2021 A VERY IMPORTANT COMRADES YEAR

As we move ever closer to getting rid of the year many of us will remember as the year that never was, when the world was effectively turned upside down and so many things we held near and dear to us, had to disappear forever and we had to change, and we all had to learn to make adjustments to the way we live and in many cases with difficulty, we will breathe a collective sigh of relief hoping that 2020 has gone forever but I fear we haven’t seen the last of it.

Some things are slowly returning to the way they were before we heard about Covid but some never will. Some still need to be changed and a lot of thought still has to go into the way many things have to change.

One of the things that nobody has yet come up with an answer to it seems, is the question of the big city marathons around the world where thousands of people run shoulder to shoulder for most of the way and the concept of “social distancing” is virtually impossible. We saw a recent example of what happened to the London Marathon where, usually around 40,000 people or more took to the streets of London and “owned” the city for a day in April every year.  The race was moved to November and to an elite only runners’ race in a multi lap (some 19 laps) in a park in London.  It was a good race if one happened to be watching it on TV but it simply wasn’t the London Marathon.  

Let’s look closer to home however and at Comrades. When entries opened for the 2020 Comrades they were capped at 27500. We don’t yet know what the organisers have in mind for the numbers for the 2021 race or even if there will be a race in 2021. The media launch hasn’t yet happened and entries are expected to open early in the new year and both those happenings have been delayed because of uncertainty.

Every day we hear horror stories of the rise in Covid infections from around the world and who knows what is going to happen in South Africa by June 2021, the provisional date set for Comrades 2021. Remember that this time last year, none of us had even heard of Covid and now, less than a year later, it controls our lives.

Comrades 2021 is a very important one because it is exactly 100 years since those 34 tough runners lined up outside the Pietermaritzburg City Hall to run the first Comrades mainly on dirt roads to Durban and just under 9 hours later Bill Rowan put his name into the record books as the first person to win the race in what remains the slowest time in the history of the race.

The interesting thing is the number of runners to strive to win for themselves a “Bill Rowan Medal” for finishing the modern Comrades in under 9 hours and many of those achieving this have no idea why the medal is so named – and sadly most of them don’t care!

Since then, Comrades has written itself a glorious history and culture, much of which is celebrated in various ways still and runners through the years use much of the events of bygone years to measure their own performances and even as recently as 2018, we saw the introduction of the Robert Mtshali medal named after the first black runner of Comrades and now awarded to all runners who finish between 9 & 10 hours. Robert Mtshali ran his Comrades in 9 & a half hours in 1935 so long before Comrades was opened to all races (that happened in 1975), a medal honouring the achievement of a man in 1935 is now awarded so it took 40 years after Mtshali ran his Comrades for the race to be opened to all races and to women.

Comrades organisers have now put up a plaque at Comrades House in Pietermaritzburg to honour Robert Mtshali.

Ask many of the runners who won a Robert Mtshali Medal since it was introduced how it came about and when Mtshali ran and they won’t have a clue.  That is so sad!

These are just two of many little bits of history that go to make Comrades what it is and hardly a year goes by that something doesn’t happen to add to the magic that makes this event so very special and now with the cancellation of the 2020 race because of the global Covid pandemic it joins the 5 races of World War two as the only times the race has had to be cancelled since it’s inception and some months ago I asked Race Director, Rowyn James whether the centenary of the race would be celebrated even if the race itself can’t be held and he assured me that it would.  

Many of us will be very disappointed if there is no actual race between Pietermaritzburg and Durban on the second Sunday of June in 2021 but there can still be reason to celebrate the centenary and it can still be done with all the glitz and glamour we would expect.  One should just look at the Comrades Race the Legends that Comrades put together in June 2020 that took place instead of the actual Comrades and what an amazing success that was to realise just what can be done if necessary.

