COMRADES DOWN RUN
by Barry Holland #916
Barry Holland has run 39 consecutive Comrades marathons, starting in 1973. He has a best time of 6:29 and has 22 Silvers. Here is his description of the Down Run, written before the 2009 Down Run.
After 36 years on the road I remain convinced that the down-Comrades is more difficult than the up-Comrades. It is, however, faster. You trade 10-20 minutes for very sore legs. It is more difficult not only because of the tremendous pounding that your legs take on the descents, but also because in addition to this there are a great many hills to be climbed on the so-called ‘down-run’. Ninety kilometres of running is a daunting task; whether you’re Bruce Fordyce or contesting the last-man-home trophy. It is extremely helpful if you can break the race up into ‘bite-sized chunks’. The terrain does change quite appreciably over the distance and various stages should be run differently. In other words, there are parts of the trip between Pietermaritzburg and Durban when one can float like a butterfly, putting time in the bank, and there are sections where one is best served by putting your head down and just grinding it out.
Start to Umlaas road (0kms – 18kms)
No sooner have you found your stride than you face the long slow climb out of Pietermaritzburg. Remember it could be very cold so watch the weather reports and be prepared to run with an old top and gloves that you can throw away. There are a series of long, but not very steep climbs, especially after Polly’s (8km). Take these easy – it is a long day ahead and there is lots of time for racing later. However, if you are racing for a specific time, you cannot afford to be too cautious over these first 18kms. At best you should only be a few minutes behind schedule. You cannot afford to have to make up too much time later on. As you crest the hill at Mpushini (LynnfieldPark turnoff) at 16kms, you will see a water tower on top of a hill ahead on the left. You pass it about 2kms later and that is the end of the long climb out of Pietermaritzburg. (This is also, incidentally, the highest point on the course). It is at the 18km mark, or Umlaas Road.
Umlaas Road to Inchanga (18kms – 41kms)
This is undoubtedly the fastest section of all Comrades running – up or down. This is the time to relax and do that floating that I was talking about. You can pick up the pace and pull back those minutes you were behind schedule. You can afford to go into credit and pick up a few minutes, but once again you must exercise control. This is still the first half of the race and throwing caution to the wind over this stretch will lead to serious trouble later. There are no major hills over this section, so every incline is short and recovery is fast. Watch out for the crippled children at the Harrison Flats; there’s is a special rousing welcome out of the heart of Africa.
Nchanga to Hillcrest (41kms – 52kms)
As they say in the classics: “The party’s over and now the work begins.” On the Pietermaritzburg side of Nchanga, which is at about 41kms, the fast section is over and you are into 11kms of severe climbing. First there is the back of Inchanga plus the severe drop into Drummond to the halfway mark and then the steep climb out of Drummond to Alverston. The AlverstonRadioTower marks your target as you say “good morning” to the legendary Arthur Newton at Arthur’s Seat. After cresting the Alverston climb you will drop a little again and then begin the climb up to Botha’s Hill. After the steep drop down Botha’s Hill there is a much shorter, but still quite steep climb up to Hillcrest. This has covered the toughest 11kms of the down-Comrades. Once again, exercise extreme caution. Relax and let the hills come to you. Those who are racing hard will not be able to relax too much because we are well into the second half of the race and the clock is ticking. Still, run sensibly – don’t leave your Comrades on those hills.
Hillcrest to Pinetown (53kms – 70kms)
Here lies your greatest opportunity on the down-Comrades – 18kms of ‘easy’ running with no major up hills in the way. Remember, however, that you’ve already run a long way and you’ll be asking your tired legs to perform at their optimum running speed for the day. The course undulates gently downhill. Settle down and run. Feed off the fantastic crowds. Talk to them – give them your pain. If you’re racing, it is this section that sets you up for your time. This is racing country with lots of shade and people. Only one major problem exists though: the mighty 3, 2 km downhill of Fields Hill. This downhill pounding can turn your quads to jelly. Please exercise extreme caution and go down Fields Hill slowly. If you don’t, the graveyard awaits you at the bottom.
Pinetown to Finish (70 kms – 89 kms)
I do not say lightly that the race begins in Pinetown. All that has gone before is 70 kms of hard physical running. Now starts the true mental battle that is the signature tune of the Comrades Marathon. These 20 kms and the mental bashing you will take is what make the Comrades great. I have often said that your legs can get you to Pinetown but only your head can get you home to the finish. Once again, the course undulates with some very severe hills – getting harder all the time as you go further. As you come out of Pinetown there is the famous Cowies Hill and after that they just keep on coming. Try and break up this last 18 kms with some mind games i.e. 16 kms to go; only a morning run; 10 kms to go and so on.
Nothing I say can really prepare you for the Comrades but these notes may help. Run the race to Pinetown knowing that you have done the training. From Pinetown to home take heart from the knowledge that you’re meeting one of the great sporting challenges of South Africa.
You are running the greatest road race in the world.