The Comrades Marathon in South Africa
Last edition Max reached the start line. We know he finished (in 10hrs 39mins) - let's hear how he got there!
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. By climbing over the barriers, though, I was able to get to just in front of the 7:30 to 8:30 finishers' pen : it wasn't cold, despite the hour, because we were packed in like the proverbial sardines in a tin. There must have been at least 2000 runners in front of me when the gun fired - all with the intention of winning (at least) a silver medal for breaking 7:30. It took me 1 minute and 40 seconds to reach the actual start line no more than 50 metres from where I had been standing.
The "mile" markers in Comrades are, of course, kilometre markers, South Africa having gone metric in 1961, but, perversely, they register the distance to go, not the distance from the start. This meant, in practice, that the only accurate check I had of my speed over the ground was that for the last kilometre, which showed for just 5 seconds, each time I passed a marker and remembered to press the red button on my heart rate monitor's stop watch. The big advantage of running races in kilometres, particularly near the end, is that the markers are reached much more quickly than when they are in miles, but it was quite beyond my powers of mental arithmetic on the run to calculate my overall rate of progress by the formula (T-1.667)/(87.3-K) where T was my elapsed time in minutes (so T-1.667 subtracted 1min40secs to give my time on the road), K was the number of the last kilometre marker (so 87.3-K was my distance travelled).
For the last three years since I'd bought the HRM, though, I've abandoned trying to work out my pace from the mile markers - I know of no marathon course, of the 79 I have run, where all the mile markers were within 1% of where they should have been, let alone within the 0.1% accuracy to which the total distance is certified (we may get a letter from Ken Kaiser on that - ed). In the Trail's End, Oregon, marathon one year, the 7th mile took me 12:03 and the 8th only 2:38! So I run to my heart rate monitor with targets of 160 bpm average for 10k races, 156 for 1/2marathons, 152 for marathons, 145 for short ultras, 138 for long ultras. A further irritation, however, was that in the early morning darkness I couldn't read my HRM, nor, with runners 20 abreast across the road, could I see the kilometre markers. I was therefore running blind for the first 45 minutes and, having seen the 80km (to go) sign, I then missed the 79. There may have been some pattern as to which side of the road the km markers would be - if there was, I didn't manage to work it out - and it was 3 hours into the race before I saw three markers in succession. Not to worry about that, though, because apart from the slow start, I had had my 71 year old heart ticking away at 145±1 all that time, as intended.
It was bad enough not knowing whether these 145 beats per minute were resulting in the 51/2 minute kilometres I'd planned, but the carbohydrate replenishment situation was far, far worse. When some of the overseas athletes had gone over the course by coach on the Sunday, Brian, the guide on our coach, had spoken enthusiastically about the number and excellence of the aid stations. "They 're so many and some so long, they're virtually continuous" he said. The first aid station I had been able to get to through the crowd was the third, just beyond the 80km marker I'd spotted. Coke was indeed on offer from the volunteers on the very first tables which stretched, at the most, over all of 10 metres. It was, as Anita had said, being served in what looked like 200ml bottles, but, to my utter dismay, not a single bottle of the 20 or so being handed out was more than half full. I grabbed one and sucked it dry through the McDonald's straw I'd taped to the back of my hand for the purpose - I'd found in my first marathon, London '81, I couldn't pour the drink down without having to stop : in London '82 and for the next 12 years until (some) marathons started providing sachets with spouts on, I always sucked the CHO drink through my straw, running the while and passing hundreds at the aid stations - but, by the time I'd drunk it, I was already well past the little Coke tables. Perhaps they were short of time, I thought, it'll get better soon. It didn't : the Coke bottles were not even half full thereafter. And the bananas, for fall-back Plan C? They were not on every station nor on every other one : in the first half of the race I found bananas on only two stations, the volunteer holding out, on a single dinner-size plate, unpeeled half bananas. At this stage, there were approximately 9000 runners behind me, so I took just one half banana at each.
