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Report from this year's race from Galway based Ultra-Endurance Athlete - Diana Hogan-Murphy

Comrades has to be the world’s greatest race. I mean 89km is the type of distance that usually lures about, oh, 70 runners. But Comrades has enough magnetism to draw 12,000 athletes wanting to complete what the organisers call “The Ultimate Human Race”. And everyone in South Africa is a Comrades aficionado, thanks to the continuous 12-hour live national TV coverage. In most countries only events such as The Olympic Games and The Tour de France would receive such coverage!

Comrades has such a distinguished history that even seasoned marathon runners find it reignites their passion for the sport. The first Comrades Marathon took place on the 24th of May 1921, Empire Day, starting outside the City Hall in Pietermaritzburg with 34 runners. It has continued since then every year with the exception of the war years 1941-1945. The 2009 race was the 84th running of the event and only the Boston Marathon would have a longer history – major city marathons like New York and London are just 30 years old.

After WWI, a man called Vic Clapham wanted to remember those who had fallen and the camaraderie shown between men to overcome the atrocities and hardships of war. Clapham asked for permission to stage a 56-mile race between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. He wanted it to become a living memorial to the spirit of the soldiers of the Great War. His requests in 1919 and 1920 were refused but in 1921 he was finally given permission and the race was born.

On The Run - Comrades 2009

On The Run - Comrades 2009

Comrades has more than just scale due to the number of runners and the distance – plenty of races have these elements. What it has is amazing camaraderie and support from fellow runners, the crowd and (it seems) everyone else in South Africa. I was massively impressed by the quality and professionalism of the organisation and the unmatched buzz surrounding the race.

This very special atmosphere becomes evident as soon as you land in Durban, the home of the race. The city clearly looks forward to the race with eager anticipation and one quickly realises that there are always plenty of runners on any internal flight in the days leading to the race. Then the Runners Expo aptly named “The Comrades Experience” has a wonderful blend of excitement mixed with real trepidation as the big day looms ever closer.

So when I woke up on the morning of the race, was I bursting with adrenaline? Well, no, or at least not immediately. But that was only because it was 3am in Durban and the start of the race is an hour’s drive away and it struck me that I had to now stop talking about running 56 miles of hills and actually get out and do it. Dave and I had a finish target of 9 hours 50 minutes (Dave is from Durban and has finished the race 12 times). With a cut-off of 12 hours and the majority of the field (two thirds) finishing in 11-12 hours, we calculated that a goal of completing the journey in under 10 hours would be both reasonable and achievable. It was also to be used as a training run for the Gobi March, a 250km self sufficient 6 stage race through the Gobi desert in mid June. As we had completed a 9-hour mountain marathon in the Drakensburg with a 3000M climb the weekend before, we really had no time to taper for the big C!

We had to be in our seeded start pen by 5:15am, 15 minutes before the gun as once closed runners would have to start at the very back of the field. That’s more of an issue than usual given that only race and not chip times count and all the strict cut-offs during the race are based on race time. That includes the cut-offs for each of the six medal categories. I was told that the music at the start follows a similar schedule each year and being my first time this was a very moving experience. First up is a heart-wrenching rendition of a local mining song called ‘Shosolosa’ which many locals joined in with the singing. Then the beautiful multi-lingual South African National Anthem” n’Kosi Sikelela” and finally the classic theme from ‘Chariots of Fire.’ Never do the classic piano and synthesizer chords of Vangelis sound better than when crowded into the start of Comrades in the dark. The last sound heard is the now recorded traditional cock crow of a past runner who started the race for many years until his death. Then a moment of eerie silence and the gun lead to the shuffle over the line for 12,000 people who are willing to try their luck at a distance most would never attempt by foot. Fools! But what glorious fools.

