Race Review: Comrades Marathon

To understand why I was standing in the middle of a South African town at 5:30 in the morning surrounded by 20,000 mostly South African runners, we have to go back to April 2014. In our normal pre-Boston race week buildup, we tried to pass the time with running documentaries — trying to get ourselves keyed up to run fast on Marathon Monday. We came across Bart Yasso’s Runner’s World feature about the Comrades Marathon. Bart has run everything and been everywhere, and he had not run this one so he put it on his bucket list. We were in awe. On Monday, endorphins still raging and drunk from our Boston finishes and a few cocktails, Michael said, “Hey we should do that Comrades thing!” He’d heard about it before we watched the documentary. “Ha!” I said, “We aren’t ultramarathoners.” But Michael insisted we might be. “That’s more than two marathons. Think about how trashed our legs are right now! You want more of that?” I told him I would ask him in a few weeks when he wasn’t drunk.

Comrades is the world’s oldest ultramarathon. It is filled with badasses. Each person is a badass in their own way. South Africa television devotes an entire 12-hour block to covering it. Everyone knows whether it’s an “up” or a “down” run. When you tell an American that you’re running Comrades, though, they don’t understand. Rugby and running feel like South Africa’s national pastimes. The nation seems to rally around this event. It’s their Boston and New York and Super Bowl all in one. OK.

A few weeks later, I confirmed that yes, Michael was serious about wanting to run this thing. We’d need to wait for a “down” year, which would be an even year. The Comrades course changes directions every year, from Pietermaritzburg to Durban for the down years and vice versa for the up years. Downhill running seemed easier. Who doesn’t love running down a hill? But that meant having a goal for more than two years. And we aren’t ultramarathoners. I had two years to turn myself in to an ultramarathoner. OK. That was a long way away.

Buildup

I know I somehow ended up at this point, in May 2016, a point where I can reasonably imagine running 56 miles. My weekly mileage increased by about 15 percent, steadily and with the help of an amazing coach. But this also meant I needed to slow down some runs. This training was more about time on my feet and less about building speed. Except when it wasn’t and I was training for marathon PRs at the same time. Somehow, with a series of stepping stone endurance races and steady mileage buildup, the ultra seemed doable.

The first step I remember in the ultramarathoner plan was running a long way and practicing fueling. I ran Boston 2 Big Sur in 2015, which let me know that my legs could tolerate two marathons in a week at a pretty quick clip. But the first time I ran 50K on the roads, I hallucinated a dead bird. I had plenty of work to do. Aside from mental grit, fueling is a something you have to get right in ultras. Your body cannot run much farther than 26.2 miles without taking in some additional fuel — in my case, something solid. With some amount of fueling strategy figured out, I came in top female in my first trail ultra, The March, a non-technical fire road trail ultra in North Carolina. That was a building block for Stone Mill, a 50-mile trail run. I was mentally zapped after that race and I fell down in the first mile. But covering 50 miles is something my body can do.

In January, I ran the Goofy Challenge in Walt Disney World, which is a half marathon on Saturday and a marathon on Sunday. The U.S. doesn’t have a ton of ultra-distance road races, and I wanted to train in conditions close to Comrades. In February, I ran the Cowtown 50K and broke the course record. With a pacing strategy and fueling plan nearly locked down, I was quite confident I could run Comrades.

I haven’t written about my disappointing performance in Boston here, but gosh, I felt like my training was finally coming together for that race. A combination of a warm day and a migraine at mile 8 meant I wouldn’t be breaking 3:00 in the spring this year. But in 2016 I have set personal records in every other distance I’ve raced: 50K, half marathon, 10-mile, 10K and three-mile. And with as long as I’ve been pushing and racing, I am pleased to see my times continue to drop. But I digress.

Comrades was on the horizon. I took a deep breath after the Boston setback and was determined to build my mileage up again for the six weeks between races. Twelve days after Boston, I organized a 35-mile long run around Washington, Maryland and Virginia where I really settled in on my Comrades race fueling plan. Without that confidence-building run and the miles in my legs, I wouldn’t have arrived at the start line with much confidence. Thirty-five miles on roads is a long way to go.

