We older South African runners miss the Korkie 56 km ultramarathon. Organised by Germiston Callies club, and named after the great Pieter Korkie, this race was the second oldest ultramarathon in South Africa. Over the years the route changed but essentially it started in Pretoria and finished in Germiston. Its flat and slightly uphill route resulted in it being known as the “slow poison marathon “, but it was the perfect training run for the Comrades. We Gauteng based runners valued it highly and the Korkie was an essential part of every training progamme. It was a run that left a runner tired and slightly drained but with very little muscle damage. I was always able to cope with a 15 kilometre run the morning after finishing the Korkie. I recall that in 1977 Alan Robb ran an extra 5 kilometres on the same evening of the day that he won it. Sadly, a combination of factors led to its demise a few years ago and the Pieter Korkie ultra has passed into history.
The importance of the Korkie was that it was a long training run and for most of us not a race. We ran it for the strength and endurance it gave us and to enable us to log a wonderful 56kms in our training diary.
In 1985, however, I made the critical mistake of racing the Korkie. It must have been youthful impetuosity, or a foolish rush of blood to the head. I raced it and won it. I was delighted as I lifted the impressive silver trophy at the prize giving. After all I had joined a list of illustrious past winners of the race including Wally Hayward, Jackie Mekler, Alan Robb, Hosea Tjale, and Frith van der Merwe. But later I was to realise that winning effort was undoubtedly a bridge too far for my poor body. Later I would pay the price at the race that mattered the most to me, the Comrades marathon. Only a month before the Korkie I had finished 3rd in the Cape Town Peninsula marathon in 2:18.
I hope the reader will forgive me my excessive use of the first person, personal pronoun in this article but in order to make my point about over-racing before Comrades I need to refer to one of the biggest culprits of over-racing; myself (mea maxima culpa).
In the 1980s I would indulge myself with one hard marathon effort somewhere in the early weeks of the season. This would serve as a morale booster, a litmus test of my progress. That indulgence was usually a standard 42 km. marathon in just under 2 hours 20 minutes. Then I would put my head down and my nose to the grindstone for the great goal at the end of May. I would allow myself no further distractions.
In 1985 I had already conducted the litmus test at the Peninsula in February and then I suddenly had that rush of blood to the head and I allowed myself to be seduced by the possibility of a win in the Korkie marathon, and I succumbed to the temptation.
What followed in the weeks ahead was an ongoing struggle with mounting fatigue. At various times in those critical months I battled with colds and sore throats, minor but persistent injuries, loss of motivation, and poor sleeping patterns.
I somehow soldiered through to the end of May but the result was a far less than satisfactory training build-up.
The struggle of the 1985 Comrades race itself is still indelibly etched in my mind. Experienced runners know that, in the up run, Field’s Hill answers many questions about rest of the day. If Field’s passes fairly comfortably, a happy journey lies ahead for a runner. In 1985 I knew I was labouring on Field’s. It wasn’t easy and flowing. I was toiling. I remember the sickening realisation: “You are not in control of this race.”
The race was a struggle from Drummond (halfway) onwards. I started cramping on Harrison Flats. and the wide-eyed, panic stricken marshal who thought she would have to call an ambulance is still a vivid memory. I cramped heavily in front of her and yelled in pain as my hamstring knotted itself into a tight ball behind my knee. Happily, the moment passed, and I soldiered on. Perhaps because I simply refused to surrender or because I chose my parents correctly, my body carried me up the interminable Polly Shortts to the finish line in Pietermaritzburg. It was a Pyrrhic victory. The cost was dreadful and there was further punishment in store for me when a nurse struggled to insert an intravenous needle into an arm whose veins had sunk deep into the muscle.
The Comrades training phase in its very early stages but already during this early phase of the training build up I have noticed runners striving hard to race themselves into trouble. This applies to both talented and slower runners. Of course, it’s very tempting to race. We have some exciting marathons in which to compete and the first ultras are beckoning later this month. As runners get fitter they are tempted as I was to test themselves, to chase new p.b.s, and to constantly look for reassurance in the stopwatch.
Success goes to those who race long distances selectively and sparingly (perhaps just once!) before Comrades and who use other marathons and ultras as training runs. Running well below race pace.
The following year (1986) I finished 6th in the Korkie, well off my pace the previous year. I raced no other marathon. I ran 5 other marathons that year but all at training pace. Two months later I ran my fastest ever Comrades.
For those who remain unconvinced, consider that Eliud Kipchoge, the greatest marathoner athletics has ever known raced two marathons last year. Yes, that’s two standard marathons in a year. Yet we lesser mortals think we can race almost every weekend.
The Comrades is a jealous race and it rewards those that dedicate everything to racing well to Pietermaritzburg. But as I discovered in 1985 the Comrades severely punishes those who allow themselves to be distracted.
With thanks to The Citizen Newspaper
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