June 1st 2014 was the highlight of my 8 year running career, when I completed my first Comrades marathon (billed as the Ultimate Human Experience), which is a 56 mile race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, South Africa. The Comrades marathon was organized after by WW1 South African veteran, Vic Clapham, who witnessed the horrors of war, and wanted to commemorate the sacrifices of South African soldiers who died in the “war to end all wars”. The first Comrades race was held in 1921.
As of today the Comrades marathon is the world’s largest, oldest and most famous ultramarathon race. In even years, the race is run from Pietermaritzburg to Durban (Down run of ~56 miles), and in the odd years, it is run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg (Up run of ~53 miles). From talking with the Comrades veterans, both directions have their challenges and neither can be called an easier route. There is a strict cutoff of 12hrs, after which anyone crossing the finish line will not have their results recorded. All finish times are based on gun time and not chip time.
The Comrades (ultra)marathon is the South African equivalent of the Boston marathon, which is the holy grail of road races that all runners aspire to do. My journey to run in the valley of a 1000 hills began with an extensive training plan during which I ran a qualifying marathon on New Years Eve Marathon in Allen TX (4:40), followed by 6 months of running 6 days a week, during which I completed several long training runs (two 26.2 mi, one 50k (31 mi), and two 56k’s (35 mi)). I met my training partner Viresh Modi through my friend Joyce Mah. Viresh, who is originally from South Africa, was also training for his first Comrades race, and we became good friends.
The Comrades Texas representative (Grady Harrison) was gracious in helping me out with identifying a training plan from the website http://www.alsoranrunners.info/, which is maintained by veteran Comrades runner Nikki Campbell, and the legendary former Comrades coach Don Oliver. Both Don and Nikki devote their time to maintaining this website, and Don helps guides aspiring runners with advice on training for the race. This is the best website for everything you need to know about the Comrades marathon. I was lucky enough to meet Nikki, halfway on the course and talk to her for 10 minutes before we parted.
During the course of my training and previous experiences of running a few ultras, which included tasting my first ever DNF (did not finish) on a 50 mile race at Palo Duro Canyon, I realized that I was going to have to get very disciplined on my training, as the Comrades down run was going to be my longest ever race. By running six days a week with my dog (Dunbar) on week days, my WRRC (White Rock Running Coop) friends on Saturday and Viresh on Sunday, I started becoming more confident and faster. On my long runs, I tuned in my running pace and nutrition plans. Indian cuisine became my modus operandi for carbo-loading. Pasta loading was not working for me anymore. Viresh and I ran some of the longest and hilliest routes we could find in Collin County. I would have to say that running the two 35 mile runs was some of the toughest training that we did, but in hindsight this helped me with being confident on race day.
Travelling to South Africa and pre-race preparations
My family and I flew to Johannesburg (referred to as Jo’burg by locals) and drove from Jo’burg to Durban (locals call it “Durbs”). We got there on the Wednesday . The drive was incredibly beautiful, and it felt like . Here are some pictures of the countryside
We got to Durban, and checked into the Hilton hotel in downtown Durban. Here is the view of the city from our hotel room.
Below is the Expo, which was directly across our hotel. The below picture was taken before thousands of runners swarmed the expo before race day
On Thursday morning, we went to the Expo to pick up my packet.
On Thursday afternoon, the international runners from several countries, met outside the Hilton to do a shakedown run from the hotel to the beachfront and back. I met runners from India (Mohit Chobey) and several runners from the USA, Australia, Germany and England. We all got to meet 9 time Comrades winner Bruce Fordyce (one of the nicest persons I have ever met). I also met other international runners from the US (Carol Yount Puentes). Carol had previously completed Comrades.
Later on that evening, the international runners listened to a couple of Comrades legends talk (Bruce Fordyce, and Tom Cottrell). We were told about what to expect in the race, and how to run it accordingly, and most importantly, finish. South Africans have a great sense of humor, and we were not disappointed.
On Friday my family and Viresh went on the Comrades Down route Bus tour. Tom Cottrell and Mark Bloomfield (US Comrades ambassador) explained the entire route to us. It was a highly entertaining tour. I remember that during our training runs in Dallas, Viresh told me that the hills we were running on, were the equivalent of flat lands in South Africa. He said that we would be running on mountains. I thought he was kidding until we went on the bus tour. The sounds of listening to bus groaning up the and down the 5 hills (mountains): Polly Shortts, Inchanga, Bothas, Fields, and Cowies, gave us a stark reminder of the challenges we faced on race day. Viresh and I had to just laugh; what else could we really do?
