This is Africa !
– impressions and thoughts from the S-African 6-day Race, 2008.
/by jesper olsen.
I have been asked to write a small report from the George Archer 6-Day Race in South-Africa that has just gone by.
To give a different scope of the story I’ll try to show an example of what considerations are made by the elite runners during a multi-day race.
But first a small word on what I might mean by “elite runner”. Let it be clear from the beginning that I am not one of the top runners or ‘super stars’ of ultrarunning like Wolfgang Schwerk, Yannis Kouros, Scott Jurek, Jens Lukas, Tony Mangan, Pekka Alto, Takahiero Sunada, Edit Berces or Martina Hausmann – not to mention the handfull of Russian and Japanese ultrarunners likely to claim gold at the yearly world championships at 24-hour (and who better amongst the ultrarunners than the world champion – who disagrees can sign up and try to beat them :-).
No, I am a little runner from a small contry. Starting out as a recreational runner at the age of 12 and marathon runner at the age of 15 I have allways kept the joy of running, recreational running through the forrests, around the lakes, over the mountains and into the cities – at the core of my hart. So I’m not one of the top-elite runners. But on my good day’s I’m trying to be 🙂 And sometimes my luck and my legs allow me !
– Such were also the case in the South African 6-day race this year. I had entered a little out of shape; too few training kilometres and too many kilos on the bones. (Doing 120-150 km/week compared to usually 180-350km/week). Mentally I was also far from top-tuned: the race was supposed serve as a last preparation to the world run 2 that is scheduled to begin in 3 months time. I had looked at the recent years results in the S.-A. 6-day and expected to find a maneable challenge.
Not quite so !
First I noticed the entry of a good friend of mine, Vlastimil Dvoracek from the Czeck Republic amongst the 30 participants enlisted. Bad news if I wanted to have anything to do with the lead or the decision of the outcome of the race: Vlastimil has a pb. of 900+km on 6-day and a fresh pb. on 48-hour of 396km. Compared to my 780km pb there was really no match – only thing to hang on to was that I had been lucky to win my two other international 6-day starts – the race in Colac (756km) and the race in France last year (780km). But what would that help ?
We had each met on two occasions. On 24hour Vlastik had won over me, on 48hours I had won over him. The score was equal !
Another entrant caught my attention preparing the tactics for the race: Eric Wright of South Africa. Eric also has a pb. of well above 800km but more important up till now was undefeated in Africa during all his starts in the 6-day event. And he had had 6 of those wins, 3 of them 800km+ !! The statistics spoke loud here 😉
I had one thing going for me, perhaps, that I had won in Colac the year Eric also had entered. For what it was worth.
Looking a bit closer at their splits in different races (on-line) I could see that Vlastimil almost always opens strong on the first 2-3 days, from 160 – 200km on the first day, most likely not taking any substantial sleep. So: there could open up a chance on the later stages of the race, especially if he underestimated that the couse was at 1200meters altitude and the temperature was 20-30 higher than in winter Europe where he also was travelling from. Both factors should require a little longer restutiation periods than usual – I was guessing at 1-3 hours more off-track than usual !
Eric Wright, on the other hand, had a clear tendency to go for stability in his races and would be a danger if he was not far behind after the first half of the race. Conclusion: two opposite strategies was needed since I was not in shape to outrun them as things were. But how to do that ?
– Still this was all theory. And as soon as the start gun went off at 10am. sun. the 30. March, it became painfully obvious that I had looked in the wrong direction to determine the main challenge:
What should have warned me was the persistent motto of the race “This is Africa !”. What could it mean ? I had weeks before looked out the window from my appartment in snowy Malmö in Sweden. -4c and a beautifull white coat of snow and ice covering streets and open fields. “Africa” probably meant that it is warm. Maybe up to +20c ? ! 😉
The solution was simple: I went to the race track 7 days before the start and settled down at the farm owned by the organizor of the race, the notorious mr. George Archer, 10-times Comrades finisher (several silver’ times), multiple 6-days, 1000km’s etc. etc. And not least initiator of Africas first 6-day race more than 10 years ago. And as the days went slowly by I began to understand what “This is Africa” really meant:
– The track was beeing build from scratch as I slept and doozed my way through the warm tropical days and nights. A toilet and washing house rose from the ground at the middle of the track. A couple of tents and even two wooden houses appeared at day 3 before the start. The 1 meter tall savannah grass covering the middle of the track was harvested. Slowly things came into place before the start; African’ place that is !
