The Ultimate Human Race : The Comrades Marathon

What is Comrades Marathon?

Comrades Marathon is an endurance ultra marathon event of approximately 89 km which is run annually in the KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg. It is the world’s greatest, largest and the oldest ultra marathon race. The direction of the race alternates each year between the “up” run (87 km) starting from Durban and the “down” run (89 km) starting from Pietermaritzburg. The race has 6 cut-offs in between and has to be completed within the time limit of 12 hours and that’s why it is known as “The Ultimate Human Race.”

The Comrades was run for the first time on May 1921, and with the exception of a break during World War II, has been run every year since. The race was the idea of Word War I veteran Vic Clapham to commemorate the South African soldiers killed during the World War I. Vic Clapham, who had endured a 2,700 kilometer route march through sweltering German East Africa, wanted the memorial to be a unique test of the physical endurance of the entrants.

This year it was the “up” run starting from Durban with “The Big Five” set of hills in between and with a total ascent of ~1800 meters (maximum elevation of ~1000 meters). The 6 individual cut-offs were at 18km, 29km, 42km, 56km, 66km and 79km. Fortunately the weather was good at ˜25C and it was kind of one of the longest street party.  People from all walks of life were on road to cheer the runners which was very overwhelming. It was indeed nice to see school kids in uniform cheering the runners and the guys who were playing the bagpipes.

Out of 20,000 registered participants this year, 124 were Indians. Around 18000 athletes started the foot race and 13852 finished within the 12-hour cut-off of which 85 were Indians. The race started at 5:30 local time and although it took me 11 hours 25 minutes and 12 seconds to cross the finish line; a lot of work had to be done before achieving this goal.

 

Why did I run the Comrades?

I started running back in 2014 and after 5 full marathons and 11 half marathons (official), every weekend I was running 21km+ clocking around 180kms every month and wanted to do something more challenging.

I still remember the day back in November 2016 when I got a call from my running buddy Jayanta Borkakoti about doing something a little more than the usual 42.2kms; “Arup! let’s run the Comrades!” Did some research about the event and the history and was really fascinated. The sheer distance of 87km was itself very challenging. It took be almost 5 days to just mentally prepare myself for registering for an 87km ‘UP’ run (once again just the registration; not even thinking about trainings and the actual run). The minimum eligibility criteria was a sub 5 hours full marathon finish time which I already had. And yes! after a week I did the registration and I was owning it. The fact that if we finish the race then we would be the first ones from North-East India was also very exciting.

It was not until the disappointing performance in Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM) January 2017 that myself and Jayanta decided to engage in some serious training and the necessary preparation (I was very much confident that I would finish the SCMM in sub 4 hours but something went wrong that day and finished the race in 4 hours and 6 minutes. And the very same day itself I decided that I need to prove myself that I am capable of doing something much bigger than SCMM). We decided to go with a coach and YES! the best decision that we made was to go with Coach Atul Godbole (and with the new Asics Noosa Tri 11 shoes 🙂 )!

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With Jayanta Borkakoti

 

Training

Preparing for Comrades does take some effort and time. After all, “Rome was not built in a day!” As I mentioned, the best decision that we made was to go with coach Atul Godbole and the Motiv8 team. After few weeks of recovery from Mumbai Marathon we started the training from February 2nd week. We were 9 runners under Motiv8 coaching who were being trained for the Comrades and indeed it was tough but fun. It was a very structured training with 4 runs/week which included hill repeats, tempo run and long runs on Saturday, Sunday.

We had one long run each month from February to May of 45/55/65/50 kms respectively and were running around 250 kms every month. We knew that 2017 was going to be the “up” run so we were training hill repeats in Chandani Chowk and Sinhagad (Pune) and all our long runs used to finish at Lavasa. The preparation of long run itself was more challenging than the actual run. Used to start the long runs mid-night at around 12:15 -1 AM which used to take us 5 – 8:30 hours. We used to run 18 – 24 kms inside the city and then head to Lavasa. The toughest part was the last 5-6 kms in Lavasa with elevation of around 350 meters. It was indeed very tough and was more of walking up the hill than running in that monstrous uphill.

