Comrades Marathon

  • Durban to Pietermaritzbug (UP run)
  • 86.83km
  • Sat 9 Jun 2019
Durban North Beach parkun

I hadn’t planned on running Comrades again. Twice is a nice number. You can run Comrades to the end of your days, but you can only get the back-to-back medal once. As a novice, by successfully finishing your first two Comrades. I got that last year, but at a cost. It had been a bad race. I had suffered badly and had a nagging doubt that I’d got things wrong. I’d hoped and believed that I was capable of sub-11 and a bronze medal, and it turned out I wasn’t. It itched.

Durban parkrun

So when late last year, I mentioned to Roberta that, given the chance, I’d do Comrades again in a blink, I detected a flicker of an eye-roll. Comrades is a very hard race for the supporter. A 55 mile point to point, with no view of the race except the crowded finish. It’s harder on the supporter than the runner. And only a few months earlier I’d vowed never again. Never. Again. Too Hard. Then BA announced a new direct service to Durban and things gathered momentum and I thought, third time lucky. One more try at bronze.

It meant I was a bit late to training, but I was structured and focussed. I hit my racing weight, and on the 9th of June, I was in my pen early, munching on a potato, and chatting to a novice South African lady who was telling me she’d be disappointed with anything over 10 hours. Nice problem to have. Bronze is sub-11, and although I suspected I might not be fast enough, I thought I’d get pretty close. My pacing and race plan was for sub-11.

Start of the race

For anyone planning Comrades there is a lot of good writing on the race. I’ve followed the official coach Lindsey Parry’s training guides but I’m also a big fan of the blogs of Norrie Williamson and Bruce Fordyce. On the whole I run a disciplined race and to a plan. I suffered hugely last year and had been puzzled. In an excellent blog post from March this year, Bruce Fordyce writes about his 1985 Comrades:

It wasn’t easy and flowing. I was toiling. I remember the sickening realisation: “You are not in control of this race.”

Bruce Fordyce on his 1985 Comrades

That summed up my 2018 Comrades. Many of us have mantras and mind games that keep us going when the going gets tough. And this has become mine. Whenever I feel something is wrong I say this to myself as a warning. Something’s wrong, and a rethink is needed. In a long race, even a slightly faster than planned initial pace can cause disaster further down the line.

Comrades Marathon – Jun 2019

Comrades is not flat. And the up-run is very not flat. Average paces are meaningless and I was following the pacing suggested by Norrie Williamson. Practical suggestions on where to be and landmarks along the course. I was on target pretty much until the half-way point, almost to the second

At the Ethembeni School I looked forward to some high-fiving with the kids. I confess to indulging in mild mischief here. There’s loads of ebullient confident kids, but there’s all the shy ones too, and the naked delight on their face when you single them out and go up to them and thank them for watching is fab. One lad was so excited he grasped my fingers and wouldn’t let go. Still, my ‘Ethembeni split’ was only 40 seconds so I wasn’t there as long as it felt, but moments like that are intensely emotional and help put the race in perspective.

Comrades Marathon – Jun 2019

The school is 36.5km to go on the up-run, and my pace had slipped a fraction. I refocussed and concentrated and tried to go faster. However, at Cato Ridge, with 30km to go, it had slipped some more. I wasn’t going to get sub-11. I wasn’t going to get bronze. I had a pang of disappointment but I knew I couldn’t go faster and maintain it to the finish. In the endgame you can see many that overstretch themselves only to find themselves overstretched in the grass at the side of the road. In an ultra your race pace is the pace you can maintain for the duration of the ultra. So there was no dramatic change in my pace, I just carried on running at the pace I know I could maintain. I was surprisingly upbeat. I was still in control of the race.

Comrades Marathon – Jun 2019

With about 20km to go and on a rare descent my legs were telling me an indignant and incessant tale of woe, but my running economy felt not too bad and my breathing was ok. My legs hurt, but I was ok with that. It was just a case of concentrating on a spot in front and keeping the rhythm moving. Then I became aware of a presence behind me. A bloody bus.

After my initial fascination with the Comrades buses in 2017 I have revised my view somewhat. They can be great. but then again, they can be a pain. Sometimes their pacing is good, and sometimes it’s not. And with the organisers squeezing more entries in each year, the roads are fuller, but not wider. I felt, rather than saw, the bus come up behind me and begin to envelop me. I was irritated but resigned to my fate. Resistance was futile. Soon my biological and technological distinctiveness was added to their own. I was assimilated into the collective. I became part of the bus.

But this wasn’t an official bus. It was smaller, leaner, tighter, and I wasn’t sure who was driving. Must be that tall lanky bloke. Except he disappeared after a few kms and the bus kept going. Then that bloke going for his back-to-back. Very impressive. But then, where did he go? I liked this bus. It had raised my pace a fraction, and I had struggled initially to hang on, but I was ok now. The passengers were quite experienced too, watching out for each other; the cats-eyes and pot-holes and such that can be your undoing in a compact running group. I was also rethinking some of my pacing strategy. On a long steep hill, I usually walk the lot, as I can’t see the point of doing 20 paces running every now again and burning energy. But this was exactly what this driver was doing, and, and, I was quite liking it. In fact, when we hit the last of the Big Five, Polly Shortts, we did a walk-jog strategy that was, well, pretty hard, but I hung on.

By this time I had identified the driver. His name was Dean, and apparently, according to what was written on his Adventist running vest, Jesus was coming soon. Ok dokay. Dean was certainly working a few miracles and I decided to try and stay on his bus to the Finish. In these last few kilometres Dean encouraged and cajoled us with a faultless pacing strategy and I found my atheism was more than a little challenged.

As we ran into the stadium we instinctively spread out in a line around our driver and then we were swallowed up in the crowded finish. I looked around for Dean; I wanted to thank him. I wanted to shake his hand. I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but this had been a big deal. I normally, and contentedly, run alone. But that bus for the last 20km had been a godsend. I couldn’t see Dean in the crush so I looked at the clock to check my time. 11 hours 40 minutes. 20 minutes spare. Gulp. That had been too close for comfort. Nearly half an hour slower than 2017.

Finished.

But I was happy. I can’t think what I would’ve done differently. I’d done the training, lost the weight, drunk less beer, rested some more, had a revised plan, had arrived fresh, confident and positive and had gone out to get bronze. And I hadn’t got it. I’d hit my pay grade and wasn’t going to get any further. Time to move on.

my race

Total distance: 88.35 km
Max elevation: 823 m
Min elevation: 9 m
Average speed: 7.36 min/km
Total time: 11:40:41
Download file: Comrades - 2019-06-09_03 29 53.gpx

Comrades Marathon

  • Pietermaritzbug to Durban (Down Run)
  • 90km
Comrades Marathon Expo – Jun 2018

Three days before Comrades I nipped into the Expo to collect my number. They make you feel special as an international runner with a special fasttrack queue that takes out much of the stress, and quite possibly, some of the fun. This left me plenty time to search for the Ethembeni School amongst the maze of stalls sprawling through the exhibition centre. I approached hesitantly, with my 4 carrier bags stuffed with pre-loved, hated-at-first-sight, and oh-not-another-tech-tee from years of racing around Durham and beyond. I’d been putting them to one side for a long time now, not really thinking through how I’d squash them into my luggage for the long trip to Durban. But squashed in they had been, and now I was a bit nervous. Perhaps the school didn’t have any crushing desire for a Durham City 10K t-shirt, or a Mad Dog 10K, or Blackpool Marathon, and would be shortly making that clear to me. But no. Apparently according to the nice lady I spoke to, they were all ‘awesome’. I was relieved as I had no plan ‘B’ if they were not wanted. After Comrades we were going onto Botswana where we had a strict luggage limit and I had visions of having to furtively find a place to lose several years of surplus running vests.

