Ultra Marathon, Anyone?

June 5, 2009

Some places in this world are famous for many things and other places for just a few, or perhaps only one, but every place is famous for something. One of the somethings that Pietermartizburg is famous for is the Comrades Marathon; what some call “The Worlds Greatest Race”. It is an ultramarathon run annually between Durban and Pietermaritzburg and is widely considered the most famous race in the ultramaraton genre. The race annually switches direction so that one year is the “up run” from Durban to PMB and the alternating year is the “down run” from PMB back to Durban. These are so named because the terrain from the ocean in Durban to the midlands in Pietermartizburg is definitely…predominantly…punishingly…up hill.

What is an ultramarathon? Think ridiculous endurance race of 26.2 miles (42.2 km) that legend has it started in ancient Greece with a messenger running between the towns of Marathon and Athens announcing that the Persians had been defeated in the Battle of Marathon. That is a standard Olympic distance marathon. Now double this distance, and then add a little extra just for good measure. Make it 89 km (55.3 miles) just for the sake of argument, and you have the Comrades Marathon. Technically an ultramarathon is any distance longer than a standard marathon, but the Comrades is known as the mother of ultramarathons. It has been staged every year since 1921.

You might ask, who would sign up to run in a 55 mile race on extremely hilly terrain in Africa? I certainly don’t know most of the names, but actually 13,000 hardy souls were part of the race this year.  Here is one of them:comrades

That’s me at 5 am in downtown Pietermartizburg shortly before the starting gun at 5:30 am. Actually it is a starting cock crowing which is actually a starting man pretending that he is a cock crowing. Sounds strange and it is. Thirteen thousand people eagerly waiting to run 55 miles. At least it was mostly downhill this year although some say that the down run is more grueling than the up run. Amazingly, 12,999 of these runners qualified for the Comrades by first posting a qualifying time of less than 5 hours in a standard marathon in the prior year.

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Many would be surprised to know that I had made a qualifying marathon time as my usual running distance is somewhat less than 26 miles. It is actually closer to 4 miles, but I did mention that 12,999 qualified? There was at least one that did not, and I write that with full knowledge of the one who did not. Call me Ferris Bueller…the guy who seems to get into things that he has no business being in.

The story begins with a friend who will remain nameless who did indeed qualify for the Comrades. I sent him an SMS the night before the race wishing him well. He called me shortly thereafter and asked me if I wanted to run. I laughed and then hesitated. He was serious. Did I mention that I usually run up to 4 miles…on a really good day I will push 5. He said not to worry, the race actually goes right past our house and I could bail out there. He had injured himself several weeks earlier and would not be able to participate, but he did have the needed race number. He assured me that the start is the most exciting part. After the first 5K of excitement, the remaining 84 km is basically hell, and I would be in on the best part.

And he was right. The atmosphere was incredible. Music blaring, people chatting, pacing nervously awaiting who knows what. I say that because the first 5K’s were very pleasant. Actually the first 5K was a very leisurly pace. I usually run 5K in about 22 min, this one took over 40 minutes. It actually took 6 minutes just to cross the start line there were so many entrants. My stopping point was just before the legendary Polly Shortts hill–a brutal series of two climbs that occur 8 km from the end of the up run. The first “hill” is nearly a half a mile long, the second is 1.25 miles long and steep. I asked a runner who has done the up run to tell me about Pollys; her adjective–“impossible”. Only a few runners can actually ascend the climb without walking. Getting ready to bail here:first 6k comrades

Here are some amazing statistics from the race:

The 2009 winning mens time: 5:23:26 by Stephen Muzhingi (2nd fastest down time)
The 2009 winning womens time: 6:12:11 by Olesya Nurgalieva (she and her twin sister have won several)

Silver medals are given for finishing in less than 7.5 hrs, and a bronze in less than 9 hrs. After a greuling 9 hrs., only 10% of the runners have finished! In order to be considered as someone who “completed” the race, you need to finish in less than 12 hours. Cross the line at 12:01 and your name is not even recorded as having raced.

I have to confess that “being part” of the race piqued all of our curiosity. After picking me up, we all drove about 20 km down the road to Camperdown at 6:30 am to watch part of the race. We missed the leaders by about 30 sec., and saw the womens leaders pass several minutes later. You can see “the twins” behind the motorcycle in the middle of the pack. What you can’t see are the two helicopters overhead and the huge pack of men running with the twins to get their five minutes of fame as one of the men running with the twins on national television.

twins comrades

After the race was over, I had several people ask me if I was going to try to finish next year. Didn’t the excitement and the challenge make me wish that I was part of the actual finish? To be honest, in a word, NO. I can appreciate the sacrifice and the dedication of every other runner there. It really is incredible. And the judge who fires the gun after each significant milestone including the heart-rending 12 hour mark is very powerful. But at no point did I wish that I was one of the people running for 11 to 12 hours. I’ll stick with sprint triathlons. But if someone has an extra jersey next year, I could be tempted to turn the Comrades into my own personal 25 km race.

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One Response to “Ultra Marathon, Anyone?”

  1. robyn Says:

    Good for you, Brian! It sounds like an amazing experience – to have 12,999 other people running with you! I have to say, I would have really enjoyed hearing that man pretend to be a rooster!


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