The long way round to Comrades

2010-05-25 00:00

OVER its 89-year history, Comrades has proved an irresistible drawcard to over 100 000 South Africans, but few have gone to the lengths that a Canadian couple has to ensure they are on the starting line for the 85th race between Pietermaritzburg and Durban.

Having entered in October last year, Darl Sutherland and Krystal Le Breton left their home in Ontario in January for a trek around Africa that centred on getting them to South Africa almost two months before the Comrades.

“Darl heard about Comrades about seven years ago and it was a great fit with our desire to take a year off to see Africa,” said Le Breton. “In January we began our journey in Senegal, then on to Mali, moved to Burkina Faso and Ghana, before flying down to Cape Town.

“We decided to take a sabbatical year, but the core focus of planning was around being in Durban for Comrades 2010. It’s given us time to acclimatise to the African conditions, particularly since our winters are so cold,” said Sutherland. He is a talented 2:31 marathoner, which on Sunday could earn him one of the very select Wally Hayward medals for those who miss out on gold but dip under six hours.

The mentally tough educationist comes from a cross-country background. In 2006, he won the Mississauga Marathon after coming back from an Achilles injury suffered at the teeth of a pit-bull terrier.

A couple of years later, the 31-year-old broke his knee, but, wearing a knee brace, still managed to record two hours 45 minutes for the marathon distance.

“I have been modifying training that Richard Borek from the Peterborough track club has sent me. Although when we were in western Africa, it was heavily loaded with distance, we have now put greater emphasis on speed work and that feels more correct.”

The change from the freezing temperatures of a Canadian winter to extreme heat of western Africa took its toll.

“More than once after training we just had to spend time in bed suffering from heat exhaustion,” said Sutherland. “We wanted to experience local culture to the fullest, but both of us have suffered regular bouts of food poisoning up north. On arriving in Cape Town, Krystal had to go the hospital to sort out the last bout.

“But Africa is so welcoming it’s humbling,” interjected Le Breton. “It’s amazing; people in Africa are so friendly. When they learn you are tourists, even people with nothing share what little they have so you can try a local dish or drink.”

The pair misjudged their arrival in Cape Town by a week. “We thought Two Oceans was later in the month, but missed it by a week,” said Le Breton. “We stopped a runner in the street and he and his ATC club effectively adopted us for two weeks down there. We were taken to races and shown running routes in spectacular areas. I come from Vancouver and thought that was a special city with its mountains, but Cape Town is the most amazing city I have seen.”

On arriving in Durban, they were met by Colin Thomas, the 1991 third-placed gold medallist and manager of the local Nedbank Club, who has escorted them around the province.

“The diversity of culture and the friendliness of the people here has been unbelievable,” continued Le Breton. She tells of a day they were looking at a map while walking in Morningside. “A man stopped his car, got out and to see if he could help us before driving on his way. It’s everywhere. I made so many new ‘best friends’ when running the Freedom 52 km in Chatsworth!”

Le Breton can boast a three-hour, seven-minute marathon, which gives her a shot at a silver medal on Sunday, but the course is different to their expectations.

“We saw the Long Run, [a Comrades movie by local director Ant Singh], but having seen the route, it really is far from the real thing,” said Sutherland.

“In Canada, if it’s a hilly course then there are perhaps two hills in the marathon. Here when they say ‘hilly’, they mean two hills every kilometre!”

Although apprehensive about their results on Sunday, they are looking forward to the challenge as it will be the first time they have run further than the 52 kilometres they covered in Chatsworth.

After Comrades, the adventure continues with four days in the Drakensburg, then off to Mozambique and Tanzania to safari in the Serengeti and climb Kilimanjaro before relaxing on the silent beaches of Zanzibar. “The school starts back in September, so we will probably head back to Canada from Zanzibar,” said Sutherland.

But for the next few days, the focus is on the Comrades where they will share the road with over 20 000 other runners in the second-largest field in history.

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