|Czech running legend Emil Zátopek once said, “If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon.”
To that he might have added, “And if you want to experience the ultimate human race, run Comrades.”
A handful of races boast a singular cachet among runners. The Boston Marathon is one. So too is the Badwater Ultramarathon, the 135-mile rite of summer that starts and ends at the lowest and highest points in the continental U.S, respectively. Others on the list include Athens, New York City and the Western States 100.
But the Comrades Marathon, South Africa’s annual showcase of athletic endurance and national pride run between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, stands alone in both its accessibility for and enduring impact on the everyday runner.
Don’t let the name fool you: in both the literal & figurative sense, Comrades is much more than a marathon. Billed as “The Ultimate Human Race”, Comrades was first run in 1921 to honor South African soldiers killed in World War I. The race distance (90 km = 56 miles) is over twice that of a conventional marathon, and those who cross the finish line within the 12-hour time limit proclaim the journey a life-changing experience.
But whereas Boston and Badwater have strict qualifying standards (charity programs notwithstanding) that even when met don’t guarantee entry, Comrades requires only that applicants complete a standard marathon (42.2 km = 26.2 miles) within five hours, an 11:27/mile pace. All things considered, an attainable goal for most recreational runners.
To mark this Sunday’s 90th running, we celebrate the rich history and storied ubuntu of the Comrades Marathon by sharing two compelling reviews from RaceRaves members and Comrades veterans – one an American first-timer in his ultramarathon debut, the other a native South African who as a 12-time Comrades finisher earned a spot in the race’s Green Number Club Roll of Honour (details below). This is the ultimate human race, seen through the eyes of those who were there.
Two distinct voices, two unique perspectives, one clear consensus: no other race is like Comrades.
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To best explain Comrades, I feel that I have to first share a small history of the journey that led us there. Larissa and I had decided to run on all seven continents and were clicking them off at a rate of one continent per year. It had been relatively easy to pick out great races across the globe. Some we picked because there were other things we wanted to see and do nearby and some we picked because the race itself was spectacular. Africa, however, presented a bit of a problem. Based on the information that we had at the time, there were two great races in Africa: Comrades and Two Oceans. The problem, of course, was that both of these races were longer than 26.2 miles (at that time, the farthest either of us had run).
Comrades intrigued me because of the stories. Initially, I had only heard about Comrades by reading about it in Runner’s World many years earlier. The featured runner in that article did not finish and, if memory serves, had the unhappy fate of watching the finish line close when she was literally feet away. I remember being fascinated by the story and the fact that there was absolutely no tolerance for being even one second late. I also remember thinking, “Who are these people that run these long distances?” With some disappointment, I pencilled the Cairo Marathon into our Africa slot.
Fast forward to 2009 where we met, Robert and Julie, who would become our dear friends. They were from Australia and all of us were paired together to run the Petra Marathon in Jordan. At some point during this trip, the topic of seven continents came up and they asked if we were going to do Comrades. They had done it a couple years before and we listened on the edge of our seat as they talked about the race, the traditions, the distance, the people, and the training. Robert and Julie’s excitement could not be contained. They were the first people that we had ever met that had done Comrades, but as time went on, we met more people and – every single time – the stories were told with an excitement and a magic that could not be ignored. This event was clearly more than a race; if these people were any indication, it was a life changing experience.
A year later, we were in Bordeaux, France with Robert and Julie to run the Marathon du Médoc. They were pushing us to do Comrades, but we had decided that we were going to pick a race that was a shorter distance. On a bus ride on the last night of the trip, the speaker at the front of the bus was going on and on about how the Boston Marathon was the greatest race on earth. Bart Yasso (Chief Running Officer for Runner’s World) was also on the bus with us. Over the previous week (and since), I knew Bart to be somewhat soft-spoken making what he did, in my mind, more dramatic. He stood up, took the microphone from the speaker, and said, “I’m going to have to disagree with you. The Boston Marathon is a great race, but Comrades is, without a doubt, the greatest footrace on the planet.” Then he quietly sat back down. The bus was still and, at that moment, I knew we were going to Comrades.
