The Comrades (Ultra) Marathon is a 56-Mile, 89km race that takes place between Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, and Durban, South Africa with a gun-to-gun maximum race time of 12 hours. Finish time is not based on the chip on your shoe – that’s just for tracking. You get from 0530 until 1730 of the day of the race to finish. Period. No extra seconds, no forgiveness no matter how long it takes to cross the start line.
Every year, the course changes directions between to the two cities. Last year was an “Up” year, starting in Durban and finishing in Pietermaritzburg. In the year 2012, Comrades was a “Down” Run since Pietermaritzburg starts over 2,500′ above sea level. Unfortunately, there is a considerable amount of “Up” in the run also!
Running the Comrades (Ultra) Marathon is not something you decide to do and, with little practice, show up and finish. You know, like a simple marathon.
Rather, preparations for Comrades usually begin months and months in advance. In my case, I started almost 30 weeks before the race with my training plan. Not only does 30 weeks of hard work (and really long runs) culminate in South Africa, but for an American, you have to travel to a land that is far, far away. Again, in my case, I spent over 21.5 hours on airplanes alone, not including layovers (and that was just one way!). So the investment in time for this race not only included the hours and hours of running, but also the hours and hours of travel.
I mention these things to give credence to just how severely bad one’s attitude must become to want to give up, to call it a day, and to go home. It would be the end of months and months of work, thousands of dollars in shoes, nutrition, plane tickets, hotels, blood, sweat, and tears for nothing. And you definitely don’t get to that point quickly.
This year, the race director was very worried about people getting to the race on time due to road construction along the route. As a consequence, they scheduled the buses from Durban to Pietermaritzburg to start at 2am in the morning. The last bus, we were told, would leave at 2:30am. Since I was without a car, I decided to take the bus to the start and keep my hotel in Durban for after the race. That way, I could simply walk (if able) to the hotel once crossing the finish line.
So, I bought a bus ticket, and tried to go to bed early the evening before the race. I was able to fall asleep at 5pm, but by 10pm I was awake again. I tried to go back to sleep, but I was unable to do so. Eventually, about midnight, I decided I would go ahead and begin stretching. From midnight until 1am I performed X-Stretch, an hour long stretching video from the P90X series of exercise videos. In retrospect, this was probably a mistake, as during one of the stretches I tweaked my back. As a sign of things to come, it wasn’t bad enough to stop me from racing, but it was just enough to make my life uncomfortable.
After a shower, getting dressed, and checking on all my equipment, I headed across the street to the buses for a 2am departure.
By 2:45am we were at the start. In fact, the first buses managed to get to the start line before many of the volunteers. I remember standing near the entrance to the “G” corral thinking Well, what the hell do I do now for 2.5 hours?
So, for 2 hours, I sat on the cold sidewalk trying to stay warm. By the time the actual race started, my feet were like bricks and my butt was sore from sitting on the ground. Since I didn’t want to carry any extra weight, I didn’t have anything to keep myself entertained for those 2.5 hours. All I could do is sit and think about the race I was about to face for two and a half hours.
If I had a friend with me the wait would have been fine. But sitting alone with my thoughts didn’t help for nerves. Fortunately, I concentrated on focusing my energies inward and remaining calm. Some Yoga breathing skills helped, too.
Eventually, soundless large televisions began showing the pre-race events, and not long after that the Chariots of Fire theme song began. The gun went off, and the race began.
Race Start to 15miles
How wrong I was.
When the corrals were released, I kept my eye on the “Under 11hr” pace groups, or “buses”. There were right behind me and that meant I could join with them immediately after crossing the start and not have to try and find them.
But after the start I discovered the buses were nowhere to be found. Where did they go? Did they suddenly stop? Were they in front of me? They couldn’t be in front of me.
So in the dark I kept a slightly slower pace than what I calculated I needed to finish in under 11 hours. Unfortunately, for the first 8 miles, I hardly walked. This, I think, was a mistake. I was running, slowly, waiting for the pace group to catch up.
Eventually, they did. But in the time I waited for them to catch up to me I noticed a distressing fact. As a pilot, we are used to monitoring our instruments, and one of mine was not indicating what I hoped to see.
My heart rate was high. Very high. It was, in fact, outside the normal aerobic zone. This was disturbing, but I kept hoping that as my body warmed up and woke up the heart rate would stabilize.
It didn’t. By mile 15, after trying to keep pace with the “Under 11hour” bus since mile five, the wheels came off. My body began to cramp, my breathing was heavy, and I hit the proverbial “wall” that runners so often talk about. Yes, 15 miles into a 56 mile race, I already hit a wall. Hard. I was done, I was toast, my legs were cramping, I was losing my “bus” (pace group), I didn’t want to be there and I didn’t want to spend the next bazillion hours running across Africa for a stupid and dumb little medal that would mean nothing to nobody.
