Northern Ireland man completes infamous Comrades Ultra-Marathon:

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Last Month (Sunday 2nd June 2013), Northern Ireland man John McManus, originally from Larne but based in Belfast, travelled to South Africa for one of the worlds most challenging races, the Comrades Ultra Marathon.  Below is an interesting and enjoyable review of his experience.

My Comrades Marathon Experience by John McManus:

“Business, pleasure….or the marathon”… this was the first question I was asked by the passport control officer after I landed in South Africa.  It put a smile on my face.  From that point on every conversion I had leading up to the race involved Comrades in some form or other, from the taxi drivers to the baggage men in the hotel.

Everyone, I mean everyone, had their own opinion as to whether the UP or the DOWN run was easier, whether they had run the race or not.  For those that aren’t familiar with the Comrades Marathon, it’s a point to point race between two cities, Durban on the coast and Pietermaritzburg in the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains.  Each year the route changes direction, starting in Durban one year and Pietermaritzburg the next.  Sometimes even the route and distance change slightly….but it doesn’t matter, no one cares, it doesn’t have to be 26 miles and 385 yards like we know a marathon needs to be. In South Africa things are different.  There’s no dividing line between a marathon and other distances… ultra-marathon running is just considered as running.

This year it was the UP.  I didn’t necessarily want to run the UP but decided to take part this year to celebrate my 30th birthday.  The course was 86.863km long and took in the infamous ‘Big 5’ hills – Cowies, Fields, Botha’s, Inchanga and Polly Shortts.  As I would find out on the bus tour of the course two days before the race, they weren’t the only hills – in fact, the whole course just seemed to be hill after hill after hill! After the tour, any expectation of finishing time went out the window!

On the plane over from Dubai to Durban I was sat beside a guy who turned out to be the former chairman of the Durban Running Club.  He wasn’t racing Comrades this year but had completed the Comrades several times.  He asked if it was my first and what time I was expecting.  I told him that my first priority was to finish, my top goal was to go sub 9 but I would take anything in between.  He replied “I thought I was in sub 9 shape one year, I ended up with 10 and a half hours… but that’s Comrades!” And as we left the plane in Durban he looked back and said “…watch out for Polly Shortts…” Polly Shortts… it’s the last big hill of the Comrades UP run and lies a brutal 80km from the start.  It is 2km long and is insanely steep, and it feels like you’re climbing Everest when you’ve covered that much of the race, but I’ll get to my struggle up Polly later….

Race Day:

The alarm clock went at 3.00am.  I managed 5 hours broken sleep.  I immediately got up, sorted my kit, put on factor 50 kid’s sunscreen and wondered down to the special breakfast buffet the hotel had put on in the lobby.  The lobby also had the entrance to the hotel bar where a strange mix of intoxicated partiers met runners eating breakfast before the biggest ultra-marathon in the world.  I was forcing down toast, yoghurt and coffee as I watched security guards chase a couple through the lobby after making off with a beach ball from the fake beach set up in the bar.  Any other Saturday night/Sunday morning that could have been me trying to sneak a beach ball out of a bar but not today! After breakfast I went back to my room to make some final preparations and then it was time to go.

The Start:

I arrived at the front of the hotel and met a number of other UK and Australia based runners and we made our way to the start.  It was 4.30 am when I turned the corner to see Durban City Hall, the music was blasting out of the PA system, deafening! I had to remind myself of the time and started to wonder how anyone in Durban was getting any sleep! The answer was that no one in Durban was sleeping as I soon found out.

I made my way through thousands of runners, arrived in my seeding pen and immediately sat down. I had worn a long sleeved t-shirt, as by all accounts, the start is always cold.  Wait a minute…. I wasn’t cold at all… in fact, it was warm, very warm… it was 18 flipping degrees!! The next 45 minutes dragged as one by one runners stood up as the pens filled.  Then with 15 minutes to go the music stopped and the South African national anthem started.  Next up was Shosholoza.  This race had been on my mind for 3 years and this was one of the moments I was looking forward to most!  14,000 South Africans sang and it was nothing short of incredible!

