I have been asked why I would travel all the way around the globe to run for almost 90 km. With this report I try to explain why, it is a bit long, so you may want to get a cup of café or a glass of wine before you start reading
The Comrades Marathon 1921 – 2010
Little could dreamer Vic Chapman have visualized, when he founded the Comrades Marathon in1921 with 34 runners at the start, that 85 years later over 23’000 aspiring athletes would sign up for what is arguable the ultimate human race on this planet.
This ultra marathon was instituted by the comrades of World War I. Vic Chapman felt that if infantrymen could get used to forced marches over big distances trained athletes would have little difficulty in running the 89 km from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.
In the early days the average number of entries would be 45 runners and this number only slowly increased to a couple of hundred athletes in the 60’s and 70’s. Thanks to cheaper airfares in the last 20 years did the race become the international event it is today.
About 350 000 athletes have successfully run Comrades over the years, of these less than 100 have won and less than 1000 have achieved Gold (top 10) and about 8% of the field achieve silver (sub 7:30). At the same time, in the 2009 down run, about 20% of the starters did not make the 12 hour cut-off.
So, for most of us, Comrades is not a race, it is an adventure of the mind, body and spirit. It is about the smells, sights, sounds, thoughts, finding yourself, cursing yourself and above all enduring memories.
Daily long haul jets leave from all over the world for non-stop flights to South Africa and for 51 weeks a year the demographic of the passengers is similar; a mix of business travellers, tourist and ex-pats returning home. But for one week a year, another group appear within the passenger lists and their numbers peak by Wednesday and Thursday of that week but by Saturday they all but gone.
These new people wear sometimes facemasks, even so they are not sick, those people get out of their seats more often and walk up and down the aisles of the plane. Hesitating here and there at the exit doors peering out the window, even so there is nothing to see at 10’000 m over the Ocean. When you look closely you can see that they applying pressure to the door and their legs are braced against the floor – they are stretching. Most of them wear near new and expensive running shoes, carry a bottle of sports drink and wear shirts proclaiming ‘I ran the Melbourne Marathon’ or similar marathon races from around the world.
This is the week before The Comrades Marathon in South Africa. These are the international Comrades runners and some of them actually are sick – they have ‘Comrades Fever”. Just as the Jewish are drawn by the Wailing Wall, the Catholics to Rome and the followers of Islam to Mecca; runners are drawn to KwaZulu-Natal for The Comrades!
This year I was one of them, for the second time in my life.
This year coincides with the 85th anniversary of the race and together with the FIFA World Cup in South Africa a record number of athletes travelled to Pietermaritzburg. With the exception of a few who vie for an outright win, over 99% of the runners are just ordinary people trying to do something extraordinary!
This is not the longest, nor the toughest, but it is certainly the cruellest race in the world – Comrades takes no prisoners.
This year’s ‘down’ course (from Pietermaritzburg to Durban) is divided into 40% up and 60% down with a total climb of 1400m and fall of 2000m. This degree of difficulty is further increased by enforced cut-offs. If you don’t reach those predetermined locations in time you are not allowed to continue. To make sure you don’t continue, the road is blocked by a human barricade with men who would not look out of place in a Wallaby scrum. They then remove your race number so you cannot proceed.
At the finish – in the Cricket Stadium of Durban at around 5.15pm over 30’000 spectators, families, friends and finishers are wondering where missing friends are, if they are still out on the course. The clock is ticking relentlessly towards 12 hours and the tension builds. In the last hour of the race over 10’000 runners will cross the finish line, some will run, some will walk and some will crawl but many won’t beat the clock. At 11 hours 58 minutes into the race all eyes in the stadium are focused on the finish line because it takes the tail enders about 2 minutes to run from the entrance to the stadium to the finish line and now, those out on the streets in Durban won’t make the final countdown.
At 11.59.45 the Chairman of the Comrades Association takes up his position with his back to the finishing runners, gun in hand. At precisely 12 hours after the cock crowed that morning in Pietermaritzburg he fires a solitary shot into the air and instantly the ‘front row of the Springbok Rugby team’ blocks the finish line. It is over, no more medals, no more finishers this year. This single shot not only echoes around the stadium and down the streets of Durban but via television across South Africa and via internet around the world.
Runners trapped on the wrong side of the finish line are devastated. They sit down and ponder their situation, some cry. For all of them it is at least 6 months of hard training and long miles for no Comrades medal. To some it is a lifetime dream of finishing the race shattered. It will take weeks, months or years for some to cope and to virtually all, the only way to truly erase this disappointment, is to return in the future and beat that gun.
