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Comrades - the ultra road race with an inspired and inspiring history

 In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

 We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Excerpt from ‘In Flanders Fields’ by John McCrae, May 1915

The Great War of 1914 - 18, World War One, to this day is remembered with utter horror as the most appalling, harrowing and cruellest war in humanity's long and shameful history of warfare.  Ten million died, in situations of unimaginable suffering and torment. An entire generation of young men, many of them still teenagers, was snuffed out as 'canon fodder'. Mustard gas, trench warfare, forced route marches, and knowingly sending soldiers in their tens of thousands at a time, into battles from which all knew their chances of survival were negligible at best, rendered the very few who were to return home, shadows of men, suffering the aftermath of gas corroded lungs, lost limbs, hideous scars, survivor guilt, and what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - but what in those days was dubbed Shell Shock. This is the war that produced the timeless, gut-wrenching anti-war poetry of the likes of Wilfred Owen, still studied today both as some of the finest literature ever written and as a stark and horrifying cautionary tale of the untold torment, living hell and torturous suffering of warfare. 

When South African survivor of this horrific carnage, the young soldier Vic Clapham, returned home to Pietermaritzburg, grieving for his fallen comrades in arms, and mentally reliving the horrors and suffering that those who had not been there couldn't begin to imagine, he strongly believed that a mere physical memorial to these fallen heroes could not possibly do justice to their sacrifice. 

One of so few to have survived at all, he wanted to ensure the sacrifice of his comrades would never be forgotten.  He wanted to create some kind of living memorial that would stand the tests of time.

During the war, he and his comrades had, amongst so many hardships and brutalities, endured a torturous 2700 km route march through the blazing desert heat of German held East Africa.  Recalling its rigours and suffering, Clapham had an idea.... 

His dream, in honour of the countless dead and brutally maimed, both physically and mentally, was born: The creation of a running race so gruelling that it would test participants way beyond any normal physical and mental limits, reminding them of how the millions of soldiers had suffered, most of them paying the ultimate sacrifice; a living experience of humankind's spirit and ability to overcome even the worst, most painful adversity; a chance to practise the same compassion and camaraderie whilst attempting to finish the race, that soldiers in war practise.  But it would take almost three years before he could convince anyone else of his plan!  His envisaged race would be run from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, at around 90km, a distance considered sheer madness by those to whom he pitched the idea. But he doggedly pursued his dream, and in 1922, with sponsorship of just £2, the Comrades Marathon was born.  

Little did Clapham know, as 34 men lined up to take on the feat, just what he had begun.  How amazed he would be today, to see the massive crowd and carnival style festivities at the Start, as around 16 to 17 000 men and women line up in the same way, excitedly yet nervously anticipating what they have taken on, and wondering if they will make it to the Finish line in the 12 hours prescribed - the same time limit as those 34 hopefuls were given.  Just 16 of them managed it back then, on 24 May 1921.  Nowadays, 20 000 are allowed to enter – and each year, those places rapidly fill!  They must qualify, with a sub-five hour marathon.  Of these, around 13 to 14 000 annually finish this massive test of endurance before the cut-off gun is fired - a task for which the official must turn his back to the desperate several hundreds doing all in their power to cross the line in the final seconds - or the gun, perhaps, might never go off!  Then come the mournful bugle wails of ‘The Last Post’ as several hundred runner’s who are now ‘DNF’ (did not finish) dejectedly limp, walk or crawl to the finish line.  But - there is always Next Year!

In this Year's Comrades, one of the long traditions of the race was honoured in a touching manner which served to remind runners more strongly than usual, of why the race began. Arthur Newton, one of the Comrades immortals who won the race five times in the 1920s, was reputed to take a short breather close to the half way point, and a recessed 'seat' in the cliff side, near the Comrades Wall of Honour where plaques commemorate so many Finishers, both famous and not so famous, called Arthur's Seat, is a landmark along the long day's journey.  Tradition has it that you must place a flower here, and wish Arthur good day - and the second half of your race will go well. This year, at the race Expo stand of the South African Legion of Military Veteran’s, representing the WW1 and WW2 heroes for whom this race is run, we were handed paper poppies - the same we buy on Poppy Day (Armistice Day) in November -  and were encouraged to place these at Arthur's Seat - instead of pulling up the roadside flowers!  

