Comrades – the race of mental strength
‘You have to know how to fight for what you want in life to win Comrades, because the factor that separates the winner from the other frontrunners in this legendary ultramarathon is mental strength.’
I’m talking to Nick Bester, National Manager of the Nedbank Running Club, who has 50 elite, Green Dream Team runners entering this year’s Comrades. In a total field of 23 000 runners, 804 of them will be from the 4 200 strong Nedbank Running Club.
This year’s Comrades, the 93rd, will be a downrun on Sunday, 10 June. The race starts at Pietermaritzburg City Hall at 05:30 and ends at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, covering a distance of approximately 90,1 km.
‘Comrades is about strength; you naturally need to be physically strong, fit and muscular, but, most importantly, you have to have to be exceptionally mentally strong. You must have this in you; it is what separates those who come first from those who come second,’ says Bester.
‘The physical coaching is far easier than mental coaching; we have the recipe for the physical side, but mental strength is one of the most difficult things to teach someone.’
Mental fitness, he explains, defines who you are, and it is informed by how you grew up. ‘Kids that have been brought up too easy often don’t know how to fight for what they want in life. They give up too easily and you have to have fight to the end to win Comrades,’ says Bester, himself a Comrades winner (1991), who speaks from experience. He grew up the hard way.
To enhance your mental strength Bester says, ‘You have to train your brain to concentrate on positive thoughts, as positive thoughts need to be repeated several times before they are stored in the brain. Negative thoughts store far more quickly than positive ones, which is why it is far easier to be negative.’
He attests to the ‘amazing positivity and mental strength’ of the Nedbank Running Team’s top 10 men and 10 women Comrades runners who have won a string of titles. ‘We invest in winners, but these are winners who are pleasant to work with, who know how to keep their feet on the ground even when they are at the top. They remain teamplayers and help their teammates; we don’t like prima donnas and we won’t invest in them.’
After dominating the Two Oceans, the Diacore Gaborone Marathon in Botswana and several other distance races this year, Bester is excited and confident about Comrades. ‘With everything we do, from the team to the management to the sponsors, we aspire to be better than number one, and that is how we train and coach the athletes, and approach all the races.’
The final polishing for Comrades starts 10 weeks ahead of the race, with a combination of running training, endurance work, gym work and cross-training, combined with a high-performance diet. ‘I believe in a diet of proteins and fats, supplemented with carbohydrates, notably fruit, vegetables and potatoes, but avoiding gluten-heavy carbohydrates, which can cause sinus issues. We also supplement the diet with Biogen and FutureLife products, which have a lot of vitamins and minerals,’ says Bester.
Each of the elite athletes’ pre-Comrades training programmes is tailored to their individual needs and preferences, as Bester explains. A runner such as 2012 Comrades winner Ludwick Mamabolo likes to enter races to get into shape; 2018 Two Oceans 56 km winner Gerda Steyn does a lot of cross-training; and 2016 Comrades winner Charné Bosman puts in the mega-miles. Several times Comrades runnerup, Mike Fokoroni, likes to train alone at home in Zimbabwe.
Several weeks ahead of Comrades, the elite athletes train from the Nedbank Running Club camps around the country, including Pretoria, Dullstroom, Graskop, Underberg, Stutterheim, Magoebaskloof and AfriSki in Lesotho. Small groups of elite athletes come together to train in these camps, rather than all of them training in one or two large camps. ‘They are highly competitive and tend to treat each training session as a race, which can be too hard on their bodies, which is why we divided them up into small groups,’ says Bester.
Mike Fokoroni’s pre-Comrades training camp is 90 km east of Harare. He trains there until the end of May, when he comes to South Africa ahead of the race. ‘I’m feeling highly prepared and good about this year’s Comrades,’ he says. ‘The downrun is my favourite as I have a lot of speed, and I’m hoping to be in the top three.’
Fokoroni completed his last longer pre-Comrades run of 52 km in the last week of May, and eases down on his distance until Comrades, with 20 km to 25 km runs and plenty of stretching. Diet-wise, he says, ‘I take fruits as my booster. I don’t eat much red meat, instead I eat fish and chicken and vegetables. I don’t eat much fat, but I do eat bread, rice and potatoes, as well as FutureLife and Biogen.’
