Fordyce’s Comrades focus: Why the long run is so important

Every weekend, while training for the Comrades marathon, the Comrades King, the late, great Wally Hayward, would leave his house in Germiston very early in the morning and run all the way to Pretoria’s Fountains Valley.

After what Wally described as “a refreshing dip and a wash in the fountains” he would run all the way back to his home in Germiston. The round trip was in excess of 100 kilometres. In Wally’s opinion this weekly long run was an essential part of his Comrades training programme.

“But I’m sure that nowadays you youngsters run much further than that on your long runs,” he said when we chatted about how training had evolved over the years.

He was puzzled and even slightly sceptical when I assured him that I had hardly ever run further than 60 kilometres in one session. His scepticism would have deepened even further had he known that two-time winner and up-run record holder Leonid Shvetsov never ran further than 35 kilometres in one session when training for the Comrades. Of course, he ran more than 200 kilometres a week in training so in a sense his training week was one extended long run.

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I would never have been quite as bold as Shvetsov in ignoring all the propaganda about the value of very long runs. I served my ultra-running apprenticeship in the 1970s and was schooled by the runners of that time and had the value of these sessions drummed into me. I always advise runners to include a few very long runs in their training build-up, but I also advise runners to be very cautious.

I’m writing this because now it’s time, it’s time to start those drawn out tedious all day long, chilly mornings, sunscreen afternoons, gruelling, plodding runs on distant country roads with no reward except the companionship of other runners. All this in preparation for a long day out on the road at the Comrades. While no one needs to emulate Wally’s prodigious distances, a few long runs have their benefits, aside from just making our training diaries look impressive.

1) Long runs improve muscle and lung function and endurance

2) They increase blood supply

3) They build incredible strength

4) But most importantly, they build mental toughness

If a runner can endure a boring long training run, the charisma packed Comrades becomes less of a challenge.

Long runs, however, are not useful as barometers of running form or as signs that a runner is ready to run an exceptional Comrades marathon. Unfortunately, there are too many occasions where a runner has tried to prove his or her fitness by speeding through a long run. I recall, a few years ago a runner boasting that he had “won” the Rand Athletic Club’s  long run.

“I was first back at the clubhouse this morning,” he boasted. “I averaged just over 4 minutes a kilometre for 72km. I am going to ‘kill’ Comrades.”

Unfortunately he had forgotten that there are no medals, prize money, or newspaper headlines at the finish of a club training long run, but there are hidden disasters lurking within every kilometre of those runs.

That runner didn’t kill Comrades that year. The Comrades killed him, or rather his long training run killed him. He left his Comrades hopes and dreams on the hills and valleys and roads of Randburg and Muldersdrift. He forgot that a long training run is not a race. It is a long day on the road in preparation for the major race.

‘Time on your feet’

It is important to run these long runs slowly. Speed is acquired in other specific sessions. These long runs accumulate important hours or “time on your feet”.

On race day the leaders will be running for between 5½ and 6 hours while the back markers will run, walk and shuffle for up to 12 hours. If we consider that most runners arrive early for the start and then stand around killing time, waiting for Max Trimborn’s cockerel crow, then they will have been on their feet for over 13 hours. 

I challenge anyone to simply stand for 13 hours without ever sitting down. It’s almost impossible, and yet this is what runners will expect from their legs on race day. So, it’s all about spending as much time as possible in a vertical position. There can be no sitting or resting during a long run, not even on the pavement while enjoying a drink or on the tailgate of a kind second’s bakkie.

From this weekend I advise runners to run one run of around 60km, two runs in the 50 to 55km range and a couple of 40 and 30km runs. These extra-long runs should be spaced on alternate weekends and never run consecutively, for example: 50 – 30 – 40 – 30 – 60 – 25 etc.

Be comforted that no one needs to run as far as Wally or take a dip in the chilly Pretoria Fountains.