The Comrades Marathon is an ultramarathon of approximately 90 km (approx. 56 miles) run in the Kwazulu-Natal Province of South Africa between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg. It is the world's largest and oldest ultramarathon race. The direction of the race alternates each year between the "up" run (87 km) starting from Durban and the "down" run (89 km) starting from Pietermaritzburg. The race is run on the roads of KwaZulu-Natal Province, marked by "The Big Five" set of hills.
Athletes currently have 12 hours to complete the course, extended from 11 hours in 2003. There are a number of cut-off points along the routes which runners must reach by a prescribed time or be forced to retire from the race. A runner who has successfully completed nine marathons wears a yellow number, while those who have completed ten races wear a green number, permanently allocated to the runner for all future races.
Medals are awarded to all runners completing the course in under 12 hours.
The Comrades was run for the first time on 24 May 1921 (Empire Day), and with the exception of a break during World War II, has been run every year since. The 2010 event was the 85th race. To date, over 300,000 runners have completed the race.
The race was the idea of World War I veteran Vic Clapham, to commemorate the South African soldiers killed during the war. Clapham, who had endured a 2,700-kilometre route march through sweltering German East Africa, wanted the memorial to be a unique test of the physical endurance of the entrants. The constitution of the race states that one of its primary aims is to "celebrate mankind's spirit over adversity".
From 1962 to 1994 the race was run on Republic Day, 31 May. After this public holiday was scrapped in 1995 by the post-apartheid South African government, the race date was changed to Youth Day on 16 June. In 2007, the race organisers (controversially) bowed to political pressure from the ANC Youth League, who felt that the race diverted attention from the significance of Youth Day, and changed the race date to Sunday 17 June for 2007 and 15 June for 2008. In 2009 and 2010 the date was changed (to 24 May and 30 May respectively) to accommodate football's Confederations Cup (2009) and World Cup (2010) in South Africa.
The 75th anniversary of the Comrades Marathon in 2000 was the largest ever staged, with a massive field of 23,961. An extra hour was allowed for bronze medal finishers to celebrate the milestone. In 2010, on its 85th anniversary, the race gained a place in the Guinness World Records as the ultramarathon with most runners. 14,343 athletes, the largest field since the turn of the millennium, finished in the allowed 12 hours.
Identical twin sisters Olesya and Elena Nurgalieva won a combined eight Comrades titles from 2003–2011, while three-time champion Stephen Muzhingi became the first non-South African winner from Africa in 2009. Stephen Muzhingi also became the first athlete to win three races in a row (2009, 2010 and 2011) since Bruce Fordyce won three in a row in the eighties (1981, 1982 and 1983). Russian runner Leonid Shvetsov set both down and up course records in 2007 and 2008, respectively.