According to Nelson Mandela, “it always seems impossible until it’s done”. I have found that to be true of running a marathon and of running a vaguely fast marathon among other life goals like becoming an endurance coach or even a parent, so it is perhaps fitting that I headed to South Africa to perform my next seemingly impossible task, the Comrades Marathon.
The race itself is historic, and many others, including Adharanand Finn in his recent book “The Rise of the Ultra-Runner” provide a far superior articulation as to the hallowed nature of this incredible race so I won’t go there. Instead, as an endurance coach, this blog describes my personal experience, and the factors that contributed to what I think I may well reflect on in retirement as my best ever running performance.
I have run 15 or so road marathons. I’ve had good experiences (like in Amsterdam last year), and bad experiences (like in Manchester in April). I know that it doesn’t always go well, and with this race being just shy of 90km long, just shy of 9000 miles away from home, involving over 6000 feet of total elevation gain in an unfamiliar and potentially hot climate, this was new territory for me, and as such there was more than a fair chance that it wouldn’t go well. With my family at home, spooked by my recent Manchester experience (The Thermometer marathon as it has become known) and feeling helpless, the pressure to manage this race well was on.
But before we go into that, why? why do this at all?
Why not. I’m not the world’s most adventurous person. I like routines, comfort zones and familiarity but I am ambitious, I relish new challenges and I find new experiences refreshing – a change is as good as a rest and all that. In many ways, running has become my security blanket to cope with complex and stressful living and so from under that blanket I often enter events that carry the opportunity to enjoy a new experience and present a new challenge. I try to choose experiences that I benefit from personally but also ones that will help me become a better coach. I stop short of saying that I chose events specifically so that I can help people who one day chose to do them, but it is part of the thinking. And not being adventurous, I can do all that in the context of the security blanket that running provides for me.
Comrades or any other event for that matter (apart from the London Marathon) has never been on a bucket list for me, but my clubmates, Neil and Simeon, inspired me with their runs in 2014 and when Neil mooted a return in 2019, I felt it might be time. Despite being an often proudly independent individual, I figured that this experience would be better, like so many others in running, if it was shared, and of course, not being very adventurous, it wasn’t the sort of thing I’d be likely to do on my own.
So having settled on ‘gaining a new experience’ as my why, I turned to the how. Unlike marathon preparation that has become all about pushing my potential to it’s probable limit, preparation for Comrades was about putting myself in the best possible position to have the best possible experience.
With that in mind, how did I prepare, given that it was all brand new territory for me.
There a number of elements to this.
Long term thinking
To be honest, ultra running had been in the back of mind for a while, I’ve long thought and sometimes said that I envisaged going long as soon as I stopped getting faster over shorter distances which I figured would happen towards my late forties – i.e about now. I think we first discussed a potential future Comrades trip over two years ago, shortly after I had a bad experience at the bakingly hot and undulating 2017 Boston Marathon (2.48). Boston was a chastening experience – a bit like Comrades, none of the hills are particularly difficult in isolation, but the constant rolling up and down eventually takes it’s toll, especially as you’re going as hard as you (I) do in a road marathon – and I struggled. That heady cocktail, combined with a strategy to take in new experiences led me into running Man vs Horse (2nd V40), the IOW fell running champs (1st v40) and the Beachy Head marathon (2nd overall) in 2017. Good, and most importantly enjoyable runs at all three gave me some optimism that I’d be okay at longer, slower, hillier running. Mixed in with a few road marathons, cross-country and other road and track races, those hilly trail races, where finishing time is of secondary importance to finishing position and enjoyment helped me build strength and confidence and, significantly, I also learned how to pace myself through races that run up and down hills.
Feeling stronger than ever, I pushed on in 2018, running a 2.31 marathon in Amsterdam and plans for 2019 were being formed quickly after, which involved a spring marathon and then Comrades.
Even though I had loosely planned Comrades some way in advance, it was never my sole focus, and to honest, if someone had told me I couldn’t go to South Africa even the week before, I’d have been annoyed but not devastated. It was never an end destination, it was “just” another part of my running and life journey. In terms of the pursuit of my own milestones, a fast road marathon time is currently more important to me than ultra running. That might change I guess (who knows?) which is part of the point – without taking on new and different challenges and having new and different experiences (within the context of some security) how do we know our potential, how do we know what we’re best at? I’m keen to find out.
Comrades experts like Lindsay Parry and Bruce Fordyce tell us to train specifically for 6-9 months but that seems largely aimed at the South African ‘fun’ running community for whom Comrades is the equivalent of the London Marathon. As I’ve become stronger over time and am able to sustain higher volumes of weekly mileage anyway (80-100 per week) I didn’t think too much more was necessary so I focussed on a spring marathon with Comrades in the back of my mind until April, albeit I ran the odd long run or hill session with Comrades in mind.
