Ethiopia calling

Probably the greatest long distance runner in history (not considering the history that Eliud Kipchoge is currently making) is Haile Gebrselassie. He won two Olympic gold medals over 10,000 metres and four 10000 metre World Championship titles. He won the Berlin Marathon four times in a row and the Dubai Marathon three times consecutively. In 2001 he was the World Half Marathon Champion.

Gorgeous to watch!

Haile is my age and hails from central Ethiopia. If you’ve ever watched him run, you’ll be aware that he’s always chatting to his opponents. He loves competition. When he was at the top of his game, there was little competition for him and so he would coach and encourage and possibly cajole his opponents in races. What an amazing thing to do! His sportsmanship always filled me with admiration and watching him race filled me with joy. And I wasn’t even a runner then. I was joyfully watching and admiring him from my couch! Around the tail end of his illustrious career, I was working for the government of Ethiopia on a project which was run from Johannesburg. I was young and stupid and starry-eyed and I don’t think I was very good at my job, but I was helping to develop young people and I was getting to broaden my horizons by meeting people of a cultural group I’d never known before. It was mind-broadening stuff.

Ethiopia at the time was dichotomous. The African Union headquarters had recently been established in Addis Ababa (it’s actually pronounced Abhebhah and so the English spelling is shit! Colonialists are often lazy linguists!)  As a result, loads of development was taking place and infrastructure was being upgraded. Haile himself had contributed to the building of highways and malls and other infrastructure, humbly giving back to the land of his birth. The poverty, however, was everywhere. In South Africa, poverty location was legislated for decades and so poverty is mostly localised to certain areas, largely invisible to the middle and upper classes. In Ethiopia, no such arrangement exists and the poverty and wealth intermingle, creating a stark and jarring contrast. And there’s a lot of poverty. Real poverty. People who think South Africa is a 3rd world country know nothing of 3rd world things or else there is a 5th world. Aside from the less obvious lessons that my love affair with Ethiopia taught me, there are two that have stayed with me since then and that I think of often.

1. Who am I?

Our company worked with an Ethiopian agent named Akalu. Akalu and I became friends. In Ethiopian culture, it is customary to call someone for example Mr Akalu or Mrs SlowCoach or Mr John or Mrs Mary. Akalu had recently become engaged to Lidet. So Mr Akalu was engaged to Mrs Lidet. This was interesting to me because at some point, according to prevailing Western culture at the time, Mrs Lidet would become Mrs Akalu in theory. But those are first names. How would it work? So I asked Akalu what people would call Mrs Lidet once she got married. He looked puzzled and said that people would call her Mrs Lidet. I laughed and said, that if I were to get married to him, I would go from being Miss Taylor to Mrs Mamo, explaining the Western norm. He contemplated that for a moment and by way of explaining, I said, “Where I come from, when a woman gets married, she usually changes her name.” He replied, “Why? Where you come from does a woman forget who she is when she gets married?” It was such a poignant commentary on “Western” “civilisation” and I’ve never forgotten it. Now I also look puzzled when women change their names when they get married and I always wonder if they’ve maybe forgotten who they are.

2. Two days’ bread

The project I worked on required that we employ mainly Ethiopian nationals living in South Africa. One of the positions was for a cultural advisor. It was a well-paid position and a specific amount was allocated to this role. We interviewed a number of people and Lidetu got the position. (Lidetu is the male form of Lidet and the name means the birth of Christ or Christmas. It’s quite a common name in Ethiopia.) Lidetu was a humble man, like most Ethiopians I’ve met. A good man, dedicated to education and to experiencing the world.  When it came time to negotiate salary with Lidetu, the amount I offered was more than he was willing to accept. This was a concept I’d never had to deal with before, but he was emphatic. “I cannot accept that much money, please.” “I’m sorry, Lidetu, but I have to pay you this much.” “That is too much.” “How much is too much?” I asked, tongue in cheek. And then Lidetu silenced me with words that I have been forced to consider regularly ever since. “My God says I should only have enough money for two days’ bread.” I’ll let you think about that for a moment. My God says I should only have enough money for two days’ bread. Imagine a world where that was a guiding principle. Just imagine! Lidetu and I came to an agreement. He took his two days’ bread as salary and the remainder I transferred to a Danish university, where he went and studied something in the humanities. I hope he is well. I hope he found love. I wish the world was full of Lidetus. I wish I was more like Lidetu. I wish two days’ bread was the way we lived. Do I live a two days’ bread life? How would I even start?

I have never fallen out of love with Ethiopia. In marathons, even when Eliud or Wilson Kipsang are racing, I secretly always root for the Ethiopians. Kenya dominates these days, but the humility and goodness of the Ethiopian people I’ve met and who’ve impacted my life always makes me wish that we could once again see a humble star like Haile rise again. I’ve never been back to Ethiopia since those days, but I still follow their news with keen interest. I would love to return again to see if it’s still the beautiful, humble, dichotomous place I fell in love with before I was this jaded, teenager-beaten, worn out Comrades runner I have become.

It’s calling me.

