It promises to be a down year in South Africa. I’m not talking about the economy or politics or even the fate of South Africa’s World Cup team. On May 31, roughly 17,000 runners will start the 85th Comrades Marathon. It’s a down year because the course will lose almost 4,000 feet of vertical elevation, largely in the second half of the race. This year’s race starts at the city hall in the city of Pietermaritzburg and finishes at Sahara Stadium Kingsmead in the city of Durban. Every other year, the race reverses course forcing runners to climb in “up” years.

The Comrades Marathon began in 1921 as a memorial to soldiers who served in World War I. A veteran who spent his time traversing the Sahara Desert had a vision of athletes traversing the South African coast as a tribute to fallen comrades.

Unlike a 26.2 mile marathon, Comrades is considered an ultra-marathon and covers 56 miles. After a festive, rambunctious start, runners cover many lonely miles and climbs in the warm sun. In a down year, and after 43 miles, runners will be able to see the finish line a mere half marathon away. And while it’s all down hill from there, runners’ quads get so trashed from the jarring descent that anyone without a high lactation threshold or tolerance for pain will be seriously tempted to drop out.

Most Stateside marathons permit runners to complete the race even if the typical six hour cut off time has passed. At Comrades, cut off times are absolute and runners not making checkpoints in the allotted times are not allowed to continue. Finishers must cross the line at 12 hours or a fence is drawn across the finish line barring runners from crossing. There are no exceptions.

The race has been rated as the world’s best ultra-marathon by Runner’s World Magazine and serious runners from around the world often list Comrades on their race bucket lists because of the history, challenge, and exotic location. And, for serious runners, the only qualification requirement for entry is a five hour marathon, which even this sloth-footed author has been able to accomplish. While qualifying there may be easy, completing the race is not.

Americans have not had much success in the race. The only American man to win the race was Alberto Salazar, famous for winning the 1982 Boston Marathon in the Duel in the Sun against Dick Beardsley. Ann Trason is the only American winner, taking two titles in a row in 1996 and 1997. In both years she “doubled” winning the Western States 100 merely 12 days after Comrades.

This year could be a good year for the Americans. Four elite Americans will compete in South Africa. Mammoth Lakes-based, Josh Cox, California International Marathon runner up and American 50-K record holder will join ultra-runner Michael Wardian who will by running the 151 mile Marathon des Sables held in the Sahara Desert. American women Nikki Kimball, three-time Western States winner, and Kami Semick, undefeated in several 100-K races in 2009, round out an impressive American team capable of reaching the podium.

But the runner who captures the most hearts is Bart Yasso, author of My Life on the Run and Chief Running Officer at Runner’s World. In his book and during his many running presentations around the world, Yasso reveals running Comrades to be the one missing piece of his running career. A winner of Badwater and inventor of the Yasso 800’s, he is running Comrades to complete his bucket list.

So while it promises to be a down year in South Africa, on May 31 runners’ spirits will be up at 5:30am ready to take on the world’s most prestigious ultramarathon.

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