Posts Tagged ‘ultramarathons’

Running through the struggle like a golden thread was the indomitable human spirit and a capacity for self-sacrifice and discipline.
– Nelson Mandela

Mike Sohaskey at 2018 Comrades Marathon finish

(Howdy! For those interested in a full treatment of the Comrades Marathon including its many unique and long-standing traditions, I recommend you start with my two-part report from last year’s “up” run HERE. On the other hand, if you’re basically just here for the pictures, carry on…)

“Hello, Moses.”

“I see you, Moses.”

“I am coming, Moses.”

These quiet declarations reached my ears as little more than a mumble emanating from the gaunt runner to my right. Despite my fatigue, I couldn’t help but smile. The two of us strode forward slowly yet inexorably, like iron filings drawn toward the great white magnet looming directly ahead. Every step brought us closer to our ultimate destination and the object of his desire: Moses Mabhida Stadium, its central arch rising in defiance against the afternoon sky.

Despite our conspicuous outer differences — his deep ebony skin and Old World accent vs. my own melanin-challenged physique and New World English — the two of us moved as of one mind and body, eyes locked on our mutual Mecca as we approached the end of this arduous pilgrimage together. Eternal glory and an ice-cold soda beckoned.

At that moment we were kindred spirits, brothers in arms (and legs), intimate associates pulling in the same direction and with the same focused fervor for the same compulsive cause.

Or what Webster’s Dictionary would call comrades.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at 2018 Comrades Marathon expo


Had it really been a year?

371 days to be exact, since I’d stood in a similar position at the start line of my first Comrades Marathon, sweating incongruously in the cool morning air while the butterflies of the moment treated my stomach like children treat a bounce house.

This was like déjà vu all over again.

The scene around me now was electric — not surprising at the start line of the world’s oldest and largest ultramarathon. The collective human electricity of nearly 20,000 tightly packed runners intermingled with the harsh electric floodlights, the latter sending the pre-dawn shadows into hiding along the back alleys of downtown Pietermaritzburg.

Directly ahead at one end of the sea of heads stood the brighly lit red arch with “Bonitas” written in script letters on either side of the word “START.” The scene felt very much the same as I remembered it from a year earlier.

And yet different. Durban City Hall, which had towered over these same start corrals one year ago, had been replaced with the equally majestic brick façade of the Pietermaritzburg City Hall. This, of course, is one defining feature of the Comrades Marathon: its course reverses direction in alternating years, so that whereas last year’s “up” ran started in Durban and finished in Pietermaritzburg, this year’s “down” run would travel the opposite route, starting in Pietermaritzburg before finishing 90.184 km (56 miles) away in Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium.

Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, 2018 Comrades Marathon finish

Moses Mabhida Stadium, Durban

The familiar face alongside me was also a welcome difference from the 2017 run. IRONMAN triathlete power couple Jimmy and his wife Catherine had accepted our invite to join us for this year’s down run, with Jimmy running and Cath joining Katie in providing all-important crew support (or “seconding,” as it’s termed in South Africa). This would be not only Jimmy’s first Comrades but also his first ultramarathon, in recognition of a milestone birthday. What better way to celebrate half a century on this planet than by traveling halfway across it to run 56 miles?

Likewise Beth from Vancouver, whom we’d first met five years earlier when she’d won the half marathon in Antarctica, had decided this year’s down run would be her first Comrades and first ultramarathon in celebration of her own milestone 40th birthday. Because you’re never too old to make questionable decisions!

Beth’s husband Miguel, the only soccer player among us, would be joining Cath and a now-experienced Katie to form the day’s most bad-ass seconding crew. Having the three of them on the course armed with a beautifully detailed map courtesy of 12-time Comrades finisher Rory — another Antarctica pal and our excellent host for Comrades 2017 — gave me a huge sense of confidence. Talk about strength in numbers.

Relaxing at Southern Sun Elangeni leading up to 2018 Comrades Marathon

The days in Durban leading up to Comrades are just packed

Another notable distinction from the 2017 race was my nerves, or more accurately my unnerving lack of nerves. Standing in the monolithic presence of Pietermaritzburg City Hall chatting with Jimmy, I felt none of last year’s anxiety or apprehension. Sure, a lot of unknowns lay ahead on the 90 km journey to Durban, and for that the butterflies in my stomach were up to the challenge. But this time they all seemed to be flying in formation, rather than each doing its separate thing — the moment brought to mind the 80s video game Galaga, with the enemy warships all flying in formation at the start of each new screen, compared to the ensuing swarm of every ship for himself. And as the South African national anthem reached its conclusion, I felt relaxed and strangely at ease.

That said, even the best-behaved butterflies can’t help but be thrown off course by the power and beauty of what comes next: the Ndebele mining song, “Shosholoza.” Rather than observe in awestruck appreciation as other runners around me joined in the performance, though, this year I joined in myself. This despite the fact my voice was little more than a vibration in my head against the sonic wall of vocal harmonies, which resonated deep in my chest like a lion’s roar at close range.

“Shosholoza” segued predictably into “Chariots of Fire” as I made a last-second adjustment to the safety pins holding my bib number. Moments later the last notes of Vangelis’ classic score faded away, and the pregnant pause in its wake sent a few more butterflies fluttering out of formation. Adrenaline flooded my bloodstream.

Then, as loudly as if I’d been carrying a restless rooster in the lightweight pack on my back, the ear-splitting sound of Max Trumbull’s recorded cockerel crow pierced the morning quiet, signaling the start of the 93rd Comrades Marathon just as it has every Comrades Marathon for the past 71 years.

The decisive crack of a gunshot followed and with that, every one of the 19,116 starters assembled outside Pietermaritzburg City Hall — from the eventual champions in Corral A to the final finishers in Corral H — was at the mercy of the ticking clock. Because no matter our corral seeding or how long it would take us to cross under the official red START arch, we would have exactly 12 hours from the moment of that opening gunshot to cross the finish line in Moses Mabhida Stadium some 90 km away. “Gun to gun” (rather than “mat to mat”) timing is one of the signature traditions of the Comrades Marathon.

2018 Comrades Marathon start line selfie of Mike Sohaskey and Jimmy Nam

NO TURNING BACK — except for a start-line selfie

As Jimmy and I joined runners from 79 other nations in the relentless march toward Durban, I reflected on the irony of my being here after last year’s race. Comrades 2017 had left me so emotionally and physically depleted that I’d been unable to get comfortable for hours after crossing the finish line at the Scottsville Racecourse. Even my palate had hurt the next day.

But as every ultrarunner can tell you, miserable is memorable, and it wasn’t long before the siren song of the coveted back-to-back medal (earned by running the up and down runs in consecutive years) had reached my ears in Los Angeles some 10,000 miles away. And as the official Comrades Coach Lindsey Parry had pointed out at the pre-race expo three days earlier, you haven’t really run the Comrades Marathon until you’ve run both the “up” and “down” runs.

In other words, what goes up must come down. And gravity ain’t got nothin’ on Comrades.

90 km to go.

2018 Comrades Marathon start

The calm before Comrades
Jimmy, Cath, Katie and I had arrived in Durban on Wednesday after back-to-back-to-back flights from Los Angeles to London, London to Johannesburg and Joburg to Durban. Based on our positive experience of the previous year, we’d again elected to stay at the Southern Sun Elangeni in coastal Durban near the pre-race expo, rather than save ourselves time on race morning by staying closer to the start line in Pietermaritzburg.

We’d taken advantage of our mid-week arrival to recover from jet lag and tackle the intimidatingly large expo at the Durban Exhibition Centre on Thursday, well before the crush of foot traffic that would descend on Friday and Saturday. (Luckily the registration line for international athletes is typically short on any day, not surprising given that South Africans account for over 90% of registered runners.)

2018 Comrades Marathon expo

After flying 11,000+ miles, you better believe there’s no turning back (Me, Katie, Jimmy, Cath)

All manner of vendors stood alongside their booths hawking various goods and services, from athletic gear and apparel to other South African running events to Cape Town wineries and even an aggressive, aerosol can-wielding team of fellows who seemed hell-bent on shining my New Balance running shoes.

Several local charities had set up tables to raise awareness, and we sought out the Ethembeni School for physically disabled and visually impaired children — the school itself is located near the 37 km mark of the down run — to make a donation. In one corner of the exhibition centre we purchased tickets for the Sunday shuttle to Pietermaritzburg, while in another a convenient food court boasted a diverse selection of lunch fare.

I could only imagine how claustrophobic this hall would feel come Saturday.

[Comrades Tip #1: The earlier you can hit the pre-race expo, the better — things start to get very busy on Friday afternoon.]

Along with the Old Mutual stage where Coach Parry shared his tips and tricks for the down run, the highlight of this year’s expo was the food court, where during lunch we met Benny and his wife Monica, an enthusiastic couple from Johannesburg. With Monica’s support, an infectious smile and an easy laugh, Benny was preparing to run his first Comrades. Nothing unusual about that, except that he’d only run his first mile a year earlier, and so was not only a novice to Comrades but to the sport itself.

Benny was clearly eager to embrace the opportunity and put his best foot forward; at the same time, he harbored no allusions as to the challenge ahead. And though in the end he’d just miss the Pinetown cutoff and be among the 13.8% not to finish this year’s race, he’d message me afterwards to say that he’d had “so much fun” and that he’d start preparing for 2019 just as soon as his “penguin walk” subsided. And I have no doubt he’ll be ready.

Breaking bread with Comrades first-timer Benny (left) and his wife Monica (third from left)

Because that, in a nutshell, is what Comrades does to your brain — like your favorite childhood memory, it takes hold and never lets go. I can’t imagine many Americans following Benny’s ambitious “Couch to Comrades” program. And it’s probably fortuitous that Katie and I don’t live in South Africa, because despite the distance I’d have a helluva time saying “no” to a hometown race like Comrades.

On Thursday evening we’d attended the International Runners Reception at the Hilton Durban, which this year was sparsely attended and featured an obnoxiously loud musical score that quickly drowned out every conversation I tried to start. As usual, the highlight of the reception was 9-time Comrades champ Bruce Fordyce with his waggish energy and bottomless quiver of amusing anecdotes. Everyone appreciates Bruce — he’s a magnetic personality and the best ambassador this race could ever hope for.

As it had last year, our Saturday began with thousands of our fellow Comrades runners at the packed Durban North Beach parkrun, where we’d met up with our buddy John from Anchorage, like me a returning runner chasing his back-to-back medal. Along the 5K route we’d also met “Marathon Granny” Joyce from Kenya, who apparently had taken up running after developing arthritis in her knee and who would be running her first Comrades at age 64. Not only would Joyce start her first Comrades, but she’d finish her first Comrades in an astonishing 10:27:15, easily eclipsing runners half her age to become one of the weekend’s most inspiring stories. Rock on, Joyce!

Durban North Beach parkrun day before 2018 Comrades Marathon

Durban North Beach parkrun (clockwise from top left): Shaking out our selfie muscles with John from Anchorage, center; Cath turns parkrun into a full-body workout; catching up with Marathon Granny Joyce from Kenya; Cath and Katie do their best human butterfly impression

The rest of our Saturday had been overly restful, so that after a solid five hours of sleep I’d awoken on Sunday morning feeling well rested and ready to go, with the voice of experience in my head calming any potentially skittish butterflies in my stomach. After all, as noted American poet Peyton Manning once said, “Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.” With one Comrades finish under my belt, I liked to think I knew what the hell I was doing.

After a semi-normal breakfast (as normal as 2:00am breakfast can be), Jimmy, Beth and I hopped aboard the 2:45am shuttle bus for the long and (luckily) uneventful ride to the start of our personal journey in Pietermaritzburg.

2018 Comrades Marathon profile map

Asijiki: No Turning Back (Pietermaritzburg to Little Pollys)
Now, with confetti falling all around us, Jimmy and I crossed the start line two minutes and 30 seconds after the gun, 30 seconds slower than last year. As the sea of official red-and-white race caps disappeared into the darkness ahead of us, I fell into a comfortable jog alongside Jimmy, gauging the weight distribution of the lightweight Ultimate Direction pack on my back that held my limited assortment of baby food pouches and GU packets. Learning my lesson from last year’s race, I’d left the hydration bladder at home.

[Comrades Tip #2: Resist the urge to carry a hydration bladder — there’s plenty of water, Energade etc. along the course. If you must carry a pack, limit its contents to solid nutrition.]

Our game plan was simple: start strong to give ourselves a realistic shot at a 9-hour finish (Bill Rowan medal) and then adapt on the fly. Though I knew Jimmy’s competitive streak would drive him to push for 9 hours, I also knew I hadn’t trained to run a sub-9 finish time myself. After a high-mileage training program that enabled my come-from-behind run for charity at January’s Houston Marathon, I’d barely squeezed in a Corral C qualifying time at my hometown Los Angeles Marathon in March, registering at the last minute before beating the cutoff by a whopping 11 seconds. So I didn’t exactly arrive in Durban Bill Rowan-ready.

Even if I had trained properly, pausing along the route to take pictures would easily add 10-15 minutes to my finish time. If everything went according to plan, I saw 9:30 as a more likely scenario, with my primary goal being sub-10 hours as in 2017.

2017-2018 Comrades Marathon course signs

Not only had I not trained for a sub-9, but downhill running isn’t my strength — I’m much more consistent on the uphills. Whereas many runners naturally post faster times on the down run (with its 6,000+ feet of elevation loss vs. 4,000+ feet of elevation gain), I’d diligently trained my quads to survive and hopefully thrive on the extended descents between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. To my usual training regimen I’d added twice-a-week lunges and eccentric quad strengthening, the latter on the recommendation of Rory who’s completed the down run six times. I’d even run the REVEL Mt Charleston Marathon in late April, a doozy of a test run boasting a net elevation loss of 5,300 feet over 26.2 miles.

So my quads were as ready as they’d ever be to tackle the challenge of the Comrades down run.

Luckily we’d have the ultimate wild card on our side this year — the South African winter. Unlike the previous year’s unseasonal heat and unrelenting sunshine, this year’s temperatures were expected to peak in the mid-70s with regular cloud cover to keep the sun at bay. Given that my spring training regimen had included spending 20-30 minutes a day six days a week in a 180°F sauna to build my heat tolerance, this was welcome news. And it would help to make up for the fact that the 2018 course would be the longest in 23 years.

At 90.184 km, this year’s down run would be the longest Comrades course since 1995 and nearly 3½ km longer than last year’s up run, which measured 86.73. Assuming I matched last year’s average pace of 10:53/mile, the extra distance would add over 23 minutes to my projected finish time. So never mind sub-9 hours — I’d have my work cut out for me if I hoped to improve on last year’s finish time of 9:52:55.

Mike Sohaskey and Jimmy Nam at Comrades Wall of Honour

Paying homage to Rory’s Green Number plaque on the Comrades Wall of Honour

Like a gracious host reminding us that this was indeed the down run, the narrow road leading out of Pietermaritzburg started on a gentle descent. As my nerves fired and my pulse rate quickened, I did a full-system check to ensure all systems were go. My gut had dodged a bullet thirty minutes earlier after each and every porta-potty outside the start corrals had inexplicably run out of toilet paper, with no one to refill them. Talk about a helpless feeling, and only a bit of last-minute ingenuity had saved the day…

[Comrades Tip #3: That gauzy Bonitas hospital gown included in your pre-race goodie bag for warmth on race morning? It can also be torn into convenient strips for use as toilet paper.]

Jimmy and I cruised through the darkness of Pietermaritzburg and into Ashburton, the early route narrower and more tightly packed than it had been on last year’s up run, when we’d exited Durban via the well-lit N3 highway. In the pitch black I fell into a rhythm, quieted my mind and focused my mental energy on avoiding potholes as well as other runners carelessly drifting across invisible lanes of traffic.

On that note, I found myself frustrated by the sheer number of runners who seemed either unable or unwilling to run a straight line. And I know I wasted a nontrivial amount of energy pumping the brakes as restless runners insisted on weaving in front of me.

Though Jimmy and I would run together in the early going, each of us had every intention of running our own race. Because despite the fact that you’re surrounded by thousands of other runners and countless screaming spectators throughout the day, Comrades — more so than any other race I’ve run — is a very personal affair. It’s called the Ultimate Human Race for a reason: Comrades is 90 km of you vs. you, and for most of us that’s plenty of competition.

After wearing RaceRaves gear in my Comrades debut, I’d decided to go the patriotic route this year with USA flag shorts, Statue of Liberty calf compression sleeves, an American flag behind my bib number on front and back, plus stars & stripes sunglasses I’d bought for $1 at Target to round out my wardrobe. Bruce Fordyce had recommended wearing our national colors the year before — “I can’t understand why someone travels all this way to run Comrades, and then runs in a San Diego Marathon shirt” — and I’d witnessed first-hand the raucous reception other runners had received for proudly sporting their national colors.

As I’d soon discover the red, white and blue elicits a curious mix of reactions, and especially among 80 nations in which Americans account for less than 1% of the field. Sadly I missed this exchange, but according to Jimmy a woman behind us in the early miles saw my shorts and yelled, “Go America!” to which a salty Brit behind us responded with, “Said no one evah!” In response to Jimmy’s sideways glance he added sheepishly, “Sorry, don’t hate me.”

Comrades is the perfect opportunity to showcase your patriotism

Daybreak’s pale, pink-tinged lips kissed the sky as we reached Polly Shortts — the last of the “Big Five” hills on the up run — at the 82 km mark. As the pace accelerated on the mile-long descent, I paused for important business by the side of the road while Jimmy shot ahead. Though he quickly vanished out of sight, I reeled him in on the next short climb before the pace again increased down Little Polly’s.