Accordingly, I was very moved on arrival at Arthur's Seat to find a queue of runners waiting to place their paper poppies there, and a veritable mountain of them already on the Seat!  The significance of the poppy in the context of WW1 is that they are a reminder of the fields of poppies that grew in ‘Flanders Fields’, the name of the famous poem by John McCrae, at the site of one of many terrible battles which claimed so very many lives.

The long, rich history, traditions and legends, and the meaning behind the race, is a large part of the Comrades' allure for any runner who enjoys a really big challenge, and the festive atmosphere of a well-organised, well-supported race, with a very large field of participants of wide-ranging abilities.  Those who line up for the Comrades range from those who literally become inspired to run it from scratch - and manage in just one year, to go from no running, to running a marathon in under five hours, to tackling this ultra - to some of the world's top elite runners with their eyes on prize money and fame.  There are nine seeding pens nowadays - catering for all speeds, from the middle-of-pack recreational marathoners in H pen at back of pack, to the sub-four-minute-per-km elites in A.  Traditionally, the race has been 'gun to gun', preceding the advent of timing chips and mats by many decades. This means that back of packers lose at least 8 minutes of their allotted 12 hours just getting to the Start mat. However, in a race so very rich in tradition, this is very unlikely to change.

When you start running relatively late in life, as I did, and as more and more people are doing, the Comrades seems entirely too daunting an idea, way out of reach, indeed, madness itself.  The distance is simply mind-boggling, and listening to those who've done it describe the pain involved, is very off-putting.  However, if you really take to running and start building up the distances you race - moving from 10 km, to half marathon to twenty miler to full marathon, you may even begin to wonder if there is an ultra marathon in you after all.  You might first just give a fifty kay race a bash.  With that under your belt, you might, having forsworn the Comrades as totally out of the question, as I did for several years, then visit the website and start wondering....

What got me to that wondering stage, was the ninetieth anniversary of the Comrades, which was an auspicious edition to say the least!  This was when I learnt that one should never say 'never'. Because that had been my standard response when asked if I'd ever taken on this race!  The same day I strayed onto the website, wondering, I also took a look at the free training programmes supplied there, to see just what was actually involved in the preparation.  I'd been led to believe by many long-time runners that the training demands were simply unmanageable if you also wanted to have a life, and productively continue with full-time work; the mileage requirements would demand every available spare moment and impact on your home life, your job and your social life. So studying the official Comrades Novice Finishers’ Programme was very enlightening for me.  This was a time- not mileage-based training plan.  The prescribed hours spent running, almost all of it at easy pace, to prepare for the Comrades in six months, were very comparable with the time I was already spending running.  Training has never been drudgery for me in any case. I train in bush and farmland and it is always enjoyable, with so much to observe.  It is like a meditation, an exercise in mindfulness, and always puts me in a great mood.

So with this surprising discovery, I registered for the ninetieth running there and then, of course!  And now I have become one of those Comrades addicts who, in spite of how indescribably hard it is, how it stretches mind and body beyond anything considered half way reasonable, and how seriously physically painful it is, forgets all the suffering by the very next day, and signs up for next year's the day online registration opens!  Having successfully run three, I am 'in for a penny, in for a pound', and have set my mind on my Green Number.  This is awarded to those who have completed ten Comrades within the prescribed cut off time.  This is a very long-established Comrades tradition, and there are now a handful of runners who have actually attained their QUADRUPLE Green Numbers!

