Well done on getting to the start of the 2023 Comrades! Runners have for the past five months juggled work and family responsibilities with training. Running the Comrades is your reward and you will share the same road and dream with thousands of runners on Comrades day.
I have put together this guide, based on my 10 Comrades and 23 years of coaching runners, to help you have the best run possible and to enjoy the experience.
Estimate your goal time, Plan A, B and C
Try to make a fair estimate of your finish time based on your race times and training. A good rule of thumb is to use your marathon qualifier pace and then add on about 45 seconds/km to that pace if you are a potential silver medallist. Slower runners can add about 1 min/km to their pace, as they have usually done less mileage and the drop-off in pace is usually bigger. Some runners will now be faster than they were when they ran their qualifier, and then you can use a more recent race time.
Make a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C. Your Plan A is your ideal time if you are having a good day. Plan B is slower, but 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. You can buy a pace band at the expo and some runners will buy two, one for Plan A and one for Plan B.
Discipline over the first 30 km is the key for good pacing
Fortune favours the bold is the saying, but not with the Comrades. A cautious runner has a much better chance of running the perfect race and the first 30 km will determine whether you have a good Comrades or not. In the first 30 km you should feel as if the pace is a bit too slow, and then you will have a great run. Run the first 30 km too fast and you will lose time on the last 30 km.
A good tip is that at no stage should you feel breathless. For everyone except the front runners, the perfect Comrades pace is one where you can chat comfortably while running.
Once in your starting pen the unique Comrades vibe will be felt. With thousands of spectators lining the route and millions watching on TV, you are now part of the biggest street party in South Africa.
I like to stand at the start with a small bottle of energy drink, wearing an old long-sleeved tee shirt, which will be thrown away by the time I get to Lion Park.
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 when they really need it.
You don’t want to be one of the 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.
I want you to play the game I always do … once it gets light, look at the seeding categories around you. If you are for instance a D seeding you often will see E, F and 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.
Don’t depend on your helpers
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. Many runners have club tents on the route as well and that is a bonus.
Beat the cramps
Cramps are a constant threat on an ultra. Take electrolytes regularly (try one electrolyte tablet an hour with water) and don’t fight the cramps. When a cramp strikes, start walking until it eases or try stretch it gently. Cramps often strike when the gradient changes, and there is a sudden climb. Some runners find that taking Rennies tablets helps, while I have found that CrampNot works for me (available at Dischem). There are medical aid tents on the route, and you can also stop at one if help is needed.
Nausea is perhaps one of the biggest worries. There are a number of possible reasons. It can be from dehydration, or from drinking too much water and then the water can’t be absorbed and sloshes around in the stomach. It can also be from taking in too much carbs, especially if they are very concentrated. We can normally absorb about 60 grams of carbs per hour, and taking more than that can lead to nausea. NOTE: Try to use the same fuelling strategy that you used for your long runs.
Keep moving and use a Run/Strategy
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 a medal later when the cut-off gun goes.
For most runners, a walk/run strategy works well. The plan is to add in short walks early on before you feel the fatigue. The best is to first do this on hills. By doing this, you will find that you go further down the road than you would have, before struggling. Some runners like to use a fixed walk/run strategy. I prefer to go by feel and throw in short walks when needed.
Beat the hills
Don’t fight the hills and accept that everyone will be slower on climbs. For most runners it is wise to add some walks. Listen to your breathing, and if you are breathing hard, slow down or walk for a bit.
Respect the hill, but don’t be afraid of them. There isn’t a hill that can’t be walked.
Be cautious on downhills
The big downhills are late in the race (even the drop down the back of Inchanga to Drummond comes after almost a marathon in the legs). It is tempting to fly down hills to make up time, but it is very damaging to the legs. One of the toughest downhills is Fields Hill, as by then the legs are toast and it is not unusual to see runners walking on this downhill.
The pacing bus
You can hop into a pacing bus anytime you see one. Joining a pacing bus early on can help runners to avoid the mistake of running the first part of the race too fast. The pacing bus also helps late in a race when you are tired, as it removes some of the mental pressure and there is a shared camaraderie. But not everyone enjoys running in such big groups and then a good strategy is to join one only when needed, usually late in the race. A drawback is that you are unable to run at your own pace, so there will be times when the bus feels too fast or too fast. But if all else fails on the day, try to join a bus.
The last week
It is tempting to do nothing in the last week, but this will result in you feeling sluggish and lazy. A good plan is to rest on Monday, do short runs of 4-5 km on Tuesday and Wednesday, then rest on Thursday and Friday (most people are travelling these days). On Saturday, a light run of 15-20 minutes will ensure that you are relaxed and loose for Sunday.
Try avoid getting sick
The best is to practice social distance where possible, use hand sanitisers, and avoid shaking hands. The worst luck is to get sick while travelling and arrive there sick, and this has happened to runners. When in doubt, try to get to a doctor as running the Comrades when sick is dangerous.
Make a checklist
Remember items such as your running shoes, energy gels and drinks, sunblock, socks, Imodium, running belt, something warm for the start and for after the race etc.
Don’t spend too much time at the expo
The expo is great, especially for first timers. But register, buy some items and leave. The Durban expo is the busiest, but is often quieter the afternoon before the Comrades as the big rush is over.
Fuel up in the days before
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. The plan is to eat well without changing your diet. You can also drink 500ml of a high carb drink for the last three days (Thursday, Friday and Saturday) to make sure that your glycogen stores are topped up .
The day before … and the longest night
Try to sleep late the day before, and then stay off your feet. Time drags by slowly so the best is to keep your mind occupied with things like reading,and watching TV.
Plan your logistics, make sure you have planned transport to the start, your family and helpers know the access points, the layout of the finish and where the club tent is.
Plan to eat your supper early so that you can digest it well. Try to avoid restaurant food and have a cooked meal with your usual food if possible, and 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.
Don’t try to go to bed earlier than usual. You will just lie awake worrying about the race.
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 stuck in traffic.
Live to run another day
At the finish enjoy the feeling of achievement 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. You can also lie on your back with your feet raised on your tog bag to speed up recovery.
Congratulations, you are a Comrades runner!