35-mile training run through DMV
35-mile training run through DMV

After about two year of gradual buildup and confidence building, I was ready to glide in for a smooth landing and an easy taper for the race. But I had two of my favorite May races on the calendar, races I don’t miss — the Capitol Hill Classic 10K and the ACLI Capital Challenge Three-Miler. Plus before Boston, I’d been having a weird kind of hip pain across the front of my lower abdomen. It wasn’t exactly my groin — a little higher. It woke me up at night a few times. I shrugged it off as maybe my period or maybe running too many miles ahead of Boston. I did put in a few 100-mile weeks. Then some time around the second week of May, the pain started again. My training was slowing down in to taper mode. I thought the pain would go away with a bit of rest or easier days. It didn’t. Then I raced twice and PRed twice in four days. At the start line of both of those races, I was telling people around me I wasn’t sure if my hip would hold up. It was tender. I was walking a fine line for both of those races.

I went to the physical therapist on May 18. Comrades was on May 29. She said she thought it wasn’t a stress fracture or a hernia (those things don’t wake you up at night) and gave me some exercises to help with the pain. But the pain kept happening at night, even with the taper. It didn’t happen the nights after my races, but it would come back on random easy days. On Monday night before my Tuesday evening flight, my massage therapist worked on my psoas muscles, which helped with some of the tension and let me get back to some ab exercises. The 17-hour flight to Africa wasn’t terrible. I slept for about six hours, and I managed a quick mile when we landed on Wednesday night to keep my running streak alive. The streak is almost seven years long. You don’t just throw that away because you had a late flight. Right?

We woke up in Johannesburg on Thursday morning and went for an easy shakeout. Bad news: the groin pain was real, and it was happening during the run. It was on the right side, and it had moved a bit to the right butt cheek. My goal was to finish Comrades — all 56 miles of it. Period. It is not a race for which I had a firm time goal. I wanted to finish the race in the 12-hour allotted time window. So I decided I would take a rest day. A real rest day. Aside from the fact that I felt kind of “off” in the morning — kind of how you feel when you haven’t had enough coffee — I think my rest day went fine. We flew from Johannesburg to Durban. We ate dinner with international runners. I slept well and without hip pain that night!

On Saturday, Michael and I ran a shakeout — him guiding us so we wouldn’t get hit when I looked the wrong way for oncoming traffic and me babying my hip and listening to it for any signs of pain. Everything felt … fine?

Race Prep

The Comrades race expo is like Boston but a little smaller, far less crowded and full of strange African things. Comrades knows how to treat its international runners, too. There is a special line for bib number pickup, and the volunteers walk you through every piece of what you need to bring. Plus there is an international food tent at the finish. And international runners get special bibs. We picked up our numbers and tog bags (drawstring drop bags are “tog bags” there) at the expo and dropped off fuel for our three drop bags at the Hilton across the street. The two best choices I made in preparing for this trip were signing up for these drop bags and for the course tour. In my drop bags I had:

  • 13.1 mile: 3 GUs, one Stinger waffle, one sweet potato baby food pouch, three salt tabs
  • 26.2 mile: 3 GUs, one Stinger waffle, cashew Larabar, beet baby food pouch, three salt tabs, pair of socks
  • 39 mile: 4 GUs, three Clif block shots, three salt tabs

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I overdid it with the salt tabs. But I like to overpack those in case I lose one or my fingers don’t work. My fueling plan was to have one salt tab every 90 minutes.

On Saturday morning, we took a fantastic course tour with Bruce Fordyce. The goal, he said, of the tour is to scare us. Without the course tour, I would have been cursing myself for being in way over my head. With the course tour, I knew I was in over my head. But I knew when the going got tough (and it WOULD be tough), I would have lots of beautiful views.

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After thoroughly shitting our pants on the course tour, we panicked and thought our best course of action would be to hang out in our hotel for most of Saturday afternoon. We ordered an early dinner. We were both asleep (asleep!) by 8 p.m.

Race Day

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The alarm went off at 2:15. I made a French press cup of coffee for each of us, and we staggered around the hotel room until we kind of had our wits about us. Neither of us pooped. We were overseas and had no hope of anything happening at 2 a.m. anyway. We put on our race stuff we’d carefully laid out the night before when we were lucid. Then we took a quick photo where we look really awake and hopped up on something (life?), and we stumbled into the South African darkness to our cab. Wait, the third best idea I had on this trip was ordering a cab two days early. Otherwise I doubt we would have been able to easily get to the bus departure area at 3 a.m. on race morning.

