Harrison is hoping to last the ultradistance

World 50k champion Sue Harrison admits she will be stepping into the unknown on Sunday when she competes in her first ultramarathon.

Starting out from Pietermaritzburg in South Africa, the ‘down’ route of the Comrades Marathon travels 86.96k (54 miles) to finish in Durban.

Considered the world’s greatest foot race, Leamington C&AC have a proud tradition in the event dating back to Tom Buckingham, who finished fourth in 1962.

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Buckingham provided the inspiration for a young Cavin Woodward to take up long distance racing and he outdid his mentor by coming second, also on the down route, 14 years later.

But despite a fourth in the Rotterdam Marathon in 2009 and the fastest 50k time of the year in Galway last March, Harrison is keen to downplay any talk of further Leamington success.

“When I was first offered the England place I thought ‘how can I tackle a race as long as 54 miles?’,” said Harrison. “After further consideration I knew I could not resist the challenge.

“I know how much of a novice I am and how great the challenge is going to be.

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“But it wasn’t until the England team manager rang me and said, ‘you do realise that you will need to get up at 2.30am for the 5.30am start in the dark’, that I began to wonder what I was letting myself in for.”

To get herself in the best possible shape, Harrison has been running an average of almost 90 miles a week in the three months prior to leaving for South Africa, the longest of which saw the 39-year-old complete more than 37 miles in four-and-a-half hours along the Grand Union Canal.

“That was tough,” she said. “When my coach said, ‘all you now have to do is carry on and run from Warwick to Coventry and back and you will have completed the full Comrades distance’ I knew I still had a lot of work to do.”

Nineteen of the top 20 finishers from last year’s women’s race are returning for the 2011 event, including the Nurgalieva twins, Elena and Olesya, from Russia, who between them have won six of the last seven races.

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However, despite the fierce competition and unfamiliar terrain, Harrison says she is as prepared as she can be for the rigours of running 54 miles.

“I have done over 1,350 miles of training since the turn of the year. I hope it will be enough. By midday on Sunday I will know.”