Sunday, June 15, 2014

I’m in freakin’ AFRICA!

I. Comrades Marathon 6/1/14
They call it the “Ultimate Human Race” and I have to say, it lived up to the hype.
Comrades marathon is not a marathon, but the world’s largest ultramarathon road race (18,000 entrants, 14,000 starters, 12,000 finishers) which was in its 89th year. It alternates directions point to point, this year “down”(89.3 km from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, on the east coast of South Africa, about 5000 ft up and 7000 ft down), next year “up” (Durban to Pietermaritzburg). Though it is not the longest or hilliest race I’ve attempted, I took it fairly seriously because I sure did not want to DNF this one, who knows if I would ever get the chance to go to Africa again. Even if you are 1 second too slow at any of the 5 intermediate cutoffs or at the finish line, it is a DNF. In fact, there are officials with red flags who stand with their backs to the runners so they cannot see who they are cutting off, and apparently a human “gate” of people with interlocked arms who close to cut off the finish line (though I did not see this). You finish in a stadium full of people who count down to 12:00:00 and a finish “gun” goes off, the last finishers sometimes get as much publicity and applause as the gold medal winners.

    Gold medals: The first 10 men and women.
    Wally Hayward medals (sub 6hrs 00min) named for 5 time and first sub-6 winner who also ran it in 9:44 at the age of 79, and finished sub-12 at age 80
    Silver medals: 6hrs 00min 01sec to sub 7hrs 30min.
    Bill Rowan medals: 7hrs 30min to sub 9hrs 00min.
    Bronze medals: 9hrs 00min to sub 11hrs 00min.
    Vic Clapham medals (copper): 11hrs 00min to sub 12hrs 00min, named for the creator of Comrades who initially set a limit of 12h.

It took 3 flights over 2 days (and 9 hour time change) to get to Durban. Met up with fellow MM Susan (my “Canadian twin”, 2 time finisher of Comrades whom I met at Birch Bay in Feb). She has a group of Comrades friends whom I met at the prerace dinner (which was 2 days before, so that people can get their partying in but still be fresh for the race), all multiple finishers- it was like joining am international class reunion. Caroline, an anaesthesiologist from Johannesburg was running her 5th Comrades, as usual in a pink wig, tutu, and fairy wings to support breast cancer research.
There was also a Brit named Pete and his daughter Anna, an American named Patrick from D.C., and a whole contingency of Malaysians, including Chee who lives in Aberdeen, Scotland.
Saturday we did a 5k fun run on Durban Beach, which reminds me a bit of Miami, and I even got a glimpse of South African hero Bruce Fordyce who has won Comrades 9 times.

Sunday morning I got up at 1:30 AM, got dressed, and went down for pre-race breakfast with Pete, whom I met in the elevator. We got on the shuttle bus to the start at 2:45 AM. Luckily it wasn’t too cold waiting an hour in the start corrals at Pietermaritzburg. The start was very dramatic with a light show, loud singing of the national anthem, and the cock crow signaling the start.

The first hour was run in the dark, and very crowded. I knew it would be hilly but I still could not believe how hilly it was; “down” is a big misnomer as it was nonstop up and down. I ran into a few randon MM on the course, since I was wearing my singlet. I went out a bit too fast trying to keep up with them (they had finished around 10:40 last year and were sub 3:30 marathoners) then wisely slowed.

The African countryside was striking, both for the natural beauty, enthusiasm of the crowds which rivaled the Boston marathon, and for the areas of poverty. 
It was amazing people watching throughout the race, a sense of being surrounded by, well, the struggle of humanity. The bibs indicate the age group and how many past Comrades they’ve run, many had done over 20. Green bibs meant they had run at least 10 Comrades, and yellow bibs indicated they were going for the coveted “back to back” first and 2nd year medal. You only get one chance (after your first attempt) to get the b2b medal. This is how they get you to come back I guess. Most runners wore clothing from their running clubs or their home countries, but commercial advertising is banned. There was a guy in a penguin hat with a green bib, whom I understand had run 9 Comrades in the previous 9 days going for 10 in 10. Several had done a historical bike ride (I think over 100 miles) to Durban before the race to commemorate a past winner who did that when he could not afford the transport one year.