The start of this race reminds me, oddly, of the start line to get to Big Sur. It is dark as hell. Everyone is kind of quiet. You’re waiting on a random street for cushy buses. All you want to do as you careen through the darkness is sleep. The trip to Pietermaritzburg doesn’t feel like 56 miles. When you get off the bus, because you’ve gone up 3,000 feet, it is 10 degrees colder than in Durban. I was still nervous about my hip, so I gingerly walked down the street toward the portapotties, halfway expecting my leg to buckle because maybe my hip realized what was ahead. But no, everything felt fine.

We stood in what appeared to be the only line for tog (drop) bags (?) and then went to our separate corrals. Until this point for the past few days, I’d been doing stream-of-consciousness with Michael about my hip. It was like my security blanket of someone to talk to, to assure me that I WOULD finish the race, was gone. We said bye to each other and he headed to the C corral. I was in B. I made my way through a little group of guys trying to get in to the B corral. Not sure what that was about. This was around 5:15 a.m. I took a seat next to a fence and sat there in a daze. I tried to remind myself that I should run by feel and not let emotion overtake me. I remembered my fueling. Oddly, I wasn’t nervous. Just sleepy, mostly. One of my Facebook friends Richard walked by and gave me a few Clif bars. He said something about needing to get to the front of the corral. More power to him.

You don’t remember the start of most races you run. It’s just people milling around. The anthem plays. The race director might say something that you can’t understand over a loud speaker. Here, you remember the start. I am not South African. In fact, this is the first race I’ve been at where another anthem played. Well maybe in Erie, Penn., they played the Canadian and United States anthems. In my corral, when the South African anthem played several groups of grown-ass men wrapped their arms around each other and swayed from side to side. And when the Shosholoza played, a woman in front of me grew more and more animated the longer it went on. These were runners, and they were great, great people. The cannon went off (not a gun, guys, a cannon), and we were on our way. It was 5:30 in the morning, and I was running in South Africa while everyone I know was asleep. In one of those surreal holy shit this is my life and it’s weird moments, that thought occurred to me when I looked around at the stream of runners darting in to the night. What was this?

I don’t recall a ton about the first 10 miles or so. A lot of dark. A lot of houses. It was cool. Hills were starting. We came tumbling down Polly Shorts, and I knew my quads were going to have a long day. My hips, though, were not in pain. Admittedly, I was taking the downhills quite easy because I had this nightmare of cracking my hip with one wrong step down the steep declines. I kept my long sleeve shirt on for the first seven or eight miles. In any other race, this would have felt like a long time. But my breathing was not labored. My heart rate seemed fine. I felt like I was out for a nice run in the cool morning air.

I ran next to a man from Lesotho for about 12 miles before we spoke to each other. He finally complemented me on my careful pacing. I don’t remember the names of anyone I talked to at this point. Knew about half of them yesterday. But this guy was wearing a yellow bib so he must have been going for his 10th Comrades and green number. There is a whole system to bib colors and numbers that is infinitely interesting and quite helpful. By the end of the race, I’d started to really enjoy looking at bibs.

The course doesn’t offer a ton of fueling options other than water, Coke (sometimes) and Energade, which is Gatorade but a little different. The liquids are all in plastic tubes. I enjoyed the tubes and wish America would switch to that system, though paper cups might be better for the environment. The tubes were really easy to bite in to once I got the hang of it. And if I took two tubes, I could use one for drinking water and squirt another one on top of my head to stay cool. But great news. If something isn’t supplied by the course, the spectators will certainly have it. I passed so many people handing out oranges, bananas, potato chips, salted potatoes, candy bars, you name it. And the spectators genuinely know how fast you’re going and what your predicted finishing time might be. Michael had one guy tell him how far ahead of the 9:00 cutoff he was when he was 10 miles away from the finish line. I mean, what the hell.

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Through mile 26, my pacing and fueling were pretty steady. We were approaching some bigger climbs and, worse, some legit downhills, that I was not excited about. At the drop bag checkpoint, I was talking to the volunteers telling them if they saw Michael to tell him I was doing well and looked good. But then damn it if Michael didn’t come charging up the hill. He looked great. He grabbed some stuff from his fuel bag, and we took off together. The next downhill was a little too graded for me, so he went ahead. I caught up to him a few miles later. Then he caught me again shortly after that. My hip still wasn’t bothering me, but I took the downhills easy.

