At just over 56 miles and a field of 20,000 the Comrades marathon is the biggest Ultra in the world and is run in South Africa between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. This is my experience of the race they say humbles you and leaves you a different person at the finish to the one who started:
Toeing the line at 5:30 am on Sunday 10th June was the end of a long journey that began 4 years earlier on a Summer’s day in 2014.
That particular day I was in a hospital bed after a heart attack, just back from theatre where I’d had 2 stents fitted in a blocked coronary artery. I thought about my uncertain future. A big goal was to get back running. Was it pie in the sky to think I’d even be able to run again? What was going to be realistic, 5K, 10K, HM?? I promised myself that if ever I recovered enough then I had to run the epic ‘Ultimate Human Race’, the Comrades Marathon.
Fast forward through the tentative slow walks to Dorridge and back. The first walk/jog/walk praying that the dodgy ticker would hold out. Plenty of people had asked me what I would do now instead of running, but I was determined to come back fighting. At last a 5K parkrun, a 10K, and even a HM ticked off before 2014 was out. I was making great progress, much better than I could have hoped for, but in the back of my mind thoughts of Comrades were nagging away and the promise I’d made myself in that hospital bed.
By 2017, despite having run no further than a half marathon since my comeback, I reckoned I was fit enough to realistically think about entering the race. After getting medical advice and a positive comprehensive heart scan, I signed up for the 2018 race and on August 1st, 10 months of hard training began.
Building the mileage through late Summer and Autumn, I battled on through the fog and damp of autumn, the snow and ice of winter, the first few rays of Spring sunshine and finally the odd hot Summer’s day. Two marathons along the way, my first Ultra, and finally, with over 1800 miles under my belt, and 1000 since January 1st, it was time to board the plane for Africa.
I had a fantastic time in the build up to the race, being looked after amazingly by Kevin Boake’s family, the man who had inspired me to want to do this race in the first place. A few days in Johannesburg, then a move down to the lovely seaside resort of Ballito outside Durban for the final preparation. But D-Day was coming! The night before the race was spent bunked up at a friend of the
family’s 20 minutes from the start. There wasn’t much sleep as the nerves and anticipation of what was to come kept the adrenalin flowing. Up at 3 am, a quick bowl of porridge, a head to toe spray of suntan cream and we’re off to Pietermaritzburg. It’s pretty cold as we arrive, around 4 or 5C, so wrapped in an old T-shirt and gloves we wish each other well and head for our respective pens. My marathon qualifying time gave me a ‘C’ seeding so I‘m relatively near the front of the 20,000 runners outside the iconic town hall. The South African national anthem’s sung followed by the moving folk song Shosholoza that brings a tear to my eye. Chariots of Fire booms out before the traditional cockcrow to signal the imminent start of the race. Then BOOM! The gun goes and we’re off. I start both my watches – no chances taken there! The maths is simple – all my training has been aimed at giving me a shot at a Bill Rowan medal awarded to all runners who cross the finish line between 7 hours 30 mins and 8 hours 59 mins 59 secs, if you go over 9 hours then it’s a bronze medal – a great result, but I wanted that Bill Rowan more than any running goal I’ve ever tried for, so I have to be in the stadium by 2:30pm. At first the city streets are well lit and wide, and the heaving mass of humanity carries me along at a decent but not ridiculous pace. It’s 5:30 in the morning but the streets are lined with thousands of spectators cheering us on our way. The race alternates in direction each year, either an ‘up’ run from Durban, or a ‘down’ run to Durban. This year is a down run, but don’t be fooled by this misnomer, there are 4,000 ft of climbing on the down run! We leave the town and begin the climb up Polly Shortts, notorious at the end of the up run, but this way round, fresh and pumped full of adrenalin it’s negotiated comfortably, and we head down the other side and up the minor climb of Little Pollys. It’s just beginning to get light now and it’s an eerie feeling running in the half light. I look at my watch properly for the first time and see that I’ve already been running for 50 minutes and it seems like nothing. Maybe it’s an omen and it’s going to be a good day. We’re on a long descent now and I have my first problem of the day. I need a wee. I’m not the only one, every 50m there is a guy at the side of the road. It’s no time for decorum or looking for a suitable tree so it’s nip to the side of the road then back into the race again. Kevin is wearing a bright orange top and being about 9 ft tall is hard to miss and I see him 50 metres ahead, so I pace myself up to him and we run together for 4 or 5 km but lose each other at one of the water stations that are spaced every 2km or so along the route. I soon get into the habit of grabbing 1 water sachet and 1 ‘Energade’ sachet at each table plus orange segments and cups of coca cola every now and then as well. I’m behind my target pace, but I’m not concerned,
we’re climbing to the highest point of the race, I’m in a good rhythm and know there are 10 km of fairly flat running coming through the chicken farms of Harrison Flats where I can claw back time. Past the water tower that marks the highest point, I start speeding up a bit as planned and soon my average pace is bang on. By the time I start the next big climb I’m ahead of schedule and feeling good but am approaching the hardest part of the race in terms of climbing, the slow drag up Inchanga into Drummond that marks half-way, then three very nasty climbs before the ‘down’ begins in earnest. Before that though comes perhaps the most humbling moment of the race as we pass the school for handicapped kids at Ethembeni that is sponsored by the race. The kids line the route in their smart blue jumpers and are full of smiles and excitement as the runners pass by. I high 5 many of them as I run along and feel the tears well up as I think how lucky we are to be healthy and able to take part in this great race.
