All running coaches and Comrades runners will have their own personal tips on how to get the most from the race. The below are my tips based on what has worked for me in my training for, and getting the most out of, the ultimate human race.
Adjust your training accordingly for this race
- For the down run I’m a huge fan of incorporating a stairs session once a week into your training routine. Running down the stairs and getting the legs used to this impact is as important as running up them.
- Strength training is also really important – you need get your legs as strong as possible, especially your quads. A short morning routine of squats, lunges, calf raises and core work will go a long way on the day.
- Find hilly routes to train on. Even though it’s a down run, don’t be fooled. Within the first half of the down run there’s actually more uphill running than downhill. The highest point is about 23km into the race. I often used to think to myself while doing the down run that it just feels like I’ve been running uphill the majority of the way.
Fit in the mileage but make sure you listen to your body
- I’ve always set a target of reaching at least 2,000km between January and Comrades, and in some years I have exceeded this (bear in mind, my goal is a fast silver medal). However, mileage isn’t everything and the last thing you want to do is get to the start line over-trained and with tired legs. I know other runners who have achieved Bill Rowan medals (finishing in under 9 hours) and have only run about 1,200km from January until Comrades. Everyone’s body is different and reacts to distance training differently. Follow a plan and listen to your body!
- A great way to fit in the mileage is by incorporating double run days into your training. This allows you to fit in the distances without always doing longer runs. I’m a huge fan of regular shorter 7-8km recovery runs.
- I’d recommend a minimum of 2 ultra runs before race day. This should give you the physical and mental confidence you need to get through race day.
Practise your nutrition prior to the race and don’t try anything new on the day
- Never try anything new on a race and especially not for Comrades. It can be a very long way to run if you are running in discomfort or have stomach issues. Replicate your exact race day nutrition on your longest training run in the build- up to the race. If what you’ve tested works, then stick with it and don’t deviate. Due to the nature of the race a lot of runners try take extra supplements and foods they have never tried before. I’d avoid doing this.
Plan what to drink on race day
- There are 48 watering points along the route which are well stocked with Coke, Energade and water, so you won’t go thirsty. However, you may not need to take a drink at every water point. Listen to your body.
- I’ve always been lucky enough to have great seconds on the route who could hand me my pre-mixed electrolyte drink. If you do have seconds supporting you on the route, I’d say it’s possible for them to stop 2 or even 3 times along the route to hand you your drinks and nutrition. Just remember though that the route can get very busy with spectators, so it’s best to have a back-up just in case you miss them in the crowd.
- In the past I have only starting drinking Coke from the half way point and not before. You should be cautious about getting a sugar high too early on and then these levels dropping before the end of the race.
- Staying hydrated is essential throughout the race. It can get really hot towards the end and you want to ensure your body is prepared to deal with this. However, don’t make the mistake of over-hydrating – the effects of this can be a lot more dangerous than dehydrating.
Carbo Loading for the race
- If you’re a fan of carbo loading, then carbo load a lot more than you usually would compared to a normal marathon. I’ve always done a carb depletion/carbo loading diet, which worked for me but doesn’t work for everyone. If you’re also going to be doing this, I wouldn’t recommend trying this for the first time on Comrades – rather test it before to see if it works for you. It makes you feel extremely weak after the first 3 days of having no carbs but once you’ve carbo loaded for the next 3 days you feel like a super human.
Vaseline is your Best Friend
- Don’t be shy to use extra Vaseline and cover all areas where you think you may chafe. If you’re unsure then apply more. For the guys, strap some tape over your nipples. Comrades is a long way and the last thing you want to be dealing with is chafing pain and bleeding nipples.
Race distance and taking the inside route on corners
- The down run is always a longer route than the up run, so bear that in mind if you’ve already completed an up run and this is your first down. Be mentally prepared for this because there’s nothing worse than thinking you have 1km to go when in actual fact you have 3.
- If you’re chasing a time and are border-line on target for your goal then always work off the distance markers on route rather than the distance on your watch. You always hear that dreaded story of someone who says, “Well, according to my watch I broke this time but not according to the official clock.”
