One of the key questions first time runners face at Comrades is whether or not to go for their best possible finishing time or to be more conservative and less risky. For many overseas competitors, their first Comrades run will be their only Comrades and this puts a bit of pressure on to make a good one and go for the best possible medal they can achieve based on their best marathon time.
Here are some things to consider when planning your race:
It is possible to make a great debut.
I know people who have gone to Comrades and made a great debut (uphill). Plenty of elite runners make great debut’s as well. It is not outside of the bounds of possibility that you can make a great debut and finish close to your best possible predicted time. I’ll stick my neck out and say that this is the exception not the rule.
It is probable that your first Comrades will be brutal.
For runners outside of South Africa who nothing of the route it will probably be a massive shock to you. It’s not only the distance that is brutal but the topography of the race. This applies whether it is uphill or downhill. I know people who went into shock on the bus tour and never recovered. On the uphill 56km of the 90km will be uphill running and most of that will be in the first half. Just let that sink in. On the downhill after running a very undulating first half (to say the least) with some massive climbs you will run most of the 56km of downhill after you’ve reached halfway at Drummond.
If you blow up going for broke your time will blow out.
The risk of having a crack is that you will blow up in spectacular fashion and your time will as well. Your Comrades may well be an absolute ordeal and spoil your day. Many a Comrades has been ruined through injudicious pacing in the first half or just plain stupidity. The bank manager will be waiting for you from about the 65km mark making you pay massive interest on early withdrawals. For every minute you steal in the first half be prepared to pay 10 minutes interest.
You can get your desired medal the hard or easy way.
Medal divisions give you some choices as to how much you push things. The Silver medallists have between 6-7:30hrs, Bill Rowan 7:30-9:00hrs, Bronze 9-11hrs and the Vic Clapham have between 11-12. Arguably if you are trying for a Bill Rowan or Vic Clapham you have a choice between doing it the hard way or getting in under the time without it being a massive ordeal. i.e. If you are after a Bill Rowan you can kill yourself to run under 8 hours or do it more manageably in under 9.
Respect The Race
On the day, you will probably get to the point where you realise that your medal aspirations are in many ways artificial standards you’ve set for yourself, and the brutality of Comrades and how your body and mind copes can make a mockery of our hopes. Trying to bend reality to fit our aspirations doesn’t work and we may have to settle for less. I had a friend who ran a disappointing time at Comrades (to him personally) after having a rough day. After returning home he initially couldn’t bring himself to wear the finishing shirt such was his disappointment. I urged him to respect the race by embracing his finish despite how far over his desired time it was. It is a brutal race and we ought to respect any finish. In fact I have more respect for the people who finish the race in the last hour than people who do so at the front. Whatever goals we set for ourselves are subject to a range of factors on the day and if we stick to doggedly to those aspirations we can run into trouble and cause serious damage to ourselves.
To Have A Crack Or Not
So do first time runners risk it? By all means you can but be aware that your chances of pulling it off are slim. You can’t even judge how you are going at Drummond. You can feel fine there and 5km up the road disaster can strike. I usually know by then if I have been pushing my limits too far for my conditioning and if I’m feeling like trouble is looming I know I’m in for a tough second half.
It is possible to get your mojo back after falling in a hole at Comrades and I have finished strong on tough days but more often than not when you’re in trouble it only gets worse. In long distance running we take calculated gambles. We know what our form is and can make informed predictions in most standard races as to what our finishing time may be. Sometimes we have to take risks to win the prize. My advice would be if at all possible, to make a respectable debut, and save going for broke for your second or third Comrades.
If you are planning on only running one Comrades you may well change your mind after your first. Once it gets under your skin you are hooked for life!