It was on Polly Shortts and her sister Little Polly’s (Little Mpusheni) that I realized Jimmy and I were running different races. While he attacked the downhills with gravity as his muse, I worked to keep my pace in check without riding the brakes. Because starting too fast is the #1 cardinal sin of Comrades, and I hadn’t come all this way just to shred my quads before sunrise.

77 km to go.

2018 Comrades Marathon at Camperdown

Little Pollys to Harrison Flats
After Little Pollys, we switched gears once again for our longest extended climb of the day up to Umlaas Road. Along the way we passed under the N3 to reach the first of six cutoff points at Lion Park (~75 km to go). Unsure of the best way to mentally divvy up 90 km, I’d decided the six time cutoff stations would be my best landmarks, as they stand 10-15 km apart.

Despite its significance as the highest point on the course (2,700 feet), Umlaas is nondescript and easily missed during the race — and especially on the down run, where it arrives so early. Except that this year, rounding a corner I happened to glance Rory’s tall distinctive frame among the spectators lining the road.

Unfortunately by the time my brain processed the moment I’d passed Rory by, and so not wanting to slam on the brakes and risk causing an accident, I turned quickly, yelled his name and threw up my hand in greeting as I continued on my way. I saw him respond to his name, but whether he’d recognized my voice or seen me in the crowd, I had no idea.

2018 Comrades Marathon on way to Camperdown

Savoring sunrise on the way to Camperdown

One advantage of the down run is the opportunity to cover the relatively quiet, wide-open stretch through Camperdown and Cato Ridge early in the day, before the sun is high in the sky. I could still recall how interminable these long, desolate and unshaded miles had felt during last year’s up run, with Inchanga in our rear-view mirror and Polly Shortts yet to come.

A pungent odor hit my nostrils, more like rotting animal carcass than the familiar Camperdown chicken farm smell I remembered from the year before. Luckily it passed as quickly as it had appeared. No harm, no fowl.

I texted Katie to let her know we were 2 km away from where she, Cath and Miguel would be waiting. I’d missed her and Rory at our first meeting place last year, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake again. We’d also made the sage decision this year to invest in a South Africa SIM card for our iPhones upon landing at the Johannesburg airport, so we’d be able to text freely throughout the trip.

We reached our terrific trio at the 66 km mark with Jimmy about a minute ahead. He passed the trio quickly without stopping while I paused for a couple bites of a peanut butter & jelly sandwich to supplement the baby food pouch I’d downed earlier. And I laughed as Cath, responding I think to Jimmy’s own sense of focus, urged me to get going while I took a minute to stretch my legs and pose for a picture with Katie.

Even the best seconding crew in South Africa’s gotta eat!

Seconding is a key part of the Comrades experience for both runners and crew; I appreciated their being there, and the excitement on their faces was a definite pick-me-up. I also knew that one or two minutes per pit stop wouldn’t make an appreciable difference in my final time. My nonchalance was fueled by my desire to enjoy race day to the utmost, but also by what I consider to be the most glaring oversight on the part of the Comrades Marathon Association. Let me explain…

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Comrades is its distinctive finisher medals, awarded on the basis of finish time as follows:

  • Gold: Top 10
  • Wally Hayward (named for the 5-time Comrades Marathon champion and oldest runner to finish the race): Out of the top 10 but less than 6 hours
  • Silver: Greater than 6 hours but less than 7½ hours
  • Bill Rowan (named for the first Comrades Marathon winner in 1921): Greater than 7½ hours but less than 9 hours
  • Bronze: Greater than 9 hours but less than 11 hours
  • Vic Clapham (named for the Comrades Marathon founder): Greater than 11 hours but less than 12 hours:

What jumps out at me from these numbers is the sizable two-hour gap between the first and last Bronze medalists. In this year’s race, bronze medalists accounted for 39% of finishers, compared to 31% for Vic Clapham and 13% for Bill Rowan. To my mind, the difference in performance between a runner who finishes Comrades in 9:01 and one who crosses the finish line in 10:59 is significant enough to merit distinct medals.

So then why not introduce a new medal, say the Bruce Fordyce medal, for runners who finish between 9 and 10 hours? Named after the race’s 9-time champion and its premier ambassador, the promise of a Bruce Fordyce medal would immediately inspire many runners who are on the cusp of 10 hours to train harder and run a smarter, more focused race. At the same time, it would set an exciting new standard for sub-10 runners like me — who currently know a Bronze medal awaits us whether we finish in 9:45 or 10:15 — and encourage us to treat the race with less nonchalance, knowing a sub-10 finish means the difference between a Bruce Fordyce medal and a Bronze.

So how ‘bout it, CMA?

The aid stations were as efficient and energetic as I remembered, though thanks to the cooler temperatures I didn’t need to visit quite as many this year. But despite the availability of trash bins, the streets around each aid station were littered with discarded water and Energade sachets, some still partially filled so that they emitted a last-gasp {POP} when stepped on.

[Comrades Tip #4: Unless you’re in the lead pack, toss your used cups and sachets off to one side of the road, near a trash bin. If you don’t like tramping over discarded trash and half-filled water balloons, why should the runners behind you?]

The 12-hour “bus” (pacing group) rolls through Camperdown

During the course of running 90 km you’re bound to experience at least one aid station snafu, and my most memorable came courtesy of a harmless-looking orange slice which I gratefully accepted from a proferred plate. Biting down to release the sweet juice, I was instead greeted by an unwelcome saltiness that nearly caused me to gag. Instinctively I spit out the foul fruit, my taste buds scrambling to reconcile the sensation of salty where there should only have been sweet.

Unfortunately by this time I’d already passed the aid station, and so it would be another km before I could wash the salty aftertaste {blech} from my mouth. Later in the race I’d grab another orange, but not without first interrogating the poor volunteer as to the flavor profile of his fruit. To his credit my ramblings didn’t faze him, and I thanked him as I jammed the sugary slice in my mouth.

Given my newfound suspicion of something as familiar as oranges, you can bet that I politely declined the offer of mageu, a milky drink made from fermented mealie pap and offered at aid stations in plastic yellow bags.

An aid station volunteer offers water sachets to thirsty runners

My stars & stripes running kit was a great conversation starter, with both international runners and fellow Americans curious to know where in the U.S. I was from and eager to share their own home country or state. And my kit complemented the race’s own strategy to distinguish South African and international runners — its colorful bib numbers.

True to the camaraderie of the event, the Comrades bib numbers communicate a wealth of information at a glance. I enjoyed congratulating other back-to-back runners, first-time international runners (as indicated by the “0” under “Medals” on their blue bib numbers) and especially Green Number hopefuls, whose yellow bib numbers distinguish them as 9-time finishers in pursuit of that coveted 10th finish. For the recreational runner, few achievements rival that of earning a Comrades Green Number, and the Green Number Club currently boasts 13,000+ members from the race’s 93 years.

Passing the second cutoff point at Cato Ridge (~60 km to go) brought us to the ironically named Harrison Flats. Luckily its rolling roads struck me as less challenging from this direction with their net downhill profile, and so I was able to make up time as the Old Main Road led us down into the belly of the waiting beast, my old buddy Inchanga.

56 km to go.

Harrison Flats to Drummond (Inchanga)
Though my energy levels remained high, all the climbing and descending was starting to wear on my legs as we made our way up the backside of Inchanga. And speaking of backsides, I can now appreciate that even though the Big Five — Polly Shortts, Inchanga, Botha’s Hill, Fields Hill and Cowies Hill — are notorious landmarks on the up run, they’re just as much a pain in the ass on the down run. Because it’s not like they suddenly flatten out in the opposite direction.

Climbing up the back of Inchanga we reached my favorite section of the course, the Ethembeni School for physically disabled and visually impaired children. At the same time emotionally disturbing and hugely uplifting, no memory of Comrades race day stands out like seeing the troubled children of Ethembeni, many with unfocused or faraway looks in their eyes, lined up with hands outstretched in the hopes of securing a high-five from passing runners.

Still wearing the beaded bracelet I’d received last year from the school’s headmaster, I smiled and high-fived every tiny hand available to me, in the hopes that feeling my encouraging slap on their palm might lift their spirits and, for even a brief moment, bring a smile to their face or heart.

Turning down the backside of Inchanga at the 2018 Comrades Marathon

Turning down the backside of Inchanga

Our brief visit to the Ethembeni School, coupled with the view from the top of Inchanga as runners below us descended the beast like two-legged ants, was well worth the struggle. Particularly since that struggle hadn’t been waged under direct midday sunlight.

Then down, down gravity carried us once again as I lay off the brakes and opened the throttle, taking the opportunity to catch my breath before the course briefly leveled out at its ceremonial midway point (cutoff mat #3) in Drummond. There the folks from Hollywoodbets greeted us alongside their familiar purple-and-yellow inflatable arch with music blasting and spectators screaming, as though we were celebrities, rock stars and supermodels. And while “loud” typically isn’t my scene, I tried to appreciate the raw energy of the moment before we’d immediately shift gears and start climbing again.

Because in case you hadn’t noticed, much like labeling Earth as “blue,” the terms “up run” and “down run” can be pretty misleading.

46 km to go.

Comrades Marathon halfway point: Drummond

Drummond to Winston Park (Botha’s Hill)
Unlike the up run where the second half begins with the nasty climb up Inchanga, this year we had something to look forward to on the climb out of Drummond and the Valley of 1,000 Hills.

First I paid a brief visit (along with a steady stream of fellow runners) to Arthur’s Seat, a shallow alcove carved out of the rock embankment on the south side of the road where 5-time Comrades champ Arthur Newton reportedly used to rest during his training runs. Legend has it that those who greet Arthur and leave him flowers during the race will enjoy a strong second half. And though my greeting had apparently fallen on deaf ears the year before, there was no use tempting fate by being an ugly American.

“Good morning, Arthur,” I said, leaning in and tapping the rock face gently as if to awaken its sleeping denizen. Who am I to flaunt tradition?

Arthur's Seat at 2018 Comrades Marathon

Just beyond Arthur’s Seat on the north side of the road stands the Comrades Wall of Honour, with its collection of plaques set in individual stones and labeled with the names and bib numbers of previous Comrades finishers — yellow plaques signify those with fewer than 10 finishes, whereas green plaques recognize members of the Green Number Club with 10 or more finishes. Amazingly, anyone with an official Comrades finish can buy their own plaque to be displayed on the Wall. Can you imagine the folks at the Boston Athletic Association doing something similar for Boston Marathon finishers? Talk about great fundraising for the B.A.A.

Rounding the corner from the Wall of Honour I spied Katie, Cath and Miguel waving to get my attention. Pulling alongside them, I was psyched to see that Rory and his brother Kirby had joined them. Rory apparently had recognized me at Umlaas and had texted Katie to coordinate their positions. They all looked to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. Katie informed me that Jimmy was about five minutes ahead and that they’d been able to see Beth in Camperdown. Good news all around.

Seeing the five of them was a solid pick-me-up, as was the Tailwind mix I sipped while catching my breath and stretching my legs. I could feel my quads growing heavy from all the hill work, and worried that they’d only continue to tighten as the miles mounted. Luckily the course would be largely downhill from here (= “down” run). So I did what I could to quickly loosen my weary legs before pulling back into traffic and continuing on toward Durban.

Miguel and Beth celebrate her farthest run ever in Drummond — only a marathon+ to go!

Looking around at the caravan of runners, I reflected on the fact that as a woman Beth was definitely in the minority here. Female runners made up less than ¼ (23%) of Comrades registrants and only 31% of international runners this year, consistent with the disproportionately lower number of female participants in ultramarathons around the world. This despite the fact that in the United States, women runners now outnumber their male counterparts. Attracting female runners should clearly be a priority for the Comrades Marathon and ultrarunning in general.

On the up run, Botha’s Hill is the third of the Big Five. On the down run, as Lindsey Parry had noted in his pre-race briefing, Botha’s is in fact three separate hills. And while none of the three is particularly steep, the road just seemed to roll ever upwards toward the sky, a physically and psychologically exhausting reality that turns many runners into walkers.

At last we crested Botha’s Hill and reached Kearsney College, where the students had apparently returned home early from a rugby tournament so as not to miss Comrades Day. Some boys lined the road while others sat in bleachers off to one side, each sporting his distinctive blue blazer with its “CARPE DIEM” crest on the lapel.

Top of Botha's Hill during 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

Welcome to Kearsney College and the top of Botha’s Hill

Lindsey Parry’s advice on the down run is to run conservatively until you reach the top of Botha’s Hill, just past the 50-km mark. Then, if you’ve played it smart and still have your legs under you, you’ll be able to pick up the pace in the final 40 km. Luckily my legs felt no heavier than they had during my pit stop in Drummond.

On the other hand, my body was once again rejecting the notion of solid (or even gelatinous) food, and so I knew the next 40 km would be challenging from a nutritional standpoint.

Reaching the bottom of Botha’s Hill, a nasty 1 km uphill jag welcomed us to the town of Hillcrest, one of the most raucous sections of the course. There, supercharged spectators lined the road, whooping and cheering their support for the runners. Many of them focused specifically on my stars & stripes with cries of “Go USA!” and “U-S-A! U-S-A!” I pumped my fist lightly in appreciation, not wanting to sacrifice too much adrenaline to the cause of patriotism.

Mike Sohaskey on Botha's Hill at 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

If you were to close your eyes (though hopefully not while running) and judge solely by the music along the course, you could be forgiven for thinking Comrades was a US race. I heard plenty of American favorites including the theme song from Rocky and (twice) Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ “. Unfortunately I wasn’t fast enough like Jimmy to catch “Sweet Caroline.”

Aid station volunteers were pouring salt into runners’ hands; I recoiled like a red, white and blue slug. Was it really that hot? If so, I definitely wasn’t feeling it. Though the sun was approaching its zenith, extensive cloud cover ensured its influence would be minimal.

With 32 km to go, a quick left-then-right turn on Old Main Road brought us to the fourth cutoff mat at Winston Park. Here in the vicinity of Winston Park, I heard an announcement that the second female had entered the stadium in Durban. As much as hearing this underscored the freakish disparity between our respective athletic abilities, it also heartened me to realize I was far enough along that other runners were already finishing the race.

Have I mentioned how important a positive mindset is to success at Comrades?

30 km to go.

Mike Sohaskey crossing 4th cutoff in Winston Park at 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

Crossing the 4th cutoff mat in Winston Park

Kloof to Pinetown (Fields Hill)
Raise the roof, I’ve made it to Kloof, I thought with a wry smile. The thought lifted my spirits, since Kloof would be my third and final meeting place with the terrific trio of Katie, Cath and Miguel.

“We’re on the right, past the Coca-Cola hoopla at ~26km to go!” Katie had texted moments earlier, and now rounding the corner on the downhill I saw the Coca-Cola aid station just past the red Bonitas sign with its countdown thermometer indicating 28 km to go. I was a bit confused until, passing the aid station, I saw the three of them waiting just beyond.

Katie estimated Jimmy’s lead at 8–10 minutes, and I was psyched to hear he was still running well. So too was Beth, who I was told had looked strong in Drummond.

Jimmy makes one last stop to refuel in Kloof

For my part, I was thrilled to discover my legs felt no worse for wear now than they had at the midway point. Sure, the final 28 km wouldn’t be pretty, but just how un-pretty would depend more on the state of my stomach than the life in my legs. The good news was that I no longer had any need for my lightweight pack, since it wasn’t like my stomach would suddenly start accepting solid food again. So I dropped it with Katie, high-fived each of them to get my blood pumping and reluctantly bid them goodbye for the last time, promising with one last deep breath that I’d meet them at Moses.

Much like last year I know Fields Hills was long; I just couldn’t tell you how long. I do know it ended in Pinetown, an ending that couldn’t come soon enough. Because while the fourth member of the Big Five is definitely long and steep, it’s neither of these endearing qualities that makes Fields Hill public enemy #1 on the down run. That distinction belongs to its awful camber, which punishes the legs like nothing else on the Comrades course. I could easily see how runners might succumb to the siren song of Fields and fly down its steep slope, only to blow out their quads before Pinetown. And while Pinetown features plenty of car dealers and auto body shops, I didn’t notice any businesses touting “quad and calf repair while u wait.”

So I was relieved to reach the fifth cutoff point in Pinetown with my quads intact, and I’m confident my strength training (plus the REVEL Mt Charleston Marathon as a downhill training run) made all the difference.

Conferring with Rory in Drummond

But though my quads remained intact, I can’t say the same for my stomach — because I still haven’t trained it to eat at the speed of Comrades. Thanks to the cooler weather I was able to snack more this year than last year, nibbling on a banana here and an (unsalted) orange there, along with two of my baby food pouches (200 calories, par-TAY!). Eventually, though, as has become its modus operandi, my stomach rebelled at any hint of solid food, so instead I resorted to the occasional sip of Coke or Energade to satisfy my body’s caloric cravings.

Turns out the problem with this strategy was the disconnect between mind and body — whereas my mind told me I needed the sugar/calories, as soon as I’d take another sip of Coke or Energade I’d feel the uncomfortable sloshing in my stomach. I ran ~15K from Kloof to Pinetown to Westville feeling like a human water balloon, even stopping once to answer nature’s call at a Pinetown porta-potty.

Finally, in the midst of my rising frustration it occurred to me to just ignore my mind and let my body use its fat stores as fuel, as I had for so many of my training runs. And though this certainly didn’t have the same magical effect as Popeye’s spinach, at least I was able to ease the bloating and get back to running (semi-) comfortably the rest of the way.

Again, it’s called the Ultimate Human Race for a reason: you have to be ready, willing and able to adapt, mentally and physically, to any challenge and any situation.

