My 2013 Comrades JOURNEY / Avigdor Book

I remember speaking to a friend’s brother-in-law a few years ago, about some fabled race called the Comrades Marathon, billed as the world’s greatest ultra-marathon. He told me how long it took him to finish and I asked if he walked it. When he had finished laughing he looked at me in the eye and said this was no mere marathon, like the ones that I had starting running at the time, this was 2 marathons back-to-back with another 5k added on, just for a laugh!  As the famous Comrades quote goes, “Comrades is a great 5K. The problem is the two marathons you have to run to get to the starting line.”

So, obviously I did what any sane person would do and immediately assigned that person into the ‘complete and utter nutcase’ category. That was the end of that, or so I thought until 6 times Comrades finisher (at the time) Sam Shantall, started reminiscing at one of his famous rooftop braais. I am not sure at which one of these braai’s it was at or how exactly I was transfixed to the idea of running an absurd distance, putting Alma’s and my South African routes to the side, but as some point I remember us saying in unison “Comrades 2013”. It was still a good 2 years off at the time and pretty incomprehensible to the both of us. Sam had not run it since making Aliyah 5 years  beforehand, so the memory of the race itself and the preparation had dissipated somewhat.

That was that really – still pretty much a pipedream, but a concept which was mentioned over the next year from time to time, more in a dare type of way, rather than something we would actually do, until about a year beforehand, when it dawned upon us that if we are going to do this thing, we had better start taking it relatively seriously as we only had a few months left before we had to register.

Saul Kramer had just completed his first Comrades at the time and it was indeed a monumental achievement and the legendary status he achieved at that run was fully deserved. I remember following him online, thinking to myself, I am going to be there next year!

So, what does it take to prepare for such a race? I had run 12 regular marathons up until a year before The Comrades, and so had something of a fitness base, but as any long distance runner knows, the longer you run the more mental the game gets – How can one possibly perceive such a distance when not ever having run even half of it? The answer is: One can’t and like any mission in life you have to be 100% committed and trust in the training you have put in. You know yourself better than anyone else and know the painstaking hours and sacrifices you have put in to get to that starting line. Every one of the 14,000 starters on June 2 2013, was a hero, just for getting there.

So, after running Tiberius in January, Sam and I got down to the serious business of planning! After some pretty intense power meetings, involving yet more meat and beer we finally clicked the download training program button on the Comrades website. A big move I tell you! J

Aside from the usual variety of tempo, interval and long runs there were also two back-to-back 3hr sessions and the famous 60k training run, run approximately a month before the race itself. What were we getting ourselves into?  I noticed that there was  60K ultra happening around 3 months beforehand and decided that this would be good practice to run further than marathon distance, into virgin territory so to speak. The race itself was mostly downhill or flat and run on the trail with aid stations around every 10K. I actually enjoyed running off road and in the rain and through rivers but did not enjoy the extra 6K that was run, due to the organizers miscalculation! Those final 6K gave me a taste of what it is like to run on empty. Demoralizing to say the least – You are running into a mental space where you are really alone and dependent on any reserves set up in the contingency plan you have hopefully  setup beforehand.

So 66K done and still alive. Now the most intense month of Comrades training to look forward to – April! The back-to-backs were easier in a way because they were only a mere 3 hours and run at a very relaxed pace, with ice baths to aid recovery between runs. The idea is to train your body to run on tired legs and that we did!

On Sunday 28th April Sam and I headed out on the planned 60K training run uphill to Jerusalem (as one does) using some intense hills as practice. We were blessed to be seconded by Daniel Cohen, a true gentleman, who saw us through safely to the Kotel. It was a special run, where we got the feeling of running together, in the blazing heat, with no shade, but with stunning scenery for most of the route.

Aside from a marathon in Toronto, which I managed to score thanks to work, May was more of a winding down month till race day on June 2nd.  A few days before race day we touched down in the coastal city of Durban, race HQ. We immediately got our first taste of South African Running Culture, at the rental car counter, with a sign welcoming runners.  Comrades is the world’s oldest (first run in 1921) and largest ultra (18,000 applicants) and is the centerpiece of South African running culture. All walks of South African life run this race – runners of all shapes, sizes, races, and ages.  Everyone who is a runner in South Africa aspires to run Comrades.  The question to runners here is not "have you run Comrades?" but rather "how many Comrades have you run?" The Comrades race is approximately 95% South African runners, although the number of foreigners is increasing as the race starts to get more international attention.

From the airport we went through undulating roads, with lush green fields on either side, straight to the Expo. Coming into Durban we drove down the first ‘unregistered hill’ of the Comrades, Tollgate. Wow, if that wasn’t even on the map, we had better start worrying!

The Comrades course has five registered hills, call them the ‘Big Five’. These are the stars of the show. In order of appearance they are: Cowies Hill, Fields Hill, Botha’s Hill, Inchanga and Polly Shortts. Three of the ‘Big Five’ are found in the first half of the race. From the base of the first hill, Cowies, to the top of Botha’s Hill you climb 502 meters in the space of only 22 kilometers. Any seasoned campaigner will tell you this translates into a lot of steep climbing.

Anyhow, more about dem hills later. At the Expo we picked up our International bib numbers and timing chips and met Nick Bester, 1991 Comrades winner and Mark Woolf a friend and an owner at 32Gi, a sport nutrition company. The usual merchandise acquisitions followed, but we somehow held back on the temptation to buy another pair of running shoes – you can never have enough J From the Expo we headed to Chabad of the North Coast at Umhlanga (pronounced Umshlanga) and to 19 times Comrades attendee, Rabbi Shlomo Wainer.

Umhlanga is a small taste of paradise on earth with the Indian Ocean sending huge waves crashing down onto a pristine beach, which I remember from my childhood. Coupled with the amazingly warm and friendly welcome from Rabbi Shlomo, it was indeed the perfect pre-race set-up. On the Friday before the race we woke to a warm Durban winter morning. Sam took me for a run on Breakers Beach trail and promenade. Upon our return to Chabad, we met Saul, who had just arrived from a business trip in Johannesburg and with whom I had the pleasure of sharing a room with. As he headed to the Expo, Sam and I took a trip down memory lane to 31 Sunningdale Drive. I really don’t have a vivid memory of the place where lived from ages 1 – 5, but it was still a poignant return. From there we headed over to Umhlanga beach for a quick pre Shabbat dip and then back to base (5 minute walk) for Shabbat and the highlight of the Chabad of the North Coast calendar, the pre-Comrades Friday night dinner.  150 people gathered for Friday night services and dinner. The dinner was a catered affair and there was a guest speaker in the form of Alan Robb, who has won 4 Comrades and was about to run his 40th consecutive! Perfectly normal…

He scared the living daylights out of novice and expert alike, with talk of his infamous race day checklist which took the form of a Checkers pack (local supermarket bag) and what not to forget inside it. He went on to talk about the race itself to give us some mental preparation, which I tried to take with a pinch of salt, as he just kept on going about how hard it is and relentless the hills are! Interestingly enough, his post-race quote from this year’s race was:

“This year was the hardest race I have ever done, not just Comrades, but any race,” Robb, 59, says of his 10:43:18 finishing time on the “up” run.

The rest of Shabbat was very relaxing and there was plenty of time to psych yourself up on the pier at Umhlanga Rocks. I wasn’t sure what kind of mental state I would be in for the race itself so thought about the people I love and inspire me and prayed for friends and relatives who are no longer with us.  I could not really psych myself up for the actual route too much, as I had never run the route or anywhere near that distance, so just tried to clear my mind and gain some form of clarity.

Race day started at 3am with the shocking sound of our alarms. After a breakfast of champions i.e. ProNutro breakfast cereal, Orya, Sam’s Fiancé and our seconder on the day, drove us to the start line…

We have to be in the start pen by 5:15am otherwise you start from the back. Sam and Orya got us there in good time. After a few pictures, mandatory bathroom stops and more hydration (as it would be difficult to stop to pick up a drink for the first few K, with the surging crowds), we made our way into the starting pen.

