by Coach Atul Godbole
Comrades 2019 Race Report
Finished my 3rd Comrades Marathon in a time of 10:38. Pleasantly surprised because a better than expected result.
Comrades 2019 was my 3rd Comrades but my first “up” Run. Every year the race alternates between an “up” run from Durban to PieterMaritzburg and a “down” run from PieterMaritzburg to Durban. They are so called because their is a net elevation gain on the up run, and net elevation drop on the down run. But do not let these labels deceive you. No matter the direction, the course consists of a series of never-ending rollers and climbs including 5-6 large hills 2-3km long.
My first Comrades in 2016 was a “down” run. I skipped the race in 2017 when it was an “up” run. In 2018 it was again a “down” run. So this year, it was my first “up” run. I was looking forward to it. I am not that afraid of climbs, I am sufficiently strong on them. It is the declines that I hate, because even though I am able to run down them fast (something which not everybody is able to do, downhill running is a skill), they smash up my legs.
Another interesting peculiarity of the “up” run is that the course is 87km, as opposed to the 90km “down” course. However, this does not make for faster times because the net elevation gain of around 700m more than makes up for this.
Net elevation gain: 700m (from sea level at Durban to 700m at Pietermaritzburg)
Total elevation gain: 1800m (just more than 3 times Sinhagad ghat road climb)
Net elevation loss: 700m (from 700m at Pietermaritzburg to sea level at Durban)
Total elevation gain: 1200m (just more than 2 times Sinhagad ghat road climb)
The course profile for the “up” run
All said and done, as I lined up for the start on race day 9th June, I was looking forward to my first “up” run. And for some reason, the fact that I had to run 3km less was giving me great comfort :).
The atmosphere at the start line is highly electric and emotional. Everybody is anxious. No matter how you put it, its a long and tough day, and anything can and usually does happen during the race. The flag-off program is as follows: the multi-lingual (five languages) South African national anthem, followed by the absolutely hum-worthy “Shosholoza” (often called the second national anthem of South Africa), followed by the motivating “Chariots of Fire” theme music, followed by the crowing of cocks, and then finally the race starts with the firing of the canons at 5:30am sharp.
Start line at Comrades 2016
I was lined up in section C – sections are assigned as per the full marathon qualifying times. It took my about 2 minutes to cross the start line. The peculiarity of this race is that the final time is calculated as gun-time, from 5:30am when the race is flagged off, not when the runner crosses the start-line. So that’s 2 minutes lost straight away just in getting to the start-line. The runners in latter sections (all the way upto H) lose as much as 10 minutes in this. What makes this important is that the final cutoff of 12 hours as well as all the intermediate cut-offs are by gun-time, so right off the bat, you start with a handicap of whatever time it took you to get to the start line. And often beyond, as, due to the large crowd of runners, you are only really able to run at your target pace 500-1000m beyond the start line when the crowd has spread out a bit. But that is the unique “charm” of this race. That is what everybody loves about the race.
I hit my stride after about 2km and settled into a good rhythm. The mile markers at this race are in “reverse”, which is to say they show not the distance covered so far, but the distance to go till the finish. After having run 30km, if you see a sign saying “60km to go”, it can be a bit daunting, even depressing. Another unique “charm” of this race 🙂
By the half way point, 2 of the big 5 hills had been tackled. I was running entirely by feel – with no time target, letting my legs and heart take me as per their “wishes”. My “mind” was off, in auto-pilot mode. At 50km, it was a time of reckoning. I was beginning to tire. My “mind” had woken up and was starting to protest and had taken by body out of auto-pilot. There were still almost 40km more to go. It was very tempting to just shift down a gear or two, go into a comfortable place and cruise my way to the finish like last year. But I made a bargain with my “central governor” – the mind – to let me hold the pace for just 5km more. Those 5km went by , and then I made another bargain of 5km more till 60K. That milestone too came quickly enough.
I used this bargaining trick repeatedly till the very end. It worked very well. In the final 2-3km, I shifted gears up and sprinted my way to the finish, for a final time of 10 hours, 38 minutes.
My Comrades medals – 2016, 2018 and 2019
I was quite satisfied and pleased with this time. My training had been spotty to say the least. I had done 2 long runs of 40K in March and April, and then I had gone on an extended vacation almost the entire May. I managed to run whatever and whenever I could, mostly frequent short runs of 5K and 10K. So I will take this time with both hands outstretched 🙂
As always the crowd support is amazing. People and locals line up the streets enthusiastically to cheer us, to offer help, to offer food and water. The official support and volunteers were also very helpful, as always.
The sheer diversity of runners you see in this race is amazing! People from almost 80 countries participated this year. The Indian contingent had the third highest number, behind UK and Zimbabwe (only just!). I am certain in the next 1-2 years, India will be the largest contingent after the home country of South Africa. Such is the growing appeal and popularity of this amazing race.
Runners as young as 18 and as old as 80 take part in this race. Thin and heavy, men and women, abled or disabled, it does not matter. All kinds of runners run this race. It is one big festival, a celebration of running, and of the human spirit. For many in South Africa, and increasingly for many in India too, it has become a yearly pilgrimage which one must religiously take.
The rest of our 13 athletes from Team Motiv8 had an amazing day. A few completed their first one, a few got their back-to-back medals, one did his 4th one, one clocked a sub-10 time, a few clocked a sub-11 time. All in all, the entire team rocked at Comrades 2019.
The Entire Team Motiv8 at Comrades 2019
Chilling the day after the race
I definitely intend to return again in 2020. It will be a “down” run. Interestingly, 2021 is also going to be a “down” run because it will be the 100th year of Comrades (but not the 100th race because the race did not take place for some years during the World Wars) and the organizers want to make it a big and special occasion and the logistics demand a “down” run with a finish at the spectacular soccer stadium in Durban for that big occasion.
See you at Comrades 2020!