It was an honor for me to be asked to give the annual Comrades speech at the Bedfordview Athletics Club yesterday. I thought I’d share it with the greater Comrades running community. (Please excuse spelling, gramma, etc, I haven’t had a chance to edit.)
One of the most amazing things about visiting America is seeing the many incredible memorials which have been erected in memory of those who served and lost their lives in the many wars in which the US have been involved, including world war 1 and 2.
In Washington DC there is a massive world war memorial with a huge fountain area in the middle surrounded by 52 pillars representing the 52 states and the names of all the veterans edged into the marble stones making up the memorial. It’s impressive to see the way in which the Americans honour those who fought for their country.
But in South Africa we do things a little differently. In South Africa we come up with ways to honour those who fought and died for us a little differently. On this day 24th May 1921, exactly 94 years ago, in what has become the greatest war memorial in all the world, 34 men set out to run from Pietermaritzburg to Durban in the first ever Comrades marathon. There was no next year’s race, there was no I’ll skip this year and the up run next year. Vic Clapham had been granted this single one time never to be repeated opportunity, to put on the event known as the Comrades Marathon.
He took the opportunity with both hand and as such in 7 days’ time you will be running the 90th Comrades marathon finding yourself 2.5hours into the race somewhere between Hilcrest and Kersney College depending on your pace. All because of the dream and efforts of one man, Vic Clapham, to see those who had lost their lives remembered in the most remarkable way and see that dream become a reality.
Just as a matter interest and particularly for the Comrades veterans among, many people see the official Comrades cut-off as 11 hours and the 12 hour cut-off as a mere consolation prize. But, that is in fact not the case. Historically, right in the beginning Comrades was always a 12 hour race.
While seeing war memorials in America was fun and all, I did in fact not go over to America to see the war memorials. I went over to take part in and run the world’s oldest annual marathon, the Boston Marathon.
Arriving at my accommodation with a lady called Laurel and her flat mate Silvi I felt like a total celebrity. They couldn’t believe that they had someone running the full marathon staying with them. It was fantastic! On the Saturday before the race Laurel had an open-house in an attempt to sell her property and I remained upstairs staying off my feet for the day, reading. Every person who came through those doors was told the same story, “My Airbnb guest is upstairs, he’s running the marathon on Monday.”
It’s was craziest thing. And of course trying to explain to them that in South Africa we have this thing called Comrades, in which you run 2 marathons in a row followed by a 5km time trial simply blew their minds. Over there, someone running a marathon is a hero, like The Flash, or Arrow or something. Trying to explain to them that in South Africa we run a marathon every second weekend and sometimes every weekend in training for Comrades, leaves you looking at a face starring back at you with the look that kind a says, “sure 3rd world man, tell me another story.”
Now in this country we can tend to get a little arrogant given the likes of the big races we pull off and when we start throwing phrases around like, “world’s most beautiful race” or “the Ultimate Human race” it’s a little hard to believe when there are many amazingly beautiful races around the world and some incredibly tough races.
But the truth is that there is nothing like Comrades anywhere else in the world. There are a few massive running events in the world. In fact in the list of biggest participants ever Comrades only ranks 59th with 20000 finishes in 2010. In the Phillippines there’s a 10km, 5km and 3km event which has hit 209000 participants, Hong Kong marathon 73000, New York marathon 50000, Grete Waitz 5km 48000, Boston 35000 and so the list goes on.
But nowhere else in the world, do you find over 20000 people entering and around 170000 toeing the start line in a 90km race on tar over some 42km’s of uphill (most of which is covered in the first half), in temperatures of around 30-35degress with 60-80% humidity. It is a truly amazing experience and it is an incredible journey.
So, with less than 7 days to the start of the 90th Comrades I want to leave you with a few thoughts that will hopefully keep you sane as D day approaches.
Keep things in perspective
In following social media and giving a few Comrades tips and talks over the last couple of weeks, it amazes me at how runners completely lose their minds when it comes to Comrades. Mention the word “pacing” for example and you’ll see every runner in the room going for their pen and paper as they wait with eager anticipation for the magic formula which will guarantee their finish time or medal. Of course they’re extremely disappointed when they realise they have to actually run the 90k’s for their goal to be achieved and that there’s no magic wand or magic carpet.
While we’re on pacing. Comrades is not a race that can be reduced to simply mins and seconds per km. It is a race that has to be run on feel.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not for one minute saying that you go into Comrades unprepared, you have to do your homework, you have to have a plan. But you also have to run by feel. If I took anyone of you right now and said, “right, I want you to run a marathon and I want you to finish the marathon around 3h30, or 4h00 or 5h00”, I have no doubt that every one of you will finish that marathon there or there about. No pacing charts, no splits, you simply know on feel what a 4h00 or 5h00, etc, marathon feels like.
Why is Comrades any different? Why do we lose our minds suddenly when it comes to pacing and planning for Comrades? So have an idea of what you need to come through 44km’s in, be that 3h20-3h30 or 4h00-4h10 or 5h50-6h00 and then simply go and run the equivalent marathon. The splits and estimates you work out along the way are there as guidelines to ensure you’re not too far out either way of where you want to be.