At the foot of the Inchanga climb I reach the Bedfordview (my adopted club for the race) aid table manned by Kev’s family. It’s great to see familiar faces and grab my individually prepared chicken sandwiches, High5 electrolyte bottle & Powerade gels (eat your heart out Mo Farah!) and begin the climb with my latest new friend, an Australian lady who tells me she always runs slowly the whole way up even though conventional wisdom is to adopt a run/walk strategy on this beast. What with chatting to her and working out how to juggle gels, a bottle and chicken sandwiches I’m a bit pre-occupied and before I know it we’ve reached the top. I’m amazed I’ve run to the top without any walking. I’m feeling tired but still strong.
As I approach halfway I can hear the crowd before I see them. What a sight as you pass through the flags and banners and the cheers. A feature of the race is the amazing crowds, and although you have times where there is no crowd, boy do they make up for it when you reach the well supported sections, calling your name and willing you on, dancing at the side of the road and enjoying a great party atmosphere. I could have done without the sublime smelling bbq’s that frequented the route though! But now to those three hills. The first one is OK, then I have a minutes’ walk up the next one as I’m beginning to feel the cumulative effect of all these hills. This is the essence of Comrades – though tough, each ascent/descent in isolation is manageable but each one gets more difficult than the last. The next landmark is Arthur’s Seat, a niche in the rockface that was a favourite resting place of 5 time race winner Arthur Newton. Legend has it that if you place a flower at the seat, doff your cap and wish Arthur “good morning” you will run a great 2nd half of the race.
I’m putting my faith in my training though and just give Arthur a nod as I pass by. 200m on is the Comrades Wall of Honour, a huge long wall covered in plaques bearing the names of runners who have run the race in the past. I’ve had a good look at the wall when we drove the route 2 days before so it’s a cursory glance then onwards and upwards. I’ve got it in my head that by 50K I’d be hitting the downhill, but I was still climbing past 50K, 51,52 and it was testing my resolve. I focus hard on the effort now, so much so that I don’t even notice that I’ve already covered the first of my two consecutive marathons (4 hrs 11) but eventually it’s over the brow of the last of the three hills and the descent down the epically long Botha’s Hill begins. So some nice downhill at last. Great! Until I start down the hill that is and realise that all the talk of smashed quads, jarring feet, knees and hips is not the over–exaggeration I thought but an understatement of the physical pain I’m feeling. By half way down I’m begging for it to stop but it goes on and on. Eventually we flatten out and I spend a few Km’s chatting to Yuri from the Ukraine about how mad we are to be doing this to ourselves! It’s around this point I have my one and only crisis (we’ll gloss over the two portaloo stops as I’m trying to erase them from my memory!) I reach for a gel in my back pocket and the slight change in cadence is enough after nearly 60km to throw my rhythm out, and both calfs begin to cramp. A few hundred yards further and they go into full spasm. I’ve no option but to stop and stretch. In the Paris marathon 6 weeks earlier I cramped and blew my whole race as I shuffled along for the last 5 miles, but this was going to be different! I calmly pull over to the side of the road and stretch properly while assuring the concerned spectators that I’m going to be fine. This isn’t going to beat me. A couple of salt tablets and I’m off again, crisis over. The next downhill is the notorious Field’s Hill that has broken many a runner as the intense pain in the quads returns with a vengeance but at least I have the distraction of seeing I’m catching one of the famous Comrades ‘buses’. These are pacemakers like in the UK but each group is normally huge. I think I’ve messed my calculations up as the 9 hour bus should be behind me, but I quickly confirm that this is the 8 hr 45 bus. Phew! There are around 100 runners in the bus with the driver leading the rhythmic chanting and singing that breaks out sporadically. I tag onto the back of the bus and try and relax for the next few km or so until the next of the famous climbs, Cowies Hill. This hill is short and sharp, about 1.5 km and quite steep. Very few runners apart from the elite can run the whole of this one. It’s like the Tour de France as the spectators line the climb on either side encouraging you to make it up the last ‘biggie’. Our bus driver calls a walk as the climb begins in earnest. I’m feeling