When the longest run you have ever completed is 26.2 miles, the prospect of completing something more than twice as long is a little daunting. We researched training plans and began to prepare. (For brevity, I am leaving the training details out, but if you are interested, let me know. They worked well for us and many others that have used them. I am happy to share them.)
Five of us signed up to run the race together. Each of us completed a race within the qualifying time limits and the day of departure arrived. We flew from London to Johannesburg on South African Airways. The reason I bring this up is because this is where some of the magic began. In Africa, running Comrades is a big deal. Many people on the flight were either going to run the race or to support someone who was running. The pilot announced on the PA that one of the flight attendants had run Comrades several times and suggested that anyone who was interested should seek him out and talk to him. We did that and, once again, that now familiar magic and excitement filled the narrative of his story.
We got settled in Durban and, two days before the race, took a bus tour of the course. It lasted all day and lunch was served in the middle! The tour guide was from South Africa and he not only talked about the rich history of the race, but also dispensed many pieces of humorous and sagely advice. For instance, “Start (the race) slow – and then – go slower.” He told us about the sag wagons and the siren song they would sing to get you to drop out of the race (this is true, by the way, but more on this later). He also advocated that, even if we were feeling great after the race, we should go home and feign being sore for two or three weeks – just so that we would have an opportunity to tell anyone interested in our pain about Comrades.
While on the tour, we saw people camping out and claiming their spots in which they would spectate the race. This was two days prior! We stopped by many famous landmarks along the course, such as Arthur’s Seat. Arthur Newton won Comrades five times back in the 1920s (the race started in 1921). Tradition holds that runners who leave a flower on the seat will have a strong second half of the race. We also saw the Wall of Honor, located at the half way point of the course overlooking the Valley of 1000 Hills. (You know that any race that passes through through or near the “Valley of 1000 Hills” is going to be difficult.) Here, runners who have completed the race can purchase a plaque with their name and bib number to have placed on the wall. One of the highlights of the tour was a stop at the Ethembeni School for Handicapped Children. This facility sits right on the course route and is one of the charities that the Comrades Foundation supports. Visiting them prior to the race was moving, but seeing these same children cheering everyone on on race day was very emotional.
Our hotel was in Durban and, because we did a “down” year, we had to board the bus to the start line at about 1:30 in the morning on race day. The bus took us to Pietermaritzburg where we waited near our start corral for about an hour. I have heard the horror stories about hot, cold, and inclement weather during the race, but we could not have asked for better temperatures. It was a little cool while we were waiting at the start, but we were prepared. Indeed, each of the five of us were wearing sweatshirts, sweatpants, and gloves that we had brought specifically to discard during the race. During my entire running career (prior to Comrades), I have never discarded any clothing during a race. At Comrades, however, runners are encouraged to hand off unwanted clothing to spectators standing by the side of the road.
Throughout all of our training, the plan (for Larissa and I) had always been to complete the race in 11 hours and 20 minutes. One note about this: In the days leading up to the race, there were many people who told us that their goal was “just to finish the race.” Those people we talked to with that goal did not finish. I am a firm believer that you need to go into Comrades with a very definitive and well thought out plan. Comrades is a thinking man’s race. Be prepared.
The race starts at precisely 5:30 in the morning. A few minutes prior to the start, the South African anthem, “Shosholoza”, plays. It is awesome to hear 18,000 runners singing and knowing that all of you are all in the same position. Nothing is decided and no outcome is predetermined. This isn’t some marathon, this is something much, much bigger – not just in terms of distance and difficulty, but in terms of being a part of something that is so much bigger than yourself. After “Shosholoza”, the Chariots of Fire theme plays over the loudspeakers and you just get goosebumps thinking about the vast history of this race and enormity of what you are about to undertake. Next comes the famous rooster crow, started by a Comrades runner, Max Trimborn, in the late 1940s. Max repeated this call at the start of every Comrades for decades until his death. Today, he is still making the call via a recording played just prior to the gun going off.
