So 18 years or so ago on my first trip to South Africa one of my wife’s Uncles told me about a crazy foot race from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, some 90km and lots of big hills. As a non runner at that time I think I commented on the craziness of such an under taking and opened another beer!!! It celebrates the fallen and returned SA solidiers from WW1 and is part of the national sporting firmament. Fast forward to Sunday 9th 2019 at 4.50am I’m stood in G start pen, in the dark waiting for the traditions of The National Anthem, Shosoloza, The Cockcrow and the canon fire that starts the race to PMB for this years UP run….(it alternates in direction year on year).
It’s a National obsession and is now in its 98th year, commanding the biggest annual TV audience and along the route an estimated 400000 spectators cheering you on. As a gun to gun run, the 9 minutes it took to cross the line were eating into my 12 hours limit but the advice to keep moving forward whatever happened was ringing in my ears as a mantra to get this thing done! It’s no small undertaking with the 5 iconic hills and the Countless others that have “no name” totalling some 6031 feet of climbing with the majority of this in the first 40k!!!!
The start out of Durban was something else with very tightly packed streets handling the 20000 or so starters, it remained packed and difficult to get going until around 15km when the crowds started to break up. From here on in I just put my head down and waited to see my support “crew” (Mariska my wife and 4 of her cousins, on hand to supply real food/encouragement/etc) at 20, 40, 60 kms and walk/ran the big hills and pushed out a consistent pace on the downs and flattish rolling parts of the course. 44 aid stations from 7km were on hand to supply water, energade, bananas, salted potatoes, salted crackers and various gels. One of the really helpful thigs was the camaraderie amongst the runners and I lost count of the amount of times I was thanked for taking part by the SA runners (Internationals are given a blue number) and they were always helpful in letting me know where on the course we actually were. Spectacular views once the sun came up and cheering crowds through the numerous small towns made the time fly and really enhanced the experience. There are also cut offs on the course but as I progressed the time in hand grew proportionately and was never in danger of being removed from the race.
All of a sudden I was at around 70km and had the delights of Little Polly’s and Polly Shortts (1.8km at around 18-20% gradient) on the horizon, these names are definitely ironic and after topping Polly Shortts I knew it was downhill (not true!) to the end and had loads of time in hand, I could have walked it in within the 12 hours but was also very keen to get under 10 Hours and earn an inaugural Robert Mtshali medal so I pushed on maintaining the distance I had put between myself and the 10 hour “Bus”. Entering the residential area of Scottsville, where the race course finish was situated, I saw another bus and realised to my horror that it was another 10 hour variety. I dealt with this by speeding up and on entering the racecourse through the underpass (another hill!) I tried to speed up as much as I could as my addled brain had struggled to compute where I really was time wise.
Rounding the final corner, I could see the clock and knew I could finish in under 9 hours 51 minutes for my 87km. Mariska and my supporters were going mental and I had done it! Someone shook my hand and directed me to the medal chute. A few tears and lots of congrats on the way to the designated Internationals tent for completing my first Comrades and a sit down and cold non alcoholic beer!!! So an epic trip and day out! The description above cannot do it justice, from the VIP International welcome on number collection at the fascinating Comrades House (there is a massive Expo in Durban but can do that another time!) to feeling that you are part of something so special to South Africans, to the cheering crowds, to the small but precious medal you have really earned I cannot say anything bad about the experience. The way everyone involved is made to feel so important from the elite’s to the guys who just make the cut off is tremendous and really makes this one to recommend to you all.
Seeing the aftermath and fellow runners the next day in the local mall and airport on the way home will stay with me forever, there’s just that feeling of knowing what you’ve all been through and the nods of shared respect is just awesome. I can’t wait for the Down Run next year and the chance to win the coveted back to back medal……..