Keep things in perspective.
It’s only 90km’s! In many other countries an ultra distance is only considered an ultra from 100km’s and up. This is only 90km’s. Yes, it’s a little tougher than a nice flat Vaal marathon or Amsterdam or a Boston with 4 little bumps, but look on the bright side, it’s not Spartathlon where you cover 250km’s in a single stage event and ascend and descend 2 mountain ranges, the second one of which takes place in the dark.
It’s also not the Bad Water ultra which starts in Death Valley in California below sea level and finishes 217km’s later at an elevation of 2548m above sea level in the most gruelling of weather conditions where temperatures are commonly measured at 49 degrees Celsius, in the shade. When running Death Valley you are advised to run on the white lines painted on the road which are a little cooler than running on the black tar which often ends up melting your shoes.
Comrades is only 88km’s and you’re done. Every year there is group of primary school kids which walk a large portion of the Comrades route for charity, with NO training what so ever. They simply get up and go and they all finish it. Now I’m really hoping that there’s no one here who plans on taking on Comrades with no training whatsoever. Although people running Comrades or attempting to run Comrades are known for not being the sharpest tools in the shed! As a guy by the name of Alan Cabelly puts it “Any idiot can run a marathon. It takes a special kind of idiot to run an ultramarathon.” or in your case 2 back to back marathons.
I’m sure that in all your cases, you are more than prepared for this race. You have been committed to training over the last 6 months, you’ve been up at some ridiculous hour every Wed morning to run your mid-week long run at 4h30 in the morning. When do you people sleep?
I’m also pretty sure that there are very few sitting here who can say it’s been smooth sailing all the way, you’ve had to overcome various obstacles in your training, be it work pressures, injury or family commitments, etc.
You have overcome many obstacles in your training over the last 6 months and you are more than ready to face, take-on and overcome whatever obstacles race day may have in store for you next Sunday.
Keep things in perspective, you are more than prepared for the small task of 88km’s ahead.
Secondly, be prepared to hurt!
There’s a quote which goes along the line of, “If you start to feel good during an Ultra, don’t worry – you’ll get over it.”
If you line up at the start of Comrades thinking that you’re simply going to sail through the day feeling like you did in your last long run, you’re in for a rude awaking. You are going to hurt.
Some of you will hurt more than others, some of you will hurt more than you’ve ever hurt in your entire life. And as you continue to make your way through the sections of Cato Ridge, Camperdown, Lion Park and Polly Shortts Comrades will ask you some difficult questions. Questions like, “What the hell where you thinking? Why are you doing this? Why did you sign that damn serviette?”, “Is that medal really that important?”, “Why don’t you just bail and try again next year?”
You must be able to answer the questions thrown at you. You must be prepared to hurt a little more for a little longer and you must always remember, that as soon as you cross that finish line the pain stops.
No matter what happens, no matter how sore you are or how much you hurt, keep going, keep moving forward, you will get there, you will overcome.
And then thirdly, and this is specifically for the novices among but of course for all of us.
Once you’ve pushed through the pain, once taken ownership of your mind and overcome the obstacles you will face during the race and crossed that finish line in Pietermartizburg victorious in your incredible achievement, your life will never be the same again. It cannot be the same again, you will now be an inspiration.
There will be thousands who watch the Comrades marathon through the course of next Sunday. Some will be out along the side of the route cheering and clapping and encouraging you to carry on. Some will be going about their usual Sunday business busy watching an app for status updates on where you are. Some will sitting on their couch in their lounge with beer in one hand and a packet of chips in the other watching as 17000 of you make your way to Pietermaritzburg.
You need to understand one very important thing. You will come away from Comrades an inspiration to others. It’s exciting to watch the race leaders and to see who wins the race. It’s exciting to see the top athletes competing across such a gruelling race, but it’s you who will change others.
On Mon morning there will be people who get up despite the winter chill and set out for their very first run ever around the block, because of you. There will be those who turn around and say to anyone listening, “I want to run Comrades next year”, because of you. There will be those who are facing struggles and hardships in their life at this very moment who find encouragement to keep pushing and to keep fighting simply because they watched you do exactly that at Comrades.
You will no longer just be Jill at the office, or just Mark at church or just Megan at the braai, you be known as a Comrades runner. As one who took on and conquered this gruelling race. You will be an inspiration to those around you.
Good luck to each and every one of you, especially the novices as you take on this mighty, symbolic and epic journey, may there be a slight tail wind in the tougher sections behind you, may there be a cloud sheltering your head when the sun is at its peak and may your feet feel light and fast up Polly Shortts and if none of the above seems to be going your way, may you learn to HARDEN the HELL UP!!!
But seriously. In closing I wanted to leave you something motivational, something you could remember as you’re dragging yourself up Inchanga and cursing your way up Polly Shortts feeling completely powerless. Whenever you have moments or doubts or question how powerful you are during Comrades, always remember, that with just one, of your small, pubic hairs…. you can shut a restaurant down! Now that’s powerful!
* The closing joke is not mine, I found it on a “marathon jokes” website.