Last updated: 2018-02-10
Notice: © 2013 to 2018, Chris R. Burger. This document may be reproduced as required for personal use, and may be freely referenced from other Web sites. However, publication elsewhere, in full or in part, requires express prior written permission from the author.
Chris R. Burger is a researcher, engineer, pilot and former road safety professional who is valiantly trying to return to normality after severing all his left knee ligaments in a 2014 running accident. He regularly runs road races in Gauteng North, near Pretoria, South Africa. He writes under the name of Yeti, after the Abominably Slow Man. He loves to record his experiences and share them with others, but could no longer bear the aspersions of illiteracy cast by the Agapé Athletics Club newsletter's MSWord Auto-Correct. On this page, text is written in a text editor without a spell-checker, and all errors are entirely the author's own doing. However, the slow running is obviously all due to the altitude (about 1500 m) and his age (53).
Most recent races are at the top; older races are listed in reverse order. I started this collection late in 2016. I will keep digging for older reports and add them as I find them, and hope to write them more regularly in future.
Today's race was in Bronkhorstspruit, a 45 minute drive away. More importantly, it was a 32 km race. Last year, I managed to complete it at faster than 6:00/km, but this year, I would probably not survive without serious damage. I wasn't going to drive all that way for a 10 km race, so I decided to use the opportunity to try out the Parkrun phenomenon.
For those of you that haven't been on Planet Earth in a year or three, Parkrun is an organisation with weekly 5 km runs in parks all over the world. My nearest one is not far from my office, in the Pretoria Botanical Gardens. I like the idea of the Parkrun. It starts at 08:00, which strikes me as a fine time for a race to start. None of this getting up at (or before!) the crack of dawn. Then there is the entry fee: It's completely free! Finally, the results appear within hours. In my case, I see official results as an excellent way to keep me humble.
The organisation is simple. You register on the Web site, then print a barcode on paper. Take the barcode with you, and you're ready to go.
I've therefore been wanting to do this run for some time, and registered some months ago. This Saturday was the first that seemed set to work out. I arrived around 07:30, easily found parking and made my way to the start. I spent some time chatting to other starters, and gained some valuable tips. I exchanged a few words with the Mollers and with De Wet. I bumped into Francois at the start—a nice surprise. We chatted for a few minutes, before I set off for a five-minute warmup. I was ready at the start just in time for the gun. Just before the gun went, Laurens tapped me on the shoulder. I had tried to get in touch with him during the week to arrange a joint effort, but it never quite worked out. Needless to say, I was pleased to see him.
My warmup run did nothing to set my mind at ease. To quote from the official course description: "It is a double lap course, quite flat and fast". Now if you know the Botanical Gardens, you would know why I was more than just a little skeptical. Even if you are a regular reader of these race reports, you will have gathered that Pretoria and environs cannot be considered either "flat" or "fast". We started quite quickly, with the runners on the right and the walkers on the left. The first section is slightly downhill. I was on the right. Unlike the usual race starts, there were no walkers in my way. Indeed, the biggest challenge was madmen (for they were mostly men) dashing past headlong at incredible speeds. I wondered if they knew that we had a full 5 km ahead of us.
Laurens and I stayed pretty close together. As is normally the case, he tended to sail past on the downhills, and I tended to catch up on the uphills. The course is almost oval, starting westbound, then making a clockwise turn around the Gardens. There is a long, gentle uphill on the back straight, followed by a short, nasty climb back across the ridge before arriving near the main gate again. "Quite flat and fast" my foot! On the second lap, we would turn left into the finish just before the original start venue.
We constantly caught up with slower runners. These were over-exuberant starters that were paying the price. I shamelessly walked up the steep hill, as did many around me. Around the 3 km mark (or so I surmised from the time), we started passing walkers. Most of them were fairly good at keeping left, so we weren't being obstructed too much. It got worse towards the end, as the bunch became denser and denser. I did some walking and some running, and managed to stumble across the line in about 28:15. I'd lost Laurens somewhere around the 4 km mark. To my surprise, he didn't catch up on the downhill stretch to the finish. As I passed the official finish line, they handed me a little barcode with the number "109" on it. I handed this slip and my own barcode to someone with a scanner, and they entered me into the database.
The official results appeared within hours. I was indeed 109th of about 1700 finishers, with an official time of 28:04. Laurens was less than a minute behind me. Clearly, the organisation is as slick as I was told it would be, although it looked like their timing was off by perhaps 10 seconds.
My interest has been piqued. I understand that it is possible to gain all kinds of milestones, like running a certain number of parkruns, or running at a certain number of venues. I'll keep my eyes open in future when I travel. Perhaps we can work in a few more venues in the next few months.
The Good: It's free. I could get up at a reasonable time. Results are quick and comprehensive. No traffic. What's there not to like?
The Bad: "Quite flat and fast" my foot!
The Ugly: The Affies staff member with his/her BMW X5 that parked illegally, blocking my departure from the parking lot and forcing me to wait half an hour until someone could let me out. I know it's a BMW X5, so rules are only for other people, but still.
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Given my recent sluggish state, I decided to run the 10 km race rather than the half marathon. The later start (06:00 rather than 05:00) was a factor, as was the fact that it was a league race, and it is easier to earn points over the shorter distance. I could either run 50:15 for six points or 56:00 for five points. Given my state, the former was completely outside my reach, and the latter sounded doable, with a bit of effort.
Like last year, the weather was perfect. A low cloudbase and a slight nip in the air made for perfect running conditions. Neville had told me that rain was expected, but fortunately it was not raining at the start. The traffic was dense, but we managed to find parking reasonably close to the venue. As we arrived, the full and half marathon runners were starting. Entries were reasonably painless, and I was looking for a place in the start bunch with almost 15 minutes to spare. I wanted to be reasonably far forward, but not to the extent that I would be a nuisance to the faster runners behind me. Relatively few of my clubmates were spotted.
The start was very, very slow. We started down an urban street, and the slow runners had seemingl all started ahead of me. Clearly, I had been too considerate! It took more than four minutes before I could break into a sustainable run. By the 1 km mark, I was almost two minutes behind schedule.
The 2 km mark was clearly misplaced (either that or I had done a sub-4 km!). Otherwise, everything about the race was perfect. Marshalling was effective, turn markers were clear, distance markers were exact and visible, water points were efficient and there were enough caffeine-free drinks.
Terrain is as flat as anything I've seen in Pretoria. The only exception is a nasty hill in the last km, leading up to the bridge across the R80, but at least it is very short. I struggled to make up the two minute deficit. By the halfway mark, I was down to about a minute, but could not make any headway over the next 3 km or so. At the 9 km mark, I faced the task of completing a sub-4 km if I wanted my five points. It was a tall order, with the steep hill and a gentle but sustained climb all the way to the finish. I ended at 56:33, close but no cigar. Maybe I should have started in the front row...
At the Club tent, Ken Nurden informed me that the League cutoff times have changed. Apparently, the scale now goes from 1 to 10 instead of to 7. The tables are not available anywhere, so I have no idea how I did. Imagine, I could have saved myself all that effort!
It started raining about half an hour after I finished, so I got soaked to the skin walking back to the car. Plans to wait out the rain while having a hearty breakfast were thwarted by a long queue of other runners with the same idea.
The Good: Excellent organisation. The flattest course in the Pretoria area. Enough green cold drinks.
The Bad: Getting soaked to the skin on the way back to the car.
The Ugly: I'm a far cry from my own self a year ago!
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After last week's disaster, I was not sure what to expect today. There is some very hilly terrain, so in principle it wouldn't be any easier this time.
From last year's race, I knew the routine: North on Hans Coverdale West, east on Hans Coverdale North, south on Hans Coverdale East, west on Hans Coverdale South and then another lap. And on the second lap there was going to be a very nasty little extra hill. How difficult could it possibly be?
I was a few minutes late for the start. As luck would have it, this time they started early. When I crossed the start line at 06:03, the official time was already over four minutes. I resisted the temptation to regain too much time too soon, knowing as I did that there were going to be some nasty hills. And since I hadn't run since my slowest half marathon ever last weekend, I wasn't going to be any stronger this time.
I worked my way through the ever-denser bunch. I passed Elbert, Hennie and Marix and a clubmate that I didn't know. Because the race entry slips were not visible, I didn't know who was going to do only one lap, and who would soldier on to the end. Around the 3 km mark, I had an unpleasant interaction. A woman suddenly changed direction in front of me, cutting in front of me and almost causing me to lose my footing. I stuck my right arm out in front of me to alert her to what was happening. She crashed into my arm, and immediately started swearing at me. I didn't respond, but another woman in the 2:30 bus to my left also started gushing invective. I again decided not to respond, instead getting as much distance as possible between myself and the bus. I was just reminded again that Gauteng's population is a very stressed one.
Fortunately, there was no further unpleasantness from fellow runners. Instead, the nasty hills were doing all the work in that department. I included lavish doses of walking in my regimen, and managed to maintain an average pace of about 6:00/km. I didn't manage to eliminate the deficit due to the late start, though.
Around the 6 km mark, I caught up with Marius. Now I don't know if he was still smarting from me overtaking him in the finish straight last week, but he decided to stick with me for the remainder and make my life a misery by insisting that he would also walk whenever I did. He caused me to be racked with guilt if I didn't run most of the time. Now it's not only a bad thing, as I would imagine I could have easily notched up yet another all-time record for time on the road if it weren't for his torture. Either way, for the remaining three-quarters of the race, I was coaxed mercilessly. Coming down from the dizzy heights of Hans Coverdale North, even further east than Hans Coverdale East, we passed a cemetary. In a glycogen-deprived haze, I wondered if it might be called Laasterus.
The extra loop in the second lap was rather confusing, as for a while before ascending to Helium Avenue, we actually ran west on Hans Coverdale North. That wasn't part of the plan!
The distance markers on the last lap were definitely broken. Again, each pair of boards (7 and 18, 8 and 19, 9 and 20) was out of sequence, suggesting that either or both boards of each pair must be significantly out of position. Nevertheless, I finally staggered into the station after a reasonably strong finish, covering the last 2 km or so at less than 6:00/km. There wasn't a lot of fun to be had in that last stretch, but we did manage to maintain a respectable average pace.
I managed to break 2:20 by seconds, with Marius just behind me. Taking the start delay into account, I lost about nine minutes to my hoped-for pace. Looks like I'll have to take some drastic action if I want to return to more respectable times—like to actually train between races! Marius mentioned to me that last week had also been his all-time slowest.
This time, I was thoroughly wrung out. I slept for a while before my next mid-day meeting, but it did nothing to relieve the fatigue, the sore muscles and the sorer left knee. I hope it clears up in a day or two.
The Good: Festive atmosphere (it is weekend in Eersterus, after all!). Good marshalling. Some feed points with green cold drinks (although several didn't have any).
The Bad: Those hills don't get any easier, even if you've done them before. The 10 km and half marathon markers were consistently in the wrong order.
The Ugly: The battle-axe in Virgulle Steenkamp's 2:30 bus, who insisted on venting her spleen about an incident that she had not even witnessed.
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Another two weeks of too little training and too many other things have passed. It's time for another half marathon, just to keep the total training for the week within reasonable bounds. Given December's outcome, I expected that I would be able to maintain 6:00/km, which would give me a finish in about 2:07.
The late start meant a relatively civilised time to rise. Traffic was relatively light, and I managed to enter with about 20 minutes to spare. I chatted to Pieter and Kevin and Josias. The start was relatively quick, and I soon found myself settling into a comfortable pace. At 2 km, I was exactly on pace.
From 3 km or so (I never saw the marker), the picture started changing. By 5 km, I was about half a minute behind schedule. Since last year's race, the route has changed significantly. No longer did we traverse the streets of Highveld Park. Instead, we turned right into Oliewenhoutbosch Avenue for an out-and-back loop of over 2 km. I saw Danie, Kevin and Josias, Pieter and Melanie pass me, giving me a good indication of how slowly I was progressing. Just after the first lap ended, I passed the 10 km mark in about 1:02—the slowest in recent memory.
Around the 15 km mark, I started playing Hare and Tortoise with Thinus, then with Kobie. I was walking on most of the uphills, and running (or perhaps rather "shuffling") on the other bits. In the loop, I again saw the same faces I'd seen in the first lap. I was surprised, as I felt that I'd lost ground. It turned out I was not mistaken. This time, the loop went considerably further, ending in a nasty uphill all the way onto a bridge across the Gautrain tracks. I did a lot of walking, and soon found myself many minutes behind my target pace. I started playing Hare and Tortoise with Marius and his young female companion. They were also walking and running, although I could not figure out their pattern. I managed to sneak past them near the end, to finish in just under 2:22. It was my slowest half marathon ever.
Several fellow runners reported slow times. We could not identify anything substantial to explain the catastrophe. To be sure, the late start exposed us to some high temperatures (it was 31°C when I got back to my car), but it doesn't explain the lethargy entirely. Maybe it's just the tail-end of the festive season...
The Good: Quiet traffic. Enough cold drinks for non-addicts of caffeine, including including both green and orange!
The Bad: Despite the new route, A4A again messed up the distance markers. Through the last 4 km or so, the 10 km and half marathon markers were consistently in the wrong order. Again.
The Ugly: 2:22. The bruise on my ego may never heal completely.
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It's been a rough few weeks. My dormant flying career suddenly resurrected itself, and I flew around 40 hours in November. Too many commitments, too little sleep and the occasional bad weather wreaked havoc with my training programme. I've slowed down tremendously and am too scared to step onto a scale.
The obvious solution is to tackle a half marathon and see whether there is still any life left in me. The brochure was filled with language errors, and the GPS coordinates placed the venue about 50 km away from the Bundu Inn that I know. A phone call confirmed that the place I know is the right one. So I made my way towards Brits around 05:00 with some trepidation. I had a busy day ahead, including some helicopter flying. Helicopter skills with a decade of rust and tired legs would not make a good combination, so I didn't want to be completely exhausted. I therefore resolved to try and maintain a leisurely 6:00/km pace.
Entries were relatively easy. The start was some distance from the registration, and a smallish bunch ambled across the busy main road with assistance from marshals. The half marathon would start earlier and slightly ahead of the 10 km bunch. Making my way through the 10 km bunch, I was entertained by tall tales of horrible hills around the halfway mark in the half marathon. Apparently, there had been a profile at the registration desk. My trepidation didn't get any better.
We finally got under way around 06:08 after an inaudible speech by a marshal, presumably trying to explain why we were starting late. I had started chatting with Mike, a 60-something American pastor from Soweto, and we kept up the chat after the start. He was aiming for a time of about 1:50, so I told him up front that I wasn't going to keep up. He lost me around the 4 km mark, by which time I'd made up about two minutes on my planned pace. We were joined by Gerrit, and had had time to exchange ideas on Christianity, theological degrees and nasty surprises one sometimes makes in self-discovery. We even got around to the fact that Mike, who travels north to run on a Saturday to leave room for his Sunday commitments, finds a stark difference in language distribution north of the Jukskei. I suspected, though, that I would later pay a terrible price for these lively debates.
I wasn't disappointed. Even before the halfway mark, my legs were complaining loudly. I started walking occasionally. Around the 8 km mark, we hit the steep Magalies foothills, and I was more or less relegated to walking most of the way up. I passed the 10 km mark in about 0:58, feeling better than I'd feared but worse than I'd been hoping for.
Up the hill and most of the way down, I played Hare and Tortoise with Ebrahim. Both of us alternated walking and running, and must have passed one another dozens of times. Around the 14 km mark, Iain passed me, and we had a quick chat about his missile-building career not sitting well with me as a pilot. A runner ahead of me collapsed in a heap, apparently with calf cramps. She couldn't or wouldn't say what was happening, though, so there was little we could do to help. An informal bus of about 20 runners passed me near the 16 km mark. By this time, I was completely unable to maintain my chosen pace, and spent perhaps 50% of the time walking. I finished in 2:08, about a minute slower than I'd hoped for.
Given the rather spotty training of the past few weeks, I guess I was happy. I survived the helicopter flying later in the day, and my legs were even reasonably obedient. I will admit, though, that my eyelids were very heavy that evening, so the unaccustomed exercise did not leave me entirely unscathed.
The Good: Surviving in reasonable shape.
The Bad: 21 km is a long way!
The Ugly: The Magalies.
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I've been wanting to do a triathlon for some time. I decided several months ago that I would attempt this particular triathlon. However, a particularly demanding training course and an unexpected out-of-town flight (only the second in more than a year!) limited the amount of preparation I was able to do. I did manage to do two 1000 m swims and a 10 km bike ride, plus the usual assortment of random running. My main concern was around logistics. After picking the brains of Dave and PJ, I figured I had a sufficient assortment of toys. PJ lent me a pair of cycling pants, which I've subsequently used for a few run sessions and two swim sessions. Now was the time to try out my toys. Although simple by most standards, I was hoping that my collection would suffice. I hadn't ridden a bike for more than 10 km since 2001, but how hard could it be? It's just like riding a bike...
I arrived at Cradle Moon around 06:00. There was enough time to collect my timing chip, put all my toys in one place, scout out the swimming route and arrive at the briefing at 06:55. The event was relatively small, with probably no more than 100 entrants. I was amused by the collection of bikes. Mine was probably the oldest by a decade or more, and probably the cheapest by a factor of at least three. There were some very fancy bikes indeed. I didn't need a fancy bike. I was pretty certain that my bike's engine would be the main limitation. The biggest challenge would be the weather. It was ideal for cycling and running, but waiting for the swim to start in 11°C weather was not a lot of fun. Only about 10 participants were wearing simple swimming trunks with a bare torso, like I was.
We started at 07:20, about five minutes late. I tried to settle into a swimming rhythm, but was soon in trouble. I was seriously short of breath. I tried to slow down and regain my breath, but was unable to. Pretty soon, I was faced with the grim realisation: I was not going to complete this swim. I stuck up my hand and was rescued by a youngster on a paddleski. He blew a whistle, and pretty soon I was on my way back to the start, perched on the Boat of Shame. Not a great end to my first triathlon!
The marshal who recorded my number on the Roll of Defeat suggested that I might still want to do the bike ride and the run. Clearly, this was not a very formal triathlon! I accepted the offer, and made my way to the changeover area. I was one of the first on my bike, and tackled the serious uphill with gusto. Unfortunately, my front wheel was flat and was quickly getting flatter. I stopped to fix it. I pumped the wheel, trying to find out where the leak was. I could not find the leak, so I decided to continue. The wheel seemed to remain inflated throughout the rest of the ride. Perhaps the valve leaked, after I had pumped the wheel that morning.
My second setback came about two minutes later, when I had scaled the first hill and started heading downhill. My gears would not shift out of first. Although a lot of coaxing eventually allowed me to get out of first gear, it was mostly only to second or third gear. I never got beyond fifth. Perhaps it was a good thing. There was no way I could pedal on the downhills, so at least I was able to take intermittent breaks. I was amazed by the number of cyclists on the road. All the public roads we used were open, but all had bike lanes on both shoulders, and there was never any trouble with cars on the road. I did have one or two close calls with discourteous cyclists, but in general the 500 or so cyclists I saw were all enjoying a great morning on the Muldersdrift roads.
Towards the end, the saddle was hurting me, with very limited padding relative to the chamois that I'd been used to when I last cycled. My left knee was also complaining slightly, like it has been in recent long road races. My speed was an embarrassment, as I got nowhere near the 30 km/h reference speed that I'd used as an absolute minimum for long-distance cycling as a teenager. I finished the cycle leg in 1:45. Subtracting the downtime from the flat tyre, I'd not quite managed an average of 25 km/h. Not something I would like to admit in public!
The run leg started very uncomfortably. My muscles were stiff and slightly tired. I soon settled into a rhythm, aiming for what would normally be a very slow pace of 7:00/km. I was hoping to speed up later if I could, but this pace would ensure that my wheels did not come off. Or so I thought. The run had not been advertised as a trail run, which it certainly was. Terrain was undulating, with the winding route traversing ditches, outcrops and even a ghost house that we passed through twice—complete with ghoulish white faces! Having started the bike leg earlier than I should have, I was way ahead of my peer group. Most of the runners effortlessly came cruising past. It soon became evident that the female triathletes are well above average in the figure stakes, although I have to admit that the haemorrhoid-like padding in cycling pants detracts somewhat from the aesthetic enjoyment. We crested the highest point around 7,5 km. At this point, a male in a fancy red triathlon suit was just ahead of me, and a female in a pink cap was just behind me. I resolved to keep them right there. By this time, my quadricepses were really hurting. I assume it was the cycling that did the damage, as I'd never had trouble with quadriceps cramping before. My left quadriceps verged on cramping for the last 3 km or so, and it was actually less painful to run than to walk. I did manage to keep the red suit in my field of view and the pink cap behind me. I passed the 10 km mark at 1:11, just one minute slower than my target pace, with the finish line coming about two minutes later.
I crossed the timing mat in about 3:20. I declined the medal I was offered, as they did not seem to have a way of checking who had finished all three legs.
I'm disappointed, but I did achieve my objective. I got to try out the logistics. I got to ride a bike for 40 km and survived. I got to cycle just after swimming and run just after cycling, and experienced the discomfort first hand. I'm not sure why I flaked out on the swim, but it could be that my first open-water swim in two years suffered from too fast a pace. It is always harder to judge pace when there are no marks on the bottom to go by, and I can only assume that I started too fast. Either way, I'll have to do some work on my open-water swimming before the next attempt. And I'll have to do some tweaking to my bike's gears.
