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Running (and living) with the lions

After a six hour drive to JFK, fifteen hour direct flight to Johannesburg and finally, a four hour ride north, I stepped out from the Toyota Landcruiser into the Wildside Camp at the Entabeni Safari Conservancy in South Africa. That this race, the Big Five Marathon, was going to be markedly different than any other event I had done was immediately made clear by Lana, our event director. “Before you are shown to your tent, you must understand the rules at Wildside. You will never walk outside of the camp without a ranger. After 6:30, you may never walk to your tent without a ranger escort. Once in your tent after dark you may never leave your tent until the morning. Last night one of the lions went through our camp and a pride of lions lives nearby. There are also leopards and other animals that hunt at night.” After rephrasing this several times and receiving acknowledgments from all the competitors that we would comply, we were given a breakdown of the week. We were also assured that the rangers worked in shifts 24 hours before the race in order to keep track of the lions’ movements. Having grown up watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and knowing predators always picked on the slow and weak (or Jim), that sounded like a pretty good idea to me.

(pic credit to Mike Froger)

The Big Five Marathon, touted as the most difficult marathon in Africa (yeah, every other race seems to have a variation of this claim), is truly unique in that it allows you to freely run in an African wildlife preserve with no fences, barriers or restrictions to the animals. It also provides some of the most majestic scenery a race could offer. With a total of only 280 runners from 31 countries, 165 for the marathon/115 for the half, it is also a fairly intimate race that allows you to feel part of the environment rather than a member of a running herd. And before I rightfully get chastised for being on my high horse about any of this, I will admit any horse I may ride is an Icelandic one, at best. I was under no delusions of winning (in fact, we were all cautioned that given the race is 25-30% harder than traditional marathons, none of us would be setting a p.r.). My goals were to enjoy the entire event, and, perhaps, finish in the top half. The latter was said to no one but I will confess it now.

The day before the race we took the open topped Landcruisers and followed the course. Given some of the daunting terrain, many felt it may have been better to just head off blindly and take what came as we ran. Be that as it may, it was fascinating to see how varied the terrain was, the abundance of wildlife and, I admit, kind of exciting to know that it was going to take some effort to complete.

Marathon morning saw all the competitors in the vehicles by 7 a.m. for the 45-60 minute drive up the escarpment to the start/finish line. As it was 40* F (4 Celsius for the two people reading this outside the States), we wore an extra layer or two which we were able to discard prior to the start. By 9:00 a.m. it was a perfect 50* F with a nice breeze. The race begins and ends at 5500’ (around 1700 meters – the last time I will obnoxiously convert anything), so breathing was more difficult than normal but given the perfect temperatures, I felt confident that all would be well once some miles were had. As this was not the Alps or Rockies, I kept concerns in check.

At 9:00 we were off on mostly compact dirt/sand with half-marathoners starting 15 minutes later. The official route description states that

[t]he Big Five Marathon is known for its demanding course, which leads runners through the savanna, where they may encounter zebras, elephants, giraffes and antelopes. The route even ventures into lion country and runners might chance upon a rhino! [Editor’s note – the rhinos are magnificent. And gigantic. And a bit ornery, as I would be if poachers continually tried to cut parts off me. Thankfully the rangers have done a superb job keeping Entabeni poacher free.]

The Yellow Wood Valley is the most dreaded stretch with possibly the steepest slope runners have ever encountered. This sharp, 3-kilometer descent is on a paved surface and will be excruciatingly hard on the quadriceps. Next, runners enter lion country, negotiating the deep sand and flatter terrain. Returning up that dreaded hill, runners face an average incline of 23.3%, which only intensifies to a punishing 47% at select points. It is virtually impossible to run up this hill! [I successfully ran down the entire 3km but, alas, not so upon the ascent- editor.]

Wildlife and stunning nature are always within eyesight. [The first mile saw a wildebeest herd storm across the trail].

TERRAIN: Varied with sand [over 6 km of the deep, soft, ever shifting stuff], loose rocks, pebbles and holes. Significant changes in elevation with a few steep ascents and descents.

For those few still reading, the trail and elevation/terrain maps are in the Gallery section found on the home page under Big Five Marathon Entabeni.

Throughout the race I made sure to take pictures (again, see Gallery link - Big Five Marathon Entabeni), thank the volunteers and admire the scenery. Two of the aid stations had incredible musicians that deserved to be appreciated (and recorded), so I made sure to do so. I also need to give a shout out of appreciation to a tough French marathoner, Clara Raveloson-Hoffman who was not only an inspiration to run with, but who patiently tolerated my baby-brain French for many a mile. Overall, the race was a blast, I felt quiet strong at the end and was pleased to finish in the top 1/3rd.

The entire week was brilliant. I felt not only fortunate but thankful for so much during the event. The staff were uniformly positive and first-rate, the race well organized, fellow competitors tremendous to run with and my thirty or so fellow Wildsiders great company and a pleasure to be around. One of the benefits of being the only group not in traditional rooms/lodges was being able to discuss, share and laugh while hanging around the nightly fire. The rangers that led both the walking and driving safaris were highly professional, humorous and intensely interested in making sure we saw as much wildlife as possible. The gallery of pictures attest to their success [And credit with big thanks to Mike Froger, Tim Silbert and Andrew Hangar for openly sharing their amazing photos. I took some of their lion, zebra, giraffe, walking safari and others as they looked so much more vibrant than mine - which I still included.] For those seeking to combine racing with travel, I'd seriously consider the Big Five Marathon and place your name on their waiting list..

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