Following the theme of “It was someone else’s fault” the next phase of my running life was all down to a little old lady that we met on a walking holiday in the Italian Dolomites. For most of the walks we used a car or public transport to get to the start of the walk and then we walked in small groups, but this particular Sunday was the day of the Sella Ronda, a day when all the roads that make up the four Dolomite passes around the Sella massif are closed to traffic and open to cyclists to ride all or part of the passes. Of course we couldn’t use the car or public transport which meant walking as one big group from the village of Arabba otherwise we would never have met the lady that would have such a massive influence on the next 10 years of my life.
At the time I was training for my first marathon and running was completely consuming my life so conversation naturally got round to marathon training and it turned out that the “little old lady” was a runner. She had started running quite late in life, in her 50’s and by the time she was 60 she was an age group leader at virtually every distance. I asked her the fateful question “Which was your favourite race?” to which she immediately replied “Comrades” which turned out to be a 56 mile ultra-marathon in South Africa. I had never heard of this race so asked her to tell me all about it which she did and I fell in love with the idea of running the race assuming that I wasn’t totally rubbish at marathons. It was the germ of an idea to run Comrades that just grew and grew over the years and ultimately became the biggest bucket list item once I’d got the World Marathon Majors out of the way. I was desperate to have a go Comrades by the time I got round to it.
Having completed the WMM in April I decided that now was the moment to have a go at Comrades. I’d proved to myself that I was a decent standard endurance runner and if I was ever going to tick off this bucket list ambition it was now. Entries opened and I dived in, got confirmation of my place and immediately started crapping myself. “OMG what have I gone and done?”
One of the features of Comrades is international camaraderie and by the time I’d entered I’d already made a connection with a local runner, James Love, who I’d bumped into at a small local 5k race in Hollins Green, South Manchester in the summer of 2014. I spotted a runner decked out in Comrades gear, shirt and hat and this was only a week after Comrades 2014 so I had to tap James on the shoulder and have a chat about Comrades. What James told me about the race really cemented my ambition to have a go and he was the first of many runners I would get to know because of Comrades.
James is a parkrun regular at Pennington Flash and a seriously good runner. He also persuaded a lot of the Flashers, as Pennington Flash parkrunners are known, to have a go at Comrades and I got to know a lot of them over the following 3 years. I still pop over to the Flash to run parkrun and meet up with them from time to time.
Anyone who knows James will confirm that he never mentions Comrades, just like me, and never ever wears any Comrades gear. Of course anyone who knows James and I will tell you that that is complete bollocks!
The next step on the Comrades journey was to bag a qualifying time. To get in you had to be capable of a sub 5 hour marathon which was pretty easy for me but the quicker your QT the further forward you started and that is quite important as Comrades is a gun to chip race. To none runners this means that your race starts when you cross the start line and the further back you are in the field the longer it takes to cross the start line. Those starting in pen H may take 15 minutes to cross the start line and this might impact on their ability to meet the various cut off times along the route. If you didn’t reach a cut-off point by a certain time you were pulled out of the race and put in the sag wagon, a bus that swept up the slow runners.
Realistically the furthest up the field I was going to get was starting pen C and for that I needed a sub 3:40 marathon.
After London in April 2014 I’d eased back on training quite a lot but I entered the Chester marathon in Autumn 2014 with the aim of bagging a QT that simply got me into Comrades and then in the following Spring I’d really give it a go to get into pen C. As it happened I ran really well in Chester on the back of very little training and bagged a 3:33:26 time and that got me the QT I wanted.
Pressure off I could now focus on training for Comrades starting in January 2015. This would mean a lot of running. Standard ultra-marathon training plans have you running long back to back runs of over 2 hours on a Saturday and 3-4 hours on a Sunday and that’s exactly what I did. What a massive mistake that turned out to be!
I entered two spring marathons with the aim of running them conservatively as training runs.
First up was Rome and we had a big group of runners taking part from my club Styal RC. This has to be one of the most incredibly scenic marathons in the world as the route takes in virtually all the sights in Rome.
In previous parts of my running life blogs I’ve explained that I never noticed anything when I ran marathons. My friend Andy Dooley who I’ve shared most of my running life with used to say to me after a race “Did you see such and such?” and he was always amazed when I asked him what the hell he was talking about. Well, in Rome, I did notice lots of the sights. In fairness it’s pretty hard not to notice the Vatican when you are running down the road leading up to it and it’s directly in front of you!
