More than just a road race

If Comrades was just another long road race,  an “up”, a “down”, and a silver medal would be enough for an ordinary runner like me.

But Comrades is much more. Partly because of what I do with it, sure. You seem I’m a magician. I make it big, rich, fulfilling, especially if I can finish in time. But I couldn’t do that without what Comrades is. So I go back. If I skip a couple because I want to do something else or can’t that year,  it’s ok.

A part of me is always a Comrade. Even when I can’t. I’ll be there. Part of the story of me is out on that road.

Comrades 2013 – Physical overview

Cap and Shoes

Long enough ago …

I ran 11 Comrades, one after the other, got sick, got better and a medal a couple years later then stopped for too many years.

So this is a kind of second time around and definitely starting over. My record for Comrades Two – two Vic Clapham medals, one DNS and one failure in which I got to about 84 km before the 12 hours ran out. Right, running 84 km in 12 hours is a failure.

To put my Comrades Two into perspective, 20 years ago I ran I silver, now I charge the last 500 m to get in before the final 12-hour cut-off.  My average for Comrades One was under 9 hours with two just under 10 hours, one 10+ hour run and two under 8 hours.

But hey, if getting a Vic Clapham medal (11 to 12 hours) is the way to honour our Vic, I’d happily run that long every year I can get to the startline of his masterpiece at least okay enough to run with not too many holes in me.

Training right

This year I was strong to ultra-run. Something I haven’t really been for maybe 13 years. The strong of running regularly over many months, gradually increasing mileage and having an easy week now an again and, not getting sick or injured during that time.

I think its right to say that if you manage yourself right through all the training, you can manage yourself through the day of the run.

Running enough adapts all the running systems  and gets them working together – legs strong, cooling system efficient, digestion-absorption supporting running, motivation making sure that I know a sleep after finishing is better than a sleep that stops me finishing in time – (my kind of running humour in case you’re wondering why I brought sleep into the equation); in short all of what it takes to run.

In practice it means having fun on 4-hour runs, get back and still have energy for the kids and to mow the lawn. And to look forward to lots more run-in sunrises.

Running on the day

In running-on-the-day terms my training meant I got to the start line maybe 12 kg lighter than when I last ran Comrades two years ago, and with more then the minimum miles in my legs; enough I would have guessed for an 11-hour Comrades.

Not that I was there for a race against the clock and course and conditions.  I was going to share the run with friends Hans Koeleman and Simone Guikema from Amsterdam, Holland. I was confident that I had enough to finish no matter what and sure enough that’s what happened

More than that I knew that I knew enough about what and when to eat and drink along the way. I do. I know how to use my fat supplies for energy (enough I’m sure to get around the world a couple of times), how to keep up my blood sugar up and how many and what electrolytes to take when. I kinda know it all and know it right, do it all and do it right. Except for one thing.

So I had enough when I hit the heavy heat and wind on Harrison flats to get to the end in a slower time. My legs never got sore during or after the event because I walked lots on the ups.

The only problem

The one thing I can’t do is get the past the point where I just can’t drink anymore. Slurp-fatigue.Swallow-overload. I tear open the water sachet or Energade bag, or swallow at the Pepsi cup and my throat opens to let in a little and then … that’s it. Gag. No more for a good km or two.

Under the 2012 conditions, going at that slower pace which increased the time-gaps between the water tabled, I dehydrated. Not enough to blow the run, but enough to make walking the ups even slower.  I cheated a bit on the downs and let gravity drag me into running quite merrily (more humour – it’s what really gets me through, with my shoes and cap). Thank goodness the last 18 km has lots of downs.

When I’m dehydrated my mind keeps working at whether I will make it with what I have left. I like that. When it is sure my old body had enough it wanted to drink even less. By then it was getting dark and cooler anyway. Sure enough, I crossed the line with a big grin. Ultra-success. Comrades success. But well depleted. 3 l of drip depleted.

I’ve been more or as dehydrated at the end of a run, even at this year’s Two Oceans 56km run. Usually I stagger away, think about and sometimes start drinking a beer and gradually replenish. But this time I though it best to get a drip which ended up as three and get a bigger part of the Comades family experience – those great doctors and carers in the medical tent. They restored just about all the vitality I need to smile and doze on the way back to Durban.

Other than that I got off lightly. I’ll lose a toenail on my right big toe. But it will grow again and maybe look better than the old one.  And a got more light from the Comrades glow, so that I’ll be back next year if all goes well.

