The Comrades Marathon is an ultramarathon of approximately 89 kilometers (55 mi)
which is run annually in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa…. between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg.
Hi, my name is Heiko, and today I want to share with you valuable information if you plan to run, or have ever dreamed of running the comrades marathon.
I had this dream, since childhood to get that comrades medal… and this obsession grew that I put immense pressure on myself to get that back to back medal…. Which I did.
Back 2 Back medals means you completed two Comrades marathons in succession.
But I am getting carried away…. Let me continue to explain more about what the Comrades actually is.
It is the world’s largest and oldest ultramarathon race. And having run in over 50 countries, it is one of the best I participated in … although it took a lot out of me. And till date I never got the result I trained for.
Now you have to understand, growing up in sports crazy South Africa…. I started observing & learning from the Comrades runners, that’s what you do…. It’s a big part of life down there.
Back when I was a young boy, it was the only day of the year where we were allowed to put the TV on a Saturday morning.
The TV transmission started at about 7:00 so you couldn’t see the start, as it was still dark then… and during the whole day you would keep the TV on, or go over to the neighbor’s house, watch some TV there. And of course, everybody knew someone who was participating.
This is where I started to realize that there are certain people that say running such far distances “it is insane” …. “it can’t be good for you”, “it’s impossible”, “I would never be able to do it…”
…..and others that obviously “do” and- “did it”.
I started listening to those runners’ that had completed the race and had firsthand experiences, by the way the race has its origin to 1921 always from either Durban to Pietermaritzburg, or Pietermaritzburg to Durban over 90 km…and then watching those runners’ cross the finish line. It did something with me. It made me set goals early on in life and learning how to reach them. A step at a time.
Now there is often some critique as to the name. The Ultimate Human race. And in some forum’s runners’ tend to get pretty upset at the Comrades using those words.
I am sure they have a point, and there are races that are further, longer harder, tougher etc.
But rather than complaining and voicing your opinion just do the races you enjoy, and let bygones be bygones.
It’s a South African race.
With a deep history, great crowds and great memories for many runners. And what makes it special is, that it’s a challenge that is or at least feels, to be accessible for all level of runners. Whether you have just shed a ton of weight and started running, or you just completed a multiday run event over treacherous terrain, the Comrades is an experience in its own. To run with people from all walks of life and build your unique memories.
History of the Comrades
The Comrades was run for the first time on 24 May 1921 (Empire Day), and with the exception of a break during World War II, has been run every year since. The 2010 event was the 85th race. To date, over 300,000 runners have completed the race.
The race was the idea of World War I veteran Vic Clapham, to commemorate the South African soldiers killed during the war.
Clapham, who had endured a 2,700-kilometre route march through sweltering German East Africa, wanted the memorial to be a unique test of the physical endurance of the entrants. The constitution of the race states that one of its primary aims is to “celebrate mankind’s spirit over adversity”.
From 1962 to 1994 the race was run on Republic Day, 31 May. Forty-eight runners entered the first race in 1921, but only thirty-four elected to start. The course at the time was tarred only for the final few Kilometers into Durban. A time limit of 12 hours was set, and Bill Rowan became the inaugural winner, clocking 08:59 to win by 41 minutes ahead of Harry Phillips. Of the 34 starters, only 16 completed the race.
Arthur Newton entered and won the race for the first time in 1922. He went on to win the race five times and emerge as the dominant Comrades runner of the 1920s.
When he completed the down run in 06:56 in 1923, there were only a handful of spectators on hand to witness the finish because so few thought it possible that the race could be run so quickly.
The first woman to run the race was Frances Hayward in 1923, but her entry was refused, so she was an unofficial entrant. She completed the event in 11:35 and although she was not awarded a Comrades medal, the other runners and spectators presented her with a silver tea service and a rose bowl.
In 1924 the Comrades had its fewest starters ever, just 24. Four years later, in 1928, the time limit for the race was reduced by an hour to 11 hours.
In the 1930s, Hardy Ballington emerged as the dominant runner, recording four victories in 1933, 1934, 1936 and 1938. The winner of the 1930 race, Wally Hayward, became one of the greatest legends of the Comrades Marathon, winning a further four times in the fifties, and becoming the oldest man to complete the race in 1989. In 1932 Geraldine Watson, an unofficial entrant, became the first woman to complete both the up run and the down run.
The Comrades was stopped during the war years from 1941 to 1945. In 1948 a Comrades tradition was born when race official Max Trimborn, instead of firing the customary starter’s gun, gave a loud imitation of a cock’s crow. That tradition continues to the present day with Trimborn’s recorded voice played over loudspeakers at the starting line.
In the 1950s, a full twenty years after he won the race for the first time, Wally Hayward recorded his second victory and followed that up with wins in 1951, 1953 and 1954. He represented South Africa at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, where he finished tenth in the marathon. Hayward retired from the Comrades after establishing new records for both the up and down runs and equaling the five wins of Newton and Ballington.
In 1958, the race was won for the first time by Jackie Mekler, who went on to win the race five times, finishing second twice and third twice.
Absolutely amazing. You don’t think so, or cannot relate to it? Just imagine what shoes they had back then… then of the running knowledge that was available compared to today. Just using Google you can read, study, learn all the techniques necessary to complete such a race. How did they prepare back then?
Mekler became the first man to break the six-hour barrier in 1960, finishing in 5:56:32. The 1961 winner was George Claassen, a school principal and father of well-known Wynand Claassen, Springbok rugby captain during 1981-83. Claassen junior also finished the Comrades ten times in later years.
