Updated: Mar 13, 2019

“Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast.” Friar Lawrence, Romeo And Juliet Shakespeare

William Shakespeare might have made a good Comrades coach because his words perfectly sum up the correct approach to the Comrades marathon. Every single Comrades training run requires wise thinking and careful planning and none more so than the long run. Every Comrades runner knows what the “long run” means. It’s that extra long training run, usually about 60 kilometres, run towards the end of April or in early May. These long runs are hosted by a number of clubs and usually it is possible to join in even if you are not a club member. As long as you pay the club long run fee. Some runners enter 50 kilometres races such as the Loskop and then add on a few extra kilometres at the end. For many the long run is the single most important training run they will complete in their entire training programme. Its main purpose is supposed to be to build extra endurance and strength but It also serves as a dress rehearsal run, and a reassuring pat on the back that all is going well.Though there is still much training to be completed ,the long run is considered by most runners to be the pinnacle. Everest has been summitted and now it’s downhill to the Comrades start knowing that you are fully prepared for those 90 race day kilometres. 60 kilometres appears to be the popular distance for the long run though there are some who run as 65 kilometres or further. In my better days I rarely made it beyond 60 kilometres and I always believed that I had probably run too far. I'm not certain runners even need to cover that distance in one session and my opinion has been supported by Leonid Shvetsov who has two spectacularly fast Comrades wins to his name and who never runs beyond 35 kilometres in one single training session.

But the long run has become something of a ritual,and a rite of passage and who am I to argue against tradition. The popular weekends for the long run appear to be the last weekend of April or the first weekend of next month. The popular wisdom being that there is sufficient time after the long run to recover and continue training into early June. However the critical question about the long run appears to be what running pace is best. Readers of this column will know that I always favour the cautious, conservative training approach. I believe the emphasis in the long run should not be on the speed that it is run but rather on “ time on the legs” . The important thing is to spend as long as possible in a moving vertical position in order to closely emulate race conditions. The running pace of the long run is not that important. Just consider the incredible challenge that confronts the Comrades runner hoping just to beat that final dreadful 12 hour cut-off gun. That runner will have to remain vertical and keep moving for half a day. But in reality the time spent standing in a vertical position for a 12 hour runner is actually closer to 13 hours when we consider that on race morning he or she will have been standing at the start enduring Pietermaritzburg’s winter cold for up to an hour nervously waiting for Max Trimborn’s cockerel crow.

So nice and slowly it is. I always liked to treat the long run rather as I would a long hike. I recommend that runners jog slowly along watching the late autumn dawn approach. Chat to new running friends and stop at the seconding cars’ open boots for a drink. Importantly do not sit down. Stay vertical and get used to coaxing shuffling stiffening legs to keep moving. Write off the day, write off some of the afternoon. Get sunburnt out there.

Most importantly do not try and get answers from the long run. Too many Comrades hopefuls hope, that like a soothsayer or a fortune teller the long run will tell them that they are ready to run a great Comrades. They want to feel good, strong all the way. They want to float through the long run.

Well back in 1980 one of South Africa's greatest ever distance runners who shall remain nameless floated through a 90 kilometre training run. Yes, you read that correctly, he ran a solo 90 kilometre training long run in a little over 6 hours and publicly declared “ I can't say I'm going to win, but for anyone to beat me they are going to have to run the race of their lives”.

Unsurprisingly every one of us who finished the 1980 Comrades ran the race of our lives. Broken and stricken with flu that runner dropped out of the 1980 Comrades at Kloof. I was surprised he got that far. He had left his Comrades marathon on the training road, on his solo long run odyssey. Coach Shakespeare would have admonished him for not running “wisely and slow”.

The long run has to fit smoothly and seamlessly into the training week.Its impact must be minimal.

It should be possible to train the very next day. At the very least it should be possible to train with perhaps one day’s rest. There should be no collateral damage, no bad sniffle or cold, no niggling injury. There should only be the satisfaction of a milestone training run completed but the knowledge that there is still much work to be done.

And by the way it isn't the long run which acts as a fortune teller and reads the favourable cards for Comrades runners. It is our speed, in late May, over a distance far shorter than the long run which predicts the future. A speedy or personal best time at the club time trial or a 10 km road race is the perfect answer. But that auspicious answer will only come if runners treat the long run with respect.

With thanks to The Citizen newspaper, South Africa.

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