Yours in the pursuit of two days’ bread.

SlowCoach

Garmin 2020 – resilience, risk management, communication

Garmin is down! Their financial results are due for publication on Wednesday. I’m interested to understand their market share of the fitness watch market, because I have a lot of angry running friends. But I also have a lot of friends who are clearly not Garmin sports watch users. Those are the people whose Strava has been as busy as usual since Thursday. Us Garmin users appear to have been on the couch because, since Thursday, when Garmin allegedly became the victim of an alleged Ransomware attack, we have not been able to sync our watches with our various fitness apps, including Strava and Training Peaks.

The entire outage has fascinated me because, aside from a tweet and the standard “We are down for maintenance. Please try again later” message, they’ve been incredibly quiet. Whether it is a Ransomeware attack or not is just speculation in the media because Garmin has been conspicuous by their absence since Thursday. You see, managing outages like this is one of the roles of the job I perform at the bank and I have found the following things interesting

1. I work for a bank. We are governed by many laws about protecting data and obviously, people’s money. We really cannot afford to have people penetrating the bank electronically by for example a Ransomeware attack. What is a ransomware attack? Ransomware is a type of virus which hackers insert into your computer system which then encrypts all your data, rendering is unreadable or inaccessible. Oftentimes, the hackers will demand a ransom for the unencryption of the data, hence the name. The bank can be fined 10% of annual turnover for putting people’s private data at risk.

Garmin, although perhaps governed by data privacy laws, is not necessarily governed by such punitive laws and so maybe their focus is on innovation, more than on stemming a tide of relentless hacking attempts. Garmin also doesn’t look after people’s money and so has no real moral obligation to safeguard attacks on people’s bank accounts. What Garmin does have, however, is geographical movement data, not only of people, but of maritime vessels and, more ominously, of many airlines. Imagine the value of that on an espionage market!

The bank is also required, by many laws to make sure it is limiting and managing it’s risk. (It is also required by law to hold capital in return for the amount of risk it tolerates in it’s operations. Shareholders do not like the bank having to hold capital unnecessarily which incentivises the bank to limit its risk.) Imagine for a second, a hacker got into the bank’s systems undetected and took R1 out of every account. The hacker would stand to get millions of rands without anyone noticing. So security is tight in the bank’s systems. The bank even pays hackers to find any vulnerabilities in their ecosystem.

2. The job I do has an element of disaster management to it. So, in the event of oh, I don’t know, let’s say a pandemic, we can put measures in place to ensure we can still provide a reasonable service to our customers and also manage the risk related to the bank’s activities. Or, if a data centre in London where some of our systems might be located, were to be suddenly struck by lightning, we’d have to be able to bring all our systems back online within 4 hours. Another element of my job, and possibly the most important part is, in the event of an incident, getting technical people to 1. Get organized and 2. Communicate communicate communicate. I’m getting the feeling, Garmin, at this point in their history could seriously use a me.

The CEO of Garmin is an engineer. A software engineer. His whole life has been dedicated to software development and, under his stewardship at Garmin, they’ve seen some unbelievable innovation. I mean, who doesn’t find something new on their Garmin watch every now and again, proclaiming, “Oh wow! Check it out! My watch can also do xyz!” Garmin are all about the latest innovation. They do not think risk management first, innovation, close second. Banks have had to embrace this reality of late and have had to become more innovative, but their number one deliverable is always safety first. Garmin will now have to confront the same reality only they’ll now have to become safer whilst still delivering on their number one priority of innovation.

They have been down for 4 days so far. They haven’t told us anything that might allude to the magnitude of the problem, to the expected duration of this outage, thereby managing customers’ expectations. There is much speculation in the media, making people nervous. Are airlines in danger now? Are flights in danger of being cancelled or delayed as a result of this? If there is a delay, how long will it last? Will I get my fitness points from Vitality/Momentum/etc? When will my coach be able to update my programme? Does some international terrorist organisation now have the ability to track my movement? (Look, hypothetically speaking, one might be concerned about this!)

Garmin have not shown that they have the ability to restore their service within a reasonable time frame. They have not shown that they have any resilience built into their systems. They have not understood their customers well enough to know their communication needs. They do not appear to have enough safety nets built into their systems to minimize the blast radius of a malicious attack.

I cannot wait for their results presentation on Wednesday. I hope someone had it on a powerpoint presentation saved outside their network!! Imagine!! How do you suppose that results presentation will commence? “Good morning to you all on this magnificent 2020 summer morning. Let me start off by saying, ‘We need a SlowCoach!'”

Yours in the spirit of resilience!

SlowCoach

Garmin 2020 – resilience, risk management, communication

Garmin is down! Their financial results are due for publication on Wednesday. I’m interested to understand their market share of the fitness watch market, because I have a lot of angry running friends. But I also have a lot of friends who are clearly not Garmin sports watch users. Those are the people whose Strava has been as busy as usual since Thursday. Us Garmin users appear to have been on the couch because, since Thursday, when Garmin allegedly became the victim of an alleged Ransomware attack, we have not been able to sync our watches with our various fitness apps, including Strava and Training Peaks.

