A Box Full of Knives

I got what I deserved this weekend. 4.16 is my personal best time for a marathon. I like to think that’s a pretty decent time for a marathon. Of course, when you’re friends with women who run marathons in 2.47 or thereabouts, you just always feel like a loser! “You’re not supposed to be comparing yourself to Comrades gold medallists,” snapped EP. Anyway, personal best 4.16. So when I crossed over the finish line at Kaapsehoop Marathon on Saturday in 4.58, one would think I’d be a bit disappointed. But I did a little air punch, smiled, bowed my head in gratitude and, of course, started crying.

When EP entered me into the Kaapsehoop Marathon on 3 June this year, we knew I needed a totally unachievable goal to get me off my couch and back out onto the road to recovery. The majority of my injury was over. I was still experiencing pain going up and down stairs, but I could run when the moment inspired me. I had put on almost 10kgs and I was breathlessly unfit. Getting onto the road was demoralizing and frustrating. But now I had something ridiculous that I had to train for and it had an end date to it. Amazing how student syndrome can be inspiring. How was I going to go from barely managing a 35 minute 5km time trail to a marathon in just 5 months? You just have to start somewhere. So I started. In a poetic twist, I started the day before Comrades in Durban. I was going to run Umhlanga Parkrun and maybe a little short warm up beforehand. I told EP and Lehlohonolo I’d do the warm up with them on their easy run. I won’t do that again. The little warm up was over 9km, run at pancreatic-failure speed. I wanted my 300 Parkrun points so I went from 5km time trial to PB 15km as a start to my marathon training. I really do try to be normal most of the time. It doesn’t come easily to me.

I had started my road to Kaapsehoop and it wasn’t as bad as one might have imagined. My broken knee and foot were a little sore after that run, but I rested it until I got back from helping at Comrades and started again….A little more circumspect this time. For the most part, I did my running return on my own except for a few lovely runs hanging on by my fingernails to EP and meeting some beautiful, almost long lost friends along the way. It was good to come back, slowly but surely.

EP fell early in August and tore ankle ligaments which had me having to get myself out of my bed and onto the road while EP snoozed away. It was tough on some of the colder days, but as Kaapsehoop’s date drew nearer, it became easier to haul my ass around the various neighbourhoods on runs.

Illuminati Michelle has turned coach and set up coaching sessions at RAC on Mondays and Randburg Harriers on Wednesdays. (You can join us on either evening from 5.30pm) I joined her for track when my foot was ready and started slowly. Work was crazy, so I only really got to track once every second week and both weekend long runs. I was getting stronger from the focussed programme my new bio had given me and things were looking positive for Kaapsehoop. I foam rolled. Every. Single. Day. I became very disciplined and focussed as October rolled around and I started planning for my date with my nemesis.

On the day, I was really terrified. I felt under-prepared. I had a plan which would see me finish in just under 5 hours, but really I would have been happy to get to the stadium in under 5.30 or even just get to the stadium. But I knew the treachery that was about to unfold on my still fragile legs. As I emerged from the forest near Kaapsehoop, just 9km into the marathon, I had my first cry and it was a cry of fear. I saw the downhill roll itself out like a red carpet in front of me and I couldn’t imagine how I was going to manage this. And then this calm enveloped me. A little voice said, you have nothing to prove. You have nothing to qualify for. You have nothing but yourself and your best and that’s what you will be today. You won’t be this race’s best. You won’t be your friends circle’s best. You won’t be any best except your best and you won’t even be your best ever best. You will be your best today. And that’s exactly what I did. I ran the race I planned. I forgave myself when I was behind and high fived myself when I was ahead. I was being the best me I could be on that day and I had a really wonderful run.

You know, running is like a gift of a box of knives. It’s a gift, but it has really sharp and painful edges to it. It teaches lessons that are usually quite unwelcome when the teacher arrives, but the lessons are gifts in every sense of the word. I received a huge gift from my favourite little knife this week. Thank you Kaapsehoop for the sharp stabbing pains in my calf today, but thank you for reminding me how to be my best, not by forcing myself forward, but rather just by being myself.

I ran most of the race in my own little bubble. I ran a few kilometres chatting to a lady who runs marathons for fun and I spent a poignant few minutes with Ingrid who I know is an amazing trail runner and was struggling at the end of her first road marathon. I was so inspired by her finish on Saturday. Truly inspired. I was also inspired by my own race. I managed a sub-5, just as I had planned….to the minute! I am less broken now than in previous post Kaapsemoer years.

