Comrades Marathon: A 2017 Race Report

The Comrades Marathon is one of the best known races in the world - we asked Run With Me Johannesburg tour guide Jono Booth to give us a run down on a Comrades experience. Here is a throwback blog post, to his 2017 Race Report.

- - -

It’s been 8 days since the 92nd running of the Comrades Marathon – the world’s largest ultra-marathon covering 87km between the South African cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg – and now that the legs and mind are recovered, it seems like a good time to look back on the experience. Already the memories of pain are giving way to the many highs this race provides one with. Where a week ago I swore never to do the race again, now I’m starting to think it was worth it. This is how it happens every year.   

It can be difficult to understand why anyone chooses to run the Comrades, never mind come back to do it year after year, as many do. However, for the most part, I’m certain that it is the intensity of the highs and lows that the race provides which become addictive. If you’re reading this, you can probably relate to the highs and lows of a half or full marathon. Comrades is that on steroids.

The stage for what is to come is set on the start line, this year in Durban (the start/finish alternate between Durban and Pietermaritzburg). In the minutes leading up to the starters gun, the 17,031 starters sing the national anthem and then Shosholoza (South Africa’s equivalent of a Bread of Heaven, or Swing Low Sweet Chariot), before falling silent to the stirring notes of Chariots of Fire, contemplating what lies ahead (see the youtube links at the end of the article for some start line footage). This is how every Comrades starts. It is an intense build up and few dry eyes remain when it is over.

The Comrades can be broken up into three sections. The first is the entire first half which, with three of the named Big Five climbs, and many unnamed climbs, is technically the hardest half. However, the high spirits from the start line buzz, a densely packed field, the thousands of supporters lining the suburban streets, and cheery conversations with random runners from all walks of life, all help to push one along. With enough training miles under the belt, and some tactical walking on the big hills, half way should arrive with one in relatively high spirits.

The second section is from halfway to the top of Polly Shorts Hill, 37km and an altogether different beast from the first half. It’s amazing how quickly ‘fresh’ can turn into ‘buggered’, and, for me, this has always happened on the Big Five climb of Inchanga that rises straight up from the halfway line. After Inchanga the gradient eases off somewhat, however having moved away from Durban’s outer suburbs, the crowd support thins and one is left trudging along through the midday heat with the finish line still a distant prospect.  

The race splits for this section will show you that almost without fail it is here that the slowest kilometers are run for the entire field; I find it the toughest section by far. With 9km to go, Polly Shorts, the last of the Big Five climbs, eventually brings an end to the suffering one has faced since the halfway mark. It can be comfortably walked up, and from the top one can almost see the finish line. 

The 7km of mostly downhill from the top of Polly Shorts to the finish line marks the third section of the Comrades. Adrenaline kicks in, cramping muscles and aching joints are forgotten, and the amazing supporters once again help to lift the spirits. Even the grass track finishing now seems easy. It’s incredible what one’s body is capable of.

IMG_1327.jpg

Comrades is as much a mental challenge as a physical one. There is no place for bravado, however neither is there for meekness. Finishing requires restraint when one is feeling good, and the ability to motivate from within and push through the many low patches one goes through. It’s as if you’re steering between crash barriers, too far left or right marks danger. This year only 13,852 of the 17,031 starters crossed the finish line within the 12-hour cut off time. That’s a 19% dropout rate. This is not an easy race.  

In 2016 the Comrades slogan was ‘Izokuthoba’ meaning ‘It will humble you’, and this year it was ‘Zinikele’, meaning ‘It takes all of you’ – these two Zulu phrases say it all.

Jono Booth