I think I might need an intervention: The Milkwood Run 21,1 km

I think I need an intervention. Things are getting out of hand around here.

So, on Saturday we had the Cape Town Carnival. The streets were blocked off, people were parading in sequins and colours and body paint, huge floats cruised down the streets, there was music, dancing, food, drink and all round general merriment. Did I go? Did I so much as take a peek at the goings on? No.

For the few days leading up to the Cape Town Carnival, I had thought of inviting some friends over on Saturday afternoon. They are the types to go to every event on the What’s On calendar, and I figured they would more than likely be in our orbit. Did I invite them? No.

Why?

Well, on Sunday was the Milkwood Run, of course. Duh! And I was running. Of course. I’ve become a run junkie. I’m withdrawing from people to support my habit. I’ve become a recluse, leaving the house only to go to gym or to go for a run. The only clothes I buy are from sports shops. This behaviour is worrying.

So, instead of eating, drinking, socializing and carnivalling on Saturday, I got up at five in the morning to be at UCT by six to help out with a bunch of runners who were doing their last long run before the Two Oceans Half Marathon and Ultra. I figured if I couldn’t be there, running either of the two races, I could at least support those who were. I dusted off my camera so that I could take some snaps and loaded the car with containers of jellybeans and wine gums, and sliced oranges and bananas. The coach provided water, Coke and cups, and a co-supporter and I set up shop at various spots along the route.

It was a bit ridiculous. Weekends are for sleeping in. If you’re not running, you sleep, no? The Significant Other just shook his head. I was making no sense. But it was fun. The entire Cape Town running community was slogging away up Southern Cross Drive – the signature hill of the Two Oceans route. Hundreds and hundreds of colourfully clad runners and walkers in all shapes and sizes and varying levels of fitness made their way past our table of goodies. Some total strangers thanked us most enthusiastically as they helped themselves to some water, sweeties, bananas and oranges. It wasn’t for them, but it was fine. We’re all runners, all in it together, and it was all part of the fun.

I left my co-supporter to wait for the last runner, who was way, way behind, while I headed to the top of Southern Cross Drive to take some snaps and offer water to those who had finished the climb. Then I moved to Kirstenbosch to set up the final refreshment station. As the last guys left for the finish, I texted to find out where the last runner was – she had just made it up Southern Cross Drive. She was going to finish at least an hour after everyone else had gone home.

The guys at the back, the ones who need it most, get the least attention and the least support. They’re the ones who stagger in, dizzy and dehydrated because everyone has packed up before they finally arrive at the finish. So I packed up the car and drove back to find her. I parked the car at Cecilia Forest parking lot and, in my jeans and old worn-out running shoes, got into step next to her. She was taking strain but she was still smiling, still determined, still positive and still running. But I have done this route before. I was also on my own, with the distance between me and the guys in front and the guys behind just too great for me to feel in any way supported and encouraged by them. I knew fatigue would set in, take hold of her mind, and she would slow down and slow down. The walk breaks would become longer and longer until they no longer counted as walk breaks. There would just be walking. The hills would seem steeper than they are. The sun would climb higher and they day would grow hotter with every step. And then she would end up feeling defeated by the distance. I have been there before. And Firstborn Daughter has been there. It’s not a lekker way to run and it messes with your head for ages afterwards.

I don’t know how much time I spent with her but she made it to the end, walking a bit, running a bit, walking more, running less … about four hours after she set off in the dark, on her own almost from the outset, she finished the 20 km stretch she had set out to do. Much of the last kay-and-a-half was spent bent over, hands on knees, saying ‘This isn’t fun anymore,’ and wanting to sit down for a bit.

But she got there. She did it. I don’t know how she felt the rest of the day. I hope she felt more proud than sore, and I hope she had a good nap. I hope she laces up on race day, gets out there, does the distance, and feels proud of her achievement instead of unhappy about her speed.

I know I had myself a great nap on Saturday afternoon. The Cape Town Carnival went ahead without any input from me. My friends may or may not have been there. I’ve not spoken to them in weeks. I’m too busy running or thinking about running or reading about running to talk to people, especially to people who won’t talk about running. (Intervention, anyone?)

