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?
The 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.
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.
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.
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?