Emotions and history of the Comrades route

2014-05-29 00:00

FOR the majority of the field in the Comrades Marathon, it’s all about heading for the finish, putting one foot in front of the other, whether running, walking or hobbling, to get their hands on one of sport’s most cherished medals.

Yes, nearly 90 kilometres is a long way, sheer madness to many, but for every runner it’s their own personal battle they have taken on.

No one has forced them to do it, it’s entirely their own decision and while the sun beats down and the pain threshold is tested, it sometimes helps to take in the atmosphere along the way and soak up the history of some of the major spots along the way.

Being a down run, the city hall in Pietermaritzburg is where nearly 20 000 runners gather in the crisp early morning air. Some arrive hours before the start to calm their nerves and soak up the vibe.

As start time draws near, the tension is tangible. Runners talk less and become quiet and focused, their thoughts galloping ahead to what the day could bring. Have they trained enough; will that niggling knee injury keep quiet for the day; will they get that medal.

These days, the theme from Chariots of Fire blasts out, followed by the famous cock crow from the late Max Trimborn before the start gun signals the start of another Comrades, a long day for most of the field.

The human mass takes a while to snake across the line and while the front runners pave the way and clear off with purpose, for most its a slow, leisurely start, easier to walk than attempt to run. The only catch is having to make up some of the time lost in getting over the start line later in the race as time becomes precious.

On the down run, one of the consolations is running down Polly Shortts, the dreaded killer on the up run, the last major climb before coming into Pietermaritzburg. On the run to Durban, it’s hardly noticeable as the sun begins to announce its arrival for the day and some brave spectators enjoy breakfast and coffee at the side of the road.

The hill is named after Portland Bentinck Shortts, a surviving twin who, having been born to a Scottish doctor sent to examine Napoleon Bonaparte on St Helena, had returned with his father to Britain before coming back to South Africa in 1840.

He settled on his farm just outside PMB called Shortts Retreat and had a reputation for whisky, mixed with a fiery temper. His spirit lingers over the spot particularly on the up run where most runners curse and struggle up the hill.

Ashburton is the next milestone, the area named after the home town in Dorset, England, of William Ellis who settled in the area after making his fortune in the Australian gold rush.

Just before Umlaas Road, the highest point of the race at 823,8 metres above sea level, the route meanders past the Lion Park area, the first such park in South Africa, established by Dick Chipperfield of Chipperfield’s Circus.

The first town reached is Camperdown where runners enjoy a great welcome from many people lining the road. This was the home of wealthy British immigrant John Vanderplank who, in most instances, would be cursed by many for introducing black wattle into the area, acquiring the wretched tree from his brother Charles in Australia.

Just down the road from Camperdown is Cato Ridge, another festive spot with live music and a large contingent of vocal and supportive spectators.

The town was established as a railway junction and named after George C. Cato, a landowner from Durban’s early days.

Just after Harrison Flats, a dull, hot section of the route heading toward Inchanga, runners are greeted by the smiles and encouragement of the children from Ethembeni School and then the slow climb up the back of Inchanga Hill is tackled.

Again, running down the monster hill is a relief, but with Drummond, the halfway mark, situated in a bowl, there is a climb up to Kearsney at the top of Botha’s Hill. The halfway spot pumps with activity and is a major turning point for many runners as they knock off one piece of their journey. The village, named after Sir F.C. Drummond, an immigration official in the latter half of the 19th century, provides some great views of the 1 000 hills valley, worth a look for tired runners to take their minds of what lies ahead, albeit just for an instant.

Just after Drummond is Arthur’s Seat where it is said the great Arthur Newton, five-time Comrades winner in the 1920s, would stop for a rest on his training runs. Folklore says that runners not paying homage to the great man on their way past are destined for a bad day on the road.

A little further down the road is the Comrades Wall of Honour where bricks purchased by runners bear their names and finishing details, the wall growing every year and becoming a major feature of the route.

Kearsney College boys provide support at the top of Botha’s Hill, the hill said to be named after Cornelius Botha, who owned an inn named Botha’s Halfway House.

Then it’s into Hillcrest and into Kloof, the area renowned for the exploits of the Field and Gillitt families who were prominent residents.

Field’s Hill, named after John Field, is a punishing stretch on the down run, the sudden drop into Pinetown and the camber of the road causing discomfort to thousands of runners.

Pinetown has hundreds of enthusiastic supporters, the town named after Sir Benjamin Pine, a governor of Natal.

On the other side of Pinetown lies Cow­ies Hill, another testing uphill, named after William Cowie, an English farmer in the area who joined the Voortrekkers on their advance into Natal in 1837.

Westville brings the runners within touching distance of Durban, the area named after Martin West, the firstlieutenant-governor after Natal’s annexation.

The kilometre boards indicate how close the finish is as runners tackle a tricky little climb to 45th Cutting, named after the 45th Regiment of Foot, also known as the Sherwood Foresters.

From there, it’s mainly downhill, apart from a little climb from Sherwood onto the freeway which takes runners under Tollgate Bridge, down Berea Road and on to Kingsmead Cricket Stadium,

Reaching the grass of the stadium brings instant relief and the knowledge that the Comrades medal has become reality and is within your grasp.

(Info from Comrades Marathon, The Ultimate Human Race)

• David Knowles completed 11 Comrades Marathons from 1990 to 2000.

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