This year I will be lining up outside the PMB city hall on 29th May in an attempt to earn a 4th Comrades medal. Not really a significant number you would suppose? For me it is however an important number.
You see my Mom finished 6 Comrades in Comrades no. 28756, and then passed the no. to me for safekeeping. So the next time I cross the finish line (taking nothing for granted) will be the 10th run in our family for Comrades no. 28756. After having missed out on even starting in 2015 after almost 1200km training from Jan of 2015, I have made a really deliberate effort to be standing on the start line fit, healthy and as certain to finish as anyone standing on the start line can be.
With 2 weeks to go things are thankfully looking good, and I am feeling respectfully confident of my best Comrades so far.
Here is why.
Most of us at Regents are regular runners. The temptation as you build into a training build up is always to go a little faster, to improve,, to get it over with and get home, to blast your mates away, to get a PB. That approach is fine if you don’t have a goal in mind. But an event like Comrades is a selfish mistress. She demands your full focus and attention. If like me you are distracted by other sports and events (Dusi for me- now most inconveniently in Feb. But it could also be any major MTB race in the last 6 months) then you are most likely to pay a heavy price. If you race too hard in the Comrades lead-up, the price is similar. Beware the 2 Oceans carrot. The demands of Comrades training are such that recovery is paramount. Going into mid-Feb relatively running fit, but also well rested is seldom spoken of.
A training peak anywhere from Christmas time takes away from your body’s ability to recover as you build your Comrades mileage. That R-word is what it’s all about- RECOVERY! This year, circumstances dictated that I was able to choose a more relaxed approach to that great paddle-grimage from PMB to Durban. So I came into the end of Feb relatively fit, and a lot more rested than usual. I have never felt this strong on my feet. Even my wife has noticed that my body is coping a lot better this time around. I can actually do things with the family after a 30km+ run. (like get dragged around Ushaka by my 3 year old sun) The ability to recover and focus of training has been the key. This despite having done less training pre-Feb and having kept my running speeds much slower than usual since then.
Comrades King Bruce Fordyce talks about starting your focussed Comrades build up around mid-feb, and so does Norrie Williamson. Any longer and it is difficult to maintain focus and keep your body going. Bruce even talks about “anything before Feb being inconsequential”, as long as you are relatively fit at that stage. Longer training build ups, or a demanding race peak too close to Comrades, just result in fatigue. Fatigue makes you slow, and injured! You must be able to recover. Recovery is governed by a proper training structure that starts at the right time. The structure then gives you the potential to build miles. The FOCUS has been my 1st battle.
The 2nd battle might seem like: what SPEED is correct? But there is more to it than that. Let me explain: I have been a runner of sorts almost all my life. I was blessed with enough speed and speed endurance to be a decent middle distance track athlete as a teen. Then after I left school and didn’t really compete much anymore, the demands of the other sports I played (mainly cricket, a bit of hockey, and then increasingly river marathon canoeing) required a bit of mileage to be done, so I always had a pair of running shoes in good use.
As I learnt the ropes of the rivers and valleys of the Dusi and other races, I always ran pretty hard and fast. It was what my sport of choice required. Lots of hills, lots of speed and 50-60km per week at high intensity in peak training. Running speeds were as close to 4min/km as I could handle for significant parts of the program that led me to Dusi every year. Then in 2009 I ran my 1st marathon on a whim after having done a few 21’s while the river paddling scene was on its winter hiatus. It can’t be that hard I thought, after reeling off 3 half’s at close to 80 min. Boy was I wrong.
What felt like a slow jog turned into a painfully difficult slog.
Not really having started with a pace in mind but knowing enough to try and go slowly, I was easily on target for a sub 3:30 finish at 33km, I was a wreck at 34km and barely scraped under 4 hours. I had not yet learned to run slowly in training. The mileage I had done, and the way I had done it was worth nothing at this new distance. It was a real challenge for me, and for many. Training for anything over 30km requires a very disciplined approach in order to be successful and injury free. Whatever your ‘natural running speed’ is, we all need to learn the discipline of slowing down, so that we can benefit from the increased mileage that is necessary to prepare and average human for marathon, ultra-marathon or anything over about 32km.
Run too fast once at a Regents 10km and you’ll probably get away with it. Make the mistake twice in a relatively high milleage week, or on a 20km run, and that is less likely. I have been guilty of this too many times to mention. I can run relatively fast and it becomes easier when fitness builds, but it’s not the right thing to do. A carefully scheduled time-trial, interval session, or hill session is the exclusive reserve for higher intensity stuff. For a Comrades runner this should only happen once a week. Comrades is selfish– your training needs to reflect what your Comrades demands will be. And that means lots of slow miles. It just so happens that slow for a silver medal candidate is much faster than slow for an 11 or 12 hour runner. Whoever you are, it is still SLOW.
So what does Comrades demand? I’ve already mentioned it once- MILEAGE! What does mileage demand? It demands that you RECOVER between training sessions. There is your 2nd battle- RECOVERY. Running slower makes recovering between sessions a lot more likely. In my 4 previous attempts at Comrades (yes, 1 non-finish in the heat on 2013 in a naive 1st attempt at a sub 9-hour run- I didn’t notice how hard the conditions were making things until it was too late), this has been a constant challenge. A battle that I have hopefully won this year. I have watched my GPS like a hawk on every run. Keep it slow, keep it slow, keep it slow!
