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Medal in the Bag

They say that by the Wednesday after the race, all the post Comrades talk starts to change from tales of pain and suffering to the plans and strategies for running the next one. I had said to myself that this would be my one and only shot at snatching a Comrades medal – a kind of ‘tick it off the bucket list’ type of attempt. I made the excuses that there are many other things that I would like to accomplish while I still have the legs and that the dedication and commitment needed to train for Comrades, takes up too much time. I was convinced that no matter what, I will never run it again. But after one week, the word – ‘never’ seemed a tad strong…

The whole Comrades experience burst into life for me while at the Expo on the Saturday morning. Wandering around, absorbing the atmosphere was surreal. The sheer volumes of people moving through the registration desks was both inspiring and frightening. I was there with some other comrades – my brother-in-law, Bertus (running his 2nd Comrades) and Willem (5th) and we were in great spirits the whole morning, managing to get registered and then wandering around all the stalls of people trying to sell you lotions, potions, beer and balance bands.


All under the guise of carb loading, we decided to have some of that nice Nottingham road brewery beer and, unfortunately, some dodgy falefels for breakfast and then plumbed for what could only be best described as a free leg shave that came with some muscle/ligament strapping – By the time we left the expo, I felt I was now ready. Motivated and inspired, 05:30 the next morning could not come quickly enough.

Three years ago I joked to my brother-in-law (middle) that anyone could run Comrades. Provided that they had a decent level of fitness, and that they monitor their fluids and electrolyte replenishment, they should be able to finish within the 12hour time limit. At 5:30am on Sunday, I was no longer so sure of that statement. There were masses and masses of people on the streets of Durban that morning and it made me realise that, just based on statistics, not everyone here will finish the race. I was now quite nervous that it might be me, making up the stats. Looking around at everyone on the street made me consider that, at the very least, each person here had one marathon behind them. Some of them would have had dozens of Comrades medals to their names as well.  I was now in the presence of not just a bunch of randoms that fancied a little trot around KZN on a Sunday, but amongst a group of hardcore runners, about to attempt an enormous challenge. Thinking about what I had done in the run up to Comrades, I started to feel that I might have been underprepared with only one marathon and a furthest run of 45km under my belt.

But there is no looking back at that stage. Once the epic ‘Chariots of Fire’ rang out to almost dead silence, it was then that I could sense everyone putting their final focus into the task at hand. Tightening laces, scoffing down last bits of energy and praying to their gods… When that gun cracked out over the crowd, I had no alternative but to feel that I had done everything that I could have, to prepare for that moment.

It is without a doubt that the hills with no names are the ones that you must look out for – starting with the whole journey out of Durban to Cowie’s. For me, the first half of the race seemed to be a relentless battle against gravity. Just when I thought I was starting to get the edge, I got walloped by a stretch of tarmac that I could not see the top of, only hordes of people disappearing over the edge. I had felt reasonably good up until Botha’s hill, but from there on, my legs were becoming tired and heavy. By the time we were finally over Inchanga, the physical battle was well and truly lost and the mental battle began. We had all been full of jokes, stories and laughs up until then. But after Inchanga, it seemed at times like we were running through a cemetery. My wife had even joked to Bertus and Willem that they were brave running with me because of my incessant yapping, but they both laughed knowing that this race would soon quieten me down!

Prior to the race I had read the statement ‘Do not let the body control the mind’. It had stuck in my mind the whole week and from about half way on in the race, it very soon started to sound like a broken record in my mind. When I reached the 45km mark – the point where I was now doing my furthest ever run – there were still 42kms to go and my legs were in pain! To say that my new landmark was met with a bit of disappointment would be a huge understatement!

