It’s Tuesday, three days after the Infantry School Cango Marathon, and I’m slowly emerging from yet another running-‘failure’-induced funk. I’m still chasing that elusive sub-five-hour marathon, still trying to qualify for and run the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon, still holding on to the dream of being one of the thousands of runners to take part in the Comrades Marathon – between eighty and ninety kilometres of arduous up and down, and the pinnacle of South African road running. You just are not a South African runner if you have not run either or both the Two Oceans and the Comrades. Just not. Done. (Okay, that’s not really true – not everyone wants to run an ultra. But I do.)
On Saturday I came close. But, again, no cigar.
Before we left on our road trip to Oudtshoorn to give this marathon a try, I decided that I needed to be focused on making a sub-five, but that I also, no matter what the outcome, had to enjoy the fact that I had run a marathon. Running is meant to be fun, not a chore. Constantly chasing a time goal sucks the joy out of the experience. I was mindful of being grateful for having had the good health and the opportunity to do the distance, and I was determined that I would be proud of the achievement, no matter what the finish time. And I would have fun. That was the point of it all: to have fun.
Forty-two kilometres on foot is a long, long way. To run it, at any age, at any weight or fitness level, is a big job. Turning up at the start line takes courage (and a certain level of crazy). Crossing the finish line is kind of a big deal. It is something to be celebrated. It may not seem like such a big deal when you compare yourself to the guys in front – those ones who fly the distance in the same amount of time (or less – no, actually, really, less!) as it takes me to run a half marathon. And it may not seem like much of anything if you cross the finish line after cut-off. But gutsing it out when your whole body begs you, screams at you, to stop, is a big damn deal.
So I knew that the sub-five-hour goal should not overshadow all the other really good things about having completed a marathon. Missing that sub-five, though, stings a little. And the sting is compounded by the fact that the Cango Marathon has a five-hour cut-off. So crossing the finish line after five hours, even a mere few seconds after five hours, means that you may as well be invisible. No one at the end acknowledges you. There’s no announcement. There’s no medal. There’s boggerol. So it’s a bit of a … pfffffff …! It’s a bit harsh, really. And, of course, those few seconds or minutes mean that you have not qualified to run Two Oceans or Comrades. So it’s all a bit of a bummer. Really. It is. From whichever angle you look at it.
The day started at three in the morning. Seriously. Three. In the morning. How ridiculous? We had to be at the Infantry School grounds in time to board a bus at four. The buses would ferry us to the Cango Caves entrance, where we would wait for the race to start. This meant that we had an hour and a half to sit around and contemplate the insanity of it all. But one great thing about this wait was that there was plenty time to use the clean bathroom facilities. Just for once we didn’t have to stand about in a long line of desperate runners, waiting to get into a smelly porta-loo, where there would more than likely not be any toilet paper. We should have taken some food along, though, because one gets pretty hungry during the three hours between waking and running, and watching other people tucking in to their bananas and other treats didn’t help.
The time seemed to pass quickly, though, and before I knew it, I was amongst the throng of runners making their way downhill towards the climb up the scenic Swartberg Pass. The weather was perfect! The prediction had been a low of 19 and high of about 29 °C. But then the weather changed and the day before saw the heavens open and the streets flooding. The day of the race was cool and overcast with just a slight breeze. It started getting quite warm towards the end, but really nothing as bad as we had run in before … think back to the Sneeuberg Traverse!
On the profile the first hill looks murderous. It’s a long uphill but it’s really not so bad. It’s kind of similar to our Victoria Road run – from Bantry Bay to Llandudno. It slows you down and taxes your legs but it’s not so bad that you have to get your head down and slog, and at no point did I feel I needed to walk, although I had planned to, in order to save my legs for the last stretch.
Just after the turnaround, where we started to run downhill to the 12 km mark, I latched onto the back of a group of Itheko runners, who had formed their own sub-five-hour bus. I was running comfortably and feeling good. At some point the Significant Other told me that I needed to speed up if I wanted to make cut-off. Then, when I started to speed up, he told me to slow down. So I slowed down. Then he ran away from me. Go figure. Anyway …
The markers count down, showing you the distance still to do, rather than the distance already run, and I quite liked that. I like that I had only 30 km to go, instead of having run only 12 km. The markers also incorporated the point two, so when there was 1 km to go, there wasn’t also another 0,2 km after that. Nice and clean.
Running at the back of the Itheko sub-five bus was the one highlight of my day. I can still hear the driver saying ‘Easy … eeaasy …!’ and telling his runners how well they were running and how awesome they were. The pace was as light as the mood and the banter, and if I could have made a video of these guys I’m sure I could have used it to convince hundreds of ‘I hate running’ and ‘you must be crazy’ types to lace up and get out there. These guys were the picture of the joy of running.
