Race Review – The Comrades

A Comrades poster if there ever was one

Now before I start, for those of you that do not know, I did not finish the 92nd running of The Comrades but I lived it for a day from a perspective shared by the thousands who do not cross that finish line and not the vast majority of the TV viewers at home. I saw the great and the good, the tragedy and the soul of The Comrades yesterday and I want to share it with you.

Bats and Cannons

That was an experience like no other. Don’t be downbeat, Darren. Can’t be downbeat, Darren. Look, let’s go back to 3am Sunday morning. Picture the scene…

I wake after a good 6 hours sleep, the best sleep I have had the entire trip. The race starts at 5:30am on the dot and is gun timed, not chip timed, so the further back you are, you are basically in a Hajj-esque stampede of people trying to get over the line as soon as possible. Weetabix rather than porridge for me nowadays. I never thought to just change the cereal. Porridge always stuck in my throat two hours before a morning race, but Weetabix worked. A cuppa, morning ablutions and I was downstairs and being picked up by the driver from my tour company.

That is something I highly recommend to European runners considering The Comrades. I have been to South Africa several times and would not attempt the logistics by myself. The tour operator I went with was superb. They organised the hotel booking, picked me up from the airport, took me to and brought me back from the EXPO, organised a meal for all runners who had booked through them, picked me up on race day and brought me back, and took me to the airport at the end.

Anyway, back to the start. The driver picked me and the other runners up and drove us into downtown Durban. It was still dark, it is winter here and the sun wouldn’t show it’s face for several hours. I went straight to my pen where people were just sitting on the ground talking. It was lovely. Thousands of people sitting on the street, cross legged, chatting away or enjoying moments of peace. It did make me think of James.

The street the race started on had a large office building in the near distance that had images and advertising (I think it was one of the co-sponsors) projected on it. Trees lined either side. Every so often something would catch my eye as it flew over. Too early for birds. Wings back to front. These were bats. Large ones. But I am ok with bats (he says, not giving away his secret identity).

I am Bat Knees

About 5am people stand up and they know what is coming. Introductions to the elite athletes and then the music. Chariots of Fire is traditional, and gets the waterworks going so much they cut it short, the national anthem and then…

There is a countdown to the start and the elites heading off into the darkness but rather than a gun, there is a cannon. We are all standing there, after throwing our throwaway tops to the side, adrenaline pumping, you wish the person to your left good luck, your right good luck, in front good luck, and the person behind you say you bloody better not overtake me. The countdown starts and everyone goes silent, the cannon blasts and then looking up thousands of bats are frightened from their roosts and fill the sky.

I have always loved the memory retold by Mrs Lintott in History Boys, as she fondly talks of her time at Durham University. “Durham was very good for history, it’s where I had my first pizza. Other things … And fog, would you believe, one morning inside the cathedral. I loved it.” I have always wanted a Durham Cathedral/fog memory and I think I may have just had one at 5:30am in Durban on 4th June 2017. Shosholoza and N’Kosi Sikelel I Afrika ringing in our ears, spotlights above the crowd, a cannon goes off at the start line and thousands of bats fly from their roosts in the trees and cover the sky.  The stuff of memories.

The Race

It feels like a night race, wide city streets dimly lit with yellow glow, a few locals out and enjoying the spectacle. Runners peeing behind dumpsters and in doorways having skipped using the portaloos around the start. You don’t have far to go, a matter of a couple of blocks, before you leave the city via the first exit ramp up and onto the freeway. You are already climbing. It is still dark on the east coast of Africa and will be for a few hours yet, and it is chilly and crowded. I know that it will thin out eventually, but you hope that it will do so before you are too tired to fall back into your race strategy; mine being a nice simple 2/1 run/walk after about 30K.

The crowd though, was moving too fast, to get into any sort of rhythm you have to dodge to the left and right as people stopped dead and into the walk phase of their own strategy. The sides, the haven for walkers in European races, were the outside lane on the motorway, for the overtakers, and those foolhardy enough in the dark to not care about tripping over cat’s eyes cemented into the asphalt. Many did fall but all got up. A grazed knee at the start is nothing compared to what lies in store for those who keep going.