Comrades specifics began as soon as I recovered from Manchester and through a 7 week period, from Manchester (April 7th) to my last (really) long run for Comrades (May 18th), I completed 5 runs of marathon distance or more plus one weekend of 2 x 20 miles back to back, averaging near to 100 miles a week for the last 4 weeks.
I think its important to train for specifics for any event. For Comrardes, this involved getting used to being fuelled by Coca-Cola and potatoes (no gels and rarely water) on runs, doing LOTS of hills and on any vaguely warm day in our inclement spring/early summer which was colder than a South African winter, doing sessions while wearing too many clothes! A particularly memorable session involved continuous loops of the Green Bridge in Mile End Park at threshold pace in full winter gear when I had an hour to kill after dropping my boys off at school one morning, much to the amusement of another baffled parent who was using one the adjacent benches as his mobile office for the hour. Throughout that period, I was knackered, I ate a lot, I was sometimes a sub-optimal parent and partner but I (we) survived. Was I ready? Who knows, but I was as ready as I was going to be.
Now, what else could I do to maximise my experience?
Research – knowing what I might be up against
Comrades is famous, it is the oldest ultra Marathon and calls itself the ultimate human race. It comes with a mystique and there is a lot of information and, frankly, a lot of scare mongering about the challenge the “up run” from Durban to Pietermaritzburg presents.
In the end, I chose to not overdo the research, experiences are about learning for yourself as much as being told what to do by experienced experts. However, I studied the course profile a bit, and I watched the whole of the 2017 “up run” on Youtube (over several sittings, I might add) and I valued the experiences of Comrades Neil and Simeon.
I came up with a plan.
There were a few things to consider.
Timing – adjusting my body clock
South Africa is only one hour ahead of the UK, but the race would start at 5.30am, (4.30am UK time) requiring a 3am (2am) alarm. For the few weeks prior to the race I made an effort to get up early, have breakfast early and take care of my, er bowels, early so that it wouldn’t be SUCH a shock to the system on race day.
Fuelling – burning fat
The run would be slow and long. On long, slow runs, we metabolise fat to create energy to power our muscles. We can (and do) also store a lot of fat, which is why humans are able to endure seriously long bouts of low intensity exercise – we can walk for days on end. During a 90km race, I would be working at a low intensity, and so would rely on fat as an energy source. Knowing that aid stations were frequent, and well stocked, I decided that I wouldn’t need to take fuel with me. In marathon running, when we are working at a higher intensity, we utilise carbs, or more accurately, glycogen as an energy source which metabolises more efficiently (quickly) than fat and enables fast running. The downside of this energy source is that it’s supplies are limited and that is why we take gels – to top us up. The problem with gels is that they are basically sugar, and while they give you energy or sugar highs, they also lead to crashes so once you start taking them you need to take them frequently – perhaps every half an hour or so. In a race likely to last 7 hours or more, that would mean carrying a lot of gels, and too many can cause intestinal issues as well as being a pain to carry. So it seemed sensible to me to not use them, and I trained without them.
I did however plan to carry a couple as an emergency for late in the race but given the length of this race and the likely calorie requirement (I would burn maybe 5000 calories) what would I drink and eat on the way? The organisers provided energy drinks, water, coke, bananas, biscuits, even potatoes at frequent aid stations. The race is in South African winter but it can still be hot, perhaps 25 degrees, and as I like a good sweat I knew I’d need to proactively replace fluids from the beginning so I planned to replicate my normal marathon strategy of maxing out on the energy drinks from as early as I could in the race to top up carbs in case I was using them but mostly to rehydrate. I also planned to drink coke from halfway (with the caffeine and the sugar providing an energy boost). Finally, when we sweat, we lose water and we lose salts which are an essential part of how cells that create energy work so I also carried chewable salt tabs with a broad plan to have one every half an hour or so.
Pacing – running a marathon on tired legs
Now, the all important part of any race plan – what shape was I in, and how fast would I therefore run. This is tricky for a distance you have never come close to running before over equally unprecedented elevation levels so while I had a loose target I was never wedded to it, there were simply too many unknowns. In terms of objectives for the race, safe completion was top priority, then all being well a silver medal (requiring a 7h 30 min finish) was my aim with breaking 7 hours also feeling realistic while some people even suggested 6.30 might be possible based on my recent marathon times. Those thoughts all rattled around in my head, but I put it all to the back of mind, there were simply too many unknown variables to be able to plan specifically. Of course I knew roughly what average pace I would need to hit to get to 7 hours and 7 h 30, but that also is fairly meaningless and difficult to manage given the elevation profile.