The Good: Getting to try out my triathlon toy collection for the first time. A genuine cyclist's tan on my right leg, for the first time in decades.
The Bad: Riding the Boat of Shame.
The Ugly: The thug in the game ranger outfit who washed his mouth on customers in the reception area. He was the sole reason several of the participants did not enjoy breakfast at the venue. And his boss, Andy Dott, who thoroughly endorses his behaviour and is obviously his role model. If you don't enjoy being verbally abused or facing head-on collisions on unmarked one-way roads, stay away from Cradle Moon!
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The small group that arrived to run the helpers' race resulted in an easy start. There was no obstruction caused by slower runners that insist on starting in the front row, although there was enough banter about the "snail scrapers". I started in front, and maintained an easy pace for the first half of the route. Around the halfway mark, Johan and I ran together for a while. Up the steep hill where I had done duty the previous day, Johan left me behind. I didn't see him again until after having crested the hill. It turned out that he'd taken a wrong turn, running a detour of about 200 m almost all the way up to the microwave tower. We continued together for most of the remaining route, sailing down the hill towards the ring road. I had some reserve left with about 2 km to go, and decided to speed up somewhat. Intimately knowing the terrain helped. I knew exactly how hard I could afford to push. As I crossed the finish line, my stopwatch rolled over to 1:00:00. Nothing to crow about in public, but perhaps given the nature of the terrain, it wasn't too bad.
The Good: A gentle run without the clutter of thousands of other runners.
The Bad: When last did 10 km take a full hour?
The Ugly: That hill. It's actually worse when you run it than when you're a spectator.
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For the second weekend in a row, I'm writing this report as an official rather than a runner. Although I am not a member of the CSIR club, I work for the organisation and regularly help with the annual race. I was placed on exactly the same position as last year, so there was little in the line of surprises. I reported to my position at 05:30. The first thing I did was a safety check. I saw several things that struck me as a little unsafe, given that several thousand people would come streaming through. I extracted a pole that once supported a road sign from the ground, moved a banner to a safer position, picked up a few dozen boulders and repositioned the boom that had been removed from the gate to a safer position in the bush. I also positioned my car to make it less likely that anyone would miss the turn at my position.
My station was just after perhaps the steepest portion of the route, around the 5,5 km mark. Runners would definitely arrive at my position feeling rather sorry for themselves. To make matters worse, I had to gesture them into a turn that took them into a dirt road with almost the same upslope as the preceding section. Many runners would not be happy.
So I decided to continue my approach of the previous year. I would make light of it, and cheer the runners up by telling them that the worst of the level section was almost behind them. As I had the previous year, I received mixed responses. Some runners did not respond at all. Some grinned. Others took a few seconds to respond, as if realising too late that I was yanking their chains. A few looked genuinely distressed. Most, though, seemed to enjoy the quip.
As always, it was fun to see the entire field pass. The leaders were running up the hill with effortless speed. Then started a steadily-increasing trickle of runners, culminating in a mad rush with hundreds of runners simultaneously surging up the hill. Many familiar faces passed. I made a special effort to chirp each of those familiar faces. Eventually, the bunch faded to a mere trickle. By about 07:30, the last valiant runners were walking past in ones and twos. Most were cheerful, but it was clear that not a lot of fun was being had here at the back end of the bunch. Soon after, Jonathan came past and gave me the all-clear to leave. After spending about a quarter of an hour picking up stray water sachets and other rubbish and rolling up the tape used to form the runners' lane, I was on my way to meet other commitments later in the day, and took a last look at the runners still on the 21 km route outside the CSIR campus. They all seemed to be cruising comfortably, having conquered the CSIR hill and now traversing the relatively level terrain in Brummeria, outside the gates.
From my limited perspective, it seemed that the race worked well. I heard rumours that the metro police had not arrived as expected, making life difficult for marshals on public roads, but the luxury of running most of the race in the CSIR premises made the problem manageable. I certainly didn't see any evidence of unhappy runners.
The Good: Another opportunity to see thousands of runners surging past.
The Bad: One of the club members who caused some unpleasantness in the late stages, driving through with his vehicle.
The Ugly: That hill. Even as a spectator it was daunting!
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This race report is different to the others. I wasn't a runner. Well, technically I'm not really a runner in any of the other races, either. Nevertheless, I normally dutifully don my running gear and report to the start line to desperately shuffle towards the finish line with other real runners. This time, I didn't. My club, Agape Athletics Club, presents this race, and I had to help. This year, I was in the parking team. It was a nice break, after several years of being the route captain on the half marathon and marathon routes. That job involved managing a team of several dozen marshals, starting before 04:00 and ending after mid-day. This time, I was a parking attendant, and was scheduled to leave around 06:30. What a pleasure!
In a previous race report, I explained that I had already run the helpers' race, and that this race would be a League race. As you can imagine, it was going to be big.
I reported to Magnolia Dell at 04:00 to receive final instructions and equipment. The instructions handed out by email were exceptionally clear, and I didn't need any equipment, so a few minutes later I was at my post with my high-visibility jacket and my best reflective strips, holding an electric torch and ready for action. Unfortunately, I had nothing to do until 05:30. I initially thought I'd use the spare hour to do some running, as I had been very lazy the past week. However, I wasn't keen to leave my car in a deserted spot. I took a drive around the area, but the one garage was already congested, one was deserted due to a refurbishment and the other had treatening signs that said that my wheels would be clamped if I parked there. Not relishing the prospect of getting trapped far from my assigned spot, I decided to sit tight and wait. John Milton would have been proud of me.
Stephan and I stood around, watching the vehicle traffic gradually increase. Even before sunrise, there was a constant stream of arriving cars and even some runners, all making their way towards the start venue at the SABS Headquarters. Wispy clouds were sailing past in front of a half moon, and there was a decided nip in the air. Perfect running weather! A handful of chickens appeared from a yard and started scratching on the sidewalk. The number grew gradually, until there were perhaps ten of them doing their thing by the roadside. I didn't know if they were expecting what happened next.
At 05:30, we closed Sibelius Street and started redirecting vehicles. Two traffic policemen had been stationed at the intersection, but it was clear that they had no idea what to expect. I thought I did, so I briefed them. The half and full marathon runners would start at 05:45, run up Dr Lategan and turn right towards us, reaching us within minutes. Then the bunch would grow and grow for about a quarter of an hour, then wane and wane, until the street was peaceful again. Then we would go home, leaving the traffic police to deal with the second lap's runners starting an hour or so later. The 10 km runners would start around 06:15, but their route would not pass our position. Or so I had been told.
Turns out I didn't actually know what to expect either. For starters, it was a full ten minutes before the pace car appeared in Sibelius Street. It seems that the runners had taken a loop around the steep streets of Muckleneuk before bearing down on us. I later discovered that we were near the 3 km mark. For the next half hour, the bunch grew and grew. As I've reported on previous occasions, I was amazed at how long it took before my peer group started appearing. Unfortunately, the race numbers are coloured grue (something between green and blue), so it was actually impossible to distinguish between half and full marathon runners. However, the real surprise came around 06:25. I had already agreed that Stephan could go on his merry way. The bunch was already starting to thin out. Our job was almost done. Imagine my surprise when the 10 km pace care came lurching down the hill, followed by a pack of sinewy athletes that seemed to be in a mad rush. They shot past, and I noticed their black race numbers. Clearly, the bunch was about to start growing again!
And so it was. For the next half hour or so, the bunch grew again, at one point filling up the entire width of the streets into and out of the intersection. I heard rumours that there were over 7000 pre-entries, suggesting a total field of about 10 000. It is amazing to stand by the roadside and see a continuous stream of 10 km people passing. It is absolutely heart-warming to see so many people prepared to drag themselves out of bed long before dawn and work up a sweat to get the juices flowing. Despite the impressions to the contrary, we are not a nation of couch potatoes after all!
The surprises were not over yet. Around 06:40, red numbers started appearing in the field. It appeared that the 5 km fun run was also going to pass our position. The first wave consisted mostly of scrawny teenagers in a mad rush. After them, things started looking very different. I have long believed that 5 km races and diet cooldrinks make you fat. Today's observations did not dispel the impression.
When the wave of red numbers finally petered out, I excused myself and found my way to the start and finish venue. I was hoping to collect my fancy T-shirt. Unfortunately, it was not to be. When I parked my car and started walking towards the venue, a patrol car with fancy lights pulled up. Kobus, the race director, asked me what I was doing. I answered that I was idly ambling about, and he asked me to help at another intersection, where they were short-staffed. I soon made my way to the intersection of Florence Ribeiro and Mackey, where the 5 and 10 km runners would cross the dense traffic on Florence Ribeiro about 1 km from the finish. I arrived there with Kevin, who had ridden the lead bike for the 5 km race. We formed a chain of four marshals with flags, allowing the traffic police to stop the cars while we directed the runners around the cars. It worked fairly well, and with the exception of a few runners that were apparently hard of hearing, we managed to allow all the runners to cross the dense traffic without disrupting their pace. Eventually, as the traffic grew denser and denser, the bunch started thinning out to the point where runners were arriving in ones and twos, and Kevin and then I left the two original marshals and the traffic police to wait for the tail end.
Being a marshal can be soul-destroyingly boring, or a lot of fun. It all depends if you make use of the amazing opportunities for observing human behaviour or not. I quipped many runners with remarks about there being only 5 km to go. Most of them flinched, then laughed. They knew full well that they were in the final stretch. If they didn't feel their entire bodies crying out for a break, they would probably have entered the half or full marathons! I also made an interesting experiment. I planted my flag to my right as I faced the oncoming runners, to try and make it clear that the runners had to turn right and pass me on the other side. By moving the flag only 300 mm, I could change the number of runners ducking past on the wrong side from about 20% to absolutely zero. It is actually possible to coax hordes of people into orderly behaviour with the necessary signals. Our chain of marshals developed concise but clear instructions for oncoming runners. "Keep right, then cross behind the minibus" seemed to invite virtually total compliance. Yet, for as long as I stood there, the marshal to my left must have repeated the mantra "People just won't listen!" at least once a minute. We certainly don't change our perceptions lightly!
My timing was perfect. On the way home, I stopped for my favourite breakfast buffet and managed to get home before 09:00 to catch up on some sleep. Now if only I can convince myself to get some exercise today, it won't be a total waste!
Just as an aside: You'll notice that this report is a perfect example of Parkinson's law. It is unusually long, despite the fact that I didn't do any running at all. As you can imagine, I feel like a worthy bureaucrat, with my mid-life crisis perfectly under control.
The Good: An amazing opportunity to see perhaps 10 000 runners surging past. Very clear instructions from my boss.
The Bad: Confusion about what was going to pass our duty point and when.
The Ugly: Getting up at 03:20. Really!?
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This race has two special characteristics. One is that it is Agape Athletics Club's annual half marathon championship. The other is that the sponsors celebrate their Scottish heritage by encouraging runners and marshals to wear kilts. Anyone completing the half marathon in a kilt wins a Chamberlains gift voucher. It's almost like being a pro runner.
Were it not for these two factors, I might well have stayed in bed. When I woke up, it was drizzling lightly and rather cold. Traffic was much lighter than we're accustomed to, so clearly not everyone had had enough resolve. Parking was also much easier to find than in previous years. Despite arriving rather late, I had only about two blocks to walk. Entries were painless, except that I had trouble finding a working pen. I left my jacket at the Club tent and spent about ten minutes standing in the drizzle with a relatively small field.
I don't believe in over-ambitious goals. It's hard enough to maintain a buoyant demeanour in these trying times, and I do not want to set myself up for failure by choosing unattainable goals. So I was simply hoping to make it into the Top 20, in my age group, in my club. Last year I was going great guns until cramps stopped me in my tracks around the 17 km mark. Instead of breaking 1:50 as I had hoped, I limped home in just under two hours. This year, I was not as well prepared as last year, and decided to simply maintain a comfortable 6:00/km pace and accellerate towards the end, if I could. I was also secretly hoping that PJ's Secret Horse Endurance Salt Mix would help to stave off the cramps. If not, enduring the taste of PJ's SHESM would be a cruel diversion. I cannot imagine how horses, who do not understand the supposed benefit of the SHESM, can endure that taste willingly.
We were walked from the initial start to the real start line by a pipe band. Perhaps it is not all a bad thing. Perhaps the pain helps to focus one's mind. The route starts with a serious climb, so focus is soon needed. We arrived at the 1 km mark about a minute behind my planned pace. I tried to gradually whittle away at this deficit. It wasn't too hard, as we descended into the valley towards the Innovation Hub. Climbing back up Meiring Naude Drive past the CSIR, though, was a different matter. Nevertheless, I arrived at the bridge over the River N1 just slightly ahead of schedule. With the undulating terrain, I saw several faces come and go, as we jostled for position with the varying pace. Ken N and Brian were two faces that I saw repeatedly. The last stretch to the finish line is a gradual downhill, and just after the 10 km runners turned right into the finish venue, I passed the 10 km mark in about 0:58.
I asked many runners which clan their tartan was from. I got many answers, some sensible. It was inevitable that I would also be asked. My stock answer was MakLeeu, although I explained that my mother's side of the family was actually MakLammetjie. I did notice a marshal by the name of MacFadyen. Not sure why he wasn't sporting the compulsory kilt, though.
The second lap was pretty much a repetition of the first, with an extra loop to make up the distance. I kept seeing Wayne ahead of me, just out of reach. Around the 16 km mark, Roco came up from behind. We spent some time catching up on news. Although about ten years my senior, he comfortably maintained the pace despite not being in regular training. I sometimes walked up steep hills, and often overtook him again when he stopped to chat to acquaintances. Roco thinks that it is his thirtieth Capital City Classic in a row.
Around the 17 km mark, Mari came cruising past. I was not going to take this affront lying down. I kept seeing her up ahead, and resolved to try and catch her on the downhill to the finish. It took some doing, but I managed to pass her with about 1 km to go. Gritting my teeth, I managed to maintain the pace all the way to the finish line, finishing just ahead of both Mari and Roco.
I collected my gift voucher and found my way to the club tent. There wasn't much beside water, and Wanja and I found our way back to our cars after a short break.
Did I make it into the Top Twenty, in my age group, in my club? Time will tell. I did see Fritz in the loop on the second lap, about five minutes ahead of me, so I can safely assume that he beat me. I saw Paul at the start, and never saw him again, so I assume that he beat me. Let's see. Maybe I'll get lucky.
Running a half marathon in a kilt is an enriching experience. There is no way that one could possibly understand the fearless confidence of a man like William Wallace if one hasn't. Although it wasn't my first time, I realised yet again that it is not a coincidence that the Scots keep talking about leaving the UK. The annual gift voucher doesn't hurt, either. In fact, one of these days I'm going to rake them together in a neat pile and actually go and spend them.
The Good: Relatively easy parking. Good marshalling.
The Bad: Waiting for the start in the drizzling rain. Climbing those hills, repeatedly.
The Ugly: A pipe band and dozens of brutes in fancy skirts. I am an old-fashioned type, you know.
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Traffic turned nasty about 1 km from the start venue at Irene Village Mall. I was sitting almost still for several minutes before crossing the R21, wondering if I would get there in time. However, I found parking not too far from the centre with about 15 minutes to spare. After struggling with recalcitrant pens to fill in the entry slip, I found my way into the middle of the start bunch with about five minutes to go.
The start was slow, with a very dense bunch on a relatively narrow road. I arrived at the 1 km mark more than a minute behind schedule. The bunch started spreading out soon afterwards, and I was able to find my comfortable pace. I came across Dave, and spent about five minutes exchanging news. I always enjoy his company, but it was clear that I was enticing him into a slightly uncomfortable pace, so I eventually succumbed and left him behind. I spent a few minutes running with Beate, who was winding down for a marathon and taking it easy. Perhaps around 7 km, I found a bunch of Agape runners, and spent a few minutes chatting to Wanja before leaving them behind too. I hit the 10 km mark around 59 minutes, nicely on track.
One source of frustration was the nourishment being offered at the water points. Apart from water, there was only iced tea, made by the sponsors. I would hardly rate iced tea as a universally-acceptable drink, and its caffeine content ruled it out from my point of view. I really, really would have appreciated something but water to drink with more than two hours out in the sunshine!
At this point, the distance markers started falling apart. I was impressed with the markers themselves. Each distance marker was clearly visible on a Garbie bin. However, their positioning became rather suspect. From 10 km, my splits for the next few km varied between 2:50 and 7:30, while maintaining even pace. I took a while to understand what was happening, and initially had the impression that I was lagging way behind my planned pace. However, from about 15 km the markings became more regular, and it appeared that I was just slightly behind my goal pace. I spent several km running with Wayne, while he was consistently moving along and I was taking an occasional walk break before catching up with him again. Around the 18 km mark, I sped up. I had 3 km to go and 15 minutes to do it in—not easy, but not impossible due to the slight downhill grade. In the event, I wasn't able to keep up the pace. I had to take one last walk break at the short climb into the shopping centre, and ended up missing the two hour mark by six seconds.
I was reasonably happy. I guess 2:00:06 is close enough to two hours for government work?
The Good: Relatively easy parking. Light traffic. Flattish route. Good marshalling.
The Bad: Congested start.
The Ugly: Iced tea. Please!?
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On most races, the helpers' race takes place after the race, often the following day. For our club's Jacaranda City Challenge, this year it was different. The race takes place in late October, but our helpers' race was organised for Heritage Day, several weeks before the actual race.
As I had been unavailable for Saturday's race due to other commitments, I was relatively fresh. As this race is a League race this year, I was planning to comfortably break 56:00 for five points. The six-point cutoff for my age group, 50:15, was probably just out of reach.
I arrived at the SABS a few seconds late, just in time to see the bunch of red-clad runners disappearing up the street. I quickly parked my car and set off in hot pursuit. I didn't know the new route, so I could not afford to let the runners out of my sight. The route starts with an immediate climb onto Lukasrand. It then meanders through the steep part of Muckleneuk before descending into Magnolia Dell and finding its way down the Apies River into Clydesdale. After a gradual climb up Park Street, we found the halfway water point at the University of Pretoria campus. Another gradual climb up Lynnwood Road found us in the leafy streets of Brooklyn, then past the Bird Sanctuary and up the hill to return to the SABS.
The run was pleasant, with mostly familiar faces. This early on a public holiday, traffic was light. With a small bunch that would not cause significant traffic disruption, the lack of marshalls did not present a problem. I'm not sure if it was the relatively quick start, but I was soon struggling. Even before tackling the downhill into Magnolia Dell, I was rather sorry for myself. As I worked my way up the field, I soon realised that my target might not come as comfortably as I had anticipated. Just before the halfway mark, I joined a group with Pierre and Kobus and a few strangers, and we doggedly worked at not losing sight of the runners in front of us.
The finish came not a moment too soon. I was almost two minutes outside my target, and thoroughly tired. I hope this malaise does not continue too much longer!
The Good: Light traffic. Good company.
The Bad: Still struggling.
The Ugly: Not making what I considered a relatively easy target.
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This race used to be the Andrew Greyling Memorial, and normally attracts a large field. It takes place near Brooklyn Centre, through affluent suburbs with leafy lanes. I have been slacking the last few weeks, feeling a little under the weather and not up to the rigours of a full-on training programme. Nevertheless, I decided to tackle the half marathon, taking it easy enough to be ready for other commitments at mid-day.
Louw and I have been talking regularly, mostly about gliding, but I was pleasantly surprised when he decided to join me at the race. Domestic pressure eventually caused him to opt for the 10 km instead, but if he was prepared to take it easy enough, we could run the first lap together, leaving me to complete the second lap while he headed home.
Parking was easy, using the normal shopping centre parking garage. I probably had less than 50 m to walk to the entry table, and within five minutes I was ambling along to the start sporting my race number. I found Louw relatively easily in the bunch. We started about halfway down the bunch. The bunch was dense and required some deft weaving. I didn't see a distance marker before 3 km (although some reported seeing a 2 km marker), and by that time we'd given up only about 90 s to the planned schedule. We maintained a comfortable pace, chatting to each other and to various other runners. Ken passed us several times, each time claiming that he was going to tell his wife that he'd managed to pass me. How magnanimous. Especially since he shot past around the 9 km mark and disappeared in the distance, towards the finish line.
Louw finished in under 0:59, and I continued with the second lap. I managed to maintain a similar pace, despite having to adopt a walk-run strategy to prevent collapsing in a heap. A nice feature of the race is the substantial downhill in the last km or two. I made good use of it to finish in about 2:04. Although I was a bit slower than normal, I noticed most of my peers finishing after me: Mandy, Wallie, Laurens, Ken H and Walter spring to mind. For some reason, the route produced relatively slow times. I spotted Gina walking by the roadside at least 5 km from the venue, and offered her a ride. She was grateful, apparently not relishing thought of a walk all the way home.
I made up about five minutes relative to my planned pace, and was reasonably fresh at the finish, so at least I'm not entirely dead yet. Hopefully I can pick up the pace a bit in the next few weeks!
The Good: Good marshalling and organisation. Easy parking. Pleasant surroundings. Enough drinks, including green stuff. Chatting with Louw, especially since he was prepared to slow down enough, just this once...
The Bad: The pace was relatively slow and I'm still not back to my old self.
The Ugly: Old age is not for sissies.
