Sunday, May 29, 2011


In a few hours, the start to the 86th Comrades Marathon will sound off. This year is an "up run", as 18,000 runners of all race, creed and nationality set off from Durban, slowly tracing their way over 90-odd km of undulating hills until they reach the nearby city of Pietermaritzburg.

It seems an odd thing to write a post about a race that I have never run (even if an ultra). However, while I may be many thousand miles away from home, there are few things that strike me as more quintessentially South African -- in a good way -- than Comrades.

I can clearly remember being very young and waking up at what seemed an impossibly early hour, to tune in for the start of the race... Sharing in the nervous anticipation of the runners, a bundled mass in the morning dark, waiting for the ceremonial crow and gun shot that signals the start of every Comrades. I would sit transfixed for much of the day with the rest of my family as we watched the lead runners relentlessly beat down the 90km tarmac with superhuman stamina and speed to the finish line... To the absolute drama of a few hours later, as the cut-off shot was fired; the back of the designated official turned dispassionately away from the frantic last rush of stragglers. Would the man wobbling in a dangerous haze, blinded by exhaustion, stumble his way across the line in time? Had those runners, who still looked in good shape but were yet outside the stadium, mistimed their run by a crucial few minutes? And, perhaps most emotive of all, could those shouldering the weight of complete strangers out on their feet, find the strength for two people over the agonizing last few metres? Had they cost themselves a finisher's medal through their spirit of comraderie? In that case, did it matter?

I've run a good number of half marathons and a full in my time, but, as mentioned, Comrades is still on the to-do-list. Indeed, I sometimes feel a compulsion that I have to do it one day. (Well, provided that my knee comes right from its current state of persistent injury!) One of my favourite Comrades anecdotes, though, relates to someone that I met while travelling in Tanzania in 2008. The story may require a bit of background, but essentially I was in the middle of a Cairo to Cape trip at the time... Actually, it's probably best just to quote directly from the group email that I wrote back then:
[...] Something that you realise doing a trip like this, is that there is always someone just a little bit more hardcore than you. Niall [i.e. friend I was travelling with] and I met perhaps the most obvious such candidate on the stretch from Arusha to Iringa. 
Andy is a Scotsman who had come down solo from the UK, through Europe and the Middle East, and then on to the same Cairo-south route as ourselves. Seeing as we were cycling too, he was keen to join up for the company for a while. He mentioned that he was heading down to Durban. When I asked why he didn't "just" continue on through to Cape Town, he dropped the bombshell: He was cycling down to Durban to run the Comrades Ultramarathon...
Um. Come again? 
"Yes, this year I think I'll cycle 18,000km -- by myself -- and then celebrate by running a 90km ultra at the end." 
Every morning, he wakes up early, runs anything from one to three hours, and then gets on his bike for a regular 100km cycle. Madness. This, after Niall and I had been debating whether it was too taxing too do some press-ups before a day's cycle... 
Andy, we salute you!
[Note: I'm happy to report that Andy did manage to finish his race before the 12-hour cut-off time that year. This is all the more impressive for the fact that he found himself short on time to reach Durban once he hit Malawi. If I recall correctly, he had to do the last 2,500 km in under 20 days, which I can promise you is a big ask...]


  1. I just want to check: By "cycling" do you mean a normal pedal-power bicycle? All the way from Cairo to Cape Town?

    If so, then I can only say 'respect'.

    That, or you and your buddies here are crazy.

  2. Yep... The pedal-power version of "cycling", I'm afraid. (The final, desperate attempt to build some decent calf muscles.)

    It was a pretty long trip -- and nearly as long in the telling, according to Poncey -- but pretty awesome, as I'm sure you can imagine. I may get round to reproducing some of the emails/stories that I wrote about at the time, but we'll see!

  3. McDermott you bloody Marathon runner. Who ate your bloody calf muscles?


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