Longtom Ultramarathon

April 15, 2008 at 3:18 pm Leave a comment

March 29, 2008, 6:00am on a Saturday morning…the gun goes off and I dash down the hill in the midst of 300 other runners and the first signs of the morning sun just creeping over the distant mountains. 

Now, before I get to far ahead of myself, I should mention that there is still much story to tell before the actual day of the Longtom Ultramarathon.  For me, it began on October 5, 2007 when I first started my training for the race.  At the time, I was already aware of the 56km Longtom Ultramarathon.  I don’t know exactly how I learned about it, but I think I had just heard the words “race” and “marathon” and my ears perked up.  Realizing that there were two options: a half-marthon and a full-marathon, I obviously chose the second.  For the next two to three months I just  carried about my business while trying to build my mileage as I went.  I was not fully aware yet what the Longtom Marathon was about and why so many Peace Corps Volunteers run in it. 

It was in late January when I began to learn about the real reason for the Longtom Marathon and why I should run it.  I was told that the Longtom Marathon had partnered up with the Kgwale le Mollo (KLM) Foundation (http://www.klm-foundation.org/) a few years back thanks to previous Peace Corps Volunteers in South Africa.  I was also told that the money volunteers could raise would be donated to the KLM Foundation which would use the money to help give one child a year the chance to become a great leader for his or her nation.  I knew that if I ran in the Ultramarathon (a far greater challenge for me than the half-marathon) then I would have a greater chance at raising money.  The realization just solidified my seemingly crazy decision to run the full 56km distance.

Soon after I proceeded to inform my friends and family (probably most of you that are reading this) about my goal and asked for financial support.  As many of my supporters and running fans did the work on their end, I too was hard at work.  I started to come to terms with the challenges I was going to be facing.  One was that I had never raced a distance greater than 21 kilometers (and that was only one time) and that I was also going to have to run over a mountain.  Running over a mountain is a challenge in itself, but when you are training on the flattest place in South Africa, it doesn’t make things easier. 

As the months ticked by, so did the miles and the dollars.  I was receiving top dollars from supporters back in the United States and I was reaching top mileage myself.  Just a month before the Ultramarathon my TEAM had already donated more than $700.00 and I was putting in long runs of about 26 miles and 90+ miles per week.  The days leading up to the final event were shining bright…and they never went dim. 

In the final weeks before the event the donation total reached $900.00 and I finally had the joy of resting my body.  At last, it was March 28, 2008 and I had arrived safely at Sabie, the starting location of the race and just one day before the greatest physical challenge of my life. 

Before the Race

 March 29, 2008, 6:00am on a Saturday morning…the gun goes off and I dash down the hill in the midst of 300 other runners and the first signs of the morning sun just creeping over the distant mountains. 

I started the first kilometer at an easy pace for me, just jogging along side Ellen Whitesides (the only other volunteer that had chosen to run in the Ultramarathon).  I hadn’t really formulated a racing strategy and just spent the first 4-5minutes getting a feel for the race.  After that first kilomter ticked by, I had begun to drift ahead of Ellen and turned to give her a wave.  With her approving smile and wave, I turned my head forward and looked directly at the leaders ahead. 

It didn’t take long before the course started to ascend.  I knew that the hills were going to be my greatest challenge and I was now getting my first opportunity to see how my body handled them.  I was a bit worried when I realized that my body felt very awkward going up the hills.  It just reaffirmed my worst fear, that I had lost all my muscle memory on how to run hills.  Despite feeling extremely inefficient running up the hills and extremely full from a large bowl of oatmeal that I ate for breakfast, I was still passing runners left and right.  As I passed the runners I wondered if I was old enough to be eligible for the race.  I couldn’t find a single runner ahead of me that was under the age of 40! 

As I ate up these middle aged maniacs on the first hill I clicked off 21.30, 23.28, 20.17, and 24.49 for the first 20 kilometers (each split being 5km).  As you can see, most of it was all up hill, with the 2nd and the 4th 5km being the steepest.  By this time I was already starting to feel the burn, the oatmeal felt like I was carrying a child in my stomach, and I was getting tired of carrying along my water bottle with Gatorade. 

