A few months ago I conquered the streets of Cape Town (on foot) by completing the Old Mutual Two Oceans 56KM Ultra Marathon (OMTOM). I am still in awe of how I managed a whole 56KMs of running despite the multiple injuries that plagued my body, which, also holds very novice experience in long distance running. Somewhere between completing only two full marathons (42.2KM) and one 50KM Ultra marathon, I decided that it was time to face my biggest challenge yet, so I signed up for OMTOM (eek). If you must know some things about this race is that it is dubbed the most beautiful in the world but, it is also incredibly tough. I, for one, can certainly attest to that after being completely mesmerized by the scenic route which holds a difficulty rating of 5 (out of 5), according to runnersguide.co.za. By definition, races of this rating are “unashamedly difficult”. With a few months of training, a severe case of anxiety, lots of research conducted, a dose of excitement and plenty of will to succeed, I found myself at the starting line of what has now become a race that will forever be etched into my soul.
Needless to say, running 56KM is no child’s play, that’s a given, but the race’s difficulty rating is what made me nervous the most. Moreso because the last time I ran a race of the same rating (Soweto Marathon), I dehydrated, almost collapsed and had to walk the second half. I subsequently missed my target by 20 minutes; I was completely devastated. Months later, I see the utter disappointment and struggle I experienced then resurface in the form of a crippling case of pre-race anxiety. OMTOM was no different. In an effort to alleviate my anxiety, I sought out for people who shared my finish time target and held the promise of pushing me to the end no matter what. After forming running alliances in the days leading up to race day, my plans completely bombed out at the start as fishing for my mates in what appeared to be a dark sea of 11, 000 ultra-marathon entrants proved to be an impossible task. Minutes before the start, I began to accept that that perhaps OMTOM was a giant that I would have to tackle on my own (panic). So I did, well, kind of.
The gun went off promptly at 06:30 and off we went. As per every other race, the start was quite jammed and made for a slow one. Within the first couple of KMs, many a runner came flying past me; I found myself needing to constantly remind myself not to feed into the hype and to rather run my own race. The route profile suggested that the first 28KMs were quite flat with the second half being really tough, which necessitated a “reserve energy for later” run approach. So I followed suit. As I crossed the 1 KM mark, the sad reality of how far I still needed to go threatened to intimidate me. That was when I decided to break the race into mini milestones to make it more manageable for me. My milestones were:
- get to the halfway mark (28KMs)
- endure the hilly Chapman’s Peak (30KM to 36KM) – the first real challenge
- get to the marathon mark and beat my personal best time of 04:33 (whilst reserving energy for Constantia Nek)
- survive Constantia Nek- the hardest part of the race between 40KM-50KM
- get to the 53KM mark- where my running mates had a cheering point set up,
- finish between 06:00 to 06:15 (cut off was 7 hours).
The race started on Main Road, a long road that meanders for most of the first half. As the name suggests, the race boasts breath-taking views of both the Indian and Atlantic respectively- that is what I looked forward to the most. The Indian Ocean unveiled itself to us in Muizenburg around the 15KM mark. What a beaut! Whilst taking the beauty of the ocean in, I bumped into a group of guys who appeared to be running at the same pace as I was. Their race numbers also suggested they had some experience with OMTOM, so I started running with them to make sure that I had pace setters (in case I ever fatigued). All I did was greet them and start running besides them; this seemed to grant me automatic entry into what appeared to be their own running ‘bus’. These guys ran with me until the half way mark and through our journey, grabbed water for me, waited for me in moments that I slowed down to reserve energy and were adamant to run with me until the marathon mark. Did I mention that they did not know me at all? This, was the recurring theme in my race and attested to how unmatched the comraderie amongst runners is. Somewhere in their race, in spite of their own goals, their prerogative became to push a stranger to the 42.2KM mark. How remarkable. We parted ways at the half-way mark due to a difference in running strategies. In my mind, I had conquered my first milestone and needed some much deserved rest and for them, aluta continua it seemed. I never saw these guys again but I will be forever grateful for their role in getting me closer to the finish. I was incredibly proud of my average pace of 05:45 min/km over 28KM. I was relieved to have crossed the half way mark but, this seemed to be short-lived as the reality of the challenges to come dawned on me.
The first challenge met me at the 30KM mark- Chapman’s Peak. An enormous rocky mountain towering over a perpetually inclining and snaking road, with the view of the Atlantic Ocean nestled on the left. There are no words that could possibly do the beauty of Chapman’s justice. It is the kind of beauty that affirms that there truly is a God and that He is indeed magnificent. The beauty serves as a much needed distraction from the climbing that needs to be done to reach the actual Peak- 180m above sea level. The snaking uphill also boasts a full view of how far one needs to run in order to reach what one would assume is the summit of the hill. I found myself bargaining with my mis-aligned pelvis and cramping legs. I pleaded for them to just carry me to the top where we would get some relief from the steepness of the perpetuating hill. I soon learnt that this route encompassed a serious of hills, whose summits only served as the bottom of another snaking incline. This, along with the camber of the road, the strong winds and the view of runners that I had left behind catching up to me threatened to break my spirit. I was fatigued, the hill seemed unmanageable, my pace dropped to 7min/km and I felt tested. An emotional-wound inducing, never-ending horror story suffices as a description of what was an encapsulating beauty. This is when, for the first time in the race, the need to dig up some strength from deep within surfaced. In between praying hard, wrestling with negative thoughts from the challenge I was facing, resting on the flat parts, running and walking through the tumultuous hills, eventually the sounds of the band signaled that the Peak was near. I cannot begin to describe the relief that permeated through my entire body in that moment. With another milestone completed, an even bigger challenge lay ahead. “Let’s just get to the marathon mark”, I told myself.
