Written by Emily Schmidt - https://www.facebook.com/MyComradesMarathonExperience?ref=bookmarks
Last year I ran my first ultramarathon; the Comrades Marathon in South Africa. The 2013 54mile/87km ‘up’ run between Durban and Pietermaritzburg was abnormally hot and windy, but I was extremely pleased to complete it in 10hrs 56mins for a bronze medal. Although it was a very tough run, within 24hrs I had decided that I would like to return in 2014 for the 56mile/89km ‘down’ run. Apparently you aren’t a true Comrades marathoner until you have completed both the ‘up’ and the ‘down’ run, and as an added incentive novice runners who complete an 'up’ or ‘down’ run in succession are awarded a special back-to-back medal. ‘Up’ and ‘down’ are deceptive terms for the route between coastal Durban and inland Pietermaritzburg at an altitude of 1955ft/596m because you run through the Valley of a Thousand Hills, and even in the ‘down’ run there is over 4000ft/1300m of ascent.
I entered Comrades 2013 whilst training for my second marathon. After hearing about Comrades on the Marathon Talk and Talk Ultra podcasts, it grabbed my attention in an unexplainable way and I was determined to run it one day. I didn’t think it would be so soon, but when entries opened towards the end of 2012 I thought ‘why not?’ The event has such a great history to it and really does live up to its marketing as ‘The Ultimate Human Race’. I wish everyone could get to experience it someday. I would recommend Comrades as a first ultra because the size of the field is similar to that of a city marathon, so you are never running alone. Also, being on closed roads there is no navigation required, and with aid stations every 2km you don’t need to worry about carrying your own hydration and nutrition. Plus the support along the route is incredible!
Throughout my training in 2013 and 2014, I found the Comrades thread on the UK Runner’s World forum a great source of information and motivation. There’s such a variety of runners on there (speedy and not so speedy), from novices to back-to-back medallists and those with green numbers (10+ finishes). Just before heading out to South Africa big lists are made so you know which flights people are on, where people are staying, who is going to parkrun and what post-run social celebrations are happening. This year I met my first fellow comrade on the bus to Heathrow.
‘International athletes’ (as we are called) are treated so well in South Africa and by the Comrades Marathon Association. There is a special area at the expo to collect your number and chat with other runners over tea and biscuits, whilst South Africans have to queue for a couple of hours. There are bus tours of the route on which you get to see just how bad the hills are (even the bus struggles), and also visit the Comrades Marathon House (museum), be entertained by the pupils at Ethembeni School for the physically disabled and visually impaired, stop at landmarks along the route such as Arthur’s Seat and the Wall of Honour, and see inside the finish stadium. At the finish there is also an international tent to relax in after your run; only international spectators and runners are allowed in here, where your tog bag is ready to collect and there is food and drink (including beer). The area is also along one side of the finish, so you can cheer runners around the stadium and watch the dramatic cut-offs on the big screens. The various cut-offs during the Comrades Marathon are very strict (x5 along the route), and the final 12hr cut-off at the finish is a very sad and emotional experience; everyone shouts and cheers to encourage as many runners as possible to finish, but when the gun goes there are still runners streaming past and on the roads outside the stadium.
With this year being a ‘down’ run it meant getting to the start (5:30AM) in Pietermaritzburg from Durban (I stayed on the beach front in Durban like most other international runners). So after only a couple of hours napping (I couldn’t really call it sleep), I was on one of the coaches you can book to the start with hundreds of other runners at 3AM. We arrived in plenty of time, and thanks to the knowledge of a 14 times finisher found some portaloos with no queues at all (and being cleaned every time someone left one), so I was comfortably in my start pen by 5AM. To enter Comrades you have to qualify by completing a marathon under 5hrs. Like many other events your qualifying time determines your start pen which can be important for slower runners as it is timed gun to chip, and with the narrower streets in Pietermaritzburg apparently you can take up to about 10 minutes to cross the start line. The start is very emotional with all the nervous tension after months of training, all the South Africans join in with their national anthem and then they sing Shosholoza (2nd/unofficial anthem), this is followed by Chariots of Fire, Max Trimborn's traditional cock-crow and the start gun.