In 2003 I travelled the first time to South Africa to participate in, what I thought was the ultimate race I will ever run in. As we all know by now I found bigger and crazier events out there for me to enjoy. However the Comrades always stayed as my favourite and best running event ever. And I was looking forward to return one day.
The atmosphere, the 1’000s of spectators along the 90 km and the fact that the whole of South Africa is watching this race live on TV make this a unique event for any runner and I believe that every fit and keen South African runner will try to qualify and finish one Comrades in his/her life time, if they get a chance.
Uli and I decided a couple of years ago that we would go to the FIFA World Cup 2010 in South Africa and as the Comrades Marathon was held only 2 weeks prior the World Cup I saw this as a unique opportunity to help The Fred Hollows Foundation (FHF) in a more direct way.
It is estimated that of the 225,000 blind people in South Africa, 66 percent – or 160,000 are needlessly blind with cataract. The Eastern Cape Province, where FHF South Africa work is concentrated, is the poorest province in the country. In 2008 the results of a survey estimated that over 38,000 people in the Province were blind. Of these, over 30,000 had an avoidable form of blindness, mainly caused by cataract. The majority of these people have very limited or no access to eye care services. One of the greatest challenges FHFSA faces in the Eastern Cape Province is the tremendous shortage of trained eye care professionals at all levels of the health care system. Working with the Eastern Cape Ministry of Health and other partner organizations, FHFSA aim is to turn this situation around and restore sight to the tens of thousands of South Africans who remain distant and isolated due to blindness.
I contacted the FHF office in Sydney and asked if they know of a visually impaired athlete who would like to finish the Comrades in 2010 and through their South African office I got in contact with Francois Jacobs. Francois was the first blind Ironman in South Africa, finishing the race in 2008. He repeated this task last year and he was looking for a guide to help him fulfilling a life long dream of running the Comrades. Like for everyone, training for such an event is time consuming and in addition Francois challenge was also to find regular running partners/guides who were able to do long hours of running with him.
A nail biting finish at the 50km Loskop Ultra Marathon in April, where Francois finish 8 sec under the 6 hours cut-off time, meant that he is now officially qualified for the Comrades. That hard run made Francois realise that maybe he just has bitten off a piece too big to chew, when he signing up for Comrades. 89km is a long, very long run to finish under 12 hours. In the last few weeks prior the race, he made sure to cover many more km to get as ready as possible.
Myself in the meantime was lucky and honoured to be able to train here in Sydney with visually impaired runner and Australian Cricket player Ben Philips. Starting in February we trained 3 times a week and beginning of May, we I finished Ben’s challenge with bravura by conquering his first Sydney Half Marathon in just over 2 hours.
24 hours after leaving Sydney, Uli and I arrived exhausted in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. We stayed in a beautiful lodge just outside of town a few minutes from the start line of the Comrades. After a day of relaxing, we had to drive back to Durban Airport to pick-up and meet Francois for the first time. I was exited to finally meet my running buddy but also a bit nervous wondering if I am really ready to do this and take on the responsibility to lead Francois to the finish line in Durban. We got on right away and started swapping running stories in the car whiles Uli was driving us to the Durban Race Expo, where we are to meet up with the Fred Hollows people and register for the race.
Little did we know that the FHFSA prepared our arrival and did a great job of advertising our upcoming race together by printing posters, t-shirts and flyers with Francois and my photo on it, but also invited media to their booth to interview us.
After giving radio interviews and posing for photos we both were a overwhelmed by it all and ready to go ‘home’ to our hotel only to be told that Francois was one of the 5 candidates of this years ‘Hero of Runner’ award by the South African Runners World magazine
So ‘poor’ Francois had to head off to the awards dinner and party instead of joining us for a relaxing evening at the lodge. Mary from the Fred Hollows Foundation volunteered to accompany Francois to the dinner, where they rubbed shoulders with running celebrities such as Bruce Fordyce and other Comrades legends.
We caught up again the next morning (the day before the race) for a big carbo loading lunch and took that afternoon to discuss our strategy for the race. Doug, from Achilles Club Sydney joined us to spend the night at our lodge to avoid getting up at 2 pm tomorrow and drive from Durban to the start.
Rule 1 – any race of this magnitude needs a race plan and discipline to follow it, if one wants to be successful in finishing the challenge. Our plan was to finish within the 12 hours cut-off time. For a while Francois was playing with the thought of getting a Bronze medal (sub 11 hrs) however realised that finishing is the main task. The plan was to walk the uphills and steep down hills and run the rest. I was carrying a drink belt with two 600ml bottles and energy gels for the whole race, this approach allowed us to give most drink stations a miss and save us heaps of time. The over 40 drinks stations along the road caused congestions on a regular basis and a stop at every station could quickly result in a time ‘loss’ of 40 minutes or more, time we certainly did not have.
