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Running the Comrades Marathon: First steps for U.S. runners

Founded in 1921, Comrades is the oldest ultra in the world.

By Cherie Louise Turner

In South Africa, the Comrades Marathon (roughly 88K, 55ish miles) is the standard by which running is measured. I’ve heard runners say more than once that the general feeling is, "You’re not a real runner until you’ve run Comrades." 

Founded in 1921, Comrades is the oldest ultra in the world. It is also the largest, with thousands of participants lining up each year. And, it is a celebration of running like no other. The event captures the attention of people all over the country: supporters are thick along most of the course, and for those who can’t be there in person, there’s 12 hours of live coverage to watch on television. The closest comparison for Americans is Comrades is the Super Bowl of South Africa, but with runners. And, unlike the Super Bowl, you can be a participant. 

Running Comrades is an experience you will never forget. It also requires good planning and preparation, as I've learned from my two finishes and spectating the race. 

So you want to run Comrades: Now what? 

There are two primary challenges for Americans wanting to run Comrades, the training and preparation to complete 55ish hilly miles on the road, and the logistics to make that happen. The good news is there is a lot of help available. 

Cherie Louise Turner has finished the epic Comrades Marathon twice.

The first step in this journey is to plan ahead. Like, a year ahead. There are a lot of details to tend to, and deadlines that happen months before the race, so familiarizing yourself with the whole process well before you plan to line up will make your journey just that much smoother. 

Accommodations and arranging travel in South Africa takes time to navigate, and with an event this popular, hotels and other places to stay fill up. The race is point to point, so you’ll need to plan for that, too. There are shuttles that you can arrange through Comrades, but many people make their own arrangements with private drivers. 

At the top of your list: connect with your Comrades Ambassador. Comrades ambassadors are foreign runners — in this case, a fellow American or North American — who have experience with the race and work with Comrades to help others in their country run the race. They will help you with everything you need to know about every step in this journey. 

They will also connect you to others in your country who will be running Comrades. Having this community resource is invaluable. And you’re certain to make a whole new group of running friends. 

Two additional resources to familiarize yourself with are the Comrades website and Coach Parry. The Comrades website is where you register and it provides all of the deadlines and other official information you should know as you prepare for the race. One important item is to make sure you have a valid qualifying time. For example, you would need to have run a marathon in under 4:50 within a certain time frame before Comrades. Also, registration for Comrades opens more than six months before the race.

Then there is Coach Parry: Lindsey Parry and his team provide a terrific amount of training and racing advice for Comrades. Before you delve into that resource, you’ll want to find out what direction Comrades goes the year you plan to run.

The Comrades course is point to point: on one end is Pietermaritzburg and on the other, Durban. Each year the course switches direction. The course is net uphill when it ends in Pietermaritzburg (called an up run) and net downhill when it finishes in Durban (called a down run). 

How you train will be very dependent on which direction the course goes. No matter which way it goes, the course will feature a lot of uphill and downhill. There is almost no section of the Comrades course that is flat. For most Comrades participants, there will be times of walking. And lest you think the downhill course is easier, the pounding on your legs can be devastating. Many experienced Comrades runners say that they actually find the down run harder than the up run. Either way, training for the terrain you’ll be racing is particularly advisable. 

Like most ultras, Comrades Marathon includes walking.

Because of the undulating terrain, it’s also very beneficial to have a race and pacing plan that factors in the various features of the course. In particular, Coach Parry has excellent advice for the down run. You can also find helpful pacing information for either direction provided by the Irene Athletic Club. Another resource to help with pacing are the pace groups, which are called “buses” at Comrades. 

If you enjoy running in a group, there are buses for many different paces at Comrades. You can also get in touch with the pacers beforehand and they are happy to answer questions and provide advice. 

Two additional points to be aware of are fueling and cutoff times. There is a lot of aid on this course. That being said, there will also be a lot of fuel offered that you aren’t familiar with. While you won’t need to bring enough calories with you for the entire event, having some nutrition with you that you’ve trained with at home can come in handy. 

As far as cutoff times, Comrades has a very strict finishing cutoff of 12 hours. In addition, there are intermediate cutoff times along the course. And, the race is gun to gun: it is not chip timed. So the clock starts when the gun goes off. 

Something to look forward to at the end of running the Comrades Marathon, other than celebrating your achievement, is that foreign athletes are provided with a designated finishing area. Here you’ll be provided with food and beverages, places to sit and hang out, and bathroom facilities. This area makes for a handy post-race meeting spot. 

The Comrades Marathon, which alternates direction each year, is the world's largest ultra.

A magical experience

All the travel planning, cutoff times, training and course studying aside, Comrades is magical. I have had the great privilege to run this race twice and spectate on one other occasion, in addition to interviewing many people about this event, and this is the best description of my Comrades experience I can come up with: magical. 

So more than anything, be ready for that. Be ready to soak it all in. Yes, it can be nerve wracking to get everything in order to get yourself to that start line well prepared, but also, take a deep breath and enjoy your experience. 

Whatever pace you run, however the day actually unfolds, take a look around and appreciate the experience and how incredible it is that the people of South Africa have provided this opportunity to you, and everyone around you. And they have done this for over 100, often very turbulent, years. 

There will be times when you feel great and other times when you struggle, and that’s the point. This event’s founding purpose was to create a shared experience of enduring a difficult challenge, together. And in that, there is something truly special. 

More than a running event

Comrades is a formidable running challenge. And that alone is reason to go.

Comrades is a formidable running challenge. And that alone is reason to go. It is also, however, a cultural experience. Knowing some of the history, of the event and of South Africa, will make your experience all that much more rich and rewarding. 

There is, indeed, a lot to know about this race. Like how they incentivize returning to the event, beginning with the back-to-back medal. As the saying goes, in addition to not being a real runner until you’ve run Comrades, you’re not a “real” Comrades runner until you’ve run it in both directions. 

There are also different medals to be earned depending on your finishing time. And race bibs provide more information than your race number: there are different colors for different designations, and it will state the number of times you’ve run the race as well as your age category. Knowing some of these details will enhance your experience. 

And with a century of history to draw from, there’s always some new fun fact, story, personality, or tradition to discover. 

Running Comrades is a big challenge in many ways. For Americans, it’s far away and there are many unknowns to navigate. Good preparation is key. I also suggest being open to returning. 

It is a very common occurrence, especially for first timers, to come into the closing miles of Comrades with a firm commitment to never, ever run it again. This race is hard, and it is painful. 

And then, within about 24 hours or so, it is also very common for those same runners to be texting their fellow Comrades finishers about making plans for the next year. 

Cherie Louise Turner

Cherie is a runner and a podcaster. She has raced events as short as 400 meters and as long as the 56-mile Comrades Marathon, which she has completed twice. She is also host and producer of the Women’s Running Stories podcast, where exceptional women runners share inspirational stories about their running experience. Among the more than 100 stories, there is a large selection of episodes focused on experiences at Comrades


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