What I should have done early on, certainly within two hours of the start, was to have stopped, sat down on a nearby garden wall, and worked out a carbohydrate replenishment Plan D. This was really where I missed having my own family and friends to look after me, not just to hand me my drinks and eats but to contribute to the formulation of a race strategy. They were 7000 miles away and still abed; here, atop Field's Hill and 25km already in the run, I was part of a 11000 runner cavalcade and on my own. My Plan C had equated a CHO requirement of 900g with a supply of 906g, but that was much too close for comfort. On the positive side of the equation, I knew from the experience of running the hilly Sheffield Marathon - where there is no carbo drink, only plain water, at the aid stations - the week after London '96, in 3:28 (4:55/km), that my carboloading was possibly worth nearer 300g than 250g. On the negative side, however, I had no knowledge of what the extra energy cost might be of the 44km of the gradual climb out of Durban, let alone the greater drain on the CHO stores of the many steep inclines such as the sliproads : even an extra 5kcal/mile of CHO needed, less than 10% of the estimated total, would require 270kcal in a 54mile/87.3km run and that's a massive 70g to find from somewhere. With the Coke bottles only one third full, that represented a loss of 6g of CHO per aid station : by half distance, that was a deficit from Plan C of 120g, even without any additional needs for the steep hills. Yes, it's easy to see, after the event, what I should have done, but, alas, road racing, particularly ultramarathoning, is not the time for stopping, thinking and taking rational decisions. We press on, hoping that the situation won't get worse, even if we don't expect it to get much better. So on I ran, living for the moment and ignoring the possibility of disaster 30km further along the uphill road.
By the time I had found those three kilometre markers in succession, I was running at just over 6 minutes per km and, the relationship between 6 and 60 being as it is, I eventually worked out that, at that pace, I'd be home in 8.73 hours, approximately 8:45, for the 87.3km. I went through halfway, virtually at the top of the climb as shown on the elevation map of the course, in 4:17, so that confirmed that, all being well, my finishing time would start with an 8, albeit a late one.
All was not well. There are five named hills worthy of special mention in Comrades - Cowles, Field's, Botha's, Inchanga and Polly Shorts - the first three of which, all in the first half of the Up race, present little problem to a still-fresh runner used to running regularly over courses where the Race Directors describe undulating courses as "flat" and hilly ones as "undulating" so as not to frighten away the joggers. Inchanga, however, well over a mile long, is something else. Whereas I'd been bowling along an hour previously at 6 minute km with a heart rate of 145, now it took me 8:05 to run a kilometre on Inchanga and I could only muster 142 beats per minute. Immediately thereafter, my heart dropped to 135±1, by the 51/2 mark it was way down to 130, a rate it never reached subsequently, and I was struggling to run at 7mins/km.
It was, again, time to stop and think. But no, I ran on for another 6km until, with 34 still to go, I decided I should try to conserve what little energy I must have left. So I walked the next kilometre : it took me 11:30. I had been on the road now for 5hrs41mins and, with 33km to go, at only 11minutes/km, it would take me 363 minutes to get to the finish. I was heading for a 12 hour time, humiliation and, probably, missing the bus back to Durban. So, restricting my walking to the hills,, I continued at what could best be described as a jogging pace of 7mins/km, 11 minute miles, down the slopes, and 8mins/km, 13 minute miles, on the flatter bits.
I shuffled along at this rate for another 20km - the 1/2 marathon between 32 to go and 11 to go took me 4 minutes over 3 hours, just over twice as long as I had taken to run the actual Knavesmire Brass Monkey 1/2 on a cold January day last year - and, going so slowly, I was now drinking two, still only one-third full though, bottles of Coke at each aid station. Then, with just over 10km to the finish, I stopped at the Coke station just a little out of reach of the bottle and I stood there, swaying, but unable to move the extra four inches to grab it.
Within a few seconds, salvation arrived in the form of another Angel, Cora van den Berg, this one with her husband, Philip.
_ "Are you all right?" Cora said.
_ "No" I replied.
_ "You're hypoglycaemic, aren't you?"
_ "Don't worry, I'm a nursing sister. Phil and I will look after you"
Whereupon, Cora took hold of my left arm, Philip my right and they supported me, figuratively and literally, the rest of the way to the finish. Cora, her teeth as sharp as those of the young lady on the PowerAde stand, took a sachet at each aid station, opened it, poured the contents into the bottle she was carrying for that purpose, and then handed it to me with nursing sisterly instructions to "Drink it all, Max".
Thus entwined, together we jogged the downs and walked the ups, managing a sub-8 minute kilometre down the incline before the start of the last big hill, the infamous Polly Shorts - everyone was walking up that one and our troika even overtook a few - which took us just short of 21 minutes for a mere two kilometres. We reached the top of Polly's after 91/2 hours on the road and soon, with only 4km to go and an hour to beat the 11-hour gun and guillotine, we cruised home at the cracking, altogether walking, pace of 101/2 minutes per km. / 31/2 miles an hour to finish, still arms in arms, in 10:39:42. Even so, there were another 2000 behind us who would also receive their hard-earned bronze medals in the remaining 20 minutes. That's over 100 a minute finishing a 54-mile ultramarathon, a rate not far below that of the peak finishing rate, at 4 hours, of the London Marathon. It's a remarkable event is Comrades!
