The 13 minute kilometer

Ruthless, brutal, unrelenting, colossal… Just a few words used to describe the Comrades Ultra marathon, the ultimate human race. While words on paper can help those who haven’t had the honor of taking part understand to a degree, the true emotions happen on that long road between Pietermaritzburg and Durban.

This year was my second year in a row running the race and constituted my first ‘down’ run i.e. the race finishes at a lower point than in starts (the opposite of last year). After last year’s horrendous weather conditions, the worst in 89 editions of the race, my running partner and mentor, Sam Shantall, and I were in pretty positive spirits before this year’s race. After all, how could it be any worse than last year?

The funny thing is that despite or even because of the incident which you’ll read about below, it was infinitely better for so many reasons.

The luxury that retrospect provides, enables me to write this with a degree of clarity and clearheadedness. The race preparations in Umhlanga were flawless and we were pretty chilled outside the Pietermaritzburg town hall at the start. After the famous buildup (, we made our way towards Durban, running conservatively, knowing that the actual down part of the run only begins just past the 50k mark. The first 42k of the ‘down’ run, includes some monster uphills up to 6k in length and is considered to be the second hardest marathon distance in South Africa, which is an incredible statistic for a country which hosts hundreds of marathons yearly. (The toughest marathon distance is the first half of the ‘up’ run i.e. many of the hills we would soon be running down). The scenery was stunning – Watching the sun rise from the highest point on the course and running with a view over the valley of 1000 hills were breathtaking. Sam felt nauseous at the 20k mark and gave me his blessing to go ahead. I heard he was only a bit behind me at 60k and was fully expecting him to catch up at some point, especially as I was starting to feel nauseous myself and the incredible downhills (over 7% gradient!) had started to take their toll. All runners try to conserve their legs, but the hills physically and mentally destroy you (including the elites) and I was beginning to suffer cramps in both quads. I persisted nonetheless, discarded my running belt, which I figured out was part of the reason I was losing my appetite (due to it getting too tight) and then gave Sam my blessing at the 80k mark, as he shot past me.

The race really changed at the 82k mark. At this point I was trying anything to keep my legs moving, so opted to receive some type of icy hot leg spray from a sponsors stand. As soon as the spray touched my legs, they seized up and the next thing I knew I was in agony, lying on my back on the ground. At this point it was race over for me, a DNF. That was the only thought going through my head, nothing else. That all changed when one of the gentlemen at the stand, started talking to me and calming me down. When another person manning the stand suggested that I take a medical bus (buses drive the course, picking up runners who can’t continue any more) I politely told her what I think about that idea! The original guy, was elevating my legs and gently rolling my ankle to see if he could get some blood flowing. Now lying on your back is a not too unfamiliar site in the Comrades, but I had done so right by a crowd who seemed to be anxiously watching me, to see if I would be able to continue. The point where you can no longer move forward on your steam is where you probably need medical support. I was trying to motivate myself, when I spotted the pink breast cancer awareness bracelet ( I had picked up a few kilometers earlier and thought about my late Aunty Rosalind. If there was any motivation needed, there it was. A great woman and a constant source of strength to her family, who left this world way too early. So after what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only 4/5 minutes, I suggested that I stand up, so my makeshift physio called on a member of the public to help, and the two of them propped me up vertically, and much to the crowds amazement as much as mine, I could move my legs! I had returned from behind the infamous runner’s wall.

I said thank you numerous times to my savior and was then taken aback by the tumultuous applause from the crowd, with many of the interracial crowd, shouting ‘go Israel’ when they saw the flag on my shirt!

The human spirit really is an amazing, truly unbreakable phenomenon. Even though I had no chance of running anymore, the energy from the crowd alone, saw me through home and even hobbling the 100m to the finish – no way I was walking across that line 🙂

Sheer willpower and mutual respect and encouragement between all runners (I was even encouraging other runners, less fortunate than me through the streets of Durban!) brought me home 1650 of the 14620 starters, i.e. top 11%  (from which 11985 finished i.e. 18%  dropout rate) to Kingsmeed Stadium.

This race really taught me about the purity of running and that no one cares about the times, position or any other statistic. The common question heard after running in South Africa is, “How was your run?” Nothing about splits, vertical oscillation, pacing zones etc. Runners gain respect just for getting to the start line, regardless of result and more importantly regardless of race, color or creed.

To clarify, I wouldn’t have even made it to the start line had my wife and kids not selflessly put up with months of training at all hours of the day. Words cannot express my gratitude to them and to the rest of my family and friends for all their support. Now to plan my next adventure…

About the Author
Avigdor Book is a mechanical engineer by profession and currently is employed by Tufin Technologies as Director of Training and Knowledge. His main passion lies in marathon and ultra-marathon running, covering much of Israel’s beautiful land, on both road and trail. He has run over 30 marathons, plus many ultra-marathons worldwide and is forever indebted to his family and friends for their unwavering support.