By Joe Church
June 22, 2016
Marathons are 26.2 miles, right? Well, usually but not always. There are two "marathons" in South Africa that call themselves marathons, but we would call them ultra-marathons. Two Oceans Marathon is considered to be one of the most beautiful marathons in the world. It is approximately 34 miles long. The other is the Comrades Marathon, which is 56 miles. The Comrades Marathon began in 1921. It had been proposed by a veteran of World War I in order to honor and support the dead and wounded.
Like Boston, runners worldwide know it by a single name. You don't say "I ran the Boston Marathon," you say "I ran Boston". Likewise, you don't say "I ran the Comrades Marathon," you say "I finished Comrades."
One of the other oddities about Comrades is that they run uphill on the odd years and downhill on the even. In both versions there is a lot of uphill and a lot of downhill. Uphill taxing your heart and lungs, downhill shredding the muscles and joints.
Comrades had not been on my radar. I had actually been planning to do a trip to combine some South Africa birdwatching with the Two Oceans Marathon. But sometimes friends can screw up the best laid plans. A Canadian friend, Lorraine Wilkerson, that Holly Bohensky (local Harrisburg runner) and I met on our Antartica Marathon trip sent us a message: Comrades in 2016 is a downhill year, let's do it! Holly can correct me if I'm wrong here, but I think we both messaged back quickly that we were in. (All three of us had some doubts after agreeing, but we couldn't change our minds now could we?)
Comrades has many traditions, but one strikes fear. They run the race gun to gun. You have 12 hours from the gun. If you lose 8 minutes crossing the starting line, those minutes are lost to you. They have 6 time cutoff points and they give absolutely no leeway. If you miss it by one second, they pull you from the race. At the finish line, at 12:00:00, they shove people back and slam the gate. To ally our fears the three of us took to training differently than we had previously. Holly flew to Florida to run a 50 mile race to make sure she could handle the distance, she came in first female. Unfortunately, Florida is not known for its hills, so she added hills to her diet. Lorraine continued to run the trails of the Canadian Rockies but added a few long distance stage races to build even greater stamina. I signed up for the Fleet Feet Marathon Training Program, and on advice from Fred, learned how to run slow. I had told Fred my goal was to finish but I wanted to train to finish somewhere around 10 hours, so that I had a cushion if something went wrong. My training regimen from January until the race consisted primarily of lots of miles between 10:30 and 10:40 minutes per mile and lots of hills, some steep, some long.
As I mentioned above, Comrades wasn't on my list. I had previously arranged a trip that started with 4 days in Barcelona, a 16 day cruise which transited the Suez Canal, and 3 days in Dubai. When I received Lorraine's "let's do it!" message I checked to see when the Comrades tour package began; Wednesday before the race. The cruise ended in Dubai at 5:00am on Thursday. Hmmmmm. There was one flight from to Dubai to Johannesburg, South Africa at 10:00am. A tight connection to Durban with a late night arrival. Hmmmmm. Additional airfare nearly a $1,000 more. Hmmmmm. Many moving parts, no room for a single delay, expensive ... But it's Comrades and it's Comrades with friends. Click! Dubai will only be a blur in a taxi; this time. (Dubai has a marathon!)
The ship arrived in Dubai on time. I did a "walk off", taking my own luggage off the ship. I was first off the ship, in the first taxi and at the Dubai airport with time to spare. The flight was delayed and I began to think I might not make my connection. When we finally took off the pilot announced that he thought he could make up most of the lost time. He was right. Landed on time, cleared immigration and made the connection.
On Friday, Holly, Lorraine and I were expecting to take a bus tour of the Comrades course. We found out we had not been signed up and all the bus tickets had been sold. It was suggested we show up at the hotel where the buses were leaving from because sometimes there were open seats. We were lucky because a bunch of Brazilians were not, they went to the wrong hotel. We not only had seats, we all had window seats. Touring the course by bus was somewhat deceptive. None of the hills seemed too daunting, none were as steep as running up Blue Mountain Parkway where I did much of my training. But what escaped me on the bus was how long some of the hills were. The tour guide said the South Africans will walk the hills, be prepared to walk them.
On Saturday they took us from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, where the race would start at 5:30 a.m. on Sunday. Because it was late autumn there, it is dark at the start and for about the first hour of the race. The race had been capped at 21,500 runners. Approximately 18,000 runners toed the line.
The race started with a bang, a loud bang. No chance of missing this "gun start". In the darkness the temperature was about 50 degree and it is a downhill start allowing your body to warm up before having to make the first ascent. A few of the ups and downs were out of the way before the sunrise. I was holding to plan and was running comfortably. A few of the hills, which I hadn't noticed on the bus tour were rather long grades up, some probably 3 miles long. In some cases you thought you had finished the grade and then turned a corner to find it continued upward. In other cases you could see the long line of runners climbing the hill before you presenting its own mental challenge. The day was clear, very few clouds. As the sun rose in the sky the temperature climbed through the 70's and into the 80's. For the first 25 miles or so everything went according to plan. There were water stops every few kilometers and I made sure to keep myself hydrated. The crowd support was amazing, on the same scale as Boston. Being an "international runner" I had blue bib and tradition has it that the crowd picks out the international runners and cheer them on by name. Because they used my passport for my personal information, my bib had my name as Joseph. I have never been called Joseph in all my life as much as I was that day.
As the day wore on, and much of the uphill out of the way, I felt a twinge in my right leg, I recognized it as a precursor to cramps like I had faced a few weeks before at the Paris Marathon. Sometime within that mile the cramps struck, the calf muscle and the hamstring of my right leg would tighten up and within a few steps the tendon behind my left knee would lock up, bringing me to a complete halt. After 30 seconds to a minute the left leg would loosen and I'd begin to walk, then run until the next cramp struck. Once I figured out that I could probably finish within the 12 hours, when I locked up and a well-wisher would shout "don't stop, keep moving" I'd give them a "thumbs up" and shout back "I've got this!" Their responding cheer of "well done, Joseph" was music to my ears. So for 30 miles I carried on this way. My 10:30 pace dropped to a 12:00-13:00 minute pace and it was by then downhill for the most part. The last mile or so before entering the cricket stadium where the finish is held is flat. At Comrades one of the other traditions is the markers don't count the kilometers up toward 89, but rather they count down toward zero. At the 1 km marker, I like many others had an adrenaline rush. As I ran into the stadium and completed the circuit I was running the fastest I ran all day, approximately a 9:00 minute per mile pace. My finish time was 11 hours, 21 minutes. Upon entering the tent set aside for international runners, I found Holly. She had finished in 9 hours, 22 minutes. Lorraine finished in 11 hours, 40 minutes. We watched on the the TV (the whole race is broadcast throughout South Africa from start to finish) as it closed in on 12 hours. With about 30 seconds left a runner entered the stadium on shaky legs and they gave out, the runner falling to the ground. The runners nearby stopped and grabbed him, helping him to his feet but stumbling and falling again. They picked him up and carried him toward the finish line. But the clock struck "midnight" and the gate closed, leaving him and his supporters a few feet from a "finish". ... But then again, this is Comrades.
Don Halke, another local runner, had run Comrades in a previous year and had almost failed to finish. I struggled with 6+ hours of cramping. Holly had run well, but dehydration put her on a stretcher and carted off to the medical tent. Yes, Comrades will humble you!
A few statistics:
Finished in the final hour: 5,000+