It was followed by what seemed like the longest rendition of Chariots of Fire… ever but everyone was awaiting the next sound, the cock’s crow.  In 1948, local runner Max Trimborn, couldn’t contain his nervous energy on the start line.  He needed to do something… so he cupped his hands and issued a lusty rooster crow.  The other runners enjoyed it so much that they demanded repeat performances in subsequent years.  Trimborn obliged for the next 32 years, sometimes dressing up in feathers and wearing a rooster vest.  By the time of his death in 1985, the crowing had been preserved on tape.  To this day, it still starts the Comrades Marathon “Cock-A-Doodle-Do”.  Comrades is filled with little things like this, so many traditions and so much history it’s hard to remember them all!  With all this build up, the start of the Comrades marathon is emotional and it’s hard to explain how the start of any race can be emotional to someone who hasn’t done THIS RACE.

The cock crowed, runners flooded onto the streets of Durban and the 12 hour clock was ticking – although all runners wear chips, Comrades works to a gun time only.  There’s no chip time at Comrades and, as I’ll explain later, the cut off’s are strictly adheared to! I shuffled across the line about 40 seconds after the gun and shortly after beginning to run I started to notice the people at the side of the road, they were standing on bus shelters, hanging off buildings, all for a better view of the race coming by… there were people everywhere!! It was 5.30am on a Sunday morning… did these people not have a bed to lie in?? It’s not as if they had to get up to run the race like us loonies!

As we quickly made our way out of Durban we ran onto the N3 motorway and hit the first of the unnamed hills.  I looked around me and the view of thousands of runners streaming up the motorway in the darkness was surreal. I expected the crowds at the side of the roads to thin leaving Durban but they never did… endless people! Coming off the motorway, we hit the first village/suburb outside Durban.  These folks were having a party, BBQ’s left, right and centre, people dancing at the side of the road… people drinking beer! (I love this place!!) I took some water on at this point and a gel.  I had a 2 minute walk as I did.  My plan was to walk every 9km and get some energy in.

The uphill grind carried on until we hit Cowies Hill, the first of the big 5, at 14km in.  It was about a mile long and with gradients of up to 15%.  This early in the race this hill wasn’t too much of a problem thankfully. The sun was starting to show at this point and I was well aware I was sweating lots despite me taking it relatively easy.  A quick descent off Cowies and onto the approach of Field’s Hill.  Fields Hill seemed to never bloody end… it’s the longest hill on the course, 3km.  To try and save my legs I decided to walk/run it.  As I did I talked to other runners and made some friends.  Every runner welcomed me to South Africa and gave me the thumbs up when they realised where I was from…. brilliant craic!

Miles covered: 13.5miles

Time Elapsed: 2hrs 7 mins

Mind: Two big ones done… keep her lit!

Body: Some downhill would be nice…

Overall: To early to think about a Bill Rowan??

As I crested Field’s Hill and carried on forward to Botha’s Hill at 35km I ran with an Irish guy, Kieron, now living in Sydney.  We talked about the race and also the Marathon des Sables which he completed in March.  But as we ran together he was getting more annoyed that every second person in the crowd was shouting out “Ireland!” or singing Ireland’s Call.  The support I was getting from the crowd was incredible.  He was wearing an Australian vest and had to remind the crowd to shout for him too.  I cheekily joked he was getting some of the splash from me.  It was about this point I was offered a Comrades speciality, salted potatoes! I managed to eat one but felt a little sick, maybe it was the food but the temperatures were rising and I had trouble eating the rest of the day.  From this point on I lived off Pepsi and water… a long way to go without something solid!

I had the same plan for Botha’s Hill as I had for Fields, walk/run. Botha’s wasn’t as bad a Field’s and as the temperatures were rising I appreciated the shade on this section of road.  After the top of Botha’s it was mainly downhill to half way, had the race organisers put this section of the route in by mistake my legs were thinking?!

Approaching half way, I collected a flower from the Game aid station to place at Arthur’s seat just after the Comrades Wall of Honour.  Arthur’s Seat is literally a hole cut out of the side of hill and is reputed to be a favourite resting spot for Arthur Newton, a 5 times winner of the Comrades.  Legend has it that runners who greet Arthur and place a flower in his seat will have a good second half.  Every little helps so I followed tradition!  Drummond, the half way point was now in sight…. but so was the fourth of the big 5 hills, Inchanga! I could see the whole climb and it looked horrific!!!

