Tips For First Time Comrades Runners

I can’t quite believe it’s been an entire year since Comrades 2016. It feels like only yesterday I was anxiously jumping on a plane to Durban. As we grow closer and closer to Comrades 2017 I must admit to feeling a huge sense of ‘FOMO’ and for some crazy, unfathomable reason, I wish I was racing again. I was a total novice when it came to Comrades and in fact, it was my first run over 56km; that’s why I wanted to write a few pieces of advice. I thought it might be helpful to pass on some pointers from someone who ran Comrades for the first time and went into the race blissfully naive and eager to run my heart out.

While I began writing some tips I started to think about who I would go to for advice if I was running Comrades. The ‘up-run’ is said to be totally different to the down and that’s something I have never experienced.  The first person that came to mind was an incredible lady I met last year. She was part of the Unogwaja Team, who cycled from Cape Town to Maritizburg before running the 89km race – crazy, right? Amanda is running her fourth Comrades this weekend so I asked Amanda what advice she would give. This is what she said:

The Up run demands the utmost respect, as does any Comrades attempt….but I am more terrified of the Up run.  I remember in 2015 when I got to Fields, in tears!  I simply couldn’t get over how hard it was…like a full marathon but all uphill.  At that point my head was playing serious games with me.  2 things happened.  I saw Dr Ali, a running friend, who saw my distress and she said: “I was here exactly 2 years ago….and I pushed through and had the run of my life…it gets better from here !” Then I saw Theo, my insanely supportive husband, who said that Bruce Fordyce commented on the TV earlier that morning that by now (aka Fields) everyone will be asking themselves what is happening & can they go on?  It does get better!  Hang in there.  For me….it did get better and I had an amazing 2nd half….so if you reach that place of despair on Cowies, Bothas or Fields, hang in there.

Comrades is a long day out, so my short experience tells me to expect good & bad patches and be prepared for both.  Don’t gallop off as soon as you are in a good patch…..stay steady & focused and not let your sudden energy fly away with you so you get tired for later on.  Expect the bad patches and don’t despair; hang in there and work through them.  Push through them knowing it’s not necessarily for the rest of the race…….dig deep, pull on your grit to get through them.

Flipping enjoy it!  It is the ultimate human race; it is hard (hard is what makes it great!) and take it all in.  Everyone has a story, everyone has the same goal ultimately (to do THEIR best) in this infamous race.  Enjoy it!  I absolutely love Comrades; she demands respect for a reason and by showing her that respect, you can have a great day out (albeit rather long!)

Tips For Your First Comrades:

1. Stick to your timings

I know this first piece of advice sounds like a really obvious one but it didn’t stop me totally ignoring it on race day. It’s all too easy to panic in those first few kilometres when your pace is much slower than what you had planned (often due to a low starting rank and the effort of trying to break through the crowds). Don’t panic! I focused too much on making up time and didn’t stick as close to my race plan as *perhaps* I should have. Remember: once you start to maintain a pace, you’ll struggle to slow yourself down so make sure you’re not running faster than the pace you had planned.

2. Whatever you do, don’t stop

Walk if you have to but don’t stop. Mentally, I believe stopping is without doubt the worst thing you can do because the act of stopping allows doubts and negative thoughts to enter your mind. Physically, your body begins to cease up and the chance of being able to find any kind of rhythm again is minimal. We took a ‘walk/run’ approach on the hills which worked really well. Something like 20 steps walking/60 steps running; just something to occupy your mind – I think that’s the key.

3. You are far more capable than you think

I can’t describe how many times I thought finishing would be impossible. However if you find focus, stay relaxed and take one step at a time rather than allowing yourself to be overwhelmed by the size of the race, you WILL get through. The feeling of crossing that finish line is unforgettable and well worth the pain you will have endured.

4. After every bad patch, there’s a good one

I believe this could be the single greatest piece of advice that I can pass on from my experience last year. You will enter phases of the race where you feel terrible. Your body aches, your mind hurts and you don’t feel totally ‘there’. I can promise you that after every phase like this, there are periods where you feel better. You will find your momentum again and the crowd will lift you; you begin to believe in your body and allow a smile to break out across your face. Don’t panic when you’re feeling down and don’t out-run yourself when you are feeling stronger again.

5. Save gels for as late as possible

I learnt this on Two Oceans more so than I did running Comrades. Gels are a great way to get sugar and energy…fast! The problem is after every sugar ‘high’ there’s a low. Ideally, when you are racing you don’t want to experience that low hence once you start taking gels, you need to maintain them or you may find yourself feeling lifeless and low on energy very early on. I didn’t start taking my gels until the last 30km in Comrades and that was by far my best decision.

6. Don’t forget to look around

Comrades is the most magical experience and you need to take opportunities throughout the day to soak it in. It was the most humbling day of my life and I think it’s a shame to miss out on that by becoming too consumed in the running itself. Take it all in: the support, the views, the conversations with strangers turned friends and of course, the struggles. It adds and shapes your journey.

7. Don’t cry as much as I did – it’s a waste of good hydration.

I weeped from the 70km mark and it wasn’t pretty. In fairness, it’s an emotional rollercoaster of a day but it’s a big waste of water and the last thing you want is to dehydrate yourself!

8. Use your body

Try to keep a good form even when you are stiff and tired. When you become tired it’s easy to loose form and allow your posture to stoop. When this happens, your knee lift is lowered and you stop lifting your feet towards your bum. That’s when it becomes really easy to get cramp in your calves because of the added strain. Running like this is far less efficient so if you can, keep a good running form even when it hurts.

Good luck to everyone racing. It’s an experience you will never, ever forget. Go hard, go boldly and don’t take any notice of that voice in your head that tells you, “you can’t do it” because the voice in your heart is reminding you, “you can”. You trained for this, you worked for this, you prepared for this. Now go and reap the benefits of your own hard work. Hamba Kakuhle!      

Watch my vlog from Comrades 2016:

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