It’s said that in South Africa, you’re not considered a ‘proper runner’ until you’ve run the 90km Comrades Marathon, which takes place in June each year between Durban and Pietermaritzburg. As if this wasn’t enough, it would also seem that completing this grueling race once will not suffice. Many runners are lured back the following year thanks to the temptation of accomplishing the ‘back to back’; running in the opposite direction and either up or downhill, depending on the year.
Last year, I took part in the ‘up’ run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, finishing in a fairly acceptable time of 8:56 and bagging myself a Bill Rowan medal for a sub-9-hour finish. I actually had a great race, and it wasn’t long before I started thinking about doing the ‘down’ run, from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. As soon as entries opened in September, I secured my spot, which turned out to be a good thing as places sold out quickly. I set my sights on another sub-9 finish, aware that it would be a tricky task due to the fact that the course was 4km longer this year (90.184km as opposed to 86.7km in 2017) and also because it was downhill, which would be painful on the legs.
In January 2018, my training really began to kick in. I attended regular strength sessions to help my legs cope better with the eccentric loading that the down run would bring, and I completed three official marathons (Dubai, Tokyo, and London) in the build-up, as well as two runs over 50km and countless 30km+ runs. I did, however, end up with a couple of injuries, most notably Plantar Fasciitis, which impacted my training and confidence going into the race. Thankfully, I was able to make it to the start line in Pietermaritzburg on the 10th June, ready to give it my all. I felt fitter than the year before, but also at more risk of injury.
Comrades 2018 race report: The start
Despite staying in Durban for most of our time in South Africa, my friend Sandra and I opted to stay in Pietermaritzburg the night before the race in order to avoid the stress of getting there in time for the 05:30 am start. We woke at 02:30 and both completed our pre-race routines. We were in good spirits but also pretty sick with nerves! Luckily enough, we managed to get a lift to the start line with some people who were also staying at our lodge. This kind gesture at the start of the day was only a small example of the Comrades spirit for which the event has become famous.
The start line
After navigating our way through the dark streets of Pietermaritzburg, Sandra and I said our goodbyes and headed to our starting pens. I was in pen C and was able to get in the middle of the pen. At Comrades, the race starts when the gun is fired, not when you cross the start line, so the time you spend waiting to start actually counts! It’s therefore important to get to your pen early. I had allowed for two and a half minutes to get over the line, which turned out to be about right. As the South African national anthem sounded, and then my favourite pre-race song, ‘Shosholoza’, the familiar goosebumps returned. The start of Comrades is a highly emotional experience and I’m sure it’s part of the reason why runners flock back year after year. I thought about what lay ahead and soaked up the incredible atmosphere as much as possible. After the seemingly endless Chariots of Fire, Max Trimborn’s cock crow sounded, followed by the starting gun. A slow shuffle saw me over the line and on the long, undulating and challenging road to Durban.
A crowded start
I had planned a conservative start, knowing that I run a million times better that way. All too often, runners head out too fast for the distance and hills ahead, and what feels like (and is!) an easy pace for the first half soon becomes unobtainable throughout the second. The roads out of Pietermaritzburg were narrow and therefore crowded, which meant that I couldn’t have sped up even if I wanted to. I remained cautious, as it was still dark and I didn’t want to trip on the notorious cats eyes.
Funnily enough, I saw two friends from Dubai amongst the throngs of people. We chatted briefly before they went on ahead.The roads became more narrow as we cautiously made our way through the first 5km. All around me, people were tripping, some ending up on the floor, and I was terrified that the same thing would happen to me. For this section, I told myself not to worry about pace. The main objective was to make it to wider roads in one piece!
Before too long, I was climbing Polly Shortts, the first of the ‘big five’ hills. Despite this being a ‘down’ run year, there was still over 1300m of climbing, with most of this being in the first half of the course – all the more reason to stay conservative. The morning was crisp and I still had my long sleeved shirt and throwaway gloves on, which I was particularly grateful for as we descended into the village of Ashburton. It was so cold that you could see the runners’ breath as dawn broke. As we rolled along at a steady pace, the sky became a gorgeous shade of pink and the day truly began. I could sense the wonder and apprehension of the runners around me and the sense of belonging to one movement forward was palpable.
