As Comrades runners leave behind them the screaming crowds and the thick, acrid pall of braai smoke blanketing the village of Camperdown, you will encounter 3 unnamed hills. The first two hardly warrant a mention, as they are really just bumps rather than hills (Although, after running for almost 70 kilometres (43½ miles), many runners will walk up these two ‘bumps’).
The third hill, however, is vicious. It rises steeply for about 750 metres and, if it were found in any other race in the World, it would be called Coronary Thrombosis Heights, or Seared Lungs Mountain. Amazingly, it has no name. A third of the way up, a lone tree casts a thin shadow in the blazing afternoon sun. Runners lie prostrate in its shade; others trudge wearily up its steep gradient.
This hill breaks the spirit of so many runners, simply because they aren’t prepared for it. It suddenly leaps at you as a nasty shock. Every Comrades runner prepares for the famous Comrades climbs. For months they have been psyching themselves up to tackle the Big 5 – the legendary Cowie’s Hill, Fields Hill, Botha’s Hill, Inchanga, and Polly Shortts. They will also have been warned of the climb up the Berea and Little Pollies, the precursor to the most famous hill in Comrades. But it is the unnamed, unpleasant surprises that break spirits and humble the bravest runners.
I wonder how many Comrades runners fully appreciate the relentless intensity of the first half of the up run? How many actually realise that, for most Comrades runners, the hardest 42 km. marathon they will ever run will be the first 42 km of the up Comrades.
And so, the one, final act of Comrades Marathon preparation I thoroughly recommend – for every runner – is a drive over the 86.7 km (53.9 miles) of the route you will race on the day. Even those who have run several Comrades Marathons should undertake this important pilgrimage.
Yes, even experienced runners have not tackled the up run for two years. In that time, the brain forgets huge chunks of the race and the distance concertinas in the mind. How many experienced runners will round a bend in Comrades and quietly curse, “Oh no, not that bit!”?
Besides that, there is a different finish this year. After you summit Polly Shortts, the 2017 Comrades Marathon route has changed and you will head for the new Scottsville finish, which is all unknown territory. I’m not even running Comrades this year, and I intend to drive the entire route. Granted, I’ll be leading a Comrades Marathon route tour, but I’m commentating for television and I feel I do a better job if I know exactly where the runners are as I speak.
Even if you don’t join a formal Comrades route tours like mine, I suggest a simple drive along the route can have the desired effect. Normally, it’s tricky following the route, particularly as it winds its way out of the confines of the city of Durban. However, in the days before the race, the road between Durban and Pietermaritzburg is holding its breath for the morning of June 4th. So the route is helpfully and liberally marked with gold-and-black route posters. These assist the struggling Comrades map reader enormously. TV camera scaffolding and taped-off running club seconding areas will further add to the sense of reality.
The purpose of the drive is twofold. Firstly, it informs and prepares you for what lies ahead. More importantly, it will terrify you. And ‘terrified’ is the best state of mind in which to start the race. I remember leading a route tour full of excited foreign runners a few years ago. As our bus headed off along the route they were all abuzz with excitement. Occasionally one would ask me; “What’s the name of this hill, Bruce?” They would all chuckle when I replied, “This one isn’t steep or long enough to warrant a name, guys.”
From their reaction, I knew my audience did not agree these hills should remain anonymous. Gradually, as the journey unfolded and we travelled the length of the brutal course, the conversation died and each runner appeared to be lost in his or her most private thoughts. When the journey ended, a few runners had adjusted their finishing time and some looked ashen and weary.
I was not concerned for them. I knew they would line up two mornings later, scared and cautious. The Comrades starting line welcomes scared runners. Those are the runners who start cautiously and conserve as much early energy as possible. They make their way prudently up those famous hills. Scared Comrades runners understand that it is not a race for the bold and brave.
The Comrades Marathon rewards the timid, and it is the meek that inherit good runs and fast times. It is the meek who get close to running “even splits” at Comrades. The brave and the bold start well and look good for the first couple of hours, but they generally crash and burn somewhere on the lonely, bleak stretch known as Harrison Flats.
Perhaps I’m belabouring the point a little too much. However, since the training is now almost completed, I cannot think of any better advice for you at this stage than to insist you drive the route before race day. With or without me.
P.S. I’m offering a limited number of discounted route tour tickets for Friday 2 June to those who sign up before the end of May 2017. It’s your chance to get almost 50% off the price!
And, of course, there’s my ‘Bruce Fordyce After Party’. Monday 5 June, always fun. Full of war stories from the race. Hope to see you there!
Article appearing with thanks to the Citizen newspaper, South Africa.
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