On August 28th 2022 I ran the Comrades Marathon... again.
The Comrades Marathon is a 90km (the 'Up run' (see below) is actually slightly shorter) ultramarathon run in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa each year. It is the oldest, and arguably the most famous/best ultramarathon in the world. It attract 15,000+ runners from around the world each year, and is run in alternate directions each year.
This year was the 'Down Run' - 90km from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, South Africa.
The 'Down Run' is essentially an undulating marathon and a bit followed by a steep downhill marathon.
Realistically you need to have run the 'Up run' (which goes in the other direction from Durban to Pietermaritzburg) to be able to conceptualise how steep the second half actually is. Arguably naive ignorance is a better approach to the 'Down run' because knowing that the repetitive impact of steep downhill running destroys the quads combined with knowledge of how steep the down bit is... well, you need to be mentally tough.
Which is harder?
Every year at Comrades runners debate which is harder - the 'Up run', or the 'Down run'. Having now done both, my thoughts are as follows:
- The Up run requires you to be a better runner. It requires you to be cardiovascularly on-point.
- The 'Down run' requires more training, hurts more, and will take much longer to recover from.
If you've read my post about my 2019 run, or you've ever spoken to me then this should be obvious.
This year Comrades was my A race. I don't really like racing because I can't not 'race race'. If I am racing, I am racing. If I am running as part of a mass participation event, I will inevitably race. As such I don't enter races unless I am going to take them seriously. Too seriously.
Back in 2019 I ran the Comrades 'Up run'. I wanted to get the coveted Silver medal which requires runners to complete the race in under 7 hours 30 minutes (~ 8 minutes / mile for 54.5 miles - the 'Up run' (for various reasons) is slightly shorter). I failed. I ran it in 8 hours 30 minutes, and it absolutely broke my soul.
I was absolutely not disappointed with my 2019 time. 20 miles into that race I was thoroughly humbled. Admittedly my pre-race prep had been suboptimal and I wasn't in tip-top condition but that wasn't the problem. The problem is that the race is incredibly tough, and running a silver medal time is an absolutely insane achievement - on average ~3% of the field hit the silver medal time each year. You really do have to be running at a high level to get a silver. Simple as. In 2019 I knew that finishing the race at all would be an achievement. I was absolutely ecstatic with my time - I could not have done anything more on the day.
What I mean by 'it broke my soul' is quite literally that. For about 6 months after Comrades 2019 I just couldn't run. It wasn't fun any more. It genuinely felt like I'd left a bit of myself in South Africa.
So, with that bit of context. Yeh, my target was a silver medal. I was laser focussed on getting a silver medal at Comrades. I targeted that, and nothing else.
My training was fairly simple. Miles.
I've trained for all sorts of targets - sub 3 marathon, sub 1:20 half etc. I have previously used fairly targeted training plans that I have adapted over the years based on my own experiences. I like to think that I know how to train for races and in my mind the way to train for Comrades is... miles.
I live in Manchester which is pancake flat. Whilst we do have the Peak District close by... I am lazy, so to all extents and purposes my training opportunities are constrained to flat tarmac. My view is that running long long distances is more a mental game than a physical game - you need to be able to run a marathon, and then carry on. You need to be able to run a marathon... exhausted. How do you train for that? You run.
And that is what I did.
In the 6 month period up to race day my plan was to run 1,000 miles. Simple.
In the end I ran 173 times, covering 1,209 miles and 53,112 feet of elevation gain. I also swam 25 times covering 42 miles. I did all my swimming in open water (I hate pools) and I consider swimming to have been an absolutely vital part of my training - it is fun, different, uses different muscles, gets you off your feet, gives you a bit of variety, gives you a 6 pack etc.
Stats courtesy of TrainingPlan.com - shameless plug.
Due to Covid there are no longer direct flights to Durban from the UK :( As such we had to do a multi stage trip. I was organising, and opted to go via Cape Town specifically so that post race we could go back and have a holiday.
I didn't want to spend to many days in South Africa with my nervous energy pre race. We arrived in Cape Town on the Thursday night, and flew on to Durban on Friday. I collected my race number, and then did what you obviously do pre-ultra: parkrun !
North Beach parkrun in Durban is cool albeit a little boring. You run down the promenade - simple. I don't know what its like on a normal weekend but on Comrades weekend the promenade was super busy. There were loads of 'other' runners, there were huge pace buses out practicing for Comrades, and according to Alex there was another parkrun that starts at the other end of the promenade and kind of meets in the middle XD
For once, I did actually take it easy. I ran 24 minutes or something. Thats fairly indicative of how seriously I was taking my goal.
