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Comrades Marathon – South Africa

*This was the last great adventure, put here to give you an idea of what the content of this site will be like. Think this, plus parties and festivals!

Comrades Crew

I‘m going to try to pull together a glimpse of what Comrades is all about. I hope this retelling doesn’t sound too much like a sales pitch, but I think everyone who has run a half marathon is quick to encourage their friends to have a go. Anyone who has run a full tends to grab their half marathon buddies and talk them into the next step. Well, now it’s our turn to pass the baton and encourage you all to have a crack at the so called “Ultimate Human Race”.


A friend of ours did exactly that in January last year when I first joined Tribal. I was quickly asked what target I had in mind, or rather, the reason I had joined this esteemed crew.  I said that I’d run a couple of marathons already and I wanted to go faster…and I’d read a fella’s account of his brilliant adventure in South Africa, running the Comrades Marathon, so it was in the back of my mind. Well, that was it… I was introduced to Chip immediately, who told me of his very own dual Comrades efforts. We started tossing the idea of another around, then Kevlar was onboard, then Cougar was thinking about it, then it was clear the seed had sprouted for many at Tribal.

It took a little while for everyone to get through their big runs of 2008, to have plenty of recovery and a few Christmas beers, before training commenced in ernest in January 09. We all had our issues with plugging in the distances necessary and keeping the wolves of injury and general tiredness from the door. We gently built our runs up from 1.5 hours, to as many as 6 hours. Most of us knocking out a couple of 60km runs before the taper. I think we were averaging between 140-150kms per week at our peak, which sounds ridiculous, but with a team of top people to talk to, the hours flew by.  I think there were 7 weeks out of 8 in the middle where we ran at least a marathon every Saturday. None of us are superhuman (except maybe Cougar), so this really isn’t beyond any of the fine athletes at Tribal. It just takes time and a little motivation to build to these distances. You begin to astonish yourself at what your body is truly capable of.

With all the training done, we packed our bags and headed to Africa. And what a sensational destination for running. Apart from being a little freaked out by the level of security in Johannesburg and Durban, we felt pretty departed from all the horror stories we’d heard about South Africa. They’ve still got their problems, but in general, everyone was friendly and things feel pretty comfortable. This was certainly aided by the fact that Kevlar found an AMAZING place for us to stay in Umhlanga Rocks, on the nothern beaches of Durban.

We were lucky enough to stay with Chip’s family in Petermaritzburg, which was the start line for this epic 90km run. While driving from Durban up into the hills on race eve, we all started to get a sinking feeling about the terrain. These hills were high! In fact, there were so many hills and valleys around us, that it was difficult to imagine how they built a road up there in the first place. The “old road” was pointed out a few times, meandering between the hills and under the freeway and it was clear that they’d built the freeway to make the journey easier on travellers. Staying with Chip’s Uncle Simon was an experience in itself. Simon was a proud “Green Number” holder, which meant that he’d run Comrades more than 10 times. He’d actually run it 13 times and had once even broken the magical 7:30 mark. This guy was a God… There’s obviously something in the air up there, because his daughter Didi had also ridden a push bike from Cairo to Capetown and her visiting buddy had swum the length of the Thames… We were clearly in the right company.. Simon’s hints were both encouraging and frightening, but all in all the excitement he and his family instilled in us made the run seem so much more than the original challenge. To South Africans, this is a right of passage. It’s the one they all stop to watch, like the Melbourne Cup or the Grand Final. Everyone seems to have done it a few times, or they’re gonna do it next year. It represents the true spirit of the South African people.

I’m going to drop in a few videos from the run in this next bit. Hopefully it adds something to the experience…


The Beginning:

Damn it was early… Up at 4am, couple of nervous visits to the loo for more than the obvious. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve started a race or challenge like this, butterflies and stomachs just don’t mix. We got to the 5:30 start line though and weedled our way to 100m from the front, instead of 500m back. Just under 13,000 starters, with 604 Internationals (African neighbours included), crowded into the main street of Petermaritzburg. The national anthem was sung with gusto and South African flags waved under the beginners arch. And of course they started playing Chariots Of Fire…haha, the atmosphere was absolutely electric!


