Monday, May 31, 2010

I tried to get up through the night last night. I mean, I tried, and then fell back on to the bed. My legs didn’t respond very well….

It’s evening now, and thanks to ibuprofen, the cold Indian Ocean, compression gear, a long walk, and the passage of time, I can tie my own shoes without too much pain. What a reward!

Speaking of a reward, I was supposed to get a massage today to help me recover. I went in to the spa this morning – the first opening was at 11:45, so I would leave Shaun and Jess at the beach and come back for my massage. I left the ladies around 11:20, and when I returned around noon, Jess asked if I was feeling better. Um...I was supposed to get an hour-long massage.... Hmmm. I guess snoozing on the beach with headphones on isn’t the best way to keep track of time. :) Or, in Shaun’s case, not snoozing:

You see, when I returned to the spa, I found that contractors were busily tearing up flooring to put down carpet. Drilling through tile, cutting metal, hammering (no-one seemed to mind me walking through this in my sandals, strangely. I guess worksite safety really only applies to the workers…). The original woman at the front desk was not around. Fitting, as the front desk also wasn’t there; it had been moved to let the contractors do their thing. I found the manager who, between pauses for the shriek of a drill on tile, explained that she couldn’t let me have a massage today because the contractors were making so much noise. Apparently the contractors were two hours late; though I’m not sure that was the key issue as the earliest appointment she could offer me was for tomorrow. Sadly I’m leaving Durban tomorrow. Well…not really SADLY, tomorrow we go to a game reserve!!

To keep a long story from getting too much longer, I lazed on the beach, soaked in the ocean, and took that aforementioned walk before we returned to the Elephant Guest House for another night. There’s something pretty cool about coming to a hotel (for all intents and purposes), and having the staff say “I hear you finished in under 8 hours. Congratulations!” To be fair, Marleen’s excitement was a little comical. She introduced me to another guest here as someone who had done something amazing – the Comrades Marathon. He replied “Oh, what is that?” (What do New Yorkers know, anyway?!?)

This is rather intersting.  The lifeguards use these kinds of things to fish.  They lost track of this one and it caught me and Shaun....happily not with the hook...

 One other amusing little anecdote from today.  We went to a Morrocan place for dinner, where the advertising pamphlet read: "Bring your next corporate event to Yossi's - no-one can like Morrocan - for catering."  What?  Is that supposed to be comforting?  Jess realised that what they meant, of course, was "No-one can, like Morro-CAN, for catering", but their proofing was a little absent...

Race Day (Day 6)

This morning was perfect. Woke up feeling pretty decent at 3:30 in the morning, had a breakfast of coffee (yes – I had a coffee!) and a couple of bananas, briefly spoke to Paul on the phone, and made it to the start line in time. Incidentally, despite copious warnings that such behavior is not permissible, it appears that South African racers are just like Canadian ones – guys find every private, semi-private, and blatantly obvious piece of wall to pee before races…

The start line had a rather interesting mix of music – traditional ‘African’ sounding beats interspersed with Kaiser Chiefs, Black Eyed Peas, and culminating in Chariots of Fire.

The call of a rooster, and we were off. Within seconds of the start of the race, more guys ran toward the sparse bushes at the side of the road…I guess the cover of darkness was enough for them….? I felt awesome – strong and confident in my chances of a really good time. At 9km, we faced the first of the really steep downhills. Immediately, I felt a sharp pain in my problem calf. Damn! Eased off, and the pain went away; ok, I can deal with this, I won’t get a sub 6-hour race, but a sub-7 should still be possible.

At 24km in, I looked out from the top of the hill and saw the mist rising from the scene of a mountain range before us. I had two thoughts:

A) That is beautiful!

B) F@ck!! I have to run through that!!!

