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Eve of the Comrades

Tomorrow I'll be on a plane bound for Johannesburg, fretting I've brought the wrong shoes and whether I'll make the cigarette-paper thin connecting window in Paris.

I've been thinking about this race since I entered it last September but right now I can think of nothing else; it has completely taken over my life.  Despite all this thought I've still no clear idea how to tackle it.

I've run many overseas races, including the mega marathons in the likes of Berlin, Chicago and NYC but this one seems so much bigger.  They seem to know how to draw you in and hook you and pretty much everyone I've spoken to who's run it mentions 'addiction' at some point.

There are lots of reasons for the uniqueness of the race.  Firstly it's enormous.  There are 18,000 entries - absolutely dwarfing every other Ultra. About 11-12,000 actually make it to the race day.

There's an alternating route between 'up' and 'down'. The distance is slightly longer on the 'down' run but even the race route and race distance change each year. The actual distance of the race is unimportant and for that matter no-one seems to care about their finishing time either excepting where they're going for a specific medal.

About the medals..  There are a series and which one you get depends upon your finishing position (if you're in the top 10 you get a gold medal) and time. There are six different medals;
A gold medal for the top 10 finishers
A Wally Hayward for a sub-6 hour time
A Silver for a sub-7:30 time
A Bill Rowan for sub-9
A Bronze for sub-11 and finally
A Vic Clapham for sub-12

(images shamelessly pinched from www.comrades.com)

In fact there's a seventh medal as you get one and only one shot at a back-to-back medal for consecutive finishes of an up and a down.  You're only eligible for this with your first two runs so they hook you in early!

There's a trend in race medals for bigger and thicker and heavier and most these days look like an enameled plate from the hull of an ocean-going liner but these medals are unprepossessing at just 29mm in diameter.

On top of all that your running number can become yours in perpetuity - there are various means but the only avenue open to mortals is to run the race 10 times.

The background colour of the running bib changes to green when you've run 10 or more times and there are runners who've earned double and even triple-green.  Green number owners get a special, guarded area of the expo which only they have access to and are tempted with exclusive merchandise therein!

On the number you wear on your back is a breakdown of your Comrades performances to date so mine will look like a string of pearls with no medals of any colour.  I'm thinking this will be a handy tool to latch onto an experienced runner going for the sort of pace I'm looking for and weed out the chancers who've foolishly sprinted off at the start!

Earning the medals and even finishing are subject to strict time cut-offs based upon gun time, even though each participant has a Champion-Chip.  A gun is fired at the finish as each time band expires - miss the cut-off by even a second (and many do) and you don't get the medal.  Miss the 12-hour race cut-off and you will find your path across the finish line blocked by bouncers who will stop you from crossing.  You get no medal; you didn't finish. After 12 hours of effort!

It used to be the case that the winner of the race fired the 12-hour gun, but as you can imagine the desperate last lunges to make it across the line proved too stressful for them and now it's one of the race directors who has the job.  There's a ghoulish desire amongst the crowd to watch this spectacle in the way that the public used to go mad for public executions in central London in the middle ages.

It's not just the race day either.  Most races have a pasta party the night before but in this case there's that, 'International Drinks' another night (I'm presuming this means drinks for international runners and doesn't mean we're going to be fobbed off with a pint of Fosters!).  There's a couple of post race parties and also a tour of the course in advance.

I'm booked in for the bus tour at 8am on Friday.  It takes right up until 2pm and I've been agonising over whether to go.  Even in a bus it's going to take a very long time which is going to prey on your mind for sure.  I'm also told the bus itself struggles up several of the hills we're going to have to run over with a grating shift into low gear to make the summit.  Conversation, previously animated, fades and dies and colour drains from faces.

There's much tradition during the race itself too including the mass-singing of Shosholoza, then Chariots of Fire at the start  The one I like the most is the placing of a flower on 'Arthur's Seat' - a hole cut into the bank abut halfway where the legendary Arthur Newton is said to have rested during his 5 winning runs (usually beating the second placed runner by a massive margin). Apparently doing so means his spirit will grant you a successful second half of the race and I'm told for hundreds of metres before this point the countryside has been completely denuded of blooms if you're late through here.

Bart Yasso (of Yasso 800s fame), who has the fabulous job title of Chief Running Office for Runners World USA rates this the best road race in he world bar none.  And this from a man who used to train 5,000 miles a year and is at an event either running or in some other capacity somewhere around the world pretty much every single weekend of the year. 
There's a great set of videos featuring his desire to run the race - the one hole in his running CV - and his buildup to the 2010 down run on YouTube.  I recommend starting at no.1 and watching all 7 but this is the last one if you're impatient.  I've watched it at least 10 times now and each time it just serves to enhance the anticipation.

I would love to come away with a Silver medal which means a sub-7:30 clocking and on paper that would seem very achievable. But I'm under no illusions this will be the toughest thing I've ever done and am taking absolutely nothing for granted. I've had too many marathons fall apart let alone something that's twice as far.


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