Tag Archives: Comrades Marathon

Comrades Marathon, Pietermaritzburg to Durban, South Africa, Sunday, June 10, 2018

90 kms [DOWN run]

Dougie Nisbet

Three days before Comrades I nipped into the Expo to collect my number. They make you feel special as an international runner with a special fasttrack queue that takes out much of the stress, and quite possibly, some of the fun. This left me plenty time to search for the Ethembeni School amongst the maze of stalls sprawling through the exhibition centre. I approached hesitantly, with my 4 carrier bags stuffed with pre-loved, hated-at-first-sight, and oh-not-another-tech-tee from years of racing around Durham and beyond. I’d been putting them to one side for a long time now, not really thinking through how I’d squash them into my luggage for the long trip to Durban. But squashed in they had been, and now I was a bit nervous. Perhaps the school didn’t have any crushing desire for a Durham City 10K t-shirt, or a Mad Dog 10K, or Blackpool Marathon, and would be shortly making that clear to me. But no. Apparently according to the nice lady I spoke to, they were all ‘awesome’. I was relieved as I had no plan ‘B’ if they were not wanted. After Comrades we were going onto Botswana where we had a strict luggage limit and I had visions of having to furtively find a place to lose several years of surplus running vests.

Two days before Comrades found us on the bus tour again. The Down Run this year. On a hot bus with a broken PA but this didn’t dampen the spirits of our hosts. Both Comrades runners, full of experience and enthusiasm. Once again we stopped at Ethembeni School for an impromptu concert.

Concert at the Ethembeni School

The school is a wonderful place. A facility for kids with disabilities, including albinism, which can still result in them being stigmatised. The school has built up a rapport with Comrades over the years and particularly international runners. As the school principal candidly pointed out, the school enjoys donations and publicity the envy of its neighbours, simply because it’s on the Comrades race route.

Stopping for a photo breather during the Durban parkrunThe day before Comrades and it had to be the Durban parkrun. A carnival of controlled chaos with the bus drivers rehearsing their moves and runners doing their final kit checks. Despite having 2273 runners the organisers do an amazing job of running a tight ship. Should you wish to run it hard, the opportunity was there to do so. But for most people it was a jog along the seafront enjoying the spectacle and singing of the following day’s buses.

The night before Comrades we stayed at the Golden Horse casino in Pietermaritzbug. Last year it had been at the end of the race and had been surprisingly peaceful. This year, it was a much busier affair and not a lot of fun. A packed and cramped coach took us from Durban to the hotel where eventually we got checked in, were handed a free bottle of Energade, then queued in the restaurant for dinner. Our booking hadn’t been cheap and we were not too impressed with things so far. The night was short, and noisy. They seemed to be re-living the car-chase scenes from Grease in the carpark outside our room. Still, as we were up at 2AM there were not too many hours in which to be kept awake.

After breakfast I sat on the coach waiting for the avoidably late departure of the coach to the start. I’d have been better walking, and sat looking out of the coach window watching many people easily overtake the coach as they strolled to the Start. Eventually we were tufted out with not as much time to spare as I would have liked, and I went looking for the baggage bus. That was pretty amazing. I managed to extract myself from the crush without breaking anything, had a brief and hopefully forgettable detour via a portable toilet, then tried to find my starting pen. Time was counting down and there was a hellish crush at the entrance. The poor marshall tasked with policing the gate suddenly found herself forced back as the force of runners made a final push into the pen. It was pretty nasty. For many seconds I had no control over my movements; the marshall retreated to the side for her own safety and I was propelled forward into the pen by the mass of people behind me. I staggered into the pen, ducked to the side and got myself somewhere safe-ish. This was unpleasant stuff. My sunglasses had been smashed in the crush which had a surprisingly bad psychological effect on me. I’d had a bad night, and with just half an hour to the beginning of this iconic race I stood crushed in abject misery and grumpiness. All in all, I thought, this is a bit shit.

The ropes between the pens were dropped, and there was a lurch as the pens began to merge. Then there were a few moments of calm. Then over the PA it was announced that the national anthem would be played. I think they do actually play it over the PA – not that it matters. This was one of the many stranger-in-a-strange-land goose-bump moments that you experience in Comrades as an international runner. Proper singing. None of your Oggy Oggy Oggy crap here.

