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‘Go forward, make your road, forge ahead’

It was 4 a.m. in the town of Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, and under the awning of the Treasury House, about 50 African runners were singing.

We were 90 minutes away from the start of the Comrades Marathon, and whether out of a sense of excitement or a simple desire to pass the time, the impromptu group had formed up outside the race corrals.

It started small at first, with only a dozen or so runners singing traditional Zulu songs. But as runners arrived at the starting area, passing through the glare of the spotlights shining up at the old Pietermaritzburg city hall and into the shadows of the darkened street, they peeled off in ones and twos to join the group.

Some produced whistles they’d stashed in their running gear, while others pulled out vuvuzelas from who knows where. But most were content to let their voices be their instrument, so long as they could share in the joy of raising their voices in song before starting their 89-kilometer journey to the coastal town of Durban.

For nearly an hour, they sang. The songs were entirely unfamiliar to me and the handful of western runners who’d made the 8,000-mile journey to South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Province for “the Comrades.” But one was familiar: Shosholoza.

A traditional miner’s song originally sung by Ndebele men traveling by train from Zimbabwe to South Africa’s mines, the song has become known as the country’s second national anthem. The meaning of the title resonates with runners. It doesn’t translate well to English, but loosely equates to “go forward,” “make way for the next man,” or “make your road, forge ahead.”

Those of us getting ready to make our own 56-mile running journey could definitely get behind those sentiments.

My own journey to the starting line had been a challenging one, as it surely had been for many of the 16,000 other runners gathering at the starting line. So before the race had even begun, I found myself riding a wave of unexpected emotion as my fellow runners filled the street with their song.

I was glad I’d learned the words before I left the U.S., because when the field of runners joined as one to sing Shosholoza again just before the 5:30 a.m. race start, I jumped in and sang along.

Downhill – but definitely not easy

Rolling through an aid station amid a sea of runners from around the world.

My Comrades journey began with a decision to do a dream-list race as a consolation prize.

I’d entered the Western States 100 lottery for the first time last fall in hopes that the lottery gods would smile on me after my first two 100-mile finishes. Western States is the grandaddy of U.S. 100-mile races and if an ultrarunner tells you it’s not on his dream list, he’s probably a liar. The chances of scoring a slot in the field of less than 400 runners is damned tough in any given year, as I soon found out.

So after being closed out of WS100, I thought to myself, “I’m going to do something else epic in June instead.” Enter Comrades.

FirstĀ  run in 1921 as a way to commemorate South African soldiers killed in World War I, Comrades is one of the oldest – and by far the largest – ultramarathons in the world. Today, typically around 20,000 people register for the race, with about 16,000 showing up at the start. Known as “the ultimate human race,” Comrades traverses 56 miles of road from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, alternating direction each year. The route from Durban to Pietermaritzburg is the “Up” route, in which runners contend with a net gain in elevation.

This year, however, was a “Down” year, with a net loss of elevation that fools the unfamiliar into thinking that it will be the easier of the two routes. But with about 4,500 feet of ascent and 6,000 feet of quad-burning descent over 56 miles, the Down run is no joke. I learned later that veterans of the run call the Down run the tougher of the two, by far. Whether Up or Down, runners pay the price for underestimating the run, as somewhere between 20 and 25 percent fail to complete the race in the allotted 12 hours.

The Comrades organizers are damned serious about that 12-hour time limit, too. Just before the clock strikes the 12-hour mark, a race official steps onto the course, turns his back on the runners streaming toward the finish line — fully half the field finishes the race in the last hour or two — and raises a starter’s pistol.

At 5:30 p.m. on the dot, the official raises his pistol, fires a single shot, and members of the Springboks national rugby team — barrel-chested, super-sized dudes — step forward to block the finish line. Those on the wrong side of the line are done. Period. No, you can’t cross the finish line unofficially. You’re done. Go home.

Runners on the wrong side of the line collapse. They clutch the fence in the finisher chute and slowly lower their heads in defeat. They raise their arms to the heavens and question fate. They burst into tears.