Miles covered: 27.0miles

Time Elapsed: 4hrs 31 mins

Mind: If I felt like this the morning of a marathon, I wouldn’t even bother getting out of bed!

Body: John Boy, I’m starting to get her tight!

Overall: Tired but the tough half is over…

The heat and, despite taking it easy, the constant grind of the first half was starting to take it’s toll by the time I reached half way.  I made the decision to walk the whole of Inchanga, 2.5km, in the hope I felt better at the top.  There was no shade on this hill and my calfs were starting to scream! I felt no better at the top but the course was a slight downhill at this point and I continued to run.

As if running an ultra isn’t enough of an emotional rollercoaster, it’s at this point of the race you past Ethembeni School (translated ‘Place of Hope’) for physically disabled and visually impaired kids from the region, many of whom are orphans.  I visited the school the Friday before the race and it’s possibly the saddest place I’ve ever been.  International runners at Comrades have supported this school since the 1980’s, when it had no running water or electricity, and make donations of money, clothes and toys.  Now thankfully, the school is better equipped but still lives off the donations of the Comrades runners each year.  We got an amazing welcome as the children performed zulu dancing and sang.  On the day of Comrades, these children line the street outside the school and cheer…. if this doesn’t give you a boost at this point nothing will!

The next section of the race is called the ‘Harrison Flats’ which aren’t flat at all.  However, on an UP run they are slightly downhill… but things were getting very painful and I was starting to have to fight off cramps.  From this point on there was definitely a lot of ‘managing the situation’ going down! As I covered this section, I noticed the wind was picking up.  Pre-race there was talk of something called a ‘berg’ wind but I didn’t take much notice as I assumed in the heat a little breeze would be nice.  But a ‘berg’ wind is anything but nice, is a hot blast of air straight in the face and drys up everything it touches! Along with the wind, temperatures were now touching the mid 30’s.  Passing aid stations, no amount of water could quench my thirst! 50 yards pass every aid station I was just gasping for more!

It was this part of the race that I was having some dark thoughts as I started to see many runners sitting under trees at the side of the road, head in their hands, and runners pulling up crying with cramps.   I just keep recalling what the Australian Ambassador for the race advised us on the bus tour…”do not ever stop moving forward… no matter what.”  Eventually I reached Camperdown and the famous Nedbank Green Mile…

Miles covered: 38.0 miles

Time Elapsed: 7hrs 2 mins

Mind: What was I thinking!!!!

Body: Agggghhhhh!!!!!

Overall: I hate the Comrades Marathon!!!

The Nedbank Green mile was nuts! There was everything from rock bands to scottish pipers along with thousands of spectators!  The support in this section was incredible!! I even got a shout out from the compere of the Green Mile, high 5’ing him as I went by!  This lifted my spirits for a short while but soon enough I was back to screaming agony!

The lead up to Polly Shortts was tough, lots of little hills that just keep chipping away at your will! To make things worse, the rescue vehicles started to appear.  On the bus tour we were told not to look directly at them… women would see Australian surfer types behind the wheel of lovely air conditioned cars with ice cool soft drinks while men would see topless Swedish models offering beer… but it’s your imagination we were told!!  I made a point not to look!

I don’t recall a great deal of this part of the race… it was just physical and mental hardship like I’d never experienced! Before Polly Shortts is a little introduction to ‘soften you up’…. Little Polly.  There were so many hills at this point I wasn’t sure what one I was on! I asked another runner if it was Polly.  He replied “Little Polly…. you’ll know when you’re on Polly!!” I nearly cried… little polly was horrible, what was Polly Shortts going to be like?!  As I topped Little Polly there was a downhill to the foot of Polly Shortts…. there it was!!! Very few runners outside the top 10 manage to run on Polly Shortts… this year, even the winner walked on it!

With exactly 78km done I started my ascent of Polly Shortts… it was a killer!!! Not just for my legs but the road wound around corners and just when you thought you were at the top, it went on!! Walking was becoming a struggle and my calves were in a very very bad way, I just wanted to lie down and cry! After what seemed like an eternity I reached the top… I have never been so relieved about anything in my life EVER!

