It was very much a case of unfinished business for Anthony Clark as he headed to Durban, South Africa, for one of biggest and most prestigious ultra marathons in the world. Last time he attempted the Comrades Marathon he only made it to the 13 mile point before illness forced him to abandon the race. He later found at that he’d contracted Epstein Barr virus – a muscle wasting disease.

Ever since then he’d wanted to go back and finish the job he started back then, which was in June 2019. Then in 2020 covid hit causing the racing calendar to practically shut down for a couple of years. Hence, he’d had no opportunity to return and conquer it until now.

All that would have served to give him an added incentive to perform well in it this time around and be in the best possible shape he could. Starting his training in the middle of May, he began gradually cranking up his mileage and by the second week of July he was up to 100 miles per week.

Towards the end of July he headed out to the French Alps for some high altitude training. Whilst there he did three consecutive weeks of over 100 miles, training with Gerda Steyn, the woman who was first female in the Comrades Marathon of 2019, completing it in under six hours.

Ant did also have the benefit of being coached by one of the very best – that being his Bournemouth AC teammate Steve Way. Steve finished 3rd in the Comrades Marathon of 2018 so if anyone knew how to excel in it, it was him.

Of course, he could only do so much though. He could give Ant advice and guidance and supply him with a detailed and well thought through training plan. But at the end of the day, it was Ant who would have to execute it. It was him who would have to actually do all the running and cope with the rigours of a very heavy and tiring schedule.

If anyone could do it though, it was Ant. He’d never been afraid to put the hard yards in in training if it gave him the chance of achieving something special. Who could forget his famous performance in the 100k World Championships when he finished in 8th place, recording a staggering time of 6 hours 43 minutes? His average pace for the run then was an incredible 6:25 minutes per mile and it made him the 7th fastest Brit of all time.

Ant training with Nedbank teammates

Ant Clark (left) training with some of his Nedbank teammates

The Comrades Marathon is 56.2 miles (90km) long and features a point to point run between Durban and Pietermaritzburg. It famously alternates each year though between being either an ‘Up’ run or a ‘Down’ run. The ‘Up’ run is of course predominantly uphill and the ‘Down’ run follows a downhill curve. This year it was the ‘Down‘ version.

That doesn’t necessarily make it easier though. The route is still pretty much undulating all the way and you don’t really get to the downhill part until you reach the 32 mile point. There’s still an elevation gain of close to 4,000ft so it is an extremely challenging course. Hence why they call it “The ultimate human race”.

It’s also the biggest sporting event on the calendar in South Africa, with the while country being allowed to take the day off work to come and support the run or watch the TV coverage.

Ant Clark at the Comrades Marathon Expo

Ant at the Comrades Marathon Expo

The fundamentals behind the technique the Steve implored Ant to use were mostly based around keeping within a certain heart rate zone. That way, you can judge your effort level accordingly. If you don’t do that in the Comrades Marathon, it would be virtually impossible to maintain an even level of performance throughout the race due to the constant undulations and the 20 mile long stretch that is almost all either uphill or downhill.

That technique worked well for Steve and he was able to steadily work his way up the leader-board as the other runners began to tire the deeper into the race it went.

Ant was running for Nedbank – the same team that Steve ran for and that they were both representing in that fateful 2019 race when neither of them finished. Steve unfortunately succumbed to a hamstring injury that day and also had to pull out. The Nedbank team, with their recognizable green vests, included many of the top runners taking part in the race.

Ant Clark with friends at the Comrades Marathon Expo

It was all getting very real for Ant as the race was fast approaching

Reaching the first of six checkpoints at Lynnfield Park, Ant arrived in just over an hour and was sitting in 103rd place. Whilst that may sound quite far back, it was exactly where Ant wanted to be.

By the time he reached the second checkpoint at Cato Ridge, Ant had climbed up to 87th place. That was in a time of 1 hour 57 minutes.

At the third checkpoint he’d moved up to 70th, reaching Drummond in 2 hours 52 minutes. Then it was onto Winston Park where, by the time he arrived, he’d progressed into 46th place in 3 hours 47 minutes. That left just two checkpoints remaining.

The next one he would reach would be Pinetown and at that stage he’d gained seven more places. He was now occupying 39th position and had been running for 4 hours 31 minutes.

