Comrades Marathon 2017 Race Report

My Comrades Silver Medal. I have a huge collection of running medals, but none of them am I proud of nearly as much as this one.

I first learned of the Comrades Marathon on a visit to Durban in 2012 when shopping for attire for my wedding. We had failed to reserve a rental car and found ourselves in a pickle because our visit coincided with the Comrades Marathon.

I learned that my wife had lived along the course for many years, and that members of our family had run it in years past. I also learned that the Comrades “Marathon” is not in fact 26.2 miles, but rather an ultra-marathon of a distance that is greater than two marathons. I am an avid distance runner; so, since that weekend five years ago, completing the Comrades was a goal. I realized my goal last week in Pietermaritzburg, after more than 87 km of running, much of it in 80-degree heat. I have never run so far in my life, and I don’t think I will until the Comrades next year. I have also probably never been so proud of an accomplishment in my entire life.

Meeting the expectations of my best-case scenario, I finished with a silver medal, awarded to approximately the top 2% of finishers who complete the race in less than 7 hours and 30 minutes. I made the cut-off with time to spare, with a time of 7 hours and 13 minutes. I was overly pleased with my time, but to be honest, it exceeded even my own expectations.

Until I crossed the finish line, I honestly didn’t know what to expect out of my performance. I was confident that I could finish, but, to be honest, I had no idea how racing would feel after 26.2 miles, the typical marathon distance. Although I had trained for nearly a year for the race and have run 15 marathons, I had only once run a distance longer than 26.2 miles—and that one experience was far from exhilarating, so I was cautious and wary. The Comrades is more than twice that distance, and the “up” run has nearly 6,000 feet of climbing, as well. In the end, completing the race was one of the most awesome experiences in my life—one that will have me coming back for more Comrades races.

The Comrades is several orders of magnitude more awesome than any road race I have ever run. First of all, the challenge of running Comrades is simply unparalleled; it is, by far, the most challenging race I have ever run, physically and mentally. The motto of the 2017 Comrades was zinikele (“It takes all of you”). Nothing sums it up better than that. Second, the support along the course is incredible; not only is it consistent for 87 kilometers, but the race takes you through all kinds of walks of life, showing the many, many colors of the Rainbow Nation. Third, the camaraderie among fellow runners is like nothing I have ever seen.

From the start of the race—with 20,000 runners singing the South African national anthem followed by Shosholoza—through the grueling last stretches of the race, where fellow runners were encouraging each other on over the tough parts of the course and the hills, the Comrades brings everyone together—across South Africa and across the world—like no sporting event I have ever witnessed. I’ve been coming to South Africa for nearly a decade now; I was married here, and my family (including my kids) are South African. I’ve always loved coming to this beautiful country. But, it was the Comrades that has awakened a deep love for this country. It is truly something special.

One thing I learned about running an ultra-marathon like the Comrades is that it is not tractable to wrap one’s head around the entire race. One must consider the race in segments or smaller “chunks” and try to tick off one at a time. Below, I describe my experience through different segments of the race. Much of what I write below is a summary of my own experience during the “up” run of Comrades for my own benefit, when I try to remember it in two years for the next installment (when I will hopefully make another attempt!); but, I imagine others who are thinking about attempting the Comrades “up” run may also find these notes helpful.

For those of you who want the clinical details, here is my Comrades run on Strava. The splits are telling—in fact, I used the plans of past Strava runners who had achieved the silver medal on the up run to form my own race plan. Several Strava runners were also immensely helpful in offering me advice, which I used in my training and on race day. But, the splits only tell part of the story. Read on for the gory details.

Part 1: Durban to Tollgate Bridge 
I awaited the start of the race from the starting corral; from my marathon finishes in the prior year, I managed to get an “A” seeding, which placed me in the section of runners directly behind the elites.

