Hey, she is from Calgary!' my wife pointed to a half-marathon runner. I ignored both of them. Socialization was the last thing I had in mind at that moment. I was 'all in' for the daunting task ahead. I could not be bothered.
'Are you OK?' a Danish doctor donning a Red-Cross apron asked me after a rather long uncomfortable stare. Why could not he read 'focus' written all over my face? Or did he read 'fear'? Or the 'diagnosis' the treadmill nurse made months earlier?
I quickly reminded myself of what I needed to do on that day. I had to be good in managing: clothing, hydration, fuel, electrolyte, salt tablet intake, carbohydrate gel intake, sports bar intake, and changing shoes and socks. I was not still sure if I should drink the Coke the race organizers provided in all aid stations. No other marathons supply Coke, Pepsi or any other soda. It had been a drink for marathon runners before sports drinks were introduced. Coke had the sugar and caffeine I needed, but lacked the electrolyte the sports drinks had. Coke combined with salt tablets might be OK, I thought. But the gas in Coke might be a bother. I had three bottles of Gatorades packed in my personal-supply bags, in case. There would be plain water at aid stations as well.
I walked to the start area that had a festive look for a 'torture event', in which all participated willingly. African drums were being played. Fan-shaped banners lined the road to the START banner, above a time-chip-sensoring mat placed on the red clays, which looked like those on the courts of the French Open Tennis in Roland-Garros, Paris. Two fan-shaped banners behind me made me look like a bird with two wings, about to take off.
I lined up with several native South African runners to have my picture taken and to show solidarity in their struggle in the recent past. A few days earlier, I had gone to Robben Island by a ferry from Cape Town, and listened to the poignant narration by a prisoner from the Mandela period. It was difficult to listen to him and hold back tears, thinking of how could so few coming from another continent treat so many so cruelly for so long, in their own country. What preposterousness! For a change to occur, many had to sacrifice a lot and endure unimaginable sufferings. Their fights forced FW De Klerk, the last apartheid president of South Africa, read the writing on the wall and to start negotiating a sharing of power. Mandela, Tutu, De Klerk, along with Luthuli, the latter for following a non-violent approach to ending apartheid, were recognized with a Nobel Peace Prize. Their statues adorned the Nobel Square in Cape Town waterfront, reminding visitors of the senselessness that existed in that beautiful land in the recent past, and of those four for erasing a shameful stain in South African and human history, finally.
For me, the countdown to start arrived, finally. Soon we were running on Entabeni red clays at 1400 m altitude, not knowing what lay in store for the rest of the day. 'Did all the lions go to bed? Are all the rhinos out of the course?'
I ran by the Entabeni monolith, a massive rock raising its head into the sky, as if to have a better view of the wildlife throughout the year and of the runners every year in the third week of June.
The course through the grassy land was gaining elevation and was getting difficult to run on with loose and fixed rocks and stones, making footing unsure, and ankles turn and twist. The climb continued to 1708 m altitude, until I reached the 10-km mark, where an event organizer handed me a turquoise wrist band with www.adventure-marathon.com printed on it as a proof that I did run the entire loop and did not take a short cut. The print on the band was a reminder that I was running an adventure marathon. Retracing the rock-strewn segment on my way down was easier.
As the sun was getting hotter, I changed to a flap cap, covering my ears, cheeks and neck, head and forehead, looking like a shorter, tanned version of Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.
After another 6 km, I reached the steepest descent of 285 m from the upper to the lower escarpment (a long cliff separating two level surfaces at different elevations). That was the section where the route-inspecting OWVT almost flipped over, the day earlier.
Running straight down was impossible, as the slope was greater than 43 degree. I switchbacked down the hill. Rather than going straight down, I ran zigzag on the rock face. With strong quads, running downhill had always been my forte. I was encouraged to note how well I negotiated the steep Big Five descent. But I also reminded me to hold back, not knowing how the muscles would respond later, with another 25 km or so left to run. Muscle management, in addition to fuel and hydration management, is an important aspect of marathon finishing. I also minded taking Power Gels, Gatorades, and salt tablets at regular intervals.
At the bottom of the hill, I was at the lower escarpment, in a grassy land and in lions' territory, surrounding the Hanglip Lodge, where we were staying. I found a chair to sit down. Volunteers from the lodges were ready to help me put on the gaiters that I had packed in a supply-bag. The sands were ankle-deep and very loose over the next 9-km section. The gaiters kept the sands from entering my shoes by covering the main entry area around the ankle and the shoe opening. It was not easy to run with feet sinking into the loose sands. Fortunately, the sands there were dry and not sticky, unlike the Antarctica shoe-grabbing mud I struggled with to free my shoes from, three months earlier. To avoid running on deeper sands, I sometimes ran on the shrubby edge of the trail, after being assured that there would not be any reptiles there, as South African snakes would be hibernating in June, a winter month there. That turned out to be not true, as the day after the marathon, during a safari, we saw a coiled python enjoying the sun, not far from the course.
Some sands still found their way to the bottom of my left feet. I had to stop to pour them out. A small amount of sand might cause a significant amount of grief later, through continuous friction and abrasion, if not attended to right way.
I realized I was running in a savannah, a grassy land with scattered trees and shrubs. It was in the African savannahs our quadruped 'ancestors' (a hypothesis accepted by evolutionists, but discarded by creationists) are believed to have evolved into bipedal humans to be able to walk upright, so they could find and carry scarce food over a long haul. Walking on two feet was easier and more efficient than on four, they figured out. From Africa humans migrated to other six continents for food and better life. I was running in a habitat where our 'ancestors' had first learnt to walk, assuming the evolutionists are right. 'Cool!' thought I, running under a hot sun, and on hot and dry sands.
After the 9-km sandy loop, I needed to switch shoes and socks. Two volunteers seated me in a chair, took my trail shoes and socks off, washed my feet with a wet sponge, wiped the feet with a towel, and helped me put on a pair of clean socks and the lighter Nike Pegasus shoes from another supply bag. I was treated like an elite athlete. In return, I gave each a hug.
With shoes and socks switched, I felt rejuvenated for a few minutes, only to be deflated at the sight of the greater-than-40-degree ascent ahead daring me. As much as I like downhill, I despise uphill many times more. Going uphill, my faint heart goes into overdrive. I huff and puff, and I breathe like a fish out of water. Had I known then what I came to know of in early 2015 about my heart arteries, I would have panicked, might have called it a day right there and waited for the 'distress vehicle' to pick me up. Psychology plays such a huge role in marathon running or anything we do.
(The next instalment will appear tomorrow.)
Tapan Chakrabarty, a seven-continent marathon finisher, an inventor and innovator, writes from Calgary, Canada