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.

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RESPECT COMRADES. IT’S FUN BUT NO JOKE

So your Comrades entry for 2019 is in and you’ve had confirmation from the organisers that they’ve received it – so now what? 

Easy.  All you now have to do is to run a qualifier before the beginning of May and pitch up at the start of Comrades on the 9th of June, but is it really that simple?

With the right approach, I think it is, and I honestly think that the right approach is not hard to achieve.

During the last couple of years I’ve asked myself the question, more than once, whether my relationship with the Comrades Marathon is a passion or an obsession.  I don’t really know what the answer is because the two words are pretty closely related except that one of them conjures up thoughts that are not quite as nice as the other but look at the dictionary and you will find that the word “emotion” features in both definitions so I guess it doesn’t matter too much which it is.

Suffice to say that I have a pretty deep feeling about that strip of tarmac between KZN’s two cities and I am not able to explain it but ridicule the race or don’t treat it with the respect it deserves and I won’t treat you with the sympathy you would perhaps like if you run it and come horribly “unstuck” during the race. This isn’t something new. I’ve felt this way going back as long as I can remember to my very early days to when I first started running Comrades.

Go into Comrades with no respect for the race, come undone and suffer badly and it’s your problem and you’ll get no sympathy from me and I was sitting thinking about the way I feel about people who take part in the race and who, especially in their first run, don’t take it seriously.  It doesn’t often happen to people who have run it more than once. Those people have learnt that Comrades deserves respect and they give it the respect it deserves.

I have often heard novices say they are really scared and my reaction is always that they shouldn’t be scared of Comrades but if they are properly prepared both physically and mentally for Comrades they need to respect it but not fear it. To my mind there’s a very big difference.

I have never feared Comrades but I have certainly respected it.  I have run it 14 times, finished it within the time limit all 14 times and respected it every time and I believe that’s how I was able – even when I suffered badly – to finish the race and to go home with my Comrades medal every time a ran.

Some people regard it as something of a giggle when they enter and right up to the start and even into the race and perhaps even as far as the first 30km or so and until they start to hurt just that little bit when the first of the hills starts to “talk” to them and there is a tiny change of opinion. Comrades has put people into hospital and ICU with such things as renal failure and which sadly in some cases has even claimed the lives of runners who have gone into Comrades perhaps not as prepared as they should be because they think they know better.

In days gone by when we were asked where Comrades started the answer was always “at the 60km mark because anyone can run that. It’s the rest of it that’s the problem” and that’s always been and still is the case.  I was driving between Durban and Pietermaritzburg recently and when I got to Cato Ridge I had visions of my own Comrades days of getting there and remembering what it felt like to be there and that sometimes that feeling of despair knowing there was still over 25km to go and that I was tired but at the same time I was fit and had trained for this.

I heard recently about one entrant who had a longest run of a qualifying marathon in a time of around 4:14 which she considered made her a fast runner and as a result she intended starting Comrades fairly fast. She had no intention of studying the route or listening to anyone talking about the dangers of the first 25km of the Up Run or the first 20km of the Down Run because she felt she didn’t need to do this.  She also saw no need to run any other long runs in preparation for Comrades. She had done a 42Km run and done it quickly!   Somebody should have mentioned to her that a 4:14 marathon isn’t exactly quick and that it’s pretty average and slightly slower that 6 minutes per km!

Unless she is Supergirl in disguise, that particular lady was going to be in for a very long and painful day on Comrades day if she is able to make it past the 60km mark which seemed doubtful.  I had a problem feeling sorry for her. That sort of arrogance didn’t deserve any sort of sympathy.  The problem however is that she could have become a negative statistic that Comrades really doesn’t need. I have no idea whether she finished that year or not.

I have often heard people say “If Comrades was easy then everyone would do it” but not everyone does it because it’s not easy.  Speak to cyclists and many will tell you that they stick to cycling because it’s easier than running.  I am an avid Twitter follower and there was a Tweet I really enjoyed by someone I don’t know that appeared that read

“Running is stupidly hard.  It’s worth doing once in a while to remind oneself how good an idea the bicycle is”

He said it – not me!

I know one young lady who, a couple of years ago claimed to be very fit and I think she was, so she entered for, and completed, the Iron Man in Port Elizabeth.   I’m told that this event is very tough and you are quite something if you can complete it.

About six weeks later she took part in Comrades. She ended up in ICU in hospital for 4 days with renal failure.  No problem with Iron Man. Comrades put her into ICU.

Comrades is not a joke and it should never be treated as a joke.  I have seen some very sick people at the finish of Comrades.

The Comrades doctor told me that the majority of the people treated in the medical tent at the finish of the race suffer from exhaustion as a result of under training yet we see runners year after year treating this race as something of a joke.

 

The wakeup call on Comrades day I would imagine, is when you realise that after your qualifier distance, you are only at around half way, and you have the same distance to do again and then a little bit more all on the same day.  Sure you need to be mentally strong but if you are physically weak for distance running from not training properly, then your mental strength has nothing with which to work.

In 2016, the Comrades banner was “Comrades – It Will Humble You” and there are thousands of us who have been humbled by this race and who have prepared properly and it’s still happened.

I clearly remember the 1976 Comrades and I was probably fitter than I had ever been.  I had run my best ever in 1975 and I was aiming to do even better in 1976. It was a Down Run and I was on schedule at Cato Ridge at around the 30km mark but by the far end of Harrison Flats, just a few kilometres further I felt a niggle in the muscle at the top of my right knee that definitely shouldn’t have been there.

I wasn’t too worried about it, but by the time I got to Drummond I had decided to adjust my finish time by an hour that would still give me a comfortable 9 hours although the muscle was getting worse.

Alan Robb won his first Comrades that year and I ran the second half quite a bit slower than Alan had run the entire race because of that muscle at the top of my knee and that in the year I was aiming for my best ever Comrades.

I understand fully what the 2016 Comrades banner read “Comrades – It Will Humble You”.  It certainly humbled me in 1976.  I was over two hours slower than the time I knew I could run and the time I had set out to run all because of a muscle at the top of my knee.

The question I ask myself then is how am I supposed to feel about these people who have no respect for this thing which is something that for me is such a passion and for which I and so many others who have run that road many times have such respect?

If you’re reading this and you’re going to be running your first Comrades this year and fear is starting to build up as you read, please don’t let fear be there. I have said to many runners and particularly to many novice runners that they shouldn’t fear Comrades but they should certainly respect it.  That they should respect it whether it’s their first Comrades, their 10th Comrades or their 20th.

I have taken people to see Comrades as spectators.  People who have never seen the race before and the reaction has been amazing but usually along the lines of “how do they do it”?

It doesn’t matter how many times one has run it, one should always respect it because Comrades is bigger than any of us and it deserves our respect.

 

November 2018

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