02 June 2009

Comrades Marathon

More than two years ago, fresh off my first ever race, a 12k, I was still soaring on a runner's high when a co-worker handed me a recent edition of Runner's World and pointed me to an article about a famous ultramarathon in Africa. I still remember how excited I was when I said to myself, "I will run the Comrades Marathon someday."

What a journey it has been.

After a 33-hour trip, my sister, Megan, and I spent a few days exploring Durban and the surrounding areas. Travel is in my blood and I can't think of many things better than being a foreigner, testing my comfort levels, and experiencing the things that make people and cultures unique.

The race expo was huge and lasted three days. 13,000 runners registered for this year's race. 20,000 are expected next year. It is a national event with live TV coverage of the entire race. If I mentioned Comrades to anyone I met they looked at me with a kind of reverie. I felt honored to be a part of it days before the race even began. I'm sure there is no other ultra like it in the world.

This year was a "down" run, from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, 89 km/56 miles away. And then it alternates each year to an "up" run, from Durban back up to Pietermaritzburg (although next year it will be down again as part of Durban's hosting of World Cup matches.)

A 5:30 a.m. race start meant I needed to be in line for the shuttle bus at 3:00 a.m., along with thousands of others and what seemed like 50 buses. My bus arrived to the start at 4:00 a.m. and the scene was already festive.

This was at 4 a.m. They didn't stop
until well after 5. There was so much
electricity in the crowd before the start.

For an hour and a half there was dancing and singing and music and DJ's and hugs and laughter. Nothing like the quiet, relaxed, calm-before-the-storm, pre-race atmospheres I've experienced in all my other races - especially early morning ultras.

It's fall in South Africa and the sun was still a long way from rising when the gun went off to start the 12-hour clock. Though everyone had chips to check in at various cut-off mats along the route and to get their official finish time, this race is a "gun" race. When the gun goes off, even the lowest seeding starters, who were several blocks and maybe 10 minutes from crossing the starting line, had 12 hours to finish.

Starting area

The course takes runners through The Valley of a Thousand Hills and from the very beginning it was clear we were meant to hit every one of those thousand. I've never climbed so much for a "down" run. My Garmin stats showed over 10,000 ft of climbing and 12,000 feet of descent.

There's nothing like watching
the sun rise while on a run

There were several times during the race when I was on the verge of tears because I was so happy to have the opportunity to be there, to be healthy enough to run, and to be privileged enough to travel. At one point the course went by a school or clinic for physically disabled children. Dozens of these kids were along the side of the rode with their hands extended in hopes of contact with any of the runners. Many were in wheelchairs, some had deformities in their hands and arms, but they all had a hand raised. I slowed down to extend my hand to each of them and to see the smiles on their faces made me feel like a hero. I'll never forget those few moments.


Highest point on the course -
they said it was all "downhill" from there...
yeah right.

In the crowd

My race bib indicated I was an international runner and that I had never completed a Comrades before. So many other runners came up to me and greeted me and wished me luck and welcomed me to their country. The camaraderie on the course was wonderful.

"Arthur's Seat"
Memorial to famous Comrades runner
who used to stop here to smoke his pipe
before heading out for the second half

Feeling good!

I won't go into much detail about my actually race, because that was not as important to me as just soaking in the entire experience. I felt good for most of the race but hit a slow point from about mile 40-46. I walked quite a bit during this, seemingly, extra-hilly section. It was about then I went through a section of some town where the crowd support was simply amazing. People not only came out to watch but they brought food and water and ice and anything else that they thought might help out a few runners. The course aid stations were stocked well with water and sport drinks, but most of the food came from fan support. Spectator support was unmatched compared to anything else I've done. Through this particular section I felt my spirits being lifted and I took hold of my second wind. I captured part of this section on video:

Have I mentioned the hills?

Valley of a Thousand Hills

If you look closely you can see the
road full of runners snaking into the distance

Some of the hills even have names

Almost to the end

Ever wonder what it feels like to finish an Olympic marathon with a lap around stadium? That's what the finish to Comrades felt like.

About to enter stadium

I knew the race would finish in the stadium, but when I actually entered the stadium I felt like I was completing the most important race in the world. Of course, I was tired and probably a bit delirious at this point, but I did feel like an Olympian for a minute. Here's a video of the finish from my point of view:

Crossing the finish line
while taking the video above.

If you didn't see it in my last post, here are is my final result. Out of nearly 13,000 starters, I finished in 5,770th place.

Crowd dwindles post-race

For those who enjoy playing with Google Earth, check out the route here.

If you have an itch for travel and marathons, Comrades should be on your list.

Finally, I'll leave you with a few non-race pics from my trip.

Keep running!


Me and my sister, Megan, in London
for a day on our way to Africa

Tower Bridge, London

Exploring an alley in Durban, South Africa

People watching in Durban

Victoria Market, Durban

Heading into the bush on a
game viewing safari, Zululand

Lion in the grass
(a bit too close for comfort)

Me and a new friend