It seemed sensible to me to be guided by how I felt rather than by numbers.
So I applied the approach that Steve Way took to his first Comrades in 2017 (I promise, Steve, that this is the only time I mention you this time) of running to a measure that would be an accurate reflection of how I felt rather than how fast I wanted to run – I planned to run to heart rate. I think that running using heart rate or new fangled power measures can be limiting – it can scare us if we see our heart rate climbing to a level beyond our expectation and give us cause to slow down which means we might not push the boundaries of what is possible, particularly in training but on this occasion, the dangers of pushing boundaries were too acute, especially after my Manchester experience. My objective was to maximise the experience after all, so I trained using heart rate. I experimented running at different paces over different terrains to see what felt comfortable, what I could sustain for long distance and what broad pace that equated to.
Through this training I learned that heart rate is not an exact science, especially when you’re carrying an already high level of fatigue. I used the London Marathon as an opportunity to practice in a race environment, and the learning was invaluable. I learned then that I could sustain a higher rate, while feeling easy on the legs, than I imagined. In my post about London (which first appeared in The Monthly Milestone), I wrote about how I ran 13 miles including a hard parkrun the day before and then ran to the start. I deliberately started that race with tired legs and I learned that on tired legs, I could sustain a heart rate of up to 140 bpm while the legs felt comfortable and was able to manage at 150 bpm towards the end. I also learned I was able to run a 2.50 marathon relatively comfortably on tired legs, albeit on flat ground. Over the next few weeks, the experiences continued and I formed a simple plan:
To run very easy to half way, keeping HR on flats and downs to around 130 and only allowing it to get to c140 on the hills (the first half is pretty much all uphill), with the aim, at halfway of feeling like I now “just” needed to run a marathon on tired legs. Simple.
Mindset – being relaxed
Perhaps even more important than pacing, was a mental strategy! How was I going to mentally prepare for a run of 7 hours, or 54 miles/87km and not let my brain destroy the experience. I felt intimidated by the distance, the hills, the potential heat, but given I wanted to enjoy the experience, adopting a relaxed and positive (but not over confident) mindset was critical. Not just in the race, but in the few days leading up to it. I also prepared a specific mental strategy for Polly Shortts, the famous 2k long steep incline that comes along in the last 10k and seems to break a lot of people. It preyed heavily on my mind, partly because I had struggled with a similar hill at the end of Man vs Horse (scene of an infamous bum tap as Neil triumphantly overtook my lumbering, languishing frame that day) so I decided to flip it on its head, I chose to look forward to the challenge it would present – it’s arguably the most famous hill in ultra marathon running – and to the experience it would provide and, for further positive thinking, I reminded myself that the race would nearly be over once it was summitted.
Part of that relaxed and positive mindset was about controlling controllables and controlling the way I felt about things outside of my control. This is an especially valuable mindset when travelling – know where you need to be and when, but if a flight is delayed, or a train is late – relax, stay positive and those curveballs will be dealt with all the easier. In a race lasting as long as this, it seemed unlikely that everything would go according to plan so I applied this mindset as well. Being relaxed enables us to be more flexible and adapt when things don’t quite go to plan.
There is a physical, as well as psychological benefit to this. Control, and being relaxed and positive is about keeping heart rate as low as possible. The higher you allow your heart rate to get at any stage, basically the more stressed you are, the more glycogen you burn and the more you are likely to deplete in the race and hit the wall.
Timing, fuelling, pacing, mindset. I was happy with the plan, and I was happy that I also had a plan to deal with things not going to plan!
So how did it play out?
The race itself – 6 hours of 38 minutes of adapting (and good luck)
The relaxed mindset helped me to adapt throughout the race and I got lucky.
The first thing to change was that I was persuaded to carry all of the 5 gels I had brought with me. “You’ve brought them, you can carry them, why not, just in case”. I was also persuaded to carry a flapjack (2, in fact, that I only ate about 2 hours after I’d finished!). This increased the size, weight and the chafing potential of my much patched up old running belt but luckily I had bought 4 (small) pots of Vaseline at Heathrow (they were on offer) so I had plenty to apply at the start line. On producing my collection of Vaseline pots, I was both the source of nerve releasing merriment among my comrades (Neil, Simeon, Duncan and Paul) and the most popular man in Durban as people appeared, seemingly from nowhere, to share the benefit of Boots generous 4 for the price of 3 offer while I applied as much as I could to myself. I failed to apply enough as it turns out as in hindsight, 4 pots at the start was overkill (!?!), I needed some at the end, I’ll spare the detail but put it this way, blood was emanating from an unexpected source, ouch.