With regard to mental strength, he says: ‘I’m an Olympian and I’m self-motivated, so I must protect my dignity as an Olympian by doing well. When I’m running Comrades, I just think of running like an Olympic runner, not like a jogger (he laughs) and this gives me mental and physical strength and power. I also keep the noise from the crowd in the background as I don’t want it to detract from my focus.’
Charné Bosman initially trained in the Graskop camp, and then did the last couple of weeks of her training in Pretoria near her home. ‘I want the last few days before Comrades to go fast. I won the downrun in 2016 and I really enjoy it because of my speed,’ she says. To boost her performance this past year she did more gym training, increasing from two or three sessions a week to five or six.
To mentally prepare for Comrades, she visualises the race, especially during the preceding two weeks. ‘I also focus on feeling great, as I know that I have been training hard for this race and it only comes once a year, so we mustn’t forget to also enjoy it. It is such a privilege to have the biggest ultramarathon in the world in South Africa.’
Gerda Steyn, who is personally trained by Nick Bester, did the bulk of her heavy training, including cross-training, in Lesotho for the first two weeks of May, at 3 300 m above sea level in freezing weather, including snowfalls. From here she moved to the Graskop camp.
Ludwick Mamabolo has been training in the Magoebaskloof camp since 14 May. ‘We were initially doing longer, slower runs of 45 km on Wednesdays and Sundays and then eased down to runs of about 20 km to condition the body and to make sure the body is not fatigued on race day. I’m feeling very confident and happy about this year’s race. We are all ready and waiting the big day,’ says Mamabolo, who prefers the downrun ‘as it is hard and fast’.
During the year he runs 25 km to 30 km daily and 40 km to 50 km on weekends, mostly in Polokwane, where he lives and works fulltime for Nedbank in client services. ‘On behalf of all us, I want to thank Nick Bester, Nedbank and all the sponsors for your support and for looking after us. Thanks a million, it is really appreciated.’
For all the runners out there who are competing in Comrades it is completely vital to not to use anything new on race day. ‘No new shoes, clothing or supplements,’ emphasises Bester. ‘It is also essential to get a good night’s sleep two nights prior to the race; the night before is important too, but not as important. And if you are not feeling well or are injured, do not run; rather withdraw.’
So, who will be lifting that Comrades gold caduceus for the world to see this year? Bester is confident about his elite team’s chances. He says the men’s field is extremely strong this year, but any of the following Nedbank Running Club runners who get to Comrades injury- and illness-free could feature in the top five: Ludwick Mamabolo, Mike Fokoroni, Lungile Gongqa, Hatiwande Nyamande, Steve Way and Eric Ngubane, plus several strong international runners from Europe who will be representing Nedbank. In the top five for the women’s race we could see Gerda Steyn, Charné Bosman Fikile Mbuthuma, Camile Heron, Sarah Bard and Deanne Horn.
There can only be one winner on the day, and as Gerda Steyn says: ‘There will be many, many disappointments as a professional runner. You have to be strong enough to handle them and take whatever lessons you can from the experience. Things will not always go to plan – both in racing and in training. And when times get tough, you just have to keep showing up and never let the bad days overshadow the good, because when things work out, it will change your life!’
About the Nedbank Running Club
The Nedbank Running Club looks for athletic talent in all of South Africa’s communities, rural and urban, and starts training youngsters for marathon running from the age of 15. ‘It takes at least 10 years of continuous development for them to reach their peak,' says Bester.
The Nedbank Running Club has 13 clubs nationally, as well as clubs in Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Ethiopia. Each of which is responsible for supporting runners at all levels and identifying and nurturing development athletes. To grow promising young runners there are currently five Nedbank Development Running Clubs in different parts of the country, including Soweto, Pretoria, Klerksdorp/Central North West, East London and Bloemfontein. They have approximately 350 members. 'It is vital that we look after the next generation by growing our development programmes,' says Bester.
About 40% to 50% of the athletes in the South African national team in all distances have come through the Nedbank Running Club's development programmes. The club has several legendary athletes on its staff, including former marathon athlete, Pio Mpolokeng, who manages the training of the Nedbank group of athletes in the Central North West Province. Altogether, 50% of the South African teams competing in championship events typically come from the Nedbank Running Club development programmes.
'Through the work that we do we see the difference that running makes to people's lives', says Mpolokeng 'We are currently working on increasing the number of runners with talent and bringing them from all over – from our cities, villages and other African countries – to train with our clubs and build a strong talent base and sense of unity.'
For more information go to www.nedbankrunningclub.co.za