Sunday, May 31, 2015

2015 Comrades Marathon Race Report

2015 Comrades Marathon race report

Race date - Sunday 5/31/15, 5:30am start time. Race must be completed in under 12 hours. At 12 hours, they block the finish line with big dudes and if you are one second over 12 hours, you don't get to finish and don't receive a medal.  Devastating for those within an eye shot of the finish (and we saw many in this situation at the finish).

This was an "uphill" year from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, with over 6000 feet of elevation gain and only 4000 of elevation loss (downhill) per my garmin watch. The direction alternates each year.

Distance - ~87.72 kilometers (~55 miles).  Race started in 1921.  The course runs on roads (not trails) and this year they added an extra 0.5 miles due to road work on some of the course. This costs most people 5-15 minutes of extra race time. I was definitely thinking it when people super close to the finish line were not allowed to finish.

My result - 10 hours and 25 minutes, good for the top 31% overall (5.249/16,586). My marathon split was a 4:35 (10:30 pace) and I was at 9:22 at 50 miles. I ran the first 36 miles without walking. This included running the first 4 major hills without stopping. I felt great aerobically, I was not limited by my fitness at any point during the day.  My nemesis, as usual during hilly ultra marathons, was my shredded (extremely sore) quads starting around mile 28.  I was very happy with my race and time, particularly given  that I was limited in my training due to a sore knee from January - May this year.  

In February 2013 I had reconstructive foot/ankle surgery and was told by a doctor that I may not run again, or if I did, I wouldn't be the same runner.  I developed blood clots in my leg after this surgery that I battled with for about a year.  I had knee surgery in March 2014 to repair a torn meniscus, and broke my ankle on a very easy run in July 2014.  It was a tough 2 years.  I'm proud that I was able to complete these races given 2 years of injuries.  I listened to my body and significantly under-trained so I could get to the start line healthy.

Finishing Video (I was very happy to finish and felt strong at the end, but if you look at some of the other videos, you can see that I am having trouble running down hill due to my super sore quads).  Click on the "Youtube" word in the lower right hand corner to watch this video on youtube, where you can put the video on a full screen and see me much better

Garmin File - click here

Preparation - due to a bone bruise on my knee, my training was very limited.   I'm a big believer in training smart (and lean towards under training).  My longest run was 20 miles in early April in Miami. I rode my bike trainer and did a lot of elliptical when not running. I did Ironman Texas 2 weeks before Comrades as a training workout. I walked a lot of the Ironman marathon so don't consider it running 26.2 miles.  Despite not running much,  my fitness level was high coming into the race and I was healthy (my knee healed) with the exception of a sore (swollen) upper neck in my back, which has been bothering me on and off for years.  MRIs have shown that something isn't right in there.   It didn't hurt during my ironman but was swollen and painful during my 60k (37.2 mile) race in Central Park in November.

Training Summary (for Ironman on 5/16/15 and Comrades on 5/31/15) - I did not follow a training program, instead tried to do something most days but had to hold back on running due to my sore knee. As you can see below, my training wasn't even sufficient enough to run a marathon, let alone an Ironman followed by a 55 mile ultra marathon 2 weeks later.

January - worked out 24 of 31 days, took off 7 days, total duration ~21 hours (just less than an hour a day of exercise) .  13 runs (2.6 runs per week), longest 9 miles, shortest was 12 minutes as I didn't run from mid November - December.,Also did 7 swims (4 hours); 10 bike trainer workouts (8.6 hours), 2 erg workouts (16 minutes); 10 days of skiing

February - worked out 16 days, 12 off days (due to sore knee).  2 runs for the entire month (one for 10 minutes and one for 20 minutes); 9 bike trainer workouts (10 hours); 4 elliptical workouts (5 hours); skied 4 weekends

March -worked out 26 days, took off 5.  11 runs (2.8 runs per week, 60 miles in total).  Longest run 13.1 miles; 18 elliptical workouts (19 hours, longest 1 hour 36 minutes); 2 swims (70 minutes). Skiied 2 weekends.

