Posted in PERSONAL OPINION

LSD – COME BACK ALL IS FORGIVEN

In recent years, whilst the top runners have stuck with the concept of Long Slow Distance (LSD) – and slow is releative to your race speed – as part of their training for races especially like Comrades, however, the idea of spending hours out on the road for the “ordinary” runner, the runner who is going to get home between 9 and 12 hours simply doesn’t appeal and even at peak Comrades training time you’ll find many of the “ordinary” runners taking part in half marathon races rather than LSD and those who claim to do LSD are running 20 -25km and claiming that’s LSD.

The result is that LSD training has lost a lot of ground in recent years.  I was talking to a coach very recently who said that LSD should be present in every runner’s training whether fast or slow.  He went on to say that the latest research into polarised training (also known as 80/20 training) is that 80% is at extremely slow pace and 20% at maximal. It can’t make you slower  as was the original thinking. What it does is it saves you from being tired on the fast stuff all the time – these are the words of a coach and not my words and I stress once again that I am not a coach.

He went on to say that the “easy” runs that most follow are not easy enough and have a negative effect so to the average runner the message is clear. Get out there for Long Slow Distance and you’ll feel the difference.  OK! So you don’t get a medal at the end of it but it makes life so much easier in the longer term.

I’m delighted to see that almost every coach I hear talking and many clubs that organise club runs, are putting in long runs which are generally gentle and enjoyable and are not intended to be races.  

When I last wrote about LSD, I spoke to a couple of top runners. Bruce Fordyce said that a long slow training run should be about an hour slower than would been a race over the same distance.

Bruce Fordyce in one of his 9 wins

This doesn’t really work too well if you are a 4:30 marathon person. An hour longer and it’s going to be a long day but I would think this would work well for anyone who is a 3:30 marathon runner and faster.

2018 women’s winner Ann Ashworth, when I asked her about long slow training runs felt that it can be measured if the running is at “conversation speed”. 

Ann Ashworth on her way to her 2018 win.

This means that whilst you are out there on the road with others on a training run, you should be able to hold a comfortable conversation with your fellow runners.  If you can’t do that then you are in effect running at race speed.  This also works well if you are genuinely running at training pace and not race pace – some might say that in their opinion it’s the same thing.

So that takes care of the “slow” part of LSD but how far is the “long” part of  Long Slow distance?  I think this depends to a very large degree on what you’re training for.  If it’s a half marathon and that’s your limit there isn’t really any LSD involved in your training.  If you read the autobiography of that great Comrades man, the late Jackie Mekler, his idea of a long training run (and it probably wasn’t that slow as he was a top runner) was to go out on a Sunday morning and do the better part of 100km training runs.  

Jackie Mekler wearing his famous race number 9

I had the privilege of running many times with Dave Bagshaw in long slow runs and on those runs, Dave did run slowly and quite a few of those runs were with the Ian Jardine group I mention later and we did around 4 hours for our 32kms every week..  If you’re not sure who Dave Bagshaw is, he was the second man after Arthur Newton 40 years earlier, to win three Comrades in three successive years and most of that was on LSD.

Dave Bagshaw coming in to win his first Comrades in 1969

Incidentally, after Dave Bagshaw did his “hat trick” of wins only three more male runners have achieved that and just three female runners have done it.  You’ll find the details in my article titled COMRADES – “THE HAT TRICK CLUB”

If Comrades is what you have in mind, take the advice of your coach (if you have one) or of your club.  What generally happens is that many people start to look at qualifying for Comrades in November with races like the Kaapsehoop Marathon which many will tell you is not tough or the Soweto Marathon which,  whilst it is without doubt a great experience to take in the streets of South Africa’s biggest “township” is a very tough (and hot) race so be prepared. Almost certain that it’s unlikely to be your fastest marathon time.

Many people will tell you that Comrades training starts proper in March although many will have been running regularly at distances of 30kms before then but in March the distances slowly start to increase as you head towards April and that’s the big distance month.  I remember that the year I ran my best Comrades (it was only 8:29 which is not spectacular if you normally run silver or faster) during April I did about three runs of 50km or more and ended it up with a very long run over the first weekend of May.

I’ve heard some runners saying that they regard 15 or 20kms as LSD.  It really isn’t  because by April your long mid-week runs are often that distance.  

Another mistake that many “would be” Comrades runners make is that during that crucial month of April they are running in half marathons as their long training runs.  If you’re running 20kms to get to the start of the half marathon and then the half marathon, that’s probably great but the half marathon itself is not going to be what you need on the second Sunday in June.  Remember that on that day you have 90kms to do and even if by some kind of miracle your legs are happy with short run training (even if it’s a race), there’s a good chance that somewhere around 60kms your head will start to tell your legs that its had enough.

If that happens, you’re in for a very long and probably painful last 30kms and 30kms after you’ve already done 60, is fairly heavy going

Some people enjoy the “camaraderie” in a race but try  spending the better part of anything up to 6 or 7 hours with a group of good mates whilst out on a long training run. It’s amazingly good fun and makes running very enjoyable.  I have many very fond memories of the days when I ran 32km every Sunday with the famous blind runner of the 1950s and 1960s, Ian Jardine and his group on part of the Comrades route.  We started at the top of Botha’s Hill and ran to what is now Inchanga Caravan Park and back and that was until the beginning of March when after that it was increased week by week. 

LSD became part of my life for many years and I ran my best of 8:29 using the same method of training and my distances grew each Sunday as I felt myself getting stronger and stronger.

I mentioned training over the Comrades route as often as I could for my first 8 Comrades but I was fortunate to have lived near the route and got to know it extremely well and I also think that’s important and for that reason, I publish my detailed route description every year in the hopes that it will assist those who don’t have the good fortune to be able to train on the route itself.

In my first Comrades in 1968, I eventually reached the finish in 10:25 in around position 320 – something of a change from the position you would find yourself in today with a time of 10:25! 

