Monday, 11 May 2015

Wings For Life World Run......Cape Town

The Wings For Life World Run is a unique type of race where the finish line actually chases the participants. It is organised by Red Bull with the aim of raising awareness of spinal cord injury and all proceeds go directly to the non-profit Wings For Life Spinal Cord Research Foundation, hence all the runners really are "running for those who can't".

The event is a global one with 35 runs starting at the same actual time allbeit in 12 different timezones. 30 minutes after the runners set off, a Catcher Car follows in each event. The cars are driven by famous racing drivers, who probably struggle with driving at such a regulated slow speed. Every 30mins the cars steadily but consistently increase their speed, and whenever they pass a runner, then that runner drops out. In this way, the faster runners end up running further before they are reeled in, and the last person left running becomes the global champion.

Doug and I on tour.......look out Cape Town!!!
The inaugural event occurred in 2014 with about 30,000 participants, but the 2015 events had more than 100,000 registrations. As the female winner of the 2014 British event, my prize was for me (plus one) to attend one of the other global events this year, and so I chose Cape Town and invited my friend Doug to come out and run with me. It didn't look like the fastest course, and the 1pm start under a hot African sun suggested shorter distances would be covered than at other cooler, flatter venues, but the aim of the day was to just enjoy a run in beautiful surroundings, while visiting a new place. The South African venue certainly ticked those boxes as the startline was about an hour's drive north of Cape Town - at the Boschendal Wine Estate in the Franschoek Valley, so there were vineyards, orchards and mountains to look at all day long.

Pre-run interview

As it turned out, Nedbank (one of the biggest South African running clubs) had brought some of their top runners to the event with the aim of trying to win the global race, and they were going to provide them with on course support. Maria (the winner of last year's event in Sweden, who had also chosen to visit Cape Town) and I were asked if we had any "special drinks" which we wished to put at some of the water stations en route, so the morning of the run saw me frantically trying to fill the hotel's screw top complimentary water bottles with juice (all I could find in a nearby shop). I wasn't too bothered as it had said on the run info that there would be regular wtare stations (with both water and red bull) and that those beyond 20K would also have bananas and banana bread to eat (I was certainly looking forward to that as I love banana bread!).

Ready to go.....
A slight hitch came when we were promised that there would be food available for us at Franschoek pre-run (we were picked up from the hotel 3 hours before the official start-time), but in fact, the only things available were Redbull and chocolate balls. Luckily I had some cereals bars stowed away with me, which came in very handy when we got there. I chatted to a couple of the Nedbank girls as we warmed up (1 had recently run a 2:31 marathon, and the other was training for Comrades and so had some good 50+K results earlier in the year) and then they went off to do some media interviews while I hid from the sun in the shade of the start gantry. Doug and I found it really funny that people kept saying how the weather was cooling off as winter approached but, having just flown out from Scotland, we found it baking hot (it was actually about 25 degrees and there wasn't a cloud in the sky!).

Spot Team Nedbank off the start....

The start gantry was quite narrow and so, to avoid any trampling dramas, Doug and I started off right at one side in front of a couple wheelchairs as I figured that they might be slow to get going, so delaying the crush coming behind them. There was no countdown, but as soon as the gun was fired, the Nedbank runners were off haring away into the distance. This mean that after the first few hundred metres or so, which got us out of the vineyards and onto the road, I was running alone.....which is pretty much how it remained all afternoon!!

The initial few miles were run along the edge of an undulating road dappled in shade, which seemed lovely at the time, but I knew it would feel mountainous if I made it back to the 45K point and started the loop for a second time. I could see a group of Nedbank runners away ahead of me, but one of the ladies seemed to gradually drop off their pace. I caught her up on an incline (as seems to be my style) at about 8.5km just before we turned left off the main road. This road was closed to traffic so would have been ideal to run along (apart from the rough ground where it had been dug up for roadworks) if it hadn't been so exposed to the sun and what was now a headwind. Still, the undulations provided amazing views over vineyards and there were some beautiful mountains on my right hand side - I did wish I was running slower and had a camera with me so that I could capture the setting on film.

