In it for the long haul
For these four, Boston is just a warm-up
At 7:30 a.m. they meet in Chestnut Hill at their usual spot, outside a Dunkin’ Donuts. But with a long practice run ahead of them, coffee on this Sunday morning is out of the question.
“It’s a little brisk out,’’ Errol Yudelman says to Paul Leslie-Smith as they begin stretching. Adrian King jogs up, and gives a fist bump to another of their group, Spencer Farrar.
“I can’t stretch before I run,’’ King says. ’’I’m going to run anyway, I’ll get stretched out.’’
As they start their 27-mile training route, from the base of Heartbreak Hill in Newton east to Copley Square and west to Natick, the four men ages 37 to 50 look like any other running buddies gearing up for the grueling Boston Marathon.
But to these athletes, tomorrow’s 26.2-mile run is just a warm-up. Next month, they’ll be competing in South Africa’s Comrades Marathon, a 56-mile race that is considered the world’s oldest and largest ultramarathon.
“I’ve done Boston before, and I’ve done Comrades twice now,’’ said Farrar, 40, a financial planner from Hartford. “At the risk of alienating myself from Boston, Comrades is so much better.’’
While Farrar was raised in America, his companions grew up in South Africa, where the Comrades Marathon is a celebrated yearly event.
“In South Africa, this is the goal, the race everyone strives to run,’’ said Yudelman, a 50-year-old Newton resident who ran the race in 1984. “After running it once, I’ve always wanted to come back and do it again.’’
Comrades is an event rich in tradition. It was launched in 1921 to honor the soldiers killed in World War I, and to “celebrate mankind’s spirit over adversity,’’ according to the race’s website. Its popularity has swelled over the years, with more than 23,600 registered for the May 30 event.
“In America when you’re talking with runners, they always bring up Boston. In South Africa, everyone asks if you’ve run Comrades,’’ said King, 37, of Needham, chief financial officer for a local technology firm.
It has traditionally alternated direction each year, with its endpoints Pietermaritzburg in the north and Durban in the south. But this is one of the few times the race will run the same direction twice in a row, ending in Durban so the celebration will take place in one of South Africa’s host cities for soccer’s World Cup, which opens June 11.
“As far back as I can remember, I recall waking up with the cock crowing for the start of Comrades,’’ said King, who grew up in Durban. “I lived a few blocks from the route; we’d have breakfast in the morning if it was an up route, or barbecue in the afternoon if it was the down route.’’
Pietermaritzburg native Leslie-Smith, a 46-year-old Wellesley consultant who will join King — and 7,000 others — as a first-time runner this year, said, “Coming from South Africa, this has always been a goal.’’
“If you run more than once, you keep your number,’’ Farrar said. “The color of your shirt shows your experience, and after 10 finishes they retire your number.’’
But finishing the 56-mile race is more than many can handle. The runners must reach various points along the route within an allotted time, or they are not allowed to continue. And they must reach the finish line in less than 12 hours.
“Everyone’s along the route, cheering, counting down’’ near each cutoff point, King said. “The announcer calls 10 minutes, then five, and people count down the seconds. When time runs out, they make a human chain blocking the course. Some people make it by seconds, and some miss it by seconds. It’s heartbreaking.’’
Both Yudelman and Farrar completed their Comrades outings well within the time limit. Yudelman crossed the finish line in 6 hours 46 minutes, finishing 178th out of more than 7,000 runners. Farrar ran Comrades in 9:20 and 9:50.
“Boston and Comrades are similar in many ways,’’ said Yudelman, running his 10th Boston Marathon tomorrow. “They are both full of history, and both sort of the premier events in their classes; Boston has been around for 114 years, and Comrades has been around for over 85 years. The courses are somewhat similar too; they both have prominent hills to overcome.’’
Farrar said supporters cheering along the route are also common to both.
“The camaraderie is amazing in both races. You have tremendous fan support at both races, that’s critical. If you’re going up Heartbreak Hill, the wave of their cheering carries you up the hill,’’ Farrar said.
Just before the halfway point in the Comrades race, there is a school for children with disabilities. “There’s 300 kids, in wheelchairs, blinded, all kinds of children, they just line up the street handing out bananas and slapping high fives,’’ he said. “That’s the most motivating part of the race, these kids on crutches are standing up cheering for you.’’
It was Vic Clapham, a soldier during World War I, who proposed the first Comrades Marathon. His unit had marched more than 1,700 miles across Africa, and many of Clapham’s fellow soldiers perished during the campaign, but he spoke of the bond forged among those who survived. To him, the race would be a living memorial to the spirit of those who fought in the war.
The spirit survives today among its participants.
“Comrades is one hell of a hard race,’’ said Leslie-Smith. “Training for Comrades on your own takes a huge amount of dedication and sacrifice. We try to push each other a bit further, it’s more aggressive and more competitive, and hopefully we push each other to a level we’d struggle to reach on our own.’’
Yudelman and Farrar met through Newton’s Heartbreak Hill Striders, a large running club. King discovered the club after reading about Farrar’s experience running in Comrades, then found Leslie-Smith through the South African event’s official website (www.comrades.com), and invited him to join them.
The group trains on weekends. Farrar, who recently moved from Newton to Hartford, drives up when he can to participate.
“It’s good motivation, we work well together,’’ said Leslie-Smith.
Farrar said the group training helps them to reach the intensity needed to withstand the race’s ultramarathon distance and challenging conditions.
“It starts off at 5:30 in the morning when it’s very cold, maybe 40 degrees, and it’s dark for maybe the first hour. By the middle of the race, the sun’s up and it can get nearly 80 degrees. You’ll see people who can’t handle it, they’re delirious, running in circles or zagging around.’’
The group has been working its way up to Comrades for several months. King has been considering beginning from Wellesley tomorrow, and running to the starting point in Hopkinton before turning around and heading to Boston. Just two weeks ago, Leslie-Smith and Yudelman ran the 35-mile Two Oceans Marathon in South Africa.
Though most of their interaction is limited to weekend runs, the four men tease one another as if they’re old friends.
“Did you run last night?’’ Farrar asks King at their meeting point.
“I did, but I saved what little I had to punish you guys.’’
After a few more stretches, a little more banter, they’re off.