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Comrades 2015 - Olly Bell

‘I was talking to a Zulu in the bar’……

..whilst slurping my third poor quality South African lager, when he laughed and said ‘You are not doing Comrades!'


For those not familiar with Comrades Ultra Marathon I will be brief. (For those aware, apologies.)  Comrades is celebrating 90 years in 2015 and it’s approximately 88-89km from Durban to Pietermaritzburg in South Africa.  This is known as the ‘up run’ and then the following year it’s the opposite way round, the ‘down run’.  To qualify as a Comrade you have to complete this arduous task in under 12 hours, not a second over.  Should you not meet on route cut off points, you are removed from the race and receive zero, nothing, zilch - a cruel mistress indeed.   This year was the up route which I had decided was the harder option and what ‘real’ athletes should attempt? Having done a Cotswold Way style ‘recce’, but I hasten to add, on a bus, I soon discovered that up really meant up.  If the road is not going up, its thinking about going up and if it’s going down, it’s very brief and just leads to the next up.  Flat I hear you say?  No that’s not an anagram of Comrades.


The alarm rings at 3:30am, and my friend Carl (and newbie Almost) and I, head to breakfast.  I decide that toast and jam washed down with a coffee will provide sufficient fuel for potentially 12 hours.  It’s then a not particularly glamourous walk through the streets of Durban where there are hundreds of people, many of which are falling out of night clubs and bars, but nonetheless wishing the mad runners the best of luck.  We are then faced with the all too familiar baggage bun fight, but African style, adding chaos to the madness.  However after hanging out in what some might call a queue, a Marshall recognised us as international athletes (hasten to add this was not my complexion, but a blue number), who then grabbed our bags and threw them into the same unmarked truck with everyone else's.   Not convinced we would see the bags and the contents again it surely was time for the next pre-race ritual, the inevitable toilet queue. But hey, hold on, there aren’t any queues!  It now doesn’t seem right to go.


I then head to Pen ‘C’ whilst reflecting on making the start line after all the training and hard work, when I realise it’s blinkin hot and it’s only 5am.  Then to our relief we meet Karen Galpin, Comrades veteran. (Well she has done it once.)  The atmosphere is electric and begins to build up as everyone is ready for the off.  Everyone around you introduces themselves, shakes your hand and wishes you the best of luck. You can tell it’s genuine and heart felt.  Carl and I must stand out like dunces at school as our numbers also indicate 0 runs.  It maybe because of this that the ‘green numbers’, who I will refer to as the Jedi Knights of Comrades world, seem to make additional effort to welcome you to South Africa and ask if they can help with your first Comrades.  (A green number indicates that the runner has completed at least 10 Comrades).  I doff my cap to these guys, clean their trainers even, but hey the line is drawn at the Vaseline!


After many exchanges the tension rises and hairs tingle as Chariots of Fire is blasted into the darkness, quickly followed by singing of Shosholoza (unofficial adopted anthem), a Cockerill and a loud bang of the gun sending hundreds of birds into the night sky.  We are off and running Comrades… at last.


It only takes about about 90 seconds to get across the start line and we are running in the dark mugginess.  The pace is slow and comfortable, and still more people introduce themselves. Karen is becoming increasingly popular in her GB vest and soon becomes ‘Queenie’ for the day.  Meanwhile the Novices from Almosts are lapping up the atmosphere and still not believing the number of people lining the roads in nowhere locations firing up barbeques. It’s simply amazing and gets better as the day goes on.  As anticipated the first few water stations are chaotic and very much a mixed bag.  For instance there could be water, maybe coke, Gatorade even, and sometimes on both sides of the road.  However what you can rely on is the wonderful spectators that practically offer a menu of food and drink after each water station.  The randomness adds to the occasion and I was offered salted potatoes, salted fruit, sweets, burgers, sausages (yes anything from the barbeques), biscuits, hugs and beer!  However what became abundantly clear once the sun was up is that you stocked up at every water station, albeit they were only about 1 to 2 miles apart.  A ritual followed – one water to drink, swig of coke and the second water over the head and dabbed on the sponge, followed by whatever food you grabbed from a random spectator.


With all this water, this can only lead to men being men and finding an appropriate African bush.  It was at this point we lost Karen (she declined to join in) as thankfully her injury was holding up and she was beginning to spring like a lamb as the ‘race’ progressed.  Farewell Comrade and mines a pint please.


The hills appeared relentless as we counted down the kilometres to go and enjoyed the breather as we walked the ‘big 5’. (Everyone seems to walk the big 5).  Yet it’s the big 5 you shouldn’t worry about but the countless ‘ups’ on route to these registered five hills.  The land of thousand hills surrounds the route thereby giving a pretty good clue as to the terrain.  Villages were ran, walked and stumbled through with the end destination in mind, always spurred on by the crowd shouting your name (this was London Marathon on a big scale) – and of course offering food to replenish your 55 mile picnic.  


It was approximately 60kms in, that randomly my knee decided not to play running anymore and Plan B was put into action – i.e. Carl, don’t wait for me as I am unsure I will make it so let’s make sure someone finishes, was put into action.  It was an emotional moment but we had talked about someone struggling before the race; however I didn’t anticipate it would be through injury.  Anyhow my hobble, run for a km, walk the hills strategy, seemed to be clicking through the kilometres gradually.  Concentrating on my own game plan I soaked in the wonderful atmosphere when with about 10km to go the faithful green numbers kept saying ‘congratulations on completing your first Comrades, well done’.  I couldn’t quite believe it but they were right, in that even if I walked from here I would make the cut off.  ‘Go and get that medal’ was shouted. With the last hill called ‘Polly Shorts’ (yes I called it Olly’s shorts) conquered, I was only 10 cokes, 20 waters and a bag of pick n mix from the stadium finish.


Running into the stadium a green number grabbed my hand, lead me into the stadium, and left me to enjoy the moment.  I had done it and I’m a Comrade. Happy faces of Carl and Karen were there to greet me too, fabulous.


It was then later back at the hotel bar our friendly Zulu spotted us with our medals and shouted ‘Blimey you weren’t joking – you have ran Comrades’.


Just don’t ask me yet about the down run!