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The 2013 Comrades Ultra

So this is it. Sunday starts at 3am and we have to be in the start pen by 5:15am otherwise you start from the back. We have a taxi ordered and experience of Durban cabbies has made us extremely dubious of any promises they make, even in standard office hours, let lone crack of dawn runs into the centre of town.  But, we seem to end up picking cabs from the same company over the past few days and each time the driver would pipe up with 'don't worry, I'll be there between 4 and 4:10am on Sunday'.

I must have spent most of the hour slapping on vaseline. As it's going to be hot I lubed up every moving part and then liberally slapped on another layer for good measure like a dodgy decorator with a job lot of cheap paint and a large area to cover.  I'm going with the Fastwitch shoes over the heavier Rides, but at the same time the heavier UK Team vest over the climacool gossamer vest.  I reckon the extra support it will garner is worth far more than the extra few grammes.

4:20am and the guy hasn't turned up. Tension mounts and after some frantic calls to the cab office and some what would otherwise be entertaining calls to the driver while on speakerphone - he had slept in - he finally pitches up at 4:30 with indiscernible remorse.

It's pitch black but the start area is well lit to the extent that it's confusing the birds roosting in the trees. It's an intense atmosphere. People sit down in the pens to save even the energy of standing up and there are well over 14,000 at the start.  Your bib tells everyone you're an international and all sorts of stats as to how many you've run so if you're a first-timer it's obvious and other runners will volunteer advice and encouragement without prompting.

I'm in the first pen behind the elite field. There's a huge range of experience around me with some novices like me, many others having run the race several times.

There's a ritual build-up to the race from 5:15.  The South African national anthem, then Shosholoza, a traditional African song which like Jerusalem for the UK is pretty much the popular choice for the job. 

Shosholoza, shosholoza (Moving fast, moving strong)
Ku lezontaba (Through those mountains)
Stimela sphuma eSouth Africa (Train from South Africa)
Wenu yabaleka (You are leaving)
Wenu yabaleka (You are leaving)
Ku lezontaba (Through those mountains)
Stimela siphum' eSouth Africa (Train from South Africa)

Everyone is singing their hearts out. It's an extraordinary thing and makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. They are standing up again now as I type this. 14,000 people singing with passion.

Then it's the Chariots of Fire theme which also speaks to me. You are minutes way now and as the strains die away there's the sound of a cock crowing twice followed by a massive cannon boom and we are off.

Before the sound of the cannon has died away, it's not just the race that has kicked off.  Prophetically I'd been cautioned by my pen inmates to be careful at the start; it's crowded, everyone pushes, there's a barrier in the middle etc etc. Despite this, within 10 metres disaster strikes and in a realisation of the worst personal nightmare I can think of at the start of a massive race shy of cardiac arrest, someone treads on the back of my right shoe and it flies off into the surging masses ahead!

I can briefly see it on the ground but it's immediately engulfed by a forest of legs and vanishes. I am absolutely distraught; trying to spot my shoe amongst 28,000 other, moving shoes like some ghastly trainer-based version of 'Where's Wally'.  I fight my way back against the onrushing masses to an island in the start gantry, causing mayhem as runners are unsurprisingly not expecting someone to be coming the other way.  I have a slightly swollen lip where a flailing arm caught it. 

Thousands stream past me either side of the island with me in the dead space ahead of which the field re-converges.  I feel like the loneliest person in the world.  This is a dream race, I've trained for months, traveled thousands of miles and it's passing me by oblivious and I haven't even made it to the first corner!

I'm going ballistic and in a complete panic which was starting to congeal into despair.  The way I saw it I only had two options (3 if you count chucking the towel in altogether) - run barefoot or wait until the entire field has gone through and search for the lost shoe amongst the detritus of 14,000 people. In the dark. It was hard to decide which was the least worst option and I was well short of being capable of a rational, considered decision.  Hope was, in short, coughing up its last and holding up a sign saying 'that's me, mate, I'm turning in'.

So probably 5 minutes into the race now, I'm still shouting out stuff that turned the air blue, within which the word 'shoe' featured pretty heavily as well as some other words with four letters and someone like some messenger from the Gods says 'that man has your shoe!' and points into the running masses ahead.

To my astonishment there's a guy running with a shoe held aloft like the Statue of Liberty's torch!! I just cannot believe it! In my mind it is lit up and shining like a beacon. So I'm off one shoe, one barefoot and a message gets through to him via the running field and it is passed back to me!  I stare at the thing in disbelief and gush gratitude like a busted water hydrant to all around me.