really good by now. There’s only about 20km to go and I could run up most of this hill but with time in the bank I figure a walk is no bad thing, but after a couple of minutes I realise there’s something wrong – the bus driver hasn’t started running again. I look at my watch and see the average pace is beginning to fall away. I’m so in the zone now and thinking as clear as a bell, so I turn to the guys around me and tell them I think the bus driver has ‘bonked’ in cycling parlance and we need to get going, they agree and we start running again (it transpires that the bus driver failed to bring his passengers in before the 9 hour mark so I had made a very wise decision) there are about 10 of us and one of the guys says “Hey Max, you are our new bus driver”. My first Comrades and these guys are expecting me to bring them home for 8 hours 45! I quickly tell them that I have no idea how to run the rest of the race or what pace I expect to do, so we agree to run our own races to the finish, but for 5 minutes I’ve been an unofficial Comrades bus driver! A weird consequence of taking on a race like this is how your mindset changes. There are big red sign markers counting down the km’s from the start to the finish, 90, 89, 88… and you become blasé about the distances – “only 60km to go”, “only 42km, that’s easy, it’s less than a marathon”.... As I pass the 10km board I find myself welling up as my watch tells me I have well over an hour to break the 9 hour target, if I can keep running then that medal’s mine. I force myself to get a grip and not get carried away, a trip, a stumble or another cramp could set in and the medal’s gone in a heartbeat. By now we’re on the outskirts of Durban and the sun is beating down, it’s 25C, yet I feel strangely relaxed. My legs have taken on a mind of their own, there’s no other explanation as to how they’re still going after 8 hours of more or less continuous running, so I leave them to get on with it and concentrate on keeping my head as there’s no need for any heroics now, just keep counting down the last few km markers. At last the Moses Mabhida stadium, venue for the 2010 World Cup semi-final, and our finish today, comes into view in the distance and the tears well up again before being put back in their place – it’s not over until it’s over. The crowd’s building again and the shouts of come on/well done Max are coming at me thick and fast. I wave, smile and savour every moment. A couple more km’s then it’s a left–hand turn and into the stadium concourse and down the tunnel that leads out onto the pitch. Something inside me presses a button and the memory of that vow on my hospital bed comes back, the brutal hill reps, the months and months of hard graft, those 20 plus mile solo runs, the pain and the suffering. I enter the tunnel fine but emerge in uncontrollable tears of joy, relief, pride. ‘I’ve done it, I’ve done it’ I sob as I run the last 200m round the pitch to the finish. I’m still
crying my eyes out as I cross the line but don’t care less, I’ve got my Bill Rowan medal in a time of 8 hours 40 minutes and 10 seconds.
Kev and I meet up at the club tent. He’s had a good run despite a lack of training due to work commitments and has finished well ahead of his predicted time. We head back into the stadium as darkness begins to fall to witness the incredible yet brutal finish to the race. There is a time limit of 12 hours to complete the race, and if you don’t finish within that time you get….nothing. No medal, no finish time, you are a DNF and haven’t completed Comrades despite 12 hours of effort and months of sacrifice. Kev’s brother is still on the course and we are looking for him as the clock over the finish gantry ticks ever closer to 12 hours. At 11 hours 56 mins we are starting to worry, then news comes through that he’s finished in 11:54 and we have missed him in the mass of runners coming through (50% of the entire field finish between 11 and 12 hours, many of those in the last 10 minutes), sighs of relief all round. Then the real drama begins as the first of the three 12 hour buses enter the stadium, hundreds of runners spread across the track waving and smiling. The final bus comes in with 3 minutes to go, that’s cutting it fine with a 2 minute run round to the finish but they make it! But behind the last bus the runners aren’t smiling or waving. These folks are desperately close to the 12 hour mark and are trying everything to find one last drop of energy to get them to the line. Some just haven’t got anything left and are being helped over the last 100m by fellow runners they have never met. The rules are clear, if your legs are still moving you can be helped, if not you have to be left for medical safety reasons. A man is almost being carried by runners either side and a marshal appears and they have to let him slip to the ground. Surely that’s it, but no, this race brings out inner strength that you don’t know you’ve got and he rises up onto his hands and knees and crawls the last 20 metres over the line! Others are still entering the stadium and I and thousands of others are screaming at them – “keep going, you’re so close!” the whole crowd is willing them home. then the countdown begins 10,9,8,7 and people are still scrambling for the line.
Then the finish gun goes, it’s over, the finish line is sealed off and even if you are one step away that’s it. All around the run in, runners suddenly stop dead in their tracks as the realisation that they haven’t made it begins to hit home. Many sink to the ground in exhaustion. One man stops, wobbles, then falls prostrate on his back, he has nothing left to give. The brutality of this race hits home to me as I scan the bodies scattered along the run in. What must these people be feeling who have given so much but failed to make it. But then I realise, they haven’t failed, they’ve tested themselves to the very limit the body and mind can be pushed and didn’t give up. They’ve run 56 miles in 12 hours and no-one can ever take that away. They don’t need a medal to tell them they’ve taken on, and yes beaten, the greatest physical and mental challenge they may ever face. I understand the true spirit of Comrades. I brush away a final tear and head out of the stadium a different person to the one who stood on the start line 12 hours ago and with memories that will last a lifetime.