I am sure that for 729 days of a two- year cycle, Pinetown in Kwazulu Natal is a wonderful town but for one day, that day, every two years when the Comrades is run down to Durban Pinetown can be hell for the thousands of Comrades runners who pass through the town.
When the runners reach Pinetown on Sunday morning they will have run 70 kilometres of some of the most brutal terrain that can be found in any marathon or ultra-marathon in the World. Leg muscles nicely tenderised After many kilometres of steep climbing and descending will then be forced to drop down the bone jarring descent of Field’s Hill to be greeted by the heat and humidity of Pinetown. Whenever I have run the down Comrades it is the sub-tropical heat of Pinetown that suddenly reminds me that I am in Kwazulu Natal. If it’s a clear day, runners might be able to glimpse the Indian Ocean in the distance, but they will soon lose sight of that brief view of the end of their journey. As they plummet down Field’s Hill some will realise they are losing a few toenails, some will recall the famous phrase from psalm 23 as they realise they are truly dropping into “the Valley of the Shadow of death”. With a half marathon to run many will understand why I believe the second half of the down Comrades starts in Pinetown.
So with broken shattered legs heat, aching toes, chafing groins, mouths sticky and tacky from countless Mocha-coffee or lime flavoured energy gels, they will struggle along the undulating road through Pinetown past motor dealerships and vuvuzela blowing spectators. At some stages there will be thousands of runners streaming through Pinetown and none of them will be talking. At the end of Pinetown Mount Everest beckons in the guise of Cowie’s Hill. This hill is one of the 5 major registered Comrades hills and is a monster. Like the battlements of an impenetrable castle It guards the last 16 kilometres of the race and it breaks the spirits of many runners. Each individual runner will be surrounded by dozens of other runners and yet will be totally alone. Every runner will be silently vowing;
“Never, ever again, never ever again. I will never run this ridiculous race again” Though the real language of their thoughts, unprintable here, will be a lot cruder than I have suggested and sprinkled with expletives.
What can runners do to make Pinetown less hostile and disagreeable?
Firstly, and most importantly, it is time to stop training. Gentle jogging is all that is required at this late stage. I always stopped all training 3 days before the race. It is important to start the race with fresh, strong legs. At the risk of exaggeration, I have always urged runners to arrive at the start line slightly undertrained and slightly overweight. If possible, runners should drive over the Comrades course two days before race day. This is a terrifying experience and creates timid and frightened runners who start the race slowly and cautiously. Timid and frightened Comrades runners are successful Comrades runners.
Every runner has to pick up their numbers and goodie bag at the Expo but it is important not too much time at the Expo. Without realising it many runners numb their legs by spending hours on their feet exploring all the wonders of the Expo. I always recommend getting the process of collecting numbers as quick as possible. It’s important to get as much rest as possible before the race and walking and standing for hours in the Expo is very tiring. Besides which there are flu -stricken runners milling around at the Expo.
No one sleeps well the night before the Comrades marathon so the important night’s sleep is on the “night before the night before ( Friday night)
On race morning the successful runners will start slowly and stay running slowly all the way into Pinetown. They will resist the urge to attack the downhills but they will run the steep descents cautiously allowing gravity to work for them. In 1982 I attacked the descent down Botha’s hill and in 1997 Nick Bester ran some three minute kilometres down field’s Hill. We both paid a heavy price later in the race for our rash tactics. My run through Pinetown that year was a hideous experience because my legs were shattered. After that nightmare in future Comrades marathons I wrote the words “relax” and “have fun “ on my hands so that as I was running I would be reminded that the Comrades is just a race and that with cautious running the journey through Pinetown needn’t be an ordeal. I used to focus on as many positive thoughts as possible as I approached Cowie’s Hill
In Pinetown the distance markers will indicate that the distance still to run is something realistic. Successful runners will tell themselves that these are distances they have repeatedly run as they trained for Comrades. These same runners should avoid introspection and will chat to other runners and wave at spectators. They will take the occasional walk and they will find be no shame in walking most of Cowie’s Hill.
Finally they will tell themselves “I can do this. Yes I am running through Pinetown and it isn’t easy. But if it were easy anyone could run the Comrades marathon, but I am not “anyone” Im a Comrades runner and Pinetown won’t beat me”
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With thanks to The Citizen newspaper, South Africa.
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