On Sunday 10th of June 2018 I completed my first ever Comrades Marathon. In a time of 9 hours 33 minutes. There is no better feeling than crossing that finish line. Six months of training had come to fruition. Amongst runners, the Comrades Marathon is one of the pinnacle races. It is the world’s largest and oldest ultra marathon race. If you are a runner in South Africa, someone has asked you before, “when are you doing the Comrades Marathon?” or the thought has crossed your mind. There is a reason they call it the ultimate human race.
This year’s race was 90.184 kilometres long. 21273 crazy people were registered for the race including me. This year was the down run from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. This year’s theme for the race was Asijiki (No Turning Back).
I started training seriously for the race at the beginning of January. I shared all my training runs on my Instagram profile and Strava profile from January – June. I wanted anyone else who would like to tackle the Comrades in the future to see what the training journey looks like, as opposed to seeing one isolated event in which I would take on 90 kilometres.
Along my six months training journey, there were many lessons I learnt. Lessons about myself, about endurance, about the limits /capacity of human performance and many more. The purpose of this post is to share these lessons. Most of the lessons I found can be applied in many areas of life outside of running. I hope you can find something useful here. So here we go:
To train for the Comrades Marathon I had to increase my running mileage. Most weeks between January and June my training routine consisted of three short (12km – 20km) mid-week runs and two long (25km – 35km) weekend runs. A snapshot of my yearly mileage a few days before the Comrades Marathon, shows how much I scaled up my running in 2018 as part of the preparation for the race.
A snapshot of just my 2018 running mileage a few days before the race shows I had completed 69 runs, covering about 1242 kilometres and spending almost 105 hours out there on training runs.
If you told me last year that in 2018 I would scale up my running this much I would have thought you were crazy. However over this training journey I learnt that we can probably scale up a lot more things in our lives. All we need is dedication and focus. I am keen to see what else in my life I can scale up if I give it similar focus and time I gave to the Comrades Marathon training.
Mornings are beautiful
I did most of my training runs on early mornings in Cape Town. I started most of my runs between 5:30am – 6am. Morning runs are special. They are quiet and peaceful. If you time them correctly the sun rises while you are on the run and it is always a beautiful sight. I made an effort to capture images of Cape Town as I was on these morning runs. Below are some of my favourite images captured over the six months of training.
Even if you are not training for a big race, ocassionally go out early in the mornings and experience the peace and beauty you normally miss out on.
The discipline to wake up early in the morning (5:30am – 6am) on training days. There were many mornings when my alarm went off and I did not feel like going for a training run, but I built up the discipline to still go out on those mornings. Those mornings usually turned out to be the best training runs, I always appreciated it more after the run. Discipline was key, I needed to get the mileage on the legs in training else I was going to struggle on race day. In the same way if you are working towards any big goal, you are going to need discipline as there will be days when you won’t feel like showing up but you must.
Patience: To go faster you have to go slower
If you are used to running much shorter distances, one of the first things you learn when training for the Comrades Marathon is that you need to learn how to run much slower. Over 90 kilometres your race pace will be much slower than usual shorter races. So in training I started running much slower to get as close to my ideal race pace for the 10th of June as possible.
I had to learn how to be patient. Its strange, but it is not easy for a runner to adjust their pace and go much slower. It actually takes conscious effort to avoid getting into your normal groove and just go at a pace that is too fast. An interesting side effect took place after a couple of months – the more I trained running at a slower pace, the faster I became at the shorter distances. While I trained for the Comrades I managed to set a new personal best time for my 10 kilometre races and also set a new marathon (42 kilometres) personal best time which was 20 minutes faster than my previous one.
It turns out approaching things with patience at a much slower pace can allow you to be much faster over time. Running has taught me that sometimes in life if you want to go faster you must learn to go slower for longer first.
I did most of my training runs solo. A lot of people train for the Comrades Marathon with their running club members or with friends. I mostly trained alone. Of the 69 training runs I did from early January, I must have only done about 5 runs with other people.
I definitely believe training with others can help make people more accountable, so I’m not saying its not valuable at all. In my situation I just ended up doing most of my runs solo and just stuck with it. Over time I realised training solo was going to help me on race day as over 90 kilometres there were bound to be phases when I would be running alone and requiring some self motivation.
I believe it is beneficial to have people surrounding you when working towards a big goal, but this should never be barrier to you going for things by yourself if you have enough self drive!
As I trained for the race I grew more and more interested in running. I wanted to know what makes people do well at ultra endurance events. So aside from the usual reading of articles on the internet I started to read some running books. I found some of them inspirational, and some of them more informative. I learnt about what happens internally in the body over a long ultra distance endurance event. I learnt about how much of a role the mind plays in doing well in a long ultra distance endurance event. I learnt about how some tribes that run for fun have become great endurance runners as side-effect of the fun they are having. I read three books below on the topic of running. I highly recommend all three to any runners out there.