15 Miles to Drummond (Halfway)
Nothing ever occurs in a vacuum, and like an airplane crash, my crash on the course of Comrades occurred for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, I started out too fast. Now, looking at my pacing you might not think so, but I would point out that there were considerable hills up during the first part of the race (Maritzburg isn’t the highest point of the race) and I pushed too hard, too fast. Perhaps my training was not as “sufficient” as I thought, and I knew it wasn’t perfect, but I thought it was better than it was. Second, there was a considerable wind to slow the runners. Third, I was carrying more weight on my body. Fourth, I arrived at the start at 2:45am, meaning I awoke at 1am to prepare, which cost me considerable amount of sleep before the race. I sat, cold on the ground, for hours before the race itself started. Fifth, I didn’t train enough at high altitudes, and I didn’t stop to think that the majority of the up/downs of the race would be at approximately 2,500 feet – well above the sea level of my training.
My continued high heart rate was telling me something. If I continued with the pace group I would continue to use the least efficient energy stores (anaerobic) and I would almost certainly fail. But if I didn’t keep with the pace group, I wasn’t going to finish.
At approximately mile 18 I made a strategic decision. I was cramping, my breath was heavy, and I was hurting. If I were to have any chance – any chance at all – of finishing this race, I must get my heart-rate back down to zone 1. I must reduce my heart to the aerobic zone and keep it there. Cutoffs or not, I must get back to using fat for energy. So, I slowed down. Way down. Unfortunately the damage was already done. The Garmin said I was 20 minutes ahead of the cutoff, and now it would become a game of maintaining that optimistic cushion.
Reaching the half-way point in 5 hours and 41 minutes, I was 19 minutes ahead of the deadly cutoff. Slowing down to an almost thirteen minute pace per mile got rid of the cramps, but there was still an entire marathon left to go. At least my heart rate was in the zone that could tap into the 100,000+ calories stored in the fat of my body.
Drummond to 79km (50miles)
However, I focused on two things. First, I remembered one of the great, multi-finisher runners saying, “Never get on a bail-out bus. I have few regrets in my life, but that is the single, most prominent regret of my entire life.” I wouldn’t join a bail-out bus because I didn’t want that regret. Second, I didn’t stop because I made a promise to myself at the beginning: I would keep going until I got pulled off the course and they forced me to stop. Being told to stop was different from stopping on your own.
In other words, I was just plain stubborn. Plus, with all the spectators yelling “Yes, you can!” (apparently Obama fans) and “Go USA! Go USA!” how could I let down my country and my President while wearing a stars and strips blue shirt with USA written on it? And there were many, many shouts like these for hours and hours of the race.
When I passed the famous “Green Mile”, my spirits began to rise. I’m not sure if it was the Nedbank cheerleaders, the shaded trees, or a combination of both (cheerleaders for some reason seem to make me attempt to at least appear in better shape… not sure why). I began to think I could make it. I began to think, Hey, maybe I can do this. I can make it! Screw the bus! These cheerleaders are hot. If I could focus, I suppose the finish could be mine…
Of course, continuously after reaching the famous Drummond hill, I kept checking my Garmin watch and the “Virtual Pacer”. Although it was a few minutes off, the Virtual pacer was showing where I was in relation to finishing at 11 hours 59 minutes and 59 seconds. Throughout the second half, the notorious Comrades hills continued to eat into my “lead”. I couldn’t run up hills any more and there were more than a few wicked ones left. In fact, I “ran” into Cowie’s Hill like running into a brick wall. There was no chance of running, and the clock, like a slowly approaching apparition of death, kept counting down on my lead on the last finishers.
Eventually my mind stopped having rational thought. Rather, I began to think of time in the terms of money. I was “putting money in the bank” for every mile accomplished under 12 minutes and 50 seconds (the minimum pace to finish within the 12 hours), and I was “withdrawing time” for every mile finished in over 13 minutes. I began to play a math game: If I have 15 minutes in the bank, how much slower could every remaining mile be and still make the finish? How much did I want to “bank” for the final 10km to withdraw later without completely destroying my ability move forward?
The fun part of this math is the numbers changed every mile and my mental gymnastics would start all over again. With the course marked in Kilometers, and my watch in miles, that added to the fun “conversion” factor as I passed important landmarks. My thoughts went like this:
Okay, I’m passing the 20km mark. How many miles is that? Is the conversion 2.2km per mile, or was that 1.8km? I don’t remember. Well, a marathon is 42.2 km, so a half marathon would be 21.1 km, and that’s 13.1 miles, so that means with 1.1 km left, that would be… What? Wow, look at that really large person ahead of me. Good for them. Oh, and the spectators… Oh hey here is an aid station. Where was I? Oh yes, 13.1 miles is a half marathon, so I must be at about 12 miles? Okay, 12 miles left and I have 15 minutes in the bank. If the watch is off, then I can add 1 minute per mile and still finish. That means I need to run this mile at 13minutes and 50 seconds. Whats my pace right now? A 13minute mile? Oh, an aid station. Don’t walk too slow through it. Okay, that’s okay, I’m only losing 10 seconds so far. I can do that. Oh, $%&* is that another hill? Yes, it is. Okay, it’s short. We’ll walk that, and use the downhill to recover. Faster! Okay, so what pace did I need to maintain? Oh, right, we just passed the 20km mark. So it’s less than 20km now. What was the conversion again? What pace did I need? Let me see, was 2.2km per mile or 1.8km…”
Sadness and hope crashed back into me when a third “unofficial” sub-12hour bus passed me. I was looking at my Garmin GPS watch, but I didn’t trust it. Just how many buses were there this year? Hope soared as I kept pace with group for 15 to 20 minutes. Then, devastation when I could no longer keep pace. I’m behind another bus? What was the point now? I wanted it all to end.
