COMRADES RACE BUS TOUR OF ROUTE
In our planning for Comrades, my dad and I learned that the Comrades Marathon Association hosted a bus tour of the race course aimed primarily at international novice runners.  My dad was keen to take the tour to familiarize himself with the terrain; I was scared enough by the jagged route profile that I was quite certain driving the route would frighten the bejeezus out of me.  In the end, I deferred to my dad’s experience on these matters and got on the bus.

We were assigned to a bus with mostly American, Canadian, and UK runners, and the tour was led by an American, Comrades Ambassador-at-Large Mark Bloomfield and a South African, former CMA President Peter (I didn’t catch his surname).  Their insight proved interesting and useful, both on the tour and during the race itself.

Comrades Race Bus Tour

We left Durban at 8am sharp, which means that we left on South African time or 8.30am.  We took the highway from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, and even that journey took an hour.  That gave me my first in-my-face indication that this 89KM race was no short jaunt.

Our tour began not at the starting line but at Comrades House, headquarters of the CMA and location of the Comrades Museum.  While there were some interesting race-related artifacts and a detailed topographical model of the course, there were so many people in Comrades House that it was hard to have a good look around.  My dad and I did have a quick picture with Vic Clapham, originator of Comrades, who hangs out on the front lawn.

comrades house

We got back on the bus and made our way to the starting line, easily identifiable by the looming Pietermaritzburg City Hall.  (The architectural historian in me is required to point out that this building, far too intricate and imposing for a city the size of PMB, looks the way it does because the architectural drawings were intended for Calcutta City Hall.  But such misdeliveries weren’t uncommon in the seafaring time period, thus PMB City Hall is rather grand.  How fitting for it to be the start of Comrades!)

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Shortly after crossing the starting line, we saw the first of the many red banners that would be my dear friends on race day: the KMs TO GO markers.  89KM to go.  Gulp.

I was watching the width of the road and its slight downhill quite keenly.  I knew that it could be quite congested at the start, but I also knew that I didn’t want to run too far at the beginning before taking my first walk break.  Once I realized that the first nearly 2 KMs were a slight downhill, then there was a hard right followed by a gentle uphill, I knew I’d found my first walk break location.

(As it turns out, it would take me 11 minutes of running time…16:30 clock time… to get to this location, and it would be the longest stretch of running I would do all race.)

The first major landmark of the Down Run is the top of Polly Shortts.  This is the hill decried by nearly all runners in the up run, as its long, fairly steep grade is torture when encountered at 80+KMs.  But for the Down Run, we were given the advice that Polly can be quite a minx to us as well.  To try to run all the way down Polly Shortts now would mean trashed quads for later in the race, when the downhills are relentless.  Although I knew I would adhere to my run/walk strategy on race day, it was nice to have the voice of experience on my side as I slowed to a walk while everyone else was running all the way down Polly.

As the bus rolled along, the hosts traded stories of their Comrades runs, sharing tips I’d read before in my extensive pre-race online research but was glad to have freshly pressed into my head.  The advice ranged from when to run and when to walk (most succinctly: “Try to run all the downhills and YOU WILL SUFFER.”), to how to best attack the water sachets so as to ingest the water without choking rather than have it spray all over you, to what to do if you are wearing an article of clothing that is in violation of South Africa’s strict “guerrilla marketing” restrictions.

Every so often we’d catch a KMs TO GO mark on the road, and I liked gaining a general sense of where I was on the long route to Durban.

comrades road sign

It was thrilling to see the names I’d read so much about come to life.  Places like “Umlass Road”– the highest point on the Comrades course– is really nothing more than a (relatively) tiny hill along a serpentine stretch of roadway.

