CurraNZ athlete and Australian ultramarathoner Andrew Heyden overcame the odds to win a silver medal in Comrades, the ‘Ultimate Human Race’ earlier this month.
A bucket-list race for marathoners over the world, this oldest on-going marathon centres in South Africa and attracts the largest worldwide turnout. This year’s gruelling 87km event attracted 25,000 runners from more than 60 countries.
Having raced the event in 2010, Andrew started this year’s race low in confidence after a hamstring injury in May meant he had to cut short his preparation five weeks ahead of schedule.
Despite this, he loaded up on CurraNZ and exceeded all expectations to finish strong in just over seven hours, earning him a silver medal on an exhilarating day he said was ‘like no other’.
The brutal race lived up to expectations and got the better of many, including four-time Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington.
Here, Andy reflects on the big day:
Achilles strain had me riddled with doubts on the start line
“The Comrades ultramarathon was my main ‘A’ race in the first half of the year. A hamstring strain in the NSW State 10km Champs in early May meant I missed my four biggest training weeks and enforced a very early five-week taper.
I was still able to run but had to be careful and focused on strengthening exercises to get the hamstring back to where it needed to be.
In ten years of ultra-running, never had I stood on the start line with less confidence about whether I might finish.
I was up at 3.30am and joined the 25,000-strong masses at the start line on the outskirts of Durban after taking my CurraNZ and an energy gel with some water.
The African drums and energy from the locals creates noise and atmosphere like no other. We started in the dark and to begin with, there was lots of pushing and shoving, with two big falls around me taking down multiple people. I was feeling nervous and negative and found it too much this time. I was keen to get to the quieter outskirts.
It wasn’t long before the climbs kicked in. I broke the race into sections and my first goal was to get to daylight without tripping or being tripped. I started cautiously and went over the first timing mat in 879th place. My hamstring seemed okay and kept the gels going every 7km.
At 15km we had climbed the first of the five ‘serious’ hills, although in reality, there is no flat running in the whole race. The first hill climbs 100m for 2km, the second 190m over 3.2km. At this point I start overtaking some of the early chargers - some are walking already. I hold back as it’s too early to chase a fast time and I just want to finish.
25km - Getting into the spirit but witness to an Ironman legend succumb
The crowds remained thick and soon we are on to Botha’s Hill, another 120m rise over 2km. I latch onto a few of the elite women and pull up alongside multiple Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington and see her eyes are gone and she’s shot. I try to help her up the hill but she has nothing and I had to push on.
Soon we are at the halfway mark, where according to my race data, I was now in 601st, but the race hasn’t really begun.
It’s time for another big hill - 140m climbing over 2km.The hamstring seems to be holding well, my confidence increases and I start to set my sights on my 2010 PB of 7:08, which now looks achievable.
I hold strong on the next hill and push past a few of the big-named elites which feels good. I high-five the disabled kids at Ethembeni School and remind myself I am fortunate to be able to run. They are a big part of the Comrades race and a few of them have the Aussie flags I handed out the day before.
Just as my spirits are rising the guy next to me bites into his water sachet and attempts to spray the water down his neck but instead directs it into my left ear! I stumble right just as another runner cuts across me to grab a water sachet and somehow we don’t trip. It's a close shave.
I take two more CurraNZ in the second half of the race to help performance and start thinking about muscle recovery.
We are through 60km and 70km and I’m now up to 322nd where I’ve held the same average pace. I’m passing plenty of runners and a few are passing me. I focus on some ahead who are holding their pace well and note their awesome names on their bibs - ‘Lucky’, ‘Justice’ and ‘Freedom’ – not their nicknames, which is South Africa for you!
Hamstring is holding out and I start thinking a PB is ‘on’
I now allow myself to look at the distance markers, 17km to go, 16km to go etc and decide to push on. Thankfully, there’s still no sign of the hamstring tightening. My PB is 'on' now, but the last of the ‘big five’ is looming.
Named Polly Shorts, the hill is shorter and steeper with another 130m of climbing, but only 8km left to go at the summit. Most people around me are breaking but I refuse to stop running.
Finally at the top, I grab my first Coke of the day and allow myself to believe I’m going to not only finish, but get a silver medal - and maybe a PB too.
Then bloody hell, we get around the corner and we’re climbing again - it’s not flat at all! I reel in two more elite ladies plus a few more and start pushing for home.
On the home straight – and onwards to a medal
I cover the last 1.2km at 3:49 pace - my fastest of the day. The wall of noise in the 300m finish zone is awesome and even if the hamstring goes now, I’m not stopping.
I finish in 7hrs02 for a new PB and 210th overall of the 23,000, which earns me another silver medal (after 2010), despite my hamstring, which hasn’t spoiled the experience. Of course my natural thought is I could have pushed harder in the first half, but hindsight is a wonderful thing!
On finishing, I head to the international tent to share stories with a few others I recognise. Like Ironman, it’s great to sit back and watch the others come in and witness the drama of the 12-hour cut-off as thousands of runners miss the deadline and either cut it fine to finish or miss out in the final minutes.
Many people want to run big City Marathons but these races only came about in the 1970s - 50 years later than Comrades, which started in 1921. And I'm delighted to have completed two now.
Whilst a visit to South Africa brings a few potential dangers, as well as taking part in this iconic race, it gives the opportunity for a fantastic cultural experience and is a great holiday destination.
I’m glad to say my post-race recovery was good, the muscle soreness was not too bad, of course aided by my daily CurraNZ and some walking and then light runs.