All downhill from here I thought!  I was still managing to run the down this far into the race.  However, as I started to shuffle off the summit of Polly Shortts a pain shot up my calf… CRAMP! I don’t know how I managed it but I somehow fought it off and continued to shuffle.  7km left… on a good day this would take me 25 minutes… today it would take me over an hour.

The wind kept on blowing as the km markers were lying on the ground toppled over.  With about 3km to go there was another hill… what the f***?!?! Are you kidding me?? Polly Shortts was the last hill!!!  I’m sure under normal circumstances this hill is nothing but it felt like Mont Blanc!!

I carried on in a zombie like trance as we entered the city of Pietermaritzburg.  I could hear the finish… and finally I could see it!!! I mustered something akin to a run as I entered the stadium and ran on to what was the only flat section of the entire course, the Pietermaritzburg cricket oval!!  The crowds were mental, I felt like I had won Comrades!! You do a lap of the oval and from afar I caught sight of the finish line… you beauty!! All the pain went away for the last 100 metres as “John McManus, from Northern Ireland” got a shout out on the PA.

The finish of this race is like no other.   At other finish lines, people sprint or get competitive trying to get one place higher or go slightly faster… not at Comrades, it doesn’t matter.  People look around them and finish together… the finish is truly unbelievable!!  10 hours 50 minutes and 24 seconds and I had completed Comrades!

Miles covered: 54.0 miles

Time Elapsed: 10hrs 50 mins

Mind: Never again!!!

Body: John, I want a divorce!

Overall: Where can I lie down??

The Aftermath:

I nearly collapsed after the finish but saved that for 10 metres further so I could get what I came for, my Comrades Marathon medal! My legs seized up and I fell to the ground…. every nerve in my legs was twitching, it was like that scene from Alien.  I was expecting some creature to pop out! As I sat there with my head in my hands, medical staff came and asked if I needed help.  My mouth was so dry I could barely answer them but eventually got out that all I needed was some water.  I sat for 30 minutes waiting for the pain to go.  As I did, body after body was getting stretchered by to the medical tent… it was carnage!

I eventually managed to stand and make my way over to the international tent.  Free beer… awesome! I sat with a fellow Northern Ireland man I had met on the way from Dublin to watch the last 20 minutes (which would take the time to the 12 hour cut off). I stayed in the stadium until after the very last finisher had crossed the line (so did every other runner).  I have never done this at any race in my 20 odd years of running… but this is Comrades.

With about 15 minutes to go I looked up at the screen and the counter said 8,000 runners!  That can’t be right; 14,500 started in Durban I thought!?  Yep, over 6,000 were still out on the course or at the side of the road somewhere with 15 minutes to go!!  In the end over 4,000 runners didn’t make it to the finish before the clock struck 12:00:00

As runners streamed in the clock ran down.  The finish of this race is probably the most cruel thing I have ever seen but I couldn’t look away or stop cheering the runners still coming in.  So many runners giving everything to get to the finish, some collapsing yards from the line…. inspirational!! Even more inspirational were the runners who stopped and lifted them up, heroes… the epitome of the spirit of the Comrades Marathon! Then 12 hour cut off came and the finish was blocked, heartbreaking for runners literally yards from the line after running all the way from Durban not being allowed to cross!

The Ultimate Human Race:

I had read a lot about this race before I went out, people calling it everything from the greatest footrace on earth, to a life changing experience.   Although I have never been so excited to do a race before, I took most of this with a pinch of salt.  It was later that night after the pain subsided I realised I had taken part in something special.  In South Africa, they call the Comrades the Ultimate Human Race, a cheesy title but after experiencing Comrades, this title really fits! The old saying goes that if South Africa held the Comrades every single day it would be the greatest country on the planet with the spirit it creates!

I was told by others that it would be hard to explain to non Comrades runners how special this race is, it’s a race you have to do to understand.  And those people who know what it’s like, KNOW.  I feel I’ve been inducted into a club.  This country really has got the greatest race on earth and you’ll just need to do it yourself to find that out.

Despite going to hell and back on 2nd June 2013, if I was only allowed to take part in one race ever again, it would 100% be Comrades, no doubt…. and I will be back to do it again!

P.s. but I still hate you Polly Shortts!