Coming in to finish my first Comrades in 10:25. Alone on the track!

One of the things of which I am still proud today were my splits for that first Comrades and I put that down firmly to LSD. First half 5:10 and second half 5:15. Whilst 10:25 can’t be regarded as a spectacular time by any stretch of the imagination, when I look at the way some runners today who battle to get to the finish in 12 hours really struggle, that 10:25 was OK.

Incidentally even my best run when I did my 8:29, my splits were pretty even because I had the strength to maintain my speed and for that I thank my LSD training.  I have always believed that is the key to Comrades. Get stronger both physically and mentally and that’s what I firmly believe LSD will do for you but you must do it properly.

One thing that is very difficult though, is to try to do LSD on your own.  I ran many long runs of up to 50kms on my own and it’s not easy.  I found that having friends around me and even if we heard the same jokes every weekend and laughed at those jokes every weekend, it was that, that made my running so very enjoyable.

Then of course, there’s the other aspect of it.  It’s a lot cheaper to do a long training run with friends using either shops or service stations to buy your drinks (or if you are fortunate enough to get your life partner to get out of bed and do the seconding) than it is to run in races every weekend that some people do.

Over the last couple of years, a few women runners I know have said that from a security point of view they would rather be in a race with lots of people around them than on a training run with just a few others.  I fully understand their concern and it’s for that reason that I say “hats off” to those clubs that are organising long and seconded  training runs over weekends.  It’s a huge job to do that and if your club is one of those doing that, support them. They deserve the accolades. 

Get to understand the importance and the role of LSD and then go and thoroughly enjoy yourself doing them.

 

October 2019

Posted in PERSONAL OPINION

COMRADES – THE GREAT LEVELLER :

A little over 50 years ago, shortly before I ran my first Comrades, I read an article in a Durban newspaper entitled “Comrades – The Great Leveller” and over the years since then, I have often thought about that article as various things have happened during this race.  I have seen race leaders with a substantial lead just 20km from the finish end up just scraping into the gold medals or not finishing at all and I wonder how many people, both runners and spectators have ever thought about the subject of that article?

A couple of years ago, Comrades themselves used the theme “It Will Humble You” and I wrote something at the time in which I expressed my thoughts about how this event can in fact humble one.

I was challenged by someone who said that a road race and especially Comrades, can’t humble anyone but yet the very person who challenged me has been humbled by Comrades and when I sit down and think about it, I know of many more people who have been humbled by Comrades.

I am just one of those who has been humbled by this race on more than one occasion but the biggest lesson I got was in 1976 when I was going for my best time. I had trained for it and I knew I could do it but just a few minutes over 3 hours into the race I ran into trouble in the form of cramp.

Prior to that I had never suffered from cramp (as opposed to sore and stiff muscles) while running and this was my 9th Comrades so there was absolutely no reason for it to have happened that day – but it did and I ended up running just over two hours slower than I had planned, and my second half was slower than the winner that year (it was Alan Robb who won in 5:40:39) took to run the entire race.

ALAN ROBB 1978 FINISH

If that is not being humbled I don’t know what is and I know of many runners who can tell you stories of how they “came undone” in Comrades and ended up either not finishing or having serious problems on the road and finishing a lot slower than they had planned. 

I could rattle off a long list of names but I won’t because it doesn’t take a lot of thought to go back through the history of Comrades and to find many of the people who have suffered the indignity of being humbled by this road race.

Comrades is bigger than any of us when that gun is fired to start the race.

So back to where I started when I said that Comrades can be regarded as the great leveller but what exactly does that mean?

Well, as I see it, and this can be seen almost every year when Comrades organisers take the number of people who have entered and publish the jobs and professions of the runners and how many people fall into each category and you’ll find some of the entrants are company directors or well-known surgeons or some other equally elevated profession many of which come with a reasonably high social status.

At the other end of the scale, you find manual labourers, waiters and, sadly, unemployed people but the big thing is that when that gun fires to start Comrades, every one of those people are equal and their position in life and the amount of money they have and their fame mean absolutely nothing.

On the road between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, the top surgeon in the country, if he’s running, could find himself spending many hours running alongside, talking to and bonding with the lowest paid person in the race and what they are in life and the status they might have means nothing at all. Not a thing and in many cases it’s probably unlikely that they’ll even bother to ask each other about their status in life. They have far more important things to think about on Comrades day.

CAMPERDOWN

They are all exactly the same as they struggle together up the hills in Comrades and as they share their thoughts about the race and stop together at a refreshment station for that well deserved drink.

It doesn’t end there though. It is completely possible that the labourer and his boss could start together but it is also completely possible that the labourer finishes a good few hours ahead of his boss. Whatever position the boss might hold in the company compared to that of the labourer means nothing – absolutely nothing – on that road when Comrades is held.

So basically what I am getting at, is that it matters not what position or so-called social status you may hold in life or how much money you might have in the bank and how fancy a house you might live in and how expensive a car you might drive, all those things mean nothing.  On Comrades day everybody is equal where all your wealth and status, or perceived lack of it, count for nothing. 

All that matters is that you all get to the finish and the fancy house in which you live and the fancy car you drive and your big salary aren’t going to help you to get to the finish ahead of the runner who has none of those things.

Go to the finish or even sit at the side of the road to watch the race and watch the runners and nobody asks them how much or how little they earn when they offer to help each other to reach their goal. Those runners are simply “comrades” together on that day.

Imagine what a wonderful place South Africa would be if everybody in the country behaved towards each other in the same way as they do on Comrades day. 

I don’t think it matters whether you’re a gold medallist or whether you scrape home just before the 12 hour gun, on Comrades day I believe everyone is equal and I think it can best be summed up by Caroline Wostmann who won the women’s race in 2015 and had that awful run in 2016 and although she finished second, something that many people would be happy to do, she said   “When I crossed the finish line I learnt that winning is not about coming first but rather about challenging yourself to the limit, pushing the boundaries and walking away from the experience a better, stronger person.”

