31 May 2013


Comrades - The Ultimate Human Race

If you've ever ran with me, you know I love the Comrades Race. I can't shut up about it. It is truly the greatest race I've ever taken part in....twice!
Me at the tail end of my 2012 Comrades Race

I have many friends that are right now descending upon the great city of Durban, South Africa in preparation for their own Ultimate Human Race at the 88th running of Comrades Race this weekend (2nd June 2013), so I thought it timely to at least honour their trip with a (relatively) short post about Comrades Race on my blog.

This race has a long history, far too much for me to disrespect here by trying to write it all in a short post! You can read all about it on the Comrades website here.
Ask ANY South African about Comrades, they will know exactly what you are talking about. The entire country gets behind this event, seriously, the course is lined constantly with supporters from start to finish. It is like the South African equivalent of our Aussie AFL Grand Final or the Super Bowl in the states.
Running through the Green Mile where Nedbank girls were suspended from the trees overhead, cheering us onward!

The race course itself is 86-89km and changes direction each year; this year it is starting in the city of Durban and finishing in a little town called Pietermaritzburg (aka PMB or Maritzburg). This is called the 'Up' run, with the opposite direction logically referred to as 'Down'.
Don't be fooled though, the Up and Down names are only really an indicator as to the altitude of the finish line, not the outlay of the course. There is just as much uphill in the down run as there is downhill in the up run!

I've ran it twice now, in 2011 and 2012 accompanied by my running partner and good friend Kerry. We had to go back the second year to achieve our very special 'Back to Back' medal which is awarded to people who successfully complete their first two comrades in 'Back to Back' years.
My second Vic Clapham along with my Back to Back from 2012

The race has a cutoff of 12 hours, GUN TIME, so tough luck if you take 10 minutes to cross the start line, you have until 5.30pm to get to the finish. After that gun fires to signify the end of the race, nobody crosses the line and no more finisher medals are handed out. Something like a quarter of the total race entrants cross the finish line in the last hour of the race. This is the main reason people stay to see the end of the Comrades Race, the people who are sprinting, crawling, diving, limping towards the finish line with minutes to spare.  The crowd screams at them to hurry up when there are but seconds left, the finish area is a roar with shouts of encouragement as we look on to defeated faces that after 11 hours and 59 minutes, simply cannot muster any more speed or strength to get to the line faster!
even just watching this brings a tear to my eye

The medal system for Comrades is one of the reasons people will kill themselves with metres to spare, just to get a particular time that qualifies them for that medal they were trying so hard for. There are 6 different finishers medals in addition the special 'Back to Back' medal. Each medal is awarded based on finishing time with the exception of Gold which is awarded to the first 10 places. The medals are detailed in the table below which I stole from the Comrades Prizes page.

GOLDPositions 1 - 10
WALLY HAYWARDPosition 11 to sub 6hrs 00min
SILVER6hrs 00min to sub 7hrs 30min
BILL ROWAN7hrs 30 min to sub 9hrs 00min
BRONZE9hrs 00 min to sub 11hrs 00min
VIC CLAPHAM11hrs 00 min to sub 12hrs 00min

It is often difficult to properly describe how really amazing a race this is to be a part of. It's the social aspect, the race history, the scenery, the people of South Africa, the extremely tough challenge that is the actual race. The international community of runners that congregate in the days prior and after the event allows you to be fully immersed in the race atmosphere. I'll never be in the elite field of runners, but travelling over there as part of the 'Australian Team', you're representing your country. The South Africans will cheer you in the street, just for jogging past in your Aussie colours!

The official expo which runs for days prior to the race is unlike any other fitness expo I've seen before. A large section is devoted to a historical display that is overflowing with information about the race itself. In the other expo stands there are countless energy drink/snack companies represented along with every type of sportswear, multiple travel agencies specialising in fitness-related holidays, and any other performance/recovery related compound you can think of will be there!

There is a bus tour of the course in the days prior to the race, which allows you to take in the course and see first hand exactly what you have gotten yourself into. As part of this trip you visit the Comrades House, which is the official race museum, whilst there you be treated to some traditional singing and dancing.

The bus tour makes several stops along the way, the most significat of which is a school along the course, the Ethembeni school, a 'school of hope for the physically disabled and visually impaired.'
The kids here perform a number of dance and song routines for us 'athletes'. Although it's not necessarily expected, most people on the tour will donate generously to this school in the form of toys, clothes, shoes, money, electronics, whatever they can spare. As you see their smiling faces, such happiness in the face of adversity, you can do nothing but smile and shed a tear. These kids will be out on the course on race day, supporting you, cheering, hi-fives, singing. If you can run past this without shedding a tear you are a cold hearted individual indeed!

I won't bore you with a recounting of my own comrades race, save that for a rainy day...
All I really wanted to do was suggest, if you can, watch the live coverage of the event this weekend, and wish luck to all my running friends heading over for the first time, or back again for their back to back medals.

Just one of my badly recorded videos during my 2012 Comrades

Best of luck to Mick ( whom I met at Marysville Marathon), Raj and Sally (whom I ran with at Roller Coaster Run) and John (who I've trained with and was at the Great Ocean Road Marathon) who are all setting off for their first Comrades finish this year. Also good luck to Liesel and Glynn, Liesel and I have trained together plenty of times before and this year will see her nail a back-to-back medal, sadly Glynn was injured late in training so stuck spectating this year. I'm sure Stereo Jo and Tovey (all of whom I met at GOR Marathon) will all smash Comrades for guaranteed Bronze medals too.
Bruce 'Digger' Hargreaves, the Australian Ambassador for Comrades, will be back at it again not sure how many this is for him, but he will be keeping the Aussies busy before and after race day as well thats for sure.
I'll be watching your results and cheering you on from the couch this year! Hopefully you all enjoy a drink for me at Jo Cools and the Rivets bar at the Hilton, and say hi to Bafana and Hlengiwe, my two favourite bar staff!

Rest assured you've all done the training, enjoy the race, enjoy the entire experience!!
If you're reading this and haven't done it yet, commit now and join me in 2015 for the 90th running of Comrades! If you know someone travelling to Comrades this year, I hope this post gives you some insight into the experiences they are going through right now.

The last thing I'll leave you with is the atmosphere at the start line. It's cold, it's dark, and there are 18000 people jammed into their various qualification corrals. Chariots of fire is playing on repeat. Then as race start time nears, the crowd erupts into song as Shosholoza is sung. Nothing has ever sent chills down my back like hearing that song in unison with thousands of people.

There are many other great blog posts and articles about comrades, so if you know of another by all means add them in the comments section below!