In 1962, the race attracted foreign entries for the first time as the Road Runners Club of England sent over four of the best long-distance runners in Britain.
English runner John Smith won the race, an up run, in under six hours, missing out on the course record by 33 seconds.
In 1965, English runner Bernard Gomersall broke Mekler’s down run record with a time of 5:51:09.
In 1967, Manie Kuhn and Tommy Malone were involved in the closest finish in the history of the race.
Malone appeared to be on his way to a comfortable win and was handed the traditional message from the Mayor of Pietermaritzburg to the Mayor of Durban at Tollgate with a lead of two minutes over Kuhn.
He entered the stadium in the lead with only 80 meters left to go.
Suddenly Kuhn appeared only 15 meters behind and closed in quickly. Malone put in a burst for the line, but with only 15 meters left he fell to the ground with cramps.
He attempted to get up again, but with the line within reach Kuhn flew past to grab victory. The mayoral message was forgotten as both runners embraced
The Comrades had over 1,000 starters for the first time in 1971, with over 3,000 in 1979. The race was widely broadcast on both radio and television.
The race was opened to all athletes for the first time in 1975, allowing blacks and women to take part officially. In 1975, the Golden Jubilee of the Comrades, Vincent Rakabele finished 20th to become the first black runner to officially win a medal. Elizabeth Cavanaugh became the first women’s winner in a shade over 10 hours.
1976 saw the emergence of Alan Robb, who won the first of his four Comrades titles. Robb repeated his win in 1977, 1978 and 1980, including breaking the tape in Durban in 1978 in a record 5:29:14, almost 20 minutes and four kilometers ahead of runner-up Dave Wright.
During the 1980s the Comrades began with a field of 4,207 in 1980 and topped 5,000 for the first time in 1983.
In 1981, a student Bruce Fordyce won the first of his eventual nine Comrades titles. He repeated his victories in 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986 (a record 5:24:07 down run), 1987, 1988 (a record 5:27:42 for the up run), and 1990.
In 1989, Sam Tshabalala became the first black winner of the Comrades.
Schoolteacher Frith van der Merwe won the woman’s race in 1988 in a time of 6:32:56. In 1989, Van der Merwe ran 5:54:43, obliterating the women’s record and finishing fifteenth overall.
In the same year Wally Hayward entered the race at the age of 79 and finished in 9:44:15. He repeated the feat in the 1989 Comrades, where he completed the race with only two minutes to spare and at the age of 80 became the oldest man to complete the Comrades.
During the 1990s the size of the starting fields was in the region of 12,000 to 14,000 runners. In 1995 prize money was introduced, attracting more foreign competitors.
The 75th anniversary of the Comrades Marathon in 2000 was the largest ever staged, with a massive field of 23,961. An extra hour was allowed to allow runners dome recovery time for bronze medal finishers to celebrate the milestone.
In 2010, on its 85th anniversary, the race gained a place in the Guinness World Records as the ultramarathon with most runners. 14,343 athletes, the largest field since the turn of the millennium, finished in the allowed 12 hours.
Russian identical twin sisters Olesya and Elena Nurgalieva won a combined ten Comrades titles from 2003–2013, while three-time champion Stephen Muzhingi became the first non-South African winner from Africa in 2009.
Stephen Muzhingi also became the first athlete to win three races in a row (2009, 2010 and 2011) since Bruce Fordyce won three in a row in the eighties (1981, 1982 and 1983).
Russian runner Leonid Shvetsov set both down and up course records in 2007 and 2008, respectively.
The 90th Anniversary
Now this is where I come into the picture. Well my own picture. You see, I had high hopes and dreams for this race.
High expectations and had spent the previous year completing a 504Km charity run. Raising money for refuge children, by running 12 consecutive days of marathons, in 12 countries. For me getting up and running a marathon everyday was a big achievement and the event did raise a good amount.
This was an “up year” (it alternates directions each year), meaning we would run from the coastal town of Durban inland to Pietermaritzburg.
I flew from Frankfurt to Johannesburg a week before the race. At the Check in I met up with another German runner heading down to participate. You spot them a mile away.
Arriving in Johannesburg…. Already at the airport I noticed a lot of cool running shoes, caps, and running t-shirts being worn. Its was Comrades fever.
The flight down to Durban was really a Comrades shuttle.
As usual Durban greeted me with great weather. It must have been over 20 years that I hadn’t visited this city with its great beaches. As a child we would spend our holidays at Umhlanga, and I would always wonder where the Comrades is. I must have thought that the Start line is visible for the whole year.
Of course, in 2019 the South African Edward Mothibi won in a impressive display of power just at Pollys Shortts, and Gerda Steyn becoming the first woman to break the six hour mark… when she runs, it looks like she just started… very talented athlete indeed.
Now I don’t want to go into each professional athlete, although they surely would deserve it. What I want to mention is the actual hero’s, for me at least.
The middle of the pack runners’, the runners’ that manage a family, a job, and have overcome difficulties, and found ways to train and not excuses. Runners’ who have excelled and performed amazing feats.
You see them whilst running, the green number wearing runner, or the visual impaired runner, all showing up to tackle their own personal comrades.
It people like Barry Holland a66 year old runner who has completed the comrades 47 times. And he had the proud moment to run the race with his daughter. Amazing is that he is one 811 runners’ over 60.
So what exactly was your excuse?
