Perhaps one of the most perplexing characteristics of this Covid-19 pandemic is that it has presented us with a challenge with no fixed end point. We have no idea how long the nightmare will be with us. No expert can accurately forecast its future trajectory. In addition, many of us are filled with a sense of dread that this marathon within a marathon, the current 5-week lockdown in South Africa, could well be extended again.
We know this is going to be one of the most gruelling challenges we have ever encountered and, worse still, we don’t know its exact nature. However distant the finish line might be, at the moment there is no faint light at the end of the tunnel. No sight of a last distance marker, or of the parked cars at the finish stadium. The lighting gantries or announcer's distant voice, in short, all those hints that marathon runners use to sense the end are nowhere to be found.
Tell marathon runners the exact nature of the challenge and most will rise to the occasion. If it’s a half marathon we are tackling, we can programme our minds to meet the challenge of the 21.1 kilometres we have ahead of us. As we run, we can tick off the kilometre boards, and we can dream about the cold beer, the shared laughter and the war stories with our club mates at the finish.
If it’s a Comrades marathon we have to run, we understand that the challenge is a major 90-kilometre journey, which includes some brutal hills and steep, jarring descents.
The problem with this coronavirus marathon is that we have to run it whether we like it or not. We have no choice, and it’s an awfully tricky marathon to run because of its uncertainty.
One thing that is certain, however, is that the Comrades marathon will not be run on 14th June. An official statement confirming this news has just been announced. No-one in South Africa, and in many other countries, will have been able to train properly. The lockdown has taken care of that.
Travel, particularly International travel, is impossible. In all probability there will still be onerous restrictions on movement and large gatherings for some time to come. Many major events have been cancelled outright, and even more postponed. At this stage, the Comrades is postponed, but we haven't been given a new date. Once again, we are running a race with no known distance.
While most of us were hoping for anything except a cancellation, the postponement creates many problems. Thousands of runners have had their dreams deferred and we still face the possibility of a final cancellation. If the race is ultimately cancelled, then it will be the first time since the Second World War that that the Comrades has not been staged.
Postponement could mean that if the race is held it may now be staged in late September or early October. If so, I can already hear the clamour of protesting voices, “But it’s going to be so hot then. We will all die.”
It will be early Spring in KZN, and there are many weather possibilities at that time of year. It often snows in the Drakensberg in September. Many of us will recall the heavy snow that fell across large parts of the country in September 1981. June Comrades marathons have occasionally turned out to be dangerously warm (2013 springs to mind). Ultimately, those of us who love the race will simply be delighted to experience a 2020 race, no matter what time of the year it is held.
Assuming I am correct - that the Comrades is postponed until September/October - thousands of Comrades runners will be wondering how to train for the new date.
A few of us have some experience of training for a spring 'Comrades' (Northern Hemisphere autumn ) because, at some stage in our running careers, we have run major ultramarathons at that time of year. In recent years the World 100 km championships have been held in the Northern autumn and, in the 1980s, I ran the 85-kilometre London to Brighton three times in late September or early October.
To make sure I got it right, I rushed off to consult my old battered training diaries. (I have kept detailed logbooks since my very first 10-minute run in June 1976). The training lessons I learnt there spoke to me from all those years ago. (Yes, it was quite a nostalgic read.)
First of all, everyone has to push the reset button. Every 2020 Comrades runner has to imagine that it is now the middle of January and the great build up is only due to start in late February/March. In other words, the time to start training for the projected race date is the beginning of May.
For the next few weeks, while we are in lockdown, it may still require 40 laps of the garden to log a kilometre and the compost heap may be the steepest hill around. So I suggest you simply enjoy the enforced rest. A few weeks of light, easy running is all that is required.
Most Comrades runners are very fit at this stage, well on their way up the slope to peak fitness. They need to descend very rapidly. Here, in South Africa, lockdown really helps. It is impossible to log impressive training mileage when there is nowhere to run that mileage.
In a sense. I am delighted. If it weren’t for lockdown some runners would be tempted to just keep going. They would be valiantly trying to do the impossible and maintain peak training for months on end. This way, we are more or less forced to start again. Good news for injured runners, who will be delighted to have the time to recover.
Next month, hopefully runners will be able to embark on the same journey they followed 3 months ago. The first half marathons should be deferred to May, marathons to June, and ultras and club long runs to July and August. August is also the month to start some quality and sharpening work for Comrades. September will signal the long pre-race taper.
It may be necessary for runners to create their own 'races' at times, since many of the hoped-for races at these distances might not exist. But we runners are an inventive lot and we can find a way if we have to. (Look at all the runners who have run marathons and even ultras in their back gardens during the past weeks of lockdown.)
If restrictions on running are lifted next month, or in June and the following months,it will be a unique challenge for Southern African runners. They will have to train right through our winter. This means dark mornings with bitter frost in the Highveld, and cold rain and wind in the Cape. But this is exactly what our Northern Hemisphere runners do every year and they seem to cope admirably.
I know there will be an avalanche of queries from anxious runners about qualifying events, substitutions, seedings, entry fees and many more concerns. I am in no position to answer any of those queries, but I have every confidence the C.M.A will discuss and find solutions to all those questions.
Think of it this way. Now that the Comrades is postponed, we will all have the opportunity to be part of athletics history. We will witness the first spring running of the Comrades Marathon. It might turn out to be the most amazing celebration of the courage of the human spirit and, hopefully, a celebration of our victory over this awful enemy, Covid-19.
This Comrades might be one not to miss. It's a sobering thought, but inevitably some Comrades runners and Comrades fans will have succumbed to the virus by the time we race. The 'last Post', which is played at the end of every Comrades, will have a great poignancy in 2020. I hope to see you there.
The new dates for my Comrades Route Tour and After Party will be announced once we have a new Comrades Marathon date.
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