Two days before Comrades found us on the bus tour again. The Down Run this year. On a hot bus with a broken PA but this didn’t dampen the spirits of our hosts. Both Comrades runners, full of experience and enthusiasm. Once again we stopped at Ethembeni School for an impromptu concert.

Concert at Ethembeni School – Jun 2018

The school is a wonderful place. A facility for kids with disabilities, including albinism, which can still result in them being stigmatised. The school has built up a rapport with Comrades over the years and particularly international runners. As the school principal candidly pointed out, the school enjoys donations and publicity the envy of its neighbours, simply because it’s on the Comrades race route.

The day before Comrades and it had to be the Durban parkrun. A carnival of controlled chaos with the bus drivers rehearsing their moves and runners doing their final kit checks. Despite having 2273 runners the organisers do an amazing job of running a tight ship. Should you wish to run it hard, the opportunity was there to do so. But for most people it was a jog along the seafront enjoying the spectacle and singing of the following day’s buses.

The night before Comrades we stayed at the Golden Horse casino in Pietermaritzbug. Last year it had been at the end of the race and had been surprisingly peaceful. This year, it was a much busier affair and not a lot of fun. A packed and cramped coach took us from Durban to the hotel where eventually we got checked in, were handed a free bottle of Energade, then queued in the restaurant for dinner. Our booking hadn’t been cheap and we were not too impressed with things so far. The night was short, and noisy. They seemed to be re-living the car-chase scenes from Grease in the carpark outside our room. Still, as we were up at 2AM there were not too many hours in which to be kept awake.

After breakfast I sat on the coach waiting for the avoidably late departure of the coach to the start. I’d have been better walking, and sat looking out of the coach window watching many people easily overtake the coach as they strolled to the Start. Eventually we were tufted out with not as much time to spare as I would have liked, and I went looking for the baggage bus. That was pretty amazing. I managed to extract myself from the crush without breaking anything, had a brief and hopefully forgettable detour via a portable toilet, then tried to find my starting pen. Time was counting down and there was a hellish crush at the entrance. The poor marshall tasked with policing the gate suddenly found herself forced back as the force of runners made a final push into the pen. It was pretty nasty. For many seconds I had no control over my movements; the marshall retreated to the side for her own safety and I was propelled forward into the pen by the mass of people behind me. I staggered into the pen, ducked to the side and got myself somewhere safe-ish. This was unpleasant stuff. My sunglasses had been smashed in the crush which had a surprisingly bad psychological effect on me. I’d had a bad night, and with just half an hour to the beginning of this iconic race I stood crushed in abject misery and grumpiness. All in all, I thought, this is a bit shit.

Comrades Marathon – Start – Jun 2018

The ropes between the pens were dropped, and there was a lurch as the pens began to merge. Then there were a few moments of calm. Then over the PA it was announced that the national anthem would be played. I think they do actually play it over the PA – not that it matters. This was one of the many stranger-in-a-strange-land goose-bump moments that you experience in Comrades as an international runner. Proper singing. None of your Oggy Oggy Oggy shite here.

After the power of the national anthem came the mellowness of the Shosholoza, then a palpable expectant pause before the first notes of Chariots of Fire blasted out over the PA. I’m not a huge fan of this song, preferring Mr Bean’s 2012 Olympic variations over the cheesy original, but hey, when it’s 0530AM and dark and cold in Pietermaritzburg and you’re surrounded by thousands of fellow Comrades runners, suddenly it doesn’t seem cheesy at all. In a space of a few minutes my mood had changed. My tetchiness had been replaced by mellowness, and I wondered with interest how the long day ahead would play out. The cock crowed but I noticed some of the old-hands didn’t start their watches until the starting gun sounded a few seconds later.

Comrades Marathon – Start – Jun 2018

Nothing much happened for a bit (although with the race being gun-to-mat – the clock had started ticking) but before long we all started shuffling forward. After the chaotic crush of getting into the pen, things were now quite calm and civilised. Perhaps it was all that singing. It was still dark and cold and I was wearing my long-sleeved Striders top. The one I’d never liked that flared out like a maternity dress but at my waist. After a few miles when things were feeling a bit warmer but still dark I lobbed it at one of the collection points at the roadside only for it to whack into the face of a volunteer who’d turned in response to my shout. I’m never going to stop feeling bad about that and it’s probably best not to think about where my old Strider top is now …

Sunrise – Comrades Marathon – Jun 2018

Slowly the light came up, and the sun rose over KwaZulu-Natal. It wasn’t forecast to be a hot day and running conditions were pretty nice. I wasn’t sure how race-day would play out but for the moment I was on my race plan and feeling fine.

Sunrise – Comrades Marathon – Jun 2018

This year my main objective was to get the back-to-back medal, a medal only available to novices who successfully complete their first two Comrades in successive years. An up run followed by a down run, or vice versa.  I was pretty confident of achieving this goal, but my secondary goal was to get a sub-11 hour Comrades. I thought it was do-able. I’d done a lot of core Strength-and-Conditioning training and was generally fitter and lighter than 2017. I wasn’t complacent though. I knew it’d still be hard. I’d been reading Matt Fitzgerald’s “How bad do you want it” (worth getting for his account of the 1989 Fignon/LeMond Tour de France finale alone) and he warns that one of the main mistakes athletes make as their form improves is to assume that a race will be less tough. So I was ready for that one. As the day wound on I kept clear of the buses as their pacing seemed bonkers. I’d already passed, and been passed by, two different 12 hour buses and didn’t care for their pacing strategy. Too fast, too early.

Your number says a lot about you in Comrades and mine had two red vertical bands indicating that I was going for the back-to-back. It was a strange club and occasionally I’d make eye-contact with other back-to-back runners and exchange a brief acknowledgement. An unspoken communication that we were all there for the same reason.

The sun crossed the sky and on the long steep descents I was grateful for my S&C training as it allowed me to continue running with form where many others were now walking. On the long descent of Fields Hill within the last 30 km I edged past an 11:30 bus that was going for a walk-jog strategy, and kept my rhythm going. I knew things weren’t right though. I was feeling too fatigued too early. I knew that Comrades comprises a long, tough, steady end-game where your muscles are fatigued, but if all is well, your form, rhythm and breathing is retained. And I could sense that I was on the wrong side of the envelope.

An 11 hour Comrades is an average pace of 7:19 a km. As much as an average means anything in this race. You’re lucky if more than a few kilometres of the race are level, which is one of the things that makes it such a hard event. I tried to run as steadily and cautiously as possible but I could sense that I didn’t have the stamina I expected and that it was going to be a pretty rough old day.  With 8km to go my Garmin showed that I was edging tantalisingly close to the psychologically magic pace of 7:19 and I tried to lift the pace a fraction. But just as it was looking like it was going to happen, we hit a long, draining climb into the suburbs of Durban, and it was game over.

I crashed and burned on this hill and at the drinks table at the top I knew the Bronze was not going to happen. This wasn’t a minor setback that I could recover from. My form had gone. My breathing was ragged. My rhythm was terrible. I wasn’t going to come back from this. The remainder of the race was simple damage limitation. Walking and jogging inelegantly into the Moses Mabhida Stadium and looking for the finish. With just 8km to go of this 90km race I could almost touch my target pace but by the final reckoning I wasn’t even close. The gantry clock showed 11:15 and a few seconds.

Comrades Marathon Finish – Jun 2018

I crossed the line with mixed emotions. Part elation, part disappointment. Medals appeared and it felt good to be wearing two medals, the Finisher and the Back-To-Back. It’d have felt even better if one of these had been the bronze but that’s something I’ll have to get used to.

600Comrades Marathon Finish – Jun 2018

Sitting in the international section of the stand I peered over to the finish line as the 12 hour countdown grew near. I was struggling with two intense emotional reactions, one of which was completely unexpected. I hadn’t got the bronze, and I thought I’d been capable of it. I clearly wanted it more badly than I realised.

