Now is the time to run hills while training. You will be grateful for having done this when you’re running the mountains on race day.
As some of you may know, Amby Burfoot, editor-in-chief of the famous Runner’s World magazine, interviewed me for his magazine a number of years ago. He was visiting Durban in order to run the Comrades marathon; and to gather material for a couple of articles about the race, as well as its history and traditions.
I need to point out that, in his younger days, Amby was a very fine distance runner and his glittering C.V. includes a Boston Marathon win (1968). He was running that year’s Comrades because, in his own words, “No serious distance runner’s C.V. is complete until he or she has run the Comrades at least once.”
As with this year’s Comrades Marathon, the year Amby chose to run was also an ‘up’ run. While interviewing me, Amby also asked for a little advice about the challenge that lay ahead of him. He was particularly interested and slightly concerned about the very famous Polly Shortts hill, which is the last great barrier guarding the finish of the Comrades in Pietermaritzburg.
I remember comforting him with these words, “Don’t worry about Polly Shortts, Amby. You will walk up it, and the walk will be a welcome relief.”
When he composed his outstanding article a few weeks later, Amby wrote that my comment irritated him slightly. He wrote, “I had the distinct impression that Bruce didn’t know who he was talking to. Didn’t he know that I am Amby Burfoot, Boston Marathon winner, and that champions don’t walk on hills?” His article continued, “And Bruce was, indeed, wrong. I was walking long before I reached Polly Shortts!”
In those humorous words lies the challenge of the ‘up’ Comrades. It is brutal. For almost every runner tackling this year’s Comrades, the first 42 kilometres will be the hardest and hilliest 42 kilometres they will ever run. Yet they will still have to toil on for another 45 kilometres. On the way they will summit 5 famous Comrades hills, ( I’m deliberately using mountaineering terminology here): Cowie’s Hill, Field’s Hill, Botha’s Hill, Inchanga and Polly Shortts are the famous Comrades peaks
But there are many unnamed climbs that would be nicknamed ‘Cardiac Arrest Heights’ or ‘Coronary Thrombosis Cliff’ if they were found in any other race. (I daren’t mention the 3rd hill outside Camperdown). No wonder Amby was walking long before Polly Shortts. No wonder dozens were walking with him. And there is no wondering whether hundreds will do so again this year, because they will.
So what’s to be done about the hills in the ‘up’ Comrades, apart from joking about them as Amby did?
First of all we can train as much as possible on hilly routes. We should look for hills and embrace them as part of our training. We need to run long, steady climbs and short lung-burning ascents. In short, we need to be able to run similar hills to those in the ‘up’ Comrades.
When I ran my first Comrades way back in 1977, I lived in residence at Wits University, Johannesburg. Wits is surrounded by hills. My first home was in Brixton, very close to the university. My next two homes were in the same area. I simply did not want to change my hilly environment. If I had invested one Rand for every occasion I have run I have run up the famous Jan Smuts Avenue, that climbs through in Parktown, Westcliff and Forest Town, I would be a wealthy man today.
Those Comrades hopefuls who live in the flatter parts of the world need to go to extraordinary lengths to find hills. In Swakopmund, Namibia, my friend Kirsty Brits and her fellow Swakopmund Striders drive for 45 minutes to the stark and beautiful Goanikontes hills and valleys to find hills on which to train.
Secondly, we can run specific hill-training sessions. I have written many times about the famous Sweethoogte (Sweat Heights) hill I trained on in preparation for Comrades. I have run hundreds of sprint repetitions up this vicious 410-metre monster, but the hill has always rewarded me for my dedication by helping me to climb the Comrades monsters.
Those sessions were simple, but brutal. A 5-kilometre warm up was followed by 5 – 8 sprints up the hill with a jog back down to recover. Not much distance was covered in the session, but very important fitness and strength barriers were broken.
As I started the climb up Polly Shortts in the 1987 Comrades marathon with the great Hosea Tjale breathing down my neck, I remember urging myself on with the thought, “You’ve sprinted up Sweethooghte so many times in preparation for this moment. You know that you’re ready.”
If we prepare properly for the hills we will meet in the ‘up’ Comrades Marathon, they should have no fears for us. In fact, we should welcome them on race day, not fear them. There is no greater sense of achievement than that which comes with a successful run in an ‘up’ Comrades. And it’s no coincidence that Amby Burfoot has only two medals on display on his mantelpiece at his home.
One is his 1968 Boston winner’s medal. The other, his Comrades bronze medal.
With thanks to Citizen newspaper, South Africa.
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