We started the run in the traditional over-crowded fashion. People pushing through the suburbs, all at a reasonably sedate pace. Plenty of well wishers lined the streets and we even got to chat to a couple of random Aussies, particularly one Tasmanian farmer who’d started running when the droughts took hold and threatened to break his spirit. Then 10kms had passed and we were at the feared hill of Polly Shortts – the hill that busts the best of them when the race is run in the opposite direction. We had spread out considerably already, with runners as far as you could see ahead and behind. It was pretty clear, pretty quickly, that the hills in front of us were going to be more than we bargained for, so the Cougar and I just put our heads down and got to work.

Every major town was manned by plenty of spectators of all race and age.. Funny thing is that they were supporting runners of all race and age. This was certainly a run for everyone. Chatting to a few of our fellow athletes, we found that many of them had run before. We got a pep talk from 2 gents, one who’d knocked out 13 Comrades and another who was coming of age with number 21… All these guys were crazy.. Actually their tips were very good, but it doesn’t matter what people tell you, this race is a different experience for everyone.


Our super supporters were at Camperdown, about 30kms in. Frankie Figs was cheering us on and so too were Chip’s family. Sensei Simon told us we were looking great and holding a good pace. I think he was disappointed not to have seen us running faster, but he didn’t show it!


The Middle:

I’ve been asked a number of times when things began to hurt….when we got worried….the point at which we questioned our ability… It was about the time we trudged through our first marathon. 42kms down, 47km to go, Cougar and I look at each other and I say, “this is pretty interesting…”, while laughing nervously. It was like running through the Dandenongs for 4 hours, or knocking out the Boston marathon – then having to do it all again. There were still plenty of supporters and tons of drinks stations, but we weren’t smiling quite as much when we passed through.

The halfway mark at Drummond was after a 3km uphill climb, followed by the same down hill. It hurt, I can tell ya.. They had a group of volunteer physios doing massage and I stopped to get a rub down, more for the excuse of stopping for a minute than needing a rub down. It was a tough slog that far and we were beginning to add in the mandatory walking breaks.


The Middle….still:

After Botha’s Hill was, well, more hills.. As we crested each hill and looked painfully at the steep down sections, Cougar and I would look at each other and sigh. We’d been chatting to random runners here and there, but now we were pretty quiet. At the 60km mark, Cougs was looking pretty spent. He was having issues with his socks as they were cutting off the circulation to his lower leg. I chided him that the socks weren’t to blame, but his swelling legs were the culprit. Either way, things weren’t feeling good for either of us anymore.

We kept plugging along and saw our superb support team cheering us once again. They were babbling away about how great we were doing and Frankie tried to hand us both a can of HTFU… It wasn’t that we didn’t appreciate his efforts to bolster our spirits, but neither of us had much laugh left in us..

The 9 hour pace group caught us somewhere here. They were walking every few kilometres and running pretty solidly in between. The walks were at a very brisk pace and the runs were pretty solid too. I turned to Nic and said, “We gotta stick with these fellas, ok?” I still felt pretty strong and thought it would be the Cougar who’d struggle to keep up with them. After another 10km, it was quite the opposite. With just 20kms to go, I couldn’t keep the tempo, but Cougar had found his rhythm again. God knows where it comes from, but he kept powering on and I had to say my goodbyes. We’d done a lot of training and 70kms together, so if I wasn’t hurting so much, I mighta shed a tear.

The End…sorta:

The following kilometres were a see-saw of self doubt and self belief.. I kept looking for another marker and battling on. I took inspiration from the awesome numbers of supporters on the side of the road. They’d brought down their families, couches, bbqs, boom boxes and they were calling out the names of so many runners as they passed by. And I needed to hear them. It was taking every cheer and every happy face to boost my strength.

