Monday, September 05, 2011

Victoria Falls Marathon Race Report

The 26th of August was Heroes’ Day in Namibia, so my friend Janice and I headed down to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe to run in the Vic Falls Marathon (I ran the marathon, she ran the half-marathon) which was being held Sunday the 28th.


After a lovely Saturday being tourists and an early evening, we woke before dawn to prep and walk down to the start of the race. I thought (hoped?) it would be cooler and I would need to bring my jacket, but I felt fine in just a shirt and my MoeBen sleeves. It was dark at 6:00am when we left our hostel, but it gets light pretty quickly this close to the equator, so the 6:30am start time was well-timed. There were a few hundred people milling around—for the marathon, the half-marathon, a 5k fun run, and about 6 or 8 guys in wheelchairs for the half-marathon. We found the starting banner and I tried to breathe and not be too nervous. The marathoners would start first, 30 minutes ahead of the half-marathon, so Janice wished me luck and I looked around at my “competition”. Soon enough, they announced “5 minutes to go” over the loudspeaker and then, we were off.


For the marathon, we would run two loops – with slight variations. The race began by going down and over the bridge over the Zambezi River, with Victoria Falls on the north side and the gorge to the south. We climbed a hill after the bridge, ran all the way to the Zambian border and turned around, crossing the bridge again, passing through the Zimbabwean border control and providing much entertainment for the border agents who were just arriving for their workday.


Around 5K, the course followed a road/path around the Vic Falls Park and I started to see regular km-marker signs. They seemed very frequent, but that was because there were signs for the first loop and the second. This part of the course was very nice—pretty flat, scenic, bushy and mostly vehicle-free. We passed “The Big Tree” (see my Flickr page for more photos: and soon after turned onto a major road headed north towards Zambezi National Park. By this point, we were all spread out and settling into our “spots”. There were two guys ahead of me who were walking and I passed them, thinking perhaps they would pass me back when they began running again, but that never happened. We climbed a hill, at the top of which an enormous valley opened up before us and I had a tremendous feeling of spaciousness. As I started to descend, I could see the frontrunners coming back towards me after having turned around inside the Park. Other than those at the water stops, there were not many spectators, particularly those cheering, but at the bottom of the hill, before entering the Park, there was a guy standing by his pickup truck who cheered everyone on. That was great! I thanked him. Also on this stretch, I saw the first three women, who were young Africans. The first was a Zimbabwean who had shared our dorm with us last night. Then I saw the first white women. There were not many ahead of me at this point, three for sure, maybe 4 or 5 (there was a portion inside the park where the return is split and so we do not see each other). I was pretty sure the first three were veterans (over-40) though, and they were all within 10 or so minutes of each other and easily 10 minutes ahead of me.


Inside the park we got to run on a trail for maybe a kilometer, which was really nice. And there was a water station sponsored by FedEx in there which was great. (There were the official water stations and then at least an extra 4 or 5 sponsored by specific groups which seemed to set up wherever they wanted. This made the distribution not very even. However, the last, unexpected one, sponsored by Botswana Tourism, 2K from the end after a long drought was very, very welcome!)


Coming out of the park, I was smacked by the headwind and had to fight that for a couple of kilometers. By this time, I could see half-marathoners on the other side of the road and as I reached the bottom of the hill, the lead pack of the half-marathon swooped past me. Boy, that was a bit disconcerting! As I climbed the hill out of the valley, I heard my name and looked up to see Janice happily running along taking pictures. (Her goal for the race was to take it easy and take photos, not run for time, and she seemed to be doing well.) After cresting the hill, the course turned right into a very hilly, barren section called Elephant Hills. At this point there were two other guys in my vincinity—1 passed me, I passed 1, then on the hills the other passed me and I passed the first. Suddenly we could hear drums in the distance. We turned a corner and climbed the last steep hill to the entrance of the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge whose security guards directed us, drummers entertained us and staff plied us with water and energy drinks. Good advertising!


