Comrades 2014: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly of A 56 Mile Race

It’s been a little over two weeks since I ran the longest race of my life, the Comrades Marathon in South Africa.

Here Are The Quick Stats on Comrades:

  • The oldest ultra marathon in the world
  • Point-to-point ultra marathon
  • Down route – Pietermaritzburg to Durban, South Africa (switches each year)
  • 89 kilometers / 56 miles
  • 11+ hours
  • 18,000 runners

All said and done, I ended up running approximately 25 miles farther than I’ve ever run in one go in my life.

I’ve talked about this race a little on the podcast and in this blog post, but I’ve been promising a race report for some time, so here it is.

Pre-Race & The Three Mantras I Used To Finish

Before the race, there were a million things running through my mind. I had to drown them out the best I could by focusing on just a few things. These were the three things that kept me going throughout the race. I wrote them down, said them out loud, and talked to myself at dinner over and over again.

Do. Not. Stop.

Do not stop – This was my #1 mantra. I could run slow, walk, crawl, or whatever, but I could not stop. Relentless forward progress. Just keep going.

Shut up and Run

I read this on a training site the day before the race. Every time the lesser version of me started complaining about how hard things were, I told myself to “shut up and run.”

Have To vs. Get To

I stopped telling myself “I have to do xyz”, and changed it to “I get to do xyz.” This simple word choice makes a huge difference to your mindset when you’re struggling at 70k.

Bonus: Not Dead, Can’t Quit

I picked this up from Kyle Maynard. If I died, I could quit. Otherwise, I was going to finish the race.

The Starting Line

Comrades is a point-to-point race, so while we ended at the seaport town of Durban (where almost everyone stayed), we had to get the bus up to Pietermaritzburg on the morning of the race. We got to wake up at around 1am and head out about 2:30am in order to get to the starting line at 4:30 or so (just in time for the race start at 5:30am).

Comrades is an unusual event because, unlike most ultra marathons, which are made up of small crowds of a few hundred, Comrades has around 18,000 runners, which is basically the same amount of runners as a mid-sized city marathon. It’s by far the largest race I’ve ever participated in (I need to start running bigger races)!

My main goal for the race was to use it as a launching pad and training run for an upcoming project, so I didn’t have any major goals other than finishing and having my legs intact at the end.

Getting to the starting line was the first victory. Most runners run as part of a group or a club but, since I was by myself, I was supposed to take one of the generic running buses up to Pietermaritzburg. That all changed though, when I was waiting to check into my hotel and basically found myself being adopted by the Rand Athletic Club (a South African runner’s club) that was sharing my hotel.

It was pretty cool getting to be able to eat and talk with South Africans, some of whom had run the race 25 times or more! They told me to meet them at the bus at 2am sharp – yikes!

Battling my night owl tendencies, I dragged myself out of bed at 1am and dropped myself in the bus to get the starting line. It was mass chaos at the line. Imagine a major city marathon packed into a cute, tiny town. A lot of people. Not a lot of space.

As we dropped off our “tog bags” or gear bags, we headed to the seeding pens. Everyone else sang the South African anthem while I mouthed “watermelon” to make it look like I knew what I was doing.

Here’s a little idea of what it was like (excuse the shaky camera footage – it’s not mine).

Then the countdown started.

The Gun

When the gun went off, the pack leaders headed out. From where I was, it took about six minutes to get across the start line. We were off. For the first few miles, the road was just lined, shoulder-to-shoulder with people. I hadn’t ever seen anything like it, especially not in an ultra.

Comrades 2

For about the first 20 miles, I took it easy. :-) The advice from all the veterans for the first half of Comrades is “take it easy – easier than you think you need to.” So, for the first 20 miles, I took it easy, not really knowing what lay beyond the first 50k.

The majority of the race is on a two-lane highway, so once you get in your gate time in the beginning, for the first 6-10 miles, you can’t really do much other than go with the waves of people in your block.

I spent most of the first half of the race dodging people and trying to keep my pace without accidentally running into someone who suddenly decided to walk.

