Monday, June 01, 2015

Running the 2015 Comrades Marathon - An Experience Like No Other

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of joining 22,300+ runners for the 90th annual Comrades Marathon in Durban, South Africa, known as the oldest and largest ultramarathon in the world. This was a "bucket list" race for sure, if anything just to see what it's like when this many people go 87km (55 miles), and visit a country on the other side of the globe known for its hospitality to runners. The experience did not disappoint!

"The Comrades", as it is called here, has a deep history with the growth of South Africa. It was started in 1921 as a dedication to South Africa's World War I veterans to "celebrate mankind's spirit over adversity", and has been run almost every year since, helping unify a country through a second world war, the race struggles of apartheid, and build an enduring legacy that spans generations. I had a chance to chat with Comrades legend and 9-time winner Bruce Fordyce, who has completed over 20 Comrades, and he emphasized that even in this sport-loving country, Comrades is as big as it gets. Bruce would know - he's traveled the world to win races on every major continent, and his 50-mile world record of 4:50:21 set in 1983 still stands today.

(Chatting with Comrades legend and WR holder Bruce Fordyce, who is hilariously funny)

(Map for the "up year")
This was an "up year" (it alternates directions each year), meaning we would run from the coastal town of Durban inland to Pietermaritzburg. I chose to stay in Durban, a charming coastal city known as a tourist hot spot. South Africa is quite approachable as a destination, with english spoken fluently, a delicious mix of local and English-influenced food (curry!), affordable activities such as safaris and water parks, surfing and paddle boarding in the Indian Ocean, and a graciousness in the smiles and kindness of the people here that makes it easy to relax. I particularly enjoyed the gospel-like tribal music of the Zulu (and other tribes) that seduced my hips into swaying at every corner. A random stroll through town would feel modern in one block, completely third world in the next, all with plenty of welcomes for visiting.

(Slothie, the stuffed animal who miraculously sneaks into my luggage for every trip,
hangs out over North Beach in Durban)
(My wife texting me about our 4-year-old Quinn...
hmmm, I think I know how Slothie is getting into my suitcase)
(The Indian Ocean is pleasant...perfect for a surf!)
(The local art is fantastic!)
Come race morning, I walked to the start with dozens of others, navigating the Saturday night vampires rolling out of the clubs and betting halls. The race bibs were so well marked (number of previous runs, country, name, etc.), you could quickly strike up a conversation. It astounded me to see so many of the special "green numbers", which noted runners who had 10+ finishes. Some runners even had 20 (double green), 30 (triple green), and 40+ finishes...it was like a country of Tim Twietmeyers! Over 11,000 runners now have a green number, which is simply astounding.

(Sporting a patch jacket)
(Not sure which is more impressive...the double green number, or that at age 55 Marius still makes the "A" Corral)
(Locals take their permanent green numbers VERY seriously!)
I jumped into the "A" Corral, my unacclimated body already dripping in sweat. In retrospect, if I'm going to fly 22 hours, it's probably best to give myself 3-4 days before the race to be at least a little prepared. Some of my fellow runners had hats, gloves, and makeshift garbage bag vests to stay warm...wha?!? Good perspective! There were a few costumed runners, but most of the field (96% from South Africa) represented their local running clubs with striped and cheetah-print pride. This race was clearly the pinnacle event of the year.
(No big deal...just me and 22,300 runners out for a 87km jog)
(Here we go! Photo courtesy of News24)
Lots of them asked me what my goal was, and I let them know I was just going to take it out comfortably and see where I end up. On a good day, I might qualify for a "silver medal" (6 hr-7:30hr finish), but likely would be shooting for the "Bill Rowan" (7:30-9hr), or perhaps casually bringing in a "bronze" (9-11hr) or "Vic Clapham" (11-12hr). One thing for sure is I better get there before the final cut off - this race is known for their aggressive "closing of the gate" at exactly 12 hours. We sang the South African national anthem at full lungs, the fantastic "Shosholoza" Ndebele song that would run through my head for the next four hours, and heard Chariots of Fire as the course lit up with digital fire. One loud "ca-caw" and the final gun...Comrades had begun!