It seemed this might be the end of the hills, but it was not so. They were more gradual now, but they persisted as we made our way through what they call the “low density area” and you or I might call the “high rent district.” As we reached the main road back into town, we had to go out a bit further to a turn-around. Just when I wanted to grumble, “why can’t we just turn towards town?” I was met by a family of spectators cheering and assuring us that this was the end of the hills. How nice of them! And right before the turnaround there was a little shop, in fact, “Little Harrod’s” as it proudly announced in letters perfectly painted in the Harrod’s font! (In many ways, Zimbabwe is very British colonial.)


The route to town was a wonderfully slow-sloping downhill and fortunately I knew the way because as I ran through town I found myself totally alone without another runner in sight and no police or water stations to provide direction. Finally, as I passed the Kingdom Hotel and climbed the hill to the start of the second loop, another running caught up with me and we navigated the last bit together.


At the turn on the road by Vic Falls Park there was a water station and I decided that, even though I wasn’t the least bit hungry, this would be a good time to take a gel. So I started walking, grabbed some water and tore open one of the Honey Stinger gels I brought. I sucked down the whole thing (mostly so I wouldn’t have to carry an open one) and tried to drink enough water so my mouth didn’t feel sticky. About a kilometer later, I was already dreaming of the next water stop, however, because I hadn’t taken quite enough water.


So the first half went very well for me, actually. I came through 13 miles at 1hr 52min, which is darn close to my half-marathon PR and I was still feeling strong. I decided that for the second half I needed to take more water and walk through those water stations. A couple of miles later, as I came out to the major road towards Zambezi Park, they were offering a blue drink. I asked what it was, and they named a local Gatorade-type of drink, so I took that hoping for a sugar boost. The taste wasn’t too bad, but it was really sweet. I was starting to slow somewhat and my spirits were beginning to lag a bit because the section from here to the park was rather desolate, but I didn’t feel at all like walking, so that was good. Somehow in my head I decided that if I made it to the 30K mark in good time, it would all be great.


Once I hit the park, however, I was feeling very tight. I walked some and then stopped and stretched. My thighs were already shouting pretty loudly and my lower back and hamstrings were predictably tight. I looked up and someone was coming, so I got back underway. Up a hill, then down a hill, turn right onto the trail and then downhill to the FedEx water stop. I didn’t need water, but I thanked the guys ‘cause they’d been out there for hours and they were still cheering us and directing us and lying that we looked good ;-)


One guy passed me and then I passed him back and as we came out of the park we both passed two other guys and the four of us sort of jockeyed back and forth all the way up the hill out of the valley and through Elephant Hills and past the VF Safari Lodge. By now, though, the hills were really, really killing me. There were still some half-marathoners on the course, but they were the only ones I passed. After the Safari Lodge, I had one of my worst miles as I realized that my quadriceps were in a lot of pain. I hadn’t seen another woman since the first 10K or so, but as I passed the turnaround by Little Harrod’s, first one, then a second, young woman passed me (both Americans, I think, as they both had extremely short shorts and red, white and blue ribbons in their ponytails). I kept trying to run, but stopped at one point again to stretch (squatting down was simultaneously very effective and intensely painful). A couple of guys caught and passed me right as we were back out on the road to town, before turning onto the last leg which was unknown territory through the “high density area”. We had about 6K to go.


It was in the high density area that I started to walk more and more. It was a bit of a strange experience. Up until now, the course had been pretty empty of people, but those we saw were there to cheer us or support us with water, drinks, etc. Now we were running through the residential part of town filled with people walking to church or from church and going about their business who mostly looked at us wondering what on earth these weird white people were doing. Luckily, I kept those two guys in my sights and after a few turns, I noticed strategically placed arrows showing us where to go. I ran up a hill and at the top was the last water stop and a film crew who stuck a microphone in my face (I shudder to think what I looked like), but I ran on. Running up hill didn’t seem to bother me much, but I could get no relief running downhill because that was when my thighs really hurt. This section of the course didn’t look very hilly because I could never really see very far ahead (there were many turns), but I think it was just as hilly as Elephant Hills.