Buddha says that when the student is ready, the master teacher will arrive. We sometimes like that master teacher. We more often dislike that teacher intensely. I now know why I’ve kept going back to my little box of knives in Nelspruit. Make no mistake, this marathon is almost beyond compare in it’s beauty. It is also almost beyond compare in it’s physical brutality and it’s mental torture in the last 8km. I have loved and hated this marathon and now I know why. I am the student and I was not ready.

Thank You for my box of knives. Thank you, Kaapsehoop Marathon, my favourite knife in the box.

Yours in the love of the gift that is running


P.S. On our annual detour home from Kaapsehoop this year we met this amazing family who I know are just another little gift I get from running. Nice to meet you, Buxy and Mohammed!

Caved In

You know I live in the most beautiful country in the world. I’m a real city slicker, I confess. I can’t help it. I hate the smell of farms. Cows chase me. I’m afraid of horses. Peace and quiet unnerves me. I was built for the city. Admittedly, getting away for a couple of days to farmy places is good for the soul, I’m sure, but just for a few days. I can’t handle much more than that.

Deciding earlier this year that I didn’t want back on the Comrades conveyor belt of Joburg and Pretoria races, I discussed alternative races that I’d never run before with Illuminati Michelle. She recommended the Cango Caves marathon. Apparently a fast downhill route. Runners are liars and remember that Kaapsemoer was downhill and, I’m yet to believe, fast but it leaves runners broken. I really want to run a sub-4 marathon. Big ask, considering my personal best marathon time, run in March last year at the Kosmos 3-in-1, is a paltry 4:24. What am I talking about? 4:24 is a very good time for a marathon, I just wanted a sub-4. I tell you, if I run a sub-4 marathon, I can give up running because I’ll know then that it can’t get better than that. Crumbs! Every step is a miracle, never mind a sub-4 marathon. *cue tinging bells and angel light shining down from heaven* A fast route was just what I would need to try for my sub-4. As long as I don’t screw things up in training and go out too far too fast too much, then I should stay relatively injury free and be in good shape to run a sub-4. That’s what I thought, anyway. Michelle and I decided that Cango Caves marathon was exactly what we were going to do. She would go for her sub-3 and I would go for a sub-4.

What is Cango Caves? Cango Caves is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. And I’ve seen Michelangelo’s Pieta! And you should see my sons! Really. Cango Cave is the most beautiful anything. It’s a network of caves consisting of stalagmites and stalactites and what was that other thing we saw…..um…flowstones, that’s right. Flowstones. The caves are an extensive system of tunnels and chambers over 4km long in the Swartberg Mountains. More about them later. What is the marathon? It’s a relatively undulating, downhill route from the entrance of the Cango Caves to the infantry school in Oudtshoorn. Where is all this? In the desert! I’m not joking with you. Michelle and I were going to try respective PBs for a marathon in the desert…in summer. Average high in February/March is 30 degrees celsius. It’s a fast route, as long as you don’t die from heat stroke on the way down the mountain!

So Iluminati Michelle and her wife, Michelle and I headed off for Oudtshoorn at the tail end of summer. I’m not sure what I expected of Oudtshoorn. It’s famous for Ostrich farming. Ostriches are indigenous to the area and at some point ostrich feathers were all that and the farming industry there boomed. Since then, a bout of avian flu wrecked that industry, but the town remains a hub of wine and dairy farming and of course, there’s the infantry school. It’s such a lovely place. I really will go back, notwithstanding my city slickerness tendencies. The people have these old school values which make them both serene and friendly. And sheez! That place is so clean. No litter anywhere, except for Meiringspoort. More about that later. Oh! I suppose Meiringspoort isn’t Oudtshoorn. My guess is that the army base has something to do with the spirit of Oudtshoorn. It’s a lovely place.

We flew to George on Friday afternoon, picked up a car with a very wet back seat, picked up a car with a dry back seat, and drove the hour and a half journey to Oudtshoorn. George was also way too friendly to be a real city. My back’s sore. Have a I told you? My hip flexors are frozen in a seated position due to my job which has me sitting on my ass sometimes for 9 hours in a day. I’m really not exagerrating. There have been days when I’ve stood up from my chair, groaned and realised that I’d been sitting in that chair in that position for 9 hours. Yes. I don’t need to go to the toilet often. I ran a 12-hour Comrades Marathon and didn’t go to the toilet once. Judge me if you like. I might not have a Comrades medal if that weren’t a predisposition of mine. Anyway, so my job has buggered up my hip flexors, but I’m out there running marathons and doing speed work and the like so something’s gotta give, right. It was, as Clare-Anne had predicted, my back’s turn next to be a pain. So my lower back had been in spasm for two weeks as I approached Oudtshoorn. Sitting on the flight. Sitting in the car. Sitting sitting sitting. My back was buggered. I’d had an emergency appointment with Francis just before heading off to Oudtshoorn and she’d given me some stretches which I still can’t do but which helped. They helped, but all the sitting didn’t. Urgh! When am I ever going to be a real runner?