Unlike many road races, the Comrades is timed as a “gun to mat” race — the clock starts for everyone at the starting gun, and stops when you cross the finishing mat. This means that if you are stuck behind thousands of runners at the starting line, all of the time it takes you to cross the starting line counts in your final time. Given the time cut-offs for Comrades — whether you are aiming for a medal or simply looking to finish before the 12-hour cut-off — minimizing the time to cross the starting line is critical, so a good seeding is important. This also means getting to the corrals early; the race started at 5:30 a.m., but I was at the corral by about 4:30 a.m. and in the corral itself before 5 a.m.

My “A” seeding put me about 20–30 rows of runners back from the starting mat, and it took me about 15 seconds to cross the starting line. From everything I have heard from other runners, getting a seeding in either the “A” or “B” corral is critical if you are hoping to gain a silver medal. Once you are behind those groups, it can take more than ten minutes to cross the start line and precious time is lost.

At 5:30 a.m., after an invigorating starting sequence of the South African national anthem, Shosholoza, and Chariots of Fire, the starting gun was fired, and we were off. The start is packed; it is the only race I can remember where I physically was pushed from behind across the starting line by the throngs of people. The first portion of the race is a straight shot through the Marine Parade in downtown Durban; the surroundings are much like running in any city road race.

This part of the course had many spectators cheering, and my main concern at this point was to control my pace and effort. The crowds and the adrenaline of the race can get you very excited, but the race starts climbing almost immediately from the start. After about 1km, the Marine Parade takes you onto the on-ramp of the N3, which immediately starts climbing out of Durban. In the front corral, people are naturally going out too fast. My only concern was to take it easy, and to let people pass me. If I got stuck behind a runner, I did not worry about that either—the name of the game at this point in the race is about conserving effort, and swerving around other runners is a waste of effort I could not afford. My only concern at this point was keeping the pace as easy as possible.

We eventually reached Tollgate Bridge, where the first landmark exists—it’s a nice-looking arch-shaped bridge crossing the N3. More importantly, it’s the top of the first climb, so it felt good to have ticked off the first landmark.

Part 2: Tollgate Bridge to Cowie’s Hill

Feeling fresh through Westville! My blue number flagged me as an international runner. Behind me to the right is a runner with a green number—someone who has completed at least ten Comrades Marathons (something to strive for).

Cowie’s Hill is the first of five “named” hills on the Comrades up run, and so the challenge was of course on my mind from the start. After Tollgate Bridge, the course exits the N3 and goes onto the M13, which is a smaller highway, but still two lanes in each direction.

The M13 takes you through Westville, which had special sentimental meaning for me, since it is where my wife grew up, and where my mother-in-law said they often watched the Comrades. As you run the M13, it is dark, and you are still very steadily climbing. One of the main things to watch out for—which one of the running experts thankfully warned me about—was the raised cat eye reflectors down the lane separator, which can offer an unwelcome surprise and trip you up if you are not careful.

One aspect I had not anticipated was the crowning of the N3 and the M13 roads, which put some strain on my legs. I remember thinking that I needed to find a flatter part of the road as I ran this part of the course; sure enough, my main post-race aches were in my right leg, consistent with the crowning. There really isn’t a flat part of this road, but I think the edges might be slightly less bad.

The M13 is also quite a bit narrower than the N3, and there is a hill or two where the squeeze in the road, as well as overly gung-ho runners at the start who slow down on the hill, can literally get in your way. My main strategy at this point was to let these people slow me down. At this point in the race, it is almost impossible to go too slow, and, again, any effort spent trying to get around slow runners on this hill would simply be wasted effort. At less than 10 miles into the race at this point, there is ample time to make up ten lost seconds; on the other hand, gunning it around other runners at this point will needlessly expend energy.

At some point, we made a turn and began to run up Cowie’s Hill, which was a beautiful, shaded road. The crowds at the start of the hill and along the climb were phenomenal. A funny thing about the up run is that even though there are named hills, the entire first half of the course is pretty much a steady climb, so I kept wondering “Is this Cowie’s Hill?”, and so on for the other hills.

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter. It is pointless to count the hills, for several reasons—one reason is that you’re continually climbing anyhow. Another, which I will discuss later, is psychological. The main benefit of knowing that you’ve climbed this hill or that one is knowing that you’ve conquered one of the “infamous” challenges, but as I discovered later in the race, the hills that often bite the most are the ones that have no name at all.

