Since before I moved to Zambia, I looked forward to running the Victoria Falls Marathon. For a while, I wavered about the plan for the race; would I "race" it, or would I "run" it? By "race" it, I mean, would I train to run it fast and work to the goal of beating my PR (personal record) of 3:24; or would I run it (just enjoy the run)?
In August, I met a fellow school parent/runner, Johan, and we began running together after school drop off on Tuesdays and Fridays. Somewhere along the line, Johan decided he wanted to train for his first marathon, which would be Victoria Falls. Coupled with the fact that he would be returning to Sweden to live, this made up my mind; my goal became to run the race with Johan and to help him complete his first marathon.
After long training and multiple long runs, we decided on a goal time of four hours...
The run started with a drive to Victoria Falls, camping overnight Friday night, carb-loading spaghetti for lunch, an easy shake-out jog Saturday evening, no pasta at the restaurant on Saturday evening (even though the waiter assured us that the pasta was very good), and camping on the floor of Johan and Klas's hotel room on a leaky air mattress (I reinflated it three or four times during the night).
Sunday morning, I ate a bowl of oatmeal and an orange, drank half a bottle of Mountain Dew, and went down to the start line (right outside the hotel). It was nice being right there before the race; I reached the start line only 10-15 minutes before the gun and was in perfect time to start. I met a fellow Northwestern Wildcat who was also hoping to break 4 hours in her first marathon and a couple of other fellow runners and then the race started.
The first thing we did was go downhill to the Victoria Falls Bridge into Zambia. I worked hard to keep our pace slow - it would have been easy to go out way too fast, as our legs were fresh, it was downhill, and there is a lot of energy and adrenaline at the start of a race. The plan was to run even 5:40 kilometers (that's about 9:06/mile), but for the first kilometer or two, 5:25 would be excusable. The bridge was incredible, especially seeing the view of the falls, and well before the turn-around, we saw the elites heading toward us. They are so fast. When I saw the guy who was in first, I told the others, "He won't win." Funny thing, when we saw the front-runners later, I never saw him again. You could just see that even if he had a good 5K, he didn't have that for 42.2.
We followed the route back into Zimbabwe, on a curvy road through the National Park (there was elephant poop everywhere - apparently some runners who were back a ways got mock-charged by an elephant while running!), and up lots of hills. All along, I kept checking my Garmin to make sure we were right around 5:40.
The water stops were plentiful, where they'd give out little sealed baggies of water. I saw one guy struggling, trying to open it with his hands. The key was to rip it open with your teeth. I managed to hydrate really well - in fact, I have never, ever had to pee as many times as I did along this course. Funny thing; at about the halfway point, I felt something sticking in my ankle; I thought it was just my sock bothering me, but after the race, I found that I had picked up some little thorns in my sock on one of my bathroom breaks!
The first half went by in just seconds over 2 hours. About this point, I was experiencing some serious tightness in my left hamstring. I decided to just forget about it, which turned out to be the best thing. I had to laugh when I felt better at 30k than I had at 20k.
The kilometers just kept on clicking by, right at 5:40. Along the way, I saw baboons, warthogs, and even a donkey (I think it was tame, though). The water stops began serving Coke or Fanta as well - I loved having Coke breaks (I actually walked with the Coke cups). I also ate a pack of Gu Chomps - I'm a little embarrassed that I've had these for as many years as I have; I bought them at least 4 years ago. They were a little hard and extra chewy, but that was good, because it meant they lasted longer in my mouth. When I was getting ready to eat my first one, however, a guy told me, "You'd better watch out; there are baboons ahead." I stuffed the bag back in my pocket, and I was glad I had, because they are quite aggressive.
We did a couple of loops, it got hot, and there were a couple of major uphills. On one of these, right about 35km, Johan hit the wall. For those of you who have run this distance, you probably know how he felt. I tried working with him "This is less than our loop from the school," but there's nothing anyone else can do to get you through it, and though he didn't quit, he urged me to go ahead.
I decided if I was going to go ahead, I was going to push the pace. The other hopeful 4 hour runners had long since dropped back, so I was on my own. I wish I'd counted roadkills; I was picking off runners left and right. In fact, nobody passed me. Not even one runner (now, to be clear, I was overtaken while drinking Coke, but I re-passed every one of them). It was just one after another, and I loved it.
My pace started dropping, down under 8 minute mile pace for the final 7km. There was a period where we went down a long straightaway through a residential area, and that was boring and hot and I just concentrated on catching other runners.
I knew that the 41st kilometer would be the toughest, as it was entirely uphill, yet I still managed to drop the pace. The finish itself was a little unclear, as I came upon an area full of cars and lots of runners who had finished their half marathon race. But the course turned back into a school, where a fellow Lusaka runner told me, "Save a little; the track goes around a long way." I figured I could keep the pace, especially when I saw how close I was to 4 hours so I ran hard, with my Garmin registering a top speed of 5:30!
I crossed the finish line at 3:59:46!
At the finish line I was given a bottle of water (that's the last thing I wanted at that point) and my medal (pretty cool design) and told to "sit here and wait for your shirt" (in the sun). I waited. They didn't have my size (M). Or small. So I got a large one.
There was no free post-race food or anything other than the bottle of water available, and I didn't have any money, but a friend lent me some, with which I bought apple juice, which tasted fantastic.
Johan and Klas finished shortly after I did (I believe Johan made it in 4:10, which was fantastic, especially for how hard he hit the wall). I made it back to the hotel and soaked my legs in the pool for a while.
The best parts of the race: I negative split. I've never managed that, not in any marathon. It wasn't a huge difference (2:00:35 for the first half, 1:59:11 for the second), but it was cool. I also nailed hydration and nutrition during the race. And passing so many people without being passed? That was the most incredible feeling.
It was also cool to have such great support from the Lusaka runners. Lusaka Fitness Club and Lusaka Running Club made a great showing and it was amazing to have them all cheering and all the camaraderie.
After the race, and after cleaning up and eating, it was time for an all-night drive back to Lusaka (definitely the low point of the whole adventure).
This was night-and-day different from the Lafarge Lusaka debacle in March. A great marathon experience.