The Comrades Marathon – a marathon in name only
Most of us have heard the proverb that it takes a village to raise a child. In running terms, it takes several of them to get to the end of Comrades. This is a run that, as the payoff line suggests, takes all of you. Everything within and everyone without. Whilst training for the 90km run might require months of selfishness, the race becomes a day of beautiful human selflessness.
As a relative novice, having run nothing more than a handful of half-marathons, the Comrades felt like an insurmountable distance when I decided to enter the race. I’d not only need to get up the mileage to complete a marathon but I’d need to finish it in under five hours if I wanted to qualify. The thing is, I’d only ever wanted to run Comrades if I felt I could achieve a Bill Rowan medal for finishing under the original 1923 winning time of nine hours (probably to console myself that there existed a time in history when a middle-of-the-pack runner like me could have won a race). So any marathon time over three and a half hours wasn’t really going to cut it.
My first two qualifying marathons were a bit of a disaster. I finished comfortably within the required times at both Soweto and Johnson Crane but ran with the wrong chip at the first and got stuck in traffic and arrived thirty minutes late for the second. Even though I finished within what would have been a qualifying pace at that run, the start mat had stopped registering runners by the time I arrived. As fate would have it, that’s what saved my Comrades.
My wife, Jessica, had come along with me to run the half-marathon at the same event. She was hoping to have a real go at a PB but as we heard the start gun and saw the thousands of runners pour down the street whilst we were still sitting in our car more than twenty minutes from the venue, we both sank into despondency. Being parents of two small kids, we’d had to ship Jessica’s mum in from KZN for the weekend so that we could both race on the same day and the opportunity had just passed us like an impatient taxi in the bumper to bumper traffic in which we sat. After a brief sulk I persuaded Jess to join me on the 42km as a training run. Jess had never run more than 25km so it was a bit of a leap but her Polish roots tend to be pretty dismissive of difficulty.
I’ve read a lot about how women tend to be more successful ultra distance runners because they know how to pace themselves. If that’s true then I’m the girl in this relationship. We ran to the start just as the 5km fun run was beginning, sprinted through the crowd and then turned onto the, now lonely, marathon course, leaving behind a chorus of calls that we were running the wrong way. We might have departed the 5km course but Jess hadn’t left behind the 5km pace. I got a fright when I looked at our speed on my watch but when I suggested to Jess that we maybe slow down a bit she suggested I “woman up and just run”. Inevitably, the wall was waiting for Jessica at 32km. She had no nutrition on the run, hadn’t had much breakfast and had simply gone out too fast for someone who hadn’t run that distance before. The shock for me was that I felt pretty decent and Jessica’s gung-ho approach had made me realize that I didn’t need to be as conservative as I usually was. To her credit, despite being utterly depleted, she still pushed through the pain to run a time of 3:33 on her first ever impromptu attempt at a 42.
It was a quick turnaround to the next qualifier attempt but fortunately there was a relatively flat marathon taking place in Pietermaritzburg, a full 800m lower than the thin air of Johannesburg. By this stage somebody on a club run had persuaded Jessica to run Comrades as well and we decided to run the Pietermaritzburg marathon together. We targeted a time of 3 hours and 25 minutes and, thanks to the extra oxygen down there, managed it fairly comfortably. The seeding is pretty important at Comrades since it’s a gun to mat race for all competitors. With 20,000 entrants, the runners further back at the start can take anywhere up to 15 minutes to cross the line, adding a lot of pressure to make back that time. But a C batch start would be relatively negligible in terms of time lost.
And so the training in earnest began. We mixed up weekend long runs of 20 to 40km with midweek long recoveries, tempos, intervals and hill repeats. Lots of hills. And then more hills. We have the benefit of living next to Northcliff and made sure every run of ours included at least part of the many, undulating routes along that ridge. We grew to love inclines, something we’d need to do to cope with the first 40km of persistent climbing on the Comrades up run.
Up until about two months prior to Comrades we were training on instinct and we varied speed, distance and hills mostly to stave off the potential monotony involved in running 100km per week. But with so much conflicting information coming from the internet, the race snakes and the old salts, we realized we’d need to find someone to get us through to the start line unscathed by bad advice. I spent the good part of a 35km club run chatting to a friendly bloke called Bryce, who was clearly a strong runner, and he recommended his coach who had helped him progress his running, Neville Beeton. I recalled reading a number of Neville’s articles online so I got hold of him and asked for his help. I know coaching sounds a bit overboard for an average runner like myself and, in all honesty, I would have thought the same had it not been for how daunting Comrades is. It was hugely reassuring to have someone with his experience and race history putting us on target and guiding us through to race day. I also appreciated that he didn’t laugh at me when I said we wanted to run a Bill Rowan (many experienced runners had told me to rather settle for a bronze on my first go).
