The preparation was nearly as agonising as those final few days before the race not knowing if I would be able to run. What happened on race day was just completely unexpected though!!

History

Sunday 04.03.2001. Two years ago. I ran my first marathon on this day –  the Cape Town Marathon. My family lives in the Cape, so I can combine a sea-level marathon with a holiday.

Build-up

Two years later, and I’m back in the Cape for my second (ever) marathon. This is to be my Comrades qualifier for 2003. So, I prepare by taking lots of Marcel’s prescribed opiate – LSD – in January and February, with a few track races (3,000 & 5,000 m) just to check that the speed’s still there. It is!

Monday 17.02.2003. Disaster strikes. Very sore throat.

Tuesday 18.02.2003. Visit the doctor; explain the predicament. “Viral laryngitis” is the verdict, and I’m shot up intravenously with a homeopathic cocktail. “Call me if you don’t improve.”

Wednesday 19.02.2003. I feel worse. Beth (the wife) collects a cocktail, a syringe, and a set of instructions from the doctor. “Find a doctor when you get to Cape Town,” she suggests.

Later it’s Mental Preparation with Marcel. Race strategy? Bale if I don’t feel up to it, otherwise … aim for 03:10 (so much for my idea of 03:20!). Positive associations? The training has been done, I know the route, and there’s LOTS OF O2!

Friday 21.02.2003. Arrive in Cape Town. Feeling terrible. Drive straight off the M5 to Beth’s doctor in Rondebosch. She’s not there. Another one is. He grumbles about injecting me with “things he doesn’t know”. I stick out my arm and say, “Shoot me up, doc, it’s my last chance!” He complies. I’m grumpy, unhappy, miserable, my throat is sore and my head hurts.

Saturday 22.02.2003. Feeling much better. Go for a short trot, everything’s working. (What was in that stuff?) I’ll be at the start.

Start

Sunday 23.02.2003. Wake up feeling okay. Resting pulse is still a bit up, but under control at 46. Leave home at 04h15. My sister and niece are left in charge of a sleeping Ruth. Beth and I drive to Mutualpark in Pinelands. We’re early, parking is easy. We erect a lonely Randburg Harriers umbrella next to Celtic Harriers’ tent. Walk around, inspect the finish. Beth introduces me to race announcer Harold Berman, Cape Town’s version of George Koertzen. Familiar routine: strip down, drop the bags at the tog bag area, short warm-up jog to the start, water the Old Mutual gardens on the way. Get to the start, wondering whether I’ll finish. Eerie feeling. Spot a familiar face – Cilla van Zyl from Randburg Harriers and FFA! Wish her well. See elite triathlete Renee Scott at the start. Standing almost at the front, with Beth. Decide to run with Beth for the first few kilometres down Forest Drive. 05:30 arrives, and … BANG … we’re off. Still dark, cool and a bit humid, and although the Cape Doctor is blowing, it’s not a factor (now or later).

First Half

Slow, cautious start at around 04:45 per kilometre. Everything is working, and there is indeed lots of O2. Run with the pack through Pinelands, heading for Rondebosch. Tell Beth to slow down, and leave her at about 4 km. Pick up the pace. Start overtaking many runners, and some large busses. Running past familiar sights – the “spook house” on Milner Road, Rondebosch Common, still feeling good. Along Main Road past Groote Schuur Hospital, up Browning Road (a steep 500 m ascent between some buildings that create a wind tunnel effect) – and here I breeze past many local runners who have clearly never heard of FFA Coaching’s Protea Road or hill loops!

