An Unenamored View of the Incomparable Comrades
Last Fall, a friend from California decided she and I should run the Comrades Marathon (generally about 89 km., this year’s version worked out to 55.5 miles) in South Africa, especially as it was going to be a Down year, from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. Comrades is, of course, famed as one of the oldest and biggest ultras in the world, if not the oldest and biggest. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it, but the website said the entry fee was only about $30-35, so I figured I could enter and drop the idea if I had second thoughts. When it came time to sign up on the website, however, I learned that the cheap entry fee was for South Africans; the fee for Americans would work out to $180-200. (For that extra money, we international runners get our own registration area, with free cookies, coffee, and a bottle of Gatorade, and our own finishers’ tent near the finish line – lacking, curiously, the foil blankets other runners got.) The extra fee doesn’t amount to much, of course, when one considers the cost of travel to South Africa. (Air fare is roughly $1500-2000 per person, plus hotels, local transportation, food, etc., although many expenses are relatively low by American standards. For example, since the day before the race, race day weather at the start was predicted as being in the low 40s rather than weather.com’s earlier ten-day guess of mid-50s, I bought a pair of cotton work gloves for a little more than $1.)
But the costs seemed substantial as I gradually discovered that the race organization was an odd combination of officious and incompetent. And my temptation before I left was to come back and then write up the problems to discourage Americans from entering Comrades. A drop in American participation wouldn’t make a huge difference. Already, 95% of Comrades runners are South Africans, with Americans accounting for roughly 15% of international competitors, thus well under 1% of the starters. (Incidentally, although Comrades prides itself on having integrated a couple of decades before Apartheid ended, the overwhelming majority of entrants, I’d guess well over 80%, are white.) I kept looking for excuses to cancel, but my wife and sister/crew kept talking me into going, noting I’d thought about Comrades for decades. Since I strained a quad six weeks before the race, and, after a couple of unsuccessful attempts, gave up all running for five weeks before, I was pretty confident I’d fail if I started, but they insisted that, at the very least, I could help crew for the woman with whom I was supposed to run it.
Besides, this was to be a special year. For some reason, Comrades had decided the 85th running (missing a few since the first Comrades in 1921 due to World War II) was so special that it required enlarging the field to over 20,000, and making the route Down for the second year in a row despite the tradition of alternative Up and Down years. The actual reason for deeming it special and making it Down was that Comrades would take place a couple of weeks before World Cup soccer came to South Africa for the first time, and the organizers wanted the race to finish, rather than begin, in a city where some soccer games would be played – albeit not at the soccer stadium.
My initial reason for discouraging foreign participation is based on how badly the race was organized in the months before my trip. For example, it took several weeks, one local telephone call, and seven e-mails to get the answer to what I thought would be a simple question: can a person voluntarily move down a seed to run with a friend? The only thing making it anything other than obvious is that the Athletics South Africa rule book, frequently cited by Comrades for its myriad rules, mentions seeding as a way to prevent pacing, which is banned, and the definition of which includes any non-competitive running together by entrants. (The final e-mail to runners included a set of “technical rules,” one of which includes the statement that “a man running with Women for a certain distance is regarded as Pacing and is NOT allowed.”) In the end, the obvious answer – of course one can voluntarily move down, just not up – was also given in the final instructions to runners. This means it probably could qualify as a frequently asked question for which an automatic response was ready to go to anyone who took seriously the automatic e-mail response one gets from Comrades when one notifies them of one’s qualifying race and time: “If you have any queries please do not hesitate to contact me.”
I am still awaiting a personal response to an e-mailed question asked 2.5 months before the run regarding how a runner spending the pre-race night in Durban could get transported to the start at Pietermaritzburg before the run begins. The answer to that question, too, is in the final instructions, suggesting that an answer could readily have been given when asked. Getting the answer at the registration could be unsettling, since it means arriving in South Africa unsure whether reservations might have had to be made in advance, and thus unsure whether one would somehow have to drive to the starting line the morning of the run – with various road closures in effect. Like the “pacing” question, for a normal business, the answer would have been something along the lines of “Sheena, send him paragraphs 26 and 39B.”
A couple of weeks before the run, e-mails were sent to international entrants telling them they had to pick up registration material in Durban; around the same time, an e-mail was sent to runners saying we had to pick up registration material where we'd indicated in the initial sign-up that we'd pick it up, Durban or Pietermaritzburg. Persons who had purchased the required personalized ChampionChip through Comrades were sent, along with everyone else, e-mails warning that they had to present their Chip at check-in, with no indication that those who purchased them through Comrades had a different routine to follow. Knowing what was expected from these officious officials wasn't clear, and questions were rarely answered; being an international competitor merely meant we could be ignored by two Comrades staffers (Mbali in addition to Sheena) rather than just Sheena, by whom South Africans could be ignored.
Three weeks after the deadline for submitting qualifying information, and one week before the run, Nikki Kimball (generally spelled Kimbell) was listed as not having qualified, and Kami Semick was included in the slowest of eight seedings. (In the official program, both were identified as "contenders." And two weeks after Semick had finished fourth and Kimball 20th, Kami was still in the H seed, but Nikki had moved into the B seed -- although most of the women who finished ahead of her were apparently in the A group.) I left the 'States with the impression that this was perhaps the second worst organized ultra I'd been involved in during three decades of admittedly infrequent ultramarathon running.