After the power of the national anthem came the mellowness of the Shosholoza, then a palpable expectant pause before the first notes of Chariots of Fire blasted out over the PA. I’m not a huge fan of this song, preferring Mr Bean’s 2012 Olympic variations over the cheesy original, but hey, when it’s 0530AM and dark and cold in Pietermaritzburg and you’re surrounded by thousands of fellow Comrades runners, suddenly it doesn’t seem cheesy at all. In a space of a few minutes my mood had changed. My tetchiness had been replaced by mellowness, and I wondered with interest how the long day ahead would play out. The cock crowed but I noticed some of the old-hands didn’t start their watches until the starting gun sounded a few seconds later.

Nothing much happened for a bit (although with the race being gun-to-mat – the clock had started ticking) but before long we all started shuffling forward. After the chaotic crush of getting into the pen, things were now quite calm and civilised. Perhaps it was all that singing. It was still dark and cold and I was wearing my long-sleeved Striders top. The one I’d never liked that flared out like a maternity dress but at my waist. After a few miles when things were feeling a bit warmer but still dark I lobbed it at one of the collection points at the roadside only for it to whack into the face of a volunteer who’d turned in response to my shout. I’m never going to stop feeling bad about that and it’s probably best not to think about where my old Strider top is now …

Slowly the light came up, and the sun rose over KwaZulu-Natal. It wasn’t forecast to be a hot day and running conditions were pretty nice. I wasn’t sure how race-day would play out but for the moment I was on my race plan and feeling fine.

Sunrise over KwaZulu-Natal

This year my main objective was to get the back-to-back medal, a medal only available to novices who successfully complete their first two Comrades in successive years. An up run followed by a down run, or vice versa.  I was pretty confident of achieving this goal, but my secondary goal was to get a sub-11 hour Comrades. I thought it was do-able. I’d done a lot of core Strength-and-Conditioning training and was generally fitter and lighter than 2017. I wasn’t complacent though. I knew it’d still be hard. I’d been reading Matt Fitzgerald’s “How bad do you want it” (worth getting for his account of the 1989 Fignon/LeMond Tour de France finale alone) and he warns that one of the main mistakes athletes make as their form improves is to assume that a race will be less tough. So I was ready for that one. As the day wound on I kept clear of the buses as their pacing seemed bonkers. I’d already passed, and been passed by, two different 12 hour buses and didn’t care for their pacing strategy. Too fast, too early.

Your number says a lot about you in Comrades and mine had two red vertical bands indicating that I was going for the back-to-back. It was a strange club and occasionally I’d make eye-contact with other back-to-back runners and exchange a brief acknowledgement. An unspoken communication that we were all there for the same reason.

The sun crossed the sky and on the long steep descents I was grateful for my S&C training as it allowed me to continue running with form where many others were now walking. On the long descent of Fields Hill within the last 30 km I edged past an 11:30 bus that was going for a walk-jog strategy, and kept my rhythm going. I knew things weren’t right though. I was feeling too fatigued too early. I knew that Comrades comprises a long, tough, steady end-game where your muscles are fatigued, but if all is well, your form, rhythm and breathing is retained. And I could sense that I was on the wrong side of the envelope.

An 11 hour Comrades is an average pace of 7:19 a km. As much as an average means anything in this race. You’re lucky if more than a few kilometres of the race are level, which is one of the things that makes it such a hard event. I tried to run as steadily and cautiously as possible but I could sense that I didn’t have the stamina I expected and that it was going to be a pretty rough old day.  With 8km to go my Garmin showed that I was edging tantalisingly close to the psychologically magic pace of 7:19 and I tried to lift the pace a fraction. But just as it was looking like it was going to happen, we hit a long, draining climb into the suburbs of Durban, and it was game over.

I crashed and burned on this hill and at the drinks table at the top I knew the Bronze was not going to happen. This wasn’t a minor setback that I could recover from. My form had gone. My breathing was ragged. My rhythm was terrible. I wasn’t going to come back from this. The remainder of the race was simple damage limitation. Walking and jogging inelegantly into the Moses Mabhida Stadium and looking for the finish. With just 8km to go of this 90km race I could almost touch my target pace but by the final reckoning I wasn’t even close. The gantry clock showed 11:15 and a few seconds.

I crossed the line with mixed emotions. Part elation, part disappointment. Medals appeared and it felt good to be wearing two medals, the Finisher and the Back-To-Back. It’d have felt even better if one of these had been the bronze but that’s something I’ll have to get used to.

Sitting in the international section of the stand I peered over to the finish line as the 12 hour countdown grew near. I was struggling with two intense emotional reactions, one of which was completely unexpected. I hadn’t got the bronze, and I thought I’d been capable of it. I clearly wanted it more badly than I realised.

The Back-to-Back medalI puzzled over this. Perhaps it was because this is my first race for a very long time that hasn’t gone to plan. I’m much better at running even or negative splits, very disciplined, and it’s been a long time since I’ve ran a bad race. And this had been a bad race.

Suddenly a commotion from the crowd snapped me out of my despondency and with the seconds counting down  a runner appeared on the finish straight being physically supported by two other runners. The crowd were on their feet and cheering them on, but there’s always one grumpy pedant who doesn’t join in and share the spirit of the moment. I leaned towards Roberta and whispered, “That’s against the rules you know. You must be unsupported”. Perhaps they heard, as I saw an official approach the runner, who dropped to his knees and crawled the last few metres, unsupported, over the line.

I settled back into my despondency and tried to unpick my race. What had gone wrong? Too much training? Too little? Too much beer? Too little? Taper too long? Short? It was difficult to shake of the feeling of unfairness and injustice. But it wouldn’t be racing if there was no risk, if everything was predictable. It would be pointless. And there’s a certain morbid fascination of going over a big race that has gone unexpectedly wrong and mulling over the possible reasons.

I thought of those few seconds that had taken me over 11:15 and could see they would have easily been eaten up by all that high-fiving of the kids as I weaved by the Ethembeni School. But I can live with that. I told myself to stop being an arse. The name Ethembeni means “Place of Hope” and their school motto Phila Ufunde means “Live and Learn”. Wise words. They’ll do for me.

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Comrades Marathon, Durban to Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, Sunday, June 4, 2017

86.73 kms [UP run]

Dougie Nisbet

During the final loop of the CTS Northumberland Ultra I started chatting to a runner who had a pair of trekking poles in his rucksack. They’d stayed there the entire race and I asked him why he was carrying them. Kit rehearsal for the Marathon des Sables was his reply. Race rehearsal. I was impressed, and said so, before adding, “Would you like a potato?”

Comrades is as much about the logistical preparation as the physical. Never before have I done so much groundwork in planning a race. I’d listened to webinars, read blogs and watched countless YouTube videos to establish what I should wear, when and how to eat and drink, how I should pace myself, and, most importantly, what happened if you needed to go to the toilet.

The eating and drinking was pretty much sorted. At Comrades the food offering is bananas and small salted potatoes and in my training leading up to the event I tried both on my long runs and Ultras. Neither caused any problems and the potatoes certainly beat gels hands down.

Anyone who has done the GNR would have found the start of Comrades a breeze. Apart from being dark, the procedure was the same. Long chaotic queues for the toilets, lots of crowds, music and queues to get into the pens. In I went, tried a few selfies but my 5AM ghostly countenance looked so ghastly I quickly deleted them, sat down in a corner, and waited. There was a bit of space and many others had the same idea and it was weirdly calming sitting on the tarmac in the dark with the occasional drone flying overhead and the frequent bursts of music. As we approached 0530 the pen started moving in little jolts as the pens were gradually merged for the cock’s crow that would indicate it was time to go.

Comrades is unusual. The timing is Gun to Mat. That’s to say, although you’re chip timed, your race time begins when the gun goes off (or when the cock crows, to be precise), not when you cross the start line. When you’re out on the road you, and your fellow runners, are all on the same time. With 12 hours to complete the race and various cut-offs along the way this does mean if you are in one of the slower pens you have a bit of catching up to do. Planning and self-discipline are important.

Much of what I’d read about Comrades discussed with a sort of weary inevitability running the race as a positive split. I’m quite a disciplined runner and I didn’t like the sound of that. Apart from the obvious disadvantage of not running to your best, it sounded horrendous. Many runners work on the assumption that they’re going to blow-up anyway so they might as well go off quick and see how far they get. Crazy. I’d been following the training programmes, blogs and webinars of the official Comrades coach Lindsey Parry and I liked the grounded and pragmatic nature of his advice. I planned to walk the hills, and run the flats and downs. This meant walking early, as a strategy rather than a necessity.

Sure enough, as I’d expected, at the first hills I was marching up while others were streaming past. At first I felt quite isolated but looking around I could see I wasn’t alone. Others were also going for strategic walking to conserve energy that would be invaluable when many hours later we were into the endgame. I was spooked, however, at the first checkpoint to realise I only had 10 minutes in the bag. 10 minutes from being timed out! And one of the 12 hour buses had just gone past.