Every runner has the same distance to cover, the same hills to climb, the same refreshment stations to use and the same stiff and sore legs.  It matters not one bit who or what you are on Comrades day or what colour skin you might have because every single person in that race (and I’m not talking about athletic ability here) is exactly the same. 

There’s no doubt in my mind that Comrades is the great leveller.

Posted in PERSONAL OPINION

COMRADES – GET TO KNOW IT. :

A lot of people have asked me over the years what it is with me and the Comrades Marathon.  When I initially thought about it years ago my immediate response to myself was that I really didn’t know what it is that drew me to feel the way I do about Comrades but when I sat down and thought about it, and that was a fairly long time ago, I started to understand.

Its way more than the physical challenge it presents because one has to travel some 90km on foot within a certain time and in some sort of strange way it was a disagreement with someone about Comrades that got me thinking about all this again.  This person, who has never run the race, tried to convince me that Comrades is simply another road race and it’s a simple thing of getting from the start to the finish as fast as possible as one would any other road race.  

His thinking was that it has everything to do with the time you run and nothing else.  This could be right, if it wasn’t for one thing. It doesn’t explain why it is that a huge percentage of the field finishes in the last hour, and that, if you look at the record book, has always been the case.  To my mind it’s easy to convince yourself that time is the most important part of Comrades if you have never experienced it yourself.

Naturally time does play a part and to many people it plays a major part. I for example, always tried to run a respectable time – whatever that might be but when I look back at my Comrades performances, finishing, almost always, was the prime consideration. One of my proudest moments in Comrades was when I ran my first one and I was almost 10 and a half hours on the road that year and so it was with most of my runs and I think this is the reason why we now have so many runners who proudly own a Green Number for having run it more than 10 times.  A “respectable time” was, for me and thousands of other runners, a bonus.

My love of Comrades started 12 years before I first ran it. I was 9 years old when I saw it for the first time and it was love at first sight and I think it cast a kind of magic spell in my young mind at the time. Firstly that anyone could actually run that far was just beyond my understanding at the time so it created a mystery and magic and what 9 year old isn’t captivated by any sort of mystery and magic?

As the years have gone by, this feeling of mystery may have gone to a degree because I’ve been involved so long, but the magic spell it cast all those years ago has never left me despite the fact that the first Comrades I saw and the Comrades we have today are vastly different things altogether. 

This of course, is perfectly understandable because Comrades had to move with the times and change to fall in line with the world as we know it. Imagine if Comrades in the 21st century was still exactly as it was in 1956 when I first saw it!  As the race grew, so the need came to make changes.

The one aspect of it all that does sadden me and that’s the fact that so many modern runners don’t fully experience Comrades. Many will argue with me – and that’s fine – but I believe it’s got to do with the fact that very few have very much interest in, or know the history of Comrades.

Many “ordinary” runners will strive to get a Bill Rowan Medal for example, without really knowing who Bill Rowan was nor the significance of the requirement to break 9 hours to achieve this particular medal.  Some people have said that the lack of interest in the history of the race is because so much of it took place in those dark days of South Africa’s past but as long as there are things that people desperately try to achieve like a medal named after the first winner in 1921, I think it’s difficult or almost impossible to say that we should have no interest in “the old days” that have no bearing on the South Africa of the 21st century.

bill rowan (2)

Photo: Bill Rowan

Comrades has an amazing history and it’s difficult to ignore it because so much of what happened in the past still impacts on the race today and the Bill Rowan Medal is just one of them.

Another example is the fact that all of the 5 times and more winners of Comrades achieved this before we had our much needed political change but yet every modern day winner sets these men as the goal they would like to achieve.

Ask many modern runners, however, to name the 5 men who have won the race 5 times or more and most will only be able to give you Bruce’s name, yet most know that whilst nobody has come close to the number Bruce has won there are 4 others who have won 5 times. Then take it down to the 3 times winners and the only 4 time winner we’ve had and there will be even less knowledge of who they are and in total there are not many who fall into those categories.

My guess is that even our most recent 3 times winner’s name is not known to many of the “ordinary” runners and our latest 3 time winner, Bongmusa Mthembu, achieved his third win this year!

BONGMUSA MTHEMBU

Photo @ComradesRace via Twitter

We haven’t even mentioned the achievements of our women runners that are probably even less known.

The argument that much of what happened took place in the old South Africa doesn’t actually “wash”. For example, who was the winner who wore a black armband opposing things happening in the old South Africa at the time.  Many wouldn’t be able to tell you and that was in 1981.

How many runners can tell you when Comrades was opened to all races at a time when the country was still deep in apartheid days and some 15 years before things started to change politically in this country?  

Even when the race opened up in 1975, the field was limited to just 1 500 runners, and runners had to prove their qualifying times by running a marathon in under 3:30That meant that many potential competitors were excluded and a friend and training partner was one of them after he ran a marathon in 3:32.  He didn’t ever get the chance again to run it.

After cutting the field down from the 1 686 entrants to the allowed 1 500, only 18 “non-white” runners and two women were included in the field in 1975. The main reason was that organisers felt the roads couldn’t handle more than that in terms of traffic, etc as that was before the introduction of refreshment stations and runners each had their own seconds and the traffic congestion was horrendous.

Despite this, how instrumental was Comrades in taking the early steps towards “normalising” sport in South Africa?  

Who was Sam Tshabalala and why does his name feature in the history of Comrades and going even further back in time, who was Robert Mtshali who has only now been recognised by the organisers but who ran it over 80 years ago?  

Robert Mtshali was the first black man to run and complete Comrades way back in 1935 and he did that as an unofficial runner because black runners were not allowed to run it.  

Comrades organisers have now commissioned a bronze memorial to commemorate his run and you’ll find that at the entrance of the Comrades Museum.