The effort of the whole Archer family, whife, daughters, sons-in-laws, grandchildren, friends-friends and lendet hands was inspiring to watch. And I made up my mind that I did want to try to make an effort in the race – not least after lending one of George’s books on 18-century 6-day running and refreshing my knowledge of the achivements of runners like George Littlewood; maneaging more than 160km a day on the English and American indoor tracks several centuries back.
But the track here in Africa had a different oppinion about what was going to happen. Or was it the African nature that wanted to show us in painfull clearity who rules the land down there ??
Judge for yourselves:
After 5 hours the dry grass covering the 1km precition measured loop began to give way to the stony brown-red african soil beneath it. At 8 hours the first injuries began to occour. At 10 hours one of the favorites, Eric Wright, came out of his tent taped up like a mummy around the legs. The very uneaven track had claimed its first victims. And its hunger was unstoppable like that of the jackals howling at us during the nights from somewhere inside the long dark grass still surrounding the outside of the track.
So, Eric was reduced to 100km after the first day. And Vlastimil surprised me by starting to walk approx. 6 hours after taking an early lead in the race as expected. Result: to my surprise I found myself in the lead. Not what I had planned. I tried discretely to hand the lead back by taking a extra ‘pitstop’ at my tent (where I missed the crews that I usually have at these races) and taking 2hours sleep instead of 1. The plan succeded and Vlastik was back in lead with 1 hour left and clocked 154km for the first day. I passed in 2. with 150km; not yet knowing that there was a little prize in crisp African Rand notes to the longest distance of each day. Ok; no doubt that had I gone for them I would have exhausted myself enough to be well out of contention on the following days of the race.
Allready 150km on day one was 10-15km too much for me especially considering the altitude and the heat which quickly prooved to indeed be something else than the Scandinavian winter: it was +27 to +38c during mid-day and early afternoons ! That makes you sweat a bit when you’r acclimatized to -5 to 0c 😉 And I’m guessing that this was what happened to Vlastimil. The heat and the altitude kept him at much more ‘human’ daily distances than usual. But since I could not be sure what was keeping him on low km’s I decided that it was best to push’ as much as I dared on day one while leaving him in the lead; I was not keen on giving him the chance to rest and recover probably as I knew that just one ”regular” day of his w. 180km would be enough to make it impossible for me to gain foothold in the race again.
And so went the days… Vlastimil in front and myself pressing as much as I could following 10-20km after. On day 3 Eric Wright was definately out of contention w. 3 days of 100km. But another runner was making a surprise run: Ndlovu Bongami – a local black runner in his 40’ties which I believe we are likely to hear more of the next years 🙂 He had slowly been making his way up through the field and was now in the lead on day 3 in his first race beyond 24hours. Well judged especially considering the circumstances: When the track was not under a burning sun it recieved the blessings of night in the highlands: set with stunning beauty in the middle of a mountain valley up against the Drakensberg the mist quickly set right after sun-down. And that… broke up the track in a big way leaving a mess of slippery remains of the once-beautifull-now-molested grasscover and most interesting of it all – left huge lumps of mud sticking to the shoes of all runners. What a generous challenge !! 🙂 To have another 200-400g sticking to each running shoe throghout the night. The ultra-gods must have looked down on us with especially keen eyes during those days in early April; handing out extra challenges left and right with the generosity only possessed by gods 😉
Speaking of challenges its impossible not to mention that while Eric might be having a difficult race from allmost the word “Go” then he was restless – restless in trying to repair the track for the rest of us ! He worked with the electrical lightning of the track (he is an electrical entrepeneur by profession) during the long nights and a sure bet when the light regularly went ‘dead’ due to power-cuts or generator-faliure was that it was Eric forgetting about injuries and sprinting back-track w. his tools to quickly fix the lights before anyone else of the staff and allow the rest of us to proceed our running. What a Sportsman !!!
And in all things I personally admire sportsmanship more than anyting else. The ablity to reach out and help fellow athlets despite yourself beeing in the middle of the challenge and trying to pull out your best effort. There will allways be outstanding athletes; they come and go through the decades and centuries; but when they have the largeness in life to care for other athletes than themself – then its truely heroic 🙂 I wish I was such a runner, but that is not my personality – and so the race had to go on for my part:
The surprise runner-up, Bongami, quickly opened up a 20km lead after assuming 1. position in the field. Its basic racing psycology that reaching the lead will give a confidence boost that also provides the feeling of extra energy (which is part of why I didnt want the lead on day 1 to avoid overdoing it too early in the race). But now the task at hand was to quickly catch this runner or he might run away w. the race before there was anything to do about that !