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First Sinhagad Hill Run
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Last Sinhagad Hill Run
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Lavasa Long Run
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Motiv8 Coaching Comrades Team

 

One of the biggest challenge with long run is with supplements! I used to have 1 energy gel every 45 minutes and salt tables every 40 minutes. Apart from gels and salt we needed carbohydrate so that we don’t feel hungry. Our colleagues in Motive8 group were amazing and supported us in all our long runs. Almost the same time as we used to start the run they would follow us with all the needed supplies of water, energy drinks, coke, lime, baked potato and everything that you asked for; and once the run gets over, bring us back to the start point. It was kind of a picnic but the distance had to be covered by running 🙂   I must admit that it was absolutely not possible without the support of our fellow dedicated Motiv8 runners who volunteered to wake up mid-night and support us. It’s rightly said that the race day is the actual execution of all your trainings. With long runs of 45/55/65/50 kms it was never a question of whether or not finishing the race; it was just the matter of “how strong we finish the race.”

 

Overcome the weakness

Everyone has to prepare not only physically to build the stamina to run such a long distance but also mentally to run for nearly 12 hours. Well, I also had some doubts and it was more of physical as I always feared about getting cramps (I had cramps in Singapore and Hyderabad full marathons) and the maximum distance that I ran earlier was just 42kms.  With salt tablets at regular intervals and proper supplement I didn’t had any cramps during the training runs.

I can’t forget the long run of 55kms. Hardly slept for 40 minutes and had to go for the run with team. There was no option of missing the run as it was almost impossible to do a self-supported 55km run. For the first 14 kms I was very conservative and at one point I felt that I would pass out and not even complete 30kms. Almost till 35 – 40 km I was running slow & conservative and in fact had dropped my training pace whereas my colleagues were running very strong. Then all of a sudden the weather became too humid and everyone started to slow down. But something was stored for me that day! In fact, I was feeling much stronger as I was very conservative at the early part and it was kind of my day!  I had a strong finish and it was kind of one of my happiest day (there were some personal reasons also 🙂 ). Indeed, clear sky never make good pilots!

With the training run of 55 and 65kms I was quite confident of the actual run. So physically and mentally I had prepared myself.  But with such a respectable distance of 87kms one never knows what will happen on the actual race day.

 

The BuZZ

It was only after we completed our 65km long run that we applied for VISA in May. The South African VISA process does take some time (almost 20 days) and the biggest worry during the 3rd week of May was about getting the VISA on time (as the run was on 4th  June) than the training runs. Finally received the VISA just 10 days in advance and then there was no reason of not finishing the race on time 🙂

 

The Journey:    Along with Jayanta we met couple of friends from Pune & Mumbai and it was indeed very exciting journey. The flight from Seychelles to Durban was kind of chartered flight; with less than 30% occupancy and almost all who were there were for the Comrades Marathon.

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Jayanta Borkakoti & Siddesh Gandhi in Mumbai
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Siddhesh & Kavin Kondabathini in Abu Dhabi
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Kavin, Siddhesh, Jayanta in Seychelles

Our Motiv8 team had booked a guest house against the backdrop of Indian Ocean and we arrived 3 nights in advance to get acquainted to the climate. It was fun for the next 2 days in Durban with just rest and more rest.

The EXPO!  Expo is always interesting. The excitement of collecting the BIB and T-shirt, shopping, collecting souvenirs and some photography is amazing. There was a separate section for international runners and it didn’t take even 30 minutes to get the running kit.  The most exciting part was the T-shirt with the Comrades logo and the 87 km badge.

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Pune Comrades at the Expo

 

Pen-Ultimate Day: Strategy

Thinking about running 87kms, running for nearly 12 hours, trainings, sleeping in the evening, waking up at mid-night, running even on sore legs and the support and motivation by fellow runners and loved ones; it was kind of time-lapse video 🙂  and very overwhelming. And I told myself; I won’t settle anything less than a finisher medal (failure was not an option at all).

