The Comrades marathon is a race deep and rich in tradition. Some of these traditions are historic: the green numbers, the different medals and the leading male runner carrying the mayoral baton. Many are stirring and motivating: Chariots of Fire and Shohsoloza being played at the start. Some are landmark: Arthur’s Seat and The Wall of Honour. Some are seemingly brutal and cruel: the cut-off points along the route and the final cut-off gun. Some are quite strange and puzzling to the uninformed: Max Trimborn’s cockerel crow and the playing of the Last Post.
But the most puzzling Comrades tradition must be that the distance markers along the route are placed in reverse order. Yes, all 87 kilometres of the up run are placed in descending order along the route. Everywhere else in the world, race organisers know how to motivate runners. The starting gun fires and you run for a while before passing a distance maker with “one” emblazoned on it.
If it’s a South African race it will be a kilometre marker, if a race like the New York or London marathons the marker will take a little longer as it will be measured in miles. The point is that the distance marker will be a small motivation and an incentive to carry on to the next marker. But, in the Comrades marathon, the distance markers are placed in reverse order, almost as if deliberately designed to demotivate, terrify and depress runners.
If the first distance marker is visible in the dawn light on the Berea on June 9th, it will indicate 86 kilometres to go! Hours later, runners will pass one stating 67 kilometres to go. What does that mean? It simply means there’s an awfully long way to go.
I remember running in a large leading bunch speeding along Harrison Flats in the 1982 Comrades marathon. As we passed the 56 kilometres (to go) distance marker, Alan Robb wickedly reminded us, “We’re on the starting line of the Two Oceans guys”.
Suddenly, our group lost several runners as the enormity of the task ahead dawned on us. Alan chuckled as we continued to run. He knew his comments would get rid of a few competitors.
At a Comrades talk I attended as a raw novice many years ago, Alan told us that he coped with the reverse order distance markers by ignoring them. He told us that he always viewed the Comrades challenge as 4 simple 20-kilometre training runs, followed by a furious 10 kilometre sprint to the finish line.
I could never quite see the Comrades in such simple terms, but during the early stages of the Comrades I tried to ignore the distance markers. I preferred to run the race in landmarks, running from one famous landmark to the next.
So, in the up run, I would target the 5 major registered hills as long-term goals, While on the journey from one major hill to the next, I would tick off famous landmarks. The 5 registered major hills are, of course, Cowie’s Hill, Fields Hill, Botha’s Hill, Inchanga, and Polly Shortts.
If I were able to influence Comrade’s historians, I would argue a strong case for recognising 7 registered hills in the up run. I firmly believe that the third hill outside Camperdown and Little Pollies (Ashburton) should join the pantheon of registered Comrades hills.
The hill outside Camperdown is 750 metres long and very steep. It comes as a nasty shock to many runners. And there is nothing “little” about Little Pollies. If it weren’t for the slight break in the climb a third of the way up Little Pollies, it would be every bit as tough as Polly Shortts itself.
While the distance between Little Pollies and Polly Shortts is only about a kilometre or so, the gaps between some of the other registered hills are lengthy. At those times I would target various well-known landmarks as well. On the journey from Botha’s Hill to Inchanga, I would tick off Kearsney College, the Wall of Honour, Arthurs Seat and Drummond Village. Turning a blind eye to the distance markers, I made each landmark a reason to give a silent triumphant air punch. “Another one bites the dust,” I would mutter to myself.
I believe runners should only start to rely on the distance markers from about 21 kilometres to go. A half marathon is familiar territory for all of us. While it is still a long way to go, it is a challenge that runners can understand, unlike the mind-boggling concept of ’67 kilometres to go’. Though there will, inevitably, always be some wag who will shout out, “Half marathon to go guys. We’re nearly there!” However, I suppose, relatively speaking in an 87-kilometre race, a half marathon to go is nearly there.
Before long, there are just 10 kilometres to run. Though, this year, the monster Polly Shortts will be just around the corner at that point. But even that infamous hill can be broken down into its component parts. There’s the first steep, curling bend to the left, then the long straight spine where it is possible to tick lampposts one at a time and, finally, the last S-bend at the top. Every runner is allowed a massive air punch at the summit!
All this serves to emphasise is that the most important step any runner can take at this late stage is not a running step, but a decision to drive over the whole Comrades route before race day. (Yes, there are a few tickets still available). I believe every runner, even experienced ones, should drive the length of the Comrades route. After all, it has been two years since the last up run, and much of the race will have been forgotten. It is invaluable to know what challenges lie ahead on race day, to inspect the major registered hills and to take note of the major landmarks while trying to ignore freshly-painted distance markers on the Comrades road.
And, whether you’ve run or not, I look forward to swapping war stories at my annual Comrades After Party on the Monday after the race.
With thanks to The Citizen, South Africa.
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