Mike Sohaskey and Jimmy Nam at Arthur's Seat

Pinetown was off the chain, much more so (understandably) than during last year’s up run when we’d arrived early in the day at around the half marathon mark. Now, loud and high-spirited crowds several deep lined the road, which narrowed at one point to almost single file as spectators pressed in from both directions. Boisterous chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” filled my ears, and I seemed to be running with my hand in a perpetual “thumbs-up” position.

Pinetown was amazing.

One of the human highlights of Comrades is the volunteers — like the race itself, they’re in a class by themselves. They do a remarkable job maintaining their focus as sweaty glassy-eyed runner after sweaty glassy-eyed runner shuffles toward them, eagerly snatching two water sachets at a time from their outstretched hand and often dropping one in the process. So the undisputed lowlight of the day was seeing one runner in Pinetown pause to reprimand a volunteer who apparently hadn’t lived up to his lofty expectations. “Pay attention!” the runner barked at the volunteer, who I didn’t see.

If you have enough energy to be dressing down volunteers this late in the race, I thought, you should be running harder.

Leaving Pinetown, a mild-mannered older woman saw my shorts and replied, “Oh, America… so sorry about Trump, eh?” I smiled wryly and thanked her for her sympathy, waving over my shoulder as I passed. I was admittedly curious to see what reactions my USA running kit would evoke, and hers was the overwhelming sentiment within South Africa, from runners and spectators on the course to our safari ranger several days later who matter-of-factly referred to our 45th President as “a retard, eh?”

20 km to go.

Mike Sohaskey running 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

Based on the crowds around me, I must have been leading the race at this point

Pinetown to Mayville (Cowies Hill)
With nearly 72 km (45 miles) in my legs, the last of the Big Five loomed large. On the up run, Cowies Hill makes an early appearance as a key part of the long, steady climb toward Drummond. On the down run, though, it includes a nasty ½ mile ascent that reduced me unashamedly to a walk and earned me with a 12:25 mile, my slowest moving mile of the day. Luckily the payoff for reaching the top of Cowies was a smooth downhill run into Westville.

[Comrades Tip #5: Uphill, downhill, it doesn’t matter — smile for the photographers when you see them. One moment of faux happiness is worth a lifetime of memories. And at very reasonable prices relative to other large races (I paid ~$33 USD for the entire digital package), you’ll likely want to purchase your race day photos.]

Descending toward Westville I thought Ah, so this is why it’s called the down run. Seeing the urban landscape of Durban laid out below me, I let myself relax as waves of suppressed fatigue washed over me. Having been on my feet for over eight hours, I let my mind wander as we cruised along King Cetshwayo Hwy, the encouraging shouts of the spectators now sounding muffled and distant as I retreated into my own head.

Last year the 10-hour “bus” (Comrades-speak for a pacing group) had caught me as we approached Little Polly’s with 10 km to go. I was determined that wouldn’t happen this time as I kept pushing forward whenever possible. At the same time, I still recalled the punishing latter stages of last year’s up run and had no desire to relive that misery. Because the thought suddenly struck me like a bolt of lightning on a clear day — this may be the last time I ever run Comrades.

With that sobering thought in mind, I allowed myself to look up, look around and use my walk breaks to soak it all in. I basked appreciatively in the adulation of the endless throngs with their tireless cheers, their uplifting chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” and their altruistic offers of whatever we needed to help us get to Durban.

Yes, I wanted to run my best possible Comrades — but not at the expense of hating the final 20 km.

My reverie was shattered by a fellow runner dressed in African tribal gear who insisted on blowing his referee’s whistle as loudly and as frequently as possible. And while I appreciated both his enthusiasm and his outfit (and especially his ability to run 90 km in such an impressive headdress), at that moment I wanted to be anywhere else but running next to him and his freaking whistle. So whenever he’d pull alongside me with several shrill blasts to announce his whereabouts, I’d quickly speed up just enough to propel myself out of his direct earshot.

I’m sure the spectators appreciated his shrill whistle

In my bid to conserve energy, I wasn’t happy at being forced to accelerate in short, sporadic bursts. It felt like a bad dream where I’m trapped in drill team practice and can’t escape. And I wondered irately, Why blast a f@*#king whistle in your fellow runners’ ears for 10 hours?

Luckily I soon pulled far enough ahead to escape his one-note recital. The silver lining? His shrill blasts helped me stay sharp and maintain focus as we descended into Westville. After all, this stretch along King Cetshwayo Hwy is a quieter section of the course where, with Cowies behind and Durban ahead, it’s easy to lose your mental edge momentarily and feel fatigue setting in.

In the final ten miles or so as we neared Durban, every uphill seemed to require at least a short stint of walking, usually just long enough to take a few deep breaths and pull myself together. And though my legs were always reluctant to start running again after these slowdowns, once I did I found myself able not only to run but to run well, making solid progress and passing other runners. So I was definitely using the walk breaks to my advantage.

In Mayville we crossed the sixth and final cutoff mat, the last major milestone en route to finish line glory.

9 km to go.

The crowds thinned a bit between Cowies Hill and Westville — it is a highway, after all

Mayville to Moses Mabhida Stadium (finish)
One of the most memorable climbs of a long and memorable down run was also one of its shortest — the on-ramp from the M13 to the N3 at around the 83 km mark. After a sharp left turn, this steep uphill jag greeted us with a rise of 50 ft in just over 1/10 mile.

As I power-hiked upward to begin my final approach to Durban, a South African runner congratulated me on having my back-to-back medal “in the bag” — which at that moment sounded brilliant. I thanked him, and seeing my shorts his friend added that “Trump would be proud of you.” “Don’t think you want to go there,” the first fellow responded, and I agreed with a nod that our President’s approval was the furthest thing from my mind. Didn’t these two realize that exercise only depletes the body’s finite amount of energy?

[Comrades Tip #6: For all things coaching, Lindsey Parry is the definitive voice of the Comrades Marathon. That said, I’d respectfully disagree with his claim that the N3 on-ramp in Mayville is the last real uphill on the down run. With 84+ km in my heart and legs, the subsequent climb up to Tollgate and the N3 off-ramp into Durban both took the wind out of my sails.]

While it’s easy to predict the beating your legs will suffer over the course of 90 km, what may be less obvious is the steady pounding absorbed by the core muscles of your stomach and lower back. As we crested Tollgate my core muscles grew increasingly weary, and I did some quick high knee lifts in the hopes of granting them a momentary reprieve.

As it turns out, it’s tough to do much of anything without full cooperation from your back and stomach.

On the other side of the highway, drivers heading in the opposite direction honked (or hooted, as the South Africans say), and passengers hollered their support from passing cars. Which reiterated the insane fact that on this day we silly, selfish runners pursuing our silly, selfish hobby were the proud focus of a nation 56 million strong. And that humbling reminder immediately put a pep in my step.

Setting sights on Durban during 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

Hello Durban!

With around 7 km to go the concrete, steel and glass skyline of urban Durban came into view at last. The moment was empowering, to be running on a national highway lined with cheering supporters as the sprawling skyline of South Africa’s third largest city — and our final destination — beckoned in the distance. Welcome, the soaring gray skyscrapers seemed to say. We’ve been expecting you.

Pulling out my iPhone for a picture, I happened to glance down at the time: 2:35pm. Which meant I had roughly 54 minutes to cover 7 km and still finish in less than ten hours, a much slower pace than I’d been running to that point. And I’ll be honest — after seeing the time and doing the math, it became increasingly difficult to push myself any harder. As long as I broke ten hours, what was the difference between finishing in 9:54 (last year’s finish time) vs. 9:44? Aside from my overall place in the final results, to my mind there was no meaningful difference.

Moments like this emphasize the importance of a well-defined goal to help maintain focus; without one, a race like Comrades becomes even more challenging than its 90 km distance.

Though barely a blip on my final Garmin tracing, the last uphill of the day would be the N3 offramp that would drop us down onto the city streets of Durban for the final 5 km. Though not a formidable climb at any other time, glancing up now I felt almost dizzy following the sweeping arc of the overpass as it curved upward and away toward Moses Mabhida Stadium. And so, with heavy legs and a light head, I walked.

From there the course did something it hadn’t done in the first 85 km — it leveled out.

Scenes from Durban before 2018 Comrades Marathon

Scenes from Durban (clockwise from top left): “Mzansi” is the Xhosa word for South Africa; Indian Ocean’s-eye view of the beachfront; with an expected R355 million (~$24 million USD) impact on Durban’s economy, Comrades is all around you; street market spices — the city is home to the world’s largest Indian population outside India

We’d been told so many times leading up to race day that the new course would pass by the old finish venue at Kingsmead Stadium, that by the time we finally passed the unassuming cricket facility with 3 km to go, I felt as though I’d been here before. But even with 87 km in my legs, I was more than happy to bypass Kingsmead in favor of shiny new Moses Mabhida Stadium, which as we rounded the bend just past Kingsmead came into full and glorious view.

From there, the final “Toyota Mile” was a straight shot past the cheering masses lining Masabalala Yengwa Ave, as though Moses (Mabhida) himself were parting the sea of spectators ahead of us.

“Hello, Moses.”

“I see you, Moses.”

“I am coming, Moses.”

I glanced over at the gaunt fellow mouthing these words to my right and smiled weakly as the object of his desire rose up to greet us. The screaming onlookers faded into the background as I focused on the stadium’s distinctive ladder-like arch, reminiscent of a DNA double helix. Meanwhile, the asphalt beneath my feet rolled by like an urban treadmill. One step at a time. Step, stride, repeat. Feel free to breathe.

Absurd as it may sound, even better for me than seeing the finish line at Comrades is seeing the big red Bonitas sign announcing 1 km to go. Because that’s when I know the official victory lap begins. Being nearly 11,000 miles from home, soaking in that last ½ mile while basking simultaneously in the exhaustion and glory of the moment is like no other feeling I’ve experienced as a runner. And that includes right on Hereford, left on Boylston.

The understatement of the year — on Africa or any other continent — goes to the official-looking banner hung the full width of a pedestrian bridge just outside the stadium that read earnestly, “THERE IS NO TURNING BACK NOW!”

89km mark of the 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

Nothing like a bit of last-minute motivation at 89 km

Then we’d arrived, and with a left turn we entered the stadium through a dark tunnel, emerging onto the bright green grass of the playing field. Ironically, after running under open sky for nearly ten hours, I suddenly felt very small under the venue’s massive open-air roof surrounded by 56,000 seats. Originally built to host the World Cup in 2010, Moses Mabhida Stadium is a breathtaking venue in which to complete your Comrades journey.

I’ve heard other runners, in the full throes of cliché, say there are no words to describe the finish of the Comrades Marathon. I disagree. There are plenty of words, with “freaking awesome” being the first that come to mind. The last stretch from entrance tunnel to finish line is a moment of sheer exultation that I wish I could have bottled to relive and share with others for the rest of my life. And when I die, the bottle could live on, inspiring other runners in its new home at the Comrades Museum in Pietermaritzburg.

The familiar green-and-white finish line topped with its double balloon arch welcomed us in full view — unlike last year’s winding finish inside the Scottsville Racecourse, there would be no game of “Find the finish line.” I savored those final 100m to the fullest, scanning the stands quickly for familiar faces before raising my arms in triumph and completing my back-to-back quest in an official time of 9:48:25.

U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

0 km to go. AND… breathe.

Mike Sohaskey crossing finish line of 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

Holy Moses!
Wobbling to a stop after my longest run ever, the first booming voice I recognized was Rory’s, and I glanced up into the stands to see him clapping excitedly in my direction. I was psyched to see him, and I can’t tell you how much it means to receive personal congrats from a fellow who finished this race 12 times, who earned a Green Number and to whom this event means so much.

Shuffling through the finish chute, I gratefully accepted my second consecutive bronze medal and Comrades patch, though sadly a yellow rose was excluded from this year’s awards. Hopefully Katie would understand when I showed up empty-handed.

Looking up at the steps that led from the field to the International Runners seating area, the grim reality of Moses Mabhida Stadium reared its ugly head. Because after covering 90 km in less than 12 hours, there’s nothing a runner wants less than to climb or (worse) descend stairs, and especially a stadium full of them. On the bright side, thanks to the mild weather I was in better post-race shape than last year when I’d been unable to move, much less negotiate stairs.

Jimmy Nam in homestretch of 2018 Comrades Marathon finish

Jimmy’s day-glo calves put the finishing touches on their first ultramarathon

One slow and unsteady step at a time, I ascended the concrete stairs in search of the others. I saw Jimmy seated in a section by himself and waved — he’d run a brilliant race in his first Comrades, finishing in 9:25:23. From my vantage point, he looked comfortable and none the worse for wear.

For my part, I’d run 4½ minutes faster than last year, despite this year’s course being 3½ km longer. The mild weather had a lot to do with that, as did a familiarity and comfort with the event itself. And even with all else being equal, most folks clock faster finish times on the down run.

Reaching the top of the stairs and the inner concourse, I bumped into John from Anchorage who had finished just one minute and 52 seconds ahead of me to earn a second consecutive bronze of his own. Tiredly we congratulated each other and agreed that yes, two in a row was just about enough Comrades for a while.

But aside from finding Katie, my immediate post-race focus was on securing my back-to-back medal. Eventually I located its caretaker, a Comrades official on the move who wore the medals around his neck and who quickly presented me with mine before hurrying past on another mission. Why the back-to-back medals hadn’t been made available at the finish line with the other finisher medals is unclear, but who am I to tell the CMA their business?

The back-to-back medal is hands-down my proudest achievement in running. If I were to come home one day to find our house in flames and I could grab only one earthly possession, my Comrades back-to-back medal may just be it. I don’t know whether I’ll have the chance to add a third Comrades medal to my collection (though I’m already eyeing Comrades #100 in 2025), but in any event the first two — along with their back-to-back brethren — will never get lonely.

At last, ambling weakly around the concourse in search of familiar faces, I found Katie and threw my arms around her, lingering for a few seconds to let her hold me up. Because the alternative wasn’t pretty.

Exhausted finishers sprawled out on the floor of the concourse as other runners and supporters gingerly stepped around them. Unlike Scottsville Racecourse which last year offered grassy expanses on which to rest and recover, Moses Mabhida provided nowhere for finishers to comfortably gather their wits. The only available options were the cramped stadium seats with little room to stretch your legs, the cold concrete ground around those seats or the floor of the concourse with its busy foot traffic.

Acknowledging Rory’s support in the grandstands

None of the three options was ideal, but I needed to collapse somewhere. So while I sprawled uncomfortably on the floor of the concourse trying to a) get comfortable and b) avoid getting stepped on, Katie visited the concession stand and returned with nirvana in a cup. I don’t think I’ve had orange soda since I was like ten years old, but the Fanta orange soda she brought me at that moment was the best orange soda — and maybe the most amazing beverage — I’ve ever tasted. It was life itself, equal parts nectar, unicorn tears and liquid crack. Hello, insulin!

In addition to all the stairs and the lack of recovery spaces, massage tents (which last year were easily accessible) were inconveniently located on the outer concourse of the stadium, a fact I didn’t realize until it was time to leave. And immediately past the finish chute, South African runners were being directed to their club tents outside the stadium, meaning that unlike last year they were unable to mingle with the international runners. All because running clubs were prohibited from setting up their tents on the grass playing surface inside the stadium.

The five of us were on “Beth watch” as the clock ticked toward 11 hours. We wouldn’t be disappointed. As it turns out Beth paced the latter stages of her race beautifully, finishing with the 11-hour bus in 10:57:28 and earning her own bronze medal with 2½ minutes to spare.

With everyone present and accounted for we all reconvened, shared congratulations and then made our way toward the seats at midfield, directly in front of the finish line. Despite feeling like the walking undead, we weren’t about to miss what came next.

Cath and Jimmy wisely wasted no time in celebrating

The Spirit of Comrades
Without a doubt, the 12-hour cutoff for the Comrades Marathon is one of the most dramatic moments in all of sports. It’s the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, played out within yards of each other on a national stage. And I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to witness it in a venue like Moses Mabhida, with its warm fluorescent lighting and grandstand seating offering a full view of the finish line. Spectator viewing is where Moses Mabhida really excels as a finish venue — no offense to the rickety bleachers and overmatched floodlights of the Scottsville Racecourse.

[Comrades Tip #7: If you’re an international runner, and unless you were swept off to the med tent or have a bone protruding through your skin after the race, DO NOT MISS the 12-hour cutoff. It’s human drama like you won’t see at any other sporting event, and it may make you cling just a bit tighter to your own finisher medal.]

The announcer was again in top form for this year’s finish, setting the stage in dramatic fashion with his full-throated countdown. And it was in the final minute of the 12 hours that the Spirit of Comrades played out magically before our eyes.

View from the 2018 Comrades Marathon finish chute inside Moses Mabhida Stadium

View from the finish chute inside Moses Mabhida Stadium

Wobbling down the home stretch toward the finish line like a drunken schoolboy, a runner lost control of his body and collapsed to the grass roughly 30 yards from the finish. Several fellow runners, so close to glory themselves and risking their own finish, lifted the man off the ground and supported his limp body while propelling him forward, his head bouncing listlessly like a rag doll. Only his legs still seemed to grok their role, churning slowly beneath him as the rest of his body tried to call it quits. Apparently 11 hours and 59 minutes of concentrated effort had been enough.

It was like Weekend at Bernie’s meets reality television. About five yards from the finish he collapsed for the final time, and a volunteer signaled to his impromptu crew, presumably telling them he had to cross the finish line under his own power. And so, as the energized crowd cheered him to glory, he crawled on hands and knees past the waiting human chain of volunteers and across the finish line with 40 seconds to spare. It was then that I realized I’d been holding my breath behind my camera, and immediately I exhaled and erupted in applause of my own.

