This is the last of three blogs for this trip. The first covered the itinerary for the Marathon Adventures tour package. The second was a list of tips for those who want to visit Victoria Falls. This is the recap of continent number 6 of 7 on our marathon bucket list.
“We don’t do marathons unless we leave the continent”.
That’s what we tell people when they find out how many races we do and ask us why we’re doing so many half marathons. There’s a non-trivial increase in recovery time, extra training miles and prep work needed to knock off 42.2k. Half marathons, yeah, we can do that every other week or more. Marathons? Those take focus.
So imagine what happens when you have a week before your race packed with sightseeing, lots of time on your feet and, let’s not forget, 7 days of ‘hearty breakfasts’. I’m not complaining, mind you, but it does make me realize it was going to be more of a challenge than the last few continents.
Bib pickup was on the lawn at the Kingdom Hotel. The event drew about 1500 for the marathon and half marathon and probably that many more for the 7K fun run. Before we left the US, we saw a note on the website that in addition to the 6 hour marathon cut-off, ‘those finishing before 5:30 will receive a medal’. Going into the race, I was pretty sure I could walk a conservative 5:20, and with Susan’s new high-contact walking-run method, she was feeling nervous, but confident. Julia was coming off a few leg injuries and with she, Adam and Tony finishing their 7th continent marathon with this race, we wanted to confirm with the race officials that there were enough medals to go around.
Jaddy was fighting a plantar flare-up. Susan and I did what we could to mitigate the pain, but Jaddy wisely opted for the 7K. Tom got the bug and signed up for the 7K also, even with looming foot surgery and IT band issues. Even Sam got on board, signing up for the 7K.
The Burns family struck up a good rapport with Freedom, one of the Kingdom employees working the pool area. Freedom and his brother, Wisdom, were solid runners, but didn’t have a lot in the way of gear. Julia not only paid the $20 for both of their race entries, but gave Freedom her size 7.5 Nikes to run in. Tom and I also gave a pair of shoes to Wisdom. We weren’t sure if he was willing to run in them, but we felt good about helping such gracious young men.
Saturday, July 2nd:
The usual rest day just didn’t happen. We had a full day of touring in Zambia including a Lion and Cheetah walk, a visit to the Mukuni Chief village, lunch at the Royal Livingstone Hotel, shopping at the Curio Market and finishing with a microlight flight over the Falls. We were doing our best to stay hydrated in the dry heat, but something was telling me this would not be a stellar race.
At dinner, Tony joked that this may have been the worst prepared group for a marathon that he’d ever seen. It wasn’t so much that we weren’t trained. We were just having so much fun exploring and socializing that the race almost snuck up on us. Pre-race dinner was at the Victoria Falls Hotel on the porch of the Livingstone Room. The Ostrich Bolognese was very tasty, but this was one time where the vegetarian/vegan options were not as easy to come by. Susan and Tony settled for plain noodles, a bit of oil and a side of tomato sauce that turned out to be ketchup.
Sunday, July 3rd: Marathon, Half Marathon and 7K
5:30 AM wake up call. Forecast 58 F at the start, rising to 75 F around noon. Humidity 30%. Elevation 3,000 feet.
The starting line was just a block away from the driveway to the Kingdom. The marathon started at 6:45 AM, the half at 7:15 and the 7K around 8. Our marathon crew, including early risers Jaddy, Freedom and Wisdom, were ready to get going as the race officials had some issues with the inflatable starting gate.
Our plan was to take the first half at a decent pace, bank a good amount of time and make sure to leave cushion for the 5:30 mark. The first two miles of the course was downhill to the Vic Falls Bridge to Zambia, so everyone started off fast. I was just happy to see most of the lead pack before they turned onto Zambezi Road. The out-and-back across the bridge let me take some low-light pictures of the group as they race back.
The official race pictures were posted recently. The sunrise made for a beautiful golden glow. I didn’t take many pictures after this, so I’m glad someone did.
There were two sections where wild animals were common, so spotters with rifles were patrolling, just in case. Some folks on the half heard warning shots, but there were no incidents with the participants from what I heard.
Mile 8 was the north end of the first loop. Julia was struggling by that point and we were being passed by the half marathoners. We were guessing we would be lapped by the marathon leaders by mile 10 (which we were). At mile 10.5, I gave a shout out to Kaylee and Allison as I saw them on the way out to the north route.
Whitney, Susan and I asked Sam to drive us over the course on Friday and it really paid off. Not only were we ready for the transition into the sand near the national park picnic spot, we knew where to save some energy for the long hills and most importantly, where to turn left for to start the second loop. Tony missed that turn and ended up crossing the finish line for the half before realizing the mistake. They drove him back to the split point, but it added a mile and a half to his 7th continent. The universe, it seems, has a sick sense of humor.
As I turned down highway A8, I saw the 7K participants heading up the road. I was able to catch Tom as he was about a mile and a half from the finish line. Always great to see a friendly face. I was going at a strong clip, walking the first 13.1 in 2:32, right where I wanted to be. Susan got to the halfway mark at least 5 minutes ahead of me, very likely shattering her half marathon PR.
Then I hit mile 14 and the wheels came off.
It was a really disturbing feeling. Cramps started in my outside calf muscles, migrated to the center, then to the insides. This was followed with cramps in the upper shins, lower shins, quads, back of the knees, hamstrings and inner thigh. I counted 15 different muscles that were screaming at me by mile 16. I’d taken the usual precautions, Zip-fizz in the bottle at the start, double Nuun tabs on the refills, and salt packets starting at mile 8 and every 3-4 miles with 6 – 8 ounces of water after that. The post-race analysis promises to be a good learning experience, but between the heat and the fast first half, it was probably too aggressive. By mile 15, I was at a 15 minute mile and slowing. It actually flashed through my head that I may have my first-ever DNF.