(Pietermaritzburg, here we come!)
As we charged through the city and took over the highway, I immediately noted some very different things about these runners. First, there were ZERO headphones. Second, not a lot of selfie photo action...in fact, I was mocked a bit any time I pulled out the camera. Costumes were everywhere, and the tribal-inspired traditional outfits were particularly enjoyed by the crowds. The strides of my fellow runners were long and easy, which I guess shouldn't be a surprise when racing in Africa, and the conversations were all in local dialects such as Zulu, Swazi, and Sotho. Nontheless, I could pick out the inflections of encouragement and a fair amount of teasing and joking.

(Awesome Zulu outfit)
(The male string top singlet is quite popular down here)
The distance markers were in reverse, telling you how far to go rather than how far you had gone, so "60km to go" wasn't exactly inspiring. But I was glad to find the hills were all runnable - challenging compared to your normal road race, but nothing compared to a trail ultra. The hot African sun peaked over the hill just as we hit the downside of Cowie's Hill (20km in), and I was running just under an 8 min/mile pace.

(Party time!)
(Even cheerers are excited for their first Comrades)
The "green number" runners graciously offered advice and let me know what was coming up. One of them explained to me that once you get a green number, you can keep that number for life, and even pass it on to your kids. Wow! What a great incentive to lure in the next generation. It turned out be one of the many genius marketing aspects to this race, including the time-based medals named after founding runners, the "back to back medal" (extra medal for finishing an up and down together...rope you in for a second trip!), the caps that had the map on the underside of the visor (thus being the default headwear on race day), the encouragement of the running clubs to set up and provide assistance on the course, and the iron-on badges that many had turned into great jackets.  No surprise attendance at Comrades has doubled in the last ten years.

(The back of the pack tackles the hills, photo courtesy of News24)
I hit the halfway point at Drummond (44km, mile 27) in 3:36:10, just a minute under the pace for a "silver medal" finish. I was still feeling comfortable, much in thanks to the well-stocked aid stations every couple of miles that had plenty of water and snacks. The water is brilliantly handed out in recyclable 150ml bags that were easy to bite into and either drink or spray, and I wondered why we hadn't seen this in the States yet. I was doing more spraying at this point as the African sun started to bear down on us and push the temperature into the high 70's. It was hot (not "Africa hot" though, ha, ha), but many of the locals were happy it was so cool.

(Water in a bag!)
(Out in the countryside)
As we got out into the countryside, we alternated between long stretches of lonely road, and huge parties put on by local vendors and towns. Local school kids showed up in uniform, and church-goers cheered in their Sunday best. Everyone had a "braai" rolling (the local BBQ), and it smelled awesome. As Bruce told me, "since you have a number on, you're a hero today...you can grab a beer or burger from anyone...tomorrow you'll get punched in the face for trying that."

(Phew! Those km's left are starting to get small)
As we approached Camperdown (70km, mile 43), the afternoon heat started to take its toll and created a long line of walkers. I soon realized that most weren't exhuasted, they were just being smart about heat management. I was not doing this, and quickly paid the price. I vomited on the sideline, dizzy with heat, and it wasn't until some locals helped me fill my handkerchief with ice that I could get rolling again. Mile 40 clocked in at 16 minutes....and just like that, the silver medal was out of contention. That's okay, I now had lots of buffer and could relax knowing the ice radiator on the back of my neck was doing the trick.

(Enthusiastic cheerleaders)
(Getting his groove on)
(Welcome to the Nedbank Green Mile!)
(Volunteers are superheroes, literally in this case)
As I cruised along at a more casual 9 min/mile, I wondered how my fellow US athletes were doing. Sage Canaday and Max King were both here, two of our fastest, so perhaps one could make the Top 10. I sent good vibes to Dave Mackey, now having his leg painfully rebuilt from a fall in the Colorado mountains, who would do anything to take a single step right now (yet still had time to wish me well). I also thought of my great uncle, 92-year-old Ray Morris, a 16-time Dipsea runner in the 80's whom I recently reconnected with after 33 years, who wanted me to text him during the race in his last days of surviving pancreatic cancer.  To those who cannot run today, this day is also for you. It is a celebration of running!

