It was a cold and miserable morning that greeted us on Saturday. It had been raining the whole drive down to KwaZulu Natal so it wasn’t completely unexpected but I’d secretly been hoping for a bright sunny day. The prospect of standing around in my costume in the rain and wind for a couple of hours didn’t appeal at all.
You see, Saturday was the day that my son and I planned to swim the Midmar Mile for the second time. Last year he was just nine years old and the closest I’d been to a swim in the past twenty years was having a bath. Actually, that’s not entirely true. It was true until a couple of months before the 2011 Midmar Mile but then I joined a gym, bought myself a (gulp) Speedo and started doing lengths.
So it was on a Saturday morning in mid-February 2011 I found myself lined up on the banks of the Midmar dam in KZN with a nine-year old boy. I’m not sure which of us was more nervous. Him because that long stretch of water is even more intimdating when you’re that age, or me because I was consumed by the knowledge that it was supposed to be me that would help him if he got into trouble and yet I feared I may be the weakest link in this particular game.
As it turns out we both survived. Not only that but we did well enough to immediately declare that we’d be back for another crack at this damn swim.
So, a year later and on this past Saturday morning I found myself standing on the bank of the Midmar dam with a 10-year old boy, both of us shivering in the rain and wind but both infinitely more confident than the year before. At least that was the charade we were playing but I know that in my case I was just a little concerned about the weather. The rain was one thing but the wind was starting to whip up some decent waves. I imagined being thrown about by the waves and thinking, not for the first time, how it was supposed to be me that was looking after the 10-year old, and not the other way around. Despite this we hung around, waiting for the gun to go off and the mad dash to the other side to start.
There is something special about the Midmar Mile experience that is hard to explain. For most of the thousands (about 17,000 this year I believe) that swim over the weekend it’s a relatively easy race to swim. Even with a modicum of training most people can finish the swim in a decent time. Midmar is by no means a Comrades or a Two Oceans marathon and yet its appeal is so strong that tens of thousands make the annual trek to the Midlands to swim the race.
Part of its appeal is the sheer size of the event. It’s not very often you get to be part of something this large and the excitement builds long before you actually step into the water. On the drive down to KZN from Joburg the roads are full of others heading down to the dam. Buses full pupils stream down to the Midlands for the weekend, cars full of families all heading that way as well. And every time you pull off the road for petrol or food the garage forecourts are jammed with people and you just know that most of those are heading the same way as you, with the same intent of swimming across an otherwise unremarkable dam in KwaZulu Natal.
The other secret of the Midmar’s appeal is the people it attracts. The Midmar Mile is an event for all. Standing in the queue to get your race number and cap ahead of the race the diversity is hard to ignore. Athletic looking men and women line up next to the clearly not so fit and slightly overweight, parents joke with children and grandparents and the disabled weave their way through the queues to get their own timing chips. There are many great sporting events held annually around the country but there are very few where six- and seven-year old children can line up alongside their parents and expect to turn in as good a performance as them. And by the time they are 13 or 14 chances are they will be outperforming their parents and many others by a fair margin.
The weather on Saturday got worse not better. We huddled in the waiting tent trying to keep out of the wind, shivering and groaned when over the loudspeaker we heard that the start had been delayed. We only had our costumes, our swimming caps and our goggles. All our other clothes were on the other side of the dam waiting for us to finish and, as it turns out, we had to wait for an extra half hour as some of the stragglers from a previous event struggled to finish off the one mile course.
Despite the cold most were in good spirits and joked with one another and jumped up and down to keep body temperatures up. The 10-year old was full of nervous energy and couldn’t stand still. I pretended calm as a checked the size of the waves in the water around us and did the occasional futile stretch as if I could defeat the wind and keep my body warm.
Eventually we were let into the water to start the race. I postioned my goggles and offered some last minute advice to the 10-year old next to me: “Put your arm in the air if you need help” I said, advice as much to me as to him.
Seconds later we got the go-ahead and we dove into the water, kicking and being kicked as we struggled to find our place in the water among the hundreds of other swimmers in our race. A few minutes later I looked up, noticed my son a couple of metres to one side and, happy that we were now out of the initial chaos, put my head down and swam for the other shore. I saw his head bobbing up and down a couple more times over the next few hundred meters and then he was gone. I had veered off to the right-hand buoys and, I later found out, he had ended up near the left-hand ones.
