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2012-09-17

Comrades Marathon - Are you extra-ultra-ordinary?

Comrades Marathon - South African annual 90km ultra marathon.
Comrades Tips, Comrades Tricks, Comrades Advise, and Comrades ideas to help get you over the finish line before the final gun goes off...



Good day, fellow runner!  The reason that you are reading this page is probably because you have entered, or plan on entering on the the BEST ultra-marathons in the world. To read more on what the Comrades Marathon is, follow this link to the official Comrades Marathon website.

I have completed the race 6 times.  I am not a fast runner or a sport scientist.  I am an average runner that enjoy races, the commitment, the endurance, the running friendships, the camaraderie, the music of Chariots of Fire (Vangeles), and the adventure of finishing the run, beating the final gunshot.  For my 6 races, I have finished twice in the last 5 minutes of the race (sub 12 hours), but I also have 3 bronze medals (sub 11 hours) with a personal best of 10:28.

When reading these tips and tricks, remember that nobody and no program can guarantee success.  Good training and good health can only improve the odds of success.  Also, remember that running long distances should only be attempted with correct training, correct kit, and approval from your doctor or health specialist.  On the day, you should only line up at the start if you trained enough and your body is in good healthy shape!


TIPS, TRICKS, and ADVICE:

1.  If you have not run long distances before, start by doing a few months of walking and short distance running.  Aim to run a half marathon (21.1km) race  between 2 hours and 2hours 15minutes at least 6 months before Comrades day.  If you can achieve this, you should be in shape to start a 6-month training program to take you to a successful Comrades.  Remember, before you start any training program it is good advise to consult your doctor or health consultant for a check-up. It is also a good idea to get your Body-Mass-Index (BMI) closer to acceptable levels before you start serious Comrades training - your legs will have to carry you all the way!

2. For Comrades you need to train at least 1000km (start counting 6months before race day).  Track yourself in MS Excel or in a logbook.  Spread the load, start easy, then build up to a couple of weeks of running at least 90km per week.  Have frequent rest days. Include enough time for a good round of tapering before the race.  The 10 percent rule states that you should not increase your mileage by 10% or more per week.  Train and run injury free!

3. If you search the internet you will find a couple of good training programs.  Look at the Comrades website and go to the training folder for a good program.  They normally have a program for Finishing, one for Bronze (sub 11 hour), etc.  It is important that you stick to a specific program and do not jump around between programs.   If you have missed some training sessions, do not try to catch up as this will increase your chances of getting an injury.  If you find it difficult to run a marathon under 4h30m, then you are probably Vic Clapham material, so train with the "finishers" program. Under 4h20m you have a chance for bronze.

4. Plan and practise the race day.  This include everything from what you will eat the night before, the morning of the race, and during the race.  Do some longer races going through all the motions.  Wear the same kit, same running belt, use the same gels, vaseline, plasters, etc.  Make sure it is tried and tested!  Do not get overwhelmed at the Expo with all the latest gadgets.  If you buy stuff here, pack it away and start experimenting after Comrades!

5. When walking up-hills in races, walk better by imagining you are pulling a rope.  Then keep on pulling yourself to the top.  By doing this you will make up some good time and pass a lot of other walkers.  The logic is simple:  By pulling the imaginary rope, you are swinging your arms better that improves the blood circulation and make your legs walk faster.

6. Make hills your friend!  Do hill repeat training in your build-up to Comrades so that you can stay positive when approaching a hill.  Another hill tip: when you are on a hill, try to follow in the footsteps of another person who seems to be running well on the hills.  Follow his/her stride and try to stay close behind this person.  This will do 2 things:  1) keep your mind off the hill and 2) maybe you will feel better if you approach the hill differently by changing your stride and by not looking down, but forward.

7. With both the "up"- and the "down" run, the first couple of kilometres are uphill.   Do not let your adrenaline make you go too fast and then you blow and hit the wall after less than 21kms.   A slow seeding (F and slower) will help you overcome this problem, because it will force you to walk a lot at the start due to the runner congestion.

8. If you have a slow seeding (F and slower) then remember it could take you about 5 minutes to reach the starting line.  Comrades is run gun-to-gun so add at least 5 minutes of no running when calculating and predicting where and when you want to be. Due to runner congestion, it might take about 3 or 4 km's before you can start jogging unhindered at your planned pace.  The congestion is worse when starting in Pietermaritzburg.  

9. Learn how to cope with cramps.  Search the internet or ask fellow runners how they cope.  There are good chances you will get some cramps, minor or major.  I try to walk them out, I rub them with ice, I massage them, and I try to stretch them a bit.  I have seen other runners quit whenever they get a little bit of a cramp.  Normally what works best for me is to walk about a kilometre.  Thereafter I will start running little bits and see how it goes.