Or the story of Sindi, from the Eastern Cape growing up in hardship, sports and running in particular, became Sindi Magade’s outlet and passion. But eventually making it to run her third Comrades marathon each one was a battle, hardly affording to live, running alone, this mother of three now lives in Diepsloot, Johannesburg, and works as a domestic worker. Her big goal: running the Comrades Marathon. But there was one big challenge to overcome: affordability. Besides entry to the world-famous run, other factors to take into consideration where eating a proper racing diet, ensuring the shoes and other racing gear one wears is of the correct quality, and time to train and strategize.
Well three comrades later, she truly managed to grow as a runner and as a person.
Anyway back to my childhood. As a kid I asked myself not “whether I will run it” or… but rather, “HOW will I run the comrades?”
At that stage of my life, I had never run further than 5 K (which as a kid felt like miles), but somehow I noticed that asking HOW served me better. “Yes one day I will…”… and………….through this… like a vision…… I managed to distract myself from the difficulties of running…. and of course, in the process develop as a runner.
Means I learnt that there are areas of training which I need to develop in order to get to greater achievements.
Greater for me means, being a better runner than I was the day before… improving myself and keep getting inspiration out of my sport.
Let’s look at the course…
The direction of the race alternates each year between the “up” run (87 km)
starting from Durban and the “down” run (now 90.184 km) starting from Pietermaritzburg.
Durban beautiful seaside promenade, approx. 600.000 inhabitants, and great weather. Pietermaritzburg is the second largest city in KwaZulu Natal and is overrun during the Comrades marathon. Ha!
How to get in?
How to get registered? Of course, it is all done online, very good site, no issues there.
Actually, its simple if you are a foreign runner, a visitor from abroad! However, different story if you are a local runner. Why? Well in 2019 the field was capped at 25,000 runners, imagine that
…. and the entry process closed after one week.
South African runners constitute the greater part of the field, but many entrants hail from the United Kingdom, Zimbabwe and the neighboring countries, or from far away as India, the United States, Australia, Canada (How do you guys train during the winter… unbelievable), Germany, so it really is a international event.
A huge surprise to me as I was boarding the plane from Johannesburg to Durban.. I seemed to be the only one not from Brazil… huge participation numbers.
In all but three running’s since 1988, over 10,000 runners have reached the finish within the allowed 11 or 12 hours. Why 11 or 12 hours, well the cut off used to be 11 hours, and was changed or increased to 12 hours.
With increased participation since the 1980s, the average finish times for both sexes, and the average age of finishers have increased substantially.
What does this mean to you… your likelihood of competing and finishing are quite high.
Runners over the age of 20 qualify when they are able to complete an officially recognized marathon (42.2 km) in under five hours (4h50 for 2019). If you are a South African runner, you need to belong to a club, for international runners’ you just need to qualify by participating in a marathon.
It gets a bit tricky though. The event organizers have some pressure. Because they need to pack up and clear the roads in a specific time, and this is a huge logistical task. So unfortunately, there are some strict rules in regard to cut off.
During the event an athlete must reach these five cut-off points in specified times to complete the race. If you are a top athlete this might not be of concern to you… however if you are aiming and training for a “juuuust finish” or a “I juuuuust made it time”… this could be a issue.
One small set back and you might not make the cut off and the race is over for you.
The spirit of the Comrades Marathon is said to be embodied by attributes of camaraderie, selflessness, dedication, perseverance, and ubuntu.
The race is run on the roads of KwaZulu-Natal province,
marked by “The Big Five” set of hills. There are many more hills… and each deserve a name. Honestly in any other country each hill would have a name…. but somehow the comrades is associated with the big 5.
BUT… don’t be deceived…. Remember there are many more…
On the up run from Durban, which is located by the sea, they appear in the following order: Cowies Hill, Fields Hill, Botha’s Hill, Inchanga, and Polly Shortts. Three of the “Big Five” are found in the first half of the race.
From the base of the first hill, Cowies, to the top of Botha’s Hill you climb 502 metres in the space of only 22 kilometres.
Any seasoned campaigner will tell you this translates into a lot of steep climbing.
The first half of the ‘up’ is challenging and early exuberance and bravado will be paid for dearly later on in the day.
The highest point of the race, at 2,850 feet (870 m) above sea level, is situated near Umlaas Road interchange.
40 official refreshment stations along the route are stocked with soft drinks, mageu, water sachets, energy drink sachets, fruit, biscuits, energy bars and cooked potatoes. Eight physiotherapy and first aid stations are also located at strategic points.
At the bridge in Berea, we actually came to a complete stop due to the bottleneck of runners as we filtered to the N3
You heard about the Green Number? Perhaps even seen a runner wearing the patch or some as a tatoo.
Why on earth would one do that… What does the Green number mean.
Ok, here goes.
The Green number means that you either:
– Had three wins
– 5 Gold medal finishes
– Or 10+ medals (means completed more than 10 Comrades.
So just in case you are wondering.
8 runners have had three wins.
2 runners, have had 4 wins.
4 runners’ have had 5 wins. Incredible,
1 runner had 8 wins, Elena the sister with her twin
1 runner has had 9 wins. Bruce Fordyce.
Now there is a reason why I mentioned Elena Nurgalieva. She actually has 13 Gold Medals, surpassing Bruce Fordyce. A really amazing achievement.
And now the most amazing art. Approximately 9000 runners’ have their Green number. Mostly just ordinary athletes that enjoy, cherisch, and respect this event so much.
