By RiŽl Hauman
(04-Oct) -- South Africa's Comrades Marathon, the world's largest ultra, has never before been held later than July 14, and that will be 70 years ago in 2022. But the COVID-19 pandemic has changed one's concept of "never before", so few people probably will be surprised that the 95th running of the race will be on August 28, 2022. It will be a "down" run from Pietermaritzburg to Durban on the Kwazulu-Natal coast.
Photo courtesy of Comrades Marathon Association
One of strong motivating factors for the late date was that the organizers will gain an additional two hours of daylight in which to stage the 12-hour event --a great help in implementing a staggered or wave start, which the organizers feel will be required in terms of COVID mitigation. The race is held over approximately 90 km and alternates in direction between Pietermaritzburg and Durban each year.
In a letter addressed to all Comrades athletes, Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) chairperson Cheryl Winn said: "Decisions taken by the CMA are primarily made with the health and safety of runners in mind. We not only endeavor to uphold the integrity of our world-class event but first and foremost aim to safeguard the well-being of our athletes, staff, volunteers, sponsors, stakeholders, supporters and fellow South Africans involved in staging, hosting, participating and maintaining the legacy of The Ultimate Human Race."
Winn, herself a former champion, added that the date of the 100 year-old Comrades Marathon has over the years shifted from as early as mid-May to as late as mid-July, originally staged on a public holiday known as Empire Day on May 24, 1921, later settled for years on Republic Day, May 31, and then on Youth Day, June 16. On various occasions, however, it was shifted backwards and forwards to avoid clashes with the hosting of Rugby and FIFA World Cups.
"Only as recently as 2018 did the CMA eventually settle on the second Sunday in June, so, there is actually NO 'traditional' date for Comrades," Winn said.
Scientifically, the problem with the second Sunday of June is its proximity to June 21, which is the shortest day of the year in the Southern Hemisphere; thus requiring that shortly after a Pietermaritzburg start, thousands of tightly-bunched athletes run for an hour and a quarter in the dark, on narrow, winding, pot-holed country roads, mostly devoid of streetlights, and then, at the other end of the day, after having already spent eleven hours on the road, extremely weary runners once again have to navigate their way to the finish in the dark.
Regarding COVID restrictions, Winn said: "We also believe that the later date will provide a greater likelihood of the sport having resumed to some sort of normality. It will give runners ample time to prepare, for clubs to stage their own races as opportunities for runners to qualify; and enable a smooth and logical build-up of events leading up to a race of such magnitude."
Details of the entry process, qualifying criteria and other race information will be announced in due course.
The race was last held in 2019 as an "up" run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg and had 16,702 finishers. The winners were Edward Mothibi and Gerda Steyn, whose 5:58:53 was the first ever sub-6 hour performance for the up run. Steyn became only the fourth woman to have won the Two Oceans ultramarathon and the Comrades in the same year.