MY Big 5 Marathon Run in South Africa
The Hardest Race of my Life!
I was nervous. And if you saw what I witnessed during our inspection drive the day before the race, you would be as well. Eager to see this course, I sat shotgun next to the ranger who took our group on quite the extensive journey. We departed from the start line at precisely 10:11 a.m.
When we returned from the 26.2 mile trek, it was exactly 1:11 p.m.!
What I saw on that excursion made my insides nauseous, kinda like watching Bizarre foods on the travel channel, except you are the bizarre food. During the first six miles of the drive, I was smiling and admiring the beauty that is Entabeni animal reserve without a care in the world. That became short lived. As we approached Mile 9, I glanced over at the ranger and said, “Who the heck designed thisi ncredible course!?” At Mile 16 (2 hours into the drive), I mumbled under my breath, “this is nuts.” When we reached Mile 21, I think I was just shaking my head and dead silent. There was no forgiving territory. None. Needless to say, I did not sleep much the night before the race. I was fully aware tomorrow would be the toughest physical and mental challenge of my lifetime. And like all challenges, I was ready to conquer the Big 5 Marathon in South Africa. At least, I kept trying to convince myself over and over and over again. IF only it were that simple…
The Big 5
My alarm rang at 5:03 a.m. although it was not necessary. I had been awake for several hours thinking about the race and systematically breaking up the run into six ruthless sections: 10K and rocks, the descent, sand v. more sand, the ascent, no man’s land, and the longest 5K in history.
I flipped on the lights and proceeded to rub glide all over my body to prevent chaffing. I threw on my running gear, pulled up my red compression socks (to honor the people affected by the Boston Marathon bombings), grabbed my fully charged GoPro camera and iPhone, and stared into the mirror for about five minutes. I kept thinking about the hill and the sand. The hill and the sand. Hill. Sand. Hill. Sand. My insides felt like they were tied in knots and not the type that is easily undone on your shoelaces. The maximum time allowed for this race was seven hours, and in my heart of hearts, I projected that I would need every minute.
While the temperature was hovering around 30 degrees before sunrise, I knew it would climb to over 85 by midday. Located at the “Wildside” campsite, our running group took the 45-minute drive from the base of the mountain to the start line at Lakeside. The striking picturesque scenery of Entabeni reflected off the water as we made our way up the mountain. I kept quiet throughout the entire ride choosing to focus on visualizing and prepping for the next seven hours ahead despite the crystal clear backdrop following us from down below. After all, I was in South Africa, and about to challenge the most brutal terrain on the planet. I was ready to run this race. At least, I kept repeating that to myself time and time again.
10K and Rocks – Now or Never
There is no place to hide when you are surrounded by only 250 runners attempting to race in the most exclusive marathon in the world. Fortunately, there was little time to over-analyze this scenario. The race was about to begin and I glanced down at my hands thinking,
“In seven hours from now, I am going to have one hell of a story to share!”
The gun went off. As I crossed the start line, I was waving toward my mother who was beaming with pride and had a smile that would light up the entire animal reserve at night. And so the Big 5 journey began with my trail shoes carrying my skinny frame up and down hill after hill on the South African red clay paths. No one was sprinting. No one was trying to get ahead of the pack. And unlike most marathons, the countdown began at 42 kilometers (26.2 miles) and slowly worked it’s way down to 1 kilometer (which felt like a mental advantage). Since I rarely look at mile markers, I figured as long as I kept passing these white laminated signs (which animals frequently knocked over), I was making progress.
For the first 3 miles (5 km), I ran through a variety of hills covered in red clay that constantly reminded me that this was no average marathon nor race. A runner will often get the luxury of having several miles to get into their grove, but not in South Africa. The terrain changed quicker than a teenage girl deciding on which outfit to wear on her first date. As I approached the first water station, I noticed several unfamiliar differences about this stop. First of all, there was a ranger with a rifle. That was different. Rangers were spread out along the course with rifles in-hand to fire warning shots at any approaching animal. Alongside the rangers were several drinking options: electrolytes, milk, and Coca-Cola. Yes, milk and Coca-Cola. I filled my water bottle with electrolytes and continued running around the corner into more open territory.