Along the way, we got to stop at the Comrades Museum in Pietermaritzburg (known as “Maritzburg “ by the locals), the Ethembeni school for the Physically handicapped children, where the students sang for us, Arthur’s seat (where the famous ultrarunner and 5 time Comrades marathon winner Arthur Newton sat down to relax during his runs). The key takeaways from this tour
1) Don’t forget to give high fives to all the kids from Ethembeni School. The Comrades marathon is the biggest source of fundraising support for this school
2) There is a tradition of dropping a flower on Arthur’s seat and then greeting Arthur by saying
“Good morning Arthur”. Doing this will make the second half of your race go well. Arthur’s seat is at about the halfway point on the course. I made a mental note to make sure I followed this tradition.
3) We also saw the Comrades Wall where runners can purchase a brick and have their names inscribed on it.
Below are pictures taken during our tour
List of Comrades winners. The three people who are my biggest heroes on this list are
1) Arthur Newton – he is the godfather of ultrarunning in my book – 1922 – 1925 winner, 1927 winner
2) Wally Hayward – won in 1930. Was a WW2 veteran and war hero, fought against the Axis forces in Egypt and Italy. Won Comrades in 1950, 1951, 1953, 1954. Ran Comrades again 1988 at the age of 79 and finished in 9hrs 44 min (beating more than half the field), and ran one last time in 1989 at the age of 80 (barely finished the race as the oldest finisher in the history of Comrades).
3) And of course, 9 time winner Bruce Fordyce!
We then proceed to visit Arthur’s seat and the Comrades Wall of Honor
Fast forwarding towards race day…….
The family and I found a great Indian restaurant for Friday’s dinner and Saturday’s lunch at the Vintage India restaurant in Durban. This was some of the most authentic Indian food I have eaten outside of India. We had the same stuff for Friday night’s dinner and Saturday’s lunch (Kitchari, Aloo Gobi, Manchow soup, Bhindi masala(okra)). It was simply put…..DELISH!
We went back to the hotel room to get my gear ready for race day. Before leaving for South Africa, Viresh and his family were gracious in allowing me to stay with them the night before the race in Pietermaritzburg. Viresh has family all over South Africa. My other option was to catch a bus from the Hilton Durban at 1:30am to get to Pietermaritzburg for the 5:30am start. I was very thankful for the kindness Viresh and his extended family, in letting me stay with them in Pietermaritzburg, the night before.
That night I ate beans and rice for dinner. After dinner, I got my gear ready for the race.
2) Nutrition – Twenty 100 calorie packets of Tailwind Nutrition powder, the fueling strategy was 100 calories every 30 mins.
3) CWX Stabilyx compression pants. I had run with Compression pants during my long runs and I was going to race in them
4) Running cap and sun glasses.
Race day morning – Pietermaritzburg
Viresh’s cousin woke us up at 2:00AM. We had breakfast of oats and toast. I had a pulled back muscle for some unknown reason. Viresh’s cousin did a great job massaging my back and getting rid of the discomfort. At 4AM his cousin and uncle dropped us at the start line. Viresh and I dropped of our bags (in South Africa, these are called togbags), at the togbag trucks. We then proceeded to the porta potty’s. After we had relieved ourselves (I know, TMI), we went to our corrals. Viresh went to Corral B (he qualified with a 3:20 marathon time), and I to Corral G (I qualified with a 4:40 marathon time).
This was probably the best race start I have ever experienced (it definitely rivaled the start of the New York City marathon in 2010). Before the race start, the following songs were sung by the entire crowd
1) South African national anthem (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBKjWRjwMkY) which has its verses in 5 different South African languages, Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans, and English. This is one of the most incredible national anthem’s I have ever listened to!!!!
2) Shosholoza (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2aFlQS4k3wo), a song that was sung by miners working in the mines of South Africa.
3) Chariots of Fire (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-7Vu7cqB20) , and the famous cock crowing. The last two items (Chariots of Fire plus cock crowing and the start gun going off are illustrated well in this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EWqSVxwkYq8. The Chariots of Fire is the runners’ anthem!
After listening to these three musical encores, we were all pumped up to start the race at 5:30AM! It was an incredible feeling as soon as we heard the gun go off! It took me 5mins and 37s to cross the start line.
My strategy was to walk the uphill’s and run the downhill’s. I remembered that on my previous ultras I had used this strategy to some success. What I did not realize for was the numerous hills (more like mountains) I would encounter on the course. So I was forced to switch my strategy to a 100-count run and 50-counts walk when going uphill, and run non-stop on the downhill’s.Yes, I was actually counting as I was going up and down. Otherwise there was no way I was going to finish within the 12hr cutoff. Also I made the decision I was not going to take any breaks during this race except for bathroom breaks. If I was tired I would just walk.
