We’re into March and most Comrades runners should by now be well into their Comrades training and I’ve just read Bruce Fordyce’s latest blog in which he says it’s now time to start training hard for Comrades and I totally agree with him. March used to be when I started the serious stuff in my running days but it’s not the physical training I want to talk about.
I have often been asked by “ordinary runners” – as opposed to the elite or even those running for silver medals – if Comrades is hard and my answer has always been the same. Comrades isn’t hard.
By implication, that would mean that Comrades must be easy and I can immediately hear runners and “would be” Comrades runners saying that I must be completely round the bend. If Comrades wasn’t hard, then everybody would be doing it.
When you consider that in the 92 years we have had Comrades, we have had something like 120,000 different people who have run Comrades (that is something of a guess) and that is only a very small percentage of the total population of the country who could qualify to take part that, so if it is “easy”, why then do so few people actually take part and why have so few people taken part since the race started in 1921?
The answer, I believe, is fairly simple. Getting to the start line of Comrades is hard but Comrades itself, if you’ve prepared properly both physically and mentally, is not hard.
I started off by excluding the elite or professional runners and those running for silver medals etc. because I know nothing about how they feel on Comrades day. I have never been there so I can’t comment on what it feels like to run Comrades at 5 minutes a km or faster but I can comment on what it feels like when you are running a Bill Rowan or slower because I have run in both those categories and its those runners I’m wanting to “talk” to in this blog.
The first big challenge is to commit to running Comrades, often from having done little or nothing at all in the way of exercise previously in many cases. I know one person who promised himself for 20 years that he would run before he eventually did!
That’s quite a long time to make up your mind!
The problem after you’ve made up your mind to run is that you are still a long way from the Comrades start line and almost immediately second thoughts and doubts start to creep in, and often it’s only the fact that you can’t keep your mouth shut and you’ve told people that you are going to run Comrades that keeps you going. In many cases you elect to shift the goalposts a little from this year to next year’s Comrades in order to give yourself more time.
The trouble with that is the shift in the goalposts often comes with an easing up on the training and in most cases stopping completely “because my knees are taking too much strain”. Old rugby injuries you understand!
Where the runner doesn’t move goalposts and the training and racing distances get longer and longer there are other problems that come along. Pains in places you didn’t know pains could be. Trips to physios and doctors and it’s only the end of March… but we carry on.
We feel better. We have qualified. We’re sometimes even running better times but it’s getting harder and harder to get out of bed in the morning because it’s getting darker and colder. Some of our training partners have fallen by the wayside. Old rugby injuries you understand!
We start hearing horror stories about things called Inchanga, Botha’s Hill and Cowies Hill and there’s talk about cut off times and being pulled off the road if we don’t reach certain places by certain times. Our mind starts to do cartwheels.
We go out and buy ourselves a very expensive watch that works out our speed per kilometre, which by the time we get to the 65km mark on race day is going to drive us completely insane as we work out that we’re running at 3 mins 15 per km! No! That can’t be right!
The marker boards count down in Comrades but nobody told us that. Now we’re trying to calculate our times with that fancy watch and marker boards that count down and so we try again.
Ah! That’s better! We’re doing 25mins per km. No! Hang on! Now we’re in very serious trouble.
Bottom line – save yourself the money. You don’t need the fancy watch. Use an ordinary wristwatch. You start at 5:30 in the morning and you need to be at the finish before 5:30 in the evening and at certain cut off points by certain times of the day and the organisers tell you what time of day those are. Keep things as simple as possible!
So where is this all leading me?
You may not have noticed but I haven’t said a thing about how you should prepare physically for Comrades. There are plenty of people around who can do that for you. Some of them will confuse the hell out of you but I leave you to work out which training schedule works best for you – just don’t jump from one to the other.
Everything I’ve said has to do with that part of you from the neck up!
That crucial 90% of Comrades from the neck up that needs to be very well prepared to get you through from Pietermaritzburg to Moses Mabida Stadium on the 10th of June. The legs and the physical training only account for 10% on Comrades day. We’ve been saying that for more years than I can remember.
I remember being told as a very young Comrades runner 50 years ago that if my legs could get me through 60km, they could get me through 90km. The other 30km is up to your head but if that hasn’t been prepared properly you are in for a rough day. We’ve always said the Down Run actually starts as you get into Pinetown!
I’m certainly not by any stretch of the imagination a hero of any sort when it comes to running Comrades but I started 14 of them and I finished all 14 inside the time limit which in those days was 11 hours and not once did it even enter my mind during the worst of my runs to stop and get into a car.
In the 1971 Down Run I started with what we later found out was ITB but at the time we had no idea what the pain at the side of the knee was so I ran. Or at least I tried to run but by the time I got to Pinetown I wasn’t able to run so I had only one thing I could do and getting into a car wasn’t the one thing. Walking to the finish was the only option I had, so I did that and I got home in a touch under 10 hours and I put that down to the fact that I was strong mentally and I always worked on that preparation in all my Comrades.
That day in 1971 if I hadn’t prepared mentally there is simply no way I would have finished and it was only that mental strength, that got me through in what I regard as a fairly respectable time in what I have very recently learnt is regarded as the longest ever Comrades distance-wise.
The longest ever Comrades and I walked from Pinetown, effectively with a leg that wasn’t working but my head was!
If you have put in the distance in your legs and you have done at least one but preferably two or three runs of 60km or maybe a bit more, your legs will see you through on “the day”.
So how do you prepare mentally for Comrades? There are just a couple of things to do before race day. Those 60km runs in your legs go into your mental “bank account” and count big time on Comrades day when you remember that at the end of those training runs you felt “pretty OK” to face further distance so now your physical is taken care of and you can focus on the mental preparation that literally hundreds of Comrades runners ignore at their peril.
So what do you do to train mentally?
The major thing is to get to know the Comrades route. This is easy if you live in KZN and get to run on it regularly and things like Inchanga, Botha’s Hill and Cowies Hill become regular parts of your training runs.
Not so easy if you live far away and the first time you see the route is on race day or the day before.
I have done a detailed description of the route and it’s available on another chapter of this blog. Study it and get to know it. Not just a passing glance. Read it several times so that when you get to know the various places where you are.
Then the crucial thing you must do is break up your Comrades into small pieces. There are usually seven time based cut off points (including the finish) and the longest is usually no more than about 19km or so. Whatever you do, don’t stand at the start thinking you have to run 90km to Moses Mabida Stadium in Durban. That will just blow your mind.
Stand at the start and think that all you are going to do is your 19km run (or whatever the distance is to the first cut-off) and that’s all.
You have all run 19km and much more in training so that’s not an issue at all so your longest run on Comrades day is 19km or so. The next cut off is about 11km further so that’s your next run.
So that means that your first run on Comrades day is about 19km. Your next run is about 11km and so you go for the rest of the day. Don’t worry about anything other than the run you’re busy with. No point in stressing about Inchanga when you’re in Camperdown! Concentrate on Camperdown when you’re in Camperdown!
So on Comrades day you will end up doing seven little runs. That’s all it is. Seven little runs! That’s not too much to ask of anyone.
One long run of 90km is a huge job – but seven little runs. That’s no big deal!
The great thing about these cut off points is that Comrades tells you where they are and then they put up huge big boards about 1km from the cut-off point to let you know it’s up ahead.
So all you have to do is to learn to identify the landmarks of the cut-off points and then tie them back to the route description I have given you. Six of them on the route!
This is getting easier and easier all the time! That’s why I say Comrades isn’t hard.
Do the hard work before the 10th of June and enjoy Comrades day. That’s what it’s there for.