I Did It! Comrades Ultramarathon 2018!
What a race?! It was epic, challenging, beautiful andddd I will never complain about Boston’s Heartbreak Hill or Chicago's Mt Roosevelt again! It truly is the Ultimate Human race. I thought I picked the easier route since this year was a Downhill run. After all, downhill is like free mileage as gravity is working with you instead of against you. I was so wrong. My quads second that motion. I found out afterwards that downhill is harder. I think they both are hard each is just a different hard. Stay tuned as I will be running the uphill next year.
I am coming off of a high of finishing a race I didn't know if I would be able to finish. It was not the distance I was worried about but more so the hills, the hills right after those hills and then those other hills that pop up just when you thought you were done with hilling. This race stands alone in its epicness. Just like Boston Marathon. There is so much history and tradition to this race that it can’t be compared to others and it’s a gift to be a part of.
I signed up for Comrades as soon as it opened last September. This race had been on my bucket list since I read about it in Runner’s World over a decade ago. The race was also going to be a 50th Bday present to myself. Who needs cake, when you can have Comrades instead?! I didn't do as much homework if not any on the technicalities of this race. When it comes to races, I just go to the race website I am interested in, see if it's open and then see if I am free that day. I showed up in Durban and most of the other runners from our tour company had listened to the Coach Parry podcast, studied the 5 hills, studied the cutoffs. I instead, just prayed....prayed that these midwestern legs could get me to an 11:59 finish time.
Going into the race, I knew the course had a 12-hour cut off and (It used to be 11) that runners literally dive over the finish line to make cutoff time. There is also a human chain that blocks the finish line at 12 hours. This reminds me of the scene in Monty Python Holy Grail, when King Arthur is trying to cross the bridge. And the Black Night sternly tells him, “None shall pass!” The entire race is broadcast live.
The start was one of the coolest and most powerful starts I have been a part of. We all lined up in corrals based on a verified qualifying time of 5 hours or less. In most races your corral would not matter but since Comrades goes by CLOCK time and NOT CHIP time, those in the last corral, H, lost at least 11 minutes before they even crossed the start line. It felt like something was off starting my watch before I even crossed the start line. I started in corral D for "Dynamite!" and it took me about 6 minutes to pass the start line. For those of you that want to move up from your corral, you can make a donation to one of the race charities to move up to corral C.
Now for the "I will remember this forever part" Before the race the crowd breaks into an African hymn entitled Shosholoza. It's a song the miners used to sing about staying strong while they were away from home and their family. My roomie learned it in one afternoon and tried to teach me. No luck. I instead brought her phonetic writing of the lyrics to the race start and sang along. I can't find the words to describe how powerful that was. See my video at the bottom of the page. After that, they played Chariots of Fire. The gun went off and get this, a rooster crowed! YOWZA, I still get chills even thinking about it.
One thing I had never seen in all of my races was that the kilometer markers on the course reflected how many kilometers left to get to the finish. So, the first 5K in, you don't see a 5K sign you see 85K. I also didn't realize until race weekend that there were sub cutoffs along the course. I only knew about the 12-hour cutoff!!! There are 5 additional cutoffs along the way with vans waiting to bus the runners that don't make the cutoff to the finish.
It was dark for probably the first hour of the race. I wish I had brought a small flashlight as it was hard to see and there were a lot of "cat eyes." I didn't know what a cat eye was until I almost tripped in a pothole. The guy next to me told me to be careful of those cat eyes if you want to make it to Durban. The race was very crowded for maybe the first 8 miles. You were all running on top of each other packed like sardines. You have to be careful not to trip or get tripped. My strategy going into the race was to jog 6 minutes and then speed walk 4 minutes. I also would walk the uphills. Since maybe 6 miles out of the whole course was flat, I scrapped the run/walk interval and every time I hit an uphill, I would speed walk it. I also did not race don’t the hills. I held back some to help salvage my quads as long as I could.