At 50km in, I had realised that we had not seen our wives since ±18km. We had hoped to have seen them at Drummond, but they were not there and Willem then started to prepare our minds for the possibility of not seeing them until the end. When I realised that the end was still a long, long way away, this was a huge psychological  blow to me. For some unknown reason, the prospect of this was spirit crushing to me. Then I heard Willem say ‘There they are!” – no more than ten minutes after saying we may not see them again while trudging up Inchanga, the emotions were too much. It took me a little while to focus in on where they were in the crowd, but once I did, the boost I received from seeing my wife jumping up and down and giving me a huge hug is indescribable. After a big sweaty hug and her telling me that she was so proud, setting off again was easy. The previous 50kms were forgotten about, Inchanga was no more than an ever increasing, distant memory and it was now all about powering on to the finish.

After Polly’s (and the lies you are told from the people at the bottom about it being the last hill) we knew that we were homing in on a bronze medal. But for me, I was tired and it felt that the kms were not ticking down quickly enough for my liking. We had been overtaken by a large number of people, including a large 11 hour bus and as we reached the 2km remaining mark, I asked Willem what he had left in his legs. His response will live with me forever – instead of saying that he was shot to bits or exhausted, he returned with a sly – “Why, what are you thinking about?”. According to the split times, I estimate that we over took hundreds of people in those last 2km. We bounded into that stadium, so quickly in fact, that my wife never even had a chance to get a photo of us! We crossed the line in 10hrs 44mins with the last 2kms done in under 10 minutes!

It was a great privilege to run with Willem because he is an exceptional Comrade. For the whole slog, beginning to the end, he displayed the exact spirit that makes this race so famous. While I was often too focused on my own mission, Willem was handing out high fives to all the people supporting from the sides, always thankful to people shouting his name, giving him support and when he came across anyone that was struggling at the side, he did not hesitate to pull over, put his arm around them and offer support. One particular runner was struggling with about 14km to go and Willem’s words and actions of encouragement were just as inspiring for me – as I hope they were for the comrade who was battling. I still laugh now and will do for many years to come when I think about his Nigerian influence kicking in at about 8:30am. Having smelled all the food being cooked at the side of the road by spectators, Willem decided he was going to go and beg for some. He spied someone cooking some Wors and made a bee-line to their braai. After some haggling and begging, he caught up with us with a handful of freshly cooked sausage, only to be disappointed that it was the thin type and not very tasty! It appears that beggars are choosers!

Having not grown up in South Africa and not having any particular knowledge of the history of the Comrades, I had found it hard to think of it other than just another race. Even as I was scaling Inchanga or plodding along the Harrison flats, it was difficult to come to terms with this race as being something special, with a fantastic history and that I was going to be part of it. It  just would not enter my head. But I believe that it is because you cannot appreciate this race with your head alone. You can admire and respect it but you cannot truly love it until you have that medal in your hand. My love for Comrades was affirmed during those last 2kms. I knew at that point that I was there, I had done it. The roar of the crowd while bounding down the last mile took away any feelings or memories of pain, leaving me to soak up the fantastic atmosphere  and set this race truly in my heart. To go through this journey from sign up to finish with such a great friend made it all the more special.

It is definitely one of my greatest achievements and I could never have completed this without the support and encouragement of so many fantastic people – top amongst those being dear old wife! Without her support, I would never have even made it to the starting line.

Will I run it again? No doubt.


Brighton Marathon

Probably a cliche, but I will never forget this experience. My first Marathon. To qualify for Comrades, you must run a marathon in under 5 hours so I chose the Brighton marathon to be my qualifier. It was a bit of a gamble because of the logistics involved and the timescale in which to submit my qualifying details for Comrades – but I am elated that I chose Brighton.

Brighton is a great town. It never needs an excuse or a reason to have a party. Having over 900 pubs is testimony to this! So when an event like the Brighton Marathon comes to town – they are out in force!! I used to visit Brighton regularly when I was younger and I always enjoyed her charm. So when the opportunity to run what in fact is only the second Brighton Marathon, I jumped at it. I was fortunate enough to also be able to run for The Stroke Association and by the day of the race had raised ±1500 GBP for their cause.

