Nikki Chamberlain: Comrades' Marathon 90km race report!

Comrades Marathon – Training & Race Report

This is a guest blog by coached athlete Nikki Chamberlain. A great tale of constant dedication to training to build up to one of the planet's toughest endurance challenges - the 90km Comrades' Ultra Marathon in South Africa!

They call it ‘the ultimate human race’, I call it ‘the ultimate human experience’; they call it ‘a marathon’ but at 56 miles long I call it ‘an ultramarathon’; they say ‘it will humble you’…on that point I definitely agree!

‘It’ is ‘the Comrades’ as the South Africans affectionately call it (generally known across the rest of the world as Comrades Marathon)….the biggest (and in my opinion, the greatest!) ultramarathon in the world. And it was a challenge I took on for the first time this year.

At 5.30am on Sunday 29th May 2016 I nervously lined up outside Pietermaritzburg City Hall in the dark with around 18,000 other runners, eagerly anticipating the most unique start to a race anywhere in the world…..Chariots of Fire, followed by a rousing and emotional rendition of Shosholoza (often seen as South Africa’s second national anthem), then Max Trimborn’s cock crow and finally the firing of the starting gun (it’s worth checking out on YouTube if you’ve never seen it!)….it’s a spine-tingling experience and represents the start of a very emotional journey for every single runner - 56 miles (89kms) of highs and lows, laughter and tears, good times and soul-searching lay ahead; but how hard can it be, it’s just running….putting one foot in front of the other!!....after all!

2016 was my first venture into the world of ultra running, although Comrades would actually be my second ultra as I had one planned into my training. My Comrades journey actually started on Sunday 26th April 2015, I remember it well! I had just crossed the finish line at the London Marathon having come back from a frustrating year of injury and I made a promise to myself in the last few weeks of training, if I crossed the finish line ‘in tact’ and injury free then my dream race…Comrades…would be my next target!

And so it began!

I could write for hours (days probably!!!) about the whole training and racing experience but to try and keep it more blog-like than book-like I’ll try and summarise.

The training programme ‘proper’ didn’t really start until late December but for Comrades qualification you have to post a sub-5 hour marathon time between August and May. I was determined to get mine out of the way before the end of the year so that I could turn my attention purely to my Comrades specific training so I chose Malaga in December, 3:33:31 brought qualification and starting batch C, job done!

After a couple of post-marathon light recovery weeks the Comrades training programme kicked in – what stretched ahead was 5 months of lonely winter training, dark nights, rain & cold, hilly runs & hill reps, 3 marathons, 1 ultra & literally hundreds and hundreds of miles to run……

  • Through January the mileage climbed until I reached 50 mile weeks

  • February stepped things up introducing double run days twice a week & up to 55 mile weeks

  • March brought double run days THREE times a week, a very cold marathon in Wrexham, all 49.5 miles of my first ever ultra & 60+ mile weeks

  • April finally promised the arrival of better weather (although it took a while) & lighter nights and included two marathons just 2 weeks apart (Manchester & London) & more 60+ mile weeks

  • May….yes…taper time!!! Well, not before the chance for one last long run…a mere 6 hours (36.5 miles) just a week after London…luckily I had some good support from club mates who joined me for sections and helped me through it!

On 11th May I clocked up 1000 running miles for the calendar year to date!

Wednesday 25th May: departure day! Training done, bags packed and off I flew. TBH after a 26 hour journey door to door, not much sleep and surviving on aeroplane ‘nutrition’ it felt like I’d been through an ultramarathon just to get there!! But hey, 2 days recovery time before the race…and the bonus of no jet-lag!

On Friday morning I headed to the Expo to register - it was all starting to feel a bit too real! On Saturday morning it was time to drive over to Pietermaritzburg where the race would start from this year (as it was a down run), there was only one way back on the 56 mile journey for me…on foot!

Despite best-laid plans for an early night on Saturday, it didn’t happen. I eventually headed to bed at 11pm and flicked on the clock for a 3am alarm!

Usual race morning prep ensued – shower, get into race kit (number, chip, gels…check!), devour a large bowl of porridge, several trips to the loo, obligatory photo call….just one last dash to the loo…ok & we’re off! And we headed into town at 4.15am to…join the traffic jam…oh! I stuck with the car as long as I could but eventually had to hop out and hot foot it down the street to the bag drop, one final loo stop and then to find my starting pen….I saw a big ‘C’ beckoning me and I slipped in.

And there it was, it was really finally happening, 1092 training miles and 8 months of training behind me & 56 miles of open road ahead of me to finish my journey. Little did I know I was about the face the hardest thing I have EVER done and that I would have to dig deeper than ever to achieve my goal.

So as the gun sounded in the dark of Pietermaritzburg, a sea of runners steadily streamed over the starting line in the darkness for around 10 minutes. I was lucky to be quite near the front and it only took around 2 minutes before I was over the line and running.

It all started calmly in the cool and dark of Pietermaritzburg, there was over an hour of running before the sun came up and from that point onwards the temperature began to climb and climb, as we climbed the South African hills. I had my race strategy, practised throughout my training, 9 minute run / 1 minute walk. I wondered whether I would need to adapt that to enable me to walk the hills, I needn’t have wondered, it was ALL hills, always either going up or going down there simply was no flat. The benefit of the first hour in the dark was that at least you couldn’t SEE the hills, so you could almost pretend they weren’t there!

