Becoming an ultra marathoner

Five minutes, the announcer called.

The sun was still a half hour from making an appearance so floodlights took over the lighting responsibilities. Two blondes, likely in their 30s, seemingly best friends, chatted in front of me while a couple canoodled on my left. I sized up my competition, although I saw myself as the only real opponent, judging running abilities on their race gear. We stood behind the ‘Seed E’ sign, the back of the pack while the real runners, those who earn their paychecks this way, were toeing the start line.

The South African national anthem played across the crowd of 11,000 and tears ran through the mascaraed-eyes of the blondes. I cried too.

Technically, I’ve been training for the Old Mutual Two Oceans Ultra Marathon for seven months but this has been twenty years in the making. Since I was eight, I fought with my body. I starved it. I beat it past exhaustion. I stuffed crap down and then forced it back up. Now, though, things were different. My body and I were in sync and together we would redefine limits.

To many, I had no business training for an ultra, 56 kilometers or 34.72 miles. I hadn’t even run a marathon; my longest race being a half in 2011. I was living in rural Africa, without access to ice baths and foam rollers for recovery, expensive spin classes on cross training days or treadmills when it was too hot or raining. Lesotho’s mountain terrain meant uphill in each direction and slower paces due to the elevation, plus dodging rocks and broken glass.

But once the idea of running the ultra (many Lesotho volunteers run the Two Oceans half each year and a few take on the ultra), I didn’t back down. And I planned to do it practically barefoot.

For seven months, training became my focus. I woke up before the sun, before most in America had gone to bed, so that I could be out the door as soon as there was enough light to avoid village dogs. I added speed sessions and stride workouts to my schedule while slowly bumping up my longest-I’ve-run-yet distance. I ran at friends’ houses or stayed in village for weeks at a time as to keep on schedule. I swore off alcohol at the beginning of the year (more on that later) and used my quart money to buy food for the 17-year-old boy that took up residence in my stomach. I napped after school and took on a small – very small – strengthen routine to couple with yoga on my off days. I read running blogs, books from ultra marathons and monthly copies of Runner’s World SA in addition to repeat scouring of 2010 Two Oceans event magazine. The night before the race, while all of my friends were out enjoying a pasta dinner, I was at the hostel eating rice and beans because that’s the meal I always ate before long runs. I did everything I thought a real runner should do.

Panic began to swell a week before the race. My only goal for the ultra was to complete it before the seven-hour cutoff, when officials close the course and a bus takes you to the finish. I did not want to be on that bus. However, most of runs had been much slower than the paces I needed to make the cutoff and the usual doubt that follows me started to sing louder.

In the dark, late March morning, just a few blocks from the University of Cape Town, the nerves were virtually gone. My toast with peanut butter was digesting and my bladder emptied from a pit stop at the port-a-loos (SA’s word, not mine). I had on black Brooks shorts, a Christmas present from my parents, a $6.25 spandex tank I bought at Old Navy-type store in Lesotho, toe-shaped Vibram shoes and a Minnesota Twins hat. I didn’t look like a real runner, but I felt like one. I put in the work. I was ready.

The infamous Two Oceans cannon went off and our group slowly made our way to the start. The announcer said the clock was past three minutes when I hit the start. This was it.

The first 20K or so takes runners through the city, blocking off the road. It wasn’t much to look at – closed shops and offices and petrol stations. Spectators were scattered throughout, offering encouragements and hand slaps. There were a few morning commuters, who tried to retro-video game it through runners. One time, a woman in front of me yelled at a person trying to do this, “Ahh no!” shaking her head vigorously.

In this part of the race, I spotted Fish Hoek. Fish Hoek was, or at least I think was, a father and daughter team wearing striped yellow and black shirts, representing their running club. Each runner had a bib that said how many ultra and halves he or she had completed. The FH dad had 15 ultras while the daughter had four or five. I knew that if I kept with them, I would be able to finish the race under the cutoff.

Around the 18-kilometer mark, I had to go to the bathroom. The event’s magazine is very adamant that runners should not go in public but there were no port-a-potties around and I saw a few other runners do it. It was a grassy area, not someone’s land, so I thought it would be OK to dash behind a tree and get back on the course instead of waiting in line at the next water station. Plus, I was used to it in Lesotho – buy me a couple of beers and I will tell that story.

When I rejoined the race, feeling much better, my pack with my phone (I carried it in case I couldn’t find my friends after the race) and energy gels broke. I had no choice but to shove all the gels down my bra, cram my phone into the holder with my iPod and discard the pack into a trash can. I did lose my Peace Corps ID, which I had on me incase I passed out, and a wristband that entitled me to a free lunch and beer after the race, but the pack was bulky so I was relieved to shed the extra weight.

The route eventually comes upon the first ocean, the Indian. At this point, I was feeling really good. One of my fears was starting out too fast, as I tended to do that in training. I took stock of my K times and, although a touch quicker, I seemed to be right where I wanted to be. The ocean path was more of a boardwalk, as the Indian threw up huge white caps for us to admire while diners at bakeries casually looked on. I imagine they were thinking, I am glad not to be one of them and instead enjoying this chocolate-covered pastry.

