[See my earlier post How I get to Victoria Falls on the cheap]
Race day! This is my third marathon in Africa and completes another set of the Seven Continents. I’m a bit banged up from a fall a couple of days ago, but otherwise I feel good. My body wanted to be awake in time to have my peanut butter sandwich and to sit around a bit for the start. I didn’t know how I’d do today, but I had an inkling that I might go for a personal record. I’ve been on a good year, I’m close to peak shape (although I don’t know if I’m ascending or descending that mountain), and I have new confidence in running in the heat if I can have coconut water, which I’ve found at the local grocery store. Everything seems to be lining up.
I shouldn’t think about that yet. If I get through the first half in good shape I can start to think about a personal record. If I’m in good shape by Mile 18, I can work toward a personal record. At the start I need to warm up and let the body fall into something that feels good.
The start is in front of the Kingdom Hotel, where I’m staying. I leave my room ten minutes before the start and stand around a couple of minutes before the gun. We line up, the field takes off, and we’re off to the Falls, across the bridge into Zambia, and back for the bulk of the race.
A cloud of mist comes up from the gorge; it’s one of the curious features of the Falls and a way to orient yourself in the high water season. You know where the Falls is by looking for the cloud coming up from the ground. When you get close enough, it’s perpetual rain—a big misting station. Even if its hot, it will be cooler here.
After a short downhill from the start, we start a slight uphill to the border post. Past that is the bridge. The sun is coming up, which would make for good pictures but I have another job right now.
Before I get to the bridge, the lead pack is already coming back. The winner today gets $10,000 USD (Zimbabwe uses the US dollar as its official currency). The competition is going to be first. Some sports commentator once said during the Tour de France that cycling is the sport that lets fans get the closest to the athletes, but they’ve ignored the marathon, which lets fans compete in the same event as the elites. These guys are amazing, so graceful and efficient. There’s nothing about them that shows waste or awkwardness. And they were running right toward me on their way back from the turn-around on the Zambian side of the gorge. I’d just run a mile and they had already run over two.
They are blurry like that in real life
I wasn’t in competition for any prizes so I took a quick stop on the bridge to look at the Falls and take a picture, like many other runners.
On the other side of the bridge is Zambia, and although we were actually in that country since we were on the other side of the river, we wouldn’t technically enter the country. We ran up to the border post and turned around. There’s no chip timing in this race. Officials in green blazers record our numbers at several checkpoints along the course.
At the turnaround we face back toward the bridge and have a nice downhill.
With my hat and glasses on, my messed up Phantom of the Opera face doesn’t look so bad. I wonder how that will feel when I start to sweat, though.
Once across the bridge and through the border post, we turn right onto Zambezi Drive, which goes along the park that blocks everyone’s access to the Falls before it bends to the left. The rising sun casts orange light on the big baobob trees. We run by the Big Tree, a 1,500 year old baobob.
I’m still feeling good. Off Zambezi Drive we turn right onto the main road to go toward the River Lodge. My average pace is a bit fast for me, but I’m not feeling it. I’ve been running much faster this year, and I’m comparing each mile pace to 9:08, the four hour marathon pace. So far I’ve been below that for every mile. So far the heat isn’t bothering me.
The park along the river is pleasant. It’s shaded and a bit cooler, so the heat I knew I was building up had a chance to get out of my body and I was back on the level.
Almost at the farthest point into the park I hear a bit of activity behind me, then the lead bunch of the half marathon passes me. They had started a half hour after me and they’ve already caught me.
I get through Mile 9, what I count as the first third of the race with the same pace. I have a little trouble when we run up to the Safari Lodge. There’s a big hill going up there and it just keeps going. It slows me down a little, but I’m still faster than I think I should be even though I’m not feeling the effort.
There’s another turn around farther up the hill. After that, it’s downhill for a bit and I make up a little time I lost on that big hill. With a few more bumps, we’re back on the main road back toward the Falls. That’s a good downhill and even holding back there I’m close to an 8:10 pace coming up on Mile 13. If I’m feeling this good at the half, I could be on a good day. I pass halfway under two hours. I start to get a little excited about this. I’m running better than I did in the New Jersey Marathon, where I set a personal best earlier this year.
But I can’t get too excited yet. Maybe I’ve overcooked myself and I’ll blow up in the next couple miles. We run past the Kingdom Hotel again and go back toward the Falls, but rather than go over the bridge we turn left onto Zambezi Drive again to repeat most of the loop.
I make it through Miles 15 and 18 maintaining a sub-4 hour pace. Now I knew I was on a good day. I could set a personal record here. Not only that, I had a chance at breaking four hours today. Still, I had eight more miles to go and a lot can happen. I’ll think about that again when I get to Mile 20. I heard that last year part of the race was held up for animals crossing the road .I had seen some warthogs scurry across and I once saw one of the soldiers holding his rifle at the low ready peering intently into the woods. If I wasn’t running so well I would have stopped to take a picture with one of them. How many races have course marshalls with AKs?