Then there was Camperdown, a small town marked by a shopping center that we seemed to leave just as soon as we entered.  I knew this was the first point on the course my husband and mom would be, so I noted the approach in hopes it would trigger a “pay attention” reminder on race day.

ethembeni school comrades

One of the most appealing aspects to me about taking the bus tour was getting to stop at Ethembeni School. Ethembeni is a residential school for children with physical disabilities or compromised vision.  The children were dressed smartly in their school uniforms, lining the play area and smiling and waving as all of us tourists filed in.  Several of the children gave runners beaded bracelets in the colors of the South African flag as we took our place under a (much appreciated) giant shade canopy.

Over the years, it has become an unofficial Comrades charity, adopted by the international runners.  I had read that I should bring something to donate to the kids– my kids chose colored pencils– and so I added my modest contribution to the enormous bins of clothing, toys, games, puzzles, and shoes my fellow runners brought.

ethembeni comrades

Not only were we treated to a song and dance performance by the children, but we were then encouraged to participate as they lead us in what was my first singing of “Shosholoza” on South African soil.

ethembeni comrades

ethembeni comrades

The headmaster spoke briefly, recounting his experience of running Comrades and the important role the race plays in the life of children at Ethembeni.  He pointed out that the bracelets the children made represented hours of hard work.  For many kids, the fine motor skills involved in picking up beads, stringing them on the elastic thread, and then tying it all off are an incredible challenge.  And like the kids worked tirelessly bead-by-bead to finish their task, so should we continue to move step-by-step to finish our race.

ethembeni comrades

It was a stirring visit, made all the more poignant by the fact that we runners were about to undertake a physical challenge the majority of these children would never have the opportunity to even dream about.  This did not diminish their joy, and I knew I’d be looking forward to their uplifting energy on race day.

As it turns out, I looked forward to seeing the kids for several KMs, not quite remembering where the school was located.  And when I finally arrived, their cheering and smiles was a huge boost.  I stopped running so that I could walk down the side of the road and high five as many of the kids as possible.  I also held up my bracelet and thanked them for their generosity.  It was a breath of fresh air and was the first time in the race I started to feel not totally awful!

valley of 1000 hills comrades

Never has a road sign been more accurate.  Hills.  Everywhere.

Very shortly after our stop at Ethembeni, I got my first visual of Inchanga.  This is the hill I feared the most when looking at the course on paper, and I had no reason to change that association once I experienced it in real life.  It’s one of those hills that isn’t a beast because it is steep; rather, it’s relentless.  Every time I thought we were at the top, the bus would groan, follow the winding road around a bend, meet some more inclining tarmac, and climb some more.  I tried to focus my attention on the stunning countryside instead.

You can see Inchanga here, in the middle of the photo, and the road we drove– and would run– slicing its way up and to the right.  Gulp…Again.

inchanga comrades

As I looked out the window, I could see sections of grass on the roadside marked off with what looked like police tape.  Our guides explained that people come out a week or more in advance to section off a home base from which to cheer on race day.  Marking territory in this way is highly respected, and once someone has claimed their spot, no one would dare try to take it.

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Mark and Peter noted that, as we dropped down the back side of Inchanga into Drummond, we would be coming upon the location of the halfway celebratory water stop.  In the area were also two of the most notable points on the course: Arthur’s Seat and the Wall of Honor.

comrades wall of honour

The bus pulled over at the Wall of Honor, and we got out to stretch our legs a bit.  The wall is amazing in its height and length, with thousands of plaques and thousands of finisher’s names and numbers, each representing a personal triumph.  We read the names of legends– Bruce Fordyce, Ann Trason– as well as the names of all of the Everyman and Everywoman Comrades runners represent.  The historian in me was intrigued by sheer number of plaques (and the lives they represent) and the humanitarian in me was moved.

My dad and I walked back about a quarter mile up the road so we could visit Arthur’s Seat. In this roadside hollow, it is said that Arthur Newton would take a mid-race break with a pipe and a meal.  We stopped for a quick picture:

arthur's seat comrades

We were now past halfway (both the ‘celebrated’ halfway and the actual halfway)– the interchangeable use of the term “halfway” to mean either Drummond or the numerical halfway is one of the confusing parts of Comrades to a novice.  Does it really matter?  Not much.  But when you’re trying to learn and strategize and pace, it requires some brainpower to remember which comes first and where Drummond really is numerically.