What I talk about when I talk about running – (Haruki Murakami).
Born to run – (Christopher McDougall).
Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance – (Alex Hutchison).
If you are working towards a big goal, doing some research in the area that represents your goal will help. That research can come in any form, books, videos, podcasts and many more mediums. The key is to learn more about the area, to help you understand it further and perhaps increase your interest / passion for the field.
There is an incredible community surrounding the Comrades Marathon. At some point along my training journey I found out about the Comrades Marathon Facebook group, which I proceeded to join. I was mostly an observer in the group reading other people’s posts. I learnt so much about the ultimate human race from this group: training advice, race day advice, inspirational stories from people who have done the race in the past, and so much more.
The official Comrades Marathons coach Lindsey Parry also has his own website https://coachparry.com/ which contains content to help all runners. I actually used Coach Parry’s Comrades Marathon training programme over six months. I adapted it slightly to suit how I preferred to train. Coach Parry also had a community around him and he held monthly webinars to help people prepare for the race. I joined three of these webinars in the months approaching the race.
Finally the legendary Bruce Fordyce (nine time Comradas Marathon winner) has his own website http://www.brucefordyce.com/ which has a blog section for his articles. I found valuable posts that he wrote as the race day approached.
Whatever big goal you are trying to achieve, look around for the communities surrounding the area, they can help with your learning and growth. Also identify the successful people in that area, follow them, and use whatever knowledge you can gain from them. They have been there before you. Someone once said – we are all standing on the shoulders of giants.
Showing up (race day lessons)
You can do all the training for an event but you still need to show up and perform on race day. I woke up to get ready at 3:45am on race day. To be honest I hardly slept the night before. I usually sleep ok the night before big events, but my mind kept playing different scenarios up there. Despite the lack of sleep, I felt good after my early breakfast of oats with peanut butter and a banana. My girlfriend dropped me off at the start at 4:45am, then I proceeded to find my B seed pen.
As the race start time approached we sang the South African national anthem, Shosholoza, and Chariots of Fire. Everyone gets fired up after that, runners hug, high-five each other, and some even cry. It was special, the moment you realise all the training you have put in is about to come together. Shortly after the songs, the race began.
The first 70 kilometres went quite smoothly for me. I embraced it and enjoyed it. It was fun, the support along the whole route was amazing and we had such great weather for a long day of running. I ran at my target pace and I felt strong. I knew at some point I would face the pain from the ultimate human race, and this started to happen after the 70 kilometre mark with 20 kilometres to go.
Even though I felt the pain I always knew I had to keep moving towards the finish line. I had to activate the most advanced weapon in the ultra runner’s arsenal: instead of cringing from fatigue, you embrace it. You refuse to let it go. You get to know it so well, you’re not afraid of it anymore.
Even if I moved slowly I stood a greater chance of finishing the race if I didn’t stop to try and recover. So I kept moving. There is a lesson there: Even if you are moving slowly, going through a rough patch, if you keep moving towards your goal you have a greater chance of getting there. There was never a point from the start line that I doubted I would get to the finish line. There is another lesson there: Believe in yourself. Training is the cake and belief is the icing.
Along my training journey and on race day I received tremendous support from friends and family. For someone who was going out there to attempt a self imposed crazy challenge, it was amazing. All the phone calls and messages, pre and post the race. I’m not going to list all your names here, you know yourselves. Massive thanks to all of you, I could not have done it without you all!
The value of support from other people has been reinforced in my mind. Let us keep encouraging others to push on, to chase their dreams, to succeed.
Now that the race is over. I am taking the suggested one month break from running. This will allow me to rest and recover properly as obviously my legs would have taken a beating after covering such an ultra distance. The temptation for most runners is to get back into races immediately, and granted some people do it, everyone is different. I believe in rest and recovery.
It has now been a couple of weeks since the race. Will I do it again? Well, a few minutes after finishing the race, in all the pain, I told myself never again. Then everyone started talking to me about going back for a back-to-back medal. Every year the Comrades Marathon is run in the opposite direction, so next year it will be the up run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. They say the up run is easier on the legs. I’m not quite sure I’ve answered the question of whether I will do it again yet. At the moment I’m enjoying my one month break from running, post the race. Knowing myself, I would not be surprised if I’m lining up at the start line next year, ready to sing the South African national anthem, Shosholoza and Chariots of Fire again just before racing off.
I don’t know what sort of general significance running 90km by yourself has, but as an action that deviates from the ordinary yet doesn’t violate basic values, you would expect it to afford you a special sort of self-awareness. It should add a few new elements to your inventory in understanding who you are. And as a result, your view of your life, its limits and how far they can be pushed will have been transformed. This has happened to me. Asijiki (No Turning Back). #NoDaysOff