In addition to running the hills, the other challenges were the five cutoff points. If you did not make the cutoff, you would be pulled off the race
Below is the profile of the downhill route. There were 46 aid stations on this route which served water, Pepsi, and energade (kinda like Gatorade). These were served in plastic water sachets which you tore open with your teeth. Every aid station was like a slippery ice skating rink with water sachets scattered across the course.
Below is a summary of how my race went
– Hill 1 – Polly Shortts: The morning at Pietermaritzburg was cold. I was wearing throwaway gloves and a Hooters long sleeve T-shirt (yes it took some guts to wear a hooters shirt for race). Running up the Polly Shorts, I had to suddenly take a pee break on the side of the road. I am proud to say that in South Africa, no one gave a damn on whether you to go to the bathroom as long as you stepped off the course and took care of your business. I shamelessly took 5 such breaks during the run. Running down Polly Shortts was much colder, but by this time I was warmed up. I threw away my gloves and Hooter’s shirt and it was game on!
I met Grady Harrison (Comrades Texas representative) at this time and had a great time talking to him. I also briefly met Carol Yount Puentes again (from North Carolina) and then continued on my way.
I was amazed to see runners of all shapes, sizes and ages running this race. On everyone’s race bib, it would indicate how many previous Comrades runs they had completed. Some of the bigger runners had completed more than 10 Comrades runs! It was a humbling experience to see all the experienced runners around me, who were going on the journey of the “Ultimate Human Experience”
– Cut-off Point 1 (Lion Park, before the highest point): I was 1hr 20minutes ahead of the cutoff. The sun was rising up in the sky and the country roads were just incredibly beautiful. I was feeling strong and started collected water sachets for refueling. At this time I started paying attention to the runners around me. It was fascinating to listen to all the different languages around me, with people conversing in Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans (which sounded very exotic), and English. I was impressed with how some of the runners were speaking 3 – 4 different languages amongst each other within a space of 5 minutes.
Below is what the countryside in Pietermaritzburg looked like during our run.
– Getting to Inchanga: By now I was just aghast with the number of hills we were running. I don’t think I had expected the terrain to be like this. But I told myself to keep moving forward. This was not a time to panic, and that I was on a mission to get to Durban to collect my medal. I had to take another pee break in the countryside. I am not sure if fear, or drinking fluids caused this, but I was motivated to keep moving on. It was a relief to complete Inchanga. I was happy to say that my legs were feeling strong. It was at this time I saw at least 7 different barefoot runners (as in not even wearing Vibrams). I don’t know if I was amazed, aghast or simply taken aback on how they were running 56 miles on roads without any shoes
– Cutoff Point at Drummond/Arthurs seat: I got to the Drummond with 40 minutes ahead off the cutoff. Now I was getting worried. This would not give me much time for future cutoff points. I decided to start speeding up while making sure I did not hurt myself. At this I started asking spectators and fellow runners on where Arthur’s seat was. I stepped into the bushes and picked up a few dandelions.
It was at this time, I ran into Nikki Campbell (whom I mentioned at this beginning of this race report, who maintained the Alsoran Comrades website). I introduced myself and we ran together for a while, and then I took off. Nikki left me with the following advice: “Now that you have come halfway across the course, run your second smartly with the downhill’s and you will do great”. She also mentioned to me to keep smiling and high five all the kids on the course. I took this advice to heart.
A few minutes later, I came across the school kids from Ethembeni school and high fived every one of them. It was around this time that I found Arthur’s seat and placed the flowers on the rock, and then said “Good morning Arthur, you are my hero”. I then took off.
At one point we reached a point in the course where the board said that there was 42km left in the race. It was so funny because all the runners at that point including myself said “thank God there is only a marathon left to run”.
– Conquering Bothas Hill: Oh Lord, I really needed another uphill in this race. This was one steep curvy hill. I don’t think I ran much of this uphill. But I started walking strongly with purpose and with a smile on my face. At the top of Bothas hill I started running the entire downhill again. I was feeling good. It was right about this time that it started heating up and the temperature went up to 91°F with 76% humidity. However I was still feeling good.
We started running through residential neighborhoods, where people were cheering us. There were many cheerleaders along the route. Also some homeowners were standing outside their homes with water hoses. I took advantage of this opportunity to get soaked and cool my outer body. This was a great move and kept my body cool throughout the race despite the warm temperatures. I came to the next cutoff point and saw I was 1hr 40 mins ahead of cutoff. I was quite pleased, as I had now banked some time!