Through the residential area, I tried to keep as close to Fish Hoek as I could. I passed them a few times and they would get me again. I told myself not to worry, just keep them in sight.

I developed a pretty good refuel system. Every 50 minutes or so, I would suck down a energy gel and 25 minutes after that I would eat a handful of energy jellies. The course indicated stations with potatoes, chocolate, bananas and even ice cream. I contemplated not bringing anything with me, but I am glad I did because I didn’t see much beyond liquids. There were refreshment stations every second kilometer until the marathon point when they appeared every kilometer. I gulped – because Scott Jurek told me to – sachets of water since that is all I could train with in Lesotho. There also handed out Powerade and Coke. Yeah, I know, Coke is a weird choice and it also makes the road incredibly sticky, but many runners seemed to enjoy it.

As we started to work our way into the upper 20s and 30s, I knew the first real test of the race was coming – Chapman’s Peak. Everything I read about the race, which was a lot, mentioned Chappies and its ability to crush runners. Chapman’s Peak, as far as I can tell without doing real research, is a point that tourists drive to in order to get a breathtaking view of the Atlantic Ocean.

We crept up on the shore of the second ocean and I forgot about the hill that awaited me. It was the first time I had seen the Atlantic since crossing it 17 months ago. It was surreal to think that my family, my home, lie on the other side of it, well and a bit more north and across half of North America, but still on the other side. I threw five kisses to the ocean, hoping they’d cross and make it to my family.

Entering into the Chapman’s road, green Old Mutual signs with “Happy Chappies” greeted us and many runners started to slow down. The incline, a kilometer and half or maybe two, felt like nothing compared to Lesotho and I strolled right up. “That was it?” I said with a cocky attitude. And then I saw the real Chapman’s Peak. What I just sauntered up was Little Chappies, the real monster was much longer and much steeper. It is about three kilometers (that is just a guess, I don’t quiet remember) up a cliff. It’s gradual, but that doesn’t mean it hurts less. Most runners were walking but, although tough, I didn’t feel like I needed to so I kept trudging up.

At this point, I felt a tap on my shoulder.

The day before the race, Two Oceans holds an International Fun Run for those coming from out of the country. It’s an easy 5K around a harbor to show off the city and welcome international runners. This event does an excellent job of taking care of people from other nations and I recommend anyone wanting to do a race overseas to consider this one. Anyway, trying to save my legs, I didn’t run the 5K but took over flag waving duties before the event started. We met a PCV from Burkina Faso, several couples on vacation and students studying abroad. We also met a group of researchers who work in Durban, about our age, who came over for the race. They pointed to my Vibrams and asked if I had read “Born To Run,” which of course has become my Bible for running and, really, for life.

Julia, one of the researchers, noticed my shoes and said hello. At this point, I had been running alone. Most of the time, I prefer to run alone but this race was full of people having conversations as if we were at a coffee shop instead of a 56-K road race. I kind of felt lonely and wanted my own running buddy. Well, Julia became that.

As we continued up Chappies, we exchanged the who, what, when, where and why of our lives and shared stories of living in Africa. Before I knew it, we were at the top and posing for pictures as we ran through a tunnel of photographers. Although not raining, the wind was nasty and nearly knocked us over as we got to the top. A man behind us did take a nasty fall, although I think that was due to the markers in the road, but we kept on our feet.

Julia’s foot was giving her problems and I wanted to save my legs going down the incline, so we found a nice pace that allowed us to continue talking. She is originally from Connecticut but has most recently lived on the West Coast. She is working with water and land research and is set to leave in June (or I think these are the details) but hopes to come back to South Africa while applying for medical school. This is not her first marathon, unlike me. It was nice to slip into interview mode, asking her question to keep my mind off my throbbing foot. I also told her about Peace Corps and living in Lesotho.

Julia was my angel. I met Julia around the 19-mile mark, where it starts to get mentally tough for me. I’ve come so far, but still have so far to go. But with Julia distracting me, I didn’t listen to the pain or the voice that would usually doubt me. Instead, I enjoyed making a new friend and kept plugging along.

Just before the marathon mark, Julia said she was going to walk because of her foot and I decided to keep going. I read that the marathon point is where the race starts, so I figured it would be struggle. For me, though, I shifted gears and started to surge.

I did hurt. You can’t run that far pain free. Although I enjoy running in Vibram Five Fingers, the lack of cushion can take on toll on my feet. My right foot was screaming in pain as we came down Chappies but, instead of focusing on it, I accepted the pain and continued on. Eventually, it went away.

The last cutoff mark was at 46 kilometers and the bus would pick people at 12:20 p.m. I hit it about nine minutes before noon. At that point, I was pretty sure I would finish before seven hours but I didn’t want to be over confident.

I felt so good beyond the marathon mark that I am not quite sure I even want to attempt a 26 race. Maybe I will keep with ultras, I told myself while running. First, I need to finish this one.