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This race traditionally acts as our Club 10 km championships. As if that isn't enough incentive, it is also free of traffic and on a relatively flat course, providing ample opportunity for fast times. The race takes place at historic Swartkop Air Force Base, using the relatively flat terrain around the runway to good effect. Last year, I did my first post-plastic-knee sub-50 race, and was hoping to repeat my feat this year. My long session on the previous Saturday did not bode well, requiring almost six minutes more to complete the 11 km than I had planned. The unavailability of Hillcrest swimming pool has hampered my cross-training for the past few months, and the effects were starting to show. Nevertheless, I dutifully tapered this week, with relatively easy sessions on Tuesday and Thursday.
Parking was easy, and I managed to warm up in relaxed style before lining up at the start. I was able to maintain a constant 5:00/km from the start, arriving at the halfway mark at 25:00, exactly on schedule. The race route has been re-routed since last year, meandering up and down the runway and the main taxiway. The plan was to start speeding up with about 3 km to go. Unfortunately, I had started to run out of steam even before that point, and I had a hard time even maintaining the original 5:00/km pace. In the end, I finished around 51:20, more than two minutes slower than last year. Although I'm very disappointed, I did not notice that my main age-group competitors from last year in the field. I might yet get lucky. Even if I do, though, the victory will be somewhat tempered by the fact that Erika sailed past me about 2 km before the finish, beating me comfortably and taking the club 50+ female title in the process.
The Swartkop runway is by no means flat. I have made several hundred landings in various aircraft, from ultralight Jabirus to large jets, on this runway. In other times, I spent about a year of my life in the control tower watching others do the same. I am therefore well aware that the northern end slopes up significantly. However, I was rather surprised to learn that the other end of the runway also features a significant slope. Maybe it has developed since last year...
The Good: Easy parking. Relatively flat route. No traffic. Ample green cold drinks.
The Bad: Not much.
The Ugly: Two minutes!
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15 km is a rather unusual distance. I had to look up the cutoffs for League points. My goal was 1:22:45 for five points and 1:15 for six. The latter would require sub-5:00/km, which was probably doable but would leave me in a heap of quivering jelly and remove me from my training programme for a week or two. So I elected to aim for the rather more sedate 5:30/km pace required for five points.
Parking at Pretoria Boys' High was relatively easy, and we lined up at the start around 06:50. It was icy cold. My car's thermometer showed 3,5°C when I left home, and around 8°C at the venue. I was pleasantly surprised to bump into Olga, whom I hadn't seen in several years. She'd told me that she would be coming and I agreed to run back along the route to meet her after my finish, but she'd advised me the previous day that she was unwell and would not be making the trip across the Boerewors Curtain.
The start flowed reasonably well, with a gentle uphill grade meandering through leafy Brooklyn. The route was different to my last Marcel Van't Slot, as we made our way down to the Apies River and back up to the school only once. We spent some time in eastern Sunnyside too, before returning to repeat our meander through Brooklyn and coast down to the finish.
Laurens was still suffering from a calf injury, and wanted to aim for about 1:30. I left him behind in Brooklyn. Paul came into view around the 4 km mark, always in view but just out of reach. Around the halfway mark, at the lowest point on the banks of the Apies River, I finally caught and passed him. It was just temporary, though, as he maintained his run on the uphill back to the school while I intermittently walked. Around the 10 km mark, he passed me again. Around 12 km, he disappeared from view. I tried my best to catch up, but could not do so without inflicting grievious harm on myself. I finished in about 1:20, and Paul was in the pen about ten runners ahead of me.
After receiving my medal and a welcome drink, I made my way back along the route to find Olga. On the way, I passed Erna coming the other way, looking relaxed. I found Olga around the 12 km mark, indicating that she was going faster than she had anticipated. I joined her and her running mate Helen for a while, but started cramping and had to walk back to the finish via a short cut. Olga finished almost ten minutes faster than planned. We spent a few minutes catching up on old times before she tackled the return journey to the City of Gold.
I spent a few minutes at my club tent before sailing across to the CSIR tent to wait for the last finishers. Laurens and Alet both finished according to plan. We ambled back to the cars before setting sail for home. I was pretty happy, surviving fairly comfortably and within my target time. Despite not having followed a rigorous training programme for the past months, I'm hoping that I'll be able to equal last year's run at the Spirit of Flight. We'll see. Those cramps concern me, and I haven't stumbled across a solution yet!
The Good: Easy parking. Nice leafy suburban route. Green cold drinks.
The Bad: Not much, really. Some claimed that the route was about 200 m short.
The Ugly: Those cramps are becoming a recurring theme in my life.
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I had to get to Brits airport as soon as possible after 09:00. With almost an hour needed to get there and get cleaned up, it was going to be a tall order. Nevertheless, I figured that if I was able to finish well under two hours, I could still arrive at a respectable time. I arrived early to try and peddle a spare entry that I had bought. I found parking relatively close to the finish line (or so I thought), and found a buyer for my spare entry almost immediately. He was as grateful to avoid the queues as I was to recover my money. I made my way to the club tent and spent a few minute chatting with my clubmates.
Although the Wierie race is a regular fixture on the race calendar, it was the first time to my knowledge that it was actually being run from the Wierdapark Laerskool. This year is their fortieth anniversary. I felt really old, as I can distinctly remember when Wierda Park was being laid out, with the first starter homes appearing in the open fields.
I found Laurens at the start, and we set off together. The start was busy, but flowed well almost immediately. The first 2 km or so consisted of a gradual downhill grade; it didn't bode well for the remainder of the race. I chatted with Laurens, Iain, Ken H and a few others that I recognised, maintaining what I thought was a comfortable pace. Unfortunately, the distance markers I was relying on were nowhere to be seen, so I had no idea of how I was actually doing. I also had a slight niggle in my right Achilles tendon, an after-effect of my injury from a few weeks ago. Around 30 minutes into the race, an estimated 6 km from the start, I decided that trying to run the half marathon with no pacing information was too risky. I decided instead to run hard and bail out at the 10 km mark. I sped up considerably, hoping for a finish well under an hour. I passed several clubmates, including Ken N and Lammie, plus Melanie and Ally towards the end. I could have felt almost like a real athlete, had it not been for the fact that I knew that most of them would continue with the second lap. I arrived at the finish line relatively fresh in about 53:30. I collected the goodie bag and some green drinks before finding my way back to the car, well under an hour after the start. I even made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare!
The Good: Easy parking. Reasonably level terrain. Green cold drinks (albeit of the unbranded variety).
The Bad: No distance markers! And the resulting shorter distance. I heard later that some runners noticed some distance markers spray-painted on the road surface, but I noticed none of them, despite looking intently throughout the route.
The Ugly: The fact that school kids and staffers called some of the runners "Sir". But not me.
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You may wonder about the modest target. You clearly haven't seen the terrain, then.
From the start at Castle Walk, there is a climb of about 50 m in the first km or so, then a drop of about 140 m to the half-way mark. In the next 3 km or so, there is another climb of about 130 m. The next 1,5 km or so offers a respite with a drop of about 70 m, with a gentle 30 m climb in the last km or so.
Very little else needs to be said. Parking was easy, entries were easy (although a misguided official pointed me to the wrong table), and the start was not awfully congested. Even better, last year's crazy entry fee has been reduced to a more palatable level. On a personal note, I've been nursing a bruised Achilles tendon for a week, so I had to be a little careful not to overdo things.
I started about a quarter down the bunch, and was immediately able to run as fast I wanted to. Which wasn't all that fast, given the topography. I saw Wallie and Wanja ahead of me, and took more than 1 km to catch up with them. Conversation became a little easier when the first downhill started. The distance markers were not all that great, which I figured out from the fact that it took less than four minutes to cover the third km. I also met Paul, Iain and James on the way down, the latter speeding past like a steam train.
I hit the half-way mark near Garsfontein Road around 29 minutes. With almost 100 m to climb in the second half, breaking an hour was going to be hard work. The odd concrete section didn't help. I am clearly allergic to concrete—whenever I'm on a concrete road, I find myself unable to run. Although I managed to maintain a respectable pace, I was never certain that I would be able to make my target, with the 6 km marker missing and with only about 300 m between the 8 and 9 km marks.
We soon encountered the 5 km walkers, and the road became quite crowded. I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived at the line with more than a minute to spare.
We all received goodie bags at the finish line, and they offered complementary aQuelle bottled water and cold sports drinks at the finish. I bumped into Wallie and Wanja, who finished just behind me. Wallie had taken a tumble on some uneven terrain and drawn some blood. I also chatted to Danie and Melanie afterwards. They seemed none the worse for wear, as always. After Alet arrived, we drove out in dense traffic. We managed to avoid the worst jam near the Castle Walk centre, and soon found ourselves on the way home. All things considered, the race proved a very pleasant outing.
The Good: Easy parking and entries. A more reasonable entry fee than last year. Leafy surroundings.
The Bad: Erratic distance markers. No cold drinks on the route for anyone but Coke addicts.
The Ugly: Pretoria is a hilly place, man.
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Last week's 10 km race hasn't entirely left my legs, despite a relaxed training week. I had some trepidation about trying a relatively fast half marathon. Nevertheless, if I am ever to resume serious training, I'll have to do it some time. My task for the day was to maintain a 5:29/km average pace—not a pushover, but not out of reach either.
I collected Alet at 06:00 and Laurens shortly after. We hit the first traffic a few hundred metres from the gate, and crawled in first gear for about 15 minutes before finding parking. The temperature was hovering around 3,5°C, cold but a lot more comfortable than last year's sub-zero temperatures! Alet had to buy a temporary licence, so by the time we made it to the start bunch, it was time for the gun to go. Go it did, before we were quite ready, so we started at the back of the bunch. Laurens and I gradually made our way through the bunch, arriving at the 1 km mark in over eight minutes. Not a great start, but not a train smash either. We gradually made up time, and the 10 km mark passed in about 58 minutes. I was going to have to turn up the speed a bit, but I was feeling good, so there was hope.
The route has changed since last year. Instead of completing a second lap of the same route, we branched off towards Sunderland Ridge for the remainder of the route. After a long gradual climb, we turned east into Raslouw. Like last week, we entered an out-and-back loop of more than 3 km. It was fun to see the oncoming traffic. I didn't see the leaders, but I did see a fair assortment of the more serious athletes ahead and the less serious ones behind. Laurens was a few minutes behind me, looking grim. I gradually managed to wind up the speed, and by the time I passed the 18 km mark, I thought that I would actually get close to my target. My finish time was just under 1:57, not exactly what I was hoping for, but close enough given the slow start.
We waited at the Club tent until Laurens finished, then made our way back to the car. Laurens had suffered somewhat. It seems like his stellar effort between Durban and Pietermaritzburg of eight weeks ago is still asserting itself! We queued for perhaps a quarter of an hour to make it out of the premises and the neighbourhood.
The Good: Pretty good marshalling. Green cold drinks at every water point. New route with less interference between runners.
The Bad: Heavy traffic, in and out.
The Ugly: Why can't runners keep right in an out-and-back loop? Outbound and returning traffic crossed several times in the loop, and the vehicles didn't know where to go.
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Ideally, I would have liked to have done the half marathon, but I had a meeting scheduled for 08:00, not far from the start at Eco Boulevard. During the week, I asked my boss for some flexibility to be a few minutes late, and decided to try and do the 10 km instead. If I was quick, I might be able to get away from the race before 08:00, get cleaned up and arrive only a few minutes late for the meeting.
Traffic was not too bad, and I found parking not far from the start venue. Entries were another matter entirely. There was a single group of tables, with no notices except on the tables, hidden by the dense crowd. Several runners braved the crowd for a long time, only to arrive at the table and be told that they had to queue somewhere else. This club seems to have a lack of common sense at so many levels. One wonders why they get given so many races on the annual calendar.
In my men's age group, I could earn five points by beating 56:00 or six by beating 50:15. The former was a pushover. The latter would take significant determination, especially with last week's Vasbyt still lingering in my legs. Nevertheless, it was worth a try.
The start was on time. As I was planning to run fast this time (at least by my standards), I warmed up beforehand and started near the front. The start was uneventful, and I was running freely from the first moment. Debbie sailed past in the first km, as did Josias and Kevin a few minutes later. De Wet joined me, and we chatted for a while, partly about my un-earned 1:47 at a recent race. He was planning to do 50 minutes, so I expected that I would see a lot of him. And so it was. At the 2 km marker, we were about 15 s ahead of pace. We were about to hit the first uphills, so I was happy. I walked perhaps a dozen times, as I certainly could not sustain the pace without some respite. De Wet was able to sustain a constant pace, and we kept passing one another for most of the route. Just before the 5 km mark, we entered an out-and-back loop in a single road, so I could watch the entire field from the lead car to well behind me over the next 2,5 km or so. It was fun to see where everyone was in the field—Sonet shot past, then Kevin and Josias, and behind me I noticed Melanie and several others. The far end of the loop was also the highest point on the route, so the remaining 4 km would mostly be slightly downhill. At this point, I was almost a minute behind the pace, so I would have to make good use of the downhill to gain some speed. Fortunately, with a few interruptions, I was able to do so. De Wet was perhaps 100 m ahead of me for most of the last push. I finished just inside 50 minutes, and jogged back to my car. I was well on my way to the meeting by 08:00, and managed to sneak in a few minutes late.
I'm pretty happy. Mission accomplished, with my first six-pointer in the bag! Given that I still had some slight niggles in my left knee from last week and did not rest as I would have for a maximum-effort race, coming in under 50 minutes is not too shabby. Despite the general malaise my training has suffered from since Comrades, it seems like the last three years of training has actually achieved something!
The Good: Light traffic and easy parking. Green cold drinks at every water point. Not too many hitches with the traffic (although I would imagine it would have been worse had I stayed a bit later).
The Bad: The new route is a bit drab, winding through an industrial area and then out-and-back in brown grasslands. Some km markers were facing the wrong way, where runners could not see them.
The Ugly: The chaotic entries. This club doesn't seem to learn anything from its mistakes.
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I entered for this race on a casual basis, buying numbers for Laurens and myself when I happened to be near the sports shop. "Vasbyt" means something like "hang in there", so there was obviously some element of challenge. But seeing that I can run 21 km comfortably, even on hilly terrain, how hard can 25 km possibly be?
The trouble started during the week, when my colleague Erna told me how she had been advised by her club to stay away. Tales of single-file tracks with no opportunity to pass slower runners abounded. Seeing that passing people is not a big thing in my life, I wasn't deterred by that part of the story, but the tales of horrible slopes and loose stones sounded a little disconcerting.
Laurens didn't help. He told me that he'd done the race several times, each time vowing never to do it again. He mentioned something about a sting in the tail. I checked past results on the Web, and it wasn't a pretty picture. My peers were all at least 20 minutes slower than I would expect, indicating that the race was not going to be fast and flat. But I knew that part already—there is no flat terrain near the venue, at the Voortrekker Monument.
The start was at a civilised time, so I collected Laurens around 06:55. We easily found parking and walked across the hill to the club tents. Just this trip involved a serious descent and a serious climb back to the start. The start bunch was relatively big, and a sense of anticipation reigned as we waited for the flypast. Sure enough, a few minutes before the scheduled start, three Harvards appeared from the south for a low formation flyby. The three planes were all painted in different liveries: One with the original SAAF springbok roundels, one with the SAAF castles and one in the characteristic chevrons of a drone tug. The sound of the two flybys reminded me strongly of flying a Goose in Alaska two years ago—a fond memory indeed. An artillery gun was fired, causing half the crowd to jump. Shell shock?
The start was very slow. We started halfway down the bunch, and had to contend with a lot of slow starters, narrow roads and bad surfaces. The first distance marker showed "24". Aha, a countdown, a la Comrades. Given the traditional slow times, Laurens had set his fancy pacer to 7:00/km. I was hoping to do better, but not by much. With 23 km to go, the average pace was closer to 7:30/km. We started with a steep descent on rough roads into the valley north of the Monument. We then hit an uphill on the main road (R101) up to the Exxaro headquarters, turning right across the bridge to traverse the Weskoppies before returning to the Monument grounds.
Just before re-entering the Monument grounds from the north, I passed Frances and Iain. At least starting in the middle of the bunch had one advantage—I was constantly passing people. And I suppose passing a former Comrades winner must count for something.
The average pace had by this time increased to about 6:30/km. It looked like a finish time of 2:40 might be realistic. However, I was a little concerned as we descended all the way down into the Fountains valley, before tackling the hill back to the Monument. I remember this particular hill from my cycling days. It was the steepest hill in Pretoria, and we often used it to train for mountain climbs like the Long Tom Pass. In the Vasbyt, it was just a respite, as many of the off-road climbs were steeper than any road would ever be allowed to get. Add some loose pebbles and the odd thorn branch at eye level, and you have a lethal combination of physical and mental strain.
On the final climb up Schanskop hill, with about 10 km to go, I noticed a fragile-looking ginger blonde in front of me. I quickly figured that someone so fragile, with such gossamer limbs, could not possibly do something that I couldn't do. I resolved to use her as a pace marker. It worked for a while. Just before we crested the hill, she disappeared from sight, never to be seen again. Sigh...
On the hilltop is Fort Schanskop, a relic of the late nineteenth century South African Republic. We actually ran right through it. A blast from the past! As we left the Fort, we hit the 5 km mark. We were well above the finish line, so the remaining part of the route was a pushover. With 4 km to go, I could see the finish line, well below us. Home and dry! There was a repeated announcement of "10, 21 right" as we approached an intersection. I was amused to notice that it was an MP3 player. What a great solution! MP3 players don't get tired like marshals do.
The finish wasn't quite as easy as I'd grown to expect. We dropped well below the finish line, all the way to the R101 on the north side. We then clambered up the hill towards the Monument. With about 2 km to go, I was negotiating a steep climb on loose pebbles, involving occasional use of all fours and with not a single runner actually running, when I was tripped up by a young woman running on my heels. I managed to avoid actually crashing to the ground, but it would be nice if she could learn to be a bit more considerate one day. The steepness of the terrain reminded me of climbing stairs, much more than road running. With about 1 km to go, we got to the stairs of the Monument. Believe it or not, the marshal waved us up the stairs. We climbed all the way to the top, ran around the Monument and descened down the same steps again. With just a few hundred metres to go, we entered the Amphitheatre, descending rather precariously down the steep slope before finishing on the stage. I had a strong sense of deja vu; this was the exact same spot where I finished my most illustrious sporting victory ever; an open cycle race of something like 40 km around 1980, aged 15. Hopefully, at 2:48 or so, I'll make it into the top 1000 this time...
Now that I know the full details of this race, I have no idea how it ended up on the road racing calendar. I would estimate that less than a quarter of its distance was on roads. The rest was on footpaths with uncertain footing and extreme slopes, with dust covering everything. One fascinating aspect of the race was the distinction between different sections. There were obviously different route captains handling different sections of the route, with some being rather rough and others being very pleasant indeed. My favourite section was on the south side, from perhaps halfway up to about 7 km before the end. In this section, marshalling was superb, all nasty thorn bushes on the route were marked with warning flags, there was a stencilled springbok on a flat stone every few metres and there were regular notices enjoining runners not to litter. It actually worked; I saw almost no water sachets lying around in this section. The few that I did see, were neatly stacked in a pile next to one of the notices! It's encouraging to see that people actually have the ability to behave if they're just reminded.
There was another interesting aspect to this race. Much was made of the remembrance of fallen soldiers in years past. Along the route were perhaps a dozen boards with the names of major battles, including Delville Wood and El Alamein. Although most of these battles were in the world wars, there were several battles in the Angolan war, in which the SADF got entangled. Seeing that both sides in those battles had South African involvement, I wasn't sure that these references would be universally appreciated...
I've been meaning to try a trail run for some time now. I was thinking about doing a shortish one just to see if my legs were up to the task, but being tossed into this trail run unexpectedly allowed me to do my experiment rather sooner and rather more intensely than I was planning. And I guess the experiment was a success, although my left knee is more painful than it has been in many moons. I'm hopeful that I actually got away with it! Laurens was slightly less lucky. On the same stretch close to the finish where I was tripped up, Laurens crashed to the ground. Fortunately, he picked a good spot and has only a minor abrasion on his palm to show for it.
The Good: Light traffic and easy parking.
The Bad: No green cooldrinks.
The Ugly: Duh.
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This year, the Ice Breaker wasn't icy. With temperatures hovering around 10°C, the race was positively balmy.
Alet and I arrived about 25 minutes before the start. We easily found parking a block away, enrolled with little trouble and made our way to the start. After posing for a group photo with half a dozen CSIR runners, we started on time. The start was a little slow, passing the 1 km mark in about 7:30. The undulating terrain rolled by relatively quickly. I passed Ken H and group, and asked him at what time he was planning to do his weekly acrobatic routine. He did at least pretend to be amused.
I gradually made up time, arriving at the 10 km mark in about 59:30. If I wanted to finish in under two hours, I would have to do the last 11,1 km in a similar time. I gradually incrased the pace, without too much strain. In a calibration loop around the 13 km mark, I noticed Melanie and then Mandy and Marie coming the other way. They must have been around 300 m ahead of me, giving me a good target to aim for. Around the 15 km mark, I had them in sight and continued to reel them in. They acted as great bait to keep the pace up. For the last few km, I didn't have this advantage, and just kept pushing. The last 2 km sailed by in under 10 minutes, allowing me to finish in just under two hours.
