"This is Comrades, Max"

Part 1 - Getting to the Start

by Max Jones

first published in August 1998 Striders News

See also


In 1921, in South Africa, they called it the Comrades Marathon - nowadays it's just plain Comrades - but it's really an ultramarathon. It is run from Pietermaritzburg down to Durban in odd years and the other way, starting in Durban, in even years. So this year, 1998, it was Up. The elevation map of the course shows it rising approximately 800m/2600ft in the first half, peaking at 824m/2700ft at the 3/4 distance and then dropping down to the finish at 615m/2000ft. But it's a saw-toothed profile, with scarcely any flat sections at all, and that net increase from Durban obscures a gross vertical climb of approx. 1700m/5500ft over the 87.3km Up race : to even up the race times, more or less, the Down run is 90km.

At the end of what is now, after 1939-45, called World War I, Vic Clapham, returning home from helping to kick the Germans out of their colonies in East Africa, asked permission from the League of Comrades of the Great War to use its name for a race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. It doesn't say so in the official records, but one can surmise that the idea for such a preposterous event may have arisen as a wager in a pub, the ex-infantryman Clapham challenging a colleague from an allegedly less hardy branch of the armed forces that he couldn't cover the distance in less than half a day. Permission was refused in 1918, again in 1919, and yet again in 1920 : at last, in 1921, Clapham was give the go-ahead for the Comrades Marathon. And 1 to cover his expenses!

That first race had 34 starters and 16 finishers inside the 12-hour limit (10 of whom, finishing in the last hour, would not have counted had the current 11 hour guillotine applied then). It was run over dirt roads, the only tarmac being in the starting and finishing cities, and there were no aid stations en route. Vic Clapham, though, as Race Director, had enlisted the support of some hotels along the way to provide food and drink for the runners : perhaps that was how the 1 was spent! The race was won in 8:59, second finished in 9:40 and third in 10:10.

This year it was a little different. 11,333 registered to start. There were 52 aid stations. The first 10 men and, for the first time, the first 10 women also - only the first five last year - would win solid gold medals; silver medals would be awarded to all runners who finished inside 71/2 hours; bronze medals to all finishers under 11 hours. Those not reaching the finish by then would get nothing : no medal, no finishing position, no finishing time, nothing.

I had been thinking about running Comrades for a few years, ever since I'd run 50 miles in 6:51:22 for an M65 WR and I'd learned subsequently about the silver medals for the sub 71/2 finishers. I didn't fancy my chances of doing that on the Up run, but I decided to go this year to reconnoitre the scene so that I might have a better chance of a silver in 1999 in the Down race. In the twelve weeks prior ro going, I'd run in 10 races from an 8km to a 100km and I'd even averaged 40 miles/week, up 5M/wk from when I'd swept up all the M70 track world records last year from 50km through to 24 hours. In the 100km British Championship, I had finished only a few minutes behind Geoff Oliver, who had himself won a silver Comrades medal in the 1995 Down run. Two weeks before flying out, I'd run a flat 10mile road race in 69:33 - it's a bit easier to run under one's age in minutes as an M70 than it is as an M40! - which, from the WAVA Age-Graded Tables, 1994 Edition, is the equivalent of 8:29 for 100km, say 7:24 for 87.3km. My resting pulse rate had been down in the mid-30s in the week before the race - it was 34 in the hotel on the Sunday - so I was confident my oxygen supply would enable me to run 5:30/km or 8:50/mile to finish in 8 hours even though I'd put an 8:45 finish time on my application form. No point in giving unnecessary hostages to fortune, or misfortune, I'd thought.

