John Hurse sends in this fantastic and epic report about his fantastic & epic journey to South Africa when he took part in the Comrades Ultra
A few months ago I read a book by Haruki Murakami. “What I talk about when I talk about running”. One paragraph towards the end of the book leapt off the page and really struck a chord with me. I don’t know if this has made it to any of the quotes of the day on any social media sites but this eloquently describes what I no doubt will much less succinctly try to do.
“My time, the rank I attain, my outward appearance – all of these are secondary. For a runner like me, what’s really important is reaching the goal I set myself, under my own power. I give it everything I have, endure what needs enduring, and am able, in my own way, to be satisfied. From out of the failures and joys I always try to come away having grasped a concrete lesson. (It’s got to be concrete, no matter how small it is.) And I hope that, over time, as one race follows another, in the end I’ll reach a place I’m content with. Or maybe just catch a glimpse of it.”
As I write this I’m not sure whether this will be a race report or a form of self help, an outpouring of rambling thoughts loosely based around the Comrades experience. We’ll see how it goes, there may be an abridged version to save you feeling like you ran the damn thing yourself. If nothing else please check out Ellie Greenwood’s blog. Ellie, from Scotland finished second woman, a fantastic achievement which will unfortunately not make the mainstream press.
Chapter 1: The What
For those who have never heard of Comrades, it is a 56 mile (89km) road race that alternates routes each year between Durban and Pietermaritzburg in South Africa. The 2012 race starts in Pietermaritzburg and is known as a “down run” versus the “up run” which sets off from Durban. The 12 hour race is beamed live on TV and has huge support along the way.
The finishing times are very strict and gun to gun. The first 10 finishers receive gold medals and are completing the race in around 5hr30 for the first man home. From position 11 to 6 hours you’ll have a Wally Hayward medal hanging around your neck. Sub 7.5 hours will earn you a silver medal, sub 9 a Bill Rowan medal, sub 11hr finishers are rewarded with bronze medals and get to the end within the 12 hour cut off time and a Vic Clapham medal is yours. Once you have completed ten Comrades the race number is yours for life and you are entered into the Green Number Club.
At each cut off point the race director will stand with his back to the finish line and fire a gun to signal the cut off point. A team of marshals will block the route and redirect finishers to the new medal. Reach the finishing line 1 second after the final cut off point and you are classed as DNF (did not finish)! The last person to cross the line as well as the first person to fail to reach the line are interviewed live on TV to get there immediate thoughts. Imagine, one step short of 56 miles, 12 hours (not to mention the 6 months in training) of effort. You can see the finishing line. You could touch the finishing line. But you cannot cross. Could you express this coherently, live on TV? That’s what makes Comrades special. But there is so much more.
Chapter 2: The Why
The idea to attempt Comrades was planted during training for the 2011 Edinburgh marathon. This in turn had come from an incident where I managed to get stuck inside my jumper when trying to release an arm for a blood pressure check. The fitness increased, the waist line reduced. Edinburgh came and went and I started to think about a new challenge.
I listen to a great podcast called Marathon Talk. The two hosts were training and competing in Comrades the same time I was training for Edinburgh. Their build up to and review of the race captivated me and I knew that it was an event I had to do. It took several months for me to decide whether I had the time and dedication to attempt the training for an ultra run. Having never been further than the magic 26.2 was it best to start with a race 6,000 miles away renowned for its hills and difficulty? Well, yes. It seems so. The deadline for entry approached, I bit the bullet and signed up.
Chapter 3: The Training
Being my first ultra I didn’t want to over complicate matters and decided to use one of the basic training schedules provided by the organisers. But which level of schedule to use? Based on marathon time I was planning to aim to get into batch C start pen with a sub 3:40hr marathon qualifier rather than tire the legs with a sub 3:20hr effort to get in pen B. Reading somewhere that most Bill Rowan medalists come from groups B and C I decided the sub 9hr was as good a place to start as any.
The training is not dissimilar to standard marathon distance. The main difference is the double up of long runs at the weekend. Mid week would generally be a mixture of speed work (including a hill session) and a regular tempo run around 12 miles. A lot of my training was done alone and it is difficult to push yourself that extra bit unless you have someone there to work off. I could really tire myself out on a 10×2 minute hill repeat, but not until Darryl Davison joined me for a session did I feel I really pushed myself that fraction more that got the legs and lungs burning, hurting at the time you want it to stop but persevering through it is satisfying afterwards.
