So it’s over for another year. – The marathon and ultra fever is remembered only in the sore legs that remain as a badge of honour to the 13,000 plus runners who lined up at Pietermartitburg’s city hall on Monday for the 90km epic.
For some the almost traditional “never again” will have already melted into the ether, for others the pain and memory of the mental tenacity that makes Comrades one of the most gruelling challenges in South African sport, will take longer to overcome.

For all Comrades runners the next couple of weeks is a time to rest the running shoes, and provide the body with some TLC. The fact is that the pain that has you hobbling down stairs backwards, or taking just a tad longer to rise from the chair, reflects the extent of the muscle damage, much of which was incurred from the jarring downhill. – And how many of us thought we would enjoy the gravitational benefit of the downhill, only to find that it brought more ‘mind numbing’ pain and that uphill was considerably more pleasant!

The repair of this damage will take around 6 weeks and as with normal training depends on good nutrition, combined with minor activity to ensure a good circulation to take nutrients to the muscle damage and waste products away.
So does this mean life has ended for comrades runners? Will the athletics calendar drop into relative obscurity? Thankfully not and there is good news for those who ran and for the runners who prefer the more sane distances.
The second half of the year is an exciting time as the focus of athletics turns from churning out distance to performance. This happens not only on road but also in Cross country and track. This ‘season’ is triggered by the annual Spar Ladies race in Durban on 22 June, which despite its single gender requirement will ironically have more entrants than the Comrades. As the largest race in the country, it is surprising that there are so few races at this distance, particularly since fewer than 30% of the participants are registered into the sport. Surely an opportunity for the sport’s growth?

The 10km distance is often synonymous with the novice or beginner, and has even been expressed as a ‘development’ distance. Many runners consider the idea of an early rise to run a 5 or 10km not worthy of the effort of lacing up shoes. And yet it is these distances that create the foundation of the world best. Performance at these shorter events moulds the character of the runner in all longer distances. Maximising your racing over 15 to 40 minutes covers and boosts virtually all the physiological components required from distance running.

It is no coincidence that the Kenyan domination is founded in the loping cross-veldt jogs, and each year another ream of runners are rolled off the production line in the regional and national cross country championships. It is no coincidence that Paula Radcliffe first took the 2002 World X Country title little more than 6 weeks before becoming the worlds second fastest women marathoner, or that she broke the world 10km record (and best at 8km etc) before rewriting the women’s marathon record. Nor is it co-incidental that many of Spain’s potential world cup marathon team have been competing in the European and World Cross Country events, nor that marathon star Tergla Lerope ran the track 10,000m World Championships in Edmonton although she had little hope of doing more than filling the lower positions. These ‘co-incidences’ serve as reminders that even for the most ardent of distance runners, there is a need to return to our roots.  Post Comrades is an ideal time for such a sojourn.

The slog of distance may have reduced our running cadence, but it has instilled a massive endurance base on which we can build strength and quality work. After ‘ticking over’ through to about the first week in July, the introduction of quality work in the form of short 100m hill repeats, and interval work on the track, or structured fartlek work on or off road, we soon find that we can be capable of some reasonable quality running over shorter events.
For this period there is no pressure to match a ‘magical’ weekly total and it’s amazing how soon many distance runners suddenly find an affinity and interest with some well-chosen quality sessions.

Try for instance a session of running the straights at a pace equal to your best 1500m speed and then jog the bends. You can probably handle about 10 laps of this by the second time you try it. From this perhaps try a session of 3 sets of 5 x 100m. There are no target times for these 100ms you simply run them at a hard (not flat out) pace, starting from the normal 100m start at the track. The first takes you to the finish line and you use the balance of 1 minute are your recovery before going for the next 100m. If the 100m takes you 18 seconds, then you have 42 seconds recovery, if it takes you 20 seconds then you only have 40 seconds recovery. Each 100m takes you one segment round the track and the set of 5 will take you to the finishline. With one set complete take a slow walk back to the 100m start and commence the second set.

It’s amazing how this session awakes and excites most distance runners. As they commence each set they find for the same effort they are improving their 100m times; It’s as if oil is being injected into their joints to make everything run smoother. These short bursts teach us to run more efficiently, and bring back the leg speed. As efforts get harder the physiological benefits increase with an improvement in ‘engine power’.  These short sessions are great as they are achievable by everyone and when completed your legs are light, your breathing easier and you feel like a pedigree racehorse ready to take on the best.

Soon the confidence is there to tackle longer quality intervals of 400m, 800m, and 1000m. The pace of these are reduced to 5-10 seconds per km faster than your best 5km time trial pace for 400ms, and similarly slightly faster than your best 10km pace for the 800 and 1000m. Covering 8 to 10 of the 400ms, or 3 to 5 of the 1000m is sufficient for any session. For distance runners the choice of pace is critical, with the recommendations being set a totally manageable intensities, which make these workouts enjoyable, challenging, and also rewarding. This is not the high intensity, gut wrenching, lung-busting efforts of the dedicated track athlete, but rather a rhythmical flow that leaves you pleasantly fatigued and soon itching to use this new found rhythm in ‘just’ one more interval.

With only two sessions a week, short easy (almost pedestrian) runs on intervening days, and a ‘long run’ of 15km at the weekend, most runners will find that they are able to reduce their previous best performances at 5 or 10km distance by mid August. A new level of performance, founded on the distance slogging for Comrades, and 4 to 6 weeks of rhythmical quality work.

Typically the distance runner experiences a metamorphosis in this period. It’s as if another side ‘comes out’ and no matter how they try to hide it from their road running friends, no matter how macho they are considered for their distance exploits – the truth is that they enjoy the ‘thrill’ of these track sessions. Soon they are grudgingly doing the easy road days only to bring the ‘track day’ closer. Comrades pace and easy runs feel like the pace of an articulated transport truck and now, twice a week, they have been given a chance to drive an open-top sports car. This is the runner’s opportunity to feel the wind in their hair, the freedom of self-propelled motion, and to live, albeit for short distances, their vision of elite running.

The improvement in the sessions, the improvement in the 5 and 10km distance, is the rebirth. The minutes and seconds shaved from these short distances become the stepping-stones for cleaving chunks off a marathon, which is ideally scheduled for around October. With the right flat, coastal and fast course the 5km ‘shavings’ can be multiplied 9 or 10 fold over the marathon to provide another PB as we enter the summer.
Another return to quality will prep us for the build up for Comrades only this time, every minute that has been scraped off your 5km speed, is potentially over 21 minutes from your 2004 Comrades time!
There’s not only life after Comrades, there’s a whole new world, and there’s life leading to Comrades 2004.

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