Getting to the start of the Comrades is harder than running the Comrades! For the past five months you have juggled work and family responsibilities with your demanding training schedule. I’m sure many spouses and family member must have cursed Comrades at times! The good news is the hard work is done and running the Ultimate Human Race on Sunday is the reward you have worked so hard for.
I have put together this informal guide which I hope will be of benefit, particularly for novices. I have divided it into sections, starting with how to run the race.
RUN THE PERFECT RACE
Fortune favours the bold in love and other matters, but NEVER with Comrades. A cautious runner has a much better chance of running the perfect race. The first half of the UP run is much harder than the first half of the DOWN run and it must be treated with respect.
Your aim as a Comrades contender is to get safely over Inchanga just after the half way mark. If you can get to the top of Inchanga (at about 45km) feeling good then you are in for a great Comrades. In five UP runs I only managed this once as I always started too fast.
Once in your starting pen (it does sound a bit like sheep going to slaughter) the unique Comrades vibe will be felt. With 21 000 runners, thousands upon thousands of spectators lining the route and millions watching on TV, you are now part of the biggest street party in South Africa.
But you don’t want to become one of those TV-runners scuttling down the road ahead of the field for a moment of glory, before spending the rest of the day regretting it.
Instead you are going to be like a miser hoarding his gold, with gold being your energy, which you will spend as little as possible in the first half of the race.
Probably the best advice I have ever given (but sadly, hardly ever followed myself) is to run the first section of the race to Pinetown exactly as you would do on your usual weekend club runs. You know the drill with these runs, some half asleep, others disappearing into the bushes for a pee, nobody in any hurry as you catch up on the latest gossip. You KNOW your usual long run pace so well by now. In the dark with the excitement it is all too easy to run too fast. So, slot into your usual weekend long run pace and think of the first 18km to Pinetown in the dark as your warm-up.
I want you to play the game I always do … after just a few kays look at the seeding categories around you. If you are for instance a D seeding you will see E, F and even G seeded runners passing you. Now keep on looking and as the hours and hills pass, you will pass them and start passing C, B and even some A seeded runners. Now that is running the perfect race!
I like to stand at the start with a small bottle of energy drink, wearing an old long-sleeved tee shirt, both which will be thrown away by the time I get to Pinetown. The first few water points are very congested and it is easier to stay in the middle of the road to avoid the crowds at the tables, trotting along while sipping from your own energy drink. This serves two purposes: it keeps you out of the water table frenzy and it means you are unlikely to drink too much fluid in the early stage of the race. One of the problems is that with so many water tables, runners tend to drink more than usual and end up feeling bloated and unable to drink later from 65km when they really need it.
Your aim is to get to Pinetown feeling as though you have just warmed up and ready for Field’s Hill, the first big climb off the day. (You have been climbing since the start, including the back of Cowies, but since you have been taking it easy this should not bother you).
Field’s Hill is the first reality check and by now the excitement will have faded and you will notice runners who went out to fast, already struggling. Field’s Hill is a good place for a few short walks if you are on a walk/run strategy. The aim when running hills is to conserve energy and not to fight the hills. If you feel fatigue and start breathing hard, then either slow down or walk a bit. Botha’s hill is your next big climb and I have always found this tougher than Field’s Hill.
The most dangerous section of the route is the drop past Alverstone Tower down to the halfway mark at Drummond and up Inchanga on the other side. There is always a temptation to run too fast on the downhill to Drummond to make up lost time. This means risking trashing your legs and then once when through Drummond you start the brutal climb up Inchanga which becomes a double whammy. Inchanga is steep with a horrible camber and looks like a scene from a battlefield in the Braveheart movie. For many runners Inchanga marks the end of their dream of a good Comrades. But if you have been wise and run cautiously you will welcome Inchanga knowing that once you are over it you are all set for a great Comrades.
The section from the top of Inchanga through the Harrison flats to Cato Ridge and Camperdown is my favourite. It’s certainly not flat, but it does allow for cruising nicely and if you are strong you will enjoy this section. Cato Ridge and Camperdown have the most incredible vibe. There is a danger of picking up the pace and running too fast here so R.E.L.A.X. as after these two support areas the race becomes tough, even for those who have started cautiously.
The section around Umlaas road with almost 20km still to go, and Lion Park are the toughest mentally as there is little crowd support, and the scenery sucks with brown veldt on either side of the road. There are also some sneaky, nasty climbs here that on other races would have names. It is now all about survival and keeping a beady eye on your watch.
Little Polly’s can be mistaken for Polly Shortts, so keep this in mind. But there is no mistaking the bottom of Polly Shortts as you cross a small bridge and I will be there in my bright neon, orange tee shirt (unless it’s cold, in which case I will be dressed warmly) to welcome you, so watch out for me and say hi!