I go through the park again, but there’s an new out and back now. I hadn’t expected that and it takes me out of my head for a moment. I was pushing toward Mile 20 thinking I knew what was ahead, but I don’t know where this is going. I take a quick pit stop for nature but I’m back to running. This puts me a little off my pace, but it’s not a problem. I’m still ahead of the pace I want and I’m feeling fine. By Mile 19 I’m not feeling good, but I’m not struggling either. That’s a good sign.
I run out of the park at a good clip, pushing it a bit to make up for the pit stop but also to get myself to Mile 20 before three hours. If I could be there a little early, I’d be in the right position for a sub 4. I got there with two minutes to spare—two minutes I could use for that 0.2. From here, I could slow to a 10:00 pace for the rest of the run and come in right at four hours. That should be easy. Right?
Mile 21 starts with a short downhill but then it’s uphill for a long time. This is going back up to the Safari Lodge. The sun is up and now it’s hot, with no shade along this stretch. I run the next mile right at a 10:00 pace, which annoys me because there’s nothing to spare there. In the next mile, things go poorly. I’m losing momentum on this uphill and the heat is bothering me a little. I decide to take a walk break, and this is where I lose it, I think. I lose a couple of minutes here, but I tell myself not to panic. I can make up for this later. It’s better to take a little break here to regroup then run myself into the ground.
But that hill up to the Safari Lodge is a motherfucker. I lose more minutes and I start to feel the sub-4 slip away. After the lodge, we turn to the right and go uphill, but they moved the turn-around farther up the hill. This gets to me a little. I was thinking that I could take a short break, hit the turn around, then be on the downhill. Now I have this extra uphill, which I walk. I take off my shirt to get rid of some heat.
At Mile 23, I have 20 minutes to get to the finish to break four hours, and I know for certain that I’ve lost that. I still have a chance to run a personal best though, but I’m not particularly interested in that. If I set a new record, it wouldn’t be by much, so what’s the point?
I get back to running, but I’m pretty slow. I’m a bit demoralized, much like some of the marathoners who have already given up. The really fast runners, the locals in contention for the prize money, just stop when they know they aren’t going to win. They aren’t in this for the love of running. They just want the money.
I mentally gave up, but I was still going to finish with a good time. But it gets worse.
At the 40 Km marker, my Garmin is spot on. I should have 2.2 Km left, and that’s about what my distance says. That’s unusual for my track, which is usually about a quarter mile long at this point. Even then, at 40 Km, I should have 2.2 Km left no matter what my watch says.
I run for about a half mile and then see a “2 Km to go” marker. What the fuck? Maybe it’s just in the wrong place. I run for another half mile but I don’t see the 41 Km marker. When my Garmin says 26.1, I’m at a corner with a sign that says “1 Km to go”. Maybe that’s in the wrong place too. Down the road I can see the parking lot where we should end, and it’s about a tenth of a mile away.
I get there and miss the turn into the finishing chute. The directional sign was after it, so I ended up in the parking lot and people are shouting at me that I’m in the wrong place. No shit. I look around, find someone with a medal, and ask them where the finish is.
I get back on track. But then I enter a cricket field, with tape all the way around it. There’s another half mile to get around this thing, which I jog slowly, thoroughly pissed. Even if I had kept the pace I thought I needed for the past five miles, I wouldn’t have broken four hours because I’d have another half mile to go. I’m pissed that there’s an extra distance and I’m pissed that I might have run the best marathon of my life to still not have run the best marathon of my life. I could have run my second fastest time. I was pissed that things could be so screwed up in the last two kilometers. Was the 40 Km marker in the wrong place? It seemed to be in the right place based on my measurement from the preceding markers.
Still, I finished, got my t-shirt and medal, then found a place to lie down for a bit. In my frustration at the end of the run I’d forgotten that I’d just completed another circuit of the Seven Continents.
I waited around for the rest of the Marathon Adventures group to finish. I wasn’t the only one who had a bad day; everyone’s race seemed to go pear shaped at the same spot.
But, even with the time I had and the amount of walking and slow jogging I did in the last five miles, I had a really good run. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a better position at Mile 20. Maybe I could have pushed harder through Mile 22 to keep up my momentum, but I don’t think I made the wrong choice even though it turned out not to be right. With 65 marathons down, I’m used to this ending. It happens, it happened today, and it will happen again.
A bunch of us piled into a taxi for a ride back to the hotel. The driver wanted one of our shirts. This wasn’t a strange request. Many people had been asking for our western clothes, especially our flashy running shoes. I gave him my race shirt. I have enough race shirts already and this one was dark blue, my least favorite tech shirt color. The half marathoners received the flashy red shirts. Lucky buggers.
Aside from the ending, this was a good race. That I was surprised by part of the course was my fault, but I also don’t like knowing the course ahead of time. That’s on me.