A huge part of the centenary celebration, I would think, will take in the history of the race and if runners really want to feel part of it they would need to learn as much as they can about this incredible event. There are, sadly, many who regard Comrades as “just another race on the calendar”.

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THE START OF THE 1925 COMRADES

Let me assure you that Comrades is not just another Road Race. It’s more than that. Way more and if we end up without an actual race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, my guess is that the Comrades organisers will still give us plenty to celebrate for the centenary of this amazing event but to get the full benefit please learn as much as you can about it.  It will give you so much more if you do.

MAY I HELP YOU AT COMRADES? :

I suppose with the title of this blog I’ll have coaches up and down the country in a terrible state wondering what exactly I’m trying to do by getting into their territory but they needn’t worry at all because I’ve said before, I am not a coach so I won’t say anything about coaching other than just one thing and it’s this. When you decide on a coach, and it doesn’t matter who it is, please stick with the training program offered by that coach and don’t whatever you do jump around from coach to coach because that is a recipe for disaster and probable failure come the big day.

What I’m wanting to do in this blog is to give a few little tips that helped me on the day and leading up to the day when I was running and had nothing at all to do with the way I trained and if you think they may have some merit, please feel free to try them but please do so well before Comrades – as in two months before Comrades – and if they work for you keep doing them until they become part of your normal routine.

Some of them you can only do a day or so before Comrades as in my first suggestion so let’s see what we have.

My thanks to Comrades Marathon for the use of the photographs taken from the Comrades website and as always for their help with my blogs.

EXPO

Before we even get to the start line, we have to go to Expo. This is basically a no option exercise if we are registered to collect our numbers in Durban. It’s exciting with an amazing atmosphere and you can feel and smell Comrades. There are things to see. People to meet. Celebs to bump into and a massive number of products that the manufacturers will tell you will help you get to the finish easier.

expo

Don’t be tempted. Your main purpose for going to Expo is to get your registration done and to have a quick walk around (try to make it a maximum of an hour) and a quick look and to get out of there and to get off your feet and to go and rest.

TRYING NEW THINGS

You don’t want to try anything you have never tried before. The last new thing you tried should have been at least six weeks before Comrades.

Other runners will tell you about “magic potions” they have discovered a week or so before the race that are “guaranteed to get you to the finish at least an hour faster than you planned. THEY WON’T – SO DON’T TRY THEM.

You don’t want to try any new magic “muti” that is on offer at Expo. By all means take them and use them in your training for NEXT year but not for this year. Don’t buy new shoes at Expo and wear them the next day at Comrades. People do this believe it or not. You should know by mid-April which shoes (and any other clothes) you’ll be wearing on the big day.

THE BIG DAY ARRIVES

Finally the big day arrives, you get to the start and you are convinced that you are the only person there who hasn’t done enough training. Every other runner is so incredibly confident. Jumping around shouting to their mates, singing, dancing and generally having a great time.

Eventually the cock crow and the gun and you slowly start to move forward and you look at your watch and by the time you cross the start line it’s already 7 minutes since the gun fired. Got to make that up – and fast. Everybody around you is taking off like a bullet to do the same.

DON’T DO IT. You’ll make up that 7 minutes easily and long before you get to half way and those who tear off will be broken before they reach halfway.

DOWN RUN START

They forget that the first 25km is tough. It’s very, very tough. You climb out of Durban in a steady climb all the way to Kloof which is at the top of Field’s Hill just the other side of Pinetown and many of those who tried to make up those 7 minutes will be broken by the time they get there.

Not you though. You left the start at the nice gentle pace without any panic because you knew exactly what you have to do because you’re only running 20km anyway and you’ve done that plenty of times before.

BREAK UP THE ROUTE

It’s crucial that you study the route and get to know it really well and then break it up into chunks of no more than say, the first 20km from the start and then after that 10km chunks to the top of Polly’s and then the last bit of only 7Km.