The next time I saw him was after I had climbed out of the dam, crossed the finish line and handed in my race number and timing chip. There he was with a drink already in his hand, his cap and goggles off and looking like he was ready to go again.
I’d knocked a full four minutes off my previous year’s time and, given the conditions, I was pleased with myself. He, on the other hand, had knocked a full six minutes off his previous time and managed to find himself a position in the top 250 in our field of around 1,800 swimmers.*
Will we be back next year? For certain. We now know for certain that we can swim across the dam with relative ease but it’s still a great race to be part of. And next year we hopefully have another team mate. Not content to be a spectator my eight-year old daughter has signalled her intention to swim as well. We forestalled her this year (“your brother was nine when he first did it”) but by next year she’ll be ready to go. At least this time I’ll be confident enough to know that I will be there to help her all the way.
* For the uninitiated there are eight main races over the weekend. We swam in the family team event.
I hate ITB.
For the uninitiated ITB is not the name of a department of home affairs form but a sport injury. Its full name is Iliotibial Band Syndrome and in some ways it is a lot worse than dealing with a government department.
ITB is a little like those relatives, the ones you try not to admit are yours. Like them it turns up, uninvited and out of the blue, and then refuses to leave. And, like them, it has good days, so good that you plan a road trip. And then you hit the road and just a couple of kilometers in you realise the scale of your mistake. This is not going to end well.
You limp home with a brave face.
ITB is generally an injury associated with running although I’ve previously had ITB while cycling. In most cases it is brought on by over training, though I swear this time I wasn’t overdoing it, and it can also be brought on by the camber in the road or the shoes you run in. Its two most marked characteristics are that it appears out of nowhere — one day you’re running happily, the next you’re limping — and although the pain goes away when you’re not running it reappears soon after you start again.
I confess that I’ve self-diagnosed my current injury as ITB but I’ve suffered enough at its hands to make my diagnosis slightly better than a stab in the dark.
For weeks I’d been running around 30km a week and enjoying it. I wasn’t pushing hard, trying to run fast or doing anything extreme. I put in a couple of weeks with longs runs of more than 10km. And on January 1 I did my longest run of the year at 15km . I muddled on for the next couple of weeks at around 30-34km a week and on the 15th January I did another 15km run. A long, slow 15km which I felt completely comfortable with. Monday was a swim day so no running. Tuesday I went out for a gentle 6km run and three kilometres in I felt the pain. Having done this before I walked home and took the week off.
I’ve run twice this week and in both cases I made about 3km before the pain started. What’s most frustrating is that until the pain in the knee starts I feel like I could run a marathon. Then I’m forced to walk home.
From experience the only sure cure is rest. Weeks of it. The problem with that is that when you do restart running in a month’s time you’re back to square one, or pretty close to it.
The alternative is to push on a little, do a serious amount of stretching and perhaps even spend some time with a physiotherapist. I’ve opted for this route. I plan to run every other day, mostly short runs that I can cut even shorter if (or when) the pain reappears. I haven’t quite got to the physio stage yet but I’m giving it a week before I make a decision on that.
There is a silver lining to this cloud, I suppose. Next month I am swimming in the Midmar Mile for the second time in my life. Fortunately swimming is one of the few exercises that I can do without worsening my ITB. If anything I suspect swimming actually helps ITB though I have no actual evidence for this. So while I can’t be out running I’m getting in a decent amount of swimming.
My friend, fellow journalist and (occasional) running partner @shsmillie has written a great piece on his blog about how human beings were designed to run. The theory is that human beings are perfectly adapted to running long distances, usually in the pursuit of prey. Most animals, the argument goes, would beat us in a short sprint but eventually they would overheat and collapse. Humans, on the other hand, have sweat glands and can keep going for hours, even days.
Our own slow Sunday runs aside, it does seem likely that humans were indeed designed to run. It’s just that we now have so many other transportation options (and supermarkets to replace hunting) that we now look at running as something closer to torture than something we’re excellently equipped to do.
Another friend, Calvin, steered me in the direction of this Ted video by Christopher McDougall. In it McDougall provides an entertaining look at how humans are suited to long distance running.
Apparently it takes six weeks to break a bad habit. Which got me thinking, does that mean that it takes six weeks to develop a new habit?
