The 96th Comrades Marathon - dubbed the ultimate human race, took place on Sunday, 11 June 2023. More than 16 000 ultramarathon runners embarked on the 87.7 km race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, putting their endurance, grit, and mental and physical strength to the test. Of these runners were academics in the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences (EMS), Bianca Frost and Naomi Wilkinson, who both successfully completed the down run race.
Frost, of the Department of Marketing Management, completed the marathon in 10 hours and 15 minutes, earning a bronze medal for her performance. Although she says this was not her best performance, she is happy with the outcome and grateful for the experience. She found the 2023 marathon, which was her sixth Comrades Marathon, quite challenging.
“To be honest, this year was rather tough mentally. You experience 'highs' and 'lows' along the route and you must be able to push yourself through those low moments. This is where the camaraderie of the Comrades really comes in, as runners and hundreds of supporters along the route encourage you to keep going. Although it was not my first Comrades, every year promises a unique experience on the day, but it is always one that is extraordinary. I think that is what keeps people coming back every year,” she expressed.
Bianca Frost with her 2023 Comrades Marathon bronze medal
For her training, she covered 1 100 km on the road between January and the end of May 2023 and completed the Two Oceans Marathon in April in under 4 hours and 50 minutes, serving as a pre-qualifier for the Comrades.
Wilkinson, a senior lecturer in the Department of Auditing, stressed the importance of mental strength to reach the finish line of the iconic race.
“To complete an ultramarathon of this distance (87,7 km this year) is no easy task. Firstly, you have to prepare and train properly. You cannot run such a long distance if you did not do your part whilst training. Secondly, you have to prepare yourself mentally. The brain is a very powerful organ – it is the source of intelligence, interpreter of the senses, initiator of body movement, and controller of behaviour. These aspects all ensure that you are mentally tough enough to push your body through all the pain and just keep on running,” said Wilkinson.
From an early age, having watched her father train and participate in the Comrades, she was intrigued to one day participate in the ultramarathon race. As a long-distance runner then, she saw it as a challenge to push her body to the extreme and subsequently entered her first race in 2005. This year marked her 18th Comrades Marathon.
Naomi Wilkinson at another ultramarathon
The allure of the race is what has seen Wilkinson participate in the race every year since 2005, despite the difficulties endured on the road. This year, at approximately 65 km into the race, her legs started hurting – pain that is normal and expected for runners. Despite the aches, she had to continue running while she had a deep self-motivating conversation with her inner athlete.
“During these last 17 km, I was very aware of every muscle in my body that was not happy with me. However, this is where the challenge lies for me with Comrades. This is where you have to push yourself beyond what you believed you were capable of. To be very honest, I was extremely happy that we finished at Kingsmead Stadium again, especially given the fact that it was 2 km shorter,” she said.
For the 2023 race, she reached the finish line within 9 hours and 23 minutes of the race, earning herself the Robert Mtshali medal, awarded to runners who finish Comrades between 9 hours and under 9:59:59, or Sub 10.
Speaking on the thrill that comes with reaching the finishing line, Wilkinson said: “It is just impossible to describe the ‘high’ you get when entering that stadium and all the people cheering. This moment is always very special to me since, my husband is also a runner, and most of the time he ensures that I see him whilst finishing in the stadium. He is a much faster runner than I am and already rested when I finish.”
Both the runners stated that the support of family and fellow runners played a vital role in their success at the Comrades this year. They hope to continue participating in future marathons.