How to survive the Comrades Marathon 2016

The clock is ticking and the Comrades Marathon is at our doorstep. The world’s oldest, largest, and most challenging, ultra-marathon run will be held this Sunday, 29 May 2016, at 5:30 with a cut off at 17:30. For those not in the know the Comrades is an ultramarathon race that covers 90km between Pietermaritzburg and the coastal city of Durban in Kwazulu-Natal. The race is starting in Pietermaritzburg this year.

Moneybags writer, Alina Hardcastle chats to former Comrade Marathon winners and coaches about mental preparation, possible mental burn out, common mistakes Comrade Marathon runners make and more.

Bruce Fordyce (BF), South African marathon and ultramarathon athlete, and nine time Comrades Marathon winner; Caroline Wöstmann (CW), South African marathon and ultra-marathon athlete and winner of Comrades Marathon 2015; Sean Tait (ST), running coach at Off the Mark; and Dion Middlekoop (DM) aka Coach Dion impart their hard earned knowledge.

Is there a specific running technique that runners need to learn?

CW: No, running doesn’t feel natural to anyone starting out but over time it gets easier. It’s just about getting out every day and doing it.
BF: No, no, you don’t mess around with your running style – you just run! If you have a funny running style then you have a funny running style. You might need to learn some technique if you plan on being a hurdler or something like that. Running is not like other sports such as golf.

ST: We should generally try to run with shorter and more efficient steps. Most runners over-stride, which creates breaking forces. Focusing on taking short steps prevents this to a large degree. It also limits the magnitude of the impact forces per stride, which delays muscular fatigue. Try to drive the hips forward and not bend from the waist. We should also look ahead, and not down at the ground – I see this a lot in ultra-running events. It negatively affects your entire postural chain.

What is the mental approach one should have when preparing for a race such as the comrades?

CW: Looking at the training that has been done in the buildup and thinking about how fantastic it will feel to achieve my goals.

ST: My personal approach to long races or even long training runs is to not think about the total distance or total time that I need to be out there for as long as possible. Just start running! Eighty nine kilometres is a lot to take in so I prefer not to think about that. If you have a time-based goal, make sure that you focus on your pace on your watch to check that you’re on track, but don’t become too consumed that you’re only at 22km.

DM: The elite runner needs to be thinking about Comrades back in December and almost every day should be focused on chasing the top ten.

When should one start to mentally prepare themselves?

DM: Something like Comrades isn’t a spur of the moment decision… OK it might be, but that decision happens months before the race. So you have plenty of time in order to get the body ready for the big day out. Comrades is 90km… that is a long way in anyone’s books. So to get your mind around this you have to start months before with your training… and I hope you have, if you haven’t it’s not too late to look back at the log book and build the assurance that you haven’t bitten off more than you can chew.

ST: I believe that mental preparation is a continuously ongoing thing – It’s not something that you just do in the final week before the race. The confidence from successful training sessions does far more for you than staring at a wall thinking about running. Your choice of apparel, equipment and nutritional intake should have been tried and tested well in advance. I would spend time thinking of all the things that could possibly go wrong, and how you should deal with them. If/when these things do happen you will likely be consumed by adrenaline and emotion, and not in the best state to make great decisions.

Mental burnout is said to be one of the main reasons runners drop out of the Comrades, how can runners overcome mental burnout?

DM: Now top runners, can have mental burnout, not so much from the race, but from the six month build-up, so having committed themselves to one race for so long the focus needed to run a good race come the day isn’t there. There are many athletes out there whose log book tells a story with a finishing time on top of the field, but come race day it’s all too much! A middle/back of the pack runner might get too caught up in the moment of the race, the expo, the history, the stories… and this can be just too much for the day before your big race.

ST: Variety is one of the most important condiments of a good training programme. Not only does it provide new stresses for the body to adapt and evolve to overcome, but it also provides for better mental stimulation. Choose a different route, add some intensity into your training, meet up with a new group of runners…the options are endless. When you get to the race it should be a massive victory lap for your successful training campaign and you should not feel like you are ‘over’ running by the time you reach the start line.

BF: First of all, a very small percentage of people drop out of the Comrades, most of the people who start have done all the preparation and have qualified. Above 80 to 90 percent of the people who start the race more or less finish because they are ready for it. The people who drop out are the ones who are generally struggling with an injury that they thought they could get away with.

The single greatest reason why people drop out of the Comrades has nothing to do with mental, it has everything to do with physical because they are exhausted and they can’t struggle on. They are getting dehydrated or dizzy. Most people stop because of a physical thing and not because they aren’t mentally tough enough because to get there you have to run a marathon or two-or three-or four shorter marathons to get ready, so you already have that mind set and it’s already ingrained in you.

No matter how much physical preparations runners put in, all runners get to a point in the Comrades Marathon where they start to questions themselves, how can they overcome this?

 ST: Most people have several doubts about entering a race of this distance. Confidence is the only thing that will erase/diminish those doubts, and confidence can only be built through successful training. Every time we do a training run, we always consider how we have improved physically, but seldom note how it has affected our mental state. The Comrades Marathon is just as mental as it is physical, so training sessions are a bit of a double-edged sword.

BF: When they get to 70km, everybody says “what am I doing? This is insane!” But as I said, 90% of them just carry on going because to drop out is far more humiliating and embarrassing to yourself than it is to struggle on, to struggle on is still to carry on. To drop out means you’re no longer tired and you’re no longer sore but now you have to live with yourself.

CW: Don’t overthink things on race day. Just keep moving forward. Stay positive and remember why you wanted to complete Comrades in the first place.

Finally, what are the common mistakes that most runners make when running the Comrades?

CW: Starting too fast and expecting it to be easier than it is.

ST: Starting out faster than you can finish is a common mistake that gets made throughout the field. You should have a good idea what you are capable of. You are going to feel great in the first 30km, because you’ve done so many runs of a much further distance, but come 50-70km if you have gone too hard you will ‘hit the wall’. Try and walk as much in the beginning as you will need to at the end. In the beginning you won’t feel like you need to walk but at the end you will lose twice as much time if you don’t.

BF: The biggest mistake they make is that they start running too hard, too soon. They start in October or November and they are completely exhausted and they tire themselves out but proper Comrades training only start at the end of February. The second biggest mistake is just one of pace, the average runner doesn’t know how to pace themselves very well, so sometimes they set off too fast and then they end up getting into a lot of trouble, which doesn’t mean they’re not going to make it but they end up struggling.

For the full interview with Bruce Fordyce, click here: