I’m writing this column in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, which as we all know, has still not peaked, particularly in South Africa. Like thousands of runners, supporters, officials, volunteers, sponsors and spectators, I really hope the race goes ahead on the scheduled date in June. However, we will have to wait for the next Comrades Association Announcement on April 17th.
On the assumption that the Comrades will be run on June 14th, I will continue to offer advice until I hear to the contrary. If there is a postponement, I will be able to offer advice on adjusting training to the new deadline.
A few hours into the running of a down Comrades marathon, it is quite common to hear novice runners complaining, “I thought we were running the down run from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, but all we’ve done all morning is to run uphill.” (Novice runners, in this context, include those running the down run for the first time.)
A quick glance at the race profile helps to explain why novices are so perplexed. In the frosty dark of a Pietermaritzburg winter’s morning, runners will be lulled by about 8 kilometres or so of easy running and a plummet down Polly Shortts. The rest of the morning, with one or two exceptions, will seem like it's all uphill.
Despite the early morning chill, runners are soon sweating as they labour up to Ashburton village (Little Pollies). Soon after, the rising sun burns brightly into their eyes as they battle up to the climb to Umlaas Road (the highest point on the Comrades route).
There are several other smaller climbs to be negotiated and then, just after the Enthembeni School and approaching halfway, lies the tough 3-kilometre slog up the back of Inchanga. There is a brief respite on the drop into Drummond, the halfway mark, but the climbing begins again as the road winds past the Wall of Honour, the old Rob Roy Hotel and the pull to Botha’s Hill Village.
Slower novice runners will have been on the road for over 6 hours at this stage. They will have run the Two Oceans distance (56 kilometres or so) and will have battled up some of the most notorious hills in distance running. And that is why when I am asked to chat about the down run I always introduce each route description with the warning, “And, because it’s the down run, we go up.”
It is easy to understand then that, despite the fact this year is a down run, it is important to train diligently for the hills. In my better days, many decades ago now, I made no changes to my training schedule - regardless of the direction that year’s Comrades was being run. I reserved exactly the same number of specific hill-training sessions for the down run as for the up.
It is important to understand that the key hills on the down run match those of the up run. The daunting Inchanga hill awaits both up and down runners on both sides of Drummond. Cowie’s Hill could partner with the up run’s 3rd unnamed hill outside Camperdown. And the combination of 45th Cutting and the steep motorway climb to Tollgate Bridge are the down run’s Little Pollies and Polly Shortts.
I always found Cowie’s Hill particularly testing. After 70 kilometres of mountainous running, Cowie’s Hill felt like the Everest of the down run. Unsurprisingly, hundreds of Comrades marathon runners are reduced to a slow shuffle or walk on Cowie’s. Most of them forget that there is a television camera on the side of the road, broadcasting their pitiful progress up the hill to millions of viewers.
So, my advice to in-training runners is to pretend you are preparing for the up Comrades.
1) Train on rolling, hilly courses. Deliberately look for and embrace hills. Look for long, steady climbs that simulate the climbs up Inchanga and to Botha’s Hill village, or from the bottom of Little Pollies to Umlaas Road.
You need climbs that last several minutes, because several of the Comrades' most notorious hills are long, slow pulls that take some time to conquer.
Also look for shorter, steeper hills that duplicate some of the sharp ascents runners will encounter on race day. The steep off ramp from the bottom of the suburb of Mayville onto the Durban N3 Highway springs to mind.
2) From the beginning of next month, begin to incorporate some specific hill-training sessions into your weekly training programme. My training companions and I always ran the famous Sweethooghte (Sweat Heights) from the start of April.
Sweethooghte's 410-metre climb rises steeply to the base of Johannesburg’s Brixton Tower and I credit it with helping me to become a very strong hill runner. Following a 3- to 4-kilometre warm-up, we would run sprint repetitions up the hill, concentrating on form and cadence as we progressed.
Our recovery was an easy jog back down to the base of the hill again. We usually ran 5 to 10 repetitions, gradually becoming faster as race day drew closer.
3) Those who can find them might wish to run sets of stairs to build further hill running strength. I trained on Johannesburg’s renowned Westcliff stairs. Once again, I ran fast repetitions up those legendary 210 steps.
In the 1980s, Westcliff stairs were deserted. My only companion was a sprightly sheep dog. Now the Stairs have become very popular with runners and walkers and, on some mornings, there is a human traffic jam progressing up and down the steps.
Those Comrades runners who choose hilly training routes and incorporate specific hill-training sessions from the beginning of next month will be the ones who have successful runs on race day. Because they will be the ones who understood, when they first started training, that although the 2020 Comrades is a down run, they must go up!
To learn about the Comrades Down Run course, join me on my Route Tour on the Friday before the Comrades is run.
Or, if you prefer to share war stories after the event, our Comrades After Party is ideal for that!
THE '86 AND '88
CONQUERING THE UP
TACKLING A DOWN RUN
The must-have eBooks for everyone who wants to run - or win - ultra-marathons.
"My new eBooks are not an update of my old bestseller, but a new duo full of old wisdom. And some new ideas."
ONLY AVAILABLE HERE, AT BRUCEFORDYCE.COM