On June 1st I ran in the 89K Comrades Ultra in South Africa. It was so much harder than I thought it would be. I’m feeling better now, but I was pretty battered after the race. Everything hurt. Even my eyebrows. Toenails. Earlobes. EVERYTHING.

It really was an amazing race, though. Unbelievable to see such a huge crowd, 18,000 strong.  It’s a point-to-point race between the cities of Pietermaritzburg and Duban, with the course alternated every year. This was a so-called “down” year, as there would be a net drop into Durban.  But as I would see, there was still a huge amount of uphill running on the course.

My friend Lloyd Henry ran with me for the first 50K. As background: the race organizers give out different medals for different finishing times: winning medals, gold to top 10, silver after that, bronze up to 11 hours, then a different medal for 11-12 hours. And the cut-off is brutal: they do a countdown to the 12 hour mark, and when they fire the race-ending gun, the race is truly over. The finish in is a big stadium, and it’s a strange kind of shadenfreud to see the runners struggling to make the cut-off and failing. On the news later that day they showed a runner just feet shy of the finish line, then collapsing in disappointment when the gun sounded.

I knew about the cut-off beforehand, and I was determined to not get shut out. My plan was to go slow but keep up a steady pace, maintaining a 9:30-10 minute per mile pace, allowing for some walking on the toughest of the five big hills on the course.  As the race unfolded, I saw beautiful panoramic views of the Kwaza/Natal countryside – just what you would expect the African countryside to look like.  There were also thousands of supportive spectators cheering us on.

When I was about a half marathon away from the finish (the markers count down, not up), I realized the at bad as I felt – and I was quite sore and tired by that point – I had a shot at the bronze, even with walking.  But things weren’t going to be quite so easy.  Embedded in the middle of the roadway are small metal-encased reflectors called Cat’s Eyes.  I was warned about the potential for tripping, and in fact I saw one woman face-plant very early on.  And that’s exactly what I did, too, with just 4K left. I landed flat on my belly. The race is known for the comeraderie of the runners, and sure enough, 2 other runners were on me in a flash helping me to get up.

Luckily, I didn’t have any real injury to prevent my finishing, though my big toe was bruised afterwards, and my left palm was sore. But I caught the sub-11 pace group and stuck with them for a while.  This gave me one of my great race experiences: the pace group started singing the unofficial anthem of South Africa, Shosaloza, as we ran. I don’t know the words of the song, since it’s not in English, but it sounded beautiful.

I held pace and earned my bronze medal, and enjoyed the great post-race food and a massage.  It was perhaps the most difficult race I’d ever ran, but it is also now one of my favorite race memories.  A race not to be missed if at al possible.


About horowitzrun

Jeff is a certified running, cycling, and triathlon coach, and is the author of "My First 100 Marathons" (Skyhorse Press 2008) and "Smart Marathon Training" (Velo Press 2011). An obviously addicted runner, Jeff has run at least one marathon in every state and on 6 continents, including marathons in South Africa, China, Bangkok, and Antarctica. Jeff is available for group, one-on-one, and virtual coaching. Options include: 1. Basic Training Plan. This includes a customized training schedule geared towards a goal race, with a detailed running schedule that would include all distances and target times for each workout, including speedwork, tempo, and endurance sessions. 2. Complete Fitness and Race Plan. This includes the plan listed above, plus the non-running workouts and drills that runners need for better overall fitness and performance. You would get strength & core workouts, as well as run-specific training drills and stretches. 3. Virtual Coaching. This includes all of the above, implemented on a week-by-week basis. We review each week's progress at week's end so that adjustments can be made. The program is tailored to suit you right up to race day. It involves more contact, on a weekly or even daily basis. 4. Full Coaching for athletes in the Washington DC area. All of the above, plus a weekly workout together including speedwork, drills, and strength training. 5. Individual track sessions. One-on-one track-based workouts. Contact Jeff for pricing.
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