In Season One: Comrades Marathon

One day I was running along the trail near my house and I happened upon four women who were, you know, looked like me, average looking people not superathletes or anything, and they were having such a great time. And I stopped them and I said, ‘Where do you run from? Who are you guys? Because I want what you’ve got.”

– Cathy Hopkins

Episode summary

Cathy Hopkins began running alone, in the dark. She wanted to improve her health, but she didn’t want to be harassed on the street. Through discovering her local running community in St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada, Cathy became an avid runner and has gone on to run Comrades 9 times. She now also helps build the Comrades running community by serving as the Comrades Ambassador for Canada.

This episode shares Cathy’s journey of finding greater joy in running through shared experiences and communal support. While running can often appear to be a completely solitary sport, the community that forms around it can transcend cultures and countries, age, ability, and social standing. No where is that more evident than at the Comrades Marathon, as Cathy’s experiences attest to.

Also in this episode, learn about the various colors of bib numbers and what they mean; bib numbers and colors are tied to the many ways the race honors returning runners. Also learn about how runners can leave their own mark on the wall of honor. These are some of the many unique traditions of Comrades, which we discuss in this podcast.
This episode is part of our first season, and the theme of this season is experiences in and around the Comrades Marathon, which is a 90-kilometer, or roughly 56-mile, road race that takes place each year in South Africa. It is the oldest and largest ultra-distance foot race in the world.

Show Notes and Recommended Resources

Every episode we highlight one entry from our long list of recommended resources focused on women and running. This episode’s highlighted resource is the Running on Om podcast, hosted by Julia Hanlon. The podcast features conversations Julia has with women who have committed their lives to endurance sports and the outdoors. There’s also the Soul Sisters series, where Julia and her best friend, professional distance runner Abbey Cooper, discuss their own experiences and answer listener questions. All of the Running on Om episodes feature deep, real, inspirational, and empowering conversations that don’t shy away from life’s difficulties. I always discover great takeaways. An episode that stands out for me is Julia’s interview with Molly Seidel, which was done in January, before the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials. 

On this episode, we mention the Comrades Ambassador program. These are representatives outside of South Africa who help other runners in their country navigate all aspects of qualifying for and getting to the Comrades Marathon. You can find a full list of ambassadors with their contact information here. If you are a Canadian runner interested in running Comrades, you can email Cathy at cathy@comrades.com.

catherine-hopkins-running-photo

Cherie: This is Strides Forward, the podcast of stories about women and running, told one woman at a time. I am Cherie Louise Turner, your host and producer. 

In this first season, I’m focusing on runners’ experiences in and around the 90-kilometer, or roughly 56-mile Comrades Marathon in South Africa, the largest and oldest ultra distance running race in the world. 

This episode features a woman who’s love of running is closely tied to the community around the sport. But it didn’t start that way.  

Cathy: I remember running along the trail when I was literally just starting, I think I was running 2 minutes and walking a minute for 36 minutes. And every week I added another minute of running. And it was a bit of a lonely endeavour and got cat calls, made fun of sort of, while I’d be out doing it, so I’d do it in the dark. 

Cherie: That’s Cathy Hopkins, who lives in St Catharines, Ontario, Canada. And back when she was in her early 40s, living the busy life of a working mom and wife, she looked to running for the same reasons so many people do.

Cathy: I started running in 2003 as a way to feel better about myself, lose some weight, and develop some healthier habits. I’d developed some unhealthy habits up until that point. 

Cherie: But getting harassed on the street, running alone in the dark certainly wasn’t an encouraging start. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine a world where Cathy decided running wasn’t for her. 

And yet, in 2019 Cathy finished her 9th Comrades Marathon. That’s nine times traveling half-way around the world to run 90 kilometers. The story of how Cathy got there all started with a single encounter.  

Cathy: And one day I was running along the trail near my house and I happened upon 4 women who were, you know, looked like me, average looking people not superathletes or anything, and they were having such a great time. And I stopped them and I said, Where do you run from? Who are you guys because I want what you’ve got. 

Cherie: Those women belonged to a local running club, and Cathy joined. Running became about more than lonely outings after sunset, and Cathy began to notice many upsides to get out consistently.

Cathy: It gave me a sense of self-efficacy, the running, because I saw the improvements. And my fitness, I gave up, for the most part, the potato chips, peanuts, and a glass of wine when I came home from work. And just was able to feel that physical well-being and the mental well-being, and then being part of a community. 

Cherie: Cathy also began to see how these changes she was experiencing from running benefited the people around her.  