Then this big African runs alongside and with a huge grin and a big gold tooth glinting in the floodlights. "And that, my friend," he says, jabbing a finger for extra emphasis, "is the spirit.. of the Comrades!!"

I almost forget I'm not wearing it and those around me have to break the spell - 'pull over and put it on!'

Despair and disaster to wanting to hug everyone in the race in a nanosecond. Hope never dies, folks.  And maybe no matter how much you think the world is a selfish place, there are people around who look out for each other and will go out of their way to help. 

I reapply the footwear and set off trying to get my heartrate into a more comfortable place and wondering to myself what I would have done if I'd gone with the barefoot option?  I'd have jettisoned the left shoe only to have the right returned to me and then would have had to go off in search of the left as well!  Losing two shoes in the same race would likely set records.

I get back into a steady pace and try and slow the heartrate. It's already warm, I've got a body temperature headstart and the sun is hours from coming up.

So finally to the race..!

We're heading out to Pietermaritzburg 54 miles in the distance along what amounts to a motorway over five serious hills. In fact the whole thing is hills.  You hit the first soon after the start and the fourth around halfway but the climbing doesn't let up until well past the midpoint and you still have the stinger in the tail that is Polly Shortts to come.

I'd read up on the route, asked people who'd run the race, used Google Earth and even booked the course tour the Friday beforehand.  The course tour would have certainly brought home what was to come but the taxi firm let me down and didn't show up so I missed it!  In short (unlike the hills) I just wasn't prepared for the length of them, some 2+ miles long averaging 6% gradient with sections much steeper than that. The first one is ok but they are relentless

It was forecast to be a hot one but when the sun rose it just turned up the dial and became a battle of attrition. It peaked at 32 degrees (90F) with a road temperature of well over 100F. We've had such a terrible Spring, barely into the 10s/40Fs that this was devastating as there had been no chance to acclimitise to it. Even so this is a temperature that were we to achieve it mid Summer it would make heatwave headlines and fill Brighton Beach.  As if that wasn't enough, there was also a bergwind forecast in the second half - a pyroclastic-like wind that certain atmospheric conditions create causing high winds to roll down from the peaks. Into our faces.

In the meantime there's stunning scenery as the sun comes up and the road is lined with people out having parties and Braai (BBQ) and they're all cheering you on.   I'm wearing the UK vest so it's obvious I'm not from round here and they give overseas visitors special encouragement - 'hot enough for you eh, British?'

I've never heard anything like it - I lost count how many times someone said 'thank you for running our race' and 'welcome to our country'.   I just can't imagine anyone saying that at a race back home.

I have to admit I'm not feeling 100% from the start. Being an Ultra it's not a race you set out fast so you hope it resolves itself but I never felt fully fit on the day.  I'm not sure if it was the heat or fluids or what.  I was ahead of the Silver pace until Drummond which is halfway.  Despite it only being 2 days ago I cannot remember at what point or why I slipped behind the clock as i was well ahead of 7:30 target before then.  It's a difficult race to pace because of the changing altitude - picking a fixed per-K speed isn't going to get you far and you don't know how the hills are going to affect you.
(image copyright Alsoran Runners)

Passing Cowies, Fields and Botha's hills you reach halfway - not that you want to dwell on that stat too much and immediately you're presented with the behemoth that is Inchanga. It's a mile and a half long with an average gradient of 6% and you've just run an extremely hilly marathon.  It's very warm by now and taking on fluids at every kilometer has become essential.  From this point on my mouth was always dry no matter how much I drank.  The heat and the wind just wicked away every drop of moisture in no time.  In fact several times during the second half some kind spectator had turned out their garden hose and were spraying runners.  Each time I stood right in front of the spray and ensured I got a thorough soaking from head to foot - absolutely drenched.  Within 5 minutes I was bone dry.

The smells from the braai waft over you temptingly and there was the torment of bicycling ice-cream salesmen haunting the second haf of the race almost as though deliberately employed to make it that bit tougher.  People along the route were giving out big chunks of ice which were a welcome relief and all sorts of food.  The staple of the Comrades is the boiled potato covered in salt.  It's supposed to keep your body's salt balance on the right side of hypernatremia.  Lots swear by them but I found the salt difficult to take.

I'd given up on chasing Silver by now, it's clearly not going to happen and it's a case of getting to the finish in one piece.  I decide to enjoy it (as much as you can!) and must have hi-fived several hundred African kids who clearly had next to nothing but were still out on the course to support.  Very humbling.