April - worked out 28 of 31 days (3 days off).    11 runs (2.75 per week, total month 96 miles - longest run 20 miles, next longest run 12 miles); 7 bike trainer workouts (11 hours, longest ride 4 hours on trainer); 6 swims (4.6 hours); 4 elliptical workouts (4.3 hours)

May - worked out 21 days, took 10 days off.  12 runs, 16 hours 20 minutes.  Longest  - 26.2 miles, Ironman Texas (although walked a lot of this), next longest run 12 miles.  Also did 3 10 mile runs; 3 bike (8.3 hours, 2 trainer, 1 ironman texas bike); 1 elliptical (1 hour 45 minutes); 6 swims (longest 2.4 mile swim 96 minutes)

In summary, I kept fit by running when I could (rule, no pain and I could run.  Pain, no running) doing the bike trainer, elliptical, swimming, skiing.  From January  - May, I ran 49 times, or 2.3 times per week, with my longest run being 20 miles (I don't include Ironman Texas marathon because I walked at least half of this race).  After the 20 miler, the next closest was 13.1 miles, and few 12 mile runs, and around 6 ten mile runs.  My run under training is why my quads were so sore after the mid way point in the Comrades race.  I simply didn't have enough running training in.  Despite this, I felt like my aerobic fitness was high for the race and never felt tired aerobically.  

The Trip
I flew to South Africa on Thursday 5/29, arriving on Friday 5/30 around 1pm. Came with my friend and co-worker Sheba and two of her friends, Ingrid (South African and 1 time previous Comrades Finisher) and Katie. I coached Ingrid and Katie for this race (and had previously coached Sheba and helped her qualify for Boston earlier this year with a 3:40). Rachel, a friend of the 3 women traveling with me, met us at the expo and stayed with us on Saturday night. 

We went to the grocery store on Friday afternoon after flying into Johannesburg and then taking another flight to Durban. I was only able to sleep about 3 hours on the flight to Africa. We stayed at Ingrid's dad's (Peter's) bed in breakfast on the Indian Ocean. It was great. We made dinner and all crashed early, around 9pm. Picture from the patio of our hotel of the Indian Ocean.

On Saturday, Peter drove us to the expo in Durban, about an hour from where we were staying. While I didn't realize it at the time, this ride to the expo and then a lunch with Ingrid's in-laws, was invaluable to me, as we drove most of the first of the 26 miles of the course. I realized a few things:

1. There were non stop rolling hills (I expected it to essentially straight up hill). There were lots of downhills too
2. There were lots of big uphills, many more than the 5 major hills listed (and named)
3.  The roads were in good shape, far fewer potholes and rough roads than New York City
4. The incline "grade" seemed steep but runable. Many Comrades finishers talk about having walked every big hill, but these hills seemed runable to me (albeit slowly)
5. The sun was hot and a visor or hat was needed for sure and carrying a water bottle would be prudent.

The expo was awesome. We checked in a did some walking around. I bought a Comrades T-shirt with a rooster on it (when the race started in the 1920s, the call of a rooster served as the starting gun). The rooster sound was played when we started our race.  I learned a lot about the history of the race at the expo. The spirit of helping your fellow man and working together was my biggest takeaway. The rules allow competitors to help fellow runners cross the finish line. We watched many runners being assisted (often carried) by other runners across the finish line. Simply amazing and inspiring!

Over 20,000 people would be running the race. 20,000 people running 54+ miles. Amazing!  On our bibs, the number of completed comrades races is listed. 10 completed races gets you a green bib and you keep the race number forever. One of the coolest things about the race is seeing how many races people have run and talking to them about it. Sheba and I talked to a guy that was running his 43rd Comrades race!!!  He was 64 years old. Saw tons of people with 20+ races. Saw one guy running the entire race backwards!  Also heard one guy finished his 50th comrades!