I have mixed feelings about this race. If I want to achieve my new-found goal of running a half marathon in under 1:47, I'll have to find more speed. This leisurely pace isn't going to cut it, as it's barely adequate for my prescribed training long runs. Even the tempo training sessions will be an ordeal unless I get a little faster!
The Good: Light traffic and easy parking. Good marshalling. Good refreshments, including green cooldrinks.
The Bad: A clear indication that there's a lot of hard work remaining.
The Ugly: Not much.
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Again, a start at a civilised time and no need to rise at an ungodly hour. I collected Laurens at 06:45 and we made our way to the registration and start with plenty of time to spare.
As usual in these parts, the terrain was hilly. A downhill start made for quick dispersion of the bunch. A nice surprise in the first km was Toy, whom I hadn't seen in more than three years and who was running the 10 km race. Laurens wanted to keep his heart rate down to idle, so Toy and I gradually left him behind. We caught up on the events of the last few years, until she decided to slow down around 2,5 km. I sped up slightly, but wanted to avoid overtaxing myself. Approaching the halfway mark, I was on track for a comfortable two-hour finish.
Just after the 9 km mark, two marshals were enthusiastically chanting, "Five and ten left, 21 straight!". I found myself wondering if a decent sign would not have been a lot less effort. I continued straight ahead for the second lap, while the shorter distance runners peeled off to the left. About five minutes later, I started looking for the 10 km marker. Instead, I found a 12 km marker. Strange—one marker must have been misplaced. No, the next marker showed 13, and the next 14. Around this time, a very agitated older female runner passed us from behind, asking what distance we had done. It was becoming apparent that we had missed a portion of the route. Indeed, all the remaining markers were consistent, showing the same remaining distance as the markers for the 10 km race. I had a slight niggle in my left knee and my left foot, so I decided that I would simply accept the 10% discount and let 19 km suffice. Many other runners around me were not so philosophical. Discussions ranged from outrage to crafty plans to add the extra 2 km that we had missed. I saw the two-hour bus taking an unmarked detour into the neighbourhood, presumably to make up the 21,1 km distance using GPS.
Just after the 12 km mark, I saw a runner tumbling onto the ground ahead of me. It looked like a fairly heavy fall, and I saw surrounding runners stopping to help. When I got there, I noticed that it was Ken H. He had tripped on the uneven road surface. In addition to scratches all over his shoulders and limbs, he had a deep gash on his left cheek. He was trying to stem the blood flow with one of his lily-white gloves. I gave him a description of the gash, reassuring him that it was closed and not bleeding profusely. He declined an offer of help, and we both continued on the route.
Soon afterward, I passed Alex. She seemed fairly relaxed. A stranger remarked about my "strange" style. I asked him what was strange about it. He elaborated about my unusually high cadence and the height at which my hands were being swung. Nevertheless, he opined, it seemed to work for me. Not very well, I thought, given that I was in the middle of the bunch! Nevertheless, I was gratified to hear his comments—both of his comments related to things that I had actively worked on while making my comeback after having my plastic knee installed.
When I got to the 9 and 20 km markers, we turned left towards the finish. I noticed an 11 km marker on the opposite side of the road. It was now clear; we should have turned left after the first lap and completed a 2 km loop before rejoining the route at the same point. Those marshals were clearly not the sharpest pencils in the packet, causing havoc in a race that was otherwise fairly well organised.
The race ended at the traditional finish venue for the Wally Hayward race. Anyone familiar with that race in years past will remember the very steep climb to the school, before the left turn into the grounds. At least we hit that hill halfway up, so instead of having to ascend all the way from the valley, we only had half a hill to climb. Just before the top, I passed our club tent. One would hope for reassurance after having conquered this major hill. Instead, all I got from Hennie was, "It's just a hill, get over it!". Hennie has obviously only read the last half of Dale Carnegie's book.
I tried hard to get myself disqualified, but the referees were clearly not in a mood for discussion. They had their hands full with many irate runners who felt hard done by, feeling that everyone else had done a shorter distance than they had. I was the only one demanding to be disqualified because I had not done the full route. The referees were not interested in my story.
Had I done the full distance, I would have run around 1:57, a slightly sub-standard time. The official time of 1:47, though, looks like a personal record. Given my inability to get myself disqualified, there is only one way to get rid of this blemish on my record: I'll have to beat that time fair and square.
Perhaps I've now found a worth-while target for the next few months, more or less by accident...
The Good: Light traffic and easy parking.
The Bad: Limited green cooldrink.
The Ugly: The marshals at the 9 km mark.
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Had this race not had League status, I might well have stayed in bed. The combination of winter malaise, icy weather and the last vestiges of a serious cold conspired to leave me very lazy indeed. Nevertheless, I managed to take two runs this week, leaving me confident that I could survive 10 km in 56 minutes and earn some points for the club. Unlike anyone who ran Comrades seriously, I got off unscathed by missing out on the last tortuous 33 km, so I could probably have resumed training the day after Comrades. If I had wanted to.
I had some misgivings about the venue. I know the area around Glenfair very well, and think as I might, I could not imagine any route that would not involve some very nasty hills. I arrived in light traffic, easily found parking and registered at the shopping centre. Two things were different from other races. I saw at least two dozen dogs on leashes, and heard at least four dozen runners comparing notes about Comrades.
The bunch was massive, but the start was fairly quick. Within about 200 m, we routed along Lynnwood Road, leaving plenty of room for everyone to spread out. Despite the civilised start time, I had trouble reading my stopwatch at the 1 km marker, but it was well below six minutes. More or less exactly at this point, we hit the first nasty hill. The yo-yo effect continued to roughly the 8 km mark.
I could not find Laurens in the start bunch. He sailed past me early in the race, but didn't seem to notice me. I caught up with him on the first serious uphill. We chatted briefly and compared notes. We were both feeling fine, and neither had specific plans except to break 56 minutes. Our rhythms didn't coincide, so I gradually left him behind over the next few km. Thinus kept popping up in my field of view, and we briefly chatted. It turned out that he'd gone to Comrades, but only as a supporter. He was obviously in a hurry. For the next half-hour, I kept playing hare and tortoise with him. I occasionally walked on uphills. Each time, I used him as a target to regain my pace. It worked well, and it soon became evident that I could easily reach my target. I started wondering if I could aim for six points. I hadn't seriously considered this possibility beforehand, and hadn't looked up the cutoff time. I thought it might be 51:15. Around the 8 km mark, it looked like I might just be able to make it, as the route back to Glenfair was fairly flat, possibly even slightly downhill. I resolved to try. I started leaving Thinus behind, at about the same time that I discovered that he was running the half marathon, and had another lap ahead of him. In the event, I could not maintain the required pace over the last 2 km, and ended up finishing in just over 52 minutes.
It turns out that I was overly optimistic anyway. Consulting the lookup tables afterwards, I would have needed to break 50:15 for a six-pointer. It just wasn't within my reach this time. I didn't see Laurens at the finish, but he apparently finished about a minute behind me. Not bad for a guy who actually completed Comrades three weeks ago (although some might question the wisdom of this intense effort so soon...).
I still haven't decided what to do over the next few months. I certainly do not want to tackle another life-consuming project like the past few months, but I do need to figure out something that I can use as motivation to drag my lazy ass onto the streets occasionally. At least this race was a start.
The Good: Light traffic and easy parking arrangements. Good marshalling. Oh no, not another "challenging hilly route"...
The Bad: No green cooldrink, or anything but water to drink if you don't want a caffeine fix.
The Ugly: The li'l old lady who knocked down a runner just before the finish, apparently completely severing his foot.
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I quoted the Flying Dutchman when writing about the Vaal Marathon, so I’ll have to come up with a different cliché this time. Nevertheless, the moment of truth has really arrived.
The week before Comrades was not ideal. I had business commitments outside the country, and arrived back in South Africa on Friday night. The schedule necessitated a rather cramped departure, only arriving in Durban on Saturday afternoon. I managed to get enough rest in the preceding week, completing my last training run on Thursday morning in rather relaxed fashion. The carbo-loading regime afterwards made me feel a little sluggish, but after four weeks of tapering, the chronic stiffness and fatigue had disappeared from my legs. The only abnormality was the customary slight pain in my left leg and a blister under my left big toe. My hotel was about 2 km from the conference venue, and the daily walk each way must have done me in. On Friday night, I set about working on the blister with a syringe and some fiery liquid. After draining the blister, I squirted the liquid in there and stared straight ahead for several minutes until the pain subsided.
My training run terminated with 1003 km in the logbook. The exact distance was a homage to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Louw’s model predicted that I should be able to complete the race in somewhere under 11 hours. The exact number was open to some conjecture, as I didn’t have a flat-out marathon time to play with, but based on my 10 and 21 km times and my effortless finish in the Wally Hayward, I was confident that a bronze medal was within reach. Laurens was in the same boat, having a faster qualifying marathon but less training distance. Accordingly, we planned for a 10:50 finish. We were hopeful that we might be able to push a little harder in the last stretch.
On Saturday morning, I visited my physio Hanri to be strapped up. Although I hadn’t had trouble with the ITB niggles in a while, I wasn’t going to take any chances. She also strapped up my left kneecap to reduce the chances of trouble. The last hour before departure was spent printing and laminating the profiles and pace tables. My sister Yolande dropped us off at Lanseria airport, and we had a plate of potato chips while waiting for check-in.
Laurens whisked us from King Shaka airport to the guest house in Durban North. After a hearty late lunch, we spent the early evening getting our logistics ready before slipping into bed way too early for comfort. I had a continuous stream of text messages and phone calls from well-wishers. With a fancy app available for download from the Comrades Web site, it was clear that Comrades is becoming a very visible pastime. The glory—or, indeed, the humiliation—was going to be very public.
We were up by 04:00, to have breakfast early enough to allow for digestion before the race. Eggs, bacon and yoghurt made up the breakfast, as hopefully the leg muscles were already pre-loaded to saturation with those precious carbohydrates. After a short drive, we entered our start pen at 05:08, well before the advertised cutoff. Laurens had voluntarily elected to join me in my G pen, even though he was eligible for the D bunch. In the event, it made no difference. The barriers between the pens had been removed much earlier than advertised, and runners were already pushing forward. We ended up fairly close to the back, surrounded by H runners. We had planned for a seven minute delay at the start, so it wasn’t a major crisis.
The start is always very noisy. Some guy who likes the sound of his own voice pours out a continuous stream of inane comments, occasionally interrupted by another commentator whose every comment reveals his misunderstanding of the rules and the race. Fortunately, the pain of Chariots of Fire was mitigated somewhat by a timing problem, leaving too little time for them to inflict the cacophony of Vangelis’s cheap synthesiser on our refined musical ears for longer than absolutely necessary. Then came the fake cock’s crow, and the starting gun. We were mostly in darkness, but up ahead we could see the sky awash with a myriad paper ribbons circulating through the air in the glare of the television floodlights. The bunch didn’t start moving until after more than two minutes had elapsed. At this point, we slowly started walking forward. We were near the right edge, and soon noticed that the left side was progressing better than we were. In fact, at one point we were in the very last row! We elected to sail up the left side of the bunch, and eventually crossed the start line with 08:20 showing on the stopwatch. On the right, there was still a bunch of more than 100 m behind us. Some of them would not cross the start line until more than ten minutes had elapsed. We were still moving relatively slowly, but we were not in a hurry. 87 km lay ahead, and any tendency to hurry now would cost us dearly later.
The first hour sailed by very comfortably. Laurens kept complaining of tired legs—not a good sign. The first stretch of road consists of illuminated urban streets and highway. After 06:00, the glowing dawn started showing its face. Most runners seemed completely relaxed, with only the occasional crusader sailing past in misguided haste. Several buses were seen. After about an hour, the 11:30 bus was still ahead of us, even though we were exactly on schedule for our planned 11:00 finish. Perhaps they were being a little too boisterous?
In Comrades, unlike any other race I have run, the distance markers count down. Seeing an 86 km marker soon after the start is a little disheartening, to say the least. I have to watch the time carefully to maintain my feeding schedule, as the hours roll by unnoticed. At the top of Cowie’s Hill, with the first of the Big Five named hills behind us, everything is still on schedule, and I am feeling very comfortable and relaxed. I am relieved to note that my blister is not causing undue discomfort. I feel it, but it does not noticeably hamper my progress.
Near the top of Cowie's, a runner rushes up an embankment to meet his female supporter. He meets her at speed, crashing to the ground on top of her in a tight embrace. Hundreds of runners laugh boisterously. Someone behind me cries, "Teach me, oh Master!".
We are surrounded mostly by G and H runners, with just a handful of higher seedings to be seen. In this part of the bunch, there is no shame in walking up the steep hills. It is therefore no surprise that most of us walk up Fields Hill, with only a few brave individuals running. At the top of Fields Hill, we are perhaps two minutes ahead of planning, and I still feel relatively fresh.
A cheering crowd lines the road most of the way. It takes a while to get used to all the people calling my name. After initially feeling like a celebrity, I soon realises that my race number gives my name away, and the ongoing cheers become routine.
57 km to go. At the Winston Park cutoff, my colleague Preia waits on the left, handing me something to nibble on. I almost miss her, as the cry of "Chris" doesn’t really indicate a friend any more. We briefly talk about the next stop before I continue. Laurens is slightly behind me, but he is taller than most and I had briefed him carefully to look for the Gorgeous Babe on the Left, so I am hopeful that they will find one another. Preia’s dad is aiming for a similar time to us, so I am surprised to learn that he passed her over a quarter of an hour ago.
The "halfway" mark at Drummond is in fact not quite halfway yet. On the descent into Drummond, it is daunting to note that we have already covered a full marathon, with more than a full marathon to come. I notice Hennie and Marix on the right with a huge camera. My left knee is slightly sore, but probably no worse than usual. More worrying, though, is the slight hint of a cramp starting to manifest in my left calf. I take some salt and try to stretch my calf muscles on the run, with limited success. The crowd infringes on the route near the halfway mark, leaving only about a 3 m wide lane for the dense field to run in. A misguided spectator coming up this narrow lane crashes into me. Fortunately, I retain my balance and stride.
A candidate for a fourth green number and his entourage run with me for a while. The young girls in the group seem to be part-time minibus drivers, weaving to and fro in a reckless manner and making it very difficult to run behind them. They keep warning runners behind them about the cat-eyes. I keep warning runners behind me about them.
As we tackle Inchanga, and the real halfway mark comes up, conversation has dried up completely. An American asks about the name of the hill we’re on. I tell him that it’s just another random unnamed hill, and that we would soon hit Inchanga. I can see that he’s impressed. When I tell him a few minutes later that he is almost at the top of Inchanga, he is jubilant. I think I made his day.
Preia was going to meet me somewhere around Inchanga. She is nowhere to be seen. I can’t find my Rehydrat in my clothing, and take more salt from a bystander. The raw salt without water is not exactly pleasant.
36 km to go. With less than half the distance and less than a marathon ahead, we have already climbed over 750 m from sea level and conquered four of the five major hills. The remainder of the route is undulating, with the highest point no more than 70 m higher than were we are now. It looks like this year is going to be my year. I can almost smell that elusive medal now. Laurens tells me that TA and Alet are waiting after Cato Ridge, just after a yellow truck. After giving up hope, I see Preia and her mom on the left. Laurens is just ahead, and again didn’t make contact. She hands me my sports drink and some electrolyte. I report the bad cramping. I can’t respond sensibly to her question about what I would like at the next meeting, somewhere around Camperdown. I guess a respirator and a bed wouldn't count as valid answers.
35 km to go. The cramping has now spread into my hamstrings. I stop at a physio station. A young physiotherapist instructs me to stretch while softly massaging my calves. I ask her to treat it a little more vigorously. She seems very young and very tentative, so eventually I proceed on my way with very little relief.
34 km to go. I see a Hillcrest Villagers tent with some chairs. I ask them if I can sit down. I sit for about eight minutes, stretching my calves as much as possible. I eventually take to the road again, managing a respectable jog for some distance. Hope flares up. With about five hours left to the finish, I can do this. Under normal circumstances, 34 km would take about three hours. All hope for a bronze medal is gone, but with a combination of walking and jogging, and enough grit, I should be able to do it relatively easily. I watch the passing rescue buses with mixed feelings.
33 km to go. After a walk break, I start running gently again. Suddenly, my left calf contracts in a violent cramp. It feels like a cannon shot. The intensity and the suddenness both catch me by surprise, and I tumble headlong onto the tarmac. Two runners stop to help. I try to get them to flex my foot and stretch my calf muscle, but they seem to do exactly the opposite. The resulting pain is quite debilitating. Eventually, they do the right thing, and they continue on their way. I get up gingerly, but it is clear that there will be no further running today. I see Raynold ambling by, near one of the twelve-hour buses. I guess a passing twelve-hour bus is a bad sign, this late in the race.
The first five Buses of Shame are full. They all shout that there is another one just behind them. There isn’t. Eventually, an unmarked minibus offers me a ride. It is a staff bus of sorts, but they have about five broken athletes on board. At least the mood isn’t as sombre as it is in an official Bus of Shame. I phone Alet and TA. They are still waiting at Camperdown. They haven’t seen Laurens. I tell them that he would be past them by now, but that I would try to join them where they are. Eventually, my bus passes the point where I think they are. Another runner is using my phone to phone his wife, and I eventually get off the bus without knowing exactly where. Perhaps my mental acuity isn’t all I thought it is, as I find myself searching for Alet’s green boutique truck rather than Laurens’s limo. It turns out my guess wasn’t all that far off, and I find Laurens’s car in the parking lot.
We start making our way to the finish. The traffic on the N3 crawls in first gear. The first 6 km stretch takes more than 45 minutes, at just about exactly the same pace as the runners by the roadside! We continue to see runners off in the distance, as the two routes cross several times. We eventually make it into Pietermaritzburg. Traffic is fierce, and the road we were aiming for is closed. A traffic cop tells us to turn right at the Shell garage to get to the finish. There is no right turn at the Shell garage. We explore several options. Eventually, we find another Shell garage, with a real right turn. We join a queue of vehicles heading in the right general direction. Several times, bogus carpark attendants try to sell us parking at exorbitant rates. We eventually find free parking by the roadside, and start the walk up to the finish venue. We find the CSIR tent relatively easily. Tebogo and her team welcome us very warmly, with food and drinks. I find the Agape tent with a bit more effort. Only Sonet is there. The hospitality trailer is nowhere to be seen.
I try to find the Mat of Shame, where I have to register my withdrawal. The Mat is very closely guarded. It is much easier to sneak into the finisher’s lane and to register a finish than to register a withdrawal. I can easily understand why some runners miss the last two cutoffs and still officially finish... Eventually, I manage to register my withdrawal and go to the finish to watch the 11:00 cutoff. There is a certain amount of irony watching the runners finish exactly when I was hoping to be there myself. There is the usual drama as runners sprint for the line. Some make it. Some don’t. A few collapse onto the grass near the finish, having exhausted themselves in a final desperate vain attempt to get the bronze medal.
The App shows Laurens as still on his way, hoping to finish in the last ten minutes. Alet, TA and I make our way to the finish a few minutes before the scheduled arrival. On the way, I bump into Juline, sporting a medal around her neck. I congratulate her. She is inconsolable. She hasn’t been able to find the club tent. I lead her there. As there isn’t much going on, I help her to locate another club tent, where she can get her clothes and telephone. I hurry to the finish, just too late to see Laurens and a small group of our colleagues finish in about 11:51. We wait for them at the exit. Eventually, Laurens appears. It is completely dark by now. We lead him to the CSIR tent, where he lies down with a blissful expression on his face. I find a dozen missed calls on my phone and start notifying all the onlookers about my disaster. Half console me, and the other half tell me what a great achievement it was. At least now I know which of my friends can be trusted.
We eventually amble back to the car and make our way to Laurens’s parents. Laurens soaks his legs in the icy swimming pool. We sit down to a sumptuous dinner, before taking turns to soak in the bath and slip into bed. Apart from one midnight interruption, I sleep the sleep of the dead until the sun awakes me for breakfast. We head off soon after. At the two stops along the way, we see dozens of people waddling rather awkwardly. Most of them are wearing bright-orange Comrades shirts or the little white and red caps. I tease them about their walking style, suggesting that they shouldn’t be struggling to walk at their age. Perhaps they need a little more exercise?
I’m obviously profoundly disappointed. I was better prepared than ever before, and was not expecting to have to ride the Bus of Shame again. On the one hand, it feels like many months of wasted effort. My life has been put on hold in most respects while training for this race, and I have nothing to show for it. On the other hand, I think back about three years, and I remember being unable to walk without crutches while trying to regain the use of my leg after my knee was sewed back together. At the time, there was no certainty that I would ever be able to run again.
I was so hoping to quote Lin Yu Tang about the medal being so much more meaningful in the light of two previous failures. Instead, now I’d have to consult some quote repository to find something suitably profound to say. Let me resist the temptation, and just say that I’m profoundly grateful. I actually survived 54 km of the race, including the 750 m climb from sea level and four of the five famous Comrades hills. It’s a far cry from the prospect of being a semi-mobile invalid for my remaining years. So in a sense I have achieved my prime objective, even if the medal still eludes me.
Will I try again? I doubt it. Three unsuccessful attempts and the creeping onset of old age make success less and less likely as time passes. It is a very time-consuming project, and there are a few other projects that demand attention. But stranger things have happened.