The entire outage has fascinated me because, aside from a tweet and the standard “We are down for maintenance. Please try again later” message, they’ve been incredibly quiet. Whether it is a Ransomeware attack or not is just speculation in the media because Garmin has been conspicuous by their absence since Thursday. You see, managing outages like this is one of the roles of the job I perform at the bank and I have found the following things interesting

1. I work for a bank. We are governed by many laws about protecting data and obviously, people’s money. We really cannot afford to have people penetrating the bank electronically by for example a Ransomeware attack. What is a ransomware attack? Ransomware is a type of virus which hackers insert into your computer system which then encrypts all your data, rendering is unreadable or inaccessible. Oftentimes, the hackers will demand a ransom for the unencryption of the data, hence the name. The bank can be fined 10% of annual turnover for putting people’s private data at risk.

Garmin, although perhaps governed by data privacy laws, is not necessarily governed by such punitive laws and so maybe their focus is on innovation, more than on stemming a tide of relentless hacking attempts. Garmin also doesn’t look after people’s money and so has no real moral obligation to safeguard attacks on people’s bank accounts. What Garmin does have, however, is geographical movement data, not only of people, but of maritime vessels and, more ominously, of many airlines. Imagine the value of that on an espionage market!

The bank is also required, by many laws to make sure it is limiting and managing it’s risk. (It is also required by law to hold capital in return for the amount of risk it tolerates in it’s operations. Shareholders do not like the bank having to hold capital unnecessarily which incentivises the bank to limit its risk.) Imagine for a second, a hacker got into the bank’s systems undetected and took R1 out of every account. The hacker would stand to get millions of rands without anyone noticing. So security is tight in the bank’s systems. The bank even pays hackers to find any vulnerabilities in their ecosystem.

2. The job I do has an element of disaster management to it. So, in the event of oh, I don’t know, let’s say a pandemic, we can put measures in place to ensure we can still provide a reasonable service to our customers and also manage the risk related to the bank’s activities. Or, if a data centre in London where some of our systems might be located, were to be suddenly struck by lightning, we’d have to be able to bring all our systems back online within 4 hours. Another element of my job, and possibly the most important part is, in the event of an incident, getting technical people to 1. Get organized and 2. Communicate communicate communicate. I’m getting the feeling, Garmin, at this point in their history could seriously use a me.

The CEO of Garmin is an engineer. A software engineer. His whole life has been dedicated to software development and, under his stewardship at Garmin, they’ve seen some unbelievable innovation. I mean, who doesn’t find something new on their Garmin watch every now and again, proclaiming, “Oh wow! Check it out! My watch can also do xyz!” Garmin are all about the latest innovation. They do not think risk management first, innovation, close second. Banks have had to embrace this reality of late and have had to become more innovative, but their number one deliverable is always safety first. Garmin will now have to confront the same reality only they’ll now have to become safer whilst still delivering on their number one priority of innovation.

They have been down for 4 days so far. They haven’t told us anything that might allude to the magnitude of the problem, to the expected duration of this outage, thereby managing customers’ expectations. There is much speculation in the media, making people nervous. Are airlines in danger now? Are flights in danger of being cancelled or delayed as a result of this? If there is a delay, how long will it last? Will I get my fitness points from Vitality/Momentum/etc? When will my coach be able to update my programme? Does some international terrorist organisation now have the ability to track my movement? (Look, hypothetically speaking, one might be concerned about this!)

Garmin have not shown that they have the ability to restore their service within a reasonable time frame. They have not shown that they have any resilience built into their systems. They have not understood their customers well enough to know their communication needs. They do not appear to have enough safety nets built into their systems to minimize the blast radius of a malicious attack.

I cannot wait for their results presentation on Wednesday. I hope someone had it on a powerpoint presentation saved outside their network!! Imagine!! How do you suppose that results presentation will commence? “Good morning to you all on this magnificent 2020 summer morning. Let me start off by saying, ‘We need a SlowCoach!'”

Yours in the spirit of resilience!

SlowCoach

COVID-19 Diaries Saying Goodbye

This is not a running blog. Today, we (many of us) bade farewell to EP’s dad, Dave Pierce and my dear friend, Kara. I felt COVID-19 brutally this past week. On Wednesday morning, EP woke up to a very early phone call. I could hear the call down the passage and it sounded like someone had died. EP’s gran, Hugga, is 98, so a quick statistical assumption on my part called out a concerned, “Is it Hugga?” She laughed which was a weird reaction in hindsight because the correct answer was, “No. My dad died.” It was a startling piece of news. EP’s father has suffered from Alzheimer’s for a decade and, in all the time I’ve known her, I’ve stood by helplessly wishing it could be different for her and him and her sisters. Seeing a person with Alzheimer’s is just awful. I assume seeing your own parent with Alzheimer’s must be horrendous and so unfair.  I think a weight lifted off her shoulders. The burden of watching her dad suffer and having to keep visiting and caring for the physical shell that was once a loving father was immediately lifted from her. In its place was the permission to grieve a loving father who had simply and slowly disappeared from her. At times I could see how his death overwhelmed my usually stoic partner and for once I wasn’t a bag of used tissues. I was able to just be there and just let her be. Be there to veg on the couch and, in place of actually running, check out by overanalyzing Garmin watch types. (My  God! She is never going decide on a watch!!)