So Friday we got to our beautiful little organic farm with…fuck, I don’t remember, some fancy cows that the owner of the farm seemed very pleased about because these fancy cows had just had a baby. I was just thinking, you people sell organic beef. Don’t be excited about the birth of an animal that you’ve sentenced to either sexual slavery or death, but I digress. Like I said, city slicker vegetarian tendencies. The farm – De Kombuys – was so tranquil and picturesque and beautiful. Michelle and Michelle had a nap and I went to look around. The farm owner had told us to go and look, but to close gates behind us. I walked towards the cows, unhooked the gate and spent the next 10 minutes trying to get the fukcing gate closed again. And then the cows started moving in my direction. I had visions of being trampled in a mad cow stampede as they smelled the smell of imminent freedom beyond what was usually a closed gate. The only thing in between them and their freedom at this point was my skinny arm holding the gate closed. Panic overwhelmed me and I whimpered. I thought of calling out for help, but acknowledged even in my panicked state that that would be pathetically city slickerish of me. The fancy cows started moooing at the “ordinary” cows that were seeking their freedom. Probably because the freedom-seekers were getting too close to the fancy pants baby that had just been born. The freedom-seekers stopped heading towards me and regarded the fancy pants cows with bemusement and a certain amount of what seemed like disdain. This gave me time to try and figure out to latch the rudimentary gate lock. By using my big toe and all my might, I was able to pull the gate, pull the lever, bend down (with frozen hip flexors and spasmodic back and everything), hook the latch over the bottom of the pole and then realise that I’d have to do it again because I was still inside the freedom-seekers’ enclosure. Unhook the latch with my big toe, unhook the lever, unwind the wire, catch the gate as it fell over, jump out the enclosure, hold the gate up as it fell over the other way, pull the gate, pull the lever, bend down, pull the pole down, use my big toe to hook the latch over the pole, wind the wire around the gate, unwind the wire because it was supposed to go the other side, wind the wire around the gate, hook the lever and pull the wire over the lever. Not a word of this is made up!

Does this count as my pre-race 20 minute easy run, I wondered to myself. Not that I’d run, but I was sweating and my heart was racing. I was exhausted. Michelle and Michelle got up and we decided to go first to check out the Cango Caves and then on to the Infantry School to pick up our numbers. We’d run our 20 minute easy pace run at the infantry school and then head out to supper, we decided. Illuminati Michelle’s Michelle wasn’t going to run this weekend so she was the designated driver.

The desert is very hot! The caves were cool. I can’t actually explain how magnificent the caves were. Photo’s just don’t do it justice, but I’ll post some of the pics that Michelle took. Suffice it to say, it just got onto your bucket list. Trust me. No runner liars on this one. I’m saving the word “spectacular” for later. After watching some of the cricket highlights, we headed off to the Infantry school to pick up our numbers and to do our pre-race easy run. Please note my liberal use of the word “easy”. I really have to find other friends.  The number picking up thing was delightfully festive. It seemed like the whole town of Oudtshoorn had come out to do the fun run and join in the lead up to the marathon. Just wonderful! There was pannekoek. Yor! I love pannekoek. Only Afrikaans people are allowed to call something pannekoek, I’ve decided.

