 2014. Cheers!
2014 will be a down run which is the one we did this year. It is the most fantastic experience and we have a place for the 2013 up run. Maybe see you on the start lane in 2014! It’s that good!
As a SA runner that has run a no. of different European city marathons & NY marathon, I could not have written a more accurate description of the the South African iconic road running race that is the Comrades marathon.
I’m starting my 8th in Durban on June 2nd, and although we may not meet on that tortuous route, have a good “up” run. The “up” & “down” are every different races, even though the route is just a reverse. The finish at the Jan Smuts stadium in PMB is very special.
To all other runners out there, you haven’t experienced a marathon until you’ve finished the Comrades!
Many thanks for your kind words, as this is only my second Comrades I have only finished in the Kingsmead Cricket Stadium in Durban so if the welcome in the Jan Smuts Stadium in Pietermaritzburg is anything like that it will be a treat. I’d like to say I’ll see you on the road but if not have a great race and I look forward to hearing about your green number in 2 years time!