– The notorious Fields hill: We were warned about how steep and how long this downhill was. This was probably the steepest downhill I have ever run in my entire racing career. I was feeling strong. I saw Paul Grimes (I met him and his wife Candace during the bus tour. Paul paces runners at the Western States 100), and we ran down together on Fields hill. I was surprised how good I was feeling and my quads were holding up. Paul and I had the same thought process on not risking our first Comrades race, and focus on just finishing.
During this portion of the race, I saw many cramping runners, and ambulances on the side giving IVs to runners. It was hot and humid, however by some miracle I was feeling good. I think the hard training was paying off! I ran the entire Fields hill down and now made it into Pinetown to deal with the Cowies Hill
– Cowies Hill: After runner Bothas and Fields hill, Cowies are more of an annoyance than hindrance in the race. I just grunted and kept moving along. I was starting to see the end in sight. The next and last cutoff came up and I was very comfortably ahead of it. At this point I was very confident that I was going to complete this race!
– Getting into Durban: By now we were getting to into Durban. I think that this was the most annoying part of the race with constant uphill’s and downhill’s. The route profile map does not do justice to these ups and downs, but after almost 45 miles of running, every hill starts to count. I just grunted, smiled my biggest smile and continued moving forward. I started to see Paul Grimes on and off on the course, and also started talking to a new group of runners. By this point I had consumed all my fuel, and was around 5K away from the finish line
– 5K left to finish line: For the first time I felt tired in the race. I was walking more and running less. At around 3K left to the finish, a young African lady encouraged me to run with her towards the finish. I kept up for 1K with her and then had to walk/run again for another 1K.
I ran into another runner (an Afrikaner gentleman who was my age). He was limping badly, but we introduced ourselves to each other. He asked me how I was feeling. I told him that I was feeling crappy at that point and just wanted to finish the race. I will never forget what he told me next which was “but Hari, think about what a great race this is! We started this morning at 5:30AM listening to the great national anthem of South Africa, followed by the Shosholoza song, and then we got to listen to the Chariots of fire, which is the runners anthem! Where in the world can you find something like this????”
I had to agree with him. Then my new Afrikaner friend continued on “Hari, I want you promise me one thing. The race finishes in the Kinsgmeade Sahara stadium. Please finish the race running strong. People will be cheering for you like you have never heard before. Please promise me that you will do this!” I looked at him, and all of a sudden I felt this motivation come out of nowhere. I thanked my new friend, and all of sudden ran the remaining one kilometer, and ran it strong. I got to the Kingsmeade Sahara stadium and could hear the entire stadium cheering for the runners.
I saw my wife and son on the side lines and waved to them. I kept running strong and in a few seconds I crossed the finish line! I was done and had succeeded in finishing my first Comrades marathon in 11:13:12 hrs. I had successfully completed the race without cramping once anywhere and this was a major accomplishment for me.
Post Finish: After picking up my medal, I headed off to the international runners tent with my family to fuel up on some curry and biryani. I was amused that this was the first time in an international race that Indian food was being served at the Finish line, but it was simply delicious! We then sat down to watch the remaining runners finish.
It was very heroic to see how runners were helping each other to finish. The Comrades marathon was a race where I saw runners of all races gel together to help each other succeed. I also saw the videos of Zola Budd finishing (she finished in 6hrs 55mins). A Canadian runner (Eleanor Greenwood) won the women’s division in 6hrs 18 mins. The first 10 men finished the race in times ranging from 5hrs 28min to 5hrs 40min. This was a competitive race.
Right around the 12hr time (strict cutoff), I could see runners were rushing to get through the finish line. The race official walked across the course with the gun in his hand. He raised the gun into the air and fired it. That was the end of the race. Even if you were one second late, you were out of luck and you were not counted as a finisher. It was a harsh way to complete the race, but all of us started this race knowing that this was to be expected. My heart broke watching a runner who collapsed at the finish line who did not make it. I felt lucky to have finished. I looked for Viresh but could not find him (I later on found out that he finished in 10hrs and 14 mins)
After dinner, my family and I walked back to the Hilton. I took a shower and went to the Hilton bar, and drank a couple of tall Peroni’s to celebrate my finish. It was a long and hard day, but also a very satisfying one. As I finished my second beer, I made up my mind….I am going to start training to do the Comrades UP route marathon in 2015. I am now hooked onto this race!