On a Saturday I would do the shorter of the two long runs, around 2 hours but on a hilly route. This would generally involve heading south of the Tyne and parking at Marley Hill with 1.5 mile undulating run to Burnopfield followed by 5 repeats of the hill down to Gibside before returning to the car. This worked out at around 14 miles. Sunday would be for the longer long run. These would generally be on flatter routes such as the Derwent trail or the Quayside / pedestrian tunnel loop and built up to around 26 miles.
Phase 1 of the training was the build up to a qualification run which culminated at the Hull Marathon. I took one for the team and ran it so you don’t have to. There’s a race report out there if you think this might be race for you.
Phase 2 was the hard training and included my two longest runs. These also incorporated some race day preparation and nutrition. The first was a flat Quayside loop course of 34 miles coinciding with the TBH 50 mile challenge so that I saw some friendly faces every so often. I managed to average 9 minute miles, which was inside race pace. The following week was a 38 mile run which had few if any flat stretches. It was tough and took around 6hr30 to complete at around a minute a mile slower than planned race pace. Not knowing what to expect on the actual day this put a bit of a doubt in my mind whether 9 hours was an achievable target. The hard training phase ended with my final long run which was in the thoroughly enjoyable new Marathon of the North event.
Phase 3 is always difficult trying to wind down, keep the legs moving and trying not to eat like there’s going to be no food left after the race. The first week of taper started with a 40 mile weekend which surprised me (it really shouldn’t as I’d read the schedule), my final taper run was with TBH along the Quayside which couldn’t have been a better end to my training.
Chapter 4: The Sunday Runners
This would be a good time to interject and tell you about a group of runners; Sunday runners specifically. There are several groups from TBH who meet up on a Sunday for a long run. One of these, and possibly the best is a group formed by Catherine Willis. It consists of runners such as Catherine and me and…. Several weeks we were almost joined by Darryl “Fair-weather” Davison, unless it was bad weather or too early, which it was every week. The first questions of the morning would be “is Fair-weather joining?” We never did break our record attendance of two.
But that didn’t matter, we were a fine group. Catherine has already mentioned in one of her race reports about our Sunday runs. Catherine would sometimes get distracted and cut across or miss a turning. “Oh sorry, was in a world of my own”. “Anything interesting?” I’d ask. Sometimes it was Asda, other times Take Me Out, one week the new Sunday Sun, the next Whitney Houston. What we talk about when we talk about running.
The advice for these runs is to make them slow and steady so that you are getting the distance into your legs but recovery is quicker. We’d aim for 9 minute miles and each week we’d blame each other for going too fast (although Catherine would blame me, deep down I think we both knew it was Catherine’s fault…). Sunday runs can be used to practice your race day. Examples include pacing, nutrition and clothing. It occurred to me there’s one thing marathoners don’t practice but something spectators, particularly kids seem to love; the high-5. Catherine wasn’t too impressed when (tongue in cheek) I suggested we included it in our training but gave it a go on a couple of overhanging branches.
You have lots of time to think in a marathon and distracting the mind can get you through some tough times. Without our group those early Sunday mornings would have been tough and having Catherine to run with really helped get me through those training sessions.
Chapter 5: The Journey
My trip to Durban started with a 6am flight from Newcastle via Amsterdam landing in Johannesburg late evening. Unfortunately there was a 9 hour wait for the connection to Durban and with the airport closing for the night I found a row of seats in the arrival hall to try and get some rest. I took the opportunity to catch up on some podcasts including one by a South African runner named Brad Brown. To my surprise a certain Mark Allison made an appearance in one of the interviews and was good to hear as I gradually regretted my decision not to get a hotel for the evening. Tired, cold and uncomfortable the final straw was a sudden attack of cramp in my calf which left me sprawling on to the airport floor. A few of the cleaners stopped what they were doing to watch as I picked myself up and sheepishly decided to wander the halls of the airport to pass the remaining 4 hours or so.
If only I had done this at the start. Upstairs I found a café that had remained open through the night. On the table next to me a guy from the UK was talking to the waiter about Comrades. Sitting on the same row on the plane we got talking about the race. Mark was staying with some locals who met him in the arrivals hall.
Despite the flights, without them I would not have met such an amazing group of people; Mark, Barbara & Mickey and Leneille & Gavin. They did so much to make the whole trip such an amazing experience.
