– originally published in the Nedbank Runners’ Guide to Road Race in South Africa
The first half of the ‘down’ is deceptive and many runners will be forgiven if they wonder if it is indeed a down run. The elevation from the Pietermaritzburg to Drummond section is slight. Both the start and the halfway point lie roughly at the same height above sea level, with the highest point – Umlaas Road – a mere 170 metres above Pietermaritzburg. This means there is a fair amount of gentle climbing in the first half of the race. By contrast the variation in height over the second half is 650 metres. This translates into a drop that is dramatic, and as any experienced Comrades runner will testify, it is the damage done to tired legs in this half that really makes up the physical challenge of the race.
Three of the five hills are in the second half of the race. From the top of Botha’s Hill to the base of Cowie’s Hill there is a drop of over 500 metres in just 22 kilometres. This is the real test of the down run, and any foolhardy exuberance over this treacherous stretch will be paid for many times over in the final run into Durban.
It normally is very cold in Maritzburg so it is wise to wear an old running T-shirt to the start. Depending on the size of the field, it takes between four to seven minutes to clear the line.
First comes the run down the dip past Alexander Park into the dark suburbs of Pietermaritzburg and onwards to Polly Shortts. A mere eight kilometres into the race the hill hardly features, but from this high ground you can gaze out as the first rays of sunlight reflect off the mist in the distant valleys. Here there is always talk of last year’s run, and how Polly Shortts, that stern tester of runners both great and average, provided much trial and tribulation.
In the morning chill the local farmers are braaing, the sun is up and there are cows and horses grazing in nearby fields. The road ahead undulates into little hollows, but the climb is gentle and Ashburton is not far off. The large field is still congested as you hustle through the ample drinks tables at Mpushini before cutting under the N3 highway at the Lion Park turnoff. Here there is public parking and the morning crowd is huge and the mood festive. By now there is a little more space between runners as you climb in the direction of colourful hot-air balloons and Umlaas Road, the highest point of the route.
The N3 highway is on your left on the way to Camperdown. This is chicken-farm country, and the race heads into this delightful village filled to capacity with cheering spectators, the air thick with the smoke of breakfast braais. Close to the 60-km-to-go marker board you will find the approach to Cato Ridge. The Cato Ridge Hotel cuts steep black and white angles against the sky as the route descends to the underpass and back onto the northern part of the N3 highway. This is the start of Harrison Flats, a singularly barren stretch between the undulating grassland behind and the Valley of a Thousand Hills ahead. This is a tricky part of the route that should be taken with a measure of caution.
On to the mighty hill, Inchanga, the “graveyard” section now behind us. The Comrades Marathon has a number of rare treats in store, and one of them occurs at this point. Here you will encounter a tunnel of wildly cheering school children from the Ethembeni Home. This is a special place for reflection, for these children are either on crutches or in wheelchairs. The noise is enormous and the excitement tangible as you pass through this celebration. Many runners find great mental and spiritual upliftment here. Hardly a dry eye leaves this little corner.
Inchanga is a notorious hill, and the slow climb past AmaZondi Store is hard. This landmark no longer stands but it is still acknowledged by the runners of old. By now the sun is sitting high and the day is getting hot. There are two steep climbs up the Inchanga Bank followed by the bone-jarring descent into Drummond. From this vantage point one can see the highway far below with Drummond in the distance.
There is a wall of sound and dense crowds of spectators as you encounter the festivities that make up the excitement of reaching the halfway mark. At Drummond the Valley of a Thousand Hills spreads out majestically to the north. All too quickly the swirl of sound, the tantalizing smells and colours pass for the climb out of the Drummond bowl focuses you once more. The pull is solid, even punishing.
Onward to Botha’s Hill. Before reaching this charming little village there is Arthur’s seat on the right. At this legendary spot it is believed the ghost of Arthur “Greatheart” Newton, the first of the Comrades greats sits on race day and greets each runner passing on the way to Durban. Be sure to leave a flower on his seat to ensure safe passage in the second half. Not far off is the Comrades Wall of Honour, that famous wall where many Comrades runners are immortalised. Across the valley we can see the Alvestone Tower and the sweeping descent past what used to be the Rob Roy Hotel. This surely is the most scenic part of the Comrades route and is a good time to savour a very special moment.
