How I got into ultrarunning

How I got into ultrarunning

The beginning

Before I moved to South Africa, I had been running for roughly 1.5 years. That is, apart from the three half marathons I had done in 2013/2014, before I decided that running ‘was not for me’ and stopped for over a year. When I lived in London, a colleague talked me into running a half marathon to raise money for charity in October 2016. She was a keen long-distance runner and had done her fair share of prestigious international marathons. I talked another unsuspecting girl at work into signing up as well and decided to give it a go. My entire training was: just run. I didn’t know any better. I always ran at the same pace, just varying the distance while running around the beautiful parks in London or along the river Thames.

Just under 1.5 years later and a wide-eyed novice long-distance runner myself, I found myself with a schedule with all kinds of different types of training I had never heard of. Hill training? Fartlek? Tempo runs? Easy runs? Speedwork? I had to google quite a few of those.

With a handful of half and full marathons in the bag, I thought I had a decent base at the start of my Comrades training in January 2018. Full of enthusiasm, energy and nervous excitement, I embarked on a combination of Lindsey Parry’s suggested Bill Rowan plan (sub 9 hours) and what my running club was doing every week. I loved running with my new friends, who showed me all kinds of beautiful new routes and shared their impressive ultramarathon experiences. Most of them already boasted a colourful range of Two Oceans and Comrades T-shirts that I could only dream of.

Determined to get that Bill Rowan medal, I religiously stuck to my programme. I documented all of my activities on a comprehensive Excel spreadsheet (don’t judge – I’m a scientist 🤓). Every month had its own tab, and I meticulously kept track of the length, duration and pace of each run. I noted down any issues, and if I had done a race, I included my result. At the end of every week I counted my total time and distance on the road and noted the overall mileage for the month too.

Above: My Comrades training log for February 2018

The middle

In the beginning of Comrades training it was all fun and games. The excitement of the whole journey easily outweighed the early mornings, and the beautiful False Bay sunrises were really worth getting out of bed for. The social runs on weekends were fun and rewarded with coffee or breakfast afterwards. But then, after a couple of months, I started feeling tired. Not just tired, but TIRED. A kind of tired I had never felt before. I have never been a night owl, but now I had trouble staying awake past 21:30 or 22:00 at best. My routine consisted of running, eating, work, more eating, and sleep. I thought it was me. Because I was new to this intense training, I figured other people were just better adapted to this kind of lifestyle. But one day I had the courage to ask one of my running friends and it turned out I wasn’t the only one! I felt very relieved but also started asking myself why on earth we do this to ourselves, and why people keep doing it year after year after year. It felt like I had no life at all, basically living from one run to the next. I also felt guilty for not being a fun partner for my boyfriend for six months out of the year, so with all of this in mind I started questioning how great this actually was and if this was something I wanted to do again.

 The end

And then it was time for my first Two Oceans. In my previous blog post you can read what kind of experience I had (not good) so you would think I’d be even more discouraged about the whole Comrades journey, but fortunately this was not the case. Even if my Two Oceans was a bad one, I still made it to the finish, and there were a lot of others with me that also had another two months of training ahead. Onwards and upwards I went, and words of encouragement such as “A bad Two Oceans means you’ll have a great Comrades” – whether they were true or not – actually helped me look ahead.

I don’t think it was necessarily because I had a bad Two Oceans, but my Comrades was indeed a great one. I got my Bill Rowan. Yes, there was a lot of pain on the way, but also the forging of a new friendship (running 90km from start to finish with the same person is something truly special) and of course a great sense of accomplishment afterwards.

The sequel

And then the follow-up questions begin. Surely if you have done your first, you will be back for next year? After all, there is only one chance to get your back to back! One person even said, a week after Comrades, that next year’s flights and accommodation had already been booked. I admired the excitement, but I could definitely not say whether or not I would be doing another one. Whereas others were back at racing again mere weeks later, I could not even think about training. I gave it a lot of thought in the months that followed and realised I was a little burned out from running. Armed with four sets of running clothes on a trip to my family in The Netherlands, I only managed to go on one very cold and windy run and was simply not motivated to do more. I spoke to my boyfriend about it and said that I felt that it was as if I was expected to run another Comrades, but I really wasn’t sure I wanted to. And once that was said out loud, I felt a lot better – I didn’t have to do another one and it was of course my own choice whether or not I would. But then the entries opened a few weeks later and with social media buzzing in the days leading up to it, I started getting excited as well. And because of the excitement I felt I was happy to decide to get my back to back in 2019, with all the commitment it would entail.

I have never regretted a single run I have done, but just to get out there sometimes takes a lot of effort. Especially when it’s cold, dark and early. I really admire how easy others can make it look – I suppose that’s one of the biases that social media can bring. I certainly don’t find it easy at all and often wonder if I am the only one!


  • Arina Fyfer

    Nienke,such an honour to have met you. You are an inspiration. Good luck!

  • Johann Kotze

    Nienke, what an example of perseverance you are! You go, girl!

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