10. Your first priority in your training program should be to train for distance.  Second priority is to train hills.  Third priority is to train for speed.  The best training for running is to run.  You can include some cross training to add variety or if you recover from injuries (here swimming and cycling could be good), but your primary training should be lots of running.

11. Comrades race day is a very long day.  You need to try to keep your mind busy to keep it from thinking about the distance or your legs.  I print out a little profile map of the route, and try to predict at what time I want to be at every 10km's.  With this I constantly have a look and do the maths of how I am going.   Another thing to do is to listen to the other runners.  Imagine it is like a symphony where all the runners play a part.  The symphony starts off with a lot of noise, then it will get quieter and quieter until close to the end where it finish off with a grand finale of the crowd clapping and Chariots of Fire on the speakers.

12. After about 21km's into the race, try to stay with a group of runners that have completed between about 4 and 6 Comrades.  These runners will know the route, know the endurance required, and know not to go too fast too soon.  Follow and learn from them.  Ask questions if you want.  A person who have completed only 1 or 2 might be at risk of overconfidence and easily loose respect for the route.


13. In my running belt, I take the following: a small cell phone so I can phone friends during the run and at the end to locate them.  A couple of gels and vitarace tablets.  I take 1 or 2 painkillers in case I need something for the last about 10km's.  A bit of toilet paper in a zip lock - useful if you have a running nose or when you need to run into the bush.  I take a Imodium tablet in case of a stomach problem.  I also carry a R20 note for just in case I run past an ice cream salesman.   Some people run without a belt as they say there are enough supplements at the water points. 

14. The "up" run is the easier run for most people. It is about 4km. shorter and your legs will appreciate the up more than the downs.  For the down run, practice some down running to strengthen the legs.  Remember good warm-up sessions before attempting downward running.  You can easily get injuries running downhill.  Also, do not think you will "make up" lots of time during the final long down-hills on the down run.  It can get painful trying to go fast there.


15. Don't be afraid to start walking in the race.  Also, if you only want to finish the race before the final gun, do not run any of the big up-hills.  Relax, walk, enjoy.  But, be wary of the first couple of cut-offs on the route.  They should not bother you, unless you are a very slow walker or spend a lot of time standing still.

16. Calculate how much liquid you will require per hour.  Ask other runners or search the internet for advise.  Depending on the temperature you will require a little more, or little less.  Over hydrating is also dangerous.   The water stations on the Comrades route are all very close to each other so it is very easy to drink too much.

17. There will be a couple of cameras on the route.  Smile at them!  It will also make you feel good and lift your spirit a little.  When your photos come you will be glad you smiled. :-)

18. The start is normally very cold - especially on the "down" run.  Take an old long-sleeve top, or a black bag or something to keep you warm. Bring a newspaper to sit on as this will isolate you from the cold tarmac. I buy a cheap blanket to sit on and then donate to a needy as I start running.  They normally sell cheap disposable "pajamas" and gloves at the Comrades Expo - these are well worth it.  Throw it to a spectator after about 10-12 km.   On the "down" run I have found the coldest point is at the bottom of Polly Shorts, so do not throw the warm top away too soon.

19. On the "up" run, don't be afraid of Polly Shorts, unless you are running for gold or run out of time.  Only the top few runners are running the whole distance!  You can walk to the top - it is steep, but not a very long hill.  Very scenic.  From the top of Polly's it is about 8km to the end so give yourself at least 1 hour from here to reach the finish line and you should make it.

20. Watch out for debris at the start (water bottles, food, clothing, etc.)  Watch out for cat-eyes and traffic cones.  Take care at water tables for water sachet's, orange peels, bananas, etc. laying in the road.   It is not fun eating tarmac and a big fall could mean the end of your race.  The start area can have some dark spots and there are some horror stories of people who fell and ended the race meters before crossing the start line.

21. Make sure you read and understand the rules.  Check the Comrades website, your entry form, and the race instructions.  The marshals are very strict!  Read the seconding rules, the rules about clothing, advertising, helping and assisting other runners, what your family are allowed to do, etc.  

22. You will be exposed to the sun for a lot of time, so put some sun block on.  You will need to experiment to find something that will work for you (try the options available at sporting shops).  You do not want something that will irritate your eyes as the sun block mixed with sweat get into your eyes.


