Comrades- What you need to know- Dennis Kennedy
By now you should be vastly reducing volume and increasing intensity and letting your body heal from the pounding it has taken over the last few months. Just do not be silly and play some other sport to get rid of the edginess you feel by the reduced training-you will pick up an injury. These last few weeks are about staying cool, calm, rested and flu-less and trying nothing new
Now and again you will feel a flutter in your tummy when you think of the stupidly far distance you will need to run on 31 May, oh and the hills, don’t forget the hills!
Many of you would have read my tale before, but a refresher course does no harm, and will make you suitably scared and respectful of this mighty race!
- C minus 3 (days)
The training is done; nothing more you do now will improve your fitness or your time. You will just get injured or tire your legs if you run now. Your body needs recovery time. Many runners are so hyped up at this point and need to be doing something so will stupidly play football or touch rugby. This is the best way to get injured; because you are fit and hyped, you tend to push too hard at whatever you are doing. (In 2008 I was in full Iron Man training and entered a Mountain Bike race for something different. I was way too fit for my skill level as I am a rubbish mountain biker and went too fast down a technical hill, crashed, broke my arm and that was the end of iron man) So, here is list of things to do on this day:
- Increase carbohydrate intake. (except if you follow the LCHF eating plan)
- Increase water intake.
- Stop all alcohol (Except for Mark who knows for sure that a day without beer is a wasted day)
- Eat only what you would normally eat, preferably fresh and uncooked. Avoid all take-a-ways and all fast foods.
- If not normally eaten, avoid energy bars and all dairy products
- Have a good massage by a sports masseuse (or masseur for the girls)
- Stay away from people if possible, colds and flu will be around, so if you have to meet someone, ask about them having a cold, they will understand.
- This is for me the time to mentally fine tune the race; from preparation to start to all the target points and times and of course crossing the line on time feeling like a champion.
- Tell your seconds what your (realistic) times are at various points. There will be a timing mat at half-way (and at other non-disclosed places) from which your supporters can get your times via SMS. Tell them to multiply your half way time by 2 and add 1 hour by which time you will be having your first beer on the field at the finish. Unless of course you blow completely! If this happens, do NOT look for the bail bus, it is not a nice place. Fight on and you will finish, you will not be the first to walk the last 30k’s nor will you be the last.
- C minus 2
For reasons best explained by the experts your body tends to operate in a 48 hour cycle, particularly in athletes. What you do and eat today will impact more on race day (2 days time) than the immediately preceding day, so:-
- This is a critical day
- See one above and continue in the same vein, but rather “graze” all day much as a cow would do, as opposed to having a big meal. Natural, unprocessed foods are great for this type of grazing, chocolate is not one of those, Sandra!
- Your largest meal should be a late lunch rather than dinner. Water intake must be such that despite all the vitamins, your pee is totally colourless and transparent
- Do not run, and if you need to, walk around the block easy
- Rest is best, feet up, read a book, watch a video take your mind off the run.
- Go to bed early and relax as much as possible. You should feel full and well hydrated with no aches and pains
- Beware the virtual cold or sore knee at this time. Many runners, including me, get virtual flu around now. Your nose is sniffy and your throat scratchy and you are convinced that you will be unable to run. Unless you are actually coughing with a deep wheezing chest, ignore it and believe that it is just that, a virtual cold, you will be just fine at the start.
- The only time to properly assess if you are too sick to run is when you are at the start at 05h30 on May 31st, not before; so stop worrying.
- C minus 1
This is always a long day, which drags, rest as much as possible, avoid walking on the beach as it strains your Calves/Achilles Tendons, avoid diuretics such as alcohol, tea and coffee.
- Go and register if not done so already and feel the Comrades vibe. Look around the museum and the expo. You will surely recognise some of the world’s great distance runners
- Watch what you eat as today can do more harm than good from a dietary point of view if you are not careful. You can negatively influence your run rather than contribute to it, by getting an upset tummy, or diarrhoea or overeating/drinking
- Graze most of the day; drink a lot (of water!)
- Last big meal at lunch time
- Set out all the stuff you will need in the morning; clothes with your numbers pinned on, Vaseline, sun block, cap, watch, running chip, dark glasses, throw away T-shirt, shoes, plasters, gels, and breakfast.
- Pack your bag to leave with your seconds or to place in the tog bag truck. Remember, if you have a slowish run, it will be cold at the finish, so take a towel, change of clothes, tracksuit, a pair of sandals with open toes as you may well have blisters or black toe nails (Comrades is not for sissy’s!) and you will have to walk to the car. (This is actually harder than you could imagine).