I puzzled over this. Perhaps it was because this is my first race for a very long time that hasn’t gone to plan. I’m much better at running even or negative splits, very disciplined, and it’s been a long time since I’ve ran a bad race. And this had been a bad race.

Suddenly a commotion from the crowd snapped me out of my despondency and with the seconds counting down  a runner appeared on the finish straight being physically supported by two other runners. The crowd were on their feet and cheering them on, but there’s always one grumpy pedant who doesn’t join in and share the spirit of the moment. I leaned towards Roberta and whispered, “That’s against the rules you know. You must be unsupported”. Perhaps they heard, as I saw an official approach the runner, who dropped to his knees and crawled the last few metres, unsupported, over the line.

Comrades Marathon – Back to Back medal – Jun 2018

I settled back into my despondency and tried to unpick my race. What had gone wrong? Too much training? Too little? Too much beer? Too little? Taper too long? Short? It was difficult to shake of the feeling of unfairness and injustice. But it wouldn’t be racing if there was no risk, if everything was predictable. It would be pointless. And there’s a certain morbid fascination of going over a big race that has gone unexpectedly wrong and mulling over the possible reasons.

I thought of those few seconds that had taken me over 11:15 and could see they would have easily been eaten up by all that high-fiving of the kids as I weaved by the Ethembeni School. But I can live with that. I told myself to stop being an arse. The name Ethembeni means “Place of Hope” and their school motto Phila Ufunde means “Live and Learn”. Wise words. They’ll do for me.

Ethembeni School – Comrades Marathon – Jun 2018

my race

Total distance: 91.67 km
Max elevation: 824 m
Min elevation: 6 m
Average speed: 7.06 min/km
Total time: 11:15:38
Download file: Comrades - 2018-06-10_03 29 30.gpx

Calderdale Hike

40 miles / 6800 feet

To say I was over-prepared for this race would be an understatement.

After last year’s (frankly embarrassing) DNF I was determined to finish this year. On time and on budget. So I had done a lot of homework. I’m an IT tech and if there’s anything a tech hates, it’s a Single Point of Failure (SPOF). I had split the route into 8 sections and numbered and laminated maps for each section. I had a spare OS map in waterproof bag, smartphone with route marked on OS maps, 2 spare battery packs (in case one jumped out my bum bag), and Garmin with route programmed. Plus, I’d done a lot of armchair thinking.

The long route split into 8 laminated map sections.
The long route split into 8 laminated map sections.

This year is the 40th anniversary of the Calderdale Hike. The course changes a little every three years or so, and for the 40th anniversary the long route would be a neat 40 miles. The event is primarily a navigation challenge and although the organisers give a suggested route you are free to make your own decisions on how to get from checkpoint to checkpoint, providing your route choice is legal and uses only public roads and rights of way. I spent a fair amount of time before the race studying the checkpoints and experimenting with different route choices all from the comfort of an armchair. Nothing beats a route recce, but Sowerby Bridge is a bit of a trek and a recce of the 40 mile route would have taking quite a commitment.

Kit Checked

I was soon kit checked and after a leisurely cup of coffee we went outside to hang around waiting to start on a decent dry mild morning. I even had the first couple of kilometres memorised. Last year the peloton had split almost immediately, an experience that had both disconcerted and confused me. So this year I was ready. Or at least I thought so.

Why are they going that way?!

They did it again! We started a couple of minutes early and I was about to jog off in one direction, but realised that everyone else, without exception, was jogging off in the opposite direction! I did what any normal independently-minded runner would do, I followed the crowd, to discover a small gap in wall led to a street taking a more direct route down towards the canal and the first checkpoint. Despite hours of preparation it just shows nothing beats a bit of local knowledge.

There was a fiddly steep downhill to the first checkpoint, then the next  few kilometres east along the canal path were lovely. Flat and gentle, with everyone settling down. After the checkpoint at Copley we turned south and started to climb. There were a couple of minor route choices here but I wasn’t sufficiently confident of their benefit, especially after the quirky start, so just stick with following the runners ahead. What may be shorter on the map, may also be muddier and slower in reality.

After the Greetland checkpoint I headed south across Saddleworth road and onto the footpath. I was following the suggested route. However I noticed a runner that I’d just passed having a good look at his map before heading west and sticking to the road. Some time later when I caught him up again at Ripponden, we compared notes and although he’d taken the longer road route, it had undoubtedly been quicker and more straightforward than the squelch I’d had across muddy fields and with frequent navigation checks.

Ripponden was a food station and I sat down and had a cup of tea and a sandwich. It was going to be a long day and there was no point in trying to save a couple of minutes by dashing on. I had also settled into a pattern with my navigation. At the checkpoints I would look at my paper maps (beautifully laminated if I say so myself), study the section to the next checkpoint, and get the basics in my head. Map Memory, as they call it in orienteering.
Then while running I would use GPS and smartphone maps to take care of the twists and turns, with the paper maps always there as a backup. Stopping to map read and route plan between checkpoints can be a bit of a hassle and quite time consuming.

Leaving Ripponden there was a substantial route choice to be made. The suggested route headed North East and meandered along the Calderdale Way. But heading west and sticking to the quiet lanes was more direct, and quite a bit shorter, with no extra climbing involved. There were some walkers ahead and they headed for the Calderdale Way and I had a moment of indecision. But I was sure my route was quicker, and although part of me thought it not in keeping with the Calderdale Hike, not to actually go along the Calderdale Way, the orienteer in me is hard-wired to optimise a route and take the most efficient path possible. So for the first time in the hike I took my own route and started climbing North West out of Ripponden towards the next checkpoint at Hinchcliffe Arms.

I think it was a good choice but it’s difficult to be sure. With an event such as this runners become sparser as the day goes on. So without anyone else to compare myself with I had no real way of knowing whether I’d made the correct decision. At the Hinchliffe Arms checkpoint runners and walkers on the short (27 miles) route took a different path, and things got even quieter.

Photobombing Stoodley Pike

The next section took us past Withens Clough Reservoir and over to Lumbutts Chapel with Stoodley Pike monument of to the right. Navigation was pretty straightforward here with a combination of dead-reckoning and when possible just sticking to the nice runnable surface of the Calderdale Way. An easy runnable descent brought me to the half-way point at Lumbutts Chapel where Roberta was there to meet me. Although I’d been out for over 4 hours we were only a few miles as the crow flies from Sowerby Bridge.

Lumbutts Chapel is no longer in active use but the checkpoint, a table outside the main entrance in the churchyard, had to be nicest checkpoint on the route. The day was mellowing out nicely, the sun was out, and everything felt very springlike. I checked in, bid goodbye to Roberta who was meeting an old University friend for lunch, and headed out.

5000Checking in at Lumbutts Chapel

On the road to Todmorden I once more decided to avoid the Calderdale Way and stick to the quiet lanes and easy descent to the canal. There was a brief respite of a kilometre or so along the canal path, then a climb up to the next checkpoint at Todmorden Edge. After descending down to the main road there was a long, steep, draining 300m climb to the next checkpoint Keb Bridge.

The Bride Stones

Towards the top the path drifted right through the Bride Stones and a few of us had to veer back west to get to the road. The checkpoint was easy to miss as it was a dog-leg to the left, down the road a couple of hundred metres, to the car park of the Sportsman Inn.

The canal locks in Todmorden

The next few checkpoints were straightforward and for a while I often had a couple of Calder Valley vests in front of me who I sensed had some good local knowledge. As we descended from Heptonstall I knew there was a route choice over Hebden Water. The Calder Valley vests went left, and I went right. My route was shorter but I suspect a bit gruntier on the climb up the other side of the valley towards the checkpoint at Peckett Well.