As I approached 4km to go, I thought I was there. Could I keep running to the end now?! But sure enough, another bridge rose up in front of me.. By this time, the slightest rise in terrain was making me gulp, so a bridge that looked like the Bolte made me want to cry. Then I got angry and promised myself that I wouldn’t stop till I was over the top of that damn thing! Once crested, I eased to a walk and took the most poignant video of the run.. I think this one pretty much sums up how I was feeling… Nearly there, then I can stop.


The End:

As I approached the final 1km, I felt that same elation I’d had with every one of my past marathons. It surpasses the pain and somehow you begin to lift, when really you should be ready to fall. The crowd wasn’t too thick on the side of the road in the final stretch, but those who were waiting were full of praise and I couldn’t help grinning as I closed in on the Durban stadium that hosted the finish line.

I pulled my camera out one last time and held it out in front of me to take in those final meters. I entered the stadium almost alone and with so many expectant eyes on me, I felt like a rock star! Of course they were all waiting for friends or loved ones, but I took this opportunity to get as many cheers as possible while I approached the finish line. And cheer they did, as people went absolutely mad for everyone that entered the stadium. What a rush!

Our amazing support crew were there, shouting like crazy…a big thanks to Frankie for sticking it out and being there not only for Robyn, but for all of us!

I crossed the line in 9:18:23.. I always knew I was gonna get there, but it’s only as you cross the line that you can let go of the reigns a little and recognize your own personal achievements. People were dropping meters after the line, as though they used every ounce of strength in those final moments. Athletes were crying and hugging each other. The race attendants were ushering us through, but saying our names and congratulating us on an extraordinary effort. What a lovely feeling to be patted on the back by a complete stranger in a foreign country and told that you were a true champion that day… It dwarfed nearly every achievement in my life in that moment. I gulped with pride and choked back a tear or two and let myself feel like just a bit of a hero!

Then I went to the international tent and started necking beers… The idea of having one more Powerade made me feel sick. I found Kevlar, who crossed the line just 10 minutes after me, with 9:28:31. We then found the Cougar, who’d broken the magical 9 hour mark with a blistering 8:56:47 to earn himself a coveted Bill Rowan (the first winner of Comrades) medal.

We didn’t have to wait too long to have the bulletproof Chip cross the line in 9:53:00. And just an hour later, the heroines started entering the stadium too…

Alicat – 10:40:42

Lozzy (now Medusa) -10:57:56

Robyn – 11:44:20

Here’s where I get mushy..

I’m so ridiculously proud to have run with great friends, not only in training, but throughout one of the most fulfilling events of my life. I knew the guys would get home, because I really believe that all three of them are some of the strongest men I’ve ever met. Champions in every facet of their lives.. These guys; Nic, Andrew and Kevin; are guys that I will forever call brothers – true Comrades in arms.

But the girls… I’m ashamed to say that at 60km I wasn’t sure they were going to make it.. When Cougar and I hit the ropes after 60, I remember looking at him and saying, “If we feel this bad and we’re this far ahead of them…how the hell are they going to get here and then knock out another 30km??” He looked at me and just shook his head, as if to say, “I dunno mate, but we aren’t there yet either…”

These girls are the true heroes of that day and will forever remain so in my mind. They kept going when the going got tough. They ran for HOURS longer than we did to get to the end, exposed to the heat, waning supplies at the drinks stations, torn feet and legs that screamed for them to stop.. And all three of them brought it home in style. Grinning as they strode into the stadium. Hugging their fellas as they found the crew. One of the most poignant moments of the whole day, was when Ali saw Nic at the end (with flowers in hand, mind you!) and just burst into tears as her emotions overflowed!  Chip and I stood back, caught in the moment and he said, “That’s the spirit of Comrades, right there…that’s why I love it. That’s why I come back.”

Lozzy is a powerhouse and truly looked like she coulda just kept going. She and Kev seem to thrive on slogging it out in the toughness stakes.. She’d fought injury to be there and put everything together just in time to make her mark on that day.