A big congratulations to you all. The Green number is something so special that it can even be passed on to ones children. And I have met Green number runners’ that ran the race with their children. What a great memory they are building.
Athletes currently have 12 hours to complete the course, extended from 11 hours in 2003. The original Comrades cut-off time from 1921 to 1927 was also 12 hours, reduced to 11 hours in 1928.
There are a number of cut-off points along the routes which runners must reach by a prescribed time or be forced to retire from the race.
Now a runner who has successfully completed nine marathons wears a yellow number, while those who have completed ten races wear a green number, permanently allocated to the runner for all future races.
Medals are awarded to all runners completing the course in under 12 hours.
Medals are currently awarded as follows:
· Gold medal: the first 10 men and women.
· Wally Hayward medal (silver-centred circled by gold ring): 11th position to sub 6hrs 00min.
· Isavel Roche-Kelly medal (silver-centred circled by gold ring): women only, 11th position to sub 7hrs 30min.
· Silver medal: 6hrs 00min to sub 7hrs 30min.
· Bill Rowan medal (bronze-centred circled by silver ring): 7hrs 30min to sub 9hrs 00min.
· Robert Mtshali medal (titanium): 9hr 00min to sub 10hrs 00min.
· Bronze medal: 10hrs 00min to sub 11hrs 00min.
· Vic Clapham medal (copper): 11hrs 00min to sub 12hrs 00min.
– Prior to 2000, only gold, silver and bronze medals were awarded.
– The Bill Rowan medal was introduced in 2000 and named after the winner of the first Comrades Marathon in 1921. The time limit for this medal was inspired by Rowan’s winning time in 1921 of 8hrs 59min.
– A new copper medal, the Vic Clapham medal (named after the race founder), was added in 2003. This medal coincided with the increase in the time allocation for completing the event from sub 11hrs to sub 12hrs.
– The Wally Hayward medal, named after five-time winner Wally Hayward, was added in 2007 for runners finishing in under 6hrs, but outside the gold medals.
Back medal was introduced in 2005 and is awarded to novice runners who complete an ‘up or down run’ in succession. In terms of the implementation thereof, Back-to-Back medals were automatically awarded to 2005 Comrades Marathon finishers who had completed their first Comrades Marathon in 2004.
More than anything, it shows that you didn’t just make it once. You came back, to try and test your resilience, your determination again, and succeeded.
Running for Charity
This race is unpredictable in terms of performance like no other we know. Regardless of your qualifying time, training, confidence or lack of it, there are always surprises on the day – good and bad.
Learn the words of South Africa’s second national anthem.
Shosholoza. At the start of the race you will be glad you did.
I would much rather use the advice of someone who has stamped his name on this race… Bruce Fordyce.
Fordyce writes: “From the start the secret is to be cautious and maintain control. Relax as much as possible.
It is important to keep on checking that pre-race schedule to make sure you have not been carried away.
None of these early hills should feel difficult to climb. You should cruise them, all the time reigning in your excitement and checking that your breathing is never heavy. You should be feeling strong, enjoying the scenery – and remembering to drink often.
“You should not attempt to race anybody. If someone surges ahead of you, let them go. You should also ignore the distance boards. The countdown of 80 kilometres to go, 75 kilometres to go, and so on is frightening. Rather, you should run to landmarks. The idea is to aim for the next major hill, rather than the next five kilometres – and aim to get there feeling strong.
“As you enter Pinetown and find the dense crowds, you will feed off their support, but once again try to avoid being caught up in the excitement. Around Pinetown you will want to start drinking your special race formula drink in anticipation of the major efforts ahead.
“Two major obstacles lie ahead: Fields Hill and Botha’s Hill. Both hills should feel like long, steady pulls, but should not be crippling. I always know whether I am going to have a good
Comrades or not, as I climb Fields Hill. If Fields Hill feels easy and I am able to talk to the other runners, I know that I will conquer the ‘up’ run that day. If you have to walk on any of the major hills, walk. It is important to conserve your strength. Once you have climbed Fields Hill, a major obstacle is behind you.”
At Botha’s Hill Village there are still about six to seven kilometers to run before the halfway point. There is a danger of rushing to the halfway point and being confused by the tree- lined bends and drops that lead to Drummond. At Drummond you run through a mass of spectators. Beware; the official halfway point is under the halfway banner, and nowhere else.
Inchanga bank is a long, punishing pull that saps the strength. Take this cautiously; if you can reach the summit feeling strong, a great race is on the cards. But even at the top you still need to be cautious, the Inchanga climbing only ends at Radnor.
Once over the mighty hill, Inchanga, the bulk of the climbing is behind you. Now
you start the slightly downhill run on the flat stretch to Cato Ridge and Camperdown. If you are feeling good you can make up time here. From Cato Ridge to Camperdown the running always gets tough. This is a deceptively uphill stretch and it is hard work in contrast to the easy coasting run down to Cato Ridge.
Bruce Fordyce picks up the journey from Camperdown: “Things
start to really get tough as you fight fatigue and cramps. There is enormous crowd support in Camperdown, but there are three unnamed hills immediately after the village. I know them as Camperdown one, two and three. Camperdown three is the tough one. It is a steep, fairly long climb and it hurts. The good news is that it is followed by a welcome descent. Mentally, it is wonderful to be running well here because this is a very lonely part of the Comrades route. The scenery consists of hot, naked veld.”
