Running Tales

Beauty Lies in the Eyes Of The One Who Runs The Two Oceans

Two Oceans 2016 img1Now that the dust is settled, the oceans are calm and wine is out of the system I can finally recount the rollercoaster events that made The Two Oceans Ultra Marathon a lasting memory.  There is nothing that I can say that that have not been said about this run. But at the risk of repeating it one too many times, the run indeed fits the tag the world most beautiful marathon. I will keep it simple. I ran the ultra and came home in 4.53 and really enjoyed the scenic route and will definitely go back. I would recommend the run to all Swaras and may it be up there in your bucket list. It’s worth every ounce of pain and every dime spent on it. That’s the official statement. I have read the accounts of all the other Swara participants and since they decided to be mainstream. I will take the opposite direction and go all tabloid.

Keep reading for a recount of all the events on the sidelines of the main event; the red carpet, the after party and anything ratchet that caught my attention. I landed in West Cape two days before race day, Visa issuing authority in tow, sometimes they insist on seeing firsthand what is done when we are on “tour” and to make sure that the “visa terms” are not violated. The training journey was done with words of one James Waliaula echoing in mind that, the joy is always not on the race day but rather during the training in build up to the main thing. For this reason, my two long runs, a 45km and 50km were done in hills and scenic tea plantations of Tigoni; throw in a full marathon in Kilimanjaro (at 3.38) and a 40km in the simmering heat of Osotua and I could be forgiven for feeling cocky in the run up to the 56km. Ajaa kept insinuating that I’m over-cooked for the challenge. If you thought running on a marked trail was a challenge, try running on your own, especially when your watch decides to behave like the Chairman (never trust him on distances; a 10km can easily translate to 17.673km). You have to carry your own water and bananas if need be. It’s a big task but I guess at the end of the day it’s a sacrifice worth it.

Two Oceans 2016 img3We visited the expo, which runs for 3 days in run-up to the race, and on show were all manner of running gear; it’s a one-stop shop for anything running. I pick my running kit on day one. Day two, it’s the International Friendship run (a run for all the international runners). A 5.6km run officially but turns out to be just shy of 7km and guess who are picking the Kenyan flag; Swaras of course. The acclimatization run is done and we are all ready for the big day.

Saturday 26 March is here with us and breakfast is at 3 am since we have to leave the hotel by 4.30am. By the time we get to the starting point, the heavens have opened up and torrential rains are coming down heavily. Yours truly is on a singlet and it’s a very cold day in hell. The pre-race antics are breath taking. The “shosholoza” and South African National anthem are belted out in a nerve-wrecking manner. The Ultra has a field of 11k runners and only 2k are internationals and that just tells you how people love running down under. 6.30am and the gun is off and off we go. I must say the meticulous organization of this run makes the like of Nairobi Stanchart resemble poorly organized village run-arounds. The cheering on this run is something I haven’t experienced before. From the school kids on the road, the Johnny Cash doing a one man show, singing country music from the balcony of his house, the all green trumphet band at the peak of Chapman’s Peak, the all orange squad (resembling the Holland football fans). It’s fanfare for all and sundry. I ran the first 20 something kms at a very comfortable pace of 4’40”s and things get thick as you start to ascend the Chapman’s peak in the mid 20s which take you to the 30th km.  The sub 5 hours group catches up with me at almost the peak of the hill and these guys sing as they run and you can’t help but join in. After the hill, it’s rolling down until 42kms. There are billboards all along the route; living my dream, running for more than yourself, one ocean down one to go, just to mention a few.

I get to the 42km mark just below 3.30 and that’s where this ultra starts, exactly after the marathon ends. The Constantia Nek Hill starts almost immediately, an unending 4km or so of hill. The public address guy is all over our ears, unrelenting in a song that goes “like 4 up and 10 downhill, you can roll down all the way to University of Cape Town (UCT)”.  Bad lie. There was nothing like 10 downhill. On that hill my pace of under 5mins per km for all 42kms fell to almost 8 min per km and a guy cheering on the sidelines catches me on my walk and shouts, “no walkers big man, keep running” at the peak of the hill is a guy calling the name of each runner and encouraging them. The PA system is blasting Justin Bieber’s “Sorry”, and clearly at this point it’s all you can feel for yourself. I start to roll down but it’s not all down hill as advertised. At around 50km, there is a granny on the sidelines with a big placard “run faster, I just farted”. With one km to go, yet another billboard “see you next year”. I glance at my watch its 12 mins to top 5 hours. I smile knowing that I will beat the sub 5-hour barrier. I come home at around 4.53 and the cheering at the finishing line, one can’t help but get a bit emotional. I stick at the finishing until they close at 7 hours and Swaras come streaming in one by one.

Two Oceans 2016 img2Evening after a run is always a time to enjoy and reward the body. I hook-up with one John Kuria and set forth to Join Jack Ndegwa at the waterfront. The heavens have decided to bless our work well done. This has to be one of the longest waits I have ever endured to get a beer. First at the Malls at the waterfront, we are told to wait for at least 40 mins before we are allocated seats. Not us. We can’t get out to the street bars since it’s raining heavily. We decide to hit town, first stop is Cubana; bad idea yet again. Jack cannot be allowed in. Reason? Not in the right attire, a track suit. We try to convince the “bouncers” we are these super humans who ran 56km earlier in the day but all he can ask is, what the hell is two oceans, who cares. They can never have any of it. Jack has to go and change. He never came back; I never would have either. Another hustle is to get allocated a table. You have to go and sweet talk some yello yellos at the entrance who ask for your number, they will send you the table number; too much trouble. Silver lining is that you can order at the counter and we all agree let’s have a one each at the counter and head out. As we leave, another Swara is joining us , one Lilian Onduko. She was over the moon; she made it under the 7 hrs (congrats Lilian). We relocate to Long Street and finally we can drink in peace. We leave just as it’s starting to happen on Long Street at around 1. Evening well spent after a very successful day on the road.