And then, just as things were looking really promising for me, the smell of spicy hot cross buns filled the air and the entire Itheko group dispersed … it was literally like a bubble being burst – my bubble, to be exact … as they all dashed to the side of the road to grab a spicy bun. I love spicy hot cross buns, and I salivated and gazed longingly at the heaped containers being held out by the enthusiastic support crew.
I thought I would just jog along slowly so that they could catch up with me. I didn’t want to stop and I didn’t want to walk. I was feeling good and I wanted to hold on to this feeling of easy running. But the plan failed. For some reason I stayed ahead of them for quite a while, and by the time they caught up with me, I had lost my legs and my will to live. I was briefly engulfed by the group, their chatter and laughter drowning out my pain, and then they passed me, widening the gap between my quickly fading self and them. I watched them as they passed me – chatting and bantering away, all fit and strong and well trained and well prepared and full of camaraderie and team spirit, and I felt a little bit envious. I remained hopeful as I held them in sight for a while, thinking, it’s okay, it’s okay, just keep them in sight, and then they were, poof, gone. Just like that. Along with my sub-five.
Now, I must point out that I have a deep-seated superstition that if I pass an Itheko runner, even a limping and struggling back marker, sweating and panting and weeping, my run will go south. Deep south. My superstition has now turned into a religion. I will never again pass an Itheko runner. Not even a runner reaching for a spicy bun. So, Itheko, when you’re out there on the road, and you’re asking each other ‘Who is this stupid woman sitting on our heels and why won’t she leave?’ It’s me. And I’ve just told you why!
I reached halfway in about 2:25, which was pretty much spot-on according to my plan: any faster, and I wouldn’t have the stamina to finish; any slower and I was putting too much pressure on myself. And I ran my fastest 30 km during the marathon, at 3:29, and so it was all going pretty well up to that point. And then it all started going a little bit pear-shaped. I knew from the start that I didn’t have enough long runs under the belt and that my endurance might flag near the end. But I kept positive and kept talking myself through. I just needed to get to the 10 km to go mark and then I would be in single digits. And then, if I could get to the 8 km to go mark, I would have only three kays to go before there were only five left before I crossed the finish line. But I also knew that only an hour and a half to do the last twelve kays was cutting it too fine. I kind of knew then that it was all slipping away from me.
‘Do the work,’ I told myself as I willed myself forward. ‘Do the work now so you’re not sorry this evening. Today’s the day. This is your day. This is the day you get your sub-five. This year you’re running Oceans and Comrades. Do the work! Do the work!”
And then my legs or my mind or both would call a halt and I would walk a few paces. ‘Just to that gate,’ I would tell myself. ‘Then you run again.’ I would reach the gate and pick up the pace, only to flag again. The same runners would stay just ahead of me, while others would pass me and walk, before I would pass them and walk … all of us doing the survival shuffle, desperate to make cut-off.
Time slipped away from me. Soon I had only about an hour in which to run 10 km. That’s what I run on a good day, on fresh legs, not after having run 32 km. ‘Do the work,’ I would scream at my self (in my mind, of course). ‘Do the work! Don’t be sorry tonight!’
Little kids lined the roadside, chanting encouragement and giving high fives.
‘Hou, bene, hou! Hou bene hou!’ they chanted as they hopped up and down and ran alongside the runners. A bunch of them ran with me for a while, which was sweet and fun until it was no longer sweet and fun and I wanted them to go away. They were crowding me, and their not-so-subtle glances at my waist belt suggested that their reasons for running with me were less magnanimous and more about what treats I might be carrying, and might be prepared to share with them in exchange for their support and motivation. But they were keen to stay. For skinny little kids their endurance was remarkable. So I stopped and snapped a selfie with them, showed them the pic and hoped that would encourage them to go away. I wasn’t sharing any treats with them. All I had was one GU Race sweet, and it had to see me through the last 5 km.
The last 12 km are made worse by the fact that the road flattens out and become monotonous and then, at about 40 km, it rises steeply … I mean … seriously?! What the hell? Who decided to throw a hill in at 40 km?!
At some point, when I realised that it had all slipped away from me, I developed an acute case of Tourette Syndrome. A bad, bad, acute case. ‘Fuck!’ I said to myself. ‘Fuck. Fuckit. Fuck.Fuck!’ And, no, I wasn’t nearly as cute as Hugh Grant banging his head against the church wall going ‘Fuckity-fuck!’.
At 2 km to go I hauled out my cellphone and sent a voice message to my family.
‘Not going to make it,’ I said. ‘I have two kays to go, eight minutes left. That’s four minutes a kay.’
It was never going to happen. I have never run a four-minute kilometre and I certainly didn’t have the legs to run two of them at the end of the Cango Marathon.