Then learn where those landmarks are so that on race day you know that the first 20km is not an issue because you’ve done that dozens of times. When you get there, then chuck that away. It’s done. It’s gone. The next 10km is all you have to worry about. Nothing beyond that. You can run that. You have done it plenty of times. You can do it so why not today?

Forget about trying to work them out from your watch. By 2pm that’ll do your head in but landmarks won’t. Oh, here’s Umlaas Road. I recognize that. It’s the highest point between Durban and ‘Maritzburg and it’s only 2 o’clock – cool!

Don’t even worry about anything beyond that. When you get there, throw that away and then the next 10km and so you go and you don’t run anything further than that first 20km during the entire day and how many times have you run 20km in training?

REMEMBER I TOLD YOU COMRADES IS 90% IN THE HEAD. THIS IS A MAJOR PART OF IT – AND IT REALLY DOES WORK BUT YOU MUST STUDY THE ROUTE AND YOU MUST TRAIN YOUR HEAD.

WALKING

Virtually everyone in Comrades walks during the course of the day but the secret is not whether you walk or when you walk but HOW you walk. Make no mistake, Comrades is a hard day’s work (with apologies to the Beatles) and you will be very tired and you will be very sore and if you are frightened of being either sore or tired then it’s perhaps best if you don’t bother.

That said if you accept that you are going to be tired and sore then you may as well go the “whole hog” and work really hard. In other words when you walk, don’t aimlessly saunter along the road. That wastes very valuable time. Walk with purpose and determination and hurt properly.

Of course it’ll hurt to do that – but it’ll also save you the better part of 30 minutes or even more. Walk like that on hills, through refreshment stations and in fact anywhere you have to walk.

There comes a point where you can’t hurt any worse!

This is part of the mental part of Comrades and remember that 90% of Comrades is mental work. This is the mental work they talk about!

WALKING AND DRINKING

I have often been criticized for telling people to take their drinks at a refreshment station and keep walking and don’t waste time by stopping to drink. I am told that the drink – especially if it is in a paper cup will splash up your nose if you try and drink whilst running.

refreshments

Not if you drink it through a straw it won’t. I used to carry a 15cm plastic tube held under my watch strap at one end and by an elastic band at the other end. Get to a refreshment station, pick up the drinking cup, squeeze the top almost shut, insert your drinking tube and drink while running! NO splash back up your nose and probably about a minute saved. Only a minute! Yes but a minute at 20 refreshment stations is 20 minutes at the end!

CHAFING

I have spent the last several Comrades as a spectator at the side of the road at Botha’s Hill which is more or less the 39km mark on the Up Run and more or less the 50km mark on the Down Run and I am amazed by how many runners are in need of something to stop chafing when they get to us whether it’s Up or Down and it really is so easy to stop and you don’t want to be trying to stop the chafing once it’s already started.

Firstly let me say that in this case I am speaking to the men as I have no experience at all in stopping chafing for women runners.

Men generally chafe in three places. The back of the armpits, the nipples and the crotch.

Ordinary Vaseline applied generously to the armpits and crotch before the start takes care of those two areas and what I found worked very well for the nipples was waterproof plaster cut into a small piece the size of the nipple and applied to the nipple. Be careful not to get it onto the skin around the nipple as the sweat will cause the plaster to come off.

That takes care of the chafing even in the rain.

A lot of runners these days are wearing cycling type pants under their running shorts to stop chafing but I am not able to comment on whether that works or not as I have never used them.

Strangely though, as soon as I started wearing a T shirt under my vest the chafing at the back of my armpits stopped.

HILLS

There are hills in Comrades. In fact there are quite a lot of them. Some of them have names and some of them don’t but whether they have names or whether they don’t on the 4th of June you are going to have to have to get up all those hills and you are going to possibly do a fair amount of walking as you go up those hills. Remember what I said about managing your walking as you climb those hills and it will make life very much easier but many years ago as I was getting ready for my first Comrades, I was approaching a hill and a seasoned runner said to me “Take care of the bottom of a hill and the top will take care of itself”

polly-shortts

I have never forgotten those words and it is the way I climbed every hill in every Comrades and every other run and race I ever ran after that. It’s a simple statement.