The learnings

The learnings reinforce the essential basics:

Do the right training right. Know how how to eat and drink on the run. Know how to cope with conditions on the day, even if it means toughing it out.


After the 2013 run

I’m still full of Comrades.

I got my medal, a couple of pints of drip afterwards and all the goodness that Comrades gives.

Plus I had the week after the run in the Durban area winter sun, with my supportive family. Their time after my time.

The best thing was that I could walk freely even the day after the run, unlike its been sometimes. That allow me to get the most of playing with the, time with friends and family, soak up the mild sun and the Comrades afterglow, get sand in my toes.

The next challenge is to ease back into everyday life, keeping the Comrades glow. I know how to do that. Its not hard. I’ve practiced that too. So I don’t let Comrades go. This recovery, that after party, learning from this years run, glancing at next year’s run all help to make it one.

Then too there’s lot to think about remember, capture, explore from the 2012 Comrades experience.

More on that to come.


The journey to the start

The journey to the start of Comrades is part of  its richness. A pilgrimage, a journey to a place where something special happens so that we too get some of what makes it special.

Mine starts tomorrow early, the long drive by car from Cape Town to Durban. There is a practical reason for it, but the journey to the start is part of my Comrades glow.

So is Van Morrison swirling through clear, chilled-cold Karoo starlight,  as I stop to stretch, shiver and marvel, family asleep in the car.

The slowness and effort of the journey allows my mind, me, to deepen its engagement with what’s to come; to take the focus that has driven my training ever closer to the place where its goal will be realised. Different to flying there, so quickly disjointed from home

Behind us will stretch the sparkling connection to home.

And I see the glitter-trails left by other runners making the same journey.

Some of us will meet at a petrol station along the way, creak out the driving seat in tracksuit bottoms, connect, nod, know.


Rugby and running

One of the by-products of rugby is the recovery massage practice.

The players get battered and bruised in  game,  get fixed up so that they can get battered again the next weekend.  They sit in an ice bath. Specialists dig deep into their bruises.

Getting fixed is almost as tough as the playing. I got a taste of that yesterday. I should do it more through the training weeks.  But I like, before Comrades to get my legs flushed and the trigger points released, in there where muscles have jammed in their fascia sheaths. It hurts. But not too bad.

Afterwards my legs have happy bounce. I feel even more ready to run.

And Jody, the expert says my legs are not in bad shape.

It’s gotta be good.


2013 – a last 10km



A last 10 km run 8 days before the run, on the Table Mountain road above the city centre.
A good easy send off with a deeply etched memory. Except that I probably spent as much time taking pics, bathing in the marvel and sharing it with mountain bikes who were equally enthralled.


So now I can turn my mind to packing for the trip.

Step by step I’m getting into the run and it all helps me get my mind ready for the big day.

Engaging your mind 3: Toughness

An exercise to get your mind right for the Comrades Marathon

Mind lock small

Accept that its going to get tough out there.

It is going to get tough. Accept that. Facing up to and going through the effort is what ultra-running and Comrades is about.

Unless you run way behind what you could be doing, it’s unlikely to be a dance out there. And even then 87 or 90 km is a long way to dance

It’s okay.  It’s meant to get hard, uncomfortable. It can even  get sore and awful. But equally is not so tough that it can’t be done. Comrades is meant to take some of your grit and determination.

So know too, that Comrades can and has been done by thousands of ordinary people, who, like me are not unique, exceptional world-record running ultra athletes. 

Also I am not one who glories in tough. I don’t want to over-eulogise tough. If you want tough then there are longer, harder runs, even a couple of impossible runs to do.

But still Comrades will make me dig deep. And I know that bit of effort, grit and a good few months of putting miles into legs, its quite possible to get through the inescapable toughness of Comrades.

Comrades Marathon: always hard but doable, with a bit of effort and grit. In doing and sharing the hard is a marvel.

Know too that you won’t crumble at the first sign of discomfort or at the 20th. Your resilience rises to meet the run.

I also always take comfort that its not the first bit that hard its only the last bits, so there is plenty of time to enjoy the run too. Except for one year when it was hard from even before the start. I think I know what caused that so it shouldn’t happen again. The way I feel now it definitely won’t happen again. And anyway, I got the medal so I know I can cope with even that.

