A Tale of Two Oceans

The cure for anything is salt water — sweat, tears, or the sea.

Karen Blixen

Last Saturday I ran my first (and probably last?) ultra marathon at the Two Oceans 56km race in Cape Town. It wasn’t what I expected, but new experiences rarely are. Although I had been dealing with a nagging hip injury over the last eight weeks, my physiotherapist delivered me to race week feeling capable of finishing the race. So I set off on Thursday for the Cape with modest athletic expectations and also a sense of relief. The race was here, and I wasn’t as ready as I wanted to be, but this meant that I also could enjoy the experience instead of engaging in the single minded focus that racing requires. I was also a bit happy to leave behind the role of Dad and husband for a weekend. It’s good to get away from who we are every now and again, if only to look forward to coming back.

The two days before the race were intentionally left open for whatever I was in the mood for. I went to the Cape Town Comedy Club with a fellow Tuks runner. I read an entire book (Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield) while eating at my favorite sushi joint (Izakaya Matsuri) three times. I walked around the waterfront unencumbered by the normal pre-race anxiety and watched the waves crash on the breakwater.

Unfortunately for my wife back home, things were not as simple. Our oldest picked up a stomach bug and became so dehydrated that he needed to go to the hospital in the middle of the night. This meant that Erin, at 28 weeks pregnant, had to load up the car with one sick child and one healthy sleeping child and head to the ER with everyone confused and in their pajamas. At 3AM after a couple of IVs and some anti-nausea medicine, they were good to head back to bed. I felt the pang of guilt as I read about the ordeal in the text next morning. Erin is amazing, but even amazing needs to catch a break. By Friday night life was mostly back to order.

At 4AM on Saturday I woke up and made instant coffee. I put the TV on mute and did my physical therapy regiment. I ate two bananas with peanut butter, a mug full of instant oatmeal, and a case of the rather unfortunately named cookies (chocolate oatmeal digestives, they are good, I swear!) It was a fairly normal pre-race routine. For the first time ever I was wearing a fuel belt. I stocked it with Maurten gels and a pack of their sports drink powder, and a couple of packs of Gu ShotBlocks. The belt also had enough room for a phone, so I grabbed my old iPhone (in case I needed an Uber mid-race). In another personal precedent, I carried my own 500ml water bottle rather than relying solely on the race water stops and sports drinks provided on the course. As any knowledgeable marathoner will tell you, the cardinal rule is that don’t do anything on race day that you haven’t done before. That’s solid advice for most important events, but I didn’t really have anything to lose by carrying too much food or a phone or a plastic water bottle, so I ignored the wisdom.

Approaching the start of the 56km race.

I caught a taxi to the start line and arrived with the rain. 12,000 other runners were there waiting in the darkness. It was quiet but there was an straining energy in the air that was bordering on palpable. It felt electric. I got to my corral at the front and looked back at rows of thousands of faces all wearing the same expression, one of hope and humility intertwined. The singing started a few minutes before the start. I do not know the song or the words, but I felt it lift me above the early morning hour and the cold fat rain drops and the dread of the task at hand. If you know me, you know I normally dislike the crowds and try to avoid being surrounded by lots of people. Being in the corral is usually the most uncomfortable part of a race for me. When the gun goes off, I have no problem bolting for the wide open road away from most everyone. But this experience was different. In those rarefied seconds before the canon fired, I swear the individuals all disappeared and what remained was one movement. The starter counted down, three, two, one… and I heard a great inhalation and felt a sweet release as thousands of heart chambers collapsed in on themselves before ballooning out again. We were off.

Waiting for the start.

We moved through the darkness together to the sound of each other’s breath and urged on by each other’s footsteps. We passed the 5km and then 10km marks. The sun rose slowly over False Bay and illuminated the rock face of the Muizenberg Mountain ahead. We entered the town of Retreat and a complete rainbow appeared off to our right. I don’t believe in signs from the universe, but the coincidence was hard to miss. We took in the sight from end to end. Retreat. This would be the last sanctuary before the hard work started.

Retreat. Before the rain and the mountain.

And as if Hollywood had scripted it, the sun clouded over as we turned toward the sea. The rain was earnest as we rounded into St. James at 15km. It didn’t dampen the crowds or their enthusiasm, but I was less than excited to see the wind moving over the waves towards us. The fat drops continued to pelt us as we snaked through Kalk Bay and into Fish Hoek. I had finished two bottles of Maurten drink by 21km and tossed the bottle to a kid who was enduring the elements in boots too big and with a smile too warm for the occasion.

The climb according to Strava.

Heading west, we left the ocean and the rain behind and started the approach to the massive climb up Ou Kaapse Weg (Old Cape Road for those of you not well versed in Afrikaans). The climb is absolutely colossal at 300m (1,000ft) in four short miles. It has an average gradient of 4% and a max of 8.5%. For the cycling fans that works out to a strong Cat 3 climb. Compounding this is where it falls in the race, miles 17 to 21. You are both literally and figuratively hitting the wall. There are no water stops on the climb. No cheering crowds. Just the South African sun peering down over the peak before you. Heartbreak has nothing on this monster.