Cathy: In terms of my family, I think because I was looking for ways to be healthier, I felt better and I felt like I was able to deal with stress better, so one of the main things I learned from running is just that you cannot look too far ahead and that has helped me so much.So the here and now is what’s most important and it’s made me a better partner to my husband, a better parent, a better daughter, a better employer. All around I feel like I’m much better equipped to deal with life because of running.

Cherie: Running became an integral part of Cathy’s life, and eventually she learned about Comrades in a 2007 Runner’s World article. 

Cathy: I was fascinated by it, but it never occurred to me that I would ever do something like that. 

Cherie: No doubt, Comrades is fascinating. It’s existed for almost 100 years; the centennial birthday is in 2021. And it’s massive: over 27,000 runners registered for the  2020 event. But for a Canadian, it’s also a lot of travel across many time zones, and the process of registering, qualifying, and navigating travel for foreigners can be confusing and a bit daunting. And not only is the race long, the course is hilly and the weather is generally pretty warm; it’s a tough race. 

A note about that length and the name of the event: this is called the Comrades Marathon, but it is not a marathon in the conventional sense of this word. In almost all cases when someone is referring to a marathon, they’re talking about an event that’s 26.2 miles or 42.2 kilometers long. The Comrades Marathon is an exception, because it is actually an ultramarathon. 

One other detail to know about Comrades is that the course goes between the coastal city of Durban, and the smaller town of Pietermaritzburg, in the hills; each year the race switches direction, making for up years, when it finishes in Pietermaritzburg, and down years, when it finishes in Durban. 

OK, now back to Cathy. After learning about this fascinating event, she met a couple through her running community that was set on one year getting to Comrades. And when they finally decided to make the trip, they encouraged Cathy to join them. Note, here Cathy mentions American River, which is a popular 50-mile trail race in the Sacramento area of California. And she mentions Hal Higdon, a popular running writer and coach whose training programs are widely available. 

Cathy: In 2009 leading up to the 85th anniversary of Comrades in 2010, a friend of mine from my town and I signed up and trained that winter, had no idea what we were doing. She had never run more than a marathon when we got to Comrades, and I think I ran American River that winter just so that I knew that I could be on my feet for that period of time. But that’s basically how we got there. So we were, we had absolutely no idea what we were doing. We found a Hal Higdon program online and followed that, and it was great. 

Cherie: Now you may be thinking, This is a seriously difficult challenge; how could you possibly hope to get through it with no idea of what you’re getting into? 

Cathy: Non-runners, it’s always tough, I mean most people, if you’re not a runner, it can be difficult to fathom how people do distance running. And really it’s not, I do tell people, it is not that difficult. It’s something that pretty well anyone can do. I just describe it as, it’s around 90 km run. You have 12 hours to finish. 

Cherie: To say that just about anyone could do Comrades may seem like an overly generous statement, but it really isn’t wildly off base: to cover 90 kilometers in 12 hours, you have to go at a pace of just under 13 minutes per mile, which is a slow run or a brisk walk/run pace. 

 You just have to keep at it for up to half a day, on a course that’s rarely flat, through the inevitable pain and very likely through a couple of moments of really wanting to stop. 

Comrades does seem to rest right on the edge of what IS doable for just about anyone who has that desire.

And why would someone have that desire to tackle Comrades? 

Cathy:  It’s something that is emblematic of, or iconic South Africa, that the whole country embraces it, from the customs guys who stamp your passport when you come in, so excited to hear you’re coming to run the Comrades to your taxi driver. And it’s just, every South African you meet who hasn’t run the Comrades says, One day I’m going to run. And so, that’s what I tell people here, is that it’s something unlike any other event. I don’t know any event in Canada or the US that really does bring pretty well bring everyone together, a sporting event. It’s quite remarkable. 

Cherie: Cathy would also come to discover: 

Cathy: You experience all the emotions of life in a day. 

Cherie: This is to say, there are great highs as well as great lows. And the one thing about ultra racing is that the hardest part is often the distance, which doesn’t come until you’re reaching the end. The year that Cathy first ran Comrades, 2010, was a down run, so the finish was in Durban. And one of the final landmarks is the Tollgate Bridge, which comes at about 5 kilometers to go.  

Cathy: Around Tollgate I started talking to a woman who was running her 7th and I remember thinking, This woman must be crazy. Who would run this race more than once? And getting to the finish I said god I  will never run this race again. 

