Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Enigma of Comrades Marathon (by Richard Thomason)

Guest Post: Richard Thomason

After discovering that Craig was Iron Man and the positive response to his guest post, he suggested I speak to another of the Avengers. Richard was a few years ahead of me at school, so we knew of each other rather than knew each other well. He had come across the blog through mutual friends and we had connected, and so lucky for us, he was keen. If you too know someone who you think has an interesting story to tell, connected in some way to happiness, well being, vitality, learning or any of the good stuff life has to offer, encourage them to send me a post too, or point me in their direction to help.

The wheels on the bus go round and round
Richard (far left) and John (second from right)

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The Enigma of the Comrades Marathon
by Richard Thomason


What is it that brings some 23,000 runners together every year to run a gruelling 90km ultramarathon? I suspect every person that lines up has a different reason. For me it has a magical appeal that is really difficult to explain to others. Perhaps it is the fact that I grew up on the route and used to wake up at 5am every race day to watch the televised start, followed by a trip up to the roadside to show our support. Perhaps it is the race's 90-year history? Perhaps it is the fact that I watched my Dad give up cigarettes and then conquer this event five times? Maybe his last run in race number 9304 and my first run in number 9303 made it that much more special for me? Perhaps it is the fact that it allows so many ordinary people to do something extraordinary?


I started out on this Comrades journey in 1997 at the age of 20 and ran 10 races in succession. It was in 2003, while running for Benoni Northerns Athletic Club that I met club mate Gerard Visser (GV), #4338. Now a veteran of 25 runs, he maintained that achieving a silver medal (or 2 Rand coin) wasn't too difficult. His words "It's a donkey's race" and "You only have to run 5 minutes a kay" got me thinking. I never believed I could run this race in under 7hrs30min. I was a 3:18 marathoner at that time. However, as we got deeper into the season and the miles and quality sessions racked up, more and more people asked if I was going to give it a go. Eventually I decided that it was now or never. So it was, at 26 years old, I crossed the line at Kingsmead Stadium in 7hrs28mins15s, with 1min45s to spare. By 2006, after achieving my permanent number, I was ready for a good break. So for 5 years I sat and watched the race on the TV, and every single one of those years I wished I was there. One year my wife said: "If you want to run it again then do it." That was it and after doing some fairly basic training I managed to run 7hrs47min in 2012.

My Comrades mentor GV had also said that the 'Up' silver (Durban to Pietermaritzburg) is the hardest thing he has done in his life. This too, got me thinking. Was my 2003 race a one hit wonder? Was it my youth and ignorance at 26 years of age? Was it the altitude I had trained at back then? Finish times certainly do not correlate very well with distance trained (see graph below). Last year I did everything I considered right in my build-up and managed to run 5 minutes slower than in the 2012 down run! I sat down at the finish, closed my eyes for a brief second and said to my wife that I am finished with this race. I had put everything into last year's race: mentally and physically, and I was spent. One of my running mates immediately piped up that 2015 would be the 90th running of the race and we are all going to run together to get 'up' silvers. A few days later, after the stiffness had left my legs, I began wondering where I could tweak my training slightly to get stronger and fitter. How could I eat differently? What if I stretched more, added a spin class, cut my mileage slightly but added another quality session or did some strength work. The recipe is never a cut and paste. Everyone is made differently and has unique work commitments. We peak differently and recover at varying rates. Some thrive on mega mileage and some don't. This to me is the lure of Comrades Marathon. This year, barring illness or injury, you will see me in B-batch in Durban chasing the 'up' silver, as a dark horse.

Some interesting outliers. 
(One year - 2004 - is missing when I lost data due to a hard drive crash) 


Left: Before the final turn into the stadium during last year's race: not the happiest runner.

Right: One of my favourite pictures - GV and I battling it out near Pot & Kettle in 2003. GV also ran his PB that year (7:18.44) and has 6 silvers.

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In writing a blog about several topics in which I admit to being a complete beginner, I am going to have to rely heavily on the people I am writing for who cumulatively know most of what I am likely to learn already. I would love it if some of you found the time to write a guest post on the subject of happiness or learning. The framework I use for thinking about these things is what I call the '5 + 2 points' which includes proper (1) exercise, (2) breathing, (3) diet, (4) relaxation, (5) positive thinking & meditation, (+1) relationships, (+2) flow. Naturally if you would like to write about something that you think I have missed, I would love to include that too. If you are up to doing something more practical, it would be awesome if you did a 100 hour project and I am happy to do the writing based on our chats if that is how you roll. Email me at trevorjohnblack@gmail.com 
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