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June 2, 2015 Comments (5) All Posts

The Comrades – What it’s like to race the oldest and largest ultra in the world

The Comrades – a definite bucket list ultra

On Sunday, I had the great pleasure of joining more than 22,300 runners for the 90th annual Comrades Marathon in Durban, South Africa. Known as the oldest and largest ultramarathon in the world, this was a ‘bucket list’ race for sure. If -for nothing else -it was just to see what it’s like when this many people run 87km (55 miles), and visit a country on the other side of the globe known for its hospitality to runners. The experience did not disappoint.

‘The Comrades’, as it is known, has a deep, intertwined history with the growth of South Africa. It began in 1921 as a dedication to South Africa’s World War I veterans; a way to celebrate mankind’s spirit over adversity. It helped unify a country through World War II, the race struggles of apartheid and build an enduring legacy that spans generations. I was given the opportunity to chat with Bruce Fordyce, a nine-time winner and Comrades legend, who completed this journey 20 times. He emphasized that even in this sport-loving country, Comrades is as big as it gets. Bruce would know – he’s traveled the world to win races on every major continent, and his 50-mile world record of 4:50:21 set in 1983 still stands to this day.

Chatting with nine-time Comrades winner and 50-mile World Record holder Bruce Fordyce

Chatting with nine-time Comrades winner and 50-mile World Record holder Bruce Fordyce

Over 11,000 runners have a ‘green number’ having completed The Comrades 10-plus times

This was an ‘up year’ (it alternates directions each year). This means we would run from the coastal town of Durban inland to Pietermaritzburg. I chose to stay in Durban, a charming coastal city known as a tourist hot spot. South Africa is an attractive destination, where English is spoken fluently. The graciousness of the people was unbelievable. I felt really relaxed going into the race. I particularly enjoyed the gospel-like tribal music of the Zulu (and other tribes) that seduced my hips into twisting and turning with every beat.

On the morning of the race, I walked to the starting line with dozens of others, navigating through the hordes of Saturday night vampires rolling out of the clubs and betting halls. The race bibs were well marked (number of previous runs, country, name, etc). This made it was easy to strike up a conversation with anyone. The amount of special ‘green numbers’, which signifies runners who had 10+ finishes, amazed me. Some runners even had 20 (double green), 30 (triple green) or 40+ finishes… it was like a country of Tim Twietmeyers! Over 11,000 runners now have a green number, which is simply astounding.

Standing on the start line, my un-acclimated body dripped with sweat. In retrospect, if I’m going to fly 22 hours, it’s probably best to give myself 3-4 days before the race to be at least a little prepared. Some of my fellow runners had hats, gloves, and makeshift garbage bag vests to stay warm. I couldn’t believe it. I was red hot. There were a few costumed runners but most of the field (96% from South Africa) represented their local running clubs with striped and cheetah-print pride. This was the pinnacle race event of the year for most runners.

The Comrades Marathon course profile

The race to beat 12 hours and avoid the aggressive ‘closing of the gate’

Many of the participants asked me what my goal was. I told them I was going to take it out comfortably and see where I ended up. On a good day, I might qualify for a ‘silver medal’ (6hr-7:30hr finish), but likely would be shooting for the ‘Bill Rowan’ (7:30-9hr), or perhaps casually bringing in a ‘bronze’ (9-11hr) or ‘Vic Clapham’ (11-12hr). One thing for sure is I knew I had to get there before the final cut off – this race is known for its aggressive ‘closing of the gate’ at exactly 12 hours. The crowd of 22,300+ strong stood and sang the South African national anthem at full tilt. The fantastic ‘Shosholoza’ Ndebele song would run through my head for the next four hours. One loud ‘ca-caw’ and the final gun… Comrades had begun!

As we charged through the city and took over the highway, I immediately noted some very different things about these runners. First, there was ZERO headphones. Second, not a lot of selfie photo action… in fact, I was mocked a bit any time I pulled out the camera. Costumes were everywhere, and the tribal-inspired traditional outfits were particularly enjoyed by the crowds. The strides of my fellow runners were long and easy, which I guess shouldn’t have been a surprise when racing in Africa. Most of the conversations were in local dialects. Nonetheless, I could pick out the inflections of encouragement and a fair amount of teasing and joking.

A double green number, showing that Marius has run The Comrades 20+ times

A double green number, showing that Marius has run The Comrades 20+ times

Attendance at The Comrades has doubled in the last decade

The distance markers were in reverse, telling you how far to go rather than how far you had gone, so ’60km to go’ wasn’t exactly the most inspiring sight. But I was glad to find the hills were all runnable – challenging compared to your normal road race, but nothing compared to a trail ultra. The hot African sun peaked over the hill just as we hit the downside of Cowie’s Hill (20km in), and I was running just under 8 min/mile pace.

The ‘green number’ runners graciously offered advice and let me know what was coming up. One of them explained to me that once you get a green number, you can keep that number for life, and even pass it on to your kids. Wow! What a great incentive to lure in the next generation. It turned out be one of the many genius marketing aspects to this race. Others included the time-based medals named after founding runners, the ‘back to back medal’ (extra medal for finishing an up and down together), the caps that had the map on the underside of the visor (thus being the default headwear on race day), the encouragement of the running clubs to set up and provide assistance on the course and the iron-on badges that many had turned into great jackets. It’s no surprise attendance at Comrades has doubled in the last 10 years.

Out in the countryside on The Comrades route

Out in the countryside on The Comrades route

‘Today you have a Comrades race number. You’re a hero. You can grab a beer or burger from anyone. Tomorrow you’ll get punched in the face for trying that.’

