Comrades Marathon - The Ultimate Human Race
Comrades 2019 - Up Run (86.8k)
My personal highlight of the year, all time goal and one of my favorite races ever - the Comrades Marathon. But what makes it so unique and special?
Historically speaking, it is not only the oldest ultramarathon in the world (since 1921), but also the largest in terms of participants. This years Comrades accepted 25.000 runners from all over the world - approximately 65% of them finished. The length varies between 86k and 92k, depending on exact start and finish line.
The course leads up "the big five" hills - starting with Cowie's hill after about 16k, then Field's hill after 26k, Botha's hill at 40k followed by Inchanga and my personal killer - Polly shorts right before the end.
The Signup opens around August/September the year before - first come first serve. It's about 300 USD for Foreigners and payment requires a credit card. As there are only 25.000 spots available (One of the largest ultras out there), it sells out pretty quick and I would recommend to sign up within the first hours. After signing up, you will have to hand in your qualifying race (e.g. a marathon sub 4:50) until somewhat in May. Signed up and qualified? You are good to go!
Comrades training is almost all year round - it really takes time to build up the endurance for "the ultimate human race" and fining the balance between long runs and recovery can be challenging. Luckily, the website provides a quick guide starting in July - I used it most of the time and tried to schedule as many races and marathon as my long runs to make it a little less boring to build up. If you are looking for a more individual option, there are many Comarades coaches and veterans out there who are happy to help.
The closest airport is Durban, there are many international flights but also several very cheap-ish conncetions to Johannesburg everyday. This time, I ordered a SIM card before I flew and picked it up right at the airport - enabling me to conveniently uber around the city.
Once I leave the airport in Durban, strolling around and waiting for my uber, a super nice couple approaches me and offers a ride - they are staying at the same place. They also offer a ride to the start line and back from the finish and ask me to join for pasta tonight. I am super overwhelmed - sorting everything within the first five minutes I touch African soil was definitely not expected. What a helpful and friendly place!
As I was staying in downtown Durban last year, I wanted to feel a bit more safe and decided to stay in a nice suburb, Umhangla. It is only a 10 minute uber ride to the expo from there!
I can definitely recommend staying here - Umhalanga is a cute beach town with many shops, malls and restaurants. My hotel also provides some extra services for Comrades runners like organized shuttles and breakfast at 3 AM. The rooms are spacious and equipped with a full kitchen and washing machine wich makes life as runner pretty convenient.
After relaxing the whole Friday (I had a super long trip with stopovers in Rome and Johannesburg), It's time for the Expo on Saturday! The uber ride only takes a few minutes to head to the convention center in Durban. The second I hop off, I get all caught up by the Comrades spirit. Hundreds of runners dancing, singing and goofing around. Tasty barbecue and beer along with live music and kids singing national songs.
The queuing is super quick - internationals and "Green numbers" (runners with 10+ medals) have their own access and everything is super quick! After abbot five minutes I make my way to the merchandise and buy some new, deeply needed race gear. Being an international, I also have access to a special area (These exist for internationals, novices and green numbers) where I have a sip of tea and plan the rest of the day. The expo itself is pretty massive and also offers a lot of non-running products which surprises me. I stroll around a little, have my shirt personalized, enjoy a hot dog and a beer and make my way back home where I spend the rest of the day having room service, a Thai massage and some Netflix.
My alarm goes off at 3. THREE!!! I did not sleep well (I mean, who does the night before a big race?) and kick my ass out of bed. Pure panic and disgust due to the time takes over and my mood could not be worse. I start having toast with honey and bananas while getting all ready with my princess costume. My friends pick me up at 4 and the race starts at 5 - the drive to the start line is super quick and by the time I reach my batch, there is still 45 minutes to go.
One thing I really hate in races? Getting there too early. I mean, you have to pee, you are nervous and you could have slept in. Due to all these reasons, I am more on the late side (maybe 10 mins before start) when it comes to these events.
But Comrades is different. There are many "busses" (11 hour, 11.30 hour, 12 hour timelords) who already kicked off the party - everybody is dancing, cheering and HOPPING AROUND. (Like, guys, don't you want to save your legs for that little ultra coming up today?) but the mood is super contagious and it merely takes a second until I get soaked into the crowd and find myself dancing and twerking right in the middle of that huge crowd of happy people - I saved some highlights on instagram, go check them outt!
10 minutes before starting off. Things are getting a little more serious back here and everybody sings the national anthem. I proudly present my poor Afrikaans skills (learned the lyrics the night before) and tears of excitement roll down my face. 25.000 powerful souls - strong ultra runners with the most amazing minds - all waiting for that crazy race to start. The anthem is followed by "Shosholoza" - my favorite song when it comes to racing in South Africa. I use my full, white chicken voice to sing along (Did you know there is only a small portion of female internationals running here? Germans in pink tutus stand out and I am probably the least skilled singer among all these talented South Africans around) while I get goose pimples all over my body. Last one - the chariots of fire start and everybody enjoys that moment of powerful silence followed by the crowing cock. LET'S GO!
It takes 11 minutes to cross the start line as I start in the last batch (My qualifying time was horrible in Tel Aviv). First things first - there are NO toilets around and everybody who waited at least an hour at the start line is in deep need (including me, lol). Some just help themselves in the streets while I keep on suffering and tackling the first "gentle rolling hills" leading out of the city. It's still dark and very quiet and I try to calm my mind. The crowd is dense which does not get any better during the next 11 hours - 60% of runners finish within the last hour of the race! Upside: You will never be alone out there.