Cherie: Of course, this is a completely reasonable reaction to such a prolonged and painful effort. Once is enough! Or not. That woman doing her 7th Comrades is far from alone in being a repeat finisher. And in fact, returning to Comrades multiple times is a big deal. Longevity holds sway here. And it’s identified by the color of a runner’s race number, also called their race bib. 

Each bib color means something different. White bibs are for South African runners who are running one of their first nine Comrades; the exception is if you run your second Comrades the year immediately following the first time you ran; in that case, for that second year, you’d wear an orange number, to indicate you’re doing a back-to-back effort.  

If you’re a foreigner, instead of white, your bib is blue. 

When you run your tenth Comrades, regardless of where you’re from, your number is yellow. And when you return after that, you get your green number; there are two other ways to earn your green number and that is either by finishing within the top ten five times or by winning three times, but this is rare. So for those who earn their number by finishing ten times, green is their bib color through to their 19th Comrades finish. And then the pattern repeats: yellow when you’re going for your 20th Comrades, green for 21 through 29, and so on. And, oh, yes, there is a “so on”: as of the finish of the 2019 event, there are 19 runners who have earned quadruple green numbers; yep, over 40 finishes.

To date, there are no women, yet, who have earned this distinction, but there are many women who have run Comrades 30 or more times. 

Beyond the color coding, in bold print on the lower part of the bib is the number of finishes that runner already has.  

So why do we care about all these colors? First up, it gives runners something to aim for; it’s great incentive and a point of pride to earn these yellow and green numbers. But also, honoring runners in this way gives spectators extra incentive to cheer them on. The crowd at Comrades knows exactly what those colors mean and what that bold number at the bottom of the bib is counting, and furthermore, they care.

This all helps keep the crowd energized long after the elite runners have finished, especially since runners with 20, 30, 40 or more finishers are most likely to be found further back in the field. South African Comrades crowds are well known for their support of runners from first to last. 

It’s worth noting here, too, that blue numbers also get extra attention: on the whole, there just aren’t that many non-South Africans who run Comrades. For instance, of the 27,500 runners registered for 2020, almost 24,000 of them are South Africans.

All this cheering and jubilation aside, as Cathy was getting through those last 5 ks in 2010, she wasn’t thinking about yellow numbers or green numbers. When she crossed that finish line and went to join her fellow runners and her husband for some well-deserved rest, clearly her mind was made up, one and done. 

Cathy: An hour and a half later, I remember saying to my husband, I want to come back next year. The experience was so exquisite. It was so moving. The challenge was so great and the feeling of finishing and celebrating with so many new friends and seeing the last runners, cheering at that point, the last runners coming into the stadium, and it just was, every part of it was so moving that is in large part what brought me back. 

Cherie: As the pain subsided, the exceptional nature of Comrades began to sink in. You don’t get one without the other. And for Cathy, once again, it came back to community. 

Cathy: I have to say, I think in this race, what is one of, what is the most remarkable thing to me is the encouragement and the camaraderie of other runners, so you are truly never alone when you’re out there, and physically obviously there are other people around you, but I’ve run many races in North America and I’ve never had people reach out to me the way that the South Africans do. And so it’s, people look after you. 

Cherie: Strangers look out for strangers, and shared suffering invites opportunities to make uncommon bonds.  

Cathy: There are two people who stick out in my mind. And the one was a few years ago on the up run going up Polly Shortts, which is a seemingly never ending hill and it was, it’s always a challenging part of the race. You’re pretty close to the finish, but you’re really not that close. And I was walking with a guy, this young fellow, probably about a foot and half taller than I was, from Zimbabwe, who was 21, asked me where I was from. We were talking about Canada, and I asked him about Zimbabwe. And I was well old enough to be his mother, maybe his grandmother. It was such a really beautiful moment to share with someone who I never would have met in any other circumstance. He was wise beyond his years, curious, obviously hard working and had committed himself to doing this race at such a young age, which I think was quite remarkable. 

And then there’s another time with a guy and it’s very serendipitous, at Comrades, 18,000 people out on the road. And the one year I met this guy, a young South African guy. He had a man bun. He had the big spacers in his ear rings. He was wearing board shorts to run in, and I was like, Who wears board shorts to run in at Comrades? He was like a hippie; it was great. He was, we started talking, and we probably ran about 25 or 30 k together, and he was this delightful guy. 