In 2019 I got caught up in the various happenings of the British Comrades contingent. I ended up eating buffet breakfasts in the days leading up to the race (it was included), and going to an all you can eat buffet with the Brits a few days before. I really paid for it on race day.
This year I took nutrition way too seriously. I stayed away from Brits and ate super cautiously.
The down run starts in Pietermaritzburg which is a much smaller place than Durban. It's also 90km away from Durban.. hence the whole concept of the race. On race day the organisers put on buses that will take you to the start from Durban but that requires getting up disgustingly early. It's a no from me.
Instead I opted to leave Alex in Durban and headed up to Durban the day before. I booked an AirBnb in Pietermaritzburg. AirBnbs can be fairly hit and miss, but I got lucky - the family I stayed with were absolutely incredible. They welcomed me into their home, were super friendly (distracted me from any pre race nerves), and sorted me out with proper pasta (I had bought some of those 'just add water' pasta sachets). They also had 2 other runners (family friends) staying with them who were equally friendly.
I went to bed relatively early. I read the Comrades race booklet to send me to sleep (it didn't work), and eventually fell asleep. I woke up at 3am prepared/ate some oats and then got a lift to the start with the others shortly after 4am.
Then there was the usual queue for the toilet. Queue again. I made my way to my Corral (A). The security was super tight - I didn't realise how much people apparently want to get in Corral A shrug. Then I left and went to the toilet again. I was in the Corral for the final time maybe 10 minutes before the start where I bumped into Jarryd (who I'd met back in 2019, and who was also targeting Silver). We had a chat and counted down the time.
The start of Comrades is famously impressive. I don't think I'm a particularly emotional person, but the Comrades start line is an emotional one - the scale and sound hits hard. More-so when you're standing there knowing what lies ahead, knowing how hard you've worked, and knowing how hard its going to be. I was basically in tears. Emotional tears soon to be replaced with tears of pain.
The gun went off. In 2019 I had gone out too hard. I do learn. I planned to go out at 8 minute miles, and run 8 minute miles again... and again... and again.
I'd trained with Maurten gels. I had 7. I was also carrying water (with hydration tablets in) - two hand held water bottles (£2.50 from SportsDirect) which turned out to be perfect. In 2019 I had worn a race vest - it was cumbersome, uncomfortable and unnecessary. The plan was pre-emptive hydration - a sip on the mile every mile, and a gel every arbitrary 7.5 ish miles until I no longer wanted gels.
I had 3 gels at approximately 7.5, 15, and 24 miles. After 3 I didn't want gels no more. I sipped on the mile every mile for a similar amount of time at which point I didn't want my hydration tablets any more. From this point onwards it was the - as expected - nutritional free for all.
- 'Coke?' - Yes please.
- 'Salty potatoes?' - Yes
- 'Weird red drink?' - Yup
- 'Oranges?' - Si
You get the idea.
There was a lot of water on the course. The water was in plastic tubes which you bit/ripped open. Weirdly I found that whilst I didn't want my hydration tablets there came a point around half way where the ice cold water sachets seemed like exactly what I wanted. I ripped them open with my teeth and downed them immediately. Sometimes I tried to grab two. A few time I used them refill the one water bottle I'd held onto (more as an activity to distract me from the pain). I think it was the coldness that my body craved because I didn't want to drink the water I'd dispensed into my bottle shrug. Furthermore in the second half I was bloated and could hear liquid wooshing around inside me. I was craving ice cold water but I don't think drinking it helped my race past a point.
In terms of the actual running.. the steep incline up to the 'highest point' didn't register on my radar. I was totally fine up to this point. When I reached it there was a big traffic sign (from the contractors doing all the local roadworks) congratulating runners. I was stoked to have done the first hard bit and not noticed.
I remember seeing a sign for the infamous Inchanga (7km away) and then many many km later assuming that I must have done it.
At some point I remember ending up behind some sort of unofficial pace bus that was covering the whole road. Their 'bus driver' was physically slowing his passengers down as they went up steep hills. I figured that given my pace they must all be going for Silver and that I should stick with them (because they probably know what they are doing). After a mile I changed my mind - it felt like they were going too slow for Silver and it felt harder on my body slowing myself down. I had also seen a group of runners who I knew were going for Silver (who I'd passed earlier) go past. Once I had decided to leave it was surprisingly hard to actually get past them XD.
