The risk of being face to face with and/or attacked by one or more of the Big Five, angered over intruders disrupting their hunting and grazing grounds, was real and high. There would be nothing separating them from the runners, except for a few park rangers and their vehicles here and there, we had been warned. We were also alarmed to learn that the race could not start earlier than 9 am, because the nocturnal lions might still be awake before that. 'What if one of them decided to go to bed late that day?' I wondered in fear.
In none of my previous 26 marathons, was I so worried the night before, not even before the 29 May (2013) Mount Everest Marathon, when lying inside a tent in Base Camp I heard rumblings of avalanches sliding down along the mountain slopes. The Everest had altitude problem, but the fear of an animal attack was not there.
'Finishing this in seven hours (the cut-off time) when the OWVT took more than 2.5 hours? In Big Five's hounding grounds?' I asked myself.
Organized by Albatros Travel, Denmark, the Big Five was an adventure trail marathon. All the features I had seen and was so afraid of were what it used as bullet points to attract adventure seekers from all over the world. And there were no shortages of them; the marathon was sold out rather quickly. To make it appear attractive to adventure seekers, the organizers had been billing this as the toughest marathon in the world and the wildest of all, unlike in other marathons, in which the hardships are understated, if at all stated, to attract more runners. Albatros Travel could go against the grain for the Big Five, after being sure that runners would outnumber the rooms available in the four lodges inside the reserve, and in a nearby golf and safari resort.
'How did this faint-of-heart Bishnupur Bengali get into this?'
Over-confidence and ignorance had something to do with it. Over-confidence accrued from already running three adventure marathons: the Inca Trail, the Mount Everest, and the Antarctica. Ignorance resulted from not doing research diligently and underestimating the degree of difficulty of the course, before registering in and committing non-refundable fund to the marathon. I was fully aware, though, that for marathons in seven continents, I did not need an adventure marathon, except the one in Antarctica. Any certified city marathon, for example, the one in Cape Town would have sufficed for an African marathon. Even then pursuing the Big Five adventure meant that I had evolved into an adventure marathoner over the years, without knowing it. An 'out of Africa' safari marathon in the land of Mandela sounded too romantic and historic to be overlooked.
Recalling what the nurse and the doctor had said after the treadmill stress test, four months earlier in Calgary, was a downer. The struggle to finish the Antarctica Marathon three months earlier gave some credence to their concerns. