The Comrades Marathon: 'You plan your life around the race'

Top tips for running the Comrades (4:30)

Comrades Marathon Association coach Lindsey Parry gives his tips for running the grueling 90.18km Down Run. Pro tip: Don't use new shoes! (4:30)

This story was originally published in June 2018 and has been updated. Brandon Jackson is running this year's race, his 28th Comrades.

There are three kinds of pain a Comrades Marathon finisher must endure.

The first one is obvious: in the legs. The South African ultramarathon includes five long and steep hills and a total elevation of 1166 metres along its 90km (56 mile) route. Going up is hard; going down is harder, and muscles including calves, hamstrings, and quadriceps hurt for days in the aftermath.

The second source of hurt is a little less expected: in the elbows. The joints hurt from the exertion of holding up both forearms. While these limbs only account for around 2.5% of a person's total body weight, keeping them lifted for hours on end, 12 hours if you're one of the final finishers, without reprieve comes with consequences.

And then there is the third pain, the pain no one really thinks about: chafing of the palate, which is rubbed raw from hours from air traveling across it.

"The next day, when you take a sip of something, you usually feel a burning sensation as the liquid hits the roof of your mouth and you don't realise what it is. That's a Comrades scar," Brandon Jackson, a Durban-based physiotherapist who has completed the race 27 times, tells ESPN.

Jackson, who turned 50 this year and is as trim as a man half his age, is neither a Comrades champion, nor an elite athlete. He is a fairly ordinary guy, who for several years, till late 2017, was the physio for the South African men's cricket team. He merely has an obsession with running.

As a result, he has a wealth of stories to share about his time on the road, especially the famous stretch between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, the road on which the Comrades is run.

Conceived by World War 1 veteran Vic Clapham, the Comrades Marathon, now the oldest and largest ultramarathon in the world, was intended to be a tribute to those who had fallen in the war, by testing the resolve of the men (the race was only officially open to men for its first 54 years) who ran it.

Clapham petitioned the Comrades of the Great War for four years before they eventually loaned him R2 (15c US today) to start the race, in 1921. In its first edition, 34 people started the Comrades Marathon and 16 finished, with Bill Rowan winning in a minute short of nine hours.

Rowan's was the slowest victory time the race has ever recorded. The nine-hour time limit remains prestigious, so much so that Bill Rowan medals are awarded to those who finish the race between seven-and-a-half and nine hours. It is also the highest honour Jackson has earned in his years of running the Comrades.

Jackson began running in his late teens as a way to combat asthma, and with the intent of gaining fitness for rugby. He ran in "a few half-marathons and marathons," and in February 1987, felt he was running "properly" enough to enter the Comrades.

That year, the race was run on May 31, Jackson's 19th birthday. He finished in 9h23mins, but has now realized, "I no clue at all what I was doing and even though I got through it, it was a real shock to the system."

For the next 24 years, Jackson ran the race annually and developed a running routine that became a lifestyle. "You plan your life around the race," he says.

Typically, training starts in January, with a weekly distance of 40 kilometres. By February, that increases to 50, by March to 60, and in May up to 100 kilometres a week. To reach those distances, Jackson runs several 10 kilometre runs in the week, a time trial of 8 kilometres, and long runs of between 30 and 50 kilometres as the race draws closer.

He did all of those things even when he was traveling internationally with the Proteas cricket team.

All that running has an inevitable effect. "I am always hungry and always tired," Jackson confesses. "My philosophy is to eat as much as I can but I try to keep the carbs down.

"And I am also famous for falling asleep at dinner tables. Even meetings after 6pm are a challenge for me."

Jackson is usually up at 4:30 every morning and has found that, as he's grown older, it has become more difficult. "I need more time to recover, so now I take rest days which allow me to train better."

Record-nine-time Comrades winner Bruce Fordyce agrees with that strategy.

Fordyce won the race consecutively from 1981 to 1988 and then again in 1990, and attributed his success to managing how much he trained. "The one thing to remember is that the body does not wear out if you use it, if you run," he said in an interview with UltraRunning magazine in 2013.

"Your body wears out if you don't use it, but run with care. I don't agree that you only have so many miles in you to run. Train carefully and well, do not overtrain, and be sure to allow enough time for recovery."

Fordyce did not run the race in 1989, because he chose to run a 100-kilometre World Championship a few weeks before, and won in a time of 06:25:00. But he knew that the exertion from that event meant he would not be able to complete the Comrades as well.

"Unlike many modern ultra-runners I believed in one or two major efforts each year. I learnt how to peak but after a great run I was useless for weeks," Fordyce said to Athletics Illustrated in 2016.

The Comrades legend is also known for making a political impact on South Africa, a country where racial segregation was the rule of law until 1994. Black runners were only allowed to enter from 1975, the same year as women, but still nearly two decades before the end of apartheid.

In 1981, when Fordyce won for the first time, he wore a black armband to protest against the Apartheid government, who attempted to use the Comrades as part of their celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the country becoming a Republic.