I assume it takes a lot less than six weeks to get hooked on heroine or crack cocaine, but what if you’re trying something less addictive? Say getting yourself out of bed at 5am every morning do exercise? Is six weeks enough to change your behaviour? I plan to find out.
My plan, since 3 January, has been to drag myself out of bed at around 5am and exercise, generally swimming or running. What I’m hoping is that by the end of six weeks I’ll become so accustomed to the early morning workout that I’ll no longer dread the inevitable alarm.
I’m not particularly lazy when it comes to exercise but I do have a serious problem when it comes to consistency. Somehow, no matter how much I want to exercise (in theory) there is always a convenient excuse not to exercise when the time to do so arrives.
The one real problem I have, as most people do, is a lack of time. Ever since kids arrived it’s been tough finding time in the day between work and home routines to get in exercise. And once the children started school it got tougher. Every morning is a mad rush to get them ready and off to school before 7:30am. Getting up at 6 or 7am and taking a leisurely run is not an option. So I decided on the almost pre-dawn 5am routine. At least that way I can get in a good hour’s exercise and be ready to tackle the morning chaos.
As I said, I’m now nine days into this (I track my progress on Endomondo, see log below) . Although it’s still tough I’ve been lucky that most mornings have had stunning weather so far which makes it a lot easier.
So here’s to another 33 early mornings and hoping that the weather plays along.
 I’ve yet to see research that backs this up but it is a statistic that is widely quoted on the internet. And, as most of us know, if it’s on the internet then it must be true. Not so? Anyway, I’m going to assume there is some truth to the number in this case. And if there isn’t I suppose I’ll find out in six weeks’ time.
 The picture at the head of this post is a slightly older one. I took this one winter morning last year during one of my more active phases.
Going away over Christmas is not really our thing. With most of the family living in Johannesburg we tend to stay home for the celebrations and only when the rushing around has become too much do we head off to CapeTown.
This year, however, we decided to do things differently. We have family in Cape Town and so we packed up everything and, as soon as schools had closed, we headed to the airport.
Travelling is generally stressful but add two children, a dog and secreted Christmas presents to the mix and things are liable to explode. Despite the primed bomb we managed to make all the flights and even found our dog on the other side.
We’re pretty lucky that the Cape Town family has an absolutely amazing house in Noordhoek. With a view of the beach, neighbours with horses, and Chapman’s peak just a stone’s throw away, it’s a fantastic mix of country and beach living and a cyclist’s and runner’s paradise. And because it’s on the “other side of the mountain” Noordhoek is generally not too crowded with those annoying Gautengers
The kids love Noordhoek. Our daughter lives for going to “pony camp” and it’s all she can talk about on the days before we get to Cape Town. We also like pony camp because we can drop her off every afternoon and spend some quiet time having lunch at the Noordhoek Farm Village. Actually we only did that once. One of the disadvantages of being away before Christmas is that you spend a fair bit of time shopping for presents so any time without kids is an opportunity not to miss.
Our son, at the ripe old age of 10, is now apparently “too old” for pony camp. Fortunately he’s pretty keen on boogie boarding so trips to Glencairn and Kommetjie were common during our three weeks.
This year we finally got around to going on a boat to Seal Island. You know how it is, you’re there for three weeks and you think “we’ll do that next week”. And then the weather turns and you never get to do it.
This time we hopped on the boat the first day the weather was clear and it was well worth it. Seeing tens of thousands on seals on a tiny rock in the sea is not something you can imagine and while it sounds pretty dull it’s memorable. The smell is also pretty memorable.
One of the surprises of the three weeks was a trip to Silvermine reserve. We’ve driven past the entrance on Ou Kaapse Weg countless times over the years but never actually been into the park. This time we did and it proved a great day. Despite being holiday season it was quiet and peaceful. It also gave us a chance to do a little open water swimming in the dam as practice for this year’s Midmar Mile.
Christmas Day was spent at home overlooking the sea. It turned out to be a perfect day with a decent mix of eating, swimming and present unwrapping. Later in the afternoon, when the wind had picked up, we headed off towards Scarborough and watched the windsurfers and kite surfers taking advantage of the great conditions.
Being in Cape Town for three weeks also gave us a good chance to catch up with friends, many of which now live down south and a few that were just down there at the same time as us.
A great holiday.