A day before the D day it was all rest and fun in the guest house. Everyone was making sure of hydrating enough and have some fun 🙂  Over coffee discussed the strategy and to stick with the running partner at least till 80kms. The strategy or I must say the plan to conquer the mammoth target of 87kms was run and walk. No one can just run the entire 87kms. Our plan (as we did earlier in trainings) was to run 1.9kms and walk 100metres throughout the race according to our pace. Even in downhills we had to stick to our pace and don’t push. For the uphill’s it was 80/20 i.e. 80 steps run and 20 steps walk. Once again 80/20 was a not written rule and we had to change according to the elevation and the effort required. We had to make sure that we don’t go out of breath and shoot up heart rate; just one foot in front of the other at the planned pace.

As we were a team of 9 runners, we had 2/2/2/3 runners in each group which was according to the training pace and the target finish time. I was very fortunate to have Sameer Wagle as my running partner as it was his 2nd Comrades marathon and with all his experience I was very sure that he will take me to the finish line 🙂

And as the Sun was going down we started preparing the running kit with gels, salt tables, salty biscuits and finally pinned the BIB into my running singlet. So we were ready for the race!

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Krishna, Sameer, Jayanta & Nikhil a day before the race

 

Race Day

A day before, we made sure to sleep early and I believe we had almost around 5 hours of sleep which is a descent one. Sameer Wagle or I must say our team lead had also made sure about our morning breakfast before the race so that we don’t starve ourselves even before the start of the race. Had some coffee, sandwiches and banana to take care of our morning carbohydrate loading. Around 3:45AM we left the guest house and it took less than 30 minutes to reach the start point. Then a final “God Luck!” to our all fellow Motiv8 team Comrades and then we headed towards our respective corals (line-up). Even though my partner Sameer Wagle had line-up of “D”, he moved back and joined me in “F” line-up so that we run together.

 

The Start

An hour before the start I was at the start line. And very soon I realized that the race was much more bigger than what I had imagined. Runners from across the globe and all walks of life were lined up; some running their first, second, for some it was an unfinished business and some running their 43rd Comrades Marathon (the good part about Comrades Marathon is that they mention the number of times one has finished the race in the BIB itself). As soon I saw a gentleman with BIB mentioning 42; the very next thought was “I am not even 34 years and the runner has successfully completed the Comrades Marathon 42 times!” One gets humbled by the history of the race and the global unity that one sees. There were so many runners but everyone had to conquer the distance alone.

Very soon the corals were packed with runners and everyone was waiting for 5:30AM (the start time). Comrades Marathon is a gun-to-gun time which means as soon as the gun is fired the time is counted from that point and not when one crosses the start line from their respective line-up. Couple of minutes before the start, the South African national anthem was played and that’s when we felt the energy. And then the “Chariots of Fire” was played and I could feel little tears in my eyes as it was the moment when I was about to start an unknown journey; a day which was going to be a little longer; a journey which I could never think even couple of months back; a chance to see what all I was made of, a day when limits was to be reached! A small prayer to have the force with me and finally, the gun goes off in the early morning wind at 5:30 AM on Sunday the 4th of June!

 

The Longest Journey!

It took me 4 minutes and 40 seconds to reach the start line from my coral F and it was kind of one of the largest organised chaos. The only priority was to make sure that I stay with my fellow comrade Sameer. We started a little faster than our actual pace to move out from the running crowd but was not the case. We could see only runners for kilometres. It was the first time that I had been to a race where everyone was running the same distance. It was still dark and had to very cautious to not stumble upon someone and safety road studs. 10 minutes into the race and I could see the magnificent view of 1000s and 1000s of runners and soon realised that why Comrades Marathon was known as the largest & the greatest marathon.

Every KM we were making sure that we don’t end up running fast; so had set the watch face with current and average pace along with elapsed time and distance. It was a constant discussion and feedback with my comrade Sameer to slow down, run, walk and a little push. With 1000s of runners one has to be careful and make sure that water or any other drink don’t get into the shoes as runners generally cool down their body with water and put it generously all over their body and at times spill over to you also.