Chapter 6: The Expo and The Route
The next morning Barbara, Leneille and Mark arrived to pick me up and visit the Expo. We had a wander around the stalls and stopped by the international runner area to pick up the race pack. After a couple of purchases we were about to head off when I remembered Zola Budd (now Zola Pieterse) was representing Newton at their stand ready to compete in her first Comrades. For those of you too young to remember Zola, born in South Africa she represented GB in the mid 80’s holding the 5,000m world record. Zola was running barefoot before not bothering to put your trainers on had been invented. I’d also heard that Bruce Fordyce (a Comrades legend running his 30th race including winning 9 times, 8 of them consecutive) had been around earlier in the day.
Arriving at the Newton stand it turned out Zola had been there not 2 minutes earlier but had headed off for the day. Unfortunate but as we headed out, off to the side a group had gathered around taking pictures. A bit of investigation and at the focus of the attention was The Bruce and The Budd. As the opportunity presented itself we sneaked through the group and got our photo taken.
They say that you have not completed Comrades until you have done it in both directions. They also say that once you’ve got 2 medals you’re half way to 10. Now, Gavin has done 5 Comrades which is also half way to 10. The day before the race Gavin and Leneille drove us from the finish in Durban along the route to the start in Pietermaritzburg providing some firsthand perspective on the route and what to expect, stopping off at some of the key areas.
The drive really opened my eyes to the hills on the course and I began to doubt whether going for 9 hours was sensible. Not just the hills, even the time it took to drive the course made me think that maybe going for the finish was a better idea than risking not completing by under estimating the difficulty and over stretching what I could really achieve.
Chapter 7: The Big Five
The term “the big five” would be a theme that ran through my trip. Comrades is known for its big five hills namely Polly Shortts, Inchanga, Botha’s Hill, Fields Hill and, finally, Cowie’s Hill. Polly Shortts in the first 6 miles and Inchanga before half way can catch out early exuberance, the final three in the second half to punish tired legs and test your will to keep pushing.
Chapter 8: The Pre-Race
The buses to take runners to the start line in Pietermaritzburg were due to set off at 2am. With this in mind I aimed to try to get some sleep from 6pm. Rather expectedly sleep did not come easy and even the dull England friendly against Belgium did not help; neither did watching Twilight (though I did learn how to stop a car with my bare hands). Checking Twitter it seemed as though everyone else in the race had given up on the idea of sleep also. At 1:30am I set out from the hotel and by 2:15am a convoy of buses was heading along the empty roads to the start line. It was on the way to the start line I finally decided to head out at 9 hour pace. Going too slow, spending more time on my feet and running at a speed I had not practiced was more of a risk than going out too fast and hitting a wall (albeit a wall that could be 20 miles from the finish line). Figuring I could at least get to a point where if the worst happened, I could still run-walk in by the final cut off time. I might not get another chance to try to get sub 9 and after the training I didn’t want to have any regrets.
The entrance to the start area happened to be next to the exit of a nightclub so there were a few confused drunken faces that appeared from the club to be greeted by an ever increasing number of runners. Friendly banter between the groups as we waited for the gates to be opened and we headed into the start zone. With a couple of hours to spare time was spent trying to keep warm and chatting to fellow runners. Dropping my bag off around 4:30am I made the way into pen C having heard they fill up quick and not wanting to attempt a climb over 6ft fence once they were full.
Soon we were shoulder to shoulder. “Arggh, sh*t!” – a guy next to me exclaimed realised he’d left his Championchip timing device in his glove compartment. Worse still the glove compartment was in a car already well on its way to Durban. His mind franticly looking for a solution gradually he was resigned to the loss and despite the number of Comrades finishes being a badge of honour this one would, at least officially, not count.
Chapter 9: The Build-up
This was one of the moments I’d heard about and looked forward to. It was at this point the last 5 months of training sank in and I realised why I signed up for this, the race suddenly became real and tangible. Prior to the start of the race they play the South African national anthem followed by Shosholoza, a traditional African folk song inspiring goose bumps and then Chariots of Fire.
A brief pause as the tension grew followed by a cock’s crow and the starter’s gun fired sending around 19,000 participants full of energy on their way to the coast.
Chapter 10: The Race
The usual hustle and bustle as the crowd surged forward to get going. As it is a gun to gun race the further back you start the less time you have to complete the course in the allotted hours. Taking small steps lifting my feet off the ground to avoid tripping on discarded apparel, trying to start running whilst holding my arms up to the back of the person in front of me, making an effort not to fall over but trying to join into the music I found myself at best looking like Rex from Toy Story on a treadmill at worst like Albert Steptoe. I stopped with the music and focused on getting past the start line.