Polly Shortts guards Pietermaritzburg and with roughly 8km to go is the longest 8km time trial you will ever run. I have only run non-stop up Pollys once, so be prepared for a tough climb. Remember there is a TV camera at the top so try run at the top!
No, it’s not all downhill from the top of Pollys to the finish. But the end is near and the crowd support is once again huge, with each spectator shouting for you. Use these spectators and feed off the vibe and before you know it you will be on the last kilometre and hear the speakers and crowds ready to welcome you. Welcome to the ranks of Comrades runners!
BITS OF THIS AND THAT
- Try make a fair estimate of your finish time based on your race times and training. This will help you to work out a realistic pace.
- Use a pace calculator or pace band which you can buy at the expo. Make a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C. Your Plan A is your ideal time. Plan B is slower, but still a time you are happy with, and Plan C is to FINISH. Unless you have a medical reason or are pulled off for missing a cut-off, your main aim should be to finish.
Bailer’s Bus – I have bailed on 3 races in 40 years, two of them on Comrades. Each time I bailed I was near the front of the field, but having a dreadful day and had no Plan B. On both these runs I should have simply adjusted my expectations and finished. - CoachNeville
- Don’t depend on your seconds. They may get stuck in traffic and not be able to get to you. Don’t be upset if this happens, there are more than enough water tables. Your seconds are mostly for moral support.
- Seconding on the UP run is a lot easier than on the DOWN run. There is much less congestion on the second half of the UP run, making it easier to get to a runner. I normally get to about seven places on the UP run when seconding. First spot is Pinetown, then either Kloof, Winston Park or Hillcrest. The third spot is Alverstone Tower which is a bit tricky to get to if you don’t know how. Drummond is usually closed. The fourth spot would be around Inchanga or Bayat’s store. The fifth spot is Cato Ridge and/Camperdown. Then Umlaas Road and Lion Park. After Lion Park, it is wise to drive to the finish to be in time to meet your runner.
- Cramps are a constant threat on an ultra. Take electrolytes regularly and don’t fight the cramps. When a cramp strikes, try walk until it eases. Some runners find that taking Rennies tablets helps, while some find that a new product called CrampNot also seems to help.
- Keep moving! Never, ever stand still, but keep moving forward. If you can’t run, then walk. The clock is ticking and standing still could cost you dearly later when the cut-off gun goes.
- Use a walk/run strategy. Some runners like to use a fixed walk/run strategy. I prefer to go by feel and throw in short walks when needed. Rather throw in a short walk early on when feeling tired, than hang on grimly until you have no option but to walk. The aim should be to get as far down the road as possible before it becomes eina mode, and this is achieved by a cautious first half and by using walk breaks when needed.
THE LAST WEEK
- TAPER, but DON’T stop running completely. It is tempting to do nothing in the last week, but this will result in your feeling sluggish and lazy. Ideally rest on Monday, do a light run of 5-8km on Tuesday, a light interval session or easy run on Wednesday to loosen up, followed by two solid rest days on Thursday and Friday. On Saturday, a light run of 20 to 30 min will ensure that you are relaxed and loose for Sunday. The two common mistakes in the last week are doing either too little OR too much.
Horror story … in 1991 after finishing 3rd at the 56km Longtom ultra in March, I missed two month’s training with ITB. I finally came right 10 days before comrades and ran a 60km long run the weekend before the Comrades to test it … DOH - CoachNeville
- DON’T get sick. If feeling a bit off get a Vitamin B Complex injection from your doctor, take immune boosters and don’t give up hope! Some of the popular treatments you can ask for at a doctor include: Intragam (South African version of Beriglobin); ozone dripo; or neurobium injection which is a vitamin B boost.
True story …in 1997 I fell sick and I had a horrendous run with friends 7 days before the Comrades. Eventually my mates left me and ran to my house to tell my wife to fetch me in her car. I was man down most of that week, on antibiotics etc. The day before Comrades I suddenly felt better, so went and did 8 x 1km intervals to test myself. Then ran Comrades in a 6.38 PB - CoachNeville
- CHECKLIST – Do make a checklist! Remember items such as your running shoes, championchip, energy gels and drinks, sunblock, socks, Imodium, running belt, something warm for the start and for after the race.
Nightmare story – In 1987 I flew down to Durban the afternoon before Comrades as I was sponsored. Only when I got to the hotel that evening after registering at the expo did I discover that I had left a running shoe at home. I phoned a clubmate in Durban and loaned an old pair of shoes from him, a size too big. This messed with my head quite a bit!
- SAVE YOUR FEET – Don’t spend too much time walking around the expo. Register, buy some items and leave. And don’t spend hours walking on the beach.