As difficult as the climb was, the decent was much worse. The camber and incline made the run down more of a shuffle, and a painful one at that. My feet, ankles, and knees took the brunt of the impact. My quads were just too tired from the climb to buffer the bones and joints. It’s here that the first metatarsal on my left foot started to hurt. At 38km the road flattened out again. The results tell me I passed over a thousand runners in this stretch before the finish, but honestly I didn’t see any of them. I focused on my foot and the flattest and most direct line home. A last climb remained, and while comparatively it was much shorter than the previous, it was no less demanding.

Back down to the valley with the Southern Cross in the distance.

When you look at the course map you forget that you’re a marathon into the race when you reach the foot of the Southern Cross, and it’s two miles up another 4% average gradient. A photographer yelled at me to pick my head up and look at him, but I just couldn’t take my eyes off the next two steps. Coming off the top at 48km (30 miles) I was comforted by two thoughts. First, I had less than five miles remaining and second, that it couldn’t all be up hill. We had to go downhill for most of it. Five miles. I got this. Even if I didn’t have a goal coming in, I also knew there was a special medal for those who completed the race in less than five hours. I had 45 minutes to get to the finish if I wanted a Sainsbury. Easy, right? The funny thing about our bodies after hours of running up and down mountains is that they really really don’t want to run anymore. Each stride takes exponentially more effort.

Suddenly you’re left with your body that can’t love you and your will that can’t save you.

Rainer Maria Rilke, To the Younger Brother

Mustering almost everything I had left, I entered the stadium with my eyes set firmly on the clock and crossed the line at 04:59:21. I say almost everything because what happened over the next 24 hours took the rest of what I had left.

A Sainsbury.

While I had been puddle-stomping and mountain climbing and death-marching in Cape Town, Erin had caught the virus from the boys. She was also headed to the hospital. Back at the hotel I tried to change my flight to later that night. It wasn’t possible. I booked a flight at 6AM on Sunday, it would have to do. I figured she would get the same IVs and anti-nausea meds and be home by dinner. Then came news that she had been admitted to the maternity ward because the dehydration had caused pre-term labor. Are you kidding me? My foot, my legs, my body stopped hurting and my brain started working again. We had a babysitter for the day, but no one to watch the boys over the night. I started thinking of all people I knew well enough in Pretoria to feel comfortable asking for help. Erin’s boss? Gone. My friends and teammates? All in Cape Town with me. The boys’ classmates… all scattered across the lower part of the continent for vacation. In weighing out the pros and cons of moving overseas, this was one of the biggest drawbacks. The lack of family and friends for support in the case of an emergency is always in the back of my mind. After a few misses, I texted a friend from the University of Pretoria who I knew was sticking around to work on the final touches of her Doctorate defense over the holiday. I had only seen her once or twice since the new year, but she had met the boys and she has a caring nature. When I told her the situation, she happily volunteered to spend the night at our house with the them. Within an hour she was there playing and reading and being an awesome caretaker with our kids. She would even hide their Easter eggs.

Trying to sleep at the hotel that night I thought about everything that had happened over the course of that day. More than accomplishment I felt a sense of gratitude. For my aching body that hadn’t broken. For my wife who was spending her second night in a row in a hospital for the sake of our kids. For a friend who would drop everything to be there for us. Every now and again in my life there’s an ocean of feeling that surges up from somewhere deep. Some days it’s tidal, set in motion by the phases of the moon or a change in the direction of the wind. At other times it’s a wake produced by some titanic individual or the current events that move through our lives. Whatever the cause, I never ask for this sea change, and it rarely gives any advanced notice. My entire life I always thought that I was the shore, overcome and at the mercy of the waves. Lying there though, another thought came to me. Maybe I’m the ocean.

Be good and keep in touch.

Postscript- By mid-morning my plane had landed. Erin was discharged and told to rest and hydrate. The boys were eating chocolate. Elise had gone back to work on her defense. Exhausted and sore and certain I was getting sick, I sat down to think. And then to write about the sea.

With a body like this, who needs hair?

“He asked could it be worse? Yes, it could! He could be dead! Or have a blood draw with his eyes open!* Or he could eat a poison pretzel. Those are all worse.”

-Finn, responding to Coldplay’s question in “Fix You.” *He had a blood draw for an allergy test a couple months ago. We haven’t forgotten how bad it was.

There’s a legendary story about Paris in the 1920’s. It was the literary hub of the western world after World War I as writers and artists flocked to the city of light. Here two authors who couldn’t be more different met and formed a strong kinship. One was Earnest Hemingway, the brash young American reporter who liked to drink and fight and bluster. The Irishman James Joyce, who the New York Times once described as “the labyrinthine thinker of Byzantine thoughts” wasn’t a natural companion. Joyce was thin, physically weak, had bad eyesight, and was introverted to the point of being called a monk. Hemingway was stout, gregarious and affable, if not also often short-tempered. They did however share a common love for language and drinking. Here in Paris, a long mutual respect formed between the two literary greats.