Up onto Eastern Boulevard, and heading round the mountain towards the city bowl, with the harbour on the right. Two oil rigs grab my attention for a few minutes. Through 14 km, and flying! The field has thinned out. I notice a large bus ahead of me. As I pass it, I realise that this must be the leading lady – I recognise Farwa Mentoor, the first South African lady at Comrades 2002, and winner of the Soweto Marathon 2002! With her is Renee Scott. Momentarily I’m shaken, thinking, “Should I be here? Am I going too fast?” I quickly bottle these thoughts and plough on. Through 16 km, and past the start of the half marathon in Adderley Street, where there’s a large crowd. Harold Berman spots my colours and calls out “Randburg Harriers”. Encouraged, I head for the Waterfront, just as the sun peeks out from above the mountain. Behind me, I hear Harold calling out the leading ladies’ names – Farwa Mentoor and Renee Scott. Then it’s past all the familiar Waterfront landmarks, and out onto Beach Road and the halfway point. Still feeling strong and going like a train.

Second Half

I reach the turning point at Green Point, and turn back towards the low sun. An uncomfortable stretch, even with sunglasses. At around 26 km, heading towards central Cape Town, a young black lady passes me running strongly – suddenly she’s leading the ladies race! Now it’s through the city, and past more landmarks – St George’s Cathedral, and a gentle pull up Government Avenue, past the Houses of Parliament, the museum, the art gallery. I know what’s coming – the one big hill on the route, De Waal Drive, lies ahead, but I’m ready for it. It’s a long pull, well over a kilometre, perhaps two, and I ease into it, starting to feel a bit sore in the legs, but still running smoothly. Up and up, passing several athletes as I go, and then I hit the crest, which arrives 500 m sooner than I remembered. I look out over the Cape Flats and I know that the finish is down there somewhere, and it’s definitely downhill from here! The descent is steep, and I hold back, aware that my legs are a bit rubbery and sore. A sweeping turn round Hospital Bend and onto Settlers Way, and 34 km are done, still descending. I hear footsteps behind me, several runners moving fast. It’s Farwa Mentoor and Renee Scott, as well as a much smaller bus, which glides past me effortlessly. My testosterone-laden brain says, “Stay with them”, but fortunately my legs ignore the instruction! Off Settlers Way, and the route is flat, and suddenly I notice that it’s hot, and my legs are saying, “Can we stop now?”

At 35 km Renee Scott stops running, and I pass her. Right turn past the River Club, through the grounds of Valkenberg, where I start to question my own sanity, and we have to run over some bumpy turf, and my quads are definitely not happy about it. But I’ve kept to within 100 m of Farwa Mentoor, and the gap is constant. Then over the M5 freeway on a pedestrian bridge, and back into Pinelands, and 38 km are done, and my legs are too. My plan was to accelerate at this point. I shelve that idea, and dig deep. I grin humourlessly at the well-meaning dim-wits who tell me I don’t have far to go. Farwa Mentoor slowly moves away and out of range. The finish is a long flat stretch through Pinelands, and my pace slows. One step at a time. The kilometre boards seem twice as far apart. Trying to think of anything but the pain in my quads. I think of Beth, probably also reaching deep, and of Ruth, and I hope she’s okay. 39. 40. 41. Renee Scott sprints past me! Mutualpark looms ahead. Left into Jan Smuts Drive, and I hear Harold Berman announcing Farwa Mentoor’s arrival. Into the grounds. 42. I try to speed up. Nothing. I reach the finishing straight, nobody ahead of me, and Harold calls out my name and club twice, and I wave and cross the line, and stop running. No elation, just relief. I peer at my watch. “03:05:31,” it says. That’s a 22-minute PB!! I stagger towards the tables, and a lady hands me a silver medal, and congratulates me profusely. Beth arrives 23 minutes later, right on schedule, looking great, and I have a lump in my throat seeing her finish.

Epilogue

Farwa Mentoor wins the ladies race in 03:03, after catching Tembisa Majoqo at 41 km. Renee Scott is second, less than a minute behind, and Majoqo is third, half a minute behind Scott.

Thanks

Marcel – the cerebral coach – always calm, quiet & inspiring. It works for me!

Beth – my wife – an inspirational & gifted athlete, devoted mother, & unconditional supporter. Without you, it wouldn’t happen.

Carol & Meghan – the coolest babysitters in Cape Town!

John Neale (Marathon silver medallist)