Ouch. That was not going to be me.

But I relished the opportunity to dance with that threat.

Inigo Montoya was right

Cape Town's Table Mountain, shrouded in early morning clouds, as seen from Lion's Head Mountain.

And and and. Oh man, there’s so much to tell. With two full weeks in South Africa, there’s no possible way I’ll be able to capture it all here. I haven’t even begun to talk about all the things the girl and I saw and did in the 10 days before race day.

Like the great Inigo Monotoya said, “let me ‘splain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.”

After 24 hours of traveling — mostly flying, but also some with some sitting-on-the-tarmac and some opposite-side-of-the-road driving thrown in — we made it to Cape Town, on the southwestern tip of South Africa. There, we hiked the mountains around the city, took a self-driving tour to the Cape of Good Hope, got a solo tour of three amazing wineries and ate both world-class gourmet meals and street food that were equally mind-blowing.

From Cape Town, we flew across the country to Durban, where we caught a lift to a private game reserve near Hluhluwe in KwaZulu-Natal Province, where we spent four days living out of ridiculously luxurious tents and making two game drives each day with expert Zulu rangers and trackers, with plenty of time for relaxing and enjoying the gorgeous South African winter weather in between.

Yes, we got this close to the elephants on our game drives. No telephoto lens needed.

Lions, cheetahs, elephants, giraffes, water buffalo, zebras, white rhinos, hyenas, jackals, baboons … the list of animals we saw up close and personal goes on and on. Sure, you’ve probably seen a few of these, maybe most of them, in zoos back in the U.S., but there’s something beautiful and powerful about seeing them up close and in the wild.

Put another way, when a curious elephant walks up and nudges the front bumper of your Range Rover with his trunk — hard — you’re too captivated to even consider how potentially dangerous that moment was. The same goes for when a pack of five well fed lionesses walks past your vehicle just after nightfall, the air still rich with the smell of blood from their nearby kill.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, I was shocked to find out how many of my friends and acquaintances had been to South Africa before. How did I manage to miss that fact over so many conversations? In any case, they all got a similar look in their eyes upon finding out I was making the trip. And almost universally, they called South Africa one of the most beautiful places they’d ever seen.

After experiencing the sights of Cape Town and safari, it was easy to see why. The view of Table Bay and the city center of Cape Town from the top of Lion’s Head mountain as the rain clouds parted is a scene that will stick in my memory for years to come, but it was just one of many unforgettable moments. And still ahead was the trip back to Durban for the race itself.

Raising a glass at Rivets

How to describe Durban? Well, if Cape Town is uniquely California in its vibe — think of a cross between San Francisco and Carmel — Durban is a lot like Detroit if it were a seaside East Coast honky-tonk. Generally rough around the edges, definitely dangerous in parts, and as blue-collar as any shipping port city can be. Not the kind of city you wander and explore, but fascinating in its own right.

The Hilton hotel, though, was firmly in the center of all things Comrades. The race expo was across the street at the Durban Expo Center, and the finish line was just up the road at Sahara Stadium Kingsmead, the local cricket ground (a new, glitzy stadium to the north played host to the 2010 World Cup, which first introduced the brrrrrrrrrrt! sound of the vuvuzela to the Western world).

Double Scotch, neat. With a 20 Rand tip for the bartender. Thanks, Phil.

After arriving on Friday afternoon, we checked into the hotel and headed to the lobby bar, Rivets, so that the girl could triage work email and I could order a double Scotch, neat.

I don’t make a habit of knocking back whiskey in the afternoon, but this was a special drink. I’d ordered it at the suggestion of my friend Phil, who first planted the seed last summer that led to this trip. Phil had run Comrades last year not long before we spent some quality trail time together in the Shenandoahs and I hung on his every word as he described the Comrades experience.

The girl raised an eyebrow at my choice of beverage until I explained the back story, at which point she teared up and said something about Phil being a really great guy. She’s right.