At last, after 20 kilometers I reached the top of the first real hill.  At this point I had managed to work my way up into a group of runners that I was equal with.  I didn’t gain on them and they didn’t gain on me.  I found that despite my lack of hill training and lack of comfort on the hills, I was still holding my own on them.  In fact, I was doing more than holding my own…I was looking like the best one out there!  It wasn’t until we reached the first significant downhill that I realized I wasn’t the fastest downhill runner as well.  I watched as many of the skinny, long-legged African runners cruised by me and floated down the hills.  I was feeling the chronic pain in my left heel that sent an uncomfortable sensation up my leg with every heel strike.  This didn’t help me much in keeping up with the runners as the passed by on the down hills. 

The flat/downhill lasted about 5km and I came through in a time of 19.22 minutes.  It was also during this stage that I caught up to another runner.  I wasn’t sure how old he was at the time but I found out he was a true veteran of the Longtom Ultramarathon.  Running in his 7th consecutive, I latched onto any advice he had for me.  As we clicked by each kilometer marker with a 3.30minute split, he warned me that we were going a bit too fast.  He commented on the runners flying ahead of us that there was no worry, they would be coming back.  We rolled through the small hills casually talking about the scenery and good racing strategy. 

When we reached the next, last, and most brutal hill of all, I stopped to take in some water and powerade (I had been stopping like this about every 45minutes because I found I couldn’t get enough when I tried to drink when running).  After a brief walk and drink I took off up the hill. 

I was a bit surprised that over the past few hills my legs seemed to regain their muscle memory for running hills.  I wasn’t attacking the hills by any means (to conserve energy) but I felt extremely efficient on them.  I credit it to all those hills I ran and biked on around the Decorah area.  Another thing that helped was that I threw away that damn water bottle.  I just can’t stand running with one of those things in my hand.  The first part of the race was over…now I meant business. 

Despite feeling ready to go and excited that I only had another 10km to go to the top, I was not moving very fast.  My next two 5km splits were 24.10 and  26.21!  I hope that just tells you how steep those hills were.  Just image a crazed Gonzo, chopping at the bit, ready to eat up some middle aged African runners and yet only managing to “cruise” by at nearly 8minute mile pace!  That hill was so unrelenting.  It was absolute torture.  The worst part was that we were high enough now that there were few trees and the short grass did nothing to hide the seeminly infinite switchbacks that loomed ahead.  At one point as I shuffeled up the hill, a logging truck moved up along side me.  That truck was having just as hard of a go at it as I was.  I ran stride for stride with that truck for nearly 5 minutes always anxious about whether the logs just to my right would toppel over and put me out my misery or if the whole truck itself would give up the ghost and roll back down the hill, taking the other runners out of their misery.  Either way, I kept looking ahead and citing that old book my Grandmother used to read to me, “The Little Engine that Could”…I think I can, I think I can…

At last I managed to make it to the top of that S.O.B. and took a well deserved rest at the water station.  I realized that the worst was behind me, but I was disappointed when I soon realized that it wasn’t all technically down hill from the top…I still had more hills to go.  Thankfully, there was nothing that compared to what I had gone through. 

At this point in the race, the sun was well in the sky and not a cloud in sight to shield the sun’s burning heat.  The road was getting hot and making my shoes feel like size 12 ovens.  That was when I started to get my first scare…dehydration.  I touched my skin and it felt dry as a bone and my fingers were tingling for the second time in the race.  I looked ahead for the next water station.  When I made it there I ran through the water sprinkler two times, posed for a photo giving them my best gun show, guzzeled down three packets of water and went about my business singing “On the road again…just can’t wait to get on the road again…”

21.08 minutes.. 20.33minutes…the next 10kilometers were mostly a gradual downhill.  I was moving down them at a relaxed pace when another runner caught me from behind.  I picked up my pace to keep up with him and we chatted to one another.  I think we both did it out of necessity to keep our minds off the body’s call for help.  As we cruised down the hills, I started to sense the first real pain in my legs of the race.  Before this there was too many steep uphills to really put a strain on the legs.  Now as we went down, the lungs had a chance to rest, but it was time for the legs to get to work. 

At the next and final ascent I moved ahead of my brief companion and never saw him again until the finish line.  Just as I came to the top of that last hill I saw the 12kilometer mark shining like a beacon in the sun.  There it was…the marker that proved officially that I had completed my first and ever official marathon (44kilometers).  I didn’t stop to do a jig or kiss the hot tar road, but inside I was celebrating like you wouldn’t believe.  I gave myself a light pat on the back after looking down at my watch to see 3hours and 17 minutes.  Not too bad for my first marathon, considering 35 kilometers of that was nearly all up hill for 2000meters.  But my little private party didn’t last long and that beautiful sign soon turned evil and reminded me that I had another 12 kilometers to go. 