Even my higher intensity (once a week) workout has been much slower this year (a fastest of 4:10/km). For comparison, in the 2011 Comrades build up I did 6X1km intervals at 3:30/km, and was running faster 3 times a week. However this year I am looking a lot more likely to have a better Comrades day despite a slower average training speed. The physiological demands of Comrades simply do not require your heart rate through the ceiling and all the metabolic adaptations that go with that. This selfish mistress requires efficiency for hour after hour at a low intensity. I have finally learnt the hard way, listened and been disciplined enough to do what Lydiard, Maffetone, Parry and Williamson all say. “Runner’s should enjoy training” is a famous Lydiard quote.
To enjoy it, you have to be feeling good. To be feeling good, you have to be recovered. To be recovered, you can not afford to push your body too hard. Lydiard was famous for slowing his runners down. For me this year, the consistent near 6min/km mileage has been easier under foot. I have seldom felt like I was dragging my 1,95m, 90kg+ frame around like in previous years. There have been no faster runs to eat away at recovery. I have missed no training through fatigue in the last 13 weeks. Even Olly and Bernie looked at me with raised eyebrows when I arrived sodden at the ‘clubhouse’ (having run 8km to get there) for the last long-ish Comrades training run in that pouring rain on 8th March. (for the record, I wasn’t the only very wet one! Thanks for the company Lisa) I felt good through the last week of training for the 1st time and didn’t want to miss the run, and risk missing my peak planned for 3 weeks after. I was enjoying every step of the sloshing that day and looked forward to it. With a full bank of well completed mileage under my belt this Comrades, it can only make the day easier. It WILL make it more enjoyable. The mileage has been easier because I have managed RECOVERY much better, through correct training speed.
The 3rd battle has been a surprising one. As a sports medical professional, you would think that biomechanical weaknesses would be ironed out.
Well they weren’t. Last year, illness after 2 Oceans led was followed by injury as I tried to get what I hoped would be the last cycle of mileage in. I have a notoriously fickle calf- a result of a 1998 accident that severed a nerve in my left leg. The calf is made vulnerable by a break in my ‘postural chain’ that has existed since I 1st lifted a weight in the gym at the age of 16. I have been tremendously strong at times in my life, but my knowledge around the subtleties of strengthening the entire postural chain were not good enough.
My strong legs and shoulders were not ‘linked’ by matching strength. Like having a slinky toy in the middle of my body, with strength at either end. I could hold efficient postures while running for a short time, but the hours on the road required better functional strength and support from my lower lumbar region, gluts and the top of my hamstrings. I would slump into a lazy and inefficient position, and then work too hard with other areas to make up for it. The tell-tale sign is always the chain I wear around my neck with my wedding ring on it. (Can’t wear it on my finger at work or paddling, so I wear it around my neck) When I am slumped and inefficient, the chain doesn’t bounce anymore.
My calves bore the brunt of this running style again and again. I have stood on the Comrades start line with a left calf niggling twice, and the 3rd time it put me out before I even got there. Other biomechanical issues caused by the same loading issue has been an Achilles tendon on the other side. I ran Comrades with ‘managed’ Achilles tendonopathy in 2010, and in 2012, I didn’t even enter Comrades as a result of the same problem. (It stopped me running completely during Dusi training) Both the right Achilles and left calf were consequences of overload (or incorrect load) due to a weak/ inadequate postural chain. Note how the consequences of overload occurred at the same point on either side- a result of the way in which I was loading. My calf area was being overloaded when I picked up mileage, got tired and ran slumped. Thanks mainly to the sharp eye of a strength coach who works out of the same premises as me, I have slowly chipped away at the problem over a full year. The result has been efficiency for much, much longer. That has made the mileage easier, and has kept the old niggles away. Battle no. 3 has been balanced strength, form and posture.
I will stand in C batch this year alongside Olly and the merry Regents Bill Rowan hopefuls. I am far better prepared than I have ever been. The lessons that I have learned and applied can be applied to any runner, at any distance, at any level of running. The difference that putting these 3 things together has made to my build up has been significant. The proof will be in the colour of the medal.
1. Choose a focus and start training at the right time.
2. Be disciplined with speed and recover.
3. Make sure you run efficiently, stay strong and injury free. 1, 2, 3!
This year I run for my 4th Comrades medal in honour of my Mom, who raised me as a single mother from the age of 3, and finished 6 Comrades in no. 28756 before me. I desperately want to get that 10th medal for Comrades no. 28756. My Mom started running around the field because it seemed like a good idea while she waited for me as I hurtled around Lahee Park with a track squad 4 times a week.
I still remember the feeling in my chest and throat when I hugged her after her 1st Comrades finish in 1992- only 18 months after she 1st jogged around that field.
Her story is one that should encourage anyone. No athletic background whatsoever. She took the 1st step on Lahee Park field in 1991, which lead to a club time trail, a 10km, and eventually to the greatest human race of all. You’ll never do anything unless you take a step. And that my fellow Regents friends is the biggest battle of all. Take a step!
Good luck to all those who will be joining in the singing of Shosholoza and the National Anthem on 29th May at about 5:28am. The 89,20km journey to Kingsmead will be the very last steps in a long journey that you started when you decided to do your qualifier. I just hope my very pregnant wife doesn’t go into labour on the night of the 28th or on Comrades day itself! Whatever day that happens, I’ll be pushing a pram around Regents again very soon.
Dr. Stuart Clifton
Kings Park Sports Medicine Centre, 24 Hendry Rd,
Lion Match Office Park, Morningside,
892 Umgeni Rd Durban
ph. 076 759 2192
ph. 031 303 3874/5