Comrades Marathon 2009 Race Report

This was undoubtedly one of the toughest races I've done.

Despite my efforts in running across the desert during the Marathon des Sables in 2008, crossing the Kokoda Track in PNG over two consecutive years, both over 20 hours, and enduring the heat and pain in the energy sapping "energy lab...." of the lava fields in Kona during the 2006 Hawaiian Ironman, the shear intensity of the Comrades certainly paid tribute to the saying, "mind over matter".

The Comrades Marathon is called the "Ultimate Human Race" for good reason - athletes come from all over the world to combine muscle and sinew with mental strength to conquer the approximately 90 kilometers between the cities of Pietermaritzburg (Pmb) and Durban. The first Comrades Marathon took place on 24th May 1921 with 34 runners. This year, 88 years later, saw 12,880 runners toe the start line.

I landed in Durban on Wednesday evening the 20th May after traveling from Cairns that morning. I flew Cairns - Sydney - Johannesburg - Durban. Not an ideal build up to racing on the Sunday.

My folks picked me up from the airport and took me back to where I grew up. Ironically this is on the legendry Cowies Hill, one of the big five hills throughout the race. I hit the hay almost immediately and was awake at 4am. This proved to be my wake up time for the remainder of the holiday...

On Thursday morning the entire family, my wife and friend wandered down to Durban to the race registration to pick up race numbers and race pack. Only then did the realization dawn on me that I was here to race a 90km road ultra, it was two days away, and there was no turning back.

That afternoon I drove the race route in both directions with my father. Having grown up in the area and watched the race many times in past years I thought I was well aware of the course. But as we drove I realized to my horror that my memory was slightly jaded. Perhaps it was because driving it all those times for other reasons, I never looked at it with the intention of running it. Having been away from South Africa for a little over ten years I had truly forgotten the magnitude of the elevation and its make up of ascents and descents. This was a serious reality check. Thursday night I lay awake wondering whether or not I had sufficiently prepared and whether or not I should stick to the original race plan.

I home-stayed with extended family in Pmb on Saturday night and had a relatively early night in anticipation of a 3am wake up.

I was up at 1:30am and then dozed until the alarm.

Breakfast was:

  • 2 x slices of white bread toast
  • Peanut butter and banana mashed up and spread over
  • 2 serves of Endura Optimizer
  • 1 x Powerbar Protein bar
  • A few sips of Gatorade

Getting to the race start requires an early departure. There are 13,000 people trying to get there as well, and Pmb is a small town. Subsequently I was dropped off about 1 km from the start and took a slow jog through the closed off roads. The temperature at 5am was around 11 degrees. Not too bad, although it would get colder before it got warmer as we ran out of town and through more rural low lying areas. I wore gloves, beanie and thermal long sleeve top (with a hole cut out for my number) until the halfway at 45km. This isn't saying much as coming from Cairns, anything less than 20 degrees is freezing cold to me.

The gun fired at 5:30am and 12,880 runners moved forward together. I got off to a good start and kept a steady pace to the 17km mark where I was scheduled to pick up an Endura Optimizer food bottle from my non-mobile seconder (my folks). All fine to here and running in a group of around ten or so runners. The next family viewpoint was at 30kms where I had the support of my wife and her family. Again, so far so good. By the time I reached the 38km point for my next scheduled food pick up, I was starting to feel the effects of running hard for nearly 40km. I was now on a 3hr 09min marathon pace with more than a marathon to complete the race.

We wound our way through Inchanga and downwards to the halfway point at Drummond. I reached 45km in 3hrs 26min. Had I gone a bit quick on the first half? I wasn't sure. I now had a solid 8km climb with a gradient of about 1:20. By the time I reached the top and descended the following hill into Kloof I could feel the effects of too much liquid food, too fast a pace, and 60km in the legs. This is where the race starts with 30km to go. I battled the nausea for the next 15 kms. Despite this however, I managed to still force myself to drink at every aid station, which was roughly every two kilometers. I knew that I could easily get rid of excess fluid, but once I became dehydrated it would be the end of the race for me.

Finally I made it to the dreaded Cowies Hill. Cowies is not overly long or steep but after 70km odd of running, it appears as a wall out of the afternoon heat and haze. The entire hill is lined with spectators on both sides. You are unable to hear yourself breathe through the din of dance music and cheering. It is inspirational to say the least. I ended up walking up the last third of the hill. I was happy to take on the inspiration at a slower pace. Once over the top of the hill again I began to run. Cowies was where I grew up. I knew this area like the back of my hand. For the period of time that I ran down the other side and into Westville I was lost in the memories from my past. Never did I ever think that when I was a kid standing watching Comrades 25 years ago that I would be running it as a result of a plan hatched as an Aussie living in Cairns. Wow, what an awesome feeling!

The euphoria was quickly replaced by the pain and reality that I still had 15kms to go. The other looming factor now becoming more imminent was the cut off time for the Silver Medal of 7 ½ hours fast approaching. 15kms left and 90 minutes on the clock would in any other circumstance be laughably easy for me to achieve. However I was now clutching at straws. I knew I had a few walks left up some of the remaining steep pinches and as I progressed, the time quickly reduced yet the decrease in distance remained painfully gradual.

Finally I climbed up the freeway into Durban and crested below the Tollgate Bridge. From here you can virtually see the stadium and hear the cheering, but there is still 5.5km left. A quick watch check revealed that I needed to cover 5.5km in 28 minutes in order to make the Silver cut off. As I descended into Durban I hit the 3km point with 16 minutes in hand. This is where it would count. I took off as though I was time trialling (at that point 4 ½ minute kilometers felt like a time trial). As I entered the stadium my dad was there to shout words of encouragement to get me across the last 300m. I crossed the line in 7 hours 27 minutes 55 seconds. I ran the last 3km in 14 minutes... How? I am still not sure. What I can say is that in my heart I knew the truth that the pain of the race was temporary, but it would have lasted a lot longer if I had missed the cut off.

The Comrades Marathon is a brutal and unforgiving race. For me it was a day filled with emotion, highs and lows and the constant struggle in deciding what I was prepared to live with in terms of my own performance, and where I was happy to draw the line where I had nothing left to give. The pleasure of racing ultras is that it does always afford one the opportunity to learn about our own individual parameters.

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