ROBERT MTSHALI PLAQUE

Photo: wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Robert_Mtshali-gedenkplaket.jpg

A few years after Robert Mtshali ran and in 1940 Allen Boyce recorded the biggest winning margin of almost two hours.  Very few modern runners even know that.

Against that, the two closest wins were in 1967 by one second and in 1931 by two seconds and the man who finished 2nd in 1931 ran the entire race without a drink because his second didn’t meet him as arranged. The photo shows the mad sprint for the finish line in 1931 with Noel Burree who finished 2nd trying to catch winner, Phil Masterton-Smith.

NOEL BURREE

How many people know that Comrades almost died because of an uproar about the traffic problems it was causing and that was in the late sixties?

As recently as 1966 (and at my age that’s recent) the winner, Tommy Malone, was threatened with disqualification by an over enthusiastic race official whilst running up Polly Shortts because he was running in the middle of the road to avoid the camber.  Runners had to stick to the correct side of the road! Imagine that today! 

Fortunately Tommy wasn’t disqualified and went on to win the 1966 race and his win is still the biggest winning margin on the Up Run since then.

TOMMY WINS

These are just a few of the things that hold an incredible fascination for me and that have made my experience of Comrades more than “just another road race”.

When you consider all these things and much more about this amazing event you will perhaps get some sort of idea of what sets Comrades apart and makes it so much more than just a “another road race” but without knowing the incredible history of Comrades, I don’t think you get the full picture.  The history of each race since 1921 is on the Comrades website at http://www.comrades.com

I don’t think that you can fully experience it without that knowledge and I believe people who run it and come away with that special something it gives you, are taking away from themselves the complete Comrades experience.  I don’t think you can take what this race has to offer ordinary people unless you know all about it from the very beginning – and that was actually before Bill Rowan won the first one in 1921!

Run it without knowing it and I don’t think you have fully experienced this great annual “happening”.

August 2018

Posted in PERSONAL OPINION

WHY RUN COMRADES? :

We’re getting towards the beginning of August and that means in just a month’s time entries for Comrades 2019 will open and if we look at the speed at which entries were snapped up for 2018 I have no doubt the same thing is going to happen again for next year albeit an up run which, incidentally, I have always preferred.

This means that a tremendous number of novices, fired up by Comrades 2018, will, in all probability, be giving serious thought to tackling the road between Durban and Pietermaritzburg on the 9th of June 2019

I’ve been around Comrades a very long time.  In fact, I’ve been around Comrades longer than most people have and I have often been asked “Why run it because it can’t be good for you.”

I know one chap who won’t run it for that very reason. He feels that he would rather give Comrades a miss than risk any sort of permanent damage to himself.  I feel very sorry for him because of what he’s missing but that’s the decision he’s made and I would never try to change his mind. He’s of the opinion that Comrades is simply a race to see who can get to the finish in the fastest time and is not really any different to any other race.

It’s so very much more than that. Only 51 men have been able to win this race but many more have tried to do so and failed but it’s not the winners I want to talk about.

It’s the ordinary runner. The person who has perhaps watched it on TV for the last number of years and has finally taken the decision to run Comrades and earn that prized medal.  Comrades is, however, much, much more than just that very precious medal but make no mistake, it is a very precious medal.  Small in size but massive in meaning.

20151130_163928

Let me try to explain.

I have a couple of permanent injuries because I ran all those Comrades all those years ago in shoes that one could hardly call ideal but I have often said to people that had I been told when I was 21, and I was about to run my first Comrades that when I reached 70, I would be suffering from a very bad back and very bad knees because of those Comrades, I would still have run the fourteen I ran, because Comrades gave me so much more than it ever took away from me and it did that in so many different ways, not only in the running world but in life in general.

Allow me to give you just a few examples of the things Comrades can offer you for the taking and all you have to do is to realise that they are there and take them and use them.   

There’s the old saying that Comrades isn’t easy because if it was, then everyone would do it, but it’s not easy and this is confirmed by that very small overall number of people who have done it since it was first run in 1921.

We’re not sure of the exact number who have run Comrades since it started but we guess between 150,000 and 200,000 but as a percentage of people from the eligible age and health group in a country that now has 57 million people of whom probably at least 15 million are in the right age and health group to take part, it is pretty small percentage.

In fact it wasn’t until around 2000 that the numbers actually picked up when the race organisers increased the time limit to 12 hours making it that much more accessible to many more people who might otherwise not have attempted it, have the numbers increased in any significant way.

There are other factors that come into play obviously, such as the restriction on the number of entries that the narrow “old road” can safely handle as well as the facilities at both ends of the race.  Imagine an entry the size of one of the major overseas city marathons trying to fit onto the road through Drummond!

Then there’s this inexplicable thing of why it is that so many of us go back and run it again and again and if you ask anyone who has run more than once, why they’ve done so, you’ll get a variety of answers many of which don’t really make a lot of sense.

Many years ago I sat down and something came to me and I put it down and when Comrades themselves saw it they even used part of it on their banners for the 1999 race and on the front of the runners’ T shirts that year and the “verse” they chose to use from what some people called a poem, was 

It’s something that changes lives forever

and makes those who do it different

Not only to others but to themselves.

It takes ordinary people who struggle to achieve mediocrity

and allows others to look up to them in awe.

COMRADES T SHIRT 1999

What I was getting at in the verse I quoted above when I said that Comrades takes ordinary people and allows others to look up to them in awe is seen in the reaction of non-runners who find out that you have run Comrades. It takes ordinary people who are no more than mediocre in most things they do in life and allows them to move beyond that mediocrity somehow. They are suddenly seen in a different light.

It certainly did that for me and people still look at me in awe when they find out how many I ran – and I only ran 14 of them. That’s nothing compared to some people.