First disappointment: They ran out of water and food on the first 15k for us folks in the back, which does not really bother me as I always carry my hydration pack and really try to get things going while it is still cold in the morning. The first cut-off seems tight: There is only about 2.5 hours for the first half marathon - considering the massive delays at the beginning due to the amount of people (very slow pace around 8-9 minutes until streets get wider) really concerns me. I don't want to drop out in the first hours!
Luckily, I get to meet Gary, the 11.30 hour bus driver who really saves my ass for the rest of the day. Not only does he take care of pace and timing (And it is SO good to have that thing off your mind and focus on your body), he is also the must fun, experienced and entertaining time lord I ever joined. Our bus has about 15-20 people and kilometer after kilometer we start to be a family. We check up on each other, provide water and bananas for each other and stand the pain and struggles all together. 11 hours of laugher, tears and emotions. Nobody is left behind and everybody is welcome to join!
Mostly, we listen to 70s and 80s rock music, while Gary changes the lyrics into fun Comrades songs. It is just so good to have him around and put all your trust into that one person - the trust to drive you home safely.
The first half happens real quick - Gary allows a fast walking pace when it comes to steep hills and keeps us from killing our knees and joints on the downhills. I feel great! My mind is entertained, I have time to recover during the slower parts and my legs enjoy the wild mix of going up and down.
42K - A MARATHON in! Okay, to be honest - it is not a pure walk in the park anymore. It gets hot and from time to time, I have to force myself to stick to the bus.
But we smash all the following cut-offs by almost an hour. The next hours are very blurry - it is all about one step after another. Keep things going. Don't stop or you will never get there. I am going strong until around kilometer 60 when my left foot really starts bothering me. I have a weird feeling of pain even though I know my shoes very well, but I keep going.
It does not get better and the steepest and meanest of all hills comes up. Polly. About 10k left there is this massive hill. And I mean massive. It looks incredibly tiny on the map, which is why I have not even noticed it before - a reason why it kills me even harder.
Fighting the pain and my sore legs, I lose touch to Gary. My heart is crying, but my head forces me to stay clear - due to his strong pacing, I have more than enough time to drive home on my own. People pass by. My ego suffers. I reach a terrible state of self-pity and pain and every step is pure torture.
Polly was a very lonely and steep area, but it gets better afterwards. We cross the final small villages and I have never seen so much passion and love when it comes to cheering. The people literally carry you home. Everybody is equipped with medication, ice spray, all kinds of food and drinks and SO MUCH LOVE! At that time, I cannot hold my tears back anymore.
So here I am - a stumbling, sun burned, sweaty and crying princess on her last meters to reach the finish.
The rest of the race is more like a movie in third party perspective to me. I reach the finish area - hundreds and thousands of people screaming around you. Tears all over my face, cameras all over the place and that last, super intense finishing sprint.
Somebody drags me to the medals area and hands me over my "up run medal" before they give me the "back to back medal". I am a mental mess and start hugging everyone before buying ice cream, searching my friends and just sitting down, starring at the ground.
During the drive home and later at night, I suffer (Quelle surprise) - everything has heated up, I am dizzy, stinky and full of pain and joy. When reaching the hotel, I order random stuff at the room service but don't manage to eat anything, sleeping is also not possible. Let's be honest - the night after is not the prettiest thing in ultra running.
Monday. I eat everything and everybody I come across and join a running club for the post Comrades party, having a few beers before heading back to the airport. (Dear novices - don't make that mistake, take your time and enjoy all the festivities before heading back!!!)
Sign up Fee: 233 Euros - includes shirt and well equipped goodie bag
Flights: Round trip to Europe from 600 Euros / from 1000 Euros in Business
Hotel: I paid around 100 Euros / night, but there are cheaper options available
Getting around: Uber is really cheap for European standards (3-10 Euros per ride)
Food: Also very affordable for European standards - meals are 5 to 10 Euros
Other: There are options to arrange transfers to start and finish and I would recommend to check out the area some more days (I only stayed three days because it was not my first time in SA). Unfortunately Comrades takes place in winter hence traveling to Cape Town doesn't make sense at all. But the weather in Durban is really nice and invites to stay longer.
Gear: No special running gear needed, it is a full road race
Be aware that safety is something to consider in South Africa! I never felt insecure, being a blonde young woman and solo traveller, but I never carried any valuables or cash. Umhangla is fine, but I would not stay in Durban and "explore", uber is a safe way to get around but there were many robberies at the finish line. All in all, it is totally fine to be in Durban and run the race, but it is important to keep that in mind.
The race of my life! I can totally recommend to cross that one of your list one day! It might not be the first choice for all my trail and ultra runners out there, but it is so unique with it's atmosphere and warm hearted people that you should definitely give it a shot!
Not an ultrarunner yet? I remember "looking up" to Comrades some years ago. It is a huge achievement to finish this race, but it is not impossible. If you want to go for it - do it! Start slow with some road marathons and race your way up to this distance. Good thing: Comrades always reserves spots for novices (this year around 7000). There is always a way to get in and don't let other veterans scare you off (especially in certain Facebook groups)!
What I loved:
The timelords ("busses"
The atmosphere and amount of volunteers
Running clubs and people who really loose their heart cheering
The amount of aid stations
Overall organization especially for internationals
The feeling of unity when singing at the start line
What I did not love:
The pure amount of people makes it tough for your mind to focus on your feet at some point (you are always in the middle of the crowd)
Thefts and security level at the finish line
Cut offs can get rough mentally (but that is part of the spirit - Comrades should not be too easy)
Polly. just kidding
I hope my little race report here helps you to get an insight into what Comrades is like and why it is so special to me - will I come back? Yes. Will I hit the green number one day? FOR SURE - 2 DOWN, 8 TO GO!