I’ve never seen anything like it, and I may never see anything like it again. And if I had to summarize the Spirit of Comrades in 45 seconds, I’d probably point to this footage:

Then the final countdown began, and seconds later the human chain swung into place, blocking the finish line as approaching runners looked on in a poignant mix of horror, disbelief and resignation. So close and yet so very, very far. Like marionettes who had danced for 12 hours before having their strings cut, several dropped to the grass within yards of the finish line and lay there with exhausted bodies and broken hearts.

The six of us stood for several heartbeats in shocked silence before our sympathy gave way to heartfelt applause. Two women seated nearby wiped tears from their eyes.

And with that, the curtain fell on the human theater of the 93rd Comrades Marathon. All the actors had played their roles admirably, and the performance would predictably garner rave reviews. The sequel opens June 9, 2019, and though the itch will undoubtedly be there when registration opens in October, I’m hoping to scratch it with a different South Africa race in 2019. But where Comrades is concerned, I’ll never say “Never again” — and especially since #100 happens in seven short years.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the day’s most remarkable story. Though he didn’t earn a medal, South Africa’s Xolani Luvuno earned a whole lot of love from his fellow athletes and countrymen by completing the 2018 Comrades Marathon — on one leg. Luvuno, a former addict who lost his right leg to amputation following a bone cancer diagnosis in 2009, started 5 hours ahead of the field and completed the 90 km distance on crutches in 15 hours, 50 minutes.

The next time your brain tells your body it can’t do something, think about Xolani Luvuno. Then stop listening to your brain and go do it. No less an authority than Nelson Mandela once said, “It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.” He would know.

When the dust settled and the sun descended over Moses Mabhida Stadium, 16,478 of the day’s 19,116 starters (86.2%) had earned a finisher medal, with the distribution as follows:

618 = Gold + Wally Hayward + Silver
2491 = Bill Rowan
7,455 = Bronze
5,914 = Vic Clapham

(Source: Louis Massyn on Facebook)

As for the elites, Comrades 2018 was a clean sweep for the home team, with Bongmusa Mthembu claiming his third overall and second consecutive Comrades title in 5:26:34, while Ann Ashworth led the South African women to four of the top five slots, winning in a time of 6:10:04. (Defending champion Camille Herron of the US was forced to withdraw ten days before the race with a quad strain.)

2018 Comrades Marathon winners

Comrades champions Bongmusa Mthembu and Ann Ashworth led the way for South Africa (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

I’ve gotten the question several times now: Which direction do I prefer, the up run or the down run? And the honest answer is, both and neither. Because there’s so much more to this race than the placement and gradient of the hills.

On the one hand, given the amount of downhill in the second half, the down run is traditionally a faster course (Lindsey Parry agrees). If I were ever to seriously consider a run at a sub-9 hour finish and Bill Rowan medal, I’d do it on the down run. I also met a handful of Comrades veterans whose only successful finishes have been on the down run, along with several unsuccessful attempts at the up run. (I’ve yet to hear of the reverse happening.) If you’re a slower runner who’s concerned with beating the 12-hour cutoff, I’d recommend the down run.

On the other hand, the down run is consistently 3-ish km longer (89 vs 86) than the up run, and will punish your quads and calves if you haven’t adequately trained for downhill running. By the midway point of this year’s down run, my legs definitely felt more fatigued than they had after the first 43 km of climbing last year. So if your strength (like mine) is uphill running, the up run may be your best bet.

That evening, despite our sadly limited appetites, Rory generously hosted dinner at the Japanese restaurant in our hotel. Dining at a nearby table, Bruce Fordyce dropped by to say hello and shake Jimmy’s hand in recognition of an excellent performance in his first Comrades. It was a singular moment and, together with dinner itself, a perfect ending to a day I didn’t want to end. Because it’s not often you earn a personal congratulations from one of the planet’s greatest athletes, amirite?

Nine-time Comrades champ Bruce Fordyce congratulates Jimmy on a race well run

Nine-time Comrades champ Bruce Fordyce congratulates Jimmy on a race well run, while I steal a handshake

Turns out our day wasn’t quite over — or at least not our night. With wire cutters in hand, Katie and I drove the darkened streets around Moses Mabhida Stadium, snipping yellow Comrades “ROUTE CLOSURE” placards from lamp posts to keep and distribute as souvenirs. (I’d secured my matching 2017 placard, signed by both Bruce and 1982 women’s champ/current CMA Chairperson Cheryl Winn, via a charitable donation at the International Runners Reception.) The street crews were happy for the help, since they planned to remove the signs within the week anyway.

[Comrades Tip #8: Want a cool unofficial souvenir? If you have a car, on the night of the race borrow a set of wire cutters (we got ours from the hotel) and go snip one of the yellow Comrades “ROUTE CLOSURE” placards that are affixed to lamp posts along the route. This also helps with post-race clean-up.]

Amazingly, come Monday morning my legs were minimally sore, and even that low-level soreness faded by Wednesday. Either I hadn’t run hard enough, or I’d training my quads well for the downhill pounding — or maybe both. As usual after a tough marathon or ultra, though, my immune system was the real casualty. Over the course of the next week I developed a nasty cold and cough, just in time for back-to-back 11+ hour return flights from Johannesburg to London and London to Los Angeles.

Having crossed finish lines in both Pietermaritzburg (up run) and Durban (down run), I can now say by any standard that I’ve completed the Comrades Marathon. And I’m not exaggerating when I say there’s nothing else like it in the world. It certainly isn’t the most scenic event — there are many more picturesque courses including South Africa’s own Two Oceans Marathon, which bills itself as the “World’s Most Beautiful Marathon.” But it’s hands-down the best, owing to its epic scope — its 93 years of history, its uniquely time-honored traditions, its diverse brotherhood of runners from around the globe, and its cultural and spiritual significance to an entire nation that has fought long and hard to embody the values of dignity, respect and equality that are the cornerstones of the Ultimate Human Race.

Bruce Fordyce has said that “If you don’t shed at least one tear during Comrades, you must have ice in your veins.” He may be right. But even if you’re not the misty-eyed sentimental type, you’ll never be the same once you’ve experienced this event for yourself. And my suggestion for next year’s race slogan would simply be Liyakushintsha, from the Zulu meaning, It changes you.

Though unthinkable a year ago, the truth is that this year’s sequel more than lived up to the original. This was in large part thanks to the excellent companionship of Jimmy, Cath, Beth and Miguel, plus the excellent returning companionship of John and Rochene from Anchorage and other friendships renewed and forged throughout the weekend. The only thing better than competing in the Ultimate Human Race may be sharing the experience with someone else.

Because while the 90 km marathon may be the focus of the weekend, and rightfully so, this race is all about the comrades.

U-S-A! Ca-na-da! U-S-A!

Comrades Marathon resources I leaned on (in addition to Rory):

  • Lindsey Parry’s podcast “RUN with Coach Parry”—especially its archives—is a treasure trove of expertise and insights from the official Comrades coach; older episodes are less than ten minutes each, so you can listen to several at a time. Coach Parry also has some very good content on YouTube.
  • Bruce Fordyce’s blog is another invaluable source of tips & tricks. And though I’ve not read them myself, both volumes of his “Fordyce Diaries”—Conquering the Up as well as Tackling a Down Run—are available as e-books exclusively on the site. If anyone can teach you to conquer Comrades, it’s the man who won it nine times!
  • Though we planned our own itinerary this year, our friends at Marathon Tours & Travel helped out with logistics, flights and lodging for Comrades 2017 and for our post-race travels in South Africa.

2018 Comrades Marathon finish line selfie with Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho

BOTTOM LINE: At the risk of sounding like a (happily) broken record, the Comrades Marathon is the greatest running event on the planet. Not only is it the oldest and largest ultramarathon in the world, but no other event can match its epic scope and time-honored traditions, its all-day adrenaline, and the easy camaraderie forged among runners from around the globe. Comrades is truly a race that celebrates all runners and wants everyone to succeed, from international runners who travel halfway around the world to local runners who qualify for the race but can’t afford lodging — for these athletes, the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) sets up cots to sleep on near the start line the night before the race.

But to whom much is given — in this case, the opportunity to participate in the Ultimate Human Race — much is expected, and you can expect the journey from Pietermaritzburg to Durban (or the reverse) to be anything but smooth. Because Comrades is a trial by fire. Both mental and physical hardships await on the long, hot, hilly road to Durban, each of which will test you, test your resolve, and ultimately change you. As the 2016 race slogan predicted, Izokuthoba: It will humble you. And if you’re anything like me or the many other runners from around the world who return to this event year after year, you’ll discover that 90 km cycle of destruction and renewal to be cathartic and even downright addictive — physically, spiritually and psychologically. You’ve been warned.

2018 Comrades Marathon and 2017-18 back-to-back medals

PRODUCTION: Awesome, except for the post-race logistics in Moses Mabhida Stadium, which despite its sleek modernity was less runner-friendly than the smaller Scottsville Racecourse last year. I won’t be the first or last person to tell the CMA that the stadium as a finish venue is a work in progress. Whereas its grandeur and spectator-friendly viewing arrangement are beyond reproach, as a post-race recovery zone for runners it leaves a lot to be desired.

There’s plenty of work to be done to reimagine Moses Mabhida as a more comfortable and inviting post-race venue, and hopefully that starts with letting finishers and running clubs gather on the grass playing field. While I’d imagine there are liability and security issues that limit its access, it seems absurd to have exhausted runners dragging themselves up and down concrete stairs, sitting in cramped plastic seats and sprawling underfoot on the floor of the concourse while an immaculate grass surface lays unused below them.

Aside from that, race day was perfect. And a special shout-out of appreciation to all the volunteers without whom Comrades would be impossible — I’m constantly amazed at the selflessness of the folks who voluntarily stand on their feet for hours in any weather to help runners like me achieve our personal goals. You all are the real heroes of the Comrades Marathon!

Appropriately, Jimmy’s shoes get the last word

SWAG: At roughly the size of an American quarter or RSA 5 Rand coin (the back-to-back medal is only modestly larger), the Comrades finisher medal may be the smallest in distance running. And yet it’s also among the most coveted. My three Comrades medals — two bronze, one back-to-back for running consecutive years — are the guests of honor in my collection alongside my Boston Marathon unicorn. To me, the medals are beautiful in their simplicity. Plus, they’re great conversation starters, particularly for puzzled non-runners who balk at the notion of running 90 km for something that small.

Unfortunately, the official race shirt this year was downright ugly. As Jimmy suggested, it’s almost as if Mizuno learned they’d won the Comrades sponsorship and immediately sent someone into the back of the warehouse to find a bunch of blank tech shirts on which to print a Comrades logo, year and distance. The royal blue shirt has the beginnings of a honeycomb pattern on front which morphs into a strange geometric pattern reminiscent — to this lab rat — of viruses viewed under an electron micropscope. All of which adds nothing to the design. The shirt lacks the design sensibility of last year’s New Balance merch, a truth that extended to everything in the Mizuno store at this year’s expo. I showed up at the expo ready to support all things Comrades as I had in 2017, only to be disappointed by Mizuno running shoes with no Comrades branding and Mizuno t-shirts that simply said “Osaka Japan” on the front. In the end, I grudgingly saved my money and opted for a simple black tech shirt with a tiny Comrades logo on the sleeve. So a word to the wise at Mizuno: get back to the drawing board before next year’s event and KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. You could sell hella more merch with even the slightest bit of foresight and design sensibility.

(Huge thanks to Cath, Katie and Miguel, without whose photos I couldn’t have filled up a 13,000-word race report!)

2017-2018 Comrades Marathons medals

RaceRaves rating:

FINAL STATS:
Jun 10, 2018 (start time 5:30 am, sunrise 6:49 am)
56.58 miles (91.1 km, officially 90.184 km) from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, South Africa
Finish time & pace: 9:48:25 (second time running Comrades, first “down” run), 10:24/mile
Finish place: 4,957 overall, 1,760/5,710 in M 40-49 age group
Number of finishers: 16,478 total (78% men, 22% women)
Race weather: cool (57°F) & partly cloud at the start, warm (72°F) and partly cloudy at the finish, overcast throughout the race
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 4,024 ft ascent, 6,134 ft descent
Elevation min, max: 20 ft, 2,710 ft

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It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.
– Nelson Mandela

Done_Comrades 2017

Continued from Act 1, which you can read HERE.

Inchanga to Cato Ridge
Rory hadn’t been kidding.

He’d warned me that I’d see it coming. That before I reached it, I’d see the steady stream of runners, like ants on an escalator, switchbacking up, up, up before mercifully disappearing out of sight around the bend. And he’d warned me that this sobering sight, with 47 km in my legs, would be psychologically akin to having my heart ripped from my chest and held high in front of me, Indiana Jones-style.

The moment reminded me of that scene in Breaking Bad when Walter Heisenberg demands of his fellow meth dealer, “SAY MY NAME.”

Inchanga.

It’s the only one of the Big Five whose name alone suggests trouble. And unlike the first three, each of which exacted its pound of flesh, Inchanga isn’t happy with physical retribution—it has to play mind games with its victims too, like a cat batting around a trapped mouse. As it turns out, I was lucky to have glimpsed only the section I did, because unlike Cowies or Fields or Botha’s, the climb up Inchanga seemed to last forever, one blind curve after another. I know it’s not the longest of the Big Five (that’s Fields), and I know it’s not the steepest (that’s Botha’s), but damn if it’s not the most punishing.

Are we there yet? Are we there yet? asked the backseat driver in my brain.

I was so preoccupied with my own misery that I forgot to keep an eye out for Bruce Fordyce, who had told us he’d be (and apparently he was) cheering on runners near the top of Inchanga. A 9-time winner of the world’s most prestigious ultramarathon, offering support to slow-footed newbies like me. At what other sporting event will you find that?

Mile 30 down Inchanga

View from the other side of Inchanga, 39 km to go

But Bruce has always been different. In 1981, with South Africa under an international sporting boycott and the race losing some of its luster, he won Comrades for the first time while wearing a black armband to protest the 20th anniversary celebrations of the apartheid government. He’s since called his show of defiance “one of the proudest moments in my life”.

Not surprisingly, Inchanga saddled me with my first 12-minute mile of the day, not counting my mile spent with Katie and Rory. The monster not only ate into my time, but more importantly as it turns out, tackling it with the sun high in a cloudless sky took more out of me than I knew. All hope of my stomach handling solid food for the rest of the race was gone, and I spent the next 3 km of downhill running trying to regroup.

By the time we summited the next short climb I was dragging, another chewed-up-and-spit-out victim of Inchanga’s wrath. So the timing was perfect to pass the Ethembeni School for the Physically Disabled and Visually Impaired.

At the expo two days earlier we’d stopped by the Ethembeni booth, made a donation and chatted with the headmaster who’d been manning the booth. And he’d given me a beaded bracelet created by the students to show their support for the runners. The bracelet, he explained, comprised 87 beads grouped by color (black, blue, white and yellow), one bead for each km of the Comrades route. Not only that, but the number of beads in each colored grouping represented the number of km between each cutoff point along the course, with larger black beads separating the different groups to signify each cutoff point, as well as the start/finish line. A clever and meaningful design.

Ethembeni bracelet_cutoffs

My race-day inspiration from the Ethembeni School

I wore the bracelet now, and seeing the earnest, smiling faces lining the street with tiny hands extended, I felt a surge of adrenaline and swerved to my right, determined not to miss a single high-five. The Ethembeni School was a highlight of my day and a crucial pick-me-up just when I needed it the most. Suck it up healthy guy, stop walking and get going.

The spectators along the course kept me moving forward as well. Comrades spectators are insanely supportive, and not just in a clap-politely-as-the-runners-go-by sort of way. I’ve never run a race where the spectators ask, in all seriousness, “What can I get you? What do you need?” And though I never took anyone up on their offer, I got the sense that some folks, if I’d asked, would have dragged a mattress out of their house and cooked lunch for me while I slept.

It’s something you have to experience for yourself to understand: 92 years strong, Comrades is inextricably woven into the fabric of the nation. South Africans embrace their national race with a passion, a pride and an intelligence I haven’t seen anywhere else, with the possible exception of Boston.

And speaking of intelligence, I was starting to doubt mine. We were now out in the countryside (i.e. No Man’s Land) between urban centers, the winter sun beating down on us, my stomach rejecting all my nutritional advances and the walk breaks getting longer and more frequent.

I was now snagging two water sachets at each aid station—one I’d sip from and then pour down my back while holding onto the other like a security blanket. I appreciated the sachets because they were easy to carry after opening, without spilling. Between the heat and the jostling, though, the water in the sachets warmed up to an unappealing temperature in no time.

Ironically but not surprisingly, the short stretch through Harrison Flats really wasn’t. The name is curious, since “Harrison Hills” has such a nice ring to it and would feel right at home along the Comrades course. I had to assume whoever named it had a wicked sense of humor. Or maybe “flat” is a relative term, with Inchanga on one side and Polly Shortts on the other?

32 km to go.

Cruising along

There’s daylight under that there foot! (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Cato Ridge: When the going gets tough…
My second Katie and Rory sighting couldn’t have come at a better time. With 25 km to go I dropped my hydration pack on the curb and collapsed alongside it for a couple of minutes, sipping some water and gathering my wits. It was good to escape the maelstrom, if only for a moment. The pack had become an albatross, with food I couldn’t eat and Tailwind I couldn’t drink. Plus, my core muscles were tight from carrying it and taking too many shallow breaths. It was time for us to part ways.