A nice easy Rome marathon produced a time of 3:43:51 and so it was on to Manchester. The 2nd time I’d run my home City marathon but a completely different route to the first time in 2012.
This is where I made a major mistake. I’d been experiencing a few niggles on the outside of both knees. Classic signs of overtraining I was to learn and maybe a rest break would have helped but, instead, I went ahead and ran Manchester truly intending to treat it as a training run but felt amazingly strong and crossed the line in 3:26:22. Way too fast for a training run and boy was I going to suffer for that!
The next few runs were horrific with horrendous pain down the outside of both knees.
Still I trained on. I’d planned a long 40 mile, 7 and a half hour run which would consist of running the last 10 miles of the Macclesfield half marathon course four times with club mates running a loop or two to support me. This a very hilly route and perfect training for Comrades as I could dive into the boot of the car after each loop and treat it as an aid station to get on board fluid and food and it’s hilly and you’ll understand the importance of this when I tell you more about Comrades.
The first loop wasn’t too bad but half way round the 2nd loop I was seriously limping and the pain got so intense that I had to stop after two loops. This was a truly awful outcome. I desperately needed to complete this long run to give me the confidence that I could get round Comrades but it wasn’t to be.
A quick consultation with a specialist sports injury Doctor, amazingly the same Doctor that would diagnose my terminal prostate cancer two years later, and an MRI scan confirmed that my Iliotibial band was seriously inflamed. The IT band is a tendon that runs down the length of the outer leg from the pelvis to the tibia and basically my overtraining had meant that the band rubbing on the outside of bones in the knee had caused it become inflamed and it’s incredibly painful. The only cure was rest and a number of exercises. Perfect preparation for my dream race that I had been thinking about having a crack at for 8 years!
A lot rested on this race as well. I was running it to raise money for a wonderful charity, The Children’s Adventure Farm Trust who give holidays on the farm to disadvantaged children from all over the North West of England. I’d had thousands of pounds of donations and I was desperate not to let my sponsors and the charity down.
I had to find a way to at least get to the start line. We were going to South Africa no matter what as we had an amazing holiday planned for after the race but I was utterly desperate to give it a go.
I had to not only maintain cardiovascular fitness but also find a way of doing so without aggravating the IT band so I decided aqua jogging, wearing a flotation belt whilst jogging around Altrincham baths was the way forward. Not only did I look a complete tool but I felt one as well. However it was the only way forward and, actually, it was really hard work but incredibly dull and boring. I got lots of really weird looks from other pool users but when I explained to them what I was doing and what was at stake for CAFT they were very supportive. I recall that at least one of them actually sponsored me.
We flew out to South Africa a few days before race day to try to get acclimatised to the heat. I’d been running with multiple layers throughout the UK winter to try to mimic running when overheated but it’s seriously tough training for a race where the temperature is usually 28c and can get up to 33c, through our winter in freezing temperatures.
Attending the expo and picking up race numbers on the Thursday was a real high but utterly terrifying. International runners are incredibly well looked after at Comrades, we bring a huge amount of money into their economy, with special International areas at the expo and an international finishers tent at the finish with food and drinks.
On the Saturday before Comrades lots of Comrades participants take part in the North Beach parkrun in Durban but I decided not to. I really didn’t want to know if my IT bands were going to hold up the following day, let’s just see what happens during the race. What will be will be. North Beach parkrun has a massive turn out the day before Comrades with up to 2,500 runners taking part. I would eventually get to run it!
Bruce Fordyce has won Comrades a record 9 times, 8 of them consecutively. He also won the London to Brighton ultra-marathon three years in a row. He’s an absolute running legend and now the CEO of parkrun South Africa. Bruce also does tours of the course in the day leading up to Comrades. With the benefit of hindsight I think these tours are pretty much designed to scare the crap out of runners. My wife Tracey and I took a Bruce course tour and as we progressed along the route our jaws just continued to drop at the immense challenge that I’d decided to take on. There are hills and there are hills but this course was just brutal. Massive climbs over several miles and it was only ever flattish as the route ran through some towns along the way.
Now seems like a good time to tell you what Comrades is all about.
Comrades was established in 1921 to commemorate the fallen heroes of the First World War. It is the most iconic multi participator road ultra-marathon in the world.
The race runs in different directions in alternate years. One year it runs from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, an up year, with approx. 6500 feet of climbing and 4000 feet of descent. Alternate years it runs the opposite way. Many commentators believe that the down year is tougher than the up. It certainly trashes runner’s quad muscles.
