by Michele and Phil Whitehurst
The Comrades Marathon is an iconic ultramarathon of approximately 90 kilometres (55 miles) which is run annually in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg.
It is the world’s largest and oldest ultramarathon race and has been run almost every year since 1921. The direction of the race alternates each year between the “up” run (87 km) starting from Durban and the “down” run (now 90.184 km) starting from Pietermaritzburg.
Michele grew up in South Africa, so going back there was always in our plans, and as I like a long race, I thought it would be nice to incorporate a nice ultra into our holiday plans…
So, Michele and I had been talking about entering since we completed the Abbot “marathon major six star” challenge, but never quite got around to it – then the pandemic hit! In early 2022, I saw something about the race being back on in August, so I checked in with Michele, and she was up for it, if a little concerned about the distance!
So, we entered the race with “Africa Marathons”, a UK tour company who is a Comrades partner. Then it was down to training for something we’d never done before, a race more than twice as long as anything we’d done, in an area of South Africa known as “the valley of a thousand hills”.
How do you train for Comrades – the answer is, lots of running! But not as we had done before – there were back-to-back runs at the weekends that were run at a slow pace, around the pace that would get us to the finish line in 11-12 hours, which amounted to around 12-minute mile pace. The aim is not to destroy the legs, while doing a consistent mileage week after week – after all, we need to run the equivalent of two 5-and-a-half-hour marathons, plus another 4 miles to complete the challenge within the time limit.
We entered a number of marathons to practice – in total I did 6 and Michele did 5 in the build-up. Michele prefers road running, so entering races like the Hampshire hoppit and the Giant’s head marathon were out of her comfort zone, but she managed to complete all of them really well (although she will never do the Giant’s head ever again!).
Everything was going really well through the summer, in spite of blistering temperatures, and the need to carry a lot of water with us – the weekend long runs would start at 6:30am, but finish at 11am, when it was nearly 30 degrees. Along the way, Michele and I practised eating on the run, as the need to fuel for such a long race goes way beyond the “gel belt” that is enough for marathons – we carried all sorts of gels, bars and snacks so that we kept up our energy levels.
Our final shake-down race was on the 30th July, the “Round reading ultra 50k”. Michele’s knee had started to have problems the weekend before and we were a little worried it might not be OK. 20 miles in, it seized up and we had to walk the last ten miles, but in spite of the agonising pain, Michele managed to finish the whole course, and in just over 7 hours, which was really good considering the hot weather and the knee!
On consultation with a physio and chiro, it turned out Michele had developed ITB syndrome, a painful condition that impinges on the tendons and causes acute pain on the side of the knee. A nervous month of recuperation began! Michele stopped running, and did lots of Pilates, strength exercises and yoga. At least the bulk of the endurance training had been done, and hopefully, Michele would keep a lot of that fitness for the next 4 weeks until the big day.
So, with Comrades day looming, we packed our bags ready for the big adventure. We got to Heathrow in good time, to find out we weren’t sitting next to each other on the plane, and BA did nothing to fix that – not a good advert for the worlds most indifferent airline, and not helped by the two-hour delay in departure! We met up with a lot of our Africa marathons crew, who were a great bunch, lot of runners from all over, with a large contingent of Putney runners.
With the plane finally boarded, and the rather wonky plane’s non-working aircon leaving the cabin at 35 degrees, the engines finally got started and we headed off down south. I thought the flight had gone OK, and even got a little sleep, but on arrival, found out Michele had had some food poisoning, and had fainted in the loo. In spite of that she said she was OK now, but she looked very tired. Everything seemed to stacking up against us.
On arrival in Johannesburg we found out we’d missed our connecting flights, and with the race on, there were no seats in the remainder of flights to Durban that day. How much more could go wrong?
Fortunately, we were now in the hands of our Africa marathons hosts, who pulled out all the stops and got us an emergency coach to Durban which saved the day, although it was over 7 hours later before we finally pulled into our hotel at Umhlangha, just north of Durban. The journey was worth it though – we got to see some great scenery on the way down, with Ostriches running across grasslands, amazing mountains and jaw-dropping views as we came off the escarpment that makes up the highlands of South Africa, towards the sea on the east coast. A quick pasta at a restaurant next to the hotel, and it was off to bed to try and conserve energy!