Over the last month, I put together an awesome Spotify playlist of tunes for the race. The afternoon before the race, we learned that no music or portable devices are allowed. We did some research, and figured that we would get a warning before being disqualified, so 3 of us decided to bring our iPhones and music. I wore my iPhone in an armband, plugged in my headphones, and put the headphones in my race belt, thinking I would put them in my ears shortly after the start. But after the race started, I looked around and nobody had music on, plus I was really enjoying talking to other runners and listening to the crowd, so I ended up never listening to music.  The day after the race, my right arm was a little sore from carrying my iPhone on my arm for 10+ hours.

We made dinner at our hotel the night before the race, and I was hoping to get 7+ hours of sleep. My clock was clearly confused, and ended up getting about 3 hours.

I awoke at 215am, ate breakfast (oatmeal, 5 fruits, and flaxseed). Desiree, Peter's wife, a 12 time comrades finisher, made us oatmeal with salt. Peter arrived at 3:40am and we left for hour long drive to Durban at 3:45. The drive wasn't bad, and we got to downtown Durban around 4:45. It was crowded with runners as well as club goers, as one of the clubs was still open. As I got out or the car, I noticed a gang of African locals chasing after a guy, and they caught him right in front of our car (the guy being chased went down hard in front of (and then under) our car. They took something from him that looked like drugs and then scattered about. A little unsettling. We then walked about 10 minutes to the race start

Video of us walking to the start line about 5am - Ingrid, Sheba, Katie, and Rachel

We waited in the porta potty lines for quite a while, right up against the strict 5:15am cutoff to be in your cue or start all the way in the back of the race. Sheba and I were in the same corral ("D"), and we got to our corral at 5:14am, which was overflowing and we couldn't even get into our corral until people moved up.  Note for next year or future Comrades runners - while the line to the porta potties was super long, when we walked to our corral, there was NO LINE for the porta potties next to the entrance of our corral.  Next time (if there is one), we will use those porta potties.

The South Africa national anthem was played, then a local song was sung by all locals (there are less than 2,000 international runners (denoted by a blue bib) and less than 200 runners from the United States (less than 1% of the runners). Then they started playing the Chariots of Fire theme song, which pumped everybody up, the the rooster called, and we were on our way.

It was super crowded, much more than I expected, and it was impossible to run at my own pace for the first 10 miles or so, really most of the race.  During the second mile, I talked to a guy that was doing his 25th comrades and asked him "how long before the race opens up so we can move around", and he replied in about 87 kilometers" (which is the length of the entire run). So, at that moment, I accepted that I wouldn't be running my own pace for this race. As I say all the time, "you get what you get"

I was surprised by how many spectators were out on the course at 530am. Totally packed. Like a way of life for people. It was truly motivating. My favorite spectators were the African women doing their "Africa call".. Love that!  Throughout the race, I slapped countless number of kids' hand. Adorable little kids.

One of the coolest things in the race for me was how narrow some of the roads were, which were lined with spectators 3-5 people deep. Felt like we were running in a finishing coral for many parts of the race. I loved it. It motivated me to keep going. It reminded me of how close the Tour de France spectators get to the cyclists. It was that close.

The race started painfully slow for me, which in the end was probably a good thing as it held me back, but I wanted to run faster, even on the bigger hills and particularly on the downhills. I wasn't able to run downhills fast in the first 25 miles, which meant I found myself breaking downhill, which, by mile 25, made my quads painfully sore (shredded). So, by the time I had space to run downhill faster, I couldn't because it hurt (a lot) to run downhill.

My race plan was to keep running as long as possible before walking. I made it 36 miles before walking!!!  I ran all 4 of the hard (big) hills to this point, and felt great. I let my heart rate creep into the mid 150s (sometimes even high 150s). I knew that the longest of the 5 major hills was 3.2km (1.9 miles) and I knew I could sustain my heart rate anywhere in the 150s without much effort and that my heart rate would recover quickly on the downhills. Having ridden the first half of the course and researching the hills really helped.

