Location: South Africa
Comrades is a point to point 90km ultra-marathon that alternates direction every second year between Durban and Pietermaritzburg in South Africa. The largest ultra-marathon in the world, it is capped at around 20,000 runners. The “Ultimate Human Race” is known for it’s gruelling hills and incredible community support.
1 June 2014
I’ve been getting progressively more terrified all week but on Saturday morning I wake up with a clear vision of running across the finish line safe and well and I finally feel calm and ready. We have a restful day with a massage and an early pasta dinner before going to bed at 5:30pm. I sleep soundly and wake up at 2am ready for breakfast. We board the bus at 3am for the ride to Pietermaritzburg 90kms away. Arriving in Mariztburg in the dark at 4:30am the race precinct is alive. We wish each other a good run and Jarrod heads off to A group while I join the hordes back in G group.
The crowd is incredibly well behaved and respectful. The South African anthem is played first then Shosholosa a traditional South African song which gets the crowd singing beautifully. Then Chariots of Fire is played before he cock crows (not an actual cock, just a recorded cock but it crows twice) and a cannon is fired to start the race. Eight minutes later I cross the start line. This is a gun to gun race so that’s eight minute of going nowhere but that’s the price for being slow.
It’s cool and dark and the running conditions are perfect. The streets are already lined with people cheering us on and collecting discarded clothing (we run through a lot of poor communities who rely on the clothing). I am mindful of keeping the pace slow as it’s going to be a long day and many people have come unstuck going out too hard in the early kilometers. I also have to run 30kms further than I ever have and those 30kms are going to have to come from the heart. I know that each km will bring my average pace down and that the first half is the hilliest so I don’t panic and I just keep going steady and slow.
The hills start almost immediately but are not as bad as I thought, there is a benefit coming from hilly Hobart, and I am reaping the benefits of running up and down that Eaglehawk Neck hill so many times.
Early on I decide to get on the bus. This is what they call pacing groups. You “buy a ticket” by just joining in and “getting on the bus”. During the walk breaks you “park the bus”. This course is so hilly that almost everyone walks some of the hills and it’s almost impossible to actually run up as the whole road is filled with walkers. The key is to maintain an average pace that will get you to the finish while preserving the legs for the downhill runs. Running with a large group really helps to keep you going and the group feeds off each other’s determination.
I have a blue bib that denotes international runners and our names are on our bibs as well as how many times you have run Comrades. This turns out to be very useful as not only do the crowd cheer you on for being foreign, and they shout your name, but during the race numerous green numbers (people who have done 10 or more Comrades) come up to me and ask where I am from, wish me well for my first Comrades and pass on advice on how to finish. This lifts the spirits and keeps me believing I can do this, especially in the second half when the going gets tough.
As the day wears on the sun comes out and it gets hot. I have trained for hills and I have done a lot of kms but the heat is the one thing that could really bring me unstuck. Early on I start drenching myself in water to keep my body temperature down and I continue to do this at every drink station. As we near the marathon distance (42km) I am feeling good and strong and feel my pace is right. I am starting to feel a bit sick from the sugar and electrolytes but I am conscious of hitting the wall later on so I keep taking in energy regularly. I reach my 60km personal aid station and feel nauseous but determined to keep moving. Despite the heat I am able to use the toilet and this is a good sign that I am hydrating enough.
The crowds are amazing. There are people with card tables holding out Tupperware with lollies, chips, sandwiches and fruit. A lady gives me an icy pole which I am very grateful for. You can take anything from the unofficial aid stations as long as they are stationary. All the running clubs have tables set up and there are a lot – you can’t enter Comrades as a South African unless you are in a running club. There are also numerous first aid stations with physios lined up with baths of ice and pain spray giving runners rub downs to prevent cramps. People are holding out supersized tubs of Vaseline which I slather on in great handfuls under my arms. As the kms wear away the crowds start shouting “You are heroes, we admire you” and I start to feel quite emotional.
I reach the 26kms to go sign and think “ït’s only one more lap of the Pipeline”. I still feel sick but keep pushing on, my legs are hurting, my back is hurting but it’s not getting worse. Each km grinds on slowly and I just focus on getting from drink station to drink station. At 15kms to go I know I can finish well within the 12 hour cutoff and I start to feel better. The day is cooling down and there’s a lot of downhill running which is excruciating on the legs but mentally rewarding. The crowds are really cheering now because they know that we will finish within the time limit. I spot another Aussie girl and ask her where she’s from, she’s freaking out and has lost the plot, is panicking about losing time and I try to calm her and reassure her that she has plenty of time and not to lose it now.
As we near the city I feel energised and happy knowing I am going to make it, and make it well. I am not going to be rolling or crawling across the finish line. As we run down the road to the stadium I am smiling to myself and I must look like an idiot but as I run into the stadium and onto the grass I am determined to finish strong. I sprint around the track with my arms in the air shouting Hell Yeah! as I cross the finish line in 11 hours and 31 minutes to claim my treasured Comrades finisher’s medal. I am thrilled and exhausted and everything hurts. I pose for a photo and make my way to the International tent where we have hot food and cold drinks and cakes and tea and beer and blankets and it’s a dream come true. I meet up with the other Aussie guys and it’s high fives all around but I am worried about Jarrod. Jarrod had not run for three weeks before the race, battling a hamstring injury, and he was worried about not being able to run. They let me know he ran a little over 8 hours and is happy so I am relieved. I eat and drink and wait around but Jarrod doesn’t appear . We watch the closing of the race, the heartbreaking minutes where the gun goes and the finish line is immediately blocked and those poor souls who have run for 12 hours don’t achieve their dreams.
The finish area has a fully equipped Intensive Care Unit. They have 65 doctors. I’m just saying.
As runners are carted out on stretchers and into ambulances I decided Jarrod must have gone back to the hotel so I make my slow, painful way back up the road in my space blanket to the hotel. He’s not there. I’m really worrying now because I don’t know what has happened to him but then there’s a knock on the door and Jarrod bursts in saying ”I can’t believe you finished! It’s incredible!” I remind him that he was the one who encouraged me to enter and he admits he started feeling guilty about 40kms in when it started to get hot. Apparently he went outside to see me finish but missed me so he thought I hadn’t made it and so went to the Hilton Hotel nearby to check the online results when he made the discovery that I had in fact finished and was alive and well. This has been a most extraordinary day.
Event profile: Shelley Miller
For more information: