Marathon and Beyond

My Most Unforgettable Ultramarathon
(And What I Learned From It)

by Doug Kurtis

© 1998 42K(+) Press, Inc.

PIETERMARITZBURG, SOUTH AFRICA, June 16, 1997--Some 30 miles into the famed Comrades Marathon in South Africa I was already in trouble. I had just run the toughest marathon of my life, and I still had 25 miles to go. Three questions went through my mind. Should I quit, or should I stick it out and finish? Can I finish? And how could I have prepared myself differently for this arduous and heart-breaking event?

In retrospect, I thought I had done all the right things. In January I decided that Comrades would be my initiation into the World of Ultras. I had six months to prepare. Six months to research the event, make travel plans, set up contacts, and seek out the advice of ultra experts.

I'd been thinking about doing an ultra for several years. I had run back-to-back marathons and as many as four marathons in five weeks. I thought I would be a natural for ultras. When Alberto Salazar won Comrades in 1994, I figured that his competition must have been soft. He hadn't won a marathon in many years. Since I was still doing well in my marathons at age 45, I believed I was capable of finishing in the lead pack. What I didn't realize was that prize money wasn't offered at Comrades until 1995, and with the arrival of prize money, the competition always gets tougher.

Running Through the Internet

My Comrades research began on the Internet. The Comrades Marathon has one of the best web sites of any race in the world. I found course maps, an entry form, hotel and restaurant information, and a history of the race, including a list of all past winners dating back to 1921. I made contact with several ultrarunners who had completed the race, and all of them told me that this was by far the best ultra to run.

The Internet had also led me to several additional sources of information. Lore of Running by Dr. Tim Noakes contained a plethora of data on Comrades. Tim had run the race himself. His own account gave me the impression of an event steeped in tradition-an event that thousands of South Africans aspire to complete. Noakes's book covered all the bases for preparing for an ultra. Had I only studied the details of his writings, I would be writing this article from an entirely different perspective.

Another source of valuable information was a book of training logs written by Bruce Fordyce, ultra legend and nine-time Comrades victor. A quick review of his monthly mileage revealed that I was consistently above the training distances he put in before his record-setting downhill run. I was feeling confident.

Comrades alternates the start and finish each year between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. The trip from Pietermaritzburg to Durban contains a few climbs early on, then dips on its way to the Indian Ocean. I've always considered myself a good downhill runner, and I'd be making my Comrades debut on a downhill year.

It seemed as though all I needed to do to prepare properly was to throw in a few long runs in addition to my monthly marathon and I'd be all set to blister the course. I received some excellent tips via e-mail from Ultrarunner Supreme Ann Trason. Per her suggestion, I tested GU, salt tablets, Coke, and my racing flats during my ultra training runs. I'm in awe of Ann Trason's talents. She seemed so positive about everything that I felt at ease with my decision to give the race a try.

I headed to the library and a bookstore to get the latest information on South Africa. My wife Suzanne and I would attempt to arrive early enough to overcome jet lag and to have time to relax from the stress of work. Our itinerary included Cape Town, a city that was then in the bidding for the 2004 Olympics.

I contacted the Comrades organizing committee to see if they paid athletes to compete. Unfortunately, they don't even waive entry fees, but they did put me in contact with a group that sponsored several of the top runners. E-mail was my savior again. I made the connection with this group and believed that my past record and current abilities would convince them to cover my expenses, a reward for the hard work I had put into my preparation.

Through their organization, I was offered a discount on hotels and meals plus the opportunity to double my prize money and be reimbursed for my travel expenses if I finished in the top three. I still had to pay my own entry fee (a hefty $75). I gambled that the scenario of a top-three placing was possible. I hedged my bet and used all of my frequent flier miles to cover my airfare. In the worst case scenario, I would finish in the top 10 and break even through the prize money. Or so I thought. No masters runner had ever run in the five and a-half hour range, the time I thought would put me in the hunt. I would be running six-minutes-per-mile, which was almost 30 seconds slower per mile than my marathon pace. I figured if I slowed up a bit and ran a little longer, I would come home with a Comrades gold medal, which are given out to the top 10 finishers.

Go for Your Dreams!