Peckett Well was an important checkpoint. It had a chop time, and as I discovered last year, you may be contentedly running along but blissfully aware that you’re running out of time and out of the race. This year I had about 45 minutes to spare, not as much as I would’ve liked, but not too close to the wire either. It pretty much confirms my experience last year, where I didn’t have sufficient speed to recover enough time from my navigational error.

Leaving Peckett Well the route started climbing again towards a track leading out onto Midgley Moor. Just ahead of me I was catching another runner who seemed to be examining his map closely. Good stuff. There was an important route choice to be made and we could have a little meeting, weighing up the relative distances, altitudes and terrain. He glanced over his shoulder, and perhaps he didn’t share my interest in contour intervals because he leapt away and next time I saw him he was disappearing into the distance. Even further away I could just detect the splash of a pink jersey that I’m sure had passed me several checkpoints back. Both runners following the suggested route.

The track opened out onto the moor and I paused to have a think.  I studied my map. This was a really interesting bit. No, really! I’d spent some time on my homework for this one and it was quite a tasty puzzle. Like all the route choices, I’d decided I’d choose on the ground, on the day, depending on how I saw things. The organisers’ suggested route stuck to the Calderdale Way, edging south across Wadsworth Moor then turning east across the shoulder of Crow Hill. This involved losing a bit of height (about 10-20m) then climbing to around 360m (are you bored yet?). However, heading straight east across the moor involved a bit more climbing (10-20metres), but you didn’t bleed off any height unnecessarily, and was 1.6km shorter than the organisers’ serving suggestion.

Conditions were good, the paths looked firm, and if it all went wrong it was just a question of following the compass on East and a bit and hitting a track before long. It’d be fine. Low risk, more fun. More interesting navigation.

This is why we run

I clicked my heels together and headed east. The next few kilometres were definitely in the very pleasant This is why we run category. The shadows were lengthening and the sun was warm and hazy and despite being weary I was pretty comfortable. I was ok for time and there was only about 10km to go. Life was good. My route choice turned out to be sound and I was greeted with enthusiastic applause by the marshalls at the penultimate checkpoint at Jerusalem Farm.

Journey’s End

The remaining kilometres counted down steadily as I jogged gently downhill to revisit the first checkpoint at Tenterfields, before the final mile and 100m climb to the finish. Being a back-of-the-pack runner I wasn’t surprised to find people packing up and getting ready to close down the event, but was re-assured when some of the vests I’d spotted out on the course drifted  in some time after I’d finished. Perhaps my route choices hadn’t been too bad after all.

My Route

Total distance: 64.47 km
Max elevation: 426 m
Min elevation: 72 m
Average speed: 8.15 min/km
Total time: 10:18:28
Download file: Calderdale-Hike-2018-04-14_07_57_53.gpx

Photos

Dark Skies Run

Welcome to Galloway Forest
Parking Fees – Galloway Forest

I looked at the ticket machine and realised that, strictly speaking, I might be overstaying my allotted time. But if anyone was going to be checking the tickets after midnight for parking outlaws then good luck to them.

The weather forecast wasn’t great. It wasn’t too bad at the moment and having a nice warm cafe to sit inside and drink coffee while waiting for things to get underway was a big boost. Time ticked on and I kept looking to see whether any other Striders had checked in. I was feeling a bit nervy as I hadn’t undertaken any sort of structured training for this race and I wasn’t sure how I was going to get on. A cold that had suddenly said Hello two days earlier was another complication. But on the whole I didn’t feel too bad. But it’s not how you feel sitting in a warm cafe drinking coffee that’s important, it’s how you feel when you’re out on your own, in the dark, miles from anywhere.

The course was advertised as well marked but I’d studied it hard anyway so that I knew the checkpoints and my drop-out options. I don’t have any hangups about abandoning a race. And the more expensive the race, the fewer the hangups. I reckoned if I was going to drop out, it’d be in the first few miles. I’d know by then whether it was a bad idea,  and I’d simply turn round and head back to the cafe.

Inside the cafe – warm and dry

Despite having a lot of experience running a lot of weird races in all weathers I always go through a strange panicky ritual about what I’m wearing for any particular race. I look around at the other runners and often interrogate people on what they’re wearing and why. There was more purple in the cafe now and I realised I was the only one who seemed to be seriously considering wearing overtrousers from the Start. A warm wet night looked on the cards so no point in making it a boil-in-the-bag event.

I’ve always wanted to race at night and as we went outside for the race briefing I began to feel more upbeat. It was still light, and still dry, so the head torches wouldn’t be needed for another hour or two. I wondered where to keep my head torch until then, and eventually decided that I might  as well keep it on my head. This curiously enough was not the favoured option. Most runners kept their headtorches hidden away but I reasoned I had to carry the thing anyway, so I might as well carry it somewhere handy.

The great thing about Ultras is that the starts are usually quite civilised. There’s no elbowing to get to the front as there’s no point going off as if you were doing a 5k. We’d be out for hours. Looking around at the briefing I reckoned there were only about 30 of us so it promised to be quite a small, cosy, and probably quite lonely field. A few of us were disconcerted to hear that there would a strict cut-off around the 6 mile mark. The other side of a remote bog that, given the recent rain, was likely to be on the very boggy side of boggy. I’m not keen on strict cut-offs, especially in the early stages of a race. It can take me a few hours to feel like I’m warmed up and an early cut-off can be a bit of stress that I can do without.

The sun goes down in the Dark Skies Run – Galloway Forest

We left the warm of the Kirroughtree Visitor Centre and for the first few miles surfaces were good. Then up and onto the moor and east under the shadow of the wonderfully named Door of Cairnsmore. The sun was dipping and the sky was dry, treating us to an eerily tranquil scene as we trudged, walked and  occasionally jogged into the fading light. I was with Kerry & Co. settled in front of the sweeper and we were checking the time nervously in case we were cutting it too fine. The warning about the strict cut-off had spooked us a little and we would all feel a bit happier when that first checkpoint was ticked.

Watery sunset in the Dark Skies Run – Galloway Forest

The path, such as it was, dipped down and I jogged on a bit to join up with Catherine and Gareth before presently we came to a raging burn that probably only a day or two earlier was a pathetic trickle. Still, it was a raging burn today, and as it was today we were wishing to be on the other side of it, its ragingness was a bit of a pain. We all took our chances on various wobbly crossing points that all turned out to be deeper and faster than they pretended to be.

Down from the moor and into the forest and good paths. First checkpoint ticked off, and for the first time since the race started we were on decent runnable tracks. I switched on my head-torch and started running.

What I like about Ultras, and of getting more experienced at running Ultras, is that you get better and better and knowing your pace. You need to settle into a pace that you feel like you could run all day (or night), then you can switch off and step inside your head and listen to some music or recite poetry or write race reports or something. Monteleone by Mark Knopfler usually jumps uninvited into my head during long runs, and stays there for hours. Generally that works out ok as it’s a good tune with a nice gentle running cadence that suits me, but I’m dreading the day that I stop liking it and it won’t go away.

Another thing I’ve learned about ultras is the importance of walking. It’s a discipline I’d practised for Comrades and it has now become second nature. Walk the hills, and run the flats and downs. It’s tempting to run the ascents especially if you feel the gas is in the tank to do so, but it’s far more important to conserve that energy for later on when it’ll be far more useful.

Petzl Nao Selfie – Dark Skies Run – Galloway Forest

The second checkpoint came along pretty quickly and we turned north. The section towards  Clatteringshaws Loch had lots of long steady climbs on good forest tracks and I settled into a  comfortable, hard walking pace. I’d been on my own for an hour or two now and occasionally I would look around for other lights. At one point I became aware of a headtorch or two that seemed to close on me quite rapidly before fading again, and eventually I reasoned that it must have been mountain bikes as the lights seemed quite low and the  speeds erratic. Then they disappeared altogether even though we hadn’t passed any junctions. Perhaps I was just going mad.