(Incidentally, it isn’t a real mountain range, but the aptly-named “Valley of 1000 hills”)

Shortly after, the aching in my legs which had been growing since about 20km started to get really bad. What is going on?!? I shouldn’t be feeling this rough this early on! I realized some time later why my legs were aching so much. I haven’t run much since the beginning of May when I bothered my old calf injury. While the cycling and swimming has kept my legs plenty strong, they have become fragile, and unaccustomed to the pounding of the pavement. Betrayed by my own body!

A lot of the race is a bit of a blur. I don’t remember when I thought all of these things, but this is roughly the order:

- I can’t believe how long this race is….will I be able to do it?

- My legs hurt.

- What a beautiful view!

- My legs hurt. Ow! They ache so much!

- There go the first women past me. Good luck ladies! I wish I could keep up and run with you.

- These San kids are great! Just slap their hands as they go by and they get so happy! It’s like I’m a star!

- How can this hill just keep going up? I thought this was a DOWNHILL year!

- I’m all messed up. I feel like crying and I don’t even know why. Dehydration already? I hope not…

- Ethembeni School! Physically and mentally handicapped kids – they seem so happy as I run by and give them high-fives! I understand why people say it’s hard to not stop here…

- Here are the downhills! Oh! They hurt my legs so much! How can my legs ache like this?!?

- Shaun and Jess!! I was going to tell them I’ll be slow and complain about my calf, but seeing them perked me up. I’m feeling better…

- Good luck Melanie, Kerri, and whatever other women pass me. I’d like to say I’ll catch you and see you again, but I’m falling off the pace, and I know you’re still strong.

- My legs hurt so much! Don’t walk until the first marathon is done.

- A woman at the side is shouting “That’s right, Sir! No problem, Sir! You can do this, Sir!” She’s right! I can do this, I’ll be ok….

- First marathon down. Don’t walk until 45km.

- 45km…don’t walk until 50km.

- Only one marathon to go. Still not at 50km. I can’t take this…I’m walking. (That two minutes was the first and last part of any uphill I walked today. I never gave in to that weakness again.)

- Ohh! My legs ache so much! I don’t know how I can handle these downhills. Now I feel like crying and I know why – I have never been in such agony! I can hardly believe my legs aren’t bleeding!

- Shaun and Jess again. I try to smile, but they can see I’m in pain. Keep going. If you stop, you may not start again…

- Running a time no longer matters. Being first Canadian no longer matters. Finishing without walking no longer matters. I just want to get through this. My legs hurt. Ow! Ow! Ow!

- One foot in front of the other. Keep drinking. Keep eating. Get through this…

- Is that a dead bat at the side of the road? Strange roadkill…

- I can’t run downhills anymore. It hurts too much. So many people are cheering, I put my head down and pretend I don’t hear them. Doesn’t help they can read my name from my bib. Being a foreign competitor, I get extra attention….

- I’m walking more and more….can I run? Have I given up the medal I want? Can I finish in 12 hours if I walk from here…?

- I’m falling apart. I’m walking and there’s still a third of the way to go. I’m losing my drive. I just want to walk right off the course…. 7 months of training….how can this final month have messed me up so much?

- Running again, good! Keep eating and drinking. Run the uphills and as much of the downhills as you can. Less than 30km to go.

- It’s 22km to go. I can still get a silver medal. There’s a chance…

- 16km to go. I’m running in agony. I ask any spectator with a cooler for ice so I can rub my legs, try to numb the pain for a moment….it doesn’t really work… I won’t give up the silver medal if I can help it…

- 11km to go. The silver medal is gone. I’m not running fast enough and I don’t have time…..more than anything, I feel relief. I can stop running for a bit.

- Endless downhills into Durban. I’m walking all of them. My watch battery died, so I don’t know what my time is. Some spectators tell me not to give up, I’m almost there. I want to throttle them. I’m not giving up!! I’m moving forward – that’s the best I can do right now! Try running 89km through those mountains and see if the final 8km is “almost there!” Others are sympathetic – “Good job”, “You’re looking strong”, and “Keep going” is what I get from them. I think they must have raced this before. They know the pain.

- I’m still running all the uphills. It’s all I can do. They are few and far between, so it’s not asking too much of myself….

