To tell the truth, preparing a race report about the West Coast (Weskus) Marathon in Langebaan, South Africa has been a difficult task. This most recent journey brought up so many rich and confusing personal and political questions for me, which at first glance have nothing to do with running, that it has been a challenge to focus on describing the race itself whenever I sit down to write.
It’s inadequate to say that South Africa is a country which invites a visitor into a profound, maybe even life-changing dissonance. There’s so much one doesn’t easily understand. At once the country is beautiful and welcoming and wealthy, while a few blocks away it is unspeakably poor and people are deprived of basic necessities. And these divisions, for the most part, are starkly made down the center between the races, with dark skinned people working hard to manage at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy as light skinned people, give or take a few exceptions, fiddle around at the top. One hardly knows what to do with the blatant contrast and the unfairness of it all. I spent most of my two weeks traveling with a dull headache and a pain in my heart as I grappled with what I was seeing and what it might mean.
But the harsh racial division is one reason why it is, in fact, important for me to write about the marathon in Langebaan because on Saturday, March 14, as Bill and I boarded the bus to take us to the starting line, we saw for the first time on our trip a rainbow of faces all together – all in one place – present for the same reason. To run. The race event was the only place we saw this kind of integration during our two weeks in South Africa. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, just that we didn’t see it, except there. On this morning, we could be sure no one on that bus would be served or serving anyone else. Every runner had the same status. Every runner had an equal right to be there and would be running his or her own best personal race. I know both Bill and I let out a breath of relief to know that at least the marathon did not respect anyone’s color or gender or political orientation over anyone else’s; if you showed up for it, it would treat you according to your ability to contend with it – nothing else mattered. (Although as soon as I say this, the dissonance is there, since one’s ability to run a marathon does, indeed, depend on whether or not you can pay the entry fee and whether or not you can afford shoes and good food and to keep your body healthy. You see the muddle I’m in trying to say anything definitive, don’t you?)
My own story of this marathon feels trivial compared to the very real, very daily struggle to live with dignity that the majority of South Africans face, and for that reason, it feels self-indulgent to bother anyone with it. Let’s face it, as evidenced by the fact that I have the privilege to fly about the world and run marathons, I’m one of those fiddling at the top of Maslow’s Triangle. But my own story is really the only story I have to tell. So here goes. I’ll stick to the race for now, but I’ll keep thinking about the bigger questions I have after this trip and what to do with them.
Saturday morning, I stood at the starting line and worried. It had been a grueling few days before this race and I was afraid I wasn’t up to it. Six days ago, Bill and I had flown to Cape Town (23 hours in the air), spent a few days there and then “hired” a car to get us to the coastal town of Langebaan and to the West Coast National Park. It was here that I stood waiting for the go-ahead to begin the race. We’d taken a drive through the park to give us a sense of the race route two days earlier. I knew what to expect: rolling hills, ostriches and a dry, sandy terrain with low shrubs and sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean and the Langebaan Lagoon. The land on which the West Coast National Park lies makes an inlet that forms the lagoon. Hold up the thumb and forefinger of your right hand like you’ve got a quarter between them and you can see the general shape of the inlet in the space there. The race would go from Tsaarsabank on the far West (your thumbnail) where you could see the Atlantic Ocean. There would be a short out and back half way (at the crease between your two digits) and you would end in the city of Langebaan (at the tip of your forefinger).
Two nights before the race, on Thursday, after driving the course, Bill and I located a guest house with a kitchenette and a full view of the lagoon. We’d taken a ride to the grocery store a little out of town and purchased the makings for a spaghetti dinner. I’d prepared it and we’d eaten our carbohydrates with some South African Chenin Blanc we’d bought at a winery we’d stopped at earlier in the day. Then we’d watched a little TV (which consisted of news in various South African languages and an old Bill Murray movie) and had gone to bed.