Michelle and I changed and we trudged towards our “easy” run. Both of us have largely sitting jobs and so we’re both prone to stiff hip flexors aka sore butts and tight quads, so the idea of starting a run never fills either of us with enthusiasm. But we knew in 20 minutes, which is no time at all, this would be over. Oh my God! Michelle set off at her easy pace. Oh my God, is exactly how my prayer began. Many people were still coming in to finish the 5km fun run and we were running at Illuminati pace in the opposite direction. I had forgotten my sunglasses which upset me because now people could see the horror of this experience etched in those windows to my soul, which was just about where I could feel the etching taking place. Michelle was chatting. I was close to tears. I was gasping for air and we were basically at sea level. I couldn’t stop and whine about giving up or walking or slowing down. There were all these people looking on in awe. Someone even shouted, there go the winners of the marathon. Little did they know, that for one of us, that could have been the case. I had kept up this “easy” pace for three hundred metres and I wanted to walk home to Joburg. I felt like tripping Michelle or just pushing her into the desert dirt. Six minutes went by and I felt like my life was ending. I felt like I had but three minutes left to live. And was this the way I wanted to spend the final three minutes of my life? At least I was spending it with my friend, but fuck! I didn’t like her much at this point. I wasn’t sure if she was trying to be funny or if she thought pushing me to breaking point would be good for my personal growth or maybe she thought I would in this way become an Illuminati overnight and she’d have some company for her sub-3 the next day.  Whichever it was, my praying continued, but at a much more spiritual level. 8 minutes. This watch must be broken. How can we only have been doing this for 8 minutes? When is the 20 minutes going to be over? I don’t want to run a fucking marathon! I want to go have dinner. I want pannekoek. I want the other Michelle. I just want this to end. I’m going to die. Currently, I am supposed to have been dead for 2 minutes and I’m still here. Fuck this place! God has left me. There is no god in the desert. 11 minutes into the torture, Illuminati Michelle took pity on me and told me she would run ahead. You mean you’re going to run faster than this? God bless you. Don’t come back to fetch me, please. You go ahead. Let me die with some dignity on my own here. I swear, I’m never running with Illuminati Michelle again. You hear? I’m never running with her or her kin ever again until I’m 80. Oh no!! She turned back to fetch me. God, please help me. Isn’t this an earthquake region? Now would be a good time. Please save me from this final damnation. 13 minutes and the torture continued. At least this was a downhill. It wasn’t, but by now my legs were going so fast that I had no control over their motion so it felt sort of like a downhill. Into the home stretch, I misjudged the distance to go and I decided to simply run flat out because I just wanted this to be over and 20 minutes wasn’t arriving fast enough for me, but the Infantry school was so I could end this. I misjudged and I felt the springs attaching my heart to my skeleton starting to break off. I’m sure I even heard a “sproing” sound. 16 minutes. Could this 20 minutes be any longer? Yes, it could. I was filled with horror. And the end was up a hill. I tried to run away from Michelle because that seemed like the most practical thing to do, but of course that was not only not possible, but also terribly stupid. What if I’ve broken myself before tomorrow’s marathon? What was even more horrific was the realisation that I would be expected to run not much slower than this for 42.2km tomorrow. That’s the worst thing I could ever imagine happening. The 20 minutes ended mercifully on 19:58, only because I had caused a change in the weather with the sweat pouring from my body and it was likely that they’d ask me to leave because I was scarring and scaring small children. Sweat poured from my head for the next 3 hours.

We had appallingly slow service at the Ocean Basket in Oudtshoorn, but the waitress was a lovely young girl. I didn’t really notice because I was still in a critical state of trauma. But the out of body experience I was having was both compassionate to me and useful to divert my friends’ attention from the fact that I had, in fact, undergone some kind of traumatic accident on the streets of Oudtshoorn. I was trying to be cool about the whole thing, but I was concerned that I had done myself a disservice on this eve of a marathon which, with my back spasm, was looking to be less and less achievable.

I had three plans:

  • Plan A – Sub-4:00 which would mean a D seeding for Comrades. Remember?
  • Plan B – Sub 4:10 which would be a PB and a F seeding for Comrades
  • Plan C – Sub 4:20 which would be a PB and a F seeding for Comrades
  • Plan D – Qualify for Comrades with a sub-5:00 which would be the worst case scenario and if this came to pass, I would know that an ambulance would be involved.

I knew that I had trained for Plan A, but my back was getting worse as the evening progressed. I had packed 2 anti-spasmodics and 2 Panados for the race, but painkillers sometimes make me sluggish so I wasn’t very keen on using them. When I lined up at the start of the marathon, I was amped and excited and ready to go for Plan A. This is possibly my favourite marathons to date. I loved it. Even when my back spasmed at 9km, I loved it. Even when it spasmed again at 24km and then I got stitches all the way down my abs, I loved this race. At no point, even when I knew I was 12 minutes behind schedule to achieve Plan A, did I stop trying for Plan A. It was just a fantastic race. The mountains are beautiful, the army’s efficient organisation was unrivalled. The people of the Western Cape are lovely. I’ll go back a thousand times. I ended up running a 4:16 which I did with a huge smile on my face at the end. Michelle had a wobbly at 24km, just like me and managed to finish one hour ahead of me. Neither of us achieved what we went there to achieve, but we got something else entirely and so it was the best marathon I’ve ever run.

I’ll tell you more about the rest in a while. Your bucket list now includes the Cango Caves (the marathon too if that’s your thing). In a little while, you’ll get another bucket list item.

Okay, gotta run.

I’ll chat to you later.

Yours in the love of discovering





Are We Having Fun?

Yes indeed! Running is fun.

It has come to my attention that this might not be the case for everyone. Running races are especially fun for me. It seems that races are even less fun for these poor buggers for whom running appears not to be so much fun. Who are these poor creatures for whom running is not so much fun? The poor creatures who are not having so much fun are, in fact, the Illuminati. I know, right? How could the Illuminati not be having fun? What wouldn’t be fun about lapping your fellow runners multiple times at track? What wouldn’t be fun about winning a prize for running? What wouldn’t be fun about taking a nice easy run and still averaging a pace of 4:05/km.