(From green to pink!)
(He would fit right in at Bay to Breakers)

(Selfie!!!!)
(Polly Shortts, the last of the big climbs)
The last steep climb at Polly Shortts (83km, mile 51) brought almost everyone to a walking pace, and I would soon learn even the winner of the Women's race had done the same. I cruised through the last few miles and entered the finish area, a tailgate-meets-stadium filled with thousands of races supporters and team tents. Incredible! I hit the finish line in 8:08:25, good enough for 840th place, and received a hearty thank you from the race directors for coming to their race. "You international runners are a big part of what makes this race great...we hope to see you next year so you can pick up that back-to-back medal". I was thinking about the next Comrades before I even got my first beverage from the first one...genius!

(Through the green gate, onto the field)
(Last lap!)
(There's that finish!)
I soon retired to the tent for international runners to grab a beer and cheer on fellow finishers. The vibe was amazing at the finish, particularly when a time deadline for a medal would come within the final seconds, and hundreds of well-paced runners sprint around the final oval as the crowd goes wild. Members of all clubs would stand at their feet and scream, hollering and stamping the side boards with their hands, and the crowds got bigger with every hour. It was so much fun! With 16,584 runners finding the finish, Comrades boasts an outstanding 74% finish rate. Apparently more than half the finishers come in during the final hour...that has got to be a cheer heard around the world.

(Here comes the sub-9 hour pack!)
Check out the cheering in this video of the winning finish to get a feel for it:



I learned from the other finishers that the 90th Comrades had been a historic day for South Africa, winning both the mens and women's division for the first time in 23 years. Gift Kehele (5:38:35) was the overall winner, after placing third last year, much to the excitement of his older brother who won the race in 2001. Caroline Wostmann (6:12:22) was a favorite after winning Two Oceans this year, and led by a large margin over the Russian twins who have dominated this race for years. Ellie Greenwood, the 2014 Women's champion finished a respectable 6th (6:44:03).

(Gift Kehele wins...)
(...and gets a hug from his big brother)
(Caroline Wostmann cruises in for the win)

Sage Canaday (6:03:47) took 15th overall and was the fastest US male finisher, and Max King finished 52nd (6:33:48) as the second American. Guess who was 3rd? Me! Holy crap, I just podium'd with Sage and Max. I am humble-bragging that for the rest of my life.
 
(Hey, look...I podiumed with Sage Canaday and Max King for fastest American! I'm so framing this...)
As I headed back to Durban on the bus, chatting with Australian ultrarunner Amelia Griffith, I felt completely transformed. I always enjoy the adventure of traveling to new race destinations, but Comrades had simply blown my mind. It was like...actually, it was exactly like... finding out there was a place on the other side of the world that holds the true roots of your sport, with a community of tens of thousands who welcome you with open arms and a strong, generous spirit. The tagline for Comrades - "Bamba Iqhaza!" - means "be a part of it" and I am so glad I did! Add this race to your bucket list, my friends, and you will not be disappointed.

(Shwag!)
Dankie, South Africa and the great volunteers and organizers of the Comrades. Congratulations runners and clubs! I hope to see you again soon.

19 comments:

  1. Wow what an amazing experience! I really appreciate reading your blog posts. Very inspiring. I have yet to run a complete marathon but I am working up to it.

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  2. What an experience! Congratulations Scott - always worth filling the bucket!

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    1. Brian, I just updated the blog to add one of my favorite parts. I looked up fastest US Men, and it was Sage, Max, and....wait for it...ME!

      I just podium'd with Sage and Max. How classic is that? I need to print and frame that right now. ;-)

      SD

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  3. Scott: Amazing report! I felt like I was back there all over again. Great run too!

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  4. Thanks for posting this and putting up with the mocking while taking these shots - this is a race that's always puzzled me a bit, but your report really helps. And I love that you are third American! Definitely frame that finisher list.

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  5. Excellent job.

    There have been a few races here in the states which have tried to employ those bitable bags. I heard people complaining about them even though I thought they were fantastic. Natch.

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  6. Did you bring your kids to this race? Would you consider it "family friendly"?

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    1. I was solo on this trip, but happy to report it would be a great place for kids old enough to manage the 22-hr flight. I stayed right at the beach (Protea Hotel) and bet my kids could spend a week just hitting the flawless beaches, swimmable surf, public pools, uShaka marine park/water park, bike rentals, street shopping, and ice cream. They would have loved it! I got lots of warnings about crime, but it seemed manageable if you stayed to the main streets during normal hours. Safari would be a must too.

