'ULTIMATE HUMAN RACE'
Running the Comrades is ‘a great gift that you give yourself’ – nine-time winner Bruce Fordyce
A shorter Comrades Marathon could see a few records tumble this weekend, but the participation of everyday athletes is what makes the event special.
The Comrades Marathon is filled with prestige. It’s the oldest ultramarathon in the world — dating back to 1921. It’s also the largest in the globe, with nearly 18,000 participants expected at the start line at Pietermaritzburg City Hall this Sunday.
“It’s our most important race and it’s probably one of the most important races in the world,” nine-time Comrades Marathon winner Bruce Fordyce told Daily Maverick.
“It’s probably one of the world’s most unique sporting events and it’s part of South Africa’s heritage — it’s 100 years old. There’s lots of traditions, lots of famous participants and it’s a mega sporting event.”
Yet despite the spectacle of the event and all the cameras and attention on the front group of runners, it’s the runners in the middle and at the back of the pack that allow the esteemed race to maintain its revered tag as the largest ultramarathon in the world.
Barry Holland, who turns 71 this year, has run 48 consecutive Comrades Marathons starting in 1973. His participation this year— along with the thousands of other non-competitive runners — is as important as that of Gerda Steyn, Edward Mothibi and the other athletes competing for gold.
“Ninety-nine percent of the runners are not even thinking about prize money; they’re just going there to finish,” said Fordyce.
“Whether it’s 12 hours or whatever time, they’re going [there] to finish.”
A slightly shorter race
This year’s “Ultimate Human Race” is the second consecutive “down run”, starting at the Pietermaritzburg City Hall and ending at Kingsmead Cricket Stadium in eThekwini.
The race will be 87.701km this year, which is nearly 2.2km shorter than last year’s “down run” of 89.885km.
Despite the slightly shorter race, sacrifices to complete the race need to be made a year in advance, said Fordyce.
“It’s a big commitment. At least a year of training and commitment to the race, but it’s a great adventure,” he said.
“In some ways it’s not a sacrifice. It’s a great gift that you give yourself. It’s a wonderful goal to strive for, it’s a wonderful thing to try to achieve.”
Going for gold
Having completed 30 Comrades himself and winning eight consecutively, Fordyce is familiar with the training for athletes striving for gold.
“If you hope to win the race, you’re going to be running twice a day, every day. Long runs every three days, 30, 40 up to 60 kilometres in one go. Lots of speed work, lots of hill work, and quite a few shorter races in preparation for the big one. It’s a massive undertaking,” he said.
“If you hope to win, you need to run between 160 and 220 kilometres a week for many months.”
Steyn is the outright favourite for the women’s race, while predicting a winner for the men’s section is much more challenging, said Fordyce.
“Gerda Steyn is probably the favourite for the ladies’ race. The men’s race could be any one of five or six runners. There’s no clear favourite. There’s Tete Dijana from last year who won, there’s Edward Mothibi who won before, Bongmusa Mthembu who’s won three times and was fourth last year,” he said.
“And then there are a whole lot of up-and-coming runners, and any one of them could take it. The men’s race is very wide open.”
The shorter race this year also means there is a chance for records — or “fastest times” — to fall.
“The record could go. It depends on the tactics in the race, it depends on how the runners run,” Fordyce added.
“It’s not a record per se because no two Comrades are exactly the same distance, so what we call it is ‘fastest time’.
“David Gatebe has got the fastest time for the men and that is a very fast time, even he can’t get close to that time again. His five hours, 18 minutes will always be potentially under threat but it’s hard to do that.
“Frith van der Merwe is the record holder for the down run (5.54.43); her time is also superb. But Gerda has a very good chance because [this year’s Comrades] is 2.2 kilometres shorter. So, there is a chance.”
Steyn has already clinched the fastest time in the up race and after her record Two Oceans win earlier this year, a down race record would be another feather in her cap.
The speed and tactics of the race will determine whether that is possible.
“Sometimes the race tactics are slow and people are cagey and they watch each other the whole race and then it explodes near the end,” Fordyce said.
“When Gerda sent me a message, asking me for a little bit of advice, I said to her, ‘Gerda, the first thing you have to do is win the race. Just win the race. If you win it, you’ve done everything you need to do. The record is a bonus. If you get a bonus, well done, but just win the race’.”
While he stopped running the Comrades Marathon in 2012, Fordyce will be there this weekend in a commentary role.
“That’s very exciting but also a very exhausting day … but I won’t be as exhausted as the people who run. I’m excited because it’s a fantastic weekend if you’re a past winner of the race. It’s a very special occasion to be down there with all the runners.” DM