The first time I heard of this ludicrous concept of an Illuminati that might not find this whole thing fun was when I was talking to a Grand Master South Afrian champion. She is invited to run all over the world. Her entries are paid to all the best races in the world. Even in her 60s, she’s winning money and getting admired everywhere. But she told me a while back that, with her sponsorship comes an obligation to attend press conferences and stay behind at races for hours after she’s finished and showered and dying to get home to her couch or family just so that she can have her photo taken with the sponsors’ logos and brand ambassadors and so on. Okay, I got how that might make me a bit grumpy. But still. That’s a small price to pay for the accolades and privileges that come with the territory of professional sport.

The real reason, however, became apparent to me last week as I stood in the parking lot after track. I was talking to the Illuminati about running Spirit of Flight. Now, as far as running goes, this race is fun. It’s fun, damnit! Allegedly, you run 10km on the runway of a military airport. There are old army planes and trucks and hangars around the place and it’s flat and fast so you can manage a PB if you try even just a bit. Doesn’t that sound fun? Yes. It sounded fun to me so I was going to run it. I asked them if they were going to join. One was keen and the other was less than impressed with the suggestion. She told us that she’s not at her best yet and someone else will be there and they’ll beat her and she can’t handle that because she’s already getting enough abuse from her running friends for her “out of shapeness”. And that would be terrible. I wondered for a tiny moment if she has such friends who would mock her about her “out of shapeness” (she still laps me 4 or 5 times at track and I’ve improved tremendously!) or if that was the voice in her head beating her up. My friends would never make fun of me for being in bad shape… because…my shape couldn’t get much worse than it is so it would be like crying in the rain. What I’m trying to say is the Illuminati should get other friends or different voices.

I walked away from that conversation with a heavy heart and I felt guilty. You know how I’ve been whining about not loving running so much any more? I suddenly realised that my running is a much nicer illegal marriage than the Illuminati marriages. I asked one of them why they hate racing so much and this is how they explained: At Illuminati level, you’re always on show. You’re always competing. Your best is never good enough if on the day someone else’s best is better than your best. My running is hard because it’s against me. When I do a crap time it’s because I did a crap time all on my own. My own voices made me walk. My own saboteur arrived on the day. But I’m only competing against myself and a clock. Even when Illuminati do a good time, it might not be good enough and there’s no-one to blame for that except… well… you’re just not good enough to beat the best on that day. I would hate to be married to their running.

And so, because I view it as my personal mission to fix everyone’s life (I’m especially good at fixing marriages), I told the Illuminati that they shouldn’t run Spirit to compete. They should run it for fun. Ringmaster Dave, the coach, frowned upon that and came up with a most elaborate plan to have them compete first, have fun later. The plan sounded unfun on all fronts and he ruined my attempts at making this a fun event for at least the Illuminati. My plan had them arriving at the race and telling their fellow Illuminati that they would not be racing but that they would be pacing some of us to get personal best times for the 10km and then, if they felt like racing, they still could do so, but without any pressure, knowing, of course, that if they decided to race, they would leave all of us half-bakeds languishing in the doldrums without a clue.

They both seemed like they took the bait. When we (Christien, Liezel and Illuminati Michelle and I travelled there together) arrived at the race on Saturday, one Illuminati had a pacing chart for me and a big smile. One was already standing at the front, frowning and bouncing nervously from one foot to another. She did not look like she was about to have fun. Other Illuminati came running up to us all similarly uniformed and looking famous and intimidating. I wasn’t impressed…because I didn’t care. Even if I stripped 25% of my personal best time for a 10km I still wouldn’t have a hope in hell of beating any of them. That’s hilarious when I type it like that. Hilarious to me. I’m sure they must have looked menacing to the other Illuminati there.

I’ll be honest. I did not enjoy running this race. I did not have one single ounce of fun. The route was changed the night before because of an important military vehicle which had to land on the airstrip and so we found ourselves running a trail run, not on a pristine potholeless runway as expected. Add to this the ludicrous hills that peppered this short 10km route and the fact that I was afraid of disappointing Illuminati pacers and several people who were expecting me to run a PB, I was not having fun. There was also a very sneaky, deceptive finish. To be fair, I ran my little toes right off the ends of my feet and so it is to be expected that I might not have been enjoying the running because I was at the edge of my ability. The Illuminati helped me to run a personal best 10km of 53:01. It was probably more than that because the route was actually 9.63km long and not a full 10km, but I’ll take it anyway. I’m going to pretend I didn’t have a fancy Garmin bossing me around, making me feel shit about myself. I ran a PB 10km in 53:01.

