2014 Comrades Ultra Marathon

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2014 Comrades Ultra Marathon

There's something about Comrades that draws you back.  Many things. 

When you've run your first one you get your one and only shot at a back-to-back medal by taking on the race in the opposite direction and that proved irresistible.  But it's not just a bit of (small!) bling, it's the draw of taking on one of the World's most iconic races cheered on by huge, passionate crowds drawn from every background and race; all of whom consider the event something special and of national importance.  It's a big draw for the UK ultra-running community too and there are 333 of us out here.

Comrades Down Run elevation profile

2014 is a Down run from Pietermaritzburg to Durban starting outside the Town Hall at 5:30am and ending up 90km and many hours later on the turf in the Kingsmead cricket ground.  There's few places to stay in PMB and I was told you can get no sleep thanks to the assembly of the starting gantry and pens plus, potentially, a fireworks display too, so we (last year's party plus 2) decided to pitch up in Durban for the duration.  It meant an early start to drive back to PMB - 2am alarm call - but one of the guys wasn't running and (you beauty) offered to drive which was a big improvement on the stress of finding one of the race buses to get us there and much quicker. 

One of the stresses that wasn't going anywhere (for me at any rate) was the weather with the forecast remaining almost exactly the same as last year - the toughest conditions on record!  Just as last year the day before and especially the day after would have suited me far better but you pulls the handle and takes your chances.

I'd spent far too much of the last available sleep futilely chasing cockroaches around the kitchen floor (the place was infested though in mitigation was a) cheap and b) had a fantastic view out over the coast) but felt pretty well rested on no more than a couple of hours worth and by 3:15am we're heading up the N3 motorway into the dark.  Unfortunately we're a runner down already as Helen has unbelievably unluckily contracted some kind of 24-hr gastric bug thing and spent all of Saturday close to the bog, barely able to walk. Terrible luck but it was clearly the right thing not to run.
comrades medals Bill Rowan
We make great time to PMB.. plenty of others have the same idea but we have missed the peak rush.  PMB doesn't really show itself in a good light as there is knee-deep litter all over the town.  It looks like Glastonbury the day after.  Hopefully there had been some sort of strike and this wasn't the best PMB in Bloom entry they could put together.  Time for a quick visit to the loo, a brief wonder as to why I could get hold of soup but not water, and I get myself into pen B with 10 minutes to spare before they shut the gates. 

The pre-start buildup is amazing and if it doesn't get you stirred up then someone needs to check you have a pulse.  I've been through it last year but I enjoyed watching a fellow Brit I'd found in the pen who hadn't.  The National Anthem is followed by Shosholoza and once more I'm in the midst of 15,000 people singing like they mean it.  Some people well up when they hear it and you can't blame them.  A cockerel (or rather the recording of a bloke mimicking a cockerel - it's along story) crows twice, a cannon fires and the masses surge forwards towards the highway.

Now at this point last year I lost a shoe and spent precious minutes getting it back, not to mention staving off a combined panic and heart attack.  The start is narrower at PMB but pen B proves to be a good choice and I get underway without hiccup or tripup.  I've got the Ambit 2S set up to keep track and keep me on silver pace which is 5 minutes per kilometre throughout.  It's hard not to overdo it at the start as when you're fresh this feels like a very slow pace and what seems like everybody else has shot off much faster. 

As we leave the lights of PMB behind and hit the countryside it's pitch black and chilly (that wasn't going to last long) and we have the road pretty much to ourselves with the only sounds being trainers on tarmac and the odd call out and reply in the local tongue to the few supporters up at that hour or fellow runners.

We stream over Pollys, the first of the big 5 hills, now denuded of its potency from the Up run and as the sun starts to rise over the horizon, the sky lights up in the most spectacular sunrise you're ever likely to see. 

It may be the Down run but there's still a whole lot of up coming and the highest point on the course is reached about 13.5 miles in on the Umlaas Road.  Despite many fluctuations in between you hit two further peaks that are almost as high at 26 and 33 miles so there's little comfort to be taken from the stat.

Feeding stations become more common and the crowds start to grow as the sun climbs in the sky and I shed the long serving Macclesfield Half (2008) Tee shirt stage left, drop the shades to keep out the glare and keep bashing out the Ks.  I've recycled the 2013 Union Jack vest and as last year it proves to be a magnet for all kinds of banter from being told to 'run for the Queen' and that there was an Aussie ahead whom it was my duty to overhaul.  The support is absolutely fantastic.  The crowds are huge and as well as the official feeding stations so many people have made their own refreshments and set up tables to support runners. 