I passed over the start line after about 3 minutes, and the aim for the next hour was to try not to trip over whilst running through the dark streets of Pietermaritzburg. Even though it is early, there is lots of support already. Luckily there were more bushes in town than I remembered from the bus tour as I had to stop for a wee after only 15 minutes (maybe worryingly I didn’t need to go again until I got back to my hotel, oops). After 8km you reach the top of the first major hill out of the ‘big five’; Polly Shortts is the infamous sting in the tail on the ‘up’ run and nearly everyone walks up it, so it was lovely to run down as the sun started to rise. However, I was slightly worried that I could feel the effects of downhill running in my legs rather more than I should at this early stage knowing that the ‘down’ run is renowned for crippling your quads (descend 500m in the last 15 miles). The first half of the ‘down’ run is through the countryside, so it is relatively quiet. Although lots of people from the poorer, rural communities come along to clap and cheer whilst also waiting for discarded jackets, t-shirts, hats and gloves the runners no longer need once it starts to get warmer. I was glad of the advice to keep my jacket on after the first climb because you then descend again into much cooler valleys (you could see your breath and your sunglasses steamed up). After discarding my jacket, the support from fellow runners really started in earnest as I had union jacks on my vest so everyone wants to chat to you and welcome you to South Africa. International athletes also have a blue number which catches peoples’ attention, however this year because I was going for my back-to-back medal I had an orange number which means you get a lot of premature (anything can happen!) congratulations.
Next you pass through an area of chicken farming which is very noticeable by the smell, and the towns of Camperdown and Cato Ridge are pockets of such noise and support after the relative quiet of the countryside. Harrison Flats is actually not so flat, and seems up hill on both the ‘up’ and ‘down’ runs if that is possible. Just before reaching the second big climb (Inchanga) the pupils from the Ethembeni School for the physically disabled and visually impaired line the route giving ‘high-fives’ to all the runners, which is incredibly up-lifting. On the ‘up’ run Inchanga is after half-way and anyone finishing in 11-12hrs can afford to walk up this hill, however, being just before half-way on the ‘down’ run, route advice I found was that you really have to run-walk it. At this point, approaching the marathon distance, I really started to feel fatigued for the first time. But upon reaching the top there is then a nice 3km descent to half-way. On the descent I was surprised to come across a club-mate from my London running club; he is a much better marathon runner than me (and experienced ultra-runner) but, as a Comrades novice, underestimated the hills and couldn’t keep to the sub-9hrs (Bill Rowan medal) pacing he was aiming for.
Half-way is a major point of reference in any event, but I was very aware of the advice I had read and heard that the real half-way point is not until the top of the third big hill (Bothas) after 52km. Just after half-way you reach Arthur’s Seat, this is where Arthur Newton (early, 5 times winner) used to rest during long training runs to look over the Valley of a Thousand Hills. Legend has it that if a runner greets Arthur and places a flower on his seat, they will have a good 2nd half. It worked for me last year, but this year there were no flowers being handed our beforehand, so I found a (prickly) bit of greenery and said good morning to Arthur. I don’t normally suffer from chaffing, but this time under my arms was really bothering me so I started keeping an eye out for some Vaseline (at one point when I got closer to a spectator, I realised she was actually holding dip and found this very disheartening). Everyone is really helpful along the route, and it wasn’t actually long before I had generously covered myself in Vaseline which then meant I didn’t feel the chaffing for the rest of the run (until I got in the shower afterwards, ouch!). I now knew that I could walk all the up hills and should still finish before the cut-off (12hrs) for a Vic Clapham medal, and if I minimised my walking on the flat/downs I should be able to finish under 11hrs again for another bronze medal.
