In my first ever Comrades in 2004 (uphill) I saw something near the top of the imposing Inchanga climb (hill number 4 on the up run). A runner had decided to bail and was taking his first steps on the ‘bail bus’, the dreaded chariot of broken dreams that transports physically and emotionally shattered runners to the finishing point. Two runners dashed up the bus and pulled him down off the stairs. He protested that his race was over (Inchanga is just past halfway!) but the two fellow Comrades runners insisted that he would make it to the finish if they had to carry him the whole way. This brought home the strong desire to make it to the end and to avoid at all costs having to bail or not making any of the cut off times along the way.
There are 6 cut off points along the way which you need to make within the specified time frame. These cut off points change each year (to make cheating harder) and they are well signposted along the route. If you don’t make it across the timing mat before the officials gun fires you are not allowed to progress any further in the race.
The most vicious cut off of them all is the one on the final line. At my first Comrades I pushed my way up to the barrier in the final chute and watched as the gun went off. A runner only 10metres from the line was directly in front of me and he hit the ground as if shot. After some time in a daze he got up and reassured us that all was well, that he knew what the rules were and that he would be back the next year, better prepared. Some struggle with the brutal nature of this tradition but like many others in the race it all adds up to making Comrades the unique race that it is. If anything the threat of not making the cut off’s and then the final gun is as good as putting a shark in a swimming pool to concentrate the efforts of swimmers!
This video shows some of the drama at the cut off points along the way:
Here’s some drama from the finish”