Adjust Your Altitude

“These mountains that you are carrying, you were supposed to only climb.” (N. Zebian)

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The Lesotho Ultra Trail went into its 5th year in 2017 attracting a top class local and international field. It is classed as an Ultra Skymarathon because it exceeds 45kms in length and 2500 meters in vertical gain at high altitude. The course adventures to over 3200m above sea level in parts and this year I was invited to come and run it!

Our accommodation for the weekend.

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Below are two photos I took during the race. I was in awe of my surroundings.

Lesotho is a landlocked country, entirely surrounded by South Africa. It is of similar size to Belgium or Israel and has a population of 2 million inhabitants. In the heart of the Lesotho Highlands lies the Maluti Mountains, with an intricate network of trails existing along the valleys and mountain flanks. These mountain passes are used primarily by livestock and shepherds, allowing them to pass through the Maluti Mountain range on foot. Many of these mountain passes have been established by hand and provide terrain for some of the best high altitude mountain running in the world!

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Interesting fact: the lowest point above sea level in Lesotho is 1500 metres, making it the country with the highest low point in the world.

It is no secret that I love a challenge and I was tempted to do the 50km race, purely fuelled by my joy and passion for the trails (with minimal training!) but then came to my senses and decided the 38km course would be more than enough for me to tackle for my first high altitude mountain race. This proved to be the right decision, as two weeks before the run, I developed a painful Retrocalcaneal bursitis (inflammation of the bursa, which lies over your heel where your Achilles tendon inserts). However, I tried to remain positive and wanted to give it my best and honour this generous gift I had been given.

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I limped into registration, with eyes welling up and a quivering lip but was determined as ever to find a way to scale that mountain range! I lay awake in the tent most of the night but got up in the morning and showed up at the start. I stood at the back of the group (this is where I remained most of the race!) and began with my walk-hop-jog around the lodge for the initial 8km loop. I wasn’t sure if I should carry on after this and make my way up the mountain, but I decided to go for it.

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I could write many pages describing the events that unfolded over the following 10 hours. However, let me share one highlight for now: the weather! We experienced four seasons in one day, from sunshine, to rain and even a snow storm thrown into the mix. Being caught in the storm on the mountaintop at 3000m was almost too much for me to handle. I was scared and sore but the tears froze as soon as they hit my cheeks and I had to suck it up!

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It took everything I had inside me to push through the pain in my foot and go from a walk to a jog to a run, simply to keep warm and keep the blood flowing. Luckily my new friend, Kirsten (aka snow sister) was not too far ahead of me and I managed to catch up to her just before the storm hit. Together we kept each other company until we reached the Camp JubeJube Aid Station.

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These guys were my heroes. They rubbed my frozen legs, wrapped a space blanket around my waist and held my hand for the first few metres down the steep descent before waving us on our way.

I have never been in snow before and this was something I will never forget. It was the hardest run ever but also the most thrilling! Besides the pain, the altitude and terrain was also a huge challenge. (Even if I was injury-free, I would have struggled!) I was completely out my comfort zone but also in awe that I was in such a majestic place. I felt like one of those athletes in a National Geographic documentary, running on the edge of cliffs and leaping over rocks!

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The winners of the race each received a Basotho Hat and a Basotho blanket. The Basotho Hat (or mokorotio) is a recognised symbol in Lesotho. It is made out of grass and has a shape of many of the mountains in the country. The Basotho blanket is almost entirely made of wool and is the traditional dress. They are a common sight in Lesotho and worn as a status symbol and cultural identification, while also providing protection against the cold.

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Almost 10 hours after starting, the adventure came to an end and it was my turn to finally cross that finish line!

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“Every mountain top is within reach if you just keep climbing.” – Barry Finlay

Magic In Misery

 

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I don’t know if I should even attempt to write a blog to describe this year’s Comrades Marathon​ just yet, as I am still overcome with emotion and the last four days have felt surreal. However, I will do my best to share a few lines and perhaps in time, more will follow.

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The Comrades Marathon tag line this year: “Zinikele -It Takes All Of You” is a good way to sum up my run and the photo below, which was taken as I crossed the finish line, is another way to express the raw emotion I felt and the strength it took to keep moving forward. Then man in the photo with me is Antony Clapham, a friend, who also happens to be the great grandson of Vic Clapham, founder of the Comrades Marathon.