On Saturday evening I prepared my Napolitana pasta – hold the onions – in preparation for Sunday’s run. I would have to be up at four in the morning. The Significant Other, Firstborn Daughter and Boyfriend of Firstborn Daughter thought I was mental. I would be the only one running.

But I didn’t feel mental. I felt excited. It was so weird. I was actually excited about a race. Butterflies in the stomach, excited. I was stressed about the early morning wake-up, but getting out to run the Milkwood half marathon had me feeling as if I had a birthday coming up.

On Sunday morning I got up in the dark, had some coffee and an energy drink, packed my bag and headed off on the 45-minute drive to the Soetwater Resort in Kommetjie. As I got into the car I was grinning from ear to ear. It was ridiculous! I was so excited! I’m sure I bounced about in my seat for a bit. After months of rotten runs, here I was, champing at the bit. Was I delirious?

Driving over Ou Kaapseweg, the city lights far below, singing along to the Beautiful South, the long, continuous line of red taillights ahead of me in the dark looked like the glowing embers of a mountain fire. So many other people had hauled themselves out from under the duvet, said no to sleep, no to the soft life of late breakfasts and lazy Sunday mornings. I was part of a covert group making our way over the mountain, away from the sleeping city, to go and run.

It was still dark when I arrived at the Soetwater Resort, hundreds of cars ahead of me and hundreds behind. I had thought this would be just a small race, with just a handful of people. Despite setting off early, I still had to park my car about 2 km from the start line. But the walk in the chilly air was a good warm-up and I arrived with plenty of time to enjoy standing at the start line in the rain. Yes. Rain. There is a drought. My garden hasn’t felt a drop of water from the sky in many weeks. But here, on this side of the mountain, at the start of a half marathon, it was raining.

The gun went off and the runners got going at quite a cracking pace. Runners jostled for position and some started talking to each other about their running – how their training was going, how they were feeling, what race they had run last. These are serious runners, I realized. These were the guys getting their last long run in before the Two Oceans. These fellows were probably ultra runners. They have months of training in their legs. This run is just a little taper run for them. Oh dear …

I looked at my watch. 6:17 it said. Too fast. It beeped at kay 3. 6:14. Too fast. Too fast. Pace yourself But I was having such fun! My legs did their own thing. We ran through some gentle ups and downs for the first 4 km and then started the first climb. Up it went. And up. And I was running. For a kilometre and a half it went up at a pretty mean angle. Then a quick few hundred metres’ respite and then up again. I looked ahead, trying to gauge if the road would angle back down around the next bend. It usually goes back downhill after a bend, I told myself. I’m not sure how I came up with this theory but it seemed iron clad. And completely wrong.

This hill goes to infinity and beyond, I told myself. But I was feeling so good and … dare I say it … really rather pleased with myself. I was passing people. People who looked stronger than me and fitter than me were slowing down. Many were walking. I figured even if I didn’t finish this race or even if I came in right at the back, I would have run the whole hill without walking or stopping, and that would be enough for me.

The Milkwood route is breathtaking. The long white beach and the rough sea stretch out below you. You can hear the roar of the waves … and the guy next to you clearing his left nostril onto the tar. The air is a delicious mixture of salty sea air and fynbos … and someone’s BO. The course is never boring. The road constantly falls and rises, rises and falls, and curves around the rocky cliffs. You never stare out at a long, flat stretch of intimidating road. The undulating course allows the various muscle groups to take turns to burn and cramp and fatigue.

I ran pretty much all of it. I took a short walk break at the 13 km water station, and ate my little block of orange-flavoured gel (I think I may have found my race fuel, at last). And then, at about 17,5 km, the uphill gradient got the better of me. I decided to walk to the crest. I’m sorry now that I did, of course, because I know I could have run it had I pushed. I don’t think I really pushed at any point during the race. After the crest, at about 18 km, the road does a long, glorious, wonderful, beautiful downhill sweep that takes you to 19 km. All the aches and pains disappear on a downhill and the end is just around the next corner … or the next one … okay, no, not that one, the next one. Somewhere around here.

