"If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude." – Maya Angelou

The Accidental Half Marathoner

Running gave me wings.

Born with rickety knees, I underwent open knee surgery in grade eleven to smooth out unevenness of the one patella (before the days of arthroscopies); the procedure slowed me down but not for long.

For many years my sweet-spot hunkered around the five to ten-kilometer distance. That twenty -five to fifty-minute runs provided ample time to ponder the day’s dealings and dramas, contemplate upcoming challenges, then to return home, drenched and dead-tired, brimming with enthusiasm—as if having taken to the skies. 

Emigrating to Canada during the late 1990s with a young family, introduced us to winter, real winter, with snow and ice and temperatures well below minus thirty. Having grown up in Africa, any amount of snow was a big deal. Environmentally shocked, that first winter, we didn’t dare poke our noses out the door.

Celebrating the arrival of spring, we spent every free minute outdoors where we learned about the annual Manitoba Marathon. Being able to participate with the two girls in the five-kilometer Super Run was a gift sent from heaven! For several years, I took at least one of the girls along on the 5-km run. 

My workplace put together two relay teams each year to participate in the full marathon. Each team member had to run a seven to a nine-kilometer leg—a perfect distance. Getting a place on the relay team, however, often stopped short of a friendly fist-fight—we cherished the honor, the bragging rights, and, we ran for a worthy cause. The donated funds were applied to assist individuals living with mental disabilities. 

Being part of a team gave running new meaning. I now had team members relying on me. Practicing, getting in shape, was crucial. Each year the goal was to improve on the previous years’ time. The esprit de corps blossomed. It was impossible to participate in the event and remain untouched by the buzzing energy—running alongside thousands of participants, being cheered on by many thousands more—enough to give one goosebump and make one’s soul soar.

Soon enough, our two girls took up ballet and had to participate in an annual dance recital. Oddly enough, the recital took place on the same day as the marathon, year after year. For many parents, runners themselves, compelled to have their dancing child at the concert hall, this demanded a fine-tuned logistical operation. 

Depending on the scheduled time for my daughters’ performance, I had to try and swop places with my relay team members if my running time and the recital times were conflicting or too close together. 

How could I not be present at their recital? 

One particular year, I was allocated to run the third leg in the relay marathon. But running that leg would make it impossible to attend my daughter’s dance recital. It was a little over two weeks to the marathon day. Close to panic, I approached team members—my request seemed reasonable: please switch places with me. 

I was dumbfounded—my teammates wouldn’t budge this time—no one was willing to switch places as they had in the past.

I had not been practicing in vain. I was in no mood for a 5-km run, and it would be foolish to attempt the full marathon. 

I had an epiphany: run the half marathon.

Scared I’d change my mind; I immediately registered for the run. 

Reality took a while to set in. I never had in my life run that far. In the army, during my national service days, we had completed a route march with full kit over sixteen kilometers, but this was different—this was running alongside five thousand other half marathoners. It was serious business.

It was crucial to see if I could at least complete the distance before the marathon day. I took the car and measured an eighteen-kilometer circular route—believing, if I could complete that distance with comfort, I’d do fine during the race.

 I always ran with a pulse monitor, keeping my heart rate between 140 and 150. Taking an early breakfast, hydrating well, I set off on my epic 18-km test run. I was not a little proud, completing the distance in a little over an hour and a half.

I’ll show my ex-relay buddies how to run a half marathon! 

The excitement made me suffer from insomnia the night before the race. Six-thirty found me doing warming-up stretches close to the starting line, blowing tiny plumes of vapor into the crisp June air. 

The din of excitement was palpable as thousands of runners gathered. Adjusting my chest-monitor strap, I made my way to the front. Behind me a mass of eager runners surged, waiting on the gun to go off.


We were on our way.

I needn’t have looked over my shoulder to tell me I was at the spearhead of a torrent of runners. The thudding of thousands of running shoes on the tarmac was deafening—I felt great sympathy for the frontrunners during the annual wildebeest migration on the Serengeti plains.

It was exhilarating running at a faster pace, and within the first kilometer, I found my new rhythm, noticing my heart rate had settled at a steady 170 beats/minute.

Running gave me wings. Running that much faster made me soar even higher. I felt invincible. 

Imagine, me keeping up with the elite runners! Where are you now, relay buddies?

Reaching the first 5-km mark, I felt remarkably strong.

Passing the 10-km mark, I still ran well and for the briefest of moments considered that something was wrong. I pushed the thought aside and focused on running a remarkable race.

The 15-km mark couldn’t arrive soon enough. Something serious was amiss. A successful mutiny had been launched, first by my legs, soon joined by my lungs. They refused to obey my instructions to run—even taunted me.

At the 17-km mark, my twin engines sputtered.

Mayday. Mayday.

I started walking at the 18-km mark. 

I never walk when I run. Never. There were no cramps or shortness of breath or chest pain, only the total absence of energy. I was kaput.

I had no choice—I walked—if one could call my duck waddle a walk.

Filling up on energy drinks and half bananas and orange wedges, I slowly regained some strength and resumed a slow jog, only to alternate it with waddling.

Me running for fifteen kilometers at a heart rate of 170 instead of my usual 150 must have robbed my muscles of oxygen, making me reach my anaerobic threshold too soon.

And I was ready to teach my relay buddies a lesson!

I limped past the finish line after two hours and fourteen minutes, desperate for a quiet place with shade where I could put salve on my bruised ego.


Thank you for reading!

© 2019 All rights reserved.

Image by Danie Botha.

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