Water at the aid station was handed out in plastic bags (I remember these well from Comrades) - a practice that I'd love to see adopted at more races. It means you can grab 2 squashy sachets easily and bite off a corner to open them while continuing to run. My tactic for the event was to pour one over my head, and drink from the second one, emptying anything left over myself, as it did seem to be rather hot to us poor foreigners. It was harder to drink from the couple of bottles of juice that I'd handed in, as I was less good at unscrewing tops and drinking from bottlenecks while moving at any speed - and really didn't want to cover myself in anything coloured or sticky!

An interesting obstacle to hurdle was a snake in the road at about the 12K point, though Doug told me that it wasn't there when he got to that point so he felt that he'd missed out! I was quite enjoying myself at this point as I felt like I was in a world of my own, just running along looking at the scenery, as I could see no-one either in front or behind me. After a while people started to come into view ahead of me, and I passed a couple of other male runners. I passed the "2:31 Nedbank girl" who had pulled off to the side after just over 20K (it had always been her plan to have a hard run up to that distance and then stop and wait to be picked up) and now knew that there was only Riana ahead of me, but as I could see neither her nor any ladies behind me, I just carried on at my own pace. Doug had mentioned that he was aiming to run 15-20K so I dedicated the 5K up to 25K to him (not sure he'd thank me for that as I felt that I was flagging somewhat due to the heat, and the fact that there seemed to be a constant headwind). I decided to just take it 5K by 5K (later on it became mile by mile!!) as however far I got, I knew it would be a good long training run.

After passing the 30k mark, I realised that the top of the loop must be near and we would then start to run back towards Boschendal (and maybe have a tailwind, though you never do really appreciate a tailwind as much as you dread a headwind). It also meant busy main roads, and at one point I found myself dodging traffic running into a roundabout. Luckily, some marshals held the traffic up for a minute as I ran round the edge of the roundabout but then they had to shout me back as I misunderstood their instructions - they told me to "keep right" on a short section of dual carriageway. They meant "keep to the right of the left-hand side", but I (in my hot and bothered state) took them literally and started heading down the right hand side!

Thankfully, at the next big traffic lights I was marshalled off onto a beautiful minor road that wound its way through more wineries. I was mentally thanking the huge trees for their overhanging branches offering me some lovely shade, until I realised that they had been shedding something onto the road which made it very sticky to run on......well, you can't have everything, and I certainly missed the trees when I was back on open sunny roads. By now, I was taking it more mile by mile and wondering if I was actually going to make the marathon distance before being caught.

There had been a motorbike filming me for long stretches after the 20k mark - initially that was quite exciting, but then it became more frustrating as I would often have to breathe in the exhaust fumes as they lowered their speed to let me close in on them. I also didn't know who might see the footage and what littering laws are in such a South African race, so I had to hold onto any empty water sachets I'd grabbed, until I could see of somewhere suitable to dispose of them. It also meant that any men I caught would suddenly adjust their pace to be filmed, speeding up to run alongside me. As I was starting to struggle mentally, I decided to distract myself with a game. I crossed the road away from a man who was trying to get on camera. He followed I crossed back again. So did he. I ran off the road into the rough ground. So did he. Finally, we were on opposite sides of the road and several cars prevented him getting back to me straight away, and he fell back, never to be seen by me again.

I'd almost covered a marathon, but was desperate to see that chaser car by now. It was a good thing that I'd taken 2 gels with me, but having had the second one over 10k ago, I was running out of energy. I had seen none of the promised bananas or banana bread en route, though I had been given a slice of orange on one occasion. I spotted one of the Nedbank support crew picking up their discarded bottles and asked him where the chaser car was. His reply "It's not ready for you yet" prompted me to say "But I'm ready for it". This was repeated every time I saw him at the side of the road after that!

