13 Ways To Ruin Your Comrades
Running the Comrades Marathon is a daunting physical challenge: Slap two marathons together, add on another 5km, throw in some of the biggest hills in KZN and potentially some hot and humid weather, and there’s little doubt that this race is one of the toughest single-day running events in the world.
So you rarely find an unfit Comrades runner. Most of the entrants lining up on 9 June will have spent hours on the road, had too many too-early mornings, and will have sacrificed family and social time just to make it to the start line.
But I’ve witnessed many motivated and fit runners ruin their race day – despite all the training – because of simple (and often avoidable) mistakes. In compiling this list, I’ve looked at why many prospective Comrades runners make mistakes; and then I give you advice on how to prevent these potential disasters happening to you.
Avoid them, and all that hard work will reward you with the finish you deserve come race day.
1: The Early Peak
Why: You’ve been training at high volumes for two months, and after your pre-Comrades long run five or six weeks before the big race, you feel mentally ready. The lack of fear driving you makes you a bit lazy; besides, you’re tapering, right? Wrong! Tapering too soon makes you feel good too early: you’ll run a race or two too fast, and stimulate your body to a peak, two or three weeks before you need it.
Prevent It: Keep training hard for another three weeks; cut your weekend long run a bit, but keep it to two to three hours for another two weeks. With three weeks to go, cut weekly mileage by 10-15%; and two weeks out, a further 25%. In the last week, keep ticking over with 20- to 30-minute easy jogs.
2: “Miracle Product Syndrome”
Why: We all want the fast fix. If a tablet or rub can make you faster on race day then why bother lacing up and training for the rest of the year? Increasing VO2, or threshold, and preventing cramp instantly… all very tempting. But if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is, if you haven’t tried it before in training.
In the years that I’ve coached Comrades athletes, drinking or eating something untested on the day is one of the major reasons many runners ruin their race day. Fellow runners will even try and tempt you with their ‘special’ concoction, that will guarantee you success on the day. Don’t listen to them; stick only to what you know, with no exceptions – what works for some, doesn’t always work for others. Ideally, use the same products available at the water stations during the race – that will give you extra insurance.
Prevent It: Simple: NOTHING NEW on race day, OR in the days leading up to the race.
RELATED: Avoid 9 Common Race-Day Mistakes
3: The Pasta Overload
Why: You’ve read The Lore of Running, and heard from all the older experienced runners that you must ‘carbo-load’; and you figure the more you ‘load’, the more reserves you’ll have on race day.
Prevent It: You’re preparing for a race that lasts anything from 5:30 to 12 hours; no matter how much carbo-loading you do, it will only last you for a maximum of two hours – and all that stress for an extra 20 or 30 minutes doesn’t seem worth it. Carbo-loading can increase body mass by three to five kilograms, because you’re cutting back on exercise and eating an enormous number of kilojoules. Every gram of carb stored needs extra water, and any excess is stored as fat – not what you want for the ‘Up’ run.
My advice is to avoid commercially-available, high-glucose carbo-loaders, as these can cause gastro-intestinal irritation. The best pre-race carbo-loading tactic is to stick to a good, balanced diet that you’re used to, and avoid foods high in lactose and fat.
4: Expo Legs
Why: It’s Durban, you’re on holiday (kind of), you’re psyched up by anything Comrades and in the shape of your life… it’s only natural to do laps of the expo to soak up the atmosphere, while letting everyone see how ready you are. Downside: you start Comrades on sore and tired legs. The ‘Up’ run is not the place to try and recover…
Prevent It: Arrive in Durban as early as you can, hang out at the expo for a bit on Friday, and spend the rest of the weekend ordering the family around. After the past three months of training, you owe them big time; but cash in here, for one last time.
If you arrive on Saturday: register early, do one lap of the expo, and head back to base camp. Your holiday only starts on Monday.
5: You’re Late For The Start
Why: This is Comrades-speak; it means you only arrived after 4:30am, so you have to start at the back. This means an extra six minutes on your race time, having to run through 16 000 runners, and blowing your race plan because you end up pushing too hard, too early.
Prevent It: Get accommodation within walking distance of the start, or get dropped within walking distance before 4:30am. Most experienced runners aim to be at the start by 4am – that way, you reduce your own stress, you soak up the atmosphere of the start, and nothing distracts you from following your pre-planned race strategy. Bear in mind that there will still be around 20 000 runners and their families filling the streets.
If it’s cold, keep warm with an old (or cheap) long-sleeve top that you can chuck away once you’ve warmed up. Consider it a donation to those needier than yourself, who eagerly pick up discarded tops.
6: You Bonk
Why: You have no idea how much energy is required on race day. Even if you have a good plan, after a while you just can’t take any more of the sweet stuff. A common mistake is to miss out on the early water points, because they’re too crowded and you think you’ll be okay for the first couple of hours. This will lead to low blood sugar, and finally ‘bonking’ or ‘hitting the wall’.
What follows is a cycle: you take in sugar, you feel better, you crash again as your muscles take up the energy – even if you’ve bought the myth that using low-GI products will regulate blood sugar better and you avoid the high-sugar drinks and gels, sticking with your own product.
Prevent It: Take in small amounts of energy, often and early. You will require roughly 1g of carbohydrate per kilogram of body mass per hour of exercise. This is reduced as you move back in the field, but it’s a good guide. You should take in a variety of sources of carbohydrates during your training runs so that you can spread the load on race day – this will prevent you being unable to stomach anything in the final 30 to 40km.