Everyone ran PBs and not because the route was 370m short, but serious PBs – 10 minutes faster than their previous PBs, some of them. One of my Illuminati came 2nd and, when I finished, both were smiling like they’d had fun. We all were. So during the run I didn’t have much fun, but that was only 53 minutes of my life that were not fun. Everything before and everything since has been fun. I didn’t lie awake the night before stressing. Okay, that’s a lie. I stressed because I felt like I had to do 53 but thought I was only capable of 55 so sleep was restless. But I didn’t feel the pressure that the Illuminati seem to feel. I had fun standing waiting for the race to start. I had a laugh as we crowded round the first corner and got squashed against a gate. I made a joke about a hangar/er. I smiled as we turned a corner and I got to see all those people who were behind me in the race. I had Illuminati encouraging me all the way. I had fun ambling forward chatting the few monosyllables I could gasp out as we lined up in the medals queue at the end. And of course, there was that PB. I had fun!

I’m going to keep getting better and maybe one day I’ll be able to compete with really phenomenal runners. That’s my 2053 Octogenarian Games plan, anyway. But I will first ensure that I always have fun. I will make having fun more important than winning. Maybe I can say that with conviction because, until 2053, I won’t win, but I don’t want to win at all costs. Running must be fun for me. I know I’ve been whinging lately about not having fun, but I realise now, that I have been having fun and I’ll keep having fun until 2053 when I must get serious about this stuff and stop having fun!

Yours in the fun of running
Slow Coach

P.S. Illuminati reading this, I hope you find the fun that I find in every race.

Trust the Process

When someone says to me, “Trust the process, Brenda”, they’re usually a brain-injured hippie or they’re an asshole. So when the voice in my head said it to me on Saturday, which was it? I think all the track has made me into a brain-injured hippie and so that’s probably what it was. I’m supposed to be tapering, for the love of Pete! Not running until my eyes bleed! I had a “tapering” track session the other night and I had gone deaf in both ears before I even finished the flipping warm up. Illuminati Michelle apologised for the pace of 5:10/km for the warm up. I don’t even run my fastest 5km at that pace and here I was warming up. That session was another ELE. But this time, instead of a 1 minute break between treacherous intervals, we were mercifully granted 45 seconds break.

You want to know the funny part, however. At the end of my final 5km interval, the Illuminati were on their cool down and our paths crossed. Actually, they sauntered up to me while I was running the end of the 5km which was supposed to be at my marathon pace. It was at my marathon pace until they caught up with me. Not only was I afraid of what was now a dark night, but I was also kind of afraid of looking like a total loser as these Illuminati ran next to me. So I ran at a nosebleed pace. And then they “helped” me through the last 1200m which was akin to being dragged semi-conscious through the jungles of Vietnam by a Jeep in 1964. But enough about me! Imagine that they felt exactly the same dragged-behind-a-Jeep-in-the-jungle feeling after their last 1200m. But still, they came back, pushed me through the end of my 5km and then started another 1200m. All for me! This is The Comrades Marathon. Maybe this is running everywhere, but wherever I go, when people hear that I’m running my first Comrades Marathon, it ignites in them a candle of warmth and caring that it not matched elsewhere in my world. People who just want to see me do well. Here are these sometime total strangers who lovingly care for me. And I’m so slow. It must be so frustrating for them to have to amble along this road of mediocrity with me, but they do. How awesome is that? How has God rained down so many beautiful people on my head? My gratitude to them could never be expressed appropriately. Never!

With 7 more sleeps until Comrades I’m extremely excited. Many of the people I run with are nervous, but I feel excited more than nervous. I’m so lucky I can run. Do you know how I was not a runner just two years ago? I was a couch potato. There was no way in hell that I would ever have dreamed I could do the Comrades Marathon. I’ve watched from my couch and I’ve imagined how wonderful it would be to be part of that crowd of sufferers. I’ve imagined that I would never be able to do something as crazy and awesome as that. But here I am. In 7 more sleeps I will be one of those people that stand in a dark and chilly Pietermaritzburg to hear the national anthem and hear Vangelis and the cock crow and the gun go off. I will run along something called Polly Shortts and Inchanga (and I can say that word properly!) and Drummond and 45th Cutting. All these mythical places will become real to me I will feel what they feel like. In just 7 sleeps, I will experience what every runner who has attempted the Comrades Marathon has felt. I’ve imagined pieces of the race and what they will feel like to me now that I am a runner. I’ll know the answer to the question, so how steep is Botha’s hill? How long is this Inchanga (a Zulu word that I know how to pronounce properly!) If you’ve ever seen the French movie, Amelie, and remember the scene where Amelie figures out the mystery of the guy in the torn up photo booth photos, you’ll know how I will be feeling in just 7 sleeps’ time.