Comrades is famous for the emotion of it’s start-line traditions – the national anthem, the singing of shosholoza, (a traditional song of unity and hard work with a lyric that translates as ” Push, push, pushing in the sun, We will push as one”), chariots of fire, the cock crowing which as it turns out (according to Adharanand Finn) is actually a recording of the man who used to pretend to be a cock crowing at the start and then the GUN, and an explosion of ticker tape, excitement, and adrenaline.
And people going off WAY too fast.
South African runners (that make up the vast majority of the field) don’t appear to have got the The Milestone Pursuit’s “Be Patient” memo. They legged it.
It took some control to hold position on the road and to keep it slow. It quickly became clear that running to heart rate was going to be tricky – partly because it was dark and I couldn’t see the screen and partly because I needed to concentrate on not tripping over the marauding herd of wildebeest that had apparently just been let out of captivity in the pens behind us.
I’m not sure what their collective thinking about the fast start is. Perhaps it’s over excitement, over confidence, over ambition or perhaps it was because they wanted to get out of Durban as quickly as they could as this section of the race involves running along Dual Carriageways, flyovers, underpasses, and slip roads. There are some nice sections later in the race, up Inchanga and along the Cato Ridge, for example, but if you think this run is all dirt trails across African bush in the company of giraffes and zebras and circling vultures, think again. The route was presumably designed to be the quickest possible one from Durban to Pietermaritzburg and utilizes the freeway as a result.
As it was still pitch black and we were just going up hill or occasionally back down again my plan to keep heart rate at around 130 became irrelevant as it was always either higher (going up) or lower (coming down) but I did stick to the rule to maximise heart rate going up hill at 145. That meant slowing down at times and it also meant letting others overtake me but that was fine. My experience of hilly running in the last couple of years taught me to relax and enjoy the flats and downs at which I am often faster at than the people who overtake me going up hill.
I resolved to keep heart rate at around 135 on the short flats and downs and below about 145 going uphill – so I was never getting out of breath. Happily at this effort level, l also didn’t feel any burn in the legs running up.
Before long though more flexibility was required, this time in mindset. I think it was about 20k into the race that I started to feel tightness in my right hip. This was unusual and a little concerning. If it felt like that now, how would it feel after 6 hours?….I wondered whether it would eventually seize up completely but what could I do, I knew that getting anxious about it wouldn’t help, so I tried to ignore it but to regularly check in with myself as to whether it was getting worse. The stiffness did get worse for a while and then once the other hip started to get sore as well, it actually stayed at the same level – no better, no worse. Crack on, I thought and soon forgot about it (the hip pain would be replaced by stabbing quad pain later anyway!).
By halfway, of my immediate comrades, I was still running with Paul. Over the past few years, we have enjoyed a supportively competitive relationship. We are very close in age and ability, and we both acknowledge each other’s roles in our development as athletes – we push each other on. We have healthy levels of mutual respect, and without really planning to, it seemed likely we would run this one together. We reached what we thought was halfway in about 3h 25 (there is no official halfway marker or clock on the course) and we reassessed. We’d run three of the “big five” hills and by now were passing a lot of those fast starters. I felt good but not quite as “fresh” as I’d have liked so after a quick discussion we simply agreed to keep going at the rhythm we had until 30k to go. No pushing on.
Wearing matching club vests and bibs that made it clear that we were both novices and international runners, we were getting loads of support from spectators – “go Steev, go Poll, work together, novices, WOW!”. Comrades supporters get it dead right. There’s no “you’re nearly there” when you’re not nearly there, no “you got this” when you really haven’t and no “you’re running better than the government” signs. There’s quiet and knowledgeable applause and appreciation for the effort and you feel like they are properly rooting for you as an individual with comments like “keep working, you’re looking good” (although the smell of Braai and the sight of beer is a little offputting). The flip side of this positivity was the occasional sad sight of children asking us for chocolate, rather than the other way round as you might expect at other races. I regret not offloading my flapjacks to them.
More flexibility was required when I finally got the message from Paul. At 30k to go he’d said he was tired and that I should crack on (ironically and typically he was setting the pace through one of the few flat sections at the time) if I wanted to. I didn’t, I thought we were working well together. He repeated the message a couple more times at 25k and 20k and then at an aid station he dropped off. I had worried that being on my own would be hard for the last 15k or so, but adapting my thinking, I told myself that it was only 15k and the reality that I was now doing this myself, and not relying on Paul actually gave me a boost. Confidence was high as Polly Shortts approached and I was genuinely looking forward to the challenge.