- 3km to go. Another uphill. I stop at the top, but a few minutes later the crowd gets me going again. They don’t speak English, and they are the poor of Durban, but right now they are cheering for me. Can I run the final 2.5km? I start counting my steps, it’s the only way I can distract myself…

- 1km to go. I’m running in from here. Almost over.

- Into the stadium. If I push, I can crack 8 hours. Good enough. I finish in 7:59 and some seconds.

Shaun finds me after I emerge from the massage tent. Lingainwa and Hlegeiwe (I know I have butchered spelling) are my first two angels – they massaged my battered legs and let me walk again. Shaun’s my real angel though. I hug her and don’t want to let go. I’m done. I finished it. I don’t have to run anymore………………………

Mixed feelings about the race. Sub 8 hours is the top 7% or something like that, and apparently everyone suffers in their first Comrades. I'm proud of my Bill Rowan medal (he won the first over 9 hours).  Then again, I didn’t come here just to cover the distance and walk. I don’t think there is anything shameful about walking the final 10 (or so) km of Comrades, but I’m not taking a lot of pride in it, either. The morning was perfect. Comrades was an experience, but it was far from perfect. I have unfinished business here…

Thank-you so much to Shaun and Jess for coming to Africa, supporting me through this race, and helping me get my bruised body back to the car. Thank-you so much to my family for getting me a beautiful hotel room (with a view of the Indian Ocean!), and a massage for tomorrow. Thank-you so much to everyone who has run with me, provided training and travel suggestions, and just plain allowed me to talk endlessly about this race and this trip. I’m lucky to have so many people behind me on this!

We split a bottle of wine with dinner. Between the sun, and a 3:30am morning, it’s enough to make us all a bit tipsy. It’s just after 10pm, and I’m going to bed (the hotel internet is down, so I won’t post this until tomorrow…). Shaun’s already asleep beside me.

I’ve worked over 7 months for this. Now what?


Day 5 Update: MONKEYS!!

What is that on the wall over there?  Is that some wire hanging out of the


A gecko!! How fun!

Last night, we experienced the harsh winter that Durban has to offer.  This morning, however, was a beautiful, clear, sunny day.  We ate breakfast on the verandha (Jess beat us out usual....that's what this blog is costing me as far as late bedtimes!); where one of the other guests explained she saw monkeys earlier that morning sitting at breakfast.  I should explain something.  We found the Elephant Guest House in Frommer's guide, and one of the major selling points was the claim that monkeys regularly come visit the garden.  We had to check it out....except then we missed them as we slept in.  Too bad.

We strolled around the garden after breakfast and Shaun found a much larger (distant) cousin to our wake-up friend:

Oh well...very fun, but still no monkey. :(

Howard and Marlene - the owners of this place - promised that we'd have a good chance of seeing monkeys when we return in a couple of days. We packed up to leave, and were sitting in the driveway waiting for Howard to open the gate when Marlene called for us to come with a camera.

In my excitement, I put the car in neutral and applied the brake as I jumped out the car door.  That's all well and good, except that I wasn't driving at the time.  Perhaps Jess could handle those things herself?  Anyway, got back up the stairs and looked where Marlene was pointing: monkeys in the trees bordering the property!!!!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

'Twas the night before Comrades...

'Twas the night before Comrades, and all through the house … let’s face it, I’m going crazy here. Today was an awesome, exciting day, and I’ll give you the full update later. WOW! Did things change when we were driving to Pietermaritzberg! It is hilly!! On the drive up I was getting butterflies in my stomach - getting really nervous! Now I just feel vaguely unwell and food doesn’t have a lot of flavour.

I’ve got my kit laid out for tomorrow and I have my bag for the finish line, and the best looking porter to bring it there. I think I’m ready….