It takes almost an hour to get light and the field is well spread out by that point. I’d reached the first steep downhill, called Polly Shortts at 8km, except that the marker board said ‘81km to go’ - as it is one of the few races in the world that counts down rather than up. It’s very pleasant to run down that early in the race but when the course is run in the opposite direction, as it is every other year, this is the famous climb that finishes most people off near the end. 2009 was a down run with some nasty chunks of downhill running. This becomes particularly thigh-destroying later in the race and the constant pounding leaves most people crippled and hobbling for several days after.

Ian Sharman (a UK friend who we first met at the Thames Meander and Marathon des Sables last year) and I ran in the colours of Dave’s local club Kearsney Striders who had plenty of supporters along the way. One of the magical parts of the race for me was when I reached Kearsney College, a prestigious boy’s boarding school where the club is based some 38kms from the finish in Durban. That point is 51km into the race and I’d had a relatively easy time. Most of the tough climbs (there are still some testing uphills on the down run!) were over but I knew that there was a long downhill section to come on Fields Hill – the biggest of the five major hills. So though my legs were feeling good, mostly due to regularly icing, I knew I had a lot left to do. I was handed a balloon as we approached the gates of Kearsney College so that the throngs of supporters connected to the school would see me coming. As I heard the cheering, something clicked in me and I embraced the support to get a massive adrenaline boost. As I danced through the tunnel of Kearsney students, encouraging them to make as much noise as they could, I started to believe that the race wouldn’t just go well but that I was now capable of speeding up too. For the remainder of the race I was a new runner flying past competitors hungrily searching for each km marker, willing them closer.

After The Race....

After The Race....

With just 15km left we passed the legendary Bruce Fordyce, a nine-times winner of this great race and now completing his 28th run. It was at this point I not only knew I was going to make it but that we had a chance of going under our target time of 9hrs 50 mins. We negotiated the last few inclines by walking and in the process saving our legs for the final 5km push to the finish. The last 3km through the inner city seemed to last an eternity and then I finally saw the 1km to go board and the Stadium was in sight.

When I entered the Kingsmead Cricket Stadium for the final victory lap, Dave kept encouraging me to savour the moment and I suddenly felt emotionally drained and had to focus hard on the finish line. As we crossed the line in 9hrs 36 mins, I was overjoyed at having just completed ‘The Ultimate Human Race,’ as Comrades rightfully describes itself.

That evening, I was even lucky enough to have dinner with two of the race’s greatest performers – Bruce Fordyce and three-time winner, Helen Lucre. Bruce is a living legend in South Africa. Helen, best friends with Dave, had been part of the 12 hour TV commentary team that day.

There’s a unique feeling to Comrades which causes people to come back year after year and still be as excited as a five year old on Christmas Eve. It’s not just one thing, but the combination of everything to do with the race. And when a city truly embraces an event it creates an electrifying buzz. It also helps that Durban is a fantastic city with great beaches and that I have good friends living there.

Running the race makes you feel invincible and capable of anything. It inspires people to push themselves to new heights. I’ll be returning to the beautiful rolling hills of

Durban every year possible because there is no alternative. This race is in my blood.

Valerie G

15 years ago

Well Done Diana,
That looks like one hell of a race!
This is one of my races I`ve penciled myself in for,Thanks for the report and and congrats on such a good time too!!
Valerie

Tony K

15 years ago

Congrats Diana, super report....you look so fresh after finishing i'd say you cud run back to the start...:-)....enjoy the rest before the big 'G'..

Hero stuff !!

Tony K

Natalie Brennan

15 years ago

Hi Di,

Congrats- you are amazing and an inspiration!

How about the next challange- canoe to Australia?

Love Nat and Decxx

Maire Treasa Beatty

15 years ago

Congratulations Diana A Fantastic Run and a great report.You are amazing!!!!!!!!!

vivian and Anne

15 years ago

Super girl again Di
Can't wait to follow your next big one!

Chris

15 years ago

Well done Diana
It is truely a graet race. Ran in 2008 and again last week. I will return time and time again to this amazing race.
rgs,
Chris