40k-50k: The Race Starts To Get Interesting

Comrades 4

Starting at around 40k, we started to see an interesting series of hills.

First up: Inchanga.

It just sounds scary.

After that, there was a series of climbs up “Botha’s Hill”, a gnarly hill that asks you the question: “You sure you want to do this?” This was one that made me ask “How bad do you want it?”

At this point, we switched to alternating between running, walking, and playing leap frog with a few other groups in our time range. It was tough, but didn’t hurt too much… yet.

50k-70k: All Downhill from Here

At 50k, I realized we only had a marathon left. Almost home!

It was all downhill from here. Literally.

From 50k to 70k, the hill started to disappear and the decline meant we finally got to stop climbing.

Comrades 2014 Elevation

Comrades 2014 Elevation

This was both a blessing and a curse since it meant you had to run downhill. About 50% of my effort was spent running downhill and 50% was spent trying to brake myself from running too fast and getting out of control.

Runners will tell you that running downhill is easier while you’re doing it, but that it’s a lot more damaging for your legs. I’d find that out in a few more kilometers.

As I went down the hills, I passed a few ambulances picking up people from the side of the road. The morbidly curious side of me wanted to venture over under the guise of wanting to help, and potentially find a solid reason to quit.

I did a manual override, looked away, and reminded myself that the medical professionals were much more prepared to handle whatever might be happening than I was. Their job was to take care of the athletes.

Mine was to finish this $*#! race.

Do. Not. Stop.

Do. Not. Stop.

Do. Not. Stop.

As I got through the 70k mark, I knew I’d have this thing in the bag, if I just kept going…

Comrades 3

Trying to Stay Upbeat

 70k: Ouch

I hit the 70k mark around the eight hour mark, which I felt pretty good about. I figured that, even at a slow pace, I could take the last 20k (13 miles) at ten minutes each, and knock it out in 2 – 2 1/2 hours, easy. I was feeling good that I felt I had gotten through 70k and that I was feeling “alright.”

I was so wrong.

The downhills had completely shot my legs and, right at the 70k mark, the downhills were no more. There was one last hill (Cowles). I tried to start climbing again, but my legs were cooked. I kept up some run / walk intervals, but it wasn’t easy, and it definitely wasn’t fun.

I found myself walking more of the uphills than I would have liked, and doing lots of run / walk intervals to keep going.

(Somewhere around the 70k mark)

This was one of the points when that stupid voice in my head told me to call it in, but I just kept fighting back.

Do not stop.

Shut up and run.

Not dead, can’t quit.

With 10k left, I checked my time, and knew my pace had considerably slowed. But I knew that if I could somehow keep going, I could squeak it in under 11 hours.

There were a couple episodes where we were running and, due to the angle of the road, I couldn’t tell if we were going up or down.

Do not stop.

Not dead, can’t quit.

Not dead, can’t quit.

Not dead, can’t quit.

I passed 5k and could sense the finish line. That’s what I told myself anyways.

Just as I passed the 5k mark and jogged the on-ramp to the last highway that would take us into Durban, I started to see them. Athletes scattered on the side of the road. Some stretching. Some lying down. Some sitting with their head in their hands. Done. Over.

They had plenty of time to get to the finish line, but you could read it on their faces. They were cooked. They’d called it in.

Comrades 5

I am not an attractive man.

The only thing I knew was that I DID NOT WANT THAT TO HAPPEN TO ME.

I “picked” the pace back up. Although my pace at this point was probably laughable, the effort was there.

I did about 3k on what seemed to be the longest stretch of highway ever, before getting off the exit ramp into downtown Durban. Believe it or not, 10+ hours after the race had started, the crowds were still there, cheering us on.I got cat-called by one South African girl, and managed to smile back. I was almost there.

As I finished one more kilometer, I saw the stadium, and told myself to pick up the pace and run a bit faster: “Can’t look tired for the cameras.”

As we turned into the stadium, it started to dawn on me.

I’m doing this.

I’m doing this.

I’m going to have done this.

