The experience of running a marathon – or, as in my case, taking part in a marathon (as ‘running’ might be too generous a term for it) – is almost like having a vivid dream, the memory of which immediately fades as soon as you wake up.
The Cape Peninsula Marathon was yesterday. Weeks of stressing and fretting about lack of training, absence of long runs and minimal crosstraining had passed and race day had arrived. Now, whatever I had said on Friday about being accepting of whatever the outcome was to be had dissipated by Saturday. A serious case of race day anxiety had kicked in and I had to keep taking deep breaths to keep my heart from stopping. Okay, a little overdramatic, but that’s kind of how it was.
I bellowed at The Kid for wanting to go to a party when I had told her that I would prefer her not to go, as I didn’t want to be driving around. She didn’t read that as ‘You are not, under any circumstances, going to that damn party!’ and was hanging about, all dressed up with someplace to go, waiting to be schlepped.
I wanted to eat early – the required twelve hours before the race – and driving her around, having to walk the dogs and having to get to the shops was delaying things. The clock was ticking.
She eventually did get to go to her party. That’s what Uber is there for. And her sister fetched her and took her to sleep over at her place. But I couldn’t go to sleep until I knew she was safe, so that didn’t really help with the early to bed part of the plan.
As with the Lion of Africa half marathon, my plans for an early night were further interrupted by loud noises from the stadium. The Chiefs were playing against somebody or another, and thousands of soccer fans roared their support and blew their vuvuzelas until way into the night. Then, when it was all over, they roared their cars up our road, the wrong way up the one way, and bellowed and called and whistled and partied as they made their way home.
But I was up at four o’clock. My two biggest fears about race day do not include any worry about the distance. Instead, worries about the early rise and the efficiency of my gut that keep me awake. But once the light it switched on, being up early really isn’t that bad.
I was still, at this very late stage, trying to figure out what my race fuel was going to be. I had decided on a banana. Two would have been better, but one was the most I could carry. There is no way I can eat mushed food, so the Runner’s World tip of turning apples and bananas into a sauce, putting them in a ziplock bag and snipping the corner off so that you can suck the babyfood pulp while you run is just not ever going to work for me. Like having oats for breakfast. My throat closes up at the thought of it.
So I sliced a banana into sections, leaving the peel on to keep it from pulping in my pouch, put it in a ziplock bag and then put it in a nifty new fannypack-type-thing that I had bought the day before (don’t try anything new on race day!). Then I tasted three different energy-protein-race bars that I had also bought the day before, and pronounced each one Yuck.
I eventually decided to pack two Eet-Sum-More shortbread biscuits and two sachets of Gu. It was going to have to do.
The Significant Other drove me to the start line and it was when I saw the cluster of runners standing in the dark in the middle of Main Road Green Point that waves of nausea struck. I coughed. I gagged.
‘Hey!’ he said. ‘Don’t start that nonsense!’
I can always count on his empathetic support. I pulled myself together and got out of the car. I coughed again. Gagged. Stood with my hands on my hips, bent forward a bit, looked at my feet, breathed, looked at the crowd, and got myself moving.
I stood on my toes on the centre island and scanned over the heads of the runners trying to find the flag for the five-hour bus. I was standing next to the four-hour bus, and that was going to be no good to me, what with all that minimal training and all. Maybe five hours is too slow? Maybe they don’t even have a five-hour bus in this race, the ‘Fastest Marathon in Africa’?
But then I spotted it and inched my way closer. And I needed the toilet. Now. Again. Now?! Why?? What the hell is wrong with me?! The start gun popped. What? Already?!
And off we went, me anxiously keeping an eye on the five-hour flag and trying to stay close. I didn’t want to lose him in the first two kays already.
But my goodness, it was like running with the zombie invasion. So many odd and awkward running styles, so little sense of personal space, so much elbowing and shoving. Some women were inelegantly and inefficiently leading with their shoulders, running left-shoulder-right-shoulder-left shoulder, their pointy little elbows jutting out behind them while their little fists narrowly missed smacking themselves on their own chins. It made me feel exhausted just being next to them. Then there were the guys who ran with their elbows jutting out, away from their bodies and, preferably, into the soft flanks of fellow runners. Preferably my soft flanks. Mostly they zombies stumbled and lurched drunkenly ahead.
