at the finish
at the finish
For both Fen and myself, the Comrades Marathon had for many years been an event we had longed to take part in. For reasons that would bore the average reader, we hadn’t, so it was that we have waited until our ripe old ages (and long past our prime) before doing so. It is billed as the ‘Ultimate Human Race’ and is probably the world’s greatest mass participation Ultra marathon. We both survived the 2006 version and lived to tell the tale. This was an ‘Up’ year, run from Durban at sea level to Pietermaritzburg at 650 mts. Distance was 87.5 km and, unless I run a ‘Down’ version, I’ll not be able to tell you which is easier. Easy, though, is not a word that should be used in any description of the Comrades.
The race started at 5.30, well before dawn, outside Durban City Hall, which required a 3.00 alarm call to be up in time for breakfast followed by a walk of about a mile to the start. We had anticipated a long queue at our hotel for breakfast as over 200 runners where staying there but this was not the case. And there was masses of food, as there has been the previous evening.
Although it was the South African winter, race temperatures were pleasant at the start, though they later reached 24C under cloudless skies. Humidity was not to be a problem, nor the wind. Just those hills! Oh, and the distance.
I would have been disappointed to finished outside of 9 hours. Under 8 hrs, I thought was a possibility, if remote. My plan was just to run and see where it got me. I had worries about my back and the onset of sciatica but I was more worried about the Piriformis Syndrome that had hampered my preparations over the last few months. Although I have walked in one or two races over the years, I had never stopped to do exercises. This though was what I planned to do if and, more likely, when the problem occurred.
Fen’s plan was more scientific – run each 10km in 62mins (10 minute miles) then walk 1km in 10 mins. This would give a finish time in about 9hrs 45mins, but that was without taking the hills into account. Inside the time limit of 12 hrs was the fall back situation.
There is no denying that the Comrades has hills and in that regard it is more difficult than the London to Brighton. In all other aspects (other than distance) it could not be more different – 12,000 runners, traffic free roads, massive support, huge media coverage, toilets en-route, physiotherapy/massage stations and 51 drinks stations. The latter ensured there was no worry about not getting enough fluids on board. In fact quite the opposite, as I think I may have had too much at times.
I reached halfway in just over 4 hours. This seemed a little slow to me but I had had a couple of pit stops. Well, you have to use all the facilities, don’t you! As the course only gets hillier from halfway, running under 8 hours was not now an option for me. I was also forced to stop a number of times to do my piriformis exercises, but these only alleviate the problem for a few miles. I also had a couple of massages to see if they would help.
Fen, for the time being had abandoned his schedule and reached halfway in 4 hrs 40 mins without walking but his legs were beginning to suffer and began to add short walks to the running until reaching 40 miles when it became the other way round.
Despite all, I kept plodding on, especially on the hills. Did I mention the hills? The highest point on the course is at 870 metres above sea level and there are downs as well as ups. None of the hills seem particularly steep but they are one after the other and I don’t remember too many flat bits! Certainly, Ditchling Beacon on the ‘Brighton’ is steeper, but it’s the only hill to really worry about.
Of the 5 major hills, the one more than others to worry about on the Comrades is Polly Shortts, which comes with about 10km to go. Much has been written about it over the years as a make or break hill, and indeed it was the only hill I had to walk on. Most others around me were doing the same and you got locked into overtaking and being overtaken by the same people more than once – several times in fact.
Polly Shorrts is not even the steepest of the hills; more its length at just under 2km long and its stage in the race that makes it difficult. Once over the top, there is some downhill to the finish, which came for me in 8 hours 49 mins 6 secs in 2008th place and 93rd vet over 50.
Fen had been walking almost continuously from 40 miles at the rate of 15 mins per mile, which gave him plenty of time to admire the views and pass the time of day with fellow competitors and the spectators. Encouragement for all is guaranteed and is helped by having your first name on your number both front and back and wearing a tag to indentify you as an overseas competitor.
After Polly Shorrts, Fen resolved to run the last five miles in an attempt to get under 11 hours. This ‘sprint’ finish, however, took him to a finishing time of 11 hrs 14 mins.
Lynne, who had made her way leisurely from Durban to our B&B in Pietermaritzburg and then to the finish arena, managed to spot me finishing and photograph me. Once over the finish line and in the soup tent I began to stiffen up with both legs going into spasm. I was sat in the shade, starting to get cold but was unable to move into the warm sunshine outside! My blood sugar levels also began to drop and so the easiest course of action was to get stretchered off to the excellent medical facility. Some 45 minutes in there with blankets, physiotherapy and several hot sugary cups of tea and I was able to walk again, go and collect my kit bag and wander back into the finish area to greet Fen.
The two of us, together with Lynne, now began to attack the free beers in the International Competitors tent, with the promise of more to come once we had got to our B&B, showered and gone out for something to eat.
Finally, one of the things that kept me going over the last few miles was the thought that this was to be my last ultra run, but a day or two later and thoughts had turned to how I could run faster if injury free. I had been pleased at how I kept going but wondered what might have been had my training been trouble free and, during the race, not having to keep stopping to exercise. So who’s up for a go, then?
Andy Battye and Fenwick Tunley