2012 Comrades Marathon Preview

Despite their love of calling ultras ‘marathons,’ South Africans have set the bar for road ultras. After writing about the Two Oceans Marathon in April, it’s now the time of year for the race that originally inspired that event – the Comrades Marathon.

What is it?

Comrades MarathonThe 89.3km (55.5 miles) Comrades Marathon is the largest ultra in the world by a significant margin with up to 24,000 people on the start line. It’s been fully live-televised nationally in South Africa for years and offers a massive prize purse – winning with a course record and sponsor bonuses grosses around US$110,000 with another US$20,000 for the first local (including the prize for the first from the province of KwaZulu-Natal and first South African). Even a third-place podium position from a foreigner running could earn around $20,000, significantly more than any North American ultra can offer.

Comrades has such a distinguished history that even seasoned runners find it reignites their passion for the sport, something the author can attest to after running it five times. The first Comrades Marathon took place in 1921, starting outside the City Hall in Pietermaritzburg with only 34 runners and has occurred ever since, skipping the war years of 1941-45. It’s grown in popularity to become an event that captures the imagination of the entire nation, plus well beyond those borders.

It alternates direction each year with an ‘up run’ from the harbor city of Durban to Pietermaritzburg at an altitude of 650 meters (over 2,000’), which has around 1,400 meters (4,700’) of ascent and 2,000 meters (6,600’) of downhills or a ‘down run’ in the opposite direction. 2012 is a down run, which typically gives faster times. On the way runners encounter five major hills, popularly known as the “Big Five,” interspersed with other landmarks and points of interest. The up run varies slightly each year in distance, but is now around 87 kilometers (54 miles), while the down run is over 2 kilometers (about 1.5 miles) longer. The difference is due to the races needing to start along wide roads and finish in a stadium, so the start/finish areas are different for each race and the course is not just reversed.

Early Comrades Marathon miles in Durban

Early Comrades Marathon miles in Durban

From speaking to locals in Durban, where this event is so popular it has a bigger profile and interest level than any major marathon, I’ve gained some insights. Firstly, although the race has been going many years, it became much larger during the apartheid era of isolation. South Africa was unable to participate in international competitions in any sport, so isolation created an inward focus which made national events much more prominent. In addition, the media-friendly multiple successes of domestic runners made the race even more prominent. This includes legends who every South African has heard of but who foreigners have not, such as Alan Robb who dominated the race in the 1970s and Bruce Fordyce who won 9 times in the 1980s. In the 1990s, America had its only winners ever with Alberto Salazar (1994) and Ann Trason (1996 and 1997).

What’s special about Comrades?

Three key factors about Comrades make it stand out. Firstly, almost every South African I’ve ever met has either run it, their parents ran it, or they want to run it (admittedly this is a biased sample). In South Africa it’s almost a rite of passage to complete this race, usually more than once. Well, the down and up runs are so different so that makes at least two attempts necessary.

And this brings me to the second unique point about the race. Runners get different colored bibs depending on how many times they’ve run. First timers, foreigners and locals have different colored bibs to make them easily distinguishable to the massive crowds, then comes the concept of the green number club. Green numbers are for those who’ve completed 10 or more Comrades and being a member of the club is highly esteemed and means that that race number is forever yours and nobody else will run Comrades under that number. Runners on their first attempt at a 10th run wear a yellow bib to signify that they will earn their green number on the finish line so they get extra encouragement along the way. The bibs must also be worn front and back so this information is obvious to all runners and spectators.

Halfway point of the Comrades Marathon

Halfway point of the Comrades Marathon

Then the third, and arguably most incentivizing, point is that different finish times get different medals. There are six in total, varying from a gold medal for the top 10 men or women to a Vic Clapham medal for finishing between 11 hours and the cut-off of 12 hours. No medals are given to those who are even a second after the finishing gun and each medal cut-off is strictly enforced (by bouncers!).

I’ve written a lot about the race in my personal blog with tips and race reports and there’s a unique atmosphere before, during and after, created by the locals. Being such a sport-crazy nation, they really get behind their rugby, cricket and anything that involves national spirit, with Comrades being an event they are rightly proud of.

The pre-dawn start has an energy and vibe that no other race matches in my experience with incredible music. In the flood-lit blackness, it’s usually a little chilly and some runners bounce up and down with the beats, some stretch with focused gazes, but all look excited. It’s the moment. Only a thunder cloud can emulate the electric atmosphere of a Comrades start line and there is palpable nervousness and anticipation in the air. Then the two iconic songs that epitomize the race are played – the local song ‘Shosholoza’ (the song sung at the end of ‘Invictus’), which has mining roots, and Chariots of Fire. Both permeate through your bones and command you to become still and transfix your gaze on the invisible horizon, thinking about the task ahead. Local guys around you sing with passion and you feel like it’s more than just a race, a globally unifying event. Even Chariots of Fire seems appropriate, rather than cheesy.

Who to Watch Out For

The depth of both the men’s and women’s fields are always strong and the course records are incredibly fast – 5:20:49 for the men and 5:54:43 for the women on the down run. With the hills included, this means an evenly-paced male course record requires going through 50 miles in exactly 4:49, over a minute under the 50-mile world record on a flat course.

The men’s course record holder and former Olympian, Leonid Shvetsov (Russia), is returning this year after retiring in 2009 and will have to beat the winner from the last three years, Stephen Muzhingi (Zimbabwe), who beat Leonid into second in 2009 and also won Two Oceans 2012. Mike Wardian (USA) will hope to challenge them after his 25th and 11th placings in the past two years.

