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Thursday, July 20, 2023

Comrades: The Ultimate Ultramarathon

With up to 25,000 runners in the start blocks for the 90-kilometer course, it is by far the largest ultramarathon in the world. 

5:30am Start of The Comrades 2023

And the oldest too. The Comrades was run for the first time in 1921, an idea of World War I veteran Vic Clapham to commemorate the South African soldiers killed during the war. And it’s not without it’s standards. All runners must qualify for it by running (at least) a standard marathon (42.2 km) in under 4 hours and 50 minutes while the race itself has a strict cut-off of 12 hours. In terms of size, in 2019 the race was capped at 25,000 runners, whereas in 2023 there were ‘only’ 16,072 on the start but with a phenomenal finisher rate of 92.68%. 
holly zimmermann ian sharman comrades running ultra ultramarathon marathon
With Ian at the Expo
The day before the race I met up with a friend, Ian Sharman, who’d I’d met in Bhutan at the Snowman Race the year before. If the name Ian Sharman rings some bells, it’s probably because he is one of the best (trail) runners in the world, currently holding the record for the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning as well as 9 Guinness Book of World's records. And having already run the Comrades 8 times, I knew that he’d be the right guy for some insider tips. 

This year was a ‘down’ race beginning inland in Pietermaritzburg at 5:30am and finishing on the coast in Durban. Rewind a few hours earlier and there’s me trying to get a couple hours of shut-eye before getting up at 2 am to catch the bus to the start. As if running 90 kilometers isn’t tough enough, but most runners are doing it on only a couple hours of sleep. It is run in June, which is winter in the southern hemisphere, and it was very cold when I arrived in Pietermaritzburg at 4am. I had a jacket on which I figured I’d wear for the first 15 minutes or so till I got warmed up, but it was so cold and dark that I kept that jacket on for two whole hours before handing it off to a smiling local teenage girl who seemed thrilled to be getting a new running jacket. 

Swimming in a sea of ultrarunners
During the first 60km I struggled. My goal was to finish under 10 hours and after about the first 10km I settled in with a 10-hour pacer group and hoped they would (figuratively) carry me through to the finish. But I was having trouble keeping up with them. There were many hills where I would drop back a bit, then rejoin them as I picked up the pace downhill. But after about 20km with them and wondering why we were constantly on a 6min/km pace, I finally had to throw in the towel and let them go. That’s when another runner started chatting with me and when I told him my frustrations about not being able to keep up with the pacer group. He said, “Don’t worry. They are running a 9-hour pace. They will have to slow down. You’ll see them later.” That made me feel a bit better. That was, until the next 10-hr pacer group (there were 3 in total) caught up to me and eventually passed. Then, shortly after, as I made a quick stop in the port-o-potty, the third 10-hour pacer group passed me by. I was feeling defeated. I resigned to lower my standards and try to be content with a finish under 11 hours. I called my 18-year-old daughter via videocall who was back at the hotel back in Durban to check in on her and give her my status. She’d been the only one I’d told about my 10 hour goal and though she’d been tracking my progress, I wanted to give her an update about how I was feeling. Then I started walking the hills like all the other runners around me and tried to enjoy the wonders of South Africa. The fans were like none other. All wanted to help and were offering anything they had: food, drink, Vaseline, cold spray but the best thing on offer was their jubilation. Their pure joy at being involved in an event that had evolved into what was now almost a national holiday was absolutely energizing. 
holly zimmermann asics running everest ultramarathon mom comrades marathon
Power-walking the hills

And then things completely changed. After struggling mentally and physically for nearly 7 hours, a 14-km stretch of a gentle downhill gave me a second wind and I felt like I had wings! I began passing runners left and right! Why are they walking downhill?!? I looked at my watch and the kilometers remaining and realized it was actually totally feasible for me to finish in under 10 hours. I was back on track and began pushing myself, determined to reach my goal if not for myself but for my daughter who was my biggest fan. 

Soon I found myself running next to a little Indian woman wearing a shirt with the Indian flag and the word ‘INDIA’ on it. The crowd kept calling out to her, “Go India!” I was also rooting for her as we were working together to keep a good pace. And then, about 12 km away from the finish, we caught up with that third 10-hr pacer group. I was elated! The group had grown and they were probably about 100 strong, canvassing the entire road from left to right. Getting through them would not be easy. But thanks to tough little Miss India it wasn’t a problem at all. “You in yellow shirt! Move!” she began giving orders and I followed right on her heels. Over the next couple of kilometers we talked briefly about our timing, pace and both of us were set on the sub-10 finish. She’d stop briefly at the aid stations whereas I’d grab and go, but she’d quickly be at my side again. Then the second 10-hr pacer group came in sight at around 7 km out and we were on fire, busting our way through as though we were just out of the blocks. But soon after that I lost her at an aid station. She had stopped and didn’t return, but with only about 5km to go, and roughly 9 and a quarter on the clock, I knew we’d both make it under 10. 

 We were now in the city of Durban and there was lots to see, but still work to be done as the roads were not great and with several overpasses there were still some meters to climb. And then I thought I was hallucinating. With just over a kilometer to go to the finish, that last 10-hour pacer group, the one that I had run with for 20km but couldn’t keep up with, was in my sights. My legs felt as fresh as they were at the start and I had energy to spare as I easily worked my way through the group and could almost taste the triumph. 
holly zimmermann running everest comrades ultramarathon ultra marathon
Seeing my daughter in the crowd
Turning the corner on the homestretch to the stadium the road was packed with screaming fans and upon entering the stadium I was met with the roar of the crowd. Once inside we had to run a lap on the grassy field, in a narrow chute with cheering fans on both sides. Then I heard a familiar voice yelling, “Mom! Mom!” It was my daughter, a fair blond, surrounded by dark-skinned women also screaming ‘Mom!’ just to make sure I wouldn’t miss seeing my kid. 

The finish line arch was then in sight and the clock read 9:47… of which the remaining digits were meaningless. I was well under my goal time of 10 hours and feeling mentally and physically on top of the world! 

Lessons learned: 
 • An ultramarathon is a journey, not a moment. 
 • Hours of lows can lead to hours of highs (and vice versa). 
 • The body is a wondrous endurance machine. 
 • There is no better sport than long-distance running. 

Meeting 2nd place finisher Piet Wiersma in the
Durban airport the day after the race
Bonus! I met Piet Wiersma, the second place finisher, in the airport the day after the race!

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