The legend goes that during a night of intemperance at the Paris Ritz, Joyce was in rare form, baiting other customers with insults from atop his intellectual perch. When one patron had had enough and went after Joyce thinking him an easy target, the Irishman darted behind Hemingway and through his laugh called out “Deal with him, Hemingway! Deal with him!”

True or not, I like this story. It came to mind recently while I was having a serious meeting with the school bus driver and the assistant principal. It seems that on the afternoon in question, our seven year old “Joyce” and five year old “Hemingway” were reviving this act. As the bus driver retold the events leading up to the brawl, I tried not to smile at the thought of it. I probably was though, and it probably didn’t help the situation.

Since the New Year, I have busied myself in two areas. Erin’s work schedule so far in 2019 has taken her to Tanzania, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Turkey, and Hong Kong. I might be leaving some out. She’s also driven the famed Garden Route, gone on safari, and hiked Table Mountain. Oh, and she’s growing a baby inside of her as we speak. My wife is a boss, didn’t you know? With all that she’s been up to I’ve been the one who on most days gets the boys up, fed, packed, and out the door. In the afternoons I drive the taxi to swimming three times a week. I apply the band-aids, and I remove them too. I play soccer in the garage, I pump up the bike tires. I track down the missing library books, shoes, and the art projects that looked like recycling, but upon further reflection actually weren’t. I go to the birthday parties on weekends and eat the bad cake. I read How to Train Your Dragon every night. And yes, I’m the one to hear from the principal when the boys are in a fight on the bus.

And you know what?

I love every second of it. This is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. I can count on one hand the number of things I’m good at. Not the things that anyone can do (like burning toast because you push the lever down one too many times), but the stuff that I have a real talent for, is rare. Being a parent to these kids between 5 and 10 years old, that’s my wheelhouse. Diapers, naw. Teenagers? Drama much? No, the Lego-constructing-Nerf-shooting-living-room-fort building years are where it’s at. That’s my parenting sweet-spot.

Saturday Chess Club.

Other than raising two almost-upstanding young men, I’m also still chasing the same running goals. Still. Chasing. It’s been a long road. Early in February snuggled between Erin’s trips, I was able to steal away to Iten, Kenya for a week of training and make-believe. Some people go to Florida to watch spring training. Some people get back-stage passes to meet their idols. And some people head to Nairobi and get on a small prop plane to Eldoret before getting into a shaky old van for another hour’s drive up into the rarefied air of 2400m (8,000ft) above sea-level. That is me. I packed a bag and set off to see what life is like for the fastest humans in history.

The dirt smells like sweat.

Lornah Kiplagat’s High Altitude Training Center plays host to athletes from all over the world. It has a modern gym, lap pool, and dinning hall. I immediately fell in with a group of Irish athletes. The running was good, but the community and camaraderie were world-class. At night, after the day’s two training sessions, we would retire to the Iten Club, a small coffee house adjacent to the Training Center. Conversations with strangers from all over the world would flow easily as we posted social media updates, updated our training logs, and examined race results on the only reliable WiFi in the area. Some played dominoes, some enjoyed a cup of Kenyan tea, and others recounted stories of excellence or folly. There was usually a soccer game or a horrible 90’s American movie on the lone TV above the fireplace (I’m looking at you Hercules and Xena, The Princess Warrior).

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the running, but there was something special about that time after dinner in the cafe. It reminded me of Oxford twenty years ago. World-class talent on the edge of life-changing discoveries. Nights weren’t late as the next training session was always crouching in the back of our minds. But for a couple hours every evening we conversed in relaxed tones and laughed easily. We found community in the middle of the spartan lifestyle running demanded. And outside on the walk back to my room, the dark exposed more stars than I have ever seen. Between the altitude and the night sky, the entire experience was breathtaking. More than just the training, my week in Iten was filled with these amazing moments of humanness. In athletes 15 years younger than me, I recognized the unmistakable fire that comes from the pursuit of excellence. At breakfast we greeted each other as old acquaintances who were bound together again by common destinations. I don’t know Portuguese or Swahili or French, but the fist-bump is a universal sign for respect, and each run ended with one. If you’ve ever felt the pull of a running dream, whatever your age or ability level, I urge you to go to Iten. I plan to go back someday, “yet knowing how way leads on to way.”

Unfortunately since returning to Pretoria I have picked up a running related injury. Hamstring tendinopathy. It’s more irritating than painful, but it has brought my dreams back down to human size. Run a few times this week. Finish this race. I see a PT every couple days, and we are making progress in strengthening the tiny muscles that have brought the big ones to a halt. I head to Cape Town next week for the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon and have downshifted my goals to simply enjoying the experience. Comrades is only a few weeks behind Two Oceans, and I’m considering withdrawing. I turn 40 next month, and I’m worried this is a precursor of more lameness to come.

I didn’t run today, but I got a hug from Amarula, so that’s worth something.

If there is any comfort here, it’s that I’m learning that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of physical conditioning I can handle, and the level of gratitude and happiness I feel on a daily basis. So what if I can’t run like I used to? I can read more now. I can write more too. And if I’m looking for an age-group award, I’m still the best Nerf-shooting, lego-creating, fort-building, world-traveling, almost-forty-year-old I know.

Be good and keep in touch.