One of the most memorable parts of this part of the run—aside from Cowie’s itself—was running through Westville on the M13, looking ahead at the uphill, and seeing the massive throngs of runners — literally wall-to-wall across the highway as far as the eye could see. I’ve never seen anything like it, in any race. The closest thing that it reminded me of is the start of the Boston Marathon, but, like many things at Comrades, the sight was even more awe-inspiring. I remember getting a chill and just thinking “Wow, this is amazing.”

Part 3: Pinetown to Fields Hill

As I cleared the top of Cowie’s Hill, I got a huge rush of adrenaline, knowing that I had conquered the first of the five named hills. It was at this point that I made what I think was my only major blunder in the race: I rode the adrenaline and slammed it on the downhill at about 6:50–7:00/mile. (To put that in perspective, my average pace was 7:58/mile, and an 8:17/mile would have been plenty fine for my race goal of getting a silver medal.) As I came off the downhill into Pinetown, I kept the pace high, fueled by the large and encouraging crowds in Pinetown. This was a fun part of the course, because it’s relatively flat and there are boisterous crowds. But, I made the cardinal mistake of letting the crowds carry my pace faster than I wanted to or had planned to run.

Not to mince words: Gunning it off of Cowie’s and through Pinetown was stupid, and is part of the reason having a race plan and sticking to it is so important. I received absolutely zero benefit from running two miles at seven minutes per mile. I shaved a few minutes off of my overall time, which I didn’t need to shave off anyway—and I clearly paid this for later on in the race, at Camperdown and Polly Shortts, where I lost all of this time, and more.

Part 4: Fields Hill, Kloof, and Botha’s Hill

After Pinetown, the course makes a turn to the right and I started the steady climb up Fields Hill. At this point, I saw the first glimpse of sunshine. I took the advice of those before me and let it boost my spirits—indeed, the sunshine was not welcome later in the day, but at this point in the race, it was a beautiful sight to see the sunrise.

Fields Hill is a total monster. It is 3km of steady climbing, up a highway of sorts that wraps around the hill itself. Basically, you cannot see the top, and even when you reach the “top”, the road keeps climbing to Kloof. It’s not even clear when you crest the hill because there is no flattening out. Basically, the main strategy I adopted here was to simply grind out the climb at a steady pace, taking care once again not to expend unnecessary effort. I was monitoring my pace, effort, and heart rate throughout this climb—and all of the climbs in the first half—to ensure that I never left my comfort zone or let my heart rate spike.

Climbing Fields Hill. Easy does it.

People talk about Fields as being one of the most challenging parts of the course; I found it manageable because I took the approach of staying calm and consistent. I found that, like most hills in Comrades, simply staying calm and keeping a steady effort (as opposed to a steady pace) can get you to the top of most of the hills in one piece. This approach worked well, and it is one I will most certainly aim to repeat.

After Botha’s Hill—another challenging hill, but with some really encouraging Kearnsey University students cheering you all the way to the top—the course starts to wind its way down into Drummond, at which point the distance ticks past 26.2 miles (42 km). At this point, I felt a surge of excitement and uncertainty, as I had just crossed the threshold of my most common race distance feeling strong.

Part 5: Drummond and Inchanga

Drummond is the traditional halfway point of the race, but in fact it comes a tad before halfway. I had planned to go through Drummond at about 3 hours and 40 minutes, and when I came through, I noticed that my timing was about 3 hours and 15 minutes. I was well ahead of schedule, and feeling strong. There is a huge crowd at Drummond, and knowing that three of the named hills were behind me and that I was at about the halfway point was a mental boost.

Drummond is a bit of a dip in elevation, and not long after that, the course begins to climb once again. As the climb begins, you can see what is the mighty Inchanga in the distance. I felt strong at this point in the course, but also uncertain about how the next climb would go. It is another infamous climb.

