With less than 10 mins to spare and 11 hours 50 minutes after the starting gun I crossed the Comrades finish line before the final cutoff securing my Vic Clapham medal. I am so proud to have finished the race known in South Africa as the Ultimate Human Endurance race and the oldest and largest ultra marathon in the world, ‘The Comrades’ which celebrated its 90th anniversary this year. Stretching somewhere between 87 and 89kms, depending on how much of a straight line you run, the race alternates each year between Durban and Pietermaritzburg. 2015 was an up-run, more energy sapping but supposedly kinder on the joints than the downhill run.
I was lucky enough to be adopted for the weekend by ‘The Viljoens’, a passionate running family (Husband, Wife and Son) with a total of 27 Comrades races between them and an in-depth knowledge of the course, which quite honestly got me through the race. Looking back at the experience, I feel for those runners doing the course for the first time without anyone to show you the ropes as survival is purely about pacing and maximizing your walk run strategy and can see why so many run with the pacers or ‘human running buses’ to get them through.
The day before the event I took a short road trip to see the course for myself and to mentally prepare for what the next day would throw at me. If you are of a weak disposition, I would not recommend this, but for me, it was exactly what I needed. The uphill course is infamous for its 5 brutal hills, Cowies, Fields, Botha’s, Inchanga and Polly Shortts, four which you tackle in the first 42 km making the first half of the race the steepest in South Africa. OK, so you are mentally prepared for 5 bad ass hills but what you are not prepared for is the other 10 or so unnamed hills which by UK standards could each individually be the main event in themselves.
Race day started early waking at 3am to travel to the start of the race in good time, the start was quite chaotic but we managed to take our position in time to hear the spine tingling echo of 20,000 runners singing in unison the rallying cry of Shosholoza, and the more familiar tune of Chariots of fire. Then approximately 6 minutes after the starting gun, we crossed the line and followed the human river through the darkness and towards the first hill.
I won’t go into detail each of the hills but let’s say they started tough and got tougher as the day wore on and the sun came up, each one teasing you with every corner as they stretch on and on with many of them lasting a few kms. The atmosphere was incredible throughout the race and the organization was second to none. There are drinks/food stations pretty much every 2km so you don’t really need to carry liquid, just some of your preferred energy. Having become quite self-sufficient running several trail races over recent months I got teased a little along the way for carrying ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ on my person. Potatoes and Bananas along the route kept me going in addition to my own energy which I brought from the UK. At first the idea of potatoes tickled me as I imagined working my way through baked, mashed, boiled and perhaps chips at the finish for a treat? Not so!!
Overall, the first half came and went relatively comfortably with a few tiny wobbles along the way when my energy dipped. Nevertheless, I was buoyed at the idea that the second half would be slightly less hilly with a few more downhill sections. A few sections of the route are quite something with beautiful views that stretch for miles and the crowds were incredible all the way through the race and the smell of the South African BBQ’s (Braai’s) wafting temptingly though the air and the local children running from the rural villages to greet you. Despite this, we were a little of target pace by halfway which meant we had to remain disciplined for the second half of the race and not waste any time.
After placing my flower at Arthurs seat, a landmark on the route meant to bring you luck for the second half of the race, my major wobble came on Harrison Flats where my energy dipped and for about five minutes I didn’t think I could continue. This is where The Viljoens pulled me through with words of encouragement as we joined hands and ran for several minutes until the potatoes, bananas and energy gels kicked in and worked their magic. We each had our similar moments in the second half and supported each other through.
With 30 kms to go, we set hourly goals to complete 7km which would bring us in within 2 minutes of the finish time, a strategy which my running buddies had used successfully on several occasions, promising me that we would make it before the cutoff. The challenge at this stage is getting your head around the fact that this still means an additional 3 hours of running when you have already run for 9 and feel as if you are getting close to the end. With 10km to go and mid-way through Polly’s, the last major hill, my paranoia set in and I decided to pick up the pace and get ahead surprising myself with the energy that I still had in the tank. In all, I made up ten minutes in the last hour drawing on the energy from the growing crowds, the setting sun and praying that my knee would hold to take me to the end. For a short while I paced with one of the sub 12 hour buses and after a while ran ahead of them and two other 12 hour buses. With 30 minutes to go and 3km, I felt reassured that if push came to shove and something went ‘pop’ in my recently injured knee that I would drag myself to the end with seconds to spare.
So that’s it, my race ended with me running through the streets towards Pietermaritzburg Oval like a mad Englishwoman screaming I love you South Africa, thanks for having me, sharing a hug with three other first time finishers and waiting anxiously for my fellow runners to cross the line before the final cutoff.
As promised, with impeccable timing and cool as a cucumber with 30 seconds to spare I jumped on my South African friends as they crossed the line and we were all reunited!! What a day.
Five minutes later, I knew I would be back the following year to do the double and run the downhill. It truly is a bucket list event. Any takers?? You won’t regret it and will never forget it!!
Race Report by Louisa Parker