I ran with the “tripod,” my loyal friends Adam and Lyssette who also defeated the Great Wall of China Marathon (with me) over a year ago. I coined the term earlier in the trip and said no tripod can function properly without the support of each leg. Although it was said in jest at a campfire, I truly believed we would need each other throughout the duration of the Big 5. Lyssette and myself started to increase our pace because I was worried about cramping too early in the race (leaving Adam temporarily behind but in clear site). Of course, cramping would be reserved for mile 18, the exact spot my calves historically cramped at in all four prior marathons. Nevertheless, we continued making our way through this exotic setting by following the rugged paths until we approached the next adventure in the distance.
For the upcoming challenge du jour (miles 5-7), we made our way up the rocky terrain of the Entabeni reserve. Mile after mile we ran up and over slabs of rock. The surface was relentlessly uneven and it was extremely important to look down at all times. If we weren’t careful, we could roll our ankles on one of thousands of jagged rocks interspersed on the route or possibly get our feet stuck in between the numerous cracks in the surface. At the 6.2 mile mark (10 km), there was a ranger holding the coveted yellow bracelets which signaled our successful navigation of the treacherous terrain. He placed them around our wrists and we quickly looped back down the shaky path. We saw Adam coming up the rocks and waited for him to grab his bracelet and run together (of course, he dropped a few choice words to us). You would think running downhill would be easier than hiking up, but that is never the case. In fact, it is far more dangerous because that is where injuries often occur due to complacency. While we managed to maneuver through this tricky labyrinth, I knew there was a far greater challenge awaiting at Mile 7 (11.2 km): just the steepest hill in the southern hemisphere!
The Descent – Not Your Average Hill
After negotiating the initial hills and rocky terrain, runners are met with “the descent,” a 43-degree angled hill that spans miles seven through nine. That is correct: 43 degrees straight down! I thought I was in the middle of a Universal Studios ride gone awry while sitting in the Land Rover during the inspection drive. What starts off as a gentle downhill run quickly plummets and becomes a stretch that completely annihilates the quads. At this point in the race, I crossed paths with the half marathoners who are on their way back up the hill and my friendly greetings were returned with nothing but vacant-eyed stares of distress and horror.
life. It was insane – See more at: http://www.alltheevents.co.za/event-news/my-first-big-five-marathon/#sthash.5TLEmmuA.dpuf
In order to descend this winding cemented slope, racers cannot run straight down unless they have a death wish. Running down this concrete hill largely had me zig-zagging, known as cross backs, to avoid using a prosthesis for the rest of my life. It was insane. The benefit to running this way is that pressure is relieved (slightly) from the quads and a realistic pace can be established versus running straight down in a point A to B fashion. Even while running these cross backs, my calves were on fire. As I reached the halfway point, there was a welcomed water station. Part of me wanted to relax because of what was waiting at the bottom of this hill and the other part of me wanted to continue forward anticipating I would need the extra time.
life. It was insane – See more at: http://www.alltheevents.co.za/event-news/my-first-big-five-marathon/#sthash.5TLEmmuA.dpuf
As I continued weaving my way down the trail, the last quarter mile might as well have been at 50-degrees. I literally couldn’t stop myself from running straight down the last 1,300 feet. The only thing that prevented me from completely falling down was the ankle deep sand that greeted us at the base of this trail…
Sand v. More Sand – It Never Ends
Below the escarpment, the track turned to sand. Sand like beach sand. Sand ankle deep or deeper sand. Sand like I’m hating this event sand. Sand like I decided to run through the bush with the thorns and the snakes sand. This was the stretch during our inspection day I feared more than any other portion on this Big 5 course. Six miles of ankle deep sand (miles 9-15)! That’s 31,680 steps of sand, just saying.
This particular section took us over 30 minutes to complete in the Land Rover partially because we got stuck…in the sand. After completing the descent, the thought of running through six miles of merciless sand made my body cringe and my mind want to go dark for the next 90 minutes, or 120 minutes, or however long this would take to complete. I looked at the tripod, picked up some sand between my fingers and said with a wry smile,
“We could just pitch a tent here for a couple hours and take in the view or we could keep running.“
Within the first 500 steps, our shoes quickly filled with sand. Shocker. For every step we took, it felt like we were barely gaining ground. Seriously, who the hell developed this route!?! Although no words were spoken, we decided to break up these next six miles into miniature segments. For every 1,500 feet we would run, we would walk a hundred feet to recover. The sun was beating down on us and I felt as if God was placing his personal magnifying glass upon our faces and then taking his Caterpillar crane and dumping mounds of sand around each approaching corner. At one point, my friend Adam was running ahead and shouted at no one in particular:
“There is no end to this sand, no end in sight!“
I couldn’t help but laugh because I felt his pain. At that moment in time, we were only 2 miles into the sand.