The race distance is 89kms (56 miles). There is a 12 hour overall cut off limit with various cut off limits along the route as well. If you cross the finish line in 12.01 you don’t get a time or a medal. One year the entire South African Rugby back line blocked the finish line at exactly 12 hours. It’s an incredibly dramatic finish as the 12 hour deadline approaches.
The race runs through the valley of a thousand hills and it certainly feels like it. There are 5 hills along the route that are so brutal they even have their own names Cowies, Fields, Botha’s, Inchanga and Polly Shortts and all have legend attached to them. However, it’s the none named hills that are the backbone of the race. They are utterly relentless and go on forever. There really are very few flat bits on the route!
One particularly brutal section will forever stick in my memory banks and that’s on the motorway on the outskirts of Durban. I remember it vividly on 2016’s down run. You see a massive descent ahead of you of about ¾ of a mile but by then your legs are trashed and you can’t really take advantage of the down bit. Then you look further along and see that it’s a massive dip and goes all the way back up again. Just what you need after 75-80km!
There’s lots of history, tradition and folk lore around the race. At around the half way mark is Arthur’s Seat where the legendary Arthur Newton, 5 times Comrades winner, was said to stop and have a fag. Just what you do half way through an ultra. Now it’s said that if you put a flower on Arthurs Seat you’ll have a great 2nd half of the race.
If you run a consecutive up year/down year or down year/up year you get a special back to back medal. If you run 10 you get to keep your number and it becomes a green number. There are all sorts of different colour numbers that say whether you’re a newbie first timer, going for a back to back, yellow for 9 etc. and each athlete’s race number has the number of Comrades successes on it. One tip I learned was to stick with a yellow number as they’re pretty keen to complete the race, very experienced and desperate to get their green numbers.
As the race takes place in Kwazulu-Natal, the home of the Zulu’s, the Zulu national anthem, Shosholoza is sung at the start, followed by the South African national anthem and then Chariots of Fire. Then just before the start a recording of Max Trimborn doing a hearty rooster call. He used to do this as a competitor at the start of the race and it became part of Comrades tradition to play a recording just before the start.
Two significant landmarks are along the route. The wall of fame where someone who has completed Comrades can have a plaque with their name and number placed. The other landmark is the Ethenbemi School for the handicapped where the children line the road waiting for high 5’s. We visited the school during the Bruce Fordyce tour and took gifts/made donations. The kids are so enthusiastic but it’s a relatively flat part of the course and you can’t waste too much time here.
Finishers in different time groups get different coloured and named medals and I’d originally set my sights on a Bill Rowan medal for a sub 9 hour run but, having seen the course during the tour that was hastily changed to just finishing and getting any medal.
Race day arrives and a 5:30 start outside Durban City Hall. This means getting up at 3:00 for breakfast and then a 20 min walk to the start. Tracey leaves me and heads to the meet up point for her hospitality day touring the course with a free bar (shame she’s t-total) and luxury breakfast and lunch and hopefully getting to the end of the race to meet me in Pietermaritzburg.
2015 was an up year and it’s utterly brutal for the first 20 miles or so, all run on the motorway out of Durban.
I was totally terrified of the race by this time and really worried that the IT bands wouldn’t hold up. I’d bought some high end knee braces in the hope that they’d help.
The start was incredibly moving with all the anthems etc. but it was also very warm, well over 20c at 5:30 in the morning and that was also scaring me to death.
The start gun goes and we’re off. Strangely all the pre-race nerves dissipate as they always do once you start running. Now all I had to worry about was the IT bands holding up.
It soon became clear that this wasn’t to be the day. I was in agony after 10km but I hobbled on until about 17 miles, already a net elevation gain of 758 metres, nearly 2500 feet, where my Wife was having a luxury breakfast and I was forced to pull out in floods of tears and in a lot of pain. I became a spectator for the rest of the day and can only describe it as painfully emotional. My dream was over, I’d let down my sponsors and the charity and I just didn’t want to be there. I did manage to drink Tracey’s share of the free bar to drown my sorrows but the dream was over and I’d failed. I was totally and utterly devastated but I’d be back! That’s a story for another day though.
By the way, we had a fabulous holiday afterwards which was just what the Doctor ordered and enabled me to hatch my plans to come back and have a go at the 2016 down run. I was going to run Comrades even if it killed me!