When I turned 50 I ran a marathon on each continent in celebration. The first was in Africa.
By any standards, the Buffalo Marathon is modest. It is a point-to-point race. Runners must simply drive some 40 kilometres out of East London on the Queenstown Road, and run back. At some point in the middle of a dark and misty African dawn, a banner is stretched across the road. The start is devoid of pomp or circumstance, but the runners around me are warm and friendly. No more than 700 line up on the main Queenstown Road. We will have perfect running conditions, the cloud cover will ensure that, as long as the rain holds off.
The early parts of this marathon pass through the rural districts of the Eastern Cape. It is March, the end of summer, and the villages are set on an emerald carpet. The road snakes its way to East London, through rolling hills and mist. A quiet road. I breathe deeply; the air is sweet. I am alive and I am here; Africa is my home. Today is my birthday. I feel a special sense of occasion. As a special gift Kay is going to hold back and run the whole race with me. I joke with the runners close by that the rule is she has to run three paces behind me, the whole way, and sing my praises.
We settle into a good, modest pace. I know there are some hard hills at the end, so I want to hold back something in reserve. Running a marathon is like playing a game of cards. Each card a unit of energy. The real trick is to be stingy with the cards in your hand, and play them judiciously. If you play your hand right you should have more than half the pack in your hand with five kilometres to go. A long-distance race allows for silence and introspection. I am getting into an easy and comfortable stride, and the kilometre marker boards are going past at more or less six-minute intervals. I can look forward to five hours of birthday celebration, in the way I had chosen.
When I started running, Professor Tim Noakes gave a lecture on running the marathon and beyond. There he stood, the guru on the podium, and his message was simple but frightening. “There is no physical reason why a runner should be on their feet after running more than 32 kilometres. The geographical halfway mark may well be at 21 kilometres, but the real half way starts only after 30 kilometres of running.
“No matter how much you ingest prior to the race, your body can only hold so much and no more. Yes, it is carbohydrates that will carry you to the finish, and you must eat a lot of food rich in carbos, pasta and the like, but physically there is a limit. “There is more bad news. Taking in carbohydrates on the run can’t help that much either. It takes time for the food to be ingested, digested, and then to leave the stomach and to get into the blood stream. It takes longer to do that than it takes to run a marathon.
“So here is the challenge of the marathon. You will get hypoglycaemia. Your blood sugar levels are going to fall very low and you will still have ten kilometres to run. This is the tantalising part of a marathon. This is why people have to do it. Emil Zatopek – the only runner in Olympic history to win three distance events in the same games – once said: ‘If you want to run, run a mile; if you want to experience a new life – run a marathon.’
“The final stages of a marathon are run mainly on your own spiritual and mental resources – this is where the soul of the race lies. This, then, is the challenge of the marathon.”
We have just run over a bridge in a valley and have to dig into the steep pull on the other side. The 32-kilometre mark is in sight. It is not a fierce duel between mind and body. Many think courage to see the race to the end is developing a steel-like mind that overcomes the pain we feel; but it is not. Yield now, and travel within yourself. I am here to re-find the courage I have lost, and this is the only place to find it. Do not think that courage is the absence of fear, my friend. It is not. Courage to run this race to the end is not a strong, masculine quality. Rather it is a feminine quality that knows how to yield to pain and fatigue.
The final stages of the Buffalo Marathon are brutal. Tired legs negotiate their way through impatient Saturday morning shoppers. As I dig deep into my own resources, my ankle is really beginning to hurt. Kay, faithfully from behind shows concern. “Hey, Tom, you are limping, don’t you want to walk a little?”
“I am not done yet; today I shall finish.” This is a battle. The hills around the stadium are steep, and they require a special effort to get to the finish. I am sore; I am done. I yield for the first time in the race and I walk. But thankfully, mercifully, the end comes into view, the music blares, the sun shines and the finish banner flops cheerfully in a stiff coastal breeze.
There is a relaxed, suburban feel at the finish venue. High on an embankment, it overlooks the famous Buffalo Park Cricket Ground. Runners mingle, families relax, and children run around kicking balls. The clouds have lifted and it looks as though the afternoon will be a splendid affair. I sit on the grass and enjoy a well-earned beer. One down six to go.