So often in my running career, I have been blessed and been able to make my dreams happen. I would think about a place I wanted to visit and then find some way to get there. Like magic, I would run a race far above my expectations. Races would unfold, and I would arrive at the finish line with the first-place tape in my hands. [See "Doug Kurtis's Runography"]

I've often read that you need to visualize yourself winning. There have only been a few marathons where I felt confident that I would win. All I did was train hard and get caught up in the excitement of a new place and pumped up from meeting new people and receiving recognition for my consistency. Looking back, I could not have imagined what was in store for my running career.

Would Comrades follow this pattern? For starters, we arranged a stopover in Amsterdam, which broke up our trip, gave us more rest, and, most importantly, gave us time with friends who had just moved there. Our training run through a forest park disrupted the joy of seeing them. Within minutes of getting there, high winds began blowing rain and cracking down huge branches just inches in front of our feet. A bridge was our savior as we paused like trolls to let the storm pass. It was a scary yet exciting moment. The storm could have easily been a life-threatening event, but God must have been watching over us.

A day later we landed on South African soil for the first time. Cape Town is a spectacular place, with a coastline much like California's, and, on the other end of the spectrum, shopping malls as fine as any in the United States.

Our hotel was luxurious. It was easily one of the finest I've ever enjoyed. It had been opened only a few weeks, and the service was almost too gracious. The hotel was a great place to recoup from the flight before getting caught up in the promotion surrounding the race.

When we arrived in Durban, the weather was cool and rainy. We were told over and over that this was unusual for the South African winter season. As I moved about, I felt sluggish but was hopeful that this stagnant feeling would dissipate. Durban's beachfront reminded me of Rio-tall hotels faced the Indian Ocean while Table Mountain sat majestically behind us. The beaches erupted with sports activities. Everywhere we looked were play areas and local wares being sold at sidewalk stalls.

Each day was consumed with promotional activities, radio interviews, press conferences, and the inevitable photo ops. The expo was as impressive as any in the world. An entire section was devoted to the history of the race and included previous year's medals, trophies, and press clippings, some quite faded with time.

Thousands of runners flocked into the city and spent a fortune at the expo. More than 13,000 runners had signed up to run the 1997 Comrades! Considering how few entrants U.S. ultras have, I imagined that very few of these runners were serious enough about their training to be able to finish a grueling 50-plus-mile race. I thought that perhaps many had signed up as part of their club activities or to get a T-shirt to show that they'd been part of the fun.

A Startling Number of Finishers

You can imagine my astonishment in the wake of the race to discover that 11,000 actually finished the race under the 11-hour cutoff! And more would have finished if there weren't a cutoff. This mass of finishers is the most astonishing memory I bring away from the race. How could so many people run so far so well? Unbelievable!

As I took a tour of the course, its beauty immediately impressed me. Mountain ranges ranged, scenic vistas spread, lively small towns were already geared up for the fun. Areas were flagged off for revelers, barbecuers, and corporate aid stations. I quickly realized that Comrades is much more than a race. It is a major festival for all the communities along the route.

The race organization reminded me of the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) of the 1970s. Like at the Boston Marathon, at Comrades the race tradition and the influence of the local clubs has a very strong presence. The BAA used to put out florescent triangles with distance-to-go signs. There were also signs indicating spots where you could drop out and catch the "T." (Boy, am I showing my age.) Comrades features kilometers-to-go signs. I found myself translating kilometers and miles back and forth. OK, if the race is 89K and I've got 70K to go, how far have I come and how fast am I going? The mental gymnastics needed to make such calculations with any accuracy were not going well.


On raceday itself, we 13,000 runners milled around in the dark, waiting for the 6:00 A.M. cannon. When it came, the start was relatively smooth, considering there were no seeded corrals. There was a little jostling at the start, but what can you expect from 13,000 people attempting to go to the same place at the same time. I can't even imagine what kind of chaos there would be if 13,000 experienced shoppers were let loose at the same time at a Macy's white sale.

Within five minutes of the start, I was running at a pace I felt would put me in the top 10. There were roughly 50 runners ahead of me, but I wasn't concerned. I admit I did worry about one masters runner who looked plenty tough and who was pulling away from me. My image of myself this early in the race wasn't that I'd be left in the dust of a fellow masters competitor. I stayed positive and actually became reenergized when my teammates from the Mr. Price group caught up to me, and for a time we ran as a pack. I worked to relax and to stay within my comfort zone.