No sightseeing tourist I, I had booked to fly out of Heathrow airport on the Friday evening before the race and return from Durban on the Wednesday, the day after it. I was, therefore, travelling light and the check-in clerk, having expressed astonishment that I was going all that way without any baggage in the aircraft's belly, asked to see my hand luggage. Despite its conforming to the dimensional requirements as stated in the ticket folder and having travelled with me dozens of times previously, he insisted that I checked it into the hold because it exceeded the 5kg cabin luggage weight limit (which was not stated on the ticket nor on its folder). Hence it disappeared down the conveyor, leaving me with the prospect of running Comrades either in new shoes or in the 10secs/mile slower heavy trainers I stood up in should my racing kit still be hiding in Heathrow, or Tokyo, on the following Tuesday. As it happened, my bag was lost, but for a day only, on the return journey!

The 1921 Comrades had been run on May 24, Empire Day as was - (very) elderly readers will recall that there used to be a British Empire - but that was changed to Republic Day when South Africa was booted out of the Commonwealth and dropped altogether when the apartheid system collapsed and RSA was allowed back in the Commonwealth again. Now, instead, June 16, Youth Day - commemorating the start of the children's schools boycott (against the compulsory use of Afrikaans) in Soweto, a defining moment in the anti-apartheid struggle - is also Comrades Marathon Day. So it was on Monday last year, Tuesday this and will be on a Wednesday next. In 1996 it was on Monday 17th, though, because South Africa being a lot more religious a country than most, they don't have races there on a Sunday.

Problem number one not having arisen - despite my worries, my bag did arrive with the flight to Durban - my first priority after collecting my race number at the Expo in Durban on the Saturday afternoon was to discover the type and concentration of the carbohydrate drink and how it would be dispensed at the aid stations. This would be my first ultra in 18 without track- or road-side quartermastering support from friends and family, so I would be relying on the race officials for carbohydrate replenishment. The CHO drink was PowerAde, marketed by CocaCola, not the PowerBar/PowerGel folk and I enquired on its stand for the information I needed. "No problem", said the young lady, as she escorted me over to a large drum in which there were sachets of PowerAde immersed in cold water. She fished one out.

- "Like this," she says, "71/2% carbohydrate in 200ml sachets. OK?"

It was not OK : the sachets were polythene bags, totally heat-sealed with the PowerAde inside, but with no drinking spout.

- "How do I open this?" I enquire

- "Easy," she says, "just hold it up, bite off one of the top corners and pour it into your mouth"

- "Yer wot?" I exclaim, incredulous, but in my best Leeds accent.

She proceeded to demonstrate, without spilling much of it - she was not, of course, running at 51/2 minutes per kilometre at the time - and fished out another from the barrel for me to try. Well, her teeth are over 50 years younger than mine and clearly a lot sharper because I struggled for over a minute with the stupid thing without getting a single drip, never mind a flood of 200ml of the stuff. PowerAde, as I said, is a CocaCola product and, according to the race brochure, Coke would also be on every aid station. Alas, the young lady didn't know how it would be dispensed nor did anyone else on the stand, as in "we're PowerAde, not Coke"!

The race brochure also proclaimed that "... some stations will also have Noogie Bars, Marie Biscuits, segments of oranges, bananas, cooked potatoes and Beacon Sweets and Chocolates ...". Of all that lot, the only item which I knew I could chew and swallow while still running and which would supply me with sufficient carbohydrate intake was the bananas. It only took me about 30 minutes to track down a race official who purported to know how many of the 52 aid stations would have bananas on offer. "At least 30", he said. So, not being able to open the PowerAde sachets, nor having any information as to whether the Coke would be its normal 12% or diluted, nor how it would be dispensed, nor whether it would be as in McDonald's or defizzed, I returned to the hotel to work out how many bananas I would need. If they were the same size, or thereabouts, as I buy in the local Safeway, I would require 25. Plan B was formulated.

On the Monday evening before the race, however, by sheer chance I met a young lady in the lift of the (race HQ) hotel who, when I enquired if she would be running also, told me that she would not because she would be supervising the PowerAde and Coke supplies. "I'm CocaCola's Southern Africa Senior Brand Manager", she said. She was, er, interested to hear my opinion of the abilities of the clever man who had abandoned last year's open-topped cups for this year's PowerAde sachets. She was able, also, to tell me that, yes, there would be Coke on every station, in 200ml bottles, diluted 1:1 to 6% CHO. "Thank you very much, you've made my day", I said, and retired to my room to construct Plan C. I'd never met a heaven-sent angel in a lift before.