So as requested, I raised my glass in the direction of the Indian Ocean, tipped the bartender with the 20 Rand note that Phil had sent over with me, and headed over to the expo to pick up my race packet.

After that, we did a little bit of sightseeing and a whole lot of pre-race relaxing. Time usually drags on in the hours before a race, but it flew by in Durban and before I knew it, the alarm clock was going off at 1 a.m. on Sunday and I was stumbling around the hotel room to pull on my gear and head down to a wee-hours breakfast in the hotel lobby before boarding the bus for Pietermaritzburg.

Shosholoza, Chariots of Fire and a rooster’s crow

The start of the Comrades Marathon is as quirky as the race itself.

After boarding the 2 a.m. bus to Pietermaritzburg with dozens of other keyed-up runners from around the world, we arrived in the city center about 3:30 a.m. and offloaded, wandering over to the starting area to hang out and get our heads around the 56-mile journey that was to come.

Shortly before 5:30 a.m., the runners had all crowded into their respective starting corrals. As I entered mine, I ran into a couple of new friends we’d met while on safari, Bill and Lin, an older couple from Colorado who were in South Africa to run their first Comrades as well. It was great catching up with them and so nice to have a couple of familiar faces in the enormous crowd.

The starting line was chilly and I was glad for the $15 fleece I’d bought at the mall in Durban, but still, we all found ourselves huddling together to maximize body heat in those last few minutes before the start. In those final minutes, the spirit of Comrades was already becoming evident. As our singing runners kept the tunes rolling, other runners were sharing gear amongst themselves.

A container of Vaseline was making the rounds, as was a roll of toilet paper that Bill and Lin had brought just in case. As runners in the center of the corral shed extra layers before the start, they handed them off to others nearby, who passed them to the edges and threw them over the corral fences so no one would trip over them in the rush of the start.

(A couple miles into the race, in fact, I shed my fleece and balled it up to throw it to the roadside, only to have another runner grab it and hand it off to another runner, who in turn made sure that it ended up on the shoulder and not in the middle of foot traffic.)

I’ve never seen anything remotely like that at a U.S. road race.

With the 5:30 start time drawing near, we pressed ahead toward the starting line and the ceremony began with the singing of South Africa’s national anthem, followed by Shosholoza. This time, I found myself caught up in the emotion and sang along with the rest of the 16,000 gathered runners.

Following Shosholoza was the theme music from “Chariots of Fire,” which almost always strikes me as overly cheesy, but seemed fitting in this setting somehow.

And because Comrades is quirky, the Chariots of Fire theme was followed by something so out of left field, it almost seemed like it didn’t happen. The race officials played a recording of a person imitating a rooster’s crow. That person was Max Trimborn, who on the occasion of his eighth Comrades Marathon in 1948, was so keyed up at the start that he bellowed out a lusty “cock-a-doodle-do!” at full volume.

The race organizers loved it so much that they asked him to keep doing it at Comrades runnings year after year. Finally, they made a recording of it that’s still used today.

So with Trimborn’s crow and the loud blast of a cannon — no mere starter’s pistol would do at this race — we set off at a trot in the predawn darkness.

The first half: ‘A tough marathon with lots of hills’

The "Down" run is really only down in the second half. And that's where it starts to hurt.

I’d heard it said before the trip that Comrades is a combination of “the Boston Marathon, the Tour de France and the 4th of July all rolled into one.”

As an event that’s practically a national holiday in South Africa, the Comrades Marathon gets full live TV coverage from gun to gun — 12 straight hours of broadcast on South African television, and people tune in around the country throughout the day.

They want to seeĀ  first man and woman cross the line at around 5:30 and 6-ish hours, sure. But they also come back to the race at the very end, to see the moment that the course-closing gun is fired.

Having seen it myself, it’s a moment that’s every bit as thrilling as watching a winner come speeding across the line.

Still feeling good enough to throw two thumbs up well into the race.

