The Pirate’s Half Marathon is one of the most difficult in Joburg. I had never completed the race prior to this year, and interestingly, despite being one of the most famous hills in Joburg I had never run up Northcliff Hill, the feature that earns the race its place.
I lined up at the start with Kirsten and after ducking and diving through people at the congested start we settled into a rhythm. We had an early discussion about the raw energy at the start line for a race, although I did mention that I was not particularly nervous for this half marathon since it would only be my fourth longest run of that week.
Although the serious work really begins after the 9-km mark the race throws out some climbs early on to soften the legs. Between 1.2 and 3.5 km the route featured two climbs with a short respite between them that already totalled to around 100 metres of ascent. Towards the top of the second climb we passed Lindsey and Campbell, who had arrived early to run 12 km before the race. We then descended for most of the next 3 km, except for the odd sharp ascent, loosing all the elevation we had gained in the early climbs. The climb from that point to the 9-km mark continued to sap the legs of strength, and then after 9 km we took a sharp left turn and the real work began.
The first section of the ascent was an extremely steep climb that was the steepest I have faced in Joburg. Early in the race Kirsten and I had discussed the fact that even at our pace there would be runners walking that climb, but I stated that walking would not be an option for us. We very slowly climbed to the top and then proceeded to wind our way around the hill, slowly loosing some of our elevation. A sharp turn, this time to the right, initiated the second phase of the climb. We climbed our way to the high point of the race at 13.5 km, and there we were greeted with a water table before commencing our descent.
The Pick n Pay Marathon is one of the bigger marathons in Joburg. Falling the day after Campbell’s birthday run at the Bronkhorstspruit 32 km, I entered to run the half marathon. As the end to a big week of training, and a faster-than-planned race the previous day I agreed to run with Kirsten at an easy pace.
We set off with Lindsey and Justin, who were running the marathon together, but we split up early in the race as we negotiated the huge number of people in the early going and Kirsten stopped to adjust one of his shoes. After crossing the N3 highway we started the first climb of the race and the crowd opened up enough for us to start setting our own pace. We fell into a comfortable pace and at the early kilometre markers I noted that for the second time in two days the markers were incorrect. Checking with Kirsten our watches agreed that the kilometre markers were falling 700 metres too far. At an average pace of 6:00 min/km that many people will run that inaccuracy in the distance markers would equate to people without GPS watches thinking that they were around 3.5 minutes behind schedule.
For the past few years the Bronkhorstspruit 32 km has been Campbell’s birthday run. Falling within the week of his birthday, it is a social event where we go down to run the 32 km race, and then stay around at the sports ground where the race finishes to enjoy some drinks and a braai (barbecue for the non-South Africans). This year was no exception.
After arriving at Campbell’s so that we could drive to the race together, when Kirsten (who is very punctual) hadn’t arrived a few minutes after the agreed time I called him up only to wake him. He had set his alarm with more than enough time to get ready, and had therefore decided that he could hit the snooze button. The next thing he knew I was calling him to find out where he was. We decided to travel in two cars and would meet at the start. Campbell and I travelled down together, drove onto the field and set up our gazebo on the corner of the finishing straight.
When Kirsten arrived we headed down to the start line, and very shortly after that the race started. Kirsten, Campbell and I started from the middle of the pack and slowly made our way through the crowd. A couple of times Kirsten looked back at me and Campbell as if we were dawdling, but my watch was showing respectable paces just over 4:30 min/km. The early kilometres took us out of town and went past quickly. Around 6 km into the race I noticed my watch automatically lap for the kilometre when we were still a few hundred metres from the kilometre marker. We all checked our watches at the marker and all watches agreed that the marker was approximately 300-400 metres far. It is not uncommon for individual markers in a race to be put down in the wrong, or even for a series of markers to be incorrect before correcting later so we weren’t too fussed.
We continued along maintaining a pace between 4:30-4:40 min/km, and on one of the climbs I noticed that Campbell was breathing quite heavily beside me. I jokingly asked Kirsten whether we should get Campbell to tell us a joke. The early part of the route featured some gentle but relatively long climbs followed by gentle descents rather than featuring any steep hills. At around 12 km as we climbed a hill Campbell suggested that if we took it easy to the top he would join us for the descent, and then let us go ahead at the next climb.
In my last Training Route post I covered the Bryanston Half in the first part of what I will name the Wednesday trilogy. Now for the sequel.
At the end of the last post I discussed the original and “easy” versions of the Bryanston Half, a challenging 21 km training route. The obvious progression for a group of runners that were (and still are) continuing to push new boundaries was to create a “hard” Bryanston Half. After Kirsten had planned and plotted the easy route I decided to make my mark on the hard route and straight away went to work mapping out a proposal.
I already had in mind a key feature for the new route and it involved the removal of the relatively flat run along the river once we reached the low point of the course, and swapped Heartbreak Hill with a replacement climb that was worthy of being called “hard”. Heartbreak Hill had one major flaw as a short and steep hill, and that was the fact that it is short. The replacement was achieved by reaching the river, crossing it, and then running straight up the other side in a continuous climb of over 4 km.
