In less than a week, 18,000 runners will gather in Pietermaritzberg, South Africa, for the world’s largest and oldest ultra marathon – Comrades. They will then run 90 km, to finish in under 12 hours later, in the coastal city of Durban. Over 60 nations will be represented from as far afield as Egypt, China and India, as well as many from the USA.
An internationally recognised South African institution
Comrades was the brainchild of First World War veteran Vic Clapham. Clapham, a survivor of a nightmare 2,700 route march through German East Africa, wanted to create a race that would be a living memorial to test the physical endurance of every participant.
First run in 1921, with five major hills to surmount, and a route that alternates between ‘up and ‘down’, it’s a race to test the strongest mind, body and spirit. This year it’s a ‘down’, meaning there’s slightly more downhill than uphill. However, no one should make the mistake of thinking that’s the easier option. As most runners know, running downhill can be exceptionally hard work on the quads.
On Sunday, when our Pack editor, Tobias Mews, has finished the race, no doubt he will confirm that view!
Unforgiving hills and unforeseen routes
There’s more than one reason why this is one of the world’s toughest races. The “Big Five” hills will give every runner a unique challenge. Three of them are in the second half of the race, with one including a drop of over 500 meters in just 22 kilometers. Experienced participants know this stretch to the base of Cowie’s Hill is the real test of the down run.
But as Comrades is a road marathon, that poses its own problems. Each year there are modifications that must take into account road works, traffic congestion and changes in the final finishing point. Apart from all that, for runners, roads are extra tough on the feet. As Tobias points out, “Running a 90 km trail race wouldn’t daunt me, but running all that way on road – that’s going to hurt. But this is one race that’s been on my bucket list for years, so it’s worth it.”
Feat of endurance
Running the world’s largest, and arguably one of the most demanding ultra marathons, is not for the faint hearted. But buoyed up by the support of the thousands who line the route and cheer the runners every step of the way, it’s an unforgettable experience.
When the race was launched 93 years ago, one of the principal aims was to, “Celebrate mankind’s spirit over adversity.” Comrades has continued to do that ever since.