Beyond those watching on TV, a reported 500,000-plus people come out to watch the race in person, lining the course in a human chain that stretches nearly unbroken from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. I’ve never experienced that level of crowd support before, nor will I again outside of the Comrades course, and the sheer energy of it pulls you toward Durban like a tractor beam.

I went into the race blissfully ignorant about the course itself. Other than knowing it was a Down year, I hadn’t spent much time thinking about the course profile. There is a course tour that happens on the Friday and Saturday prior to race day, but I didn’t make it a priority amid other things we wanted to see and do.

So one of the things I didn’t know is that despite being a Down year, the first half of the race is “a very tough marathon with lots of hills (up ones, that is) and is certainly not ‘down’,” according to Denis Kennedy, who’s finished 20-plus Comrades races. I read his 2009 race report after I was back in the states. D’oh.

There are five major hills on the Comrades course that punish runners on both the Up and Down courses. Like Boston’s Heartbreak Hill, each has a name that is burned into the minds of those who have contended with the course or dream of doing so. On the Down route, the batting order goes like this: Polly Shortts, Inchanga, Botha’s Hill, Field’s Hill and Cowie’s Hill.

Of those, Polly Shortts and Inchanga come during the first half of the course. Polly starts at mile 5, a roughly 400-foot climb over about a mile, while Inchanga starts at mile 26, a roughly 450-foot climb over about 1.5 miles. That’s not so daunting after contending with a couple of mountain 100-milers, but it’s no excuse to be stupid. Go hammering up either climb and you’ll pay the price in the back half of the course when the serious downhills start taking their toll on already tired legs.

The climbs at Comrades aren't steep, but they're long and punishing nonetheless.

This first half of the race went by in a blur of sights and smells. While the scenery quickly became repetitive — the rolling fields of eastern South Africa quite honestly can start to look the same after only a few miles — the crowds of spectators were so intense that it was almost difficult to take it all in.

Around mile 18 or so, I started to hit a low point that lasted for about five miles. I wasn’t feeling bad physically, but my head just went kind of sideways. It seems that even in the midst of a race as exotic and exciting as Comrades, it’s still possible to run aground on a bad patch. It came at a point where there was little in the way of crowd support — a rarity on the course — and it was all flat to rolling asphalt ahead for miles and miles.

But within a few miles, I started seeing crowds of spectators again, including kids. Dozens, no, scores, of African kids lining both sides of the course, each grinning from ear to ear, with arms outstretched in hopes of getting a high five from a passing runner. I picked up on that energy and rode it like a wave, working the edge of the roadway so I could high-five as many kids as possible along the route.

Many were shouting “USA! Hey, USA!” I was confused about why at first, until I remembered that I was wearing a Team USA shirt and star-spangled do rag — international Comrades runners are encouraged to wear their home-country colors because it energizes spectators to see so many visitors from around the world running South Africa’s “hometown race.”

Especially touching was the moment at mile 23 when we passed through a crowd of children from the Ethembeni School, a schoolhouse for the children of KwaZulu-Natal Province who have physical challenges. For what seemed like an eternity, we passed children who were deaf, blind, missing limbs, suffering from Down’s Syndrome, confined to wheelchairs.

Kids are fundamentally the same, though, regardless of their physical challenges or where they are in the world.

As with the other children on the course, the students from Ethembeni were all hoping for a high-five from the runners passing through, and seemed to find particular joy when a runner slowed down to give each an extra bit of attention while running by. I found myself both thankful for my own blessings in life and for the fact that these children had a facility like Ethembeni where they could get the attention they need.

That energy drove me up the Inchanga climb and down the hill into Drummond, marking the halfway point of the course.

The second half: ‘Hey, USA! Good job, broo!’

With a USA T-shirt and American flag do-rag, the pro-USA cheers were nearly non-stop.

For all of the amazing crowd support during the first half of the course, the second half made it pale by comparison. Starting at the halfway mark in Drummond, the roadside was three and four deep with spectators more often than not. Hanging out, cheering, drinking beer and having a “braai” — the South African word for barbecue — the spectators weren’t just out there to cheer for their runner like we see at U.S. marathons.