- Despite having the best seconds in the world, I still prefer to send my tog bag with the tog-bag truck, so that I know for sure it will be available whenever I finish. The finish is probably more stressful for your seconds than it is for you; with limited parking, blocked roads, a field full of athletes broken and bent, tents and fences and bridges and things, and if you have a slow one, it will be dark as well, so they may not be where you need them and at least you will have your post race gear while you await them.
- Agree precisely where you will meet your seconds. The finish is a very crowded place. Tell our seconds that whatever time you finish, you will wait at the designated spot and they must find you. If you are not where you should be, they must go to the medical tent
- Set two alarms
- More mental racing and preparation. Know that you will go through bad patches and you will be sore, everyone is. But believe, because it is true, that you will get through the bad patches and you will only be sore for a few hours. Remember it hurts more and forever if you give up just because of a few aches and pains.(Pain is temporary, regret is forever)
- Sleep may be difficult, no matter! Sleep tonight is not important, rather than toss and turn, watch a video or read.
- Getting to the Start
All hotels and most B&B’s are very Comrades friendly and will put on a good pasta dinner the night before, a buffet breakfast at 04h00 and most will take you to the start if needed, do not stress about it just organise all this the day before. The best place to stay if you can afford it is a harbour facing room at the Royal Hotel (Town facing is too noisy as they prepare the start throughout the night) as you can stroll out the hotel to the start which is right outside.
- The Start is a very stressful time for first time or inexperienced athletes.
- Eat as soon as you get up to allow for digestion. My favourite pre-Comrades meal is 2 slices of toast with honey, 1 banana and a cup of strong black coffee with honey, but eat what you have planned.
- Get dropped off as near as possible to the start about 04h30-4h45.
- Take your tog bag to the truck and hand it in.
- Use the toilet if needed. I try to avoid these smelly places if at all possible, there are many toilets and trees along the road, but please do not make like a dog and leave your droppings in peoples driveways!
- Grab some water; there will be refreshment stations before entering the pens and listen out for the minor birds who make an incredible racket as they are woken up by the noise and lights and seem quite annoyed at all the activity
- I always carry a bottle of diluted drink with me for the first 10k’s as the tables are busy and crowded. This also helps psychologically as I feel that I am still “fully loaded” after 10k’s
- Get into your pen about 25-30 min before the gun. Despite the organisers best efforts there is usually a crush at the pen entry points. Runners are stressed and anxious and push and shove and climb the fences. Go with the flow you will get in before the gun, as with about 15 min to go, all pens are opened and the athletes surge forward to the line as if they are migrating bison in the Serengeti. The entry gates free up and you can join in. This is not the start so chill for a bit more
- In the pens there will be more space, so relax and above all take in the atmosphere. If you can find a place to sit, do so
- Remember that being stressed out or cold simply uses energy, and you will need every bit of all your energy later in the day. Try to keep calm and warm. Take deep slow breaths and chat to the runners around you
- The start at Comrades is extremely emotional, stretching nearly a kilometre, surrounded by 12 000 odd athletes all fit and ready to go, with a common purpose:- get to the finish in one piece and who cares about the time, it’s the medal that matters; the smells; colours; banners; TV camera’s; nervous tension; banter and sheer terror pervades all, with “Chariots of Fire” playing, the National Anthem sung by the choir, ShoshoLosa ringing along the field and so on. I defy any first timer not to have a tear or two. This is your day.
- When the cock crows, start your watch, this gives you a few added seconds. In fact I start my watch a minute before based on the town hall clock which you should be able to see, you forget about this minute along the way and if you happen to be chasing seconds to achieve your goal, you suddenly remember the bonus. Check your watch after the first k or so as it is often bumped off in the crush and you will need to re-start your time.
- The Gun goes off
- Comrades is a gun to mat race, so actually crossing the start line is only for timing chip notation, not for start times, but the finish mat is for finish times.
- The up run is not too bad a start as the road is wide and straight so expect a reasonably fast start.
- Do not try and push through the crowds for the first 1-2 k’s use them to warm up, it will be dark so take extreme care with your footing, there will be many discarded bottles, T-Shirts, black bags, water and so on lying around underfoot.
- Weaving in and out the crowds is pointless, you will make little progress and simply waste energy.