Coming down into Drummond

I asked one of the veteran runners at the starting line if he had any advice for a novice such as myself. The one thing he told me: “Take it easy on Inchanga.” He said that on the previous up run, he had hit Inchanga too hard and paid for it for the rest of the race. I therefore consciously tried to go slow and steady up Inchanga—at this point in the race, in fact, I was repeating the mantra “slow and steady”, which, in addition to “easy does it”, I found to be a good mantra for the entire first half of the course.

Halfway Home

It was on Inchanga where I first saw other runners walking. Note: They were almost certainly not spent, and I recall seeing many of them towards the end of the course. I imagine many of them certainly also got silver medals. They looked in phenomenal shape. I opted not to walk, but rather to take it really easy up the climb, as planned. That said, seeing these other runners walking up part of the climb gave me some unexpected confidence that it would be OK to walk parts of the hills if necessary and still meet a goal time. Note that the race guide itself had advice about so-called “controlled walking”, a strategy that I ultimately employed in later parts of the race, as I describe below.

This part of the course is not easy at all. (For reference, Inchanga alone is comparable to five doses of the Boston Marathon’s famed “Heartbreak Hill”, a cute little rise that wouldn’t even get a mention on the Comrades route.) The main strategy here is simply to grind it out and get to the top of Inchanga with relatively fresh legs. Though it is tough to gauge and I probably would not have run this part of the race differently, I think I probably went just a bit too hard on Inchanga, too, and I paid the price in the next part of the race. I don’t think I made a mistake here; sometimes the right pacing is tough to gauge. Too fast, and you blow up; too slow, and you lose time. I was probably just a hair on the “too fast” side here.

Part 6: Harrison Flats, Cato Ridge, and Camperdown

This stretch of the course is supposed to be “easy”. It was anything but. Coming over Inchanga, I was prepared to recover a bit. In fact, the course undulates quite a bit here, but more importantly, there was absolutely no shade. Earlier parts of the course offered striking views to either side on the hill climbs, as well as the benefits of shade from one side of the hill or another.

By this part in the race, the sun is high in the sky, and there are simply no trees anywhere. The route is winding and undulating, and it was somewhere along this point of the course that I took my first walking stint. I remember reading about one of the un-named hills on this part of the course, and I’m not sure if I encountered the same hill I had read about, because this part of the course had a few rollers.

This stretch of the course was, for me, one of the most difficult, and it was probably psychological. Everything you read about concerns the five hills, and the uphill first half of the course. Everything you read also says that the second half of the course is much easier. That is certainly true, but it sure didn’t feel easy at this point, and after coming over four of the five named hills, I was mentally unprepared for even the smallest undulation in the road. I’m sure going back now, if I were to run those stretches of road on fresh legs, they would seem easy. Even with a bit more mental preparation, they would likely feel easier. For me, they were just a beast.

The not-so-flat Camperdown on the “flat” part of the course. I’m holding a gel and the super cool water pouches that I wish every race would adopt.

At some point during this stretch, someone came up behind me and said “Don’t panic, you have the silver. Harrison Flats is just ahead.” I think I was already on Harrison Flats, but he told me that the course was about to flatten out, which is exactly what I needed at that point on the course. This camaraderie is the type of thing I have never experienced in any other road race, and what I think makes Comrades so special. I also saw several other runners doing brief walking stints as I did during this part of the course, and that kept me from panicking. My strategy on any walking stint was to walk for no more than a minute, and to keep my per-mile split as close as possible to the overall average I would need for silver (which I thought was around 8:10/mile, but turned out to be a little more). This strategy worked, and I would repeat it if I had to.

Part 7: Camperdown to Umlaas Road

This part of the course is supposed to be a climb, as it comes to the highest point on the course. For whatever reason, it was mentally easier for me. Several things helped me here. One was the huge crowd at Umlaas Road, which is actually on a hill; the second was that I expected to see family at this point on the course.

As it turns out, I didn’t see my family at this point on the course; this is a crowded place to watch the race, as it turns out, and they could not get anywhere close. But, I didn’t see them for a different reason, as well: I had said that I would be to Umlaas no earlier than 11 a.m. (I had given myself a 30-minute window from 11–11:30), and as it turned out, I came through Umlaas around 10:45 a.m. Knowing that I was at the highest point in the course (2,700 feet) with so much time in the bank—even after my lull through Camperdown—was a huge lift to my spirits.

