The oldest and arguably one of the toughest ultra-marathons is upon us once more. It rarely feels as if a year has passed come the most recent addition – the Comrades Marathon just seems to pop up in the wink of an eye. While the rest of us wait for a full 365 days for all the running action, thousands prepare themselves physically and mentally for one of the most gruelling physical challenges one can partake in; going at it for a steady pace over 87km is definitely no easy feat. It takes a special breed of person to do such a thing.
This year we’ll witness the ‘up run’ again. It is a gun-to-gun race that will start at the Durban City Hall and it will conclude at the Scottsville Racecourse in Pietermaritzburg. Around 25 000 athletes will have 12 hours to complete the race before the cut-off. They shall not be awarded a finisher’s medal should they fail to complete the race in that time. June 9, 2019 will mark the 94th edition of the race. We spoke to Nick Caknis, a participant of 24 Comrade’s Marathons to gain a little insight as to what it is like running this prestigious race.
Nick’s recount is a straightforward one, but not to be scoffed at. The 74-year-old from Edenville in the Free State, after all, is a race veteran and you can be certain that his experience augments his retelling of his time as a top athlete. His is an interesting tale, too because he admits that he was never really a good cross country running and only participated in team sports after he left school (he played rugby for two years). This was the status quo until, one day, he found out about ‘this’ Comrades Marathon.
He joined a running club – something is says is not only of critical importance, but also a requirement should you wish to run this ultramarathon. When the year 1974 rolled about, a then 27-year-old Nick tackled his first race. It was the 87km-long up run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, the same route that this year’s contingent will attempt to run in under 12 hours. He did not steamroll the race as one Bruce Fordyce during that era, but he did do enough to earn him is first piece of hardware – a bronze medal with a time of ten hours and 45 minutes.
The year after his first race was a bit of a let-down because Nick sat through 1975 with injuries to both the soles of his feet. The year thereafter proved fruitful and 1976 signalled a period during which Nick put in his best performances. This was also the year (a down run) where he posted his best time – seven hours and 12 minutes. This meant he earned the first of his six silver medals. This run lasted into the early 1980s which saw Nick earn five concurrent silver medals and two bronze, which was then followed by another silver.
Matters after that though slowed down somewhat because, by his own admission, the body could not perform as well as it aged. He would nevertheless continue his illustrious Comrades career well throughout the 90s and into the early 2000s. He does have something to show for his efforts during the latter part of his running career; he earned two Vic Clapham medals in his twilight. He ran his 24th and last race in 2006, but he remains an active man despite calling time on the Comrades Marathon.
It sounds counterintuitive, but Nick, in earnest, believes that the up run is far easier than the down run. The strain on one’s quads and knees are not as strenuous and an individual’s recovery time after a down run is far lengthier. He also recalls that training and preparation in the early years heavily differs from the highly-scrutinised methods of today. Apart from physical training, Nick says that runners used to carbo-load the day before a race, but admits that he doubts whether or not it actually worked. It was merely a case of one runner emulating another.
Nick also believes that the excessive carbohydrate intake actually hampered a few people during their run. He also has his misgivings about the efficacy of supplements, even though he partook. Yet, despite his lanky, but healthy frame, he developed Type 2 diabetes later in life and he believes that it was the supplement intake that wreaked havoc on his body. The long and short is that it is debatable if these methods to enhance performance are actually worth the trouble. According to him, a healthy, varied and balanced diet should suffice.
Then there is the actual training for such a mammoth run. Nick advises that one should not tackle this race on an off chance – it is nothing like cycling where you have equipment that abets your progress. He’d usually start training in January and the distances he covered in a single week is enough to make some queasy. Physically training for the Comrades will differ from person to person, but Nick himself covered 80 to 150km a week, Monday to Sunday. He also preferred to run during the early morning hours because heat and traffic build-up any later would pose a significant risk.
He could not stress enough the importance of a club. He urges any prospective runner to join one, not only for the social aspect thereof, but because it helps one to get those high mileages. It is a great source of motivation, because many find it difficult to cover those distances by themselves. Joining a club is a top priority because participation is restricted to club registered runners only. He also urges one to run the qualifiers and says that if you can finish one of these rather comfortably, then you should be fine. Most importantly however, is you putting in those initial kilometres.