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Many of us battled out there (17 031 athletes started the 86.73km race and a little over 3 000 failed to finish) and I am grateful to have made it, after a gruelling second half. The first bad patch of pain (which I have come to expect) came around the 65km mark and was more severe than usual. Up until then I had felt relatively strong. I was forced to walk for a couple kilometres, being encouraged by spectators that I could still make it in time. I eventually managed to jog again, before walking up the famous Polly Shorts but then the pain returned and was so bad I felt sick to the stomach and mushy in my head!

At the top of the hill I realised it was going to take every ounce of determination I had to finish the race. I think the residents of Pietermaritzburg now know me by name (and on an intimate level too!) as I crumbled in front of them, behind trees and on the road, both physically and emotionally, during those last 4kms. It was humbling to say the least. I walked with clenched fists, sobbing uncontrollably, scared and helpless. I know the golden rule is to keep moving forward, so I did that…one step at a time, resisting the urge to sit or stop.

I had a bucket of ice water thrown over me by concerned spectators, which helped keep me alert and another person took off my cap and poured water over my head again further on down the street. I wafted from one side of the road to the other, covering my face with my hands and reaching deep down for strength I didn’t know I had. I saw a lady on the side of the road open a buddy bottle of coke and I stretched out both arms and dragged my feet in her direction. I took a sip, handed it back and she told me to keep it. Clutching that bottle, I continued forward….

…there is so much in between…. but eventually I found my way to the finish arena and did my best to run but broke down several times in front of the crowds. Even the commentator screamed my name and cheered me on! Then there it was, the finish line and as my feet crossed the timing mat, I knew it was all worth it. Despite everything, there was magic in the misery and who knows, perhaps 10 June 2018, I will be lining up again.

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Thank you to everyone for your prayers, support and encouragement.

“Even when you have gone as far as you can and everything hurts, and you are staring at the specter of self-doubt, you can find a bit more strength deep inside you, if you look closely enough.” – Hal Higdon

Zinikele – It Takes All Of You

Comrades Marathon Up Run – Sunday 4 June 2017

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It is 4pm in the afternoon. Tomorrow I run my 5th Comrades Marathon, however, it always feels like the first time. I am battling to relax, my husband is watching South Africa play Sri Lanka in the ICC Champions Trophy, so I thought let me type a quick blog post, and hope that writing helps to calm me.

I read this quote earlier in the week and had a quiet chuckle:

“Long-distance running and pregnancy have a lot in common. They both require endurance and good health, and support along the way. You also release endorphins during both experiences and that tricks you into feeling that you can do it all over again.”

I have never been pregnant. That painful journey is what prompted me to start running in the first place. However, I can relate to difficult experiences that ultimately lead to pure joy and the incredible ability of the mind to take on the challenge yet again!

The Up Run is a unique distance of 86.73km, run over mountains between Durban and Pietermaritzburg. There are more than 1 500 metres of vertical ascent and these extreme conditions are a true test of the human spirit. Luckily there are 45 refreshment stations along the way to provide us with nourishment, including: 9 tons of bananas, 8 tons of oranges, 3 tons of potatoes and 1 ton of biscuits!

The Comrades Marathon continues to attract both national and international long-distance athletes and with 20 000 entries this year, it is clear that its appeal is growing annually. Tomorrow is the 92nd addition of the race and it continues to win accolades, including the Sport Brand of the Year and the Sport Participation Event of the Year at the Discovery Sport Industry awards last year. It also continues to fulfil its social responsibility commitments by providing a platform for the official charities to raise funds and assist those less fortunate in the community.

Of course for us runners, it wouldn’t be the same without the support of the fans, our friends and family. They get to share the heartache, pain and joy with us. Approximately six million people watch Comrades on television each year and it was estimated about 350 000 spectators lined the streets last year too! The race brings out the best in people and many of us have fond memories watching it growing up. For me personally, I can’t believe that little girl in her nightgown and slippers cheering on the side of the road is now running it for herself. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it was possible. But it is and I challenge anyone reading this to try it at least once!

Marathon Moments

“When your legs can’t run anymore, run with your heart.”

Yesterday I ran the Witness Medihelp Maritzburg City Marathon. It was an action packed few days starting with the Marathon Flame Lighting ceremony on Friday (the Athens flame was lit all weekend) a free music concert, a trail run and various other events on Saturday, ending with the 10/21/42km races on Sunday.