My biggest health issue is my weak foot and ankle. There is no support left in the foot, so my ankle often just gives out and rolls over. I made a decision not to wear an ankle brace while running because it seems to alter my gait slightly, putting pressure on my right knee. Because I didn't wear a brace, I constantly had to look where I was stepping. At the 1 hour and 21 minute point (mile 6 or 7), my ankle rolled.  This was a 5/6 on a scale of 1-10 severity. It hurt, but it wasn't as bad as when I broke my ankle last year running or when I rolled my ankle during the 2011 New York City marathon and my ankle instantly swelled up to the size of a softball.  I kept running to keep the swelling down and after a few miles didn't think about (or feel if) the rest of the race. The ankle roll happened where I had the tendon replaced a few years ago, and it was sore to the touch and pink this day after the race (but not swollen), so I probably need to have if looked it to make sure I didn't tear the tendon again.

There was a lot of music on the course. Heard the Bruno Mars current song 3 times, Heroes, Megan Trainer, Calvin Harris, Lorde, and a few others. My favorite was listening to local Africans signing and chanting on the side of the road. Very authentic and inspiring.  Where I could, I sang along with them.

My half marathon split came in at 4:35 and aerobically I felt perfect. A few miles later, after about 5 hours of running, I overheard an experienced runner tell her friend "pretend like you have done nothing". I sill had 40 kilometers to run (over 24 miles). My quads were so sore I wasn't sure I could do it. My neck was super sore at this point and my left knee it band was yelling at me too (my right knee, the one that bothered me earlier in the year was fine). Clearly, my orthotics need to be adjusted a little to take the pressure off my left IT band. The longest run I did (20 miles) wasn't long enough to highlight this problem

So, I decided to slow down to avoid suffering the pain of my quads (and even then it was painful to run, particularly downhill).  At around mile 30, I slowed but set a goal of not walking until after 40 miles. By mile 36, I negotiated with myself to start walking the aid stations, which helped, and for the next 10 miles I was suffering with a sore body. Then a couple guys came up to me and asked me where I was from (I put a USA flag on my calf)

Turns out both of these guys (Brandon and Vladimir) were from NYC. They were around 30 years old and both doing their 1st comrades too. We ran together for a while with Brandon until he decided he wanted to go for a sub 10 hour race, something all 3 of us were in a position to do after 42.5 miles, but Vladimir and I didn't feel like suffering and decided to hold back. I ended up running the rest of the race with Vladimir and a pace group run by a 12 time comrades finisher named "Linda" (a common man's name in South Africa... Who knew?).  Linda is the guy holding the flag and a very talented runner.  I didn't realize until the next day when I watched the finish videos that he was suffering too.

They call the pace leaders "bus drivers" and the bus drivers are professional in their skill and know what they are doing. He said that this was a sub 10 hour 30 minute bus driver. So, I stuck with him the last 12-15 miles or so (as did many other runners, including many very experienced comrades runners). I expected the bus driver to run the flats and downhills hard and walk the uphills, but Linda sometimes did the opposite. He knew that the Downhills would hurt more and sometimes we walked downhill. I was having a hard time keeping up downhill so I would fall 100 feet or so behind the group and catch up on when they stopped. Frankly, it was amazing to not have to think about how to pace myself. Linda was doing the thinking and I was following. I had complete faith that he would meet his time (by the way, Linda was over 50 and looked like he was 30). My friend Steve K, who ran the race in the past, told me how reliable and professional the bus drivers were, so I had faith. I loved being told what to do. It saved me. I'm sure if I would have been running by myself, I would have run faster and suffered more, but suffering is no fun.

Over the last 8km (4.8 miles), a lot of which was downhill, I was having a really hard time running downhill and surprisingly found myself grunting in pain while running. I sounded like a professional tennis player every time they hit the ball. That is the first time I have ever grunted in pain in a race.

The last few miles were generally flat but running an 11 minute pace was challenging. The last 1km (0.6 miles) was extremely tough. It felt much longer. The race enters a stadium and there as tons of spectators in the crowd. I was so ready to be done that I didn't really hear them.

I crossed the line in 10 hours and 25 minutes and was super proud to have achieved my goal and had a huge smile on my face!!

