The ultramarathon season is now in full swing and runners from all over the country, indeed the World, are busy running long distances in training and in races. Many novices will be venturing into 'no man’s land' for the first time; that vast, scary void that lies beyond 42 kilometres. Here in South Africa, races such as the Two Oceans (56 km), the Loskop (50 km) and the Bergville (52 km) are already history. Even those who did not run any of these races will have run some prodigious distances during the Easter break. (The Easter 100 km springs to mind.)
I finished my 32nd Two Oceans this April, in the company of a delighted, but also deeply concerned, Germiston Callies runner. After we had asked a race official to snap a photo of the two of us grinning happily, while dangling our medals triumphantly, she turned to me and whimpered, “How am I going to manage another 30 kilometres? I’m in such trouble.”
I knew exactly why she was so concerned.
The Two Oceans had been a bitter struggle for her (and for me!), made worse by the brutal 8 kilometre slog up Ou Kaapse Weg. Like all of us, she had probably been hanging on in those last kilometres, forcing herself on through all sorts of agonies to the finish on the U.C.T. fields. Another hill, or even kilometre of running, would have been her undoing.
Like me, she was facing a painful hobble just to reach her Germiston Callies club gazebo and her loved ones. Unlike me, she was also staring at the enormous, seemingly impossible challenge of the Comrades marathon in just under 7 weeks’ time. The 87 kilometres of the Comrades must have seemed like a great, insurmountable barrier.
Aspiring Comrades runners all over the World will be asking themselves the same question. It was a question I asked myself every year I ran the great race. After staggering in at the end of any ultra I always slumped into a depression, convinced that the Comrades was a bridge too far.
As rigor mortis attacked our legs and we hobbled and limped our way from the finish area, I offered my new friend some words of comfort. “You will cope with the Comrades," I counselled her “and you will come back for another Comrades marathon in 2020. And these are the reasons you will succeed:
“First of all, you must ensure that you recover completely from today’s efforts. Get the 56 kilometre race 'out of your legs'. We took a severe pounding from the steep descents we ran today and our legs are stiff and aching with muscle damage.
"I think you need to take a complete break from running for at least a week to 10 days. Cycle a bit, walk around your neighbourhood, but make sure you have recovered. Then start a slow build-up for the next few days, until you have caught up with your normal training routine.
“Then, allowing for a few days of taper and rest before Comrades, you will start the most intense part of your Comrades marathon training programme. By race day on June the 9th, you will be an even fitter, leaner runner than you are now. You will be crammed full of strength and stamina and endurance.
"There are still many hills to run and several long, slow training runs to complete. All this training will sharpen and hone you into a very different runner from the one that struggled up Chet’s Hill at the end of today’s Two Oceans.
"As race day draws ever closer, the sense of occasion will begin to create excitement and determination. This is not a small rural village marathon qualifier. This is the Comrades marathon, rich in history and tradition, and with a charisma that stirs the blood of even the coolest of runners. You will be starting an epic journey, a personal crusade, that will change the way you perceive yourself.
"The ritual of the start of the race itself is one of the most stirring moments in sport. Comrades veterans agree that the singing of the National anthem, Shosholoza, Chariots of Fire and Max Trimborn’s cockerel crow are immediately worth at least 20 inspired kilometres.”
Finally, I convinced my Germiston Callies friend that in the next few weeks the most important muscle for her to train lies between her ears. Because the most critical transformation will be that which take place in her brain. Her mind will ratchet up a few notches and strengthen her resolve.
Like so many runners on the day, she will sail through 56 km without even noticing the milestone. She will be so focused on meeting the challenge of Comrades, she will run the Comrades marathon in landmarks, progressively crossing off the famous hills and valleys, the villages and towns. In fact, she will probably ignore the descending distance markers until the distances left to run become realistic.
For those who need some inspirational reading material to rouse themselves for battle, there are quite a few ebooks you can read (see mine here). I have just read an electronic copy of the much-anticipated “Running Alone”, the autobiography of the great Jackie Mekler. This 5-times Comrades marathon champion’s story is intensely moving and motivating. If you'd like to read it yourself, just email Jackie at email@example.com
Of course, you could always join me on my Comrades Route Tour. I think there are a few places left, though not that many. And we can always swap war stories of our own on my annual Comrades After Party.
With thanks to The Citizen Newspaper, South Africa.
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