The race started at 9am so by 8am I walked along from the hotel to the start of the race, soaking up all of the atmosphere. Hundreds of people were making the same journey along the streets, to the start. Some were dressed as pacman characters, tigers, fairies and there was even a Spongebob Squarepants! The inspirational music was being blared out from the park and just before the gun, Steve Cram was there to give some words of advice. I was in absolute awe of all of this.

Somehow I had managed to get to the front of all the runners. It only took me 8 seconds to cross the line at the start! As we waited for the gun, I was thinking of all the plans and race strategies that I had been working on for months and replayed all of the advice that everyone had given me, but in the end I made what almost could have been a catastrophic mistake by ignoring it all, right as the countdown began!

One week earlier, I had gone out for a little run while I was visiting my parents house. I clocked 20kms in 1hr 19 mins. I was absolutely flabbergasted that I was able to run that pace and feel so comfortable. The training in the heat and humidity of Lagos seems to have been a huge benefit. So pleased was I, that I thought, as the countdown began, … conditions are good… I feel positive… let’s  start off at a comfortable pace and see how that takes me to the half way point and make a decision then as to what to do with the flat second half.

BANG! Off we went and I settled into a pace of about 4mins 20sec / km. My heart rate was 76% and I felt fantastic. The route through the streets of Brighton and then out along the cliffs to the quaint village or Ovendean was stunning. I was absolutely blown away by the support of the crowds. I had never expected to see so many people cheering everyone on, making the whole event a wonderful spectacle. By the time we reached Ovendean at the 16/17 km mark, the spectators were in deck chairs, enjoying the sunshine and quaffiing ale!!

My family said they were going to be at the 25km mark, so it was a surprise to me when they screamed out my name as I blitzed past them at the halfway point. I was more in shock than anything else and for the remainder of the race I was constantly wishing I had stopped to give them a big, sweaty hug! And because I went past them earlier than expected, the only photo they could get of me was this :

Now you see me, now you don't!

Halfway… 1hr 33mins and Cruising… From here on in the race was flat or downhill. I thought to myself that because my HR was still 75-76% and that I felt full of energy, I would maintain the same pace. But then, for the first time in my life, I got cramp in my right calf at the 25km point. I was devastated. I tried stretching it out, but to no avail. I had to hobble along for the remaing 17km! Every time I felt that I had to stop though, the crowd gave me a boost to keep on going!

For this long 17km, I was thinking about the journey I had made to run this race and what I had put my family through just to be there. I also thought about all the people that had supported me with their advice, training tips and kind words of encouragement as well as all those, from all parts of the globe, who had sponsored me by pledging to The Stroke Association – and that also contributed to helping me through the pain. But most of all I thought about seeing my family at the finish line. When it hurt the most, I would think about seeing them and then just grit my teeth and power on. I am sure there is a formula to work out what percentage of the race is driven from your own ability, the crowd cheering, the support and sponsorship and finally that finish line feeling! Someone far smarter than me can probably work that out though.

After seeing the 3hr:20mins bus pass me with a few kms to go – I was suddenly inspired that i might even finish within 3hrs 30mins. I trudged along until I saw the big clock at the top of the finish line. As I was not wearing prescription glasses, I thought it said 3hr 29 – so I started to seriously rally to get in under 3.5hrs, only to realise, when I got closer and my eyes could see properly that it was 3:26 when I went under the arch.

The whole experience for me was truly wonderful and one that I will cherish forever. However, it served only as a taster for what is to come at Comrades.

Run for a cure

The Run for a cure race was run today in Lagos at the American school, which we participated in. An extremely well organized event, that was a lot of fun! Plenty of music and stalls with goodies! I was a late registerer, and received number 886 – so if that is indicative of how many people participated -then that is amazing!

Willem & I set off at 5am this morning to get some needed kms in before the race and by the time we arrived at the school we had clocked 18km. The thought was to pick up the tempo a bit, but not to actually RACE it!