Global WFLWR HQ tracking every country
There were a few people along the sides of the road supporting at the start/finish point of the loop, but nobody that I recognised. I was very happy to make it to this point, as it meant that I'd run at least as far as in the UK event the year before. I thought that I'd been running faster than last year initially (as I hadn't had anyone to run and chat to) but wasn't sure how much I'd faded. I was told "Not long now, the car's coming" so that when, for the first time in the event, I was offered some banana at the feed station, I declined thinking it'd just be a few minutes until I stopped (this was at 47k). I ran past last year's male winner and some official cyclists passed me, telling me that I'd run well and that I'd be caught soon. I could see a group about 500m up the road from me, so I figured that was Riana and her sport, though I didn't know how many men were still left running. The interesting thing about his format of race is that someone just a short distance ahead of you when you're caught, can still cover a remarkable amount of ground before the car gets them, ie Riana may have been 500m away when I stopped, but she ran 4K further before finishing herself!

The catcher car approaches.....
There were several cameras on motorbikes now, and I kept trying to twist round to see the car. Unlike the Silverstone event, there was no chat (well, there might have been if I'd been able to speak Afrikaans), no loudspeakers, no whistles etc. I spotted a big white van with something mounted on the back of it - it had been gradually closing me down and so I slowed down and stopped when it passed me. "Phew" I thought.....I can stop and try to get work the aches out of my left quad before walking back. All of a sudden I found myself trying to run again, as that was just a mounted TV camera crew and not the catcher car! My shoe lace had now come undone, but I decided that it wasn't worth stopping my shuffle (well, it felt like a shuffle as the route had got hillier again) to tie it up. 

It seemed endless, but soon after I'd passed the 51K mark I heard a speaker saying "you can stop now, we've passed you".......and that was it....event over! I stood there at the side of the road trying to work out what to do, but then a bus came past with one person on it wearing a Nedbank top. I recognised him as the male winner from last year so hopped aboard. He told me that there were only 3 people ahead.....Riana and 2 guys. I figured that we'd turn around and go back to Boschendal but it appeared that we had to follow the path of the runners. The only thing on the bus was some water.......and the sun was now starting to go down, so it was getting chilly (well, I was soaked from constantly pouring water over myself all afternoon) and I was starving.

We then picked up the guy who'd been running with Riana, and so I relaxed, thinking that we'd head back now, as there were special cars to pick up the 2 winners when they finished (they were the only people still let running)......but no, we carried on following the race route. I was not very happy with this as I knew the loop was 45k long and we weren't exactly going very fast. Riana was caught, and we stopped for her to be presented with a trophy, do an interview, photoshoot etc. She was taken back to Boschendal in a car guessed it......the bus carried on following the leading man! It was now over an hour since I'd stopped running and I wasn't in the best of fettles. In the ahead I got the bus driver to stop, crossed over the road and flagged down a bus going the other way. They said they were going straight back to Boschendal so I hopped aboard. They were......but via several marshalling points to pick up people who'd been manning the water stations. I knew that it was only right that they were picked up and taken back, as they'd kindly given up their own time to help out, but there were all happy and laughing, dressed in warm clothes, and had been provided with picnic lunches and drinks......whereas I was cold, tired, wet, hungry and sore.

Boschendal bubbly
Eventually we got back to Boschendal......well, the driver said he couldn't go all the way with the bus, so yet again I hopped off (more like staggered) and found my own way back to where we'd started. Unfortunately everything was almost over by this point, as most stalls etc had been packed up and people had left. I had a slight sense of humour failure when I met Doug and Ryan (from Red Bull), who were coming out to find me on a golf they'd not been given any info as to where I was or what happened to me.

Anyway, they found me a hot cup of tea, some cheese and biscuits, and most importantly.......a bottle of Boschendal sparkling wine to drink (though I'm still waiting for my finisher's medal). Not quite the best experience at the end of a long run like that, but looking back now, I still absolutely loved the experience. It was a beautiful new place to see and run in, I did meet some new people, I got a good long run in, Doug had his longest run in a couple of years since having a serious injury, and we had a great trip afterwards (involving penguins, zip wires, cable cars, wineries etc).


I really support the whole Wings For Life World Run concept, and am very grateful to Redbull for giving me the opportunity to travel to South Africa for this year's run - I will definitely be suggesting it to be clubmates as a possible idea for a club weekend away, as everyone can take part, no matter how fast or how slow, and everyone who has taken part has enjoyed it and had a great time!

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