Owen Bowden Jones tells us how a conversation with a fellow Serpie led him to tackle the world-renowned Comrades ultra.
June 2018 Richmond Park, Sunday Serpie Run
“Owen, you must run Comrades. It is amazing. My favourite race.”
“Isn’t Comrades an ultramarathon?”
“Comrades is the original ultramarathon. It is 90km long and you have 12 hours to run it. The next race is an ‘up’ run, meaning that it runs from Durban up to Pietermaritzburg. It is quite a climb, about 1200m. And it can get quite hot towards the end.”
“That is a ridiculous thing to do.”
June 2019 Durban
It is 4.30am, warm and dark. I have just left my things in the bag drop and despite the time, the roads around the starting pens are crowded with excited runners. Somehow the conversation in Richmond Park has led me to the beginning of the Comrades Marathon and it is time to enjoy the unique ambience. The atmosphere is like a reunion party with people excitedly calling out to old friends in the crush. Once through the gate, the starting gantry is directly ahead, but the start line is blocked by a row of drummers in traditional dress beating out a frantic rhythm. Despite having 90km ahead of us I am amazed to see people dancing, unable to contain their excitement. By 5.15am we are packed tightly into our pens and one of the many Comrades rituals begins. First we hear the South African national anthem, followed by the call and answer of the traditional song Shosholoza. It is a song about endurance and as a single voice calls out to the runners, they respond in unison. The effect is mesmeric and there is a unifying sense of the shared challenge ahead of us. Chariots of Fire is quickly followed by a recording of a man impersonating a cockerel, another Comrades tradition. And then we are off, the excitement that has been building for hours driving people to sprint away, releasing their energy into the Durban night.
Running through cities at night is a liberating experience. With no vehicles on the empty roads and most of the inhabitants asleep, ownership of the city briefly passes to the thousands of runners making their way from the town centre towards the mountains. As we take a slip road onto the deserted six lane motorway running out of Durban, the runners fall silent. The focus has now turned to what lies ahead. Race strategies, meticulously planned over months are on everyone’s mind. Pace, nutrition, course profile, when to push and when to conserve energy. For novices like myself, never having run further than a marathon, the real questions is ‘will my body let me run this far?’. ‘Am I capable of running 90km?’.
My preparation for Comrades has not been ideal. I ran the Boston marathon in April and was delighted to get a PB, but my idea of ‘tacking on’ Comrades to the end of a marathon training cycle was seriously naïve. Running an ultra is different from marathon running. The pace is slower, the training runs are much longer and the running form completely different. No getting those heels above 90 degrees and pumping those arms, instead an energy conserving, zombie shuffle. The time between Boston and Comrades has left me short on mileage and I have also experienced a month of worsening heel pain resulting in no running at all for the last few weeks. Every runner will be familiar with the negative self-talk which can set in during a race. The creeping uncertainty which inevitably leads to those dangerous thoughts, ‘why don’t you just stop running, it doesn’t really matter if you don’t finish’.
While these thoughts are drifting around my head, the sky has lightened revealing a seemingly endless stream of runners snaking ahead and behind as far as I can see. Many runners are wearing the red and white Comrades caps provided to all competitors. The caps blend together, turning the runners into a single pulsating mass. Crowds are now gathering along the roadside despite it being just after 6am. And so we climb, and climb and climb. From the very first step, the ‘Up’ run lives up to its name. In fact, the first half of the race is essentially one long climb, sometimes so steep and sustained that the only option is to adopt a walk run approach. “Don’t go out too quickly, conserve your energy, it’s a long way” was the advice that everyone was given. “Comrades favours the meek” Bruce Fordyce, the record breaking nine times Comrades winner told us on his visit to London. On one of the steeper hills, a local runner stops to show me the best way to speed walk the incline. “Move your arms. Like this”. I noted his special ‘green’ number, meaning that he had runs this race at least eleven times. Sound advice then!
The sun has emerged and the crowds are building now. Huge crowds. Families line the route on both sides handing out food and drinks. Barbeques are everywhere. Sound systems blast everything from Afropop to heavy metal. Wildly enthusiastic, these people are settling in for the day aware that they have an essential part to play in this carnival of running. At one point, a Serpie vest, hoisted high on a pole, appeared amongst the increasingly boisterous crowd. The energy from the spectators comes in powerful waves, buoying us as we climbed hill after hill.
I pass a sign saying 60 km to go. The Comrades distance markers count down from 87km, one more quirk of this most individual of races. With refreshment stations every 2km, there is plenty of deliciously cold water served in small plastic bags. The plastic needs to be bitten through. If the tear is too big, water is spilt everywhere, but too small a hole and dramatic jets of water emerge at odd angles, mostly missing your mouth. With so many stations however, we soon perfected our technique.