As with all races lately, the race plan is decided at the very las minute and I set off at a much faster pace than I had anticipated. It was only 6.25km, but even after 18km, I managed to maintain my heart rate at 86%. Towards the end, there were only a few lightning quick Nigerians ahead of me and only 2 other ‘oyibos’. The idea was to not let them out of sight and catch them at the end. And that is exactly what happened!

Very pleased to have finished 6.25km in 25:08 and to have been the first Oyibo over the line!

Oshodi-Isolo Run

While training in Lagos, there are not many opportunities to run an organised race, so when the chance came around to run the second anniversary of the ‘Jogging with the Mayor’ Oshodi-Isolo race the other week, we bit the hand off!

The race is in the beating heart of the Lagos mainland, far away from the cosy expat areas of Victoria Island or Ikoyi. It was communicated to us, prior to the event,  that it would be a half marathon. Cool, we all thought. But then literally, moments before the race began, we were informed that the winners usually run it in under an hour. Erm … Then someone had the idea of asking how many kilometres are in a half marathon, and the answer we got was “about 12”. OK then…

Men's Winner & Runner up... & David.

So not only were we not completely sure of the distance we would be running, but we had no clue of the route, whether there would be any water or even what would happen if someone suffered from an injury. Not that any of us really cared. There were 500 men, women and children, all in jubilant spirits – raring to go! Such became our enthusiasm and excitement, all the care in the world (as well as the race plans) went out the window!

Authentic Battle Damage

Bhuki & John - Female winner, 15yrs of age!

John & his race partner!

Smoothies for all!

As with all races it started it with the usual hubbub of everyone jostling for places and position, as we tipped out onto the road. A wonderful vibe filled the streets as people shouted out and cheered us on as we all ran past. To our surprise, the lanes on the roads were cleared to allow us all to pass by in safety.

I had had preconceived ideas that this race would be wild, no control, directions or regard. Just go out and belt it through the streets. I was amazed and humbled that it was very well organized and received in fantastic spirits. It is really encouraging to see such enthusiasm. Water, supplied by Eva, was positioned at regular intervals being handed out by incredibly enthusiastic volunteers. Marshalls were stationed at every point where the potential to run off into the middle of the Lagos mainland presented itself.

As far as I understand it, the purpose of this race is to promote  health & exercise awareness as well as also providing an outlet for some of the children as an alternative to crime – which, obviously, is a fantastic cause. For the common Nigerian, life is not easy – and it is fair to say that the temptation to turn to petty crime can be great. So it is wonderful to see such desire and dedication by the Mayor and his team. His race is once a month, every month and costs nothing to enter.

To me the initial expectation was that it would be great to get in as many races as possible before Comrades, and this run presented one of those opportunities. But when you run 13km, sporting the latest quick dry clothing and top of the range running shoes, and beside you are are men, women and children running bare foot wearing their everyday clothes – suddenly the benefits of getting some speed work training becomes a very distant second.

As one friend of mine described to me after the race : He got a sense of perspective during the race when one of the runners kept crossing over onto his line. It eventually frustrated him to the point where he was just about to say something. Before he did however, he looked beside him and had noticed that the young boy, running alongside him doing his best to keep up, had no shoes on his feet and that he was simply trying to avoid treading on some nasty elements on the ground.

I could write pages about this race, detailing how fortunate we are, to have what we have, and how hard it is for the common man in Nigeria, but this blog is about running and the true fact is that man was designed to run, regardless of wealth or social standing. He was built to run long before Nike put air under our feet,  and VO2_max charts were plotted. What I saw, and I am no talent scout, is that through all of the hardship and challenges here, it is very evident that there is huge running talent in Nigeria.

Winner of the Men's race

I have not run hundreds of races, so I do not have a lot to compare this race against. But I think when the old knees pack in and I can no longer run, I will look back at this race as one of the greatest I ever had the fortune to be part of.