I replaced the gradual and winding descent that marked the first phase of the original Bryanston Half route with the most direct option down to the river, and that allowed for those flat and downhill kilometres to be replaced by climbs. It was obvious that the 2 km climbing finish of the original route needed to be maintained so the start and end of the route were finalised. I had wanted to include the tough climb from the easy Bryanston Half route but could not find a way to fit it in within a 21 km route. Therefore I left it out and sent a proposed route through to Kirsten for review.
Kirsten promptly responded with his feedback. The left-out hill must be included, and there was no need to feel limited by a distance of 21 km. The unlocking of the distance opened up some great possibilities and the route started to take shape. I added in the left-out hill but replaced an out-and-back section at the top with a new loop that had the benefit of adding in yet another climb. Kirsten and I ended up agreeing on a route with all of the climbs we wanted to include within a training route of 24 km. It was Kirsten that gave the route its name, the Four Peaks Challenge, after its four notable climbs. The route now featured only a single water stop at the halfway mark.
After missing my target at Narrabeen (race report here) I decided that I needed another goal race in the early part of the year to have a nearby focus for my training. I decided to target a half marathon since it is a distance that requires minimal recovery time, and my existing PB was run at a pace only barely faster than my marathon PB. My PB of 1:28:11 dated back to November 2011, and was a firm (but not flat out) half marathon run as a confidence booster prior to the PE City Marathon where I set my marathon PB. The last time I had run a flat out half marathon was back in August 2009, when I had broken the 90-minute barrier for the first time. Simply improving on my PB was never going to be difficult so I decided to set myself a more challenging target: I wanted to complete the half marathon at a pace better than 4:00 min/km, requiring a finishing time inside 1:24:24.
Looking at my training plan I started by picking the weekend that could best fit a fast half marathon, deciding upon the first weekend of February. I then looked at the available options for that weekend, and had two choices: the McCarthy Half Marathon in Pretoria on the Saturday or the Alberton City Half Marathon to the south of Joburg on the Sunday. The Alberton area is known for its lack of hills, and the race was written up as being fast and flat. But in the end I decided to run McCarthy, which involves more climbing but has a big turnout and a good vibe at the finish. Last year we had run McCarthy and then hung around until 1PM before leaving the park where the race finished. I discussed my plans with Kirsten and he agreed to come onboard to run with me on race day.
Two weeks prior to the race I went out to run a sub-32 minute 8 km time trial to build some confidence and test out my racing flats, which had not been out of the cupboard since the first half of last year. I completed the time trial in 31:15, and although I had needed to push quite hard to complete it I had run it faster than the target pace for my half marathon. Deciding to take the attempt quite seriously I opted to taper for the 5 days prior to race day. I had however run over 140 km the previous week and my legs weren’t feeling as fresh as I had hoped leading up to race day. I was fairly confident that I could achieve my target but I knew I couldn’t take it for granted and I knew it wouldn’t be easy.
On race day I drove through to the race early with Kirsten, we picked up our race numbers and then set off for a warmup of around 2.5 kilometres. We edged our way close to the start line and ended up with only 3-4 rows of people in front of us when the gun went off. We set off and I started squeezing through gaps and running around people. Despite our proximity to the start line I encountered more people to overtake than made sense, and realised that a considerable number of people had obviously started off to the side of the course in front of the start line and were merging in front of us. But after a few hundred metres we had cleared the traffic and started to settle into pace. We completed the first kilometre in 3:59 and were perfectly on target.
The Dis-Chem Half Marathon is the first half marathon in Johannesburg for the year, and it is a large event that easily reaches its 6000 entrant limit. With a 100-km race planned for the first weekend of the year I had marked off a 2-week rest period on my training plan for recovery, and therefore had not entered the race. However with my race at Narrabeen turning into a 50-km run (as per my race report here) I was back into training just 4 days later. I was interested in running at the Dis-Chem Half Marathon since it has a big field and a great vibe at the end but entries were well and truly sold out.
My initial thought was to drive to the race and run my own training run along a different course so that I could join in the festivities after the race. But on the Friday before the race I was able to arrange an entry from a friend at another running club as they knew someone who was unable to run. As part of the entry process you provide a target time that is used to seed all entrants. As a result I ended up standing behind the start line of the Dis-Chem Half Marathon with thousands of people in front of me from my position as an E-seeded entrant (with only F-seeded runners further back), and my race bib contained my race number and name in clear bold capital letters. My name for this particular race happened to be SUSAN.
The race started and we stood still for a while. Then eventually we started to walk. Then we started to run. Then we slowed to a walk. Then we started to run. Then we slowed to a walk. And then we finally managed to run all the way across the start line and only 21.1 km remained. I was unsure how my legs had recovered from the race the previous week so I planned to set out on pace to run a 1:40 and then speed up if my legs were feeling good.
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.