Comrades Marathon 2016

The Comrades Marathon was like nothing I have ever experienced. Not only had I never been to South Africa before, but I also have never experienced a race environment quite like Comrades. The amount of emotion and intrigue given to the event by the locals is incredible. I liken it to some of the big city marathons here in the United States, but with even more energy from the community--and in many cases more history.

With the 20,000 participants and rumored (not sure where this number came from, or if it can be verified) half a milion spectators, the atmosphere is simply electric. And the energy begins well in advance, with the pre-race check-in and media coverage.

Going into Comrades, I knew the locals took the event seriously, with many of them training year-round. However, it was still eye-opening to hear the various coorperate-sponsored teams and coaches break down some of their training, expectations, and yearlong attention to detail. It was an honor to be a part of all of that through support by local sponsor Nedbank.

Race morning was as I expected, at least at first. The Nedbank team grabbed breakfast and boarded shuttles to the start. But once we arrived at the start in Pietermaritzburg, things began to take off.

All the corperate teams were escorted into a small gym for a quick warmup before heading to the starting line 15 minutes prior to the start. When we reached the start line, the officials released the rope that was keeping the front corral clear. The blink of an eye and we were packed in like sardines. All I could think about during those 15 minutes before the start was not tripping when the race began. I'd heard stories of people tripping at the start, but experiencing the final countdown in person was something else.

When the starting horn sounded and everyone took off, I spent the first couple hundred meters just focusing on staying upright. Fortunately I did, and I was able to take a good look at the spectacle that is the Comrades mad rush. As I'd heard, there were countless runners taking off like it was a 5k. There had to have been nearly 200 people out front immediately. I couldn't help but admire the mass chaos.

At about six kilometers, I checked my pace to guage how I was doing. I recall thinking that I felt like I was running a touch slower than my effort indicated based on training. I didn't panic as I had never ran anything quite like Comrades. Comrades, on a downhill year like this year, has 7,000ft of descent and 4,000ft of climbing over the 89km of road.

I continued to run based on effort as the sun began to rise. Time passed quickly in the early stages, as the aid staions at Comrades are available every two kilometers. On top of that, Nedbank had personal items availble at eight seperate spots on the course.

As I began to closed in on 20 miles, I recall thinking it was the first time I really started feeling smooth. Prior to that, something had been feeling a bit off, like I was a touch flat. I didn't have the familiar leg pop that a good taper usually provides. Regardless, I wanted to stay positive. I hoped that it had just taken me abnormally long to warm up.

Unfortunately, it wasn't long after I started feeling smooth that I began to feel a bit off again. I stopped twice to use the bathroom, which is very abnormal for me, even in longer ultras, but I think that was a bit more due to the time zone change and a super early wake-up call. I committed to continue to just run by feel and take what I had that day until the halfway point. Then I'd begin to plot out how to attack the second half of the course, which had a healthy portion of the downhill segments.

When I arrived at the halfway point, I glanced at my watch: 2 hours, 57 minutes. I was a bit surprised. I expected it to be over 3 hours, based on the bathroom stops and my feeling flat. This gave me a bit of a boost, since I thought if I could negative split the second half of the course I could still finish well under six hours. (Going into the race I had estimated that something between 5:40 and 6 hours would be a realistic window to shoot for on my first attempt.)

Then, with 15 miles to go, I hit the hardest part of the race for me mentally. I remember thinking that there was no way I was going fast enough to negative split as I had hoped. At this point, I didn't expect things to really turn around, but knew I needed to at least remain consistant. I figured that, as usual, there would be plenty of runners blowing up towards the end, so if I could maintain a consistent effort, I'd be able to pick up some carnage.

I began to focus on passing the closest runner in front of me rather than getting to kilometer or mile marks. Fortunately for me, despite not feeling quite on point I had a steady flow of runners ahead of me to slowly pick off and keep my legs turning. I remember really recognizing how energetic the spectators were during this final stretch of the race. Every aid station was jam-packed. A few of them were a downright roadside party. The locals were legitimately excited for us, cheering each of us on as if we were their best friends. It was spectacular to see that many people involved in the event.

Entering the final kilometers into Durban, I pushed with what I had left and made sure to take in the experience as much as possible. I entered the stadium and crossed the finish in 32nd place with a time of 6 hours, 5 minutes, 52 seconds. A bit outside the window I had been aiming for, but something to build on for future races.

It was really cool to see all the excitement post-race and catch some of the TV coverage as the 20,000 runners filtered in throughout the day. It was great to see Max King improve dramatically over his first Comrades attempt last year by becoming the first American male to crack the top 10 in over two decades, coming in with a strong 8th place finish. It was also great to see Sarah Bard, fellow Altra Footwear Teammate, put together a solid race and come away finishing 4th female on her first trip to Comrades.

I can't express enough thanks for all the support from Nedbank and Altra Footear for helping me experience this event. It is like nothing else, and I cannot wait to come back for another down year attempt. I believe I learned a lot and have a good indication of what I need to do in training and preparing to improve for next time.

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