The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long

This was the first time I’d used my headtorch in anger in a race at night. It’s a Petzl Nao and generally I’ve found it to be the canine’s nadgers. I was unsure how long the battery would last though. About 6 hours according to the manual, but I brought a spare battery pack just in case. And a spare headtorch, to use so I could see what I was doing when I had to change the battery pack. The Nao is a reactive headtorch that senses and auto-adjusts depending on where it’s pointing, what it’s seeing, and how much light it feels like giving  you. So I could look far up the road and it would easily pick out the high-viz course markers that were now so familiar to me.

Still, the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and my Petzl Nao was burning very very brightly. After just two hours of use and as I approached the Clatteringshaws checkpoint, it started doing the flashy flashy thing to tell me it had had enough. This was a little alarming I thought, as I changed the battery pack. Not even close to what the manual suggested I should expect. And I definitely had it on the auto reactive setting rather on full afterburner. Assuming I got the same amount of light from the spare battery pack then I should expect to be plunged into darkness with some distance to go to the finish.

Dark Skies Run – Galloway Forest

I decided to worry about that if it happened. Perhaps the spare battery would be better than the main battery. Or perhaps I would be a lot faster from now on. As I left the Clatteringshaws CP the marshalls warned me that after a few hundred yards the course turned right away from the main A712. Sure enough, this is exactly what happened, but you had to keep an eye out for the flags otherwise it’d be quite easy to settle on the main road and miss out on all the wonderful wetness of the higher Old Edinburgh Road.

I was pretty settled now having found my pace and was really enjoying the run. The fact that it wasn’t cold made a big difference. Even the frequent rainy squalls were quite surreal as I zipped up my hood, and looked ahead along the bright cone of light from my Petzl. There was some pretty varied terrain for the next few miles; flooded rocky paths, mud, bracken, paths and tracks, and all the time you had to concentrate, peering ahead picking out the high-viz flags like the welcome cats-eyes on a quiet country road.

We’d been warned that one of the checkpoints would involve wading across a fast-moving burn hanging onto a tree trunk for support while reaching out for the beckoning hand of a marshall leaning out to grab runners. So I couldn’t say I wasn’t warned when I found myself up to my knees in a torrent of water, hanging onto a nice bit of Sitka Spruce (deceased), and reaching out hopefully for the guiding hand of a marshall as I eased past this sting in the Grey Mare’s Tail.

Things got slightly less exciting from this point on, although I think it may have been somewhere around here that Anna decided to go off-piste. Deciding that 29.1 was a really untidy number and something in the 30s would sound a lot better she added a few miles on. A bit like running round Palace Green a few times with an eye on the garmin, but with more trees and fewer cathedrals. I don’t know if Vicky Brown had a similar blip in the 14.

I’d passed another couple of runners at the checkpoint but apart from them I hadn’t seen many runners on my travels. After the bumpy and quirky section along the Old Edinburgh Road from Clatteringshaws the route settled down onto good surfaces and more long, steady climbs on a gentle south-westerley sweep.

On I contentedly ran, passing Murray’s Monument somewhere on my left, although Murray and myself were both blissfully unaware of this. It must have been off to the left somewhere, asleep for the night in its invisibility cloak. The forest road continued to provide a good runnable surface until two bright lights appeared ahead. I assumed this was a checkpoint, at which point I’d swing a hard left then there’d be a couple of hairpins before heading home. I assumed that it was headlights, from a car. But when you’ve been out for several ours in the rain and dark, you start to assume that it’s Close Encounters, or perhaps an FBI SWAT team, you know, out here, in the remote Scottish hills.

Dark Skies Run – Galloway Forest

It wasn’t a check point, it was a ‘radio guy’. Doing radio stuff. Wondering how many people were still after me. I was sorry to break it to him, but I was, surprisingly for me, pretty much mid-field, so he had a bit of wait yet. I jinxed left, then right, then down to the final checkpoint on the main road. I asked how much further it was and he joked that it was another 6 miles. I was running Garmin free so was none the wiser and just shrugged. That sounded fine. 3, 6, 9 whatever. I was fine. I was enjoying the dark. I felt pleasantly lost in time, and space, and meaning.

I hung around this checkpoint for a bit chatting to the marshalls as they were having a bit of a time of it all. I was now on the half-marathon route too and it seemed runners had been appearing from a bewildering number of directions, some of them correct. I was surprised to hear this as I couldn’t fault the route-marking and said so. I had a few more jelly beans, adjusted my head-torch, and when they were distracted by some radio chatter I took my leave.

West along the road for a few yards then a hard left for the final few miles to the Finish. My head torch decided that was enough for the day and started flashing in alarm. I tried to switch to a sort of ‘economy’ mode, but it still flashed. It really wasn’t happy. So I fished out my emergency spare head torch, the one I’d only packed so I could see what I was doing when I was changing the battery on my main one, and switched it on. The Petzl Tikka XP2 is a pretty decent head torch, but after several hours of the Nao, it was looking a bit feeble. I had to concentrate to pick out the course-marking flags and even though they were there if you looked, I began to see how it’d be possible to go for a wander if you weren’t concentrating on looking out for the flags.

The last mile or two seemed very long indeed, and in the last mile, feeling slightly disoriented, I stopped to check my position to find that the finish was, indeed, just round the next corner. I jogged to the line and applause, with no idea of how long I’d been out. I soon discovered it was a fair bit longer than I’d expected or thought it to be and I was way overdue for my booked meal. Luckily for me and many other runners, Sofia from the Cafe at Kirroughtree kept things open way beyond closing time and I soon found myself sitting down having a hot meal and coffee in the warm indoors watch the cold outdoors through the glass.

I couldn’t see Anna which puzzled me as she’d gone of like a rocket at the start, but I soon recognized Gareth and Catherine crossing the finish line. They were soon tucking into some supper and I began to feel uneasy about the lateness of the hour. Roberta would’ve been expecting me back at the hotel by now, and cellphone coverage at race HQ was pretty hit or miss. Luckily the cafe allowed me (very brief) access to their landline (it being the emergency contact number) to make a quick call and I felt bad when Roberta gave an alarmed Hello! as she answered the phone. Seeing a strange phone number appearing on you cellphone in the middle of the night is quite likely to make you think Something Bad has Happened.

The Petzl Nao and Tikka XP2

I hung around for a while more, gradually settling down to earth after nearly 7 hours out in a slightly surreal world. We had got our dark skies as it happened. For a brief time the sky had cleared and Gareth and Catherine had turned off their headtorches to watch C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. I had wanted to wait for Kerry and Co. to finish, and I would only discover later that Anna had gone off course and would be finishing with Kerry too. But I was cold now, and while Gareth and Catherine jumped in the shower, I jumped in the car for the short drive back to the hotel.

This was my first night-time race and I loved it. Probably my favourite ever race. A small field meant that for hours on end I didn’t see another soul. The isolation was quite spooky at times but on the whole it was quite relaxing. Relaxing until the head-torch starts flashing to tell me the battery is giving up. I need to give some thought to batteries. You wouldn’t have wanted to be out in the dark skies without a light.

Dark Skies

 

Welcome to Galloway Forest

 

Dark Skies Run – Car Parking

I looked at the ticket machine and realised that, strictly speaking, I might be overstaying my allotted time. But if anyone was going to be checking the tickets after midnight for parking outlaws then good luck to them.

 

The weather forecast wasn’t great. It wasn’t too bad at the moment and having a nice warm cafe to sit inside and drink coffee while waiting for things to get underway was a big boost.