Amongst the women, the sub-2:30 marathoner Nurgalieva twins, Olesya and Elena (both from Russia), have won eight of the last nine Comrades between them, usually with a 1-2. Olesya missed Two Oceans in April after having a child and there’s no firm information regarding whether either will be starting. Possibly hoping they won’t start will be Ellie Greenwood (Canada/UK) and Devon Crosby-Helms (USA), both with new-found marathon speed and PRs of 2:42 and 2:38, respectively. Ellie was forth in last year’s race and Devon is on her first attempt and recently came third at Two Oceans, behind Elena and another Russian.

Many of the local South African challengers from recent years will return, but with no press release, all we know for certain is that a few Americans who’d been considering the race will not be starting. Kami Semick recently pulled out due to a lack of specific training and to focus on Western States (she has been forth and third the past two races). Meghan Arbogast was also rumored to be heading over but is not any more. Furthermore, the UK’s Lizzy Hawker has had injury doubts and may be on the start line after a fifth and seventh from the past two years.

More Information

The race will be live on South African TV and should have a live feed on their website with this footage, at Comrades.com The website includes a lot more detail and has a whole host of information about the history and detailed splits of runners within the results. The Comrades Wikipedia page for the race is also a good source of historical information.

But the only way to truly understand the race is to run it. It’s not like a road marathon, it’s much, much more. So put this on your bucket list, as it’s a great excuse to visit a fantastic and friendly country as well as to have the race of your life. (I don’t work for the tourism board, but am completely obsessed with this event, just in case you couldn’t tell.)

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • If you’ve ever run the Comrades Marathon, share your story!
  • If you’ve not run Comrades, do you want to?
  • Will you be following the race this weekend? If so, for whom will you be cheering?

There are 4 comments

  1. Thad Sweet

    I ran Comrades in 2010, and if it weren't for the travel expenses, I'd go back every year! What an amazing experience. I went with Team World Vision, an organization featured somewhat in the Runners World videos detailing Bart Yasso's attempt at and completion of Comrades. Ian is right, this race rivals no other. The energy is unbelievable from start to finish! As an international runner, I was completely shocked at the outpouring of encouragement, support and love from spectators and runners alike. Never before have I felt such a bond with fellow participants and those volunteering and cheering from the streets. The stadium/finish line experience in unlike anything I've ever seen. I squeaked by with an 11:44 finish, and it literally took everything I had to get there. For me though, the highlight wasn't the race itself, but the people. South Africans everywhere, from the time our plan landed to the time we left embraced us like family. I will never forget meeting one of the children that my family and I sponsor through World Vision. Meeting her and her family is something forever etched in my brain. Now, as Comrades rolls around every year, my thoughts not only go out to those running the race, but also to my new family via World Vision. Every year, Team World Vision sends a team of runners to run Comrades, and to raise awareness and child sponsors for World Vision South Africa programs. I love the worldwide attention this race is getting in the past few years, and hope it only grows from here. This is a world class event, put on by world class people.

  2. Jackie

    Great article! Will definitely be following the results. Need to buy Ellie a beer if she wins. I guess you can tell whom i'm cheering for.

  3. Felix

    Watch out for superswede Jonas Buud. 2nd place this year on the 100k WC.

    I´m gonna be following your updates and hoping for Swedish victory.

    Thanks for the great site!

  4. Jonathan

    I would love to run this one day. However, the IAAF site says that only Boston, NYC, and Chicago marathons are IAAF certified. Is that correct? There's gotta be other marathons/ultras here in the US that qualify.

  5. Andy

    Have been to SA a number of times but haven't run Comrades and it's definitely on the bucket list.

    Also, just wondering if anyone knows much about the trail ultra life in SA. I hiked there many years ago (in my pre-running and pre-ultra days) and would imagine that trail ultras could be fantastic. The Cape and the Drakensburg come to mind, but the country is gorgeous and with no shortage of stunning mountain trails. Ian or anybody else? And best of luck to all those running Comrades this weekend. Thanks.

    1. Simon

      Hi Andy.

      I've been checking out the trail scene in SA a little bit. Google "THE OTTER TRAIL SOUTH AFRICA" looks awesome. South Africa have Ryan Sandes kicking butt on the international ultra trail scene. He recently cleaned up The North Face 100 here in Australia, he's about to take on Western States in the US and will toe the line as a favourite.

      Hope to get out to SA to challenge myself in both the Comrades and Otter Trail one day.


      1. Andrew

        Hi Guys

        The bigger Trail Ultras in SA are the Otter, Skyrun and Puffer. There are also plenty of small races in the Drakensberg – my favourite is the Mnweni Marathon.

        We are also big on multi day events like Lesotho Wildrun, Wildrun on the Wild Coast of Eastern Cape, 3 Cranes, Southern Cross and African X.

        Check out http://www.trailrunning.co.za/ and http://www.kzntrailrunning.co.za/ for more info on the SA scene.



  6. Ian Sharman

    As far as I'm aware most road marathons would be ok as qualifiers – email the organizers to double check but they shouldn't be weird about it. I'd guess any AIMS certified marathon would be fine at the least and that applies to a lot of them.

  7. Ernst

    A great article that brings back fond memories and a lot of tears. I have completed 9 Comrades marathons and can not wait to get my green number, hopefully in two years time on the next ‘down” run. You can qualify on any official standard race that is 42.4 km of longer. On the comrades website you can find the different qualifying times for the different distances. I found the following information on their website with regards to this year’s race:

    The following criteria is required for international qualifying events.

    • the event needs to be official measured

    • the event needs to be official timed

    • official results needs to be made available

    • the qualifying event period runs from 29 May 2011 to 7 May 2012

    Should your qualifying event meet these requirements then you are able to submit that as your qualifier. Please include a copy of your results either with the entry or a website address where the results can be confirmed.

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