As the heat rises it's starting to give me problems and the stops for water both for drinking and, increasingly, chucking liberally all over me increase exponentially and start to have significant impact on overall pace. It's basically impossible to get cool. The water effect lasts literally seconds, then you're merely wet and that goes for the few showers out there too.  I found ice cubes in the hat worked better and they stayed in ice cube form for a lot longer than I'd imagined they would.  I've since wondered if an ice vest would help if a second at halfway could hand it over.
comrades 2014 Harrison Flats
I think it was just before halfway I decided I was too far behind to realistically catch up given it was only going to get hotter.  And at halfway is Inchanga which is a brute of a hill whichever direction you run it.  I'm also feeling the road a bit too much and wishing I'd gone for the more cushioned Ride shoes over the Kinvara though would that have had a significant effect? The Kinvara is about 100g lighter and as you take apparently 110,000 steps during the race that's a lot of energy wasted lifting them off the floor.  The biggest source of discomfort though is as a result of all the water I'm knocking back which sits in the stomach and cause trouble for ligaments and muscles when descending.  I really must find another way.

comrades 2014 halfway
This is the hardest section with the relentless climb up to the top of Inchanga, the sharp drop to halfway and then another severe climb back up the other side past Arthur's Seat - the spot at which Arthur Newton used to take a breather on the way to his 5 wins.  You're supposed to pass it with a 'morning Arthur' and place a flower on it to give you a good second half.

Beyond comes Botha's Hill which consists of two fake Botha's Hills followed by the real Botha's Hill with a profile like the initial slow drag ascent of a rollercoaster before you're tipped into a plummet down the other side pulling 4G.  An old fella at the base before the climb, while handing me a salted orange slice (a local Comrades delicacy I suspect you'll find nowhere else) shakes his generous grey locks with a glint in his eye and says 'Botha's Hilll is a real bugger'.  The same thing, excepting the orange, happened last year and I'm pretty sure it was the same bloke! In any case he knew his stuff because it is indeed a real bugger.  I was getting that not eaten enough slightly nauseous sensation by now so filled my boots from some kind local's impromptu buffet though hadn't planned on the mouthful of marmite sandwich grabbed in haste, repeated on me at leisure.  Every water stop is now 3 water sachets and often Coke too which I really would never drink in the real world but at least it's cold. comrades final mile

Beyond Botha's is the real start of the down part of the run and the challenge is to get there in good enough shape to enjoy the downs while not smashing up the quads by resistiing gravity or pounding the roads on the sometimes steep downhill sections. I have to say despite the dire warnings the downs haven't done as much destruction as billed for me though I was careful not to overdo it.

There's a brief glimpse of the ocean which is a very welcome sight and it looks close but it's still in fact many miles distant and vanishes again for a long time - maybe 10km? - after that.  It's the last half marathon that really tested me.  It's peak temperature by now and I'm feeling very beaten up.  I stopped for an ice rub down which felt fantastic but was really just an excuse to take a break for a couple of minutes.  From then on you run with your head alone. There are some severe hills, you've been out all day and you just have to grit it out.

Last year I missed out on the sub 9 hour medal and I was determined that wasn't going to happen today and luckily I had enough time in reserve that only a total collapse would have prevented it.  But it is so easy to fritter away time at feed stations or walking that it's never guaranteed and you have to be disciplined with yourself.  My GPS was telling me I was managing around 5 mins per km still when running so you find you tell yourself - 'ok, that's, say, 16minutes for 3K' but you fail to take into account the fact that you've paused at each km so such a pace is wildly optimistic.

The 9km to go sign was a boost as we were now in single figures.  More hills keep coming on the wide motorway.  Keep moving forward and the kms tick down but I just wanted it over.  There's a last rise up to the 5k mark and beyond that lies Durban.

Running down the long main road through the city centre with the masses chanting and cheering in a language you can't understand was bedlam and almost intimidating.  Chanting in a foreign language always sounds like a potential riot! 

The last 2k are extremely uncomfortable - I don't think I've ever felt worse in a race. A cheery spectator tells me I can't walk now I'm so close and I tell him he has a point and shuffle on for a little longer until the stadium finally looms into view.  I'm so beaten up I took a breather inside before emerging onto the grass as you absolutely have to avoid walking on that! The noise is incredible, the grass feels like walking on clouds after 90km of tarmac and with 10 minutes to spare before the cut off I can afford to soak in the noise while completing the half lap of the pitch to the finish line.  comrades 2014 finish line

It's a massive feeling of accomplishment and relief to cross the final timing mat.  I've picked up the Bill Rowan medal for a sub-9 and another Back to Back medal for running both directions.  It's not a silver; a long way off silver in truth but on a cooler day things would have been very different. I realise by typing that I'm already considering the prospect of having anther go at it!

As soon as I'm over the line my legs have had enough and start shaking uncontrollably as if freezing cold which hasn't happened to me before.  Raising them seems to be the thing to do but it takes a good hour before they calm down.  One of my non-running (this time) friends, Maarten, is at the finish and does a fantastic job of fetching furniture, food and more importantly several cans of beer for me which I'm very grateful for.  We watch the rest of the field come in including many of the Runners World Forum people each stopping for an exchange of war stories. 

It's been another fantastic though extremely testing experience and watching the final drama of the absolute 12-hour cut-off unfold in front of us brings home just what it means to all the participants to run this race.

Last year Comrades reset my perception of my limits.. all our limits.. to beyond the visible horizon.  The race has many idiosyncrasies - the different medals, the alternating directions, the distance markers that count down etc.  But these are merely diversions. What makes the race special is that it brings out onto the streets runners and supporters from those who have absolutely nothing to those who have every luxury at their disposal. For that one day there are no racial divides and no class divides. Everyone is engaged in a common endeavour and everyone is supporting everyone else.

I suspect they'll all be back next year.  And I suspect I'll be back too.

Race Website
GPS Trace on Movescount

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