A heady dose of Zulu chanting spurs on the 14,000 strong field of international runners before an old war cannon barks flame signifying the start of the epic race that is the Comrades Marathon.
The first major sporting event in South Africa opened to all races and sexes, the gruelling 90 kilometre run through mountainous terrain including the “Valley of 1000 Hills” has earnt the reputation as one of the world’s toughest and most scenic ultra marathons.
Twice as long as a conventional event, competitors begin in one degree temperatures at the top of the mountains later revived by scantily clad Energade girls in their quest for the Durban finish line bathed in 25 degree sunshine.
A procedural GP performing minor surgery at a variety of Perth metropolitan practices, Geoff is obviously partial to endorphins beginning the epic race with a stress fracture in his foot before finishing three kilograms lighter.
One of 10 WA participants to compete in both the Two Oceans Marathon (68 klm) and Comrades Marathon this year, about 30 Australian competitors helped raise over R1.1 million that will benefit Capetown and Durban’s hungry, homeless and disabled.
Most of the South African ultra marathons are run for charity and one of the beneficiaries was a school about halfway along the Comrades’ route. Most of the money is used to purchase basic medical equipment such as crutches and wheelchairs.
“It was a bit heartbreaking to see the lack of facilities these kids had and there was certainly a lot of weird and wonderful pathology there including elephantitis.”
Running most Saturday mornings from Mt Helena Primary School to Mundaring and back, Geoff clocks about 150klm per week during training using the Perth and Rottnest Island Marathons as “warm ups” for the gruelling Two Oceans and Comrades ultra marathons events.
First dabbling in triathlons and the Perth Marathon in 1995, Geoff confesses the more fitness he engages in, the more his appetite grows to conquer personal challenges. Blooding himself with his first ‘fast’ run at the Sydney Marathon in 2002, he has since competed in London and South Africa in 2004-2005.
“When I finished the Comrades Marathon in 2004 someone said ‘that’s great but you’ve only done half way! ‘You’ve done the ‘up’ run so now you have to do the ‘down’ run.’ So that’s when I joined a group of ultra marathon runners who were doing the Two Oceans marathon (Capetown) as big hill training for the Comrades Marathon ‘down’ run and it went from there.”
The sheer distance of running 90klms is pretty taxing. It’s a matter of balancing your footwear and your running style and exercising all the muscle groups in your legs so nothing is neglected. If one thing is out of balance you’ll become injured quickly.”There’s a lot of physios along the side of the road and a lot of competitors require stretching to relieve cramps. Because you’re running up and down a lot of hills many people suffer from nausea which I think might be acid based related as all we’re drinking are sports drink or Coke and not really eating much food.”
Geoff reckons competitors take about 2-3 weeks to recover from the soreness and sitting in Durban it’s easy to pick who’s done the Comrades event the day before.
“There’s people hobbling around everywhere”, he muses. “It’s very hard to go up and down steps so the real giveaways are the people who have to turn around and lower themselves down the steps.”
“The day after the event we went to a pub called ‘Joe Cools’ on the beach in Durban where they brought out buckets of beer with about 20 bottles in each bucket. So we had about three buckets of beer in the afternoon.”
According to Geoff the South Africans are obsessed with marathon running and are leading the way in ultra marathon medical research.
This year event organisers offered a huge tent with about 90 beds set out with volunteer doctors and paramedics. These staff helped weigh competitors before the start and at the finish line and collected further data at the medical tent to help determine weight loss and symptoms during the event.
Not content with just cramming two international ultra marathons into the first half of this year, Geoff recently joined university buddies for a two week climbing trek in the Pyrenees.
Joined by WA Orthopod Peter Annear, Geoff and his colleagues undertook a challenging rock climbing and hiking circuit at one stage negotiating100-200m cliff faces with a 15 kilo pack and no ropes.
Apart from blisters and their guide catching bronchitis that Geoff promptly medicined with antibiotics, the adventurous docs returned unscathed after another relaxing holiday.