I don’t remember when the sun actually came up. It was not there then it was everywhere and I was running through small towns on hilly dusty roads with thousands of people. Everyone seemed to be struggling and we had only just started.

See? I did run at least some of it.

Their pace groups are known as “buses.” I kinda like that analogy. And being Africa, the pacer calls out chants, that everyone  calls back. It was akin to the US Military cadences that I used in the past to better my running. Except this was real.

I kept up with the bus for a decent distance before noticing something odd. The flags were out of synch. This was the sub 12:00 bus, but it couldn’t have been as we were ahead of the sub 11, sub 11:30,  and then another sub 12:00 bus. So am hazarding a guess that the 12:00 girl should have had an 11:00 flag.

Then the wheels on my bus came off, off, off

I wasn’t making good progress. In fact you could barely call it progress at all. I had expected it to be tough, and hence decided to wear my hydration vest. For the most part you do not see them in photos, but on the day I saw a handful of people wearing them too and no one batted an eyelid at mine. Still, as I climbed hill after hill it was apparent that the hydration vest was not needed.

It did not weigh me down. It did not slow me down. And, to be honest, I used the bottles and the SOS Rehydrate but nothing else, not gels, not Mars, one Mint Cream. The water stations are amply stocked with water pouches, Energade (their Lucozade), and Coke (OMG I have never seen so much Coke in my life, thousands of gallons of it, in litre bottles on every table, cups of it, you really could fall into a Coca Cola diabetic coma during this race), and later food. Although I only saw bananas, and not the salted potatoes I had heard so much about.

It was after I hit the second timing mat that my knee, still sore from London (and MK and Two Tunnels) took a turn (literally) for the worse. The pain was sharp. I was only at KM22 and therefore a mere 65 from the end but found a Rescue Bus with a medic in it. She said if I get in I won’t be allowed out again. I weighed up the option and asked if she had any ice. Ice first, then heat right? I distinctly remember my osteo saying ice first, then heat. And the lady obliged with a handful of ice that I put in my hat. I then asked for some gin, tonic and a slice of lemon but she couldn’t oblige me further so I sat on the side of the road using my hat as a makeshift icepack until the ice had all melted and I felt well, or at least the approximation of well, enough to start again.

I ran MK through the pain. Two Tunnels was less so, and only a nippy half. But I could sense my race was already over. My life A Race was being taken away from me. I limped on, but barely made 33KM before I couldn’t go on. I was going to do myself some permanent damage if I did, and I have half a dozen more marathons and an ultra, not to mention Bacchus and Pride coming up. So at 33KM I stopped and sat at the side of the road until another Rescue Bus came along, and this time, I called it a day and climbed on board.