One of the other cool things about this race is that your race bib lists the number of Comrade finishes you have and there is meaning behind the color of your bib. You also wear a bib on the front of your shirt and on your back. For international runners, which was only 7% of the total, our bib is blue. For anyone that has done 10 or more your bib is green. After you run 10 Comrades, your race number becomes permanently yours. I think the white bibs are for South African runners that haven't run 10 or more yet. As people would pass me I would register if they were local or international like me. I would pay attention too to what number they were on. I saw a lot of runners just like me with the big, zero! I also came up on two guys that were legends to me. Louis and Jan. Louis was running his 46th Comrades and Jan was running his 23rd!! I of course had to get a groupie with them. I was just running along gnawing on my peanut butter and potato chip sandwich getting advice from them. I asked them both if they knew when they ran their first one if they would do it again. Without hesitation they said, yes. For me it was too early in the race to decide. Their advice for the day was also to just have fun.
I don't remember at what point I turned my music on but it was not very long after when 2 women tapped me on the shoulder and told me not to run with music as I could get disqualified. I remember my friend and 2-time finisher, Scott Kummer telling me ahead of time no headphones. I heard Scott, but I didn’t listen to him as so many races say no headphones in the rules but they don’t enforce it. At that point, I scanned the crowd and yep, I was the only one with headphones. I put my shuffle away and got back in the game. What was I going to think about for 45 plus miles? I then decided to jump in on the 11 hour and 30 minute "bus." The buses are their pace groups. I stayed with them for about 37 and half miles. The bus was crazy crowded and I felt like I was setting myself up to trip or get tripped so I ran about 10 feet in front of the bus and all the way to the right or left side of the street...just enough to hear the bus drivers queues of when to walk and when to run. Aside from the bus being crowded, the other bad part of the bus was when we came up upon the 42K marker. The driver reminded us, “we only have a marathon to go!” “Only?” I thought. What the What...who says that when your legs already feel like concrete. He also said earlier in the run, you guys are doing great, we just have 4 Hours to go!
I stayed with the bus until about mile 37. That was also about the time my Garmin died. I could not have been more distance challenged at this race. The race was in kilometers. The markers on the course descended based on how many more you had to go. I had 5 cutoffs on the course that I didn't know where they were at because I didn't read the website!! I didn't know my pace or distance after Garmin died. I ended up charging my Garmin while I was running. I had an external battery and the cradle for my watch. Note to self, next time just use Strava on airplane mode. Thanks, #tenjunkmiles Scott! I was able to use my Garmin again with 14 miles to go.
I tried a few new things this race and broke my own rule of nothing new on race day. First, I started rubbing biofreeze all over my legs proactively from about 40K on. I had the individual packets in my vest and would use one packet every 3 miles. I figured why wait until I need the biofeeze why don’t a biofreeze load like we carbo load. In the last 15K, I switched to tiger balm. Second, I wore shorts that I had never worn before and I bought them at the expo. Dun dun dun dunnnn! They were really comfortable, didn’t ride up and I didn’t chafe! Thank you @funkypantssa Third, at my 3rd drop bag stop (I paid extra to have drop bags on the course at the 20k, 40k and 60K markers, I figured it was better to have them then wish I had them plus they had a massage therapist at each stop. Here is the link to sign up for next year with Consports) I slammed half a Red bull. I had never had a Red bull in a race but I figured I would need all the help I could get. Guess what, Red Bull does have wings! Just look at my negative split! I was able to drop 45 minutes from the 11:30 pace group. I was gratefully passing a lot of people that last 20k. Partly due to them starting out too fast and partly due to being able to actually take advantage of the downhill since the associated uphills were finally run-able. I had spectators even ask me if I had just jumped in the race.
The spectators were awesome on the course. After all this race is like their Superbowl, their Tour de France. The race itself is broadcast live. All 12 hours of it. I have never had so many yummy salted potatoes. When I couldn’t find potatoes, I would just stick my hand out and a lot of the spectators had big containers of salt on them and they would pour salt in your hand. I felt like a cow, licking my hand! Since I forgot my salt tablets this was the next best thing. Plus, everyone else was doing it. Too bad the race photographer didn’t capture those #saltlick moments 😊 We also ran past a men’s only school. This reminded me of Wellesley on the Boston Marathon course. So, I of course had to get a groupie picture with them. I thought it was going to be strange to use water pouches instead of cups of water but I ended up liking the pouches. They were easy to grab and you could also run with an extra one.
I have always said that there is nothing like your first marathon, until you run your first Boston. I now have to add that there is also nothing like your first Comrades!
So, who wants to join me for next years, Uphill running? After all, when you do the uphill and downhill back to back you get a second medal!
Coach Denise @MarathonWhisperer