The 3000 who Challenge Critical Cut-off’s –
How Foot Soldiers Conquer Comrades:

The admiration, and adulation afforded the winner and gold medal men and ladies of each Comrades marathon is well deserved.

Their commitment and sacrifice to training and racing the 90km takes an extreme physical and mental toll and strikes awe with their performances.
BUT, organisational decisions, ensure it is the foot soldiers – the 4:49:00 to 5 hour qualifiers who work hardest, and face the greatest challenge in Comrades 2018

The Heroes:
As with the battlefield on which this great race was founded, the gold medallists are:
the ‘heroes’ of the fight:
the ones who excel:
the ones who often engage in small limited numbered skirmishes, that become game-changers:
the ones who have gone beyond normal expectations:
the ones who set new standards by doing the improbable, and often the un-thinkable.

Yes the winners will give their all on Sunday 10 June 2018, but they are given every advantage, and specialised treatment in order to achieve their task:

The ability to arrive later; enter a sheltered warm up area; change and prepare without rush;
For them there is no long stand crushed in the claustrophobic crowd of humanity:
there is no stress of decision-making on the long queue for the porta loo:
and 15 minutes prior to the gun, they slip in ahead of the field, await the anthem, the cock-crow, and the off!

The road ahead is clear and they are unhampered in their choice, and implementation of pace, and race strategy. They know that in one quarter of a day their fate is sealed – under 6 hours of focus.

However, although the heroes often changed fortunes, or made telling advances, the war of Comrades is won by the thousands and millions of ordinary foot soldiers, who time and again respond to stand up against the odds and be counted.
The terms and conditions are very different:

They as two time winner Bill Cochrane (1936 and 1946) stated are “the essence of Comrades”: They are the ones who just want to claim ‘I finished Comrades’ and they, according to Cochrane, are who Founder Vic Clapham, had at forefront of his thinking when conceptualising Comrades as a memorial for those ‘comrades’ who never returned from the 1914-1918 war.

The foot soldiers:
It is the 2000-3000 runners who qualified between 4 hours 49 minutes and 5:00:00 hours who work the hardest, and face the “greatest” challenge of the Comrades Day.
Runners who have not broken 60 minutes for 10km are in the same boat – being asked to race in an unreasonable fashion to beat the intermediate goals set by 2018 organisers.

The start line up, and the road clutter, is a totally different ball game today, compared with the 1976 Down Run (the first to Kingsmeade) almost a decade after a 6 hour half way cut off was set for an 11 hour finish time!!

It is they: “the essence of Comrades” who work the hardest and in recent years have been forced to face the unnecessary hurdles of unreasonable ‘Cut Off’ points:

The Cut Off Times and Calculations:

Table showing calculated times for 4:49 to 5 hour marathon qualifiers – 11:45 to 12 hour finishers: (purple shows tight times for 12 hour pacing assuming a 10 minute delay in start from gun time)

Consider the times set by CMA Office (3rd column) along the 2018 route:

The second column shows the total calculated time for these key points based on equal effort pacing, and using the same even effort strategy that has delivered the world best times and record times in all distance races.

The two grey columns indicate how much time is allocated to running after crossing the mat, and how much of the time comes from the delay at the start, assuming everyone gets away 10 minutes after the gun.

This also assumes the runner can then run at their chosen pace, which as the photo below shows that even with only 61km to go, running your own pace can be a challenge.

The table highlights that the back markers planning to finish in 11:40, and any runner who failed to break 4:49 in qualifying marathon, is being ‘Challenged and punished’ by the cut off times chosen for 2018.

Those who have attended Comrades Seminars, or listened to podcasts, are informed by Comrades that around 35-50% of H group qualifiers FAIL to finish.

It is ironic, (at best), that the tight cut off times are EXACTLY why such a high percentage of H group fail to finish Comrades!
The Comrades history is clear that intermediate cut off, when they were introduced in 1968, were certainly never intended to remove any runner who still had a chance of finishing.
The number of runners, the logistics and it seems the intent are no longer the same.

Simply making minimal changes of 5-15 minutes to each cut off time would allow everyone who has qualified with the ability to finish, to have that unhampered opportunity of finishing!

It is extremely doubtful, given the publicity of Comrades date, route, and prestige, that any driver, or citizen, would become impossibly upset by a 5 to 15 minutes at any point on the route.
It is just unclear why such times need to be so rigidly protected, other than perhaps a proof of pride and power.