After almost 10kms we were almost out of Durban and it was dawn and could you see the beautiful country side landscape. We were very much on the target and was kind of textbook run as we were running at the planned pace. And then we were greeted with up-hills! There was no second thought! Followed the run walk approach and many times just walked as we always wanted to be conservative in the first half (and that’s what everyone advised us even before the race). We crossed the first cut-off Pinetown 18.2km in 2 hours and 17 minutes (which was few minutes more than the target time but who cares in such a long run 🙂 ), second cut-off Winston park in 29.7km in 3 hours and 41 minutes and third cut-off point Drummond 42.7km in 5 hours and 24 minutes.

Before Drummond we were getting curious about Arthur’s seat. It’s a niche cut at the site of the wall of honour and is reputed to have been a favourite resting spot of the legendary Arthur Newton, 5 times winner of the Comrades Marathon in the 1920’s. Legend has it that runners who pay tribute to Arthur as they pass by placing flowers in the niche and doffing their cap with the greeting “good morning Sir”, will enjoy a strong second half of the race. Fortunately, a fellow comrade gave me a flower and I paid tribute to the legend!

We reached the half way mark Hollywoodbets and the atmosphere was fantastic! It was kind of a carnival with so many supporters and that’s when I told my comrade Sameer that half done and another marathon distance to cover. Sameer reminded that we shouldn’t be thinking about next 44kms but rather focus on the plan of running 1.9kms and 100metres walk.

It’s hard to recollect what all was going through my mind during the entire race but the only thing I remember was to just see what’s ahead and run & walk. We crossed the 4th cut-off of Cato Ridge 56.7km in 7 hours and 18 minutes. Just after that Sameer told me that he is feeling little low and I would now need to pace for next 10kms. I said yes, and as soon as we tried to stick to the plan, another uphill! There was no option other than to walk again. We continued to run walk but slowed down further. Now we it was kind of running just 2kms and grab coke and water and then continue for another 2kms till the finish line.

We crossed the 5th cut-off of Umlaut Road 66kms in 8 hours and 48 minutes. And as we crossed the 5th cut-off Sameer told me that we were going to miss the target of 10 hours and 50 minutes. We had 2 hours for the last 20kms which on a normal day would have been an easy run but not on a day after running 66kms and some of the monstrous uphill yet to come! Again we started to slow down and that’s when our fellow Comrade from Pune Ashish Kasodekar crossed us. It was kind of an instinct decision to push ourselves and stick with Ashish. A little chit-chat with Ashish and when he asked me as to how I was feeling; I said “Tough! much tougher than trainings or expected.” The very next thing Ashish said was “If it was easy then everyone would have done it!” WOW! something very positive & energetic! I regained focus which I had started to loose and now was even more determined to finish the race strongly. That moment not only helped to push hard and stay positive but also helped me to save couple of minutes.

And now the monstrous Polly Shorts! Even the little Polly was tough. We switched to fast walk mode and kept the pace below 10 minutes. Sameer was going very strong in walk and that’s when I lost him and could see that he was getting stronger. I didn’t see anyone running up the Polly Shorts. I believe it was a straight uphill of around 3kms. Just walked and hoped that it gets over.

Everything has a start and an end! And so was the Polly Shorts. Finally crossed the last cut-off of 79kms Polly Shorts in 10 hours and 31 minutes. And now it was another 8kms and the sight of downhill was amazing. It was getting little cold and vibe was fantastic. Lots of people were offering beer and had to control myself till the finish line and the thought was “let me just finish the race and I will drink like a fish!” And then again an uphill! As I had already missed the target I started to take it slowly and made sure to reserve some energy for the last km to sprint.

The moment I saw the stadium where the race was to be finished I started to sprint and ran the last km in 4 minutes and 53 seconds! Even in a full marathon I hadn’t run so fast the last km. The last km was one of the most enjoyable and memorable run in my life and will continue to be the special one. That feeling can’t be simulated in trainings and then to see the finish point so near; I won’t ever forget that. And finally, I crossed the finish line in 11 hours and 25 minutes!