Somewhere around the 40th mile, the course goes straight down. For about three miles. No rest. No slightly flat stretches. Nope. Just straight down at a 6 percent grade. These kinds of hills are lots of fun to run down when you have fresh legs or when there’s some variation in terrain like on a trail. Straight down in the blazing sun on pavement is no fun. Anyway, I walked some of this portion. At the bottom of the crappy downhill, I stopped to ask a spectator to tie my shoe because my laces kept hitting my ankle. I grabbed a handful of potato chips and some water from his table and told him he’d pretty much saved my race. He had.

Past mile 45, I started counting down miles. The markers at Comrades are kilometers and they count down, not up. So I was trying to do all kinds of mental math about how far I was from the finish in terms my exhausted brain could understand. So 20K is 12.5 miles, so like. Like 17K is how long? When I started doing that, I hit another uphill section that was too steep to run at that point. The hills in this course are not to be taken lightly. I tried to compare them to anything I know. Hurricane Point? Like 12 climbs like that. Or the hill on Harvard that I run up almost every day? It’s like that but five times as long and steeper. And hot. More hill training next time.

When I realized I was close to the finish, near the 3K mark I guess, I decided I could stand to accelerate a bit. My legs wouldn’t move that fast but they still had a bit of turnover in them. And once we entered downtown Durban the streets became streets, not mountains. I could finally see the Hilton, which I knew was next to the stadium finish line. I picked it up a bit. With 2K to go, I wondered whether I would get super emotional at the finish. Probably too exhausted to cry that much.

Comrades finishes with a lap around the inside of a stadium. It’s something you remember, almost like coming down Boylston. There also is a strict 12-hour cutoff. So you could have, say, entered the stadium but not made it quite to the finish line, and the finish line could just close. Think about that. You’ve been running since 5:30 in the morning. It is now dark. And you are within shouting distance of the finish line, and that thing closes. Bull shit. That’s the rule. The last stretch of the course is on grass in this stadium and damn, it feels great on your feet. I kept walking through the chute to find Michael, who’d finished in 8:52, and I grabbed my rose, my medal and my Comrades patch.

We hung out for about 30 minutes and then caught a cab back to the hotel. The hotel staff had tuned our television to marathon coverage for us. We looked at each other and had a “holy shit, we did that thing we said we’d do” moment. Then we drank some beer.

What’s Next

After what I calculate to be about three years of nearly non-stop training where I’ve pushed my body to PR at every distance, I am going to take some down time. This might mean easy miles. It might mean more rest days. On Monday, the day after I ran 56 miles through Africa, I took a two-mile walk through the city and another two-mile walk on the beach. And it was fine. This means not pushing myself before I am ready. It means listening to my body and hoping that the hip thing was a blip but being prepared to take more time than I want to for healing. Elite athletes take rest days. They take down time and come back stronger. Now, I’m not saying I am an elite. But they know what works.

So onward to fall marathons. Onward to more long-distance racing. And onward to being healthier, happier and in a better position by the time I get to Tahoe the third Sunday in August.

  • Distance run: 56.1 miles
  • Elevation: 3,876 feet
  • Time elapsed: 9:31:20 (9:16:19 moving time)
  • Blisters: one on the bottom of my heel, not bad
  • Toenails lost: none
  • Food and beverages consumed: 10 GUs, two Stinger waffles, sweet potato baby food pouch, beet baby food pouch, six Clif shot blocks, seven salt tabs, five orange slices, a banana, a handful of potato chips, Energade, water
  • Hallucinations: kept seeing South African people who looked like people I know, but nothing too crazy

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Amanda

Amanda runs nearly every day. She likes data and avoids deer at all costs.

5 thoughts on “Race Review: Comrades Marathon”

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed reading. What an accomplishment for both you and Michael. Congrats!

  2. Your commentary actually made me feel like I was there with you! The determination you have is mind-blowing! Gosh! There isn’t anything effusive enough to express my thoughts! You are simply Amanda Hicks.

  3. I’m one of the many South Africans that ran Comrades on Sunday. I finished in 09:05 and my dear husband had to carry me in to the house after the race I just could not walk. He even had to bath me because I could not reach my calves and feet. Before the start the were 2 American guys in front of me at the portatotties. My husband tapped the 1 on the shoulder and asked him to look after me. (My hunsband is not a runner and was not even suppose to be at the portapotties) Boy, did those 2 great Americans guys looked after me, I really appreciated them so much, great great gentlemen!!
    It was very nice reading your race review. Please come back next year for the up run and get your back to back medal

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