It’s nice to sit and reflect on a Comrades Marathon run 2 weeks after the event. Life is infinitely more relaxed – there is no longer the need to be training almost every day. The mind is a lot calmer – the Paranoia felt in the 2 weeks leading up to race day has completely disappeared. The legs have fully recovered and one can pick and choose from a bevy of lower-distance fun-looking events in different disciplines to satiate the hunger.
‘The Ultimate Human Race’ 2013 made this competitor feel a lot more Littleweed than Ultrabloke. All will be explained in more detail but I basically broke / bonked / hit a wall (whatever you want to call it) BIG TIME and had to battle through a wretched 45 minutes during which I thought the dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish) would be the order of the day.
Miraculously, as many attest to the be case with Comrades, all the pain and anguish felt on race day is quickly forgotten (apparently as early as 1-2 days later in the case of some runners) and one starts thinking about when the next attempt might be. I welled up a bit while watching a 1 hour special on Bruce Fordyce on DSTV this morning and couldn’t help but swell with pride to know that I am now in my own minute way (just 2 runs), a part of the history of this amazing event.
However, it’s probably going to be a good few years till I run it again. The plan was always to run the Comrades Marathon back-to-back in each direction and I can now place a big fat tick in that column. While it’s an amazing event, there are quite simply too many incredible ultra-distance events in South Africa to keep repeating Comrades over and over. I have however indicated to my younger brother Rob, that when he gives it a go I will drag out the number for a run with him.
For the next 10 months, the events I’ll be focussing on are the Salomon Sky Run Lite in November (a 65km trail run in the foothills of the Lesotho Mountains) and then the Iron Man 70.3 in East London in January and the Iron Man in Port Elizabeth in April, with a multitude of training events in between. So back to the race report.
CHANGES SINCE 2012
Having completed my first Comrades Marathon run (down) in 2012 in a respectable 09hrs23, I really wanted to complete my second and possibly last in less than 9 hours for a Bill Rowan medal.
Most would assume that one is far less nervous running it the 2nd time around, but with Comrades I don’t think that’s the case. It’s such a long distance over such a long period of time that a multitude of things can and do go wrong and the only things you can do to allay that is to prepare adequately (put in the training) and pray that everything goes okay on race day.
Further compounding the feelings of anxiety were running in the other direction (a very different proposition), as well as the fact that I had made 2 quite sizeable changes in my running and approach since 2012:
1.)Re-learning to run
Just after Comrades 2012 I read ‘Born to Run’ by Christopher McDougall. It’s a fantastic book that really reminds you what a simple joy it is to be able to run and a must read for any running enthusiast. Finishing the book, I decided that aside from the main theory about running on more minimal footwear (something I definitely wanted to try), there was probably value in terms of speed and efficiency to be gained in taking a more scientific approach to my running. And so I began a lengthy investigation into the more minimal footwear available and what one needed to do to make the transition.
SO I ditched the bulky shoes (Mizuno Wave Rider) and Orthotics (a shoe insert to ‘correct’ the way your feet land on the road) I had been running with for the previous 7 years, got some new shoes, dropped my mileage and concentrated on cadence (the number of times your feet hit the ground in a minute) and gait (the posture of your body) and essentially re-trained myself to run. I’d tested it up to 50km’s on Om-Die-Dam with no ill effects and had quite a comfortable run, but how I would hold up over 87km was still anyone’s guess.
2.)A lower-mileage heart-rate based training regime
Last year I followed an excellent Two Oceans Ultra Marathon training program off the Old Mutual dogreatthings.com site by a reasonably well known distance runner named Norrie Williamson. I loved following a set schedule every day and although predominantly focussed on mileage, the program did include a few good ‘quality’ sessions (hillwork / sprint). There was a further program between Oceans and Comrades which I studiously completed every day and after benchmarking myself against other training programs and discussions on forums I felt quite well prepared by the time I lined up in Pietermaritzburg and was quite pleased with my eventual performance.
That said, I had read countless articles about the benefits of heart-rate based training and as with my efforts to re-learn to run, I wanted to test a different method and see what results it would yield. Through an eventual referral I found my way to Zac van Heerden and Exercise Solutions. With Comrades the goal for June and a desire to maintain a tiny semblance of cycling and swimming form (as well as to introduce a break from the monotony), Zac drafted a monthly program for me every 4 weeks which included 6 sessions a week (4 runs, 1 cycle and 1 swim session) and one rest day.
The sessions, which averaged about an hour (I think the longest was 1.5 and the shortest 45mins) were very specific and in-between a warm up and cool down, had you performing for different periods of time, in different heart rate zones. When last year’s program said ‘Run at 70% exertion for 2 mins’ I always found it incredibly difficult to know exactly what 70% meant. With a heart-rate program you can measure your exertion perfectly. The heart is an amazing machine and watching your heart rate move up and down by a couple of beats per minute as you change levels on a gym bike, you realise just how amazing it is.
Finishing the first month or two of the program I felt pretty strong and fit BUT there was a doubt in my mind as to whether I was doing enough mileage and how I would fare on a longer run. It was just such a different approach to the previous year. Some of that doubt was put to rest when I did Om Die Dam and ran a very comfortable 50km’s in 4hrs55 without pushing very hard at all. I continued with the plan over April and May and performed comfortably and well in the Slow Mag Marathon (setting a PB of 03hrs36) and Colgate 32km – sticking to a similar pace.
But doubt still lingered and every now and then I’d listen to a podcast / read an article / see a discussion forum where people were talking mileage and mileage alone and I knew mine was much lower than most programs suggest.
To explain my apprehension, here are the cold hard numbers:
- January 2012 – 3 June 2012 – I covered just shy of 1,300 kilometres.
- January 2013 – 2 June 2013 – I covered about 720 kilometres – just over half the distance.
I have considered however how my 1 hour cycle and 1 hour swim session per week would probably roughly equate to a 20km run meaning I could add about 300km’s to that for a total of 1,000 odd kilometres. It’s an odious comparison though because it’s still not time on the legs.
Thankfully I didn’t even tally the mileage before this year’s race because I simply didn’t want to know how short of last year’s number I’d be and scare myself further. I consoled myself with the fact that a badly twisted ankle on New Year ’s Eve meant I’d only been able to manage 6 runs in January and 9 runs in Feb, that Zac knew exactly what he was doing and that I was going to stand on the startline with no injuries, fresh legs and a well-tuned engine.
I’ve also had a lot of experienced Comrades runners tell me that it’s better to be slightly undercooked than overtrained.