After a few weeks of fine-tuned training and, finally, the guilty enjoyment of tapering we arrived at the 4th of June feeling happy with both the quantity and quality of our preparation. But, as many veterans had warned us, fitness only gets you to Inchanga. Covering the remaining 40km requires mental stamina and that’s something one can only discover on the day.
We began the race very, very conservatively. As I mentioned, Jess has a habit of tearing off at the start of races, so the deal was that I would govern the pace for the first 60km. Nine times winner, Bruce Fordyce, maintains that you simply can’t go slow enough at the start of the ‘up’ run and I was determined to stick to his advice. We would need to average roughly 6:07/km to earn a Bill Rowan. On paper that seemed pretty straightforward.
Barry and Jess in Born2Run colours on Field's Hill
When we arrived in Pinetown (18km in) we were averaging just 6:20/km. That was a bit more conservative than I would have liked but at least Cowies, the first of the major hills (there are five legendary, named hills and at least twice as many untitled hills that would earn names at any other race), was behind us. I wasn’t too concerned at that stage. We pushed up the second major climb, the 3km grind of Field’s Hill, and continued our rise up towards Winston Park. The crowd support at this stage was unreal. It was now around 7:30am and the edge of the road was a continuous line of people shouting support for every runner that passed. With your name displayed clearly on your bib, you’d regularly hear spectators urging you on, offering cheers and encouragement as if you were representing them personally. International runners, indicated by their blue numbers, came in for extra special support. You’d quickly forget that there’s any animosity in the world in the middle of the Comrades pack. Sincere choruses of “C’mon USA! Keep going, Germany! Allez, France!” were yelled from the pavements and were reciprocated with waves and smiles. Whilst the aid tables offered fluids and food, families and friends braaing (barbecuing) their breakfasts happily shared with any runner that asked. People stood at their driveways holding out their own oranges, bananas or sweets for any runners that needed them. I’d never experienced anything like it. I wanted to walk, soak it all in but the cutoff guns wait for no runner. We had to push forward.
Despite two of the major hills behind us, the climbing didn’t let up. We carried on up to Drummond, the 43km mark, which included the painfully steep Botha’s Hill. This was the first hill where I employed a run/walk strategy using telephone poles as my markers. At this stage I began to feel a bit panicky. We were still a couple of kilometers short of halfway, my legs were feeling the effects of a full marathon of pure climbing and my watch was telling me that we were well behind goal pace and would need to run the remaining 44km a lot faster if we were going to make our target. Despite being winter, the temperature had shot up, approaching the thirties, and many people were beginning to display the effects of the sticky heat. I was battling nausea and, judging by the number of runners on all fours at the side of the road, I wasn’t alone. Of the 3,000 people that had to retire on the day, I’d say most probably left the course at that point. The entire morning had felt surreal up until that point but, looking at the state of some of the runners surrounding us, it finally dawned on me that we really were running Comrades.
By the time we crested the eternal, lonely climb of Inchanga (Zulu for ‘edge of the spear’) at 48km I was completely despondent. My legs were gone, I was soaked in sweat from cap to socks and I was sure I was going to heave up whatever I had in my stomach, which was nothing. I began to wonder how I was going to finish this godforsaken race. A Bill Rowan wasn’t even a possibility in my head. It was a pretty dark place to be. But, thanks to that traffic jam at the Johnson Crane, I had Jessica next to me. She tried numerous tactics, rolling through a list of reasons for me to pick my head up again, like the time we had sacrificed to get there, showing our children what we could do, my parents being proud of me, but nothing worked. So she broke the emergency glass. She ran away from me.
The first time she did it I nearly cried. Seriously, I felt like a kid who had been abandoned by a parent in the mall. After a few seconds of panic I realized she wasn’t going to turn back for me, the only way to catch up to her would be to, well, catch up to her.