And it was quite incredible because a couple years later, I was running Comrades again, and out of the blue I hear this guy yell out, Catherine! And it was Devon. He’d moved, he was in Spain, but he’d come back to run the race again and we shared quite a few miles again and it just was, someone who was young enough to be one of my kids, and we’re from such different parts of the world, and backgrounds, but it just was, it was almost like being with one of my kids. It was such a beautiful moment, and I sort of felt like that with both of these young guys. It was really special to have those memories. 

Cherie: Cathy isn’t alone in having unifying, memorable experiences like this, as she has noticed over the years. 

Cathy:  I know in the 2013 race, it was extremely hot on the up run and there were just almost too many stories to count of people giving up their runs or giving up a sub 9, or a sub 11 or even a finish to help another runner. And really during the Comrades, I really feel like race, ethnicity, nothing is counted. It’s what you’re putting out when you’re out on the course that day. And to see people, and it happens every single year that people don’t finish the race because they helped another runner. It is truly remarkable because I can say that I’ve never seen that in any other race I’ve been in. And it just happens every single year at Comrades, more times than you know. 

Cherie: Even when the temperatures aren’t soaring, there will always be runners who find themselves needing some extra support. Because, no matter how many Comrades you run, covering 56 miles is difficult every single time.  

Cathy: Ultimately the, my strategy and my mental outlook during the race is the same. So I always try to start out as slowly as possible. For the first 20 ks, sort of a warm up, get to the halfway point feeling reasonably good, knowing the next quarter of the race is going to be tougher, and the last quarter of the race is just going to be awful. But beautiful, at the same time. 

Cherie: It’s that sort of awful or difficult beauty that makes Comrades so intense, beyond just the physical demands. 

Cathy: I find in every Comrades, it’s just a very emotional . . . the finish for me is really emotional, really a relief but also a moment of celebration and kind of peace I guess as well. 

Cherie: In hand with the peace and beauty of finishing Comrades is the harsh reality that some runners, many runners in fact, don’t finish, or rather, there are many runners who reach the end of Comrades, but they aren’t counted among the official finishers and they don’t get a finisher medal. This is because they cross the finish line after the very strict 12-hour cutoff time. This is an element that makes becoming a Comrades finisher, once, twice, ten or more times, an accomplishment, every single time. And while the official finisher count ends after 12 hours, the crowd support remains strong long afterward.  

Cathy: There is such love and warmth and encouragement and respect for the final runners. There’s nothing like coming in toward the end. There is just a, it is pandemonium, much of it is other runners, supporters, regular people who have never run themselves but are so, have embraced the race so much, they are, cheering you to finish the race. 

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t shed a few tears watching runners coming into the stadium, almost bouncing like pinballs off the barricades because they’re having a hard time running a straight line or being helped by other runners, clearly looking like they’ve had a rough go of it, and if you cross at 12 hours and 1 sec, you don’t get a medal. 

It doesn’t matter if you’re half a stride from the finish, you just don’t get that medal. And I think we’ve all in our lives had, I think it speaks to people because we’ve all had times in our lives when we’ve almost made something, almost achieved something and we haven’t, and we realize how incredibly difficult that is to deal with, and that it is part of life. And then the people who keep coming in and keep running into the stadium even though they will not get a finishers medal, so 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes after the race has finished, people are still coming and there is so much love from the crowd. 

Cherie: As another edition of the race ends, for the many racers like Cathy who know they’ll be back again, it doesn’t take long until the planning for the next year starts all over again. 

Cathy: Comrades is like Christmas for me. There’s months of anticipation. The training in the winter is terrible, but training is hard for everybody, right? But for me it’s, I’m just like a kid at Christmas so the lead up to it is incredible. Getting there, seeing the friends I’ve made over the years from all over the world, sharing our experiences is so great. 

Cherie: Ever since Cathy met those three women while she was running by herself along a trail near her house in the early 2000s, community, whether at home or through the Comrades connections she’s built over the years, has been a driving force in her running pursuits. 

So, when she was asked to help grow the Comrades community by being the Canadian ambassador for the race, she said yes. 

Cathy: I have always had an interest in networking and I love meeting new people. And I knew how confusing and overwhelming it was for me going to Comrades the first time. So I’ve always had a desire to help other people ease the way a little bit. 

Cherie: This role of Comrades ambassador is an official designation within the race organization. There are currently 24 Ambassadors for the race  worldwide; Cathy is the sole representative for Canadians, and she also works to help out some American racers. Sometimes her function is just to let people in North America know that Comrades exists. 

Cathy: I basically talk it up, my license plate says Comrades. Sometimes people think I’m Russian.

Cherie: And now Cathy is the one who’s in the position of guiding other athletes to exceptional running experiences. 