Spectators lined the streets from the start and many of these would be friends and relatives of competitors. But even as we got through the main streets of Pietermaritzburg and into the more residential areas locals were out in the street shouting encouragement and cheering. Still not even 6am and we passed a group already fired up their braai (barbeque). Watching the side of the road and bearing in mind the time of day I noticed very few people were outside in their pyjamas (maybe they had read the Sunderland Marathon race report by Kevin Jeffress and learned a lesson). All the way along the route the support was amazing, it’s difficult to describe but you can really feel they want you to get to the end.
After a mile we hit the first actually quite steep hill. I briefly considered walking it not knowing quite how to pace it with the volume of ascent and descents. Despite being a down run there is still a considerable amount of climbing to be done. There is 5,000ft of climb and 7,000ft of descent. The majority of the uphill is in the first half leaving the second half to pound mile after mile of downhill into your quads. The highest point is passed just after 12 miles in, but still 32 miles in after passing through Drummond we were still hitting some nice long uphill stretches. Undulating would be one word. The scenery is spectacular along the route but especially so around the half way point with “the Valley of a Thousand Hills” as the backdrop. I often find myself looking down at the road or into the near distance in races but here it was a time to keep the head held high to absorb the view.
All along the route local kids stand by the side of the road collecting discarded t-shirts and hanging for high-5s. Caught up in the atmosphere I high-5’d for GB. Just before half way the route runs through the town of Inchanga and past the Ethembeni (“Place of Hope”) school for physically disabled and visually impaired children. The children lined up outside the school with their hands held out, I ran along the line. Now, all it takes is one misplaced “5” and, before you know it you’ve slapped one of these kids. That’s assault, right? At the very least it’s frowned upon. Maybe practicing high-5s in training isn’t such a crazy idea after all.
Around 13 miles I was slightly ahead of target pace and putting in a quicker mile. At this point the 9 hour bus (a figurative bus made up of runners aiming for a similar target time with a pacer known as the “driver”) came rolling by at some speed. I briefly considered going with them but could not justify the increase of speed and stuck to my own pacing. The next time I checked the Garmin 3 hours and 20 miles had passed. Time was flying and I was still feeling comfortable. At 21 miles I caught up with the driver of the 9 hour bus with hands on knees, his wheels seemingly had fallen off. Relieved I had stuck with my plan I joined the newly formed bus which was now running a more efficient and well paced run.
These types of event in South Africa have to provide refreshment stations every 5km. The first half of the aid stations supplied sachets of water and Energade as well as cups of Pepsi. Running these types of distance nutrition is a key area to completing the race. With the reduced intensity it is possible to take on more solid foods than just the usual gels used in shorter distances. Later in the race they started to provide food such as salty potatoes, bananas, chocolates and biscuits. I took on nutrition at the first opportunity and continued to “snack” my way around.
Botha’s Hill is the starting point for the trend for the second part of the day, downhill. Through the crowds of support in Hillcrest we passed round a bend onto Fields Hill where we are given a picture post card view of Durban and the coast line in the distance showing us what we were aiming towards over the next 16 miles. Fields Hill is brutal on the legs. A steady downhill and the camber of the road combine to try and jar the legs into submission. The added complexity of an uneven road surface, periodically a communal shout would signal another runner taking a tumble to the tarmac, their legs turning to jelly.
Fields Hill also triggered the point in the race where I really started to struggle. Hanging onto the bus I really needed to dig in and every walk break was a welcome as my knees and hips started to give me more and more pain. We were averaging 9:30 minute miles and using gravity to put some quicker miles in the bank. To get sub 9 hours we needed to average around 9:37min/mile, somewhere in my head this turned into 9:27 average. Starting to struggle already and now with the thought that we were not going to make the target time it was a battle to stay focussed on trying to stay with the bus. Why keep pushing and breaking down further when I wasn’t going to hit the target time? Would it be more sensible to slow down, maybe increase the walking to try and allow a bit of recovery?
Through Pinetown, another hotbed of support, I could tell I wasn’t the only one trying to battle through. I’d been running and chatting with a runner from London on and off for several hours. Gerard competing in his 9th Comrades had lots of good advice and was able to get my mind refocused on the job in hand, partly with advice and partly with some good old fashioned basic mathematics. Pointing out that with 11 miles remaining we only needed to hit 10 minute miles to the end and we’d hit the target. We’d run the down hills and walk the up hills. With perseverance and a bit of luck we’d make it.