The other thing I have always found amazing and I recently had a huge disagreement with the same non-Comrades runner I’ve mentioned, who regards Comrades as he does any other road race, about this because he simply couldn’t understand it, was that people very seldom ask me what my Comrades times were, but are far more interested in the number I’ve run and the response to that is then “WOW”.

To the ordinary public, Comrades times don’t mean a lot. The number of times you’ve run Comrades means a huge amount!  To the ordinary South African there’s a kind of magic associated with Comrades.  A magic that’s difficult, if not impossible, to explain to someone like my non-Comrades running friend.

Comrades is more than simply a road race between two of KZN’s cities. It’s a lesson about life and if you come away from Comrades having learnt nothing then it’s best to have a good hard look at yourself because you’re missing something important.

One of the many things it taught me is that sometimes we throw away the opportunity to do things better than we actually end up doing them.

My final Comrades in 1987 was a fairly hot day, and at the time I didn’t know it was my final Comrades as the injury that eventually stopped me from running hadn’t made itself known at that stage. It did very shortly after that and before I had the chance to run my 15th.

On that Comrades morning I stood at the start line prepared to run under 9 hours.  I had run under 9 hours a couple of times before and close to it a further few times so I knew I was capable of doing it and I had trained to do it again but when I realised how hot it was and how hot it was going to be my attitude was “I couldn’t be bothered” and I ran to a very sociable 10:14 and that was way slower than the limit of my ability and I knew it was.

In hindsight it was NOT the right thing to have done and I still regret it over 30 years later when I stupidly decided to run my sub 9 “next year” but “next year” never came because the permanent injury and the end of my running came instead.

I should have aimed for it because I could have done it had I tried – if only I had tried but now it’s too late. How many of us do things like that? Not only in our running but with many other things in life.

We don’t give it our all “because we couldn’t be bothered” just as I had done on that Comrades morning in 1987 and we never get the opportunity again. That’s very sad and even worse when we can look back and realise that we have done it to ourselves.

It was after that 1987 Comrades that I messed up because of my “couldn’t be bothered” attitude that I was most successful in business and other things I tried. There was no way I was going to adopt that attitude again and lose any more opportunities in life!

Just one thing of many things Comrades taught me.

Back to my original question though. Why do people run Comrades?  Is it a challenge? It’s certainly that without any doubt and with the time limit having been increased to 12 hours instead of the old 11 hour limit, this has made the challenge a bit more accessible to a lot more people.

Does this mean that it’s a lot easier?

Not at all.  It’s just a lot more accessible to a lot more people. Durban and Pietermaritzburg are still where they have always been and on the Down Run this year the total distance was a touch over 90km and the third longest Comrades ever, so it was certainly a challenge.

comrades finish 2018

PHOTO: pdgpix.com

To cover 90km on foot in under 12 hours is a challenge make no mistake. It’s a huge physical challenge to the ordinary person but what is probably an even bigger challenge is the mental aspect of it all. When you’re out there on the road on Comrades day it’s just you and the road to the finish and you get the opportunity to prove to yourself exactly what you’re made of and that’s another thing Comrades taught me.  I learnt not to give up on something I had started and that was something that was to stand me in good stead in ventures in later years.

The runners up at the front are in a race against other runners but those further back are in a race against themselves or against the clock.  If you’re in your personal race against the clock, very few people actually care what time you run.  Will I do this? Can I do this?  People are more interested in whether you finished rather than the time in which you finished. To a non-runner your time doesn’t mean much and other runners are more interested in their own times than they are in your time.

When you are on that stretch of road still some distance from the finish and every part of your body is screaming for you to stop and your legs are aching and your head is telling you that you can’t actually go on but you know that you must go on because you need to do this that’s when you learn about yourself and those words were never more real.

It’s something that changes lives forever

and makes those who do it different

Not only to others but to themselves.

 

That’s why you run Comrades.

 

July 2018

Posted in PERSONAL OPINION

TO WIN COMRADES :

The more I have written about Comrades in this blog and in other articles over the years and the more I have spoken to winners over the years the more I have realised just what an enormous achievement it is to win Comrades.

Think about this. At the time I write this, we have had 93 Comrades Marathons starting with that very first one way back in 1921 and we have had just 51 different men’s winners.

Pause for a moment to let that sink in.  In 92 races we have had 51 different winners. That tells us just what an enormous achievement it is to win Comrades. Only 51 men have been able to win this race.

Obviously there have been the multi race winners but that takes nothing away from those who are single race winners when you think of the very long list of those who would dearly love to win this race but have just not been able to do so.  Those who have had to be content to go home year after year with a gold medal but no winner’s medal.

Make no mistake though, to go home with a gold medal is still something pretty special.

The trouble is, that whilst it is very special to win a gold medal or a collection of gold medals people tend to forget the person who finishes second, no matter what the sporting event is.

To demonstrate what I mean, Hardy Ballington, who was a five time winner and who is remembered for that achievement, had a younger brother John, who won 5 gold medals in Comrades with a best position of second in 1949.  Does anyone remember that?  

He wore race number 26 and that was long ago reallocated to the late Ian Jardine who turned it green so even the “honour” of getting a green number for John’s five golds for the number he wore was lost because things were different.

Green numbers were first introduced in 1972 so John Ballington’s number 26 had been reallocated long after he stopped running and long after the concept of permanent numbers for 5 gold medals was even thought of.

I have tried to find somewhere that John Ballington’s 5 gold medals are recognised and I haven’t been able to do so.  He wasn’t a winner – he came second and had a collection of gold medals!

I think also of that fantastic runner from Collegians Harriers in Pietermaritzburg, Gordon Baker. Many runners from the modern era won’t even know the name.  Gordon ran Comrades nine times and won eight gold medals but just couldn’t win the race itself.  The result is that today he’s basically forgotten by most people except those of us who knew him from way back when. 

I have been privileged to have met many of the winners since the sixties and when you speak to these chaps they’re ordinary people and most of them quiet and unassuming – until you see a few of them gathered together and you realise that there’s a bond that holds them together.