Just finishing Comrades was like winning the race! A journey of a toughest endurance day which started not just 11 hours and 25 minutes back but almost 4 months back was finally over. From being an overweight to finishing an ultra-marathon distance of 87kms was absolutely amazing!

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Celebration!

It was indeed an electrifying atmosphere in the finish line. Doesn’t matter whether one finishes in 10 hours or 12 hours or 6 hours; everyone still ran the same distance of 87kms. It was a moment of accomplishing something much bigger than myself. Till now the Comrades marathon party continues 🙂  ….

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Pune Comrades
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The hard earned medal
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Team Motiv8 Coaching Comrades

 

Assumptions and Reality

Once again I must admit that the race was much tougher than we expected and imagined. In all our training long runs of 45/55/65/50 kms we used to run the first 18-25kms inside the city which is a flat track (no rolling). I believe we need to improve on this but once again no-one had the experience of running the “UP” run so it’s okay. For hills we used to train with 80-20 approach which is 80 steps run and 20 steps walk and which we used to re-adjust according to the elevation. This helped us a lot! This kept our legs fresh and the heart rate low. We also got to learn to walk fast (may be 9:30 minutes/km) as no one can just run the entire 87Kms and at some point in time have to walk.

 

Lessons Learned

Comrades is definitely not just about pace. One can have a great timing in a full marathon but running Comrades requires a strong strategy, patience and definitely some serious training. One has to be very realistic about the target pace/time. And above all one has to be self-motivated. Running 4 days a week with close to 80-90kms, one gets burned out & exhausted and that’s when an extra push/effort is required. There is a price to pay for feeling joy at the end and that price is pain and exhaustion.

 

What’s Next

The next milestone is to go back again to South Africa for a back-to-back Comrades marathon and next year it’s going to be down run (just a name 🙂 ) and I am not good at downhills which is again a challenge.

 

Comrades marathon is a journey – a journey of 4 months of training and the actual race of 87/89km journey! When I saw 18000+ people running down the road it was very overwhelming. One goes through so many emotions during the race is simply very humbling and there is always someone to assist & push you when you are feeling low. I still get goose bumps just talking/thinking about the race. Just thinking of doing something for that long duration of 11 – 12 hours itself is quite challenging.

Comrades has changed my perspective about life. Running is not just about distance and pace; it’s about a journey of life where “the challenge ahead of you is never greater than the strength in you.”

 

Once again congratulations to everyone who took up the Comrades challenge and in particular to the Motiv8 Comrades coach and Team Atul Godbole, Jayanta Borkakoti, Krishna Sirothia, Dr. Neelam Vaid, Nikhil Kamat, Shashibhushan Kolhe, Sameer Wagle, Samir Chitre and Vishwas Suryawanshi.
Thank You to all my friends & loved ones who supported me during this entire journey! Lastly, I can’t conclude without thanking the team who made my Comrades journey come true. It was simply not possible without the dedicated support and motivation from the entire Motiv8 Team.
Rahul Udhoji, you are the man who made this possible. Thank You for all your relentless support and motivation!
Sumitra Joshi, Gowri Gopalan, Manoj Thakur, Kavitha Reddy,Vipin Gupta once again Thank You for your support and motivation.

Special thanks to my Amdocs teammates Vijay Warudkar, Atul Kumar Kasar, Anil Rathod & Ravindra Suryawanshi for all your support and at times taking a step ahead in the project during this journey.
Thank You Siddharth Shetty for all your inputs which helped me to come up to this stage of the blog 🙂

Finally, Anil Kumar Singh, the person who always made sure that I stay positive with all his motivation and many times taking care of PR 🙂

 

Author: arupsinm

Engineer | Runner - began 🏃 from Jan 2014 8 x FM, 19 x HM Nike+ ID: arupsinn HM - 1:41:00 FM - 3:46:06 Comrades 87KM - 11:25:12 90.2KM - 10:56:53

2 thoughts on “The Ultimate Human Race : The Comrades Marathon”

  1. wow…Amazing journey Arup. You are always an inspiration….we proudly tell that we personally know a Comrade finisher…
    And so very well written, felt like being part of journey…wishing you many more strong runs

    Liked by 1 person

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