Race report: Comrades – the legendary South African Ultra

The fabled (and arguably most famous) ultramarathon, the Comrades race, made its return in 2022 after a Covid hiatus. After making his Ironman debut in 2021, the (approx) 89km ultra was next on the list of epic challenges for Freddie Skarbek.

I first heard about Comrades after listening to the now defunct Marathon Talk podcast. The show host, Tom Williams, had decided to complete it with his father. The episode being particularly memorable for Tom’s description of his emotional and physical rollercoaster during the event, and his subsequent hiatus from running altogether… and for some reason I wanted a slice. I spoke to a good friend who also “enjoyed” Ironmans and we agreed to sign-up to the June’20 edition which due to COVID (yawn) was delayed (yawn) to August’22.

As a brief introduction, the Comrades (ultra)marathon is a point-to-point race between Pietermaritzburg to the coastal city of Durban. The race was the idea of World War I veteran Vic Clapham, to commemorate the South African soldiers killed during the war. Each year the start/finish switches. Down years are a 90k route ending in Durban with runners having a net descent of 600m (1200m ascent and 1800m descent) and vice versa for Up years although slightly shorter at 87k. This year and the 95th edition of the event was a down year.  

Startline of the legendary Comrades

To say the training wasn’t ideal is an understatement (insert rolling eyes emoji). This is an oft-repeated message by runners wanting to lower expectations on themselves in order to simply smash them in a joyous but annoying manner. In this case training was truly poor. I myself had done little to no running in the 1-2 months leading up to Comrades due to a knee injury. Coach Liv could only shout words of encouragement from the sidelines but I could see even she was nervous on my behalf. 2 weeks out I had managed one “long” run above 20km which promptly turned into hobble. I was only heartened by my friend who’s persistent shin splints and lower back troubles meant he genuinely hadn’t run in 2022. I’m not sure what encouraged us to get on the plane from Heathrow, but it probably wasn’t far from an ill-conceived notion that completing an ironman and not smoking is a virtual guarantee of fitness for the remainder of one’s life.

We got to the Expo in Durban a couple of days ahead of the race feeling like a pair of frauds. That being said the warmth and energy of runners and staff made us welcome. It was great to see Comrades legend, Bruce Fordyce, signing autographs. What was instantly recognisable was the pride locals take in completing the race. Each finisher is awarded a badge and the Expo is a chance for experienced heads to flaunt their accolades with badges sewn onto jackets. We met those with as many as 30 but I was reliably informed of a couple in their 70s completing their 50+ this year. The International race entry price is fairly steep at c. £225, far higher than the local price. However internationals are treated to quality goody bag and access to exclusive hospitality areas. I certainly felt the experience was well worth the cost.

The race starts in the dark at 5:30am with shuttle buses from Durban taking runners as early as 1:30am! Rather cruelly the 1.5-2h journey takes you along the exact route of the marathon. Once I arrived in Pietermaritzburg, the crowd energy I felt was as great as any of the major marathons I’ve completed. As per tradition the starting gun goes off after a rendition of the SA national anthem, Shoshaloza and Chariots of fire. After an hour or so runners have exited Pietermaritzberg and are into mountainous and luscious green countryside. With sunrise the views are absolutely breath-taking.  The full route is on road. I think there were 43 refreshment stations providing combinations of water in plastic packets, isotonic drinks, coke, bananas and salty potatoes which I now firmly believe should be a staple for any marathon event. The crowd themselves would bring along whatever they could. My favourites included PB&J and Bovril sandwiches. There were even rumours that runners would receive any food they so desired if spotted in the hands of any curious bystander… I definitely think that was true. There weren’t any formal energy gels, leading many runners to have “seconders” to provide them with their own nutrition products at designated points. As an international without support this was probably the hardest aspect of the planning, and we made sure we to carry plenty with us.

“Down” race profile

The first half of the course was mainly up hill. It’s crazy to think that once we hit 48km, we could kid ourselves that we’d completed most of the heavy lifting with “only” a 42km marathon to go, but it seemed to work. On the route you will pass many people singing, formally or informally. There was a seemingly continuous melody of Sholsalosa throughout. For me this is what made the even so special, really the crowd were truly unbelievable. Given the history, the popularity and the distance of the race, the support was fairly thick throughout and individuals really showed encouragement. Unfortunately I lost my friend at 60km and so we had to run the race individually, but I certainly never felt alone. Most of the route is downhill after km50 though that doesn’t fool anyone. The message is spread far and wide, filtered down from the experienced runners, that this this is where the race truly begins. Although the hills are never too steep, they are exceedingly long. I felt good even up to km80 but the impact on my legs really accelerated in the last 10km. My thighs and calves felt like someone had repeatedly hit them with a baseball bat. Those final few kms were as tough as any event I’m completed as you wind along rolling motorways in Durban with crowds thinning out. Once you reach the final 2kms and spot the 52,000 capacity Moses Mabhida Stadium finish, it’s at this point you know you’ll complete the race leading to a slow and steady procession of runners high fiving and patting each other on the back. The route finally turns into the stadium where you’re hit with a wall of noise as an enormous crowd watches on. It was really breath-taking and something I’ll never forget.

In stark contrast to the feeling of achievement, the medal was rather small and insignificant but yet shouting the hardest does not mean that you’re not heard. It held class, historical consistency and tradition. It really marked was what a great journey from that first step in the dark at Pietermaritzberg. A truly amazing and unique experience. Would I do it again? Complete an up run? Never… but ask me again in a couple of weeks.

Finish line feels!!

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