The London Marathon takes place on Sunday 26th April and I’m not running it. So why mention it, you might ask? Well, I am running 2 marathons this month (Manchester on 19th and the Shakespeare Marathon in Stratford Upon Avon on 26th) neither of which get the entry numbers, crowds or TV coverage that London does. However, in May I’m taking part in an event that might just rival London for recognition, coverage and prestige – at least in South Africa where it takes place and in certain long distance running circles. I’m talking about the Comrades Marathon.
Now first things first, despite its name the Comrades Marathon is not a conventional marathon. For a start it’s nearly 56 miles long (just under 90km). That’s more than double the regular distance and the equivalent of running from the BJSS office in Crown Court to Brighton Pier, and then doing a little 5km along the beach to finish it off.
It was the brainchild of Vic Clapham, a World War One veteran who, following the death of many of his comrades in WW1 came up with the idea to honour the fallen by running a marathon from Pietermartizburg to Durban. So, on 24 May 1921, 34 runners departed on foot from Pietermaritzburg’s city hall. Since that first run, Comrades (most people drop the “Marathon”) has been held annually (excepting the years of WW2) and today attracts some 18,000 runners.
Apart from its length, Comrades has a few more challenges in store for participants. Firstly. The course alternates each year. The race from Durban is referred to as the “up run” and from Pietermartizburg as the “down run” for reasons that will become obvious. 2015 is an “up run” and the approximate route can be seen below:
As you can see the “up run” is well named with the first 42km (conventional marathon distance) being almost entirely uphill, climbing almost 730m. By comparison, the London Marathon has a drop of about 40m over its entire length. The “Big Five” hills marked in Red and are considered the major challenges on the “up run” (as if the 90km isn’t challenge enough) with Polly Shortts (the extra “t” is deliberate) the sting in the tail about 10km from the end. Imagine running 50 miles and then hitting a 5% hill that lasts for 2km (and if you don’t know what a 5% hill feels like try it on a treadmill at the gym. It’s not pleasant).
The other major challenge is the very strict cut off time. Participants have exactly 12 hours from the start (signified by the loud playing of a tape recording of a man crowing like a cockerel) to get to the end. That means if you start at the back you actually have about 15-20 minutes less time to complete the route than those who start at the front, because it will take you that long to reach the start line. Where you start from is determined by your qualifying time, which (for most people) is run in a conventional marathon. I qualified at Dublin last October with a time of 3hrs 30 which puts me in pen C. The pens start at A for the elites and go all the way back to H so I’m happy with that seeding, even though at the time I was struggling with injury and was a little disappointed with my time. At various points on the course there are time cut offs. Fail to get to one before the allotted time and you are picked up by one of the “sweep buses” and driven to the end. Even worse, if you get to the end but miss the 12 hour cut off you are prevented from crossing the line. No medal, no official time, and a long journey home. The cut off at the end is so strictly enforced that there are videos on YouTube of previous years showing people diving for the line and then being pushed back over it by marshalls because they missed out by a single second. A single second! Imagine how bad that feels after 56 miles of effort.
So why am I doing this? Good question. I enjoy running. I particularly enjoy marathons. Each one is challenging in its own way and however many you’ve completed, you still have to take each one seriously. You can’t pretend in a marathon. You absolutely can’t pretend at Comrades. If you don’t prepare well enough, if you go off too quickly, if you don’t respect the hills, or the heat, or just the distance then Comrades will punish you. But Comrades is huge. Imagine crowds almost as thick as for the London Marathon every mile for 56 miles. Imagine running past the Ethembeni School for Handicapped Children at about 32 miles, where the kids line the road with banners and cheer almost constantly for the duration of the race. Imagine getting to the finish and seeing the clock with any number less than 12 at the start. I ran 70 miles in one day last summer. 14 laps of a 5 mile course through the woods in a thunderstorm (for the first 5 hours). Comrades isn’t that far, but it is a much, much bigger challenge and I guess that, ultimately, answers the question “why?”
Dave is a Technical Project Manager based in the BJSS London Office