Getting into a rhythm
Now that the sun was up and the road had widened, the crowd of people began to thin out slightly. Runners were in good spirits and I listened to those around me as they chatted, occasionally chipping in. I had settled into my run/walk rhythm (run 8km, walk 2 minutes) and had given my long t-shirt and gloves to people on the side of the road. I was sticking to my fuelling plan and on track for a finish time of around 9 hours. Of course, it was early days and anything could happen, but so far so good!
The only thing that was bothering me was that I had somehow tied my laces far too tight, and I had stopped a couple of times to loosen them…but hadn’t done so enough. I tried to ignore it as much as I could but I knew that I’d be in trouble on the steep downhills. At about 21km, I reached my support station. I had used a company that had three tents along the course from where you could get your nutrition, electrolytes etc, instead of having to carry it all on your person. They also had their own toilets! This had worked really well last year, but on this occasion, I was bitterly disappointed. As I approached the support tent, I yelled out my number so that they could get my bag of stuff, only to discover that they couldn’t find it. Whilst they were looking for it I decided to pop to the loo, only to discover that this was some 20 meters away in a field full of long grass that attached itself around my shoelaces. To make matters worse, once I got there I discovered that it was occupied! I must have waited about 2 minutes to get in, which was a complete waste of time.After I got back to the support station, they still didn’t have my bag ready, which again wasted time. All in all, I estimate that I spent 4-5 needless minutes waiting. I was frustrated, but ultimately I just had to forget about it as I knew that being angry and overthinking it all would have a negative impact on my running. So, I just let it go. I wish I could do that more often in other aspects of life! Onwards I ran, newly stocked up with gels and still feeling really comfortable. I reached the 30km mark (60km to go) in around three hours and remember thinking that I felt like I hadn’t been running at all. The pace felt so easy, which was a good sign – around me, I could already see those who had set off too fast beginning to struggle.
As I had driven the route a couple of days before, I had a fairly good idea of what lay ahead (although I did get completely lost in the later stages of the course drive!). It was time to tackle Inchanga, the second major hill. I knew that there would definitely need to be a couple of walk breaks on this climb, but on the plus side, I was also aware that once over the top of the hill it was a nice descent into the traditional halfway point. So, I took it bit by bit and timed my 2-minute walk break for the steepest section of the climb.
It was during this walk break that I heard a familiar voice behind me; my friend from Dubai who I had also seen at the start. We ran together for a while and chatted to other runners. Despite the constant climbing I was feeling really strong and in good spirits. In fact, this may well have been my favourite part of the entire race. We could see the route curling up and over the hill ahead, yet somehow I was able to make jokes and really enjoy myself.
At the top of Inchanga, I reached the second support station and ran with my bottle of electrolytes for a bit. On the downhill, I overtook my friend and let my legs do their thing as I made my way to the official halfway point in Drummond. This was like one big party with big crowds and TV screens. A guy with a microphone mentioned my name and I waved to the crowd, still feeling so strong and really enjoying the atmosphere. I had passed the marathon mark in about 4:15 and crossed halfway in 4:26. The actual half-way point, however, was a bit further along the course and uphill, since the course distance varies from year to year. Still, I was on track to make my sub 9 target and perhaps even break 8:50, I thought. But I also knew that I was about to tackle the toughest part of the course and that the hard work hadn’t yet begun.
After halfway, the Comrades course climbs out of Drummond and on to the Wall of Honour. It then rolls along for a bit before climbing again to Alveston. As if this wasn’t enough, Botha’s Hill then makes its presence known – the third of the five major climbs. It was at this point that I began getting confused as to when Botha’s Hill actually started. Time and time again, I asked myself “Is this it?” before realising that no, this is just another climb and not the actual hill.
Finally, I saw the sign for Botha’s Hill and began my ascent. It felt harder than last year, coming after almost 60km of running, and I was relieved to get to the top and see the Kearsney College boys who I remembered so well from 2017.
The way down the other side of the hill provided some relief, but as I passed the 60km mark, fatigue began to kick in fairly swiftly. In my mind, I was trying to think positive thoughts, but there was always that little voice that told me I still had 30km to go. The tough section that had just passed had caused me to slow down a little, and I was now on for a finish time of just over 9 hours. If I wanted to achieve my goal, I couldn’t afford to fall apart now. The worst thing was that I just was never happy with any particular part of the course. On an uphill section, I would long for a sweeping downhill, and on the downhills, I would wish for an uphill. I was simply never satisfied, which is something that I had not expected to happen. All I could do was try my best to keep going and draw strength from the fantastic supporters until this bad patch had passed.