The first set of hills was much more demanding than I had anticipated based on the course tour and my studies of the elevation map. Later I would discover my stupidity in not realizing that the elevation map registered elevations in meters, not feet! This underestimation of the hills would be my greatest mistake in determining my training for Comrades. We have some good hills in the little Michigan town where I live, but nothing like those mountains.

At 45K or thereabouts (depending on my then-current math skills), I had come through the toughest marathon of my life and still had another one to go. American Tom Johnson went by me at the top of a hill and asked if I was having fun. I solemnly told him, "No, not really." I was cooked. My brain could not picture myself striding smoothly to the front pack. Instead, it told me it was time to take a walk. Pittsburgh is the only marathon I can recall ever walking in, and that was due to 102-degree heat.

Do I Walk or Walk Off the Course?

Now came the big question. Do I walk off the course or do I finish the damned thing? Remembering Orlando Pizzolato from his New York City Marathon victories, I decided to start up again. That didn't last long. A few miles later, I walked off the course to go to the bathroom. But I walked back on, too. I had less than 30K to go now. I was still toying with dropping out, but I continued to walk and run out of habit. With 25K to go, I was being passed right and left. It seemed like a steady stream of people was going by me.

Let's back up a few kilometers. Or perhaps more like 20K. Besides women going by me, which I'm still not used to, a man dressed up as a licorice Allsorts candy cruised by me so easily that I thought for sure he had jumped into the course somewhere along the way. It was demoralizing to see this guy in black tights with black headgear and giant candy stuck all around him making this race seem like a walk in the park. Unbelievably, he finished 50th overall and raised thousands of dollars for a local charity.

Fifteen miles to go seemed like a thousand, but I was committed to finishing. My walks became longer. When I ran, I played mind games. How far could I run this time before I would need to walk again? One mile? Maybe two? The spectators were my blessing. When I walked, they would tell me not to give up, that I could get back into it. They didn't make me feel ashamed to be walking. Runners who looked like weekend joggers were going by me. I had no clue as to what place I was in.

I had already made several pitstops-under bridges, behind bushes, any place that offered a little privacy. I was getting hungry, too. I was too far behind to get the GU that my "seconds" were supposed to hand to me. At Comrades, you are not allowed to have anyone run with you, but you can have a crewmate hand you things. They're called seconds. If only they could run for me!

Commercialism Rears Its Ugly Head

Another interesting rule that was instituted at the last minute involved headgear. Apparently, Nike had mailed all competitors a nasal strip with its logo on it. The organizers didn't want to feel one-upped since they already had a shoe sponsor plastered on most of the gear they had for sale. So they instituted a rule that said you could only wear a particular brand of headgear or you would be disqualified. During the race I can remember several runners being asked to remove their hats because they were the "wrong" brand. This was commercialism at its most degrading level.

Just days before Comrades, I was asked to switch racing shoe brands. Besides the fact that I've always been loyal to my shoe sponsor, Nike, I would never take the risk of screwing up a race with problems from untried shoes. Too much time and effort goes into race preparation to chuck it all for the possibility of more money. Several runners who did take the bait paid for their sin. In that regard, I felt a bit righteous.

Eating on the Run

During the race, I began to experience the hunger ultrarunners told me I'd feel. Fortunately, the aid stations were superb. They offered water in plastic packets, Powerade in closed cups that you had to break open, Coke, and chocolate candy bars.

After what my numbing mind calculated was 35 miles, I was watered out. The Coke was too strong, but the orange Powerade was cold and satisfying. I had lost the two salt tablets that were in my shorts, but now for the first time in a race I was eating a candy bar. But I didn't stop there. Somewhere I must have gone a bit delirious because I began to crave a hamburger. I finally stopped at one of the roadside picnics and inquired after a burger. No luck. They had run out. The picnic host first offered me a bun without a burger in it. I declined. Then he offered me a banana, which I accepted. That did the trick, and I was back running again.

I was now down to 15K to go and wishing I could get it over with. I was still having a hard time convincing myself to quit walking when I finally received the incentive I needed. Someone yelled out to me that I could make it in under seven and a half hours and earn a silver medal.

The top 10 finishers receive a gold medal while those over seven and a half hours receive bronze. I was suddenly inspired. The only problem was that I had instinctively stopped my watch at one of my pit stops, as if I were on a training run, and I had no idea whatsoever what time I was running. I didn't think to figure out the time based on the starting time of 6:00 A.M.-I was too dazed to think that clearly.