After a hot shower I got dressed and had my last carbo breakfast in the room. Doug and Francois went for breakfast but I need my own food prior a race. That’s rule 2 – never change what worked in the past prior (and during) a big race. Always eat what you used to, always run in well worn gear and never try new thing out during a race – it won’t work and it will cost you.
Uli was kind enough to drive us down to the start – 0500 am and 5 degrees! Brrrrrr…..
Around 18,000 people were all crammed into the start area trying to stay warm and keep the nerves in check. Uli had to stay outside and we said farewell and see you at the finish.
By 0520, we got ready for the crowd to sing the in-official South African sporting anthem, Shosholoza. An old miners song that is inspiring, emotional and heartfelt. Its lyrics are quite simple and loosely translate to; the train is gathering speed and steaming towards South Africa. And when 18,000 Africans sing it together it is like a church choir and the emotions really start to churn. As we all sang along, the tears welled in our eyes and the lump developed in our throat – this was it.
I stared at the clock on the side of the Pietermaritzburg town hall. This was the moment to reflect on everything all of us standing here have done leading up to the race. All the sacrifice, months of blood, sweat and tears, hundreds of kilometres running since January, months of commitment – early mornings, late nights and family inconvenience. Months of running shoes, washing smelly training gear (thank you Uli, I love you), countless energy gels and bottles of power drinks. Months of thinking about this very moment, every single day.
After singing of the South African anthem the countdown started and then there it was, the famous cry of the cock and the gun went off. The longest 12 hours if running started, from now on the only thing that matters was to reach Durban before 17.30!
We could see the start line from where we were, we could see the masses ahead of us moving but it still took us 10 minutes of shuffle to get to the actual start and timing mats. Another 10 minutes we did not really have to spare, were already lost – so 11 hours 50 min to finish.
Another unique part of the Comrades is the fact that runners are getting advised of how many km to go to Durban along the route and not as usual of how many km one has done.
So there it was – the sign ‘89km to go’, it was hardly visible in the dark and through the many runners crowding the street and the spectators along the side of the road. But we did not need to see it – we knew, we feared and we looked forward to the other 88 km coming up.
The first few km we used to get comfortable with each others, getting into a running rhythm and for Francois to probably get used to my SwissEnglish commands. For me new was to run with a short rope between us. With Ben in Sydney I was lucky that Ben could relay on my vocal commands and we both could run freely. Francois was not used to that and preferred the tether. This made it of course a bit harder when we wanted to overtake slower runners or had to stop for drinks, on the other hand it gave me the chance to sometimes put some pressure on Francois and pull him a bit harder to make up for lost time when necessary.
It took about 10 km before the masses started to stretch out a bit and we had some space around us to run. Normally in a race like this I would fail to notice anything but the 10 metre stretch of bitumen in front of me, this time apart of focusing on Francois, I had time to enjoyed the scenery, supporters and fellow runners for most of the race as the speed was almost 1 1/2 min per km slower than my usual race speed.
As we started at the very end of the roughly 18’000 runners, I wanted to make sure that we made up the lost 10 min from the start and get somehow into line with my race plan, We had to work hard the first few hours to overtake 100’s of other runners. Not an easy task for a single runner and a nightmare for us two as the road got narrower once outside of Pietermaritzburg and the masses around us never loosed up wide enough to have more than 3 – 5 meters of free space ahead of us.
It took me a while to realise that weaving left and right all the time to overtake people was not a nice feeling for Francois and I decided to settle down to a slower pace as soon as I was sure that we are on track with our time. After about 2 hours of running the sun finally made her appearance on the horizon and we started taking off all the extra t-shirts and plastic bags we had on us to cover against the freezing cold. These extra clothing were quickly taken by waiting children along the road. With the sun out we suddenly could see more of the country side and the view over the valley and ahead of us was incredible – rolling hills after hills on both sides and a mass of people, looking more like a monstrous snake, moving slowly forward towards the Ocean and Durban.
I gave Uli a map of our race route which showed a few points where spectators, driving along the highway to Durban, could stop and meet up with the marathon. It was more for her to see the race and get a feel of it, than actually meet up with us. However lucky for all of us and thanks to the time I had to look around, I picked her and two Fred Hollows staff out of the 1’000s of spectators along the road and we stopped for a short chat and a few photos.
It was a great feeling to meet them on the road and it gave both of us a real boost. I remembered the route well from 2003 and knew that soon we would reach the highest point of the race and than it was supposed to be all downhill to Durban…not!