The Good: The world's greatest ultramarathon, with superlatives to match in all departments. Great personal support by Alet, TA and Preia. And I guess I could call it a "challenging hilly route" if I wanted to be generous...
The Bad: Cramps. And more cramps.
The Ugly: Investing an inordinate amount of time and effort, and going home empty-handed yet again.
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My departure to Dubai was delayed by a day, so I had the chance to do another race before departure.
The three races on offer are imaginatively entitled First Love, True Love and Tough Love, respectively. They take place at the premises of Hatfield church, which is nowhere near its original neighbourhood of Hatfield. It now nestles cosily on the northern slope of one of the nastiest hills in Pretoria. And as I've mentioned before, Pretoria is a hilly town.
This year, the race was being run in the opposite direction to previous years. To me, it made no difference as I have not run the race for many years. We had perfect running weather, which is a way of saying it was very cold and dripping with rain at times. I decided to leave my jacket at the club trailer, arriving at the start line in my running vest and feeling decidedly chilly. Once there, I wondered whether I had not made a mistake, as only a handful of the runners were similarly clad. Most wore jackets or raincoats or at least a T-shirt in addition to the normal vest.
The start was not too congested, with about a minute being lost in the first km. Around that point, we turned left towards the south and the high terrain. A relentless climb ensued up to the 7 km mark. I noticed yet again that I am allergic to concrete. In places, the road surface was concrete rather than tarmac, and I found myself unable to run wherever we found ourselves on that concrete.
I was soon comfortable. The gamble to leave my jacket at the tent had paid off, although many runners around me were still clad like Eskimos. Around the 7 km mark, I lost Laurens. We soon started sailing downhill towards the start, and I assumed Laurens would catch up. I latched onto a runner in black who passed me like the wind, and tried to maintain his pace all the way down. We managed to pass dozens of runners on the way. Even though I needed my full concentration to keep up the pace, it seems that I've finally figured out how to run downhill.
Just before 9 km, we peeled off to the right to cross January Masilela Street into Constantia Park. The terrain there is a little more level—but only a little. For the next hour, we continued to engage a series of hills. I latched onto the downhill racer, as I was a little stronger than he was on the uphills. We jockeyed for position right up to the end. Like the last few weeks, I was feeling comfortable with only the usual pain in my left knee to remind me of times past. We were also surrounded by strong runners going at leisurely pace, winding down to Comrades which is now only three weeks away.
I had lost several minutes to my planned pace in the first 7 km. By about 15 km, I was back on pace, and decided to start cranking it up. Around 18 km, I started thinking that I could perhaps break two hours. I kept up the pressure and started sailing through the bunch. The last 2 km or so is somewhat downhill, and I managed to cruise home at faster than 5:00/km in complete comfort, finishing about half a minute inside the two-hour mark.
Once I had stopped, my jacket was very necessary and very welcome. I enjoyed a cold drink at the club tent before heading back to the car. I briefly toyed with the idea of running home to fill up my quota for the week, but decided to take the easy option and do a short run in Dubai the next day instead. I was pleased. The race was challenging, yet I was able to cruise through it with relatively little damage at a respectable pace. There may actually be something to this training thing...
The Good: Good marshalling. Challenging hilly route.
The Bad: Biting cold and a bit of rain.
The Ugly: Challenging hilly route...
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Today concludes the toughest two-week period in my training schedule, with 30, 42 and 25 km runs within a ten-day period. On paper, it looked very daunting. This morning, it finally felt fairly certain that I was going to survive. I did not have strong pace expectations, as I was more interested in surviving, but Laurens and I agreed that 6:00/km would be about right. We were looking for a good workout without injury risk. My sniffles from the previous week had subsided, and seemed to be reasonably under control.
This race was virtually a repetition of the 2015 race, although I ran the 25 km race rather than the 10 km version this time. The military precision did not disappoint. Again, there was a major military airshow at nearby Swartkop Air Force Base, leading to serious traffic jams before and after the event.s
Laurens and I arrived about 20 minutes before the start, and had to park over 1 km away. We dumped our jackets at the CSIR club tent and made our way to the start, arriving just in time. The start was reasonably smooth, although the large field due to the race's League status did take its toll. I passed the start line after just more than one minute, and had lost two minutes to our planned pace by the time the 1 km marker rolled around. From this point, the race was mostly downhill for the next 5 km or so. We took it very easy, exchanging notes about various topics. Laurens told me about Nike's attempt to break the two-hour barrier in the Marathon, happening simultaneously at Monza in Italy. Doing so is a tall order, as the existing world record is almost three minutes over the two-hour mark. It was scary to think that the marathon runners would have to run more than twice as fast as we were going today! I passed Hennie and Marix again in the first few km, but I didn't dare coax them into a faster pace, given what had happened last time...
Around the 10 km mark, I lost Laurens at a water point. I assumed that he would catch up on the next downhill. On the second lap, after the 10 km runners had peeled off to the finish, the atmosphere was very relaxed, with a lot of Comrades contenders completing one of their last longish runs. Surrounded by experienced runners running at a comfortable pace, I even had capacity to field an interrogation from a budding young pilot about my flying career! At the end of a long downhill run, I could not see Laurense when looking back through the field. I decided to stick with clubmates Wallie, Harry and Mandy, who were doing a similar pace to mine. I needed some restraint to avoid speeding up, and the company was welcome. Soon afterwards, Marius joined us from behind. He was chomping at the bit to run a little faster, and I fell for it. We overtook the 2:30 bus on an uphill grade with contemptuous ease, and found ourselves ahead of the bus without our clubmates. I soon realised that we were going much faster than I had been planning, but decided to stick it out. Despite my misgivings about the effects of the previous ten days, I was feeling reasonably strong. Marius and I exchanged tales about the aeroplanes flying overhead—he had also spent time in the Air Force once upon a time. He also told me how a large contingent from his family was joining his brother in his fortieth consecutive Comrades attempt. Fortunately, he mentioned that he was a proponent of walking on uphills, and I seized the opportunity. For the last 10 km or so, I took a few walk breaks while maintaining an average pace of better than 5:30/km, even on uphills. I was definitely not sticking to the plan, but I felt strong and it was clear that we would get away with it.
We completed the last 3 km in about 15:30 and had very little in the way of after-effects. I was very pleased. I had reached the end of the hardest two weeks in my training relatively unscathed, with only the usual medial knee pain and a very slight remnant of the previous week's lateral ITB problem. Hanri's strapping and exercises had apparently had the desired effect.
A breakfast sample from a marketer and a cold drink at my Club tent went down well. Most of my peers, including Laurens, arrived within a few minutes after me. We trundled back to the car, getting a welcome lift from Izak along the way. This time we avoided the airshow traffic with a slight detour, and found our way home with relatively little trouble.
The coming week is the first week of winding down, with only 45 km on the programme. The following weeks will be even less demanding, with only 35, 25 and 10 km planned. It actually looks like I'm going to make it!
I expect to travel overseas during the next week or two, so there may not be race reports for a while. If I do manage to work in a race in another country, I'll be sure to record it here for posterity.
The Good: Good marshalling. Challenging undulating route.
The Bad: Traffic at the venue.
The Ugly: No green cold drinks at all.
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The Moment of Truth has arrived. Today I'll see if I can survive a marathon properly, after apparently finding some solutions to the nutrition problems that I had in the Vaal Marathon.
The night was difficult, as a head cold started rearing its ugly head the day before. I woke up several times. Around 04:00, both nostrils were completely blocked, and I spent a few minutes rinsing my nasal passages with salt water. Fortunately, when my alarm clock went at 05:00, I was reasonably clear.
I ran the checklist that I had compiled during the previous week. It seemed to work well—I arrived with everything I needed, including sunscreen, a hat and all the food that I had to carry. I consumed a bit more time that usual, though, and ended up running about 10 minutes late. We found parking just over 1 km from the finish, with less than 10 minutes before the start.
The field was the biggest in recent memory. It took up the entire width of a suburban street to a depth of at least 250 m. I was about two-thirds down the bunch. Laurens, who had travelled separately, was nowhere to be seen. The gun went about five minutes late. It took about three minutes before I started moving at all, and about five minutes before I crossed the start line. From this point, the bunch flowed reasonably well, and I had lost only about 5:30 at the 1 km marker. The weather was great, with temperatures in the teens and thick cloud cover that filtered the worst sunshine. The route starts with a fairly flat section, followed by a relentless gentle climb up the M10. After a sharp descent followed by a sharp climb, we traversed the wall of Waterkloof Air Force Base before turning back towards the start venue. Another few rolling hills, and we could commence the second lap. I aimed for a pace of 6:30/km, but gradually eroded the five-minute deficit at the start. I caught Laurens around 2 km. This time, we were not too well synchronised. He came and went several times, but somehow our paces never quite coincided. I ran solo most of the time, but at the leisurely pace, I just pretended to be an impartial observer. There were lots of sights and sounds, and more than four hours to soak them up.
Some of the sights and sounds involve unusual runners. During the first lap, I passed two guys with crutches and artificial legs. Around the 33 km mark, I passed a runner who was clearly doing things differently. He apparently doesn't think that running a marathon is enough of a challenge, so he runs backwards. Given where I found him, he is clearly no slouch, even going the "wrong" way. There were also some unfortunate sounds to soak up, with AGN13601 again causing a racket that disturbed the rhythm of numerous other runners.
Water points were generally effective, with some orange slices and shortbread on offer here and there. Most water points had Cream Soda, but a few had run out by the second lap. I mostly ate the gels and some cheese that I was carrying, and never felt hungry or disorientated. Towards the end, I must admit that I would have appreciated something salty.
I've heard that a marathon starts at 30 km. Everything before that point is only a warmup. Given my history at Vaal, the theory makes sense. I was therefore gratified that my pace did not slow even as the 35 km mark slid past. I was still fairly comfortable, walking some of the steeper climbs and generally just jogging gently at about 6:00/km.
The Wally is famous for its nasty climb just before the finish. The change of venue has softened the pain somewhat. The last 150 m or so have been replaced by a flat finish, leaving only the first part of that climb intact. I was able to amble up the hill and finish strongly in 4:32 or so, making up most of the five-minute deficit from the start and feeling strong. I felt confident that I could have made the 4:20 limit for an F seeding, had I started a little earlier and been a little less cagey about preserving myself for the next week's training. All in all, I was very happy with my post-bionic best and by far the least tiring marathon I've ever run.
Buses can be found in most marathons. An experienced runner carries a flag advertising a specific time limit. In this race, the time limits were 5:00, 4:40 and 4:20. The Wally Hayward is traditionally the last Comrades qualifier, and the three times correspond to the H, G and F seedings respectively. There were two 5:00 buses. Given that I was aiming for 4:30 and maintaining a constant pace, I was expecting to end up between the 4:20 and 4:40 buses. Don't you believe it! It took several km just to pass the first 5:00 bus. I passed the second 5:00 bus around the halfway mark, with the clock at 2:15. They were going much too fast! If they were aiming for even splits, they should have hit the halfway mark around 2:30, or maybe even a little later due to the slow start. I overtook the 4:40 bus less than 4 km from the finish. Again, they were clearly going much too fast. I really have the feeling that some of these ""drivers" are doing their proteges a disservice, by starting much too fast and exhausting their charges to early in the race. The 4:40 bus did arrive just before the 4:40 cutoff, so I'm sure there must be many happy qualifiers in that bunch, but I have a feeling they could have done even better with more sensible pacing.
After making use of the hospitality of our respective club tents, Laurens and I hobbled back to Alet's car with her. She was already well rested, having done the 10 km race and spent a couple of hours with a novel while waiting for us.
My ITB from the previous two races did not flare up. In fact, with the strapping in place, I was probably a little less sore than after the previous two races. My knee is also no worse than before. On Tuesday morning, as I write this story, I woke up with a heart rate of 48 and my muscles have more or less returned to normal, with no more than slight stiffness.
After figuring out what had gone wrong at Vaal, I decided to give it one more go. Wally was going to be my final hurdle, and I would decide whether I was going to make the pilgrimage to Durban after this race. Right now, it looks good. I'll wait another day to get complete clarity on the ITB, to see whether my muscles return to normality and to see how the sniffles pan out. On Wednesday, I'll have to decide whether to start booking accommodation...
The Good: Good marshalling. Challenging route.
The Bad: Traffic at the venue! Not enough green cold drinks.
The Ugly: AGN13601 with his ghetto blaster and his obscured licence number. Clearly, rules are for other people.
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This League race came only two days after the 30 km Long Run and two days before the Wally Hayward marathon. With discretion being the better part of valour, I decided to make a tempo run of it rather than to tackle the half marathon. At normal tempo pace, I could earn five points for my club and get in a good workout, hopefully without inflicting damage that I would regret on Monday.
Despite its league-race status, parking was easy to find. We arrived just after 06:00, bought our numbers and moved towards the start. There was a decided nip in the air, producing great running conditions. Laurens went to warm up to facilitate a fast start, while I decided to start slowly and use the first few km as a warmup. I stripped off my jacket at the last possible moment.
The start was chaotic, as the bunch started moving without a shot being heard. I started my stopwatch as soon as I noticed the movement. As we passed the start line at about 0:40, two loud reports were heard. Obviously, they finally got the gun working! By this time, the leading runners were disappearing around the corner. I didn't see the 1 km marker, but reached the 2 km mark at about 12:30, about 90 s behind schedule. As I was still warming up, I was happy.
The route winds trough the neigbhourhood with many twists and turns, but very little undulation. I was running comfortably, gradually eroding the deficit. By the halfway mark, I was on schedule, and well west of the start with some height in hand. I continued to run comfortably, passing three Kens and several other club members in the process. Although I didn't have my GPS with me, the km markers seemed fairly accurate, with no wildly-unlikely splits. My breathing was relaxed and my stride comfortable.
At the finish, there was a discrepancy of about a minute between my time and the offical stopwatch. Seems like they only started their stopwatch about 20 s after gunshots! I was happy, though—any way you look at it, my time was below 54:00, comfortably below my target. I was feeling no ill after-effects, with my heart rate quickly returning to normal and no muscle soreness or stiffness. My left knee felt a little tight, but no worse than usual.
On the way home, there was some ITB soreness on the left knee, and I took the precaution of seeing Physio the Rapist later in the day. After being suitably strapped up, complete with shaved leg and some exercises, I'm hoping I'm ready for Monday. I'll find out soon enough!
The Good: Easy access. Flat route. Enough green cold drinks (although I didn't need them this time).
The Bad: Chaotic start.
The Ugly: That slight niggle in the left ITB...
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My running has been going reasonably well recently, with only some nagging pain in my left knee to remind me of worse days past. With some reasonably effective nutrition solutions in hand, I decided to join Laurens for a Comrades dress rehearsal. Although the Magnolia Long Run isn't strictly a race, it is an organised running event and definitely worthy of a race report.
We arrived around 05:50, easily found parking, paid our registration fee and were ready to start by 06:00. Someone with a microphone started a five-minute speech. Although runners were initially silent, the buzz soon returned and drowned out the speaker. We stood waiting until the speech ended, then started on a slight uphill. I soon realised that I'd forgotten my hat again. In the event, it wasn't a problem, as most of the streets we ran on were leafy and we started about 20 minutes before sunrise. In fact, for the first 3 km or so, I felt decidedly cold. My legs were a little tired from the preceding week's training.
Although the route was clearly marked, there were no distance markers. The pace was excruciatingly slow. We constantly had to adjust our pace, using Laurens's GPS pacer. As we knew from experience that our heart rates are very similar, we relied on my heart monitor to ensure that we weren't overdoing it. The objective was to come out of this 30 km run completely unscathed, failing which the following week could turn into a nightmare.
To maintain constant effort, our pace was not constant, as we walked on the worst uphills and jogged gently most of the time. After about an hour, we started seeing the same people over and over again. We would overtake them on the flat bits, and they would overtake us on the uphill bits. Some pointed questions revealed that most of our peers were preparing for an 11:00 finish at Comrades. It seemed that we were obviously on the right track, assuming that everyone else wasn't barking up the wrong tree too!
We finished a few minutes ahead of pace, taking around 3:43 for just over 30 km. In general, the session was a success. The nutrition strategy worked and we felt comfortable most of the way, once we had warmed up properly. With a distance of about one-third of Comrades behind us, at least there were no serious niggles. Three hours later, I was fully recovered with no undue stiffness and with a heart rate back below 60.
The next serious hurdle is the Wally Hayward marathon on Monday, followed by the Jackie Mekler 25 km memorial race the following Saturday. If we can survive next week, I may actually be tempted to visit Durban early in June. On fresh legs, it may actually be possible to keep going three times as long.
We'll see. Next week.
The Good: Easy access. Nice scenic route. Great refreshments.
The Bad: Not much.
The Ugly: Three times this distance? You've got to be kidding!
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With the Two Oceans marathon on Saturday, there was no race in Gauteng. I ran solo from home to Midstream, a hilly course with three substantial climbs. It went more or less according to plan, but I was worried that the after-effects would hamper my efforts in this race on Easter Monday, only two days later.
I was expecting dense traffic. I was pleasantly surprised, though. I arrived less than half an hour before the start, and probably wasted less than a minute in traffic. I found parking close by and was standing at the start with a quarter of an hour to spare.
The start was crowded, but to my amazement it flowed well from the start. I passed the 1 km marker at 6:15, about halfway down the bunch. The first portion was a gentle downhill, which would have been nice if one didn't know that we would pay for it later.
Many of our club runners were only doing the 11 km route, in view of the Loskop ultramarathon next weekend. I didn't find anyone who was running at my pace, so I just settled down and did my own thing. The course is very hilly, and I walked many of the worst climbs, while remaining within a minute or so of my target pace. At the end of the first lap, I was about a minute ahead of target and feeling very comfortable. I decided to push a little harder, and gradually opened up a gap, making me think that passing the half-marathon mark at under two hours would be feasible. I did so, just barely, and cruised home in about 2:02. I was very pleased that I was able to do so, against the background of Saturday's long run.
Just in case I was tempted to start feeling like Superman, I must share the story of Paul and Ryan. This father-and-son pair ran just ahead of me for most of the first lap. Paul was pushing a pram in which his daughter was riding. Ryan looks like he's about 10 years old. I didn't enjoy the thought that li'l kids and guys pushing prams could outrun me, but what really hurt was ongoing comments from Ryan about how easy the pace was...
My sister and two of our friends had done the 6 km walk. I had told them to look for me at the finish between 2:10 and 2:15. With my early finish, we had to do a bit of scouting to get together. After a bit of banter, we all set sail for home with most of the day still ahead of us. The run was enjoyable, with quiet traffic and effective marshalling and water points. The only downsides were the non-standard distance and the lack of caffeine-free drinks. Sigh...
The Good: Easy access. Nice scenic route. Good marshalling.
The Bad: No green drinks.
The Ugly: Those hills. But I guess that's the price one has to pay for living in Pretoria!
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After the over-exuberance of the past two weeks, I did not know what to expect of this race. I decided to start gently, and then crank it up if I felt comfortable. I deliberately left my heart rate monitor at home.
Last year, this race was about 10% short, so I expected that it might happen again. Depending on my condition at the end, being short-changed might actually be welcome! Parking was a bit tight. Although we arrived earlier than necessary, we still spent a few minutes looking for parking.
The races starts at Samcor Park, then heads east into the streets of Nellmapius. The start was reasonably smooth, with little traffic on the road. Despite being in the middle of the bunch, we passed the 1 km mark at 6:20. Many bystanders were cheering us on. Around the 2 km mark, Laurens indicated that he was going to maintain a sedate pace, and I started accelerating. The route winds through Willows and Meyerspark with no more than mild undulations. All that changes suddenly around the halfway mark, with us having to cross the Murrayfield ridge twice. The result is a very hilly second half, from about 10 to 18 km. I spent most of this time chatting to Kobus about the olden days when we were colleagues in a small technology startup. He eventually got bored and sped off into the distance. Distance markers were a little variable, with deviations of up to 250 m around the 8 and 18 km marks, and the rest much closer to the truth.
With just over 3 km to go, my stopwatch said 1:45. The route to the finish was going to be mostly slightly downhill, and I was feeling strong with no sign of trouble, so I decided to try and tuck in under two hours. I managed to cover the last 3 km in just under 15 minutes, beating the two-hour mark with seconds to spare. The route was spot-on at 21,1 km, so at least the organisers seemed to have solved their problems of last year.
All in all, I am pretty pleased. With the 30 km run two weeks ago and 48 km last week, I was actually expecting to be somewhat the worse for wear. There was no sign of accumulated fatigue, so it appears that the gentle pace and good nutrition did the trick.
Laruens came in later than planned. Early in the race, his way was blocked by a line-abreast formation of runners. He ventured onto the rough sidewalk to sneak past, and felt a slight twitch in his hamstring. The pain became worse and worse, and he practically limped home about 15 minutes behind schedule, just as I started wondering whether I should go and look for him. It doesn't appear serious, but even a slight niggling injury can wreak havoc with Comrades preparations at this time of year!
The Good: Being relatively unscathed after last week's ultra-marathon. That last 3 km in under 15 minutes. Good marshalling. Good water points with enough green drinks.
The Bad: Laurens's injury.
The Ugly: The fellow runner who showed tremendous disrespect towards my shoes. So uncalled for—they are probably older than she is!
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After the disastrous experience at the Vaal Marathon, I increasingly came to the conclusion that poor nutrition during the race was at the root of my problem. I decided to use the Irene Ultra to figure out how to stay well-fed in practice.