I could smell their bodies and what they had eaten … asparagus, garlic … Someone farted. Egg … Brave man, I thought, trusting a fart in a marathon.
‘Well, judgemental Self,’ I said to myself, ‘you’re going to have to put in some training if you don’t want to run with this motley lot. This bunch will likely make it across the finish line before you. They may look silly and inefficient and unfit, but chances are they’ve done the training.’
We ran through the city streets in the dark. Everyone was subdued. There was no cheering and banter, no music. Just the sound of thousands of sneakered feet padding along the tar. It wasn’t long before one of the lurchers hit the deck – the cat’s eyes in the road had claimed a victim. The rest of the zombies surged ahead. It’s each undead to himself. But about 500 metres later she had caught up with us and left-shouldered-right-shouldered her way forward.
We left the city and started along Woodstock. The toilet! I need the toilet! You’ve heard of the Vagina Monologues? Well, my running journal reads like the Sphincter Soliloquys. Every damn race and long training run is dominated by my need to find a public convenience.
Then I heard someone call my name. A fellow club runner had spotted me and said that this must be my 100th marathon and that this wasn’t a race is was and LSD, so I could slow down. I couldn’t call back over the crowds that I was sprinting for the toilet, now could I?
I saw a petrol station up ahead and scanned it for little man and woman signs as we ran past. Nothing. Then I saw a woman pop out from behind some cars and realized that she had been smart enough to spot the toilet. I went off course to find it. There was a queue of one waiting his turn. And we waited. And waited. We could hear ominous sounds coming from inside. We exchanged worried glances. Someone was dying in there. This could take a while. I looked at the runners streaming past. Do I leave this perch? Run on? No. I can’t run like this. Run to the next petrol station? But then I stop twice, and who knows what’s waiting there.
I texted the Significant Other. ‘I hate running!’ I said.
She came out eventually, still clutching her stomach, and the queue of one entered. And I waited. Some more desperate runners arrived and stood behind me. The stream of runners on the road had turned into a trickle. The five-hour bus was long gone. There was no way I was going to catch it.
Eventually I got my turn. It wasn’t a public convenience at all. It was a dark, dingy, dirty cubicle, obviously the petrol attendants’ toilet. And there was no toilet paper. Why would there be?!
But I got back on the road. Alone. No one ahead and no one behind. No one anywhere. Okaaayyy … I can do this …
I was feeling good. The air was cool, a wind blustered about me from time to time, the traffic officers and marshals were cheerful and encouraging, and I eventually started catching up with some of the runners.
It’s amazing what kinds of people are runners. When one thinks of a runner, one thinks of someone lean and toned, someone with a flat belly, someone young. Not so.
Ahead of me was a woman who looked the size of a double-door fridge-freezer combo. Her big, meaty shoulders were hunched over and her head hung forward so that her ears weren’t visible. Her yellow-orange hair was tied into a frizzy topknot. Her body was huge, square and solid, and her calves held the gnarled strength of spending years and years carrying that bulk over hundreds, maybe thousands of kilometres. She stayed ahead of me, always ahead of me, and then, like a giant tanker sailing towards the horizon, she pulled away and disappeared.
Trading places with me – me ahead, him ahead, me ahead, him ahead – was an older guy. My three-quarter view of him was mostly of his giant mustache. He ran in a billowy white anorak, which was obviously causing the pink pallor in his cheeks. His compression socks strained hard against his granite calves, the effort turning them translucent. He traded places with me one last time and then followed the fridge-freezer combo across the horizon.
A young woman struggled up head of me. She stopped from time to time to bend over, put her hands on her knees and recover. Her partner – boyfriend or husband – stayed with her every step of the way. I saw them up ahead, him with his hand on her back, offering guidance and support. I muttered some harsh words to myself about not even being able to catch someone who can’t even run on her own. I did catch them, though, eventually. They were in Simonstown by then, with about 2 km to go. He was now running with his arm around her waist, almost carrying her. I couldn’t believe his dedication and I marvelled at her grit. I wanted to tell her she was a rockstar.
‘I hope you’re going to marry this man at the end of this race,’ I said as I passed them. She laughed. ‘She promised that a long time ago,’ he called after me. I was happy for them, and I was most happy for myself, because I had passed them.
