It’s (Class) War: Runners vs Cyclists

(With advance apologies to my friends who are cyclists, but I’m still not sorry. Not really.)

There’s a war going down in the fair parks of Joburg, on those sacred trails safe from cars and buses, natural predators of runners. Sometimes, the war spills out onto the roads, and it continues in our sportswear stores, on the weekends, at pavement cafes. There is no war so petty and yet so longstanding as that between runners and cyclists.

Sure, there’s a fifth column in this war, that strange hybrid known as the runner-cyclist, but these are odd people who are training for triathlons and Iron Man and who are the closest to superhuman we might get. They are also on the fence, and maybe it is hard on them to watch this bitter war being waged, but then pick a side, guys. And put away the compression pants.

This is my pet theory, but I stand by it. The battle between runners and leisure cyclists is, at heart, a class war. It is a historical war between an ancient clan and a bunch of helmet-wearing creatures who wear pants so tight that they should be banned from appearing in public spaces where children might see them.

When a cyclist comes tearing down a narrow little Delta path with no warning and nary a thank you to the runner that must dive to the side to avoid a collision, there is a response so deep-seated that it bears shouting to the heavens: we were here first.

“That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they’d never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind’s first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. And when our ancestors finally did make their first cave paintings, what were the first designs? A downward slash, lightning bolts through the bottom and middle–behold, the Running Man.

Distance running was revered because it was indispensable; it was the way we survived and thrived and spread across the planet. You ran to eat and to avoid being eaten; you ran to find a mate and impress her, and with her you ran off to start a new life together. You had to love running, or you wouldn’t live to love anything else. – Christopher McDougall, Born to Run

But there’s another side to this – running has long been an underdog’s sport. It is a sport dominated by runners from two poor countries – Kenya and Ethiopia so dominate all race distances that it is assumed that the entire Western world will never produce runners to match their calibre. (There are 17 American men in history who have run under 2:10 in the marathon. There were 32 Kalenjin who did it in October of 2011.)

But then you get cycling. It needs money. Lots of it. Sure, you can start off with an entry-level bike, but the average bike used by a leisure cyclist (not people who actually use their bikes for transport) can cost more than what most people make in a month, and in some cases a year. It’s hard not to resent an asshole on a bike worth a year’s salary taking over a public path without having the decency to say ‘excuse me’. Cycling, like golf, is the domain of the wealthy. There are the special shoes, the bike racks, the tight, tight pants, the helmets. For running, it’s a pair of good shoes (which at most come in at R2800, but usually between R1600-R2000) and some decent socks. Everything else is optional. It will always be private school snobs vs plucky underdog team from the bottom of the league.

But then again, maybe there’s some common ground. Both groups get injured, often. There are pratfalls aplenty. Races that are expensive to enter and mean travel and suffering. Both sides need expensive bloody socks (R35 a pair, I ask you) and both are subject to the risks inherent to the road (though runners have an easier time of it, being able to mission along on the pavement.) And at races, all must face the horror of the porta-potty.

Amen.

Amen.

Also, I apologise for shirtless runners. I am sorry. I am so, so sorry.

But still. Go and train elsewhere in your tight, padded pants.

50kms to the Truth: My First Ultra Marathon

I am a woman of forcibly long temper. My entire adult life I have done everything in my power to maintain an even keel. I don’t scream, or slam doors, or throw shoes, or say the cruelest things I can think of just to get someone to leave. I have always been aware of my temper, and until now, I think I have done a fairly good job at keeping it under control.

But then, there was the 47km mark, and I had an utter personality failure.

There are a lot of good reasons to run an ultra marathon – personal challenge, weight loss, endurance testing, seeing the countryside, whatever. I suppose I ran an ultra because I wanted to qualify for Comrades, for reasons that have now since lapsed since I failed to qualify for that most hallowed event. If I think about it, and think deep, contemplative thoughts, I suppose it is because my whole life my lack of athleticism has been something of an ongoing joke in my family. Zoe can’t run straight. Zoe can’t catch a ball. Zoe punches like a girl. Teehee, isn’t her uncoordinated ass so funny? There’s nothing like the mockery of others to light a fire under my ass, and there aren’t many things with more public currency than Comrades, or Iron Man. These events are how normal people shine, not only an elite few with perfect genetics.

