Peninsula Marathon – the race that has been my obsession for the past 10 weeks is done and dusted with a new personal best. Before I walk through my process of being where I am, let me go back in time.
I came to South Africa to do my postgraduate studies in January 2004. As a newcomer, I used to socialize with Ethiopian friends who studied at UCT more than any other group because integration takes time. Since mid-2005, we played a social game of soccer almost once a week. Although I wasn’t a great player, I really enjoyed it. However, I never saw myself as a runner. It’s only by accident one day in 2006 that I noticed that I could participate in the Two Oceans 8km fun run, and I did. Although, for a non-regular runner I ran well with a time of 37 minutes, I thought that it was long. Since then, every year, I made sure that I remembered to participate in the fun run.
But, I never thought that ordinary people could run any distance longer than 10km until a day after the 2011 Two Oceans Marathon. Emlin, one of the South African friends who often played with us, asked me if I had run the half marathon and I told him I only participated in the fun run. He told me that he ran the half marathon and he thought I would have done that too. So, I kind of thought “OK, it means I too can do it.”
That was my reason to be determined to train and participate in the next year’s OMTOM Half Marathon. I must say, it was an overwhelming experience beyond my expectation. The support and the atmosphere was so beautiful. After the finish, I told myself that I would participate in the next year’s 56km ultra marathon. About a month later, I repeated the same 21km distance at the Safari half marathon and finished with the same time of 1:52.
However, the next year’s Ultra marathon goal didn’t happen because at the end of 2012 I underwent a Tympanoplasty (ear drum operation) and I didn’t want to cause so much pressure through intense training. I postponed my ambition to 2014. I started training by myself in October 2013 to check if I had what it takes to train for an ultra marathon. By the end of the year, I felt I was on the border line. To be honest, it was so difficult to accumulate mileage per week. Running alone, I struggled to get 10km per session, let alone tens of them. But, I felt that if I registered I would get more serious.
January 2014 is the time I can say I became a runner because that is when I started training regularly. The fact that running a sub-5 hour marathon and belonging to a running club were requirements for the ultra marathon changed everything. I chose Itheko AC only because my friend Quaseem recommended it. For me, it didn’t matter because I didn’t know that it would be a club that would impact my performance drastically.
I joined Itheko on January 16, 2014 so that I could use my ASA number 2 days later at the Red Hill marathon. Yes, my first race after joining Itheko was a marathon. Crazy, I know. Oh lord, it was such a hectic race. Initially I thought I was capable of running at a pace of about 5 minutes/km. I still remember running up Red Hill struggling with my breathing, yet two runners behind me were discussing office politics. Imagine how irritated I was. “How are they able to do that?” Even that was not a sign obvious enough to tell me that I was supposed to hold back. Lack of experience. I kept pushing until about the 25km mark. After that my legs simply stopped taking instructions from my brain. I walked most of the rest of the 17km. For me, running the first 25km in about 2:10 and the rest of the 17km in about 2:30 was by far the worst failure of my race day strategy, or the lack there off. Yet I still qualified by finishing in 4:39. I finished my ultra marathon in a time of 5:28, although I don’t know if I can add “successfully” here as I was badly injured on my left knee. It took me 25 days of complete rest and a slow comeback to recover from it.
On my first day at the clubhouse, I remember speaking to Siraj Brewer. He explained to me the importance of running with the club. I decided to give it a try. I saw a fast improvement. My second race was the Lion of Africa 21km on the 1st of February. I pushed to finish in 1:45, but missed it by a minute, finishing in 1:46 – in my chops! But it took less than 7 months to beat this time by about 20 minutes when on August 23 at the Atlantis race I ran a 1:26. My second marathon at the Cape Town Marathon in September was 1:10 faster than my first, finishing in 3:29. Four marathon races later, where two of them I didn’t actually push, this time was improved to 3:09 at the Cango Marathon. But, this was a fast “down” route because there was a nearly 300m elevation difference between the start and the finish.
The greatest achievement of all was adopting a healthy lifestyle that didn’t demand so much discipline simply because I got addicted to it. From the regular training to the weekend LSD, to the races and the socializing, I looked forward to everything around social running. As consistency is the key to success, enjoying what you do is the key to your consistency.