I recall seeing the 21 kilometer sign (mile 13.1) and thinking “holy crap, this is only the halfway point of both the sand and the race!” I have no clue how long it took to complete this stretch of six miles but it felt like 100+ minutes, maybe longer. Just like I can never look at steps the same way again because of the Great Wall of China, I can no longer look at sand as something playful and enjoyable. Sinking into the ground with every step, I figured at some point this torture would come to an end. I mean, it was only six miles long, but it felt like an unbearable twelve. There is just no way to sugarcoat this part of the race, but upon finishing this marathon, the stories of this section would clearly go from excruciating to absolutely epic!
“This sand was like running through the Mohavi desert with rapid gusts left and right. Nonetheless, like a true warrior, we battled our way through the knee deep sand and emerged as true champions. Was it tough? Sure it was tough, but nothing a well-trained marathoner like ourselves couldn’t overcome with relative ease and hardcore will power. Yeah, something like that…“- Jason F. Boschan
It was hard to conceive that there was still 13.1 miles remaining, but like all marathons, there is never a lack of mental and physical walls to overcome. Of course, they usually take place closer to miles 18-20. With that said, running through the sand felt like an accomplishment on it’s own and while it would’ve been convenient to get a pat on my sandy back or receive a shiny medal after running through this beach of a route, I was met with something far different: a team of medics and a stare down with the the ascent of the steepest slope in the southern hemisphere.
The Ascent – Proceed with Caution
The one good thing about completing the sand portion of this race is that you never have to do that again in your life, unless you are a sadist. As I approached “the ascent,” several wonderful things transpired. Medics checked me out to ensure my mind and body could endure another 13.1 miles. Equally as important, one of the best pieces of advice I received was to bring an extra pair of socks to switch out after running through the sand. Fortunately, I took this recommendation to heart and after being cleared by the medics, the Wildside staff went to work. They sat me down in a chair, removed my trail shoes and beach covered socks, dumped cold water over my beaten up feet, and carefully placed a fresh pair of socks over my newly cleaned ankles and toes. A lifesaver.
Following this short break, the tripod looked at one another and without saying a word, marched toward the concrete beast of a hill. I overheard a medic say, “proceed with caution.” The strategic move was to walk up the snaking hill (miles 15-17). Actually, it was the only logical move since our calves felt like someone had placed 25 pound weights in them and the 43-degree angled slope wasn’t helping the cause. We divided the two mile stretch into a multitude of sections; basically, anywhere that flattened out long enough for us to take a five to ten second break was the necessary place to recover. All we could think about was:
“Where the heck is the water station? It is supposed to be halfway up this path. Were we not even halfway yet?”
Step by step. Slow breath by slow breath, we were making our way up the hill. This seemingly went on forever, as if someone had inserted extra concrete into this hill to test our mental toughness. If that was the case, it was working. Again, two mere miles felt like four or five. Several days ago, I recalled one of the marathoners in our group saying,
“All marathons are 42 kilometers; however, the Big 5 race feels more like 62.”
I was starting to believe that statement more and more. We eventually reached the halfway point, and for the first time, I downed several cups of Coca-Cola in order to replenish my sugar levels.
The second half of this hike was somewhat unusual. Several game drives forced us off the side of the path as they brought up dehydrated and injured runners. A helicopter did a “fly by” over our heads, likely chasing down some lion to keep it off the course. And while the scenery was magical, the silence was deafening. As we walked up the slope, I envisioned this portion of the course being equivalent to the ascent on the Great Wall of China Marathon, arguably the most grueling 2-mile stretch of any race in the world. To my surprise, while this climb was extremely physically demanding, it did not possess the air of impossibility. When we reached the summit (OK slightly melodramatic, I mean the top of the hill), we were quite enjoying this marathon walk; maybe because we knew there was still another 9 miles to run.