I came in at 2:24:45. It had been the best run I had had in months. I got to the end of the race and said ‘Awesome run!’ I also said ‘I loved it!’

These words don’t generally spill from my mouth. Certainly not in reference to a race. In January I finished the Kloof Nek Classic in 2:47. In February, the Lion of Africa in 2:36. My races and training runs had been a battle. The Kloof Nek Classic was so tough that I felt lousy even on the downhills. I struggled so much that I even walked the last few hundred metres to the finish line.

Milkwood Finsih_low res

Runners wading in the water, cooling their legs, at the finish of the Milkwood Run 21,1 km. I sat here for a while, enjoying the view, feeling happy and oddly emotional about the morning’s run.

Milkwood tree and number_low res

My little indigenous tree in an eco cup. Instead of medals, the first 2 000 finishers were given little trees to plant. I was very excited about my little tree.

And here I was, having done another half marathon without the prodding of the Significant Other, and without the familiar presence of his Bromance, his Skelm, and my Firstborn daughter. And, to top it, having loved it and having run better than I had in what feels like forever.

All the spin classes, glutes abs and quads classes, and all the swallowing of chlorine in the pool are starting to pay off. I’m feeling stronger. My body and my lungs are carrying me further and more comfortably than before. My monkey mind is shutting up. Instead of thinking about how I really should walk for a bit, I’m thinking about Eddie Izzard, getting up day after day to run yet another marathon, no matter how tired and sore he is, and no matter how little sleep he had had the night before. And I’m thinking about the runner from Saturday, how she kept going until she finished.

So, yes, sure, I’m kind of slow. But I’m getting faster. I’m excited about my running and can’t wait to log my next training run, my next hill, my next race. I’m feeling great. I’m feeling so great that I’m starting to worry about how long it will last – because nothing lasts forever. That bad run will find me again. But then so will the next great run.

On the From Fat to Finish Line website, Jen Roe writes the following in her blog:

Now don’t get me wrong. I get it. I used to beat myself up because of time. But after much soul searching about it I realize that this is undermining. Why should I allow a[n] arbitrary measurement [to] shake the confidence I’ve worked so hard to earn be stolen! All of those years of changing my diet, getting off the couch and putting in hours of training; I’m not going to just let the fact that I’m a little slower chuck that in the garbage like none of it mattered. My efforts matter! Your efforts matter! Someone will always be faster and someone will always be slower. We back of the packers are blessed because we have the legs to move and the bodies that are getting us there.

I had a debate with a ‘fast’ runner once. He’s the kind of guy who obsesses about his time and obsesses about getting on the podium. He has his own struggles with speed. He couldn’t understand why I would even bother to enter a race that I couldn’t possibly win.

His words made me think and it occurred to me that I win every single time I run. I am not a born athlete. I would rather watch TV or lay on the couch than log hours of miles. Every time I put on my sneakers instead of slippers, I win. I have made countless friends from all over the world thanks to my running. I win. I have lost weight and my health is in excellent shape courtesy of running. I win. I have learned that I’m capable of achieving big dreams and doing great things thanks to running. I win. Every time I silence the negative voices in my head that try to tell me I’m a loser, I win. I win because the only person I have to compete with is the old me who would have never dared to do this running thing. I beat her every single day.

Please stop putting your running down because of speed. Please stop discounting your efforts, please stop feeling embarrassed or “second rate” because you don’t think you’re “fast enough.” Start celebrating, boasting, pumping your fists in the air in victory, you are doing it! We are winning from the back of the pack every single day and the only person who has to know that is YOU.

One of my all-time favorite running quotes comes from John Bingham, he says, “The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.” Keep moving, keep checking off the miles and keep going for finish lines. I’ll see you at the back of the pack.

She makes a good point. And whether I finished fast or slow, I still finished 21,1 km of up hills and down hills yesterday. I’m sure I’m feeling as good today as the guy who won.

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