Probably the toughest road-running race in the world. Around 14,000 runners take on the 55 miles of hot, windy South African hills every year but thousands fail. They don’t call it ‘The Ultimate Human Race’ for nothing.
Where: Between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, South Africa
Distance: Ultramarathon (approx 55 miles/ 90km)
Size: Around 14,000 runners
Official race website here.
- Don’t dwell on how far there is left to go. Instead set smaller, more achievable goals
- It’s a difficult race to pace because of the changing altitude and extremely undulating terrain – so don’t try. Just concentrate on the halfway point or large splits
- Take in lots of fluid but don’t forget the salts. The local staple food is the boiled potato covered in salt – eat it
- Hi-5 several hundred African kids!
- Don’t try and second guess the hills – some will be deceiving and trying to work out which is which will sap energy
- The 12 hour cut-off is absolute so if you can see yourself flagging, just think about being turned away from that finish line
A promo video of the race…
What’s the organisation and set up like?
Comrades is as old as it is huge. It’s the world’s oldest and largest Ultramarathon first organised by war veteran Vic Clapham in 1921. Only 34 runners took part but since then it has been held annually (except during the war years) and has grown considerably!
It regularly attracts around 18,000 runners but everything is taken care of incredibly well. You’re journey as a tourist may vary but once on site it is flawless.
The race starts early so everyone is required to get into the starting pens by 5:15. Its pitch black but the start area is well lit to the extent that it even confuses the birds roosting in the trees.
Your race number tells everyone where you’re from and all sorts of stats as to how many Comrades you’ve done etc. which is a great touch and gets conversations going easily.
The organisers do a brilliant job of getting runners pumped up.
There’s a ritual sing-song at the start with the South African national anthem, then Shosholoza, a traditional African song and finally Chariots of Fire.
Out on the course runners get about as much care as they can across such a vast distance of 55 miles. Safety is a big priority and there are something like 16 ambulances, 4 motorbikes and even a helicopter on hand as well as 50 doctors and interns! Check out the incredible detail of medical provision on the official website here.
For those who don’t fancy seeing a doctor, there are lots of aid stations on the route to help yourself to. Organisers say they get through 200,000 sachets of water and 2 tons of potatoes!
Having said all that, they giveth and they taketh away because if you don’t make it across the line in the strict 12hours cut-off, stewards will literally stand across the line to stop you completing the race. Even if you’re 1 second late.
Finishers get a different medal depending on their finishing time and the international runners have their own tent to relax in and eat to build up strength for the journey back.
What’s the course like?
The course is essentially an empty motorway that snakes 56 miles over the ‘Big Five’ hills between Durban to Pietermaritzburg. On the ‘up run’ they appear in this order; Cowies Hill, Field’s Hill, Botha’s Hill, Inchanga and Polly Shortts.
Passing Cowies, Fields and Botha’s hills you reach halfway – not that you want to dwell on that stat too much (!).
Then it’s the behemoth that is Inchanga. It’s a mile and a half long with an average gradient of 6% and this comes after you’ve just run an extremely hilly marathon.
The highest point of the course is after about 70km at 810m above sea level. You lose height over the next 5km only to come across Little Pollys, a nasty climb which it’s all too easy to mistake for Polly Shortts which follows immediately afterwards. When you hit Polly Shortts there is no mistaking it. It’s a 6% average climb over 1.8km. Even the race winner usually walks this!
There’s plenty of other information out there about the course. The website has a detailed gradient map and each hill has been given a name so that you can really get to grips with the course ahead of the race. Tours are also run the Friday before for runners to truly see what they’re up against. International runners are entitled to a free tour as part of their entry fee but there are also other tours available including a totally captivating one organised by Bruce Fordyce the legendary nine time winner of the Comrades.
The scenery is stunning from the rolling hills around to the site of bergwind’s blasting sand and dust all around. Big parts of the road are lined with people out having parties and Braai (BBQ) and they’re all cheering you on.
