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Comrades Marathon with Nick Bester

“It’s a race that is built only for the toughest of the tough”

“It’s the last 30kms of the race that counts. This is the part where all that training pays off and where the mentally strong come through”

The Comrades is a race I have the utmost respect for! It’s a brutal 89km ultra marathon. In my view, it is one of the hardest marathons you’ll ever run, followed by the second hardest marathon you’ll ever run, and then add in another 5kms at the end! You run from Pietermaritzburg to Durban and then change direction every year, making the one a down run and the other an up run.

The Comrades Marathon ~ also known as the Ultimate Human Race.

It’s a race that is built only for the toughest of the tough. This is evident by the fact that there is no separate men’s or women’s qualify time or cut off. To put things into perspective there are around 22,000 people who enter this event.   About 16,000 people make the start line (most drop outs are due to runners getting injured in training), about 12,000 finish the race of which about 70-80% of the field finish within the last hour. The most brutal part of the entire race is the cut off after 12 hours. As soon as the clock hits this 12 hour mark, the officials pull a rope across the finish line, stopping each and every runner who has just missed it. It’s heart-breaking to see the devastated faces of these exhausted runners who have come so close but will go home without a medal. The worst part about it is they don’t even let you walk across the finish line – instead you have you turn around and exit the stadium back along the route, where just a few seconds earlier you were busting your guts out trying to make it in time. That pretty much defines the Comrades Marathon:  it takes no prisoners.

Why I entered

In 2010, I made it official that I would like to run this monster in 2014. 4 years went by in the blink of an eye. I’m not someone who commits to something and then backs out, so I thought if I’m going to do it, let me at least train hard, put the work in and do this properly.

Training for Comrades

In my opinion, it was always the training for this race that was the hardest part. In running, what you put in, is what you get out. There are no shortcuts! We’d wake at 4.30AM every morning, without fail to get our training done. What started off sounding completely crazy, became a normality. The two most important things of your training are:  time on the legs (getting the legs used to mileage) and doing hilly, undulating runs. I was fortunate enough to live in a hilly area. So the elevation gains on a training run were a lot more than the majority of other runners training for Comrades. It wasn’t always easy leaving the house in the dark, half asleep, having to start on an uphill. But it was a hill I’d later thank myself for running up every day. The aim was always to run as much as possible with just enough time to get the legs to recover so that you could go again. Double run days became a normality. The actual race day was hard but if you trained properly for this race, it was the brutality of the training that was harder.

My typical training week would look as follows:

Monday:          Morning run – 13kms (easy)

Evening 10kms (easy)

Tuesday:         Evening Time trial – 8kms (as hard as possible)

Wednesday:   Morning: mid-week longer run – 25kms (easy)

Thursday:        Morning: 13kms (easy)

Evening: 10kms Hill repeats (1km steep hill)

Friday:             Easy 9km

Saturday          Morning: 20km (including park run)

Sunday             Morning: 42km or longer (usually a marathon, ultra or a longer hilly training run) 

Only in my last Comrades did I have Strava, so before this, I recorded my training by writing it down in a good old log book.

The race

I get Goosebumps every time I think of it!

It’s important to get good rest the second night before the race, because no one sleeps well knowing you’re running Comrades the next day. On race day, I would typically wake up at 3AM for a 5.30AM start. Then the usual race routine would begin. Like a typical runner, the last minute self-doubt creeps in. Should I have an extra slice of toast?  Should I try this bar?  Should I pack extra gels?  Should I try go to the bathroom just one more time? It’s the same thing that happens to all of us runners: you know your pre-race routine works like it has in the past, but you doubt it every time you have a big race. 

Eventually when you get into your start pen at around 5am, this is when the true Comrades spirit really kicks in. The anticipation of all 17,000 runners on the start line, revving to go, creates a buzz and a vibe which rattles through your bones. You sing the national anthem, followed by a traditional South African song ‘Shosholoza’, then by the time they start playing ‘Chariots of Fire’ almost every athlete has a tear in their eye! Very rarely do I get emotional, but when it comes to the start and finish of Comrades… I cry like a baby!

The cock then crows 3 times, followed by the gun going off, and finally you’re on your way knowing the next time your legs stop moving is after a gruelling 89 kms. 

Pacing and getting the right nutrition during this race is more important than anything. I’ve never managed to eat much during the race, even though I’ve tried every year, I just can’t seem to be able to stomach food during the run. Just about the only thing I could eat were salami sticks, because let’s be honest, salami sticks are so yummy.  Even when I don’t feel like food, I can eat these. I usually take around 5-6 gels throughout the race, as well as about 3 caffeine shots towards the end. As for my drinks, I pre-mix an electrolyte drink that my seconds give me, then apart from this I have the Energade, Coke and water that’s available at the water points en route.

Not going out too fast is crucial and is a mistake made by many. In my previous races, I have been well behind the field at half way relative to where I finish. You definitely want to avoid hitting the wall at all costs. My mental preparation for the race is as follows: 30kms warm up, followed by 30kms grinding, followed by 30kms of doing whatever it takes to push as hard as possible from there until the finish. Usually I think of someone and dedicate this part to them, which gives me an extra kick and gets me through. 

It’s the last 30kms of the race that counts. This is the part where all that training pays off and where the mentally strong come through. This is the part that separates the boys from the men and where the people who went out too fast start paying for this rookie error. I actually sometimes hallucinate at this point during the race. My mind plays tricks on me and my brain goes into survival mode. I once almost snatched a kid’s ice cream from him without even thinking. That’s the level of exhaustion you’re at during this point of the race. 

Then finally it is the last km of Comrades. You always finish by doing a lap of a field. The point where your feet touch the grass is the moment you’ve dreamt of from the start. You know it’s just one last lap and you’ve made it! I’ve been lucky enough to finish this section with the leading ladies. The crowds go absolutely mental. Finishing with the top ladies also gives you the benefit of some quality TV coverage which my friends and family who didn’t come through to watch the race always appreciate. I could almost hear my mom just screaming at the TV!

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