Cathy: I think it’s just the really wonderful, happy, euphoric but poignant moments I guess that I get to witness especially after the race is over. I feel proud to sit with a bunch of people who have finished the race, and who have experienced the same mileage as I have, but everybody’s experience is so different, yet it’s so much the same. I want everyone to love it as much as I do and to have those same experiences and I’m so gratified when that’s the case

Cherie: Cathy’s love of Comrades has kept her coming back again and again. When she runs Comrades next, she’ll be going for her 10th finish: wearing her yellow number and, as they say, going for her green. And she’s especially looking forward to one of the special perks that goes along with earning your green number.  

Cathy: Your number is always your number. I’m certain if I’m in a nursing home and I don’t know what day it is and don’t know my kids, I’ll know my Comrades number for sure. That’s never going to leave me.

Cherie: Cathy’s had a long time to memorize that number because unless you skip more than several years of the race in a row, which she hasn’t, you’ll keep getting assigned the same number you started with. And then after that tenth running, the number retires with you: it’s yours forevermore. 

Cathy also enjoys being a permanent part of Comrades in another meaningful way. 

Cathy: They have this incredible, it’s called the the wall of honor. It’s about half-way along the course up in the mountains in the Valley of a Thousand Hills. So as you’re running along, there are these bricks in the side of the mountain, with plaques, either green for people with green numbers, or yellow for those without, with your name, that you can pay a very nominal sum to have your name up on this wall of honor. It seems like sort of an egotistical thing to do, and I guess it is, but it’s kind of neat to see your name up there. 

Cherie: This wall of honor is a beloved landmark along the course, and it serves a functional purpose as well: the interlocking bricks form a retaining wall, so it’s literally part of the course. In addition to featuring runners who have paid for their space, the blocks at the beginning section of the wall feature all of the runners who have won the race. 

For Cathy, being an ambassador for Comrades, going for her green number, participating in the wall of honor and earning her forever Comrades number, these are all important parts of her running journey. And to accompany that, she continues to experience how the simple act of running and engaging with her community closer to home enhances her life, day after day, year after year. 

Cathy: Partly the intrinsic value of it. I just feel better. My day is always better when I get up and run in the morning. I am happier, I think. I feel physically energized. I have those feelings of self-efficacy, I think, that I said I was going to do something and I did it. I started my day by following through on that. And it is, also the community aspect of it. I run by myself probably 80% of the time, but the 20% of the time that I run with others, I just love. And it is that community of like minded people that has made my life so much richer. I can’t imagine what my life would be like without running, without all the wonderful experiences, all the wonderful people I’ve met because of it. And I hope that I’m still running til the day I die. That’s my goal, to keep it up.

Cherie: And that concludes Cathy Hopkins’ story. For more information about this episode or about Strides Forward, please visit stridesforwardpodcast.com. One section you’ll find there provides resources related to women and running. Each episode, after the story, like right now, I highlight one such resource.  

This episode’s highlighted resource is the Running on Om podcast, hosted by Julia Hanlon. The podcast features conversations Julia has with women who have committed their lives to endurance sports and the outdoors. There’s also the Soul Sisters series, where Julia and her best friend, professional distance runner Abbey Cooper, discuss their own experiences and answer listener questions. All of the Running on Om episodes feature deep, real, inspirational, and empowering conversations that don’t shy away from life’s difficulties. I always discover great takeaways. An episode that stands out for me is Julia’s interview with Molly Seidel, which was done in January, before the 2020 Olympic Trials. 

As always, I welcome you to please stay in touch. I can always be reached through the website, or you can find me on Twitter; I’m @stridesforward. 

Thank you to Cathy Hopkins for sharing her story, and also for being a great ambassador. I was lucky enough to get to meet Cathy and work with her on my first trip to Comrades, where I was a spectator and my husband, a Canadian, ran. I can attest that a good ambassador like Cathy makes a world of difference; she helped make what could be a really confusing process very manageable. 

I also want to thank US Comrades Ambassador Patrick Kongsilp (gong-sin) for his help with fact-checking this episode. 

Thank you, as well, to April Marriner of Bonfire Collaborative for the logo and website design; you can find April at bonfirecollaborative.com. And thank you to Cormac O’Regan for the original music and sound design. 

And thank you to you, the listener. I’m thrilled you’re joining this podcast journey. Please subscribe and share with friends and family. And leave your thoughts in a review. Until next time, this is Cherie, wishing you  satisfying strides forward. 

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