The Bush Shop

When preparing for an 89km run, I think it is fair to say there are few environments more challenging than the streets of Lagos. Although improving, most roads in Lagos are not built for traffic, let alone provide nice, smooth surfaces for us to run on. As one of the runners in our group put it this week – At times, it can be more like Adventure Racing! Another challenge when training, especially during the long runs, is hydration. To the untrained eye, water stops seem to be either non existent or very few and far between. But by putting our trust in the main ‘Oga’ – Willem, we have discovered that there are plenty little stalls, kiosks and shops in what can seem to be the most unlikeliest and craziest of places.  One of our favourites spots to stop and get some fluids is the place I like to call ‘The Bush Shop’.

I cannot put it any simpler than what the name suggests – it is simply a shop in a garden hedge. There are no walls and no roof. The shop floor is demarcated by what is, effectively, topiary. But this does not hinder the trade in almost all household goods you could possibly imagine. Candles, toilet paper, cigarettes, eggs, vegetables, soap powder – just to name a few. But most importantly from our perspective, the shop sells Guinness Malta & ice cold Coca Cola – in those funky, 500ml glass bottles. Drive or walk by with any kind of speed and you might miss this little gem, which would be a shame as these ‘side of the road’ kiosks are the heartbeat of Lagos. Every topic of discussion is mulled over and debated here around a drink or a meal. Anything from football to politics can be the topic of conversation.

Once you meander on in, you will nearly always find people enjoying their big, heavy, starch laden breakfasts of traditional Nigerian cuisine. Dishes such as pounded yam and fried catfish. Or you may just find people simply sitting around, enjoying the chit-chat and drinking litres of tea out of plastic mugs as big as wine barrels – nearly always with two or three teabag strings hanging out over the side. Nigerians, we find, are very social and animated people, so often when we walk in, it sounds like we have just missed out on the big joke or a story.

I love stopping here. Always at the helm, busy preparing a meal for her customers, you will find Mrs Adams – the proprietor of the shop. Not Gladys or Emily, but Mrs Adams. She is a typically proud Nigerian and wonderfully friendly. It often puzzles her why on earth we run as far as we do, but she is happy in the knowledge that we could not do our training without her shop. She tells us that she does an important job running the shop. Her customers that are enjoying their breakfasts are mostly the labourers working on repairing the roads, and that it is her shop and her cooking, she informs us, that gives the men the strength and power they need to do a good job. It is great to see that not only do we benefit by having better running surfaces when the roads are repaired, but that Mrs Adams also benefits from the increase in business while the work is being carried out.

We have become such regulars to the bush shop that we have sometimes turned up with no money and had to plead for her to help us with some water and coke :

“Please mamma, dash me some pure water and coke, abeg. Next tomorrow I don get cash, and bring for you”

Her customers almost fall of their chairs laughing at hearing these Oyibos trying to speak pidgin. We know we sound silly and that the joke is at our expense, but for those short little moments, although we might be worlds apart in terms of culture and experience, laughter is the common denominator that we can all share.

So to you Mrs Adams. When my Lagos friends and I cross that line in May and we look back and reflect on the journey it has been to get there, we will know that without the energy and smiles you and your establishment have provided us, our training would have been that little bit harder and not nearly as memorable.

Comrades Intro

With it being described as the ultimate human race, opting to run the Comrades ultra marathon this year has to be one of my more questionable decisions to date. Running 89km is a long and daunting prospect, which both excites and scares me at the same time. Should I cross the finish line on the 29th May 2011 however, it may just turn out to be one of the most important and rewarding decisions I have ever taken.

