Race Report: RAC Tough One

The very first race I completed in South Africa was the Tough One in 2010. I had flown out for three weeks in November to meet people and see the place before moving out in January. I had already signed up for Two Oceans and Comrades, and had run the Portland 3 Bays Marathon in Australia at the end of October. The route was meant to be tough but I had always been quite good at hills. It seemed like a great way to start my running in South Africa. I had under-estimated the effect that Johannesburg’s mile-high elevation would have on my running, despite the fact that the weekend prior to the race I had gone out for a solo long run and had ended up walking part of the way home. I went out at a decent pace, felt good early, but really struggled for the last 10 km to cross the line in 2:55.

In 2011 the race had a new route but I was unable to run as I was tapering for the Port Elizabeth City Marathon the following week. However a couple of weeks prior to the race Kirsten and I had set out to run the route as a training run, and had run a comfortable 2:40 with a couple of petrol station stops for hydration. A year living at altitude with some very good training had certainly made a difference. On race day I helped at the water table run by the Morningside running club, handing out water sachets to the thousands of runners that went past.

This year I was again running the PE City Marathon but since I was not targeting a fast time I was not tapering and was able to officially attempt Tough One for my second time. The race would once again use the new route as run in 2011. It had been a good training year and we had started including a training route named the Mini Tough One into our training program. Featuring some of the main climbs from the old Tough One route the Mini Tough One had started out as a 25 km route, but with a few variations and additions over its numerous iterations it had reached as far as 31 km, almost negating the “Mini”. The Tough One race awards a silver medal for completing a sub-2:30, making it a particularly easy silver, but it sounded like a good target for me so I decided to target a time just under 2:30. Similar to City2City (read my race report here) Campbell was not in shape to join me for the entire way but decided to start off with me and then slow down.

Warning: I apologise to the foreigners (referring to non-South Africans in this case) reading this but I will mention street and area names in places so that fellow Tough One runners can fondly recollect and visualise their own runs. Where this relates to notable climbs where the name means nothing to you I would suggest you simply try to picture running up a really big hill while sucking in oxygen through a paper bag since Johannesburg is at medium altitude.

Having lost my foot pod during the Otter Run (read my race report here) my watch could only function as a stopwatch so I could only judge pacing based on kilometre markers along the course. Campbell and I had worked our way through traffic and picked up to a normal pace before we started the first ascent of the day up Republic Road, which started within the first kilometre. We took it easy up the hill and I let Campbell set the pace as I tried to judge his fitness for the bigger climbs to come. I managed to miss the first couple of kilometre markings but Campbell informed me that we had completed the first 2 km in about 11 minutes, which was about on pace once the slow first kilometre was considered. After cresting the hill we ran predominantly downhill along Republic Road and then Malibongwe Drive for the next 5 km and were pacing ahead of target.

We then faced the next challenge of the day, a 2-km climb up Malibongwe Drive after crossing the N1 highway. The pace slowed down and I made sure to point out the crest of the hill as soon as it was visible. Once over the top we were rewarded with another long downhill stretch as we continued down Malibongwe Drive but as we turned onto Witkoppen Road I slowed down to wait for Campbell as he took a quick toilet break. We continued down the hill knowing that our next turn would take as to the section of the course that really earnt the race’s name. From my training run along the new route last year I had remembered the tough 4-km climb through the suburb of Douglasdale, and had remembered the 18-km mark as being key. Therefore I had talked to a few people about the course and had pointed out that the main climb was a tough one from the 14- to 18-km markers.

As soon as we turned off Witkoppen Road just before 13 km the route began to climb, and at that point Campbell decided that he would back it off so we said farewell. I continued on my own up the hill and realised after the 14-km marker that I had definitely made a mistake as I was actually on a descent. It was then that it occurred to me that the 18-km point was the start of the climb rather than the end of it. I apologised in my head to all of the people to whom I had inadvertantly given false information, and at the 15-km marker I performed a quick mental calculation to determine if I was on pace for my 2:30 target. I was about a minute inside the required average pace but with the biggest climb of the day not far away. The course reached its lowest point alongside the Jukskei River and then started to climb as we moved away from the river.

After a dip in the road I started to climb and then passed the 18-km marker. The climb would end over 4 km later just after passing the 22-km marker. I was feeling good on the ascent and with my strong climbing I continued to pass people as I ran, providing a great mental boost. As I passed over the top of the climb I thought that it was time to reevaluate my position but as I passed the next kilometre marker my brain went into a temporary shutdown and I wasn’t sure what marker I had just passed. I decided to wait for the next marker, and as I passed 24 km I calculated that I required a 39-minute final 8 km to achieve my target. My legs were still feeling very strong so I was confident that I would comfortably make the time.

I ran at a pace that was feeling very comfortable and I started recording splits well inside my required pace. The course went into a steep descent and just after the 27-km marker I was greeted by friends from the Morningside running club that were volunteering for the race. I gave them a genuine smile as I was feeling great, and then began a gradual ascent to the finish line. I remembered that the course did include a final sting in the tail with a short, sharp hill inside the two kilometres but I ran it without trouble. I turned towards the sports ground where the race finished, crossed onto the grass for the final few hundred metres, and ran across the line in 2:26:18. I was awarded my silver medal and actually recorded my 32 km PB, but it is a distance where I have never really run flat out.

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