They were out there to cheer for anyone, for everyone.

And so after a while, I got so many shout-outs that I could’ve easily started thinking my name had been changed to “USA.”

“Hey, USA – well done!”

“Hey, USA – good job, broo!” (White South Africans pronounce “bro” as “broo.” Good to know that bro is a universal thing.)

“USA! Hey, USA! Tell Obama I said hi!”

“USA! Hey hey! Yes we can!”

Because the roughly 240 U.S. runners who’d made the trek to South Africa for Comrades were all doing our best to show the flag — literally — it was pretty easy to find one another on the course. Soon enough, I started running into more and more American runners on the back half of the course.

Just before mile 30, I fell in with Kip, a police officer from Connecticut who was running Comrades as his first ultra. We were both feeling the cumulative effects of the downhill running that was getting more serious during the second half of the course, so we made like Cheerios and stuck together.

As we crested Botha’s Hill, another American runner spotted our gear in the crowd and started running with us. Roy, from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, was friendly enough and soon we had a good three-way conversation going that was helping the miles to click by easily. As I glanced at the back of his shirt — Comrades runners wear bibs on both front and back — his last name seemed familiar.

“Hey, Roy, your last name sounds really familiar.”

“Yeah, I’ve been around some.”

“Are you Roy Pirrung the ultrarunner? Past 24- and 48-hour U.S. record holder?”

“Ah. Yep, that’s me!”

Turned out I’d been sharing miles with an ultrarunning legend. Roy was running his first-ever Comrades because he’d finally found room in his aggressive annual competition schedule to fit it in.

So the three of us hung together ’til about mile 35, at which point Roy kept sailing along at his making-it-look-easy pace and enjoying the day, while Kip and I started to fade back a bit as the long descent down Field’s Hill started to do a job on our already thrashed quads. The Field’s descent drops roughly 600 feet over about two miles. Again, not the cruelly steep descents of a mountain ultra, but nonetheless the kind of long grinding downhill that will burn out a set of already tired quadriceps muscles.

After Field’s, Kip and I ground out the last long 1.3-mile climb up Cowie’s Hill together, then leapfrogged a bit over the final miles on the approach to the outskirts of Durban itself. All along the way, we kept getting “USA! USA!” cheers from the crowds and we did our best to respond, whether with a “Thanks!” or a wave or a point when we were too tired to muster up the energy to shout back.

After one such exchange, I said to Kip: “Hey, do you feel like you kinda have to respond back? I mean, we’re kinda ambassadors in a way, aren’t we?” Turned out he’d been thinking exactly the same thing.

… And two bonus hills for good measure

At the finish line, with the bronze medal of a sub-11:00 finisher.

After Cowie’s, there are still two named hills to go. I would’ve known that if I’d really studied the course profile. But, well, we’ve already been over that.

Neither are particularly rough in and of themselves, when considering the elevation profile, but the gentle ascents of both 45th Cutting and Tollgate Bridge felt insurmountable at 50 miles into a 56-mile race. Still, knowing that I was into single digits provided enough incentive to keep moving forward.

By this point, Kip had faded back and I was running solo again, so I started chatting with other runners at random simply for distraction’s sake. No one was much in the mood for conversation at this point, with one exception.

With about two miles to go, I struck up a conversation with an African runner who was with the South African military, as it turned out. He’d been over to the U.S. on a program with our National Defense University, so we spent a few minutes geeking out on military topics before we decided to save our wind for the final push to Kingsmead stadium and the finish line.

I could hear the roar of the crowd inside the stadium as I turned the corner to the final road that would bring me home. Entering the stadium, I was blown away by the sheer number of people packed inside — there had to be around 25,000 people inside, both in the stands and on the cricket field itself.

Since I won’t be running the Olympic marathon any time soon, this is as close as I’ll ever get to finishing a race in a stadium full of cheering spectators, and holy crap, what a thrill.

