And here we go again. Comrades Number 7 for me and the 94th edition of the greatest Ultra Marathon.
Comrades training and race strategy for 2019 Comrades
Right from the beginning of the year, it was clear to me that this year’s up-run wouldn’t be an attempt for a new personal best (that would mean better than 8hours and 49 min for the 87 km) or at least a Bill Rowan medal (faster than 9 hours).
How‘s that? I mainly attribute it to my failed attempt to improve my marathon PB (3h30) in October (Cologne Marathon) last year. I had trained like a maniac, hired a high profile running coach, and did speed sessions 2-3x per week at paces my legs had not seen before. After missing my PB by 4 min I was so disappointed. I did not want to run for 3 weeks (I also was sick after the marathon) and returned to running only slowly in December.
Long story short: I had to build my endurance almost from the ground. My first long run in 2019 only happened late in January.
I did not do any speed sessions, intervals, or hill repeats. I focused on endurance. Supported by strength (core) training at the gym twice a week.
This Comrades is also going to be my first as a #nomeatathlete vegetarian runner. After reducing the consumption of meat substantially in 2018, I stopped eating meat at all on the first of January 2019.
Axel doing strength training at the gym (front squats)
My Two Oceans Ultra (11th for me) was a very slow 5h 35 min, but I felt strong during the run and especially after the race. I recovered really well. The time between Oceans and Comrades was also very short this year, making it difficult to recover, re-ignite the training, and taper all within 7 weeks.
I also had to travel for business between both races, making me skip another 50km training run about 3-4 weeks before Comrades. This is what I usually would have done. Not running an additional ultramarathon training run made me question myself if I would have enough endurance in my body. But I knew, that was more a mental game than a question of fitness level. Based on my 11 years of running Ultra Marathons, I knew that the build-up for Oceans and Comrades was good.
From 1st of January until race day I had completed
1313 km of running and
21 strength sessions at the gym.
Fundraising for the CHOC cows
It became a tradition for me to run not only for myself but also for a good cause.
I continued to collect donations and run for the CHOC cows, the famous South African charity focusing on supporting children with cancer (and their families as well). Last year I won the top-fundraiser award from the CHOC Cows and was 4th overall in the Comrades charity runner ranking.
Beating last year‘s result was my goal for this year as I approached several of my international clients (corporates and individuals) to donate. I managed to do it. Not by much, but I did
I am extremely grateful for all their donations, getting me on the top spot amongst the CHOW cow fundraisers again, as well as on the second rank overall with R 82314.58 (approx. EUR 5140).
2019 Comrades Race4Charity Result – 2nd overall
Thank you to Stefan, Kim, Holger, Liv, Fred, Thomas, Ralf, Allan, Steffi, Patrick.
The unbeaten master of fundraising Dean Wight repeated his outstanding result from 2018 and managed to raise more than R 350,000 (more than EUR 20,000!). Respect!
For me, collecting money for people in need turns the whole run away from a quite solitude sport into something with a much bigger meaning. And it helps during tough parts of the race, remembering that a child with cancer can’t just stop as I could during a race in case I would get tired of running. A Comrades marathon is nothing compared to what cancer patients of any age go through!
New Comrades recruit from Germany
But I do not only enjoy trying to convince corporates into donating money. I also enjoy speaking about Comrades, running, and the CHOC cows with my talk ‚Purpose, Passion, and Persistence‘ (sometimes extended by another ‚P‘ called ‚Performance‘) for corporates.
During one of these talks in 2018 at the summer event of FitX, a highly successful and growing chain of fitness clubs in Germany (similar to Virgin Active in SA, but with 24/7 access), I spoke in front of 450 of their staff.
One of them was Gert Fischer, an outstanding marathon (PB: 2h 39) ultramarathon runner as well as an Ironman (I mean serious Kona-level). He heard me speak about Comrades and was hooked. Just like me in 2007, when I got bitten by the Two Oceans-bug.
Together with FitX he made a plan and signed up.
He flew to Durban and had a wonderful time – his first time in South Africa. He sent me a message on the day he arrived saying he already had become a fan of Comrades. 3 days prior to the race.
Gert and Axel at 2019 Comrades Expo
And boy did he have a race. 7h 09min as a novice, earning a very solid silver medal. Amazing, or how my CHOC cows would say, amoooooozing
Congrats Gert, looking forward and hoping to see you for your back to back in 2020.
Registration and Expo
As every year, on Friday, we arrived on a plane from Cape Town which was filled with runners and their supporters.
The registration went not as smooth as during the last couple of years: For whatever reason, the Comrades organizers removed the separate registration for charity runners. Very, very disappointing. As a small gesture towards the charity runners, they could at least give us the advantage of skipping the queues when picking up our numbers.
Anyway, after the disappointment vanished, I got my number and we went to visit the expo.
The Comrades branded stuff by Mizuno, technical sponsor of Comrades, was underwhelming once again. They don’t even seem to understand how running works, offering, for instance, running shorts with not a single pocket at all. Not one!
The rest of the expo was ok, but nothing special. With several big names not showing up! No Adidas, no Salomon, no New Balance, no Nike, ….
