When: Sunday, May 29, 2011
Where: South Africa

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Course: The route runs 89K between the inland town of Pietermaritzburg and the coastal city of Durban, changing directions each year. The 2011 race will be an “up” year, starting in Durban.

Registration: Entries will be accepted from September 1 to November 30, or until numbers hit 18,000. You then have until May 6 to meet the sub-five-hour marathon qualifying standard.

Ajax, Ont. runner Matt Leduc blogged about his preparation and trip to the 2010 Comrades. Read about his experiences at http://narcissistic-matt.blogspot.com/.

The Comrades Marathon starts an hour before dawn with the assembled runners – more than 20,000 of them this year – singing the stirring South African folk song Shosholoza. It finishes 12 hours later when the race director turns his back to the oncoming runners as the entire stadium counts down to zero, at which point he fires a gun to indicate the official “closing” of the finish line. Each year, some unlucky runners are caught just a few strides short of the line, missing out on a coveted finisher’s medal after 89K of tough, hilly terrain.

Comrades is arguably the biggest, oldest and most prestigious ultra-race in the world, and it has a mystique that’s difficult to explain. This year’s 85th running prompted a surge in entries, including 27 from Canada, in part because it was held less than two weeks before the World Cup kicked off. But it’s a major media event every year in South Africa, with all-day live national television coverage. Locals explain that during the apartheid years, when South African athletes were forbidden to compete internationally, events like Comrades acquired a heightened importance that still endures.

Canadian runners who made the trip had a chance to mingle and swap tips a few days before the race at a get-together organized by Ottawa ultra-ace Andrea Moritz, who had also run Comrades in 2009. The group reunited at the finish line in the special “International Area” (which included all the curry and beer you could handle!) to compare war stories and cheer on those who were still finishing. “The first 42K felt good,” said Norm Rotter of Montreal. “Then it got rough.” Fortunately, there was plenty of crowd support to carry him through the remainder of the race. “At some points it felt like the Tour de France. The crowds were right out along the road, and the helicopters were buzzing overhead.”

That was doubly true for Catherine Belic of St. Catharines, Ont., who ran in maple-leaf shorts and a red tutu, with a sign on her back reading “I’m running my 1st ‘ULTRA’ today… this sounded like a great idea six months ago.” Belic ran marathons in St. Catharines, Myrtle Beach, Ottawa, New Orleans, Washington, Boston and Big Sur to prepare for the race, and it paid off with a finishing time of 10:14:09 – and deafening support from the crowd along the route. Would she be back next year? “It’s like giving birth,” she laughed. “Never ask a woman right after.”

The top Canadians were Roger Moss of Toronto’s Longboat Roadrunners club, with a time of 7:46:18 for 190th in the 40-49 age group, and Krystal Lebreton of Peterborough, who nabbed 10th place in the 20-29 age group with a finishing time of 8:21:11. South Africa’s Frikkie Botha, meanwhile, reached the line in 14,342nd position with a time of 11:59:59 – the last official finisher. Just a few strides behind as the final gun fired was Mawona Dudley, who accepted his fate with good grace. “I feel disappointed,” he said. “But I am glad I was almost there.”

Alex Hutchinson is a senior editor at Canadian Running and a member of the Canadian Mountain Running team.


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