The race I ran. Backwards distance markers, heat and hills, then the Rescue Bus, water and a pointless temporary pace tattoo
First Bus  – Rescue Bus
“If there is a Hell this is Hell.” Said one of the dozen runners in the vehicle (a minibus) as I climbed in. I say “climbed” it was more of a wince and an effort, after one of the two officials driving took my bibs, and then crossed out my number on the back one and gave it back to me. (They do this so you don’t cheat and continue the race later on when they let you out). “They call him the collector of souls.” He continued, nodding to the guy with the handful of bibs. “He has our souls now. And we won’t get them back until next year.”
The Keeper of Souls
This was a guy who had run 5 comrades and was still to finish one. Another, sitting next to me, had finished 39 and was trying for 40. He had to give up and said it was brutal out there. Another spoke up. He had also run it 5 times and was yet to get a medal. It made me question everything. They run this race year after year but do not finish, especially given what I had been through today that seemed a little crazy at first. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. How many times have you run Comrades? The answer is 5. You have run it 5 times, you just haven’t completed it. Someone later had run it 18 times and never finished. A lady at dinner the night before had run it three times and only finished once. Her husband had completed 15 but missed out on three when he ran with others the whole way. The challenge IS the race, and no matter how far you get, the challenge is there. That is what they were all telling me as the Rescue Bus started on it’s way.
But the bus did not travel as expected. I thought it would diverge off the run route and then speed us to the finish. Nope. It slowly drove up the race route, amongst the runners, stopping often, keeping up with them at times, slower at other times. The runners in the bus, myself included, cheered on all around. We gave timing and distance updates to the runners and walkers. Clubmates of the occupants of the bus were cheered. We handed out water through the windows, gels, Energade.
A lady from a Cape Town club joined us, taking up the last space in the bus. She sat next to me and was not feeling very well. With all the water and Coke, and none of the salty boiled potatoes promised, people were feeling nauseous. She was and so I gave her an SOS Rehydrate. We got her two pouches of water, made it up for her and I told her to sip it. Within five minutes she was fine and we continued our journey.
It was a tough watch. As the bus inched its way through the course the people looked more and more tired, hot, bedraggled. These were soldiers, marching on through exhaustion. And we had not even reached half way yet. People run in just a singlet. Hydration vests are a rarity, fanny packs/bum bags/hydration belts too. They relied on the water stops. But for salt? Supporters came out with tubs of Table Salt and poured it into hands and it was lapped up. You had to do what you could to get through.
The cut offs
 At Drummond
The race has stages people know by name, cut offs, hills, you see them on the maps and people talk about them. They are as famous as the corners at Silverstone, or the jumps at the Grand National. Drummond is half way and as the bus came up to it we were 2 minutes from the cut off. And this was horrible. As the digital clock at the timing mats slowly ticked on the runners behind us realised that was happening. The bus went bananas! We cheered people on. We told them how long they had to go, all as the seconds ticked down. Some made it. A poor fellow cramped up so badly on his sprint for the line he couldn’t even stand up. Two marshals tried to help, but he was done, with 30 yards to go.
And then it was over, for anyone coming to this point. At the cut off a railing is pulled across and runners are not allowed to go any further. They are permitted to cross the timing mat and record their last action in this year’s race but that is it – time to get on the cut off bus.

The Cut Off Bus – the Big Bus

Here we got an upgrade. From the small mini bus we were transferred to coaches, or the big bus. These were for those who didn’t make the cut off at Drummond. If I had made Drummond, which maybe I could have if I pushed myself to breaking point and beyond, I would not have made the next at Cato Ridge. And that is something everyone realised. If you scrape through one cut off, odds are you are going to get caught at the next one. Just how much punishment can your body take?
Jacob, sitting next to me on the new bus was giving up after 5 failures in a row. He said it was too hot for him (and he was from here). Another said he isn’t doing it again, but the guy next to him said he will sign up the day the registration opens for 2018. And were in good company too with Pieter and Peter, both with 12 medals a piece, green number club, in the bus with us.
“A lot of people are not finishing this year” 12 time finisher Peter said. “A lot of people.”
More Carnage as the buses started to move, yet again following the race itself. Four coaches, joined by two more, in a slow moving convoy following the runners who had barely made it through Drummond as they headed slowly toward the next baking checkpoint. They looked up at us as we cheered them on. And you could see they wanted to swap places. They wanted to be on the bus, almost as badly as they wanted to complete the damned, awesome, beautifully brutal race.
Even in bus 2 we are cheering on the runners we passed, trying to urge them on and through the next check point knowing in their faces that so many were already beaten. We saw them on the side of the road just wanting to go home. Small towns. Runners just sitting in shock. Staring at their shoes, but being looked after by fellow runners and locals. For this is the race of the people and they are out in their hundreds of thousands. We were all comrades today.
The race I saw. Endless support, people digging in, a bus of beaten runners cheering everyone on.
“Back to back then done. Two is enough.” Said someone close by, and it got a lot of nods of agreement as we came to a stop and witnessed further heartbreak of the cut off. They closed the cut off, and rang a bell and those caught realised their race was over, and slowly crawled to reach the mat and record their time but go no further. It was tragic and brutal on all those who had made it this far. And we all knew that if we hadn’t been picked up before we would be here, looking up at the full buses, desperate to be on the way home.
Brutally hot landscape. The mats at a closed cut off, and the souls stuck there, reflecting on how far they had come, now wishing they could join us in going home

The End

The buses diverged from the route finally, and thankfully, as am not sure I could have taken any more heartbreak. We got on the motorway and headed to the finish at the race track, where I finally limped off, cramping and beaten after 5 hours of running and 6 hours on two buses witnessing it all in vivid technicolor.