Time ticked on and I kept looking to see whether any other Striders had checked in. I was feeling a bit nervy as I hadn’t undertaken any sort of structured training for this race and I wasn’t sure how I was going to get on. A cold that had suddenly said Hello two days earlier was another complication. But on the whole I didn’t feel too bad. But it’s not how you feel sitting in a warm cafe drinking coffee that’s important, it’s how you feel when you’re out on your own, in the dark, miles from anywhere.

The course was advertised as well marked but I’d studied it hard anyway so that I knew the checkpoints and my drop-out options. I don’t have any hangups about abandoning a race. And the more expensive the race, the fewer the hangups. I reckoned if I was going to drop out, it’d be in the first few miles. I

Inside the cafe, warm and dry

’d know by then whether it was a bad idea,  and I’d simply turn round and head back to the cafe.

 

Despite having a lot of experience running a lot of weird races in all weathers I always go through a strange panicky ritual about what I’m wearing for any particular race. I look around at the other runners and often interrogate people on what they’re wearing and why. There was more purple in the cafe now and I realised I was the only one who seemed to be seriously considering wearing overtrousers from the Start. A warm wet night looked on the cards so no point in making it a boil-in-the-bag event.

I’ve always wanted to race at night and as we went outside for the race briefing I began to feel more upbeat. It was still light, and still dry, so the head torches wouldn’t be needed for another hour or two. I wondered where to keep my head torch until then, and eventually decided that I might  as well keep it on my head. This curiously enough was not the favoured option. Most runners kept their headtorches hidden away but I reasoned I had to carry the thing anyway, so I might as well carry it somewhere handy.

The great thing about Ultras is that the starts are usually quite civilised. There’s no elbowing to get to the front as there’s no point going off as if you were doing a 5k. We’d be out for hours. Looking around at the briefing I reckoned there were only about 30 of us so it promised to be quite a small, cosy, and probably quite lonely field. A few of us were disconcerted to hear that there would a strict cut-off around the 6 mile mark. The other side of a remote bog that, given the recent rain, was likely to be on the very boggy side of boggy. I’m not keen on strict cut-offs, especially in the early stages of a race. It can take me a few hours to feel like I’m warmed up and an early cut-off can be a bit of stress that I can do without.

We left the warm of the Kirroughtree Visitor Centre and for the first few miles surfaces were good. Then up and onto the moor and east under the shadow of the wonderfully named Door of Cairnsmore. The sun was dipping and the sky was dry, treating us to an eerily tranquil scene as we trudged, walked and  occasionally jogged into the fading light. I was with Kerry & Co. settled in front of the sweeper and we were checking the time nervously in case we were cutting it too fine. The warning about the strict cut-off had spooked us a little and we would all feel a bit happier when that first checkpoint was ticked.

The path, such as it was, dipped down and I jogged on a bit to join up with Catherine and Gareth before presently we came to a raging burn that probably only a day or two earlier was a pathetic trickle. Still, it was a raging burn today, and as it was today we were wishing to be on the other side of it, its ragingness was a bit of a pain. We all took our chances on various wobbly crossing points that all turned out to be deeper and faster than they pretended to be.

Down from the moor and into the forest and good paths. First checkpoint ticked off, and for the first time since the race started we were on decent runnable tracks. I switched on my head-torch and started running.

What I like about Ultras, and of getting more experienced at running Ultras, is that you get better and better and knowing your pace. You need to settle into a pace that you feel like you could run all day (or night), then you can switch off and step inside your head and listen to some music or recite poetry or write race reports or something. Monteleone by Mark Knopfler usually jumps uninvited into my head during long runs, and stays there for hours. Generally that works out ok as it’s a good tune with a nice gentle running cadence that suits me, but I’m dreading the day that I stop liking it and it won’t go away.

Another thing I’ve learned about ultras is the importance of walking. It’s a discipline I’d practised for Comrades and it has now become second nature. Walk the hills, and run the flats and downs. It’s tempting to run the ascents especially if you feel the gas is in the tank to do so, but it’s far more important to conserve that energy for later on when it’ll be far more useful.

The second checkpoint came along pretty quickly and we turned north. The section towards  Clatteringshaws Loch had lots of long steady climbs on good forest tracks and I settled into a  comfortable, hard walking pace. I’d been on my own for an hour or two now and occasionally I would look around for other lights. At one point I became aware of a headtorch or two that seemed to close on me quite rapidly before fading again, and eventually I reasoned that it must have been mountain bikes as the lights seemed quite low and the  speeds erratic. Then they disappeared altogether even though we hadn’t passed any junctions. Perhaps I was just going mad.

This was the first time I’d used my headtorch in anger in a race at night. It’s a Petzl Nao and generally I’ve found it to be the canine’s nadgers. I was unsure how long the battery would last though. About 6 hours according to the manual, but I brought a spare battery pack just in case. And a spare headtorch, to use so I could see what I was doing when I had to change the battery pack. The Nao is a reactive headtorch that senses and auto-adjusts depending on where it’s pointing, what it’s seeing, and how much light it feels like giving  you. So I could look far up the road and it would easily pick out the high-viz course markers that were now so familiar to me.

 

Still, the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and my Petzl Nao was burning very very brightly. After just two hours of use and as I approached the Clatteringshaws checkpoint, it started doing the flashy flashy thing to tell me it had had enough. This was a little alarming I thought, as I changed the battery pack. Not even close to what the manual suggested I should expect. And I definitely had it on the auto reactive setting rather on full afterburner. Assuming I got the same amount of light from the spare battery pack then I should expect to be plunged into darkness with some distance to go to the finish.

I decided to worry about that if it happened. Perhaps the spare battery would be better than the main battery. Or perhaps I would be a lot faster from now on. As I left the Clatteringshaws CP the marshalls warned me that after a few hundred yards the course turned right away from the main A712. Sure enough, this is exactly what happened, but you had to keep an eye out for the flags otherwise it’d be quite easy to settle on the main road and miss out on all the wonderful wetness of the higher Old Edinburgh Road.

I was pretty settled now having found my pace and was really enjoying the run. The fact that it wasn’t cold made a big difference. Even the frequent rainy squalls were quite surreal as I zipped up my hood, and looked ahead along the bright cone of light from my Petzl. There was some pretty varied terrain for the next few miles; flooded rocky paths, mud, bracken, paths and tracks, and all the time you had to concentrate, peering ahead picking out the high-viz flags like the welcome cats-eyes on a quiet country road.

We’d been warned that one of the checkpoints would involve wading across a fast-moving burn hanging onto a tree trunk for support while reaching out for the beckoning hand of a marshall leaning out to grab runners. So I couldn’t say I wasn’t warned when I found myself up to my knees in a torrent of water, hanging onto a nice bit of Sitka Spruce (deceased), and reaching out hopefully for the guiding hand of a marshall as I eased past this sting in the Grey Mare’s Tail.

Things got slightly less exciting from this point on, although I think it may have been somewhere around here that Anna decided to go off-piste. Deciding that 29.1 was a really untidy number and something in the 30s would sound a lot better she added a few miles on. A bit like running round Palace Green a few times with an eye on the garmin, but with more trees and fewer cathedrals. I don’t know if Vicky Brown had a similar blip in the 14.

I’d passed another couple of runners at the checkpoint but apart from them I hadn’t seen many runners on my travels. After the bumpy and quirky section along the Old Edinburgh Road from Clatteringshaws the route settled down onto good surfaces and more long, steady climbs on a gentle south-westerley sweep.

On I contentedly ran, passing Murray’s Monument somewhere on my left, although Murray and myself were both blissfully unaware of this. It must have been off to the left somewhere, asleep for the night in its invisibility cloak. The forest road continued to provide a good runnable surface until two bright lights appeared ahead. I assumed this was a checkpoint, at which point I’d swing a hard left then there’d be a couple of hairpins before heading home. I assumed that it was headlights, from a car. But when you’ve been out for several ours in the rain and dark, you start to assume that it’s Close Encounters, or perhaps an FBI SWAT team, you know, out here, in the remote Scottish hills.