I hit the halfway point at Drummond (44km, mile 27) in 3:36:10, just a minute under the pace for a ‘silver medal’ finish. I was still feeling comfortable, much in thanks to the well-stocked aid stations every couple of miles. The water was brilliantly handed out in recyclable 150ml bags that were easy to bite into and either drink or spray. I wondered why we haven’t seen this in the States yet. I was doing more spraying at this point as the African sun started to pound down on us and push the temperature into the high 70s. It was hot, though not ‘Africa hot’, so actually many of the locals were happy with the conditions.

As we got out into the countryside, we alternated between long stretches of lonely road, and huge parties put on by local vendors and towns. School kids showed up in uniform and church-goers cheered in their Sunday best. Everyone had a ‘braai’ rolling (the local BBQ). As Bruce told me, “since you have a number on, you’re a hero today… you can grab a beer or burger from anyone… tomorrow you’ll get punched in the face for trying that.”

As we approached Camperdown (70km, mile 43), the afternoon heat started to take its toll and created a long line of walkers. I soon realized many of them weren’t exhausted; they were just being smart about heat management. I did not do this and quickly paid the price. I vomited on the sideline, dizzy with heat. It wasn’t until some locals helped me fill my handkerchief with ice that I was able to get rolling again. Mile 40 clocked in at 16 minutes. Just like that, the silver medal was out of contention. That’s okay; I now had lots of buffer and could relax knowing the ice radiator on the back of my neck was doing the trick.

The km markers counting down the distance to the finish

The km markers counting down the distance to the finish

The Comrades – a celebration of running

As I cruised along at a more casual 9 min/mile, I wondered how my fellow US athletes were doing. Sage Canaday and Max King -two of our fastest – were both here. Perhaps one could make the top-10. I sent good vibes to Dave Mackey, who was having his leg painfully rebuilt from a fall he took in the Colorado Mountains. I also thought of my great uncle, 92-year-old Ray Morris, a 16-time Dipsea runner in the 80’s whom I recently reconnected with after 33 years. He wanted me to send him a text message during the race in his last days of surviving pancreatic cancer. To those who cannot run today, this day was also for you. It was a celebration of running!

The last steep climb at Polly Shortts (83km, mile 51) brought almost everyone to walking pace – I would soon learn even the winner of the women’s race had done the same. I cruised through the last few miles and entered the finish area. A tailgate-meets-stadium filled with thousands of race supporters and team tents. Incredible! I hit the finish line in 8:08:25; good enough for 840th place, and received a hearty thank you from the race directors for coming to their race. They told me, “You international runners are a big part of what makes this race great… we hope to see you next year so you can pick up that back-to-back medal”. I was already thinking about the next Comrades before I even got my first beverage from the debut one!

I soon retired to the international runners’ tent to grab a beer and cheer on fellow finishers. The vibe was amazing at the finish; particularly when a time deadline for a medal would come within the final seconds. Hundreds of well-paced runners would sprint around the final oval as the crowd goes wild. Members of all clubs would stand on their feet, and scream, holler, and stamp the side boards with their hands. The crowds got bigger with every hour that passed. It was so much fun! With 13,006 runners finding the finish, Comrades boasts an outstanding 74% finish rate. Apparently more than half the finishers come in during the final hour… that has got to be a cheer heard around the world.

Check out the cheering in this video of the winning finish to get a feel for it:

Third American to finish? Me? Holy crap! That’s humble-bragging rights for the rest of my life!

I learned from the other finishers that this race, the 90th Comrades, had been a historic day as, for the first time in 23 years, both winners for the men and women’s division hailed from South Africa. Gift Kehele (5:38:35) was the overall winner, after placing third last year, much to the excitement of his older brother who won the race in 2001. Caroline Wostmann (6:12:22) was a favorite after winning Two Oceans this year, and led by a large margin over the Russian twins who have dominated this race for years. Ellie Greenwood, the 2014 women’s champion, finished a respectable 6th (6:44:03).

Sage Canaday (6:03:47) took 15th overall and was the fastest US male finisher, while Max King finished 52nd (6:33:48) as the second American. Guess who was 3rd? Me! Holy crap, I just podium’d with Sage and Max. I am humble-bragging that for the rest of my life!

It was a relief when this came into view!

It was a relief when this came into view!

Super-comfortable RACE ULTRA 270 performs on roads as well as trails

As I headed back to Durban on the bus, chatting with Australian ultrarunner Amelia Griffith, I felt completely transformed. I always enjoy the adventure of traveling to new race destinations, but Comrades had simply blown my mind. It was like…actually, it was exactly like… finding out there was a place on the other side of the world that holds the true roots of your sport, with a community of tens of thousands who welcome you with open arms and a strong, generous spirit. The tagline for Comrades -‘Bamba Iqhaza’ means ‘be a part of it’. I am so glad I did! Add this race to your bucket list, my friends, and you will not be disappointed.

I ran The Comrades in my inov-8 RACE ULTRA 270 shoes. They worked really well, providing me with comfort from the repetitive pounding on the pavement but also allowing my swelling feet to breathe in the heat. I could have also run in the RACE ULTRA 290 had I wanted even more cushioning and protection.

Race Ultra 270

5 Responses to The Comrades – What it’s like to race the oldest and largest ultra in the world

  1. […] to know more about Comrades? Here’s Scott Dunlap’s thorough report from his maiden run at the world’s biggest and oldest […]

  2.' Michael Jimenez says:

    Scott, how exciting! This was a truly unique and thoroughly engaging read. Thank you for sharing this wondrous adventure, I kept thinking about how neat it must of felt to of participated Ina race that envelopes it’s participants in such a historical pantheon of race tradition! Also a big congrats on the USA Podium 🙂

  3.' A says:

    Great race report! I always like reading your posts.

  4.' Caroline says:

    There were actually only 13006 official finishers, well done on being one of them 🙂

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