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.



Agitation:stomach*mind*knees. Nice these taper days, running perfectly but I wish I could have done more. Ok, ok no matter how much I did I would wish the same. But this 8k is so easy man, and only 11 of these on Comrades day. Easy! <choke COUGH> At least I don’t wish that I should have done less. A little more than the minimum done well … I hope, I doubt: agitation-stomach*mind. Knees are better 🙂


Into the taper

Heavy rain woke me. Grit teeth, sleep to alarm. Sky clear clear, big smile. Venus & co not up yet – good chat with Alpha Centauri, my beacon since childhood. Cascading memories, flaring poems. Forgot to count the hill repeats. I know I did 6, hope I didn’t do 7. A 40% increase would be too cocky – oh, of course I could have done even more.

The Perfect Distance … part 2

Part 2 of  Facet 2 of what makes
the Comrades Marathon an ultimate run

First, more of the feeling on crossing the Comrades finish line.  With relief and achievement comes: a marvellous affirmation of all that you dared, all that you did, all you prepared, all you endured; acknowledgement that you campaigned and survived; a culmination well-resolved that allows you first to rest and assimilate what you did; then to fan the embers of the fire that you will next burn. And there is still more in that feeling but now for more on the Comrades distance.

Is ~90km easy?

On TV, Comrades looks easy, even from the side of the road. If only a few people took part, it would look harder. But the constant stream of runners, ordinary enough looking, makes it easier to trivialise the run.

The front runners relentlessly race to the finish. Besides a sweaty stagger they hardly look, from the outside at least, as if the distance was much of a problem. While they walk the finish arena sipping maybe soup, other runners are out on the road and will be for hours still. They smile and wave. They crowd to be on camera. Some wear funny hats. It’s a long party – chatter, jokes, music thump-bump, spectator cheers and runners’ responses.

But it’s not only that. Under the festive noise, the TV commentary, the exuberant interviewers, is a quieter soundtrack: a faint gurgle as runners’ endurance slowly drains; the rasp of a blister, the crackle of a crumbling will; the effort of a foot forced forward.

The TV doesn’t show this increasing, compounding wear on the runners; doesn’t show the increasing concentration etched on the runners faces. It’s inside the runners who feel it and have to manage it.

Anyone tempted to call Comrades easy merely needs to relate it to how they feel after a day of sitting at an office desk, of standing for an hour doing a presentation or in a queue, or how far from the gym-entrance they try to park – then multiply the fatigue by twelve or fifteen or a thousand.

I remember a colleague, Frank saying, “You can walk it.” I’m not sure I could, I walk too slowly and walking uses untrained muscles. “Maybe I could,” I said, “but can you?” Reality is a good test of lots of things that go on in words.

So if you are tempted to say Comrades is easy, enter the event, go and do it.

If you’ve run Comrades before it’s easy to think that it’s an easy run. You just need to train a bit. We forget the hard parts too quickly. My 8th Comrades was the hardest. I thought I would never run again. It took 5 month before I started running again. But by January the next year I was looking forward to the 9th.

But maybe the easiest thought of all is that Comrades distance is too far, that its roads are too hard, the views uninspiring – I mean how many of us go off the route to look down into the Valley of a Thousand Hills. It’s too easy to reject Comrades and quickly  multiply the justifications for avoiding its test.



The Comrades distance needs a mind-shift. You have to expand what you think is possible. If your mind won’t conceive the distance, if you can’t, so to ay, fit it in your head, running it is so much harder.

Comrades also needs a body-shift, mostly out of the door. Because, you can if you want to think about this a little, mind and body are one, actually it needs to start the cycle of mind-body->body-mind shifts.

With great spirit you can enter the race and commit to its training; dreaming of the medal you will earn. It’s just as easy, 3 or 4 times a week to run easy runs and think you are doing enough; to skip a run or six in January. Race day is a long way off, you understand, there is time to train. But because you build your running strength by constant accumulation, your body does need to shift more and your mind does need to shift your body out the warm bed, out the cosy music in the car on the way home after work, into the running world.

There’s another thing. The glow of beating the hills and cut-off of a run-of-the-mill-perfect 42.2 km January marathon is great. In Cape Town we are lucky to have my favourite marathon, the Red Hill. Beautiful route (that takes in a small part of the Tuffer Puffer), a serious climb and a very good determinant of two things: one being how fit or unfit you are, the other that it predicts the best Comrades time you can achieve that year – ~2.5 time that marathon time.

You know deep down that all you can do over the next four months is to get strong enough to do that prediction.

It takes little jolt, maybe that of a double espresso after the breakfast to celebrate the finish, to remember that on Comrades’ day, 42.2 km isn’t even half way. It’s true, you see, that running a 42 km is an achievement in itself. The problem is that 42 km over a hard course, then another 42 also over a hard course, then a little more.

That jolt reminds me that even when I was at my strongest, doing 140km a week with training runs of 44 km on consecutive weekends, I needed to snooze after each one. Maybe it was just that I didn’t want to mow the lawn. But actually after running 44 km I didn’t feel like running more right then – I preferred the after-run snooze, feet in the sun, in the lingering memory of the run and the sizzle and fizz of a perfect after-run breakfast, and the crackling smell of more fresh coffee. Still, as I drifted off, I remembered that 90 km is quite a long way too.

Part 3, the last, of the Perfect distance comes next

©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.

Another run …

… another thousand thoughts. With each step a cascade of well-being. What to write, what to say? Just this then: had coffee with Venus and co today, the moon was rather late. And from time to time I pushed my plop-flop running to a plap-flap; by the end it was the lightest plip-flip 94kg can do, feeling this perfect. Really. I had a nice run you see.