It's hard to describe just how utterly amazing is the experience of this race, the absolute roller coaster of emotions involved, from the tear-jerking, carnival atmosphere at the Start with its age old countdown music and traditions, as one's nerves build to crescendo till the gun finally goes, to the utter elation of reaching half way, followed by the rapidly intensifying pain and exhaustion, till with thirty kays to go, the self-doubt and self-questioning begins: Why am doing this to myself, at all? Why did I imagine I ever could? Can I actually take this amount of pain for at least three more hours?

It is during this dark, difficult time, that the support of the tens of thousands who come out for the day to cheer on the runners, is appreciated all the more; as is support from loved ones who manage to find their way to one of the few spots along this route, where you can see each other, however fleetingly - a hugely challenging task, with the necessary road closures and inevitable traffic jams that accompany this iconic race.  The Comrades is famous for so many reasons, and this is one of them; the public support along the route, and the media coverage all day long, is second to none:  And the kind, encouraging words of a stranger from the side-lines calling your name from your bib and telling you, you CAN do this, can make so much difference as one's spirits flag and exhaustion and pain take their toll.

Somehow, you keep going.  Somehow you manage to tune the pain out a little. And somehow, on the Up Run, you reach the top of the infamous Polly Shortts hill, named after a bygone farmer in the area, and have just eight kays to go!  And on the Down, it’s the outskirts of Durban….

Then, it is 'pain, be damned,' and you actually manage to pick up your pace.  Yes, it hurts like hell, but the end of rather strange combination of the wonder, and the torture, of the Comrades, IS in sight.  Reaching the home straight is an indescribably joyous moment, crossing the Finish the absolute pinnacle of elation.  Tears of joy and just ‘emotional overwhelm’ are a common occurrence.  Then, the race itself is finally over - time to stagger through the seething crowds, as the pain breaks through all that elation and adrenaline, track down friends and family, flop down on the grass, wrap up warm and revel in the glory and joy of finishing the Comrades - something of which very few people can boast.  And the aftermath?  There is a lot of physical recovery that needs to happen.  A road race that tough does a lot of muscular damage which needs to repair in the months ahead.  The mental high from finishing the race, however, lasts for those same weeks and months, while all that healing and recovery takes place. 

Does this glimpse into its history and traditions, help explain the inexplicable? Why every year 20000 people sign up to run one of the world's most gruelling road races, and amongst that number, many are tackling it not just once, but annually, over years and then decades? In the knowledge it will almost break them? Perhaps not - though people who have supported and spectated at this race, can grasp it a little better - for it is by all accounts, an amazing and inspiring experience from both within the route, as a runner, and from outside it, watching. To understand fully, you will just have to try either - as runner or supporter - for yourself! 

To feel really inspired (but have your tissues ready!) – follow this link to an excellent short film, ‘A Soldier’s Dream’ on the history of this iconic race, which starts after a 1 minute 40 second introduction: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WahFE45nLbg&t=186s.

Then watch this very short film, made to promote this year’s race (keep those tissues handy!) - and you might begin wondering about it, yourself!  :https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BG3C5Bva38&t=67s

The highly regarded Comrades Marathon Medical Facility is heralded as the world’s largest such temporary facility outside a conflict zone!  This year, 400 runners were treated at the Comrades Medical Tent, in a day described by an official there as ‘A normal day of controlled chaos.’  90 runners went to hospital, of whom 40 were admitted. 

The spirit of the Comrades Marathon is embodied by attributes of camaraderie, selflessness, dedication, perseverance, and the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.  Throughout the race, one observes words and deeds of encouragement, kindness and compassion amongst runners themselves, and by spectators towards runners too.  Countless times, spectators will shout encouragement to runners, picking up their names from their race number bibs, and many offer their own refreshments as exhausted runners stagger by.

There are ‘Spirt of Comrades’ Awards each year, to recognise selfless acts which epitomise the legendary spirit of the race.  These are often awarded to runners who sacrifice their own race to assist another runner in dire need of help.