This race was always going to be a challenge, in the light of last weekend's 30 km race in Cape Town. I recovered well during the week, but as recently as Friday there was still a hint of soreness. If a marathon on well-rested legs was a challenge, an ultra-marathon on tired legs could potentially be an adventure.
I went with Laurens and TA. We arrived in plenty of time, but got snarled up in very dense traffic. Some jokers cruised up the wrong side of the road, causing even worse congestion at the gates we all had to enter. Although we made it to the start line in time, there was not a lot of room for error. We ended up well down the bunch, with perhaps over 100 m to the start line. Unfortunately, not everyone arrived as early as we did. Well after 06:00, there was still a constant stream of traffic entering the premises on the very road that this huge bunch had to run down. It soon became clear that we would start very late. The gun went 21 minutes late, just after sunrise. We could not hear the gun, and the only stopwatch that Laurens (the tallest in our group) could see did not start running when the vehicle on which it was mounted started moving. We took about six minutes to make it to the start line. Even then, the bunch did not start moving smoothly until much later.
Although I'd remembered this time to apply sunscreen, knowing that we would spend over five hours on the road in glaring sunshine, I managed to forget my hat in my car. I only saw two other 48 km runners without hats, and both of them are genetically a lot more suited to direct sunlight than I am...
The route winds through the ARC experimental farm, then the leafy suburbs of Irene and Doringkloof, before setting off down Botha Avenue towards the Fountains. After a gradual descent of more than 5 km into the Fountains Valley, we turned around and climbed back up. Another sojourn in Doringkloof was followed by a long climb to John Vorster Drive, in which we ran all the way to South Downs and the marathon mark. Uniquely, this race provides two times that can be used for Comrades qualification—a marathon time and a 48 km time. The 48 km seeding cutoff times are more lenient, as they have been calculated for a distance of 50 km. Anyone who can keep going at a fairly constant pace after the marathon mark is likely to gain a better seeding at the finish than at the marathon mark.
This time, I would be independent of the race organisers, and carry my own five-course meal. The idea was to consume a gel sachet every hour, plus assorted bits like nougat, nuts, salt tablets, electrolyte mixture, plus whatever could be scrounged along the route. The latter consisted of a baked potato (although the baking could have been considerably more thorough!), several bananas, some vitamin C sweets and an ample supply of green cold drink.
Marshalling was good, with only one water point around the 28 km mark on the wrong side of the road. I guess my feeding strategy must have paid dividends, as I was able to continue intermittent running right up to the end.
A personal highlight was passing Caroline Wöstmann around the 15 km mark.
Before you start whispering my name along with Charne Bosman's, let me explain. Caroline cruised past me and Laurens just after the 15 km mark with contemptuous ease. Presumably, she was using the race as a training run and had started late to avoid the crowd. Soon after she had passed us, we were all stopped by a traffic official before crossing Botha Avenue. Caroline stopped directly ahead of us. I was able to sneak past her just before the traffic cop let us go. As expected, a few seconds later she cruised past with contemptuous ease yet again, but I'd had my moment. Such is the pathetic life of an also-ran.
For the first half of the route, I was trying to maintain my target heart rate of 138. It peaked around 144 a few times, but in general I wasn't too far off the mark. Laurens's pulse was very similar to mine most of the time. We were also maintaining a pace very close to the desired 6:25/km. Around the 18 km mark, as we started the descent towards the turn, Laurens left me behind. I soon noticed that I'd considerably slowed down. I eventually decided to adjust my target heart rate upwards by 10, to allow me to maintain a decent pace. I still had to walk on most climbs, so I continued to lose time. This effect didn't happen last week to anywhere near the same degree. Perhaps the 30 km race was too recent, and my body was complaining about the wanton abuse.
During the last part of the race, the sun was baking down. It was almost mid-day, and there was not a cloud in the sky. I started walking through the shadows and running in sunlight, to try to minimise the damage from the glaring sun. I finished around 5:47. The official results show about two minutes more. Still slow, but I was happy. My newly-formulated nutrition strategy seemed to work. I'd completed my first ultra-marathon with my plastic knee. The damage inflicted was fairly limited. My knee's pain level remained tolerable, and I was able to attend a music concert later in the day. By the end of the day, there was hardly a trace of muscle soreness. I'm profoundly grateful about the recovery, despite the painful three-year process that it took.
Getting out was almost as difficult as getting in. We queued for perhaps half an hour before getting out through the gate.
What happens next? I haven't tackled another training programme yet. We'll see. I definitely want to do a fast 10 km race around October. Apart from that goal, I'm still wondering whether I should try to improve my marathon time or return to my comfort zone in the shorter races. A half marathon is so much more civilised, and 42,2 km is a long, long, way!
The Good: Passing Caroline Wöstmann. Good marshalling. Good water points with some snacks available.
The Bad: Forgetting my hat in my car. The horrible traffic.
The Ugly: AGN13601 with his ghetto blaster, who refused to turn down the volume to a tolerable level.
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I find myself in Cape Town due to studies, work and family. The only available race this weekend is a 30 km run. It's not ideal by any means, as I need to save myself for next weekend. Laurens is trying to coax me into a really long run, 48 km. I decided to do the heart-rate thing. If my heart rate remains below 140 all the way, I should manage to inflict little enough damage that I can tackle next weekend's run without self-destructing.
Traffic was very orderly. It kept flowing most of the way, and only the odd BMW was trying to push forward in the right lane. Entries were a little different to what I'm used to. There was a separate entry table for each category, and the category was printed in large digits on the entry slip. I queued at the table for men over fifty with dark hair, brown eyes and blue running shoes, and was soon on my way to the start.
It never ceases to amaze me how many people pitch up for these events. Today, it was very noticeable that thousands of people were lining up for the start, and I didn't know a single one of them. In fact, most of the club vests were not even familiar to me. Of course, at this point someone tapped me on the shoulder. It turned out to be my colleague Edward. He was planning a similarly leisurely run, anticipating a 3:15 finish.
We started in pitch darkness. The start was very orderly and flowed well. I started well down the field, but lost less than half a minute on the first km. I maintained a heart rate of around 138, producing a pace of just under 6:00/km. The sun rose after a little less than an hour. We hit the first climb at about 12 km, slowing things right down. I walked up most of the steepest slopes, to keep my heart rate within limits. On the downhill around the 17 km mark, I paid the price for dividing my attention between my stopwatch and my heart rate monitor. A cat's eye caught me out, and I took a headlong tumble, making two full revolutions head over heels before coming to a stop. Fortunately, the road surface was very smooth, and the damage was confined to slightly-abraded palms and a bruised ego. There is an advantage to not knowing anyone in the bunch!
There was another fairly bad climb around 22 km or so. From there, it was downhill to the finish. I was interested to notice that my pace had slowed considerably during the race. Despite maintaining identical heart rates, I was unable to maintain a pace of faster than about 6:15. 30 km is a long way, and it is clear that one's body accumulates some damage along the way!
The race was a lot of fun, as running goes. I found my breathing to be much more relaxed than at home, taking at least 20% fewer breaths than I'm used to. The scenery was also interesting, with the route winding through the vineyards and dozens of rotten grape juice vendors. With the new graphics-based province labels, it was interesting to look at all the different licences around me. I only saw one other from North Gauteng. I was also intrigued by the strange system to keep time at the finish. Instead of handing in your tear-off slip at the finish line, you collect a sequentially-numbered plastic envelope at the finish, into which you have to place your entry slip (with the elaborate category markings) and place it on a large board with a separate slot for every position up to 1000. For the likes of me, who ended up at 3:13 just outside the first 1000, there is a cardboard box into which the plastic envelope is unceremoniously dumped. I saw Edward finishing about three minutes after me.
Marshalling was effective. Gee, most of them even know the rules of the road, and we were able to run on the right almost all the way! Water points were well-stocked, with energy drinks in addition to the usual water and Coke. The last water point even had things to nibble on—I noticed some potatoes and orange slices.
The big question, of course, is whether I've inflicted too much damage in the light of next weekend's plans. So far, so good. Apart from the usual nagging pain in my left knee, I'm comfortable and well-rested. We'll know by Tuesday or so!
The Good: Interesting countryside. Table Mountain constantly in the background. Good traffic flow. Good marshalling. Clean streets—even water sachets are piled neatly in or near the dustbins. Enough drinks, and even some food. Ample parking.
The Bad: 30 km is a long way.
The Ugly: That cat-eye that jumped up in front of me.
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Today is a public holiday—Human Rights Day. The Right to Run race takes place at Sunnypark, once one of Pretoria's proudest shopping centres but now, thirty years later, part of a run-down part of town surrounded by high-density housing. The late start made for a reasonable time to rise. I left home at 05:45 to collect Laurens and TA. Laurens was doing his low-heartrate thing on the half marathon, while TA and I would try our luck on the 10 km. The next two weeks will involve some major distances, partly in an effort to understand the mishap at the Vaal Marathon. Circumspection dictated that today was not a good day for long distances.
We arrived early. Traffic was very slow and dense for the last few blocks, but we managed to secure parking in the indoor parking without too much trouble (if you exclude the kerb that my poor car connected with on the way in). Sunnypark looked a lot better than during my last visit. Maybe some new floor tiles have appeared, and the place now looks well cared for.
The start was reasonably smooth, with a very slight rise up Esselen Street to the east. We'd lost only about a minute by the time the first distance marker slid past. I started with a bunch of eight Agape members (colloquially known as "Ag Ape"). We soon settled into our own paces, and I found myself cruising through leafy old Sunnyside East and past the University campus. Around the 7 km mark, we started overtaking the densest part of the 5 km bunch. Some fancy footwork was required to avoid the slow traffic. There was something special about today's bunch, though. Today is World Down Syndrome Day, and there were dozens of Down Syndrome kids, mostly accompanied by mommies. I witnessed something that can hardly leave one untouched—a wheelchair athlete giving a Down child a ride.
The last half of the route was slightly downhill. I was feeling strong, so I kept speeding up towards the finish. The last three kilometres were completed in just over 15 minutes, for a total time of just under 54 minutes. While waiting for Laurens, I ambled around for an hour or so, watching the finishers, trying to find something other than Coke to drink, chatting to fellow Club members and catching up on the legendary Ken Nurden's life story. My favourite episode was of how Ken, in his seventies, aimed for a ninety-minute half marathon. He ended up with an official time of 1:30:01. He must have been very disappointed, but I found myself thinking that most youngsters would relish anything close to that time in their own logbooks!
Marshalling was generally good. The water points flowed smoothly, but two of the three and the finish did not have any caffeine-free drinks. Sigh...
The Good: Nice route—reasonably flat and through nice leafy suburbs. Good marshalling. Enough parking.
The Bad: No caffeine-free drinks (except at the second water point).
The Ugly: That kerb that suddenly jumped up in front of my car on the way in...
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With no formal training programme in progress, but with two long runs coming up in the next few weeks, I was uncertain about what to do. Laurens has been running at low heart rates (read: Slowly) and I joined him for a training session on Thursday. I was toying with the idea of doing the same thing in the race, but decided that I was going to do a semi-hard race instead. I didn't want to hurt myself, but I wasn't going to plod along at a sub-140 heart rate either.
Ten minutes before the start, few runners were to be seen. I assumed that the Om die Dam Ultra had lured most of the usual crowd away, but a sizeable field arrived in the last few minutes. I was relatively close to the front, making for an easy start. The climb starts almost immediately, quickly spreading the bunch and making for good traffic flow. I would imagine it would have been more congested further back, though.
The route is hilly, especially on the first half lap. If you think you're going to benefit from the climbs in the first 5 km, you're in for a surprise. Somehow, despite a considerable altitude gain in that first half, the second half is also uphill. I was reminded of Mauritz Escher's Klimmen en Dalen, which features a square staircase on which you keep climbing constantly as you walk around it.
I maintained a comfortable 5:10 pace, except on the uphills. I walked shamelessly on most of these. The strategy seemed to work. Most of my clubmates, who started off running boisterously up those hills, eventually faded and lagged behind. Halfway through the second lap, I knew that two hours would be easy, and decided to try for 1:55. I spent some time chatting to Walter, who was slower today than he normally is on the time trial. Around the 18 km mark, as I decided to walk up yet another incline, he left me behind. Nevertheless, I was able to complete the last 2 km in under 10 minutes, comfortably breaking the 1:55 mark.
One major disappointment was that the organisers neglected to provide anything but Coke to drink. Two hours on the road with nothing to drink but water is not ideal.
The Club tent provided welcome relief in the form of canned cold drinks. This time, I collected the car while Laurens and TA waited near the finish.
The Good: Good marshalling. Enough parking.
The Bad: No caffeine-free drinks.
The Ugly: How on earth can a lap race consist of constant climbs?
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Mindful of the likely deleterious effects of last week's marathon on my legs, I entered the 10 km race. The week hasn't been bad, with no pain except a little in my knee after one of the week's two gentle running sessions.
The race's League status drew a large crowd, making it extremely hard to find parking. We crawled through the underground parking in the Wonderboom Junction shopping centre without finding a spot. We finally parked in deep gravel behind the building, frantically hoping that the car would not get stuck up to its axles. Laurens jumped out before we'd parked, as the half marathon was due to start at 05:30. TA and I managed to make it to the start line with about seven minutes to spare before the 10 km start at 05:40. I was pleasantly surprised to find my erstwhile colleague Barbara in the bunch, and we caught up on each other's lives for a few minutes before the gun went. The start was very dense, but flowed reasonably well. I could not see my watch at the 1 km marker as it was still dark. At 2 km, we appeared to have lost about a minute—not bad for such a big bunch. I wasn't worried, though, as I wasn't up for the 50:15 target time for six League points, so my only imperative was to make a relatively leisurely 56 minutes.
The mean hills started around 3 km. We had two steep climbs. I was feeling fairly comfortable, especially with the knowledge that we had gained considerable elevation, and that the second half would be much easier. Feeling no more discomfort than usual, I decided to speed up considerably in the second half.
On approaching the last major road before the finish, we were stopped by marshals for almost a minute to let the traffic through. Once the metro policeman stopped the traffic, I started running again, anxious to achieve a good time. Several cars sped through the intersection, causing a close call. The last few hundred metres were fun, with me feeling strong after a successful race and an eforced break. I finished just under 53 minutes, well within my target. More importantly, I felt fresh and relaxed. It seems like my first post-bionic marathon has left me completely unscathed!
Laurens was doing the half marathon, so I had almost an hour to kill. I spent some time at my club tent chatting with Wanja, who had finished just after me, then proceeded to the CSIR tent where we watched a strength training session by some yuppy gym. Musclebound hunks flipping large tyres don't do it for me, but I did spend a few nostalgic minutes reflecting on my officer training in the Air Force. A glimpse of large tyres will never leave me entirely untouched again.
The Good: Being fully recovered less than a week after my first post-bionic marathon.
The Bad: Those hills.
The Ugly: Motorists who disregard directions from traffic officials. And perhaps the musclebound hunks flipping tyres in the parking lot (especially the female ones!).
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The moment of truth has arrived. Or, as the Flying Dutchman is reported to have dramatically stated: "Die Frist ist um".
After sixteen weeks on a marathon programme, today I'm attempting a marathon. It will be the first I have done with my plastic knee, and my one and only opportunity to qualify for Comrades.
Let's backtrack for a minute. Comrades is the world's largest and oldest ultramarathon. It annually winds its way between Durban and Pietermaritzburg. Durban is on the southeast coast. Pietermaritzburg is inland, at an elevation of about 420 m and about 87 km away. The race alternates between Up and Down, when the two cities change places as start and finish venues.
After my knee reconstruction, I set myself the tangible target of finishing a Comrades race. It would be visible proof that my rehabilitation is complete. I chose an Up race. Although the climb is far more demanding, the downhill pounding of the Down race takes a greater toll on one's knees. And obviously someone with a vulnerable knee doesn't particularly want to pound that knee too much. When I started completing half marathons with reasonable facility and tolerable pain in 2016, I signed up for Comrades in 2017.
Much poring over statistics from past years convinced me that an F seeding is required. To enter Comrades, you have to complete a standard marathon (42,2 km) or longer in a prescribed time. The basic cutoff is five hours for the standard distance, or more for longer distances. Just barely making the cutoff dumps you into the H bunch. You start at the back, you take up to ten minutes to cross the start line and you run with others who likewise scraped through. Add into the mix a poorly-chosen cutoff time at the halfway mark, forcing stragglers to run much too fast on the murderous climbs in the first half, and the odds are not in your favour.
Doing better during qualification—the increments are 20 minutes at the standard distance—gets you into the G group, then F, and so on. The A group consists of super athletes that weigh less than 60 kg and appear to be made of subcutaneous steel wire. They are gold medal contenders, or at least silver. My most enlightening insight from the statistics was that A to F groups all have a finish rate of about 70%, while the G and H groups have a finish rate of about 40%. If you want a reasonable chance of finishing successfully, you have to have an F seeding or better.
My programme predicted that I could finish under 4:00 with a flat-out effort, resulting in a D seeding. However, I would be left in a bad state, and require a long layoff. I elected to aim for 4:20 and an F seeding instead, making it a reasonably relaxed affair and hopefully allowing me to continue my training with only a minor break. I decided to maintain a pace of 6:00/km, making the arithmetic simple and finishing about seven minutes inside the target time. I also had the option of eating up those seven minutes if things didn't turn out as planned.
Now you understand my target for this marathon. I had two objectives. The first was to finish under 4:20 with an F seeding. The second was to walk away (sic) without any ailments, so that I could immediately start to train for Comrades. March and April are the crunch months for Comrades, so a three-week layoff resulting from an all-out effort would put paid to any Comrades ambitions anyway.
Although I was determined not to allow myself to be drawn into the Comrades hype before today, some pointed studying of the official Comrades training programmes showed that my training of the last 16 weeks involved a very similar volume to theirs. If I did indeed decide to go, I would be able to continue with their Bronze programme more or less seamlessly.
The past few weeks have been a little tumultuous. Apart from a cold that haunted me for several weeks, I also had to contend with considerable pressure of work and an unexpected flight to Upington that I didn't want to turn down. By hook or by crook, I only missed one running session. I was also a little light on the cross-training sessions (cycling and swimming) in the past few weeks, due to the head cold. It was therefore not without apprehension that this weekend approached. My training programme predicted that I should be ready, but 42,2 km is a very long way indeed. Since my knee reconstruction, I have done 32 km on three occasions, and nothing more. I had no idea how my plastic knee would hold up, either.
I left home at 03:30. Laurens offered to drive, as I did not know what state I would be in after the race. It is a substantial drive, well over an hour. As always, it was fun to see the traffic density gradually increasing as we got closer. The last quarter of an hour was spent following the GPS's wild goose chase to avoid stationary traffic. It worked reasonably well, but we still ended up parking far away. A 20-minute walk was required to the start venue.
The race uses Championchip timing. Although the race started at 06:00 sharp, we had the option of starting up to 15 minutes late to avoid the densest part of the bunch. I decided to start exactly 10 minutes late to make the mental arithmetic around pacing as easy as possible, while still avoiding the mad rush. Laurens started with me, but had divided loyalties. TA, who started about four minutes before us, wanted him to help her with pacing to secure a better seeding in another race. Laurens would start with me, then spend some time on the road with her on the first lap, then catch up with me on the second lap to finish together.
On the official race documents, the route appears to be pancake-flat. There is a faint squiggle in the profile around the 10 km mark, but the total elevation difference is supposed to be less than 30 m. Of course, we would have to climb the hill twice, but overall it seemed quite manageable. I was somewhat alarmed when I saw the actual slopes around the stadium at the start venue. They had seemed so benign on paper!
The first 10 km was quite comfortable. I maintained my 6:00/km pace very easily, with my breathing in good shape and no sign of discomfort (apart from the normal slight nagging pain in my left knee). The hill after 10 km was a lot worse than envisaged, but I ran halfway up it and walked the remainder without getting behind schedule. The road was badly potholed in places. It was hard to tell if the recent lavish rains had anything to do with it, or whether the municipality is having trouble coping. I completed the first lap on time and in a fairly relaxed state. There was one major problem. None of the water points had any caffeine-free drinks. Running a full marathon on water only is not a great idea. Enquiries at every water point drew very cavalier responses. These amateur comedians did not seem to realise the seriousness of the situation. There was some food at a few water points, but everything had been consumed by the time I tackled the second lap. Also, somehow, some undulating terrain had sprung up in the mean time. The hill at 10 km became a monstrous cliff at 31 km. Around this time, I was forced to resort to my 4+1 survival strategy. My average pace slipped from 6:00 to about 7:10. With 10 km to go, I would eat up about 10 minutes, and miss the 4:20 cutoff. The last part would be slightly downhill, so I still had a chance to catch up those three precious minutes. I consumed my emergency ration gel packet, hoping to replenish the glycogen stores before it was too late.
Laurens caught me around 30 km. We stayed together for a while, but eventually he sailed off into the distance. Around 36 km, I saw him up ahead walking up a hill with Jonathan, who was aiming for a 4:30 finish. I ran past them, by this time not in a conversational mood.
Also around 36 km, my knee started hurting. I think the fatigue caused me to neglect my alignment ever so slightly. Over the past year, I have concentrated on alignment on almost every step I have taken, and managed to stay out of trouble. Now, my glucose-deprived brain wasn't coping with several tasks at once. I eventually decided that there was no prospect of making 4:20, and started walking, concentrating on my alignment with every step. I was able to restrict the pain to a tolerable level.