“Umlaas Road is the highest point and here the race is either won or lost. If you are feeling strong, you can make up time on the drop to Tumble Inn. From Umlaas Road you can also see the dreaded Polly Shortts in the distance. If you have timed yourself well and run your race cautiously, this can be an inspiring sight. You are now finally able to see the hill that guards Pietermaritzburg and the finish.
“From Umlaas Road you plunge steeply into Ashburton. Your legs will be sore, but you can make up time. For me, the toughest part of the race is Ashburton, or Little Polly as it is nicknamed. It is a deceptive and hard climb and it warns the tired runner just how tough Polly Shortts is going to be. For novices Little Polly is a trap. Too many believe it to be Polly itself and are left demoralised and beaten a little later when they meet the real Polly.
“There is no mistaking the real Polly Shortts: after a drop from Ashburton, a slight bend in the road and a short bridge, the real hill begins. Polly Shortts is almost two kilometres long and bends deceptively three times. Each time you will be fooled into believing you are near the top. No one runs quickly up either Ashburton or Polly Shortts. Even front runners are occasionally compelled to walk. Speed up Polly is not important. The main thing is to keep progressing forward.
“Don’t believe the lie that the race is all downhill from the top of
Polly Shortts. There is still some running left to the finish. Pietermaritzburg has its fair share of undulations and with the change in finish venue, the last seven or so kilometres will prove a stern test for any, even the most experienced campaigners. But if your early race has gone well, the last stretch can be run confidently and well, and from now you can enjoy the massive crowd support. I have no doubt that the second half is far easier than the first half and it can be run strongly if the first half has been run judiciously.”
In my 35 years of running, I have had near perfect days, had some real bad days, had days in which I unlocked the magical power of simply not quitting when I really wanted to, and in total have suffered two DNF’s that I thought were devastating… (but they weren’t) and some that I am totally at peace with.
What I have realized through those experiences is that no matter what, whether I get my Personal best, finish or stop, that it doesn’t define my strength.
My strength is defined by how hard I work, how much I am willing to endure, how much I honor the journey, the sport and who I want to be. My strength and running my fastest marathon times the older I got, through putting focus on developing my core plus mental powers. Using mental tools as a hypnotherapist, setting various anchors, and making brain training part of my daily habit helped me reach such conclusions, such results.
Strength is going through the darkest depths and simply not giving in to the darkness, knowing that there will always be a upside again.
Sometimes that upside is a finish line, an outcome, a resolution.
Sometimes that light is a new race, a new opportunity or just a short relaxing run.
My first Comrades
Three o’clock early… alarm goes off… the morning is dark and quiet… but already runners have their breakfast. Quiet crowd, no over eagerness, just everyone for himself. Most already have their race kit displaying their national colors names, and how many times they have participated. I get goose bumps already… Green numbers so close to me. Oh and the smell of deep heat, a strong smelling camphor lotion mixes with the morning smell of coffee. As the athletes left the hotel lobby to make their way through the darkness toward the start at City Hall, the hotel manager, the staff at the door, actually everyone without running gear was giving you good wishes.
My hotel was just opposite the start. I said goodbye to my friend and support team and found my starter block. Even though I had a qualifying time of 3:27 for a marathon I was quite far back. Well, perhaps the event organizers knew more than me, as I was definitely in the right spot.
Whilst I was getting in line, the professional runners’ where already warming up. What does this consist of? Well between 40 – 50 minutes of running, believe it or not.
Then finally, the ceremony began, a process that Comrades veterans, Comrades viewers, are familiar with:
Chariots of Fire,
the South African national anthem
followed by ‘Shosholoza’ … which in itself is a goosebumps moment.
Then finally the crowing of a cockerel and the starting cannon. Buuuuhmmm.
And nothing happens.
We are not moving. Obviously… 25.000 runners’, it would take 7 minutes to cross the start line.
Then after running through downtown Durban, we would climb almost 200m in the first 10km.
From the start, my condition wasn’t too great. I never have any health or stomach issues so I ran at a very slow pace. Not a bad idea mind you.
After managing to get back into a rhythm I made it as far as 28km, having lost my orientation. Yes I was still on course, but had no idea which hill this was, or how many Kilometers I had to run.
I tried to avoid the signs, as at the Comrades the mileage is displayed as in “to go”.
Reading a happy Only 59KM to Go didn’t do my constantly deteriorating mood no good.
At around 40km and just over four hours, nearing the top of another hill, I had to walk again.
I started to concentrate on fueling properly, settling for water, bananas. Slowly things looked better.
Any hopes and dreams of achieving a 9:00 hour time where replaced by: just finish this race – thoughts.
Hero mode had given way to survival mode.
Finally I looked up to read less than 21km to go and over the highest point of the course at 850m.
Supporters everywhere, constant stream of cheers, jubilations, high five’s and of course many well-stocked aid zone.
By now I am walking any steep climbs and aid stations to save as much energy as possible.
Then finally, little Polly & Polly Shortts. And do you think I remember the advice Bruce Fordyce gave me: take it easy on little Polly as you need the power for pollys Shortts.
Of course not. In my mind I calculated my estimated time of arrival, and thought, that a 10 hour finish is within my reach.
So up I went charging Little Pollys and honestly when I reach the top I felt on top of the world. I felt like a champion.
Let me just put things in context here. Runners’ are passing me on both sides, and I am really slow. But hey, I felt like a champ.
And the I read a sign by a spectator. I don’t recall what it said exactly, but I read the words Polly Shortts…. Then suddenly it dawns on me… here comes Polly Shortts.