Anyway, so there I was at Loskop, which may be one of the very best organised marathons in this entire country. The race started in Middelburg and meandered 50km all the way to Loskop Dam through beautiful Mpumalanga countryside. Behold, the race profile:

Courtesy of LoskopMarathon.co.za

Courtesy of LoskopMarathon.co.za

Nice, yes? Look at those downhills, those tiny uphills. I would like to draw your attention to Varady’s Hill, there at the 46km mark. That is where the last of my charming veneer wore down. No longer was I the erudite blogger, the mildly amusing copywriter. Nay, at 47kms, I was having a Kardashian-ugly cry, wishing that I hadn’t entered such a stupid race.

 

I was so tired, and so sore, and the elation of having shaved 30 minutes off my best marathon time had rapidly faded. And even though there was a water station laden with lollipops, jelly babies, naartjies, oranges, cooldrink and more, I still thought that this mountain was the most insurmountable thing I had ever faced in my life, including my black belt grading and that time I had to fight fifty times. (It is quite obvious that I don’t have real problems.) Poor Graham, a man of such kind heart, did not flinch in the face of my shitty temper. He got me over that hill in spite of myself, and for that I am always grateful.

And lo! The race did pass, and despite my panic and my fear, I found myself crossing the line at 6:54:49. The race photos suggest that I didn’t believe it myself. (Race photos are always terrible.) All that mattered was clutching that huge gold medal in my sweaty paw and moving through the finisher’s chute without crying (some more). My lip wobbled when I got my medal, and it was only once we had cleared the chute, with t-shirt, medal and bag of oranges in hand (I kid you not), I realised that I had actually completed a ultra marathon, almost a month to the day that I bailed out of my first attempt at doing so.

The point of this is not that I am amazing for doing an ultra. I was passed by runners triple my age who finished hours ahead of me. What I hope people take away from this is their own possibility. That if someone like me, who only really started running just over two years ago, can finish an ultra before cut off time, then you can do it too. Talent is overrated – what matters is grit. You don’t have to be an amazing, skinny, speedy runner to accomplish something great. You just have to be a runner.

Oh, and you must have decent shoes. Always have decent shoes.

What the Dreaded DNF Can Teach Us

Courtesy of Runners World SA

Courtesy of Runners World SA

Yesterday, for the first time ever, I bailed out of a race. Halfway through Om Die Dam, my first ultra-marathon, I was at 25km at 3 hours 40 minutes, which projected an 8 hour finish time – an unacceptable hour past the cut-off time. I took stock of my aching body, my inability to run more than a hundred or so steps at a time, and joined a huddle of other runners. Eventually, the exit bus (what a nice name for what feels like the cattle truck) collected us and we swished past the runners on the infamous Saartjies hill to the finish line. We disembarked a few hundred meters away in a parking lot, and after the joviality in the bus, the awful reality set in. Next to my name would appear the dreaded DNF. DID NOT FINISH. I wanted to sit on the side of the road and cry into my running vest. I still do.

I’m not so good with failure. I’m really, really not. It wasn’t enough that I’d entered, that I’d gotten over the start line, that I’d gotten halfway. It was the sickening realisation that even though I had trained, and followed the programs, I would not finish the race. Because no matter what they say, sometimes your best just isn’t fucking good enough. If I can’t do a 50km ultramarathon, then Comrades, a dream I have been cherishing for months and months, is just not going to happen this year. With only 69 days until the 31st of May, I have to somehow shave a whole hour off my marathon time. For the first time, my blind optimism has met its match in three little letters: DNF.