Think about it. It really does work and it works well.

“Take care of the bottom of a hill and the top will take care of itself” BUT then manage your walking if you’re going to be walking on that hill.

PHYSIO STATIONS

It’s not an uncommon sight in Comrades to see a runner lying down at one of the physio stations or alongside a family member getting his or her legs rubbed in an effort to ease the pain to make the rest of the trip easier.

In most instances those leg rubs will do nothing other than waste valuable time. Possibly as much as 15 to 20 minutes and imagine if you stop three or four times during Comrades for one of these rubs that won’t help you. That’s an hour that you have wasted. Gone.

There are some genuine cases where muscles are in spasm and a physio is needed to ease those but in the vast majority of cases the rub is nothing more than muscles that are sore from the work you are asking them to do by running a fairly long distance so before you stop for a rub make sure that the stop is one that can genuinely be helped by a physio or whether it will be the waste of 15 or 20 very valuable minutes.

KEEPING WARM AND KEEPING COOL

I’m going to share with you a little trick I learnt from my running days that might work for you but it might not. A word of warning though. Whatever you do, don’t try this for the first time on Comrades day. Try it long beforehand. If it works for you that’s great. If it doesn’t work then throw it away as a waste of time.

It certainly worked for me.

I found that the early mornings were uncomfortably cool, cold even, so as a result I always started off wearing a plain T shirt (unbranded – this is important or you are breaking the rules) UNDER my club vest. I did all my long training runs in a T shirt so this was comfortable for me and at the same time it kept me warmer in the cool early morning. Then on top of that my club vest helped a bit to warm me as well.

The T shirt I wore at Comrades I started wearing in April so that by the time we got to Comrades I was perfectly comfortable in it. I didn’t buy it a few days before race day and wear it.

As it started to get warmer my T shirt started to get wetter and now it started to play another role. It started to hold water and started to cool me down. Again this didn’t bother me because I was used to wearing it on my long training runs and I was used to running in a fairly wet T shirt. The advantage during Comrades was that I kept my T shirt wet and the hotter the Comrades, the wetter I would deliberately keep my T shirt and as a result the less I felt the heat. The only slightly uncomfortable time was around 3pm when it started to cool down and my T shirt was still wet but that didn’t last too long. The advantages far outweighed that slightly uncomfortable half hour.

 

MY HAT- MY SPONGE
Usually in your “goodie bag” at Expo you are given some sort of headgear. Either a peak or a cap of some sort which bears the Comrades logo and possibly a sponsor logo. If these are not what you are used to wearing, don’t wear them. Get yourself an unbranded (it must be unbranded or you are breaking the rules) hat NOW that is comfortable and get used to it and wear that.

In my very early Comrades, I hadn’t yet learnt the value of keeping my head cool but in later years after some experimenting I found that the thing that worked best for me was the fisherman’s type “bucket hat” which could easily double up as a sponge if need be. Again I kept my hat wet and my head cool.

I also used this in even later years to carry an actual sponge. A piece of Velcro sewn onto the side of the hat and another piece of material to wrap around my sponge with a piece of Velcro that held that and also held it onto my hat so I didn’t have to bother with carrying it. I attach a photo of what I am talking about and I hope it’s clear enough to see what I am talking about.

comrades-1985

 

I hope these few tips that I have picked up over my years at Comrades may be of some use to some of you and even if one or two of you benefit I will be pleased. As I said though, if any of them, such as the T shirt under your vest is something you might try, please do it now and not on Comrades day for the first time.

Some of them may sound really silly but as I have said many times before, Comrades is not about how fast you can run on the day. It’s about how much time you don’t waste on the road on the day.

 

March 2017