South Africa’s uphill 87km Comrades Marathon: Sam Amend’s first-person account

South Africa’s uphill 87km Comrades Marathon: Sam Amend’s first-person account

Comrades is the world’s oldest and largest ultramarathon event – a gruelling 87km between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, alternating the uphill and and downhill routes from year to year. Belgrave’s road and cross country captain Sam Amend ran the uphill version this year, and gives her first-person account:

Training and build-up

Training early this year had gone very well, setting a new 50k PB, running the Barry 40 in challenging conditions but a respectable time. Sadly, in March I developed a virus that took close to eight weeks to shift and impacted my build-up races and the ability to find speed. Not being deterred, once over the illness I hit back at the last few weeks of training, covering the distances in training.

But a week before the Comrades, a few days after the Vitality 10k, I developed chronic back pain. After a few days and no improvement, I frantically looked for treatment on top of aqua jogging, so I had chiropractor work as well as a massage preflight to Durban in South Africa.

Despite massage and physio from the Nedbank team management in SA, it was still very tight and I went into the race far from comfortable.

Team Nedbank

Managed by Nick Bester, the team was made of runners from South Africa, UK, Ireland, Poland, America, Canada, Sweden, Finland and the US, to name just a few of the countries represented.  We were well looked after, and I enjoyed sharing experiences and learning from others more knowledgeable of the race.

Up until race day it was a lot of counting down “time” as you can’t really relax knowing what is ahead. I found being around other nervy athletes was another added stress.  I also struggled in South Africa to find good meat-free meals. The night before the race, the team provided a lot of carbs, but I won’t remember the cuisine as the best part of South Africa.

Race goals and competition

Lining up alongside me were marathoners and some of the world’s best ultra-athletes, including South African Gerda Steyn, the favourite who had recently won in a fast time at the Two Oceans  56k marathon. There were around 10 leading ladies potentially fighting for the podium with Gerda, Camille Herron and last year’s downhill winner Ann Ashworth.

I would have loved to make the top 10, but that was more than feasible pre-injury, but sadly I had to adjust my goals. I very rarely moan about injuries, but the back was causing me serious problems, limiting the gait/biomechanics to run comfortably.

I layered on lots of deepheat to the lower back and planned when the race started to block out the pain, focus on something else, and remind myself what it took to get to South Africa in the first place.

Race morning

I went for my usual breakfast of porridge, but this time in a takeaway tea cup due to the 3:15am (!) wake up, and I did get a slice of toast and a tea before we headed for the bus. We were driven in convoy to a hotel near the start where we waited for the start.

Multiple trips to the toilet followeed as the nerves started to rock, trying my best to rest in a noisy room with over 50 athletes about to march the line.

The race itself

Listening to the SA national anthem and the beat of the drums was very emotional before the start and then a count down of 10 before we were off with the sirens of the police cars.

It felt like being chased down by a rhino stampede, with police cars out in front. I loved the start in the dark, a humid temperature but not too hot. The first 20 miles were great – I blocked out the pain in the back as best I could, but in the latter stages the back pain was ferocious and the glutes got sore on the downhill sections as the sun became stronger.

I was very grateful for all the support along the course which helped as a distraction, but what began as a fight to get into the top 10 became about just reaching the finish line.  

The amount of training, the long journey and the commitment was enough to push me through. The views were amazing and being in the misty mountains at the top of the climbs felt strangely tranquil.

The aid stations for team Nedbank were amazing and the support from everyone was fantastic. Never have I felt so grateful to see the line!

Strangely my legs felt fine – it was my back that gave me the problems, so looking back I’m very pleased. I learnt a lot about nutrition, energy needed to get through: I had everything from ice pops on the course, massage to the legs, high fives, kids running with me and oodles of support from the locals. It really is the “Greatest Human Race”

Will I go back?

Hell yeah! Thank you to South Africa to hosting a great race I’m already tempted to work towards the “back to back” and return for the downhill race in 2020.