Day 4 Update: Cape Town to Durban

Woke up this morning in Cape Town, power was off again...or still – not sure really. On the bright side it seems to have been on long enough to charge my camera batteries! :) It was also a BEAUTIFUL morning – not the rain we had last night. Breakfast at the hotel included fruit salad with papaya and some unknown seed. I’m betting on pomegranate, but Shaun thinks papaya... Our hotel has an awesome view of Table Mountain and Loin’s Head

So we kicked off the morning with a walk through town to see more of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head.

We knew we had to get back to the hotel for 11:30 for Amier (our taxi driver) to pick us up for the airport. It’s a half hour drive and we had to be there for noon.

We called at 11:35 – he was 15 minutes away. WHAT?!?! Um...Okay ….

At 11:55 we started looking for other options. Now, I should apologize to my friend Andrea – I made fun of her for years for getting into some random guy’s car in Italy thinking it was a taxi. With no Amier around, I asked the nearest guy for a ride to the airport.  He agreed for R250. I kinda thought he was a cabbie until he said he had to get his car from the parking lot.... Luckily (maybe?) Amier showed up while he was getting his car. That 30 minute drive?  We were at the airport by 12:12. The back route that Amier drove took us right by one of the townships.  Sensitivity (and a bit of stress about the flight I thought we were missing) kept me from taking any photos, but watch District 9 and replace the aliens with humans and you’ll know what we saw.

The flight to Durban might as well have been a Comrades charter, including one guy who was doing it for his 20th time! On the bright side not everyone wearing Comrades gear – including a 12 year old girl! – looked all that fit.

We got to Durban and rented a car.  That’s right, driving on the left side of the road … legally! Thankfully there was traffic on the highway and we didn’t have to hit the 120km speed limit. That might have been where our luck ended – driving wise. You see, Friday evening rush hour traffic is always bad in Durban, but today they were closing a lot of streets in a dry run for World Cup. Take the worst traffic you have ever seen in Toronto.  Triple the number of cars, ignore stop lights, have pedestrians crossing in every possible place and take away that personal space buffer people have around their cars … you get the idea. I was having a lot of trouble with this, particularly when we were in such grid lock that the cars were woven together. Jess noticed the guy whose fender was 3 inches from her passenger door starting to laugh. I laughed too.  It was absurd! And I started to feel better. :) A little while later when we had gone roughly 3 blocks (it was an hour later). I was afraid I was going to miss the expo, so I got out of the car and started walking. To be clear, this was arranged among the 3 of us before I got out of the driver’s seat. I didn’t just leave the ladies behind!

Race expo was so exciting....and at the same time surprisingly uneventful. … but I did spend R700 on Comrades memorabilia (that sounds like a lot more than it really is).

By the way, Jess and Shaun did find me in the expo. The had made it through the hellish traffic!

Got to our guest house where our host apologized for Durban’s weather. "Winter had hit with a vengence!" I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt. :)

We checked out "Olive and Oil" for dinner - against our host’s recommendations, strangely.  Those jeans and t-shirt were a tad under dressed. Remember how cheap I said R700 was? Try getting dinner for 3 including Ostrich appetizer and tip for R350. That’s $50!!

I love eating here!

Day 2 - Update (also a bit late...but I'm working on that)

Woke up this morning coming in to Heathrow!  Well, it was kind of morning - not much past midnight according to Toronto time, but 6:30 am in London, so time to check out the day!  This post will be long, because we did a ton of stuff today!

First off, we jumped on the express train to Paddington station.  Train got delayed a few minutes by some suspicious pakaging, but it appears it wasn't terrorists, as we got moving along again shortly.  There's something about European train stations that seems so much classier than old Union station.  Really, who ever poses for a photo in Union?

Another reason for a photo in Paddington:

What?  I don't get it....

Of course, getting out of Padington station, we were reminded that there is a cost to jet-setting around the world. :(

Well, that can't be helped now...

We wandered into the streets of London and headed for the downtown.  How exciting!!  We haven't even reached our real destination yet, and we're already in for a day of adventure!

To travel-weary brains, this kind of road sign is very helpful:

Not really sure what this means, though.  Drive erratically?