No or hardly any spectators and a lot of runners head down, shuffling along. And me? Walking. A sorry sight. Willpower, nearly gone. Running, not a chance.
I lost time, well not as in run time obviously, but the sensation of time. Whether I will finish or not didn’t even occur to me, it was irrelevant.
I was in a hard place and had to get out of.
Then finally, people, along the side of the roads, some cheering, but I pass through crowds of people in the shade with chairs & braai, and screaming encouragement. Suddenly someone shouts my name… oh my goodness did that feel good. Thank you, whoever you where.
This energy helped enormously.
Then the next error. I see what seem to be stadium lights in the distance to the right of me. Hidden by huge eucalyptus trees.
Oh my goodness, it’s the stadium, I made it, nearly there. I cant be more than 2 or 3 kilometers. Yes Heiko. Go, go, go.
But, as I kept on running I realized it was a school stadium and I still had what felt like another marathon to run.
Then suddenly, I spot the entry into the racecourse and know that I must be down to the last few minutes of my first comrades.
The crowds, the noise, oh my goodness, what is happening. It is that moment in time, that wonderful moment where you know that you’re going to make it to the finish regardless.
I finally hit some sort of AstroTurf carpet which is spongy underfoot and my legs appreciate the different, softer terrain.
Noise level increases, I am wondering, how far will this lap be? Whole way around, or I where exactly is the finish. Smelling the dust and feeling the heat and sweat takes me, for an instance, back to my childhood running days, and then next thing, I am hitting the finishing straight toward a grand, red, wide finish line. I’m over, I’ve done it and am in disbelief, followed by looking up at the time. 10:47. And the mixture of emotions overcomes me. Pride and disappointment. Never thought they could both be present but they where.
My Second Comrades
In 2016, I returned to the Comrades Marathon for my second year, in search of back-to-back medal. The race alternates direction each year; thus, this year, was the “down run” from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.
The down run gets its name because of the fact that the run is a net downhill, starting at about 600 meters or 2,000 feet above sea level and ending at the ocean in Durban.
Most of that drop occurs in the last 20 miles of the course, starting through Hillcrest and continuing down Fields Hill, a particularly killer downhill stretch about 40 miles into the course that drops about 700 feet over the course of about 4 miles.
What only experienced runners’ will tell you is that yes, it is the down run, but has a significant amount of climbing, especially in the first half of the race.
Overall, the down run still has more than 900 meters or 3,500 feet of elevation gain, and the climbs in the first half of the race will tire out your legs if you didn’t train well, or didn’t pace accordingly during the first half of the race.
But wait let me start off from the beginning. Collecting my kit from the Expo, I felt thrilled to go for this challenge. Seeing that in April I had a excellent two oceans marathon, finishing in a time of 5:36 for a tough 56KM race. So Definity this time Comrades I will make a 9:15.
I trained for it, I worked for it, I showed up. Now lets do it.
This time I arrived only 2 days before the race, but being accompanied by my daughters, and my childhood friends, I was feeling extremely confident. Of course having invested in a cool new running watch would give me the edge, wouldn’t it?
The night before I had a huge dinner. Why on earth would I do that? Anyway. That the down run is a different race altogether shows itslf in the logistics. I got up at 2am to get to Durban, and take the bus to the Start in Pietermaritzburg. Excellent organization, as there are 1.000’s of runners, all lining up, into the bus and off we go.
The bus ride is definitely part of the experience, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to any Comrades runner. My bus was extremely quiet. Eerie quiet. The runner next to me came from Brazil on one side who was working on his 1st Comrades, and a runner from Soweto on the other side who was running his 10th Comrades.
Pietermaritzburg is definitely colder than Durban, but the adrenaline made up for it. You see, I had a better qualifying time, and seeing that it was my second comrades, the race organizers had more faith in my abilities, so I started much further ahead.
As in every Comrades race… the start is immediately preceded by a singing of the South African National Anthem, and Shosholoza. Everyone belts out both songs full-throated.
It is not possible to fully understand the sensation of the Comrades starting line without experiencing it first hand.
Just have a look at some of the YouTube videos. You might pick up a goose bump or two, and who knows what that might lead to.
From the start in Pietermaritzburg, it is cold and incredibly dark. It is winter in Durban, and the sun only rises around 6:50 a.m., so the first hour of the race is in complete darkness. The street lights of Pietermaritzburg make the first kilometer or so tolerable, but very quickly you run onto some dark suburban streets, and it is literally pitch black.
As you run along the N3, the main highway, and hear the cars honking… first signs of encouragement and cheering, as the crowds where definitely less than at the Durban start.
And then you climb… up up up … hang on wasn’t this supposed to be a downhill run?
The first couple of kilometers are a rather consistent climb, and so I kept thinking we were already to the top of Pollys before we actually got there.
This point in the course has a long stretch of uninterrupted (and fairly steep) downhill.
Some eager runners, enjoyed to really speed down this section, but remember: it’s still very early in the race at this point.
Now only did I realize how long that hill, Pollys, actually is. I had “run” it in the other direction in the up run last year, and I ended up succumbing and walking most of it.
Coming at it in the other direction this year, it was pretty clear why—it is really a monster of a downhill, as well.
After Little Pollys, one comes down the back side and into Tumble Inn, at which point there is a steady, prolonged climb into Camperdown; the hill crests at about 20K at Umlaas Road and then there’s a pretty steady decline at, followed by a fairly flat stretch through Camperdown, where runners get their first taste of the awesome Comrades crowds… finally you feel awake, and a sense of, yes this is why I signed up overcame me.