Crossing the time check at Umlaas Road. This climb is not one of the named hills, but it was tough. In the background you can see a 20km to go sign. In the Comrades, the markers are in kilometers instead of miles, and they count down (distance to the finish) instead of up, both of which I found to be huge psychological boosts.

Part 8: Little Polly’s and Polly Shortts

After coming through Umlaas Road, the course starts to turn down, and this part of the course is finally a much needed break, just at the right time. At this point on the course, I was able to coast down the hills and enjoy the run, all the while gaining back a bit of time I had lost through the rough patches in the previous 15 km.

Mind you, this part of the course is still not easy—for one, there continues to be no shade, and there are almost no crowds whatsoever on this part of the course. It is desolate, sunny, lonely, and you’re pretty much by yourself at this point, except for any fellow runners who you happen to be sharing this part of the course with. But, at last, the course offers a long stretch of downhill to regain time and rest a bit.

At the bottom of the hill—so-called Tumble Inn—the road turns up again to Ashburton, or so-called “Little Polly’s”. I had read that many novice runners think that the hill is the real Polly Shortts and have their spirits zapped when the real one comes later on in the course. As it turns out, even the veterans can sometimes get confused: Someone running beside me at this point asked me if this hill was Pollys. I said I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t think so, and he said “I’ve run this race 17 times, and I still am not sure which hill is Pollys”.

For this reason, I continued to run conservatively. The course turned down again and to the left slightly across a bridge and sure enough turned up once again.

At the bottom of this hill, as the road turned up, I got the first real sense of exhaustion. There was a refreshment station, at which point I asked one of the volunteers if this was Pollys. She said it was, which was actually the best news I could have received at that point—on the one hand, I was about to climb the beast, but on the other hand if it hadn’t been Pollys and the main hill was still to come, my spirits would have been totally drained. It is exactly for this reason that I decided not to repeatedly ask throughout the course “Is this Fields Hill? Is this Botha’s Hill?” and so forth—I was afraid to get a “no, that hill is still coming up” while thinking I was already on a monster climb. When I got to Pollys, though, I just had to ask. Thankfully, I got the answer I wanted, and I knew that if I could make it over the 2km Polly Shortts, I had plenty of time in the bank for silver.

When seeking advice from veterans, several runners gave me the advice of “get over Pollys any way you can”. In my preparation, I figured that I was a strong runner with good training and that Pollys was a small hill that I would have no trouble conquering. After all, I’d run bigger hills in Princeton many times! In thinking this ahead of the race, I’d forgotten one important detail, however: I hadn’t run anything like Polly Shortts immediately after 80km of running hills. Another aspect that was an unwelcome surprise: most difficult “climaxes” in any marathon or road race are filled with throngs of cheering spectators, and, given the infamy of Polly Shortts, I expected nothing less. For whatever reason, Pollys was essentially devoid of spectators, which was an unexpected psychological blow.

Following the advice I received, I ground up Pollys any way I could. I started by running it slowly, but then slowed to a walk, taking care to walk purposefully and swiftly, and not to walk for too long. Most of the people around me—now almost certainly other fellow silver medalists—were also walking Pollys. This again put me at ease, since I didn’t see anyone else around me blazing up the hill.

Still, I made an effort to pick up the pace when I could, particularly as I neared the top. At about 200 meters before the top of the hill, the road takes a slight turn to the right, and it flattens out ever so slightly (it is still an incline, but not as severe). It was at this point that I decided I would try to run a bit to the top of the hill. I still felt like I was crawling, but when I passed another runner who was walking, I heard him say “Wow!” It certainly did not feel like an awe-inspiring pace to me, but the fact that I actually looked good to someone else at this point in the course was another much-needed confidence boost. At the top of Pollys, you make a right turn where you cross over the N3 and can see the road turn down; at this point (and not a moment sooner!), I knew I could finish strong.