Downhill = pain
I knew that this final third of the course consisted of a lot of downhill sections where I had hoped I could increase my pace a little. First came the ascent up Field’s Hill, which I didn’t even realise I had climbed until I got to the top! This was a relief as it showed that I was still fairly strong on the uphills, but now the real challenge began.
Fields Hill is famous on the down run due to its steep descent into Pinetown. Every year, there are tales of people walking the 3km down section because their legs simply cannot handle the downhill pounding. Quads cramp and legs that have already run close to 70km simply cannot handle the brutally steep descent. I found that I was no exception, as I was forced to run as slowly as possible down Field’s Hill, terrified that my legs would start cramping and that it would be game over. It was HORRENDOUS, more so because this was exactly the kind of scenario that I had wanted to avoid. I kept telling myself to be light on my feet and to glide down the hill, but it just wasn’t happening. Things were starting to hurt. My left shoulder area was really really tight, and, randomly, I had developed a twitch under my right eye. As well as being annoying, this worried me as I took it as a sign of fatigue. What would happen next? Slowly, I picked my way down the hill.
With relief, I eventually made it to Pinetown after what felt like the longest 3km of my life. This section was relatively flat and offered some respite. It also signified less than 20km to go, which felt like a lot but also meant that mentally I could work with the fact that there was less than a half marathon remaining.
The final stretch
Most of the next 15-5km remaining are hazy in my memory. I knew that I was still on for a finish of just over 9 hours, and, just like last year, I had to decide whether to push or be happy with whatever I could get. It was on Cowie’s Hill, the last of the ‘big five’ that I caught up with one of the 9-hour ‘buses’ and decided to push on. ‘Buses’ are groups of people who are all aiming for a similar time, driven by a ‘driver’ who sets the pace and encourages their bus members when things get tough. They are also somewhat controversial at Comrades. Although they are useful when helping people to achieve a certain time, they can also be a hindrance and dangerous, plus, you are relying on somebody else’s pacing decisions. For that reason, I don’t run with a bus. I did, however, have to get past this one, which proved to be quite a bit of an effort. As they tend to take up the entire width of the road, I had to squeeze past on a grass verge. With tired legs, the risk of tripping or rolling an ankle was quite high. Thankfully, I made it through and put quite a bit of distance between myself and them on the descent of Cowie’s Hill. What worried me though, was that by my calculations (those I could do with my weary brain), I was still looking at a finish time of over 9 hours. Why then, was the 9-hour bus so far behind? I didn’t have time to think for too long, however, as I was soon greeted with the second 9-hour bus, which was a lot larger than the first.
There then began about 15 minutes of pure frustration. I was running at an even pace, but the bus was running at speed for about 200 metres before walking for short sections. This meant that I would squeeze my way past them only for them to catch me again and all slow down to a walk when I was surrounded and still trying to run. I’d make my way ahead again whilst they walked, and then they’d catch me on the run and slow down again. I felt like I was in a useless fight, battling against waves that kept swallowing me up and spitting me out again. It was exhausting. To make matters worse, some of the people on the bus (all men, I hasten to add) were pretty rude, telling me to ‘take it easy’, ‘watch my step’ etc etc. I was not happy getting constantly pushed and shoved so I knew that I had no choice but to pick up the pace and get away from them. This took some time, as I couldn’t just sprint off into the distance, but eventually, on a long stretch of highway, I realised that I had built in enough of a gap in order to relax again. Truth be told, they probably did me a favour as they forced me to speed up! Interestingly enough, both of the 9-hour buses failed to finish in time.
With less than 10km to go, I knew that if I could just maintain a pace of around 6:00/km, I’d manage to squeeze in just under 9-hours. But the road was much more undulating than I remembered, and there were some short steep sections on the highway ramps. The race was by no means over, and I couldn’t afford to get comfortable. My legs were still threatening to cramp and I was so, so tired. All I wanted to do was to stop and have a rest, but that was not an option.