At approx. 30 Kilometer, you are at Cato Ridge after which point, runners pass through Harrison Flats. Please note you still have approximately 60 Kilometers to go, so … take it easy.
The course at this point is becomes more downhill. Plus the sun comes up, giving you some extra inspiration.
I recalled that the year before, in the up run, I was suffering during this part of the course because “Harrison Flats” is really anything but;
Coming out of Cato Ridge and before Inchanga, runners pass Ethembeni School for the Disabled.
This is an incredibly emotional part of the race course.
When you’re out there having run 20 miles already (or 60+ in the up direction!), it can be easy to think that the going is tough. Seeing these inspiring kids who brave the day to give high fives to runners lifted my spirits and put my internal pity party to an end.
After Harrison Flats, there’s a pretty steady downhill for about three miles, at which point runners encounter the back side of Inchanga.
Climbing Inchanga is not nearly as serious on the down run as it is on the up run, but it kind of epitomizes everything about the down run:
you’re still climbing almost 100 meters over 2,5 Kiometers.
Look, in my book at this stage of a race, this is a serious climb, and one to be taken EXTREMELY seriously at this point in the race, with more than half of the race still to go.
Then you can hear the crowds at Drummond, which is the traditional halfway point of the race, and the third cutoff point.
Now again, pay attention, because for me…. this climb is a monster, steadily rising more than 90 meters in about 4 Kilometers.
You hardly have time to catch your breath and guess what… you climb another hill. This time its Botha’s Hill. And now it just got worse for me.
Passing the wall of honor, I began to calculate.
Looking at my super smart running watch was useless, as obviously I hadn’t charged it properly, and just stared into a blank screen. Hearing the occasional runner passing me and his watch blurting out a signal or pace didn’t help to cheer me up.
Passing Arthurs seat, I felt exhausted. Tired. From one second to the next. Oh my goodness. This is too early. What happening. Keep going Heiko.
So now Botha’s Hill. Hmm, seldom have I seen so many runners’ walk at a dreadfully slow pace, head low, arms hanging by their sides like straws, step by step plodding up what feels like a Mount Everest.
Perhaps its due to the climb before, and the one before that, LOL that just took something out of me.
What was meant to be a negative split start off, became a struggle.
What do you came up next? Hillcrest, the name makes Durban sound so close, but it still is 35 KM to go. But wait, no one told me of the 4% Grade, on this no name Hill. Come on, this was supposed to be the down run. And they haven’t even named all the Hills. What the heck is this.
At this point I realized what it was.
Plain well exhaustion. I realized if I didn’t do something, I might not make it. Slowly crawling up Cowie’s hill I changed my inner dialogue. Used my mental techniques to put on step before the other. Making every step count. Easy does it.
Then I turned left, and saw a sign. Pinetown.
PINETOWN. Yes, this inspired me to run, well, shuffle again.
Thank you for all the crowds in Pinetown, you really cheered me on, and triggered something inside of me, to keep going, back straight, and run albeit a slooooow run, doesn’t matter. I am in this race, I am going to finish it.
If they could know what I am thinking.
Pinetown saved me. But I had another battle ahead of me.
This is where the pro Athlete can win or loose a race. Why? Well at this point you have two marathons behind you, so I suppose some feelings of fatigue are permitted. How I struggled up that Hill? I can tell you in one word. Slow.
And the suddenly Westville. Yes, you have made all those Hills. You have over 80 KM’s behind you. You know you will make it. Definitely I will finish it. Time? Irrelevant. Running through the lush suburbs of Westville I spot the Indian Ocean in the background. Goosebumps all round. I now know for certain I have made it. Or have I?
Strange enough I have to walk again. Not just any walk, a slow, ancient cave man like shuffle. Why do you ask? There are no more Hills.
Well, yes, there are no more hills, but the course takes you along the flyover where you leave the N3 and head into downtown Durban.
Strange how well I remember this stretch. A huge Highway, just for me, and some odd runners. But mostly it’s the first time during the race where I had space. Lots of it.
As though I am in trance, I carry on, and then I understand… I am downtown. Downtown in Durban. A long stretch of straight road ahead of me.
Come on Heiko.
As I tackle the last kilometers, surprisingly my mood improves, my pace picks up, well at least it felt like it. And the I see Moses Mabhida Stadium… oh my goodness. I hear people cheering me on, and approach the huge stadium.
Its then that I realize the long shadows it casts, meaning. I have a long days run behind me. Entering the stadium is a ecstatic feeling.
Through the dark tunnel, and yes, you see light at the end of it. The finish line… and just before crossing the line, I spot my daughters to the left, their faces lighting up as they see me, we wave.
I get a bit emotional, and cross the line.
One medal, thank you.
Second medal, thank you.
8 Lessons from other runners’
Khomotso Mokgonyana (09:49:20) I learned that Comrades Marathon is a long and grueling race. And, it is a race against yourself – your body and your mind. There are times when you are going to have to dig very deep. Early in the race (at about 32km) I was hit by fatigue and had to find my inner strength to keep going. I had to give myself a little pep talk, remind myself why I wanted to be there and what my goals were. If you are not mentally strong, you will never make it to the finish line. That being said, a training and racing partner is also a huge help for a race like Comrades – their encouragement can be invaluable.
