Comrades 2015 - Number Se7en

The thought of my seventh Comrades attempt brought to mind the movie Seven which - as it happens - is 20 years old this year. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman starred as its detectives with Kevin Spacey burdened with one helluva antisocial personality disorder. The movie was memorable for many things, including (*spoiler alert*) the discovery of Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a bag, but for me there were three notable items:
  • It was the second movie I had ever watched solo in a cinema. The first was when I, aged 14 at the time, was thankfully ejected from The Fly for being underage and was thankfully permitted to watch The Best of Times with Robin Williams and Kurt Russell.
  • I watched Seven in Chippenham, with my rucksack squished underneath my movie seat as I munched on popcorn. Chippenham is outside of Bath in the UK and attached to only one movie house.
  • The serial killer’s murders aligned with the 4th century’s seven deadly sins of Gluttony, Sloth, Greed, Pride, Lust, Wrath, and Envy.

The Seven Deadly Sins or SDS intrigue me, as does any numbered list. I mean why not 15 deadly sins? Or two? Or four? Why not simply paraphrase the Ten Commandments - aren’t those sins too? Who made this up and for what purpose? These sort of things I find interesting. The way I see it - any list curtailing the vices of men is normally a fine idea. Today, I guess we call those kind of lists The Law.
Cruising in Stef's beach buggy
Being bestowed with a mercurial mind (my mom calls it effervescent), the link with the SDS and my seventh Comrades was immediate.
  • Gluttony (#1)? Guilty. I started the race 2 kilos overweight.
  • Sloth (#2)? Guilty. 900k’s was the January-to-race day training total in my logbook. In Comrades parlance anything under 1,000k’s sits snuggly under the “Sloth” column. 

Two SDS boxes were crossed even before the race started. What other sins, my mind wondered, would surface as a result of this race?

The Comrades
Before I continue let me explain - to those of you who may not know – something about this footrace. Comrades is long - 90k’s long - and South Africa’s most loved and notorious marathon.

Vic Clapham
Allow me to set the scene:- World War I was over. More lives were lost to bullets, bombs and bayonets in its historically brief time period than all combined wars in its previous hundred years. South Africa sent nearly a quarter of a million of its men to fight for the Allies. Nearly 19,000 of these men would be added to the list of combatant deaths.

During WWI, Vic Clapham, a Wynberg Boys' High School old boy (the same Capetonian school attended by my three brothers-in-law), was one of the 43,000 South African troops sent to pursue a German general and his askari battalions across German East Africa, now known as Tanzania. As part of this pursuit, the soldiers marched over 2,700 kilometres. If soldiers could go through such hell, Clapham pondered on his return to South Africa, surely an outing of 90k’s by fit athletes between two cities would be achievable? 

Natalie's first Comrades ever
Bunny chow!
2015 would be the marathon’s 90th running. In the first year the Comrades was run, F. Scott Fitzgerald had yet to complete The Great Gatsby. 90 years later, 22,000 runners would register for the event, 17,000 runners would start, 13,000 would finish. The race’s attrition rate is remarkable.

The Dalton Brothers
Every year 3 of the 4 Frères Dalton (Alb, Stef and moi) head to Umhlanga for an assortment of traditions: the creation of a Comrades war room in which to map out the assault on the valley of a thousand hills; the infiltration of the high-security Green Number tent at the Comrades expo; lunch at the Oyster Box with the Boake, Fraser and Riccardi families; and a zombie movie marathon. These traditions fasten themselves to the whole race experience.

Missing Mucky (brother #4)
It is was while watching another episode in the zombie-slash-fest classic, The Walking Dead, that our Comrades Coach and manager, Stef, interrupted a crucial plot development to confirm that for the first time ever, Alby and myself would not be running the Comrades together. This was controversial. Of the six medals to my name, all were completed alongside my eldest brother, Alberto. In 2015, it was decreed by our manager that we’d both go solo.

Self explanatory
Alb’s year had not gone to plan. He was still in recovery from a February bicycle accident. The flat surface of the road had taken him by surprise causing him to catapult onto his tribars at 20 kilometres per hour with the grace of a cow carcass jettisoned off a low carport. The injuries to his ribs and hip kept him away from running until April. 

(A quick aside: The deceit with which he cloaked his injury to his wife resulted in a life ban from cycling and his ejection from all future bike races and triathlons. His bike sits in the solitary confinement of the garage scarred by dust and regret.)

Alb and his training regime succumbed to the solace of television and consolation of late night feeding, as my training purred. Rob, you go ahead, I could almost hear him say. Don’t worry about me. I’ll see you at the finish line.

To console us in the separation of the Ya-Ya Brotherhood, I bet Alby that when I beat his PB time of 8h35m, I’d train him for the 2016 season. If not, he’d be my coach for a year. You could almost hear the ding-ding as I was felled by the most serious of the SDS, the double sins of Greed (#3) and Pride (#4). I was racking them up like a sniper at the Easter carnival. 
Raiding the Green Number tent
Traditions - Doug Boake (far left) holds the
group's Comrades record of 6h58m
The Race
Alb and I parted ways before the strains of Vangelis and Chariots of Fire had cleared our ear canals. The road was dark then. The sun was not yet out. As he predicted, I would see him later on at the finish line at sunset. My Comrades PB for a down run is 9h23m. And 10.20 for an up run.