That bond that says “We’ve won Comrades” and they don’t have to actually say a word, it’s just there.  A magic in the air that you can feel and almost touch. 

I heard Bruce Fordyce recently refer to the Winner’s Trophy jealously as “Our Trophy” and he made it clear that they don’t actually want just any name on that trophy and if your name is on there you have to earn the right to have your name there and he wasn’t being big headed about the way in which he said it although he had every right to be so. 

It’s a very special club and not just anyone can join and from what I’ve seen as an outsider looking in, it doesn’t matter how many Comrades they’ve won to be recognised by the members of that “special club” they all seem to be equal in each other’s eyes.  All that matters is that they’ve won.

I have had people tell me that it was easier in the “old days” to win Comrades when the fields were smaller and slower but I think that’s rubbish.  Maybe the fields were smaller and slower but there were challenges of different sorts that made winning just as big an achievement as it is today.

Some of the biggest winning margins were recorded in “the old days” when the fields were very small but so too were the two closest finishes in the history of the race when fields were much smaller than they are today so that sort of throws that argument out the window.

I remember that after the 2016 Comrades I organised a dinner with Alan Robb and Tommy Malone and the reason for the dinner is that it was 60 years since the year I had first seen Comrades, 50 years since Tommy had won his Comrades and 40 years since Alan had won his first Comrades so I thought that it had some significance – the 40 – 50 – 60 year celebration.

TOMMY MALONE 1966 FINISH

It was a very pleasant evening indeed and with Tommy’s daughter and son-in-law who were also present and who have also run, there was a total of something around 80 Comrades medals between us but the focus was on Tommy and Alan who were winners. The rest of us didn’t really count.

At my 70th birthday party last year the theme was Comrades Marathon (could there have been anything else) and amongst the guests there were a total of exactly 100 Comrades medals and that included two winners.  They were the two people on whom the attention was focused. The rest of who had run just happened to be there and it was my birthday party!

Winning Comrades is a huge achievement.

I have seen 59 Comrades Marathons at the time of writing this and I am looking forward to seeing my 60th in June this year and recently I was given an old DVD of the 1979 and 1982 Comrades which were won by the late Piet Vorster and Bruce Fordyce respectively.

win (1)

I sat watching this DVD and I was reminded again of the speed at which those two guys had to run to win Comrades.  It’s simply mind blowing and I have seen a lot of Comrades and I still marvel at the speed at which the front runners go and for the distance at which they have to run it.

For many years when I was reporting the race for 702 Talk Radio I was on the road alongside the front runners and it was fascinating to see the strategies  and to watch as one by one they faded and the favourites came through. Then you would hear comments such as “Fordyce is starting to make his move” or “Fordyce is starting to come through”. 

bRUCE WINS

Bruce was an amazingly strategic runner and from where I was, it always looked to me – and I may well have been wrong – that he let the others come back to him.  Sure he seemed to increase his speed a bit in the second half but the others did most of the work for him – or so it seemed as I watched and I have heard him say this in talks he has given. He let them come back to him.

I remember one year I had that great athlete Sydney Maree as a passenger in the 702 car with me and we were on Harrison Flats following the leader who was on his own out in front and Sydney said to me “Do you think he’s looking good”.

I said “Nope. He’s just blown. Watch. In about 1km he’ll be walking and in 2km he’ll be out”.  That particular runner was another who thought he was going to win when he was some 30km out but who wasn’t even going to go home with a medal of any sort and he didn’t!

It’s a huge achievement to win Comrades and not just anyone can do it!

After the 2016 Comrades when David Gatebe became the first person to run under 5:20 and we were told that his average speed was 3 minutes 33 seconds per km for the entire 89kms someone asked me at what speed I had run in my best Comrades.  Not knowing the exact distance of the 1975 race when I ran my best time of 8:29 I guessed it was around 5mins 50secs per km and I am pretty damn proud of that. It was a huge effort for me.

DAVID GATEBE

But when you think of David Gatebe’s 3:33 per km you suddenly realise just what an incredible achievement it is to win Comrades.  At my best I wasn’t able to run even one km at David’s speed let alone 89 of them one after the other!

So before you watch Comrades from in front of your TV and grab for another beer as the winner comes in and you salute him as though what he’s done was no big deal or you hear about his win when you still have the better part of 40km still to go on your journey to Moses Mabhida Stadium on the 10th of June, pause for just a moment to consider exactly what this man and all the winners before him have done.

It’s one hell of an achievement.

Will this year’s winner become the 52nd winner or will the number remain at 51 because on the day, there is nobody new who is able to qualify to get his name on the trophy that Bruce Fordyce jealously regards as “Our Trophy”?

And rightly so. It’s very special that trophy.

 

April 2018

Posted in PERSONAL OPINION

COMRADES ISN’T HARD :

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.

 

 MARCH 2018

Posted in PERSONAL OPINION

COMRADES MARATHON. WHAT IS IT? :

What exactly is the Comrades Marathon?  No! I’m not talking about the foot race that Vic Clapham battled against the odds and the authorities to get going in 1921 and at which 34 people eventually lined up and 16 finished on that morning in May 1921.

I’m not talking about the race where a bunch of very fast runners take off from the start once a year to try to get to the finish just short of 90km away in as fast a time as possible.

I’m talking about the real Comrades Marathon.  That special something that has happened for 92 years since 1921 and has attracted thousands of people who come and run either from Durban to Pietermaritzburg or from Pietermaritzburg to Durban depending on the direction the race is being held that particular year.

I’m not only talking about the thousands of people who take part in the challenge the race offers to those who take part in this extraordinary footrace that has been called the “Ultimate Human Race” but those countless thousands who line the route year after year to watch the race so that they can simply say “I watched Comrades again this year” or “I haven’t missed Comrades on TV for the last 20 years” or however long it has been.

