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It’s uphill all the way at next year’s Comrades

Comrades, South Africa, is the world’s oldest and largest ultramarathon and next year, 2011, is the uphill route – Durban to Pietermaritzburg – 89 km or 56 miles. It’s due to be run on Sunday, 29th May and start time iwill be 05h30 in Durban. Cut-off is 17h30 in ‘Maritzburg.

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I wonder if you know the history of Comrades? I’ve known about Comrades for what seems like forever and yet I never knew that it is a living memorial to the spirit of the soldiers of the Great War of 1914-1918.

In fact, it has a  history that everyone should know.

Vic Clapham was 13 years old when he signed up as an ambulance man in the Boer War in 1899. With the outbreak of the Great War he signed up with the 8th South African Infantry, and fought and marched 1,700 miles across the eastern savannah’s of Africa in pursuit of Lettow-Vorbecks’ askari battalions.

The pain, agonies, death and hardships of his comrades left a lasting impression on him and at the end of the war he made it his goal to make sure his lost comrades would never be forgotten.

Remembering the searing heat and thirst of the parched veld through which he had campaigned, he settled on the idea of an 89km marathon between Durban and Pietermaritzburg and he approached the athletic authorities of the day to sound out their views. Having been forwarded to the League of Comrades of the Great War, a corpus of ex-soldiers who had formed an association to foster the interests of their living companions survivors of the War, he was listened to and then flatly rejected. But Clapham persisted, maintaining that if a sedentary living person could be taken off the street, given a rifle and a 60lb pack and marched all over Africa then surely a fit and able athlete could complete the distance.

For 1919 and 1920 the rejections continued, but in 1921 the League relented and in that same year, on 24th May,  the first Comrades Marathon was held. There were 34 runners. It has continued since then every year with the exception of the war years 1941-1945. The direction alternates each year between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, the so called up & down runs.

The ultra-marathon first attracted foreign entries in 1962.

The record for the ‘downhill’ race is held by Russia’s Leonid Shvetsov with a time of five hours, 20 minutes and 49 seconds. He also holds the  ‘uphill’ record at 5:24.48. the women’s uphill record is held by Elena Nurgalieva with a time of 6 hours, 09 minutes and 23 seconds. Nurgalieva was in no doubt afterwards that the up run is a far tougher challenge than the down run. Frith van der Merwe holds the downhill record when, in 1989, she ran a blistering 5:54.43, completely obliterating the women’s record. Only once since then has an athlete come within four minutes of that time.

2010 was its 85th running and witnessed the largest ultra-marathon field since the millennium year – a total of 23,568 entries of which 14,343 runners completed the race within the 12-hour cut-off time. The fact that more than 14,000 people completed the race within the requisite time catapulted Comrades onto the world stage. The Guinness Book of Records officially recognised the event as the world’s greatest ultra-marathon … The Ultimate Human Race.

‘Achieving this feat was a wonderful and befitting way to celebrate the 85th anniversary of The Ultimate Human Race. The CMA would like to thank all the runners who took part and embraced the camaraderie of the race as they played a major role in this achievement,’ said Thami Vilakazi, CMA’s Marketing Coordinator.

Athletes currently have 12 hours to complete the course, extended from 11 hours in 2003. There are a number of cut-off points along the route which runners must reach by a prescribed time or be forced to retire from the race.

A runner who has successfully completed nine marathons wears a yellow number, while those who have completed ten races wear a green number which is permanently allocated to the runner for all future races.

Next year’s race is 29th May. If you want to take part you HAVE to put your application in before the end of the year. No entries will be taken in 2011.

Not many days left… time for a quick decision. If you need a nudge, watch this video…

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