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.
Every Wednesday morning my training group currently runs the route known as the Four Peaks Challenge and previously we ran our former route, the Bryanston Half. Both of these routes share the last 8 km section in common.
As we run this last section we almost always pass a woman running the opposite direction to us. She is possibly aged in her 50’s, with long blonde hair, and she is always wearing a pair of shorts and a casual singlet that would fit in very well on the outdoor deck at a pub during summer. Despite looking very little like a runner, every time we pass this particular woman she is running down the same hill as we run up. In over a year of running the two routes we have seen her out there almost every time we are there.
Last week as I climbed up the hill I looked ahead to see her walking down the hill. She had her left arm in a cast from upper arm to wrist, and was obviously unable to run. Therefore she was out for a walk instead. As we passed each other, I greeted her with a “Good Morning” and she responded with a few words to communicate that her arm had been broken when she was hit by a car. But importantly she was still out and exercising.
This morning we ran the Four Peaks Challenge, and once again I past her walking down the hill. A broken arm hasn’t stopped her from training. What is your excuse?
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.
Since training for my first Comrades in 2011 Wednesday has been used as my long weekday run. During the training for that first Comrades I would complete an 18 km run during many of the weeks between February and April.
It was only after Comrades that I started training with my current training partners: Kirsten, Lindsey and Campbell. It was in September 2011 that I was introduced to the “Bryanston Half”, a training run starting and ending at Kirsten’s house. The Bryanston Half is a 21 km training route that includes 360 metres of ascent (and equivalent descent), and is considered as containing three phases separated by water stops. The first phase is almost exclusively flat or downhill, finishing at our first water stop. The second phase starts with a short, steep climb nicknamed Heartbreak Hill, is followed by a variation of ups and downs, and finishes with the longest climb of the phase to the second water stop. The third phase includes a tough early climb, followed by a long and fast gradual descent, and finishes with a very steep and tough climb of over 2 km.
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.
For all of those non-South Africans out there let me first start by clarifying that in this country a marathon is not necessarily 42.195 km. The most famous race in the country is the Comrades Marathon at 89 km, with the picturesque Two Oceans Marathon running for 56 km, and the City2City Marathon taking runners for 50 km between the two major cities of Gauteng province. Alternating directions each year, this year’s race started in Johannesburg and finished in Pretoria, making it a down run with the finishing location lower in elevation than the start point. But the race still manages to feature some nice climbs.
I had decided to target a time inside 4:10 for an average pace of 5:00 min/km. My running mate Campbell was under-trained for an ultramarathon but had agreed to attempt running with me for the first 30 kilometres. Our other running mates Kirsten and Lindsey were setting out to achieve a silver medal by running inside 3:45. It was feeling very chilly as the four of us drove to the start but by the time the gun went off it was clear that it was going to be a very warm day.
After a slow first kilometre we picked up to our target pace and the early kilometres were predominantly downhill. At the 16 km mark we reached the biggest uphill of the race, a tough 4 km climb, and agreed that we would take a 1 minute walk at the mid-point. After reaching the top of the climb we continued for another couple of kilometres before meeting up with Jolene (Campbell’s wife) and Hayley (Lindsey’s wife) waiting for us alongside the course. We stopped and greeted them for a brief chat, before returning to the task at hand and running on. We reached another tough climb at approximately the 26 km mark, and again walked for 1 minute at the halfway point. After descending down the other side of that climb we then had to face a slow, gradual uphill that would take us to the 30 km mark. We crossed the 30 km marker in a little over 2:32, putting us less than 3 minutes behind 5:00 min/km pace, and I shook Campbell’s hand for accompanying me through the challenging part of the course.
I performed some quick (or possibly not so quick after 30 km of running) mental calculations of required splits, and then told Campbell that I was still interested in breaking the 4:10 mark. He told me to continue on, and we said a farewell until the finish line. Having lost approximately 70 metres of elevation in the first 30 km, we would now proceed to loose approximately 170 further metres of elevation in the last 20 km.
Often it is a chance occurrence that can turn an ordinary training run into something special.
Yesterday I set off for a run on one of my regular routes. The weather was a bit cooler than ideal, my legs felt fine without feeling great so it started off as just a regular run. By the end of the run I felt rejuvenated and inspired.