The most significant portion of the downhill was now upon me, and it was thigh torture exquisite. I was actually beginning to pass other runners on the uphills and getting passed back on the downhills, which is where I usually have an advantage. I would pick out a few runners in neon-colored outfits and make them my competition. I was now running more than walking and hoping that I could run the rest of the way in. With 5K to go, I was praying for a silver medal and doing the survival shuffle. The Durban cricket stadium was in sight, but I wasn't sure if my wife would still be around. I would be finishing more than an hour and a half later than I had expected.

It was very difficult to enjoy the cheering and support of the thousands of spectators as my feet touched blessed grass and I rounded the turn to the finish gates. Seven hours and 18 minutes. I had suffered and endured more from this race than almost any other. Finishing it is an accomplishment I will remember as much as any of my 39 marathon victories.

The volunteers in the finish chute grabbed me after I crossed the line and asked how I was doing. "Not too well," I replied, whereupon they immediately put me on a stretcher and carried me off to the medical tent.

The Aftermath

I told the medical personnel I just needed some "down" time and I'd be fine. Two massage therapists worked on my legs as I tried to rest. Someone came by and handed me my silver medal in a little baggie. I was mortified. It looked and felt like a 25-cent piece of toy plastic that you can buy at Toys "R" Us. I remember thinking, Is this what I had shed my blood for?

OK, maybe my old medals have little value compared to the memories of victories over my body and spirit, but you can bet that in the future I will solicit the prize-money sponsors to kick in more for the medals and less for the super stud runners. My tenacity put me in 608th place, far worse than I had planned but far better than I thought when I limped across the finish line.

Afterward, I talked with the winner, Charl Matteus, who had spent two months training in Leadville, Colorado. He was now a rich South African and destined for stardom. He gave me an appreciation of the focus required to be a champion. I also have much more admiration for Al Salazar's feat three years before and even more for Ann Trason's successful defense of her Comrades title in the wake of surgery. (She also won the Western States 100 once again just 12 days after Comrades.) There are not enough superlatives in my vocabulary to describe her feats.

I loitered in the stadium to watch the final hours of Comrades. More than 50 percent of the field finished in the final hour. Runners streamed in with flags, balloons, and kids on their backs. It was a magnificent celebration of spirit, and thousands partied while waiting to witness the final moments. At the 11th hour, the finish line official turned his back to the finish line and fired a pistol to signify the end of the race.

The gates were closed, and no one was allowed to cross the finish line after that. The last runner to cross the line before the gates closed was rewarded with a medal from President Mandela, as were the top finishers-a fitting finale to the greatest ultramarathon in the world.

What I Learned...

Use a Variety of Sources to Prepare Yourself

While I believed that I had covered all the bases in preparing for my first (and, to date, only) ultra, I didn't really grasp the difficulty of terrain. Had I spent more time talking to runners who had previously run Comrades regarding their preparation, I would have spent more time doing hillwork. Reading all of the event information was helpful, but word of mouth experience from several veterans who had enjoyed successes would have been invaluable.

Don't Let Your Daily Routine Get Too Out of Whack

A long trip to another country will put you out of sync for a few days. Make an effort to get back to some of your normal daily routines, such as getting up at a certain time, staying away from naps, and going to bed at regular hours. Time changes can be overcome by routine. While it's wonderful to take advantage of the cultures of a new place, too much sightseeing and meeting new people can wear you down.

Pay Attention to Tapering and Food Intake

As you taper, remember that you need to watch the amount of food you eat. Our hotels offered wonderful breakfasts, and I took advantage of them. But all that food made me sluggish during the day and made the bed in our hotel room a much better target for an afternoon snooze.

No Limits: The Mind Wins over the Body Every Time

Running a standard marathon is a great accomplishment for anyone. It takes daily dedication to your training to run one well. Comrades showed me that people can run far beyond the limits they place upon themselves. Focusing on a goal can also help propel you past those limitations. Without the tradition of the race, the spirit of team competition, and the interest of the community, 11,000 people would not have been inspired to cross the finish line in one of the greatest race spectacles I've ever witnessed.

Doug Kurtis's Runography

World Record Holder

Personal Bests

Career Highlights

This article originally appeared in the January/February 1998 issue of Marathon & Beyond. For information about reprinting or excerpting this article or any other M & B article, contact Jan Seeley via email or at 217-359-9345.

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