By about 25 km I was starting to feel fatigued. I knew I could make it to 30 km but I also knew it was going to take some effort. I was counting the distance in 5 km bites … and walking quite a number of bites, at that. My nice, sub-seven minute per kay pace had slowed down to 7:14/km and then to 7:47/km. And then it looked as if I had dropped anchor somewhere and was dragging it behind me, as my pace groaned to over 9:00/km. Things were starting to look arduous. It was time to face the Gu. I had finished the banana and had tried an Eet-Sum-More, but it was too thick and too dry. It dried out my mouth and got stuck in my throat. I crumbled it between my fingers and spread it amongst the roadside agapanthus for the birds to find.
I dug around in my Flipbelt for the sachet of Gu, pulled it out and started wrestling with the tab. My gag reflex kicked in immediately, before I had even opened the yucky stuff. Ugh, I hate Gu! I took it down like medicine: one small gloopy squidge under the tongue, followed by a big gulp of lukewarm plastic-tasting sachet water, and down the hatch. Don’t let the gloop come anywhere near a tastebud.
The stuff works, though. It’s like magic beans. You’re suddenly just pumped with renewed vigour and ready to take another crack that sub-five – all was not lost yet. Despite losing the entire field of runners, pretty much, and losing the five-hour bus, both of them, I was still sitting with a possible sub-five. Would you believe …?
Okay, maybe not with so much renewed vigour. My pace remained a sluggish +9:00/km all the way through Lakeside and into Muizenberg. This flat route was all smoke and mirrors. It was never flat! No route, unless it’s a stretch of Badwater, I imagine, is ever flat. In my book, an elevation of 7 m counts as a hill, especially if it’s after the 25 km mark of a marathon.
Crossing an intersection at Muizenberg, one of the traffic officers called to another. ‘Runner coming through!’ he said, as the other one stopped the traffic for me. ‘Oh, wow! You called me a runner!’ I laughed as I ran through. Some leathery stoner bums made some appreciative, encouraging comments as I ran past them, and I mustered up some enthusiasm for the race photographer. Always, always look good on the race photo. Save the agonized expression for when there is no one to see you.
I just wanted to see the 35 km mark, because then it would be only a five-kay run, followed by a little two-kay and a handful of metres. A mere nothing! But first I had to get to 32 km, because a few steps past the 32 km mark, I would have less than 10 km to stagger. And I still needed the toilet. Honestly! Who runs like this?!
I entered St James. There was no one around. Maybe there were people behind me (okay, I’m sure there were definitely people somewhere behind me), but I was too stiff and tired to bother turning my head. There was definitely no one in the distance ahead of me. But it was all so pretty. Big clouds poofed up in the blue sky. The colourful little change rooms stood to attention next to a glassy tidal pool that looked inviting enough to scale the rusted fence and run across the railway lines for. I stopped to take a cell phone snap for Instagram and sent a text to a friend. She had wished me lightness of step and energy from the other runners. I let her know that there were neither runners nor lightness in the land of pain where I found myself.
The energy slump was taking hold of me. I tried a new sachet of Gu. But I just couldn’t. The gag reflex is strong in this one. There was no way that stuff was passing my lips. I would rather cross the finish line on a stretcher. I tossed the sachet into the bin. Just licking the sticky stuff from my fingers made me feel sick. I must find race fuel. I must find race fuel. I must find race fuel …
And then, just as I made it to Kalk Bay, a silver car pulled up next to me. What seemed like hundreds of arms and thousands of fingers waved out the windows and happy, noisy cheers replaced the ringing my ears. The car pulled over, a door opened and the Significant Other stepped out, smiling.
‘You’re looking strong,’ he said.
Firstborn Daughter had rallied the troops – no mean effort on her part; they’re a lazy lot when it comes to this kind of thing – piled them in the car and had come looking for me. I was so happy to see them! On this desolate road of fekall support, some friendly faces sure turned the day around.
‘How are you feeling?’ he asked.
‘Shattered,’ I said. Or something like that. Maybe I said I wanted to die. I’m not sure.
‘Do you want to carry on?’ he asked.
What?! Is this man speaking to me?
Good grief …?!
‘Do you have Energade?’ I asked my daughter, desperate for anything that wasn’t Gu, wasn’t Coke and wasn’t warm plastic water from a green plastic sachet.