Of course on the 12 hour uninterrupted TV coverage am sure you don’t see the ambulances of unconscious souls, saline drip in arm, hurried paramedics trying to get back onto the road. Or the anguish at the cutoffs. I saw a guy who must have passed out on a fast downhill. He was unconscious and bloody, his head and arms cut open. A lady staying with my superb tour company told me she missed the 68km cutoff! With just 19 to go. That was crushing. And, even if my knee was fine, I am sure I would have been very lucky to get that far and not be bounced into a bus earlier.

At the end I spoke to Patrick from Cricklewood, a member of Heathside (one of my local clubs) who’d run a lot of Swain’s Lane of Pain in prep. He said it made little or no difference. This is a man with a 3:23 marathon aiming for a 3:15. The race took all of him and he stared blankly for a while before limping off to the international tent. I didn’t join him as I just wanted to get back to the hotel. Zinikele – it takes all of you.

Many who clambered on the bus, wounded soldiers, said they will be back to tame the beast next year and maybe I will, but maybe the down, and maybe not next year, unless I get invited back.  Everything I’ve done before in 5 years of running fell very short. 100K RTTS,12 marathons, 40 halves, 70 10ks were just not enough. This was brutal. And to be honest I am a year away from being ready to try it again (at least).
Probably the slowest I have ever run ever. Knee was just not ready.
I did see my favourite race banner/sign of all time on a rusted car in the middle of a dirtwater town on the eastern region of South Africa, it simply said “Chafe your dreams.” I mentioned this in the final bus, the third in 7 hours, the one to take me finally back to my hotel and was told a little history. The original cut off was 11 hours. So now it’s 12 the old school call the medal you get for sub 12 the “plastic” medal. One such lady was on my tour. She ran it in 9:57, was disappointed and has never run a sub 4 marathon in her life. Not sure I care much for that attitude. I would have been happy with plastic.
In Summary

According to the tracker 13,851 people finished the race. 20,000 registered. People sign up knowing they are going to fail. They know they’ll make a cutoff, maybe two if they are lucky but that’s it. Talking to the rescue bus guys they will finish it one day. And if they don’t? Ah what the hell, they tried. And maybe that’s how I should look at my first DNF (other than a parkrun). I will complete The Comrades one day. And if I don’t? What the hell, I tried. Did I finish? No. Did I have the Comrades experience? Definitely, as much if not more than I would if I had run further, maybe even to the end.  The Comrades truly is The Ultimate Human Race, I do believe they got that slogan spot on. It is the most humbling experience watching people looking after strangers, wishing them well, cheering them on despite knowing they won’t make the next cut off, let alone the finish. The camaraderie was astonishing and will stay with me forever.

Would I recommend The Comrades? Absolutely. Just be prepared for it to take everything that you are.

Would I run The Comrades again? Absolutely. Just not next year unless (insert caveat here! If there is a group from the UK going, who can become our own little “bus”, or if I somehow become an ambassador and promote the hell out of this beauty for the next year). I would also prefer an attempt at the down. And, despite not getting a medal, or a patch to sew on my kit bag, I can say that I have run The Comrades, I just haven’t finished yet.

NEXT UP (Osteo permitting)

The Beat the Boat 10K Windsor.


I have since seen the Osteo in Cape Town, had an assessment, a massage, acupuncture, manipulation, and he believes I tore my cartilage at KM20. He says I can run, but to rest and exercise (squats!) and to think about lowering my distances to elongate my running life. I guess we need to assess it all some time in the future, but right now I need to hold my head up and wear my race tee with pride.

Jeff Mitchell and I had a conversation a few Christmases back. We were both hunting for the race that puts you on your knees, but then you gird your loins, get up and keep going. A race where you believe it has beaten you but then you soldier on and pull through, giving every last ounce of yourself to cross the line and finish and it gives you that ultimate sense of achievement. Well, mate, I think I found one.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. absolutely fantastic blog post


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