Halfway through running the Dis-Chem half-marathon a few days ago I found myself eavesdropping on the conversation of two runners who were toiling away just in front of me; “It’s the up run this year, Boet,” the one runner grunted “I know, China,” His sweaty companion replied “And I’m scared. I hate hills and I’m terrified of Polly Shortts.”
I had to interrupt and try to allay their fears. You see I’m a great fan of the Comrades Marathon up run. My first run (way back in 1977 was up, and so was my first win) I asked them why they disliked the prospect of the up run so much. “All those hills” was the expected reply. “We’re going to struggle on all those monsters such as Fields Hill, Inchanga, and of course, Polly Shortts.”
So I tried my best to calm them down. I didn’t mention that the first 42km (marathon distance) of the up run will be the hardest standard marathon that they will ever run, nor did I mention that, in my opinion, Ashburton Hill (Little Pollies) is far tougher than Polly Shortts. I preferred to emphasise that the up run is far less painful than the down and that the up run shows who the best runners are while the down run identifies the masochists among us.
The Comrades post-race limp is proof of how less damaging the up run is. After the up run runners limp for about four to five days. After the down run the limp can last more than a week and flights of stairs are absolutely impossible to negotiate. To entertain them I told them of my conversation a few years ago, with the great Amby Burfoot.
Amby was the editor-in-chief of Runner’s World magazine, but more importantly he won the Boston marathon in 1968. He decided that his running CV was incomplete without a Comrades Marathon medal and so he travelled to Durban to run an up Comrades. He asked me about the dreaded Polly Shortts (Boston has its own “Heartbreak Hill).
I told him not to be worried about Pollies because when he reached it on race day he would find it a welcome stroll and he would be reduced to walking by the time he reached the famous hill. In an article he wrote for Runner’s World he said he assumed I was unfamiliar with his running CV. “I’m Amby Burfoot,” he said. “I won the 1968 Boston Marathon and I don’t walk up hills. Bruce is wrong; I won’t walk up Polly Shortts.”
He continued in his article “And Bruce was indeed wrong. I was walking long before I got to Polly Shortts!” I told the two worried runners that if they train correctly by running on hilly courses and by running a weekly hill training session (a subject for later column in this newspaper) they should have nothing to fear.
Too many runners convince themselves that they are weak on the hills. Proper hill training should instil a lot of confidence in runners. The key is to get fit enough to be able to run slowly or shuffle up the big hills while taking occasional walking breaks. The slower running and the walking breaks makes the up run a long relatively enjoyable experience.
As far as I am concerned this is infinitely preferable to the jolting agony of the steep descents of the last quarter of the down run. I always tell Comrades novices that if you only intend to run one Comrades, the up run is the one to do. You need to be able to boast that you have journeyed up the most famous hills in the Comrades even if that journey was at a slow Amby Burfoot walking pace.
Yes the up run is generally a little slower than the down so those who are borderline finishers need to ensure some of their walks are brisk ones. But the wonderful news about this year’s up run is that it is the shortest for ages. In fact at 86.7km some disgruntled old-timers are demanding that finishers receive only half a medal.