I entered the stadium, and it was nuts. The stands were packed and the crowd was cheering (as they had been for the past few hours – they really don’t joke around when it comes to Comrades). As I ran around the edges of the field, I’d never felt so relieved to cross a finish line and to be done with something.

Comrades 7

Finish In Sight

What I Would Do Differently

I’m very happy that I finished the race. When I crossed the finish line, I told myself “never again”, and hobbled to the international tent to find a chair to sit down in.

Now, a few weeks later, I’m contemplating heading back and trying my skill on the up run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg next year. Yup – I think I’ve lost it.

That said, there are two things I would have done differently.

Run more downhills in training

I had these in my training and they always messed me up when I did them. I tended to shy away from them but, knowing how crucial they are, I would have dug into these a bit more.

Take the first half 10% faster

I took the first half easy, but almost too easy. I ended up running up from the back a little and it took a bit of energy to dodge people during the first 26 miles or so. I feel like I could have banked a bit more time if I’d moved up a little farther in the starting gates, and run a bit more aggressively.

My main goals were to finish and to get comfortable with running this kind of distance, as it was almost double anything I’ve ever done before. It feels very good to have finished and to still be able to walk.

Around 50k, I realized I was going to do this. It was going to be done. When that happened, I knew, as long as I kept going, I was going to do this. It was quite similar to Matt’s realization in his 100 miler.

Just keep going. Don’t stop. Finish.

You Can Do An Ultra

Since doing the race, I’ve had a bunch of people tell me “I wish I could run just five miles.” The idea of running an ultra is too far away for them to even think about it. But it’s totally possible, if you want to do it.

I had never run more than three miles as little as four years ago, and I was far from the best runner out there. There were people young, old, fat, and skinny running out there. Not all of them were seasoned ultra marathoners, but all of them were there because they wanted to be in the arena and test their limits.

The hardest part of the race is making sure you show up to the starting line.

That’s half the battle. Then you have to take action and make it happen.

Recovery

For the 24 hours after the race, I walked like a penguin. But, the following day, I did some cold ocean therapy, did very light jogging, and felt surprisingly good. I felt like my legs recovered physically much faster than they have with other races I’ve done. That was incredibly encouraging.

Gear I Used For Comrades

When you finish Comrades, they give you the tiniest medal ever. It’s actually funny. A lot of people commented that for running that far, you should get a bigger medal, but I don’t worry about it. I ran it for me, to see what I’m made of and to see what’s possible. 56 miles / 89 kilometers – #notimpossible #boom. What’s next? :)

If you got a lot of free time, you can see the whole Comrades broadcast here – all 12 hours of it. :)

Comments

  1. says

    This is awesome Joel!

    I’ve never been a fan at running but I’m trying to get my first 5k so this is so inspirational!

    Looking forward to see you in October.

  2. says

    Dayum…all we gotta say is….respect! Way to go on git’n it done Joel! Congratulations on a big accomplishment. Can’t wait to see your next project. ;)

  3. Grace says

    I am glad you got to experience my country and the beautiful running routes we have. I have only been running since October last year and whilst almost everyone in my Morningside Running Club has done The Comrades more than once, I am still scared to even think about attempting it! Congratulations on finishing it, I have two friends that didn’t finish and one ended up in crutches. Hope you get to try it again. The intro song in your video, Shosholoza carries a lot of history in South Africa and almost every adult can sing it – across all 12 languages and 11 different cultures.

  4. says

    Dude,
    This is the sickest thing I’ve read in a while. You are a beast!
    Although I consider myself to be in very good shape, there is zero chance I would attempt this race. Probably because I’m a bit of a pussy and would quit when it started REALLY sucking.

    Great for you though. You have accomplished a ton of awesome things and had so many experiences that most of us never will..

  5. Tebogo Dioka says

    You did well Joel, hope to see you at the Durban start line in 2015.

    I just posted your Comrades story link on facebook just to spread the word.
    How much mileage did you clock in training between January and Many?

  6. Sean P says

    As always you are there man! Your adventures rock and inspire us to do more of the impossible! Can’t wait to hear about your next adventure!

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