The first half of this year has been all about one thing: preparing for the 2016 Comrades Marathon in South Africa, the oldest and arguably greatest ultra race in the world. This year it will see 20,000 people run between the cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban. Having a fresh focus on this 89km road race has definitely revitalised the running part of my soul after a less than satisfying 2015.
* Follow Brendan’s live updates from Comrades on his Twitter takeover *
To be honest, the end of last year couldn’t come quick enough. In 2014 I finished 5th overall in the Ultra-Trail World Tour after top-10 results at TNF 100, Ultra-Trail Mt Fuji and Western States. Encouraged by those performances, I decided to compete on the same circuit in 2015 and try to improve on my finishing positions. However, what eventuated was a series of disappointing results. I put it down to an accumulation of being overworked (I started my own business coaching runners here in Australia), travelling epic distances across the world for races, taking part in too many long ultras and giving myself insufficient recovery between big efforts. Simply put, I was burnt out and, as a result, falling out of love with trail running. I think in my mind I had definitely tested and proved the theory that ‘familiarity breeds contempt’.
In late 2015 I finished top-20 at the 100km World Championships and then backed this up to help Australia claim Team Bronze in the 50km World Championships. These two forays back into road running reignited my love for the black top. It was then I decided that I had to change up my training and racing in order to continue as a performance-focused athlete. So began the road to Comrades, dubbed the Ultimate Human Race.
The Comrades has always been on my bucket list, but previously proved a tricky one to fit into my trail racing schedule. This year is different. I have a very healthy respect for the Comrades… it is without doubt the most competitive ultra marathon on the planet and I would never go over to South Africa without bringing my A-game to the table. When you see 2014 world 100km champion Max King and outstanding ultra marathon runner Sage Canaday finishing outside the top 10, you know that this race is indeed the real deal. Click on the image below to read Scott Dunlap’s excellent report on last year’s Comrades.
My training plan for Comrades
And so in December last year I mapped out my Comrades campaign. The main principles which I wanted to adhere to looked something like this:
* Avoid as much ‘training’ on trails as possible. I would use trail running for hill sessions or easy runs only.
* Stick to a very Lydiard dominated training regime, periodising it to Comrades and reaching minimum 100-mile training in 3 out of 4 weeks a month. No compromise.
* Avoid too many easy paced runs. Going out running too often with the athletes I coach was leaving me too fatigued and unable to put in my own quality sessions.
* Train much more on the road and track, and generally run at least half of my weekly mileage at around 4:00min/km pace.
* Consistently take part in shorter road races for training purposes – this would provide ‘signposts’ of my progress and help with mental confidence. I’ve always believed that training for a fast 5km is just as tough as training for any other distance.
* Maintain my race weight and be more disciplined with all the other elements that make performance improvements.
The year has thus far gone to plan. I’ve gradually built up my mileage to average 100-mile weeks and have been pleased to see the average pace of sessions plummet. I’ve been very consistent with my training, as can be seen from the weekly totals below.
My weekly training has generally consisted of this:
Monday: Aerobic Run 10km+ at around 4:00min/km pace or recovery run.
Tuesday (am): Strength focused sessions, e.g hill repeats or hilly fartlek session.
Tuesday (pm): Easy on road.
Wednesday: Long, steady state run or long VO2 reps session, all done around 3:45min/km pace or quicker.
Thursday (am): Track session (short reps) or longer reps on road.
Thursday (pm): Easy on road.
Friday: Aerobic run 15km+ at around 4:00min/km pace.
Saturday: Long tempo session often including a 5km Parkrun.
Sunday: Training race or longer aerobic run 30+km at around 4:15min/km pace.
I’ve limited my long runs too. Prior to the Comrades, which is 89km, my longest run this year will have been 56km. This has been done deliberately to ensure that the quality of that session has been reached, and also to avoid the longer recovery times that running bigger distances require. With all the long ultras I’ve done in my career, I’m pretty sure that the endurance and distance of Comrades won’t be an issue.
Picking the right running shoes for Comrades
Gear-wise I’ve trained primarily in the Road-X-Treme 250 and 220. In the last few months I’ve been lucky enough to get my hands on a prototype pair of a new inov-8 road running shoes and love the extra level of protection these offer. For race day, I’ll wear the Road-X-Treme 220.
Races have also formed an important component of my lead-up to Comrades. I’ve used them strategically for different purposes. Each one I’ve made sure these process goals have been at the forefront. As such, I didn’t invest mentally in the races, nor did I sacrifice my training by tapering before or recovering heavily around any them. It’s always a bit of a gamble racing for training purposes like this. Yes, there is a lot to gain mentally from them if they go well, but if they don’t then they serve the opposite purpose.
But then I’ve always been a bit of a gambler! I never push as hard in training as I do on race day… and by giving myself these hard efforts along the way I feel they have in themselves continued to build my training momentum, confidence and self belief.
I’ve also been fortunate to have the use of an AlterG treadmill, allowing me to rack up extra miles without the associated impact fatigue that would come from a similar session done regularly. The other benefit is that I’m able to sustain a faster pace for longer periods, say when I’m performing a session at 75% of bodyweight. So in practical terms, the pace I’d only usually be able to sustain for a couple of minutes on the track can be reached, bettered and sustained for much longer. In fitness terms this has ‘bought’ me loads of fast paced kilometres without considerable effort, but more importantly it’s stirred up my fast twitch to new levels. I really do believe this has made positive adaptations in regards to leg turnover and efficiency.
And it’s showed. In the lead-up I’ve hit new personal bests in all distances, from 5km to marathon, have made the podium in three of the biggest races in Australia: the ‘short trail’ events of Six Foot Track, 2 Bays Trail and the Canberra Road Marathon. More critically though, these races made me feel strong, determined and eager to test myself against the very best in the world at Comrades.
Last week, the Ultra-Trail Australia circus (formerly TNF 100) hit town and it was hard to sit it out. It’s an event very close to my heart and my win there in 2013 opened a lot of opportunities for me. Fortunately the addition of a 22km race to the event still allowed me to participate. I was a very close 2nd to top Australian runner Dave Byrne, after leading for all but the last 2km. The goal for this race was to nail the course’s long downhill section and give the quads a good belting with the idea that the regrowth of stronger, battle-hardened quads will be now well conditioned for the final 35km of hard downhill in Comrades. Again, this race ticked all the boxes and I now go to Comrades with the very rare feeling that I’ve just done about everything I could do in my training build up.
The only thing left now is to execute the plan and run my race. I can’t wait to soak up the history and prestige of the oldest ultra race in the world, to stand among the 20,000 other runners at the start, listen to the stirring rendition of Shosholoza and then run.