Near the top of Botha’s Hill is Kearsney College. Here well-groomed and uniformed lads from the college line the road. They may be a little more restrained than the children at Ethembeni, but their greeting is always warm and enthusiastic. Another one of those rare and precious moments which make up the magic of this special day.
Now the downhill running begins in earnest. Botha’s Hill is steep, jarring and difficult. The crowds are thick, the mood festive as you press onward into Hillcrest. On entering Hillcrest, there are large country homes that hug the hillsides, a stark contrast to the rural Zulu huts that dot the mountainous hillsides just a few kilometres behind. Hillcrest is a popular spectator spot, and there are dense crowds on both sides of the road. The distance is beginning to tell. There are still 30 kilometres to go, but the tree-lined road offers welcome respite. Here, there are lovely homes with lush subtropical gardens and neat lawns.
Professor Tim Noakes – running authority and the famous author of Lore of Running, takes us through this next part of the route: “It is here, in the sudden solitude of the quiet lane that meanders gracefully through Emberton and Gillitts that, for me, the Comrades Marathon really begins. No longer do I progress on my own terms – the hopes and confidence stored in my training now vanish before the reality. The route, which has been held at bay for 57 kilometres, is now running me. Around me, I know that each runner is engaged in the same battle. In common suffering, we are alone to find our individual solutions.
“So despite the internal mutiny of an exhausted body, as I approach Kloof Station, my mind is still in control. But whatever mental reserves I retain, I know they are inadequate for the sight that now confronts me. From Kloof Station, at the top of Field’s Hill, the Comrades plays the most evil trick. Experience tells me not to look, that should I for one second divert my eyes from the road, I will most likely not finish. But I have no discipline, and I see laid before me the final, infinite 25 kilometres that separates me from Durban and the finish at Sahara Stadium, Kingsmead.
“In each race I have learned the desire to quit comes but once. It is a coward that once beaten does not return. But as I begin the descent of Field’s Hill, even this knowledge is of no assistance. It is here on this major descent, that I am joined by the final tormentor. The continual jarring of sharp descents from Inchanga, Botha’s Hill and Hillcrest has taken its toll on my quadriceps and every step now sends an ever more painful shock down each thigh.
“Were the human brain able to recall the pain of Field’s Hill, no one would run the down Comrades twice. This then is the point each runner, from the first to the last, must pass to arrive in Durban on their own feet. It is here, stripped of any of society’s false privileges, that he finds no hiding place, no shelter of convenience. Face to face with himself he must look deep inside. ‘These miles,’ wrote George Sheehan, ‘will challenge everything he holds dear, his value system, his lifestyle. They will ask nothing less than his view of the Universe.'”
Through Pinetown there are many wounded walkers who have underestimated the damage that the Field’s Hill gradient could render after covering a punishing 65 kilometres. The large Pinetown crowd urges you, by now exhausted, on to Cowie’s Hill. Here many have locked into themselves, fortifying their minds to carry an exhausted body over the last 20 kilometres to Durban.
The last part of this extraordinary journey is run on the highway. The pull up to Tollgate, the last great challenge before the final run into Durban, is exhausting. With Durban in full view the Comrades is almost at an end. Sahara Stadium Kingsmead is not far off now. All too soon before you lies Old Fort Road and the Stadium. A large crowd shouts approval from a nearby pub on the left. There are few walkers now. The noise inside is deafening, the energy of the crowd is wild and joyful, and each brave finisher feeds on the raw energy it presents.
Later, when all is said and done, medal proudly worn around my neck, I join my friend Tim Noakes. “I know why this is necessary,” he says, “what common bond unites all Comrades runners. It is the need to look for the mountains in life. Skill, you see, is not our requirement, nor has your race got anything to do with winning or losing. These are the spoils of lesser games. Games which are unable to transport you to the places we have just been.”
To summarise: The Comrades is characterised by five major hills, the “Big Five”. Each presents a unique challenge. The first half of the route is fairly flat, followed by steep downhill sections in the second. The real challenge of the down run is the descent/damage factor caused by each hill. This is a ratio that takes into account the length and steepness together with the distance from the start. The following table defines the “Big Five” in terms of difficulty. Without doubt, Field’s Hill with a damage value of 38.6 stands like a Colossus on the route.