Race Report: Mielie Marathon

The parents of Lindsey, one of my training mates, live in the city of Welkom in the Free State. Every year Lindsey heads out to visit his parents and run the local Mielie Marathon in mid-January. This year our training group all decided to travel out there with Lindsey to check out a new race and enjoy a weekend away. In addition to the four regular members of our training group we were also travelling with Justin, an American who also runs at our club, who has started joining us for some training runs and was targeting a sub-3:00 marathon to secure an A-seed for this year’s Comrades Marathon.

So on Friday 18th January three cars left Joburg for the 2.5 hour drive to Welkom. The first car to arrive in Welkom contained Campbell, his wife Jolene and their 2-month old son Daniel. The second car contained the three single men for the weekend: myself, Kirsten and Justin (whose wife and 2 children stayed in Joburg). The final car contained Lindsey, Hayley and their 6-month old daughter Ella. All nine visitors were staying together at the house of Lindsey’s parents, so the weekend was planned to be cosy but festive. Upon arriving in Welkom we divided and conquered, with one car heading to buy some alcohol for the weekend while my car went to arrange race entries. As a small city race only involving approximately 100 runners, we decided that the inclusion of an Australian and an American promoted it to an international event and promptly decided to rename the race to the Corn Marathon (since mielie is a local term for corn).

Since I was not planning to run hard I was able to enjoy a few beers during the evening and Lindsey’s mother Philippa cooked up a great pasta dinner for all of us. To add some excitement to the evening Kirsten bit down on an unseen olive pit within the salad and managed to crack a tooth. While the rest of us sat down to watch the first part of Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, Philippa took Kirsten to a dentist to have a piece of his tooth removed and a temporary patch put in place.

On race morning we rose early, and as a collective hovered around eating breakfast, preparing gear and generally preparing for our first marathon of the new year. The five runners then hopped in a car for the brief 1.5 km trip to the race start. Kirsten would be pacing Justin in his sub-3:00 hour attempt, Lindsey (after a mid-week scare when he tweaked his soleus) would be starting slowly with Campbell (who was still building up his training after the birth of his son), and I was planning to run somewhere in between the two groups with no specific target time in mind. After having some key race rules announced to us in Afrikaans (hopefully they weren’t too important) the race started at 5:30.

I set off and tried to find a comfortable pace that I would be able to hold for the entire race. Glancing at my running watch in the first kilometre I decided that a 4:30 min/km pace (which would secure me a marathon time of around 3:10) was feeling good and decided to hold that pace. I checked my pace as my watch beeped for each of the first few kilometres and was keeping within five seconds above or below that pace. In around the third kilometre I had another runner pull alongside me and match my pace. We had a similar stride length so we fell into running perfectly stride-for-stride and side-by-side. We continued to run along like that while checking our watches at each kilometre marker, but without exchanging a word for around 6 or 7 kilometres. I had been using two words out of my very small vocabulary of Afrikaans to say “morning” and “thanks” to each of the volunteers along the route, and despite my terrible accent my running partner turned to me and asked a question in Afrikaans. I turned and apologised for only speaking English, and he repeated his question to ask me what time I was targeting. I stated that I was aiming to run around 3:10, and when I returned the question he stated that he was targeting a time between 3:10 and 3:15.

At around 10 km I was feeling very good and started considering whether to target a 3:05 marathon, which would have a nice ring to it as it would count as a Boston Qualifier for 2014. At around 13 km I noticed my training partner start to pick up the pace and we started running each kilometre between 3:15 and 3:25. We took a right turn into the town of Odendaalsrus at around the 17 km marker and shortly after engaged in our second brief chat. When asked where I was from I explained about coming from Australia and living in Johannesburg, as well as the running mates both in front and behind me. My running partner had driven 2 hours out to the race earlier that morning from Bloemfontein.

Shortly after the 18 km marker we turned right again and were running directly into a noticeable headwind. At the 19 km marker I was surprised when I was asked whether we had made back up the time. Since we had been running perfectly on pace for a 3:10 marathon until we had increased pace after 13 km, we were by then approximately 70 seconds inside the pace for a 3:10 marathon. At that point I realised that he might have miscalculated paces and simply answered that we were on track to run 3:10.

I decided that rather than attempting to increase pace further and target a sub-3:05 I would instead see if I could help pace him to a sub-3:10, but would do so without telling him. I noticed that he was starting to take strain with the continued run into the headwind and deliberately slowed our pace down to 4:35 min/km so that we started giving back some of the time we had gained. I thought that if we could turn out of the headwind still on track or slightly behind pace then he would still have a chance. Rather than running directly on my side he started falling back, and I slowed my pace knowing that if he ended up too far behind he would quickly slow down and fall well off the pace. The stretch into the wind lasted for over 5 km and by the final kilometre our pace had slowed beyond 4:45 pace. As we turned the corner out of the headwind I mentioned that we had lost the headwind now and were still on pace for a 3:10, and after a brief recovery period started to gradually pick the pace back up to the 4:30 min/km that we required. My running partner started to fall behind and I realised that I was the only one still holding onto a possibility of running a 3:10.

I ran the next couple of kilometres at 4:30 min/km pace and by then was running well and truly on my own. The route had turned onto an unpaved farm road which kept the pace from picking up too quickly, but with the course following a lollipop route I ended up back on the road just after the 29 km marker for the return leg along the stick of the lollipop. I picked up the pace and started averaging 4:20 min/km pace. Just after the 35 km marker I turned into the headwind again, and it would last for most of the remaining distance. The course then started to climb as well but I continued to hold the pace. I had been checking my pace but had not looked at my overall time since the 24 km mark, and decided not to pay any attention to time until I crossed the line. I ran the last few kilometres, turned into finishing straight and ran across the line in 3:07:04.

Kirsten and Justin had clearly broken 3:00 with a 2:55, Lindsey came in a few minutes behind me with a 3:11, and Campbell joined us with a 3:15. It had been a very good day for the team from Fourways.

Mielie Marathon - the Fourways boys at the finish
Mielie Marathon – the Fourways boys at the finish

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