And Robyn. We waited with bated breath for her to enter the stadium and pass our little crew on the sidelines.  If you don’t get to the end in 12 hours, they pull across a rope and you are given a DNF…. In fact there’s a whole countdown, where the stadium rallies behind those people trying to beat the clock in the last 10 seconds! It’s kinda morbid, but exciting to watch people collapse meters short of the line in 12:00:01.. Would Robyn make it?! She’d only run her first full marathon 6 weeks before in Canberra… Sure enough, with 15 minutes to spare before the cut-off, she floated on past us with a huge grin on her face. What an amazing woman!


I salute you ladies! I’ve never met 3 women as brave..

Of the 13000 starters, only 10000 made it. Of the 600 Internationals, only 480 got to the end. Of the 7 members of Tribal who set out to conquer this epic task, 7 crossed the finish line. We did it for Tribal. We did it for our Comrades. But, above all, we did it for ourselves..

So that was the adventure. Well, the start of it anyway. Tearing it up in the wilds of Africa is another story. If you’ve made it this far through my story, then let me leave you with one final thought. We’re all regular people, just like you. We decided on an enormous goal and did everything that was necessary to achieve it. You’re thinking that this is impossible and you could never do it. But you said that about the half marathon too. And you thought it about the full marathon, didn’t you?

Well… I believe you can do it. And I think that deep down, you believe you can do it too..


The race is a different experience for everyone, so I can’t presume to think I’ve covered everyone here. Below are the most memorable moments from my Comrades:

Ali -

“I felt like Wonder woman as I ran into the stadium.   All that pain seemed to totally disappear and I felt like I could run another 89km (well maybe not 89km!).    When I came through the finish all I could do was ball my eyes out.   The emotions, the tiredness, the adrenalin all seemed to kick in at once.  And having such awesome friends and “Comrades” there waiting for me with open arms and big smiles was just indescribable.   We didn’t have to say much – we just knew….. ”


Cougar –

“All I have to say is thank god T_Bone was there to get me through my tough patch at 60-70km.. I needed that ‘harden the f@#k up’ chat… True Comradeship!!”


Robyn –

“For me, looking back now, Comrades is like a dream and much of the race is a bit of a blur.  I remember the nervousness, I remember actually feeling ‘scared’, I remember thinking ‘just go forward, just keep moving’ – to me this was a race of survival. I tried to soak up as much of this experience as I could. Before the race many people said “enjoy the race” followed by chuckles!! – but you know what, looking back, I enjoyed every moment – there was definitely pain, but compared to the feeling in my stomach and my heart, the awesome atmosphere the whole way, and the absolutely amazing support and encouragement I received from absolutely everyone, the pain was a very very distant 2nd place. Tears found me too…but only when I looked up and saw this massive red marker with 65km – and I thought “OMG – I  HAVE  JUST  COMPLETED 65KM!!”  At that moment it was overwhelming for me & the tears came.  I also knew at this moment I WAS going to finish this race!!  At the end there was just happiness and relief and the knowledge that I could now start the celebrations with everyone that helped me get here……. note:  I am still celebrating!!!

Frankie Figs –

“Having just completed an Ironman, I thought to myself, “how hard is this going to be its only a long run??”. At the 50km mark watching all the Tribal crew come through, I then realised, this is why they call it the hardest human race on the planet and its only the mentally strong that will finish it.  I then wondered if my crew that I was willing onto the finish line would actually finish. To see Nic, Tristan, Kevin, Chip, Ali, Loz and my beautiful wife Robyn come into the grandstand and finish was exhilarating for me and made me feel so happy and proud to be a part of the Tribal crew who completed one of the hardest human races on the planet.”

Lozzy -

“Whilst most people shed a tear at the end of the race, for me it was the start. After months of training, battling injury i was so happy, and relieved to be at the start line! I couldn’t help myself when chariots of fire played the tears flowed freely!!!  All the hills have blurred into one, and the entire race was memorable. I have never been involved in a race where so many people yell out ‘go lady’ as you run (or walk) past.  Entering the stadium was also an amazing experience, the atmosphere was electric, people were in the stands cheering us on as we ran the final 200-300m of a long physical and emotional journey. My goal was to run a sub 11hr race, which i let go of early into the run (10km). This was a run to finish and if i didn’t make it across the line in under 12hrs there would have been no shame in that. However as I was running the final 100m towards the finishing line i heard them announce that the last of the bronze medallist had entered the stadium (sub 11hrs) I was so happy and i knew i had made it.”

Kevlar -

“Halfway up Drummond hill (which was 8k long) and about the 50k mark initially starting to worry about how the girls were coping, given I was in a world of hurt (the tears came later)… which quickly switched to countless thoughts of how to hurt Chipster given he had informed us that there was no such 8k hill!!

Chip -

“It is often said that it is just as important to enjoy the journey as the final destination.  A massive to thank you all the Comrades and North Face guys and gals for the stories, songs and laughs.   Those hours of training just flew by!!

Comrades will always be special – it means a lot to a lot of people.  The perfect race for fun runners - Just long enough to really take the whole experience in.  Just so everybody knows… I won’t let you do it by yourself.

About TBone

One comment

  1. This account is so cool, to hear about your experience as a foreigner is fantastic. Your time is excellent, may experienced SA runners never get to the time you guys did, well done. Of course your ladies are awesome too! There is always an argument about the fairer sex doing better on the long runs, we always joke that we take as long as time allows to get our value for money!
    I have added my own personal account of 2009 Comrades, if that is okay!
    I missed 2008′s medal which was my novice year, but I was determined to repeat the whole proceedure to get that tiny medal!

    Vic Clapham Victory!

    4 days later, my body tires. Lack of sleep, the build up, and almost 12 hours on the road is catching up with me. Yet I still have a smile in my heart. I collected my first Comrades Marathon medal in Sahara Stadium on a perfect evening, and I am still wearing it. I am savouring this medal, this victory, because 2008, my novice year, I didn’t make it on time. I am not sure if every novice runner feels this proud, or feels this invincible, I like to think that it is only me, because I had to wait a year, and go back to get it.
    Two years I have been through all this training, and all these feelings, through life’s up and downs, and now my success is measured with one small Vic Clapham medal.

    2008, saw a rather haphazard commitment to my running. Perhaps it was a certain numbness over my sister dying from breast cancer the October before, or perhaps it was just a fear that I may not be able to do the 87km’s, I’m not sure. But I went into my novice Comrades feeling excited, and finished my attempt in the suburbs of Pietermaritsburg in awe of what I had just achieved. I was also now in awe of the physical challenge that I had just accomplished. So although I received no medal, I had had a fantastic day. I at that stage was still unsure whether I would be back again, and even less sure, whether I could indeed do it in the allotted time. But after a few weeks rest, and my mind still reeling from the experience of the indescribable day, I decided to come back and test myself properly. I planned my training differently, and this time I really heard all the advice I was given. I was also fully committed to the challenge.

    November 2008. I was going to qualify on the Soweto Marathon. The race of the people. I was geared up, and ready. I wanted to get the qualifying out of the way, so I could really focus on training without that extra stress. That day, my life changed forever. One of our dear running friends, and mentor’s dropped down dead beside us, just after the 32km marker. Without a complaint, sound or signal, he was gone. We did what we could, we waited for the ambulance, we prayed, we panicked, but he left this earth doing what he loved doing, running, and helping us get our qualifier. Needless to say, we never made our qualifier that day, and for a short time, we looked at our running future, but Jo would have wanted us to continue, and for me to feel that accomplishment of finishing the ‘big’ race, he so dearly loved. So we ran.