I still can’t remember what’s what….

drummond comrades

Regardless, the second “half” of the bus tour was not as engaging as the first half.  Whether it was the day that was heating up quite nicely and the lack of air conditioning on the bus and my resulting sleepiness and queasiness….or the fact we had to divert off the race course several times (because runners run on roads against normal traffic flow), I had to will myself to keep paying attention.  I knew this was the part of the course that would require my greatest focus on race day.

I do remember a few key things.  Botha’s Hill didn’t seem so fierce, and Hillcrest looked a lot like a northern California small town.  I knew that my husband and mom would be on the race course somewhere around Hillcrest/Winston Park, so I wanted those area to be fresh in my mind.  They were more commercial, with strip shopping centers lining the roadside.  I tried to memorize some signage so I could orient myself during the race.

comrades down run green mile

I remember the tour guides pointing out the location of the Nedbank “Green Mile.”  While I understand that this celebratory stretch of course is so named because of the sponsor’s logo colors, the irony of there being a “green mile” at about 65KM into a race did not escape me.  I thought the big crowds and shade of the arching tree canopy would be most welcome at this point in the race.

I was right.  From the Nedbank Green Mile on in to the finish was actually fun.

Field’s Hill was the most significant landmark in the second half.  I could see Durban and the Indian Ocean in the distance.  I could feel the bus tilting to the right as we made our way down the very long, windy road.  I knew that if the bus was leaning that much, my ankles would most certainly feel the challenge of being bent both front to back and side to side simultaneously.

I was right.  Ouch.

We slogged through traffic once we hit Pinetown, where there was still plenty of road construction that we were going to have to run through.  (These roadworks required a diversion in the 2015 race, and that added 800m to the course.  That may not seem like much in a race the distance of Comrades, but if you’re up against the 12-hour time limit, 800m could easily be 6-7 minutes.  Not cool!)  The roadbed was rough, and I made a point to tell myself to remember to pick up my feet as I ran through.

Our guides explained that from Pinetown in to the finish would be packed with spectators.  The stretch of the race from about 70-80KM was on a highway, so I wondered how people would be out on the course on race day.  Just as I had that thought, Peter explained that spectators simply park on the side of the highway, get out of their cars, and set up cheering and aid stations.  I also knew that this was the “easiest” stretch of the course (and on in to the finish), as there were really only two more hills (Cowies & 45th Cutting) to climb.

cowies hill comrades

I remember Cowies Hill.  It was pretty.  And I was the only one doing any running.  At all.

I have no memory of 45th Cutting from race day.  I suppose at my pace and with the walking/running I was doing, one more incline at that point (approx. 84KM) kind of blended in to all the rest.

When the highway ended in Durban, we had to part from the course due to traffic patterns.  I found this most unfortunate, as I was keen to know what the last 2-3 KM of the course looked like.  Of all the places not to be familiar with the course, it seemed poor planning that the end be excluded!

As it turns out, there were so many crowds on the streets of Durban on race day that it didn’t matter at all.  I knew the landmark of the Durban Hilton, and I knew it was adjacent to Kingsmead Stadium. 

Until we came off the highway and were running on the streets of Durban (within 5K of the finish), there were absolutely no flat stretches, at least for nothing more than about 1/2 mile at a time.  I was glad to have put in the time and effort on the hills of Austin to prepare me.  I cannot imagine training somewhere flat and going into Comrades with any kind of confidence whatsoever.

I would recommend the bus tour to a Comrades novice.  I liked being able to look at the countryside and take photos, neither of which I did during the race itself.  And that feeling of seeing the places you’ve been reading about for so long is part of what makes travel so exciting.  I was thankful to not be meeting the hills for the first time as I was running them.

As usual, my dad was right.