So what makes this race so awesome??? So many things….the sun coming up over the South African landscape is a sight I will never forget; the stunning scenery; the camaraderie and friendship of all the runners, people you have never met before chat to you and encourage you, pick you up when times get tough and share in the joy of the achievement; but especially the support of the awesome awesome crowds that line the route….wave after wave they carry you through, willing you up the hills and  cheering you on the way down! There were people along the entire length of the route, they set up ‘camp’ in the most inaccessible areas for the whole day with their chairs and cooler boxes and braais (BBQ’s to us!) and just cheer you on. I have never had my name shouted out so many times, it seemed every person that I passed shouted ‘Go Nikki, you can do this!’

My race goal was to aim for sub-10 hours. It’s difficult to equate that to an average pace per mile for the whole race because of the course profile; you really need to go out more conservatively on the mainly uphill first half and reap the benefits on the mainly downhill second half. My early pace was probably (…definitely) a bit too fast! But it felt steady and comfortable and it’s difficult to go at a pace slower than what feels comfortable but I steadfastly stuck to my 9min run / 1min walk strategy from mile 1.

The race is so ridiculously long and challenging there is no point in even thinking about the distance until you get to about 10kms to go, so that’s around 50 miles of just putting one foot in front of the other and ticking the miles off. There are 6 cut offs along the way (plus the one at the finish line) and my focus really was just on making sure that I knew that I was ahead of each one of those, I was….comfortably! And as the time wore on the temperature rose and I was just trying to make sure I stayed hydrated and cool – so that meant at each water station grabbing 2 sachets, one to drink and one to tip over my head! And then of course there’s the nutrition – bit of a fail on that front. I just couldn’t figure out what my stomach wanted. I tried a few things early on….some banana, some orange, some potato (it’s a Comrades thing!!), some energy bars but I didn’t settle on any of them and after not having had much other than water by half-way I decided to move on to the Coke…and pretty much used that to ‘fuel’ me to the end! Hmmm, not the best fuel really, I only realise it having reflected on it since but I was running on empty for much of the race.

But I kept plodding on, and on and on! And the crowds got deeper and louder! And the sun got hotter and hotter! And I took on Coke whenever I could find any! And my legs got more and more sore once the downhills started to kick in! And I got more and more weary! But I kept plodding on and on!

I started feeling the tiredness in my legs from around 24 miles, which isn’t good when you’ve got another 32 miles to go. Then from halfway I started focusing on getting to Pinetown, that was the 21kms to go point, just a half marathon, surely that would feel like a great boost? But it felt like it took an age to get there. I remember reaching 20 miles to go and thinking that 13 miles to go wouldn’t be far away…I was wrong, it seemed to take forever. And when I got there…suddenly a half marathon didn’t seem like such a manageable distance!  Next target, 10kms to go…now I was having to dig really deep. There were more relentless hills, the uphills sapped every ounce of energy that I didn’t have and the downhills were just painful. I was starting to cramp a little in my left foot – something I had never experienced before – and for a fleeting moment I questioned whether I could actually do this. I started to think for the first time that I might not make it to the finish line. I started to ask myself did I actually care, did it really matter?? I could just quit and take away what I’d already done…right? Then I wondered who this person was in my head, this wasn’t me, I’d never thought like that ever before in a race. How could I possibly think that…all that training, all those double runs days, all those hill reps, it wasn’t so I could quit before the finish! I pulled myself together and refocused on heading towards 5k to go. I’d love to say I was overjoyed at getting there but I wasn’t, mentally I just wanted it to end but I knew that to make that happen I had to keep going. I started trying to do some time calculations at that point and thanks to a very foggy brain think I got it all very wrong. I thought I had to run sub-9 min miles for the last 3 miles to reach my sub-10 hour target, so I took off like my life depended on it and put in the fastest mile of the race 8:58, then I recalculated and realised I’d got it all wrong and that a couple of 10 min miles would see me home. I pushed on for the next mile, bargaining with myself that I’d take an extra walk break once I got close enough to know the goal was safe but I kept pushing the target on just a little bit further and a little bit further. Eventually at the 1k marker I knew that without another walk I probably wouldn’t be able to run all the way in the stadium and this was something I was determined to do. So I allowed myself one last rallying walk break before reaching the stadium gates. I steeled myself for the final push home. It might only have been 400 metres but it felt like so much further….onto the grass of the cricket pitch and after rounding two more corners I finally saw the finish line!

Oh the joy! I pushed on and crossed the line arms held high in 9:51:16 chip time (9:53:06 gun time). I was exhausted, in pain, elated and emotional all at the same time. The atmosphere in the stadium was amazing, it was buzzing with emotion, excitement and achievement. It was such a special place to be. I made my way to the International tent to reclaim my bag, find a chair to collapse into and start the re-fuelling process.

Having reflected on the whole experience I think a state of blissful ignorance was probably the best place to start from, I realise now I had no idea what I was letting myself in for in the 13 months that lay ahead and had I known I’m not sure I would have had the confidence or strength to go for it but with it all behind me now I can honestly say it is by far the best experience I have ever had. It has made me believe that I can do anything that I put my mind to, that I have greater inner strength, determination and ‘stubbornness’ than even I realised I had and that I really really really love running!

It was the most amazing, awesome, emotional, fulfilling (and painful) experience that I’ve ever been through, despite being the hardest. Will I do it again???? Ask me again in a few months when the memory of the pain has faded a little, although the lure of the back-to-back medal grows stronger every day!!!

My advice to anyone even thinking about running Comrades – DO IT!!!! But be prepared for (probably) the hardest (and certainly the most emotional) run of your life!