Sunday is spent on the City Tour bus, visiting the wineries (such a  boring affair to me, may be am still too young to appreciate wines), up the Table Mountain, and drive up and down Constantia Nek hill. Monday is another day spent on the Robben Island, and again I can’t wait to be done with the tour as it sounds like a literature class nothing much to talk about here.

Tuesday is a journey back home but before that, the most active day for the Visa Authority, it’s a day to go shopping and the pain (on the wallet) is more than running up Constantia Nek Peak. I had to feign tiredness and insist on us leaving otherwise the damage may have been too much to bear. Finally it’s time to say goodbye to the Mother City and head home.

Thanks to many who played a part in one way or another to enable us go to Cape Town and run and carry the Club’s flag up and high. Notably to Tata Nduku for setting up a WhatsApp group for the runners even though she was not participating. Be blessed. Mr. Chairman for always keeping in touch and always eager to find out how we are doing and faring. Hats off.

Thanks to the CRE for the many challenging runs set up to prepare us for such challenges.

Did I hear King James call for Comrades power? Well, thanks but no thanks James. All the best mate. May be in a year’s time.

As they say, beauty is in the eyes of the beer holder and I saw it in Mother City and I will definitely go back to run this one.

Running Tales

A Good Cause Deserves a Good Course: 2 Oceans, (again?)

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.

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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.

#TeamKevins run: Avani, Kevin, Susan and a shy Swara
#TeamKevins run: Avani, Kevin, Susan and a shy Swara

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:

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“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.

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Cruising up Chapman's peak
Cruising up Chapman’s peak

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.

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“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.

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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.

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Suffering past Constantia Nek
Suffering past Constantia Nek

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!

Running Tales

Debut Ultra Marathon

Two Oceans - waliaula on top of chapmans peak
On top of Chapman’s Peak

It’s a rare occasion for me to be speechless after an international running event but yes, the Two Oceans Marathon that went down last Saturday in the “Mother City” left me speechless! I have been privileged to participate in a good number of running events around the world and truth be told, I don’t think there is any sugarcoating in saying that Two Oceans Ultra Marathon is the world’s most beautiful marathon.

From the jaw-dropping beauty of the course, the world class event organization, near perfect weather condition, to the amazing support all through the 56km stretch, it took me time for it to finally sink in that I am still in Africa over the race weekend.

I got goose bumps standing at the start line at dawn and hearing locals sing their national anthem and the famous South African traditional solidarity song (Shosholoza) before the start. What a euphoric way to start a marathon and it is right there that the Mzansi magic hits you and one cannot help but admire the beauty that is the rainbow nation.

Two Oceans - Waliaula climbing chapmans peak
Leading a “bus” up Chapman’s Peak

Never before have I enjoyed running uphill like I did on the first major hill on the course; the famous Chapman’s Peak. Sandwiched between the alluring ocean beauty and the mountain precipice, I was literally dancing up the hill to the delight of a sub 4.20 “bus” running behind me.

Smooth strides up Constantia Nek
Smooth strides up Constantia Nek

Similar invincibility experience unfolded on the Constantia Nek, the last major hill coming after the full marathon mark. Here, on one of the steep stretches, I was all smiles when a burly and heavily bearded guy wearing only briefs and with good resemblance to Zach (the one of the hangover movie), literally refused runners to walk on his home turf and wildly cheered and escorted runners up the stretch. What a motivation!

Going down Hout Bay beach
Going down Hout Bay beach

The icing on the cake was me sprinting the last 6km of the race at a 4.1 min/km pace, taking on a challenge from a random stranger and finishing the race with some gas to spare in the tank with a time of 4.16.01, according to my Garmin watch. It’s always a thrill sprinting the home stretch of a long distance race.

OMTOM Bling
OMTOM Bling

Folks, everything just came together in this race for me. Besides uninterrupted training for the event, I was getting myself into uncharted territory this time round and there was no pressure on me but to finish the race in a decent time. My pace actually felt too conservative towards the end and I knew I will be back to race again this beautiful course on a higher gear even before I finished the race.

In terms of preparation, two long runs beyond the marathon distance got me more than ready for the assignment. One was a 48km run in Tigoni but I guess it was the Fluorspar run that once again did the magic for me. As guys headed to Kilimanjaro four weeks out to race day, I did my last long run in Kerio Valley running 53km up the escarpment solo, with the support of a hired motorbike guy carrying my supplies. Small wonder then that Chapman’s Peak and Constantia Nek had nothing on me but a breeze.

Some day she will run the world!
Some day she will run the world!

The only downside of an amazing weekend was that for some strange reason, my running chip stopped capturing my movement at the 50km mark and I was not able to get my official provisional finishing results after crossing the tape. However, after launching a formal query, the event organizers promised to sort the matter later on and update my results on their website.

This happened to be a record entry by Swara’s to the event with everyone finishing the race within the cut-off time of 7 hours. It promises to be even bigger next year with almost every Swara participant already looking forward for a return next year. As for me, the race for the Blue Number Club membership has just began but first things first…..Comrades Power!