At three o’clock that morning, I woke up shivering. I had intense cramps in my abdomen and a sharp headache. The longer I lay there, the worse the cramps became. Finally, I had to run to the bathroom, knowing what to expect. I had a violent case of diarrhea. I figured I must have gotten food poisoning somehow. Bill would have it too. But when Bill awoke a little while later, he was fine. He offered me some medication for the fever, which I took. But I couldn’t get back to sleep. Until the sun rose, I vacillated between freezing and sweating and running to the toilet.
Friday, one day before the race, I didn’t feel any better. The fever was in check due to the medication, but the diarrhea kept coming. I drank water a small sip at a time all day to stay hydrated. We moved to the next guest house I had pre-arranged for us where I climbed into bed for the remainder of the day. I can’t even remember if I ate anything for dinner.
I kept thinking, “I came to Africa to run a marathon and I’m going to do it.” Throughout the day on Friday, whenever Bill verbalized his worries about me, this is what I told him. And, as I lay in bed there, in the African heat (I’ll get to that later), watching Bill pace the room trying to figure out what to do for me, I knew it didn’t matter how sick I was in the morning. I would be at the starting line.
This brings me back (or forward?) to Saturday. When we woke up to get ready for the race, Bill asked me how I felt and I told him, “It doesn’t matter.” I got dressed, out the door, onto the bus and up to the starting line chanting that mantra. The morning was beautiful, and I tried to take in the unidentifiable (to me) scents of the flora all around us and to feel the southern air on my face between the periodic waves of pain in my abdomen. The temperature at that point was comfortable, approximately 70 degrees Fahrenheit. There was a comfortable breeze and excitement in the air. The sound of the ocean lapping onto the bank nearby was rhythmic and calming.
South Africans, much like the Japanese runners we had encountered earlier this year, run as clubs. There is a very strong club identity in each geographic area around the country, and from what we could see, the clubs were racially mixed. Each club member was required to have a “running license” to take part in organized events. It was explained to us that a person could only get a permanent license after participating in a certain number of events in order to show a serious commitment to running. You could identify members of the same club by the information on this permanent license, which was worn on the back of the shirt – the race number was on the front. Bill and I had been given temporary licenses for us to safety pin to our backs. As we stood at the line, waiting, these licenses tagged us as either foreigners or new runners. We noticed other runners glancing at us curiously and then looking away to be polite.
It was 7:00 a.m. and, with the adrenaline of 560 chattering and stretching marathoners all around me and the sun poking its nose above the horizon, I had a brief moment before we started the race when I felt almost strong. I gave myself a little pep talk, saying, “You ran under five hours in Japan! You’re in good shape. You can do anything for five hours. Just put one foot in front of the other.” Bill, who was still at my side, kissed me goodbye and moved further toward the front of the pack. Then the horn blew and we started running.
Let me make this part short and to the point. Let me do it because now, typing at my keyboard, I CAN make it short; I can do what I could not do that Saturday. I can hurry through the hard stuff. The sun rose above our heads, and (we heard later) it reached 38 degrees Celsius (about 100 degrees F). I continued to have cramps throughout the run until I had to find a bush to squat under and…. Well, you can fill in the blanks. Though the park foliage was magnificent, it was all low to the ground, a knee level eco-system with unique plants exclusive to South Africa. There wasn’t a single tree for miles; nor was there any shade – at all. The fast people at the front of pack were hot and sweaty just like those of us at the tail end, so they drank all the water before we got to the aid stations (plus, there were apparently more registrants than the organizers had expected). So for the first 18 kilometers we were offered only Coke to replenish the fluids we were losing. I always carry water, so I had an advantage over other back-of-the-packers who had to manage with cola. I was rationing, though, and dying to have a nice long guzzle of water by the time the problem was addressed. I must still have been fighting a fever, too, because I had moments of feeling slightly chilled in spite of the uncomfortable heat. And the hills that looked rolling and easy in the car two days earlier were endless and numerous on foot. As a point-to-point marathon, it just kept going up with little dips in between to fool you into thinking you were getting a break now and again.
