Updated: Mar 13, 2019

The irrational fear that runners hold for the Comrades up run has even become an international concern I noticed last week, when as a guest of the Tata Mumbai Marathon I found myself addressing a throng of eager but worried runners at a Comrades Marathon talk in the bustling race Expo. The audience in front of me was bubbling with enthusiasm and curiosity for our great race. The crowd consisted of runners who have run the Comrades marathon, are running this year’s Comrades marathon, or are considering running this year’s Comrades marathon. It was hosted by Amit Sheth the Comrades Indian ambassador and himself a multiple Comrades medallist. A love and fascination for our great race was one thing they held in common, the other was a dread of the up run. I had to field so many questions on the challenge of the up run that I might as well have been Jonty Rhodes, our great backward point fielder, idolised in India. Those running this year’s race had furrowed brows and appeared nervous, fidgety. Those who were undecided were, like the famous Qutub Minar minaret, leaning steeply to the 2020 down run.

All the nervous questions that the runners fired at me could be summarised by the one asked by an agitated runner, let’s call him Dinesh, who hopes to earn his back-to-back medal this year and appeared cornered;

“just how hard is the up run, Bruce?” He asked.

He might as well have asked the question for every Comrades runner who intends to run the 2019 race.

“I love the up run, Dinesh” I replied. It’s the better of the two directions”

And before the sea of puzzled faces ahead of me could unleash another wave of questions I rattled off my list of reasons for being an up run fan.

The up run is less painful. The post -race muscle damage is significantly less than that of the down run. The down run is favoured by masochists who enjoy limping painfully for a week after race day. The up run limp lasts 3 or 4 days at most.

As runners climb up the Berea on race run morning they leave behind the heat and humidity of sub-tropical Durban and climb to cooler and drier conditions in Pietermaritzburg. In contrast down runners plunge headlong into a humid pressure cooker as they descend to Moses Mabhida Stadium.

Encouragingly, the 2019 Comrades will be 87 kilometres. The down run is 90 kilometres. There’s good news right there. That might seem insignificant now, but I challenge every Comrades runner to see three kilometres as insignificant when they reach the finish line in June.

The up run climbs almost immediately from the start, compelling runners to start slowly. Allowing for a handful of descents, runners head upwards for about 25 kilometres. This testing first quarter demands respect and caution, two vital ingredients for a successful run. Soon after starting most runners slip into a walk/run strategy, where they take frequent walks as they climb from the shoreline of the Indian Ocean to the top of Field’s Hill. This strategy helps to conserve energy and most importantly leaves the legs relatively undamaged with a good chunk of the race completed.

There are dozens of unnamed hills to climb while running the Up Comrades and in addition there are the five famous registered and named hills waiting to test every runner. Four of these hills, Cowie’s Hill, Field’s Hill, Botha’s Hill and Inchanga are all climbed in the first half or shortly afterwards. They are monsters and need to be treated with respect; but they are also major landmarks on the route. I can recall punching the air as I summited Inchanga one year knowing that another famous landmark was behind me. There is something amazingly uplifting about conquering these great barriers.

After the climb up Inchanga the second half of the up run is relatively fast and flat and a strong runner can make good progress along Harrison Flats and from Camperdown to Umlaas Road.

And then of course for all of us at the 'TaTa Mumbai Marathon' Expo talk there was the Indian Elephant in the room, Polly Shortts , the Everest, The North Face of the Eiger, and the monster that so many dread. As I mentioned the ‘P’ word a silence enveloped the group. So, to calm them I recalled an interview I had with the great Amby Burfoot a few years ago. Amby won the 1968 Boston marathon champion, and is now editor-at-large for Runner’s World magazine. Amby had decided to run the Up run that year and he quizzed me nervously about Polly Shortts.

“Why are you concerned about Pollies Amby, “ I asked “ You will look forward to it as a welcome break. You will walk all the way up it and enjoy every step of your progress to the top.”

Amby later told me that he was slightly offended by my comment.

“Bruce doesn’t know who I am” he thought. “ I’m Amby Burfoot, winner of the Boston marathon. I don’t walk on hills, no matter how challenging.

And in his article Amby later wrote “ And Bruce was indeed mistaken, I was walking long before I reached Polly Shortts!”

“So don’t fear Polly Shortts”, I told my audience. It’s a welcome break. Enjoy the crowd support as you approach the top. Soak in the view of the old stone Railway bridge which crosses the valley while contemplating your last few triumphant kilometres to the finish.

Finally remember that the Comrades is a beast in either direction. It humbles you. There is no easy or easier direction. If it were easy anybody could do it and Comrades runners are not “anybodies”

And besides, when asked which of the two is my favourite direction my answer to my expo audience should have been.

“The one I’m not busy running.”

I will be hosting a Comrades Marathon Route Tour again this year on Friday 7th June. My Comrades After Party will be held on Monday 10th June. Bookings for these functions will be open shortly. All information will be on this website.

With thanks to The Citizen newspaper, South Africa.

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