At the same time that Dave was bidding farewell to the world, my dear friend, Kara, who I’ve known for about 20 years, gave up her fight and succumbed to a heart attack. What a shock! Kara had valiantly fought cancer for almost 3 years and on Tuesday, as her cancer finally turned a corner and she was given a clean bill of health, her heart gave up the fight. I am trying to find meaning in all of this, really I am.

Dave’s girls couldn’t arrange a funeral because of COVID-19 restrictions and their living all over the world. Kara’s daughter Demi had to do the almost cruel job of deciding who, of Kara’s friends, got invited to her memorial service of less than 50 people. You’ll be surprised how quickly 50 spaces fill up in a list of family and friends for someone as lovely as Kara. I was invited to the funeral. What an honour, in these times, to be counted among someone’s 50 closest people. (What a bizarre thing, to be invited to a funeral. I think I should make a list now of people who should and should not be invited to my funeral in 50 years time!) I don’t take that honour lightly and I’ve pledged that Kara’s daughter, Demi, will never have to walk alone on her path now that her best friend and Mother has gone from this Earth. Many of us there today did the same. Kara single-handedly raised Demi from a tiny baby to a beautiful, poised, unique and well-loved 21 year old. Everything she did, was either with Demi or for Demi. What an amazing person! We owe her for giving this world a lovely Demi. This contrived and unnaturally cruel situation into which COVID-19 has us thrust is amplifying our duties and obligations to one another.

COVID-19 restrictions are also forcing us to come up with creative ways to be “normal”. Today, on the day of Dave’s cremation, his daughters, around the world, set up little cenotaphs with his photo, candles, flowers and few of his favourite things and they shared this with one another remotely over WhatsApp. It was impromptu and beautiful and a loving way for the sisters to comfort one another as they said goodbye to their dad.

Dave Pierce, loving father to Janine, Nicola, Maryanne, EP and Jessica. May his soul rest in peace

Today was a very sad day. I feel very sad for EP. I feel very sad for her sisters. I feel very sad for Demi. I feel very sad for Kara’s mom and dad and sister. And I feel very sad for me. I’ve lost a lovely friend who was a shining example of motherhood.

Today, I have been a bucket of used tissues. And with every used tissue, I felt bad because fucking COVID-19!

Kara, dear friend to me. May her soul rest in peace.

Goodbye.

SlowCoach

COVID-19 Diaries

What a ride it’s been!

For a job, I come from a traditional Project Management background. I like to create order out of chaos generally. Once the order is created, I like to move on. This has often led to my leaving projects half way through and it has become, over the years, a little stick with which to beat myself. “Don’t give up on this, SlowCoach!” “Why can’t you just see something through to the end?” “You never finish anything!” Luckily I knew it was a problem and possibly a development area for myself. In 2014, I ran, and finished the Comrades Marathon – down run. In 2015, I ran and finished the Comrades Marathon – up run. For anyone who has ever attempted this or attempted a standard marathon, you’ll know what an amazing achievement that can be. How much more so for a person who doesn’t like to finish things? How much more so for a person who had already run the Comrades Marathon once, to do it again? The training in the 2nd year was tedious and mentally brutal. I remember a total meltdown tantrum I had with my coach in the month before the Up Run because it was so frustrating to me that I had to finish this thing. I just didn’t want to!!! My finishing the first Comrades ushered in a new me. I had a new perspective on things. Firstly, I could no longer tell myself “You never finish Anything!” because I had. I had finished something quite spectacular and extremely hard and at times extremely boring.

I suddenly considered the idea of working somewhere for longer than ‘sort out the chaos and get the hell out of there’. I met someone nice and the idea of being in a relationship longer than a weekend didn’t fill me with horror. I took on a project to bring order to some chaos. The person I worked for was the epitome of chaos. In fact, they were like a hurricane in a handbag. It was endlessly frustrating working with this chaotic person as I diligently tried to bring order to the chaos. I still don’t think I ever brought the order I sought to that project and over the years, my role in the company has morphed from Project Manager to being someone who deals with chaos every single day and I have to move on to the next fire without having much chance to finish fixing the chaos!! I recently got moved into a role that I’ve been doing for two years in addition to my fire-fighting role. This role will allow me to bring order to what is currently chaos. In this role, I get to head up “Always On” for my division. So naturally, when the alarm was sounded for a response to COVID-19, my name was called to allow our business to be Always On, even if we were told to go home.

And so the unending chaos began. In an attempt to control the chaos just a little, I started a spreadsheet on 5 March. It’s hard to believe that that is only one month ago. So much has happened in that short time. At least 6 months worth of work took place in just 21 days. It’s also hard to believe that for 21 days, I worked on a spreadsheet. I would come home every day and EP would ask, “How’s your spreadsheet?” It was crazy. After 47 years of life on Earth, the COVID-19 virus had reduced everything I’d learned in those 47 years to make me a very important data capturer. A data capturer and an incredulous look. I tell you, the things I saw and heard and had people ask for over this time was totally unreal.