When we got to Arthur's Seat there were surprisingly few people paying their respects. It was somewhat underwhelming. I came to the conclusion that at the speedy end of the race people were focussed on one thing and one thing only - getting to the end... quickly. Given that for me (and I assume many others) getting Silver = every minute counts, stopping was not an option.
The Comrades Wall of Honor was equally impressive but again... gotta run.
One Marathon Complete
The 42km mark is where the mental games begin. You've just run a hard marathon. You are not halfway. You do not have less than a marathon to go. The hard bit is not over. Rather, it has not even begun.
From here my approach was 'get to a marathon to go'. Then it was arbitrary goals - 'get to 30km to go', 'get to 20km to go' etc.
There were physios on the course. In practice what that meant was 'people who will rub deep heat on your legs'. This job is not to be understated. I would imagine that deep heat is what got a significant majority of runners to the finish line. I can 1000% say that I would not have finished without deep heat. The problem was that there wern't enough physios on the course, and that for the most part they either had sprays (which they just sprayed on) or creams (which they simply rubbed in).
At some point (with around a 30km to go) I had not seen a 'physio' in a while. The downhills were beginning and I was broken. Every step was excruciatingly painful. My quads were on fire and the downhill onslaught kept on coming. There was a weird mental battle going on between two voices in my head: "Stop, this is breath-taking-away levels of painful. You are not strong enough" and "Never stop. Slow down, fine. Never stop".
Now I am knowingly egotistical. I run for myself. My goals are for me and me alone. Over the years I have developed a weird personal mantra: "Never fail twice". I considered not getting Silver in 2019 a failure. I wasn't going to fail twice.
I saw a random tub of 'something' on a table at the side of the road. I ran up to the lady in question and shouted "Is that muscle rub?!". She looked confused but quickly realised that I was falling apart and needed help. Cue her (a complete stranger) rubbing muscle rub into my quads. Followed by someone (who I assume is a professional physio) running over. A conversation ensued whereby the conclusion was drawn that this man knew sports physiology and knew what he was doing. He gave me the most important two minute quad massage that I suspect I will ever have in my life. It involved deep tissue massage and karate chops. It turned my quads back on. Like.. night and day level differences. I was still in serious pain, but my quads were actually prepared to just collapse prior to this magical massage.
That lady, and that man saved my race. They are the only reason I didn't fail twice. I would love to find them and thank them. It's the Comrades spirit - strangers will go above and beyond to help people they don't know to a level that I have never seen or experienced anywhere else on the planet. Whilst the physical side of the race is humbling the power of human spirit on that race course is humbling in and of itself. It makes me want to be a better person.
Unfortunately the rest of the race was not particularly interesting or memorable. The only way to describe it would be 'a slog'. It was a case of setting completely arbitrary goals and keeping on keeping on. I took advantage of a number of classics including '5 parkruns to go'.
The watch went out the window. In the first half I was 8 minutes up on the time i needed to do. I was aware of this, and was aware that I could slow down.. a bit. There was one hill where something just went in my head. I was all like "gah, fuck this shit". I walked. I also walked up Cowies Hill (although this was always 'the plan'). Cowies is one of the named hills on the Comrades course. On the down run after running down hill for... 'fucking ages', they just put a random big uphill in. I had no time for that shit. I walked. These two hills were 10+ minute miles so I knew that I'd used up a significant amount of the buffer I'd gained in the first half.
I was vaguely paying attention to mile splits and I knew that rather than obviously being below 8 minute miles they were now obviously above 8 minute miles.
Somewhere around 20 miles to go I had given up on Silver. I had fallen back to the position I'd taken in 2019. I was still on the pace but I still had a significant distance to go. I was of the view that I was sufficiently broken that I simply could not keep up the pace for 20 more miles. In 2019 I can remember the feeling of giving it everything your body has to give and then looking at your watch and seeing that you are doing 9 minute miles. I figured my race trajectory from here was similar that I would continue pushing as much as I physically could but continue slowing down :/
I know/knew that Comrades/Ultras more generally are a mental game. When your mind goes, you are done. I though to myself I'd rather 'properly fail' than miss my goal by 10 seconds. Killing myself to run 7 hours 31 minutes wasn't worth it when I could take my foot of the gas and do 7 hours 59 minutes. And it really was that close. The numbers, the plan, the approach.. every second counted and I'd known this from the start.
Somewhere along the final 20 miles a South African runner ran past me. He looked positively spritely. He said to me "Are you going for Silver?". I replied something along the lines of "I was, but I don't think it's happening today". I don't know if I've made this up but I think he said "You can do it" as he disappeared into the distance.