So the tactics had to be adjusted a bit from ‘just’ watching Vlastimil from a 10-20km distance. But how to find that extra distance all of a sudden ? The solution was the classical one of multiday running: cut the sleep ! On day 4 and 5 I therefore left the sleepingbag to itself most of the time, and settled for 30-45 minutes of sleep per day. This resulted in a climb from 100km on day 2 and 3 to 120km on both day 4 and 5. And put me in the lead by 40km going into the final day. Now 120km pr. day isnt impressive to anyone doing multiday racing, but here its helpfull to take into consideration that I am not a top-runner in these events and further that the track as mentioned was a bit difficult at times. This to the extend that every single runner in the field had become injured !! With one exception: Sarah Barnett from Australia who was leading the womans race by a huge margin and finding extra energy to help and ‘coach’ a down harted and tired Scandinavian runner walking his slow laps on the track night after night. Thanks for the help, Sarah !! What an ultrarunner 🙂
But as the finish drew closer also my body began to give in to the will of the track. A track that seemed determined to pull every participant apart untill we recognized that the strongest around, come day or night time, is the African nature where we all originates from millions of years back in evolution !
And so my else secure lead was to be taken away be the track itself:
– At 22 hours to the finish signal I for the first time in my 24 year running career find myself injured in a race. A muscle on the inside of the leg has been torn and ignoring it doesnt really help anything. Quickly the leg gets stiffer and stiffer, 1 lap running, the next jogging, the 3. briskly walking, the 4. limping slowly – the 5. sitting in the shade hoping the hunting Vlas. and Bongami – who is basking in the midday heat – wont see the oppotunity that has just been served to them on a silver plate.
I had no idea what to do !!
The hours and kilometres began to drip away in the sharp afternoon sun. I thourght of all the other runners on the track that had cheered me on even when I was not in the lead yet and not really believing I could get there myself. What a pity to let them down !
The followers came close and closer as the day went into evening. The txt-messages from my good friend Phil Essam didnt help anymore. The pain was too sharp and my ideal of never running against the signals of the body was pittet against my desire to keep the lead just 12 more hours to hear the finish signal. Vlastimil came up beside me near midnight. The moon made his tired Czeck face look even more determined and rugged. Once before, 3 days earlier we had had one of those friendly ‘territory-fights’ that make these runs such a fun play: running for 2 hours at high speed never letting the other get more than 20meters away on the track. Seeing who is the strongest and most determined. Back then Vlastimil had turned around after 2 hours, smiled one of his rare broad smiles, and shaken my hand. We had seddled it and I had hung on long enough. But now it was different: his running pace was nothing more than a slow stumbling jogg – but for my part I could harly walk.
I felt that if he passed now, on this lap, then I could wave goodbye to winning. He still would have 20 laps to do, but seeing how easy and quick it could be done would surely give him the energy and motivation needed. And visa-versa for my part. So – there were nothing left but to run. And since it hurt like #¤% I could just as well run fast – it would hurt no more or less for that matter. Therefore I came allmost sprinting by a slightly surprised looking Vlastimil; stiff legs, arms sticking out in akward directions not shown in running posture books at all. Giving small sounds allmost like the howling jackals that most surely were enjoying seeing one of the runners joining in their style 😉
– By the end of the race I look down. The left leg look a bit burned and reddish-brown from sunburn and roaddust but else fine and good. The right. Hmmm. Doublesize from a hand above the knee to a hand below the knee – which I cant see anymore but could swear still is somewhere in there under the swelling. It looks like the leg of an Elephant !
“This is Africa !” – was the motto of the race. Now I have apparently become a part of it !!
Half man, half elephant; fully smelly – but also fully Viking – after having fought to the last drop of energy.
I am satisfied. For isnt it what running is about, ultra or shortdistance, to give your fullest, no matter if your first or last ?
What a wonderfull and tough race ! THANKS to all that shared it with me and made it a great experience 🙂
/ I hope you enjoyed the report ! Surely in our small sport we should draw inspiration from each other; a sport still fortunate enough to be driven by honour and not the conflicts that generates from money, greed and envy in larger sports. That is why I love ultrarunning and the knowledge it allows us to gain of ourselves. In no other sport I find the people so rich in spirit and personality – and so poor in finances 😉 Thank you for sharing the sport 🙂
your smelly lonely Viking,
The finishing distances: J.O. 685km, Vlastimil 656km, Bongami 642km, Sarah 634km (African race record !).
And please dont be put off by the story of the track conditions. The organizor is allready working on laying in a strong foundation for next years race and I am confidant that it will over time become one of the most scenic and enjoyable 6-day courses we have !