Zoe’s reflections from her first Marathon

At a young age, my parents instilled in me the importance of having something to work toward. The setting of goals is important to me, and I motivate myself accordingly.

In November 2017, I ran my first half marathon, which felt very far at the time. The next logical goal was to run a marathon, which I decided to aim to do in 2018. Fast-forward a couple of months to June 2018, where I found myself sitting in front of my computer entering the Kaapsehoop Marathon to take place on 3 November 2018.  I remember thinking to myself at the time, “well there is no going back now”.

In the lead up to race day Linley insistently pressed me to commit to a finish time goal.  Eventually I think I grudgingly agreed to aim for 4:10 (let us call this Plan A), and remember thinking that probably 4:30 was more realistic. In my heart, I was just hoping to finish. Linley clearly had an idea in mind of what my finish time would be, to the point of writing down his estimate of my finish time beforehand and putting it in an envelope. I was instructed that I was only to open this envelope after I had completed the marathon – talk about pressure!

Some of my stats prior to this epic adventure:

  • 5km PB:                       23:33
  • 10km PB:                     47:15
  • Half Marathon PB:      1:53:58
  • Longest Run:               23km

Entering a marathon

Entering a race is the easy part, and I would argue that actually running the race is also relatively easy, once at the start line all that remains to be done is to put one foot in front of the other and keep going. The hard part is the in between – the commitment you have to make to yourself to train for your goal. Training for a marathon is a huge dedication of time, and requires a level of juggling proficiency. One becomes adept at planning each day in order to ensure that you are able to fit in your training. Of course, life happens at the same time, family commitments, work priorities, the weather and a whole host of other things crop up that you can never foresee at the outset. In the main I stuck diligently to our club-training program.

However, in the weeks leading up to 3 November 2018, I seemed to have developed a spectacular case of amnesia. Forgetting all the training I had done, and continually second-guessing my ability to complete a marathon, 42.2 whole kilometers. Did I mention that this was far?  Whatever possessed me to think I could do this?

Taper torture

I experienced tapering before my marathon as the worst kind of torture. I am a creature of habit, and become very out of sorts if my routine is disrupted. Tapering by its nature is an intentional disruption to one’s routine. I had so far followed the club training program almost to the letter, and since tapering was prescribed, I tried my best to follow these instructions as well. Bring on grumpiness, mood swings (no I did not have PMS), phantom aches and pains, general hypochondria and the worst part – heavy legs! In the few runs I did in the week prior to my marathon, my legs felt like lead. This did nothing for my self-confidence, in fact only greatly added to my, by now, deep seated doubt that I would be able to finish this race.

The day before

Anyway, Friday 2 November 2018 eventually dawns and my husband and I pack our bags, load up the car and start the journey to Nelspruit. We set the playlist to shuffle and listened to a variety of tunes at full blast most of the way. Usually finding joy in listening to good music, I found myself tuning it out instead and rather focusing blankly on the scenery flashing past. All too soon, I find myself at the Mbombela stadium standing in the 42.2km queue to collect my race pack.

I longingly look at the participants standing in the 21km queue, that is a distance I had come to know well in my training runs, and was comfortable with.  What the hell was I doing in the 42.2km queue?  I don’t belong here and am convinced that I would never be able to finish this marathon.

Is it just me or is that 42.2km featuring very prominently on the race number? 

We received a T-Shirt that I am only allowed to wear once I have finished the race; at this stage I am convinced that I will never be wearing this particular T-Shirt.

The Nelspruit Marathon Club was very efficient and I experienced race pack collection as a quick and painless process. By the time we reached the guesthouse, the butterflies in my stomach were becoming uncontrollable, and I felt nauseous, nothing – not even rescue remedy (mom’s go-to solution for all types of stress) could help me now. I also kept on worrying that I had forgotten to pack something important, and kept checking through my list of items in my mind (Vaseline – check, running shoes – check, running cap – check, running socks – check, jelly babies – check, Oh no did I pack the charger for my watch?! – yes check, and so the list went on). I unpacked our bags and found my running gear. The training program called for a 20-minute easy run, so off I went. Feeling somewhat better after my little sojourn around the suburb of West Acres, I changed into my jeans (no shower since the guesthouse temporarily had no water due to a burst pipe somewhere) and we went off on a recce to find some food.