After the first turn, I heard someone shout my name and looked up to see the girl hanging over the fence and waving furiously. I let out a “Woop!” and waved and pointed as I kept on motoring toward the finish in hopes of coming across the line before the 10:30 mark. Finishing under 11 hours would garner me a bronze medal regardless of the particular time, but finishing under 10:30 seemed to be the mark of a decisive sub-11:00 finish.

That’s yet another fascinating aspect of the Comrades Marathon, by the way. It’s the only race I’m aware of that draws such numerous distinctions among its finisher medals. There are six different medals in all, ranging from gold to copper and awarded to runners based on their finishing time.

Goofing around at the finish line while watching runners stream in ahead of the 12-hour course cutoff.

A sub-11:00 finish earns a runner a bronze medal, while finishing between 11:00 and the 12:00 cutoff garners a copper medal known as the “Vic Clapham” medal (Vic Clapham founded the race back in 1921). Up until 2003, the cutoff had been 11 hours, so I wanted a bronze medal, to signify that I could finish Comrades not only under the more generous 12-hour cutoff, but under the original and more stringent guideline.

The funny thing about the Comrades medals is that they’re really small — not much bigger than a piece of Honeycomb cereal, actually. But when one is dangling from your neck at the finish line in Kingsmead stadium, it seems enormous.

My 10:29 finish time was good enough to put me at 5,877th in the finishing field. For those keeping score at home, that meant that about two-thirds of the starting field of 16,000 had dropped, missed an on-course cutoff or was still out there slogging it out behind me but ahead of the 12-hour finish line cutoff.

Over the 90 minutes that followed my finish, I nursed a beer and ate some lentil curry as I watched finishers continue to stream into the stadium and across the finish line. Another 6,000 or so runners finished in that 90-minute time span, for just under 12,000 finishers in total. I was there to see the course close down at the 12 hour mark and wow, was it even more heartbreaking than I expected.

It was just past sunset as the girl and I left the stadium to head back to the hotel so I could get a shower and more food. And as I limped the couple of blocks back to the hotel, we saw a few more runners still gutting it out on the course, determined to run, hobble or walk to the stadium, even if they couldn’t actually cross the finish line itself. That’s a level of determination I’m not sure I have.

Reflecting now on the experience, just over a week later, I think there’s a lot of truth to the sentiment expressed by many Comrades finishers, who say that the race “changes you.”

I wouldn’t say that it changed me in quite the same way that my first 100-mile finish did. That one shifted my perspective on how I see ultrarunning, how I see myself and how I look at life in general. But still, something feels different after Comrades that I can’t quite put my finger on yet.

Early in the race, I met a South African who’d racked up 40 Comrades finishes, based on the data listed on the race bib adorning the back of his shirt. He’d long since earned the right to wear the green bib of a 10-time Comrades finisher and had been wearing that same race number for the past 30 years since it had first been permanently assigned to him.

In other words, I was in the presence of a salty Comrades veteran.

As I passed him, he looked up and saw my USA running gear. He called out “Welcome to South Africa! What do you think so far?”

In response, I told him that I was loving my first-ever Comrades race experience.

“Well, when you finish this run, you’ll only be half a man, you know that?”

“Why? Because I’ll still need to run the Up run?”

“Exactly. So I’ll see you back here next year, right?”

Yes sir, I suspect you will. I suspect you will.

3 Comments

  1. Philip Turk wrote:

    That’s about as fine a race report on Comrades as you can get. You totally captured the essence of the race. Congratulations and thank you so much for your kind words, Rob.

    Thursday, June 14, 2012 at 7:48 am | Permalink
  2. Loved this…your double Scotch salute to our boy Phil, in particular. Ya know I never really “got” the allure of Comrades but now I do…excellent report and race, my friend!!!

    Thursday, June 14, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink
  3. Wow. What a great race and experience. I passed up an opportunity to go to South Africa this winter, perhaps I’ll have to run Comrades when I do finally go.

    Thursday, June 14, 2012 at 10:48 am | Permalink

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