A top 40 finish in the Comrades Marathon would have been an incredible achievement but Ant wanted more. He kept going and continued to pick off his fellow competitors. When the final checkpoint came at Sherwood, he was up to 23rd place and he’d been going for 5 hours 21 minutes.

The end was now in sight and the next important time-check would be when he arrived at the finish line. The benchmark to running a truly elite Comrades Marathon is coming in in under six hours. Any athlete who manages to achieve that gets awarded a special Wally Hayward medal. That was something that was now within Ant’s reach, but it was going to be touch and go.

Getting over the line in 5 hours 59 minutes and 19 seconds, incredibly, Ant had done it. He’d achieved a phenomenal sub six hour time and to do that, you have to be one of the very best. And not only that, he’d also managed a top 20 finish having climbed up to 20th place by the end. It was a truly remarkable performance.

Ant Clark in action in the Comrades Marathon

Ant stuck to his race plan and remained disciplined throughout and it paid off

The standings tend to be dominated by South African runners, since it’s on their territory and they can spend the whole year training on that very course and in that climate. In fact, nine of the first ten places were occupied by South African runners.

All of the first 16 places went to African runners before Brazilian Laurindo Nunes Neto arrived to buck that trend. He was the only non-African runner to come in ahead of Ant, which meant Ant was the first European over the line.

In a race where athletes travel from all over the world to compete, that was an outstanding result for Ant and one to be extremely proud of. He’d also finished 10th in the 40 to 49 age category.

Only one other runner who finished after Ant crossed the line in time to receive a coveted Wally Hayward medal. It couldn’t really have been planned and executed any better from Ant’s perspective. And he hadn’t even been looking at his pace and hadn’t actually checked his time until he got to within 2k of the finish. It was all done purely on heart rate.

Wayne Spies of Australia ran well as well to finish just a couple of places behind Ant, in 22nd place. He just missed out on a Wally Hayward medal though, clocking a time of 6:01:33.

The next European runner to complete the course after Ant was Russian woman Alexandra Morozova who was first female. She got round in 6:17:48 and was 50th overall. Then it was Polish lady Dominika Stelmach who finished in 6:25:08. That put her 2nd female and 63rd overall.

The next European to arrive at the finish was British runner Stuart Rawlinson. He got over the line in 6:38:18 which put him in 89th place overall. That goes to show how hard it is to finish high up in the Comrades Marathon if you’re from overseas.

There were 16,000 runners in total taking part, although a substantial amount of them didn’t finish due to the strict 12 hour cut off time to finish, or they may have been allowed to go on and finish if they were quite close to the end but they wouldn’t have been given a time.

Ant Clark with some Nedbank teammates

Comrades in arms: A great team spirit was generated within the Nedbank squad

The top three finishers were all Nedbank athletes, with Tete Dijana claiming victory in a time of 5 hours 30 minutes and 35 seconds. That was enough to see him come three minutes ahead of Edward Mothibi who was runner up. Dan Moselakwe was 3rd in a time of 5:36:24.

That meant Bongmusa Mthembu, who has won the race three times before, had to settle for 4th place on this occasion, registering a time of 5:38:07.

Ant’s average pace for the run was an incredible 6:24 minutes per mile, which is very similar to what he managed at the 100k World Championships. Of course, the Comrades Marathon is a much tougher course though, with almost 4,000ft of elevation, so that makes it all the more impressive.

There was only one mile out of all 56 of them that Ant actually went over 7 minutes and that was the 45th mile, where there was quite a steep little incline. He did 7:08 for that split. Then on the 51st mile he did one that was exactly 7. The rest of his splits were comfortably under 7, which demonstrates a consistent level of performance throughout.

It’s quite difficult to put into perspective what Ant has accomplished here but to finish within half an hour of the very best runners in world, in this particular race is an amazing achievement. To finish in the top 20 out of 16,000 runners is also an incredible achievement and to finish 1st European and 2nd non-African is again, a truly magnificent feat.

Just as Steve Way did before him, it was fantastic to see a Bournemouth AC runner putting in such a monumental display on such a big stage. To possess two athletes who have achieved something so remarkable is tremendous for the club. Who would have thought that a couple of runners from a small club in Dorset, England, would end up going to South Africa and making a name for themselves in one of the most high profile ultramarathons in the world?