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Saturday, June 14, 2008

The "Real" Comrades Marathon

The "Real" Comrades Marathon: A "human race" and a lesson in survivorship

Yesterday we did a post previewing the elite men's race in tomorrow's Comrades Ultra-Marathon, an 87km haul from Durban in Pietermaritzburg. And while the elite men and women will garner most of the media attention and focus on race day, they represent only a very tiny, perhaps "insignificant" part of what the Comrades is really all about. So I thought that today, I'd do a more "human"-aspect preview of the race, and for that I'll borrow a section from a post I did a full year ago, just after the race (back then, I think only our friends and families were reading the site (under duress, sometimes), so I'm going to get away with a partial "re-run" for today!)

History of the race - a tribute to war heroes

he Comrades Marathon was first run in 1921 to commemorate South African soldiers killed during World War I - the brainchild of Victor Clapham (after whom the "copper" medal for a finish time between 11 and 12 hours is now named). The race was therefore dedicated to war heroes, which lends a certain irony to the statement made to me last year by a research scientist from Austria who was at Comrades in the medical tent working with us on a study.

Our medical passes got us into the medical tent and the final finish chute, where the runners receive their medals and then grab a Coke or Energade or leave for home/hotels. I'm sure TV shows this just as well, but the attrition in that finish chute is something to behold, as is the drama that builds progressively in the medical tent, where, by about 10 hours, beds are in short supply! If I dropped you into the middle of the chute and medical area, you'd wonder why all the "soldiers" were wearing running clothing!

His words were (read in your best German accent) "Zis race is more the survival, no? People are training for 4 hours a week, zis is impossible in Austria!" He was absolutely amazed at how many people (11,000 tomorrow) run an event so long and arduous on what he perceived to be so little training. Apparently (I'll take his word for it) in Austria, few people even do exericse without a proper plan and approach to it - apparently, six hours a week of training is about the average for a marathon runner in Austria (he did research on this, so I'll believe him!) Welcome to the Comrades Marathon!

The race is certainly a test of survival - 12 hours on your feet, for those who finish at the back, is no mean feat. And those who will watch the race on TV tomorrow (I'm not sure if there is an international broadcast) will probably find the last hour the most riveting, for the fact that people are streaming across the line - probably half the field finish in the final 10% of the available time.

And yes, some of them are very undertrained. There are of course many (a majority, in fact) who prepare really well, and run the Comrades strong, doing more than simply surviving. But in South Africa, it's not unheard of for a runner to do three marathons a year - one to qualify for the race (you have to complete a marathon to enter the race), and then two more marathons on race day, when they run a back-to-back marathon, with 5km easy to finish! And often, that's about the extent of the running they do. I can list at least five runners who probably do a TOTAL of 60km of training for the race, between January and June! They then double their yearly distance in 11 hours between Durban and Pietermaritzburg!

Yet they make it, through a combination of considered walking and mental stubborness. I wouldn't advise it, but it's part of the race and its unique spirit.

That spirit is perhaps best demonstrated by the examples of three runners I met last year while working in the medical tent. All finished the race, all ended up needing medical treatment. Their stories are below (this is the part adapted from last year's post, incidentally!)

The racer: Reduced to 30 min/km by the race

The first is an experienced marathon runner from England, with a fast 2:36 to his credit. He finished the race in 7:09, and so was one of the faster runners. But I kid you not, there is a walk of about 200 m from the finish line to the medical tent where we were stationed. I met him at the line, and we started walking at 13h04 and arrived, 200 m later, at 13h29 - 25 minutes to walk 200 m. And every time he took a step, he groaned, mutter unprintables under his breath, and then soldiered on. Fifteen minutes earlier, he was running at 5 minutes per km to get his silver medal.

Absolutely remarkable how his brain just shut everything down the moment the goal had been achieved! And if you thought a wounded "Comrade" would get some sympathy along the way - think again, every single person we walked passed on the way to the tent chuckled at him and made jokes about his pain! To his credit, 30 minutes in the medical tent, a cold beer, a massage and he was talking about trying the "Up-run" in 2008, and so I expect he'll be running again tomorrow!

The persistent survivor - back for more

The second was a guy who finished in about 10 hours. He came to the medical tent for treatment though, because he had severe cramp in just about every muscle - in fact, he was bandaged up around both quads and both calves! I ask him how the race was and he says it went according to plan. I say it looks as though he had a tough day, and his reply is that this happens every year! He has run 8 Comrades and EVERY single year, he ends up in the medical tent with massive cramps! He says he'll be back for sure next year! Imagine standing on the start line knowing with almost 100% certainty that in about 10 hours, you won't be able to stand properly and you'll end up in a medical tent in complete agony - that's a Comrades runner.

The legendary blow - pacing gone wrong, but Comrades runners hang in

Finally, met a guy who got to Drummond in 4:10, on course to run well under 9 hours and claim a Bill Rowan medal (for a sub 9 hour clocking). But then the wheels came off...he ran the second half in 7:30 and he finished just under the overall cutoff of 12 hours! His expected "end-point" moved further and further away, and he must have felt that he was walking/jogging towards a mirage, the finish line became like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow!

It was only his second run over 21 km - he qualified on Loskop and then ran Comrades! Only in SA! But what an amazing guy, tremendously positive and optimistic, disappointed of course, but seemed ready to go again soon after leaving. I'm sure he'll be back. He too was the epitome of a Comrades runner - they all finish in some pain, very few tell you they had a good run, and many swear never to come back, yet they all do, year after year, for more of the same.

10,997 more stories will be written tomorrow

That's just three stories from 2007's race. You can be sure that another 11,000 will be written tomorrow, some good, some bad. If you are one of those runners, and you happen to read this post before, good luck! Remember, slow and steady, and if you think you're running the right speed at halfway, slow down! You can ruin your day with aggressive pacing!

For those reading it afterwards, congratulations, I trust your legs have forgiven you!

Our race report is next, after the race tomorrow! Join us then!



Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing these stories. Definitely very inspiring. Some of them sound scary (the ones running without training).

Check out the Pikes Peak marathon and ascent here in the US (Colorado). This is probably the toughest marathon that I've heard off - with about 8000 ft (2440 m) climbing (and an equal amount of descent). You start at an elevation of about 6300' (1940 m) and climb up a peak 14115 ft (6300 m).

All the best to those participating.