I returned to South Africa last week to run the historic Comrades Marathon race. The specifics: 86.97 kilometers (54 miles). This year was an “up” run – starting in Durban and ending in Pietermaritzburg. The first marathon climbs about 2200 ft, with very little decent. The remaining 28 miles rolls, gaining about 3500 ft and losing about the same. 20,000 people entered the 2011 race, and I think I read 14,000 showed up at the start.
As I talked about in my post about last year’s experience, South Africa has a complex political and social environment. Granted huge amounts of progress have been made since the end of apartheid in 1990, but coming from the United States, it is difficult to not feel a little out of step with the surrounding environment. South Africans live in a very “on guard” state. Durban itself can be very unsafe. Daytime safe zones dot the city map, and security guards are in place 24/7 to ensure these areas stay safe. At night, movement is extremely restricted, and day and night, taxicabs are scrutinized to ensure they are “safe” before taking a ride. That being said, there are only a few bad eggs that make it an unsafe environment. But it is the vast majority of the people of South Africa that are the grounding force and make the overall experience wonderful.
This year I ran for NedBank, a South African based running club. The athletic system in South Africa is organized around a club system, which comes into play in major events such as Comrades. Serious contenders run for a South African club which gives the runners access to crew points along the course as well as club incentives and other perks such as transportation and accommodations.
I chose to stay at a small Bed and Breakfast versus staying with the team at a large hotel. It was important to me to be able to prepare my own food and to distance myself from the pre-race commotion. At the recommendation of my friends from Bend who were also running Comrades, Geof Hasegawa and Tonya Littlehales, I booked a room at the Rosetta House, which is located in the “safe” neighborhood of Morningside in Durban. Being at the Rosetta House allowed me to be able to walk to a local grocery store, chill when I needed to chill and to have a wonderful, home environment from which I could prepare myself for the race. Bill and Lee, owners of the Rosetta House, were over the top in helping to accommodate my needs. Their hospitality and the quiet location was exactly what I needed in order to recover from the travel and get myself mentally prepared to race.
The race started at 5.30 am. In order to avoid the anxiety from last year where we arrived at the start only 5 minutes before the gun, we left the B&B at 4 am so that we would have plenty of time to navigate the congestion and arrive without raising my heart rate.
It maybe funny to read, but the race went by in a blur. One would think that running for six and a half hours would be tedious with a lot of time to think and take everything in, but I really don’t remember much. The first half seemed dark, and the second half I was uber focused. The highlights for me – the first third I didn’t feel snappy. In fact, I thought I was going to have a mediocre day. So this reinforced my mantra to conserve in the first half so that I could run the second half. By the halfway point, I felt my energy start to flow, and I started pulling away from the people around me. The last quarter of the race, I was in full flowing mode. I felt like I was running solidly, and assuming that I could keep a steady flow of calories coming in, I was going to be able to hammer to the end. I think I was six minutes back from the Russian twins at the halfway point, and was able to pull in four of those minutes in the last 27k.
The stats: 7.10 per mile pace through 42.96 kilometers; 7.08 pace for the remaining 44 kilometers.
One surprise that I had was how long and steep the final climb, Polly Shortts, was with less than 12k to go. It’s proof that you can study something on a map, and even run it from the other direction (down) and neither does it justice for hitting such a long, steep climb almost 50 miles into a fast road race. Most people around me were walking up the hill. I remember mentally thinking “oh good, no one is running this hard, so I’m just going to do a plodding run up it.” And plod I did, but I managed to pass a handful of runners along the way. In fact, the video of me coming over the crest of Polly Shortts says it all - - I can see how heavy my legs felt and how it took a good 400 meters to get rolling again.
Once again, the crowds along the way were phenomenal. It's hard to express the complete joy I felt in the second half all due to the people who came to watch the race and who put so much energy into cheering and encouraging each and every runner. How can I ever repay that? Thank you, once again, South Africa.
Stephen Muzhingi (ZIM) 5:32.45
Fanie Matshipa (RSA) 5:34.29
Claude Moshiywa (RSA) 5:42.05
Jonas Buud (SWE) 5:42.44
Gift Kelehe (RSA) 5:43.59
Elena Nurgalieva (RUS) 6:24.11
Olesya Nurgalieva (RUS) 6:24.35
Kami Semick 6:26.24 (US)
Ellie Greenwood (GBR) 6:32.46
Farwa Mentoor (RSA) 6:35.49