A sub-9 bus passed as I sat on the curb, watching the steady stream of runners flow past. Which perked me up, even though I knew a Bill Rowan (sub-9) finish was off the board. As much respect as I have for those who run Comrades, I’m even more in awe of those who pace Comrades. As if there weren’t enough stress in finishing your own race (and there is), as a pacer you have to finish 87 km within a certain time, while leading other runners who are putting their race in your hands (and feet). Talk about pressure.

9-hour Comrades bus

A 9-hour bus (see the yellow “SUB-9:00” sign?) rolls toward the finish in Pietermaritzburg

“You can walk it in from here and still collect a medal, mate,” Rory reassured me. Which actually was reassuring, though also motivating since I had no intention of walking it in. Sub-10 remained my goal, though I knew the next 25 km would be my slowest of the day.

I took a couple of deep breaths, told Katie and Rory I’d see them at the finish, and rejoined the flow as spectators on both sides of the road screamed their approval. Immediately I enjoyed the benefits of discarding the pack: my core relaxed, and the water I poured down my back cooled me more efficiently as my shirt was able to move in the breeze. And as with the first time I’d seen them I enjoyed a surge of energy, clocking my first sub-10-minute mile in over an hour.

Let’s just call what came next the “Beatdown in Camperdown”. Luckily the smell of the local chicken farm wasn’t as strong as I’d anticipated, and in fact wasn’t nearly as off-putting as the secondhand smoke from the occasional outdoor grill along the course, the thick haze hanging in the air and impossible to avoid.

Based on Norrie Williamson’s course analysis, these should have been the “CRUISE” miles of the up run—the relatively level stretch during which strategic runners, having tackled the first half of the race conservatively, now shift into cruise control, run comfortably and make up time. This sunny outlook, however, fails to take into account the real sunniness: the cumulative effects of the African sun (even a winter sun) on a cloudless day. With temperatures reaching into the 80s, heat exposure and a recalcitrant stomach replaced uphill climbing as the primary culprits of my mounting fatigue.

7 mantras of Comrades up run

Norrie Williamson‘s 7 stages of the Comrades up run, from the pre-race expo

“NO WALKING BY MY HOUSE” read one fellow’s handmade sign, arguably the highlight of Camperdown. I saw few memorable spectator signs at Comrades, though admittedly my brain was in standby mode for about the last 40K. I do remember the sign promising that “ZUMA FLATTENED POLLYS” (referring to South African President Jacob Zuma and the last of the Big Five, Polly Shortts). And the woman with the “YOU = AWESOME” sign seemed to be everywhere; I saw her at least three times on the course.

Shuffling along slowly but surely with 23 km to go, I heard a familiar voice behind me: “Hey there, stranger.” I glanced back as fellow Stanford alum John from Anchorage pulled up alongside me. John and I had run the densely packed Durban Parkrun as a shakeout session the morning before, chatting comfortably and taking our time. As happy as I was to see him now, though, this wasn’t good news. John had qualified for Boston with a marathon time in the low 3-hour range, and he’d set a goal of a sub-8:30 finish for Comrades.

Turns out Comrades is no Parkrun. Apparently John had started strong and run smoothly up until the-hill-that-must-not-be-named (ok, Inchanga), where his calves had seized up. Since that point he’d been reduced to walking much of the course, with frequent stops at the medical tents for a roadside massage. We ran and walked together for a couple of km, and I was hoping we’d be able to hang with each other to the finish.

But it wasn’t to be. At one point I turned to say something and… John had disappeared. I glanced behind me but, not seeing him, I assumed he’d stopped for more treatment. Silently I wished him a speedy recovery and pushed forward, one slow-footed step at a time.

Mike_John 65 km

Joined by comrade John from Anchorage (right), 23 km to go (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

John was by no means alone. As the miles piled up, the medical tents kept increasingly busy. Cramping and exhausted runners stopped for treatment, some settling for having their legs sprayed with a topical analgesic to numb the pain. My buddy Gil saw one runner asleep under a tree. For these folks the goal was to reach the finish line in Pietermaritzburg, by any means necessary.

Luckily, as tired as I was, I wasn’t cramping and I wasn’t hurting physically. And unless I have a bone sticking out of my leg, I want to be able to feel everything that’s going on in my body during a race. So I bypassed the menthol mist clouds and kept pushing forward.

The stretch from Inchanga to Polly Shortts felt interminable, like a blog post with no end in sight. Had some prankster moved the km markers farther apart? Every km now felt like a mile and every uphill required some degree of walking, which I tried to avoid on the downhills.

I now followed the same pattern at every aid station: two waters and either a cup of Coke or a sachet of Energade. Sometimes I’d try both in a desperate attempt to appease my stubborn body. Like a junkie craving his next fix, I was chasing the sugar dragon from one Coke to the next, one Energade to the next, trying to find some form of easy fuel to keep me going. And never with much success.

Luckily I’d been training my body for several months to run well on its own fat stores as fuel, so this wasn’t a “sugar or bust” situation. But it sure would have helped. Meanwhile, I carried an unopened water sachet with me between aid stations, as though fearful I might burst into flames at any moment. Rarely did I drink it—it was almost instantly warm, after all—but instead dropped it into the ice bin at the next aid station.

And about those aid stations: without a doubt, the volunteers at Comrades are some of the best in the world. The demands on these folks are unrelenting, with a job description that includes standing out in the heat for hours at a time, a steady stream of insatiable zombies bearing down on them with arms outstretched and hands open in anticipation. And yet every volunteer carried out their assignment masterfully, with grace, aplomb and always an encouraging or helpful word. All damn day, without even a medal to show for their efforts.

The Ultimate Human Race owes its success and reputation, in large part, to the ultimate race volunteers.

With my mind searching vainly for its happy place, I thought about Coach Lindsey Parry’s suggested mantras for this stage of the race: “Tired but strong.” “Uncomfortable but strong.” “Challenged but strong.” In each case, he was half right.

21 km to go.

Camperdown traffic

Parked cars line the exit ramp in Camperdown

Catching the bus: Gunning for Polly Shortts
Passing the “21 km to go” sign, I felt my first sense of relief that yes, the end was in sight. A half marathon was a very runnable distance, never mind the fact I had nearly 25% of the course still to run. A long 25%.

“Cold cream soda!” offered an aid station volunteer. Still in search of a friendly sugar kick I accepted his offer, willing to overlook the fact that the liquid was bright green. One sip later, I knew I’d made a poor decision.

Likewise with water. This is tough to imagine if you’re not a runner—and maybe even for most runners—but thanks to the heat, my body had reached the point where even water had somehow lost its appeal. Not unless it was ice-cold and cascading down my back.

By the time we reached the course’s highest point at Umlaas Rd (2,700 ft, 17 km to go), I was racking up 11-minute miles like mosquito bites in the jungle. The landscape on either side of us remained decidedly rural, the countryside rudely interrupted by the occasional transformer tower. Here the fifth cutoff mat awaited, another small step toward victory in our inextricable march toward Pietermaritzburg.

Spider-Man

Comrades tests the hero in all of us

Crossing under the N3 for the final time, I saw a sign that in my frazzled state made me want to laugh and cry in the same breath. “← N3 Durban” it read, pointing back in the direction we’d come. Not right now, thank you.

Somewhere in the hot, nondescript and seemingly interminable stretch between Inchanga and Polly Shortts, the muscles around my heart began to tighten. I guessed this was due to my taking short, gasping breaths rather than deep productive ones, and I slowed my pace even more to try to regulate my breathing and ease the discomfort. I’ll run through myriad aches and pains without complaint—most runners will—but the one organ that’s off-limits is the heart. Any discomfort in or around my chest, and I start listening to my body bigly.

The tightness around my chest reduced me to a power shuffle, though fortunately the discomfort would fade after several slow, deep breaths. From there the tightness would come and go the rest of the way, slowing me to a fast walk with each appearance. It’s possible I could have powered through it, but why risk it? I had no intention of doing anything stupid (says the guy running 87 km in 80+ degree heat) to jeopardize my reaching the finish.

Would now be a good time to mention I run to stay healthy?

Polly Shortts may be the last of the Big Five, but try telling that to its protective sister, Little Pollys. At nearly 2 km in length Little Pollys is decidedly shorter than its big sister, and yet 76 km into the race it definitely leaves an impression. Luckily I knew it was coming and so had primed myself mentally, even as I was breaking down physically.

Little Pollys is the perfect example of one of the up run’s nasty unsung hills. Like any ultramarathon, Comrades will punish you psychologically if you let it. On the other hand, take the time to study the course and appreciate the potential landmines beyond just the Big Five, and you’ll win half the battle before you ever leave Durban. Knowledge is power. Respect the hills, don’t fear the hills.

Cruising through Ashburton with about 10 km to go, the 10-hour bus caught and passed me. It was an impressive size, a creature of almost military precision, its leader regularly barking out start and stop commands to his attentive tribe. At that point I had a painful decision to make, and I made it quickly. It wouldn’t be easy, it wouldn’t be comfortable, and it would require me to empty the tank and then some—but ten hours was the limit of what I was willing to concede. It was time to dig deep and do whatever needed to be done to stay ahead of the 10-hour hopefuls. Seizing the opportunity I leapfrogged the group on their next walk break, extending my lead as we approached the last celebrity obstacle between us and glory: Polly Shortts.

10 km to go.

Mthembu wins

Bongmusa Mthembu wins the 2017 Comrades Marathon (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Polly Shortts to Scottsville Racecourse (finish)
PinkDrive, an organization similar to Planned Parenthood in the U.S., had set up their inflatable pink arch and high-energy aid station at the base of Polly Shortts, providing runners with much-needed hydration and momentum for the final big climb of the day.

Sticking to my script I grabbed water and Energade sachets—for liquid courage, if nothing else. Then I launched myself up Pollys, intending to follow Rory’s advice to run four cat’s eyes and walk two. Unfortunately many of the cat’s eyes were missing, and so I was forced to improvise on the steep grade, running where I could and walking where I couldn’t. All the while I remained keenly aware of the 10-hour bus in my rearview mirror.

Polly’s may be steep, she may be the last serious speed bump on the way to Pietermaritzburg, but for runners who attack her smartly she comes too late to inflict a fatal blow. Like a Venus flytrap, however, she lies in wait for slower victims, devouring those who fail to reach her summit—and the course’s final cutoff point—within 11 hours and ten minutes.

Rescue Bus 62 km

Luckily I steered clear of the famous (and infamous) rescue bus, which awaits runners who miss a cutoff

Late in the race even the spectators seemed to grow quiet, as though unsure how to respond to the zombie death march they were witnessing. Running an entire km at a time felt like a major victory. Each time I stopped to walk I would feel my bladder control waning and think That’s it, I’m not going to be able to start running again. And yet somehow each time I was able to pick up my feet and pick up the pace, while gradually extending my lead over the 10-hour bus.

I’d stopped Garmin-gazing hours before, and the bus was my only clue that a 10-hour finish was still within reach. As long as it was on pace…

One oversight I didn’t understand was the lack of aid stations after the 83 km mark. I really could’ve used at least one more, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. Those last 4 km were infinite enough without constantly scanning for the next aid station that never appeared.

Damn, was I glad these were km and not mile markers.

One last overpass and we entered the residential neighborhoods of Scottsville. One fellow offered us a beer while another stood in the road, his garden hose trained on passing runners. I veered toward the latter, the cold water hitting me squarely in the face for an invigorating pick-me-up that would propel me to the finish.

Passing the “1 km to go” sign I flipped the mental switch tiredly into “victory lap” mode, knowing much of that final km would be run inside the stadium. Sure enough, moments later I glanced up to see the Scottsville Racecourse welcoming me home, its shaded entrance tunnel like the gaping, defanged mouth of the beast I’d come to vanquish. I entered the stadium like a conquering hero returning home from battle—though not before the course played its final sadistic hand, a quick downhill-then-uphill jag into the stadium and onto the grass track.

Slowly I followed the curve of the track, conflicting emotions gripping my head and heart. As much as my mind wanted to bask in the moment and savor its once-in-a-lifetime significance, my body was good and ready to be done. Where’s the finish arch? Two turns later, it finally came into view in all its bright red glor—.

I sensed it almost instantly, a wave of WTF? washing over me. Something about the scene wasn’t right. A moment later I realized what was up: the arch was too small; there was too much open space beyond it. And the runners ahead of me weren’t stopping.

Camille Herron winner2

Women’s champ Camille Herron of Oklahoma accepts a giant check for her giant effort

Turns out this Trojan Horse of a finish arch was actually a spectator bridge set up to allow finishers after the race to cross over from one side of the stadium to the other. And I wasn’t the only one to mistake it for the real thing. Apparently Camille Herron, the women’s winner, stopped running and started celebrating after crossing under the bridge, nearly giving race officials and horrified spectators a collective heart attack before a fellow runner urged her on to the finish. Herron’s near miss evoked memories of last year’s Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles, where women’s champion Amy Cragg and men’s third-place finisher Jared Ward each stopped short of the finish before recovering in time to avoid an historic blunder.

Luckily I didn’t have much time to ponder the indecency of this deception. One final turn and there it was, directly ahead of me and as vivid, as beautiful as anything I’d ever seen. What immediately caught my eye were the four words I’d been chasing for nearly ten hours: COMRADES MARATHON FINISH 2017.

Finishing time

Sub-10 hours!

The green finish arch stood larger than life, dressed for the occasion in green & white balloons and ready to accept me into the Comrades family. Me. Hardly the heroic paradigm for a Mad Max movie or a Cormac McCarthy novel, by no means an elite athlete or desert warrior, and endowed with unbronzeable skin that efficiently converts the sun’s rays into an unsightly sunburn. I was on the verge of joining Bart Yasso and so many others as one of the few, the proud—the freaks!

Spectator-filled bleachers lined each side of the home stretch, and tiredly I shot a thumbs-up in the air as I heard a female voice—though not Katie, whose own voice was still recovering from strep throat—yell my name. I assumed in the moment this was directed at me, since unlike the U.S. every third male in South Africa isn’t named “Mike.” And I’d discover later the voice belonged to Anchorage John’s wife Rochene, who’d been tracking my progress all day.

I wish I could remember my thoughts as I pumped my fists and crossed under the finish arch in a triumphant 9:52:55. Wish I had something poetic and profound to share, shimmering words that would punctuate the most amazing day I’ve ever spent on a race course. Honestly, though, with my mind and body running on fumes, I’m pretty sure my analysis in that shining moment went something like, Me done big race.

I crossed the finish line and stopped—I can stop! And just stand here! And there I stood for a moment, luxuriating in my lack of forward progress. I tried to gather my thoughts, only to find my brain deliciously devoid of gatherable thoughts. Then I shuffled forward through the finish chute, basking in the moment, clinging to it as though it were a newborn child.

0 km to go.

Finish line exhaustion

Some pictures are worth more than 1,000 words (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Izokuthoba: It will humble you
Volunteers presented me with a Comrades logo patch, yellow rose and bronze finisher’s medal, the latter in recognition of a sub-11-hour finish.

The Comrades medal is arguably the most coveted in all of racing; ironically it may also be the smallest, at roughly the size of an American quarter. But as someone who’s been around the block galaxy a few times once said, “Size matters not”. It’s not the size of the medal you earn, it’s the size of the mettle that earned it. And if I were to clear out my wall at home to make room for just one medal, Comrades would be it. Though admittedly, if push came to shove, I may just weld my Boston and Comrades medals together and hang them as one.

All rose no thorn

“YOU get a rose! YOU get a rose! YOU get a rose!” (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

I emerged from the finish chute to see Katie and Rory waiting, faces beaming as though they’d both run the last 87 km with me. And for all intents and purposes they had. Because no one conquers Comrades alone. Without Rory’s selfless generosity and Katie’s unwavering support, my first Comrades would not have been the apex of my running career.

Immediately I dropped to one knee and presented Katie with the rose, thanking her for sticking by my side through another unforgettable adventure. Little did she realize this seemingly heartfelt gesture was my worn-out way of asking her to hold the flower for me while I rested.

The three of us exchanged hugs and I proudly showed off what Bruce Fordyce calls the “limp of pride,” slowly following Katie and Rory to the field o’ finishers. The scene resembled a MASH unit with exhausted bodies reclining, slumped over and sprawled out across the grass. Wow, that looks comfy, I thought with real envy as EMTs carried away on flexible stretchers the spent bodies of fellow finishers, most of them looking tired but comfortable. On any other day that would be a ride I’d avoid, but today…

Recovery time

Clearly the heat had taken its toll, with post-race accounts of debilitating leg cramps, gastrointestinal distress and finish-line collapses requiring IV intervention. Roughly 2.6% of the field (~440 runners) were treated in the medical tent, most for dehydration. According to one fellow finisher who ended up in the hospital for a post-race IV (and who highly recommended it), the attending physicians there treated 17 Comrades finishers as Code Reds, meaning life-or-death situations. Luckily the story has a happy ending, as all finishers eventually left the hospital under their own power. The official medical statistics for the day can be found HERE.

I lay on my back in the cool grass, ankles sticky with dried Energade, blankly staring up at something I’d not seen all day: clouds. Suddenly the sickening stench of cigarette smoke inflamed my nostrils, and bitterly I glanced over to see a non-runner puffing away nearby, seemingly oblivious to what he was doing and where he was doing it. Had I been able to move, I might have recommended he go find a more appropriate place to showcase his nicotine addiction, say maybe an emphysema clinic.

I lay there, trying to get comfortable but with little success. This had happened before, most notably after the 2012 Mt Diablo 50K and 2013 Harding Hustle 50K, both run in scorching heat. My body was so drained and so exhausted that no matter what position I tried—standing, sitting, kneeling, slouching or splayed out on the grass—I couldn’t get comfortable. In hindsight I probably would’ve benefitted from an IV, but barring that I just kept reminding myself, Every minute is another minute closer to being comfortable.