Written on the envelope are all the reasons why I got there and all the reasons I will get to the end.

The pack that Chrissie is going to keep for me at RAC’s halfway table

This week I’m still tapering. Apparently. Sadist Coach Dave told me on Saturday that I should run an easy 10-15km on Sunday, track (for 200m strides which are already making my eyes water) on Monday, 30 minutes on Tuesday, 5km on Wednesday (which is also 30 minutes. He was only making the distinction for the Illuminati and A-Teamers), 30 minutes on Thursday, nothing on Friday and 20 minutes at 5.30pm on Saturday. I had “planned” (using no scientific reference, mind you) to do 20km on Sunday and then sit on my backside on the couch until Sunday. When I told him about my plan, he was quiet. He is not a quiet man. He was quiet. He began to explain to me why I should do it his way with the Illuminati standing there as his Exhibit A when the voice in my head shouted out loud, “Trust the process, Brenda! Trust the process!”. That voice is an asshole!

So today I ran 17.8 kilometres at a lightning pace of 6:03m/km with Illuminati Michelle and Cool Kid Chrissie and A-Teamers Megan and Guy and other people who seemed to be hanging on by their toenails like me. I have cancelled dinner plans for a TV dinner with a friend so that I can do eye-watering strides tomorrow night. I’ll do my 5km on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and then I will be allowed to sit on the couch until Saturday evening when I will run to get sushi, drink my protein shake and wait in anticipation to find out how Amelie felt that day and how tens of thousands of people before me have felt as they transversed those mythical South African institutions.

Yours in the hype and excitement! Can’t wait! Just can’t wait!

Slow Coach

Speed Kills

There is me. Then there are the cool kids. Today I discovered that there is another level above the cool kids called the Illuminati. They made me cry! I’m trying to be calm about this and see it all in perspective because, hey, last week I ran 60km. The week before that I ran 68km. The week before that I ran 80km. Admittedly, I took about as long to run all of those as it would take a normal endurance athlete to run 14300km. But I’m a decent runner. How many of you reading this can say the same about your last 3 weeks? Okay don’t answer that. I forgot about all you cool kids. Anyway.

Yesterday I ran a 23km club run. We took it easy and finished in 2:48:23. Afterwards, I was loitering around being my totally uncool self, trying to look like one of the cool kids, when I spotted Francis (cool kid), chatting to a lady I recognised as one of the totally coolest kids, Michelle. I’d never actually met her, but her reputation preceded her and everyone had told me I’d do well to meet her. I would NEVER ever have dreamed of speaking to her. She was near deity from the way everyone had spoken of her. Here’s a clue: When I got back from my 23km along which I had been patiently dragged by Romy (Nedbank cool kid) and John (Northcliff /RAC cool kid) after 2:48:23, Michelle had probably been sitting at that table for 1:25:23 and she also took an easy run. You do the maths.

She was helping Francis with a training regime. They seemed almost done when Francis introduced me to Michelle. Knowing what I know now, I should have fallen to my knees and kissed her toes, but I smiled shyly. I explained my dilemma that I could run for days, but I’m totally shit because I’m slower than a sloth. Michelle smiled with an empathy that clearly had no idea what I meant, but she seemed too kind to ridicule me. She and Francis encouraged me to join them tonight (traditionally couch night) for speed training at “the track”. I was scared, but Michelle explained that quality is better than quantity when it comes to preparing for Comrades. She’d probably know better than me, but I had to agree that something had to change for me to get faster.

So this afternoon I stretched and prepared well for “the track” session. I was quite nervous because although Michelle was nothing but sweet and kind, she looks as though she could beat me at an arm wrestle in nano seconds. She’s tiny, but she looks . . . . better at arm wrestling than me. I got to “the track” which was nothing more than a well kept cricket outfield. You know how I loooove running on grass. I arbed around uncoolly early and waited for any face I would recognise. Eventually I decided to go back to my car and play Candy Crush. As I got to my car, Francis and Michelle arrived. Damn! I was so hoping to get past level 23 of Candy Crush. It was not to be. I was here to become a super athlete, not a super couch potato. You know, at heart I think I’m still a couch potato. I must just prefer real medals to virtual medals. (Only couch potatoes would catch that joke.) Francis and I headed off on a warm up run of 2.5km. I can almost remember when that was the furthest I’d ever run in my life. It still scares me that 2.5km is warming up and not enough to earn a hot chocolate with marshmallows and a piece of cheesecake. While we were warming up, the Illuminati came running in a pack towards us. Good Lord! They were impressive. God had in them created magnificent specimens. To all you cool kids, you’re cool, but this is most certainly the Illuminati.