In general, race management alternated between incompetence/indifference and officiousness -- "no ChampionChip, no registration, no run!"; caps cannot advertise anything but a particular race sponsor, Nedbank, a bit odd since Reebok was also a sponsor; shirts are limited to a manufacturer's logo 4 cm. x 5 cm.; etc. (The chip is used not just for the start and finish, in a race where "chip time" is irrelevant, but also to record getting to various points on the route, where times can instantly be recorded and put onto the website. One of the guys I ran with briefly was interrupted on the run by a telephone call. We had just crossed over the mat at the halfway cut-off, and his brother-in-law was 'phoning to congratulate him on that feat. Oops: Technical rule “5. Running with...mobile phones...is NOT allowed.”) The final instructions seemed similarly officious, with two instructions in the runners' brochure -- one each of ten "etiquettes" and ten "must have's" -- pretty much mandating that deodorant be put on before the start. And a "technical rule" in the final e-mail newsletter -- a bit late for anyone affected by the bizarre rule -- said "No tattoo marks are allowed." Fortunately, all that was checked at the entry gates to the run was the seeding letter on our bibs, not our underarms or exposed tattooable body parts.
Instructions we received here before leaving and in South Africa emphasized the difficulty for friends and family to meet runners at any particular point, with all sorts of rules limiting where they could park -- rules ignored by everyone familiar with the race -- unsurprisingly, with groups of spectators congregated in numerous locations along the course. This meant that crews were discouraged as impractical, and that one would have to rely upon race management for all nourishment. It also, of course, meant that my crewing was not really an option, so the idea was I’d start and at least experience some of the Happening that is Comrades.
In South Africa, alas, race management remained pretty bad. While not really announced, if one searched around on the website it was revealed that no solid food would be supplied at aid stations during roughly the first half of the run, just hard-to-open sachets of water and energy drink and small bottles with cola. I think the lack of food is a problem, although someone suggested it just showed that, to Comrades, their race is really just a marathon that happens to be two marathons plus a 5K in length. (One is supposed to bite open the sachets; I couldn't, but did bring a small penknife with which to cut into them, and that worked.) Two of the later aid stations ran out of water -- in a race where carrying water bottles after the first several miles is discouraged by experienced runners, and on a cooler than normal race day. The eventual solid food lacked much in the way of variety, and sufficient only when supplemented by food supplied by spectators. The numerous vans used to pick up us losers -- featuring signs ironically saying "20,000 runners, 20,000 winners" -- may have cared about drop-outs but not runners. One such van, passing another van on a two-lane road, ran me off the road where I almost fell on the slippery discarded sachets used for water and energy-drink. Another van blocked runner access to the first aid station with real food by parking diagonally against a table so the driver could get some sustenance for himself without doing more than getting out of his cab.
When we drove the course the day before Comrades, I thought the number of portajohns -- infrequent, and in groups of 2-5 -- small. During the event, the only time I tried to use one in a group of five, I found them all unusably filthy and lacking toilet paper. Unsurprisingly, most boys simply went to the side of the road, and most girls a few yards further into some bushes to heed calls of nature. Driving the course also demonstrated that the official altitude chart is inaccurate regarding the location, length, and steepness of hills. For example, Polly Shorts, near the start, looks like a gradual climb and descent; in fact, it’s a very steep descent. On the chart, the high point (about 12 miles in) looks as if it’s reached by an unrunnably steep climb. Actually, it’s reached by a series of rolling hills. The Down version looks on the chart to be a series of rolling hills for about 35 miles followed by mostly downhills for the last 20 miles. Actually, that first serious downhill begins on Botha’s Hill more like 30 miles into the race.
The only reasons a North American should consider doing Comrades are the runners and the spectators, not the organization. Spectators were not so numerous as I had expected. They tended to congregate at intersections during the middle portion of the run, and along relatively level urban streets in the other two thirds, so there were many areas where runners were as alone as in any other ultra. To give race management its due, it assisted the runners and spectators in one way. Runners were required to wear bibs both front and back. The background of the bibs indicated such things as novice (white), international (blue), and amount of prior Comrades experience (different colors and diagonal stripes) -- although only the spectators' guide, not the runners' brochure, described the various backgrounds and their meaning. In addition, runners' first names were printed below their numbers, so spectators could cheer runners on by name reading the front, and other runners could approach runners from the rear with conversational openings ("Paul, where are you from?," "Is this your first trip to South Africa?", etc.). Along the way, runners were treated to various special groups of spectators, and often pleasantly serenaded with songs including the South Africa’s popular national anthem, and unpleasantly serenaded with those wretched horns called vuvuzelas that by now are familiar to World Cup soccer fans.
For the record, my friend finished with over 45 minutes to spare, but I was pulled about a quarter-mile shy of the 20-kilometer-to-go mark, about ten minutes after having failed to make the ten-hour cut-off there. While American ultras seem to credit runners with having reached the place where they failed to make the cut, Comrades only records the places where the mat recorded runners as having crossed prior to an intermediate deadline, so it has me bailing after two-thirds rather than just over three-fourths of the distance.
So should an American do Comrades? It's hard to say. First, one has to balance the race against its management. Second, one needs to decide whether one really wants to do something more like an extra long road marathon than what would now be a normal trail ultra. Then, one has to consider the idea of spending time in the cities where it starts and finishes, next year Durban and Pietermaritzburg. Guide books generally warn against spending too much time in Durban, due to crime and other threats to be avoided by being careful what parts of town one enters, when, and how. The books don't note that, as it happens, Pietermaritzburg's little downtown is a filthy slum, whether safe or not I don't know, seemingly worse than Durban in its unattractiveness. The suburbs and exurbs of both can be nice, I gather, so Comrades might be considered particularly if one plans to spend a fair amount of time and money before and/or after the race seeing other parts of South Africa. And the country, which so many South Africans seem so anxious to help succeed, can use the tourist dollars. It's just a shame that the Comrades Marathon Association is involved.