After an early dinner of steak and veggies at a nearby restaurant, we climbed into bed around 20:00 that evening, since we had a super early start the next morning.

Who was I trying to kid?

Sleep was elusive, and the guesthouse made all these weird noises, further amplified by my nerves. I woke up from my sort of doze at 01:00, again at 02:00 and eventually got out of bed at 02:51, disgusted with myself and my lack of ability to sleep. All in all not a great start to what was probably going to be a very long day.

Race day

I made myself some coffee and sat outside on the balcony looking out at the stars. There was no turning back now, I remember trying to reassure myself by mumbling under my breath “You can only try your best, you have trained for this, just take it really slowly and you will be ok”.  I dressed in my race gear, made sure that the husband (Read: chauffeur and race second for the day) was up and dressed. He was, but wasn’t looking too enthralled with the early shenanigans, I brewed him some coffee and hoped we would both wake up soon’ish.

I then tip-toed downstairs downstairs to the self-catering kitchen to make myself some peanut butter toast (only crazy people eat breakfast at 03:40 in the morning!). I forced myself to eat my toast, pacing up and down in the tiny little kitchen (apologies to the guesthouse – I probably left a trail of crumbs on the floor).

I made my way back upstairs and do another obsessive check of all the items that had to be packed in the car.  I somehow still managed to leave my tog bag behind, which hubby had to go back and fetch after dropping me off. I confirm that the race number I had pinned to my race top last night had not magically disappeared whilst I was “sleeping” or eating breakfast and checked to see if I was still wearing my running shoes. Did I remember to brush my teeth?  Maybe I need to pee (again)?

04:00 finds us sitting in the car on our way to the start, except shortly after take-off Google maps starts shouting at us to turn around, and I am panicking. What if we get lost and I get to the start late? That will not be good at all!  Husband does a U-Turn at the next robot and Google maps calms down and instead tells us that we must drive straight for some 30 plus kilometers.

Unfortunately, I simultaneously realise that we are driving up the route that I have to run down.  Oh no! I don’t want to see this now! The kilometers roll past and I think to myself “Wow, this is so far”. I don’t want to look, so I close my eyes. Closing my eyes makes me feel sick, so I open them again. It feels like we are never going to get to the start. Note to self – never, ever drive the route beforehand, it totally freaks me out.

We arrive at the start with plenty of time to spare, but I need to use the loo (yes, again, and I actually need to go this time). I join a very long queue for the stinky porta-loo, and try to tune out the various commentary from the other nervous runners around me. I was having a hard time dealing with myself. I did not have the energy to spare to focus on anyone else. After a 40-minute very cold wait in the loo queue, I finish my business and join the pack of runners at the start line. At least it is a little warmer here amongst all the runners.

After what felt like an interminably long wait, the pack of runners eventually starts moving forward. I have not heard the start gun go off, but it would seem the race has begun. I push GO on my watch and swear silently to myself. Here I go, I am running a marathon (EEK!!!).

The start of the race takes us past the small village of Kaapsehoop (or Kaapschehoop). There are a couple of supporters lining the roads, all looking a little bleary eyed (by now it was just before 6:00 am), nursing cups of steaming coffee in the cold misty morning. My watch bleeps after 1 km, I glance at it and see that it has taken over 7 minutes to do one kilometer. Getting out of the pack was a challenge, so I comfort myself with the thought that I had planned to run slowly, so this was okay, if somewhat slower than Plan A.

We turn left into a forest and the road becomes a medley of potholes, sand and tar, it sneakily goes up (as in very up), where are all those downhills everyone has been telling me about? The runners around me all slow to a walk. I remember that Linley says I am not supposed to weave around runners, since this unnecessarily uses up energy. I guess beating fellow runners over the head for inconsiderately slowing to a dawdle in the middle of the road will also use up energy to, and will probably be frowned upon. I slow to little more than a jog and concentrate on exercising some patience whilst trying not to trip over anyone.

Plan A becomes Plan B

I keep checking my watch to monitor my pace, but the slow start, coupled with the walk/jog into the forest has meddled with my plan. I remember reading somewhere that you should not run too fast in the first half of the marathon, since you cannot “bank” time. This keeps me obsessively checking my average pace to try to slow myself down. I have been worried all along that I will hit the dreaded “wall”, and want to do everything that I can to avoid this. At around the 6km mark I realise that continually worrying about my average pace, and trying to run at a pace slower than what is naturally comfortable for me was stealing my energy. At this stage, I promise myself that I will not look at my watch to check my pace again; I decided to run based on how I felt, an easy pace that felt comfortable for me. Essentially, I threw Plan A out of the window, it was time for Plan B, I now had two goals – (1) Enjoy it, (2) Finish it!