This will be my first attempt at running Comrades. I am a rookie runner and as of yet, I do not even have a marathon under my belt. I can run a bit though, 1:39 for my half marathon back in September indicates that there is something in the legs. Just needs to be stretched out a bit…

My brother-in-law ran Comrades for the first time last year and what possessed him to do it, I am only starting to understand now. I started running just as early as a year back and up until October last year, I had absolutely no desire to run Comrades. I genuinely thought that I will not put my body through the physical and mental extremities associated with running Comrades. I know plenty of runners that have not run Comrades and have little or no desire to do so in future, so I thought I could easily slot into this category.

Then I joined the running group here in Lagos, Nigeria. A fantastic array of people who have been inspirational not only in their commitment to the sport, but also in life in general. Being part of this group has opened my eyes here in Lagos and has given me the chance to see what this amazing city has to offer – if only you are willing to leave your preconceived ideas behind and get out there and look. Our runs are amazing! We duck through the insane traffic on the Lagos streets, dodging Okadas and minibuses; We  run through the markets and the villages on the banks of the lagoon; We jump into the unstable (and often leaky and sinking) hand carved canoes, waving to the children and fisherman while paddling across the water; and best of all, we love to power ourselves by feasting on the greatest croissants and pain aux chocolat from our favourite French bakery!

During one of our long runs, our run co-ordinator, coach, mentor, drill instructor – call him what you will – started telling us about some of the great races of the world and how the Americans can put on an excellent race. Now, he has a bit of experience in these matters as not only is he within the circles of the people who organize races such as the New York, Boston & Chicago marathons, but he knows the winners of these races as well! I was not surprised when he listed the American races, or even when he threw in the London marathon, but I was a bit shocked when he said that the greatest race in the world had to be the Comrades Ultra marathon, and how South Africa’s love for it makes it unrivaled anywhere else in the world.

His passion and emotion describing a race that is literally on my doorstep made me question my reasoning for not ever wanting to run Comrades. Maybe subliminally I thought that because I live in SA, I will always have the chance to do it in the future – it will always be there if I decide to change my mind. But if there is one certainty in life, it is that nothing is ever certain, so on the 7th of October, I was the 9573 entry into the 2011 Comrades Ultra Marathon.

I aim to blog how I, along with a small group of South African, British and American runners here in Lagos, Nigeria, will be preparing for this year’s Ultimate Human Race.

2011 – Year of the Marathon

First post of the year. After a cracking holiday by the sea with the family it is time to knuckle down and start training intensely for the Comrades Ultra Marathon at the end of May. Before I can run Comrades however, I need to run a qualifying marathon. Hopefully, this will be the Pretoria Marathon in February.

Ok – 2010 for me was a year that I can look back at and say it was a good year. Some of the key highlights were – The birth of our second child, Karleigh; Our trip to the UK in Easter; The World Cup in South Africa and the opportunity of meeting lots of great people in Lagos, Nigeria. In 2010, we have become very settled in Lagos and are enjoying it very much. Another positive is that at the start of 2010 I was 13kg heavier than what I was by the end of it!

Some people’s eyebrows might be raised a little by that statement that we are settled and enjoying Lagos – but it really is true. If you do not get hung up on small inconveniences, then Lagos can be a wonderful and welcoming place to live. My family and I have made great friends and found amazing places in Lagos. If you go there with the right attitude, you can really find yourself quite attached to 9ja! For example, as I am typing this, my kayak has arrived in Lagos and she shall be ready for her maiden voyage this next coming week.

I have been thinking a lot about the things I want to do or achieve in 2011. One of them obviously is to run comrades. That plan has already been put in motion. But others things that come to mind are :

  • Start or own my own business;
  • Start taking aerial photography;
  • Do some snorkeling;
  • Hiking in the Drakensberg;
  • Run a trail run;
  • Drink more wine;
  • Learn French.

A lot to fit in 365 days! All in all, we are positive about what 2011 has in store for us. Being in Lagos has been a great education in the art of being able to change and adapt at short notice. So our outlook for 2011 is exactly this:

Take every day as it comes. Every challenge or opportunity that comes our way, is designed to be there.