No Man’s Land – Ebbs and Flows
The following hideous stretch seemed to go on forever. Trivial false flats for days. Walk…no RUN! Walk…just a few meters up this imperceptible hill. There’s a rock in the shade. Maybe I should have a Hammer gel. That guy must weigh 90kg’s. Why is he passing me?
Finally a ranger appears just as I think we’re headed up a single track over a mountain and the trail diverts back down a sympathetic 3km descent. Thanks be to the Flying Capellini Monster! We’re going down! Just pick up your legs and you move forward. It’s a gift sent from the FSM himself. Advantage: Whoever gets there first.
So that painful 5km loop that I would normally shred like a love letter from an ex-girlfriend…must be repeated. I promise you it hurts significantly more after 30km through the sand and down/up the escarpment.
– See more at: http://www.alltheevents.co.za/event-news/my-first-big-five-marathon/#sthash.5TLEmmuA.dpuf
Conquering the ascent was quite an adrenaline boost. Seeing my mom jumping up and down by the medical tent was priceless. I went to hug my mom who immediately directed my lanky body toward the the “magical soccer spray.” You know, that spray that all those soccer players receive from their medical staff on the pitch when they get spiked, take a dive, or cramp up in front of 80,000 diehard fans. I have only seen this on TV, but figured, if it’s good enough for these multimillionaire athletes, surely, it’s good enough for this Jewish boy running in the wild. Like clockwork, the medical staff sprayed each of the tripod’s calves and we proceeded to run into no man’s land.
The following punishing topography tested my will power with trivial false flats for days. I was running for 1/2 a mile and then proceeded to jog into a walk for short periods of time over hill after endless hill. For some strange reason, I was not cramping when I hit Mile 18. This was a first; however, my friend Adam was struggling with cramps and it was my duty to help provide a pace that worked for us. He and Lyssette had been extremely patient during the Great Wall of China Marathon when my cramps were out of control and the tripod was committed to finishing this race together!
At this point in time, gestures became the new wave of communication and had a wireless connection been available, these tweets clearly would’ve been trending on Twitter: @Big 5 Tripod, thumbs up if the pace works for you @Entabeni rangers, hoist a flag for uneven territory or animal crossings @TheManUpstairs, occasionally sipping water to avoid dehydration, cheers.
Since we weren’t streaming out tweets, I resorted back to old faithful: moving one leg in front of the other. Miles 18, 19, and 20 felt like they were being knocked down in slow motion. A mile is still 5,280 feet, but when you start counting those steps at this point in time, those mile markers come as quickly as the end of a work week on a Monday morning.
After leading the tripod for the better part of 30 minutes, we finally saw a sign for 32 kilometers (Mile 20). Six miles to go! For the first time all day, Adam mentioned that we had roughly 90 minutes to go, and while I was confident, I was also mindful that our finishing time would be closer than expected. Miles 20-23 did not come easy. For every 1,000 feet of land covered, a new obstacle emerged. Run down this path. Jog up this mini incline. Where did those rocks and water come from? No matter, par for the course.
I continued navigating through the endless terrain of no man’s land where vultures circled our heads as if they knew something we weren’t prepared to accept. In the distance, a rhinoceros was sunbathing in the open field, while a family of elephants were munching on the bark of nearby trees. Although my body was screaming for a break in momentum, the beautiful scenery made life that much easier on the brain. And soon enough, I ran upon the 5 kilometer sign with a massive sigh of relief. Were we only a mere 5 km away from the finish line? Apparently so, but 3.2 miles never felt so far away…
Longest 5K in History – Something is about to give
5k is a distance I would normally shred like a love letter from an ex-girlfriend. I can run it in my sleep, in any type of weather, and likely on any continent in the world. However, on this day, this particular 5k would turn into the longest 3.2 miles of my life because I was hurting significantly after 37 km through arguably some the most treacherous terrain on this planet.
All I could think about was seeing the next sign. How many feet are in a kilometer again? At this point in time, I didn’t know or care. I just wanted to see the 4 km marker! Adam had gotten a fifteenth wind and was leading our group soundly. I was in the middle and I could feel my body starting to hit a final wall. My feet kept moving forward but my palms were sweating like a golfer attempting to sink a 10-foot putt to win the Masters on Sunday. Lyssette was sightly lagging behind and not saying a word. This was unusual because she is definitely the strongest runner in the tripod. We ran endless winding paths that seemed to be leading us through a South African maze with no apparent exit in site. Brief moments of shade were welcomed.