Jonathan passed me around 37 km, apparently in good shape. Laurens caught me soon after. He walked with me for a while, then started running. It didn't last. I walked behind him for about a quarter of an hour, then caught him. Both of us were reserved to walking painfully to the finish. After about an hour of walking, we finally walked into the stadium. Both of us experienced a first—walking all the way around the track to the finish line. Most athletes finish in a valiant sprint, regardless of condition. We didn't even care.
Laurens magnanimously offered to collect the car and bring it a bit closer. I parked under a tree and relaxed. The plan didn't quite work out. They were only able to get the car to a point a few hundred metres away. TA came to call me, and I painfully hobbled back to the car.
And so ended my Comrades hopes. Although we officially qualified at around 4:57, I came nowhere near my target time of 4:20. As I write this story, about seven hours after the finish, the worst stiffness seems to have subsided, and I expect to be in reasonable shape within a day or two. I guess I achieved half of my objective. The other half? Not even close.
Of course I'm profoundly disappointed. I'm also trying to figure out what went wrong. Everything worked as advertised up to about 30 km. Did the lack of sugary drinks do me in? Did the head cold that dogged me for several weeks make a difference? Did missing those cross-training sessions in that period leave me hopelessly underprepared? Did the three hours on my feet on Saturday, handing out water to runners in the Sunrise Monster, do me in? Or that painful rehabilitation session on Wednesday, that left me with sore calf muscles on Thursday and Friday? Or perhaps, would stretching the target pace to 6:15/km for an exact 4:20 finish have helped to make the effort more sustainable?
Right now I have no idea. I do know one thing: My short-distance performance does not extrapolate well to longer distances, pointing to a profound lack of endurance. Presumably, the Comrades would exaggerate that effect even more. Staying at home is definitely the more prudent option. Everything has its upside, though. Maybe I can now finally get around to trying some triathlons. Without the pressure of a Comrades training programme, I can probably tackle a few of these in the next few months. At least swimming and riding a bike won't tax my knee the way running obviously does!
The Good: I actually finished a marathon with my plastic knee!
The Bad: No caffeine-free drinks. Nothing to eat on the second lap. Bad standup comedy instead of sensible responses to enquiries.
The Ugly: I'm clearly not Comrades material.
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I was a little apprehensive about this race. It came at the end of a gruelling fortnight of training, and the 32 km of the previous weekend had not entirely relinquished its grip on my legs. In addition, I'd been suffering from a cold for several days. I woke up several times during the night, having to blow my nose to restore normal breathing. The ritual also involved copious amounts of Vitamin C. Fortunately, by the time I had to get up and decide, I had neither fever nor any chest symptoms.
The half marathon started at 06:00, with the 10 km race starting half an hour later. The field was huge. It's hard to estimate, but I would think that the starting bunch was at least 200 m long and took up the entire width of the suburban street, just outside the Tuks sports grounds. The new mayor was there to say a few words about how healthy this lifestyle is. He wasn't wearing a tie and didn't come in a convoy of black cars with blue lights. Not bad for a politician.
Laurens and I started about a quarter down the bunch. We started moving almost immediately at the gun and lost only a minute in the first km. Perhaps the separate start for the 10 km race dispensed with the worst slow starters that normally frequent the front part of the bunch.
A few hundred metres into the race, we crossed Jan Shoba into Burnett Street. This section is quite a thrill. It is reasonably flat, and the entire width of this major one-way arterial is available to the bunch. Despite the huge number of runners, we were mostly free to run unhindered at our own pace. The route continues in a straight line down Park Street, passing Loftus stadium before turning left into the leafy outskirts of old Sunnyside. A mild uphill section follows, routing back past the stadium and into the Tuks campus. I was amazed to see how much more densely the campus has been built up since my full-time student days.
The 10 km mark is at the start venue, but we continued eastwards on Lynnwood Road for the second part of the figure-eight route.
While the first half was reasonably flat and fast, the second half scales the dizzy heights of Strubenkop before descending into the university's old experimental farm. The slopes of Strubenkop are leafy and pleasant, but there is nothing pleasant about those hills. Up there on the lofty heights, I ran with Mandy and Stephan for a while. On the descent, Stephan disappeared into the distance, with Mandy remaining in view, but not within reach. As is his habit, Laurens shot past from behind on the downhill section, never to be seen again.
When I entered the second half, I had made up about half of the minute that we lost at the start. Everything went downhill (huh!?) from there. My deficit gradually grew to over two minutes as we started the descent, shrinking to under two on the final flat section. My breathing was comfortable and I was feeling reasonably strong, but my legs were definitely limiting on my abilities towards the end. I had to queue for about a minute in the last few metres before the actual finish line. It didn't look like the timekeepers were taking account of the delay—it will be interesting to see whether my official time will be 1:58 (when I joined the queue) or 1:59 (when I actually crossed the line). The mess was so unnecessary, as they had plenty of alternative finish lanes that they could have opened.
My club didn't repeat its stellar performance of the previous weekend. Although the tent provided a welcome haven, I had to make do with water.
Laurens, TA and I walked back to my car about half an hour after the finish. That was the easy part. For the next 50 minutes, we sat still in gridlocked traffic before finally making it back to Jan Shoba. Two kilometres in 50 minutes—that's not even 3 km/h! No help from the metro police to help the traffic into the main routes was in evidence.
The butterflies around the upcoming marathon have definitely not subsided. The thought of having to cover twice this distance is not a comfortable one just yet. However, the progress in the past few weeks is gratifying, and my plastic knee is no more painful than it has been. The training now winds down into tapering mode. Hopefully, arriving at the start well-rested will make all the difference.
The Good: Good marshalling, enough caffeine-free drinks, varied route, lots of T-shirts.
The Bad: Those hills in the second half. The queue at the finish line.
The Ugly: Sitting in traffic for almost an hour to get out of the neighbourhood.
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I woke up at 03:00, and had some trouble falling asleep again. Maybe I was subconsciously a little tenser than I allowed myself to admit. The alarm clock at 04:30 came as a horrible shock. Laurens picked me up. PJ found us in the bunch. He'd gone separately, and just made it before the start.
The start was a little slow. The race's status as a League race must have attracted more than the normal share of entrants. It took about a minute to cross the start line, and we lost another minute before the 1 km distance marker. The race initially meanders through the town, before leaving town to the north and then climbing relentlessly in a westerly direction. For some reason, I encountered a string of familiar faces today; Paul, Kobus, David, Jonathan, Brian, Vasilios and Harry all came and went. Laurens, as is his custom, shot ahead from the start. As is our custom, we caught him on the uphills, and watched him boisterously shooting past on the downhills. I was initially a little uncomfortable with some stiffness from the week's training, but loosened up nicely after an hour or so.
There was noticeably less banter than on most Saturdays. I'm not sure about the others, but I know in my case the knowledge of what lay ahead helped to maintain my focus. Tacking more than 10 km onto the end of a half marathon changes its character completely.
A 32 km run takes a lot of time, at least for us normal folks. The result is that the race continues into the heat of day. This time, the temperature rose into the twenties well before the halfway mark. The longest climb is from about 22 to 29 km, just before entering the Buddhist temple complex. Making our way up this climb was very sweaty work. I ran until about 17 km, then indulged in a one-minute walk every 1 km or so. The strategy worked reasonably well until about 29 km. After that point, no strategy seemed to work. It's just an awfully long way. At least the surroundings were interesting. The temple compound features Chinese street names and an interesting mixture of architectures. I even had the odd opportunity to practice my Chinese reading skills. I did my customary 4+1 thing for the last 2 km or so, completing the last km strongly. I managed to pass perhaps two dozen runners on the grass in the stadium. The route seemed to be a bit long (perhaps 300 m or so), but not enough to account for the few minutes that I was late. At least my time was below 3:12, which is equivalent to 6:00/km.
I was also gratified at watch many of my peers finishing after me. Almost three years of hard work and painful rehabilitation are starting to yield dividends!
I was very stiff and sore, but despite finishing slightly faster, I felt much better than on my previous 32 km attempt. This race also came at the end of a hard training week, with a 16 km fast tempo run, about 10 km of intervals and an 800 m swim. There is still a long way to go before I can complete a marathon at this pace. But at least I have several weeks left to grow into it... The coming week is still going to be tough, with several high-intensity sessions but somewhat shorter distances. Thereafter things start winding down before the marathon. I can hardly wait. It will be nice to shed this chronic muscle fatigue and knee pain, even if only for a few weeks.
The Good: Good marshalling, interesting route. A variety of caffeine-free drinks at my club tent.
The Bad: Those two climbs. The heat. No green cooldrink at the last two water points.
The Ugly: The thought of having to do 10 km more at this pace within a month...
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I didn't have a good night before the race. I left the office at 22:00 after working on an urgent document. Once home, I could not find my 2017 licence numbers. I could swear I'd left them with my vest, but they were nowhere to be found. I spent almost half an hour searching everywhere I could think of. I finally settled into bed not much before midnight. At 01:29, Evangelist Adrian elected to send me a text message soliciting a donation. At 04:30, the alarm clock shattered my somewhat fragmented sleep.
Have I mentioned that I'm not a morning person? That fact is central to this particular story. There are things that are hard to phrase delicately at the best of times, but let's try: Waking up this early has devastating effects on the functioning of my "dump" button.
PJ did not manage to enter timeously for the half marathon. Here is another case of technology not making life any easier, but rather imposing ridiculous constraints. Entries closed a week before the race because they were using some fancy timing chip, embedded into the number. With no other choice, he entered the 10 km race with the intention to miss the turning. The only disadvantage would be an unbelievably slow official time for his 10 km race.
I resigned myself to the fact that I'd have to buy a temporary licence, but at the entry table, I fortunately found my numbers in the small bag containing my identity cards that I always carry with me. The gossamer numbers took up very little space, and I just had not noticed them before. At the start line, the announcer took great pains to point out that pirate runners attempting the half marathon with 10 km numbers would be weeded out mercilessly. PJ appeared ever so slightly anxious about these threats. My recollection of the merciless climb in the last 3 km was contradicted by Laurens, who was adamant that the last section was ultra-flat.
The start was not bad by recent standards. Despite the large field, there was enough space and things were soon flowing nicely. We lost less than a minute on the first km. After a flat westbound section on Soutpansberg Road, we headed uphill across the mountain. From here on, there was an almost continuous climb all the way to the Presidency, a stretch of about 3 km. A left turn into Colbyn was followed by a descent into Queenswood. At one point, two guys in a bakkie tried to turn left through the line of runners from behind. I politely but firmly told them off. I later realised that it must have been the lead vehicle for the 10 km race, which had started some 10 minutes behind us! It is amazing, though, that he thought he could safely turn through a line of hundreds of runners from behind, without making himself visible first.
The remainder of the race winds through the Moot area. The terrain is only slightly undulating, gradually descending over a stretch of more than 10 km. The customary light banter in the field and a geology lesson about the Vredefort dome relieved the monotony. Unfortunately, there was something else that was less monotonous than I would have preferred. My lunch from the previous day was causing me a significant amount of discomfort. By 12 km, I was getting desperate. At the next water point, I ducked off into the rental toilet to see if I could improve matters. Laurens had already disappeared up the field, and I suggested to PJ that he should continue. I'd try to catch up later. I spent about two minutes staring intently at the green plastic door before tackling the remainder of the route.
PJ backtracked to come and collect me, and we continued to gradually catch up on schedule. Around the 18 km, we hit a sudden steep climb onto the railway bridge. Despite Laurens's assurances, this steep climb was followed by a gradual 3 km climb to the finish. There must have been something wrong with the distance markers, as I was expecting to finish about a minute behind schedule. In reality, I finished almost two minutes ahead of schedule, under 1:59.
Now came the hard part: the remaining 3 km. Convincing yourself to start another vigorous run after a brisk half marathon and a few minutes to stiffen up is never easy. I got some water from the club tent—no cooldrink without caffeine was available anywhere. I then started up a gradual incline, struggling to maintain the required pace. I headed up the infamous Tom Jenkins Drive, fortunately not in the infamous direction. Once I got going properly, it wasn't too bad. Nevertheless, I lost about a minute off my planned pace.
Including the two breaks, we were about two minutes late. I was happy; it seemed good enough at the end of a tough training week. However, the thought of 32 km at this same pace next week scares me. And the thought of an entire marathon at an even faster pace in a few weeks leaves me speechless...
The Good: Good marshalling by experienced runners, including some familiar faces.
The Bad: No cooldrinks except Coke. That lead vehicle driver who sneaks up on runners from behind and then expects them to part miraculously, like the Red Sea.
The Ugly: That Friday lunch...
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Because of the full marathon on offer, this race starts extra early. If I wanted to do 5,5 km beforehand, I would have to be in position around 05:00. And I am not a morning person.
PJ had other commitments. Laurens was getting back into running after his injury, and was planning to do the half marathon at a slightly slower pace than I was. He agreed to pick me up at 04:30. He deposited me at the agreed point just after 05:00. I started a few minutes later than planned. Unfortunately, I missed a turnoff and ran halfway up a steep hill before realising my mistake. I arrived at the race start about five minutes late, but with about a km more than planned already in the bag.
There was a price to pay for my tardiness. Although the start was utterly uncongested, with only a few other latecomers running with me, we soon started overtaking the bunch from behind. For the remainder of the race, I ran into increasingly dense bunches. Towards the end, I encountered the kind of congestion that I normally only see at the start. It is amazing to see what a difference a five minute delay makes! The congestion was aggravated by the 10 km runners, who started half an hour after we did and shared the same route for the last 4 km or so. We arrived with the slowest finishers, and they were taking up a lot of space.
We had perfect running weather. It was overcast and everything was slightly wet from the previous night's rain. We had occasional light drizzle, but never enough to get us completely wet. I overtook a few clubmates early on, and around the halfway mark I started encountering some of my customary running peers—Erika, Raynold, Ken, Wallie, Lammie and Iain all came into view around the halfway mark. To my surprise, Iain is now in Irene club colours, after 32 years as a Phobian. Perhaps the time is now ripe for him to spill the beans on what he was so fearful of for all those years.
The race course is undulating, meandering through the neighbourhood with occasional glimpses of the leading bunch up a side street. There is one nasty surprise: A steep uphill onto the freeway bridge about 1 km from the end. Fortunately, it wasn't a surprise to me, as I'd been punished by that one before. I finished about half a minute behind schedule, close enough for my purposes. Officially, I just missed 2:10, due to the late start.
The run back to the garage where I had started was a grim struggle for survival. On the way in, I had the impression that I was running uphill. I remember thinking that at least my return to the car would be downhill. Somehow, things changed during the race, as the return route also felt very much like uphill! I used my customary 4+1 survival strategy, and managed to maintain it all the way to the end. Including both breaks, necessitated by having to pass through the busy shopping mall before and after the race, I completed the 32 km in 3:11, a personal best. It's a little slower than target pace, but I'm happy that things are on track for a marathon in little more than a month.
The Good: Well-organised race, with effective marshalling and even Cream Soda. Undulating terrain without extreme slopes. Almost keeping to my target pace for an unimaginable distance.
The Bad: The running bus that insisted on taking up the entire width of the suburban streets, making it all but impossible to pass. Just a little consideration would help a lot!
The Ugly: That haul up the bridge, with less than 1 km to go. Getting up at 04:30. Eish.
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PJ and I formed up in the middle of the bundle to tackle this hilly route, with another 3 km afterwards to complete the target distance. The race starts and ends at the Pick and Pay Hypermarket in Faerie Glen.
The start was very slow, with a large field in a small road. It was fun to watch the colourful field snake up the road ahead, as far as the eye could see. Unfortunately, the sight came at a price. It took more than a minute to cross the start line, and the first km was a combination of walking and jogging while trying to negotiate the slow traffic. The walkers had started half an hour before, so this slow traffic consisted entirely of people pretending to run.
By the end of the first km, we were almost three minutes behind schedule. The succession of serious hills in the next few km didn't help. We walked up most of the serious hills and ran most of the flat and downhill bits. By the time the 10 km runners split off to their finish, we were still almost two minutes behind.
The second half of the route consisted of an out-and-back loop to the sponsors' offices near Menlyn, with rolling hills but none of the major slopes of the first half. We managed to slowly whittle away at the deficit, until we were less than a minute behind schedule with 3 km to go. We managed to complete the last 3 km in less than 15 minutes, finishing within seconds of our planned time.
Of course, the hardest part was yet to come. Having collected our medals and a drink, we now had to complete the last 3 km of our prescribed session. Alas, the fast finish provided all the rationalisation we could ever ask for. Surely maintaining our pace on such a hilly course, and after such a slow start, was above and beyond the call of duty?
And so we enjoyed the hospitality of our club tent and slowly wound our way home.
Having collected my car, I went on a routine shopping spree in the Hypermarket. Or maybe not quite routine—almost half of the clients around me sported running gear, mostly with medals around their necks. Other shoppers, who were dressed like real people, had lots of questions about the race. It was clear that they didn't seem to think that running up and down those hills and then all the way to Menlyn and back was normal...
The Good: Good organisation, marshalling and water points. A large field with a festive atmosphere.
The Bad: A congested start. One of the water points could not offer caffeine-free drinks.
The Ugly: Those hills. Do we really have to traverse every single precipice in the neighbourhood?
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Laurens was out of action with a muscle injury, so I was going to have to face this gargoyle alone.
I left my car just off the N4 highway, just over 5 km from the start. I left the car at 05:30, hoping to arrive as the gun went. It worked. I heard the gun just as I arrived, but the bunch wasn't where I was expecting it. Unlike previous years, we started on a side street, winding through the neighbourhood before rejoining the main road.
Eersterus has a unique feature. The three main roads are called Hans Coverdale Road West, Hans Coverdale Road North and Hans Coverdale Road East. The route would roughly follow Hans Coverdale Road West going north, then Hans Coverdale Road North going east, and then Hans Coverdale Road East going south, before turning west to return to Hans Coverdale Road West for the second lap. Got it?
It being a League race, the bunch was bigger than most. Because of the small suburban roads we started on, the start was terribly slow and congested. It took a long time for the bunch to spread out sufficiently to allow unobstructed running—as much as 3 km. As we all know, it is customary for the slowest walkers to start in front, forcing the rest of us to pick our way past them. I think it's a selfless ploy to help all of us to develop true character.
By the time I was running freely, I was over four minutes behind schedule. I was determined to make up the time, but it was not to be. With the slow walkers out of the way, the hills started harassing us. Somewhere around Hans Coverdale Road Far-Northwest, we climbed up a hill, and another, and another. We ended up in aptly-named Helium Avenue before tackling the descent into the valley again, via Hans Coverdale Road Kinda-Central and then Hans Coverdale Road East into Hans Coverdale Road More-Or-Less-South. Most of this remaining route was a slight descent, providing welcome relief before the second lap started.
The bunch was noticeably quieter than we are accustomed to. I soon figured out that members of the organising club ACE, Athletics Club Eersterus, were quite often the source of the lively banter in local races. This time, they were the marshals. The unusually chirpy marshals and roadside crowds handsomely made up for the lack of yellow and red vests in the field. Many families parked themselves by the roadside on walls, chairs and lawns and cheered us on.
We turned right from Hans Coverdale Road Way-Down-South into the stadium to finish with half a lap on the grass of Hans Coverdale Road Round-and-Round. In a true stroke of genius, they handed out a half-litre of aQuelle water with the medals. A very welcome gesture!
My Club tent featured fruit jelly and custard, of which I slurped up two cups before proceeding back to my car. I noticed that many cars were queueing to get out of there, just like we had done in previous years. Those feeder roads are definitely not up to the demands of a major sporting event!
I walked briskly while sipping my precious water. It took a long time to empty the bottle, and I had covered 2 km by the time I managed to toss it into a bin. The rest of the route was spent running four lampposts and then walking one. Right towards the end, as I approached my car up a steep incline, it turned into a three-plus-one affair—a matter of survival. Halfway up the hill I passed a familiar car coming the other way. My friend Alet had mentioned the previous day that she would be in the area, and I had assured her that I would be back at my car by 08:50, having covered the required 6 km after the race. I didn't make it, and she came looking for me. I valiantly waved her on, determined to get back to the car on my own steam, even if it was the last thing I did.
My first leg, from the car to the race, went exactly as planned. During the race, I never did make up those four minutes I'd lost after the slow start. In fact, on the second lap the deficit grew slightly. The return to the car was much slower than planned, what with drinking the water and generally just walking a bit more than I should have. I wish I had a good model to figure out the effect of the hills. Was my performance equivalent to my target pace over a flat route? Or am I a hopeless couch potato? Or did I in fact excel superhumanly, given the horrible hills? Who knows, but at least I covered my planned 32 km and lived to tell the tale.
The Good: It was a welcome change to have real runners handling the race. Marshalling was first-class, they had Cream Soda at all the tables, and the bottle of water at the finish was a nice touch. The lively local roadside support was "interesting". My own Club's idea to provide a sugar shot after the race in the form of jelly was a great one.
The Bad: That slow start on small suburban streets. Those hills. The traffic jam trying to get out of there.
The Ugly: That last uphill to my car. But that was hardly the race organisers' fault.