If you do bonk, take in immediate sugar, like Coke, a gel, or Energade; and chase it with something more substantial, like potatoes, crisps or biscuits. This will allow you to meet the immediate demand and know you have some more on the way. Be sure to maintain a regular regime from there on.
If you use low-GI products, you need to take these at least 15 minutes before you actually need them. Simply put, have a rehearsed plan and stick to it. You need to pre-load as you go.
7: You Miscalculate Your Race Pace
Why: You’ve made an emotional decision about your race-day goals. This can happen for several reasons: 1. You feel good during the taper. 2. Your mates are all running a certain time. 3. This is your first ‘Up’ run.
Prevent It: Base your race goal on a realistic pace that takes into account your training over the past six months as well as your performances over shorter distances, from 21.1 to 50km. For example, if you ran your marathon at 6:30 mins/km, you can expect that pace to drop to 7 mins/km and slower at Comrades, so don’t try running any faster.
It’s critical to research the race profile (although you shouldn’t drive the route the day before – see Mistake No. 10), since this will give you a healthy respect for the Comrades. You do the major climbing between 3km and 37km, and from 44km to 50km.
Pushing too hard to keep to an unrealistic pace here will mean disaster further down the road. Be stingy with your energy, and keep your pace easy and controlled , especially over the first 30km.
8: You Drink Too Much
Why: The media is full of advice about avoiding the dangers of dehydration, promising that if you do so, it will reduce cramping and improve performance. But it can also lead to a trip to the medical tent; in a race with regular water points, drinking too much can cause overhydration and a life-threatening condition called hyponatraemia.
Prevent It: You must certainly take in fluids, as part of your race plan to replace lost energy. Again, you need to work on this in training; establish a routine that is comfortable for you, and doesn’t cause bloating, stitches, or related issues. As a rule, runners finishing in more than eight hours shouldn’t force themselves to drink to a prescribed routine. Take in enough for energy (250 to 400ml, depending on the individual); and from there, drink only to thirst.
This will account for environmental conditions (hot vs. cold), will prevent dehydration (you’ll drink more if you need it), and importantly, will prevent over-hydration. There is little scientific evidence to back the claim that dehydration causes cramps or affects performance: in fact, the most dehydrated athletes in the field finish in the top 2%.
9: Your Forget To Lube
Why: If you’re a first-time Comrades runner, you’ll never have run for as long as you will on race day. You also run through the heat of the day, and as you sweat and then cool down, you leave abrasive, salty deposits on armpits and bum cheeks. Vests become soaked and nipples chafe.
Prevent It: Use Vaseline (or any sports lubricant) liberally on toes, between your bum cheeks, and on the upper torso and armpits. Cover the nipples with plasters or lubricate liberally. Vaseline will be available along the route; at the first feeling of chafe, make sure you get extra, as soon as possible.
10: You Drive The Route The Day Before
Why: Because as Bruce Fordyce and others have said, it scares you into starting conservatively. In truth, you’re going to cram into a rental car (or a bus with no air-conditioning), get stuck in traffic, get irritable, waste valuable energy – and mentally, give up, because “if it takes this long in a car…”
Prevent It: Either check out the route a good few days (or months) before, or don’t check it at all. Healthy respect for Comrades is good; but not so close to race day. Now is the time to be positive and believe you can – getting negative because you’re nervous, irritable, and squashed in a tin can… that’ll skew your perspective. Rather take the virtual tour at the Expo.
11: Second-Year Syndrome
Why: 1. We have short memories. You’ve forgotten the hell that was Pinetown last year, and only remember the glory of the final two kays.
2. You haven’t trained as hard, believing you’ll survive on muscle memory and good old vasbyt!
Prevent It: It’s too late for this year; and fortunately (and understandably), most people only make this mistake once. On race day you can compensate by walking more than you would normally, and not worrying about your finish time. The goal should be just to get there! But remember, this requires you to admit your mistake early.
12: You Start Walking Too Late
Why: You’re too proud. You signed up to run Comrades, not to walk it. You believe that you should get as far as you can down the course as fast as possible, to put time in the bag.
Prevent It: You may be surprised to hear that a large number of silver medallists achieve a sub-7:30 time on a walk/run strategy. By walking early, you keep your legs fresh for longer and keep a higher average pace through the race. When walking is on your terms, it’s easier to get going again; but when you’re walking out of exhaustion, it’s tough to go back to running.
An important lesson I learnt from my father, Trevor Parry – a three-time Comrades gold medallist – is that you will never be able to bank enough time in the first half of a race to make up what you will lose when it falls apart. ‘Time in the bag’ is the death of many runners, and especially on the Comrades.
Why: Even though you’re surrounded by runners, every one of them is in his or her own battle to reach the finish. We often internalise this and find excuses to stop – like ‘needing a massage’. Remember that a massage is mostly your inner child seeking a motherly touch; and a ‘greeting’ stop is just an excuse to avoid the pain of moving forward. All these distractions simply rob us of valuable time.
Prevent It: Make a promise to yourself that you will not waste time: You will walk, but you will not stop. A thousand-odd runners fail to make the cut-off on race day, every year; I’d like to ask each one of them: how much time did you lose by stopping? 5, 15, 20 minutes? Every step must be a step closer to the finish.