At first it seemed like the weather would not cooperate. It had rained most of the night before and the cold drizzle persisted into the early morning. For a minute I feared we would start in pouring rain, a terrible way to begin a long run. But then at some point mother nature looked down upon the shivering runners, many of whom had come to lend their talent by running for a good cause, and relented. A few minutes before the run started, the rain stopped.
This is an accurate description of the start of two early morning Saturday runs that happened over 5000 kilometers apart, one on March 26 in Capetown and the other one on April 2nd in Karen, Nairobi. One was a good course, the other one was for a good cause.
First about the good cause: the Karen run was dedicated to supporting Kevin Mwachiro, one of our most dedicated and friendly Swaras. Kevin is waging the battle of his life against cancer and Swaras would not be Swaras if we did not stand by him in his time of need. In case you have not offered your support and would like to do so, please join #teamKevin on facebook @ https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=kevin%20mwachiro or Mpesa your donation to Lucy Thuo.
As for the Two Oceans Marathon, what is there to say that has not been said? The most beautiful, painful, fun, humbling, crazy, lunatic, long, marathon/weekend…take your pick. The 56K ultra was all these and more. More than 12 Swaras took part, a record I believe and they all acquitted themselves extremely well. The pre-run support was wonderful (thank you Tata), although none of our training plans seemed to go exactly according to plan. But we were all agreed, we would run the damn thing, come hell or high weather. Others like James (Wahome and Waliula) were less profane, if more philosophical.
“We are going to Capetown for a holiday. But if a 56K happens to stand in the way, then we’ll just have to run it.”
Such casual disrespect for distance, effort and pain can only come from Urban Swaras. It reminds me of the following ancient story told about the Spartans as they marched to fight the Persians at Thermopylae.
Along the way, the Spartans met a Merchant and asked him about the Persian army.
“The Persians are so fierce and their archers are so many that their arrows darken the sun,” they were told.
“All the better” quoth an old Spartan soldier. “The Spartans fight best under the shade.”
From what I am hearing, I expect there will be an even bigger group of Swaras attempting the Two Oceans Ultra next year. So maybe the best I can do is to contribute by sharing some tips from my experience this year. Here goes:
“You want to wear a what?” The nice lady at the Parliament Hotel, where I stayed, was trying but she could not hide her incredulity. “A garbage bag? Why?”
“Well, er, um, it’s a runners thing, you know. In case it rains….” I was not doing a very good job of explaining myself. For once I could see the craziness of what we do from a non runners eyes. We like to see ourselves in macho terms but I can assure you, the non running public often sees a bunch of pending citizens of a mental asylum instead. Especially when we try to explain some of the ‘crazy’ things we do; wearing garbage bags is not even the worst of them. How about: taping our nipples; waking up at 4.00 am in the rain to run; flying thousands of miles to a beautiful coastal town, not to lie on the beach but to suffer; applying Vaseline to the ‘you know what’….
Long story short. I didn’t get my garbage bag. The lady told me she had to consult the hotel management team, who were set to meet later that afternoon. I suspect they politely pretended to listen to her request and then flatly voted her down.
Lesson #1: Pack a garbage bag. Better still, carry a hoodie, or at least an old tshirt, something you can afford to throw away. Capetown weather can turn on a dime and the minutes before the run starts can get really miserable. Ask Timothy who showed up in a Swaras singlet.
The Congolese taxi driver had arrived fifteen minutes ahead of time, for which I was to be very grateful. When he heard I was going to run 56Km, he at first got very excited. Then I told him I was Kenyan and he gave me that look. You know, the one that seems to say ‘of course, what else would you expect from crazy Kenyans.” But then he was more polite when he verbalized the look.
“Oh, so are you going to win?”
“I am not that kind of Kenyan.” He looked disappointed.
The traffic to the start was terrible and soon we got stuck. Good that he came early otherwise it would have been a disaster. We whiled away the time by talking. At some point I found myself trying to explain to him why Kenyans are such good runners.
“We have the advantage of altitude,” I say. “We breathe less air where I come from. So when we come to sea level, like Capetown, we suddenly have more air.”
He still doesn’t get the logic. Then I hit on a bright idea:
“It is like a car, you see; a car with a turbo engine. When you want it to go faster, you turn on the turbo right? A Kenyan running at sea level is like turning on a turbo engine.”
“A turbo engine, oh yes” And then I sat there and watched his face suddenly light up in understanding. It made me feel like Socrates.
Lesson #2: Plan to leave early for the start so as to avoid the traffic. If you can find a hotel near the starting point the better. In any case you might have to jog to the start at some point. Think of it as a warm up. Next remember that when you run abroad, you carry more than the flag of our country. You carry the World’s expectations from our illustrious running past. To most of the people you meet, all Kenya’s can run and they will expect you to do no less, even if you are limping. Better yet, it will make their day if they can beat you. Just remember to take it all with good humor.
“Hello, is this room service? Can I have two cold beers delivered to my room please?” I was talking to the same lady of the hotel.
“What kind of beer would you like, Mr Ndungu?” She is very polite. “We have very many. In fact I suggest you can come down so that you can chose for yourself.”
“Sorry I am having trouble going down stairs. Just send me whatever you have.”
I got the beers. By then I had come to the conclusion that choosing a 5th floor room, one with a wonderful view of the Table mountains, and then having the lift break down the day after running an ultra marathon, may not have been such a brilliant idea after all. If you think running up hills during a marathon is tough, trying walking down stairs the day after.
Lesson #3: Running an ultra marathon will do strange things to your body. If you can, accept the chance for a massage offered at the finish line or arrange for one soon after. If you feel like sleeping for hours, do so. The day after the run you will barely be able to walk properly. Don’t pretend to be a hero about it. Everyone knows you are hurting. Even the Hotel Manager, who could not understand your request for a garbage bag the day before, is now full of sympathy. He even orders that the lift should be repaired during the night so that you don’t have to walk down the stairs the next morning.
My first trip to Capetown was in November 2015. I made friends with a friendly South African tour guide and spent two full days being shown the best tourist spots in the area. When he heard that I planned to run the Two Oceans Marathon some day he got very excited. Even offered to drive me along the entire route so that I could get an idea. The only problem was he drove the route in reverse and I left thinking that those hills they talk about were nothing. Imagine my shock on race day when I hit Chapmans hill and realized we were doing the ‘long-end-up’ first.
Lesson #4: Don’t take advice from a slightly overweight South African who admits he has never run any real distance in his life. In fact don’t take any advice, period. Instead do what Lillian did and study the videos of the route that the organizers had helpfully provided on their website, and which I ignored. Remember also that, while the famous Chapmans peak is long and tough, the real killer is Constantia Nek, much shorter but steeper and it shows up when you are long past the 42K mark. You must leave something in the tank.
The run ends on a small down hill. But, before that, there is an up hill, now named Chets Hill, in honor of a recently departed Two Oceans founder. On a normal Swaras running day, Chets hill is nothing. But on this day, coming as it does at 55K, you will probably remember every painful inch. Then you will hear the roar of the crowd, hidden just around the corner and the sound will lift you up. This is when you learn the true meaning of a second wind. You want to finish strong, or at least within the 7 hour cut off mark. Somehow, from somewhere, you will find that extra kick.
Lesson #5: Enjoy yourself. The crowds are simply fantastic, as are the thousands of friendly local runners who will happily share tips with you if you ask them. The bag collection process at the end is a bit of a pain, so if you can, travel light to the starting point and avoid the long pick up queue at the end altogether. Whatever you do, have fun!