Comrades may blow your mind 

My article on mind strategies for the Comrades marathon is in remembrance of Greg Barnes (left), who ran a Comrades best time of 6hrs 10 minutes. Greg passed away from the Covid last year.  I am seen here with him before the start of a Comrades, and I coached him for many years. He will be in our thoughts on Comrades day. 

Some call it the Pain Cave, while others say that it is a dark place in the mind you go into when suffering. Comrades runners may hit bad patches on the road between Pietermaritzburg and Durban and find themselves in that dark place, but there are ways to cope with it and beat it.

The irony is that in the Comrades marathon, surrounded by thousands of other runners and thousands of spectators, you may feel alone at times, as if you are the only person suffering. But remember that you are never alone.

The first trick to avoiding extreme pain is to be afraid of pain and try to postpone the extreme pain for as long as possible. It makes sense being in pain for as short a time as possible and this is achieved by starting slow and being cautious. The first third of the race (roughly up to Cato Ridge) should feel as though you are running a bit slower than you should. By conserving energy early when you are feeling excited and fresh, you will get further down the road before it starts to get really hard. 

Running such long distances requires huge mental energy, so try to think of your mental energy as a pie. The smaller the slice of pie used for the first third of the race, the bigger the slice of  mental energy pie that you will have to draw upon later when you really need it. Taking it cautiously from the start means that you will use a smaller slice of your mental energy pie in the first third of the race.

Another good way to conserve mental energy early on is to relax, enjoy the vibe and not think of it as a race. In my Comrades days, I used to joke and say that I always wished that I could wake up 30 km into the race, look around and say, “Wow, it’s Comrades”, and then I would have had a great run. 

If things are going wrong, and we all have those days sometimes, then the best is to regroup. This may mean slowing down or walking to recover, taking in fuel, and changing your goal time to a slower one. The sooner that you regroup when things are going really wrong, the better. The aim of regrouping is to let go of the race that is going badly, recalibrate yourself and then get going with a new race and a new you. This also helps as it is mentally tough when you are struggling. Regroup, and get going again, and you may find that you feel great later on and run well.

For most runners, the hardest section of the race is perhaps after running about two-thirds of the race, as by then you have covered the distance you did on your longest 60 km training run. It is also around 60-65 km that the legs are sore, yet the finish is still too far away to get excited. It is in the no-man’s land, a soul-destroying section of the route, that runners will be asking themselves hard questions such as, “why am I doing something so crazy”. It is when this happens that you need good answers. While finishing the Comrades just to tick it off a list of things that you achieved, may help, it’s not going to be enough of a reason when it gets really tough. It is here that having an emotional reason can help, when you are doing it for someone special in your life, or for something bigger than yourself. It is when we run for a greater cause that we cope best with the suffering and reach new heights. Find your Why.

You can tap into the energy from those around you. Look around you, see runners bravely struggling on, and remember that you are one of them, Comrades in arms. Try to get into a small group or bus if struggling, as it is easier to be strong and motivated when in a group. This beats walking alone, feeling sorry for yourself. If you can keep your sense of humour, it also really does help in avoiding self-pity.

Use the energy from the spectators. They have been standing there for hours and are there for you. On my first Comrades in 1984 as a 22 year old, I was cramping badly about 8km from the end, and fell over from the cramps. A woman helped me to stand up, and said, “you are my hero!” as I continued to hobble down the road. That special moment sustained me to the finish line and a silver medal. Interact with the spectators, talk to them, joke with them, and you will find that they are delighted to be seen and recognised by you. Use them, you are the reason they are standing there. 

You will find as you get through the dark patch, and start to get closer to the finish, that your mental energy and motivation will start to return, even though your legs are hurting more. Once you get to 10 km to go, it is easier to visualise yourself doing 10km, and it is a great mental lift seeing the countdown when it is single digits 9 …  8 … 7 …

Once you have reached this stage, there is nothing that will stop you except the clock at the finish line.

Coach Neville

For the past 22 years I have helped hundreds of runners achieve their dreams, using the Recovery Based Training System I have developed. 

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