Adam mentioned he could see the 3K marker ahead and I was relieved to knock out another kilometer. I kept running but never saw the sign. Finally I shouted at Adam,
“If you say you see the 3K marker, you better freaking see it man!“
He looked back at me in disbelief and said,
“Remember when we just stopped at the water station 500 feet back? That was the 3K mark!“
My fault. I hadn’t seen it, but was relieved we passed that marker. In fact, the 2K marker was about to be in our rear view mirror.
With two kilometers to go, I could feel my body starting to shake. My fingers were starting to tingle a bit and my heart began to race. While I have never experienced shock before, I have seen it in the eyes and faces of many runners. Their bodies just shut down. It’s scary.
I kept thinking of my Papa, my family, my supporters, the families of people battling PPA, the staff at Northwestern, the finish line, the Boston Marathon tragedy. I couldn’t stop now, but I was anxious. At the 1K mark, I mentioned to the tripod that I was in trouble; I knew we had enough time to cross the finish line. My heart was pounding like a collegiate drum line riling up 115,000 fans at the Big House in Ann Arbor while my fingers felt completely numb as if they had been soaking in a bucket of ice for hours. Despite drinking electrolytes nonstop, my body was ready to shut down. I needed Adam and Lyssette to help pull me through this last wall. Adam thankfully was counting down the distance with his GPS: .8 miles to go! At last, a downhill full of rocks, but a downhill nonetheless. .7, .6, .5, .4.
.4 miles to go!
I got extremely emotional.
This was the exact point in the Boston Marathon where I had been pulled off the course because of the horrific bombings. It was hard to fathom running this distance and being told to stop running. I was given another opportunity to complete a marathon, and I would not be denied. We ran over stretches of uneven rocky terrain and through puddles of water.
.3 and then a wraparound muddy incline. Jesus. .2 to go. I could feel the momentum building and see the finish line (along with my mother pridefully screaming my name) in sight. I thought to myself, this is remarkable, I haven’t cramped the entire…
…MASSIVE CRAMP with .1 to go! As we were making our Chariots of Fire run toward the finish line both my calves cramped within a half second of one another. It was embarrassing and shocking. 500 feet away and my calves locked up. The three of us held hands and I started limping for a couple feet. I was not going to limp across this finish line. No chance in hell. I looked at the tripod and said,
“Let’s run through! We will finish this race like we started it…together!“
I am confident my dentist would not be impressed by the amount of grinding that was going on inside my mouth, but we successfully ran across that finish line completing one of the most intense races on earth. Any time a runner crosses that finish line, there is a world of emotions that instantly run through your brain. I specifically remember thinking,
“No one can ever take this moment away from us! We just completed the Big 5 Marathon, the Big 5 baby!”
The race organizer greeted us by our names and I begged him to place the medal around my neck as my legs gave out and I collapsed into his arms like a man who left nothing behind. I was headed toward the medical tent when a medic rushed up to my calves and sprayed that magical soccer spray. Within seconds, my cramps were gone and my body felt normal again. Whatever the hell is in that spray, I need a bottle of that with me at all times.
The Big 5 Marathon had been officially conquered! Only 100 people finished the marathon that day. 100.
This race was easily the hardest run of my lifetime; testing my will power to fight through tenacious terrain and fiercely overcoming mental wall after inspiring mental wall. This is why I run and this is what life is all about: pushing your mind and body in pursuit of accomplishing the ultimate goal of finishing. I felt so privileged and proud to have had the opportunity to run on this intense animal reserve in the heart of South Africa! And while this marks my fifth marathon (London 2000, NYC 2010, Great Wall of China 2012, Boston 2013, Big 5 2013) on four continents, there is plenty more to achieve in the field of dementia research and in the world of running.
And there is only one venue that will be able to provide this opportunity on a GLOBAL stage next year. Where exactly would that be located?
Stayed tuned for what’s in store 2014 as R4P never does anything small, but you know that already!
Jason F. Boschan – Big 5 Marathoner
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