Here you go, Michael, and for anyone else who is frustrated by stores that don't cater to tall and slim men:

This is just rather confusing:

I thought taking care of one's body didn't normally include cosmetic surgery...?

Ok, we made our way through that first bit of the city and into Hyde Park.  Walking through Hyde Park, we saw London's answer to Toronto's moose:

Except, of course, that there are moose near Toronto, whereas these elephants are just a tribute to Indian colonization....?

Finding our way through Hyde Park...

Despite the fact that I am a runner, this does seem a little more 'high-brow' than a group of runners following a circuit of the park:

We stopped for our first British meal at the Serpentine restaurant.

Perhaps it was the limited sleep, or the reliance on airplane /airport (perhaps 'aeroport' given that we are in England?) food for the past several hours, or just the excitement of being in London, but we were pumped for this meal!  Jessica and Shaun ordered Toast Soldiers with Eggs (apparently I am the weird one who had never heard of this), but I made the healthy choice: Eggs Benedict!

Normally, I think the phrase is 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do'.  For Jessica, however, 'When eating Rome...' seems to do!

I am a big fan of our anti-smoking by-laws, but our signs clearly don't measure up to English expectations:

We planned to hook up with the Sandemans Royal London Free Tour, but we had some more time after breakfast, so we did the logical thing when one is running on limited sleep: we found another place to eat.  At this second cafe, we heard what sounded like some new Scouting for Girls on the radio.  Awesome!! I never could find the previous Scouting for Girls album in Canada...well...except for that expensive import version on Amazon, so I made a note to look for this before we left.  On to the tour!

You never really know what you're going to get with a free walking tour, and when a website tells you to 'look for the guides in the red t-shirts' that might just mean it's really low budget... That is most definitely NOT the case with Sandemans tours.  The tour was great, and I'd do another the next time I'm in London. :)

We met a large crowd of tourists at the statue of the Duke of Wellington at Hyde Park Corner.  The first thing we learned from our tour guide was that the Duke of Wellington earned the moniker 'The Iron Duke' not from his stern demeanour or strict discipline, but from his having erected an iron fence around his residence.  Apparently, the English public didn't particularly like him, and took to throwing bricks at his house.  The fence was meant to put a stop to that.  I'll be honest, I haven't been able to confirm this anywhere since, but it did make for a good story!  The Duke of Wellington also erected a large statue of himself facing his house.  Who needs a mirror when...?

We walked from Wellington Arch through Green Park to Buckingham Palace in time to see the changing of the guard. 

Well...sort of see it.  Between the crowds, and the fence, you don't get much of a view.  I was actually more impressed by the show in Ottawa.

Buckingham itself, however, was cool!

The 'Canada Gate':

Great!  We have a gate in our country's honour, and it leads nowhere.  Is this representative of the English view of our country? (Just kidding...I think...)

At least we have excellent placement of a war memorial nearby.

Thanks for the respect, kids.  Strong parenting at work...

Despite the impressive looking security around Buckingham Palace,

there have been a surprising number of trespassers.  One child, apparently, lived there for a week, hiding in chimneys and closets whenever people came around.  Another story from our tour guide was about a drunk guy who decided one night that Buckingham Palace would be an ideal shelter from the rain and wind.  He broke through a window and - being drunk - ignored the number one rule when breaking into a royal palace: he proceeded to wander around room after room, setting off an endless string of alarms all over.  In fact, he set off so many alarms that the guard responsible for monitoring them assumed that it was a malfunction, and shut down all the alarms in that area.  Great idea!  The drunkard found his way to the royal cellars, and then on to the queen's bedroom, where the queen was sleeping!  She woke up as he barged in, and spoke to him for several minutes.  When he asked for a cigarette, she offered to call her footman (aka guard) to get him one.  You can imagine the guard's surprise to hear the queen request: "a cigarette for the strange man who has stumbled into my room!!"  I'm inclined to think that guard had plenty of time to consider the strangeness of the request in his subsequent unemployment...