In my own case I have been at 59 Comrades Marathons, my first as a boy of 9 at the side of the road in Pinetown for the 1956 race when Gerald Walsh was the winner and there were under 100 runners and with the exception of just three races, I have been at every Comrades since then.  People have long since stopped asking me “Why?” and instead it’s not even a question any longer but instead a statement “I guess you’ll be at Comrades again this year” because they don’t have to ask.  They just know!

Why is it?  It’s a question that I’m not able to answer.  What was it that attracted me to Comrades in 1956 and kept pulling me back year after year until I ran my first one in 1968 and then after I have run my 10 had me going back for more and more and still more as a radio journalist, the stadium announcer and eventually back to where it all started – as a spectator.  Then not satisfied with that I started writing about it in this blog.

I look at the new runners and it makes me extremely pleased to see so many who are taking up the challenge that my beloved strip of tarmac between Durban and Pietermaritzburg has to offer. 

A lot of the older runners will say that it’s a lot easier now that there is a 12 hour time limit but there are still 90 odd kilometres that have to be covered and that is still a long way and the fact that the organisers have given 12 hours now gives more people the chance to do the Ultimate Human Race who might not otherwise have done it and that’s a very good thing I would have thought.

There’s nothing in the rule book after all that says a runner has to use the full 12 hours.  You can still set your own target of whatever time you want and if I were still able to run (which sadly I’m not) I would certainly be doing that and looking to be running the times I was running back then – not that my aged knees would allow it but one can dream can’t one?

When I ran my first one and right now that’s the one I want to talk about, I had 11 hours in which to finish it but whether it was the 11 hour time limit as it was then or whether it had been the 12 hour limit as it is now I don’t think it would really have mattered. 

I wanted that medal and I wanted it so badly. I wanted to add my name to those others whose names were there whether they had been amongst the winners like Newton or Hayward, Ballington, Mekler, and Walsh and I knew I had no chance of being amongst them in terms of the times I could run but that didn’t matter or whether my name would be amongst the others whose names were not as well known but were there, listed as finishers and who would be known to only their families and friends but who would be there as a Comrades finisher, I wanted desperately to be one of them. One of those who would be a hero to me.

That is what so many over the years have wanted and that is what so many still want and what the organisers, by extending the time limit, have given to so many more who might not otherwise have been able to experience this.

So you have 12 hours to make this dream come true of running in the Comrades and becoming a finisher and achieving your own personal goal.  It’s only the top few who are in a race. The rest of us are out there on Comrades day taking part in a glorious “happening” that nobody can fully explain in full no matter how hard we try.

You simply can’t explain to anyone why you would want to spend months preparing to spend a full day travelling on foot over very nearly 90km when you know that you are going to be sore and in fact very sore at the end of it and in return you are going to be presented with a very small medal as a material reward. 

What you can’t explain to a person who has never run Comrades is the reward you get in the way of the massive sense of achievement when you finish Comrades and it’s a feeling that never leaves you and a feeling that nobody can ever take away from you. A feeling that stays with you for the rest of your days.

There are just those of us who run Comrades but there is another group who is equally captivated by “The Ultimate Human Race”

That group who get up when it’s still dark and who go out just to watch the race.  Their skottles at the ready to make breakfast and to enjoy themselves at the side of the road. In my running days I simply couldn’t understand these people and why they would want to do this to watch a bunch of people they don’t know running past. 

Then as the years went by and I became a spectator again, I became one of those “breakfast at the side of the road on Comrades morning” people and it’s wonderful.  It just grabs you and you are drawn into the spirit of it all and you find yourself shouting encouragement at people you have never seen before and might never see again and you look at South Africa and what it’s really all about and you wish that all our politicians could be with you to see it too instead of sitting stirring it up in their plush offices that we have paid for with our hard earned taxes.

I witnessed something I haven’t seen for many years at Comrades this year and that was the mother and father of all traffic jams on the N3.  I had forgotten exactly the impact that Comrades spectators have on traffic.  Three lanes of traffic in the direction towards Pietermaritzburg going nowhere!  At a complete standstill and nobody seemed to be getting upset about it!  After all it was Comrades Day!

There is no doubt that Comrades is something very, very special but there is something missing from the lives of many of the newer runners.  Many have very little knowledge of the history of the race.

Comrades has an amazing history and runners really need to know as much as they can about the race.  I see runners struggling to get that prized Bill Rowan Medal yet many have no idea who Bill Rowan was and why the Bill Rowan Medal is awarded if a runner breaks 9 hours!  These are the sorts of things that complete the pride you might feel in having won that Bill Rowan Medal.  I twice ran a time that would have earned me a Bill Rowan Medal but both before the introduction of the medal.  How I wish I could have had those Bill Rowan medals in my collection knowing that symbolically I could have won the first Comrades on two occasions!  That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about when I say learn about the history of the race.

And that’s just one tiny little piece of it. There’s so much more.

When you are out there on Comrades Day, whether as a runner or as a spectator or one of the many helpers who gives so freely of his or her time you need to be aware that you are part of something that is really very special.

Comrades is not just another road race on the calendar!

July 2017

 

Posted in PERSONAL OPINION

IS COMRADES TOUGH? YES IT ISN’T :

It’s January and time to start thinking seriously about running Comrades and how you intend to train to get there. Right?

It seems this is not the case at all and I know that this particular blog will probably land me in hot water with a lot of people many of whom will probably say “The silly old goat can only think of the old days” and perhaps that’s quite right but the “silly old goat” started 14 Comrades, finished 14 Comrades at a time when we didn’t have the luxury of a 12 hour time limit. We also didn’t have the luxury of a refreshment station every few Kms and had to rely on personal seconds who almost always were stuck in traffic jams and we went some fairly long distances without anything to drink. The “silly old goats” also didn’t have the fancy equipment available today and our shoes were the ordinary “takkie” or sandshoe used on tennis courts and we drank “corpse reviver” (described in other posts) and didn’t have the modern food supplements.

