Ultra Country

I went through the pacing wrist bands at the Comrades expo. After careful consideration, Albie and I opted for the 8.30 wrist band ultra. That’s a 5m40s pace per kilometre. At the bottom of the band it says people who wear this band can do the following:
- 5k in 22 minutes
- 10k in 45 minutes
- Marathon in 3hours 40 minutes.
Now I know that means nothing in an Ultra, but somewhere deep down I thought “I can do those – no problem”. We just have to hold that pace until half way and assess from there. Anything is possible on Comrades Sunday.

"I believe that if you set out on an adventure and you're absolutely convinced you are going to be successful, why bother starting?" Sir Edmund Hillary

I tend to agree with Eddie: if things are too easy, where’s the challenge. You have to shoot for the stars and maybe you hit the moon, but that’s still kind of a star, isn't it? You know what I mean.

The Comrades course is laid out like a piece of wet spaghetti across a clump of boulders leading to the sea. The race is brimming with tradition and you can feel it in the spirit of the runners. They’re like musos in a mosh pit, knowing exactly when the band will increase the tempo in a song so they can get the timing right to go crowd surfing.

Inebriated students stumble out of pubs welcoming athletes while Chariots of Fire sends goosies down your spine. The clock tower (think Back to the Future) stands alongside the start line with its minute hand edging closer to the start time of 5.30am. You can hear the frenzy of the birds chirping in the bright green trees. It’s as though the birds have seen this before and know what’s coming. And suddenly BOOM! A cannon goes off, scaring the bejesus out of me.

Albie and I see things differently. I treat every race like a battle as part of the greater war. Know your enemy and what to expect. Have a plan for each part of the race. Know thyself; Sun Tzu; and all of that. Albie, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. First thing to know about him is that he is the most positive person you’ll ever meet. You want to become an astronaut – no problem, just send NASA an email. He has no off button and will tackle anything that is given to him. He is there to compete and participate, and failure is not an option. He doesn’t get bothered by the little things and is bullet proof in all things.

Now, I know you should never be a hero and do an Ironman, Two Oceans and Comrades in one year, let alone within 2 months of each other. The books tell you that you will suffer. Albie doesn’t care much about the books. He wants to find things out for himself. And that means Albie doesn’t plan that much, he doesn’t speak about things, he just does them. And that is a dangerous trait to have in your brother and racing buddy.

The wheels fell off at about 40 kilometres. An absolutely spectacular run was spoiled by the inclusion of a dozen hills before the half way mark. And when I say hills, I actually mean Alp-like inclines alongside which the organisers should have taken the courtesy to include pay-as-you-go ski lifts. Pietermaritzburg and its surrounding areas are out of this world. Once you see it, it’s the type of place that’ll make you want to sell everything you own and relocate.

My quads were pretty smashed, and I could feel the burn from Two Oceans loitering in my thighs and groin. Racers Rescue vehicles had been hovering alongside us like desert vultures for the first 30k’s and they were beginning to look like plush limousines with comfortable seating. The windows were sufficiently tinted to hide the shame of the abandoned runners. I envied their anonymity. Albie laughed at me when he saw me looking. “No little brother of mine will ever get into one of those hearses”, his eyes seemed to say.

At about this time of walking and hurting, a running surfer pulled up alongside us.

Surfer: You dudes have got to get Arthur a flower.
Rob: (confused) I hear you buddy (inside I thought: stay off the marijuana dude)
Surfer: You’ve got to pay your respects, especially if you’re having a bad race. :
Rob: What’s that? I don’t get it?
Surfer: You pick up a flower and place it in Arthur’s seat. He’ll look after you.
Rob: Where do we get flowers?

At that moment we came across two youngsters handing out little yellow flowers. I took two, gave one to Albie and we placed it a few hundred metres up the road on Arthur’s Seat. This was Arthur Newton’s seat, the legendary runner who only started running at 38 years old and ended up winning five Comrades. I though long and hard about him and the soldiers who died in the World War I. Arthur would hopefully help me out later in the race.