As we stood outside Buckingham, our tour guide asked who among us thought that England should get rid of the royal family (I'm sure he used some less forbidding term which merely suggested that they woudl no longer be supported, but 'get rid of' will work for these purposes).   Being a conscientious tax-payer, I raised my hand.  Then we were told that it is a serious offence in England to voice any suggestion of eliminating the royal family.... Thanks for that one, Dave!  Hopefully MI5 won't peruse this blog too closely...  Just in case, though, my name is Stephen Harper.... ;)

Buckingham Palace is one of several official residences for the royal family in London.  St. James Palace, around the corner, is another:

Strangely, no monarch has actually lived there since 1837.  Even then, it wasn't used much.  King George III had gone to visit the Duke of Buckingham in the early 18th century and told the Duke: "I really like your house."  The Duke replied: "Thank-you, Sir, I like it, too."  The King replied: "No, Duke....I really like your house..." :)

While everyone else was posing with the guards in front of St. James Palace, Shaun and Jessica posed with our tour guide, Dave. 

How could a guy look so unenthused with good-looking women on either arm?

Here's another tidbit about St James Palace.  Before it was a residence for kings, the site on which it was built was a hospital for lepers... Coincidence? ;)

From St James, we continued past the the Canadian Embassy

and the most exclusive Gentleman's Club in London.

I'm not talking about one of those clubs where boozers don't live up to the name, Winston Churchill was a member here!  Ok, I'm still not talking about one of those places where boozers don't live up to the name... I can only imagine what the membership fees are, but on the bright side, anyone who is accepted will have plenty of time to save up; the waiting list is 60 years!

Admiralty Arch was built to honour the Duke Of Wellington, and if the general public didn't like him, the military certainly appears to.  Seven feet up from the street - hip level if you are on horse-back - there is what looked to me like a large wad of gum sticking out from from archway.  Apparently, upon closer inspection, it looks like a human nose; legend has it that it is Wellington's nose, and to this day soldiers rub it for good luck as they ride by.

The Horse Guards Parade is probably more exciting when the Horse Guards are in it. As it was, this was our best view of 10 Downing Street (on the far side of the trees). Whereas the street used to be open so that anyone could wander down at any time, security measures now limit access to the road to only those people who need to be there. Being a tourist doesn't make the cut.

We made our way over to Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, and Westminster Palace (better known as the parliament buildings).  On our way, we saw what any tourist would expect to see among Britain's government buildings: a statue of Abraham Lincoln. 

Yep, ol' Abe standing in front of a chair.  This was a gift from the American government at some point (you all remember when the French gave the Americans that statue?  Who was it - Napoleon?  Oh that's right, the Statue of Liberty is meaningful to the Americans!  What strange behaviour...) :)

As we settled in on the lawn behind Westminster Abbey, Dave told us the story of Guy Fawkes, and commented on the oddity of the English tradition of commemorating someone's failed attempt to blow up the parliament buildings...

Here I am as David mimics 'drawing and quartering' the punishment Fawkes narrowly avoided.  I got a little uncomfortable as he discussed the severing of the genitalia and burning them in front of the criminal's face...

After the our, we made our way to Trafalgar Square for more food.  I don't know what to call it - late lunch, perhaps?  We were so worn down by lack of sleep (not to mention shower and change of clothes!) that food was the only thing keeping us going...  Trafalgar Square is pretty incredible.  It is a shame that younger cities like Toronto weren't able to adopt quite the same feel in our city squares (and I do like both Nathan Philips and Yonge & Dundas).

It seemed fitting that we were staring at the South African High Commission, right across the square.  Reminded us that our trip had only just begun!

We started heading back toward Paddington Station by way of the Bird Cage.

Then through Green Park, where we saw super heroes...?

I like the cycling lanes in Toronto, but these are something new:

How about a Quickie in the pharmacy? (I honestly don't remember what these were)

Finally back to Heathrow, and on to the next flight! (Jessica was sick of having her photo taken by this time...)