Then we were out of the high density area and on the highway, then back in to run by a school. As I came to the corner by the school, I was walking, but a marching group of some sort (it didn’t look particularly military, though they were in uniforms) was coming up the road behind me, so I tried to run a bit. The thing I hated about these final two miles or so was that my energy was fine. It was just my legs that were totally shot. It was 10:30am or so by now and getting hotter, particularly since we were away from the river and couldn’t really feel the wind anymore. After this school we were headed back out on the highway again. Just before turning onto the highway, there was another cameraman asking me, “how is the final leg of your marathon going?” “Not very well, as you can see,” I replied, thinking that was obvious since I was walking, “but I’m going to finish, so that’s great.” Then I looked forward and there was the 40K sign and the Botswana Tourism water station—hallelujah! (Later, I talked to the woman at the Botswana Tourism tent, got some information about Chobe park, which is quite close to me and the best park in Botswana, and scored a really nice Botswana tourism polo shirt!)


Walk, walk, walk, run a little bit, ouch. Then there was the entrance to a private school and people were pointing me in. A few more yards? I could run that! There was a sort of chute which made it clear where to go, but then it became unclear – I was on the outside of this tape and on the inside were all these tents/booths and people. Not knowing where I was supposed to go, I asked a guy at one of the booths who directed me to follow the tape all the way around. Aargh! But I was running and my feet kept moving, so okay. I got to the end, crossed the line and they tore off my tag. Walking a bit further, I was greeted by woman handing out our t-shirts, water bottles and water. I made it!


I wandered around looking for Janice but didn’t find her. I sat and took my shoes off which felt good, but was difficult—it was very painful to get down to the ground to sit and very painful to get up from sitting. I wandered around looking at all the sponsored tents (by hotels for their guests, by some companies). ShopRite was there and tons of people had ShopRite bags. That would have been very handy, but I got there too late for that. The Kingdom Hotel had a tent that was serving food. At first I thought it was only for guests, but then I saw some people who clearly were not guests going there, so I followed them. The food serving guy asked us for our tickets, so I wandered around to see how to get a ticket. I asked another food serving guy who directed me to a drink serving guy who pulled a book of tickets out of his pocket and just gave me one. Score! So I got a few meatballs and a couple of little drumsticks and a bottle of cold water. I found a chair and sat and ate. It was a little heavy on my stomach, but I knew I needed real food—protein & fat. After eating, I succumbed to my tanking blood sugar and drank my annual Coke which definitely hyped up me up. Then I wandered over to see if they had announced the winners. When I saw the list of women’s veterans, they all came in between 3:24 and 3:45 or so. Way before me. There was no visible clock, so I wasn’t totally sure of my time—I forgot to stop my Garmin until several minutes later, but I knew I was just under 4:30. Later when I saw one woman with the prizes (all the veteran winners were given walking sticks, so they were easy to spot), it was the woman I had last seen as the 3rd white woman, so I wondered if I had been right all along and those three had stayed pretty close throughout the race.


Shortly after this, I was thrilled to find out there was a shuttle bus back to town because the only route I knew was at least 6K back to my hostel and I really could barely walk. The shuttle driver asked for vouchers, but didn’t even notice if you didn’t give him one (thank God). There was a nice Italian guy who was also staying at our hostel and when the shuttle dropped us off, there was Janice sitting in the Reception lounge chair in the shade!


Final result (according to my Garmin Foreunner 410): 4:24:36 for 26.22 miles, a PR!

1 comment:

melleinmoz said...

Hi Rev. Tracy, I'm a Peace Corps volunteer in Mozambique & part of a group of PCVs planning to run the Vic Falls marathon this August. I came across your blog while looking for more detailed course information. I'm nervous about the hills & would love to know when to expect them/how long they'll last. Do you happen to have that info from your Garmin, or remember more specifically where the hills were? It was great reading your post & hope to have a similarly successful race!