Dealing with the discomfort or pain

The right thing to do when feeling uncomfortable or in pain is to go into it. Work out where and what it is, how bad it is and what you can do about it. While you are moving forward.

Bring the issues to light, to your mind and they already lessen.

Once you have the measured that it is not life-, limb- or organ-threatening, the pain doesn’t have to hold you back As Ann Trason, supreme ultra-athlete who did so well at the Western States 100 miler, once said, “There is a time that the pain doesn’t get any worse.” And that’s true. Unless something is seriously broken.

If there is a real problem deal with it. You can put plasters on blisters; a lube on chafes. Water into dehydration, food into energy, foot after foot on the road. You can go slower if you are starting to cramp to let your muscles recover a little.

Mind unlock small

Going slower and eating/drinking is often good. Less stress and your body can work better – digest, feed, cleanse.

It maybe as simple as getting in more sugar-carbohydrate-gels. It’s also often that you need more, so electrolytes always help, so do the oranges, bananas and potatoes you find at the aid stations. Solid food -something salty with protein, is always good – peanuts and raisins, a whole-food energy bars.

It may be that you even have to consider bailing, quitting before the end, if what troubles you is bad enough

Comrades is doable

Always Comrades is doable.

If you run to your training, eat and drink right early and often in little bits,  deal with problems you encounter,  keep your sense of humour and keep going forward nothing will stop you getting there. Just dodge the cat’s eyes the reflectors built into the road to help misted drivers and trip runners.

And if its really hard, take the Comrades heart from the runners around you, from the spectators along the road, from your family, friends and colleagues. They all want you to keep going. They want you to succeed. So do you. So, keep going.  Your rivals may not want you to but here’s a good opportunity to put one over them.

At the end, medal around the neck

And afterwards the pain is not so bad. That earned medal glows nicely, polished by the discomfort and effort.

I am one of the ordinary and know that the Comrades has made me ultra-ordinary, in that nice Comrades phrase, even extra-ordinary at times. And that gives me the strength to cope with the inevitable discomfort.

Read here for an exercise in mental training to make visualisations concrete.

Read here for an exercise in dealing with the Comrades pre-run Fears

Engaging your mind 2: Fear

Another exercise to get your mind right for the Comrades Marathon

Write down the things that worry you.

List them. Externalise them. Get them out of you. That way they don’t gnaw at, give you sleepless nights, undermine you.

Then take time to understand them.

Fears are not a sign of a moral failing, or some sort of a character flaw. Fear is deeper parts of you telling you what you need to look out for.  Each fear points to a specific thing that you can do something about, before Comrades or on race-day.

You don’t have to sMind lock smallhow your list to anyone. Just accept them,  know that they are part of the process and engage with them.

Avoid dealing with your fears is not the answer.

Once you have written them down look at them. Work out the real problem and then think what you can do about each one. Write down the answer.

You may have to read up about your issues or talk to someone who knows. The answers are there. Find them. Use them.

Eaxmple: If you are scared of not making the end in time, try to understand what is going to stop you. If you have done 800 km of running between January and race day, spread more or less evenly over the 5 months, then you have the minimum mileage to carry you through. Trust that.

It may of course be that you didn’t do the right mileage, that you are ill or injured, that you haven’t  been able to do any running in the weeks leading up to race day. Then just accept that maybe this is not your year to get a medal. If you want to give it a go even so, then know that you might have to bail and you might damage yourself. Don’t worry about it. Accept it. Wrtie down a list of indicators that would say you shouldn’t carry on. Then as you run check all the time to see if you should carry on.

Another example: If you are worried about hydration, think through your nutrition and hydration plan. Think through what you will drink and eat during the run. Think about what you need during marathons and after a standard 42.2 km marathon or a 60 km run. That’s what you need during the run, minus the excess, junk and indulgences. Amazing what an orange and an energy bar can do. Understand what the race organisers supply and how you can use it. All the info is in the race literature.

Mind unlock small

There is plenty of water along the way … usually. In 1993, on a down run, the table just past the bridge over the freeway between Camperdown and Cato Ridge, had no water when I got there. It’s unlikely to happen now, but don’t be thrown if it does. Take your preference of whatever there is and ease on to the next table.

Think also about what you need to take with you – maybe electrolyte pills, maybe oral rehydration powders. If you have your drinking and eating plan right, one set of worries will disappear


Understand your fears and and what you need to do to deal them and then do what you must. It’s a good way to ready yourself for the run.