- Having regard to the above, however, do not dawdle; you can waste up to 20 minutes crossing the start line and in the first 10k’s if you get stuck with the slow runners pace. Get into your rhythm as soon as practicable and keep an eye on the pace/time. If you are planning a steady 6 min/k you should do the first 10k in about 65 minutes. This will easily be caught up later so not to worry.
- First bit
- A steady climb in the dark pre-dawn will get you to the Tollgate hill at about 5 k’s, a fantastic place to be when you are on the down run!
- You should be warm by now and getting into a rhythm.
- Over Tollgate hill is the first descent, enjoy and run easy, a good place to empty your bladder which will almost certainly be needed if you drank properly before the start.
- Wind along the motorway undulating up to again drop down 45th cutting, through Westville and off the motor way. Hooray, some crowds, you are into Comrades proper.
- Upwards, ever upwards through some beautiful ‘burbs, smelling breakfast (actually it turns many runners off!) and over Cowies hill at about 17k’s. Smile and be happy for the TV Cameras at the top of Cowies.
- Plunge down Cowies for a K and a bit into Pinetown. Lots of support, they say Pinetown is flat but in fact it is a steady gentle climb which only seems flat because Pinetown is bracketed by Cowies and Fields hills. Do not let the little detour affect you
- Fields hill is beckoning, approach with caution
- Second quarter
- Under the bridge in Pinetown, turn right at around 23k done and before you lies the steepest hill you have seen.
- Head up, shorten your stride, swing your arms and chug up the hill at an easy pace. Pretend you have a tennis ball under your chin, this is the best angle for your head and keeps the windpipes open
- Do not, repeat not, chase up this hill, you will pay dearly later on. Take it easy, keeping slow and steady.
- There are many false crests to Fields hill, it is only done when it is done, so do not anticipate the top
- Emerge in Kloof (they pronounce it strangely there) and ease into Gillets. Great support and look for the neighbourhood rivalry. (One year there was a sign that said to keep Kloof clean, spit in Gillets!)
- This section is relatively flat and fast, cruise along happily, criss-crossing the motorway.
- Look for the first refreshment station in Gillets (about station # 12) it is always manned by formerly abused girl children who stay in a protected environment in the area, supported by Comrades and the runners. Thank your maker that you did not have to endure their suffering
- Through Winston Park and into Hillcrest. As you get into Hillcrest there is the 56k board, (32k done and dusted) take heart only an Ultra to go been there done that! Large crowds, Great Spirit. (There is a great pub in Hillcrest, but save for later).
- Past the Inanda dam turn-off (Duzi paddlers know the dam well), down the hill through large crowds providing great encouragement, enjoy it as before you is a very steep hill, the horrid Botha’s Hill (The locals also pronounce it funny as if they had never heard Afrikaans!).
- Climb the nearly 2 K’s as if you were an old steam engine, huff and puff and belch and fart, but steadily get to the top. Use your arms to pump up the hill. Like Fields, you race up here at your peril! Be warned!
- The top of Botha’s is the end of a relentless 36 odd Kilometre climb on the up run. There is little respite in this first section and whilst it flattens out to an extent there are still some major climbs to come
- Over Botha’s past Kearnsey collage where the boys in their uniforms cheer politely, then you have an undulating down for about 7 K’s. Enjoy the change in gradient but be careful of trying to race down here. Look for the famous Rob Roy hotel on your right.
- This section is often surprisingly chilly as it is still early morning and you are in the shade all the way down
- You will pass by the large Alverston Radio mast on your left. This is where the TV commentators are based and from where the entire TV coverage is managed and controlled
- Along this stretch is the famous wall of honour where Comrades finishers place their names and numbers on plaques built into a huge wall. It is so important to some, that several former athletes have had their ashes placed behind their plaque so they may forever watch Comrades; such is the nature of this mighty race.
- Shortly before the wall is a niche cut out in the rock on the left side of the road heading to Maritzburg. This is Arthur’s seat, where Arthur Newton, the first winner of Comrades, sat and rested during his long training runs. You will see tributes placed in the niche and legend has it that if you greet Arthur on the way past, you will have a safe and comfortable second half – that is why you may notice some runners talking to the rock wall!! Hey, you got nothing to loose so keep the tradition!
- Over the little white bridge and there, at last, is Drummond, half way, 44k to go so crowded you have a narrow path to run through the cheering supporters, over the half way mat, smile and look totally in control, this is a major coverage point for TV.