The route was very pretty, winding through forests, with breathtaking views over the mountains and across valleys. Clearly not their first rodeo, the Nelspruit Marathon Club had again excelled in its planning and there were regular well stocked refreshment stations with friendly and enthusiastic volunteers cheering us along the route.

Before long, I saw a banner ahead of me marking the start of the 21km route.  I remember thinking to myself, “This is just wrong, I am only halfway, normally I would be finished by now”.  I remind myself that I am not running a half marathon, but a whole one and push the thought aside. I decide to congratulate myself for making it halfway, and do an inventory of how I feel.

  • Feet – check, still there and feeling ok;
  • Legs – check, still attached and feeling strong;
  • Breathing – still steady;
  • Overall – feeling pretty good.

As a reward for a positive outcome from my inventory, I treat myself to a red jelly baby (the red ones remain my favorite). I remember I must switch my phone on and send a live location so my mom can check on my progress. I manage to do this without dropping my phone or falling over my own feet and hastily stuff my phone back into my running belt.

I now look forward to seeing my husband at our first scheduled meeting spot, which should be around the 26km mark. I still don’t check my watch which has reliably been bleeping as the kilometers ticked past, since by now I am probably so far off any sort of race plan that there is little point, and I am not in the mood to freak myself out and start worrying about my time.

I crest a hill and spot my husband on the road shoulder on the right, reliably armed with a banana and my sports drink. He had also been kind enough to stop and pick up some ice on his way to scheduled stop number 1, so my sports drink was refreshingly cold. We agree to see each other again at 32kms, and I start running again.

I have some very fond recollections of seeing club members and runners on the road. I had never fully appreciated the value of belonging to a running club until I ran this marathon. It was also wonderful to see members of the club, that were not running the marathon, but who had taken the trouble to be there and provide support along the roadside. Those friendly faces, cheers, waves and words of encouragement along the way meant so much to me, and seemed to make the time and distance go by faster.

The madness gets “madder-er”

At 37kms, another agreed meeting point; I grab my chilled sports drink from the husband, who informs me “You are looking strong”.  I laugh a bit, and retort “ek lyk net so [I only look that way]”. To be perfectly honest though I was actually feeling okay, which he probably knew. He responds by telling me that I must catch the sub 4-hour bus. Caught totally off guard, I look at him in amazement, and respond, “There is no way that I will run a sub 4 hours, geen manier nie [no way]”.  He gives me one of those grins of his, and waves me off. I start running again, shaking my head at him, he is crazy.  After running a couple hundred meters, I can’t get his comment out of my head and decide to check my watch.

In disbelief, I check and recheck the watch face, it read something along the lines of 3:28 and some change. Well, what do you know, I have just under 5kms left to run and to achieve a sub-4 hours I would need to do this in 30 minutes or less. I remember thinking to myself, “Well that’s a parkrun, and you can definitely do a parkrun in 30 minutes”. 

Instead of running along enjoying the scenery, I realized I would have to focus if I was going to make the finish line in under 4 hours.

My impromptu Plan C almost immediately seemed doomed to fail as I started up the final hill around Mbombela stadium. A super long nasty hill that seemed never ending when coupled with the Nelspruit heat and humidity. Feeling sorry for myself, I slowed to a walk, who needs a sub 4 hour finish anyway?

My pity party was, however, short lived, as I soon had Linley enter my head (uninvited) shouting “Don’t give up we have trained for this”. I decided a jog was at least faster than a walk, and duly picked up the pace. I also recall looking up at the cotton wool clouds and appealing to my dad, who was, hopefully, sitting on one of them looking down on me. I remember saying aloud to him “a little help around about now would be good please”. I am sure the other runners near me must have thought I was bats, but I didn’t care. A stern conversation with myself also helped somewhat. This went something along the lines of “Don’t be pathetic. It’s only a hill.  It’s not that hot.  You are not tired.  Don’t walk. You can do this!”