“Can you give me a sign out form for my chair please? I’m going to work from home.” (After two weeks from working at home, I’m starting to understand why this wasn’t a totally ludicrous request)

“Can you meet me outside to give me my 3G card?” “Yes.” *runs down flights of stairs and outside to meet them* “Thanks. Can I also get a card for Mary?” “Do you think I walk around with SIM cards in a little locket around my neck?”

*Sends a link to Excel spreadsheet* Kindly update your details on the spreadsheet which you can reach by clicking on this link. *short while later receives link to same spreadsheet with a note, I have updated my details, please see attached link*

“We need 150 laptops.” “There are none in the country and COVID-19.” *three days later* “We received the first 100 laptops. The other 50 arrive tomorrow.”

“Here are 13 phones which I drove many kilometres to fetch and it’s night time now and I’ve driven here to meet you to deliver them to you.” “Well I don’t know how to get them to my team, so I’ll only take 3.” Ten minutes later: “Here are 15 phone which I drove many kilometres to fetch and it’s night time now and I’ve left someone else who didn’t want all of their phones, but here I am at your house to deliver your 15 to you.” “Thanks! I’m going to uber them all to my team right now!”

I spent from 5 March to 27 March, nursing my spreadsheet and rolling my eyes at ridiculously unbelievable things. An amazing army of 11 people descended upon the project room and just put up their hands for things they’d never done, interacting with people that they’d never met and learning things they probably never wanted to learn. It was like a war zone in the project room. And as you can imagine, sometimes I got overwhelmed by the magnitude of work that I had and I would skulk off to the toilet to have a little cry. I will never change that about myself. I cry when things get hard and I want to give up. I’ve realized that its one of the sweetest things about me and it complements my pathological swearing most fittingly. I also cried because sometimes you just need a hug and it just wasn’t going to happen in this COVID-19 scared world.  I’ll tell you that, given a real war, I would phone up those 11 people and let them know I’m on their squad.

Anyway, it took just 21 days for us to move an entire critical service – about 500 people – to work from home. The past two weeks, there have been some teething issues, but it’s been an amazing endeavor and we’ve secured a lot of business by being ahead of the competition.

And so now we’re all in lockdown and we’re for the most part, confined to our homes to help tame the spread of the virus. I sit at a table for up to 10 hours a day in online meeting after meeting after meeting. What used to be a stroll over to Junaid’s desk for a quick question, is now a few text messages or a quick Microsoft Teams meeting or call whilst seated at my table. What used to be a quick catch up over a coffee with Diane is now a quick sit at my table seeing Diane on Microsoft Teams. My running is now loop after loop after loop of a route in my garden. Each loop is 140m. I did 10km on Sunday. I nearly had a mental meltdown going around and around and around like that. I can never do that to myself again. My 10km had 252m of elevation gain. There were 72 loops. In my 72 loops, there were 280 steps. There were 72 water crossings. That’s like a brutal trail run. It was brutal and the strain, combined with my well-toned sitting body has led to my knees, quads and back going on strike.

Luckily, I can speak out to my team about this and together as a leadership team, we’ve implemented some new workplace policies. No meetings between 12 and 1 every day. Meetings have to be either 25 minutes or 55 minutes or 15 minutes. You may not use up the entire hour or half hour.  This will allow people to walk around between meetings/chats. You have to walk around between 12 and 1. No meetings on Friday after 12. It’s good that we have all agreed to this way of working so that we give ourselves permission to look after our bodies and our well-being. I’ve also implemented the policy that I have to see who I’m talking to because the dissonance was becoming like voices in my head. Most unnerving! I also wear a different head gear every day. Adds a bit of personality to the place.

Take care of yourselves during this time, people. More importantly, take care of others by observing the rules related to lockdown. Please stop fucking complaining about stupid shit like cigarettes and hairbrushes. Assume you have the virus and assume everyone outside your house has the virus and assume everyone you might meet outside your house is your mom or dad! This shitty time won’t last forever and when it is over, we’ll have learned a whole lot of new skills and hopefully we’ll have learned to be a lot kinder to ourselves, our bodies, our spirits, our families, our friends, our neighbours, our grocery store employees, our police officers and our fellow human beings.

Hang in there people. This is probably the weirdest time of our lives.

Yours in the love of a new world order!

