For the past couple years, I’ve used the slower summer months for pieces that tie together life experiences with the challenges of running sustainable media businesses, or tackling any challenge. Previously, I used experiences as a paperboy and in the weeds as a dishwasher. This year, I’m using my years training to run ultramarathons in a two-part series. The first part is focused on preparation and the second part is on execution. Hope you enjoy it. Send me feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The long run
The Comrades Marathon is an institution in South Africa. Every year, thousands set off from either Durban or Pietermaritzburg to cover 88 kilometers through KwaZulu-Natal. The race has many peculiarities, including a strict 12-hour cutoff time in which stragglers are cruelly turned away and not permitted to cross the finish line. It creates a nice amount of drama.
I fell in love with Comrades in 2003, after reading an article about this oddly popular race halfway across the world, but I only ran it in 2012. I subsequently ran Comrades two more times. Now that I mostly run casually for health and to think more clearly, I feel it’s safe enough to write about the experience of running Comrades as a metaphor for tackling anything difficult and seemingly beyond your abilities. Here’s how you it’s done:
The hardest part of running an ultramarathon is signing up. Running is about incremental improvement, moving from three miles to three and a half and then to four miles. Moving to a race as long as Comrades requires a leap of faith. The most I’d run previously was a couple 50 kilometer races. Running a moderate 50k is “easier” than a fast marathon. But it’s also mentally far easier to go from the experience of running dozens of marathons to adding another five miles.
Comrades is something different altogether. The course stretches over 88 kilometers and has 55 miles of elevation change. The course, between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, alternates each year between an Up run and a Down run. There are five named hills, the longest of which is 2.5 miles long, and the rest of the course is undulating terrain. Durban is at sea level, on the Indian Ocean, while Pietermaritzburg is at an elevation of 3,000 feet. Imagining being able to do that requires a leap of faith. Anyone who has run a marathon knows the pain and exhaustion at the end. Wrapping your head around doing it all over again is difficult, to say the least.
Doing anything new and hard requires that. The biggest challenge of the independent path is embracing uncertainty. Of course, it helps to have experience. And do the work. The doubts that inevitably come during training and even during the race itself are handled by the old runner mantra: Trust your training.
You gotta put in the miles
When people would ask me how you train for an ultra, I’d say, “Run a lot.” You aren’t going to prepare for Comrades on an elliptical, in a pool or on a bike. You will do it by putting in the miles. Running Comrades requires 2,000 miles during training but more importantly, years of preparation before training even starts.
We all have bad days, and unfortunately we cannot control when they happen. Every runner needs to control what they can control and make peace with the rest. What you can control is your preparation. Comrades requires six months of preparation. But really, it requires many years of experience to build the endurance base and the mental makeup to be able to handle the volume of training and inevitable rough patches. I gravitated to distance running because of its simplicity. You get out of it what you put in.
In my first job in journalism, I somehow managed an intern. When I interviewed Michael, I noticed he shared a last name with the legendary runner Marty Liquori, who was a precocious high school runner who broke the four-minute mile back in 1967. Turned out Marty, who went on to a storied running career, was his dad. Pops came by the office once, and I told him I ran my first marathon but struggled at the end. He told me simply, “You need to run more in training.” There are no shortcuts to putting in the work. There’s an Afrikaans term I heard applied to Comrades: vasbyt. It means something like to bite the bullet, or endure stoically.
Have your own plan
For Comrades, that means training to run a marathon in 12 weeks, then the next day forcing yourself to run again. This is another mental barrier for people use to limping around after a marathon and relaxing. Of course, running a training marathon is different than going all out. You need to keep a lot of gas in the tank, so I’d run a 3:45 or so marathon. One year, I had to travel the next day to Arizona and run 10 unsightly miles on a treadmill, and then talk about ad tech.
The sandwich is how ultra training happens. After getting a marathon base, the next three months would be devoted to two purposes: Building an ultra base and preparing for those hills. The sandwich is how you train for the distance without getting injured. It requires back to back long runs. I would look to peak at 75 miles a week, and that would mean long runs on Saturday and Sunday. Eventually they get to something like a 21-mile run on Saturday and a 27-mile run on Sunday. I’d be a zombie at work on Monday.
Living in NYC is wonderful in many ways, but I wouldn’t say it is the ideal place to train for Comrades, mostly because there are few hills. The first year, I just ran back and forth on the Manhattan Bridge. That wasn’t enough, and I paid the price. You need to adapt to your own circumstances. For me, that meant embracing the treadmill, which gets a lot of grief. But a treadmill is a controlled workout. I could run two miles uphill in my apartment basement gym. I could do it in hotel gyms. It isn’t perfect or ideal, but nothing is.
You make do with what you have. And everyone’s circumstances are different. That’s why templates are just that: they’re guides but designed to be tweaked to suit your own needs instead of mindlessly following someone else’s plan. I came across a wonderful quote in the Financial Times during the pandemic that spoke to this: “Our lives begin when we rip up the scripts handed to us and begin to write our own.”
Recovery is work
I’d regularly be asked by people if I run every day. That’s counterproductive. The paradoxical part of doing something big is you’re better off taking rest seriously. Training for Comrades requires specificity – runs need to have a purpose – and you build muscle through periods of intensity followed by recovery. The challenge of ultra training, at least for me, was doing the work required while not getting injured – and being able to tell the difference between hurting and injury.
I’d take two days off a week, one before the sandwich and one after. In between were three days of hourlong runs on a treadmill. Understanding how to recover is critical. I’d use ice baths during the sandwich to get my body able to run the next day. The thing with the ice bath is the first is always the worst. If you do anything enough times, it becomes normal.
Running is a mostly solitary activity, and I’d find myself going to message boards and seeing people doing 90 miles a week. It’s natural to fall into that trap of thinking more is better. Modern hustle culture is a form of this. I often find myself looking at frenetic hustlers going #gorillacore and feeling I’m lacking somehow. But Comrades is a good metaphor because big endeavors require perseverance, and you can only last that long if you take recovery as seriously as running.
Otherwise, you risk burnout. Training for Comrades is harder than running Comrades because it requires far more volume, both in terms of the sheer number of miles and the length of time needed to keep focus. There are no shortcuts to that kind of work, and it means patience is key and knowing when you need rest. Elite endurance athletes sleep a lot. You can’t hustle your way to the finish line, not in a race that long. The “extremely hardcore” approach won’t get you very far because it’s unsustainable.
On Thursday, I’ll continue with the race itself and why ending up in a medical tent can itself be seen as a mark of success.