Human power of will is an incredible thing. After Cowies hill, the race is absolutely not flat. I would say it is a gentle uphill all the way to the Moses Mabhida stadium where the race finishes. When you are this level of broken and running on an incredibly tight schedule this is not what you want.
In the final 5km I was just trying to keep going. Every slight uphill I wanted to just walk. I knew that the timings were still incredibly close but for whatever reason it seemed sensible to choose failure and walk. But every time I walked I managed to motivate myself to stop walking shortly after.
I remember that when I ran the Manchester marathon I had had a terrible race and wasn't going to hit my original target. In the final mile there was no incentive not to walk so I chose to walk such that I could run the crowd lined final half mile. That decision resulted in my finishing in 2:53:06. Whilst i hadn't hit my original goal, if I hadn't walked I would have got a qualifying time for the New York Marathon. That annoyed me. Similarly I've run 5k's where I've mentally given up to then miss the goal by something stupid like 2 seconds. I was very cognisant of this fact in the final 5k of Comrades - I realised that I'd rather fail having given it my all. I'd rather fail knowing I'd tried my best. I'd rather not spend the rest of my holiday wondering if I would have hit my goals had I just kept going.
Other people obviously were having the same mental battles. No words were spoken, but it was in the eyes. People were running with such intense focus that you knew they must be targeting something. You knew that they were refusing to give up. You didn't need to look at your watch to know that the Silver medal was still possible as the stadium came into sight. People were gritting their teeth and finding strength from places unknown to keep pushing until the end.
Races always have that awful bit where you can see the end but its not getting any closer. I could see the stadium but was very much aware that it was further away than it looked, and that you don't run straight into the stadium. I knew that you had to run (partially) around the stadium to get in. Then you had to run 200m around the track to the finish line. I did not know how far you had to run around the stadium, but the way the world works I knew it would probably be most of the way around.
It happened. The final confirmation. Someone on the side of the road exclaimed: "You have 1km to go. You have 6 minutes to do it".
I did not believe him. Noting the 'around the stadium' dilemma mentioned above I figured it was at least 1.5km and this man was just trying to motivate people to keep going. I took this confirmation to mean "You've missed it unless you MOVE".
Given where I was at physically and mentally I found another level. On the stats the pace was nothing impressive. 55 miles in, the pace was mind blowing. As had been echoed across the whole second half of the race "When your body is broken, you run with you heart". I ran with my heart. I crossed the finish line in 7 hours 26 minutes 20 seconds.
As I ran round the track to the finish line I was absolutely laser focussed. I had no clue what the time on the clock was. Even when it was literally on a clock in front of my face.
Alex had found a prime supporting spot on the final straight and was screaming her lungs out (best supporter ever - thank you so much ❤️). I was oblivious. In my mind I raised my arms in celebration as I crossed the finish line. The video would suggest otherwise.
I gave the race my everything. My silver medal is my proudest achievement. Not because I achieved it, but rather because I didn't give up.
Reflecting post race something super interesting became apparent to me. Whilst I had spent the majority of the second half of the race thinking that I had 'fucked it', the official race splits say otherwise:
It would in fact seem that regardless of how I felt, the rest of the field felt worse. The actual race splits show that over the course of the race I moved through the field increasing my position at every check point.
The raw pace numbers show that yes I did positive splits through the race, but it wasn't a horrendous positive split and that whatever I felt I actually paced it fairly consistently.
There were genuinely points where I had all but given up. I think the takeaway is... don't.
The Comrade Marathon Association (CMA) are evil. The way the route enters the stadium means that the only way to leave is up steps, and over a main road. This is after you've (literally) been carried up the stairs of the stadium by your support team.
There was post race international hospitality at the stadium whereby I got a pretty thorough massage from a super cool physio. That was great.
Everything else about the international hospitality was.. (respectfully) pretty rubbish. You got a few free drinks, and some genuinely unpalatably bad food. But who cares, nothing was going to take the shine off my success :)
Eventually we managed to get a taxi back to the hotel (difficult without data or wifi to book an Uber). Our hotel (Southern Sun) had put on free ten minute foot massages for runners. I do not envy the masseuses that had to touch our feet. It was super nice, and super appreciated.
Due to some issues with the hotel room pre race (leaky bathroom - story for another day), whilst I had been in Pietermaritzburg, Alex had been upgraded to a mega mega suite and had gotten permission for us to have a late checkout. This was a mega blessing - I was able to have a shower, and a rest before we headed down the coast to The Oyster Box, Uhmlanga.
The work was done. 5 star holiday time.