After several decades of competing in endurance events from racing triathlon, including a number of Ironman finishes and racing at the World Championships, running standard marathons, running endurance team relay races (Hood to Coast and also Ragnor Relay – both about 190 miles long) and cycling the length of the UK on a single gear bike, 2012 saw me attempt my first Ultra Marathon. I picked the most iconic and epic Ultra in the World – namely the 56-mile (90km) long Comrades Marathon in South Africa.
I’ve never been to a race where there is so much media coverage and excited chatter from the minute you arrive in South Africa until after the race has finished. It’s more than just scale as there are far longer races and races with 3 times the 18,000 entrants that Comrades 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 12 hours as anyone who does not finish inside the 12 hour cut off does not get to cross the finish line or be awarded with a medal.
With the change of direction each year, 2012 saw the race being a “down run” from Pietermaritzburg at an altitude of approximately 2200 ft to the city of Durban which is at sea level. However there is a significant amount of ‘up’ in the ‘down run’ and visa versa with the whole route being extremely hilly – there are about 400 yards of flat road in the 56 miles. In total there are 7000 ft of descent in a down run and about 5000 ft of ascent. To put this in perspective, Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland, is 4409 ft high.
I thought it was an ideal opportunity to put together my top 10 tips for running this race and these tips will apply to many other ultra marathons.
Top 10 Comrades Marathon Tips:
- This is an extremely hilly race so you have to train for the hills. In both the up and the down run it was the eccentric loading of the downs that took their toll later in the race for myself and many other.
- 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 ultras. 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 this is your goal learn to run at that pace.
- You need to do a marathon to qualify for Comrades. I used a standard marathon build up running a race in April then using the next 6 weeks working on long slow miles prior to the race.
- I found back to back runs as a great way of getting the mileage in. Both double run days so say 40 minutes steady A.M. and 40 minutes steady P.M. but also running long on Saturday and Sunday. My biggest sessions were 20 miles on the Saturday and 20 on the Sunday and also a 10 miler on the Saturday and a 32 miler on the Sunday. All aiming (but usually going too quickly) at about 10 min per mile pace.
- 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.
- The race starts at 05:30 and for the down run starting at 2,000 ft 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- If you want to truly “race” Comrades I would suggest going and just “doing” the race at least once and preferably twice, once in each direction, to learn what it takes before your big attempt at a certain pace.
- 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 no one 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 was 28 pages of coverage in the national newspaper the next morning with every single finishers result – be prepared to be blown away!
So the big questions – did I finish and would I do it again? I loved every minute of even the pain and I finished in 10:05. Would I do it again? Before the race I suspected that the lure of a Back to Back 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”.