79km to Finish(?)
But the Garmin said there was a chance, even if it was wrong, and I was making the cutoffs. The final cutoff was 7km from the finish. I passed that one with 25 minutes to spare. I could make it, I suddenly realized, but I also realized something else: There was zero time to waste! I would have to run the fastest part of the entire race in the last 7km! After 82km, it would come down to this.
Now I started wanting to finish. Seven kilometers? How far was that? I knew what a 5km race was (3.1 miles!). I knew I would need about 45 minutes to finish considering my legs were toast and to make sure my math wasn’t incorrect (I was having trouble adding one plus one by now). Where was that 5km sign? I kept waiting for the sign while time ticked closer and closer to 4:45pm.
Finally, I saw the sign. I must hurry. I must hurry to the sign because my watch showed the time at 4:45:35, and if I didn’t cross that sign… I managed to get across the sign with just 44 minutes left in the race. I was one minute late by my mental math. My fastest mile wouldn’t be less than 12 minutes and I was a minute behind. If I walked the remaining distance, it would take me an hour, and I would miss the cutoff.
I was worried. There were still hills ahead, but nothing major… Or was there? There could be some small devastating hill between me and the finish that I just plain didn’t remember. Crap! If my pace fell to even 1 mile at 15 minutes, I might not finish. What if my legs cramped in the last 1 km? What if I must walk off a cramp? I needed every minute! If I walked one mile it would take 20 minutes, and that would spell the doom for my finish. Death would have me.
Faster Faster! I was racing death at this point. Death was the 12hour cutoff. Like a looming line of evaporation, death was racing me to the end. I don’t want to miss this by a few seconds or minutes!
I was worried and it took a lot of effort to keep my heart calm for the last 45 minutes of the race. I might make it. I might not. Would I make it? Was I fast enough? Could I be fast enough? To be this damn close and not finish was a horrid thought but an incredible probability.
To go so far, and to finish so short. It was possible. But so was victory. Faster Faster! Go faster you damn legs!
During the last 2km I encountered a fine chap who was running Comrades “as a practice race.” He caught me during a walking moment, and he pushed me to get running – and I did. We chatted amiably, my mind distracted by the conversation, but the slowly dawning realization Holy … I’m going to make it!
For hours – literally, hours and hours and hours – I didn’t expect to be entering the stadium before the deadline. Suddenly, I was there, and I was still able to run! Okay, it was probably the slowest run ever, but I was running.
Entering the stadium, I was struck by the thousands, or perhaps even tens of thousands of people in the stadium cheering all of us to the finish. I zigzagged back and forth, slapping every hand I could find. I would finish! Success was never assured until I entered the stadium with 10 minutes left on the clock. I ran smack into a barrier before the finish coming to a complete stop because I was busy slapping hands. But I didn’t care. My legs didn’t buckle and the finish line was right there!
That could have been me. On this one day, it wasn’t. I was grateful, surprised, and extremely emotional. Comrades does that to you. It strips you to the bare bone, it lays you out flat, and leaves a new, raw person in its wake.
I was not part of the 35%. This time. I earned not only my finisher medal (brass), but the coveted “Back to Back” medal. Comrades rewards those novice runners who not only finish in their first attempt, but return the following year and successfully finish a second time. You get one shot to get the “B2B” Medal.
And despite expecting to fail, that metal hangs proudly on my wall as the most important medal I’ve ever earned.
Not because it was my fastest medal. Not because it was my best race. But because it was the most emotional. I finished because the spirit of Comrades, runners helping runners, came to me at the most critical moment.
Life will never be the same.
My Results and race photos
|Gun Time:||05:30:06||Overall Pos:||11306|
|Finish Time:||11:51:32||Gender Pos:||9110|
|Net Time:||11:51:32||Category Pos:||3271|
|plit||Race Time||Time of Day||Split Time||Overall Pos||Category Pos||Gender Pos||Dist. Done||Dist. To Go||Speed|
|Camperdown (62kms to go)||03:20:20||08:50:27||10834||3202||9002||26.77||62.4||7.48|
|Winston Park (31kms to go)||07:35:37||13:05:44||11318||3297||9191||58.27||30.9||7.82|
|Cowies Hill (18kms to go)||09:19:34||14:49:40||11325||3284||9174||70.97||18.2||7.88|
|Mayville (7kms to go)||10:55:59||16:26:06||11461||3316||9244||82.17||7||7.98|