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The plan was almost a repetition of the previous one. Same venue, slightly shorter training run, slightly faster. I was upbeat about this session, as I'd completed my Thursday sprint session exactly on schedule. It was a nice change after several weeks of struggling to stick to the plan.
This time, we backtracked the route to the start, running through the start bunch to complete a 5 km run before the race. After the race, we would simply return to the car via the race route, for another 3 km.
We started at 06:02 in pouring rain. Again, Laurens was taking it a little easier than I was, and arrived at the start line somewhat after me. We continued with a long loop behind the starting bunch, returning to the bunch at 06:32 for the start. Again, they started more than four minutes late. The bunch was much smaller than in December, presumably due to the pouring rain. There is no doubt that anyone with a sound sense of self-preservation would be safely tucked up in bed!
I was initially very careful to avoid the puddles, but about a km into the race, the road was flooded to a depth that submerged my shoes and socks all the way. Beyond this point, trying to avoid getting wet was kind-of senseless.
The first loop was routine, although traffic was more of a problem than during the December race. Presumably, some people had returned home after New Year. Most runners seemed more savvy, generally keeping right except to briefly cross the road for water and nourishment. I ran mostly alone, chatting for only a few minutes with Neville and Iain and a stranger who had just returned to running after having twins.
The second lap presented a new quirk. The loop that was supposed to adjust the second lap to the correct half-marathon distance suddenly proceeded almost 250 m further than in December, all the way to the end of Oak Avenue. The route suddenly became much longer than before. Accordingly, all the remaining distance markers suddenly popped up over half a km too far.
At times, the rain let up, allowing weak sunshine through the clouds. It was exquisitely pleasant running weather, marred somewhat by the flooding on the road and the wet socks. The finish in the shopping centre was displaced somewhat to provide the medal handlers with shelter against the rain, leaving the route only slightly too long.
I had not seen Laurens since early in the first lap. He usually cruises past somewhere in the second lap with contemptuous ease, so I was somewhat worried. I continued the short run to the car, arriving only a few minutes later than planned. Laurens was already there—he had decided to quit after the first lap due to a niggling leg injury. We sat down to a Wimpy breakfast—any other adjective is both unnecessary and probably inappropriate.
Again, I was pretty happy. The first sector and the race had gone exactly according to plan. The return to the car was a little slow, but within reason. It looks like I may actually successfully complete the Marathon training programme that I'm busy with! I was greatly relieved that the wet socks did not cause any damage to my feet.
The Good: This time, even the arriving traffic was light. Pouring rain does have its advantages. The absence of less-experienced runners also improved the coexistence with traffic on the race route.
The Bad: The water points had not improved. Because of the change in the loop on the second lap, distance markers were even more confused than before. The rain caused a few niggles, including bad chafing on my stomach where the running vest had grated into my flesh...
The Ugly: As expected, the officials had paid no heed to the suggested improvements. Sigh...
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My running partner Laurens and I left my car at Highveld Wimpy, to work in a run before and after the race. Having to return to the car provides a strong incentive to do the after-race run, something that is always sorely (sic) needed after crossing the finish line.
The car was left around the 3 km mark on the 10 km circular route. We planned to do 7 km before the race along the normal route, arriving at the start line when the starting gun went, completing the full race and then returning to the car following the race route, including a loop that would bring us up to the required 32 km.
We left the car at 05:48 as planned, making our way to the start at a gentle pace. Laurens preferred to start more slowly than I did. I noticed that officials were setting up the water point on the wrong side of Nellmapius, forcing runners to cross the busy traffic twice. In previous years, I've witnessed the effects, and it is not a pretty picture. I stopped to chat to the foreman, trying to convince him to rather set up the water point to the right of the road, but he was adamant that this was the way they have always done it. As my previous begging and grovelling on the topic had gone unheeded, I did not spend much time trying to convince him.
I arrived at the rear end of the starting pack at 06:32 exactly as planned. After an unwelcome two-minute wait, the start gun went. Laurens, being somewhat behind me, had no delay at all. I soon found clubmate Wanja and continued with light-hearted banter all the way around the first lap. The race undulates through Highveld Park before hitting a sustained 3 km climb up Nellmapius Drive. Fortunately, traffic was relatively light, but some runners crossed the road to run on the left rather than facing the traffic as self-preservation and the Road Traffic Regulations prescribe. The result was that oncoming traffic had to pass between two groups of runners, leaving too little space for comfort.
The weather was cool and comfortable. The second lap was somewhat less harrowing on the climb, as the more experienced 21 km runners mostly stayed on the right, only crossing the road twice to reach the badly-placed water point.
After the climb, there is a right turn followed by a meander through Eco Park, finishing with a gentle descent and a loop through the Eco Boulevard shopping centre. The distance seemed fairly accurate and I managed to finish exactly on schedule. Laurens had been waiting for me for a minute or two.
After collecting our medals and having a quick drink, we continued the 4 km return to the car. I was on my last legs, and walked some of the way. I arrived at the Wimpy about 10 minutes behind schedule. I was happy; I had covered this unimaginable distance mostly according to plan, and was no more than slightly sore.
The Good: The race is run over undulating terrain with relatively little traffic. The start and finish venue is adequate, with enough parking.
The Bad: The water points are all placed on the left, forcing runners to either cross the traffic (twice!) or run with the traffic approaching from behind. There was a traffic jam of arriving runners, as the Eco Park has limited access. Some water points did not have a choice other than water and Coke, leaving non-caffeine users high and dry. Distance markers were mostly out by between 100 and 300 m. Even without a GPS it was evident that there was a problem, as the last few markers showed the 10 km distance markers before the corresponding Half Marathon markings (e.g. 9 km before 20 km), rather than after as one would expect based on basic geometry.
The Ugly: The officials apparently have limited exposure to running, and are openly hostile to suggestions. Hubris and ignorance are an unfortunate combination!
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This report initially appeared in the Club newsletter.
Monday’s race at Castle Walk was favoured by much more tolerable temperatures (around 8°C). The start was a bit sudden, with a completely unannounced gunshot, but flowed well.
The route was very hilly, dropping several hundred metres from Castle Walk to the back of Hatfield church. The second half was a steady climb. I discovered that I am definitely allergic to concrete. Every time we ended up on concrete in the second half, I was suddenly and inexplicably unable to run, and had to resort to walking.
Traffic presented a problem at some points. I personally witnessed a Golf speeding down a road with hundreds of runners at around 60 km/h, approaching the runners from behind. Numerous runners expressed their displeasure, so maybe this driver will be more careful in future...
This time, Wanja lagged behind on the second half, but Cecile came steaming past about 1 km from the finish. I would imagine both of us shaved some seconds off our time, with virtually a dead heat. Is this a conspiracy? Do these young women gather in dark rooms to plan this stuff? Is it personal, or is it just contempt of all aging men in general?
The Good: If you're looking for terrain to do some hill training, you can't do much better than this one!
The Bad: I didn’t need a fancy GPS watch to find fault with the kilometre markers—there were none.
The Ugly: I was starting to enjoy the new-found ability to consistently run sub-hour 10 km races with my bionic knee. The hilly route put paid to that pattern, with a time not much below 1:05. Seems like there’s still some work to do!
This report initially appeared (with Auto-Correct) in the Club newsletter.
The Fountains race was a league race. The weather was ideal for fast times (which is the polite way of saying that the temperature was between 2 and 4°C).
There was no start line, so participants gathered in the usual chaotic bundle. A race official was adamant that everyone had to get “behind the line”, but had no suggestions to offer on where this elusive line might be found. As a result, the race started a few minutes late.
Personally, this race was remarkable mainly for the fact that I was trying out a fancy GPS watch for the first time, so I could proceed with a tirade on how inaccurate the route markers were. Suffice to say, though, that the route was over 300 m short. I guess I shouldn’t complain, as I knocked several minutes off my post-bionic best for 10 km.
The first half of the 10 km route was uphill, almost to the top of Monument Hill. The second half, predictably, afforded an opportunity to accumulate spectacular splits back towards Fountains.
Wanja again passed me about 1 km from the finish. This time, I could not keep up, but at least by trying I probably slashed a good few seconds off my time.
The Good: Great weather for speedy running. A personal record for my plastic knee.
The Bad: The race was marred by bad marshalling on several fronts. The worst was that the 10/21 split was not well labelled. There was a piece of corrugated cardboard on which someone had scribbled “10” in ballpoint pen, but no arrow or other directional marking. To compound the problem, the marshals at this point did not seem to know the difference between “left” and “right”. As a result, many runners apparently took the wrong turn at this point, either running too far or finding themselves back at the finish line much too soon. There were also droves of people turning prematurely on the out-and-back route, knocking several km off their run and presumably gathering great points for their clubs. No marshals were anywhere to be seen.
The Ugly: At least the chief marshal was driving a fancy BMW X6 with vanity plates, so it seems like A4A knows more about making money than about organising races!
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This report initially appeared in the Club newsletter.
The annual Jackie Mekler 25 km race was held on Saturday. As is customary, the Pretoria Military Marathon Club hosted the 10 km PMMC Memorial Race at the same venue. 25 km is a little beyond my scope at this moment, but I decided to tackle the 10 km race in a valiant effort to contribute to my club’s League standings.
As you can imagine, these races are organised with military precision. The first manifestation of this precision was the way in which the cutoff date for pre-entries was almost two weeks before the race. Someone such as myself who is too low in Maslow’s pyramid to plan months ahead is just plain out of luck when it comes to pre-entries. I assume this strategy is specifically designed to encourage “sleg siwwies” to get up early.
Fortunately, my erstwhile running buddy Laurens had a spare number, so I didn’t have to get up military-early.
Another visible aspect of military precision is the fact that they organised the race to coincide with a major air show at Swartkop Air Force Base. In an especially creative move, the race route passes right in front of the Base’s main entrance. How creative: Closing the road directly in front of the main entrance just when the show is about to start!
The net result was a massive traffic jam. We left my car about 2 km from the start and made our way to the start on foot. We just barely made it with enough time to place our bags in a trailer, as a convenient take-away for someone less privileged.
The start was less chaotic than some, as we filled up from the back. As is the way of our people, the slowest walkers always start in front, with runners having to negotiate a maze of near-stationary objects for the first 2 km or so. I passed the start line at 1:40 and the first km marker at 8:50.
After about 3 km, I passed first Marix and then Hennie. I berated both of them for being slower than the slowest guy in the Club (me), and encouraged them to speed up to earn more points for the Club. Little did I know what results my gift of encouragement would have.
The first water point was not very visible, making it necessary to suddenly switch lanes in taxi-like fashion if you wanted a drink.
Just before the halfway mark, I saw Wanja some distance ahead of me. As I know that she is also recovering from a sports injury, I decided to catch her—come hell or high water. I eventually did, but I was so spent that I could not even hold an intellectual conversation. I walked a few times to give my aching knee and my burning lungs a respite, and each time I had to catch her again.
The undulating route passes through a residential neighbourhood and some countryside, so there were no serious traffic problems. The last 2 km stretch is slightly downhill, which is a welcome respite.
I finished about 15 s behind Wanja in just under 1:02. At this rate, I may even break one hour again one day!
I had to wait for Laurens to complete the 25 km, so I had a bit of time to watch the 25 km winners. The two leaders entered the stadium together. When they passed our club tent, they were shoulder to shoulder. However, the winner opened up a 50 m gap in the last 200 m, beating Shadrack Hoff into second place and the 40+ prize.
The 2 km back to the car was not entirely effortless, but at least the stragglers had the distraction of watching formations of ancient warbirds flying overhead.
During the afternoon, we had a Club committee meeting, at which I spoke to Hennie again. He told me that, shortly after my motivational talk, he had tried to pass some of the slow walkers by running on the sidewalk. The grass had recently been cut, but was still about 100 mm tall. Hennie suddenly found himself flat on his face. It turned out that a piece of cable was hidden in the grass, and his running shoe had come to a very firm and very sudden stop. I now call him Rolux Magnum.
All things considered, an enjoyable race. However, the PMMC would do well to reconsider their decision to organise it on the same day as a military airshow, and to terminate pre-entries so early. Surely the Defence Sports Club and the Air Force Museum could hammer something out?
The Good: A hilly route, great for someone who intends to run in mountains. Good marshalling. The Valhalla street names provide a great recap of Norse mythology.
The Bad: Invisible water points, requiring sudden swerves unless you want to go thirsty. Pre-entries unbelievably early—Why?
The Ugly: Huge traffic jams due to the nearby Air Show.
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This report initially appeared in the Club newsletter.
Let me start off by saying: Running long distances is not my cup of tea. I have a car. Even if I didn’t, there is almost enough public transport available to get around without one. Besides, with running shoes costing more than car tyres, I’m not even sure that running is cheaper than driving.
Add the fact that my legs are genetically “different” and that I’ve had a serious accident with multiple spinal fractures, and it should be clear that running Comrades doesn’t come naturally to me.
Comrades does have one (and probably only one) advantage. Preparing for Comrades is so time consuming that one can only barely fit the required amount of running into six months. One cannot afford to miss even one session. When the alarm clock explodes early on a cold Wednesday morning, you simply cannot afford to roll over and snatch another hour of sleep. Missing that one session may well scupper the entire project. So entering for Comrades imposes a level of self-discipline on one's training regimen that I sorely lack.
It is for this reason that I entered for Comrades in November. Most of January and February were taken up with preparing for the Midmar Mile. Things went well, and I managed to complete the Mile in mid-February with little effort. I was quite pleased, as I’d had to learn to swim almost from scratch a year before. When I started, I wasn’t able to swim much more than 100 m uninterrupted. Comfortably swimming a mile in open water was a personal triumph.
Because of the late start, and because conventional wisdom dictates a minimum of 800 km of preparation, I had to work hard to ramp up my training. I started with 30 km a week in January, increasing by 10% per week. I peaked with three heavy weeks in May, the heaviest one being over 100 km. I would then have three weeks to recover and accumulate some reserves before the Big Day. I resolved to postpone my final go/no-go decision to the end of the last heavy week. If I was able to get there uninjured, I would run Comrades.
The training went more or less according to plan. A few niggles were handled with the help of my physiotherapist Toy, and I managed to survive the ramp-up period and the heavy weeks essentially intact. The final decision to go was taken just under two weeks before the big day.
The tapering period provided some of the most enjoyable running I’ve ever experienced. The running was effortless. I was able to just enjoy the surroundings, and look forward to the rolling hills of KZN. Perhaps the most exhilarating runs were in Cape Town, running up Kloof Nek and down the west coast of the Peninsula with a sea breeze in my hair while the sun set over the Atlantic.
My anticipation was spoiled somewhat by the weather forecast, which threatened 30°C weather with a strong northeasterly wind. At least the South African Weather Service was a little more optimistic, forecasting only 24°C. As the week wore on, though, it gradually joined the unanimous choir of doom of the other forecasting platforms.
I drove down to KZN on Saturday. The Expo was a tedious affair, with more than an hour of queuing to get my numbers. After the compulsory pasta meal and a good night's rest, we arrived at the start line about half an hour before the start.
I stood waiting for the start with an Alaskan runner. I had met Carole Holley in the guest house the night before. She is a regular hundred-miler, who was on tour in southern Africa. She hadn’t run for six weeks, but at least the short distance would be well within her comfort zone. She almost regarded it as speed training. Carole was quite amazed by the ambience of the race though; the dramatic showbiz leading up to the start, the crowds by the roadside even an hour before sunrise, and the sheer numbers involved.
The dramatic synthesiser music, the recorded fake cockerel and the gun went, and we were on our way. It took more than eight minutes to cross the start line. Up to that point we were shuffling slowly forward, shoulder to shoulder and right up against somebody’s back. After the start line, we broke into a gentle jog, mindful of the long day that lay ahead.
The first stretch of almost 40 km consists of a gradual climb from sea level. Although folklore singles out three climbs in this section, there are at least six climbs that are as steep as Fields Hill, and even the first named climb, Cowie’s Hill, concludes a continuous climb of 350 m. The top of Botha’s Hill is at 750 m, with almost half of the altitude being gained before Pinetown.
As soon as the sun was up, the race became a sweaty affair. My own strategy was to arrive at the halfway cutoff as close as possible to the gun, to ensure that the first half would inflict the least possible damage.
The second half was a separate exercise, with undulating hills but with almost no net climb. I planned to walk most of the uphills and to run most of the downhills to ensure that the average speed would remain high enough. The second half would have been a relatively easy marathon, were it not for the fact that one arrives there with more than a full marathon and a serious climb already on those weary legs.
I made the halfway cutoff with four minutes to spare, within 30 seconds of my planned time. My pulse was down, my breathing was easy, but my legs were rather heavy. I could also feel that a major blister was forming on my right heel.
I stopped just after the cutoff to collect my lunch from a colleague, and to do some work on that blister. After a short break, I continued up Inchanga. At its apex, everything was on track.
Conditions were becoming quite unpleasant, though. Having emerged from the coastal plain, we were now being buffeted by a stiff breeze from the right, blowing sand into my nostrils and eyes and causing us to lean into the wind just to stay upright. It was almost like running on extreme camber. My knees and ankles were starting to complain.
I had mastered four of the five hills, and all that remained was to alternate walking and running over the undulating terrain that lay ahead.
On the first downhill, I was unable to start running. My legs simply would not obey. I was relaxed, my mind was clear, my breathing was easy and my heart rate was down, but the legs were completely disobedient. I decided to walk some more, and resume the running on the next downhill. Unfortunately, the experience was exactly the same. I could continue to walk relatively easily, but running was simply not an option.
With 34 km to go, some distance before the next cutoff, I made my calculations and realised that it was too late. I would be able to make the next two cutoffs relatively easily, but there was no way that I would finish inside the 12 hour limit. With my joints complaining slightly, I decided to get into the Bus of Shame.
It was a hard decision, but actually catching the dreaded Bus was even harder. I sat with a group of stragglers, watching as one bus after another passed us. They were all fully loaded. We were sitting in the glaring sun, with nothing to drink. When the last runner and the sweep vehicle passed us, we realised that we would have to start walking. So we did.
We eventually got to the next water point, where we talked a course official into allowing us onto his bakkie. Sitting cramped with a dozen others is unpleasant, especially on tender legs. The ambience was enhanced even further by one of the other runners who was constantly at the point of vomiting. We tried to mix him a drink, using rehydration powder that I was carrying, some tepid water that he had and a nausea-prevention pill belonging to one of the other runners.
At some point, the official’s bakkie was prevented from continuing on the course, and we got off. We kept looking for another means of transport. Again, all the buses were full. It appeared that there had been so many withdrawals and even medical emergencies that the transport system was completely overwhelmed. Bus after bus passed us, with not a single open seat. We heard stories of hundreds of stragglers behind us, all waiting for a bus.
At this point, I saw something that made me perk up. A large red bus was approaching. I recognised it as the CSIR’s rented bus. A few dozen of my colleagues had volunteered to man the refreshment station just after the half-way mark. They had cleaned up their station not long after I’d passed, and were now on their way to the finish. I lay down in the road to force them to stop. They did, and picked me up along with half a dozen other casualties. My colleagues were very gracious. They did not show any signs of derision and loathing, and even allowed us to sit down while they stood in the aisles.
I have to admit that the CSIR bus is a much better choice than The Bus. The atmosphere was festive, and we exchanged banter while watching the remaining athletes slogging it out. Many times, bus passengers would recognise a club mate or colleague and cheer loudly to urge them on. There was also air conditioning, something that didn’t hurt under those conditions. Most of all, the brooding silence that characterises The Bus was not there.
For the next hour and a half, we continued along the Comrades route. I saw many of the runners that I’d run with earlier in the day. Unfortunately, many of them were not going to make it. Being equipped with pre-calculated pace charts and hours of prior poring over route profiles, I kept calculating the pace that would be required to make the cutoff, and it was evident that most of the runners we were passing would not make the grade. Going up Polly Shortts, most of the athletes showed grim determination to keep moving, but most of them were too late. A particularly poignant experience was slowly passing Sibusiso Sibisi, the President of the CSIR, who was valiantly making his way up the dreaded hill, but who was not going to make the cutoff. I'm not sure if he even realised that the bright-red bus with the dark windows contained dozens of his subjects.
Only after the Polly Shortts cutoff did we start thinking that the runners now plodding around the bus would actually stand a chance. With mostly downhill and with modest pace requirements, most of them would end up wearing a medal by the end of the day.
We got to the stadium shortly after the cutoff gun. Some looked for medical attention, while I went to find the Mat of Shame to register the fact that I had withdrawn. I found my colleagues near the finish and heard tales of triumph and disappointment. My boss had finished in 8:39. I realised that, even though it was a weekend, I had managed to fulfil my obligation to make my boss look good.
What went wrong? Conditions were difficult, but they do not provide the full answer. I have no certain answers, but there is one thing that may have played a role. Because I’d started training fairly late, I had to run some heavy weeks towards the end, just to make my target of 800 km of training. It is possible that the unaccustomed heavy weeks inflicted too much damage, and that I had not fully recovered by the time the race started.
What about next year? I really don’t want to run distances like this again. However, if I do tempt myself into enrolling again, I’ll certainly have to start earlier. Maybe a few more months will allow me leeway to take my last few weeks a little easier, and to arrive at the start with a fresher pair of legs.
We'll see. Right now Comrades sounds like too much running to my liking, but I definitely have a feeling that it constitutes unfinished business. Perhaps once the intensity of pain and disappointment has faded a little from my memory, I'll allow myself to be talked into it again. We'll see.
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