23. Know at what speed you can operate.  Run a 4 and 8 km time trail.  Remember your average times for these distances.  Now you will know if you have 8 of 4 km left in the race if you have a realistic chance to make it.  You will not easily go faster than your TT (time trail) times, especially after completing 80 odd kilometres!  Take a 10km route and measure how long you take to walk it.  This will tell you with 10km left in the race if you can walk or need to add some running.

24. Make sure your stopwatch have enough battery power and that the memory is cleared.  If you use a heart-rate monitor, then consider sending it in for an inspection to the supplier to ensure it is in top-notch condition on race day.  Some of the elite runners have experience a flat battery or full memory on their stopwatches less than 10kms into the race.


25. It is very important to get to the start line feeling good and healthy.  If you have any injuries or illnesses, then the odds will be against you for completing the race.  Consult your doctor, physiotherapist, or a sport scientist if you are unsure.

26. Drink 2 x 250ml glasses of water 2 hours before the start of the race. This will help to prepare your body to get ready for the fluid intake during the race.  (Remember to also test this on a long run before Comrades!)

27. Do your best to avoid getting flu.  This can take 2 weeks or more out of your training.  It will also spoil race day.  Take extra vitamins and immune boosters (consult your doctor or pharmacist).  If you do get sick, be careful of training.  Consult an expert as with illnesses it is sometimes OK and sometimes it is definitely NOT OK to do exercises.

28. To get an idea of what a realistic target finishing time would be, search with Google for "comrades time prediction" .   If you can't find a predictor online, then take your best marathon time run in the last 6 months, and multiply by 2.35.  This would be a rough estimate.  The predicted time is quite accurate, except for sprinters who run a very fast marathon, then blow at about 50-60km into Comrades.  Use this as a good guideline, give-or-take no more than 15 minutes.  If your predicted time is 12:00, then you do not have any realistic chance of getting a bronze.

29. If you have any Comrades related question, go to the Comrades Forums on www.comrades.com and discuss.   A lot of runners go there to get advise.  Some go there just for some motivation!

30. A big part of Comrades is about getting your head ready for the endurance.  You get your head right by 1: Knowledge, 2: Training, 3: Race experience.  You need to believe in yourself.  To up your belief, do calculations like this one:  Lets say you have completed 2 Oceans 56km race in 6:20.  Now, add 4km and give yourself 40 minutes.  Now that will leave you with less than 30km's in Comrades and you have 4 hours for Bronze or 5 Hours for a Viki.  Believe in yourself! YOU CAN DO IT!!

31. If you need to get accomodation in Durban or Pietermaritzburg, book it well in advance.  Same with flights (also, as availability goes down, up goes the price!).  Comrades is a very busy time!  If possible, get accomodation closer to the start so that you have a better start to the day.  The traffic to the start can get very congested so arrive early.  Find out about bus transport to take you to the start.

32. Bus transport... There are buses that can take you to the start before the race, or return you to the start after the race.  The tickets will be for sale at the Comrades Expo.  It works fairly well, but after the race you can sometimes expect long queues to get on the bus.

33. Tog bag service.  I have used the tog-bag service a few times and were really impressed by the good service.  If you plan to use it, arrive early enough at the start to hand in your bag as the queues can get long with the rush a few minutes before the start.  They have a good system in place to secure your bag, but you should still avoid putting valuables inside.  If you have to take valuables (e.g. cellphone, tablet computer, cash), make sure electronics are switched off and wrap it in a towel or container to make the contents unrecognizable.   I always have a towel, recovery drink, and a warm jacket in my tog bag for after the race.

32. In both the Up and Down run, the second half is much easier than the first.  It is therefore beneficial to take the 1st half slower to give yourself some energy and leg muscle to profit in the second half.

33. Accommodation advise (lesson learnt the last 2 years!)... If you stay to close to the start, remember that there will be some power-tools at work the night before Comrades to setup the start area which will be noisy.  When starting in Pietermaritzburg, check the calendar if the Pietermartizburg Show could be the same weekend.  The night before Comrades could be very noisy till late if it is show weekend and you are staying close to the show grounds --> expect fireworks, loud music, and an announcer on the PA system late in the evening. (Another reason to have a good night's rest 2 days before Comrades!)


A final note: Thank the helpers, marshals, traffic police,  people at the water stations, and the spectators clapping and encouraging you.  It is hard work for all of them and most do it for free.  One day you could be in their position and will then appreciate the runners for being thankful.


2 comments:

  1. It sounds like it is a lot in the head, and very hard on the body.

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    Replies
    1. 50% in the head. 50% in the body. If you train correctly and get enough race practice, then this in itself will improve the "head". It is very important to believe in yourself.

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