The race this year started in Durban and ran up to the town of Pietermaritzburg. The ‘up’ run is a continuous long haul of pretty much continuous ascent for 40K. The second half of the up is so lumpy and the runners so fatigued that each tiny hill is like a mountain and frequent walking can happen.  Particular Little Pollies and Polly Shortts hills represent difficult obstacles and generally 'no-one runs Pollys'. Polly Shortts (the last of the five big hills) is known to break many Comrades runners.  It's the equivalent of Heartbreak Hill in the Boston Marathon.

To summarize, The Comrades is characterised by five major hills, the "Big Five". Each presents a unique challenge. The first half of the course has the most dramatic variation in profile where you climb three of the Big Five before the halfway mark.  By contrast the second half is flatter and ‘easier’. Polly Shortts may well be the shortest hill but it is the steepest. It is also the hardest by virtue of its distance from the start.

Now that you have a taste for the race, let’s begin J

It's supposed to be cool/cold, wait a minute – it's not. In fact not cool at all. We’re in the first pen behind the elite field. There's a huge range of experience around me with some novices like me and many others having run the race several times. There's a ritual build-up to the race from 5:15.  The South African national anthem, then Shosholoza, a traditional African song:

Shosholoza, shosholoza (Moving fast, moving strong)

Ku lezontaba (Through those mountains)

Stimela sphuma eSouth Africa (Train from South Africa)

Wenu yabaleka (You are leaving)

Wenu yabaleka (You are leaving)

Ku lezontaba (Through those mountains)

Stimela siphum' eSouth Africa (Train from South Africa)

This is sung by 14,000 people singing their hearts out. It's an extraordinary thing and really does give you goose bumps. Then it's the Chariots of Fire theme which is also awesome and you are minutes way now and as the strains die away there's the sound of a cockerel crowing twice followed by a massive cannon boom and we are off.

Some British guy next to me had a nightmare start. Within the first TEN meters, someone trod on the back of his right shoe and it flew off into the surging masses ahead! Imagine trying to spot your shoe amongst around 30,000 other. Amazingly, the spirit of the Comrades came through for him when after a few minutes, someone says 'that man has your shoe!' and points into the running masses ahead, where he spotted a guy running with a shoe held aloft and it got  passed back to him!

You start by running through the streets of Durban, but within a couple of km you are steadily climbing out of town. The atmosphere in the dark is great – lots of supporters even before 6AM, particularly along the bridges that pass over the road we are running along.

There's stunning scenery as the sun comes up and the road is lined with people out having parties and Braai (BBQ) and they're all cheering you on.   I'm wearing a vest with an Israeli flag on the front and so it's obvious I'm not from round here and they give overseas visitors special encouragement (Everyone knows that you are an international runner as out numbers are blue, and you wear a number on both the front and back). Also on my vest was ‘Viggy’ which caused countless variations of my nickname to be shouted back at me, including one chap who thought it said ‘Viagra’!

The crowd support is the sort you only normally only see at a few big-city marathons.  Comrades is a social occasion for spectators.  The course passes through town’s right in front of people's houses and many were making a day of it.  The race is broadcast on national television from start to finish, and a large portion of the country tunes in to watch at least a part of it.

Despite the uphill nature of this year's course, I found the early hills not so bad, due to living in Modiin and especially after the training we had put it in.  The sun was strong once it came up, but there was a breeze and it didn't seem to get hot until the later stages of the race. At Hillcrest, just past the 30K mark, Orya spotted Sam and we stopped for a quick hello, before continuing on to Drumond, the half-way point. This was reached in 3:38, which put us nicely on schedule for a sub 7:30 finish. I should mention, it is difficult race to pace because of the changing altitude, so picking a fixed per-K speed isn't going to get you far and you don't know how the hills are going to affect you.