I thanked Cora and Philip profusely, of course, for caring for me, while we were on the road and as we swapped addresses after we had finished. "It was our privilege", Cora said, "the Lord sent us to help you. This is Comrades, Max". Nothing more to be said, really, so I gave her a kiss, shook Phil's hand, thanked them again and went off in search of my kit bag.
It had been a day to remember. I now have 10 months to decide whether to gamble another £1000 and try for that silver medal on June 16, 1999. Maybe I could persuade CocaCola's Anita to abandon those stupid sachets and revert to the open-topped cups the PowerAde used to be dispensed in? Or, perhaps, I could put together a DIY kit, involving a bum-bag, a large McDonald's drink carton and a pair of scissors?
Dream on, Max, and perhaps one day you'll come home with the trophy for the oldest competitor to finish Comrades. I was 2nd oldest this year.
Results summary : Of the 11,333 registered to start, 10,623 finished inside the 11 hour limit; the first man home was timed in at 5:26:25, a new Up record; the first woman, 115th overall, ran it in 6:38:57. 643 runners received silver medals for finishing inside 71/2 hours.
P.S. You may be thinking how come the winner of the race in just over half the time I took and that more that another 10000 ran or jog/walked it without getting into a state of near collapse. The problem confronting all ultramarathoners is in fact identical : how to get beyond the 28 to 30 mile mark by which distance even the most effective carbohydrate loading before the race has all been used.
In a normal ultra, with fewer than 100 competitors - most track ultras have a limit of 35 or 40 runners - it is simple and common practice for the competitive racers to bring their own supplies of food and drink. In Comrades, most of the locals would find the official aid stations adequate for their jog/walk needs - 3/4 of the field finished in the last 2 hours at an average pace of 10 minute miles and slower - and the faster South Africans would be easily able to organise friends and families to provide their extra carbohydrate needs en route. It would be quite impossible, however, for Comrades to provide extra rations for a couple of hundred foreigners on the open aid stations, so, in effect, there are two groups of runners, namely the locals and the foreigners. What with the limited appeal of marathon running, let alone ultrarunning, before South Africa's sporting links were severed in 1976 as the anti-apartheid struggle within the country began to gain support internationally, the carbohydrate replenishment needs of the very few outsiders, mainly British, who did run Comrades were met by the organisers providing "handlers" for these, by definition, elite runners. There had been a close relationship between Comrades and London-to-Brighton, inaugurated by the Road Runners Club in 1951, with the winners of one being invited to compete in the other. Four different South Africans held the "Brighton" record from 1953 through to 1971, while the Brighton winner, four in a row 1963-66 Bernard Gomersall, won the Down Comrades in 1965 in a record 5:51:09 : I mention Bernard because he's from Leeds (a Harehills Harrier) and he and I both worked at Yorkshire Copper Works in Stourton for the majority of our careers.
From 1993 onwards, the number of foreign runners in Comrades has grown - there were 240 of us this year - but the official support has had to be restricted to those who might reasonably be expected, by their previous achievements in ultra races, such as the IAU World Championship 100km, to finish in the top 10. When Ann Trason, 100km world record holder in 7:00:48, recounted her 1997 win in UltraRunning Magazine, she paid tribute to the 18(!) helpers who had been assigned to her. This year, the only foreigners to finish in the gold medal positions were 7 Russians (1st,3rd,4th,5th and 10th men, and 2nd and 3rd women). I had met at the Expo an unhappy Carl Barker who, despite having placed second, in 6:09:01 in the 1997 London to Brighton, had not been granted super-elite status so, like me, he was on his own, too. I asked him at the finish how he had fared : the tone in which he answered "not so good" warned me not to ask for any details, but in the results-in-alphabetical-order published on the day after the race - London Marathon please note! - the awful truth was revealed. Carl had finished in a time, 8:20:10, which was also over two hours slower than he had been expecting and well into the bronze medal category.
Perhaps it shouldn't have done so, but reading that in the airport departure lounge helped me to believe that I hadn't run so badly after all.