“Fucking Inchanga,” I muttered up at Rory through clenched eyes, playfully acknowledging the validity of his warning. He laughed, pleased to admit another member into the eternal brotherhood of Comrades runners humbled by one mighty hill.

Mike_Katie_Rory_Victory

A wave of nausea passed over me and I leaned forward, fertilizing a row of bushes with what little liquid remained in my stomach. As feisty as my stomach can be, it hadn’t turned itself inside-out after a race since the Pikes Peak Ascent in 2010. Immediately I felt better. “Drink up and stay hydrated,” advised another finisher who’d witnessed this unfortunate exchange. I did what I could to heed his advice; my body, however, still refused to cooperate.

That night at dinner I’d discover, to my chagrin, that even my upper palate hurt—you know, that soft tissue in the roof of your mouth that contributes nothing to forward motion? You know you’ve reached a low point when your palate hurts. I could only assume the bruising sensation had something to do with the pressurized jet of cold water and Energade that had been hitting it all day long. Unless someone has a better explanation, which I’d love to hear.

As I lay motionless in the grass like a garden hose, Katie headed toward the international tent to find something for me to drink. There she bumped into John and Rochene. In response to her queries about his well-being, John simply smiled and patted her shoulder. He was too exhausted to speak and too immobilized by his locked-up calves to move. Despite persistent cramping he’d stayed the course and finished in a very respectable 10:26:48, impressive considering the battle he’d waged in the second half of the race. I spoke with a lot of runners after the race whose “A” goals, like mine and John’s, were defeated by the heat and hills (being a first-timer who lives 10,000 miles away didn’t help, either).

And speaking of goals: next time (yes, I said it) I’ll run higher-mileage weeks to train for Comrades. This year, leading up to the Eugene Marathon in May, I’d focused on speed rather than endurance, and had averaged fewer than 40 miles per week in March and April as a result. I wasn’t concerned because I’d intentionally built a strong aerobic base in 2016, but more miles at a slower pace would have been a more race-appropriate training plan.

Finally it was time—I had to move. I wasn’t about to miss the spectacle that is the Comrades 12-hour cutoff. The final moments of the race are broadcast across the country as the entire nation tunes in to watch the human drama unfold. Gingerly I climbed the bleachers, “We Will Rock You” by Queen blasting from the loudspeakers and the uncaring clock ticking up toward 12 hours. Exhausted runners streamed through the finish line now, the crowds resembling a Walmart on Black Friday. A 12-hour bus led its charges home triumphantly.

I don’t recall where I read it, but apparently half of all Comrades finishers cross the line in the final hour.

With the sun having set and the light fading rapidly, so too were the chances of those still out on the course. Europe replaced Queen with “The Final Countdown” as the last few hopefuls circled the stadium in a desperate struggle to reach the finish. The moment was electric, and I felt my whole body—already exhausted from my own struggle—tense up with nervous anticipation. This felt like the Roman Coliseum, and I half expected the PA announcer to bellow, “RELEASE THE LIONS!”

Except that this was more compelling theater. Frantically the hoarse, disembodied voice counted down the closing seconds until, at 12 hours sharp, hope collided with reality and a living, breathing wall of volunteers swung into place, blocking the finish line and denying access to horrified runners just meters from the finish.

 

And just like that, the 2017 Comrades Marathon was over. All at once, it felt like someone had let the air out of the stadium.

When the dust settled, 13,852 of the 17,031 starters (81% male, 19% female) reached the finish line within the 12-hour time limit, an 81% success rate. Bongmusa Mthembu of South Africa crossed the finish line first in a time of 5:35:34, while Camille Herron of Oklahoma won the women’s division in 6:27:35, becoming the first American champion—man or woman—since Ann Trason in 1997. Three weeks later, Ryan Sandes would turn the tables by becoming the first South African to win America’s most prestigious ultramarathon, the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.

But as Norrie Williamson points out, the real heroes of this race aren’t the front-runners or middle-of-the-packers—they’re the 11- and 12-hour warriors who find themselves at a disadvantage before they even cross the start line, and for whom “Every step forward” isn’t advice so much as it is necessity.

The singular charisma of Comrades is evident in the number of runners with more than 10, more than 20, more than 30 finishes. Gil, a fellow SoCal who earned a Bill Rowan medal this year in his first Comrades, is already making plans to return—and not just next year, but for eight more years after that until he earns his own green number. Sure, his may be the most expensive green number in history by the time he’s done… but that’s the seduction of Comrades.

And it’s not just the most successful runners who fall under its spell. At the pre-race reception for international athletes I met one fellow from the UK who’d run Comrades seven times, despite only completing the race three times and never finishing an up run. Yet there he was, gamely preparing for his fourth shot at the up run because, as Ernest Hemingway wrote in The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

South Africa, with a population roughly equivalent to California and New York state combined, attracts over 20,000 registrants for its signature event. Which makes me wonder whether an event like Comrades could work here in the states. Surprisingly, there’s nothing like it in the U.S.—sure we have huge marathons like Chicago and New York City, but most of our ultramarathons are run on trails. And our largest 50-miler, the JFK 50 Mile, had a paltry 753 finishers last year. Granted Comrades has 92 years of history on its side, and the JFK 50 (founded 42 years after Comrades) intentionally limits the size of its field to 1,250 entrants. But still—1,250 is a far cry from 20,000.

Many Americans know someone who’s qualified for and/or run the Boston Marathon. Boston is an event that’s held in high regard here, as only the best of the best run it. For South Africans, though, Comrades is a way of life. Across the country, the easiest way to start a conversation is to wear your Comrades gear, or mention that you’ve run the race. Everyone seems connected to the event in some way—either they’ve run it themselves, or have a family member who’s run it, or know someone who’s gotten it done. And everyone has a story to tell. If I ever decide to write a book but feel too lazy to come up with a topic, I can always gather 50 South Africans in a room, turn on the recorder and say “Comrades. GO.” I guarantee what comes out of it will be compelling.

By pure serendipity we had the opportunity to meet another South African legend, controversial sports physiologist, prolific author and Comrades guru Dr. Tim Noakes, on our flight to Cape Town later that week. Dr. Noakes and his wife Marilyn were extremely affable when I introduced myself, and we bonded quickly over my scientific background and first Comrades finish. I was a bit starstruck—after all, his Bible-like tome The Lore of Running occupies a prominent position on our bookshelf at home. And Tim Noakes, along with Bruce Fordyce and golfer Gary Player, is a member of the Holy Trinity of South African sport. So fortuitously bumping into Dr. Noakes was the perfect way to punctuate our first visit to South Africa.

Tim Noakes_Mike

Meeting Tim Noakes in the Cape Town airport

As a recreational runner, there’s no title I’ll wear more proudly than “Comrades finisher”. Something very special happens between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, a personal transformation invisible to the naked eye, and you won’t cross that finish line the same person who started the race. Comrades will challenge you. It will humble you. It will take all you’ve got. It will build you up and break you down, only to build you back up again. It will teach you lessons about yourself that you may or may not want to learn. It’s a raw, uncensored, powerful experience. It’s the Ultimate Human Race. And there’s nothing else like it in the world.

So if you’re a runner, ask yourself: Do I have the mettle to earn this medal? If the answer is yes, then the most rewarding race experience of your life awaits in South Africa. At what other race does crossing the finish line qualify you for a place on its Wall of Honour?

Admittedly, I’m now eyeing the back-to-back medal that second-time finishers receive for running the up and down runs in consecutive years. After all, I may be feeling good about myself, but I’m still subject to the immutable laws of nature.

And what goes up, must come down.

Us_Comrades finish

Celebrating the bronze


Survive & Thrive: Eight tips for conquering the Comrades Marathon up run

1) Self-discipline is the key—don’t start too fast. If you find yourself running comfortably in the first few km, you’re probably going too fast.

2) Nothing new on race day—this goes for gear and nutrition. One possible exception is the official Comrades cap you’ll receive at the expo, though I opted against that too.

3) Dial in your nutrition early, before the day heats up and your stomach goes rogue.

4) Don’t underestimate the heat—Much will be made of the 2,500 ft of net climbing in the first half, and for good reason… but don’t discount the beatdown awaiting you courtesy of heat & sun exposure in the second half. International runners, this means you.

5) Focus on your breathing—when the going gets tough, deep breaths with a regular “inhale for 3 steps, exhale for 4 steps” cadence can help you relax and regain a sense of control.

6) Every step forward—if your primary focus is to finish within 12 hours, every step you take should bring you one step closer to the finish. And don’t stop moving at aid stations.

7) Expect the unexpected—e.g. John’s nasty battle with calf cramps—and be ready to adapt.

8) Stay positive—when you’ve got nothing left to give, give a smile (I read that on the sidewalk at the Eugene Marathon).

Comrades Marathon resources I leaned on (in addition to Rory):

  • Lindsey Parry’s podcast “RUN with Coach Parry”—especially its archives—is a treasure trove of expertise and insights from the official Comrades coach; older episodes are less than ten minutes each, so you can listen to several at a time. Coach Parry also has some very good content on YouTube.
  • Norrie Williamson, 19-time finisher and official course measurer, recently relaunched his website; the current content is a bit outdated, but his Comrades calculator will give you a reliable sense for your projected finish time based on training mileage and recent performances.
  • Bruce Fordyce’s blog is another invaluable source of tips & tricks. And though I’ve not read them yet, both volumes of his “Fordyce Diaries”—Conquering the Up as well as Tackling a Down Run—are available as e-books exclusively on the site. If anyone can teach you to conquer Comrades, it’s the man who won it nine times!
  • Our friends at Marathon Tours & Travel helped out with logistics, flights and lodging for Comrades and for our post-race travels in South Africa.
Bruce_Mike_Katie

Meeting 9-time Comrades champ Bruce Fordyce at the reception for international runners

BOTTOM LINE: Comrades is like no other running event in the world. It’s an audacious nickname to be sure, but the event lives up to its billing as “The Ultimate Human Race.” I’ve used the phrase “once in a lifetime” twice to describe races: once for the Antarctica Marathon and now for my first Comrades experience. And it’s that experience that keeps its finishers coming back 10, 20, 30, in some cases 40 times. I’d love to return to Boston someday, but I feel compelled to return to Comrades. This race will challenge you, it will inspire you, it will humble you. But most of all, it will change you.

They say you never forget your first. And now I get it.

The name says it all (though not the “Marathon” part, since the race itself is over 50 miles): you don’t run Comrades for the t-shirt and medal, though those are sweet perks. You run for the camaraderie and the community. You run to celebrate the spirit of brotherhood and humanity that unite us all—what the Zulu culture calls ubuntu. You run because there are no strangers between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, only friends you haven’t met yet. And you run to be part of something much bigger than yourself—17,000+ runners from 73 countries, all in pursuit of a common goal, all speaking a common language. The language of Comrades.

Mike Sohaskey with Comrades Marathon course sign

Comrades route closure placard, signed by Bruce Fordyce and Cheryl Winn

Unless you’re among the last-minute finishers or hooked up to an IV in the medical tent, the Comrades experience doesn’t end once you cross the finish line. Watching from the bleachers at the Scottsville Racecourse as the final few finishers struggled to beat the countdown to the 12-hour cutoff was one of the most gripping human dramas I’ve ever witnessed.

For prospective Comrades runners, if you have questions about any aspect of the race I’m sure Rory would be happy to answer them. He’s a fantastic ambassador and a wealth of information on all things Comrades, having crossed the finish line 12 times and earned a green number. Plus, he’s an incredibly generous and genuinely nice guy who knows pretty much everyone involved with the race.

PRODUCTION: Race production was flawless, as evidenced by the start corrals with 17,000 runners all crossing the line within eight minutes. And Comrades wouldn’t be the best race in the world without the best volunteers in the world. From packet pickup to on-course support to the unenviable job of forming a human wall at the 12-hour cutoff, the volunteers are as critical to the success of the race as the runners themselves. The difference being, they don’t take home a medal for their efforts.

The pre-race expo is so large, it even has its own food court. Rows upon rows of exhibitors, retailers, lounges, improvised stages and even massage stations filled the Durban Exhibition Centre. I’d recommend hitting the expo on Thursday or Friday to avoid the Saturday crush, since you don’t want to be on your feet any longer than necessary the day before the race. Separate lounge areas exist for newbies (“novices”), international runners and Green Number Club members to pull up a chair, grab a snack and chat with fellow runners while escaping the crowds. And international runners enjoy another underrated perk at the expo: a dedicated packet pickup line, which saved huge time by allowing me to bypass the Disneyland-length line of South African runners waiting to pick up their own packets. Seriously, the line looked like the wait for Space Mountain. International runners at Comrades are definitely treated like first-class citizens.

Comrades registration lines

The expo packet pickup lines for South Africans (top) and internationals (bottom)

Speaking of which, Thursday evening also featured a highly recommended reception for international runners at a local hotel. The reception was well worth attending, as we met runners from around the globe as well as 9-time winner Bruce Fordyce and Cheryl Winn, the 1982 women’s winner and current Comrades Marathon Association Vice-Chair. Yet another benefit to being an international runner!

If you have a limited amount of time at the expo, I’d recommend you attend the back-to-back presentations at the Old Mutual tent by Lindsey Parry (the official Comrades coach) and Norrie Williamson (19-time finisher and official course measurer). Each man shares valuable expertise, insights and guidance to help you prepare for race day, along with pace bands that are either free (in Williamson’s case) or which can be purchased for a nominal fee (in Parry’s case, which turned out to be a smart call since Williamson’s bands were quickly snatched up by the “If it’s free, gimme three!” crowd). Coach Parry’s pace bands are temporary tattoos you can affix to your forearm, as I did on race day to track my progress.

SWAG: The smallest medal in road racing may also be the most coveted. With 92 years of history behind it, there’s a singular power and beauty to the quarter-sized medallion on its simple black-and-yellow ribbon. As I said above, it’s not the size of the medal you earn, it’s the size of the mettle that earned it. And when you’re the best in the world, you don’t need to change for anyone. I could go on to gush about the cool race t-shirt and wicking runner’s cap, but that’s hardly going to sway your decision on whether to run the Ultimate Human Race.

Comrades bronze medal

RaceRaves rating:

RaceRaves-rating

FINAL STATS:
June 4, 2017 (start time 5:30am, sunrise 6:45am)
54.5 miles (87.7 km, officially 86.73 km) from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, South Africa (Continent #4)
Finish time & pace: 9:52:55 (first time running Comrades), 10:53/mile
Finish place: 4,191 overall, 1,427/4,273 in M 40-49 age group
Number of finishers: 13,852 (11,151 men, 2,699 women)
Race weather: cool & clear at the start (temp 52°F), hot & sunny (low 80s) throughout
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 5,732 ft ascent, 3,712 ft descent

Comrades 2017 splits

After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.
– Nelson Mandela

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at 2017 Comrades Marathon expo

I felt it in my stomach, powerful and resonant, its sonic boom awakening the pre-race butterflies like a sudden gust of wind.

I felt it on my skin, the chill of goosebumps cascading like dominos along my arms and down the back of my neck.

I felt it in my head, the last vestiges of denial evaporating like sweat in the pre-dawn darkness. This is happening.

Nothing drives home the reality of Comrades like “Shosholoza”.

I’d heard South Africa’s “second national anthem” before. Watched start line videos like my own below, trying to appreciate how the Ndebele mining song’s vocal harmonies would sound—and feel—on race day. And honestly, I thought I’d prepared myself for the moment.

I thought wrong. “Shosholoza” hit me like the oncoming steam train whose sound it evokes. I held my iPhone aloft, capturing the surreal scene, a panoply of emotions dancing across the 17,000 faces lost in their last-second thoughts or softly singing along. The air in the start corral strained under a pungent mix of body odor and human electricity, the latter more than enough if called upon to power the harsh floodlights illuminating the start line.

Despite the cool morning, I was sweating—unusual for me, but then again I’d started sweating the moment I’d woken up around 2:00am, pulse rate elevated and nerves firing like I’d taken a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart, Pulp Fiction-style. I’d started chugging water immediately to try to counteract my body’s overactive sweat glands. There are few ideas worse than crossing the start line at Comrades already dehydrated.

The sea of faces was much darker and more masculine than I was accustomed to from American races—not surprising for a South African race with over 93% African representation. (Fun fact: Ethiopia, home to many of the world’s elite distance runners, sent only one runner to this year’s race). This was my first time in Africa, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to christen my 4th continent than by accepting the challenge of the Ultimate Human Race.

All of us stood in quiet deference as “Shosholoza” expanded to fill the silence around City Hall. All 17,031 of us, citizens of 73 nations speaking who-knows-how-many languages. All of us united in our common goal and in our common desire to see one another achieve that goal.

All of us Comrades.

2017 Comrades Marathon Start line VIP view

Start-line perspective from the VIP seats: that’s Rory front & center with glasses

Case in point, a simple but meaningful gesture: moments before, the race announcer had instructed all of us in the start corral to turn to the individuals on our left and on our right, shake their hand and wish them good luck. It was a heartening display of sportsmanship, one that reminded us we’d be competing for much more than a finisher’s medal over the next 12 hours.

Ironically, no race in the world gets its name more right or more wrong than the Comrades Marathon. First run in 1921, the event was the brainchild of World War I veteran Vic Clapham, who wanted to create a unique test of physical endurance to commemorate his fellow South African soldiers killed in the war and to “celebrate mankind’s spirit over adversity”. Clapham envisioned a grueling physical and mental challenge, yet at the same time one accessible to any well-trained recreational athlete. Now in its 92nd year, the race has succeeded beyond its founder’s wildest dreams.

