With grateful thanks to Leonid Shvetsov – twice Comrades Marathon winner and record breaker. Website
Translated from Russian, lightly edited and added to by Tom Cottrell.
Do you know what they say about the first impression? As if it arises through perception and unconscious processing of information about something new in our brain. Early in February I was getting ready for a live broadcast with my friend and running apprentice, Mikhail Petukhov. I thought back to my very first Comrades in 2001. I was trying to put my first impression into words.
Before the race I was staying in Durban. The race kicked off early, 5:30 in the morning, and we still had to travel to the start. From Durban we had to travel 90 kilometres to Pietermaritzburg. But I was lucky – I even managed to take a nap on the bus.
At the moment of the start it was still dark, because June in South Africa is a winter month. Being in the starting corridor, I felt – no, not the spirit of rivalry, but rather the spirit of unity. After all, we, standing shoulder to shoulder, had to spend a few long hours fighting each other and with ourselves. Of course, there is something similar before the start of the marathon, but the feeling here was still something different, new.
The first thing that impressed me was the dawn and the open landscape views. Yes, yes, I really enjoyed colors and nature views, especially in places where there was a slant on one side of the road and the participants were able to find fantastic beautiful scenery, like paintings. Do you know, these are typical African tree shapes when the crown is more horizontal than the oval? These nuances of unusual landscapes attracted attention and distracted me from suffering and struggle…
Running was fairly easy for me, because unlike the average pace at a marathon around 3.03-3.05/km, we ran about 3.40/km – a training pace of a long run.
The second thing I was surprised about was the kilometre markings on the distance. Unlike other races, at Comrades they show not the covered distance, but how much is left, and numbers were impressive. The first 45-50 minutes on the road are run in the dark, and you can’t see them much. But when it got lighter, and I saw the km marks one by one “79”, “78”, “77” and so on, I jokingly asked myself, “Lenya, what are you doing here? ”
This feeling of being in the same boat encourages you to do unexplainable things at Comrades. For example, those who were closer to the tables with water and drinks at the power station usually had to take extra water sachets and distribute them to those who were unable to successfully grab them. This is an important factor for the leading group, because slowing down or stopping hits you hard, gets you out of rhythm. Choosing a place in the group and taking sharp turns on the route, everyone did their best not to create obstacles or other difficulties.
When we passed those who started too fast in the very beginning, many spectators and runners shouted cheering encouragement so that they wouldn’t drop out, and continued running. It is clear that most likely these runners were just planning to show off in front of cameras, trying to snatch the intermediate prize, but there was a feeling that if they drop out would mean a serious failure of everyone.
Another moment, which, however, looked like during major marathons was the support of the spectators. But still, there was its own riddle. For example, in New York, Chicago or other majors, spectators simply scream, shout or make noise with rattles. In South Africa, people can on their own initiative, put up whole tables with a variety of help – offered chopped bananas, oranges and other food and shout encouragement. Dancers and musicians everywhere, children, probably from four years of age, accompany you. In poorer villages, local boys can just run a few hundred meters with you – this is their way to join the big holiday that happens once a year around their home. In fact, Comrades is a national holiday for both runners and spectators.
By the way, the number of refreshments’ and drinks’ locations on the course, as the organisers officially say, is about 40. That means on average a little over two kilometres between them. I suspect that not everything was staged by the organisers. Probably, some stations were set up by locals on their own funds and simply appointed with the organising committee.
It is worth mentioning the Ethembeni boarding school for children with disabilities. Kids live there on a permanently because they need regular specialised help, which parents can’t always provide. Therefore, the annual attendance to participants of the ultra-marathon turns into a holiday for them. Many of those who are not first time running are stocking up on some gifts for these children.
And one of my runners Dmitry Voloshin, who, among his extraordinary achievements, has swam over the Gibraltar Strait and covered a 50-kilometre distance in Oimyakon at -54C, said that his experience of communication with them left a very strong impression and gave him strength. It was a heart touching effect.
Then came the last third of the Comrades course. Up until the 70-kilometre mark the stories of the participants are quite similar. But final kilometres are as different as fingerprints in people. Why am I so sure about this? Probably because in my eight races, there was none the same – the same person with the knowledge of the course, the experience of running and preparing for it.
Comrades 2007 was the most pleasant one for me. That year I ran alone for more than 30 kilometres to the finish line. The last opponent was Sipho Ngomane – the winner of the previous Comrades “down run”. When we were still together, I saw that my pace was too fast for him. Sometimes he started to fall behind, but spectators immediately shouted to him “Sipho, hold on,” and he was catching up again. Frankly, I felt sorry for him, because there was more than a third of the distance left.
When he finally dropped back, I mentally wished him luck to finish successfully. To the great honour and perseverance of Sipho, he finished seventh, but I imagine how much willpower he had to put in for that.
I was safely approaching the finish line, only a little afraid of the cramp in my quads, which seriously bothered me last time on a steep descent 13-18 km before the finish line. Friends and acquaintances later asked me why did I push so hard for 5-6 km before the finish line, because my spare time for a new record was so large? The answer is simple: COMRADES IS UPPREDICTED AT ANY TIME AND ANY LEVEL. Muscle cramp, sudden loss of power, clouding of consciousness due to overheating or dehydration – all of the above are reality. And deliberately slowing down a couple of kilometres to the finish line – I think it would have been simply not a good sport.
In the end there was a golden finish with all the accompanying emotions, congratulations and other attributes of a great victory.
Editor’s Note – By the time Leonid passed the 15 kilometre to go marker, we on the press truck knew Comrades King – Bruce Fordyce’s 21-year record was gone. To witness such grace and poise in a runner is a rare gift. We were treated to a unique display on that day. “Hey Leonid, you got the record, man.” I yelled. He didn’t hear me, he was in a world of his own. Fordyce’s record fell, it was an historic day. I didn’t know it at the time, but Shvetsov knew he had the record with about 25-20 kilometres to go.
But do you know the real magic is Comrades? All of the above – is not sole the prerogative of the champion. I fully realized this in 2014-2015 when I ran as an amateur with 20 thousand other participants in this big race.
And the feeling that every finisher is the winner did not disappear: be him a record-setter for 5h20min or an amateur, who crossed the finish line in 11h59min59sec – a second before the time of control.
It’s worth a try.