A digression. It is written, as it were in tablets of stone, that the first commandment to marathon and ultramarathon racers is that we must drink early and often if we are to finish our races instead of collapsing in the final 400 metres, due to dehydration, as did Dorando Pietri (Olympic Games marathon 1908); Jim Peters (Commonwealth Games marathon 1954); Gabrielle Anderson (Olympic Games marathon 1984). At the ludicrous extreme, in 1997 an English 800 metre runner - yes, 800m! - ran off the track at the bell complaining of nausea, dizziness and headache, in the trials for a place in the World Championship in Athens, which both he, his coach, and the athletics journalists all attributed to dehydration! How stupid can they get?! I was also reported, in 1996, as having "collapsed from dehydration when going like an express train with [only] 91 miles covered" in a 24 hour track race and within sight of breaking the M65 world record for 100 miles by over an hour. On that occasion I was the only one who knew what had actually occurred, but my explanation to the athletics press editors was neither published nor acknowledged. I had taken the trouble to measure my sweat losses on several occasions in the previous year - weighing myself stripped before and after training sessions - and I had always come up with 1 pound lost every 3 miles / 1kg lost every 10km. On that particular occasion, therefore, I'd been downing 300ml of CHO drink every 8 laps, received from my son, my "handler" for the day, at the 200m mark of the track, for the previous 15 hours. Peter was also the temperature monitor and he had reported 4oC/39oF from midnight onwards - we'd even had a partial, not all that far off total, eclipse of the sun that afternoon! - and it was only several months later, before my next 24 hour race, that I had measured my sweat losses when the air temperature was just over freezing. The answer : 1lb every 6 miles / 1kg every 20km. Small wonder, therefore, that in my last hour on the track that previous October I had been weeing out my ingested water within 100metres of drinking it; at home, later, without eating or drinking anything since my exit from the race, I had had to loosen the strap on my wristwatch by half an inch to get it on; by the Wednesday, when the first report of my collapse due to dehydration was published, the excess fluid had pooled, as the medics say, to the extent that my ankle bones had disappeared from view. I had been over-hydrating by having drunk 13 litres of water, but sweating out only 11 litres!

No, it's not dehydration which causes endurance athletes to collapse, it's hypoglycaemia, i.e. running out of carbohydrate. Or, in the case of the aforesaid English 800m runner, his liver desperately grabbing blood, i.e. oxygen, from where it was less required, e.g. his legs and his guts, in an attempt to prevent the flood of lactic acid it was receiving from killing him. Whereas all the fast marathon, 10000m and 5000m runners, particularly the world record breakers, aim for even pacing or slightly negative splits, all the British, and most of the world's 400m and 800m racers, run the first half around 10% quicker than the second half of their races. Crazy!

Subsequent to my failure to achieve that M65 100 mile WR back in 1996, due to hypoglycaemia, I'd been increasing my carbohydrate intake per mile for each race to the point, as I was collecting the M70 WR's for 50k to 50miles, I threw up, as the Americans say (yes, that race was in the USA : Megan's Run in Portland, Oregon). For Comrades, I reckoned I would need 900g of the stuff. With an estimated 250g from my usual carbohydrate loading regime; 242 from the PowerGels I'd bought after talking to the PowerBar man at the London Marathon Expo; the Coke at, say, 150ml at 6% CHO another 414, that made a total of 906. Cracked it! With, of course, all those bananas to hand should I have underestimated the extra calorie cost for that vertical mile climb from Durban on the Up course.

Comrades starts at 0600 hrs, in the dark, so that the sub 11 hour finishers don't need torches to light their way from the 10th hour in. I arrived at 05:30 to find the road leading up to the start almost deserted and, it seemed, the whole 11,000 plus field already in place.

... and it is on the start line that, due to lack of space in this Newsletter, we have to leave Max until the next edition of V.S.News!