After a 4.25 split I got to the top of that last and final hill and heard the announcer tell me I was in position 12.  It was the first time I knew what place I was in.  Another pleasant surprise at the top of that hill was that I could see Lydenburg in the distance…the final destination of this long journey.  A place where I could relax and possibly have a massage.  Oh the thought was so grand that I flew down the hill as though there were a pack of lions nipping at my heels.  I ran the next kilometer in 3.27 and the next 5 kilometers after that in 18.14 minutes. 

As I descended down the mountain I put aside the pain in my legs, which didn’t enjoy running down hill at such a steep grade, especially after all they had been through.  If my legs had a mind of their own, I am sure they would have stopped and said, “We’re not going one more step mister.”  In actuality, they nearly did so.  It was at this point that the calf cramps I started to experience about 15kilometers back started to take effect.  With nearly every push off with my toes my legs refused to come out of their contracted state.  As I expected my foot to heel strike as it should, I found my toes still pointing downward.  This annoying and very scary truth caused me to nearly fall flat on my face countless times. 

Fortunately, it was at this time that I started to catch all of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers that had chosen to walk the half-marathon.  As I came up from behind them I would yell out “Yea, Peace Corps!”  Most of them were extremely shocked to see me that it took them a second to realize who it was.  This explains why most of the photos people have of me during the race are of only my backside and me nearly out of the cameras range.  Some of the volunteers tried to run along with me.  I had to apologize that it was not physically possible for me to slow down and wait for them…the thought of being done was so great that I wasn’t going to slow down for anything…not even if Jesus Christ himself wanted me to stop and walk for a bit.  (Well, that may not be true…)

Anyways, you get my point.  I was dead set on getting to that finish line by this point.  It was also at this point that I had firmly decided never to do this again and that I was definitely never doing the famous Comrade’s Marathon (90kilometers) that South  Africa is so well known for. 

With only 5kilometers to go I finally made it into town and on flat ground.  I had been looking ahead and seeing the next two positions that I needed to catch if I hoped for a gold medal.  I thought that once I would reach flat ground I would be able to resume my normal stride and fly past them like a speed of light…that didn’t happen at all.  All I discovered was that things got really really hard.  Now that the downhill was over, gravity stopped becoming my friend and I had to ask my legs to start propelling me forward…they didn’t agree to that idea at all.  I found the last 4 kilometers to be the longest 4 kilometers of the day and perhaps my life.  As I ran through these long streets that never seemed to end I was furious…I said to myself “They told me to run from Sabie to Lydenburg…well here I am in Lydenburg, why the heck am I still running then?!”  With each right or left turn around a street corner I hoped to see that beautiful word “Finish” stretched across a banner ahead, but it never came.  Then, those course designers had the gall to make the last kilometer to the finish line UPHILL!  Ugh!  I would have hated to been the race official directing runners at the last corner.  I don’t think one runner had a nice thing to say to him.  

At last, we finally arrived at the high school sports field where the  sight I had been praying to God for finally came into view.  I knew by this time that I was in 11th place because I had caught one of those long-legged runners that burned past me on the downhills about 30kilometers ago, and the 10th place finisher was just finishing ahead of me.  So, I came in only fast enough to make sure that I stayed in 11th place and with that, I crossed the finish line.  Alive…Tired…but very very happy.  My final time: 4:03.13


I waited around at the finish line getting a massage, chatting with friends who were never short of compliments, eating anything I could get my hands on, but mostly just sitting and smiling.  It was around 6hours racing time that my compatriot Ellen Whitesides crossed the finish line, looking much better than I imagined I did.  Now that we were all together again, we went to take a few group photos and then called it a day.  And what a day it was. 

Feeling Good

If you want to see more information about the race or check out the results page, just go to the following websites:

race information: http://www.longtominfo.co.za/

results: http://www.raceresults.co.za/output_full_results.php

 race day photos: http://picasaweb.google.com/datavortex/LongTomMarathon2008 

Group Photo





Entry filed under: Running.

Opening Page Science Camp

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Just in case you were wondering…

The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps

Here are some famous blogs to check out from three of my good Peace Corps buddies!

A.J. KUMAR ajinsa.blogspot.com JOEY CARDELLA http://njebe.blogspot.com SARAH HORNS http://hornzyinafrica.blogspot.com

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