‘No,’ she said, ‘but I’ll get some.’
And off she went. True to her word, the car pulled over again a short distance later. Firstborn Daughter got out, handed me the Energade, and started walking next to me in her little golden sandals that were not remotely designed for the construction site we were trying to negotiate.
The elderly gent I had last left behind in Fish Hoek came past me. I stopped to take a picture of him walking ahead of me. Sewn to the shoulder of his blue-and-white striped vest was the number 80. I was being passed by an eighty-year-old man. I had no shame about this. There’s something about suffering the pain of a marathon that renders one shameless.
Then I started running again. Firstborn Daughter trotted alongside.
‘You’re cruising, Mom,’ she called.
A large Coca-Cola truck rumbled past. The men on the back whistled and whooped, shouted good luck and waved. ‘You help your mommy,’ they shouted to my daughter.
I was pretty damn tired by now. My legs didn’t like this running motion at all. I wasn’t going to make sub-five. But I was having fun. Daughter got back into the car to battle the traffic towards the finish line.
By Glencairn some huge nausea overtook me. I leaned my elbows on one of the tables at the water station. More support seemed to be required, and I leaned my forehead on the table as well. If my family turned up now and said ‘get in’, I would get in. Some Coke. Some Coke would be good. I know it would make my gut bubble and froth, but I was craving the sugar. Instead, all they had was more warm water in little green bags. The big red tubs of melted ice that the sachets floated in looked so tempting. Would it be a terrible crime to get in and lie down for a bit, I wondered.
But I was at the 37 km mark! Only 5 km to go!
I got going again. Did little runs, little walks. Every time I ran, people would call from their cars. ‘Well done!’ they called. ‘Almost there!’ When I walked, though, I heard nothing but crickets. There will be no cheering for those who will not run!
I entered Simonstown. I was almost home. The volunteers at the water station had formed two lines. They were a huge group, all dressed in green T-shirts and holding up banners. They had music playing, they were dancing and cheering, and they were having one big party. I ran through the tunnel they had formed, arms outstretched and smiling like an idiot who doesn’t know she’s in pain, getting high fives on both hands. Any minute now I would see that left turn onto the field and this would all be over.
Up ahead was a blue-and-white striped vest with a number 80 on the shoulder. I can’t pass him, I thought. He’s been ahead so much of the way, he should go in first. But he had slowed down so much, I would have to walk really slowly to stay behind him, and I wanted to be done. I pulled up next to him. ‘Come on!’ I said. He smiled at me. ‘What a nice girl,’ he said.
The Significant Other was standing at the bend at the bottom of the road. I waved with both arms, victorious! He waved back, as if waving to someone drowning out at sea. Firstborn Daughter was jumping up and down waving, The Kid smiled and held her enthusiasm in check. ‘That way, that way,’ they shouted, pointing the way. ‘Just keep going!’
How does one start running again at the end of a marathon? You spend kilometres dragging yourself, barely able to lift your feet, barely able to focus, calling for your sherpa to take some of the load, and then, in the last three kilometres, your head clears, your sense of humour returns and you can run again.
Universe, or whoever is in charge of this stuff, would it be too much to ask to bring the run back a little bit earlier? Like at 30 km, maybe, and keep it there?
As I ran in through the chute, I heard the announcer say that a very special runner was coming in. No, not me. The eighty-year-old fellow behind me. This was his 101st marathon. How amazing is that?
I finished. I turned up when it was gently, though sternly, suggested that I perhaps give this one a miss, that I not be foolish, that I not risk injuring myself. I didn’t crack sub-five. I didn’t qualify for ultra. But I did it. It was tough. Wow. What the hell?! I didn’t expect that! But I did it. I made it before cut-off. I was sitting on the lawn with my shoes off and my medal around my neck (I was wearing this damn medal – I earned every gram of whatever it’s made of!) by the time they announced three minutes to cut-off. I felt good.
I won’t be running the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon over the Easter Weekend. But that’s just fine. I feel excited about getting back into training. There are all sorts of interesting, beautiful runs to do. Trail runs, two-day stage trails, marathons, half marathons. I want to get back to gym, do strength training and spin classes. Maybe zumba. Maybe boxing. I want to start swimming, I want to run shorter distances to improve my speed.
There is so much to do and I can’t wait to get to it!