Probably largely thanks to many hill sessions diligently completed in club training, I eventually made it to the top of the hill, and now I could smell the finish line (mind you, I couldn’t see it yet, but smelling it was good enough for me at this stage). With two kays to go and the hills quickly forgotten, I bolted for the finish line like a horse making for the stables, managing a 4:49 last kilometer.

Pushing stop on my watch as my toes hit the timing mat; I was too scared to look at my final time.  Instead, I just pushed stop and kept on walking to collect my medal (definitely earned this one, regardless of my finish time).

Someone (for the life of me I cannot remember whom this was) from club enthusiastically congratulated me and asked me my time.  My moment of reckoning had arrived; guess I need to look now. I sort of peeked at my watch with one eye. Checking again with both eyes open, I read my finish time: 3:59!  YEEEEHAAAA!!! I did it; I ran my first marathon in under 4 hours!

Linley’s “gestimate” of my finish time, luckily I didn’t see this before the time!

What an unforgettable experience, I cannot believe that I just did that.  At times, it seemed never-ending and then suddenly it was all over way too soon.

All I want to know now is – where do I sign up for the next one?

Me with a Cheshire cat grin just after I finished.  I wonder If I can wear my medal to work?

Lessons Learned

  • Listen to and trust your coach and adhere to the training program. I can never adequately thank Linley for how much he helped me to prepare for this marathon. He was tough on me at times, often setting me what I thought were unrealistic goals (like telling me to run a sub 50 minute 10km!), he was most importantly always there for us as a training group. Cheerfully providing advice and guidance, willing to share his experience and always able to see the positive in any situation
  • Yes it hurts – but prevention is better than cure – get a sports massage every now and then
  • Believe in myself and keep tech in its place. Technology plays a huge role in our lives these days (whether we like it or not), but there is no replacement for listening to your own body
  • I will not be able to look a jelly baby in the eye for a while (not even the red ones), and I take no responsibility for what I may do if you offer me a PVM bar! These were my staple foods whilst running, and they seem to have done the trick, together with myPepto Sports drink (again thanks to Suzelle from club for the good advice in training).  Suzelle has become my Pepto dealer, I remember a couple of times collecting my stash out of her car boot late at night after training
  • Trust the taper process, even though it sucks at times (actually all the time). The most important run for me in the taper period was the leg loosener of 20 minutes the day before race day.  It helped calm my nerves somewhat and reminded me that I actually run for fun
  • Don’t discuss your intentions to run your first marathon with people who have not run a marathon. They just think you are nuts anyway and provide unhelpful comments about how far it is which only adds to your angst
  • Proper hydration and fueling in the weeks leading up to race day are critical. I am so blessed to have a husband that cooks like a champion, and who understood the need to eat healthy, nutritious food.  He took his cooking duties seriously and did so with a smile (most of the time), although he did grumble once or twice that I was eating him out of the house and has threatened to rename me “Hoover” (to clarify this is short for vacuum cleaner, not the American President) going forward
  • There are times in my life where I have felt that I have had to travel alone. This was not one of those times.  The support that I received from so many people * has indelibly left a mark on my life, for which I will be forever grateful.  I finished this marathon thing and you all had a critical role to play in getting me over that finish line.  Well done and thank you for putting up with me!  The bad news is that I have a feeling my running journey is only just getting started, so count yourselves as forewarned.


*  Special Mentions

  • Gerhard Scholtz: Husband, best friend, chauffeur, chef, pro second, couch coach and My Person
  • Roz Henson: Mom, general go-to person, champion listener to all things running related and cheerleader extraordinaire – we won’t mention here that you are bad for my budget since we always seem to be buying running tops!
  • Linley September: Running coach and slave driver
  • Suzelle Engels: Pepto Dealer and lender of socks on the odd occasion when I forget to pack my bag properly for training after work
  • Wynand Breytenbach: Photographer and always super supportive at every race, especially and including this one
  • Louis Visser: Awesome supporter along the marathon route, I looked forward to seeing his Irene Supporters shirt and encouraging smile every couple of kays
  • Kristen Jurgens: What would I do without you to fix my legs for me?
  • Maderi Claassen: The best doctor in the world with magic pink potions to help my immune system
  • My various running buddies: You know who you are – my life (and my long runs) are better with you in it, love you guys!

#loverunning #nevergiveup

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