Comrades is scored on gun time meaning, of course, that everyone’s time starts from the time the gun is fired. It took us eight minutes to reach the starting line, so we automatically “lost” eight minutes right from the start. As a group, we decided to literally walk off of the starting line. There were a couple of reasons we decided to do this. One, there were so many people clustered together and, two, we wanted to enjoy the start. I will tell you that it was so weird to be last across the finish and see the sweep cars right behind you just as you were getting started. We also wanted to stay together and it provided a way for each of us not to get sucked into all of the excitement and take off too fast.
The spectators are everywhere. During the whole length of the race, there are only a few times when spectators do not continuously line the road. This is impressive when you consider that it is truly a point to point race and there is no good way for spectators to leap frog down the course as they might in a normal race. As we started running, the first thing I noticed was the first mile marker. The race is delineated in kilometers and Comrades counts them down. So, the first marker you see says “89K to go”. This is not really encouraging as you are starting out as it reinforces that you have really gotten yourself into an all day commitment. I will say, however, that when we got close to the end of the race, it was super encouraging to see “5K to go, 4K to go,” and so on.
A lot of people have asked about support during the race and this is certainly something that we were concerned about. We did carry water bottles, but this race is so well supported that you do not need to bring anything with you. They serve water and Pepsi approximately every 2K. There are salted potatoes at certain points throughout the race that are to die for. (I’m not sure if this is because they were really good or my body just really needed them.) One note about the drinks – they are distributed in sachets. These are great because you can grab one or two and keep going. If you have never drank from these before, however, they can be quite challenging. Be patient. Once you get the hang of it, they are easy to use and drink from. Be careful for unopened ones that have been discarded on the course. When you step on them, they blow up and spray water or soda everywhere. If you are like me, you will do this exactly one time before you become more vigilant around the water stops.
During the course of the race, we talked to a lot of people. I am not necessarily an introvert during most races, but it seemed to me that people were much more willing to talk at Comrades. We talked to some people for as long as 30-45 minutes before breaking off. Take the opportunity to do this. We heard some great stories, got a lot of great advice, and met some really intriguing people. By the way, as an American, we were in the severe minority. Out of 18,000 plus runners, the UK and the US had the largest contingents of international runners with about 200 each. With the exception of South Africa, all other represented countries had fewer runners than the US and UK. One of my favorite comments during the race was with a Comrades green number veteran (more on number colors below). This particular old-timer had run 19 Comrades. Larissa asked him if he had completed all of them and he responded, “Well, not all of them, but the ones you don’t finish are like your uncle in jail: you love them, but you don’t talk about them.”
The race bibs are all color coded and are also clearly labeled with your country. When you have successfully completed 10 Comrades races, you are given a green number. Green numbers are retired when you achieve them, so when you get one, it’s yours for life. Yellow numbers are given to runners attempting their 10th completed race. Whenever you see a runner with a yellow number, you are instructed not to congratulate them, but instead to tell them “good luck” since it is not certain they will complete the race. These and other traditions are well known and other runners, seeing that you are not natives, have no hesitation telling you about them.
The five of us wore USA/Comrades singlets. I highly recommend doing something like this as it makes it easier for the spectators to determine where you are from. We got literally hundreds of well-wishing cheers from spectators shouting things like, “Go, USA!” and “Welcome to our country!” and “We love USA!” Without a doubt, more people cheered for me specifically than in any other race I have ever run. It was uplifting and emotional all at the same time.
Comrades isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Remember the siren song of the sag wagons we were warned about? I honestly thought our guide was joking, but he wasn’t. These vans would drive very slowly next to you and goad you to get on. More than once, a van pulled alongside me and said, “You don’t look so good. You should get in the van.” For the record (and I have photos to prove it), I felt great. Others, however, were not so lucky. We saw men and women in great physical shape sitting in the vans, some sobbing with their heads in their hands. When you get on the wagon, the first thing they do is draw a big black line through your number to prevent you from joining the race again.