On a normal day 10 minute miles would seem painfully slow. After 45 miles, at times it seemed painfully quick. Letting the 9hr bus push on we set into the rhythm to get us home in time. The last of the big five Cowies Hill out of the way and we just had some short and sharp climbs and descents to encounter. After a couple of miles Gerard, starting to really struggle himself and legs just about gone told me push on.
I just kept putting on foot in front of the other and sticking to the game plan, trying to walk with a purpose when needed and running with intent. The kilometre markers give distance to go rather than distance gone. Passing the 10km to Durban sign I was on 7hr59min, still on target with the 10 minute mile plan. In longer races I try to break the end into parts I know I can complete. In a marathon I imagine the last 5km as turning up on a Saturday morning to do Parkrun, going over the town moor, down Grandstand Road, past the Military Museum I can see the finish line approaching. On this day I started the run in from 10km, not my favourite distance, but the principle applies, I know that steady six miles is an easy run and try to trick my brain into believing it.
Looking back at a video of me passing through Mayville, the spring in the step has clearly long since gone and the shoulders and upper body rolling to try and propel my feet seemingly tip-toeing forward. Through into 45th Cutting (named after the British 45th regiment who constructed the cutting through the hill) and up onto the main highway that would take us into Durban. Supporters lining bridges, the more I waved acknowledging their support the more they cheered.
Plugging away the distance was gradually reducing and I was making progress slowly catching the bus again. Getting into the over and underpass roads marking the Durban outskirts I had 2.2 miles to go when suddenly I felt the starting of the same intense cramping pain in my left calf that I least had in the airport. My immediate thoughts were of panic “not now, I’m so close”, I changed to a walk as I also didn’t want to stop completely, and tried to get my hands to rub the calf area as I still made some sort progress to reduce the distance. All along the route aid stations will give leg rubs, even spectators are happy to oblige. I didn’t have time to stop and take advantage of a massage so I tested the legs to get into some kind of run and they thankfully obliged.
Dropping down off the highway and seeing the spotlights of the finish in Kingsmead Sahara Stadium we headed into central Durban and into the last 2km, the last 1km. Expecting the city centre streets to be lined with spectators I was surprised that they were not as busy as I expected. Being so close to the stadium, spectators presumably preferring to be involved in the environment of the finish zone, and as I turned the corner into the stadium I can understand why.
As I entered the stadium and ran a “final lap” it was all about me. I waved to the crowds who lined the side and to the ones in the stands. Looking back at a video of me crossing running through the stadium there were quite a few runners finishing at the same time, I barely noticed them I was so taken up with excitement of the crowds. I clenched my fists and allowed myself some celebratory air punches. And there I was in the home straight, the last few steps I crossed the line in 8 hours 56 minutes and 23 seconds. Knowing that they’d done their work for the day my legs started to cease and I slowly made my way through the finishing area to collect my Bill Rowan medal.
I found a quiet corner and lay down to rest as I listened to the announcer in the background keeping an eye out for Leneille and Barbara. After a while I saw them walking past on the other side of the fence. Legs not working I dragged myself along the grass with my hands like a zombie from The Walking Dead pulling myself up the fence shouting their names. After only meeting three days earlier it meant so much to me the congratulations, the happiness and pride they had for me completing the distance and achieving the time.
We headed to the information tent to find the latest update on Mark’s progress. He wasn’t far away, but with less than an hour remaining it would be close. There was no need to worry and he crossed the line in 11hrs50mins. As the announcers counted down the final thirty seconds to the 12 hour limit a flurry of people crossed the line. A woman fell with 20 seconds, legs too far gone to get her to finish in the remaining time. A fellow runner picked her up under the arms, dragging her across the final ten meters collapsing together over the finishing line. She was scrapped off the finish line by marshals to be stretchered off as he picked himself up, wobbled and collapsed a few steps later. As the clock hit 12 hours the officials stepped across the course blocking anymore finishers from crossing the line. A lady from Singapore was the first person to miss out, about two steps short of the line. Interviewed straight afterwards she was very graceful, more so than I would have been.
Chapter 11: The End
So, that is it. I had a feeling this would be a long review, and I did warn you. If you’re still reading I apologise but hopefully I’ve captured my experience and kept it relatively informative. Going back to the opening quote, through the training and the race itself I have endured some tough times and I have learned a lot about myself. I cannot recommend this race enough. Hopefully I will do Comrades again. Maybe next year there’ll be a couple of Black and White vests on the start line.