But there is always one highlight. The CHOC cow stand.
Not only do they sell amooozing cow branded stuff, they also had a trophy for me rewarding my fundraising efforts. I love the crazy cow I received
Of course, I don‘t do it for the award. But receiving it as a little reward for my efforts to raise money makes me happy
Axel receiving top fundraiser award at 2019 Comrades for the COWS
Saturday – pre-race day
Saturday morning is the traditional Durban North Beach leg loosened trot, where I run easy 2-3 km, while my wife runs about 10 km. I like to sit at the promenade and soak up the atmosphere generated by thousands of runners.
Traditional Saturday morning run at Durban beach
Especially seeing the buses (pacesetter and their groups) singing is quite a thing!
2019 Comrades Saturday morning beach bus - YouTube
The rest of Saturday is filled with doing nothing. Sitting, relaxing, putting up the legs, going for dinner early.
Race shoes securely stored in the hotel safe
This year was the first time since I run Comrades (2010) with a slight chance of rain in the early hours of race day.
And Saturday afternoon served everything to make runners nervous: Heavy rain was pouring down…
2019 Comrades Saturday night rain - YouTube
I personally don‘t mind running in the rain, but wasn‘t quite intrigued by the idea of getting wet feed during the first hour of the race and running for another 8 or so hours with wet shoes.
But we were very lucky: No rain in the morning, but a pleasant overcast sky instead, with wet roads from the night’s rain.
Time to get up early
It’s race day
My alarm went off at 3:15 am, a quick visit to the bathroom followed by a breakfast at the Hilton hotel in Durban together with a huge number of runners. Many of them looking quite nervous. Which is understandable.
This year I was as calm as never before. Most likely because I did not feel the pressure of running a really good time and knowing what was about to come today.
Cappuccino (with almond milk, I can‘t digest cow‘s milk, even if I run as a cow)
Two slices of brown toast with peanut butter/jam
Approx. 200 ml of almond milk with soaked chia seeds and some jam (soaked them over night)
At 4:20 I said goodbye to my wonderful wife, who would support me on the route again, and made my way to the start. Which was a convenient, easy 10 min walk from the hotel, together with about 20,000 other runners.
On my way, I met a South African runner, who only started running Comrades after moving to Australia, and who returned to Durban for his Back 2 Back-medal. He mentioned: „I could have gotten to the start cheaper than flying in from Australia if I’d have attempted to run the Big C a couple of years earlier “
We laughed and then he entered the D-seeding batch while I made my way to the C-batch.
Porta Loo Queue
Do you suffer from the ‘pre-race weak bladder-syndrome‘ ?
Then you might have been in the massive queue at the port-a-loos right after entering the start area.
You wouldn’t have needed to wait for 20 min. Next time, just carry on moving towards the start line and you’ll see dozens of empty loos
The temperature was pleasant with approx. 16 – 18°C. That’s really nice, when you have to sit/stand and wait for another hour in the seeding pen, waiting for the start at 5:30 am. I sat on the pavement, relaxed for another 30 min, until everybody has to get up on their feet when the seeding pens start to merge.
I was in the first 1/3 of batch C, and when the pens merge, you can get very close to the start line. I was maybe 30m away from it, and therefore it’s not such a big deal in terms of time lost between the gun goes off and crossing the start line (races in South Africa are “gun to mat” and not “net time” in case you wonder).
I’ve mentioned before how emotional the start procedure always feels: The national anthem, Shosholoza, Chariots of fire, the rooster and then the gun. I trust nobody, who has ever been at the start of Comrades, will ever hear Chariots of fire again and not relive the moments before the start.
I felt very relaxed at the start and looked forward to the race.
The race: First third
The first almost 40 km of a Comrades up-run are uphill (what a surprise), with some downhills thrown in.
As you can see in this pace-chart, my pace was mainly in the range of 6:00 – 6:30 min/km, with some faster sections on downhills and some slower sections when it got steeper. At km 23 – 24, going up Fields Hill, I walked for the first time during this race. Otherwise, for the first 30 km, I perceived all hills as runnable.
The pace was a bit faster than what I would need for a 9h 30 min finish, but I felt strong and always watched my heart rate to stay mainly in the 150 – 155 range. I never considered trying to go for a sub 9 hour finish. I knew, it would have destroyed me.
2019 Comrades pace km 1 – 30 for 9h35min finish
I started eating about 40 min into the race and my plan was to eat every 20 – 25 min thereafter.
Unlike in previous years, I did not religiously watch my eating times, but I was very much in tune with what I should have done. Maybe an advantage of ultramarathon running for more than a decade.
As always, my nutrition was based on pizza leftovers and date balls.
Pizza leftover from the night before
3 packs of food (date balls + pizza)
For the first 30 km, I only drank water and no Coke at all. I knew the time for sugar water would come later.
As usual, I also had a water bottle with me from the start. This bottle lasts for approximately 1 hour until I need to take water from the water tables. The main reason for me: the water tables often are very busy in the beginning, until all runners realize how the tables are arranged and that there is no need to grab water from the very first person with a water sachet – since there will be another 20 people with water..