Updated: Mar 3, 2020
For most Comrades Marathon runners, the down run has always been the more popular of the two Comrades challenges. Every down-run year, the entries are snapped up faster, more novices take the plunge and runners dream of achieving faster times and winning shinier medals. Perhaps it is no surprise that the very first Comrades Marathon in 1921 was a down run.
Logic tells us that it is faster and easier to run downhill, which probably explains the popularity of the down run. That logic is correct (most of the time), but not when it comes to the down Comrades.
I have always explained the difference between the two races by arguing that the up run demonstrates how strong a runner the athlete is. The up-run challenge is simple. Runners have to drag their body weight up all those climbs to Pietermaritzburg, 600 metres above sea level. The down run, on the other hand, illustrates how addicted a masochist the runner is. Because the down run is all about pain. Lots of pain.
Most runners limp badly for two or three days after completing an up run. But after the down run limping and stiffness can last for up to a week. Of course, the post-Comrades Marathon gait is a limp of pride. It's also why its one of the moments I miss the most since my last Comrades in 2012. The limp is like a badge of honour to a runner and I can’t help feeling slightly ashamed that I'm not one of them.
After one particularly punishing down run, I remember having to get friends to assist me out of our car when we made the obligatory junk-food stop at Harrismith on our way home. I remember chuckling at other runners trying to ease themselves out of their cars and then shuffling like penguins to the toilets and restaurants. The Comrades does that to runners. The down run does it particularly brutally.
The problem is that the down run only starts at Botha’s Hill Village. In fact, it starts right outside Kearsney College, where the clapping schoolboys cheer the runners. At this point the runners have almost 60 kilometres and several hours of brutal running in their legs, and their tenderised muscles have now to negotiate some precipitous descents.
I am not certain of the name of the geological faults that created these steep descents millions of years ago, but their modern names are Botha’s Hill, Field’s Hill, the coastal side of Cowie’s Hill, Mayville and Tollgate.
For most runners ,the realisation of the cost of the downhill pounding comes at the end of the road through Pinetown, where Cowie’s Hill stands like an impenetrable wall. Smashed quadriceps and pummelled calf muscles can barely shuffle up the steep hill. For many, Cowie’s Hill might as well be the North Face of the Eiger, and every climb thereafter is a major barrier.
Of the 30 Comrades Marathons I have completed, the 1982 down run remains the toughest and most grueling I have ever run. I still bear the mental scars of a hideous boxing match I had with the great Alan Robb.
It was cold and wet and, from very early on, our muscles started to tighten. As we ran past the Kearsney schoolboys, Alan threw down the gauntlet. He took off, determined to make a statement and grasp the lead - with more than 30 kilometres still to run.
Our lead pack of 5 or 6 runners was left floundering around. We had only a second or two to make decisions. Henry Nyembe and I chased after Alan, the rest were left trailing behind, like so much flotsam and jetsam bobbing helplessly around in Alan’s wake. Henry soon dropped back, to eventually finish 8th, but Alan and I ran flat out, shoulder to shoulder for the next 20 kilometres.
We behaved like two impetuous, irresponsible novices; our testosterone dominating our thinking as we chose to slog it out while plummeting down some of the worst hills known to marathon running. I still remember the anguish I felt when I was suddenly alone, exhausted and punch drunk with a half marathon still to run. I was so broken at the finish, I collapsed into the arms of my father and mayor, Sybil Hotz.
Afterwards I vowed, “Never ever again”. And I meant it.
However, as every Comrades runner discovers, time heals and the Comrades addiction is very powerful. It helped that the 1983 race was an up run. I amended my vow to, "If I can find a way to minimise the muscle damage and pain I experienced, I might come back for another down run.”
I desperately sought answers. First, I studied the way Alan Robb ran the downhills. Alan has a very economical, low-knee action shuffle. Obviously, it’s a very quick shuffle, but Alan glides down hills. No wonder he has won 3 down runs and was the first runner (1978) to break 5½ hours for the distance.
I smash my way down hills. Unfortunately, it is very difficult - if not impossible - to drastically change a running style, and the best solution I could think of was to run as economically as possible, allowing gravity to do the work on the steep descents.
I promised myself I would never get involved in a downhill racing duel again. Instead, I would take every hill as cautiously as I could, including the early descent of Polly Shortts in the dark, frosty morning.
I even considered training as often as I could on steep descents, but soon discovered this simply doesn’t work. While running lots of up-hills works when training for the up run, the opposite does not apply. Too many steep descents result in serious injuries and dead, battered leg muscles. The solution, I discovered, lies in the gym.
I turned to South Africa’s leading sports scientist, that genius Prof. Tim Noakes, for advice. A veteran of several Comrades and many other marathons himself, not unsurprisingly, Tim had already applied his mind to the problem.
He explained the concept of concentric muscle contractions and how it's the repetition of these contractions - thousands of times during a race - that is the problem. It was Tim who suggested that the answer lay in spending three sessions a week in the gym, strengthening the muscles that have to take the load.
He directed me to the great Reg Park (Mr. Universe and mentor of Arnold Schwarzenegger). Reg devised a programme for me using very light weights. So, two years after my 1982 nightmar, I began spending about half an hour, 3 times a week, working at calf raises, half squats and half lunges, both with a barbel.
I did bench steps, leg extensions, hamstring curls and even exercises for my upper body. I learnt to ignore the sniggers and condescending glances from the giants in the gorilla pit, who were lifting weights the size of tractor tyres, and soldiered on.
The strategy worked magnificently. I remember running down Field’s Hill in 1984 thinking, “This isn’t too bad. My legs are strong. Thank you Tim. Thank you Reg."
Of course, we don’t all have the luxury of hours of free time in which to train, but if you'd like to follow a similar regime to to what I used, you'll find an updated version in my Down Run ebook. If time is limited, don't worry, the best training for running is running. But if you do have some extra time and the down run is your dream, then light weights and frequent repetitions can really help.
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
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TACKLING A DOWN RUN
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