- Here is a tip, look at the time of day (not race time) as you pass through Drummond and you will be surprized to note that it is still pretty early in the morning. If you are having a bad day, take heart as the race only finishes at 17h30, you have like 7 hours to run a (nother) marathon, easy
- If you are looking for a silver medal you should pass through Drummond in around 3h40 feeling strong. For a Bill Rowan about 4h15 and for a bronze 5h00 odd
- If you are a straggler watch out for the 6 hour cut-off, this will be your first challenge as the earlier cut-offs are pretty easy to beat
- Be warned, for every minute you pass halfway faster than planned/trained for, you will lose at least 6 minutes in the second half. Believe this it is true
- Apart from the early days, it is extremely unusual to find a Comrades winner who also went through halfway in the lead. Think about it!
- Then the!@#$ starts.
- First half of the second half
- The first thing you notice after the crowds and excitement of Drummond is the quiet, no crowds, no banter, no TV, what’s up?
- The Mighty Inchanga, that’s what, long and steep and lonely.
- You should have a few minutes in hand by now so take it easy (in fact no hill with a name is raced in Comrades – this is another of those)
- You have already done more than a marathon and climbing the longest, steepest hill is just plain stupid. It does end eventually so keep grinding your way up and over.
- Near the top at the 42k to go mark we usually find the organisers of the London Marathon manning a table and providing encouragement. Please- after Comrades a marathon is easy so go and run London if you can
- Whilst I do not race up these named hills, I make a point of passing someone on every hill, even if they are crawling and I am walking, I must pass someone (and steal their energy!)
- Inchanga is actually two climbs with a short respite in the middle, much like little Chappies and big Chappies in Two Oceans, so do not be fooled and do not look at the runners way above you!
- Plunge down the other side, you have not succumbed to the Mighty Inchanga, feel proud.
- At the bottom, pass Bayat’s Store and you are in the heart and soul of KZN.
- Here is my favourite place in Comrades, let me tell you the absolutely true story about the Ethembeni home for physically disabled children.
Wanderer’s Club runners (of which I am a proud lifelong member), together with our neighbours and friends from the Rocky Road Runners club, have a quiet secret, about which we never really speak. On the Comrades marathon route, at the foot of the mighty Inchanga, near the land mark of Bayat’s Store is a school for physically disabled children from the local community called Ethembeni. In the mid Nineteen Eighties, my mates and I and a couple of guys from Rockies, used to carry with us as much cash as we could afford and dish this cash out to the Ethembeni kids as we passed by, every one of whom was physically disabled. In those early years, the school was a few mud huts with no water or electricity, where the kids lived, ate and were schooled. Their equipment was pathetic with broken wheelchairs, sticks for crutches and so on. Yet, every race day, these kids and their minders lined the side of the road and cheered, shouted and clapped (some with no hands still clapped their little stumps like mad). We runners slowed and handed out the cash to the kids, some in wheelchairs; some with no legs or crippled grotesquely by polio; some with no arms, and then proceeded to thank our maker that the only thing wrong with us was sore legs and exhaustion.
You see, we could stop and end the suffering, those kids could not.
Anyway, after a few years, the Comrades Marathon Association became aware of what we were doing and made the Ethembeni School one of the charities that they (and of course the runners) supported each year. Then when the country was freed, the Nelson Mandela Foundation also became aware of what both the Comrades Association was doing and what the runners were doing and adopted the school. Nowadays as you run past, the kids still have no hands or legs or are horribly misshapen, still cheering like mad, but all have proper equipment, uniforms and a great brick school with water and electricity and beds and teachers and food and stuff.
We still say thank you for our legs and for the sheer ability to run every time we pass by and know for certain that one little act of thoughtfulness by an unknown runner lead to all this. You see each of us, even by running, can and do make a difference
- After the school, dry your eyes on the short climb (watch for local kids trying to nick your hat or glasses) which takes you onto the Harrison Flats. The police on horses patrol this area just in case
- Here you can stretch your legs a bit and pick up the pace if you can. This is a long and flat road, with little support apart from the Eskom watering point, so, head up, concentrate on your pace and enjoy the rhythm.
- After Harrison flats, at about 32 to go you meander through Cato Ridge and Camperdown. Good support, mainly flat but some undulations. There is always a refreshment station in Cato ridge manned by a religious group (you may need some divine help at this point and they willingly oblige with a blessing).
- The last bit of the third quarter is where you are likely to start questioning your sanity and you may well go through a bad patch. It is hot, desolate, no supporters and at about 23 to go (Comrades is marked in K’s to go rather than K’s completed) you come across “no-Name Hill” a climb of about 1 k, which is just horrible. Dig deep and repeat the childhood mantra of the Little Red Engine: “I think I can; I’m sure I can; I know I can: I will”, over and over until you get through the patch and over the hill.
