Updated: Mar 13, 2019
I once really angered some of my KwaZulu Natal (KZN) Comrades rivals by declaring, in a press interview, that I couldn’t really rate the chances of any running rival who lived and trained at low altitude, in intense heat and soaring humidity. I had just been asked who I thought would be my major opponents in that year’s Comrades marathon and when I failed to mention a single KZN runner the KZN press leapt on me.
The next day the KZN newspapers loudly declared;
“Fordyce Writes off Natal Comrades Challenge “
Needless to say, I was not popular with certain runners who fancied their Comrades marathon chances that year. Perhaps it would have been wiser to stick to praising the training environment of Gauteng, my home province, rather than criticsising another.
Not too much has changed over the years and I still believe that KZN is not the best environment in which to train for the Comrades marathon. However, it does have one massive advantage. It is the home of the Comrades, and local runners are able to train on the course whenever they feel like it.
I’m a firm believer in knowing what lies ahead and understanding as much as possible about a race course. There are many runners who prefer to “go in blind” but I am not one of them. I like to plot my race strategy. I don’t like nasty surprises. No General would charge blindly into battle without knowing something about the strength of his enemy, the strategic positioning of his enemy’s regiments and the terrain between them. Unless of course, he was Chelmsford at Isandlwana in 1979 who split his force and wasn’t even at the battlefield. The Comrades marathon can be compared to a bloody Zulu battle where the runner charges into battle against the mighty hills of KZN. Knowledge makes the fight that much less daunting.
So those of us who are not KZN runners need to try to explore the battlefield in advance, at least once. In the days when I was still a serious contender I would join a group of friends on an annual weekend scouting mission to the roads between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. We would run the last 60 kilometres of the Comrades route paying particular attention to the major hills, and to the last 20 kilometres into the finish.
Not all of us can travel to KZN weeks before the 10th June to explore the Comrades course but, at the very least I recommend driving over the whole course a day or two before race day. Even when I had earned a double green number for 20 Comrades runs I still drove over the course before race day. Even veterans forget sections of the race and even the most experienced of us still hasn’t run a down run for two years. With the passage of time hills grow less steep in the memory and the course itself concertinas. The climb up the infamous Cowie’s Hill is a good example. At that stage runners have just 18 or so kilometres to run. But most are physically and mentally broken. Cowie’s Hill is one of the 5 major registered Comrades hills and from the summit it is almost possible to smell the ozone from the Indian Ocean. I know it well, it is an old and respected foe, but driving up it reminds me, every year, of the toll it can extract. Cowie’s Hill climbs gently away from the noise and bedlam of Pinetown for a while then it flattens out, before rising steeply and then bending upwards. There is a longish straight middle stretch and most runners are reduced to a walk at this stage (Beware there is a television camera on this stretch filming the runners. Many will have boasted in the weeks before the race that they will be running the Comrades marathon, but the camera on Cowie’s Hill focuses on them quite clearly walking the Comrades marathon, and walking broken and hunched over.) There is a seconding table close to the top of Cowie’s Hill. Then the road bends once and plunges down to Durban.
Despite remembering the famous Cowie’s Hill as well as I clearly do I still drove up it every year, even in the years when I am not running but commentating for television. At the very least this year it is particularly important to explore the last 10 kilometres of the run. None of us have ever finished in the Moses Mabhida Stadium. Anyone chasing a special personal medal may want to be very familiar with the last few twists and turns and ascents and descents into the stadium. As someone who once missed a precious silver medal by 21 seconds I can even advise having a close look at the last lap inside the stadium as well! Just don’t cross the finish line. That is considered very poor form. Save crossing the finish line for race day.
If ever proof were needed of the value of driving over the Comrades route it comes every year on the bus tour I lead. Each year it is the same. The journey starts with an excited coach load of runners from all over the world. There is much laughter and teasing. I am reminded of naughty school children embarking on an exciting outing with the naughtiest causing trouble at the back of the bus. But as the coach travels down the course, passing famous landmarks and climbing and descending, climbing and descending, the naughty schoolchildren grow quieter and quieter. Someone invariably asks me the name of a particularly steep hill and then gulps when I reply;
“This hill doesn’t have a name”
In any other marathon in the world this same hill would be called “ Coronary Thrombosis Heights or North Face of the Eiger, “ but at Comrades it’s a foothill and doesn’t warrant a name. As the drive unwinds finishing times are adjusted, dreams are scattered in the KZN heat and the enormous reality of the battle ahead reduces every runner to frightened introverts.
Strangely enough that is exactly the state of mind a Comrades runner needs to be in. And that is what makes travelling over the course so invaluable an experience. Because a frightened Comrades runner becomes a successful Comrades runner.
Bookings for the Bruce Fordyce After Party on Monday 11th June 2018 will be available this week.
With thanks to The Citizen newspaper, South Africa.
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