The organiser’s do a fantastic job in ensuring that all runners are ‘fed and watered. There are 48 ‘tables’ along the route all of which are well stocked with food and drink and lots of willing volunteers. This is one of the many elements that make the Comrades such a special iconic event.
The finish is in a cricket stadium and you have to pass lots of different sports ground on the way to it which seems very cruel! But after hearing the announcer in the ground for some distance you eventually turn into the stadium and the final 200m on the grass round the perimeter.
How difficult is the Comrades marathon?
Very very tough. This ultramarathon is probably the toughest road race in the world. The distance is enough to put most marathon runners off and then the hills. Some of them are more than 2 miles long and average 6% gradient with sections much steeper than that. The first one is ok but they are relentless.
Then there’s the heat of South Africa as well. In the year Tri Review raced, it peaked at 32 degrees (90F) with a road temperature of well over 100F.
As if that wasn’t enough, there was also a bergwind forecast in the second half – a pyroclastic-like wind that certain atmospheric conditions create causing high winds to roll down from the peaks.
It’s also a difficult race to pace because of the changing altitude – picking a fixed ‘per-KM speed’ isn’t going to get you far and you don’t know how the hills are going to affect you.
In short, this is a race that only experienced marathon runners with a love of pain should enter.
Here’s a brutal video of the moment the cut off happens…
How’s the atmosphere?
It’s an intense atmosphere that brings many to tears. It starts with everyone singing their hearts out in the pre-race build up. It’s an extraordinary thing and makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
There are hundreds of people lining the course throughout having BBQs and cheering runners on. The middle section is more sparsely populated so the energy does drop and bit but the last few kms are packed with bigger crowds and the cheering and support became all the more raucous.
They give overseas visitors special encouragement saying things like ‘thank you for running our race’ and ‘welcome to our country’ and little kids are eager to get high 5’s from runners.
The smells from the braai waft over you temptingly but to counteract that a lot give out chunks of ice which are a welcome relief, not to mention all sorts of food. The staple of the Comrades is the boiled potato covered in salt.
At the finish line the atmosphere actually builds throughout the day as the 12 hour cut off gets closer and closer. The wait is excruciating but also very compelling. A second past 12 hours and you don’t finish, you don’t cross the line and you get nothing. There’s always a large number of finishers at the death and this year over half of the finishers crossed the line in the final hour.
The last minute is probably the cruellest ritual in amateur sport.
Desperate people who have been out on their feet for 12 hours strain every already-strained sinew to try and make the cut off. The seconds are counted down by the announcer and the whole crowd all roaring on those on the grass home straight. At zero, a line of marshals block the finish and you are out of luck and out of the race. A heart-rending thing to watch but the atmosphere is incredible.
Pictures from Comrades Marathon and Gary Dixon
My Race Diary
By Gary Dixon (future marathon centurion!)
Marathon number: 51
I can honestly say that, as an event, this will never be surpassed in my lifetime. Everything was brilliantly organised and it more than lived up to its reputation. I ran in 2013. 18,000 entered; 13,645 started; only 10,287 finished.
It was tough! If you read the Comrades website / newspapers the attrition rate was put down to a mixture of temperature (reached 32 degrees) and some high ‘bergwinds’ (reached 50mph at times).
I have to say that I surprised myself in the race.I have run dozens of marathons and it was hard but I just plodded on like I always do and thankfully for me – ‘The Wall’ was not hit! I have never seen so many ‘broken people’ in my life. I am just happy I wasn’t one of them!!
I was 5h 9m at halfway and 10h 49m at the finish to bag a bronze medal. No aches or pains afterwards as well which was remarkable. I only had one blister so was able to play cricket back home a few days later!
In this case the pain has been worth the gain with over £10,250 raised for Macmillan Cancer Support in the process.
Just a small matter of 49 more marathons to go before I contemplate retirement!!
- Comrades champ unfazed about test results (iol.co.za)
- “We are ultraordinary” (csirouniverseblog.com)
- Running from Comrades commentary (iol.co.za)