Read here for a third exercise in preparing your mind for Comrades

Read here for the first exercise in preparing your mind for Comrades

Engaging your mind

An exercise to get your mind right for the Comrades Marathon

Mind lock smallVisualisation – making it concrete

Get a profile or map of the route. You can look at a the small one on the the official Comrades website or a more detailed one at  at  You also can rely on your memory if you’ve run it before.

If you have the patience and know the way, you can  make your own route on one of the internet mapping tools.  Doing that takes you through every step of the way.

You can use a map to help you visualise the run. The idea is to go through the whole run in your mind before the race, imagining the hills, the down hills, the distances run, how you feel, the people along the way. Go through the route, kilometer by kilometer; the whole route, the whole way, slowly.

Start if your like with getting up early before the run, or in the slow (c)rushing crowded start in the echoes of that canon-boom;  ease into the first few hundred meters, finding space to run, checking the state of the moon. Walking again as the crush concentrates up the first freeway on-ramp …. 86 km to go.

Then go on.

You don’t need to go through the whole run all at once. Take a few nights. I do it at night while drifting towards sleep.

Making it concrete

When you have imagined your way through the first 20 km, then up the ~4 km cambered curves of Fields Hill and the gentle climbs under the trees that follow, think about how you feel on your average 30 km training run.

Most of us who have done reasonable or even minimum distance training, can run, get to, ~30 km more or less intact. Fine. So it’s a good Comrades mind-bend to imagine seeing the distance marker-board next to the road up to Hillcrest that says “55 km to go”.  32 km in the legs only 55 km to go. Only 55 km on 32 km used legs. And what lies immediately ahead is the climb into Hillcrest, the dip down to the bottom of the looming Botha’s Hill: big, the second highest point in the race.

A  Bruce Fordyce comment I once read always comes to mind in this part of the run. It went something like, “Don’t worry about the numbers. They are too big. They can scare you. Just run to the next marker board.” And so you go, one km at a time.

You can make yourself feel better imagining  along the more or less down (except for the few ups), to the halfway that follows Botha’s Hill.  Where you can run let gravity do  some of the work. Nearly like a cyclist freewheeling. Hoping that your training has toughened your legs enough for the downs. Because you aren’t even halfway yet and you should still be feeling ok especially as you have another 45 km to run.

You can also imagine getting to halfway, 43.5 km. Lots of people, music, the booming beat thumps up towards you on the road down. Relate halfway  to the last standard marathon you ran. How you felt at the end of it. Then think about running another 43.5 km. Take the cheer of the crowd, music, volunteers. Then ease into Inchanga Bank, so-called; big hill, so-encountered. Get to the top and its easy, only 40 km to go. Except that it also gets harder the further you go.

Mind unlock smallNext you can think of the 60 km mark at Cato Ridge. Only 27 km to go. Relate that to your longest training run and how you felt then. If you got your taper right you should be feeling much better during Comrades after 60 km than during your training, as you have sharpened and rested before the big run. Should be. Could be.  

Keep going.

Eventually imagine the highest point of the run, Umlaas Road, ~79 km done and just over 18 to go. Getting to the teens makes it easier to think that the run will finish, one day. 

Of course there’s Polly Shorrts. Face it. Before the run. At the bottom it’s maybe 9 or 10 km to go. Get it right in your mind now. It’s the last obstacle. It’s hard, no question. Less because it’s steep. More because it’s yet another relentless hill and you have little strength left.  

But its only a hill. It ends. All you have to do is go up it. And up. And keep going up. If you need it you have reserve energy – one tank of courage, one tank of deep-survival. use some of that. Or save it for the after party. Which isn’t too far away.

That’s it. If the TV camera points at you, get up a grin, pull out a comb.

Face the mind-benders before the run. It’s less scary when you are out there if you know what’s coming. The terror won’t eat you up.

Out there you can just concentrate on keeping going forward as best and fast as you can, sipping water as you go.  

Get the Comrades spirit, the inner strength that rises you to the occasion, the goodwill towards others, start rising now so it  can carry you to the end.


Read here for a second exercise in preparing your mind for Comrades


2013 Comrades – Not yet

I don’t want to run Comrades yet. More of this taper-happiness in my legs first. And I want that long trip up to KZN all sparking with hope and fear. And I want to stand in the Expo and feel the buzz. After  that, the last meal and a bit of sleep,  I’ll be ready for that long road.