So, being ahead of 7:30 target , was all well and good, until we met the behemoth that is Inchanga, the fourth of the Big Five hills. It is a long, punishing pull that saps the strength, a 2.5K stretch with an average gradient of 6% after you've just run an extremely hilly marathon (considered by some to be the toughest marathon distance run in South Africa). We lost about 10 minutes of time on that hill alone and our legs were beginning to feel the effects of all the climbing, by the end of it. The one good thing we had going for us that once over the mighty Inchanga, the bulk of the climbing is behind you. Not that that means it is in anyways plain sailing the rest of the way…

What did help out immensely was that there were an amazing number of aid stations along the race course, one every 2km.  The aid stations offered water, Energade, Pepsi and sometimes some food – potatoes (covered in salt), oranges, bananas etc.The water and Energade is dispensed in small plastic sachets with about 250ml of fluid. You grab a nice ice cold sachet, rip a corner off with your teeth and drink or pour over your head. Brilliant. As well as the organized aid stations, there were people along the route were giving out big chunks of ice which were a welcome relief and all sorts of food.  The staple of the Comrades is the famous boiled potato mentioned above.  It's supposed to keep your body's salt balance on the right side of hypernatremia.  Difficult to describe, and already now my stomach turns at the thought of picking these potatoes from a plastic tray from which other runners had just dipped their sweaty hands into, but at the time it was like manna from heaven!

After the half-way point, there is also the introduction of aid stations, which off ice cold arnica gel massages to temporarily relieve those ever cramping muscles. These massage stations were used on a more frequent basis the longer the race went on. They were kind of a pit stop, which kept you going at least until the next aid station…

Talking about aid stations, at the 64K mark is the famous and most welcome site you are ever likely to see in a marathon – Chabad. Rabbi Shlomo and his crew were waiting patiently at Camperdown for every single Jewish runner. Thankfully Sam and I were the first two to stop, to put on Tefilin, so we had nice dry pairs to put on! This was done in a very slick manner with the whole spiritual refueling taking about 60 seconds – yes not too much Kavana at that point. Aside from the ritual offerings, much fresh fruit and drinks along with encouragement was also offered in the shady gazebo.

After a few pics and trying not to worry Orya too much, we carried on our merry way. Boy, was it hard to get going again! Post Camperdown, the scenery consists of hot, naked veld. Harrison Flats is next up and aside from being the loneliest part of the race, a wind, known as the bergwind, started to be felt here, as well as the complete lack of shade. The bergwind is a hot dry and miserable bastard of a wind that comes right off the mountains and dries everything and everyone out.

Taking on fluids at every station had become essential. The heat and the wind just wicked away every drop of moisture in no time.  In fact several times during the second half some kind spectator had turned on their garden hose and were spraying runners.  Each time I stood right in front of the spray and ensured I got a thorough soaking from head to foot – absolutely drenched.  Within 5 minutes I was bone dry.

Despite a strong first half, Sam and I started to slow here, and we knew by six hours into the race that our initial goal of finishing under seven and a half hours for a silver medal was out of reach. (Medals are awarded to all runners completing the course in less than 12 hours, with 6 different medals on offer, depending on your finish time). It was around this point that we decided to stick together to the end and remember what running was all about. No-one cares about your time at this race!  We saw runners of elite pedigree on the side of the road in extreme agony, throwing up or trying not to. We'd given up on chasing Silver, as it was clearly not going to happen and it was a case of getting to the finish in one piece, so why not try to enjoy it!

After the Harrison (not so) flats, we made our way to the highest point of the route at Umlaas Road. The wind was not letting up and within a minute or so of having a drink, your mouth was dry again. In the last 20km or so the bergwind had rolled down from the peaks and was blasting the course full in the face.  The distance marker signs were falling flat to the floor and it was playing havoc with the drink stations, which we were pretty much walking through by this point.

Finally we were insight of the last registered hill, the stinger in the tail that is Polly Shortts. Polly Shortts is almost two kilometres long and bends deceptively three times. Each time you will be fooled into believing you are near the top. No one runs quickly up either Ashburton, Little Pollies or Polly Shortts. Even front runners are occasionally compelled to walk, as was the case this year.