On the other hand, Clapham apparently wasn’t a stickler for details, at least when it came to naming his event. This distinction may seem trivial to non-runners, but a “marathon” by definition is 26.2 miles (42.2 km), much like a day is 24 hours or a ton is 2,000 pounds. Comrades, by contrast, is the world’s largest ultramarathon and over double the distance of a standard marathon. The course changes slightly each year, with this year’s course leading its runners nearly 54 miles (87 km) from the coastal city of Durban to the capital city of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, Pietermaritzburg.

So calling Comrades a “marathon” is a bit like calling Godzilla a “lizard.”

Durban view from Southern Sun Elangeni (for Comrades Marathon)

View of the Durban coastline from our hotel room at the Southern Sun Elangeni

My earliest recollection of the race was a 2010 Runner’s World feature on running icon Bart Yasso, who after a debilitating battle with Lyme Disease chose Comrades as his last official race. Trying to wrap my mind around the concept, I came away from the RW article with a Mad Max-meets-Cormac McCarthy sense of Comrades as an event for elite athletes and uber-fit desert warriors whose bronzed skin could convert the sun’s heat directly into raw physical energy. Ninety km in less than 12 hours? Who were these freaks?? I wasn’t immediately smitten because, well, Comrades was clearly way beyond my abilities—I’d yet to even run a marathon at that point. But the article stayed with me.

Fast forward to March 2013. Katie and I stand on the deck of the Russian research vessel the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, both of us speechless as we soak in our first view of Antarctica. A tall, good-looking fellow in a heavy jacket and pajama pants strolls up alongside us, sharing in our wonderment. The three of us get to talking—he has an awesome accent which adds to his charisma—and we learn he’s from South Africa.

The conversation naturally turns to running (we’re there to run the Antarctica Marathon, after all), and Rory regales us with entertaining tales of his favorite race back home, the absurdly challenging Comrades Marathon. I’m familiar with the race, though do I know anyone who’s actually run it? I’m not sure. In any case, it’s clear from the fire in his eyes and his animated tone that Comrades is Rory’s pride and joy—so much so that he’s completed the race a mind-boggling 12 times. Ten finishes was enough to earn him what’s known as a Comrades “green number,” which is now his to keep and which he can even bequeath to his three sons in his will.

Meeting someone who’d not only attempted Comrades but who’d completed it, and who’d not only completed it but done so 12 times, lubricated the gears in my brain and brought them spinning to life. For the first time the idea of Comrades—of someone like me running Comrades—started to make sense.

Fast forward to 2016. We’d stayed in contact with Rory, broken bread together during one of his business trips to Los Angeles, and learned he’d been head of security for President Nelson Mandela before starting his own private security firm in South Africa, with clients around the world. Meanwhile, the seed he’d planted in my brain that day on the Vavilov had blossomed into an uncontrollable weed. I’d committed to fly more than halfway around the world to run the longest foot race of my life. And Rory, upon hearing the news, had generously offered to host us during our stay. Of course we’d jumped at his offer.

I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

2017 Comrades Marathon motto – Zinikele

Zinikele: Give it all you’ve got
“Shosholoza” followed the South African national anthem and segued seamlessly into the timeless piano of “Chariots of Fire.” More goosebumps. The restless crowd around me remained still; the butterflies in my stomach did not. I distracted myself by recalling the “Count-Down” instructions from the 1961 race, which we’d received with our souvenir magazine. These included:

4.50 a.m.: Have your last cigarette.
5.15 a.m.: Amble along to the start.
5.54 a.m.: Make sure you join in with a hearty cheer for the Mayor.
5:59 a.m.: Be good boys and smile nicely for the Press, they are some of the best friends we have got.

Like some blog posts, a little “Chariots of Fire” goes a long way, and two minutes later Vangelis’ heroic score was quickly getting on my overwrought nerves. Okay okay I’m inspired already, how many times does this repeat?

View of Corral B at start of 2017 Comrades Marathon

Bird’s-eye view of Corral B (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Just as I started to think Vangelis himself had taken over the controls, the music faded. A brief hush was followed by the amplified sounds of a rooster crowing—actually, not a rooster, but the recorded tones of Max Trimborn, who at the Comrades start line in 1948 nervously let loose with his rendition of a crowing rooster (such is the anticipation of running 90 km). By popular demand, Max continued the tradition until his death in 1985, and to this day his recorded rooster crow starts every Comrades Marathon.

Like the first notes of a rock concert, which release the hounds of adrenaline and bring the crowd to its feet, Max’s cock-a-doodle-doo elicited pent-up cheers from the restless throngs. And the ensuing crack of a gunshot, fired promptly at 5:30am, opened the floodgates for the tidal wave of runners to pour through, red and white confetti raining down on the heads of the speedy runners in corral A.

 

Hurry up and wait, I thought as we pressed together, shuffling en masse toward the start line. There was a method to this madness: Comrades requires a qualifying time—for the marathon distance this is sub-5 hours—and runners are seeded in one of eight alphabetical start corrals according to that qualifying time, faster runners at the front (starting with corral “A”) and slower runners at the back (ending with corral “H”). I’d earned a solid corral C seeding with my 3:31 finish at January’s Louisiana Marathon.

As we crossed the start mat I glanced down at my Garmin: 1:58. Off to a good start, just two minutes lost.

Comrades is both cruel and unusual in many respects. One is the timing of the event. In most races, your official time starts not when the starter’s pistol fires (known as “gun time”) but rather when a timing chip on your bib number or shoe sends a signal that you’ve physically crossed the start line (known as “chip time”). Chip time is what matters, not gun time. In this way, slower runners who start closer to the back are not penalized the extra time it takes them to reach the start line.

Not so at Comrades. The race has a strict 12-hour time limit (a 13:20/mile pace this year); everyone’s time starts with the opening gunshot and ends when they cross the finish line mat. Add to that the race’s seeding system, which starts faster runners toward the front and slower runners toward the back, and you create a tense situation in which those runners who most need the extra time—the slower runners in corrals G & H—have already lost valuable minutes by the time they reach the start line.

Luckily the start corrals flow as smoothly as any in racing, inspired in part by the fear of gun time. It typically takes no more than eight minutes for everyone to cross the start line.

Comrades 2017 had begun, and we were all on the clock. We passed the VIP tent where, thanks to Rory’s connections, he and Katie stood watching the start with Comrades officials and celebrities, including 9-time winner Bruce Fordyce. I thought of the race’s one-word slogan: Zinikele, a Zulu word meaning “Give it all you’ve got”. I intended to do just that.

87 km to go. T-minus 12 hours to euphoria or heartbreak.

Zinikele_GoogleTranslate

Google-ese translation of “Zinikele” — not the best slogan for when the going gets tough.

Farewell to Durban
Once clear of the start line, the stampede of runners surged forward through urban Durban, its downtown district nondescript in the early morning darkness. I split my focus between the other runners and the asphalt in front of me, taking care not to step on the back of someone’s foot and end my day before it had begun.

A fellow to my right dropped his water bottle, the unfortunate container barely striking the asphalt before someone inadvertently kicked it, sending it careening off another runner’s ankle like a pinball and skittering out of view underfoot. The rapid-fire sequence reminded me of the puck drop in a hockey face-off.

The compressed crowds worked to my advantage by preventing me from going out too fast, a huge no-no in a race like Comrades. In fact, it’s the one piece of advice you’ll hear repeated most often around the expo and throughout race weekend. I’d listened to enough podcasts and pre-race advice to have the concept of patience drilled into me. So I knew there’d be no shot of me flying out of the chute with my hair on fire.

Respect the distance, don’t fear the distance.

The KISS (Keep It Slow, Stupid) rule is solid strategy for almost any ultramarathon, but particularly for this year’s Comrades Marathon. Why? Because another cruel and unusual aspect of this race is the course.

Unlike other races which typically use the same route every year, in alternate years the Comrades course reverses direction between Durban at sea level and Pietermaritzburg at an elevation of 2,100ft. So whereas this year’s race started in Durban and ended in Pietermaritzburg, next year the opposite will be true. For obvious reasons, the route from Durban to Pietermaritzburg with its 2,100ft of net elevation gain is labeled the “up” run, while the opposite direction is known (cleverly enough) as the “down” run.

2017 Comrades Marathon up run elevation profile

Course elevation profile for the 2017 Comrades up run

Many Comrades coaches and veterans will tell you that the first 42 km of the “up” run is the toughest road marathon you’ll ever run—and that your immediate reward for conquering those 42 km is another marathon and change to the finish. This is a grueling concept both mentally and physically, and I understood that while my performance in the first 37 km wouldn’t necessarily make my race, it could very easily break it.

“Essentially, the ‘up’ run is all about self-control,” writes he who would know best, 9-time champion Bruce Fordyce. “And this control has to be exercised in the first half.”

I’d chosen the “up” run based on Rory’s advice. Apparently, as exhausting as the steady climb from Durban to Pietermaritzburg can be, the uphill struggle is far preferable to the discomfort of descending those same hills with 50 km already in your legs. Downhill running damages the leg muscles like nothing else, and requires a whole different type of training than uphill running. So by reversing the direction of the route, the Comrades organizers essentially create a whole new race.

And speaking of hills—while big-game hunters dream lustily of Africa’s Big Five (buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino), Comrades runners have nightmares of a different Big Five. These are the five most notorious hills along the route, and they eschew muscular monikers like “Heartbreak Hill” and “Widowmaker” in favor of more dignified, understated names: Cowies Hill, Fields Hill, Botha’s Hill, Inchanga and Polly Shortts. And yet despite their innocuous names, each of the Big Five makes Boston’s Newton Hills look like zits on a lion’s back.

Comrades veterans will tell you that while the hills themselves are bad enough, it’s their placement along the course that will have you talking to yourself. Three of the Big Five (Cowies Hill, Fields Hill and Botha’s Hill) await in the first 37 km of the “up” route, with Inchanga positioned just after the halfway point and Polly Shortts just before the 80 km mark, the last real climb before the finish.

Bruce Fordyse-Katie-Rory Steyn Comrades Marathon VIP seating

Bruce Fordyce, Katie and Rory enjoy the VIP seats

But as intimidating as the prospect of tackling them on race day can be, it’s important to appreciate that the Big Five aren’t the only hills on the Comrades course—and in some cases they’re not even the worst. As I’d quickly learn, just because it doesn’t have a name doesn’t mean it can’t kick your ass. Comrades is like death by a thousand cuts, with a few machete blows thrown in for good measure. And for many runners, the line between success and failure is razor-thin.

Given the course’s unusual length (54 miles) and the oversized reputation of the Big Five, it didn’t feel natural to divide the route mentally into five 10-milers as I had at last year’s Ice Age Trail 50; rather, I couldn’t help but break it down in my head as six stretches of variable distance separated by each of the Big Five.

We left the city streets of Durban via the on-ramp to the N3 highway and soon after began our first test of the day, the steady climb toward the Tollgate Bridge. Here I remembered Comrades coach and official course measurer Norrie Williamson’s advice from the expo two days earlier. He’d called Tollgate the first “reality check” of the day, telling us that over 80% of runners will start too fast and destroy their best time by Tollgate.

And I could see why. The climb up to Tollgate is gentle enough to be deceiving, yet steep enough to do real damage to the reckless runner. With early adrenaline on your side, it would be all too easy to find yourself powering up the gentle climb toward Tollgate’s double arches. And by the time you realize you’ve made a mistake, it’s too late.

83 km to go.

Tollgate to Cowies Hill
Walk once before the sun rises, Rory had advised. And so I took 30 seconds to slow down on my way up to Tollgate, my mind protesting this early white flag. We walking already? Really, tough guy?

Pacing groups at Comrades are known as “buses”, and I hoped to stick close to the 9-hour bus throughout the race. Glancing to my left I saw the 10:30 bus pass me and realized that, if anything, I may have started out too cautiously. Which was fine with me—I had 80+ km to make up the difference. Energy wasted now was energy I wouldn’t have later. Once that muscle glycogen burns, it’s gone and you’re not getting it back.

On my forearms were tattooed two pace charts, which I’d purchased at the expo from Comrades coach Lindsey Parry: one outlining a 9-hour finish (my “A” goal) and the other a 10-hour finish (my “B” goal). Needless to say, my “C” goal was to get across the finish line in less than 12 hours, and by any means necessary. Flying 17,000 miles just to earn a DNF (Did Not Finish) was not an option.

“I reached my 10,000 steps!” shouted a voice in the darkness to my right.

2017 Comrades Marathon 9- and 10-hr pacing bands

The “A” goal (left) and the “B” goal (right)

I accelerated slightly to put the 10:30 bus behind me and sipped at the Tailwind (sports drink) in my hydration pack. I’d elected to wear the pack for at least the first half of the race, in part so I’d have a steady supply of Tailwind to sip on, but also to carry the baby food pouches and PB&J sandwiches I’d prepared the night before.

I could always drop the pack with Katie and Rory along the course, but I was reluctant to disregard the most battle-tested piece of racing advice: nothing new on race day. Nougat bars and biscuits hadn’t struck me as appealing aid station fare, and my own menu of snacks had served me well at the Ice Age Trail 50. So I wasn’t about to reinvent the wheel—though as it turned out, I’d end up having to fix a flat tire or two along the way.

C’est la vie. It’s the ultrarunner’s mantra: Expect the unexpected. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. And it’s up to you to make it right.

Just past Tollgate we reached the first of what would be 46 aid stations. I’d heard it said that the Comrades aid stations are so long, you can look up from the end of one and see the beginning of the next. Turns out this is fake news—there’s plenty of space between aid stations, particularly later in the race when you need them most.

Which brings us to the water sachets. I know some folks—particularly Americans who aren’t used to them—deem the drink sachets to be another cruel and unusual element of Comrades. But I actually preferred them. The sachets are small plastic pouches filled with water or Energade (the South African equivalent of Gatorade), and you use your teeth to tear open the sachet to access the liquid. After one or two tries at biting open a water sachet on the run, you’ll be a pro.

In the early miles, the sachets provided not just hydration but also entertainment. Seeing newbies bite open a sachet awkwardly only to take a full spray of water in the face, I couldn’t help but laugh. And the occasional {POP} of someone stepping on an unopened sachet in the darkness was like the occasional firework. I stepped on a couple myself, dousing my ankles in water and Energade.

Congrats on 45 Comrades Marathons sign

WOW, congrats indeed Louis! (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Exiting the wide highway surface of the N3, we downsized to the more narrow, two-lane M13 (Jan Smuts Highway). I was happy to trade in excess elbow room for a more tree-lined stretch of road, though I’d been warned about the “cat’s eyes” (reflectors) between lanes, which are easy to trip over in the dark.

My pre-race hydration began to take its toll, and I ducked into a porta-potty on the side of the road, emerging less than a minute later to see the 9-hour bus pass me by, leading a large group of runners. Huh? Apparently I wasn’t the only one trying to figure out my pacing in the early going.

We made our way through Westville as the sun peeked above the horizon, transitioning onto the Old Main Road that connects Durban and Pietemaritzburg. Palm trees lined the road, and coming from SoCal I felt right at home. In general, South Africa is a very easy country to travel in as an American—most of its people speak English, the street signs are in English and the weather (particularly in the winter) is temperate.

“Hey there Michael, where you coming from?” asked a voice behind me in a South African accent—or was I now the one with the accent? It took me two heartbeats to catch up to the question and realize it was directed at me, my blue bib number on front and back announcing me as an international runner with exactly zero zilch zip nil nada Comrades finishes.

“California,” I responded. “United States,” I followed up quickly, not wanting to come across as that ugly American who expects all the world’s citizens to know where California is. I chatted with my new friend—a South African native and 6-time finisher—for a few seconds, and he and I wished each other luck on the journey to Pietermaritzburg.

Even the bib numbers at Comrades are fraught with meaning. White bibs identify South Africans, blue bibs international runners. Not only that, but yellow bibs identify Comrades veterans who have completed the race nine times and are competing for their green number. And green bibs, of course, are for those who have already achieved that feat. The bibs also list your start corral and the number of Comrades medals you’ve earned.

In a race as grueling as Comrades, you take motivation anywhere you can get it. And all along the course as the going got tough, I found strong motivation in the runners with 10+ or 20+ finishes on their bibs, chugging along purposefully. If they can do this 20 times, I can damn well do it once.

The best thing that can be said about the first 15 km of the up run is that, barring the occasional undulation, the climb is so gradual and consistent that after a while you hardly notice your own steady battle against gravity.

73 km to go.

Mike Sohaskey's bib for 2017 Comrades Marathon

Cowies Hill to Fields Hill
At last we reached the base of Cowies Hill. With the sun rising and the first of the Big Five stretching ahead of me, I felt like Comrades had officially begun. Passing the road sign announcing Cowies, I glanced up to see a steady stream of runners flowing up the hill. I forced myself to power walk for another minute as I snapped a photo. Then I pushed forward, eager to see what all the fuss was about.

After so much time spent hyping up the Big Five in my mind, I was disappointed to discover that its first three members arrive with very little fanfare. The first 37 km of the up run are such a steady ascent, I’m honestly not sure I would have realized we were on Cowies if I hadn’t seen the sign and heard the chatter around me. Cowies will definitely make you work, don’t get me wrong, but it may be more memorable for its subsequent downhill than for the steepness of its ascent.

Base of Cowies Hill at 2017 Comrades Marathon

Powering up Cowies Hill

Powering up Cowies we entered Pinetown, where throngs of spectators stood on both sides of the road, cheering loudly. One of the many amazing and unforgettable aspects of Comrades is the support of the locals—untold numbers of supporters line the course, and I was reminded of Patriots Day in Boston.