It was then that we heard over the loudspeakers that the Russian, Leonid Shvetsov, had been overtaken by Stephen Muzhingi, a Zimbabwean, who would eventually go on to win the title in a time of 5:23:26. Papers described this the following day with headlines entitled Ubuntu.

Running buses with leaders carrying “sub-10” flags came by. We joined the packs for as long as could. Eventually they would lose us on any steep inclines or descents. Our good Durbanite friend, Warren, arrived with his pack of sub 10.30 DHS Old Boys and announced that his Italians had arrived and that we were now part of the group.

Warren: Boys, join us. We’ve got a great bunch of guys here.
Rob: Thanks, but I can’t run all that much.
Warren: Want to walk? Watch this… (shouting) Boys, walk at the next blue sign!
(The DHS Old Boys start walking at the blue sign)
Rob: (thinking whilst looking up to the sky) Thanks Arthur.

The DHS Old Boys are the rock stars of the Comrades. Every batch of supporters would shout out their names and a constant roar of support followed them wherever they went. People, mainly nubile women with little cladding, would run up to them handing them drinks and even, at one stage, a birthday cake. It was inspiring to be a part of them. And they carried us to the 17k’s to go sign.

From this point on it, as I saw the DHS group melting on the horison, I felt like Frodo clambering through the quagmire of Mordor not knowing whether he’d make it or not. And in the haze, Albie turned to me like SamWise Gamgee, the constant companion, and whispered these words to me:

Albie: It's like in the great stories Rob, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn't want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end it's only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it'll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something even if you were too small to understand why. But I think Rob, I do understand, I know now folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going because they were holding on to something.
Rob: What are we holding onto, Albie?
Albie: That there's some good in the world, Rob, and it's worth fighting for.

And it was that, after much suffering and against some odds, that we reached the 10k to go sign. Albie and I had our feet up from our camping chairs supplied by Pots and Greeffie who were manning the final Bedfordview aid station. As we munched on biscuits and drank some juice we watched three sub-11 hour buses run by. We looked at our watch and saw that we had about 70 minutes to make the 10k’s if we wanted to go sub-11 hours.

Albie: Rob, the old Comrades cut-off used to be 11 hours. We need to break at least that.
Rob: I don’t really care any more.
Albie: No. We’ll do it easily, we just need to get a move on.
Rob: I’m fine if we pull out here.
Albie: Let’s go catch those buses. We can still do it.

And with those words, I ratcheted up my perceptions of my maximum pain threshold and entered a whole new world of hurt. We eventually caught the tail end of the first sub-11 bus which had overtaken us at the 10k to go mark. Here’s the clip of us making it to the finish line at 10.52.30. If you watch closely, you’ll see my tongue hanging out.

Here’s a summary of my heart rate (HR) stats and a picture of how we now walk.

9k’s 55.37 (136 HR ave; 184 HR max; pace 6.11)
10k’s 58.39 (148ave; 166max; pace 5.52)
10k’s 57.23 (153ave; 168max; pace 5.44)
10k’s 1.03 (155ave; 167max; pace 6.18)
10k’s 1.22 (147ave; 167max; pace 8.12)
40k’s 5.34 (132ave; 164max; pace 8.21)

Half way in 4.41
Full 10.52.30 (140 ave; 184max)

Looking forward to a long winter of good food, wine and rest.


  1. One day you'll ge amongs the legends the younger kids will talk of! BTW do you ever get runner's knees?

  2. I am a legend in my own mind, I'm sure I told you that LRC?!

    I did get runner's knees when I started out running. An irritation of note! It is quite common and caused by running too fast, too long, too soon. I'd suggest that you strengthen the muscles around the knees by doing lunges and squats first. Get that strong and the runner's knees will improve quickly.

    Walk first to get the legs strong should help. Running on soft ground or the treadmill instead of hard road may help. Stretching the band on the side of your leg (ITB) and the glutes (butt muscles) also helps.

    Here's good article to get you going: