DOUBLE DOWN RUN
Shorter 2023 Comrades Marathon and an increase in prize money should make for fast race
The 2023 Comrades, which takes place on 10 June, will be shorter and richer than ever before.
There is no such thing as an easy Comrades Marathon. It is the ultimate challenge because it’s all about pain and commitment to pushing on no matter what the circumstances.
For elite athletes that means taking themselves to places they might not have known was possible and for amateurs it’s not much different. But if there is a sliver of comfort for those about to tackle “the ultimate human race”, it’s that this year’s course is 2.2km shorter than last year.
This year’s course, starting from the Pietermaritzburg City Hall and ending at Durban’s Kingsmead Cricket Stadium, known as the ‘down run’, will be one of the shortest in history. It comes in at 87.701km, which is nearly 2.2km shorter than the last year’s down run of 89.885km.
It may seem odd to casual observers who have come to believe the race is a set 89.9km long, but Comrades’ distance has always varied because no two years are the same.
“Over the years the race has often finished in different places,” Comrades race director Rowyn James told Daily Maverick.
“Last year the down run finished at Moses Mabhida Stadium. This year it finishes at Kingsmead Stadium and if you recall, the ‘3km to go’ sign during last year’s down run was actually outside Kingsmead.
“This year you need to knock those three kilometres off. Then from where runners leave the road until you run into the stadium and all the way around the field, it’s a further 484 metres.
“So, you need to take off three kilometres minus the 484 metres and that gets you to a difference of 2.516km.
“There are massive road works on the go between Pietermaritzburg and Cato Ridge at the moment. At the last road interchange, they’re busy building a bridge flyover and the road under the bridge changes all the time as they move the scaffolding along.
“The way they’ve moved it now means we have to run a 300-metre detour around that. If you take the 2,516km minus 300 metres that gets you down to 2.2km, which is the difference between 2022 and 2023.
“The distance of Comrades in just about every single year varies and changes, mainly due to road works.
“If you take last year’s down run to Moses Mabhida, it was 89.885km. The previous down run before 2022, was in 2018, which was 90.184km. There was a difference of 299 metres. That 299 metres was a detour road.”
In 2023, it’s also a rare occurrence that that race is a down run in consecutive years as it usually alternates between starting in Maritzburg and Durban.
“The main reason we’re going back-to-back down runs is we were out of sync in terms of up runs and down runs,” James explains.
“Before 2022 we had 48 up runs, but only had 46 down runs. Two down runs in a row brings us back in sync of 48 each way, and the main reason that that happened is that in 1987 and 1988, there were two up runs in a row due to Maritzburg’s 150th-anniversary celebrations.
“In 2009 and 2010 we had two down runs in a row to coincide with the Fifa World Cup.
“That’s one aspect and the second is that we had to consider the ongoing roadworks. Maritzburg battles to handle the influx of traffic when there’s no roadworks, so with roadworks it would be an absolute disaster.
“It’s conceivable that the 2024 race might be a down run again if the roadworks fall behind schedule.”
These vagaries on the course that form part of the race are the reason that Comrades doesn’t use ‘records’ as part of its lexicon but rather ‘best times.’ No two races are ever quite the same.
“If you really want to be technical you’d need to work it out as a pace per kilometre over the distance of that year’s race for a ‘record’,” James said.
“But even that wouldn’t be accurate because if you’re running 2.2km further in a particular year, your pace per kilometre might be slightly slower.”
Despite the shorter course there are significant cash incentives for setting the best time in 2023. The R4.31-million pot of prize money for elite athletes will be a huge incentive for runners.
And with a shorter course the men’s down run’s best time of 5:18.19 set by South Africa’s David Gatebe in 2016 will be under threat.
In the women’s section, former up run winner and South Africa’s marathon maestro Gerda Steyn has a good chance to challenge Firth van der Merwe’s down run record of 5:54.43, set in 1989. Steyn set the fastest up run time in 2019 when she broke the six-hour barrier in 5:58.53.
“The Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) is pleased to announce that this year’s prize purse will be a substantial R4.31-million, effectively a 90% increase on last year’s R2.27 million,” CMA said in a statement.
“This represents nearly a doubling of last year’s first prize from R260,000 to R500,000 with second and third overall showing similar increases; from R130,000 to R250,000 for second and R90,000 to R180,000 for third position.
“If the winner in either the men’s or women’s races in this year’s Comrades Marathon breaks the down run best times of David Gatebe (2016 – 5:18:19) or Frith van der Merwe (1989 – 5:54:43) respectively, he or she will take home a minimum of R1-million in Comrades prize money, comprising of a first prize of R500,000 plus a R500,000 incentive. In addition to these prizes the First South African and First KZN athlete will each receive R200,000 and R 60,000 respectively.”
While those in incentives will only be in the reach of a select few, the Comrades has attracted a large international contingent in the first fully, post-Covid edition.
A total of 2,354 international runners from 84 countries are entered into this year’s race. The bulk of those athletes are from India with 403 entrants, Zimbabwe with 255, United Kingdom with 224, USA with 173 and Brazil with 142 runners.
“At the moment we have 21109 entrants for the race,” James said. “We like to cap entries at about 21,000 but we go over because traditionally there is a drop-off of about 2000 entries just before race day.
“That’s due to illness or injury and due to runners not qualifying. Typically, on race day we will start with 18,500 to 19,000 runners.” DM