I’m already awake when my 4.30 am alarm goes off. Unfortunately, this isn’t pre -race nerves, and instead the frequent trips to the bathroom suggest that not all is right with my stomach.
Nevertheless, I continue with my morning pre race routine, choking down two pieces of toast with peanut butter and a banana, along with some Nuun and tie my hair into plaits.
I’ve slathered suncream on, doused myself with insect repellant and checked my hydration pack is fully stocked (I wear the Intensity 6L Nathan Hydration Pack).
Somehow in the process of the multiple bathroom trips, I manage to lose my bib. Luckily, this is one of the few races where I know I can get another at the start line.
At 5.35 our group of 10 marathon runners gather outside the ‘Athlete’s village’ (our home for the week) and walk to the start line. Located at the village resource centre, it’s just 4 minutes before we’re standing nervously in the starting corral with about 20 local runners. Despite being told that the race started at 5am (!) there are still some last minute sign ups at 6am when the race is officially meant to be starting – this is Malawiian time, after all.
There’s a slight delay, but the gun goes at 6.20 am and the pack takes off.
My nausea is at the forefront of my mind and so I take off very, very slowly and immediately I am at the back of the pack. The last marathoner…
It sounds silly, but I’ve never been in this position, out there on course all alone, having only taken part in big road races previously and it plays on my mind as I count off the first few miles.
However, with the beautiful African vistas, (and a very grumbly tummy) it’s not hard to think of other things. The Malawi Impact Marathon was going to be my first ever trail marathon, and I was determined to enjoy it.
The first few miles took us through the village of Nkope, with some of the most enthusiastic volunteers, and out into the surrounding fields, before dropping down into a dried river bed. Having run parts of the river bed during our morning training runs, I knew this 800m section would be tough and so when I hit the deep sand and slowed to a walk, I didn’t worry too much.
Unfortunately, the walking allowed my body to focus it’s attention on my stomach, and I found myself throwing up around 3 miles into the race. And so it continued every half mile or so for the rest of my race.
I would alternate between walking and running when I could, enjoying the scenery and sipping on the Nuun in my hydration pack (and keeping it down for as long as possible).
James and Becs, two of the Impact Marathon staff, were out on course, making sure everything was going smoothly and that the red ribbons that marked the course were still in place – we found a lot of kids with red ribbons in their hair throughout the day 😉 I told them how I was feeling and that I was just taking it slow and steady.
After exiting the river bed, it was back onto the dirt roads, then a stretch of tarmac road (I actually loved this bit, proving that although I do love trails, I will always be a road runner at heart!) then turning back for the second part of the loop through the village. The water stations were all manned by local volunteers, who were rather enthusiastic and I felt like I had to stay to drink the whole cup of water as proof of my gratitude. I had three very eager volunteers at one station who were all armed with two cups of water each, and upon my arrival, threw them over my head/back/down my top! Although I welcomed the respite from the heat, I think my body went into a bit of shock and I came out in goosebumps.
Along the way, I was joined by local children, at one point around 20 of them were running alongside me, shouting and cheering! It was awesome, but also a little overwhelming and I was genuinely terrified that I was going to throw up on them!
Around 6 miles in, I made the decision to pull out at the halfway mark (the course was two loops). Knowing that I wasn’t keeping any water down, and still had 20 miles to go in the now 29 degree heat, I just couldn’t mentally battle on. When one kind man cycled past me vomiiting in a bush and offered me a lift on the back of his bike, I was seriously temped to take him up on it… but knew that I wanted to cover what I could on my own two feet, even if it meant walking the final 7 miles.
The terrain was flat, and very runnable, but the soft ground made it challenging in parts, so I was grateful for another section of road around 9 miles in and to see the friendly face of one of our group medics. Adrianna gave me two cups of water and an anti-sickness pill (which didn’t stay down) but she reassured me I was making the right decision to pull out at 13.1 and encouraged me to take it easy.
I was walking a lot at this point and definitely feeling mentally drained, so it was brilliant to bump into Brent, one of the American runners in our group, who had unfortunately got lost. I think that 2ish mile stretch that we were together were the only ones that I ran solidly (aside from miles 1-3), and I was so grateful to have the distraction. (Brent has run marathon in 158 countries around the world, and is 68 years old. He was a running legend, and is headed off to Aruba this weekend for another race!)
He and I made our way to the beach section of the course, running alongside Lake Malawi. In my opinion it was the prettiest section of the course, however hurdling over the fishing boats tied up was definitely a challenge.
I walked the mile along the beach, before picking it back up to a run for the final mile. We ran past the Pre school that we’d built that was incredible and reminded me of why we’d been out there in the first place. The trip was about so much more than just the race, and I felt so lucky to have been able to be part of it (more coming in the next blog, I promise!).
As I rounded the corner, I could hear the music blaring for the finish line, and saw my friend Nick, the race director, coming towards me. I cried as I hugged him and said how sorry I was not to be finishing the full marathon, but knew it was the right decision.
I collapsed into the shade of the tree with Kristina, our other medic, who gave me more anti-sickness pills and water, and let me rest there for a while.
Turns out, I narrowly avoided being lapped by the marathon winner, Keith, who came towards us about 10 minutes later. He’d absolutely smashed it, making it look like a walk in the park in just t-shirt and shorts, with no hydration pack, or hat! He was followed a little way behind by Eddie, then the third place Malawiian finisher, who rocked his first ever marathon in a pair of plastic flip flops. Just goes to show, we have all the gear…
As well as the marathon distance, there was also a half marathon and 10K which with much bigger fields. They had been set off at 8am and 9am, with the idea being that people would finish all three races around the same time. This mostly worked (except for some of the marathoners) and so we had fun cheering in the finishers – albeit from my seated spot in the shade.
Overall, I though the race was really well organised, did a great job of involving the locals with over 100 signed up across the three race distances, beautifully carved prizes for the winners and runners up, and volunteers at the aid stations and key turning points.
I’m excited to see this race go from strength to strength and continue to inspire runners in the area. I loved hearing some of the boys who had come second, third and fourth, ask Keith, how they could come first next year. His response…run more, train more! As a lasting legacy, they’ve set up a running club in the village, and the kit donations will go to regular members.
I can’t wait to get involved with another Impact Marathon trip, however I think I got carried away with the excitement in signing up for the full marathon.
Marathons are a big deal to me, and they take a huge toll on me mentally and physically, and after a week in Malawi working on building and agricultural projects, I just wasn’t prepared for the 26.2 miles. Next time, I’d take the pressure off and sign up for the half marathon. All their routes are two lap courses, so you don’t miss anything by opting for the 13.1 miles and I wouldn’t have been so nervous going in to the race.
If you’ve ever considered joining something like an Impact Marathon, I highly recommend it as an awesome race and a truly brilliant week. I’ve made such great friends with the other people on our trip as well as the staff. You can find out more about their races here… see you there!