With about 20 miles to go I was feeling rather rough and the nausea didn’t subside until a couple of hours after finishing. I got my hydration and nutrition very wrong and couldn’t face eating anything from just after half-way, so I survived on coke and energy drink which was simultaneously thirst-quenching and stomach churning. The cloud cover we had been blessed with for a lot of the run had now disappeared and it was starting to feel rather hot (I later read that it reached 30°C in Durban). I remember being rather rude to one runner who was asking me where I was from during a bad patch, I grunted that I couldn’t really talk at the moment and he very politely explained he was just trying to take my mind off the running. I did manage to apologise though and we continued to run along together for a while in silence, which was nice and really helped me more than he probably realised. The crowd support builds and builds as you get closer to Durban. Running through Hillcrest I heard on a radio that the Russian Nurgalieva twins (dominated the ladies field for the last 11 years) had come 2nd and 3rd, but they didn’t say who had won. Brit Ellie Greenwood (who lives in Canada) was a real contender for the win (4th in 2011, 2nd in 2012), so I was keen to find out the result. Asking spectators I got told to ‘worry about my own run’, but it really lifted my spirits when I found out Ellie had won (another Brit, Jo Meek, came 5th).
With just over a half-marathon to go, you reach the 4th big down, Fields Hill. This is 3.5km long and so advice I had read suggested taking walk breaks even though it’s downhill. I chose to run the shorter but steeper racing line, although I kept thinking about what I had read on how you had to be careful not to completely trash your quads at this point (still 21 undulating km to go at the bottom). At this point I was again surprised to come across another runner who I knew was aiming for sub-9hrs. I was unsure what to say to him (and if I should say anything at all), but he seemed in good spirits and had re-adjusted his goal for a ‘comfortable’ sub-11hrs finish (this was his 15th run). For the rest of the run I leap-frogged back and forth with him and the other runner I mentioned from my London running club. Then with about 14km to go, I got a stone in my shoe. Disaster, I was in no shape to bend down and remove it. So I tried approaching some spectators and before I could speak, they asked me if I was OK and if there was anything they could do to help. With military precision I was told to lean on one of them whilst the other quickly removed my shoe (and the stone) and very efficiently put my shoe back on again. Comrades is fantastic in so many ways.
Unfortunately, after climbing the last of the big 5 hills (Cowies) and with 7km to go I got terrible cramp down the inside of my left leg. The sort of cramp that suddenly stops you mid-run, causing you to do a funny hop to continue moving forward and makes everyone around you take an audible ‘ooooo, ouch’ intake of breath. Again everyone wanted to help, but I remembered a friend telling me never to stop if you cramp and I managed to walk it off. Running then felt much smoother again, but I found if I pushed the pace too much (it was largely downhill now) I cramped again so had to try and consciously run relaxed to keep it away. Until a couple of months ago I had never experienced cramp in my life, then after the London Marathon I was stopped in my tracks going to meet my family by this same cramp down my left leg. The rest of the run was rather miserable because other than the cramp I felt OK to run it into the finish, but I kept being forced to walk. On the upside a South African started to chat to me as he couldn’t run much either as his hip flexor had pretty much decided to stop working, and we took solace in that we weren’t as bad as those vomiting on the side of the road.
I think the cramps only cost me about 5-10 minutes, but as we got closer to the finish sub-10:30 was looking more out of the question. But being comfortably under the bronze medal cut-off (11hrs), I walked a lot in the final couple of km as I really didn’t want to cramp in the last few hundred meters around the stadium. The (cricket) stadium finish is amazing; it’s extremely loud with everyone banging on the advertising boards. I could hear the commentator counting down a sub-10:30 finish, my South African friend managed a burst of energy to finish strong but I decided a few seconds meant nothing and enjoyed myself (although my photos suggest otherwise, but I was happy on the inside, honest).
I was now a back-to-back, double bronze Comrades finisher. Collecting medals and having photos taken is all a bit of a blur. I bumped into the runner from my London running club who finished 5 minutes before me, and made my way to the international tent where I was thankfully let in with the union jacks on my vest (a few of us had been worried because we had orange back-to-back numbers rather than blue international numbers). I found lots of other UK runners in there who had successfully earned silver medals (sub-7:30), Bill Rowan medals (sub-9hrs) and even their age category (female V60). At this point I started to go very light-headed with ringing ears, so I drank more energy drink and lay down with my feet up on a chair for a while. More UK runners joined us who had also achieved bronze medals (sub-11hrs) and finished before the final cut-off (12hrs) for a Vic Clapham medal. Watching the final cut-off is bizarre as it is so disheartening seeing the runners so near, yet so far whilst you have your medal hanging around your neck. That evening and the next day were then spent walking rather funnily, sharing our Comrades stories and drinking a fair few beers.