On Friday, after a little lie-in and a nice big breakfast, we were taken down to the Comrades expo to pick up our race pack. It was a slick affair, and we had our numbers, t-shirt and packs ready to get going on Sunday in no time. After a wander round the expo, and some light shopping for souvenirs, we returned to the hotel to chill out and snooze off the lack of sleep from the previous day, followed by a little walk out along the coast. A pasta party had been arranged for the evening at the Italian opposite the hotel.
On Saturday, we ran Umhlangha parkrun. When we got there (the start was just around the corner from the hotel), we realised that Comrades legend “Bruce Fordyce” was on the mic addressing the crowd. Bruce won Comrades 9 times in the 1980s, and still enjoys running today, and has run Comrades 30 times. He is quite a legend in South Africa, and the locals were treating him as a major celebrity!
We took it easy around the parkrun naturally, with a big day coming up on Sunday. It was nice to see parkrun being such a big thing in south Africa and running with the locals on the seafront was really special. We hung around after and chatted to some locals, and Michele got Bruce to say a special Facebook message to our local parkrun at Upton house which.
On return to the hotel, we had a large breakfast to carb up for tomorrow. We packed our bags and got the coach up with the crew to a nice hotel near Pietermaritzburg. It was time to chill out again and save energy. A large multicarb feast awaited us in the evening, where we had rice, potatoes, pasta and bread! The it was back to bed for 9pm, ready for a 2am start. After waking up, getting into running kit and slavering on mountains of anti-chafe, it was down to a 3am breakfast. I avoided the eggs, although they did look inviting, and stuck with the standard porridge and toast.
The bus awaited us at 4am, ready to take us to the start. The start pens close shortly after 5am, so we needed to be downtown in good time. Some great tunes followed on the bus, getting us going, and calming the nerves.
Getting off the bus and making our way on nervous legs to start in the pitch black was very moving, with the group splitting up as they went to their start pens, which were seeded on the marathon times each group member had achieved to qualify. (Comrades has a strict qualification time of 4:50 for a marathon, to be achieved in a window of time before the race day). As Michele and I were running together, after a quick visit to the portaloos, we made our way to pen G”, but it was so packed, that we had to start right at the back in pen “H”! Never mind, we were there to complete, not compete, so we enjoyed the space at the back as the build-up to the start began. This is a time honoured tradition at comrades, with the South African anthem first, followed by an amazing mining “anthem”, the ”Shosholoza”, which send shivers down your spine as the locals chant out this African classic. Finally, the chariots of fire theme tune is played, followed by two calls of a cockerel. Then it’s 5:30 – a military cannon is fired, and we’re off!
It’s quite something to be running out of Pietermaritzburg as dawn is breaking over the African scenery. The area is hilly and made up of a mixture of classic looking African grass and shrubs, making the race feel so different to those in the UK. Along the sides of the road leaving town, low-level local style houses stretched out ahead of us as we made our way towards the countryside.
You may think that a 12 hour run is a bit of a slog, and in some ways, you’d be right, but the day seemed to go by in a blur! There was so much see, so many people lining the route, so many friendly faces at the aide stations, it’s hard to report what happened in any detail, but I’ll do my best…
About 20k in, you reach the highest point of the course. You may think that because the start is high, it’s all downhill to Durban. But you’d be so wrong! After 10k, there is a huge downhill called “Polly shorts”, where you lose a lot of altitude. And from there, it’s a massive slog getting to that high point at 20k. Once there, the views were breath-taking – looking across hills and valleys in the morning haze (it was still only around 8:00am at this point!), the African countryside in all its splendour. From here to the 60k point, it’s a roller coaster ride, with some massive climbs at Inchanga and Botha’s hill ready to destroy your legs. It was at the top of Inchanga we saw some poor runner getting CPR, who’d obviously given his all trying to get there. That was quite sobering, making you realise it’s not an easy undertaking, and how much people are trying their best to achieve on this test of endurance.
The sights and sounds of locals, little kids running around asking us for some of our sweets, locals calling out to family members in the race, and so many families and friends our, setting up barbeques and drinking beer right at side of the race! By the time we’d got to 60k, I could have done with one of those cold beers.
At the 60k point starts the “easiest” part of the race, as it’s a gentle downhill from there to the start of “fields hill”. If you’ve still got legs that can run, this is the place to get the miles in and coast for a bit. At this point Michele’s knee was “talking” to her, but fortunately not “shouting”. We carried on at a comfortable pace, walking up any slight inclines, and gently running the downhill sections.