While Francis and I were waiting for them to return, I met him. That wielder of the tazer. That shambok bearing ringmaster. That. . . .coach, Dave. I was still unaware of how this thing was going to go. I thought Michelle was going to be tazer holder, barking orders at us. It turns out that, as Illuminati as she is, she’s also just one of Dave’s circus animals. Dave is a jolly guy. Somewhat rotund and quite unassuming. The pack of Illuminati returned from their warm up, which had lasted about 4 minutes, even though they too had run 2.5km to warm up. We all gathered in a circle. One of the aforementioned Illuminati, a lady by the name of Paula, who was wearing a very menacing shirt that read: “DEATH BEFORE A DNF*” (I’m not making this up) and who reminded me somewhat of Jeremy Irons’ girlfriend in Die Hard with a Vengeance, took us through what would have been a mild stretching regime. I say “would have been” because either her or Ringmaster Dave thought it was a good idea to squeeze in one minute of planking near the end. I have a grass burn on my cheek from that. If you don’t know what planking is, I can’t explain it to you, because verbalising what I did there is against my religion. I cursed. But. I hadn’t vomited yet and I hadn’t cried. So far. So good.

Ringmaster Dave then had us hopping and jumping and skipping up and down the field. He gave a lengthy explanation about why he was doing it. Something about learning your own natural rythm or something. My natural rythm as well as my name and country of origin were forgotten by the start of the third leg of what was to come next. Dave split us into groups which can best be described in my terms as:

At 10km race pace do 600m, walk 100m, 10km race pace do 800m, walk 100m, 10km race pace do 1000m, walk 100m, 10km race pace do 800m, walk 100m, 10km race pace do 600m and immediately do push-ups.

Something like the above, but smaller distances.

US (Francis, not wanting to be seen as totally uncool like me, referred to her lot – which included a 7-year old and a 9-year old – as COOL KIDS A and myself and two other ladies who were also first timers as COOL KIDS B)
8 laps of 400m at 10km race pace with a 2 minute break between each lap.

I looked up at the setting sun and wondered if they were going to put on the floodlights when I was on my fourth lap. Did Dave understand what he was saying when he told me to run at 10km race pace? Did I even know what he meant? Do I even know how fast I run a 10km race? How fast is “Don’t die. Don’t come last”? I figured I better run like I was been chased by lions. I did. Thankfully I wasn’t being chased by lions because apparently lions can run very fast for more than 300m, which they wouldn’t have needed to do to have me for dinner. At 300m I was wheezing and blood was filling my ears and nasal passages. The 400m mark appeared just before my aorta left my body through my neck. I rested for 2 minutes as instructed and set off again with COOL KIDS A. I mostly kept with them for the next 400m. They only rested for a minute, but I couldn’t go with them because I was waiting for the blood to drain from my ears into my throat. So I waited my 2 minutes and set off again. My posture was all a thing of the past. My “natural rhythm” was not unlike that of a warthog. My speed was back to sloth and I wanted to vomit. 400m went by in a day. Dave was running in the opposite direction, regularly shouting encouragement to me. He’s a liar. Maybe he wasn’t lying. Maybe he was genuinely surprised to see me alive each time. I was pretty surprised about that too. At the end of each lap, I didn’t know how I’d manage to go again. The track started to get bigger and bigger. 400m started to feel like 9km. I got to 6 laps and even Ringmaster Dave took pity on me. He told me I could stop and do my pushups if I wanted. I wouldn’t hear of it. I went round one more pathetic time. The Illuminati were all regimentally doing pushups and situps and hand stands and bench pressing one another as I finished off. I managed a magnificent total of 3, count them 1, 2, 3 pushups before I once again buried my face in the allergy-inducing track. Fuck I hate grass! That’s when I cried. Luckily, to spare me further embarrassment, Francis dragged me off for our cool down run of 2.5km.

It was like this was the first time I’d ever run. My legs were weak and had hurt while I was running. I thought I was becoming cool. I thought I was becoming a runner. Sometimes I think I’m just always going to suck at this. It terrifies me that I have to do a session like this ever again if I want to finish Comrades in under 12 hours. I don’t know if I can face that again. Michelle told me I should come on Wednesday again, but I just don’t know if I can. I feel like I’m starting from scratch again. Like I’m going out the door and vomiting 200 metres later. The logic me says: Slow Coach, when change is needed to improve on the status quo, suffering must happen. The couch potato me says: Ag, just give up. Just keep plodding along. You’ll be fine.

Who will win on Wednesday? I’ll let you know.

Yours in status quo.

The Slow Coach

*DNF = Did Not Finish