This year our marathon started and finished at Golden Horse, which will also be home to Comrades 2017 on 4 June. For the first time this year there was a record field with thousands of athletes participating and entries selling out weeks in advance. It was also the first and currently only IAAF World Championship qualifier for London 2017, where men need to get under 2:19 and women under 2:45, to be considered for the ASA team.

Of course, I was far behind this requirement – haha – but I ran a personal best time and was overwhelmed with my achievement, as it wasn’t something I was anticipating. From the loud “BOOM” of the SA Navy’s saluting gun to start us off, to crossing the finish line (and everything in between!) it was a day to remember. At the 33km mark I joined a bus of runners as they flew past me and I had to fight back tears and dig deep to try keep up with them. I managed to hold on, as my arms and shoulders pumped back and forth like a steam engine, when my legs couldn’t carry me anymore:

“I pushed myself, and something inside me that I didn’t know was there pushed back.” – Pia Perterson

At the finish I quickly had to find a secluded spot to lie down and weep! I wasn’t able to walk very far when the grass called my name and I simply collapsed in a heap, still holding my medal in my one hand and the chocolate milkshake we had been given in the other. I am used to the excruciating pain that rips like lightening through my legs after this kind of distance but even though I know to anticipate it, it still takes my breath away every time.

“Debbie, are you okay?” I opened my eyes and wondered how did this man, leaning over me looking very concerned, know my name? (Only later I realized my race bib was still attached and DEBBIE was in big bold letters across my vest!) He was from the physiotherapy tent and I was humbled to have him offer to hold up my legs and allow the blood flow to increase, which eased the pain. Upon seeing what was going on, another man ran over with his cooler box and let me rest my legs on top of it. These two gentlemen demonstrated the true spirit of the sport and I was grateful for their help and assistance.

There were lots of personal best times, as well as disappointments for friends who didn’t make the cut-off or had to drop out. My husband ran a strong, comfortable race too. He is a machine! Our other two training buddies also bettered their times and the four of us shared our stories on the trip back home. I am constantly reminded what a blessing it is to have the ability to run and enjoy this sport and am grateful for yet another memory to treasure.

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COMRADES – BE PART OF IT – BAMBA IQHAZA!

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Tomorrow I will be joining thousands of runners to be part of the 90th running of the oldest, biggest ultra-marathon in the world – The Comrades Marathon. It is a sporting event like no other and I am honoured to be lining up at the start and hopefully crossing the finish line 87.72km later! This year, it is one of the longest Up runs in recent history (an extra 877m) owing to road works in Pinetown, which means the route must deviate slightly for Comrades race day.

It is interesting to see how the race is mapped out in terms of entries. There are 15 966 local male entrants compared to the 4 442 South African women participating. This year’s event includes 1 949 international competitors, including 449 from the rest of Africa. I think this proves that Comrades has captured not only the hearts of millions of South Africans but people all over the world.

It all started in 1921, as the world tried to recover from the Great War (1914-1918), which prompted war veteran Vic Clapham to organise a running event between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, to pay tribute to the fallen heroes and rekindle the camaraderie amongst the Allied troops during the years in the trenches. The first Comrades Marathon attracted 48 entries, of which only 34 made it to the start and when the race officially ended 12 hours later, 16 had made it all the way.

The significance of the race has changed greatly nowadays and it’s an opportunity for the ordinary man, no matter where he’s from, to do something great, something to be extremely proud of. To quote Lindsey Parry (Comrades Coach):

“For me, the race is supposed to be hard. It’s the difficulty of the race that allows you to feel the sense of pride that you feel when you cross the line. It’s the difficulty of the race that allows your colleagues, friends and family to respect you so much for what you did. And it’s the difficulty in the race that gives you that overwhelming sense of achievement as you get onto the grass going around the finishing field.”

To conclude, here are some fun food facts:

Along the 87.72km Comrades Marathon route, runners can expect to be adequately supplied with a variety of refreshments at 46 refreshments stations including:

Coke – 30.350 litres
Fanta / Crème Soda – 10.650 litres
Energade sachets – 1.1 million
Water sachets – 2.1 million
Bananas – 800kg
Oranges – 7.8 tons
Boiled potatoes – 3 tons
Biscuits – 1.3 tons
Racefood nougat energy bars – 20 000

The supporters and the important role they play on race day, is something that needs to be highlighted too. A heartfelt thank you – we celebrate you too!

The 90th Comrades Marathon – Be part of it – Bamba Iqhaza!