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Training for the Comrades Marathon– The Ultimate Human Race

By August 27, 2019 No Comments
Comrades Marathon

Upendra Tripathi talks about how you can conquer one of the most coveted courses – the Comrades with the right training. 

“Tell me not to do something and I will do it twice …and take pictures!”.

That’s exactly my point-of-view when it comes to running the Comrades Ultramarathon. When I told my partner, Nidhi that I wanted to complete my back-to-back runs and hence registered for the 2019 run, she almost fell off her chair and thought I was joking. In 2018, I was exhausted after completing the down-run and I was almost sure, I’d never run the Comrades again but I was wrong and here I am proudly holding the coveted medal of finishing the downhill and uphill run consecutively in two years.

The Ultimate Human race – Comrades Ultra

The Comrades Marathon is the world’s largest (25000+ Ultrarunners) and oldest (started in 1921) Ultra-Marathon which is run between two beautiful cities in South Africa – Durban and Pietermaritzburg. The approximately 90K race is run in opposite directions every alternate year and is termed as “up-run” from Durban to Pietermaritzburg and “down-run” from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. Apart from a very strict race entry criteria, the race has 7 cut-off points on course with the first four that come almost every 2 hours after the start of the race, the next two cut-off points comes roughly in 01:30hours each and the final cut-off is at the finish line which must  be crossed at 12:00hours to receive the finisher’s medal.

Route Map

The “up-run” starts from Durban and it’s a steep climb for almost 38KMs with a few easy down-hills to relax your legs. There is some respite once you reach Botha’s Hill as it’s a course with small uphill’s until you reach Umlaas road which is the highest point on the entire course. You tend to relax and rejoice thinking the hard part is over only until your hit with the steepest climb at Polly Shortts.

In a race like this, It’s a continuous battle between mind and body. Your body wants to call it quits but the mind wants to get stuck in and fight. You’ll go through this battle several times during the run.

The crowd support for this race is unbelievable and for most of the course, you will find people shouting your name to cheer you up or offering you something to eat. For the locals, it is a celebration of life where people come out in large numbers, play music, enjoy some barbeque, drinks and celebrate a good time with family and friends. It cannot get any better than this.

Undoubtedly, this race is one of the toughest ultra-marathons in the world where human endurance is tested at a very high level and you would expect a runner to probably try it once out of curiosity and also to test how far they could push their body. But, for someone to do it twice, thrice and several times over – that is off-the-books, literally! There are more than 15 runners who have run this race 40+ times and the leading man Barry Holland ran his 47th Comrades race this year. Runners in South Africa take this as a symbol of pride and for them, it’s like running the Boston Marathon every year.

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Out of many unique things that this race has, one thing that stands out is that they give you 2 BIBs to be pinned – one on the chest and another on the back. The bib carries the number of times you have run this race and a green number which you get only after completing 10 races successfully and that remains as your unique number for all your subsequent races. When you’re running the race and you look at runners ahead of you bearing numbers in 10s, 20s, and 30s … you feel so small running your 1st or 2nd race and you tell yourself – “One day, I’m going to get myself one of those too!” – maybe, that’s the reason why so many people come back to run this race year after year.

(Comrades Ultra Marathon 2019)

Down to the training plan

Training for this race is extremely difficult as finding the right kind of elevation, being able to run long hours in the sun to build sufficient mileage and managing hydration and appropriate nutrition – is a big challenge. One has to start his/her training 5-months ahead of race-day which is typically the 2nd Sunday of the June every year. So January is the time when the serious mileage building starts, while the expectation is that a decent amount of running is already happening before January so that a sudden increase in mileage does not have a massive toll on the body.

The focus of the Comrades training is to increase running mileage while slowing down by over 1-min from the flat terrain marathon race pace. The key to successful training culminating to a race done well is to remain injury-free throughout and be able to follow the training plan with discipline and consistency. Based on the current fitness level and target timing for the race, the training efforts can be very different. I was targeting a Bronze medal finishing time which was between 10 and 11 hours. The plan was to run 4 days in a week with 1-day intervals or fartlek, 1-day tempo or miles repeat, 1-day Long run (20-30K) and 1-day recovery run (10-12K). Coach Parry (official coach for Comrades from South Africa) says that one must build a minimum of 1200KM in 5-months leading to race day, which means a 240-260KM per month or 65-70KM a week!!  Keeping his advice in mind, I followed the below running pace and my typical week/month looked as shown in the table.

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Training Paces:

  • Easy (E) : 6:00-6:20/km
  • Long (L) : 6:30-7:00/km
  • Recovery (RE) : 6:50-7:20/km
  • Intervals (IN) : 5:15-5:25/km
  • Hills (H) : 6:20-6:50/km

A Typical Training week/month:



Week-X1RR15min E + 9x2mins IN +15mins ERR1hr 30mins EREST3hr E1:30hr RE
Week-X2RR15min E + 10x2mins H +15mins ERR2hr LREST3hr 30mins L1hr RE
Week-X3RR15min E + 12x2mins IN +15mins ERR1hr 30mins EREST3hr L1:30hr RE
Week-X4RR15min E + 10x2mins H +15mins ERR2hr LREST3hr 30mins L1hr RE
Week-X5RR15min E + 9x2mins IN +15mins ERR1hr 30mins EREST3hr  E1:30hr RE

RR: Running Rest but functional training;

REST: Full Rest. No running or functional training;

The Comrades Training is unique in a way that it not only pushes the athlete to build mileage but also on building your core strength – such as weights or cross-functional training. Monday and Wednesday are dedicated for core / functional or weight training.

A typical Core / Functional / Weight Training:

  • Weighted Squat : 3 sets X 12 reps each
  • Dumbbells Lunge : 3 sets X 15 reps each
  • Hamstring Curl : 3 sets X 12 reps each
  • Deadlift : 3 sets X 10 reps each
  • Push-up : 3 sets X 10 reps each
  • Plank: 2 mins
  • Glute Bridge: 2 mins
  • Flat Crunches : 3 sets X 20 reps each

Nutrition and Recovery

Hydration and nutrition play a big role while training. For a race which is more than 10 hours long to finish, how would one train to have sufficient hydration and nutrition to ensure a strong finish? I divided the days as Running Training (RT) days and Cross Training (CT) days. On RT days, the focus was more on carbs – 2 breakfasts – a light one 45mins before the start of the training and the 2nd one after finishing the running training, lunch at 1 PM, snacks at 4 PM and dinner at 7:30 PM. On CT days, it’s more protein + carbs, with the same schedule as RT days. A minimum of 3 litres of water or other liquids (juices/energy drinks) is recommended. On the race day, one gets Coke and Enerzal to drink and boiled salty potatoes to eat (along with other stuff), so carrying these in the hydration pack or waist-belt during long-run training days helps you to be better prepared.

Once the weekly training is over and one is getting ready for the next week, it’s important to recover completely for another successful training week. A good 6-7 hours of deep sleep is essential for recovery.  Once a month, a deep tissue massage will help recover and rejuvenate one’s body. The fact is that the training is stressful and you will be running on tired legs all the time. Better the recovery, the better your training will be the next day.

Why did I have to run this race again?

As they say “The spirit of the Comrades Marathon is said to be embodied by attributes of camaraderie, selflessness, dedication, perseverance and Ubuntu”. Enough said!

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Upendra Tripathi

Upendra Tripathi

A senior management Leader with a leading Semi-Conductor company, Upendra Tripathi((aka Upen) has achieved running accolades in 3 years what most of us will probably not achieve in our lifetime.