Half way comes and goes in a blur of purple bunting and wildly cheering crowds. A few minutes later it is quite a shock to see a sign saying 42km to go. This feeling is exacerbated by the sight of the first ‘bailer bus’ of the day passing by. Sad-eyed athletes who have gone out too quickly gaze vacantly at us through the bus window, utterly exhausted, their race over. Runners fall silent as they pass, a chill of recognition of that dark place every runner fears.
I spent the previous day with a few other Serpies on a bus tour of the course, the highlight of which was stopping at Ethembeni School. Situated on the Comrades route, it provides teaching for children with learning disabilities. The children put on a concert of singing and dancing and every year line the running route to cheer on and high five participants. Now, as we pass the school, the children shout out encouragement. It is a much-needed mental energy boost. We have now covered about 50km, further than I have ever run. Although the steep climbs of the first half are behind us, the course is now undulating. I pass a small choir singing Shosholoza. 30km to go.
Unlike my experience of running the marathon distance, there is a point in running nearly 90km where the legs move on their own and the race becomes more of a mental challenge than a physical one. As long as you are eating and drinking enough, and have paced sensibly, the body just seems to get on with it. The mind however is on fire. With 20km to go my negative thinking is back. I don’t think you can really push yourself without having this mental battle. It is part of running, part of the challenge and if you succeed, part of the achievement. I am beginning to struggle, my pace is slowing and I start to worry that the remaining 20k is going to be too much. This is where the Comrades spirit really reveals itself. Our race numbers also have our names in large letters. Just when I need it, the crowd helps me out. All race I have seen spectators spot a runner who is fading and concentrated their energy on them. This generosity is now extended to me. “Come on, Owen. You can do it!!”. They shout, cheer, scream and no runner can resist the massive energy surge the crowd sends my way. I am picked up and given a firm shove along the course.
Revived and feeling much better, I reach the foot of the infamous Polly Shortts. At Boston a few weeks before, there was much pre-race talk of Heartbreak Hill. It had turned about to be a bit of an anti-climax as I ran past it without realising. Polly Shortts however is an evil Heartbreak Hill on steroids. Also falling towards the very end of the race, when I reach it Polly Shortts looks like a battlefield. Exhausted runners are walking, trance-like up each side of the road while a few hardy souls are limping up the centre. A photographer is well positioned at the top to capture the carnage. As I start up the hill, a fellow runner (another green number) passes me, pats me on the shoulder and says “Get to the top of Polly Shortts and it is downhill all the way from there. You are nearly home, just keep moving”.
Again, it proves to be sound advice. Once past Polly Shortts the course runs gently downwards. Every few metres someone calls out to me with encouragement and before I realise it, I am at the racecourse and heading towards the finish line. It is a peculiar feeling to stop running once over the line. My legs want to keep going and I have to concentrate to keep them still. It has taken me 9 hours and 14 minutes and the sense of achievement is overwhelming. A wave of euphoria passes over me and I can’t stop grinning. I did it!! After negotiating a cruel set of steps, I reach the International hospitality tent and the best cup of sweet tea I have ever tasted.
The hospitality tent is already filling up with excited runners discussing their race, but there is one extraordinary Comrades tradition still awaiting me – the 12-hour cut off. Comrades is run on gun time and after 12 hours the race closes. Anyone taking longer does not get a medal or officially finish the race. As the clock approaches 12 hours and with the sun setting, thousands of people gather near the finish line to cheer the last runners home. As ‘The Final Countdown’ blasts over the PA, race finishers use their remaining energy to scream encouragement to runners approached the finish line. The last few minutes of Comrades are some of the most dramatic scenes I have seen in running. Exhausted runners, who had been on their feet racing for nearly 12 hours, push themselves towards the line. Many make it in time, but some do not, their bodies simply shutting down with 100 metres to go. As the race officially closes, stretcher-bearers swarm onto the course to rescue the collapsed and broken. The heartbreak is shared by everyone and there it is again, the unique spirit of this race. A communal understanding of a remarkable challenge accepted and for most, achieved.
The following day, another Comrades tradition, this time a Serpie one. Lunch at the Oyster Box, a stunningly beautiful hotel north of Durban. We all sign one of the bright yellow Comrades course markers which, as you may have noticed, has now appeared on the wall in the clubhouse. Talk of next year’s ‘down’ run is already running wild.
I have been blessed with over a decade of running experiences. There have been so many highlights, but I can say without hesitation that running Comrades was my best day in running shoes. Brutal, beautiful and utterly unique. There is simply nothing else quite like it.
Owen Bowden Jones started running late, but is now a Sunday Serpie Richmond Park regular. Running highs include Boston, Comrades and post-run cake at Pembroke Lodge.