In the last 20km or so the bergwind had rolled down the mountain and was blasting the course full in the face.  The distance marker signs were all flat to the floor and it was playing havoc with the feed stations and causing a dust storm though that pretty much kept off the course.  I'm walking quite a bit by now.  I'd decided to try setting my watch to count down 10 minutes during which I would run, then I'd give myself a minute walk.  However I never once managed to last the 10 minutes.  Downhill sections were too steep to be tolerated by the now mashed thighs and I found myself walking through each drinks stop to get as much as I could - mostly for pouring over my head and soaking the buff thing that I was wearing as a bandana and fondly imagined would keep me cool.

The kilometer markers count downwards at Comrades and 20km is a relatively small portion of 89km but it's still basically a half marathon so it's essential you don't dwell on how far there is left to go but instead set smaller, more achievable goals.  The race is so tough that it's a big relief to know that you can walk and you'll still make it home.  A big proportion of the field are aiming for just that right from the off in fact. Half of the finishers this year arrived in the last hour.

There's a sign after 70km of running on the Umlaas road marking the highest point of the course, 810M above sea level.  By this time I was convinced there were no downhills in South Africa; it had been almost non-stop climbing. But there was more to come.  You lose height over the next 5km only to come across Little Pollys, a nasty climb which it's all to easy to mistake for Polly Shortts which follows immediately afterwards.  When you hit Polly's there is no mistaking it.  It's one last bitch of a 6% average climb over 2km.  Even the race winner is walking this!

In the event I walked the last 6 miles or so to favour a looming thigh injury.  I decided on minimising the damage to recover quicker.  I was passed by the Bill Rowan medal 'bus' (the time target is 9 hours) and momentarily considered tagging along.  It turns out they arrived a few seconds too late at the finish and all missed the medal so it's just as well I thought better of it! No-one cares about your time at this race! 

Eventually the last few kilometers ticked down and the more sparsely-populated section after halfway gave way to bigger crowds and the cheering and support became all the more raucous.  Those last 2 miles seemed to take forever.  The finish is in a cricket stadium and you have to pass a different sports ground on the way to it which seems very cruel!  But after hearing the announcer in the ground for some distance you eventually turn into the stadium and the final 200m on the grass round the perimeter.

There are even a couple of fake finish lines too and I thought the second one was actually the one before realising everyone was still going.

Amazing feeling to cross the last timing mat and finish.  One of the race organisers came over with effusive thanks for running the race 'you runners make this race', 'so grateful that you've come so far to take part' etc. which made you feel pretty special.  Through the finish area I passed a lot of runners on stretchers clearly in a bad way and later it turned out the medical tent had been full and over 200 were treated.

They look after the international runners - there's a special finish area with loads of food and, more importantly, beer and your bags are taken there too so there's no long walk the locals have to endure. 

I finished in 9:42. Well short of the time I wanted. Not even in the same ballpark frankly.  I'm still trying to decide what happened there and what I could have done about it but it's clear the main reason on the day was the temperature.  I just can't run in the heat.  Any other race and I would not have even turned up.  But this is no ordinary race.

The 11 hour countdown came and went for the last of the Bronze medal winners and then the excruciating but compelling wait for the 12 hour finishers going for a Vic Clapham medal.

The cut-off is absolute. A second past 12 hours and you don't finish, you don't cross the line and you get nothing.  There is always a large number of finishers at the death but this year with the heat out of over 14,000 runners only around 5,000 had crossed the line at 11 hours. 

The last minute is probably the cruelest ritual in amateur sport.  Desperate people who have been out on their feet for 12 hours strain every already-strained sinew to try and make the cut off.  The seconds are counted down by the announcer and the whole crowd all roaring on those on the grass home straight.  At zero, a line of marshals block the finish and you are out of luck and the race.  A heart-rending thing to watch.  The last finisher over the line gets a moment of fame on TV, the first non-finisher stopped on the timing mat after a 54-mile journey and turned away.

This year a third of the field didn't finish, about triple the average.  I would bet almost all will vow to try again.

Speaking of which I now have to decide whether to have another go.  Next year is a down run with completely different challenges.  I suspect had I struck Silver I'd be satisfied that it was job done. As it is.. we'll see.  It's a tempting proposition and with a back-to-back to go for too, but there are other races in other places and life's resources are limited.

Its an extraordinary race and if it's on your bucket list I think it's rightfully there and I would encourage you to give it a go.  Whether I can give much advice on how to train for it is another matter.  Until you see the hills for yourself..

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