- Really important to note is that it’s a ‘gun start to mat’ race rather than many of the marathons which are ‘mat to mat’ races. Runners aiming to finish in under 12 hours would in fact actually have to run 11.50 or so, as it can take up to 10 minutes for the people at the back to cross the start line.
- Always take the shortest routes on the corners – these all add up in the end. You’re already running a mammoth distance, so why make it any longer than you have to? Just watch your line when running to make sure you don’t cut off a runner behind you.
Racing and pacing
- Don’t race anything long and hard within the last month in the build-up to Comrades. Not much fitness can be gained in this period but you can jeopardise your race by trying to cram in last minute mileage.
- Pacing is crucial throughout the race but especially in the beginning. Always feel like you’re holding back. There is a lot of downhill in the second half and if your quads are fatigued before this then you going to lose loads of time by not taking advantage of the second half.
- In my last Comrades, when I came 74th overall, I lost around 5 minutes between half way and the end but gained around 200 or so places. This is a clear indication of how so many runners get the pacing wrong and just how tough it gets when you’re fatigued.
- With about 20 kms to go, there’s a 4km downhill called Fields Hill. It’s run on a highway and many runners think they’re into the last quarter of the race, so it’s time to open the tank. They run this section flat out and come flying past you down this hill. Don’t be tempted to try keep up with them. They’re often the runners you see about 5 kms later, walking because of the damage they have done.
Take a throw away shirt to the start
- At the start of the race, Pietermaritzburg gets really cold. Once you’ve started, about 20 minutes in there’s always a warmer section, but don’t throw away your top here. I’ve made that mistake before and it gets really cold again shortly after. Only once you’re really warmed up and it’s no longer cold at all then throw it to the side.
Take the Crowds in and enjoy the race
- As fatigued as you get, towards the end of the run the crowds really pick up in Durban. Take in the support and enjoy the fact that many spectators will shout for you by name (which is on your race number).
- So many runners aspire to take on this challenge one day but just can’t for various reasons. Don’t forget how lucky you are to have the ability and the courage to do the ultimate human race.
- You will go through a thousand different emotions on the day. Don’t forget why you decided to run the race, or who you decided to run it for. We all have different reasons for running that race. To me it was hugely personal, which is part of the reason I’ve managed to achieve what I have and been so emotional at the finish.
Sleep well 2 days before the race
- No one sleeps well the night before knowing they’re tackling this beast the next day. I usually jump in bed at around 8pm and stay awake until 12pm, then wake up before my alarm because there’s just too much adrenaline going through the body. The 2nd night before Comrades is where you should be banking your sleeping time.
The evening of the race
- Don’t commit to too many plans the night of the race. You are going to be super sore and your body needs a break. However, definitely make plans for the next day. My old club always used to have an ‘Aches and Pains’ party the day after Comrades where we’d find the best Burgers and Pizzas and share our war stories of the day.
- After the down run, your quads will be super stiff for a good few days. Mine were stiff for 2 weeks after my first Comrades. It’s very clear the next day walking around Durban who exactly took part in the race.
Don’t Expect a Big Medal
- It’s the furthest I have ever run in my life for the smallest medal I have ever received. It’s a tiny little thing but the one that I treasure the most.
The start and finish
- When Chariots of Fire plays at the start, live in the moment. I’ve heard this song loads of times but nothing quite compares to when you hear it at the start of Comrades. You can ruin the race for yourself by being too scared – rather trust in your training and enjoy the incredible vibe.
- After you’ve finished, take some time to yourself to realise what you have just achieved. When you get out of the finishers’ enclosure, you’ll most likely be swamped by people and messages on your phone. For me I always like to spend about 15 minutes or so after the finish to just reflect on what I’ve just accomplished. All the sacrifice, the training, the early mornings, the hard times, the easy times, the niggles, the icing. It is all worth it in the end -trust me!
Nick Bester is a passionate runner and online coach who has achieved 3 silver Comrades medals, the fastest in a time of 6:28:52. He has also completed 23 consecutive sub-3 hour marathons.