This race is known for its 5 major hills and each of them is a ‘killer’ – each of these up-hills slowed us down to walking speed and we had to make sure we picked up enough speed on the other side to make up for any lost time.
Since it is true that this race does not really start until around 60 km, we had to make sure we did not overdue it in the early stage and so use the first 30 – 40km to ‘pass the time’. I made sure that Francois started early with taking the energy gels and salt tablets and we kept up a good rhythm and stopped only at every 5th or 6th drinking station to fill up my two bottles.
Soon enough the first bad patch in the race will come for Francois, since he got closer with every step to new territory, having never ran more than 50 km in his life.
The saying goes that the first 50 km of the race is ran with your feet, the next 20 km with your head and the last 20 km with your heart.
We were lucky enough to see once more Uli along the road but after that I knew we were on our own now till Durban, as the road was wearing off away from the highway into those hills we all treaded so much. The route started making its way through the Valley of a 1000 Hills. I wanted to get us as soon as possible ‘into the second half’ of the race – being on the way home. However it took forever to ‘crawl’ up those steep hills of Inchanga and down the other sides before finally we could first hear and than I could see the half way mark down in the valley passing Drummond. We passed the ‘half way’ sign with about 20 minutes to spare and I have to admit I got a bit worried, as I knew the worst part of this race is still ahead of us.
Francois started feeling the distance and the pain started to slow him down almost to the point where we had to walk even the flat pits of the race. Being blind he was of course unable to see that there were many runners much worse off than him – people suffering cramps, sitting beside the road vomiting, walking stiffly beside us, limping up those hills It was hard to describe this to him to make him feel better and it was time to get some help from ‘Doctor Markus’. I carried not only the necessary salt and hydration tablets with me, but some proven ‘happy’ pills from my run through the desert of Morocco, they can make the pain disappear (for a while at least) and keep you going when it gets tough! The plan was working and when we reached km 59 and Winston Park cut-off, we had made up great time and were back on track and within our plan.
Everyone who had done the ‘down run’ knows that with 25 km to go the way you handle Field’s Hill will define your race. Everyone says that running down a hill of such length (about 3 km) and of such a gradient (it’s straight down), will tear apart an already weary and battered body. It does exactly that. 7 years ago this was the point where I was in tears and wanted to stop and go home, your legs start to tighten up and the feet reeling in pain with every step. Runners line the side of the road sitting on the pathways holding their heads and wondering why they can not get up again, for many this hill will be the end of their Comrades dreams.
Lot’s of people walk the length of the hill; some walk down backwards to ease the pain.
it seems wise to shorten the stride and shuffle down, putting as little stress on the body as possible. Here was the time for us to put those leg muscle of an Ironman like Francois to good use and we started to stride out down the hill and try and pick up time. The road was wider here and we started to overtake many runners we last saw 40 km ago when they over took us. It was tough on Francois and even I felt my knees and legs the first time, but luckily I still had some of those pills.
We both were glad to reach the bottom of the hill and I started looking for that ‘20 km to go’ sign, a sign which had become a significant mental milestone for both of us.
The flat road through Pinetown after Field’s Hill is welcoming for a while and gives the legs a little respite. We passed through that ’20 km to go’ sign and this lifted everyone’s spirits – less than a 1/2 marathon to go and with more than 30 min in the bank (ahead of cut-off) Durban and the finish line looked for the first time a real possibility.
Remember the saying – the last 20 km became now a battle with the mind. Our bodies had long given up but our mind was pushing us beyond our previous limits. Now was the time to think about all those hard training days, to think about all the sacrifice in the last 6 months and to think about all our supporters, who are ‘watching’ us on-line and waiting in Durban for us. It was the time to remember why we are out here doing this.
We were running for eyes! Running to help people who are needlessly blind and are waiting for help to see again. Running for Fred.
No sooner our legs found some rhythm again along the flats we were confronted with another famous heartbreaker – Cowies Hill.
Cowies Hill not only was normally the decider for the guys running for the win, but it became the mountain of truth for all of us amateurs. At the bottom of the hill we passed over another timing mat. We knew that each time we passed over one of these mats a SMS would be sent to Uli in Durban, plus a signal would appear on the computers of all of those following us on-line around the globe. Knowing that so many people were watching our progress in real time on the other side of the world was a strong incentive to keep going and I pushed Francois to find extra energy to conquer that last big hill.
Nobody around us is running any longer – everyone just walks and shuffles up Cowies. Everyone is within his or her own thoughts and fights off all kind of demons who want us to stop and sit down. We needed to keep going, there are people waiting for us in Durban!
