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Canadians head to Comrades Marathon

Two of Canada's strongest ultrarunners will travel to South Africa next week to take on one of the world's most celebrated road ultras

Catrin Jones and Calum Neff, two of Canada’s strongest ultrarunners, are heading to South Africa this week to tackle 94th running of South Africa’s most famous and historic ultramarathon, the Comrades, next Saturday, June 8. Neff ran it for the first time last year, finishing in 31st position overall, in 6:08:06. Jones will be racing Comrades for the first time.

RELATED: Neff finishes Comrades Marathon strong, stroller-free

2017 Trail World Championships
Neff (far left) at the 2017 Trail World Championships. Photo: Calum Neff

Jones is a veteran of the BC trail and road scenes who has eased back into racing since having her daughter, Elodie, who is now two. “I’ve been wanting to go for years and thought about it many times,” says Jones, inspired by her friend, the much-decorated ultrarunner Ellie Greenwood, who won Comrades in 2014. Jones won last year’s Squamish 50K and Whistler 30K, and finished third at the 2018 BMO Vancouver Marathon.

Neff holds the Guinness World Record for fastest marathon while pushing a stroller (2:21:22), set with his daughter Alessandra at the 2016 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. (Neff also held the half-marathon stroller record for a time, but his 1:11:27 from 2016 was eclipsed in 2017.) Neff is from Ontario but lives and trains in Houston, Texas.

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Many other other big names in international ultrarunning will toe the line Durban on Saturday, including defending champion and three-time Comrades winner Bongmusa Mthembu of South Africa (who won the 56K Two Oceans Ultramarathon in Capetown last month), 2018 runner-up Gerda Steyn (who also won this year’s Two Oceans Ultra), Americans Camille Herron (who won Comrades in 2017) and Sage Canaday and world 100K record-holder Nao Kazami of Japan.

Canaday, who paced Hoka One One’s recent Project Carbon X, is hoping to become the second American man to win Comrades. (The only other is Alberto Salazar, in 1994.)

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Here’s what you need to know about the Comrades: the race is a very hilly point-to-point between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, a distance of around 90K (a standard marathon is 42.2K), and switches direction each year, so you have “up” years alternating with “down” years. This is an up year.

There are five major hills on the course. “There are literally no flats on the course,” says Neff, who adds that even in a down year, about a third of the course is uphill. “And the ups bring you to an absolute crawl.”

The race has a very strict 12-hour cutoff time. People jostle and surge to make it into the stadium before the cutoff, and those who don’t make it get nothing–no finisher’s medal, and no glory. “It’s like bouncers stopping you from getting into a bar,” says Neff. “People will dive in front of you to prevent you from making the cutoff.”