Cutoffs are another way to thin the herd. There are five cutoffs during the race before you reach the stadium and the finish. These cutoffs are all based on time and there are no exceptions. Either you reach the cutoff before the time or you are out of the race. Period. This isn’t T-Ball. Not everyone is a winner. While this may seem harsh to those of us that have done races where the finish line doesn’t close until the last person crosses, this is part of what I think makes the race great.
We had a little drama in our race and were forced to leave one of our runners behind or risk not finishing in time. Now only four in number, we continued to the stadium and completed the race. When you enter the stadium, it is hard to explain the feeling. There are people everywhere and the spectators are cheering loudly. You literally come through a chute, running on the grass, as you make your way to the finish. When you cross the finish line, the race director himself shakes your hand and places the medal over your head (something I personally think should happen at every race, but I digress). This is a great honor and you just cannot comprehend that you actually completed the race. There is so much activity and so many things going through your head that it is truly overwhelming. We took some pictures and then made our way to the international tent.
Backing up a little bit, the second to last cutoff in the race (the finish line being the final one) is at the entrance to the stadium. The stadium doors are closed precisely at 11 hours and 58 minutes. If you are not inside by the time they are closed, you are not going to finish. Even if you beat the stadium doors closing, there are people inside that will not be able to reach the finish line in those two short minutes. This is perhaps the most heart-wrenching thing to watch. At precisely 5:30 p.m. (exactly 12 hours after the starting gun was fired), the finish line is closed. We watched as one runner came through with literally one second to spare. There was an Asian lady right behind him (and I mean one or two steps behind him) that did not finish. The race officials put out their arms and hands and literally caught the female runner as she sprawled into the finish line, not allowing her to cross the finish. I cannot imagine completing all 56 miles and missing the cutoff by one second. On a happy note, the runner we left behind pulled it together and managed to finish with about two minutes to spare, but that is a story for another time.
I believe that, if you train properly, Comrades is achievable for “average” runners. Unlike marathons and shorter races, this is not a race that you can just show up for or do a couple of long runs in the weeks prior. You have to train and you have to have a plan. If you neglect one or both of these things, there is a very high likelihood you will not be successful.
I have run more than 200 different races and on all seven continents. At the end of the day, I have to agree with Bart Yasso. Comrades is unquestionably the greatest running event on earth. To this day, it is something that I am extremely proud of completing and I feel a special camaraderie with those friends that I ran it with. We did something truly incredible on that day. If you are a runner, you owe it to yourself to have this experience. This race will quite literally change your life.
It’s been called many things but never ‘easy’. And yet the Comrades Marathon is not beyond the reach of the average ‘weekend warrior’. Unlike the Tour de France and similar elite professional races that are unavailable to anybody but a tiny (normally male only) minority at the very top of their sport, ‘Comrades’ is about so much more than just elite athletes.
If you consider the race’s origins (and it’s all there at www.comrades.com under the ‘History’ tab) they lie in honouring the sacrifice, endurance and fortitude of those ‘comrades in arms’ who fell in The Great War from 1914 to 1918. The race’s founder, Vic Clapham, wanted to establish a challenge that would be suitably tough so as not to trivialise the memory of those that paid such a high price for our freedom, yet remain possible to complete successfully. So he devised a footrace of almost 90km (that’s about 56 miles for the non-metrics among us!) run alternately each year between the coastal town of Durban and the provincial capital Pietermaritzburg in the Kwa-Zulu Natal province of South Africa. Because ‘Maritzburg as the locals call it, sits about 1,000m above sea level, the alternating directions are referred to as the “Up Run” and the “Down Run”. This is but one of the idiosyncrasies that makes Comrades the greatest footrace in the world. I say that unbiasedly and unashamedly. Running legend turned running writer Amby Burfoot agrees and wrote a superb article in Runner’s World on why that is so.