Grinding it up Polly Shortts. I’m glad they took the photo while I was running!

Part 9: Pollys to the Finish

Most everything you read will tell you that the course from the top of Polly Shortts to the finish is easy. Again, easy is relative, and knowing that it was supposed to be easy actually made this part of the course psychologically more difficult than it might have otherwise been. There are a couple of final climbs on Washington Road with about 5km to go that are not difficult at all if you’re just out for a daily training run; yet, at this point in the race, they were a killer. Just seeing the road dip down and turn up again—the rolling hill every runner has seen a thousand times—was enough to mentally test me. I took a very short walking break here on the uphill and quickly picked up the pace again. This part of the course was unexpectedly challenging and is one of the stretches that calls for just grinding it out.

With about 3km to go, the course goes under an underpass and takes a final turn (again, uphill!) into a Scottsville neighborhood. There is a huge crowd at this point in the course, which is a significant boost. Importantly for me, I saw my whole family at this point. This should have been really exciting—and it was!—but actually one of the main thoughts was “I cannot let them see me walking!” I saw them right before the uphill turn, and that was enough motivation for me to push through the uphill. With about 2km to go, there is another small rise—probably nothing more than you might experience on a typical “flat” neighborhood road—but it was enough to slow me to a walk again. This time, though, I kept the walk to just about 15 seconds, because I knew the end was in sight. With about 2km to go, I simply told myself that this was just a little bit longer than a typical 1600m interval that I did in my weekly track workouts—not so far that I couldn’t just persevere and finish strong. After that bump, the course turned down for the final time and into the Scottsville Race Course and, finally, with about 1500m to go, the course really finally did feel easy.

The race course itself is grass, and it seemed to wend its way to the finish. You can’t actually see the finish when you enter the race course, but you know it’s coming. At this point, with less than 1km to go, I knew I was going to finish, and with a time I could really be proud of.

Finishing has never felt so sweet. Silver is mine!

Summary

I’ll write another set of posts on some of the many lessons that I learned from the Comrades experience. There are a set of lessons that I took away from training, and another set of lessons that I took away from the race itself.

The main “big” takeaway that I came to appreciate—not only over the whole year of training, but over the course of the race itself—is the importance of consistency.

You cannot wake up and decide you’re going to run the Comrades. You can’t even wake up three months before Comrades and decide you’re going to run, assuming you want to do well. The training is cumulative, and consistency is important.

I always went for my training runs. I ran through a couple of blizzards. I did a long run in 10F with wind gusts and a long run in 90F and blazing sun. I ran through countless rainstorms. It is easy to make excuses about the conditions and why it doesn’t make sense to do a training run. But, beyond the obvious physiological benefits of consistent training, you can’t control the conditions you will get on race day. When it turned out to be a high of 80F and sunny, I was ready because I had done a long run in the heat. If it had been cold, I would have been ready for that, too. My morning run has become something of a ritual—something that I will talk about in future posts—and the consistency it has afforded really paid huge dividends that I didn’t even expect.

Consistency is also probably the most important approach to adopt during the race itself. You often hear about marathon runners who go out too fast at the start of the race and pay the price later on in the race; in fact, a veteran at the starting line explicitly warned me not to be one of those runners, and that helped. In a race like Comrades, that effect is surely amplified: I am pretty certain that the 2–3 minutes that I put in the bank coming off of Cowie’s Hill cost me at least 5–10 minutes in the second half of the course, as a result of being destroyed by Polly Shortts. When people asked me about my racing goals before the race, I said I had no idea how it would go, so I just hoped for consistency and a strong finish. I pretty much achieved that. My goal for my next “up run” is to be more disciplined in the first half and keep a bit more to my plan so that I can run more consistently in the second half of the race. Meanwhile, I am already thinking about my first “down run” next year, which will be an entirely different kind of challenge.

In this post, I wanted to jot down my memory of the race while it was still fresh in my mind. There are other things I plan to write about, such as my preparation, but since those have been more…consistent over the past year, I will save those thoughts for a subsequent post.