The course then snaked through Constantia, a forest area that felt appropriate for the approaching fall season. I hit my second hill, which was again gradual and long but nothing I couldn’t handle. It was a gamble to train in Lesotho, but it turned out to be a smart one. The Mountain Kingdom’s rolling hills gave me such strong leg muscles that I dashed around walkers as I made it to the top of Constantia Nek. Lesotho was the ultimate training partner and I am really not sure I would have done as well or felt so great if I had trained back at home. Sure, I got sick of kids screaming at me and asking for sweets and a few taxis zoomed so close to me at high speeds that I thought I wouldn’t make it to the race. But running with Lesotho deepened my Peace Corps service (more on that later). It helped my body reach a fitness level it’s never been before and gave me the heart and courage to keep pushing.

Throughout the race, I lost Fish Hoek a few times, but I was OK with it as long as I was feeling good. Then, before I hit the marathon mark, I passed Father Fish Hoek and on the last uphill I zoomed past Daughter Fish Hoek. They never got the upper hand of me again.

One of the books I read while training was Vanessa Runs’ “The Summit Seeker.” Vanessa has run several 100-mile races, my eventual goal, but she mentions the races building up to that point. She said one of her big accomplishments was breaking six hours in a 50-K event.

I hit 50 at 5:56. I had an hour to cover six kilometers, definitely doable, but I still wasn’t ready till celebrate. Then, I met another angel. Just beyond that mark, I saw a man in his 40s or 50s, wearing jeans and a baseball cap. We locked eyes and he said, “You got this in the bag.” He was right.

The night before the race, I listed 1 through 56 and put a name next to each number. This ultra was very much about me discovering a piece of myself that I didn’t know I had but I wanted to share it with people I loved. I put down the names of PCVs, close friends and family, even Nelson Mandela since he was very sick at the time. Because I didn’t always know where I was, I couldn’t always focus on that person, but they were still very much apart of my run. The last six, though, were my rocks.

50 was for Tara. She has added so much life to our family and has made my brother a better person.

51 was for Chris. He has such a passionate soul and deeply loves the people around him.

52 was for Jason. He reminds me not to take everything so seriously and to be goofy more often.

53 was for dad. He has always loved me and been proud of me, I know that, but I have never felt it more than in the last two years. I could hear him say, “Come on, Heat!”

54 was for mom. She has been, and will always, be my biggest fan. No one puts up with my crap and still loves me after it more than her. She is a saint. I heard her voice, too.

55 was for me. For the girl who was called fat at age 8. For the girl who skipped meals and threw them up. For the girl who believed she didn’t deserve love or professional success because of her body. For the girl who measured her entire value as a person based on a number. For the girl who cried herself to sleep because she hated how she looked. For the girl who couldn’t enjoy life because she was comparing herself to every female in the room. For the girl, despite all that, who reached deep down inside of herself to find something way better than a dress size. For the girl who found true beauty while running through mountains.

Then I rounded the corner and saw the inflatable arch, representing the finish. I took off my headphones, so I could fully enjoy the moment. I didn’t need to sprint, just finish strong. I heard my name and saw Anne and Gerad, fresh from post-half showers, waving at me. A bit further, Katie, Nick, Caitlin, Kevin and David screamed. It was so good to see their faces and know those people were there just to watch me.

A week before the race a cold threatened to derail me. And then an achy knee. Both subsided, although both came with full force a few days after the race. Everything fell into place for me: my training, my health, my support, my angels. God planned this and He was going to get me to the end.

I smiled all the way into the finish. 6 hours and 38 minutes. As they handed me my medal on the other side, the tears came, as I knew they would. I wasn’t supposed to do this, but I did. I could have quit, but I didn’t. Instead, I amazed myself and created one of the best experiences of my life.

For the first time in my life, I truly believed I could be incredible. And I was.

18 thoughts on “Becoming an ultra marathoner

  1. Bam! Great job. I can’t even describe how proud of you. What would have made it better is if I could have witnessed it! I did I guess, I’m probably the one closest to you when you climbed Chappies… just on the other side of the Atlantic ocean 😉

  2. OMG OMG OMG – You’re soooo legit! Hope I get to run something with you some day – though you’ll smoke me 🙂 PC Niger reunion 5k some day??? Congrats Heather.

    • Oh, Mason, I adore you. Yes, let us please have a reunion and we can run if we feel like 🙂 Hope you are well. Miss you, buddy.

  3. Inspirational story–thank you for sharing it with the rest of us! Congratulations and all the best in your future ultras1

  4. Incredible. Run 56km (in under seven hours!!) with a mindset that allowed you to reflect on loved ones and past challenges, inspire people to believe in themselves and be the best they can be, write an elegant post to tell the world about it…all in a days work for Heather Mangan. All that and it sounds like you had a FUN doing it. Overall at least, I can’t imagines the skirmishes with village dogs were ever all that enjoyable 🙂 You’re a hero and should be incredibly proud of yourself. All of your friends certainly are.

    • Rachel, you are so sweet. Thank you for all the kind words. Hope you are well and that we can catch up when I return.

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  7. Pingback: Welcome Back – Journey of ASillyGirl | A silly girl who likes to run

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