The Up and Down Comrades are two very different yet similar races. At 90kg (202 pounds) I can assure you that I go down hills much faster and easier than I do up them; but I’ll take the Up Run any day! This is due to the second of the great Comrades traditions – the Big Five registered hills on the Comrades route. They are all named and just the sound of ‘Inchanga’ should terrify you! Have a look at the route profile to see what I mean! Comrades has five major hills (but don’t be fooled, there are many more besides those five!) and four of the five are in one half of the race, either the first half or the second half depending on whether it’s Up or Down that particular year. Believe me, your quadriceps and calves are screaming at you in the last quarter of the Down and that is where any Comrades Down Run is won or lost – between Field’s Hill and the Finish. Some have said that if you take any 42km stretch of the Comrades route you’ll have the toughest marathon in South Africa. Well, you‘ve got to run two marathons on Comrades race day and then you’re not there yet! Still about 5 kays to go…
To me though the greatest of all Comrades traditions is its ‘gun-to-gun’ timing. Although modern-day Comrades runners run with timing chips affixed to their shoes, their official race time starts when the starter’s gun (actually it’s a cannon!) goes off and not when you cross the timing mat at the Start line; and it finishes when you cross the Finish line (obviously) with no adjustment made for your time across the Start. And that can take just over eight minutes if you start in H Batch at the back of the field! Making this beautiful tradition so dramatic are the various medal cut-off time guns that are fired by an official on the Finish line – the final 12-hour cut-off gun being the most gut-wrenching! Comrades cut-off is one of the most-watched pieces of live television annually in South Africa, as everyone tunes in shortly before 5:30 in the evening to see it. Once that gun is fired, marshals pull a tape across the Finish and the course is closed. There are many who run for just over 12 hours and go home with nothing! I personally ran 9:00:11 in 2003 and missed my Bill Rowan medal (half-bronze-half-silver) by 12 seconds and I watched that puff of smoke a mere six or seven meters from me in abject horror! I can only imagine how dreadful that must be for the poor souls who are ‘cut off’ at that final 12-hour gun. We’ve seen runners crawling on all-fours, cramping, vomiting and being carried by fellow comrades in those final few, agonising minutes before the final cut-off gun sounds the death-knell for another year. But Vic Clapham said it: we cannot trivialise Comrades and this tradition can never be changed, otherwise it won’t be ‘Comrades’!
Medals are another quirky Comrades thing – there are six of them, awarded as follows: Gold to the first ten men and women, the Wally Hayward medal (named after Comrades legend, race patriarch and five-time winner) to all runners between 11th place and 5:59:59, Silver between 6:00 and 7:29:59, the Bill Rowan medal (named after the first winner of Comrades in 1921 who won in a time of 8:59) from 7:30 to 8:59:59 (see my tale of woe above!), Bronze between 9:00 and 10:59:59 and finally the Vic Clapham medal named after the race’s founder, to those finishing in that last hour before the 12-hour cut-off. Illustrating the race’s availability to the average runner while still presenting a daunting challenge, is the fact that over half the field of anything from 16 to 23,000 runners will finish in that last hour and a half!
The last tradition that I’ll mention here is the Comrades permanent number or ‘Green Number’. If you are a Comrades Green Number, that number is yours for life. The Comrades Marathon Association retire that race number once you qualify for ‘Green’ and only you can ever run in it again, although I believe it’s possible to bequeath it to an heir in your last will and testament – it’s that special! There are three ways to earn a Green Number: win the race three times, win five Gold medals or complete ten Comrades under 12 hours. The last option is obviously the ‘easiest’(!) way for the average runner and Green Numbers are a special breed. Put that on your résumé and prospective employers will know you can pretty much stay any distance!
There is so much more to tell about Comrades, an incredible day spent in extraordinarily beautiful surroundings with massive crowd support all day long, 12 hours plus of live TV broadcasting and so much more drama and passion, but at the end of the day the only way you’ll know why it’s indeed the ‘Ultimate Human Race’ is to get down to the Zulu Kingdom and see for yourself. It’s difficult to call yourself a runner until you have done that…
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