- Take stock of where you are, how you feel, look at the real time and you will be surprised that it is earlier than expected and you have until 17h30 to finish, plenty of time?
- Think of how fortunate you are to have the mind, body and soul needed to even take part in this race and be grateful that you can experience the greatest race on earth. The pain eventually goes away and you will be left with good memories.
- The final Quarter
- Three quarters behind you one quarter to go, start digging the race is about to commence.
- For the newbie’s who have run Oceans or one or more of the other ultra’s; those races are like a Sunday School picnic compared to what you about to go through, this is where the hurt starts and you find out if you are a man or a mouse.
- Easy running to Umlaas Road, surprisingly the highest point on the run (at about 21 K’s to go), but unmarked by any hills or big climbs, you just pass by. It is just before the Idube race track and there is a board marking the spot
- Cross the motorway again, under the bridge at the motor racing track, round the corner and suddenly there is the 18k to go marker with the TV cameras in the distance. Usually the crew and cameras are long gone even by the time the silver runners come through, but just in case smarten up and try to look as if you are having fun. You are at the huge chicken farms (easy to tell by the smell).
- Past the chickens round the bend and to the lion park turn-off. Be careful at this stage that you do not get finishing fever; there is a long way to go with some vicious hills to come. You need to pay particular attention to fluid and carb intake. If you are running for sub 7:30, it will be hot, for the rest of us starting to get cool and a bit duller. By the way, refreshment stations come thick and fast so try to skip every second station; this will be enough for the average runner.
- A long run down from the chicken farms brings you to little Polly’s, where many novices think that this is the real thing. About 1,4 k’s long a steady climb and as usual no racing, not that most are capable of even running up little Polly’s
- Over the top at the Ashburton turnoff 11k to go and another long downhill, past the Johnson Estate, with lovely cool dams just out of reach, cross the little white bridge at about 9k to go, a left sweep and before you lies the Grand Dame of the up run, Polly Shortts. Hmmm!
- This hill is long, and steep and winding, even the ice-cream sellers pushing their carts go faster up here than the average runner, who has already covered about 78k’s! I have no advice for getting up this hill; just do whatever it takes to get over the top as quickly as possible. You will loose time, but probably won’t care.
- For the boys this is where the effects of too much early Testosterone kick in and many hang their heads as the only people running up Polly’s seem to be girls
- Over the top, that’s where the TV stands are so you know you are there! Start thinking finish, race down the hill, but the Kilometre markers must be wrong; each 1k seems like 2?
- Surprisingly fast if you have anything left, some twists and turns and small climbs along Washington Drive, into Jesmond, last right turn into Alexander Road, into the park and the seemingly endless final Mile, what a sight, hundreds of people, banners, fences, TV, a stupidly difficult ramp onto the field (it is surprising how hard it is to climb a ramp at this point), grass at last.
- Be very careful not to relax in this final stretch. Many runners collapse on the grass within site of the finish as they mentally relax and the body seizes and cramps. You are not finished until you cross the line, then you can collapse
- Smile for the finish photo’s looking like you just had a quick walk, cross the line. Cry if you want, most first timers do.
- Take the medal, hang it round your neck as it is too hard to carry and say thank you, you have just run Comrades; something very few in the world will do and your personal achievement that can never be taken away. Enjoy every second, but never ever say you have conquered Comrades, it will come back and bite you one day when next you run feeling a bit too confident.
- If you have not had a pee within 24 hours of the run, go straight to the hospital. Not kidding, go now; your kidneys are not happy.
After my first run, I threw my shoes out the window, told my wife I had done what I needed to do and was ready to move on. Then, you know, the next day, well maybe, done the down, surely you need to do an up run as well otherwise you are incomplete as a runner. Be Careful, because Comrades grabs you and I am sad that I will be missing 2015 which would have been my 24th run, however I have qualified for 2015 Iron Man World Champs in Kona, Hawaii, so need to keep focussed
Happy running, if it was easy everyone would do it!
See you on the road
Denis Kennedy #2518
-Denis is a distance running and tri-athlete coach and apart from 163 marathons; 23 Comrades; 20 Two Oceans; 9 IronMan triathlons, he has won his age group in several Triathlons’ including 70.3 and Iron Man South Africa several times and been to 5 triathlon World Champs