The Perfect Distance … part 1

Facet 2 of what makes Comrades an ultimate run


Crossing the finish line after running ~90 km is a marvel; even if it’s running that is also walking, cursing or crawling.

That feeling, that fizz and burst, makes the Comrades distance exactly right for a perfect running experience.

Maybe it’s just relief. But if one takes a little time to understand, it’s a lot more than that. For a start, the finishing-feeling has a decent amount of achievement in it. Comrades is far enough to make anyone falter, even give up, if not the whole run, then a goal. So getting to the end no matter what, surviving the challenge, is an achievement.

It doesn’t matter if the distance changes a little from year to year. It’s always kind of exactly far enough.

It’s definitely the perfect distance to release the “human spirit” as its founder intended.

That’s a lot of perfection for an expanding and contracting road running distance. But it’s there to be experience and, as always, if you want to argue, first go do it, again and again if necessary until you understand.

Why about 90 km?

Vic Clapham, the Comrades conceiver, as recorded in Morris Alexander’s, The Comrades Marathon Story set the distance because of two


He knew from experience that an army recruit, even one from behind desk could, with more or less 6 months training do a 40-mile (~64 km) march in full kit, carrying weapons, ammunition, perhaps a cigarette or two and a letter from home.

Training was one thing. In the field, the soldier would have to complete the distance and then maybe have to confront an enemy. So he had to have a bit of extra energy too.

The ~55 miles of Comrades without army baggage, is of the same order. To complete the run a “reasonably able person” needs about 6 months of training. If the training went okay, there might be a little extra left to party after the run, at least until seven o’clock.

Vic Clapham, also knew about the London to Brighton distance in the UK. People ran, walked and when cars were invented, drove with a flag-waver walking in front from London to Brighton. Its distance of about 54 miles was similar to the distance between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. And, if you don’t know the distance of the London to Brighton Marathon was formalised in 1953, a very good year for things to be born, at 54 miles and 198 yards which is 87.085 km.

I wonder though if our Vic had any idea just how much the distance he chose would move so many runners. It has satisfied over 100 000 runners since 1921, many of them over and over again and many more will hear its call.

I’m not sure he thought then that even in peace time, even when the virtue of wars evaporated, the road, distance, those hills and twisting cambers would give so many a taste of perfection. In what he did, he created a perfect allure.

The long and the short of it

The long and short of the Comrades Marathon distance, is that it is neither too long nor too short. It’s about exactly right.

The Comrades distance is long enough to take runners out of their comfort zones and keep them there long enough to change them. No matter how well we train its going to get to us.  No matter how good a runner we are, the distance will make us dig deeper. No matter how far behind the get-the-best-time effort level we run, the distance will make us work.

Much longer and fewer would do it. That would be a pity. Sharing the run with many others is part of perfecting the experience.

It’s not that runners can’t cope with longer runs. Even I could. But the training, getting the body and mind right, the event itself, would take too much out of their lives.

Part of the rightness of the Comrades distance is while it allows us to get the most out of endurance running, it also allows us to keep the balance between our running and the other parts of our lives – family, work and community lives. It’s actually al lot more than balance. Comrades adds a glow to the other parts of our lives.

At the same time, the Comrades distance can have a dark side. To be more precise, it can create a dark side in runners. It’s easy to do too much: to get drained; obsessed; to neglect things that need to be done; make bad decisions about running when sick or with injuries; even to push others into doing something that is not good for them.

While Comrades is a long run, it’s also short enough to be sane. Short enough to almost guarantee success for those who do the training. Short short enough too, to allow us to fit training for it into our everyday lives.

But it’s never too short. Shorter runs don’t always test all our frailties. They allow us to sneak through. That’s not to say that there’s no place for shorter runs. They have their own possibilities of perfection. If nothing else, you can’t really run Comrades without doing many, actually very many, shorter runs. Even 1 or 2 km recovery runs when you need to.

But the point is that coping with a marathon is easier than coping with two. Coping with 56 km and 60 km runs is one thing, but Comrades is just that much harder. It’s the last 30 km that are the problem, not the first 30 km. Nor even the first 50 km. The further the run, the harder each kilometre becomes. It’s like running faster and faster: the more we approach the speed of light, the “heavier” we become and less we can actually go at the speed of light. If that’s that too weird for this story then I apologize.

Anyway, its distance means the Comrades is always far enough to test us right into our core.

More about the distance next time in The perfect distance in part 2


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