This is where the negotiations started. One part of my brain began comforting me and explained that it would be perfectly okay to let Jess charge off into the distance and walk for a bit. Hell, I could walk the rest of the way if I wanted to, throw in a few jogs here and there and I’d have a finishers medal! The other side of my brain argued that, given the amount of hard work Jess and I had put in, anything less than a Bill Rowan was quitting. Bad Brain replied that it had a doctor’s note saying I physically couldn’t run for another 500m so Good Brain should shut up. Good Brain replied that the note was written in my own handwriting and that I could run for the next 500m, it’s just that I didn’t WANT to. Whilst Bad Brain and Good Brain argued over whether I could run the next 500m, I had covered 500m. This only caused the fighting between them to escalate as they argued about the next 500m or whether it was humanly possible to reach the next tree or bridge. It sounds mentally exhausting and the truth is, it absolutely was, but this was how I covered most of the ground for the remaining distance to Polly Shortts. There was no movie moment where I clenched my jaw, stared the hill in the face and declared that I would never be beaten, never back down. There were simply two idiots in my head fighting over the steering wheel whilst the dilapidated vehicle continued rumbling down the tar. The good news, though, was that the vehicle was now rolling downhill.
The road from Inchanga to Polly Shortts, the last major hill, was generally flat with only some minor undulations and small climbs. I survived water point to water point and for the next 20km we maintained a pace in the low 5 minutes per kilometer. Miraculously our Bill Rowan goal had become a possibility again. At that stage, on impotent legs, the steady pace was painful but merely standing on the side of the road would have hurt anyway. Fortunately my brain had finally accepted our fate, that no part of me was going to feel any better for the remainder of the day, and so it stopped protesting and retired to the back of my head where it could sulk quietly.
We chugged over Little Polly’s (the smaller hill that is often mistaken for the real thing) and finally arrived at the bottom of the climb that breaks the hearts of many people every year, from those racing for gold to those trying to avoid the cutoff. That hill felt like half the race itself. It’s peppered with blind corners, false summits and false hopes and it doesn’t end. Until it does. I had banked enough time along Harrison Flats to alternate between walking and running up Polly’s. Jessica, clearly didn’t trust my maths and I watched her weaving effortlessly between runners and slowly disappearing up the hill. I wasn’t upset, though, I was proud of her.
The feeling when I crested Polly Shortts was second only to the joy of arriving on the grass at the finish. I knew then that I was going to be getting my Bill Rowan, all I had to do was run just over five minute splits for the remaining 8km and I would be comfortably home under 9 hours. I had a stupid sheepish grin pasted across my delirious pale face, people were calling my name, random strangers were telling me they were proud of me, some guy sprayed me down with his garden hose (I made a mental note to buy him beer for the rest of his life). That was the most serene 8km I’ve ever run in my life.
When my feet hit the soft turf of the race course, the tears finally flowed. I was physically and mentally finished. I had been waiting for the moment when I would finally figure out why I had entered the Comrades and that epiphany happened there as I jogged towards the amber glow of the finish clock. At that moment, when I crossed the line, there was nothing left of me but who I am. And I was content with what was there.
My parents, who had seconded Jess and I at regular points along the route were waiting at the finish. They had seen Jessica enter the stadium without me and feared the worst, that I hadn’t made it over Polly’s. My dad later told me that when they saw me enter the stadium four minutes later, my mum had grabbed the helpless guy seated in front of her and screamed “Run, Barry! Run!” before bursting into tears.
There’s a reason that moment meant so much to her. Two years prior to that she had spent months by my side whilst I underwent weeks of radiation for a head and neck cancer. By the time I was halfway through the treatment I could no longer eat and she had to feed me via a tube directly into my stomach. She watched helplessly as I wasted away in front of her to the point where I couldn’t walk from the car to the oncology rooms without assistance. When she saw me arrive on the grass and sprint for the line it brought home how long that journey had been and she was witnessing the last 87km of it.
A frail Barry with his daughter, Quincey, a month after radiation treatment
Between the finish line and the public areas I must have hugged about ten other people that I’d never met before in my life. Nobody cares about anything when you’ve just finished Comrades. Every kilometer of that race is the accumulated good potential of human beings. It’s a kind of mob mentality, but the kind where people lose all their self-consciousness and rush to help everyone they see rather than loot a shoe store. I don’t know how or why all that magic comes together on that one day every single year, I’m not sure anyone does, but this race is special. Even if right now you’re the type of person who can’t see themselves running a marathon let alone an ultra, just know that there are tens of thousands of people that will come out on that wonderful day and carry you to the end of it by any means necessary. And you will arrive at the finish a different person to the one who lined up at the start.