Don’t believe the lie that the race is all downhill from the top of Polly Shortts. There is still some running left to the finish. Pietermaritzburg has its fair share of undulations. The kilometer markers count downwards at Comrades and at 7K (entering Pietermaritzburg, after cresting Polly Shortts) Sam told me it is just a Reut loop to go. I lost count at the amount of expletives I returned to him. It's essential you don't dwell on how far there is left to go but instead set smaller, more achievable goals.  The race is so tough that it's a big relief to know that you can walk and you'll still make it home.  Eventually the last few kilometers ticked down and the more sparsely-populated section after halfway gave way to bigger crowds and the cheering and support became all the more raucous.

Those last 4km seemed to take forever.  The finish is in a cricket stadium and you have to pass a different sports ground on the way to it which seems very cruel!  But after hearing the announcer in the ground for some distance you eventually turn into the stadium and see Orya waiting for us amongst the crowds around the final 200m of grass round the perimeter.

Those last few meters, holding Sam’s hand will forever be etched in my memory. It was an amazing feeling to cross the last timing mat and finish.  One of the race organizers came over with effusive thanks for running the race, which made you feel pretty special.  After which, Sam and I hugged (me hugging more so I wouldn’t collapse) and then Sam went onto hug someone far more important!

I went over to hydrate myself in a drinks tent and sat down. It initially felt so good, but turned into a problem when I couldn’t get up again. Some kind runner saw I was in some distress trying to get my legs moving so I could stand up and called over for a stretcher to take me to the medical tent. I immediately got a massage to loosen up my completely cramped up muscles and was asked when the last time I had urinated was. After I said more than 2 hours previously, the doctor said it was standard procedure to place someone in my position on an infusion drip and release me, only after I had gone to the bathroom. Two liters of saline later, I left the tent feeling like a new man and needing to pee every 5 minutes! A medical tent is maybe not the best place to be after a race and you see things you would rather not be seeing, but saline really does aid recovery remarkably…

“The main medical tent usually sees an average of 250 patients on race day, but this year was different and more demanding in that we attended to 68 percent more patients,”

Dr Jeremy Boulter, chief Comrades doctor said.

Was relieved to see that Saul had made it upon my return to the finish enclosure and was more than appreciative, that he had bought the Biltong and Salt and Vinegar Simba chips, for the long ride home!

And yet the day was not over yet for the vast majority of Comrades runners, most of whom were still out on the road. There is a hard cutoff of twelve hours at the finish line.  Amazingly more than half of the runners in Comrades typically finish during the last hour of the race.

Yes, it was a hot and windy day – The weather peaked at 32 degrees (90F) with a road temperature of well over 100F. Apparently, many have said it was the hardest Comrades ‘ever’ with huge head winds, dust and the highest dropout race in the races history. This year a third of the field didn't finish, about triple the average.  I would bet almost all will vow to try again. It’s an extraordinary race and if it's on your bucket list I think it's rightfully there and I would encourage you to give it a go.

This now brings me to the 'dramatic' stats of Comrades 2013:

  • Of the 19907 that entered, ~14 000 collected their number and toed the start line
  • Just over 10 000 finished (4000 DNFs is the highest ever, and double that of last year)
  • There was the lowest ever number of silver medals (305, around half of previous years)
  • Silver medals: 6hrs 00min 01sec to sub 7hrs 30min
  • Bill Rowan medals (bronze-centred circled by silver ring): 7hrs 30min to sub 9hrs 00min

I cannot thank Orya enough for all the support she provided during the trip, seconding us during the race and especially for schlepping the chops and boerewors from Johannesburg, for what was by far the best braii I had ever had. The biggest appreciation and thanks go to my wife and boys who supported me unwaveringly throughout the buildup and during the race itself – without them, none of this would have been possible…

For all, a learning experience about humility and controlling your pride. Ultimately, Comrades is not about yourself, or your individual attributes. It is about the runners that sacrifice every weekend for months to cross this route, it’s about passing your fellow runners a much-needed drink, giving children a high-five, not to mention encouraging the Comrade who is mentally lost and sobbing by the wayside near the top of one of the race’s five formidable hills. In this race, life’s journey overtakes each of our own.

People have been asking me "What's next?" Why, the ‘down’ run of course!