My goal had been to finish sub-11 but by the half my hopes were fading - It seemed improbable that I was already feeling so crappy yet had over 5 more hours to go. I did my usual pre-crash-and-burn calculations and decided I could still make sub 11 but it would be horrible, painful, and involve vomiting, or I could walk, enjoy the sights and take photos and still finish. As soon as I stopped to walk I felt like crap, my legs locked up and nausea hit me- wished I had just kept running. To my surprise, I was swept by the 11 hour bus (that’s what they call pace groups) with about 10k to go; I had thought they were ahead of me when another bus (probably the 10:30 bus) swept me. On the downhills I was able to get back on the bus, and for awhile I thought I might still make it since they were run/ walking. It was a bit annoying since they were chanting, “one-two-THREE-FOUR” non-stop; I adopted the mantra of “Stay-on-the-bus-Stay-on-the-bus” to counter it. But just when you thought you were done with the hills, even the last 2k there were hills, and I decided to fall off the bus and save something for my Norway run. You need some mental justification for giving up, and hopelessness is as good as any. That is what separates champions (like Ellie Greenwood who was behind for most of the race then zoomed past the leaders at the end) and schmoes like me, well other than speed. And agility. I thought I was keeping a good pace but apparently I was slowing exponentially because 2k from the end I heard the 12 hour bus. They too were chanting something, it was a huge wave of people, like being in front of a charging battalion. My thoughts had evolved from pushing for possible good result, to settling for ok to a battle for survival. I knew I could not afford to be swept by the 12 hour bus, I would not recover from that. I started jogging, and every time I walked I could hear the tidal wave of the 12 hour bus stomping ever closer. I began to see a lot of red flags waving, cowbells, deafening crowds. Once I got into the stadium, it was so crowded with walkers I could hardly run to the finish line, but I made it in 11:43:44. 

I got my copper medal and struggled not to vomit as I headed over to the International tent. At Comrades they welcome foreigners with special treatment for internationals. There was food but thought of eating a pork sandwich was too much to bear; I crawled to the track and sat in a chair so I could view the finishers without passing out. The international area faced the part of the track about 10 seconds from the finish line.  I tried to film the final seconds and even caught a runner collapsing to the ground inconsolable was cutoff by 10 seconds, but ended up cutting it accidentally due to my poor camera skills. I believe it when they say the last place finisher gets as much applause as the winner. I already know I have to go back and do it again next year.

2. Capetown (June 2-3). Early the next morning I caught a flight to Jo’burg, then on to Capetown, where I met my sis Jenny and her middle daughter (my goddaughter) Sabine who live in Switzerland.
The weather was quite changeable, being dead of winter in the southern hemisphere, and though there were some sunny patches, there were periods of winds and rain which closed the famous Table Mountain to hikers and limited the ferries to Robben Island, the World Heritage site where Nelson Mandela was jailed for 27 years, but we did get to see Kistenbosch, the most amazing botanical garden I’ve ever seen.
We stayed at a rental apartment on the V&A Waterfront, where they have one of the best food courts I’ve ever seen. I was a little influenced by the exchange rate- it seems everywhere else in the world the USD is weaker but in South African you can have a gourmet sandwich or made to order Asian noodles for $3-4. The disparity between the rich and the poor was very striking. Everyone expects haggling and a tip. People seemed overly gracious toward tourists, but I couldn’t help but wonder if that was a sign of underlying unrest.

We were supposed to have a halfday tour of Capetown, but it’s a measure of being on vacation that we forgot what time zone we were in and were late. Luckily it was just us and our guide Carel, who told us a lot about the culture and animals of South Africa. First stop was to see the African Penguin colony at Boulders Beach.
We stopped by Cape Point which is within Table Mountain National Park to capture some stunning views
and saw some crazy baboons who were stealing from the gift shop, as well as bonte bok aka “slimming” antelope. Then a drive along the coast, overlapping some parts of the Two Oceans marathon (a well known 56 km road race in April). stunning sunset views. Too bad only 1.5 days in Capetown.

3. The Big 5 (June 4-6).

That is what they call the top 5 most requested animals for safari goers in Africa.  I would not have guessed what these were correctly… Lions, Leopards, Rhinos, Elephants and… Buffalos? Safari (and tourism in general) is one of Africa’s biggest industries.
We got up very early to catch our flight to Jo’burg (it seems all the flights in South Africa go through Jo’burg), then on to Hoedspruit which is in Kruger National Park in northeastern South Africa. From the moment we got in the jeeps, there were random anmials in the middle of the road.
We were able to see all the Big 5, and even saw a lion couple mating (yes I have the video, must figure out how to shrink the file). Unlike some other drivers, if an animal got too close to the car, we drove away. Sabs liked the elephant ride the best but was too scared to touch it.
Apparently African elephants are far superior to Indian ones because they have 2 nostrils and more dexterity. The cottages were ridiculously luxurious but there wasn’t much to do except drive around the bush looking for more big cats, and after 3 days I was ready to move on.

No comments:

Post a Comment