Comrades 2011 digestion

Part of perfect ultra-running is being able to run with, let’s say, ultra-efficiency for hours on end. The best I got to was maybe 6 hours on tar with hills; maybe 10 hours on a paved, flat 100-miler; and, around 14 hours on mountain trails as long as I didn’t twist an ankle or two.

At the right effort level, wear on body-legs-mind is minimal. With a little refuelling and good hydration, the effort is, let’s say again, near-effortlessly sustainable. No recovery required besides maybe an espresso, maybe a beer, a little snack and dreamy snooze.

Body-in-motion, every system functioning strongly and in harmony, active, meditative, soul-filling, spirit free – a kind of the fullest being, a kind of perfection.

It takes a while and lots of running to get there. No doubt about that. For 2 ½ years I’ve been trying. While I’m on my way back – I can get into that zone for maybe an hour if the route is flat or down, I’ve still got some way to go to keep it up for most of a day.

In a way it’s a pity. The Comrades Marathon is much more enjoyable running in that easy, effortless state for maybe half the run. That means only half a run of concentration, effort, discomfort. Because of what Comrades embodies – a race, a culmination, a goal – I run a little faster and the effortless state ends earlier anyway.

Not that I mind. I like the idea of all the easier work in training – lots of spirit-free running  – and then to race, to get there in close to the best time possible on the day with the training done. Racing has its own riches.

Reflection: Maybe I could have gone a faster this year. But it wouldn’t have been much – not much more than 20 min. But  faster increases the risk of failing. I wanted a finish, a medal. I played it safe. Given how glad I was that the race ended there in Alexandra Park and not up in Hilton I was pretty close to being finished by Comrades even if I finished it. And now it strikes me that I’m glad Vic Clapham lived in Pietermaritzburg and not in Howick – another giant climbs and a good few kilometres further.


The big day looms big

So why Comrades 2011, so far, hard?  Got so much before, so what come back? Partly I know: be strong for my life’s autumn; healthy for two beautiful kids; top-up my soul with moon, stars, friends, more of the riches of the running world.

But one more medal holds something I can’t know ‘til it’s in my hands, ‘til later when the culmination subsides and I can hear the whispers of the stars.

How’s that? Better not catch a cold. Finish packing! Come on! Sunglasses, Viagra, in mean electrolytes capsules, pacing schedule, energy bars, peanuts more …


Packed so far: shorts, vest, lucky socks, news shoes worn with 150 km off their soles, timing chip, a couple of memories. Need spare shorts in case I lose more weight, these ones are barely hanging on … I wish. Got a zip-lock bag of external resolve; last year I took a 10l jerry can. Less training more resolve; more training gotta force myself to stop grinning, jumping, getting on the plane 2 days early.

Day before:

Gotta preserve these old legs. Following Lance Armstrong’s example I took my performance enhancing things: wine last night, coffee this morning, water and fruit salad then 25 min cycling at 70 rpm. Weight, according to the gym scale is stable if not a few grams less plus I had my glasses on. Relief. Taper isn’t making me heavier so I can eat more:-) Test of gut and calluses less than 8 days away.

Before that: I ran a bit.


Runners’ Spirit

To understand something its good to know where it comes from

The body, roughly stitched from pubis to throat, lay naked in the Oshakati morgue. Our job was to put him, his boots and bloody clothes in a used coffin, screw down the lid and take him to his flight home. A conscript dead, a vast sadness – the waste of war.

Vic Clapham in the 1914-1918 war saw death, injury and more. He would  also have seen the base side of military life: theft, unwashed selfishness, fear, cowardice. But he wasn’t trapped by them.

He saw more. In the gloom of war he saw good. He saw solidarity among the soldiers. He saw them share maybe water and food, maybe the physical and emotional load. He saw humour, courage, sacrifice, resilience and endurance.  He saw the unselfish concern for injured comrades; himself, far beyond any duty, carried for a long distance when he could not longer go on.

He knew soldiers’ rough comfort. He knew their reverence and faith.

In this spirit the Comrades grew. Though not always in the headlines, each year the Comrades Marathon creates some of this good; the light of life.

The spirit is in the runners.

The spirit is also in those watching, engaging from the side of the road.

It goes further: the organisers of the event, those who stage it, the families and friends of the runners, much of  a  nation enthralled but the spectable

Spirit in the runners

My mate Danie and I

He runs in a silent world, but still gets the Comrades cheers

Part of the Comrades spirit is generated in the runners.

The first part of the run is easy – unless you didn’t sleep well or ate too much of the wrong things; if you haven’t got a good way catch the wild herd of butterflies jostling inside.

The second part of the run is doable. At a steady pace, all the miles of your training carry you along. Its running just past fun and chat and jokes, but not too hard to do.

But then, sometime, you have to grit your teeth. The end is further than you want it to be. To far to hold on to as the means to keep going. Running is becomes uncomfortable, legs jar, feet hurt; discomfort you can’t escape. It can get harder: sun harsh, jarring shade, road hard, air rough. Sometimes even looking hurts. Nothing available tastes right. There’s still a way to go. The end of the run not yet close enough to bring hope or escape

Just there, deep in the Comrades, when you have to dig deeper, the spirit flows. It’s not a burst of energy, or happiness or a pain relief. The Comrades spirit begins with dash of resolve. You hitch yourself up and keep going, not matter what.

With maybe with a joke – stick a fork in me to see if I’m done; maybe the ratchet in your mind holds – its only 20 km to go; maybe with just a grunt, you go on. Even those who seek first comfort and indulgence understand. Giving up is wrong. Life doesn’t give up. Survival, adaptation are at source.

Spirit flow

We see the Comrades spirit at the end. Runner’s will help fallen comrades across the finish line; cross the line with friends bonded in many hours of training and now running; a married couple embraces; a father, against the rules, carries a child to the finish line.

Its there too on the road. Runners help, sometimes to their own cost, runners, strangers who falter – encouraging words, advice if need, often its just running with them, sharing and so lessening the load.

Many runners know that another’s success takes nothing from them.

Maybe two, maybe a group of runners run all the way together; a solidarity, a sharing the eases the load.

Early in part of the run; even in the dark first jostling stop-go, in leg-tangling trash-bags and curses; in the exuberant banter, the loud chatter, and among some pretty evil farts, the spirit flows.

A runner falls; instant concern, surge of empathy, helping hands. Way made for harder runners from behind. Joy of recognising the gait an old friend then greetings, wishes of good luck. Strangers suddenly talk to each other. At a crowded water table, runners sachets and thanks .

What I also like is further down, up, down the road. In silent kilometres a connection forms between same-paced runners. Faster ones come and go, others slow and disappear. The load, the total effort of those who stay is less than the individual efforts. That’s a rich part of the spirit.

Little for the ego

Those who expect that Comrades spirit jump up and pat them on the back may be disappointed. Trumpets don’t blast. The Comrades spirit doesn’t won’t pick them out and say “Hey everyone, look at here, a special person, a comrades runner, look what they achieved.”

Nor will it solve anyone’s problems. More likely it will give lessons, perspective: pricks for egos; aches those who seek first comfort; delay for those who seek quick wins; weights for those who like to carry things they needn’t.

It teaches that persistence brings rewards; that we are not alone; together who knows what can be done.


Long after the run the spirit, its energy, is still strong, ready to sparkle. You might walk down the steps to a beach and coming up is an older man in a faded Comrades Green number shirt. You might say, “You had a good comrades innings”.

He may glow. “Yes. Long ago now. Eighteen in a row, until my legs gave in.”

“Wow. But your Comrades cup is still full?”

“Yes even if I drink from it, it stays full.”

Or you might be away from home on holiday or work. You will greet runners, smile, chat with those going in the same direction.

Comrades runners know each other. They smile as they stretch out of their cars at a petrol-station in Harrismith – fellow t-shirt pilgrims head for another day of reckoning.  In the short “Good luck” and “Thanks you too” is a rich connection.

More on the Comrades Spirit to Come.

©Wildbooks Ink. It would be polite and legally correct if republishing this work or part of it would be preceded by the express written permission of Wildbooks Ink on the terms it prescribes.  Excerpts may be used if the writer, Paul Vorwerk, is prominently, fully and clearly indicated and that prominent and specific reference is made to the original content and this website.

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


©Wildbooks Ink. It would be polite and legally correct if republishing this work or part of it would be preceded by the express written permission of Wildbooks Ink from on the terms it prescribes.  Excerpts may be used if the writer, Paul Vorwerk, is prominently, fully and clearly indicated and that prominent and specific reference is made to the original content and this site.