Then we came the aforementioned “Field’s hill”. This is a serious downhill section – 3km of leg punishing violence! We had to walk / run downhill to survive this, as Michele’s knee could simply not bear that level of punishment. Even walking down it hurt my knees, so we were very sympathetic to the need to preserve our legs. There was “only” around 21k to go as we left the hill behind and entered Pinetown.
All along the way we had been “harried” by the “12-hour bus”, which was one of the 12-hour pacers, whose tambourine kept tracking us down and overtaking us at every water station we stopped at to take on drinks and fuel! This was worrying us as the 12-hour cut-off at the finish was not something we wanted to see. From here, we made a concerted effort to get well ahead of this “bus” to get some time cushion in place. We managed to do this this as we ran through “Pinetown”, a well-supported section, with the locals forming a human tunnel like they have in the “Tour de France”, clapping us along and cheering us through. This was wonderful, and really helped our flagging legs. We were now starting to see more and more runners in real difficulty, wandering around, staggering in an almost zombie like state, running so low on energy that the last 21k would seem an impossible task.
That task would be made even more difficult as the last hill “Cowie’s” came into sight. This was not such a long hill, but at this point in the race, it was not a welcome sight! The water station at the top though was wonderful, a real party zone, which refreshed us with isotonic drinks and plenty of cheer. The reward for getting up Cowie’s is the best downhill running of the race, a gentle slope leading us safely into Durban city, where the final few miles would be run on a motorway, closed for this day as it leads directly to the Moses Mabhida stadium, where the finish line awaits. The only real hill left was the “on-ramp” to this motorway, which felt like a mountain after 78km of running!
The last few k was all about preserving the legs, walking up the slopes, and running the easy bits. With 5k to go, and 45mins still on the “clock”, I realised with relief that we were going to be OK, even at our slowed down pace, we were going to cover the distance in around 35mins, and even walking the remainder would get us in within the cut-off.
Michele was doing brilliantly, keeping it all together and run/walking to consistently keep our pace up. About 2k from the finish, the massive stadium loomed into view, and I allowed for us to have a little bit longer walk break so that we would have plenty of energy to run strong into the stadium! With about 750m to go, we started running again, up the on ramp to and in through the player’s tunnel onto the track around the pitch. What a noise awaited us, with the crowd cheering, and the speakers playing music, encouraging the runners to pick up the pace for a strong finish! It was quite something else, even bigger than London.
As we crossed the finish line, Michele was elated, then got quite emotional as it struck her what we’d accomplished. Something very different to a “normal day”, that’s for sure.
We’d finish with less than 11 minutes remaining until the cut-off time, 11hours 49mins 47seconds – phew!
We hung around to watch the final runners come through, and the famous cut-off time being imposed. The song “The final countdown” started playing with around 3mins on the clock, and as the final beats of that song played, the commentator counting 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2…1! With the last runner making a sprint, he just failed to make it before the stewards sent him down the “losers” funnel, a barrier being placed across the finish to guide those unlucky ones away from the medal tables they so wanted, and out of the stadium. After making it through 12 hours of strife, all they got was backs turned on them! Ouch. But this is what makes Comrades such an iconic event, everyone knows the score. It makes for great TV viewing too, especially for that last hour!
After the finish, you are made to climb some steep steps out of the stadium, which is cruel, but more cruel is the steep flyover bridge you have to go up and down to get to the car park. Anyone who’s done a marathon will know how your legs feel, and running two and a bit was far worse! We joined up with the rest of the Africa team and rejoiced in the knowledge that every single runner made it home before the cut-off. What an amazing achievement. We forged some bonds here with runners from across the world, and still chat on our WhatsApp group about each what each has been doing since the race.
There is so much history around the Comrades race – we took off on a two-week tour of South Africa afterwards, and so many people congratulated us for doing it and were somewhat in awe of our achievement. It is truly a massive national event over there. I would highly recommend anybody who wants a real “life experience” to do this race at least once. It’s a long way to go to do a race, but we’ve had no regrets at all – we would do it again as soon as we can! A real bonus was the self-guided tour we did around South Africa following the race. It’s a country of great scenery, great people and it’s a destination that is close to our hearts.