Gem in the conception

The “ultimate” status of the Comrades Marathon lies first in its conception. Right there is the gem that is the heart of its treasure.

The Comrades Marathon is about running, endurance running; it’s also more, it’s about the human spirit.

That’s not something I made up. The conceiver of the run, Vic Clapham, had more in his mind than just running. He wanted the runners to feel what it was like to have their spirit energized, to make it flow maybe even overflow. He took things he knew about and made an event to celebrate the human spirit.

Linger here, much as the thousands of chatting, laughing, staring, sweating, agitated runners do in the starting chutes in the hour before 05h30 on race day.

Linger only to savour the idea. Enjoy the magnificence of wanting to generate and celebrate the human spirit. Enjoy the tang of putting this at the core of a running event; blisters to make souls soar, as it were. Great idea: use running – the discomfort, effort and endurance – as means to a noble end.

It’s not knocking other runs to say they are different. All it is to say is that the Comrades Marathon has something unique and deep.

Yes, of course it doesn’t have to be nor is special for every runner. Some are really miserable about it. Comrades can be just another run, one on a to-do list. That’s okay. Finishers get their medal even if their souls are blank or churlish or if their inner lights are dim.  Yet even they will feel however faintly, a tremor after they cross the finish line.

Also there no doubt that there are other ways to generate and celebrate human spirit; other runs in which we can find it. Comrades is dedicated to it.


Vic Clapham experienced the human spirit during his time at as soldier. His experiences were of the front lines the Great War of 1914-1918. It was how he and his comrades responded to what some call the adversities of war. “Adversities” in this case is a nice-sounding word for death, mutilation, poisoning, injury, sickness, doom, cold, heat, muddy beds, lots of physical work and more than a little futility.

Soldiers had to cope or be overwhelmed. Mostly they coped. They found deeper sources of energy. Their support for each other and humour transformed their hardships.

They supported each other knowing that they may need the support later. They depended on each other for their lives. They didn’t leave wounded comrades on the field of battle.

They sang. They treasured the letters and parcels from home and shared what they could.

More than most, the soldiers understood the need for a good dose of humility. Not the humility of meekness or submissiveness, but of not getting too full of oneself, too cocky – the humbleness that ensures survival.

Vic Clapham wanted to keep alive this rich spirit. He learned during training that it could be found when a group of men face a test of endurance.


He also wanted the run to be a living memorial to soldiers who died in wars. He must have seen the emptiness around those permanent erections, inscribed with the names of dead soldiers, with angels on top, next to start of the run in Pietermaritzburg. He must have watched people walk past them without a glance, others dropping their lunch-wrap. He wanted a better way to remember the sacrifices soldiers made.

The soldiers’ memorial dimension of Comrades has mostly gone. I am not sure whether that’s good or bad.  It’s sad because it’s a noble idea and was part of the early races. It’s good because we no longer live in times when war is promoted.

What I do know though is that one of those token “Minutes of Silence” that last a few seconds wouldn’t do justice to the idea.

Nor am I sure that the “Wall of Remembrance”, where runners can buy space for their names to say “Look at me I ran Comrades”, fits with conception of the race. But its okay, I just prefer my coffee black without sugar.

In line with the memorial idea, maybe we should we take time remember just how much we depend on others, whether in war or peace. It is worth remembering that we need our families, community, friends across borders and that they need us. It is also worth remembering that together we are more than we could ever be alone.

From time to time I do think about all those who died and were damaged in wars, their lives stolen.  I think about the war mongers, the executives and managers of wars and just how much they abuse the loyalty, faith and discipline of their soldiers. I think about those who never did what they expected others to do, those who frowned when their plans confronted a devastating reality; only to frown more while signing standardised letters of condolence.  But that’s not the issue here. Vic Clapham got past it and left us a treasure.

He must have learned from his military service that it’s better to be in a position to send troops into battle than to be one of the troops. I can’t find his name in the Comrades results so it looks like he never ran it himself. Anyway the work he did to get the run going and to keep it going was more than equal to the effort of running it.

Less of the military

But let’s note too that while military in origin, the Comrades marathon has requirements quite opposite of military life. The military is based mostly on external discipline – the shouting sergeant, the command to obey orders, the legal system to back it up. For runners discipline is internal.

In the military the idea is to get fit and strong to fight and kill– for the Comrades the idea is to be fit and strong for life.

For me military life was about “gyppo-ing”, getting out of doing what you were told to do or not being there when the orders were given. Running Comrades is the exact opposite: doing what is needed even though it is not ordered and being there as fully present as possible.

What about Comrades today?

Vic Clapham’s passion, insight and modesty are all hallmarks of the way the owners and organisers of the marathon have go about their business and how the event has grown.

The spirit Vic Clapham created lived on in the Comrades Marathon through the depression and more wars. It was the basis of its endurance and is what enabled it to grow to what it is today.

We still see the human spirit alive in the runners and how its spread to their families, supporters, colleagues, and to spectators and TV viewers. With it is another perhaps unintended and unarticulated legacy – the results of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Thanks Vic

What I really like is that Vic Clapham was modest man of at best modest means. He was a train driver. No lofty lord, no commanding officer, no poet, philosopher- or warrior-king with the leisure to ponder. He was an ordinary person, an ordinary soldier with extraordinary insight. He saw into the hearts of men. His legacy outlives that of the lofty.

If you allow it to, if your expectations aren’t too tight, the Comrades Marathon will enrich your life with unexpected delight. So now and again we should reserve a wink for Vic Clapham and what he gave us, just after we thank our calluses for protecting our feet. We should thank him for his persistence. We can even follow him by finding our inspiration and implementing it.

The next facet:: The Comrades distance

©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.