Nope. It was done. It was over. No Two Oceans for me this year. No Comrades.
People called encouragement. Runners who had long ago finished their race and were walking to their cars called to me to keep running, don’t walk, almost there, just a little bit to go, well done …!
I heard noise coming from the stadium. There was a loud roar and a countdown, followed by a gunshot. That was it. Cut-off.
Cut-off happened while I was outside the stadium, on a hot, dusty road, its white sand reflecting the sun into my eyes. I just needed to finish. I could be sad later on. But now I just needed to run into the stadium, around the field and across the finish line.
Some kind people clapped and cheered me on. ‘Well done, ATC,’ they called. ‘Keep going,’ they said.
And then I crossed the finish line. Nine minutes and 24 seconds after cut-off.
An infantryman kneeled at my feet and started undoing my one shoelace. ‘It’s fine,’ I said. ‘It’s fine. You don’t have to do that. I’ll do that,’ I said to the white T-shirt covering his broad shoulders. But he ignored me and mutely busied himself with my laces. He retrieved the timing chip, tucked my laces into my shoe and moved off, never looking up at me or speaking a word to me. He must have been pretty done with retrieving timing chips by then. People sitting at the tressle tables with their clipboards and pens and other race organisers’ paraphernalia didn’t even look up. Those who looked in my direction stared straight through me. They had seen the winners. They didn’t need to be bothered with the losers.
It was a spectacularly inauspicious end to a marathon.
But it was an end to a marathon. It had been a great marathon – the weather, the route, the views, the people, the volunteers, everything had been good. And I hadn’t run a terrible time. If it hadn’t been for the cut-off and that I wanted to qualify for Oceans and Comrades, I would be smiling from ear to ear, especially if I consider that most of my training had been squeezed into the last eight or ten weeks. But now I felt like crying. Someone handed me a bottle of water and I made my way to the wooden benches of the stadium to sit down. From there I could let everyone know where I was and how I did, and from there I could locate The Significant Other.
In my post-race funk I briefly considered the unfairness of having to make the same time as someone much younger. The Boston qualifying times vary according to your gender and age group – not that I have a hope in hell of ever making a BQ, no matter how they skew the numbers to my advantage – and it would be nice if the qualifying time for people over 50 was slightly more lenient than the time set for the youngsters. But those are the rules and it was time to suck up and get back to the drawing board.
Well … I would suck-up and get back to the drawing board after a day or two of obligatory mourning.
I located the Significant Other where he was lying on the grass, shoes off, and pretty satisfied with how his day had played out. He had made cut-off and had earned his medal. He was less than enthusiastic when I presented him with this road trip to a marathon idea, but it had all worked out well. He couldn’t fault my plan. I think he’s still sending out texts to his running mates, telling him about this hidden gem of a marathon he had discovered.
After a bit of lying about on the damp grass, I was keen to get back to the guest house. Watching people get prizes would just be rubbing my nose in it. I was happy for them but there were enough people around to applaud their success. I wanted a shower and tea and a nap.
I got into the car and slumped down in the passenger seat, my tired legs up on the dashboard and my teary eyes barely level with the window’s edge. A gloomy cloud hung over my head and cast a shadow over everything around.
‘Don’t be miserable,’ my good angel runner said. ‘You did fine.’
‘You messed up,’ my devil runner said. ‘This isn’t the story you wanted to tell.’
‘Shut up,’ I said.
I had run a 5:09:24 and, while I had had a great run and was grateful for the experience of having run yet another marathon, I was pretty damn disappointed. I couldn’t pretend otherwise. The Cango Marathon was my Last Chance Saloon. There would not be another opportunity in time for this year’s Oceans and Comrades. I had blown my chance.
Then, as I looked to my left, I saw a sight that still brings a lump to my throat and makes the world a bit blurry: a huge group of happy, smiling Spartan Harriers running towards the stadium. Running in front, flanked on either side by women, which is kind of how he likes it, I think, and sporting the biggest smile of all, was the instantly recognizable, unmissable, always chirpy, always happy, Boet van Zyl – a 74-year-old runner who turns up at every race. The Sparties, who had all finished their runs, had laced up again and had gone back out into the battlefield to bring their last soldier home.
And this is why I love marathons, no matter what my finish time is: the people. The best people run marathons (and ultras, I’m sure – but I won’t know for absolutely sure until I qualify for one!). Distance runners are in the race for the long haul. We all feel the pain, but we are still able to set our own pain aside and support a fellow sufferer.
Thank you, my Significant Other, Itheko and Sparties, and all the infantrymen and volunteers – I’ll be back. And this time I’m leaving with a medal.
Life shrinks and expands in proportion to one’s courage. Anaïs Nin