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  7. Great race Scott. Glad to hear that you had a good time in SA and that your first Comrades went well. See you back next year for the down run, gotta get the back to back. Beside, down is like a completely different race!

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  8. It's an amazing experience, no? One reason you didn't see many headphones, is because they aren't allowed. Neither are cell phones (why you didn't see many selfies) or any logos (Injinji visor), although the logo thing I'm guessing you'd be OK unless you got an age group award or gold medal.

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    1. Scott uses a dedicated camera for the selfies.

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  9. > and I wondered why we hadn't seen this in the States yet.
    I, too, wondered that in 1995. The recyclable water bags have been used in SA for 25 years. I stopped wondering in 1996. We like to waste, we have the money to not worry about these things. The US is 20+ years behind the rest of the world in many aspects of running. Bibs, water, getting rid of headphones, etc. Just have to face that. You can wait 100 years and you won't see a race of 80K or longer with 10,000 runners in the US. That's why you need to go to SA or Europe to see how it can be done. Hope Scott's blog post makes an impression and gets some more Internationals to the greatest running race in the world. It is a surprisingly good value vacation, too.

    Stephen Peckiconis

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  10. Great report Scott! I shared this with all my running friends in SA to show how we should be proud of this great event and how it will surely be making more waves in years to come, since the Ellie, Sage, Max, etc are starting to take part and do well! Congrats on your run and we hope to see you back for the down run next year!

    Clint

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  11. Hi Scott, that was such a perfect report on the race, could not have put it better myself! Was great chatting to you on the bus back to Durban as well. Can't wait to catch up with you again at another race, somewhere...! Hope you got home ok, Amelia Griffith

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  12. Scott: I'm impressed you can do so much road racing with most of your training being on trails. I had thought to do road ultras you needed to run more on the road to get acclimated to the hard surface. Is this not your experience? Maybe I can reconsider what I'd need to do to BQ @ CIM (missed it in 2012 when leg muscles got cranky after mile 20 -- needed to train more, I think).

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    1. 95% of my training is on trails, and aside from throwing in some treadmill 800's and a couple of medium length tempo road runs before a road race, I don't alter much. Those workouts are less about surface, and more about getting used to those long hard strides.

      I choose some squishy shoes too (Adidas Ultraboost usually), which takes the edge off those last 6 miles. Note I probably could be faster and more consistent if I focused more on the road, but the trails allow me to race all year. I think the road racing keeps my pacing high for the trails too, so I usually have a Feb-May that is lots of road races. A bit of both, as they say.

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  13. Hello Scott,

    My wife is the runner in the family, I myself train in Karate but try to keep up with her. Your article about “The Comrades” was fantastic. What a fantastic journey and all behind the concept of mankind's spirit adversity.

    We have a free Long Range Weather Forecasting service, up to 18 months in advance, that has been used by the agriculture and construction industry over the last thirty years. I would appreciate it if you would take a look at the site and let me know how it could be improved to help runners with their training programs and on race day.

    www.WeatherTAB .com

    Thank you for your time and keep up the great site,

    Chris Ruch
    WeatherTAB Team

    team@weathertab.com

    (970) 593-8477

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  14. Most of the ultras that I have done have been locally. It would be fun to do an international ultra some day.

    Love the color bib idea to recognize those runners who have a lot of finishes under their belt. And it's a great way to be able to strike up a conversation.

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  15. My name is Gordon Polovin. If you check out past results you will see I ran from 1980 - 1986 (Fordyce era). All silvers. My average time was reasonably below 7 hours and 5 of the 7 medals all sub 7's. Your account was interesting. If you intend running in 2016 I hope the following helps: You have passed the biggest hurdle - your first Comrades. Now in my view you can take more risks. Your time for Boston of 2:48 means you can run a Silver close to 7 hours. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. You will run 2nd half slower than first so account for that. You must do strength training on your quads to account for downhill pounding. If you are not prepared for that it will take you out of Silver contention. All I can say is believe in your ability. I saw many runners with lesser times make Silver by simply believing they could and dispelling self-doubt. The standard marathon time doesn't lie so you need to trust in it when it comes to realistic target setting.

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