Which brings me round to a bigger question: how do we deal with outright failure? How do we fail without letting it go to the heart? I don’t really have an answer, or at least, not a fully-formed one. There’s the old aphorism about getting up and trying again, but that makes it sound like trying again is so easy. You know, just get up and brush your knees and butt off and keep trundling along. It is part of a mindset that fundamentally believes that success is the automatic result of hard work, when sometimes the two have nothing to do with each other. At least, for a given value of success.

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So perhaps the way to deal with failure is to understand exactly what success is, and that maybe it is not such a binary state. Failure does not preclude any kind of success, and perhaps that’s where the old comfort “at least you tried” is rooted. At least I signed up. At least I went with the intent of finishing. At least I got halfway. All the ‘at leasts’ maybe add up to some small measure of success. In the face of defeat, it may be small comfort, but if I don’t cling to those small gains, then I risk losing hope all together. For someone whose mind is a basket of hungry piranhas, it is very easy to sink into hopelessness.

And more importantly, the thing about failure is that it teaches us more than success does. I recently wrote a piece for beginner adult martial artists to remind them that it does get better, that they will improve and that people care, honestly and truly care, that they stay and improve. If all I take away from this incomplete race is that I need to train more, and that maybe it is too soon to give up, then perhaps that is enough. Maybe this sharp, brutal failure is the thing I need to spur even harder training, more than maybe dragging my ass along a road for 8 hours just to get to an empty finishing line and one volunteer begrudgingly handing out medals to the assholes who make everyone wait. (Cut-off times are there for a very good reason).

It still stings that I got on that bus. I hope that I’ll look back on it one day, and be really glad that I did. Right now though, it feels like a kick in the teeth. And you know, I think that’s okay. Anything worth having usually involves tears, and I’ve never been ashamed to cry. The tough part now is not letting the failure go to my heart. If I can come back from this, and not give up on getting to the Comrades finish line, then my heart shall grow three sizes bigger.

And also:

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What I Read When I Read About Running

At some point in 2012, I started running, after my last run had been in, oh, primary school sometime. I had been strong-armed into joining cross-country for reasons still mostly unclear to me, considering how very, very slow and uninterested I was. In any case, I found myself running with my fellow karate-ka on a Sunday morning in September. It was 7kms long, it was hot and there were hills, and the next week I went and bought myself some running shoes.

Let’s fast-forward to today: I have done two half-marathons, five 10km races and many, many Zoo Trots. I hope to do Comrades next year, and at least finish it. This sounds like a humblebrag, but you have to remember that I didn’t do any voluntary sport until I went to university. I hated it that much, especially the teamwork (running and karate are blissfully free of that tedious nonsense). I didn’t want to represent anyone except myself – I was a public speaker, not a public sweater. It was only when I began doing martial arts seriously at university that I began to regret my attitude towards sports. And it is through karate and the benefits of a great dojo that I came to the land of running.

So, things and people do change, and now I find myself devouring everything there is to be read and known about running. South Africa is a country with a massive running culture, host of the world’s biggest and most famous mass-participation ultramarathon, and possibly the world’s most beautiful race in the Two Oceans marathon. There are so many clubs, all delighted to meet and help beginners. This is a great country to run in, to see and explore. I have run through Soweto and Sandton, the jacaranda-lined streets of Pretoria. I have seen my city at night, at sunbreak and sundown, I have known it in its secret hours and I have seen it at its liveliest. The health benefits are important but secondary to the experience: to feel the exhilaration of a race completed, of a body hard at work, the combined energy of thousands of runners chasing their goals. Until you have watched the sun rise from the top of a gruelling hill or run at the feet of skyscrapers in the heat of a Joburg summer’s night, then running probably seems like a crazy thing that crazy people do.

But it isn’t. I hope that if you have not experienced its joy, I hope you do soon. I hope you run a trail with birds chittering their support. I hope you know the kindness of a city’s people when they come to the edge of the track to cheer you on. I hope that you will discover that you are capable of more than you ever thought you were. That if someone like me, an uncoordinated, self-doubting, bandy-legged, badly-built Greek girl can go from nothing to half-marathon in 8 months, then you can too. You should.

And I really hope you do.

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