- SLEEP – Bring your own pillow and anything that will make you feel at home and sleep better.
Pillow talk – my trusty pillow has been with to every Comrades I have done since 1984! Without it I can’t sleep - CoachNeville
- Carbo load – the emphasis is no longer as much on carbo loading as it was in the 80’s and 90s. Your body will already be stocking up on carbs as you will be running less and burning less fuel. With the Saltin diet in which you deplete your carb reserves with a long of 20km run 7 days before the race, then for 3 days eat just proteins for 3 days before switching to a high carb diet for the last 4 days, your body would super load creating extra stores of carbs. But some drawbacks are that you shouldn’t do a long run the week before the Comrades; you run a greater risk of getting sick and you feel lethargic during the protein phase with headaches. Instead the plan is to eat well without changing your diet. If you want to you can drink 500ml of a high carb drink for the last three days (Thursday, Friday and Saturday).
Carb drink babbalas – in 2009 I had what can only be called a brain fart and drank 2-litres of a high carb drink a day for the last 4 days before Comrades. For the last two days before Comrades I was so bloated and full that I was unable to eat a proper meal. - CoachNeville
THE DAY BEFORE …. AND THE LONGEST NIGHT
- SLEEP in late if possible
- STAY OFF your feet … rather read, watch tv
Believe it or not – In 1990 with two friends I went to a night club the night before the race and we returned to our apartment just in time to dress for the race after a smoke-filled night dancing with a few drinks. - CoachNeville
- LOGISTICS – make sure you have planned transport to the start, your seconds know the access points, the layout of the finish and where the club tent is.
- TICK TOCK – make sure your stopwatch is working and fully charged. Watching the setting sun to determine whether you will make the cut-off is no fun.
- LAST MEAL – eat your supper early so that you can digest it well. The same old boring food you normally eat is perfect, so don’t try something new. Your breakfast should also be early and easily digestible. We all have favourites. For years my pre-race breakfast was two slices of toast with peanut butter and honey, washed down with a cup of coffee. Lately I have started eating oats with a banana.
- ZZZ – DON’T try go to bed earlier than usual. You will just lie awake worrying about the race.
True story – In 1985 I shared an apartment with Chris Reyneke (3rd in 1984) and Piet Smit (6.26 in 1984). Around 2 am I still couldn’t fall asleep so walked into the kitchen to find Chris and Piet playing cards. Even elite runners can’t sleep! - CoachNeville
- EARLY BIRD CATCHES THE WORM – Get up very early, eat and get to the loo and head for the start. While you don’t want to arrive at the start hours too early, neither do you want to be in stuck in traffic.
WE WERE STUCK – In 2009 with Greg Barnes we took a wrong turn in Durban as some roads were closed. By the time we got to the offramp outside Pietermaritzburg the traffic was backed up to the highway. Realising we would miss the start, we jumped out and ran the last few kays to the start. Greg wasn’t fazed though and ran his PB 6.10! - CoachNeville
LIVE TO RUN ANOTHER DAY
At the finish:
- Well done, treasure the moment and your well-deserved medal even if your time wasn’t what you had aimed for.
- If cramping, dizzy or nauseous ask to be taken to the medical tent
- Get to the club tent, get warm and dry. Try eating something light such as soup. Keep on drinking fluids until urinating normally. Stay away from beer as it will dehydrate you.
- Lie on your back with your feet raised on your tog bag to speed up recovery.
- Whatsapp your friends and loved ones to tell them what a great run you had.
- Make sure your gear is waiting for you at the finish
MY worst finish – In 1991 I had a lift with a friend to Comrades and we shared an apartment. His girlfriend was to second us and after Comrades we would drive to his time-share on the coast. As the faster runner, I was ahead of him. I sat and waited at the finish for him until dark, wearing just my shorts and vest, by which time I was cold, hungry, miserable and stranded at the finish with no money, phone, transport or accommodation. I managed to catch a lift with Johan Jonker from my club (11th in 1982), and he gave me clothes, let me share his apartment and gave me a lift back to Nelspruit. When I finally managed to phone my friend, he told me he had bailed at the half-way mark, forgotten about me and drove straight to the time-share. A friend no longer! - CoachNeville
The next few weeks:
- Sleep and eat well. A myprodol or cataflam the night after Comrades will help you to sleep with aching legs
- Get to the shops EARLY the next day to buy the paper (usually the Mercury) with all the results.
- Take easy walks, go to the beach and stand in the chilly water
- No running for three weeks, but you can do easy swimming or cycling in the 3rd week.
- Now is the time to spoil your family with movies, eating out … they deserve it!
- POST COMRADES BLUES – will strike, so start thinking about new race goals. By late June you should be running again. Don’t wait until Spring and have to start unfit again. Winter is 10km time so work on your speed.