Still, although I was quite frankly miserable, although I watched my pace slow with every kilometer until I knew it was unlikely I would make it to the finish for the cut-off time (5.5 hours), although I had to walk most of the hills in the second half, and although one woman rebuked me for dropping my power gel packet on the ground (which I never, ever, ever would have done if I hadn’t been watching the clean-up crew and weren’t absolutely positive that it would be swept up before I was even off the course), I knew I was having one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. Many people came up to me and asked me where I was from. They told me about their favorite races around the country and asked me how I was faring in the heat, being from the North as I was. The people at the aid stations were full of encouragement and greetings and apologies for the lack of water. No ostriches chased me. I was never totally alone at the back of this pack as I so often am at home. There were plenty of other stragglers around to keep me company. And, hell, I was in AFRICA! I was kitty-corner across the globe from my home, my terrain and my worldview.
So, while if I had been in the same circumstances in, say, Wenatchee, I would have opted to call it quits after just one loop around Confluence Park, I was not tempted now to stop moving forward in this race. And, while I occasionally ran with eyes closed and fantasized about ruby slippers and clicking my way home in an instant, I just reminded myself that if I did what I was doing long enough, eventually the finish line would appear. It wasn’t magic, but it was true, and that helped.
The kilometers passed slowly. More hills came and went; I walked them. The vegetation never really varied from the odiferous shrubs I had squatted behind a few hours earlier, but once in a while glimpses of the water surprised me from out of nowhere and promised a refreshing, cool splash when this was all over. Finally, I could see the town of Langebaan (remember your forefinger?) in the distance. The little resort town sparked in the sunlight with reflections off of its clean white buildings. But as I saw the town, I also saw something I hadn’t noticed when Bill and I had taken the car on the course two days ago or when we were taking the bus to the starting line this morning: the biggest, longest, winding-est freaking hill I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m not sure how I’d missed it both times we had driven it, but I had. It was at least a kilometer long.
I was still a half kilometer away from having to face it, but I burst into tears. Thankfully, no one was close enough to hear my profanities flying, though I suspect I wasn’t the only runner to have that reaction and no one would have blamed me if they’d caught my words. I just couldn’t imagine from where I would mine the energy to make it up the whole thing. When I reached it, however, something in me kicked in. I knew I was near the end and I knew Bill would be there for me. I wanted so badly to see him and to stop moving and to find some shade. The only way to get there was up this hill. So, with tears streaking down my salty, sunburned face and thinking about how far I was from the triumph of Tateyama only a couple of months ago, I climbed it, one slow, labored step at a time.
There was another runner shadowing me, speaking to me occasionally in a language I didn’t understand. I think he was either saying something inspirational like, “Come on! We can do it!” Or he might have been cursing. But in any case, his presence was comforting and I offered him a faint smile now and again as we made our way.
After two years, we made it to the top of the hill and saw that the fates were smiling on us (or at least smirking) at last. It was all downhill for the final two kilometers into the town. I leaned into gravity and sniffled my way down to the finish line. When I saw it, I began to cry again. There was Bill – with his camera to record me in my weakest moment, of course. There were other finishers along the sidelines cheering for me, which made me cry all the uglier. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god. That was hard,” I was saying. Bill came around the other side of the finish line and pulled me into a hug that held me up for a moment. I looked at my watch and guesstimated my finish time (5:35). The timeclock had been taken down. And the medals were no longer being given out.
As quickly as I could, I found some shade in a tent and stretched. It was over. My body was completely worn out. I wanted to crawl into a ball and close my eyes. At least my bowels were quiet for the moment. Bill told me he was afraid I must have collapsed somewhere on the route, and he had concocted a plan for me to stay an extra couple of weeks in South Africa so I could recover and try again with another race somewhere else in the country. I was grateful we wouldn’t have to go to those extremes.