Alb’s decision to run Comrades only 5 days earlier, meant that he had zero supplies along the route. I on the other hand had cached supplies of water + Rehydrate + wine gums/chocolate at each Bedfordview Athletics club station situated every 10k’s after the 20k mark. We agreed to share the supplies however because of the ample offerings on route and our reliance on coke + water + the odd boiled baby potato, we left the supplies largely untouched.

Aside from the occasional greeting from a supporter or chit-chat with a fellow runner, running solo for that period of time is pretty intense. The plan was run 10 minutes, walk 2 minutes the entire way. It’s a conservative approach which is the only way to approach Comrades if you’re undertrained. You have to trick the muscles into thinking that life is peachy and that they’re going to get plenty of rest. Every two minutes, your muscles do their job, get some rest, no-one gets hurt.

I was feeling rather chipper and the legs were loving life. But then they always do in the first dark hours. As the first hill arrives, you take it real easy. By the time you do your second hill, it starts to feel as though you are a novice pugilist in a boxing ring and you’re up against the heavy weight champion of the world. You’re fleet of foot, the crowd are chanting your name and out of nowhere the first hill sucker-punches you in the gut. You stumble around the ring. 

Then Cowies connects you with a quick one-two just under the heart. Wham! Bam! Your legs turn gelatinous. But the bell rings, and you hook onto a bus of fellow runners or the firm peach butt cheeks of a pretty female in front of you. As the sin of Lust (sin #5) washes over you, you get a Fields Hill to the jaw followed by a Kloof roundhouse to the temple.  You haven’t reached the half way mark and you’ve realised that you’re into something way over your head. But it’s too late. You’re in the ring. People are watching. It’s impossible to pull out now.

1st half 4h21m (147ave, 169max)
Mr Incredibles?

At the half way mark, remnants from the formidable contenders strew themselves along the road side. Heads drawn, eyes sunken. If they have fallen, how long before we succumb?

At 65k’s I see Natalie, Stef and Lolly. This makes me happy beyond words. I quickly pretend the pain is not the only thing I’m thinking about. No need to raise concern. Alb’s doing well. He’s in good company. This makes me happy. Tough son of a gun. I wave them goodbye and give Natalie a kiss. It’s not planned or soppy. Just functional. I need something to numb the torment and fuel the next 25k’s.

Towards the end, when time slows, you aren’t able to discern whether you are committing the sin of Wrath (#6) because you’re on self-destruct mode or because you have elicited the Wrath of the Comrades and its many undulations. Discernment fades into deep oblivion.

I don’t want to talk about the last few hills. A lot of things happen to you. Maybe too many. It’s hard to speak of or put into words. Bad things percolate out there on the hot tar over Polly Shortts to Pietermaritzburg. The grass of the finish line finally arrived. It was as soft as I had remembered - and dreamed - and I ran. I ran faster than my legs would want. I ran as strong as my mind would permit.  

My mind worked overtime on the stadium’s field:- next time, my legs need to be stronger, my intervals faster, my base bigger. Train for the pain. Get that nipped in the bud and you’ll go as fast as the sub-7.30 Silver runners. And with my final capitulation to the sin of Envy (#7), I bowed my head and crossed the line. The SDS clean sweep was complete. 

In the last lines of Se7en, Morgan Freeman spoke about the world. He could just have easily have been speaking about a Comrades up run.
Ernest Hemingway once wrote, "The world is a fine place and worth fighting for." I agree with the second part.

2nd Half 4h49m (142ave, 168max)
Time: 9h11m

(Sub-9 would have invited my first ever Bill Rowan medal, instead of a bronze. The thought had crossed my mind.)

Rob, Blur and Alby


Alb, inexorable as always, stuck in there. He ran with a mate’s wife for a while before abandoning her to finish in 10.54 with good mates Luis Da Silva, Giuseppe Adreani (1st Comrades out of 3 attempts) and Marc Bainbridge (1st Comrades in his 1st attempt). Somehow against great odds Alb finished his 12th Comrades.

One of the big surprises of the day was my good mate, Fear Factor Champion Keith Buhr, who ran a 9.28. He started the race with a dodgy calf preventing him from running more than 5k’s in the month lead up to the race. On race day he carried a Smile Foundation banner for the first ten kilometres which caused his arms to cramp. He stopped at every massage table, of which there were many. He even snuck in an interview on the telly to promote the Smile Foundation of which he is a key contributor. And I was only able to beat him by a paltry 17 minutes, which is a lunge-for-the-line equivalent in Comrades’ terms. The sky is the limit for unstoppable Blur.

Best I raise my game for 2016.

Note Keith's grip on the presenter's neck. Very familiar.

David 7.42, Rob 9.11, Kevin 8.47
Alby and super Hazel Moller.
Hazel ran 10 x Comrades in 10 days!

Bedfordview Athletics- best athletics club in the world


  1. Hey Rob that is excellent stuff. You have inspired me to perhaps join you for my fifth Comrades. My last one was in 2000.

  2. Hi Gregg,

    That is great news. You should be well rested from your time off!
    What time are you aiming for? If it's anywhere under 7.30, I'm coming with you.

    Thanks for the kind words.