The end is in sight…in the distance
Everything began to blur as I made my way along the main road into Durban. Up and down, ‘just keep going’ I willed. People were walking, hobbling along, or laying strewn on the road. I was thankful for cooler weather than normal (there was a good covering of cloud, whereas last year it was pretty hot) and did my best to focus on myself rather than the pain and suffering of those around me.
It had previously been my plan to overtake as many women as possible, in order to improve my gender position, but I had long since abandoned this goal. As long as I kept moving and finished under 9-hours, I would be happy.
With about 5km to go, we crested one of the final inclines and I saw the iconic Moses Mabhida Stadium in the distance. Instead of being inspired, I felt it was a cruel twist. So near, yet so far! My mental strength was beginning to falter. “Just finish this and then you NEVER have to run again!” I told myself.
Although only the distance of a Parkrun, the last 5km seemed to take an eternity. The road took a left and flattened out considerably, and it was just a case of moving from km to km in the perfect balance of not pushing too hard and self-destructing, but pushing hard enough to sneak in under 9 hours. People were walking and I kept willing them to run. Not much further and that Bill Rowan medal will be ours! I was trying to think positively, but in truth, the road was boring me and I longed for it all to be over.
Finally, we were into the last km and the stadium was directly in front of us. I felt a surge of energy, and as we passed a bridge that said “No Looking Back” my emotions began to take over and I picked up the pace. Heading around the outside of the stadium, I knew that I was running short on time. I wasn’t sure how much of the perimeter we would have to run, either outside or inside the stadium, and I was concerned that if it was too far, I wouldn’t make it. My watch was reading 8:55, and by now the GPS was way out, saying I had run 91km. I just had to hope that there wasn’t much further to go. I knew it was less than 1km but by how much? 500m? 300m?
The sound of the crowd inside spurred me on, and, entering the stadium through a tunnel before finding myself amongst the roaring spectators is something that I’ll never forget in my entire life. I had less than four minutes to go, and there was a guy running really slowly directly in front of me. I was blocked in and had no choice but to force my way past him, apologising as I did so.
As I rounded the final corner, I finally realised that my sub-9 was safe, the clock reading 8:57. Just like last year, I had made it by the skin of my teeth! This time, there was no celebration as I crossed the line. In fact, I’m pretty sure I swore and said out loud that I was “NEVER, EVER doing that again.” The pictures show that I was just absolutely done, physically and mentally. Relief washed over me, and I watched the sub-9 cut off from the sidelines. One poor person missed out on the Bill Rowan medal by about a second, which was devastating.
I then slowly made my way to the international area, which involved going up the stadium steps. I couldn’t move my legs and was helped by a volunteer. Ahead of me was a gentleman who was also struggling, precariously making his way up the steps. I hoped and prayed that he wouldn’t fall backwards, as I was pretty sure he’d take me with him!
Once I had gathered my stuff and collected the coveted back to back medal, I found a step and sat down for about an hour, messaging those who had been supporting me for the past 9 hours and much, much longer before that. Through the months of training, I was eternally grateful for those who had believed in me, either in day to day life or from afar. Eventually, I managed to stand up (which was an incredibly difficult, painful task) and went to collect what I thought was alcohol-free beer. Imagine my delight when I discovered that it was actually 4%!
I enjoyed my drink as I waited for Sandra to come in. She did amazingly well, finishing in 10:24 and improving upon her time from the previous year. Once Sandra and I were reunited, we watched the heart-breaking finish before heading back to our hotel. How strange to think we had run all the way ‘home’ from Pietermaritzburg! Later that evening, we enjoyed some celebratory champagne – something which has become a bit of a tradition when we race together.
Thoughts on the back to back
Going into the down run, I had anticipated that it was going to be a completely different beast to last year’s up run, and I was right! The longer course and the pain caused by the 1800m of descent took its toll and I was lucky to achieve another Bill Rowan medal. The extra strength training I did really helped to see me through to my goal, and I’m certain that without it, I would have had to walk much more than I did, resulting in a slower time.My average pace was 5:57 per km, which I was really pleased about, but I was also secretly disappointed that I had not improved upon my time from the previous year.And, despite saying “Never again” during the race, I’m already getting more and more tempted for 2019’s up run…