The Comrades Marathon in South Africa
The race between Durban (at sea level) and Pietermaritzburg (600m above sea level) alternates directions each year. This year the race was uphill. Our representative, Max, ran 4:17:08mins for half way, 10:39:42 at the finish in 8089th place, so his race was an uphill struggle in more ways than one.
As far as I know, Neil Stoddard is the only other Strider to have run Comrades. While working in South Africa in the 1980's, Neil, running for Germiston Callies Club (Scottish expatriates, though Neil has no Scottish blood!) ran 7:03 downhill in 1984, 6:34 uphill in 1985, 6:21 downhill in 1986, and 7:03 uphill in 1987 - each time qualifying for a silver medal for beating 7:30.
We'll start with Neil's reminiscences:
Traditionally we would start to train on the 1st of Jan. Some people would cheat and start on the 31st of December, but there are always a few aren't there!
The race in those days was always on the 31st of May, so you had a set build up, and could almost know what you would be doing on, say, the second Tuesday in March from the previous year's training diary!
There were a number of races on the calendar which really began as long Comrades training runs and then developed a life of their own. Others were long runs that were put into the calendar in the early part of the year to attract a large field because runners would be looking for a specific work out at a specific time in their build up.
Basically the plan was to race a 21km in about the third week of January, e.g. The Bliss 21 at Bedfordview in Joeys (Johannesburg). This regularly attracted a field of 5,000, with the top guys (NOT Comrades runners) doing close to the hour. Then came the Striders 32 out at Benoni, a hard fast 32km with top times around 1hr 40mins. Some of the better Comrades runners would feature at the "sharp end" of this race. This was normally at about the 14th of February.
Next came your qualifying marathon. This was run in mid March as a fast one. I remember doing the "Pick and Pay" marathon in a steady 2hr 45mins as my qualifier. There was always an incentive to put in a reasonably quick qualifier as there was always a bit of one-upmanship in these things!
April saw the first foray beyond the 42km mark, into those uncharted territories of the "ultramarathon". These are the races where the half way mark mentally starts at 42km! And were not just talking a slow training run for everyone either. Thompson Magawana won the 56km "Two Oceans" in a shade over 3hrs one year. One year I ran it as a training run with the great Bruce Fordyce. We jogged to the marathon mark in 3 hours, and then the wheeze was to try and run a silver medal (sub 4 hours), but you were not to pass the marathon mark until the 3 hour time had passed. It was certainly a good work out!
This ultra was normally about the Easter weekend, i.e. the middle of April. There were a number of these races dotted around the country - The Jock of the Bushveld in the Eastern Transvaal, The Korkie in the Transvaal, The Jackie Mekler in the North Transvaal and, of course, The Two Oceans. These were great races as they were a real indication of your state of fitness at this stage, and of course there was always last year's time to compare it with!
The rest of April was spent putting in the mileage. Most Aprils would see me doing about 600km, and I was a light trainer. Sundays would be a long distance run of about 60km, usually a jog to an organised marathon, run it and then jog home - anything to get some company and feed stations for the long runs. Mondays were junk miles, morning and evening. Tuesday was a junk mile morning, with a hill session in the evening - long hills now, changing to shorter hills in May. Wednesday was the "Sweat Shop" run, an exhilarating 23km pace run around the northern suburbs of Johannesburg with some of the greats of S A running - Bruce Fordyce, Bob de la Motte, Mark Plaatjes, and Tony Dearling. This was normally completed in 90mins and was for me, with the Sunday run, the backbone of my training. I could get away with missing any other session but these two. Thursday was junk miles again, but in May we would run an 8 km time trial organised by one of the running clubs to put a bit of speed back into our legs. These time trials cost a rand to enter and on a Tuesday or Thursday there would be about 4 of them going on in the city, with up to 200 runners turning up to run and then adjourning to the bar. The results of the time trials would appear in the next days paper and everyone would keep an eye on each others progress to see how their training was going! Fridays were junk miles and then Saturday was a long hill run, not hill repeats, but a good 21km run over a very hilly circuit- no shortage of those in Johannesburg!
The best thing about Comrades was the camaraderie. Miles of training runs done with other guys with one common goal in mind. Happy, happy days.