By far, my most enjoyable running experience for 2015 was finishing my first Comrades marathon in a time of 8:42 and receiving a Bill Rowan medal for it. I must say that just remembering it makes me happy and anyone who finished it at anytime would share the same feeling. However, either because my focus was on long distance or because improving my performance beyond a certain level gets harder and harder, or both, I didn’t achieve as many PB’s as in 2014. I specially wanted to run a marathon under 3:00, but even repeating my PB was difficult. In the 6 months since August 2015, I tried 6 times to break my half marathon time of 1:26 and in all of them I only managed to repeat it.
In December 2015, I decided I would train in advance to do well at the Peninsula marathon in February 2016. That’s when, by accident, I started to chat to Coach Farouk about it and he started to advise me on the different techniques. I found his logic sound, and therefore, I had to listen for my own sake. Yes, I do listen sometimes. We customised his approach to coaching and his program to what I could realistically follow and get the best out of it. (The details can be found here and here.) That effectively made him my coach for the marathon.
I’m the type of person who doesn’t like keeping track of things. But this time I strictly logged the mileage and time of every training session as accurately as I could. This is the first time I became so serious about running according to a plan. I made sure that I reached my training goal on a weekly basis, not any less, not any more.
Below are the plots of my 10 weeks of training including race week. The first one is weekly mileage and the second one is weekly time on the legs.
The graph says it all. I started with a weekly cumulative mileage of 60km and every week I was increasing by 5km except the 7th week where I increased by 10km to peak at 95km. Then I started my 3 weeks of tapering by sharply dropping the mileage to 40km for 2 weeks and running only 20km on the first 3 days of the race week followed by 4 days of complete rest. There is a general increase of 2km per week on my LSD to end at 32km on the 7th week. However, the pattern tends to be broken by race events.
The duration graph is less orderly because I had to run according to how I felt. However, one would easily notice that the drop in the weekly duration is more dramatic than the weekly mileage graph. That is because I generally trained at slow to reasonable paces on the mileage weeks but fast on tapering weeks.
I don’t know how much of this makes sense to other runners, but it does to me and I believe I have improved.
I had the ambition to run the marathon under 3:00 and that would depend on different factors such as my training, resting, race day strategy and conditions. My race day started with me feeling fresh, only to meet moderate wind in the Woodstock and Salt River areas. I didn’t find it comforting. I knew it would effect the difficulty level as we were expending more energy than we would on a calm day. However, it was not the time to change my target yet. I reached the half way mark at about 1:30. It was so helpful to find my supporters, Nuraan Ismail and Mubeen Davids there. The mix of coconut water and salt they gave me was so refreshing. It’s something I’m experimenting with to avoid artificial electrolytes.
At about 26km, I felt that keeping up with the pace could be counter productive. There is always a thin line between a right and a wrong decision. It’s not always clear which one will optimize your achievement, but you have to choose one before it’s too late. My experience told me that I had to either be realistic and target a reasonable PB, or keep being stubborn and walk with dead legs after 35km that will blow everything off. I eventually chose the first one. In fact, I told myself to run how I felt, but to keep the mind strong.
The end was once again postponing my goal of a sub-3 hour finish, but a new personal best of 3:06. I’m grateful as this is 3 minutes faster than my previous PB and 17 minutes faster than my previous course PB. Although as a non-podium finisher, I normally don’t worry about position, when it’s nice, I celebrate it like this one where I finished 64th out of 2927 finishers.
My marathon ambition will have to wait for a while as my focus for now is Comrades. As always, there is an ambition you succeed or fail to reach at a specific trial. But the key is to keep moving forward and be consistent. Sooner or later, you will get there. The struggle shall continue.
As the saying goes, there is nothing called self made. I’d like to thank Coach Farouk Meyer not only for the coaching, but for being as serious as I am about my performance. As always, I’m grateful to everyone who trained with me, supported on the road and that was part of the positive atmosphere, especially the friends and supporters from Itheko, and the Misfits – the small circle of friends with similar goals who are very supportive of each other. Finally, I would like to express my deep appreciation to the generous couple Nuraan Ismail and Mubeen Davids from ARD AC for their timely personal support. Thank you very much!