This is one of those times where I realize how completely blessed I am to be married to Susan. As I mentioned, she was at least 5 minutes ahead of me but I pulled ahead of her on the start of the second loop as she had stopped at the hotel for a restroom break. She caught up to me stretching on the side of Zambezi road and figured I was in trouble – maybe the grimacing tipped her off. She handed me a couple of packets of Biofreeze and checked to make sure I had enough salt packets. I told her to keep on pace so she went ahead.
For the next 8 miles, every uphill sent a fresh wave of cramps through my legs. Susan would pull away on the downhills and I would catch her on the flats. She later told me she had a lot left in her tank, but wanted to stay just ahead of me to keep me motivated to keep moving. She knows how my mind works, even when it’s not functioning well.
At some point, I just got so sick of the cramps that I told my muscles to suck it up and do their job. That actually worked for a couple of miles and I got my pace down into the low 13’s until I hit the hills on the second loop at mile 23 – 24. I finally had to slow down to the 15:30’s so I could have something left for the last 5K. Susan stayed just ahead in my line of sight.
Once we made the right turn on Reynard Road, I knew it was going to be OK. The last turn onto Kazungula Road led us to the finish line on a school futbol field. Half Marathoners, 7K and the earlier marathon finishers were walking back toward us, cheering us on. It’s been two and a half years since our last marathon and I’d forgotten how draining it can be and how embarrassingly emotional it can get at the finish.
We saw our group waiting for us at the start of the last 400 meter loop around the field. Susan dragged me along to walk the last 2.2 miles at about a 12:45 pace and said she wanted to cross the finish line holding hands. She slowed down for me in the last 20 meters so we could do just that.
We finished with matching times of 5:37:49. Even though Susan let up for the last 13 miles, she beat her previous best marathon time by nearly 8 minutes. Her fastest time to 26.2 miles was actually around 5:22 in Punta Arenas in 2014, but that was part of her first Ultra. I’ve only had two faster marathon times, so I’m happy with that finish considering the conditions. I’ll work harder when we hit the streets of Phoenix in January.
Three of our group became official 7 Continent Marathoners. Julia gutted through her injuries and came in just at the cut off time. Tony finished continent 7 with the extra mileage, but took it in stride. Adam got his medal, just like the RD’s promised. Freedom waited 4 hours for us to finish. Running in Julia’s Nikes, he finished 34th with a time of 1:19:47. Wisdom finished 71st at 1:30:03, running in loafers. I can only imagine what the two of them could do with proper shoes.
We had a victory dinner cruise on the Zambezi River that night. The sky was clear and the stars were mesmerizing. Susan and I talked to Whitney and Adam about all the unforgettable things that happened in the past week and how much this group really clicked from the start. That really made the trip.
There wasn’t much I could think of that could have made this trip any better. The activities – planned and unplanned – and the people in the group far exceeded our expectations. The race, as brutal as it was, reminded me to respect the distance and appreciate how fortunate we are that we continue to race and travel the way we do.
We already have plans to catch up with Whitney at Rock n Roll Los Angeles. If we decide on a costume theme, she’s in. Next year we’ll connect with the Burns family at Rock n Roll Seattle 2017 where Julia is a legacy runner. We hope to see Allison and Adam at Rock n Roll St. Louis 2017 and maybe Tokyo 2018. We have dinner plans with Jaddy and Ken in August and later this year, Susan is flying up to Portland to connect with Tony (hopefully not at a Vegan strip club). I want to keep our race schedule posted in our Facebook group in case Bob or Bill can join us.
How lucky can we be to have had yet another trip of a lifetime? If we stay on this path, I can see several more in our not-too-distant future.
The Victoria Falls Marathon by EcoNet drew close to 3000 registrants according to race officials. There were 938 finishers for the half marathon (median finish time of 2:15) and 250 in the marathon (median 4:08:22). The 7K fun run was not timed, but my count leaves maybe 1500 more participants in that distance. Full results are posted here.
The marathon course was a quick out and back across the Victoria Falls bridge followed by two loops around town. The half marathon did the bridge and most of one loop, and with the staggered start we were able to see just about everyone at some point. About 95% of the surface was paved roads with the rest being sand-covered packed dirt, cobblestone (near the Safari Lodge) and the last quarter-mile over the grass fields at the school. The hills were more ‘inconveniently placed’ than steep. The biggest challenge was maybe the 2-mile, 3% grade coming south back toward the hotels. Aid stations were really well stocked, even until well into the 6th hour. The volunteers were very supportive, and we really needed that. Hydration was in the form of plastic water sachets (tip: bite the seams, that’s where they’re easiest to open), Coke (not flat), and on course-nutrition consisted of Gu energy gel, oranges and two banana stations. The local baboons were having a field day after the food supply station, happily cleaning up bananas, Gu packets and whatever the runners couldn’t finish.
I’ve now walked marathons on six continents. As far as I know, no one has claimed to have walked all 7, so unless someone picks up on this, I’m planning to apply for an alternate world record when we finish our Asian marathon. We’re targeting Tokyo 2018. Even if I’m not the first, I could be the fastest. Who knows?
Next up is Rock n Roll Chicago. The forecast is for heat and humidity, but after Zimbabwe, I think we’re ready it.