I reached the full marathon mark (42.2KM) at 04:18. Proud to say that I shaved off 15 minutes from my best marathon time. I was elated and from then took the time to really recover and mentally gather myself for Constantia Nek, which, is the hardest part of the race. With the pain I had endured on what I thought was an easier climb in comparison in the back of my head, I realized that Constantia Nek would be a monster. And, I was right. Constantia Nek was painfully hard!!!! Moreso because the inclines I was climbing over were not visible to me but the rate at which I was fatiguing, the heaviness on my legs and the cramps that began on my left foot suggested that I was on this monstrous steep. Thoughts of giving up and going for a later target time presented themselves to me in waves. The sub 6-hour bus passed me and I struggled to keep up with them as my pace dropped to 9mins/km. I was alone, discouraged and felt defeated. All the strength and fitness that I had accumulated through months of training seemed to subside so, I started to let go of my target time. I just wanted to finish, nomatter how long it took. I allowed myself the liberty to walk as much as I could as I literally could not run anymore. The adrenalin rush and the energy from my supplements wore off almost immediately and no matter what I took in, nothing seemed to work. It was so tough, I haven’t recovered emotionally. I started to seek out any kind of inspiration that would help to keep me going as my own mind started to falter. At this point, a member from NRC, saw me and uttered, “don’t give up, Sisi. Keep going”. And, so I did.
Forty Six KM in, and the peak of Constantia Nek was finally reached. The viewers on the sidelines seemed to only be cheering for the people they knew (unlike at Om Die Dam where everyone seemed to be calling out your name and offering all sorts of treats on the road). I became even hungrier to reach the 53KM mark where I knew mates from Thesis Run Cru, NRC, Braamfie Runners and the 94 had a cheer point. The desperation of needing to see familiar faces with only a few KMs to go was what kept me going. Somewhere in between the downhill slope, I gained my strength back. Again, I took the liberty of running with an unbeknownst lady who seemed to be way stronger than me. We ran together for a while. Together, we ran past the 6 hour bus that had ran ahead of us on the tumultuous inclines. I would walk water points, she would run past. As soon as I started running, I would catch up to her as she walked and she began to run with me. Unspoken partnerships. I lost her again, just before the 50KM mark where, I beat my personal record at 05:18- shaving 9 minutes off my 50KM time. Somewhere between 53KM & 54KM, the swarm of familiar faces starting to run with me and offer words of support marked the cheer point. It was much-needed and much appreciated. Despite my fatigue, this experience injected the need to finish what I had started and for once, it seemed possible.
With 1KM to go, I met up with my ‘running partner’ again. With the view of the finish only a few 100m ahead, we were both taken over by excitement. It all seemed possible. We were strong, averaging just under 6mins/ km. We sprinted towards the finish but, after a while, she was going too fast for me and I watched myself fall out of our pace and fell behind. Suddenly, she grabbed my hand and said “you’re slipping, let’s go”. I literally held on to her hand until the finish. I don’t think I had ever held onto someone’s hand that tight. As we ran past the crowds on the sidelines, we were welcomed with a countdown from the speaker- as I looked up, I realized the clock had not reached the 06:00 mark. I was shocked. “Am I really about to finish a sub-6 OMTOM?”, I thought. And yes, indeed myself and Zandile (which I later discovered was her name) finished OMTOM 2017 hand in hand at a time of 05:54:54. As we crossed the finish line, a myriad of feelings came over me. 1. I couldn’t believe that a stranger was so invested in getting me through, 2. I finished OMTOM (finally after much struggle) and 3. I did it an entire 20 minutes ahead of my target. I couldn’t believe it. I must’ve thanked her 1000 times.
Running is not easy at all. There comes a time when you need to muster a strength that is nestled deep within and another, where your internal reservoirs are not enough and somehow, someone is always there is drive you further. I am still in shock of my time as I had felt underprepared and completely anxious. In retrospect, the waves of anxiety and fear of failure are the very thing that fueled me. You train for a race for months on end and on race day, you only have that one chance to meet yourself on the other side of your dreams- there are no retakes in that moment. I have since developed an even greater respect for all runners, all training that is done and most of all for my body. I ran for 6 hours with a long-standing injury on my archilles heal, developed an injury on my left foot during the race and somehow managed to finish the race in one piece. With the picturesque mountains serving as a perpetual background to the journey through Newlands, Muizenburg, Fishhoek, Noordhoek, Chapman’s Peak and HoutBay, it was truly an incredible way to explore the Mother City and truly, the most beautiful marathon in the world.