A group of strong-voiced young women sang “Shosholoza” a cappella, providing motivation and their own hand-clap accompaniment as we passed.

Cowies is neither the steepest nor the longest of the Big Five, and the mile+ ascent was challenging but doable. Then we were headed back downhill, with sweeping views of Pinetown to our left before the course again leveled out and resumed its ascent.

Shortly after Cowies we passed the first of the six cutoffs along the course—these are designated points that all runners must pass by a certain time, otherwise they’re pulled from the course and disqualified. And I pondered which would be worse: being pulled at the first cutoff of the day, or being pulled at the last.

Channeling my inner toddler, I downed my second baby food pouch of the morning. On longer runs, baby food is easier to digest than sugary gels, since it’s real food. I’d planned on a schedule of one pouch every five miles (8 km), supplemented with Tailwind every mile plus peanut butter & jelly. In this way, I hoped to avoid the aid stations for as long as possible.

Let’s hear it for wishful thinking.

The stretch through the commercial sector of Pinetown, with its businesses and car dealerships, was fairly uneventful. A generous but deluded spectator offered runners his jug of whiskey, the fellow next to me responding in a gentlemanly South African accent: “Ah, fuck you mate.”

Runners in Toyota Zone at 2017 Comrades Marathon

You never run alone at Comrades (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Continuing on the Old Main Road, the commercial, industrial and residential scenery struck me as wholly familiar: Pinetown could easily be blue-collar America.

Then it was back onto the M13 where the longest of the Big Five awaited. An official race km marker announced Fields Hill ahead, and I almost felt like a patient waiting for the doctor. Fields Hills will see you now, sir.

Fields Hill is the longest of the Big Five, and I honestly couldn’t tell you where it ends. Nor apparently can the organizers—look at the official Comrades elevation map above, and you’ll see an arrow pointing into the middle of a steady ascent with the label “Top of Fields Hill”. I do know I was running and power-walking up that sumabitch for too long—though again, I had such great expectations for the Big Five that it really didn’t feel so bad once I got on it.

Here I followed another sound piece of advice from Comrades coaches Parry and Williamson: I tried to keep my effort (rather than my pace) steady as we wound our way up and around the hill toward the summit.

I was also distracted by the fact that I’d expected to see Katie and Rory at the base of Fields Hill, around the 20 km mark where we’d planned to meet. Once we began our ascent I continued to keep an eye out for them, with no success. Finally I pulled out my phone and texted Katie on the fly. “61 km to go! Where are you?” Then a few minutes later, “60 km to go! Phone’s going off.” No overages on the international data plan, please.

I speak of “km to go” because the distance markers are yet another cruel and unusual aspect of Comrades. The markers are big and red and easy to see from far away, all of which I appreciated. But rather than celebrating how far you’ve come, the distance markers at Comrades confirm how much farther you still have to go. Psychologically, it’s daunting to be reminded of distances like 80 km and 70 km so early in the race. And it was only once I passed the “21 km” (= a half marathon) sign late in the day that I started to feel like that light at the end of the tunnel wasn’t another train.

No Katie and no Rory meant no familiar faces. More importantly, though, it meant I’d need to ration my remaining food, since I wasn’t sure if/when I’d see them next. Right around the midway point in Drummond I hoped, and yet I couldn’t be sure. One more baby food pouch plus a peanut butter & jelly sandwich should be enough to last me at least another 20 km… right?

63 km to go.

Mike Sohaskey running strong at the 2017 Comrades Marathon

I was one of the few runners wearing a pack (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Fields Hill to Botha’s Hill
By the time we reached Kloof, the sun was starting to flex its muscle in a cloudless sky. The day was shaping up to be warmer than forecast, a consistent breeze providing some respite from the heat. A relatively level stretch followed Fields Hill and led us through shaded, tree-lined neighborhoods. With the mounting heat and frequent palm trees, I got a sense of running in either Hawaii or Florida.

One thing I noticed as the km ticked off: none of the runners around me had wires dangling from their ears. Some of these folks would be out here lost in their own thoughts for nearly 12 hours, and yet none of them wore earbuds. Because Comrades demands (and deserves) every ounce of mental and physical focus you’ve got, and experiencing it from under earbuds would be like attending your own wedding while hopped up on pain meds.

59km marker at the 2017 Comrades Marathon

(photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Checking the pace bands on each forearm, I realized I was slightly ahead of schedule for a 9-hour finish, despite taking things slow to this point. I continued to churn out ten-minute miles through Gillitts and Hillcrest, the latter disappointing me with its abundance of hills and lack of crests.

Even if you knew nothing about the race itself, you’d still notice a common theme along the Comrades route: many of the towns and landmarks have “hill” in their name. Crazy coincidence, that.

My focus now was on getting to the 37 km mark, where the course leveled out. And all that stood between me and that goal was Botha’s Hill.

Like Cowies and Fields, Botha’s arrived with little fanfare. But it was steep and winding and nearly 3 km long, not to mention it had the sun on its side. Once again steady effort plus a bit of power-walking carried me to the top, where the shade of tree cover awaited us. So too did the well-dressed boys of Kearsney College, a private boarding school founded (like Comrades itself) in 1921 and located at the top of Botha’s Hill. Maybe it was my mindset coming off the hill, but none of Kearsney’s finest seemed particularly psyched on a hot day to be greeting a bunch of sweaty runners while dressed in a suit and tie.

And with that I’d reached the 37 km mark, the toughest miles of the Comrades up run in my rearview mirror. My rush of accomplishment, though, quickly yielded to sobering reality. Pietermaritzburg was still 50 km away. And the sun was still climbing in the sky.

50 km to go.

Mile 25 view of Alverstone at the 2017 Comrades Marathon

View overlooking Alverstone, 47 km to go

Botha’s Hill to Drummond
With the majority of the climbing behind us, the course continued to roll for the next couple of miles before treating us to our first extended downhill, the largely unshaded descent into Drummond. Here I was psyched to see Katie and Rory for the first time. I’d polished off my last baby food pouch several miles earlier and had tried a bite of my peanut butter & jelly. Bad idea—the consistency was like paste, and even with plenty of water to wash it down, my body had instantly rejected the idea.

Rory flagged me down, and I pulled over to catch my breath and refill my hydration pack before reluctantly moving on. With the heat intensifying I could tell my body was circling the wagons, approaching its Tailwind limit and with no appetite for either baby food or peanut butter. Even so, I decided to carry my pack until at least the 25 km-to-go mark, when I’d see them again.

My brief pitstop invigorated me, and I rode a surge of energy downhill into Drummond. Approaching the up run’s de facto halfway point, we passed two key landmarks on the Comrades course: the Wall of Honour and Arthur’s Seat.

Rory Steyn and Mike Sohaskey at Comrades Marathon Wall of Honour

Getting inspired by Rory’s Green Number plaque on the Wall of Honour

If you’re planning to run Comrades, take some time before or after the race to visit the Comrades Marathon Wall of Honour (you’ll likely be too rushed and too tired to appreciate it on race day). Erected along the side of the road just before Drummond, The Wall is a collection of plaques set in individual stones and decorated with the names of past finishers, along with their bib numbers. Yellow plaques signify runners with between one and nine finishes, while green plaques identify those who have earned green numbers. Best of all, anyone with an official Comrades finish can buy a plaque to be displayed on the Wall.

The Wall of Honour is a remarkable and ever-changing tribute to human endurance and to 92 years of Comrades finishers. And we were fortunate to have a host in Rory who drove us out to the Wall the night before the race, so we could take the time to appreciate it without having to commit to the official pre-race course tour.

Speaking of the course tour—the notion of spending several hours aboard a bouncy school bus, a captive audience for 87 km worth of ups and downs, sounded about as appealing as running the route with my laces tied together. I was intimidated enough by the hills without seeing them ahead of time, and I was more than happy to experience the entire course for the first time on race day.

Just past the Wall of Honour on the uphill is a small sign that, if you’re running with your head down or lost in thought, you could easily miss. The sign reads “Arthur’s Seat” and points left across the street. Carved out of the rock embankment along the road is a shallow recess where 5-time Comrades champion Arthur Newton reportedly used to rest during his runs. Legend has it that Comrades runners who greet Arthur and place flowers on his seat during the race will enjoy a strong second half.

“Good morning, Arthur” I greeted the former champ tiredly, tapping the rock face along with other runners and snapping a picture before continuing on my way. Superstition or not, this wasn’t the time to be taking chances.

Paying homage to Arthur's Seat at Comrades Marathon

Runners say “good morning” at Arthur’s Seat

I continued to chat intermittently with fellow runners, most of them from South Africa. With more than a marathon in our legs, none of the conversations were particularly deep, but I enjoyed meeting both veterans and first-timers as well as congratulating several 9-time finishers on their impending green numbers.

Glancing down at my pace tattoo, I saw I needed to reach Drummond in 4 hours, 35 minutes to stay on pace for a 9-hour finish. I glanced at my watch as we passed the third cutoff point: 4:28. So far, so good—not too fast, not too slow.

My 9-hour goal wasn’t an arbitrary one. Because another unique (and some might attest, cruel and unusual) aspect of Comrades is the finisher’s medal. The first thing you’ll notice is that the medal is likely the smallest you’ll ever receive, at roughly the size of a quarter. At the same time not all the medals are created equal, with different medals being awarded based on finish time.

The first ten finishers are awarded a Gold medal. Runners who finish out of the top ten but in less than six hours receive the Wally Hayward medal (silver center with gold ring), named after the 5-time Comrades winner who, in 1989 at age 80, also became the race’s oldest finisher in a time of 10:58:03.

Runners who finish in greater than six hours but less than 7:30 earn a silver medal, while runners who finish in greater than 7:30 but less than nine hours—my “A” goal—earn the Bill Rowan medal (a silver center with a bronze ring), named for the first winner of the Comrades Marathon who finished the race in 8 hours, 59 minutes.

A sizable gap separates the final two classes of medal recipients. Runners finishing in greater than nine but less than 11 hours receive a bronze medal, while the Vic Clapham medal (copper) goes to survivors who cross the finish line before the 12-hour cutoff.

Mike Sohaskey at Drummond halfway point of 2017 Comrades Marathon

Halfway home in Drummond—we look like synchronized runners (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

As if running 87 km weren’t enough to test your limits, competing to earn a particular medal (in my case, the Bill Rowan) adds to both the excitement and stress of the race—excitement for those who set realistic goals, stress for those who try to do too much. And heartbreak is all too frequent. Rory had recounted the story of his 2003 down run, when he’d missed his Bill Rowan by 12 seconds and had watched in horror as the puff of smoke from the 9-hour gun went off meters away from him.

According to Coach Norrie Williamson’s Comrades calculator, nine hours was a realistic goal based on my recent finish times. Given the travel and the heat, though, I knew Bill Rowan was a best-case scenario. Had the race been held in Southern California, that would have been a different story. But since I’m much better at running the ups than the downs, I figured I owed it to myself to give it a shot in this, an up year.

Cruising through Drummond, there was no missing the halfway point—it was rocking, the scene decked out in purple and gold with an inflatable arch, banners lining the course, music pumping, spectators screaming and an announcer greeting runners like we were celebrities, rock stars and supermodels. The raw energy was overwhelming but a definite pick-me-up. And I wish I’d had more time to appreciate it. There was some relief in knowing we were halfway home, but with still more than a marathon to go the relief was short-lived.

Then we were on our way again. “Welcome to the Valley of 1,000 Hills!” someone shouted. There it was again, another landmark with the word “hill” in it. And hadn’t we run that many already?

If I’d known about the one hill that awaited us, though, I might have opted for the other 1,000 instead.

42 km to go.

Concluded in Act 2

2017 Comrades Marathon New Balance shoes

The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.
– Socrates

RaceRaves logo
Runners love to run.  And runners love to race.  According to Running USA, over 19 million people in the U.S. alone finished a running event in 2013, a staggering 22.5% increase over the previous year.  The half marathon distance alone welcomed nearly two million finishers, roughly the same as its 10K and marathon counterparts combined.  These numbers have risen steadily since 1990, and show no signs of declining any time soon.

To borrow a term from the Brits, that’s a shedload of dopamine.

With those numbers in mind, Katie and I are thrilled to introduce RaceRaves v1.0 to the running community.  In a nutshell, RaceRaves.com enables runners and endurance athletes to:

  • Find, research and share thousands of running events around the world
  • Rate & review races you’ve run, share photos/videos/blog reports, and follow other runners who are doing the same
  • Organize your personal dashboard (“My Staging Area”) of past and future races
Our second choice of website name was also available, but we think we chose wisely

Our second choice of website name was also available, but we think we chose wisely

Shown below are examples of a race details page, our Find a Race feature and the My Staging Area page, to give you a better sense for the site’s layout and features.  Besides, 3 pictures = 3,000 words we don’t have to write and you don’t have to read.

Why RaceRaves?
RaceRaves was born of both frustration and aspiration.  Frustration with the status quo – with scouring the Internet trying to piece together the pros and cons of a given race, to determine which races to run and how to prioritize different races given limited time and resources.

The problem wasn’t in finding races to run or information on a particular race – as with so many topics these days, access to information isn’t necessarily the bottleneck.  The problem was that this information is largely fragmented and fleeting – a here-and-gone Facebook post, a recycled or buried magazine article from sometime last year.  And you’re likely to miss out on valuable insights if you limit yourself to the first few results of every Google search.  Who has the time, interest or even attention span to devote to this excavation process, anyway?

From this frustration arose the aspiration that we could build something better, something that we and our running friends would legitimately want to use ourselves.  So we took Socrates’ advice to heart and created RaceRaves.

Our vision for RaceRaves is a dynamic, race-centric community where runners can share honest opinions on their race-day experiences, for the benefit of other runners and race directors.  A place where all runners – road warriors, trail enthusiasts, triathletes, maximalism aficionados, barefoot loyalists and competitors of all sorts – can come together to discover their next race adventure, immortalize their race experiences (including those “excretory tract gone wild” horror stories that friends and family don’t seem to appreciate), and connect with other like-minded athletes and weekend warriors.

And by “all runners”, we mean ALL RUNNERS.  From the fresh-footed rookie who just notched their first half marathon, to the sure-footed ultrarunner with 50+ finishes and counting, to the itchy-footed adventurer who travels to run and runs to travel.  Whatever your story, don’t sell yourself short – other runners want to hear it.  Because your story may very well change someone else’s.

Signing up for a RaceRaves account is always free and easy, and enables you to rate and review races, create your My Staging Area page, interact with other members and respond to editorial content.

For bloggers, and as bloggers ourselves, we’ve incorporated the ability to share your more detailed blog reports alongside your reviews.  This provides a golden opportunity to:

  • Help your blog posts rise above the quagmire of Google search results
  • Expose your blog to a broader yet more focused audience of runners
  • Find like-minded bloggers (Hey, she also ran Chicago and Big Sur this year, I should check out her blog…).
RaceRaves - New York City Marathon race details page

The race details page for the New York City Marathon

A global database of running events
Unlike other race websites which tend to focus on a single distance, region or country, we’ve already built a diverse database containing well over 10,000 global running events.  We may or may not yet have your local 5K or 10K (though we’re happy to add it if you submit it!), but our more thorough coverage of half marathons, marathons and ultramarathons is certainly nothing to blow a snot rocket sneeze at.

The races in our database range from the top of the world to the bottom of the ocean.  And thanks to an eclectic cast of thoughtful beta ravers, RaceRaves is off to a fast start.  Recently on the same day, members reviewed the Marrakech International Marathon in Africa, the Ragnar Relay Napa Valley and Nanny Goat 24-Hour Ultra in California, and the Krispy Kreme Challenge in North Carolina.  It was a mini eureka moment, an early glimpse into the site’s potential value to all runners.

A diverse catalog of races demands a powerful search engine to find them.  No we’re not Google, but our Find a Race feature makes it easy to customize your search to discover new races – by distance, by terrain, any day, anywhere.  Try it yourself and let us know what you think!

RaceRaves - Find a Race search results page for 2014 marathons

The Find a Race feature in action

RaceRaves v1.0 features a robust, scalable platform with an intuitive interface, a host of core features and a global database of races.  That said, we’re committed to evolving and improving the site over time, with our sights set early next year on enabling runners to more easily find and connect with each other.  After all, there are no strangers here – only friends you haven’t yet met.

At the same time, with new running events popping up like Whac-A-Moles, we’ll continue to expand our global database of running and endurance events, including triathlons and adventure races.  And we have some other tricks up our compression sleeves in our ongoing quest to cultivate the best possible online race community, and a fun gathering place you’ll look forward to visiting again and again.

So welcome to RaceRaves!  Thanks for checking us out and for spreading the word far and wide, to every runner and triathlete you know.  If everyone reading this told 5 runner friends, and each of those 5 runner friends told 5 other runner friends, and so on… well, let’s just say we’d be mighty appreciative.  And speaking of appreciative, we owe a debt of gratitude to Matt LaRusso, Jen Lee, Chuck Sohaskey and Dan Solera for going above and beyond to help bring RaceRaves v1.0 to life.

As our tagline suggests, we’re here to help you run the world.  What happens on race day – well, we’d love to hear all about it.

See you at the finish!

Mike, Co-Founder, Chief Running Officer
Katie, Co-Founder, Chief Raving Officer

RaceRaves.com
Email: iwannarave AT raceraves DOT com
www.facebook.com/RaceRaves
@raceraves on Twitter
@raceraves_ig on Instagram

And one final screenshot, this one from our runner profile (My Staging Area) page with a few notations in red:

RaceRaves - Mike Sohaskey's My Staging Area page