Comrades marathon: mass lunacy on a national scale
Maritzburg hosts the world's largest (and arguably greatest) ultramarathon events - the legendary Comrades marathon.
I first witnessed Comrades a couple of days after I arrived in South Africa in 1987, and my considered (armchair) opinion at the time was that this was the greatest expression of mass national lunacy that I had ever witnessed! Over 20 years on, my opinion remains unchanged, but I am hooked, and, like most South Africans, spend most of the day watching the drama unfold! By the end of the race, I have bawled my eyes out at the human tragedy, and by the time that the official fires the gun to indicate the end of the 12 hour period (when they close the finish line), I am dehydrated! Firing the gun must surely be one of the worst jobs in the world, and so traumatic that the official actually turns his back to the desperate runners scrambling towards the line. Heartrending stuff that puts other reality TV to shame!
Comrades was first run in 1921 by 34 runners: by contrast, the race in 2000 (the 75th race), attracted 23, 961 entrants. Competitors have 12 hours to finish the 89km course (yes, you read right!) between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, and if they're mad enough to repeat this act of self abuse ten times (and finish each time), they are awarded a coveted green number. Doesn't seem much of an incentive to run 900km, but that's runners for you ...
Comrades now takes place on 16 June (the Children's Day public holiday) every year and alternates between an 'up' run (from Durban) and a 'down' run (from Maritzburg) each year. There is about a 700m height difference between start and finish, which is exacerbated by the fact that the route winds through the Valley of a Thousand Hills, which adds even more 'up and down' to the course. Counterintuitively, the 'down' run is considered by most to be harder, because of the pounding your knees get (as opposed to the rest of your body, which is presumably equally abused whatever direction you run it!)
Every January, huge numbers of ordinarily sane people abandon all semblance of common sense and start training for Comrades - clearly this is a New Year's resolution, fuelled no doubt by overindulgence over the festive season. They bash the pavements at ungodly hours of the morning, run qualifying marathons over weekends and effectively don't see their partners or families for six months (unless they too are mad enough to run, in which case they see a great deal of each other!). In literally every company, at least one person would run the race - many larger companies actually sponsor teams and mine gave one of our employees a cash bonus this year for running a mindbogglingly good time - and it adds to the nation's sense of involvement in the race to know that your colleagues are participating.
Every year, the local field is joined by some intrepid foreigners. Some of these are professional athletes in pursuit of the substantial winner's prizes (a pair of Russian twins have been taking it in turns to win the women's race for years), but most are ordinary runners looking to experience this extraordinary phenomenon. Should you be lunatic enough to consider this, then consult the website below for details on how to enter (including the qualifying requirements).
If you are sane enough to have no intention of running Comrades, might I respectfully suggest that you avoid visiting Durban or Maritzburg at this time, as flights and accommodation are fully booked, and the law of 'supply and demand' kicks in, which results in prices going through the roof!
Otherwise, if you're in KwaZulu Natal over this period, participate in the festive atmosphere: I wouldn't recommend going to the stadium where the race finishes (which is crowded with relatives waiting to collect the mortal remains of their loved ones as they collapse across the finish line), but otherwise you have 89km of route from which to pick your vantage point! Do as the locals do, and bring a deckchair, a coolbox and some refreshments (braais and beer are almost obligatory) and cheer supportively as the masses stumble past! My only warning is that you'll be awfully sick of the theme tune from "Chariots of Fire' by the end of 12 hours!