Even though I had seen Polly Shortts on tv I had no idea what it would really be like but I knew it was long (2k) and steep – for comparison, think 10 x Primrose Hills, continuously, after you’ve already run the best part of 50 miles. There was an aid station at the bottom, I took some fluid, a few deep breaths and dug in. Many runners were already walking, or run-walking, but I wanted to run it. I had come his far, I was doing well, on we go. Step by step, through aching hips, I must have passed a dozen people, my heart rate was never higher than 152 and I was delighted to reach the top feeling good.
It was a brilliant moment. There weren’t many spectators on the hill, I seemed to be the only one running, I felt alone, it was MY moment. Feeling good, on I went through a few more undulations as I descended to Pietermaritzburg. Despite stabbing pains in my quads, confidence was high as I passed more people and the 5-4-3-2-1k-to-go markers. I turned a bend into the racecourse that hosted the finish area and saw the first clock since halfway.
There are no clocks on the course and I had my watch set to HR only and while I knew I was going well, I had no idea what this translated to in terms of time. I was amazed, and over the moon.
A few hundred metres remained which amount to a “victory” parade along the best finishing zone I’ve ever experienced and I was done. I had run 54 miles. The distance from London to Canterbury, Colchester or Cambridge. I had been running (nearly) non stop for 6h 38 minutes and 44 seconds with just one stop for a wee (see strava here – it’s real!). I had run the last 26.2 miles in about 3h 06 minutes, for a 13 minute negative split. I ran the 13th fastest time of anyone in the entire race over the final section from Polly Shortts. I had come 89th (at the first checkpoint I was 1,116th) I was still alive, and I had mostly enjoyed the experience.
From Strava – The red line is heart rate, the blue line is pace, the grey shaded area is the course profile – can you spot the wee break?
Perhaps it was because I focussed on enjoyment that I ran so well. The early caution that we showed clearly paid dividends but I was also lucky. The weather had been perfect, – cool early on, little wind, and while it was getting warmer under the midday sun, it wasn’t baking hot. Also, as I ran the final 7k from Polly Shortts, I remember thinking how lucky I am with my physiology. I am proud of what I get out of my body, but I am lucky to be blessed with a body that can endure events like this. I don’t often get stomach issues, as befall others, for example, and a recent medical showed how strong and big both my heart and lungs are. In my head, I thanked my parents for my genetics!
What a mad experience.
But it wasn’t over.
Part of that finishing line flourish was some fantastic cheers from our support crew (the families of the other comrades) who after cheering me home, told me I’d come 89th, forgave my air punches, provided some much needed hugs and didn’t judge the tears. They also helped me move as I couldn’t stand up once I was sitting or sit down once I was standing as my hips were now so tight I couldn’t bend over or down.
But, what of the others? They were all on track. Fan-tas-tic! The only better feeling than knowing you had a good day, is knowing everyone else was having one too, and they all came home safely having achieved their goals with similar emotional responses to my own. Even the normally emotionally reserved northerner, Paul Gaimster, was subject to warm embrace.
Comradeship – the real experience
And this is what the experience was REALLY all about. Comradeship. Comradeship with my VPH friends, their supporters, other Brits, and indeed all the other people in the race. I also sensed comradeship with people back home through the humbling messages of support beforehand, and of congratulation afterwards.
Paul and Neil had both finished in under 7 hours, Duncan had run 7.22 for the silver medal he narrowly missed last time he attempted Comrades, and there was redemption for Simeon who got sick (but finished) and had a thoroughly unpleasant experience last time. And then of course there was Rodney, completing his 10th consecutive Comrades which is a landmark permanently celebrated by a green number that will always be his.
Forget the numbers, and the medals though, we had shared a once in a lifetime experience and shared experiences create bonds. I am certain that we all achieved what we wouldn’t have done alone. I often say running is a team sport and while there are better literal examples of that, there have been few events that capture the sense of collective achievement than this one.
Celebrations took the form of massage, some beers and watching the pace “buses” (pacing groups) come dancing and singing home in 30 minute intervals until the last one, the 12 hour bus which came home just before the famously dramatic 12 hour cut off which was quite something to watch. As darkness was falling, people who had been out on the road since before sunrise were taking their final few steps, some arm in arm with other competitors either because they wanted to share their day or because they literally couldn’t stand alone, let alone move forwards such was the fatigue in their bodies. And with the sound of a gun, the 12 hours was up, the finish line was closed, and everyone made their way home. Bonded by success or failure, they were bonded by the most innate of human activities, running.
Like all good races Comrades has a slogan, “Sizonqoba” – Together We Triumph. Indeed we did, and the impossible was done.