I was rattled. Comrades is famous for its unforgiving cut-offs. Strictly enforced, there’s no mercy. My Garmin showed two pieces of information: Elapsed Time and Average Pace. I was on plan, but nonetheless I had to give myself a talking to to calm my nerves and resist the temptation to put on speed and burn away valuable energy reserves.

And there was the matter of loo stops. I’d never run a race that started when it was dark and, quite possibly, finished when it was dark too. I was paranoid about needing the loo, and at every portable toilet I passed I noticed queues. This didn’t help. It’s all in the mind of course; nothing is more likely to make you feel you need to go, and go NOW, than an engaged toilet. 25Km and 3.5 hours in we passed through Kloof and I spotted a toilet door swinging ajar. No queue! Now was my chance! I jumped in and shut the door and soon realised why it was empty. Before me was a loo so astoundingly putrid I almost gave it a round of applause. I fished out the sweaty Kleenex from my shorts and realised that this was pretty much a lost cause, and with someone knocking at the door I decided to abandon this little adventure before someone started ringing the bell. Muttering “I’d give it the half-life of Uranium if I were you” under my breath, I dashed out into the fresh air and rejoined the race after this inconclusive diversion.

Post-race analysis of this stop, and the many others shows how easy it is to bleed away time. Lindsey Parry says whatever you are doing, keep moving. The only time you should stop is for a ‘pit stop’. My paranoia of not staying hydrated meant I was walking at every table (feed stations), and with tables ever 2 or 3 kms, I really should have been skipping them occasionally. All those seconds of browsing the tables mounts up to minutes over the 88 kms of the race.

Despite having done my research, one of the areas where I became a little unstuck was with race food. Unlike most races, the tables at Comrades aren’t consistent. Food doesn’t appear until a few hours into the race (depending on how fast you are) and the bananas and potatoes that I’d been expecting were late to appear. So I chewed steadily through the supply of Shotblocks I’d carried although I’d really brought them as insurance for the latter stages of the race rather than a possibly counter-productive sugar rush early on.

Food and drink doesn’t always come from the tables. A few hours in, and with the sun now overhead, I was getting a bit tired of Coke. The crowd really knew how to party and when I reached out as I passed one braai the spectator ran after me and pressed a bottle of Carlsberg into my hand. It made a lovely refreshing change from the Coke but I knew that cold beer wouldn’t be enough to get me to the finish and I vowed to make that impulse a one-off.

It was hot now and I always knew heat would be the problem. I’d ran my qualifying marathons in Lanzarote and Palma de Mallorca and had learned my lessons well about how I cope with the heat. I kept the pace down, knowing from experience if I got over-confident I would blow it. Drinks in Comrades are given in convenient sachets and once you’ve developed the knack of biting a corner of to get to the contents they work pretty well. As someone who has never coped well with emptying bottles of water over my head I was finding the sachets were excellent for keeping cool. You took one for drinking, and one to drizzle gently over your cap as if you were dressing a salad. The water seeps through the cloth and drips gently over your face for the next km or so. It’s a great system. It’s lovely.

Through the half way point, into the parkrun (Comrades is two marathons with a parkrun in the middle), and everything was still on plan. I had gone through the last couple of checkpoints with better safety margins and I was feeling more settled, and even had time to laugh as I found myself thinking, only a marathon to go!

On the race route coach tour two days’ earlier we’d stopped at Ethembeni School. This school caters for children with disabilities and over the years has built up a strong bond with the race and particularly international runners. They’d put on a fantastic concert for us and we were all given a tiny bracelet, each one made by the children. Each bead on the bracelet represented a km of the route, and each colour band represented one of the sections. It was a great idea and I was wearing mine today.

 

 

 

The race is the highlight of the year and the children line up on the roadside outside the school in the hope of high-fiving the runners. They absolutely love this and seeing the delight on their faces fills your heart with joy. I high-fived them all and no doubt lost a bit more time but it was time well wasted. Moving on I realised that I’d missed my bus and I had to put in a bit of a burst to get back on.

Buses. The Comrades Bus is a phenomenon. These pace groups can be huge and the pacer, the bus driver, will be wearing a flag with his or her name and target time on it. These are not the pace groups you might be familiar with in a British race, but more a sort of micro community in which the driver will have his or her own style and strategy. It may be precise adherence to a particular pace, or, more likely, a walk run strategy that has been worked out in advance.