Fordyce fundamentally disagreed with the use of the race as part of the government's message and risked his reputation and safety to demonstrate as much.

"I was pelted with tomatoes and eggs when I ran and was a very unpopular winner with the spectators lining the route, but I made a big impression on [Nelson] Mandela, Tokyo Sexwale, and the political prisoners on Robben Island. It was my saddest but proudest win," he said to Athletics Illustrated.

He was also warned against accepting drinks from spectators, because he feared they would be spiked. Fordyce also revealed that he was not the only one wearing a black armband on that day, "just more prominent," than the rest.

In that same interview, Fordyce also spoke about some of his running heroes and mentioned Alan Robb, who ran 42 Comrades, as being chief among them. Robb won the Comrades four times but that's not why Fordyce singled him out.

Robb had a unique racing strategy, which he explained in an interview with The Marathon.Co in February 2016.

"The four C's. Coke, chocolate, chips or crisps, and Castle Stout. The Coke and chocolate on the road and the chips and stout at the finish as the recovery and it has always worked for me."

Coca-Cola is one of the brands that has gained massive exposure through the Comrades Marathon and is a staple of the South African road-running scene because of its seemingly optimal sugar content. It is typically diluted with water and served at refreshment stations at various races and is also Jackson's choice, backed by what he insists is sound scientific research.

"I am a coke and water runner. I studied sports science at the University of Cape Town under [science professor] Tim Noakes. We compared all the energy drinks on the market at the time -- Energade, Gatorade, you name it, and we found Coke is the best. So that's what I go with," Jackson says.

In more recent years, Jackson has taken another leaf out of Robb's book and also indulges in chocolate, in cake form. His girlfriend, Gail, bakes the delicacy and serves it to him and other members of his running club, Westville Athletic, along the race.

Which brings up the other end of the digestive system. What happens when nature calls somewhere along the route? "It happens," Jackson admits, before describing in vivid detail: "Some people duck off into the bushes if they are desperate and then make the mistake of using leaves or grass to try and clean up and that can be catastrophic.

"They end up itchy in all the wrong places. Others will just pee on the run and one year I remember someone who was close to the end and just let his guts go." For the record, Jackson says he's never needed to... use the loo while running.

While Wally Hayward, a five-time winner who won the race at 21, 51, and completed it at 81, is a legend, and junk food-loving Robb has become an institution, Fordyce is perhaps the stand-out celebrity the Comrades Marathon has produced. But, that has not necessarily translated to great wealth.

The Comrades Marathon only introduced prize money in 1995 and, arguably, it does not offer rewards that match the test. In 2018, the winning man and woman collected less than US$34,000 each.

That's less than a third of the Boston Marathon's US$150,000, less than half the New York Marathons' US$100,000, and substantially lower than the London Marathon's US$55,000. But, it does pay men and women equally, and has done since 2001.

So ultimately, the Comrades is about prestige and community. It is a true test of human endurance and stamina. Its "Big Five" hills are known to bring even the best-trained to their knees; even Fordyce, who walked off the course in 1991 when he could take no more. As Jackson puts it, "If it was flat, the Comrades would be easy."

Common advice for runners attempting a first Comrades is to pace themselves carefully on the hills, especially for the up run (the race alternates direction each year), when three of the five hills occur in the first 22 kilometres.

Fordyce has even suggested walking up some of the hills if needed, though for Jackson that has only recently become an option.

"I used to find that if I walked, I just shut down mentally and find it difficult to keep going," Jackson says. "But now that my aim is just to finish the race, and not to go for a particular time, I will maybe walk for 100 metres every six or seven kilometres after 70 kilometres or so. It gives the legs a bit of a break."

Resting also gives runners an opportunity to soak in the support from the sidelines, without which Jackson does not think anyone would finish the race. "With no crowd support, it would be impossible. There's not a metre without someone clapping and cheering."

He has personally had help from members of the crowd. In one of his early Comrades attempts, Jackson's big-toe was routinely hitting the top of his shoe (a common runners' problem which mostly results in losing the big toe nail) and he had to borrow a corkscrew from someone who was enjoying a drink on the sidelines to cut a hole into the shoe so he could continue.

The following year, Jackson was involved in a waterskiing accident and sustained severe tears to the cartilage on his left knee. When he spoke to the doctors, he asked them to "clean it out so I could run again," and they told him that was unlikely.

Jackson did not accept their predictions and embarked on two years of hard rehabilitation to run the race again, and finish, in 2016.

He did not run in 2017 because the Proteas were on tour in England and he had to work, but he ran in 2018 in another down run. And in 2019 and 2020. Ideally, he would like to get to 30 races.

"It's easy to say I won't do another one, but then when August comes around and you see some of your friends who haven't run the Comrades and they want to go out on a training run, you go [with them] and then you think to yourself, 'Ok, I will do another one'.

"But it is starting to become a lot more difficult. I think 30 will be enough."