Raeesa Solwa (09:52:05) Comrades was such a rollercoaster of emotions. Growing up in Westville, we watched comrades every year. Runners passed Westville on both the down- and up-run. I watched every year on TV, too. So for me to actually be participating in this ultimate human race was such an amazing experience. Something no words can really explain. The highlight for me was definitely the support team that had my back the entire way! I couldn’t have asked for anything better. You are basically alone in your head the entire race and to just see your family and friends out there supporting you and encouraging you is amazing. I am so blessed to have such amazing family and friends! Also, crossing that finishing line with the sub 10 hour bus for my first Comrades, the crowds cheering, everything was just out of this world.
Solly Malatsi (10:45:12) The key lesson for me on this Comrades up run was running on feel – I adjusted my initial race plan based on how my body reacted to the tortuous hills of the first half of the race. The stinging climbs of iNchanga crucified my legs, leaving me feeling like I was carrying extra kgs on my feet. It was right there that I made peace with tackling the rest of the distance based on how I felt. When I left fresh, I ran for as long as I could only walking the hills. When I felt heavy, I walked as much as I could to regain some strength to run again.
It made me realize how liberating it is to go into the race with more than one plan because ultimately Comrades will blow your Plan A. Mine was to finish comfortably. Ideally a sub 10:30. Plan B was to beat my 11:36 down run time and Plan C was to finish before cut off time.
Charmaine Mohokare (09:44:27) Confidence in your gear! Most importantly your shoes. No, really. Mine were so amazing, I didn’t encounter any issues (didn’t lose any nails!). And; two days on I can still walk. When I started I felt a slight twinge in my ITB but I managed to push through that and finish the entire race without any issues whatsoever. A lot of that came down to the shoes, I believe. It made me realize just how important it is for people to do training block and set race goals.
Caroline Pule (11:30:33) I’ve never done such a challenging race in my life, but proved to myself that I can do anything I put my mind to. That mental application is crucial. One has to be mentally prepared – obviously physically too – but because of how challenging it is, if you are weak mentally it will effect your confidence and that will negatively impact your performance. Aside from the physical aspect I also took a lot of confidence from going into the race well fueled and rested. I also took a lot of confidence from my coach.
Admire Muzopambwa (06:41:46) This was my best Comrades performance to date! The up run is really challenging and very different to the ‘down’. But, I proved to myself that with the right preparation and a good back-up crew (I had six seconders along the course) I can keep pace with the best. I’ve never gone that pace in the first 30 and was in the mix with all the top elites the entire time. I left it all out there and when I finished, every inch of my body was sore. It was the happiest sub-7 I have ever done.
Wandisile Nongodlwana (07:28:18) Comrades is a race that only on the day, do you know how you will do. It requires perseverance; patience; endurance; and, the ability to adapt and readjust the race plan. Confidence in your gear is also crucial. When the body was almost giving up, I didn’t have a slightest worry that I was in the ‘wrong’ gear. For the first time in years, I ran Comrades from start to finish in Shortts without loosing my pace. This is something I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise, in that period of time.
Wietse van der Westhuizen (11:29:50) Due to circumstances (breaking two ribs while qualifying!) I was very anxious about this year’s Comrades. Even though I had a good seeding in the C-batch, I was completely under-trained and decided to start further back with my daughter and a few friends. We waited for the start, anticipating rain that never came. The weather was absolutely perfect! The nervous excitement was palpable. Tears freely started flowing as the crowd listened to Chariots of Fire. Two crows of the Cockerel and we were off!
The race went well up to about 39km when I suddenly had a drop in blood sugar levels. I hit the wall badly and went through a terrible patch for about 4km. After my wife found me at Drummond and fed me about 10 delicious date balls, I got a second wind. At that point we also heard the news that the winner just crossed the finish line. Gerda finished her race as we were shuffling down iNchanga!
We were conservative about our energy use going up the hills and made use of a run-walk strategy, running downhills and the flatter parts to make up a little time to walk the whole of Little Polly and the feared Polly Shortts. The predicted 28 °C dissipated and the cool breeze was welcomed.
One of my best friends was going for his 10th finish and he was even more unfit than me! Trying to keep him motivated helped me inadvertently. We crossed the finish line in 11h29min, number 42 in the bag for me. Geoff got his permanent number, my daughter finished her sixth. A proud and tough day at the office!
Yes, I have a recommendation. Train your mind. Invest in a solid trustworthy mental sport coaching program. Where you learn the art of self-hypnosis, and other powerful mental tools. Because you will benefit from them.
Especially during a bad patch. It saves you time, by knowing exactly what you thought pattern currently is, and how you can interrupt it and upload a positive powerful one.
It might just make the difference between quitting and carrying on.
A new kind of approach to mental training for runners’. Using scientifically proven methods to developing unwavering confidence, focus and self-belief intuitive, and human. In other words, the kind of process we want for ourselves.
How does a 50 year old runner once nearly crippled by runners’ knee and Achilles tendon, consistently humiliate younger age group runners’ by crossing the line way before them? The answer will shock and delight you. It is a revelation, instead of adding more miles, and speed workouts, he opted for training his brain. With self hypnosis, by Hypno-Running R.E.S.E.T.©.
Your brain is like a computer you can manage it better, you can update it, you can read format to perform better, you can reprogram certain aspects, you can make it faster and more efficient, you can keep viruses out, by using the best of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, the most effective processes of Emotional Freedom Technique, and a runner-adapted version of the scientifically proven Eye movement desensitization reprocessing. Hypno-Running by R.E.S.E.T.© offers you scientifically proven methods. Click on the link below.