I’ve always felt that getting ready for Comrades and running it is pretty much like anything else one has to do in life from writing exams to preparing for a board meeting or running a company. Do it properly and prepare properly and when you get to the actual event itself, it’s not actually that bad.

I am not for one moment knocking the modern runner. Far from it as it was those inferior shoes being worn, added to a childhood back injury, that stopped my running altogether whilst I was training to run my 15th Comrades. I am however concerned that it appears that runners on average today, are slower than they were some 30 to 40 years ago and let me stress that I can’t talk for the winners or even the silver medalists.  I have never been one of those but I certainly know how to run a Bill Rowan so that puts me in the top half of the field.

The bulk of the tail-enders came in during the last hour when we had an 11 hour time limit and now that it’s 12 hours we still have that.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not for a moment suggesting that the time limit should go back to 11 hours because it’s the 12 hour time limit that has resulted in more people striving to get that medal that is so very precious but it does seem that people have slowed down to finish in under 12 hours now rather than aim for the 11 hours they would have been required to do previously.

So what is the problem or is it even a problem at all?   What is it that’s causing this seemingly slower running?

Why is it that runners are doing a qualifying marathon of 42km in the required 5 hours (it used to be 4:30) but can’t get to the half way which is some 3km further than the marathon distance in the extra time of over an hour allotted to them by Comrades? Why is it, that they will run an ultra of, say, 50km in under 6 hours but 6 hours 15 is not enough time to do the 45km to half way in Comrades?

I was sitting down to write this and came across a quotation by Rich Simmonds, a professional speaker and self-styled “rule breaker and change maker” (I love those sorts of people) who said “Understand what everyone else is doing, but don’t do what everyone else is doing” and it occurred to me that what Rich says applies equally to Comrades.

I have seen the looks on the faces of those who can’t make the cut off times along the route and who fail to get to the finish in under the required 12 hours. That pain of not finishing Comrades stays with those folk until they are able to go back and beat it. I know one runner who talks equally of the one she didn’t finish as much as of the one she did. It must hurt not to be able to finish Comrades. It must hurt badly.

I can’t imagine how awful it must feel to have to get into one of the runners’ rescue busses and have a thick black line drawn through your race number.  The runner I know who had that happen, tried to describe it to me and it must have been horrible. To have that DNF alongside your name never goes away.

I believe that training methods and the mental approach are the main problems facing the modern runner.

Let me also, once again, say that I am not a coach and certainly not one of the official Comrades coaches but I am also not some sanctimonious “old timer” saying “we did it much better then” but I firmly believe that there are problems and that the problems are not the result of what happens on Comrades day. I think the problems are the result of the way runners prepare themselves in the five months from January to Comrades.

Week after week you’ll find the same runners in races “treating them as a training run”.  I honestly don’t believe that it’s possible to run a race as a training run because in the vast majority of instances you will run faster than you would a training run. Carry on doing that for months on end and get to the start of Comrades tired – or injured. 

I have runners saying to me all the time that at the beginning of May they are exhausted.  Good grief!  At the beginning of May runners should be feeling on top of the world and ready for the taper that is going to get them that unbelievably precious medal.

The other thing that has been cast aside now by so many ordinary runners is LSD.  The pure joy of getting together with a bunch of mates to go out on a long run on either Saturday or Sunday and “tea room hop” to get cold drinks is largely a thing of the past.

About now I can hear coaches saying “here he goes again” but the point is it works, and again I stress that I can’t talk for the top runners.  I heard of one runner prior to the 2015 Comrades who was running in a race almost every weekend.  When I was told about her, my reaction was that I thought, as a novice, she would be lucky to get home in under 11:45. I was wrong. She did 11:40!

The ordinary runner is busy with hill repeats and speed work during the week and races at the weekend.  Why?  I am the proud owner of 14 Comrades medals, all under 11 hours and two of them under 9 hours, and never once did I do hill repeats or speed work.

I had a road race called Comrades to run so I trained for that by running on the road. I had a long way to run on Comrades day so I built my leg strength and stamina by doing LSD – and it worked. As I became fitter my speeds automatically improved and that included hill speeds. Was I wrong?  My stats don’t say so.

My focus was Comrades so I studied the route and my times to be at various places. I never went near a gym. I know one runner who has a coach who puts her through rigorous gym sessions to the point where her legs are like jelly. Come Comrades day and it’s “an all fall down”. Her half marathon times are brilliant. Her Comrades times – very ordinary.

The runner who is capable of a best of 4 hours in a marathon, runs a race in 4:15 and says “I did it as a training run”.  That’s not a training run.  It’s just 15 minutes off your best!

If a top runner runs in a race as a “training run” he’ll do around 3 hours for a marathon when he’s actually capable of around 2:20. That’s a “training run”.

In the old days (here he goes again I hear the cry) we used to say that if you RAN IN A RACE you shouldn’t go near another race for 1 day for each mile of the race. In other words a marathon in old language is 26 miles so run a marathon but don’t do any other race of any distance for 26 days. That doesn’t mean don’t run for those 26 days after a marathon. It means don’t run IN ANOTHER RACE for 26 days after a marathon.

20 days for a 32km and 14 days between running a half marathon and any other race. That’s going to basically give you one race a month from January to Comrades.

It works and it’s not the ramblings of “a silly old goat”.

Remember when your mates tell you that I’m crazy what Rich Simmonds says.

“Understand what everyone else is doing, but don’t do what everyone else is doing”

One little bit of advice though. Don’t take advice from everyone in sight – and that includes me – because all that does is leads to confusion and you get to the start full of a dozen different opinions and – DISASTER!

Comrades isn’t tough. It’s the training to get that medal that’s tough.

Do that properly, both on and off the road, and Comrades is a great day. A fun day and boy does it feel good to get home ahead of your mates who ran in races every weekend and in two time trials a week!