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


  1. What an amazing race! Great job - I wish I could desire to run that far.

  2. Looks like a pretty awesome experience! Congrats!

  3. Wow. What an amazing experience.

  4. What an awesome experience. Thanks for sharing!! I think I'll pass on the 56 mile though. I'd rather sprint with (from?) the lion :-)

  5. What an amazing experience that had to be. Thanks so much for sharing that video of you finish. that has to be a memory that will remain with you forever. Rest up and congratulations!

  6. Wow, Scott, what a cool adventure!

  7. How incredible, Scott! I hope to travel there someday myself.

  8. Great work on the video and pics (and of course the race!) I've run the race the past two years and did a lousy job of capturing decent memories of the run. That picture of the runners snaking towards halfway at Drummond and the finishing stretch video were especially cool.

  9. couldn't wait to read about your experience. way to go scott!

  10. One word to describe this.... UNBELIEVABLE. Believe it or not, I got plenty of goose bumps from reading, watching the video and analyzing on the map. My favorite part is the one where you have made contact with children who have different kind of disabilities. I was moved !!! It sounds like an AMAZING experience - a once in a lifetime thing! Thanks for sharing.

  11. I remember watching this race on TV when I was a kid and thinking wow!

    I watched your videos and just felt amazed. Awesome effort and what a fantastic experience.

    Looking at the route on Google Earth I'm thinking hell no however! That is one seriously long distance.

  12. Fantastic, epic journey of self discovery, WELL DONE!!!

  13. Pretty darn cool, pretty darn cool. What a great thing to be able to take part in.

  14. Congrats. Comrades sounds like an amazing race. Hope to make it there in the next few years.

  15. Great photos and report. I felt like I was there with you. What a wonderful experience for you and Megan. Keep running and never stop traveling...

  16. Wow, Congratuations! I think Comrades should definitely be on my list...

  17. What a wonderful trip and what a wonderful performance. Very beautiful pictures. Congratulations.

  18. I'm entered to run my first Comrades this year. I live in Durban, South Africa so I've seen the race run every year but it's a whole new ball game when I'm the one running it. Thanks for posting your pics and videos, they are an inspiration and great mental preparation.

  19. SAMUEL REDDY5/4/10, 10:37 AM

    Great to see your passion for the Comrades Marathon. I enjoyed all your pictures. I am from Phoenix, Durban, South Africa and have finished the Comrades Marathon as well. Miss it now that I am away from the Country, but trusting God that I could run the 2011 Comrades. If you ever come to India visit Bangalore. God Bless from Samuel & Devi Reddy

    Phone: + 91 - 80 2543 1900
    + 91 - 988 670 3800

    Email : samreddy2004@yahoo.com

    Skype : Sam.Reddy1


  20. Howzit Scott, I have been priviledged to have run a few comrades, and it really is a spiritual experience. You do realise though, that now that you have done the down run, you will have to return one day to do the up run. Completely different race, but just as fulfilling. To top it all off, you will also be presented with a back to back meddle, meaning that you will have completed the up and down runs. Good luck and take care.