Sweating through Soweto
Every year, early in November, thousands of people gather to run through the streets of Soweto. Some run farther than others, some faster and some, like me, much slower. The strange thing, I am told, is that they are not running from anything. No dogs or policeman. The absolute definition of insanity apparently. I must say though that by the end of this year’s race I really was questioning my state of mind, like many of the spectators who lined the streets were as well!
I completed the half marathon at the Soweto Marathon for the third consecutive year this time around. And I will admit that this was probably the toughest out of the 3 I have done, despite the previous knowledge of the route the 2015 and 2016 races had given me. In fact it was probably the toughest 21.1km I’ve run in my 6 years of running so far.
The first run in 2015 was my best time. I had done a couple 10km in the run up to the race and was probably the most running fit at the start with my buddy Lebusa there to pull me along as well. We had been told that it was a tough race so we were ready for the worst. But the weather was a bit cooler at the start and the route was a little bit different, starting and finishing at Nasrec stadium so I managed to run a 2:55 if my memory serves me correctly. Running a half marathon through Soweto for the first time was a mixture of just plain awe with a little bit of a culture shock and comedy thrown in. We mostly passed residents going about their Sunday morning business willing us on. But there was also the odd still drunk onlooker already having their first beer of the morning. And many an irate taxi driver trying to push through the seemingly continuous throngs of runners trying to get his customers to their destinations in time. With the race having a staggered start there is very little gap between the time the last of the 42km runners clear the road and the first of the 21km runners come storming through. There was a driver who this year complained he had been waiting almost 2 hours to get through an intersection to the marshal and policemen who were guiding foot and vehicle traffic through it.
It is the people that actually make the race, hence the nickname of “The people’s race” I guess. The runners in their thousands and the spectators. The little kids lining the side of the streets cheering on the runners with “Umlungu water”. Or as a very skinny lady passed them with shouts of “Move your skeleton”! The older ladies in their bath robes sweeping the front yard and filling the streets with the breakfasts they are preparing (We got the smell of frying fish at the 3km mark this year and almost turned around to go find it!). The marshals and the many volunteers manning the water points always encouraging you on with “Looking strong, almost there” at the 5km. And of course the people who come to run, to clog up the streets of Soweto early on a Sunday morning and sweat there way down its dusty streets.
I started my second Soweto half marathon less prepared. I had been running, but not as many races. And when I train by myself I tend to be overly lazy. But again the weather was cooler at the start and overcast so it made it easier to run. Lebusa missed the race (I seriously think he was making a baby in Paris but i may be mistaken) but I had a new running buddy in Chandini who was doing her her first Soweto and we managed to somehow find a lonely Sanky at the start. Of course he was was surprised first to see us and then to find out we knew each other even though we had both been to lunch with him a few weeks before that. Both my buddies left me within the first 3 km because I told them I am a slow starter. The truth is I never get any faster during the race so I am actually just slow full stop. Again I made my way through Soweto, past the cooling towers at around 10km and onwards and upwards up Dolly Rathebe street when who do I see in front of me – Chandini! I ran to catch up with her and caught her around the 15km mark for me and what was the dreaded wall for Chandini. We were doing pretty good for time, under 2 hours in and 6km to go. But the wall can be daunting to get over so I was no longer running for just me, I was helping my friend get over the line of her first 21.1km. I shouted my own encouragement, I sang we laughed and then I was brought to tears. One of the other runners had collapsed at the 19km mark just after the toughest hill on the course. The paramedics were performing mouth to mouth in an effort to resuscitate him and I broke down knowing that they might not be able to. The next day we discovered that he did not make it but knew that he had died doing something he loved!
Chandini and I made it to the end, which was almost 22.5km after the start because the finish was shifted to inside the FNB stadium, in just over 3:10. She swore off running I think. Or even walking for a little while. But we were back at the start again this year. And we actually trained really hard. Chandini got my signed up with the Nike+ Running crew every Tuesday, we did zoo trots 3 times in a row and ran around the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens a couple times. I had stomach issues for weeks before the race and my doctor was not able to give my a prognosis. I have changed my diet and the week before the race was advised to stop taking the magnesium supplements I normally use to try to settle the grumpy stomach a bit. Lebusa was meant to be at the start as well but in all the rush to get in and play with the drone and get some shots we did not find him!
The cool starts we had the two previous races were replaced by an absolute scorcher and I was already sweating before the race had even began. But we were off and running before we knew it and for a while it was really good. I got to the 10km mark in 82 odd minutes despite my rumbling tummy, which was good going for me. But then the road turned uphill and got to be more shorter and claustrophobic at points. The heat began to take its toll and by 12km I was beginning to struggle. I headed up Dolly Rathebe again and there was no one to catch up to and run with. And all I could do was will myself to the 15km point where the road turned downhill again. And when I got there I felt my left calf cramp up. I should have carried salt but had not cramped up on a run in a few years since starting taking the magnesium. The cramps passed but from the 15km all the way to the monster hill at the 18km mark it felt like I was fighting gravity. Just get to the top and you can run again I kept telling myself. And just as I did I cramped up again. I walked most of the remaining 2km. I cried again, almost at the same point I had cried the previous year. And I crossed the line with my left calf almost solid with the third cramp of the race.
I finished though. I had survived Soweto 3 times. Cramped and mildly dehydrated due to the heat that kept getting worse. Tired but happy. The toughest one of the 3 I had run and at 3:08 one of the slowest 21km I’ve run. But instead of swearing off running I immediately started thinking of next year’s run and how I should maybe attempt the 42km if I can just get my endurance up and timing down. And my stomach to settle…