Obviously I wrote this article before the #Covid19 pandemic forced the closure of many road races including the Two Oceans Marathon. However the message that I am trying to convey here still applies.
A necessary evil of any training programme for an ultramarathon is the inclusion of several long, slow runs in excess of 30 kilometres. In fact, 30 kilometres is almost considered a short-distance run by many ultra-distance fanatics. For those training for a race such as the Comrades Marathon, I would suggest that - in a 3 to 4 month build-up - runners would need to run a couple of 30-kilometre training runs, 2 or 3 42-kilometre runs and at least 3 in the 50 to 65 kilometre range.
Some runners enjoy running for several hours at a slow pace in order to build endurance and stamina. I found those distances a grind. A very unpleasant grind. Running slowly along a road, chatting to a couple of training companions while dodging speeding cars, stopping at occasional roadside cafes for drinks, or drinking petrol-smelling water from a garage tap while counting the boringly slow kilometres click past was never something I found much fun.
Until I discovered I could get those runs done by using long-distance races as training runs.
The racing calendar in South Africa is jam-packed with races of every distance almost every weekend, in almost every province. When it comes to long-distance races, we runners are presented with an embarrassment of riches, particularly at this time of the year.
Once I discovered that, I realised that if I dealt firmly with my pride and disciplined myself strictly, I had no problem with being soundly beaten; not just by a handful of runners, but rather by thousands. It was actually the ideal way to get these boring long runs completed, and have some fun at the same time.
After all, at a typical South African weekend marathon instead of a couple of running companions to chat to, there are thousands. Instead of oily garage tap water to drink, there are regularly spaced, beautifully organised seconding tables groaning under the weight of a variety of drinks and eats. There are accurate kilometre markers, traffic police, and race marshalls whose job it is to halt cars for me. And finally, at the end, there is the offer of a shiny medal, a race T-shirt and a club gazebo, where one can have a couple of stronger drinks and exchange gossip and war stories with team-mates.
Yes, there is an entry fee for all these races, but all the 'extras' I have just mentioned make this fee worth every cent. If I look at my own Two Oceans marathon career, I can see how rewarding this 'training in races' strategy has been over the years. I have run 32 Two Oceans 56-km races from 1983 to the current day.
Only once did I ever race the Two Oceans. (In 1983 I finished 4th in 3:14.) Every other year I used the race as a vital training run and stepping-stone to the Comrades Marathon. I could perhaps have saved myself the costs of 32 trips to Cape Town, accommodation, transport and entry fees, but I would never have earned 32 Two Oceans medals, a Two Oceans triple-blue permanent number and, most importantly, a lifetime of treasured memories.
However, it takes discipline to treat a race as a training run. You have to ignore the rising adrenaline as the starter calls everyone to their marks and to let the stopwatch tick by relentlessly. It's imperative you simply watch others, including bitter rivals, charge into the distance and ignore any chance of glory and a possible personal best (p.b.) time.
Some runners cannot get rid of the urge to race. There is no problem with that. But those runners must stay away from races when they are training for the Comrades Marathon, or another ultramarathon.
I remember back in 1990, Frith van der Merwe and I were joint guest speakers at a conference on an April weekend at a Drakensberg resort. By chance, we discovered that the famous 52-kilometre Bergille to Ladysmith Arthur Cresswel memorial race was being run the next morning. Race organiser, John Cohen, found us two late entries and we agreed to run the race together at training pace.
I remember thinking this would be a fabulous training run for that year’s Comrades. We could run along chatting, gossiping and enjoying views of the spectacular and breathtaking Drakensberg Mountains.
We agreed to meet at the back of the field the following morning. But, on race morning I searched in vain for my training partner. Several minutes after the start I learnt, from an excited spectator, that Frith was leading the ladies' race by miles and was dueling with some of the fastest male runners. She went on to win. Clearly Frith is not one who can turn a race into a training run.
For those, like me, who enjoy using races as training runs, here are some tips to ensure there is absolutely no temptation to race.
1) Train hard the day before the race. (The day before every Two Oceans I would run a hard, hilly 16 km. (10 miles).
2) Plan to train the day after the race. In fact, being able to work pain and stiffness free the next day is a sign that you didn’t over-exert yourself in the race.
3) Line up near the back of the field. There is no chance of racing if you are hemmed in by a wall of 5,000 runners.
4) Plan to run well below race pace. For a marathon distance, that’s at least an hour slower than your p.b.
5) Prepare to chat to other runners en route, so have a load of jokes and running stories to share.
6) Wear your heavy training shoes, not your red-hot racers.
7) Finally, leave your ego at home.
Get all those enthusiasm blockers in place and, like me, you will find that one of the most rewarding ways to get those long training runs done is by running races. Just not racing them.
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
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