It wasn’t a check point, it was a ‘radio guy’. Doing radio stuff. Wondering how many people were still after me. I was sorry to break it to him, but I was, surprisingly for me, pretty much mid-field, so he had a bit of wait yet. I jinxed left, then right, then down to the final checkpoint on the main road. I asked how much further it was and he joked that it was another 6 miles. I was running Garmin free so was none the wiser and just shrugged. That sounded fine. 3, 6, 9 whatever. I was fine. I was enjoying the dark. I felt pleasantly lost in time, and space, and meaning.

I hung around this checkpoint for a bit chatting to the marshalls as they were having a bit of a time of it all. I was now on the half-marathon route too and it seemed runners had been appearing from a bewildering number of directions, some of them correct. I was
surprised to hear this as I couldn’t fault the route-marking and said so. I had a few more jelly beans, adjusted my head-torch, and when they were distracted by some radio chatter I took my leave.

West along the road for a few yards then a hard left for the final few miles to the Finish. My head torch decided that was enough for the day and started flashing in alarm. I tried to switch to a sort of ‘economy’ mode, but it still flashed. It really wasn’t happy. So I fished out my emergency spare head torch, the one I’d only packed so I could see what I was doing when I was changing the battery on my main one, and switched it on. The Petzl Tikka XP2 is a pretty decent head torch, but after several hours of the Nao, it was looking a bit feeble. I had to concentrate to pick out the course-marking flags and even though they were there if you looked, I began to see how it’d be possible to go for a wander if you weren’t concentrating on looking out for the flags.

The last mile or two seemed very long indeed, and in the last mile, feeling slightly disoriented, I stopped to check my position to find that the finish was, indeed, just round the next corner. I jogged to the line and applause, with no idea of how long I’d been out. I soon discovered it was a fair bit longer than I’d expected or thought it to be and I was way overdue for my booked meal. Luckily for me and many other runners, Sofia from the Cafe at Kirroughtree kept things open way beyond closing time and I soon found myself sitting down having a hot meal and coffee in the warm indoors watch the cold outdoors through the glass.

I couldn’t see Anna which puzzled me as she’d gone of like a rocket at the start, but I soon recognized Gareth and Catherine crossing the finish line. They were soon tucking into some supper and I began to feel uneasy about the lateness of the hour. Roberta would’ve been expecting me back at the hotel by now, and cellphone coverage at race HQ was pretty hit or miss. Luckily the cafe allowed me (very brief) access to their landline (it being the emergency contact number) to make a quick call and I felt bad when Roberta gave an alarmed Hello! as she answered the phone. Seeing a strange phone number appearing on you cellphone in the middle of the night is quite likely to make you think Something Bad has Happened.

I hung around for a while more, gradually settling down to earth after nearly 7 hours out in a slightly surreal world. We had got our dark skies as it happened. For a brief time the sky had cleared and Gareth and Catherine had turned off their headtorches to watch C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. I had wanted to wait for Kerry and Co. to finish, and I would only discover later that Anna had gone off course and would be finishing with Kerry too. But I was cold now, and while Gareth and Catherine jumped in the shower, I jumped in the car for the short drive back to the hotel.

This was my first night-time race and I loved it. A small field meant that for hours on end I didn’t see another soul. The isolation was quite spooky at times but on the whole it was quite relaxing. Relaxing until the head-torch starts flashing to tell me the battery is giving up. I need to give some thought to batteries. You wouldn’t have wanted to be out in the dark skies without a light.

Comrades Marathon

Durban to Pietermaritzburg [UP run] 86.73km

During the final loop of the CTS Northumberland Ultra I started chatting to a runner who had a pair of trekking poles in his rucksack. They’d stayed there the entire race and I asked him why he was carrying them. Kit rehearsal for the Marathon des Sables was his reply. Race rehearsal. I was impressed, and said so, before adding, “Would you like a potato?”

Comrades is as much about the logistical preparation as the physical. I’ve never done so much groundwork in planning a race. I’d listened to webinars, read blogs and watched countless YouTube videos to establish what I should wear, when and how to eat and drink, how I should pace myself, and, most importantly, what happened if you needed to go to the toilet.

The eating and drinking was pretty much sorted. At Comrades the food offering is bananas and small salted potatoes and in my training leading up to the event I tried both on my long runs and Ultras. Neither caused any problems and the potatoes certainly beat gels hands down.

5AM at the Comrades Marathon – Jun 2017

Anyone who has done the GNR would have found the start of Comrades a breeze. Apart from being dark, the procedure was the same. Long chaotic queues for the toilets, lots of crowds, music and queues to get into the pens. In I went, tried a few selfies but my 5AM ghostly countenance looked so ghastly I quickly deleted them, sat down in a corner, and waited. There was a bit of space and many others had the same idea and it was weirdly calming sitting on the tarmac in the dark with the occasional drone flying overhead and the frequent bursts of music. As we approached 0530 the pen started moving in little jolts as the pens were gradually merged for the cock’s crow that would indicate it was time to go.

Comrades is unusual. The timing is Gun to Mat. That’s to say, although you’re chip timed, your race time begins when the gun goes off (or when the cock crows, to be precise), not when you cross the start line. When you’re out on the road you, and your fellow runners, are all on the same time. With 12 hours to complete the race and various cut-offs along the way this does mean if you are in one of the slower pens you have a bit of catching up to do. Planning and self-discipline are important.

Time to Go – Comrades Marathon – Jun 2017

Much of what I’d read about Comrades discussed with a sort of weary inevitability running the race as a positive split. I’m quite a disciplined runner and I didn’t like the sound of that. Apart from the obvious disadvantage of not running to your best, it sounded horrendous. Many runners work on the assumption that they’re going to blow-up anyway so they might as well go off quick and see how far they get. Crazy. I’d been following the training programmes, blogs and webinars of the official Comrades coach Lindsey Parry and I liked the grounded and pragmatic nature of his advice. I planned to walk the hills, and run the flats and downs. This meant walking early, as a strategy rather than a necessity.

Sure enough, as I’d expected, at the first hills I was marching up while others were streaming past. At first I felt quite isolated but looking around I could see I wasn’t alone. Others were also going for strategic walking to conserve energy that would be invaluable when many hours later we were into the endgame. I was spooked, however, at the first checkpoint to realise I only had 10 minutes in the bag. 10 minutes from being timed out! And one of the 12 hour buses had just gone past.

I was rattled. Comrades is famous for its unforgiving cut-offs. Strictly enforced, there’s no mercy. My Garmin showed two pieces of information: Elapsed Time and Average Pace. I was on plan, but nonetheless I had to give myself a talking to to calm my nerves and resist the temptation to put on speed and burn away valuable energy reserves.

And there was the matter of loo stops. I’d never run a race that started when it was dark and, quite possibly, finished when it was dark too. I was paranoid about needing the loo, and at every portable toilet I passed I noticed queues. This didn’t help. It’s all in the mind of course; nothing is more likely to make you feel you need to go, and go NOW, than an engaged toilet. 25Km and 3.5 hours in we passed through Kloof and I spotted a toilet door swinging ajar. No queue! Now was my chance! I jumped in and shut the door and soon realised why it was empty. Before me was a loo so astoundingly putrid I almost gave it a round of applause. I fished out the sweaty Kleenex from my shorts and realised that this was pretty much a lost cause, and with someone knocking at the door I decided to abandon this little adventure before someone started ringing the bell. Muttering “I’d give it the half-life of Uranium if I were you” under my breath, I dashed out into the fresh air and rejoined the race after this inconclusive diversion.