    And ran. My training improved, my times sped up, and I relaxed. I really began to enjoy this hobby of running, and after a comfortable qualifier in Sasolburg, I gleefully entered Comrades 2009. I had fun on the roads, and enjoyed the people I ran with, and appreciated my body.
    All too soon May 24 arrived, yet sometimes it felt like it wasn’t coming soon enough. I stood in the dark shadows of Pietermaritsburg’s City Hall, that was cheerfully lit up with the TV lights and smiled inwards. I was here again. This time there was a certain edge to the possibility that I might not make it again, after all, it is even longer than last year’s. But I felt excited at the prospect of receiving all the awesome support along the road, and that is the real reason why I was doing it again.
    Moving gently towards the start line and taking over 5 minutes to get there, didn’t make me panic like last year. I was aware that it could feel so long before we were able to get going. I was also very cautious about the debris on the road, as well as cat’s eye’s and traffic islands, as last year I had taken a tumble just outside Berea, and I didn’t want any excuses this year.
    My mielie pap for breakfast now a distant memory I felt a tiny hunger rumble before we started to run, so I started early with my jelly bean snacks. We left Pietermaritsburg and the crowds began to thin, we were on our way!
    I realised that I would be running from sunrise to sunset, so I knew not to panic about speed or pacing early on in the day, so I just admired the welcoming sunrise and listened to the chit chat all around me. After attending a Roadshow talk, it had been comforting to hear the legendary Bruce Fordyce tell everyone to ‘hold back’ and enjoy the day, and I fully intended to do so.
    I spoke to all the blue number foreigners visiting our shores, and heard their stories about running, and I paid attention to all the surroundings. Last time, I missed Arthur’s Seat as well as the Wall of Remembrance, so I was determined to see it all this year. I did. And more. Dogs and their owners out for hours on end at the sides of the road, giving me a bark of encouragement. Kids, grannies, husbands, cousins, everyone in KZN gets behind this landmark event, and I really really appreciate it. Music dotted along the route told us a little about the owners, from Gospel, to rock, to country, to hip hop, and even some sakkie sakkie thrown in, it all made up for one huge party, even if it was much longer than what I am used to!

    Cut off points this year was also far less stressful, and when people shout ‘hurry only half an hour till cut off’ I almost laughed, because now I really know how far I can go in half an hour. Passing loved ones and supporters at halfway, I was feeling fabulous. A niggle in my knee, but otherwise nothing I couldn’t handle, we continued our long journey to Durban in the dusk. The weather played along magnificently, and it felt far cooler than last year, even though it was 3 weeks earlier in the year. At around 29 km to go, my friend and I decided to stay with Vlam Pieterse from Hartebeespoort who was driving the sub 12 hour bus. I had seen him in action, and I knew that if anyone could get us there on time it would be him. I had heard dreadful stories of the downhills, and thought that I could benefit from his experience in getting down them. I was so right. Entering Pinetown I realised that we must have just come down Field’s hill, and I felt great. Vlam knows his stuff! Unfortunately there were a few water points without water, and after the third one, it must have started playing with my brain. My friend saw this and asked after me, luckily spectators were very obliging and dished out their supplies to us. Finally we reached a water point with water, and a hose, and the spray on my face shook me up, and my head cleared.

    Just after Westville, the crowd really intensified, and families cheered us on. People lined on both sides of the road, make me feel really special. An ordinary person being celebrated in an extra-ordinary way by thousands of people. This is what I experience on Comrades, and this is what is likely to bring me back!

    Durban showed itself to us, and I started to really feel giddy with excitement. I was going to do it! Slowing down with the bus, as we picked up stragglers, the morale boosted. So, so soon, we would be turning in towards that stadium. Vlam kept some lagging spirits up, by chanting a few songs or making us take a deep breath, and raise our hands, which always stirred the spectators. We fed off their energy, and would trickle onwards, inching closer and closer. The entrance to the stadium buzzed with applause. Perhaps it was just my head? I grabbed my friends hand and we shrieked the whole 300 meteres round the stadium, and when we weren’t shrieking, we grinned. Spotting hubby in the crowd brought another yoop of delight as well as tears to my eyes. We had spared them last year’s worry of where we were. We made it in with 10 minutes to spare. I got my medal and gave the medal bearer a hug, like the people before me. She must have been drenched with sweat from others, but never complained, instead she smiled and hugged back.

    A small medal, a long way, a fabulous journey. 2009 that medal is now mine!

    Cathie van Rooyen
    Age 42

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