SlowCoach

Only The Bravest Lions

It would have been my first DNF since I began running. I considered this as I sat on a rock in a clearing in the blazing heat. I was 3.78km into a 13km race and it had taken me almost an hour to get that far. The maths of what lay ahead was another thing I considered as I sat there on a rock in the blazing African sun. The temperature was in the upper 20s , if not already in the low 30s. I probably shouldn’t have been there. I had started a head cold the day before and it had kept me up all night, unable to breathe properly. My heart rate had sky rocketed into the 200s as we started and as I sat on my rock in the blazing sun, it didn’t bother to drop even a little bit. Luckily my ears were blocked and so my heart was audible as a rhythmic thump in my head the whole race. I considered the fact that I should not run with my heart unable to recover even a little bit. Over twenty people streamed past me as I sat on that rock in the blazing sun, considering giving up. People that I had worked hard to pass or to stay in front of the few kilometres before. They all whimpered and gasped the same as they came to this clearing where I was perched on my rock. I considered that now I was stuck behind them if they were fraidy cats down the hills, not that I was expecting much downhill from this point onwards.

One of my first memories when I started this whole Comrades Marathon nonsense was the day I met Paula. She and a group of other Illuminati came running up to us at track as they finished their warm up and joined the rest of us who were stretching. She was a tiny frame with loads of muscles and emblazoned on her t-shirt were the very large words DEATH BEFORE A DNF. I was instantly terrified of her! But I think about those words often. My youngest son has often asked me after a race, “Did you finish?” I wonder what his frame of reference is because I would expect someone to ask, “How did it go?” or “How did you do?” or “What was your time?”. But he always asks me, “Did you finish?”. My answer is always the same, “Did you get a call from a paramedic or a hospital? No? Then I finished!” And here I sat on my rock in the blazing African sun, contemplating death before a DNF.

Eliud Kipchoge once said, “I don’t know where the limits are, but I would like to go there!” I think I may have that in me. We really are unlimited. If a lion were chasing me, I would be a better runner but near death very seldom happens to me and so I don’t bother to take myself to the limits of my ability. I’m not sure what the deciding factor was that made me get off that rock and carry on with the race. I now knew I was near the back of the pack and surely, the sweeper wasn’t far behind me. My water in my pack was already starting to get warm and my heart was thumping musically in my ear. I guess I got up and started the trudge up to the Cable Car station at the top of the mountain to figure out at a deeply subconscious level where near death might take me.

Who was the lion in the story?

I didn’t tap out there and I didn’t tap out on several other opportunities to do so. Even at the cable car station, which 8 kilometres into the race was still not the highest point! I did, however, have enough “going there” by 9 kilometres and I started walking. Strolling really. My legs were sore, my 2 litres of water was finished and I was done for the day. I just walked the remaining 4 kilometres. Nice people finishing the 21km race came storming past me. Several others who I had passed earlier on came hobbling past me. I was done. I was dehydrated as evidence by the pork sausages hanging off the ends of my hands.

I was bleeding on my arms, legs and face from thorn trees and the strangest altercation with a tree. I was walking along a wide, empty path. The tree had a branch hanging in my view. I was looking up. I walked straight into the branch. I wasn’t even surprised because I could see that tree was going to land in my hair. It scratched my eyelid and I had a few bits of tree stuck in my hair when I got home.

After I washed off all the blood

Luckily, I’d had the presence of mind to close my eyes otherwise my son might have been getting that call after all!

I got this when I shielded my face from a bush

It took me over 4 hours to “run” 13.8km! In my defence, the winner of the ladies race, who also walked the last 4km, did the race in two and a half hours….and she’s come top ten in Soweto Marathon, so it’s not like she’s a pleb like me! As I finished, Nina of My Road Less Traveled (MRLT) asked me how it was. In my dehydrated state I told her, “This was the hardest race I’ve ever done. Your races always remind me that I’m alive!” MRLT races are very tough. I would not recommend them to first time trailers. In fact, her races are not trail races, they’re mountain races. You should read up about the difference. When she says 13km, be prepared for 14km or 15km and if you’ve only ever run on road, imagine that it’s the equivalent of 25km on the road. I’m not joking here. It will also be beneficial for you to have sufficient upper body strength to climb and clamber and pull yourself over stuff. (Still not joking here) Only the bravest will take on Nina’s races. They are so hard, but the sense of accomplishment you get from finishing them and from shouting down your demons is incomparable to any other feeling. If you were a first timer yesterday and you vowed to never again trail run or never again do a My Road Less Traveled race, know that I have done most of MRLT’s races and this was by far the hardest. By very far! MRLT’s races will test your limits. Find out where they are. Your limits, that is. If you are not interested in finding your limits, try other trail races. Some are actually runable!

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Sexy feet!

Yours in the going there…

SlowCoach

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I am not hairy, this is dirt from slipping and sliding down steep hills

Let The Rocks Define You – Namaqua Quest Day 3

It’s overdue, I know. Day 3 was a week ago, but after the race, with the prize-giving being way too long for my goldfish attention span, we hurried back to the hotel, showered, packed, checked out and started the next leg of our trip to Nearlynowheresville for our do nothing holiday. I’m only getting to reflect on Day 3 now.

Day 3 of Namaqua Quest was missing something. It missed a credible pre-race briefing. We found this out as EP and I, together with a group of very confused runners wandered up and down a hill trying to figure out where to go. We found it out when we passed one of the locals merrily collecting route markers off our route. I found it out when I ran tentatively down a hill for an entire kilometre without seeing a marker, constantly worried that I had gone wrong somewhere. I hate going down hills slowly. It’s such a waste of time and energy. Day 3 missed a credible race briefing. Which is in contrast to Day 1’s briefing, which was so verbose, a blind person could have run the route!

