Comrades Up Hill Ultra Marathon. Its nothing like the RTA hills!
Martin Scadden & Malcolm Gatenby of the Milers took part
After the Dubai marathon in Jan 13, around 21 runners , both Male & Female from the UAE entered and began training for the June 2nd Comrades Up Hill 87k Ultra Marathon in Durban, South Africa.
For those that do not know about Comrades, it’s the world’s oldest and biggest Ultra Marathon, with some 20,000 runners entering each year (1,600 from overseas). The race is ran down hill from Pietermaritzburg to Durban on even years, and up hill from Durban to Pietermaritzburg on odd years. Distance is 87-89k with an up hill elevation from sea level to 3,000ft and vice versa on the downhill. There are 5 “big” named hills, however neither race is truly up or down hill as it is constantly undulating. The end is brutal for some, as this race has a strict 12-hour cutoff. At exactly 12 hours into the race, an official goes to the finish line, turns his back on the remaining runners and fires a pistol signifying the end of the race. At the exact same time, a throng of burly men block runners from crossing the finish line. It’s a crushing blow to many runners that fought it out all day long, and its almost as hard to watch as people are streaming toward the finish with the last bit of energy and resolve, only to be stopped just as the gun goes off.
The training guide says most runners should achieve at least 1000km in training from January to May 12th then taper till the race day. It also says that as this year’s race was up hill, training on hills is a must. Runners living in Dubai don’t have many hills to train on, so end up running in the early hours of the morning over flyovers, business bay bridge, the RTA hills in Mizar or for real dedication, on roads in the Hatta mountains.
To get an idea of what was in store for the 21 runners, imagine running up Wadi Bih (36k) then run another 50k up and down long undulating hills. There are virtually no flat bits in Comrades.
The Dubai crew of around 11 arrived safely in Durban (via 6 different flights and staying in 4 different hotels). We all ventured out for a 4K warm up trot along the sea front the day before the race, everyone looking fit and ready followed by a long day hanging around, eating pasta and any other carbs available, eventually all falling into bed by 8:30pm ready for the big day ahead.
The Race Day
We all met up for breakfast at 3am, all chatting, all seemed happy, then we met up in the hotel lobby at 4:15am to have a group photo before walking to the start. One runner was missing, he didn’t turn up until 5am as he was watching Sky News and forgot the time!! We all left him behind and got into our pens, awaiting the start.
The first thing everyone noticed was how hot it was, around 22oC and very humid. We all stood in line, no need for throwaway tops. Then with 15 minutes to go, Chariots of Fire blared over the speakers, hairs standing on back of neck time, followed by the South African national anthem then on the stroke of 5:30 am a cockerel crows and we were off. 87km in under 12 hours!
1000’s of heads bobbing up and down at the start, it took us around 2 minutes to walk to the line, then we were off, all chatting amongst ourselves saying hello to other runners as your name is printed on the front and back of your race number (good idea) lots of banter going on with shouts out to fellow overseas runners, who proudly display there country colours or country name on their running vests
We reached a hill Toll Gate at 4k causing us to all slow down, check heart rates, and check the average pace. We continued to run like this for the first3 hills, Cowies Hill, Long and winding Fields Hill (5k long) and Botha’s Hill slowing up the hills, pacing 50 steps running 50 steps, controlled on the down hills. The weather was getting hotter and more humid as we came to the 35k mark, still all looking good.
The crowd were a fantastic help, all shouting out Dubai which we had displayed on our vests, along with shouting out our names, bands playing, parties on the road side, people drinking champagne, it was a real party atmosphere for most of the way.
The half way point 43.5k bought some relief with a long 3k down hill section then hill no4 came into view, Inchanga, a massively long hill up the side of a mountain, by this time the wind had picked up, the temperature crept higher to around 30oC and it was dry, bone dry. Drinks were readily available every 2k but our mouths were dry within seconds; the salt was in our eyes and covering our bodies. Things started to slowly go off the rails for our little group of runners, from 5 down to 3 at the top of Inchanga. Everyone was suffering from severe cramps due to salt loss, no amount of training anywhere could have prepared us for this, it was brutal. The strong dry wind of the mountains blew you off your feet, sapping all energy from your legs. We managed to plough on to 60k, with only 1 member of the group actually running, then all walking or even waddling like ducks, straight legs, cramps in the front of legs, cramps in the back of legs, taking on drinks, ice on legs every 2k, trotting down hills and walking up, with 28k to go we all dug deep, very deep and carried on, no thoughts of quitting ever!
We came to the fifthand final named hill, Polly Shortts, a brutal 3k steep hill, bodies lying on the side of the roads, everyone walking up the hill at this stage, most pulling up due to cramps. Up and over the hill then 7k up and down to home, into the stadium and that welcome finish line. 3 of the Dubai crew had finished and were cheering us on across the line. The UAE runners along with all the International runners all assembled in the International tent about 25m from the finish line, we all cheered on the all the runners, urging the last Dubai runner across the line with 11 minutes to spare, we then all urged the others runners home until the pistol was fired.
19 of the 21 UAE runners finished. Over 5,000 runners who had started the race did not finish. 50% of finishers finished in the last 30 minutes.
We were told the running conditions were the worst for over 50 years.
If you have ever ran a marathon, then imagine finishing that run and then doing it all over again, up a mountain!
If you every fancy running an Ultra Marathon I suggest you start training for Comrades, but maybe stick to Hatta hills and stay away from the RTA hills in future.
Malcolm finished in 10hrs 28m
Martin finished in 11hrs 49m