I was riding my 2nd 11:30 bus of the day and I was loving it. There was perhaps a hundred or so of us on this bus and we’d all gathered in a protective cocoon around our driver. The crowd would sometimes shout out poignant encouragement to the driver, such as “Get them home safely Driver”, and the driver would occasionally shout out instructions to his passengers, such as a countdown to the next running stretch, or a marching rhythm on the hills. Sometimes the driver would raise their arms in a breathing exercise and we’d all instinctively mimic the move.

And then there was the singing. International runners make up a relatively low percentage of competitors with most runners being South African. So when the driver leads of, with a surprisingly gentle and mellow introduction to the Shosholoza, only to be answered with the beautiful voices of the bus passengers, you could forget you were in a running race such was the comfort that came from the choir.

I stuck with this 11:30 bus for a while before deciding to lift the pace a little. The day was getting on, the shadows were lengthening, and I knew I was going to finish within 12 hours. My training plan had put me on about a 11hr to 1115 Comrades and I knew I had to be careful about succumbing to the temptation of trying to get under 11 hours (and a Bronze medal) if I didn’t have the ability. Aspirational rather than tactical pacing would almost certainly backfire as I’d learned painfully from the Lanzarote Marathon. It was getting tough now, and I was remembering another good piece of Lindsey Parry advice: It will get tough, so don’t try and fight it. Don’t go into denial. Accept that it will get tough and you just need to deal with it. Endure it.

With about 20km to go I caught another bus. It was another 11:30 and I was grateful to hop on in the closing stages of the race. It was a great help as we hit and marched up the last of the big 5 hills, Polly Shortts. I zoned out and concentrated on the pacing being called out by our driver, probably getting up Pollys more quickly and efficiently than if I’d been marching solo.

Through the final checkpoint and I knew I had the race in the bag. The bus slowed at the table and I decided to push on. There was less than 10km to go and much of it was downhill. No point in saving anything now.

It would have been so easy to stop running. I was comfortably within the cut-off and could walk the whole of the remaining distance if I wanted to. But I figured I’d travelled half-way round the world for this race and I might as well go home with the best time I was capable of. There’s always the accusation when you run a good negative split that you could have gone faster. That you were holding back. Tosh.

My legs were screaming. But my breathing was good and I was still running with rhythm. The remaining kilometres counted down with painful slowness and the racecourse never seemed to get any closer. Then a few twists and turns, a tunnel, cameras, and suddenly we’re running on grass.

I looked around for my support crew. Roberta, without whose support this wouldn’t have been possible, and who’d been up at 2AM making sure I was caked in Factor 50 and had put up with and supported my countless 5AM starts over the last 10 months as I’d headed off for my pre-work long runs. I heard my name and glanced around. Then I heard it again. Then I realised everyone was shouting everyone’s name! The place was packed. Given that this was an 88km race the finish was surprisingly busy and I crossed the line with burning legs and quiet satisfaction more than any sense of life-changing euphoria. Immediately there were steps, really steep ones, to get back over the racecourse to the international tent (bumping into Rob Wishart) and to find Roberta and nowhere to sit. It was 30 minutes to the final cutoff and we settled down to watch the final countdown on the big screens.

Comrades will always be ‘gun to mat’. So much of this iconic event leads to this final, cruel, 12 hour cut-off. There’s no compromise, no leeway, no concessions. As 12 hours approaches the runners continue streaming into the stadium and make their final dash for the line. Huge numbers of runners finish in the last hour, and a massive amount of those finish in the last 10 minutes.

At 1730 precisely, an official stands on the finishing line with his back to the race so he cannot be influenced by what he sees, and at 1730 precisely, he fires the gun, and the race is over. If you’re 1 second over, sorry, it simply didn’t happen. I adore this brutal honesty. For the next 10 minutes wave after wave of runners walked desolately into the stadium accompanied by sympathetic applause from the crowd while the Last Post is played over the PA.

Our hotel was practically on the racecourse, in a casino, so once I’d gone through the surreal experience of passing through an airport-type security metal detector to get to the room, I caught up with my email and news. Although I’d never made a huge secret of my plans to do Comrades I hadn’t shouted it from the rooftops either and so not a lot of people I knew I was running. This made it all the more touching when I read the lovely comments on Facebook and realised that many in my club had been tracking my progress. Kerry’s “look at those lovely splits” comment gave me particular delight!

Comrades is 20 miles further than I’ve ever run but I had a training plan and I had a race plan, and I followed them both. I kept my side of the deal and this gave me the confidence to know that on the day I would get to the line on time in the world’s largest and oldest ultramarathon.

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