I love rugged, difficult, technical terrain when running trail runs. The less path, the better! So when I sign up for a trail run that is combined with a mountain bike race, I have to spend months mentally preparing myself for mundane, very runable (for normal people who can actually run) and quite unremarkable terrain. Day 3 delivered accordingly. We ran up a bit and then down a bit and then this gravel road opened up in front of us along a long stretch of rickety farm fencing. The people I’d been running with disappeared into the distance as my head injury dragged my bored body through frequent walks along this brown, mundane, eternal, dusty road. I was reminded that the road does not define me as a runner. It’s the rocks that define me! I like technical stuff. I like doing stuff that asks more of me. I have proven I can run. I ran the Comrades Marathon, so I can run. I want to prove something else. I’m not sure what I want to prove and I’m not sure to whom I’m trying to prove it, but I like rocks!

Where I grew up, in the Western suburbs of Johannesburg, the area where we lived was still developing and so our entire neighbourhood was a mix of half-built homes and majestic quartzite mountains. I spent large parts of my childhood running and walking and sitting and playing in the rocks around our home. I guess running through the rocks always takes me back to that time and I feel young and playful again. Maybe I’m not trying to prove anything. Maybe I just don’t want to be a grown up. Maybe the trail running gives me a little moment in life where I don’t have to be a grown up.

And here I was, just before the first water point – the flimsy pre-race briefing had not been clear about the number of water points we could expect – living as an adult on this very responsible and safe terrain in the desert, next to a rickety farm fence. It occurred to me that the race organisers could have made a very simple deviation off the road and through the flowers and desert shrubbery with very little effort or stretch of the imagination. They are probably responsible adults who don’t need to act like children on the weekends.

The water point was manned by the state veterinary services and they had a beautiful Staffie helping them. The water point was at about 6km into what we expected to be a 15km route. I had not drunk much of my hydration up until that point and didn’t need to fill up. I ran off, after giving the dog a cuddle and thanking the vets on duty for the valuable work they do, taking care of animals. And then my wish was granted! I got rocks! Lots of them! There were 3 discernible climbs on the route profile. We had started a rocky climb early in the race, followed by the responsible adult part of the route and now the massive 2nd climb was underfoot. I loved it. I passed a few people, but the markers were scarce and poorly placed. Added to this, the wind had blown some of the markers into the bushes they were on, making them invisible to the runners. I helped those behind me by untangling those markers as I passed them on my climb up this rocky hill. Then I came to a crossroads and there was not a marker to be seen anywhere. I’m actually quite a good marker spotter and I often sing a line from the song, Thrift Shop, when my spotting tags game is on point! (If you get it then you get it! I’m just a dork!) It’s so irritating when you’re in the front of a group or on your own and the tags are not clearly visible because you keep having to slow down or stop to search for a tag. I chose the downhill, hoping that I was now at the top of climb number two. I had last seen a tag about thirty metres back, so I could go forward down the hill a few more hundrd metres without a tag before I’d have to turn back to the last tag I saw. As I dropped down the hill, in the distance on the other side of the valley, I could see runners and so, either we were all on a very wrong road or they had seen something I had missed. Because I kept worrying that maybe we were all on a very wrong road and I was suddenly running low on water and God had dialled the temperature dial all the way to the right, I ran down this somewhat technical terrain with my handbrake on. Imagine how cross I was when, after a kilometre of handbrake running down what was ordinarily my favourite part of the race, the part where I get to be a kid, I finally spotted a tag. And it was so, at the bottom of the next climb, my sense of humour left the building and I started to trudge up the hill. It was flaming hot in the desert now and I didn’t know where or if we would get another water point. We were 8 kilometres in when Helen passed me and some other adult passed me. I was a petulant toddler whose toys had been taken away. I cursed the race organisers. I cursed myself and I became infatuated with the idea that I was going to run out of water and die of dehydration. Luckily for every up, there is a down and at the top of the 3rd climb, I threw myself most recklessly down shale-laden trail, jumping and sliding over and down the rocks. When I looked up, I seemed to have almost caught up to a lot of people and they were all wandering around, pointing and gesturing. I ran back to the last tag I could see and looked for another tag. When I pointed to it, we all semed to see it at the same time and we started to converge on it, only to discover that we had been here, running in the opposite direction earlier in the day near the start of the race. I would definitely have expected that to have been part of the race briefing. The fact that you go back along the same path you went on at the start. We were still unsure of whether we were correct or not when we spotted a man collecting the route tags. (Apparently, the locals take the tags as souveniers, not waiting until the race is over to do so!) A section of very technical rocks let me pass the adults, who then passed me as the rocks came to an end and we ran along a responsible path and a tar road.