From now onwards into Durban the race kind of jumps on and off the freeways into Durban and the crowds get thicker. There is nothing like the crowd support bringing you ‘home’.
People traditionally line the roads and have barbecues (or Braai’s, as they are known in South Africa). They have set up their tents, lounge suites or chairs on the side of the road and support the runners from early morning till the last runners passed them. At some points of the race the crowds converged along the road (like you see in the Tour De France) leaving us runners only a narrow gap to get through – unbelievable.
The last 10 km are excruciating; it truly is. The kilometre marks just seemed to take forever but psychologically I was trilled to tell Francois that we are now down to single figures (less than 10 km to go). With 7 km to go we passed the last cut-off point 27 min ahead of time, so we had just over an hour to finish, still a big task since our average speed was now over 7min/km. It can take some people over an hour and a half to travel this last section of the course, it is not over till the fat lady sings.
By now a small rise of the road felt like a mountain for Francois, a short down hills become an agonizing descent. I was very conscious of our increasingly tight legs and the potential for cramp, so more salt tablets and fluid to minimize the risk.
We were now on the fringe of the city and running down the freeway into Durban. As we came over the last bridge down into the poorer part of town, I saw through the city’s buildings the tall light masts of the Kingsmead stadium – we made it!
I knew that we will finish now in time and decided to walk the last two kilometre, to take in the atmosphere and enjoy the screaming crowds along the street, many blowing their Vuvuzelas and ‘bringing us home’.
500 metres to go, around the corner and here was the stadium. Turning into the stadium the noise, the colour, the music, and the emotion – this was the time to reflect and come to terms with what we both just have accomplished.
I saw Uli, the Fred Hollows staff and many of my Australian fellow runners along the side of the finish line. We stopped for a few photos and than I let go of the tether and let Francois crossing the finish line on his own – 11 hours 46 minutes and 32 seconds after we left Pietermaritzburg that same morning. I think he has not realize yet that he just finished the greatest ultra marathon in the world on his own.
Interestingly our finish time was exactly to the seconds 2 hours slower than my time in 2003 when I finished the race on my own.
The stadium looked like a war zone, people everywhere lying around, stretching their sore legs, laughing, crying, and proudly showing off their medals. We made our way through this mayhem and join the other Aussies in the International area. Exhausted as we were we did not take advantage of the food they served us there but the cold beer went down a treat!
13 minutes after we crossed the line that cruel moment of truth came, when the chairman of the race counted down the seconds and on the dot at 17.30 the gun went off and the finish line got closed off.
Of the 16’301 who started in Pietermaritzburg, 14’596 made it in time but sadly for many still running into the stadium it was too late, but we all know they will be back to beat that gun next year.
The emotion, the more than 12 hours on our feet, the pain killers mixed with the beer finally got to Francois and we had to make our way to the hotel for a well deserved hot shower and ice bath.
I asked the concierge to organise 6 bags of ice for us and true to his word within 10 min we received a huge rubbish bag full of ice (from the hotel bar downstairs) to relax our sore legs in. Francois was out cold within minutes and was unable to join us for dinner and celebration but I am sure he was celebrating his huge achievement in his dream while Uli and I enjoyed a famous South African steak with mash and a good bottle of wine with our Fred Hollows friends.
Next morning I went for a short jog along the beach to loosen up my tight legs a bit. Francois joined us for breakfast and even so we both had some difficulty going up and down steps, we both looked far better than many fellow runners we saw today.
I am happy to learn that Francois is already thinking about next year’s up run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg – I know he will be back with vengeance and finish next years run in a much better time than yesterday. Many fellow runners from his running club are aware of Francois goals now and he should have no problem to find a fit and willing guide to conquer the Comrades and that final gun without problem.
I hope that our effort has helped the Fred Hollows Foundation in South Africa to increase awareness of their big task at hand and that their great job at the runner expo the last couple of days has brought in some much needed donations to help the many needlessly blind South African. Sadly Uli and I did not have time to take the Foundation up on their invitation to visit their offices and the Sabona Eye Centre this time but I look forward to come back on day and attempt the apparently easier up run from Durban back to Pietermaritzburg and visit East London.
I would like to thank Francois for his trust to let him guide on this race, thanks also to the staff of The Fred Hollows Foundation South Africa – Mary, Belinda, Zanele, Tembakazi and Peter, who did a great job advertising our venture at the Expo in Durban. Thanks to Uli, without her I would not be able to do all this and of course a big thank you to all the generous supporters, whose donation for Fred Hollows are the reason that keeps me going.