The 12 hour warning:

Runners in the 4:50 to 5 hour qualifying group, (prospective 11:45 to 12 hour finishers), who target going through lion Park, half way or Winston park too fast – they will slow down and be pulled out at St johns Road Pinetown, or even Jan Smuts before they get onto the N3 for home!!

The long runs between now and May 20th are the ideal time to practice the pacing and effort required for this section of the route.

Handling the Challenge:
In honesty, there is no logical answer to getting round the challenge that the 2018 Comrades cut off’s present to these back runners (‘the essence of Comrades’) – Luck and good fortune will be the only saviour.

The best advice on offer is over the next remaining weeks, plan in a 1 mile or 5k flat out race to test your current fitness after the peak comrades training.

Those who can beat 9 minutes 5 seconds for the mile, or 29:30 minutes for 5km, have the top end ‘running capacity’ to handle the speed fluctuation required: If all goes well they can finish in 11 hours 45 minutes and beat each intermediate cut off.

It’s the people beyond these (short distance) times, that have to be running on their edge the whole way:
For them, it’s going to be like driving with rev counter on the red-line from Johannesburg to Durban: You may get there or your engine may blow up!

The very first and vital steps are:
A) Having trust in Comrades and their officials that the cut off times will be adhered to, or at least not implemented early.
B) Targeting to arrive as close to the early cut off times as possible – If you go too fast through the early cut off you pay the price at the last 19km!! (i.e don’t target 5:50 for a 6:10 cut off – rather target 6:05! Close but with a couple of minutes in hand)
C) Lining up as close to the back of G as possible.

Now adopt the following strategy to get through the largest hurdle of the Winston Park cut off:

1) Keep it easy to Lion Park and Highest point:
Given the nature of the course this has some of the toughest hills particularly that last climb to the N3 – expect your pace to drop to just under 12 minutes per km, (a brisk walk). Going much faster on the steep uphill will use too much energy too soon. This first cut off is within your normal grasp and only requires the runner to reduce the ‘lost time’ at the start by 3 to 4 minutes.

2) Slight increase to Cato Ridge
Although not yet the highest point there is a need (dictated by the 2018 Cut Off’s) to increase your effort between the N3 Bridge at Lion Park and the underpass at Cato Ridge.
It is necessary to be three minutes faster than logical pacing by the second cut off, but do not take this out on the uphill:
rather try slight increases in the downhill pace, (from highest point and from the Chicken Farm hill before the village) and on the relatively rolling section from the rail bridge through the village and alongside the freeway.
Immediately after crossing the mat put in a 2-3 minute walk to allow recovery as you will have slightly over-extended yourself to meet the time dictates. It is important to ensure you get as close to, but not over the cut off time.

3) Keep on pace, but steal seconds where you can from Cato to Drummond:
Keeping in mind the impact of going too fast, it will be important to steal a few seconds each of the roughly 15km to half way.
With Inchanga the only major climb, it is this section that offers the greatest potential for gathering minutes towards the 13 minutes you require by Winston Park. Aim for half way in around 6:00-6:05.

4) The Greatest Challenge of the day: Drummond to Winston park:
The first 7km of this section from Drummond to Botha Hill is the hardest part of the comrades down run, no matter if you are a gold medallist or a 12 hour runner.
Do NOT try to make up time here. Also keep solemn respect for the 1km plus climb entering into Hillcrest: these sections offer no opportunity to gain pace. This means in there is only 5 useful kilometres to really catch up on your time before the Winston park cut off point.
Although you can sneak some time out of the run down Botha Hill – running this too fast will kill your quads for later, (ask Alan Robb who challenged Bruce Fordyce over this in 1982).
There is roughly 3km from the top of the Hillcrest climb to the cut off at Winston park – do whatever is necessary to ensure you beat that 8:00 hour cut off.

5) On to the finish- and your medal:
Providing you make it through the Winston park cut off close to but just under the cut off (7:55 to 8:00 hours), there is a great chance that you can make the finish cut off. Commence this final third with another 3 minute brisk walk, with some fluid and ideally your chosen food. This will ensure you get recovery after what will have probably been a quite stressful last 13km.

Any reduction on time taken between the gun and crossing the start will make this challenge easier.

The logic and science behind correct pacing will be provided, with some relevant history, in part 2 of this article dealing with planning and pacing for the Comrades run in coming days

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