Once again, had severe right calf Twitching after the race. Need to figure out why.  Couldn't sit down for over 4 hours after the race because I would get charlie horse cramps if I took the pressure off.

My mom asked if I saw any lions. No lions, although a cow (bull with horns) got on the course in a foul mood and was charging at people.

There was a large fire on the side of the road far into the race. An announcer told people to move their car if they want to keep it. Thick, black smoke bellowed into the sky. Many people were barbecuing and I wonder if that caused the fire.

Coming into one of the (~48) aid stations, I heard a super loud sound. My senses were heightened and I found this hard loud noise hard to bear. It turned out to be a police helicopter parked right next to the course with its propeller on.

Overall, an amazing experience I highly recommend. If you ever want to do an ultra marathon, this is the one to do.

What's Next?
The first thing every South African asks you once you finish is "are you going to do it next year?"  I'm not sure. I think I would only do it again if I could run the whole thing with a friend. So, let me know if you want to do it!

I was very proud of my clients that finished the race.

Ingrid (44) finished in 11 hours 22 minutes. This is simply an amazing achievement, as Ingrid had a torn meniscus and sprained knee for about 10 weeks prior to the race all the way up to race day. She was unable to run (and often walk) without pain. So, myself having been in a similar situation many times over the last few years (I had a torn meniscus fixed via surgery in March 2014), I explained to Ingrid that we can maintain your fitness without running.  So I prescribed a program of elliptical and spinning workouts and strength exercises that kept her fitness high (in fact, these workouts were harder than her running workouts on an effort level basis (of course based in heart rate targets)).  Ingrid only ran about 4 or 5 times in the 6 weeks before the race.  We were jumping up and down with joy together after the race. Ingrid was reluctant not to run during training because she thought she would lose her fitness and I told her she wouldn't, but after finishing her race, something she doubted but I was pretty sure of, she was super happy she maintained her fitness instead of running. Just goes to show you that sometimes less running is more. During the race, her knee didn't hurt much. Rest and mobic (anti-inflammatory 15mg once a day) was key also.  6 days before the race, her doctor was shocked that Ingrid was even going to try and do the race. Ingrid also has a mental toughness that must be mentioned here. She wanted to finish, and was willing to work hard for it (my job was to help keep her from permanently hurting herself).

Katie - Katie (43) is a gifted athlete.  Very fit, never gets hurt. Does something everyday and is focused on strength. Very knowledgeable, herself also a health and wellness coach. She finished in 11 hours 53 minutes with lots of time to spare under 12 hours. Prior to the race, Katie had never run farther than a marathon (26.2 miles), and in every race encountered crippling stomach issues and severe nausea. Even during her training she had these issues. So we did a couple things together. First, I recommended that she get a metabolic and lactate test to prove to herself that there was absolutely no doubt she had the fitness and natural ability to run 54+ miles. The test measures fat and carbohydrate burning at different levels (you wear a mask while running in a treadmill that measures your oxygen/burning levels and have your finger pricked every 3 minutes to measure your lactate levels). As I suspected, the woman administering the test said that Katie had the levels of an elite athlete. This gave Katie the confidence to know that from a fitness and science basis that she can finish Comrades. What we needed to work on (and practice) was nutrition. I explained to Katie that every ultra runner goes through multiple "deep, dark periods" during an ultra marathon and that she needs to prepare for these and have a plan of how to deal with these (e.g., keep moving forward by Power walking, have comfort foods handy, stay positive, believe that she will finish, visualize the finish, etc). Katie was able to do some of these things and managed her day to finish!  Amazing!

Sheba finished in 11:37.  She had a great day but dealt with IT band problems most of the day, which isn't fun on hills.


  1. Followed your blog for sometime and wondering how the peroneal tendon (brevis) is holding up? I had the same issue but no tear (tendonosis) but the rehab is just as long. Have you run any trail ultra's or are you just sticking to road?

    1. Just saw your comment now. Tendon is good so far. Email me at if you'd like to email more about it. Ok?