Post-race analysis of this stop, and the many others shows how easy it is to bleed away time. Lindsey Parry says whatever you are doing, keep moving. The only time you should stop is for a ‘pit stop’. My paranoia of not staying hydrated meant I was walking at every table (feed stations), and with tables ever 2 or 3 kms, I really should have been skipping them occasionally. All those seconds of browsing the tables mounts up to minutes over the 88 kms of the race.

Despite having done my research, one of the areas where I became a little unstuck was with race food. Unlike most races, the tables at Comrades aren’t consistent. Food doesn’t appear until a few hours into the race (depending on how fast you are) and the bananas and potatoes that I’d been expecting were late to appear. So I chewed steadily through the supply of Shotblocks I’d carried although I’d really brought them as insurance for the latter stages of the race rather than a possibly counter-productive sugar rush early on.

Food and drink doesn’t always come from the tables. A few hours in, and with the sun now overhead, I was getting a bit tired of Coke. The crowd really knew how to party and when I reached out as I passed one braai the spectator ran after me and pressed a bottle of Carlsberg into my hand. It made a lovely refreshing change from the Coke but I knew that cold beer wouldn’t be enough to get me to the finish and I vowed to make that impulse a one-off.

It was hot now and I always knew heat would be the problem. I’d ran my qualifying marathons in Lanzarote and Palma de Mallorca and had learned my lessons well about how I cope with the heat. I kept the pace down, knowing from experience if I got over-confident I would blow it. Drinks in Comrades are given in convenient sachets and once you’ve developed the knack of biting a corner of to get to the contents they work pretty well. As someone who has never coped well with emptying bottles of water over my head I was finding the sachets were excellent for keeping cool. You took one for drinking, and one to drizzle gently over your cap as if you were dressing a salad. The water seeps through the cloth and drips gently over your face for the next km or so. It’s a great system. It’s lovely.

Through the half way point, into the parkrun (Comrades is two marathons with a parkrun in the middle), and everything was still on plan. I had gone through the last couple of checkpoints with better safety margins and I was feeling more settled, and even had time to laugh as I found myself thinking, only a marathon to go!

On the race route coach tour two days’ earlier we’d stopped at Ethembeni School. This school caters for children with disabilities and over the years has built up a strong bond with the race and particularly international runners. They’d put on a fantastic concert for us and we were all given a tiny bracelet, each one made by the children. Each bead on the bracelet represented a km of the route, and each colour band represented one of the sections. It was a great idea and I was wearing mine today.

Concert at Ethembeni School

The race is the highlight of the year and the children line up on the roadside outside the school in the hope of high-fiving the runners. They absolutely love this and seeing the delight on their faces fills your heart with joy. I high-fived them all and no doubt lost a bit more time but it was time well wasted. Moving on I realised that I’d missed my bus and I had to put in a bit of a burst to get back on.

Buses. The Comrades Bus is a phenomenon. These pace groups can be huge and the pacer, the bus driver, will be wearing a flag with his or her name and target time on it. These are not the pace groups you might be familiar with in a British race, but more a sort of micro community in which the driver will have his or her own style and strategy. It may be precise adherence to a particular pace, or, more likely, a walk run strategy that has been worked out in advance.

I was riding my 2nd 11:30 bus of the day and I was loving it. There was perhaps a hundred or so of us on this bus and we’d all gathered in a protective cocoon around our driver. The crowd would sometimes shout out poignant encouragement to the driver, such as “Get them home safely Driver”, and the driver would occasionally shout out instructions to his passengers, such as a countdown to the next running stretch, or a marching rhythm on the hills. Sometimes the driver would raise their arms in a breathing exercise and we’d all instinctively mimic the move.

And then there was the singing. International runners make up a relatively low percentage of competitors with most runners being South African. So when the driver leads of, with a surprisingly gentle and mellow introduction to the Shosholoza, only to be answered with the beautiful voices of the bus passengers, you could forget you were in a running race such was the comfort that came from the choir.

I stuck with this 11:30 bus for a while before deciding to lift the pace a little. The day was getting on, the shadows were lengthening, and I knew I was going to finish within 12 hours. My training plan had put me on about a 11hr to 1115 Comrades and I knew I had to be careful about succumbing to the temptation of trying to get under 11 hours (and a Bronze medal) if I didn’t have the ability. Aspirational rather than tactical pacing would almost certainly backfire as I’d learned painfully from the Lanzarote Marathon. It was getting tough now, and I was remembering another good piece of Lindsey Parry advice: It will get tough, so don’t try and fight it. Don’t go into denial. Accept that it will get tough and you just need to deal with it. Endure it.

With about 20km to go I caught another bus. It was another 11:30 and I was grateful to hop on in the closing stages of the race. It was a great help as we hit and marched up the last of the big 5 hills, Polly Shortts. I zoned out and concentrated on the pacing being called out by our driver, probably getting up Pollys more quickly and efficiently than if I’d been marching solo.

Through the final checkpoint and I knew I had the race in the bag. The bus slowed at the table and I decided to push on. There was less than 10km to go and much of it was downhill. No point in saving anything now.

It would have been so easy to stop running. I was comfortably within the cut-off and could walk the whole of the remaining distance if I wanted to. But I figured I’d travelled half-way round the world for this race and I might as well go home with the best time I was capable of. There’s always the accusation when you run a good negative split that you could have gone faster. That you were holding back. Tosh.

My legs were screaming. But my breathing was good and I was still running with rhythm. The remaining kilometres counted down with painful slowness and the racecourse never seemed to get any closer. Then a few twists and turns, a tunnel, cameras, and suddenly we’re running on grass.

I looked around for my support crew. Roberta, without whose support this wouldn’t have been possible, and who’d been up at 2AM making sure I was caked in Factor 50 and had put up with and supported my countless 5AM starts over the last 10 months as I’d headed off for my pre-work long runs. I heard my name and glanced around. Then I heard it again. Then I realised everyone was shouting everyone’s name! The place was packed. Given that this was an 88km race the finish was surprisingly busy and I crossed the line with burning legs and quiet satisfaction more than any sense of life-changing euphoria. Immediately there were steps, really steep ones, to get back over the racecourse to the international tent (bumping into Rob Wishart) and to find Roberta and nowhere to sit. It was 30 minutes to the final cutoff and we settled down to watch the final countdown on the big screens.

Comrades will always be ‘gun to mat’. So much of this iconic event leads to this final, cruel, 12 hour cut-off. There’s no compromise, no leeway, no concessions. As 12 hours approaches the runners continue streaming into the stadium and make their final dash for the line. Huge numbers of runners finish in the last hour, and a massive amount of those finish in the last 10 minutes.

At 1730 precisely, an official stands on the finishing line with his back to the race so he cannot be influenced by what he sees, and at 1730 precisely, he fires the gun, and the race is over. If you’re 1 second over, sorry, it simply didn’t happen. I adore this brutal honesty. For the next 10 minutes wave after wave of runners walked desolately into the stadium accompanied by sympathetic applause from the crowd while the Last Post is played over the PA.

The final countdown – Comrades Marathon – Jun 2017

Our hotel was practically on the racecourse, in a casino, so once I’d gone through the surreal experience of passing through an airport-type security metal detector to get to the room, I caught up with my email and news. Although I’d never made a huge secret of my plans to do Comrades I hadn’t shouted it from the rooftops either and so not a lot of people I knew I was running. This made it all the more touching when I read the lovely comments on Facebook and realised that many in my club had been tracking my progress. Kerry’s “look at those lovely splits” comment gave me particular delight!

Comrades is 20 miles further than I’ve ever run but I had a training plan and I had a race plan, and I followed them both. I kept my side of the deal and this gave me the confidence to know that on the day I would get to the line on time.

Comrades Marathon – Jun 2017