Day 3 of Namaqua Quest was very beautiful. The Namakwa Desert is so gorgeous, I suspect even without the flowers. It’s so far from anything, but somewhere everyone should visit at least once. Day 3 showed off Namakwaland in all its complexity. The route was peppered with little trailer homes and run down houses where families, abandoned when the local mine closed, try to eke out an existence. There are shrub-filled plains and large volcanic, glaciated mountains. There is dust and dirt as well as tenacious little flowers. There are Quiver trees, which are a type of desert aloe and there is nothingness. It is a place for poetry and poets. I loved it there. The wind would drive me mental, but I loved it. Life is simpler there. Life is quieter there. Day 3 showed me that. I loved Namaqua Quest Day 3!

Yours, reliving childhood.

SlowCoach

To Sleep Perchance to Dream – Namaqua Quest Day 2

So if expectation did not meet reality on Thursday, today was much more so!Before I complain, I’d like to give a shout out to all Sanparks people. You do amazing work and you make our nation proud. Thank you to the rangers, the volunteers and the good people who run these beautiful parts of our country, making them accessible to us and visitors from across the world.Goegap Nature Reserve is spectacular. What I discovered today is the ocean that I spoke about yesterday was actually a glacier. The mountain face we climbed up today gave us the clues about the glacier and the striations on the rocks provided grip for our shoes as we climbed.

The glaciated volcanic mountains

The rocks are really impressive and the quiver trees peppering the almost barren landscape are a true delight. We saw some springbok….so close to Springbok. Although, talking to some people after the race, we may have imagined those! Quiver trees are really quite unusual. I was reminded of the Joshua Trees in the Mogave desert. It seems the most unusual trees grow from the barren desert.

Helen and I didn’t know how close the finish was at this halfway photo stop!

There was not much time to see anything else because the race, sold as a 10km, like this blog, ended too soon at 6.7km.

Yours in the barreness.

SlowCoach

They Grow Where They Are – Day 1 of Namaqua Quest

I was disappointed and little bit pissed off as I turned into the race village on Thursday. I had expected to drive up to the hotel with swathes of flowers on the left and right of the road. There had been a few little patches of flowers here and there and a few threadbare carpets, but nothing like the brochure! Mother Nature had not dished up the desert I had ordered.

There have been 3 sustained years of severe drought in Namakwa, an arid semi-desert region in the northern part of South Africa, close to the border with Namibia. Flowers don’t really like droughts and so there we were, in the desert, in the sun, in Spring. Where else could we want to be?

The 4 of us: EP, Luisa, Simon and I have been training reasonably consistently on really challenging terrain for the past 3 months for this race. We’ve been running up and down Westcliff Stairs. We’ve been running in Klipriviersberg nature reserve on tough technical routes. In our taper month we’ve been spending time in Cradle Moon and Delta Park, soaking up some elevation on more mundane trails. So we were ready for the flat, rocky, daisy-clad trails of Namakwaland. If Friday’s run was anything to go by, then we were ready for something that was not Namaqua Quest.

The massive lava mountains must have, at some point been covered by ocean and since emerging from the sea have spent eons being battered by a very angry wind. Fascinating rock formations on massive mountains and smaller, more palatable koppies as well as thick treacle-like beach sand on the lowlands are the result. We ran that!

The beauty of the Namakwaland daisies, I have found, lies not in their carpetness, but in their individual prettiness. I know that the whole appeal of the area appears to be their carpet-like appearance, but, as I ran along the treacle beach sand, I got to notice the individual beauty of each flower, growing exactly where it found itself. It really is quite peculiar how every flower grows wherever it is.

There’s no, this flower grows better in sand, while this grows better on the rocks. They just grow where they are. And they’re happy and beautiful where they are. It was a good reminder for me. Sometimes we’re driven to be somewhere else. Somewhere new, somewhere different. Somewhere that isn’t where we are. We hope that we will find the peace, the joy, the beauty we want for ourselves where we aren’t, rather than being the most magnificent version of ourselves where we are. In a world where you can be anything you want, be a Namakwa daisy.

The race started on a beach sand road, uphill. And as always, everyone fucked off into the distance while I was left, treading through the loose sand somewhere at the back. I wondered how much everyone else had trained to be buzzing off into the distance like that. So I took that as the sign that, in the absence of carpets of flowers, I’d enjoy the beauty of each individual flower I saw. And what a wonderful, joyful experience it turned out to be. I must have seen more than 200 different flowers. And not even several colours of the same flower, there are hundreds of different flowers. Some succulents, some bushes, some shrubs, some pretty little, flimsy stand alone flowers. All growing exactly where they are.

I can truly recommend getting off the beaten track when you come here and taking a walk through the beach sand, volcanic rock and hard-packed sand. Get to all the flowers.

Be warned that you may face some headwinds, growing where you are, but choose to be your most beautiful you, exactly where you are.

It’s in the trails that we find the meaning of life.

Yours exactly where I am.

SlowCoach

Hills and Views

You see the most beautiful views after the most challenging of mountains. I wonder if the view is so beautiful because you know the challenge you overcame to get to see it. If the challenge wasn’t as big as it was, would the view be so beautiful?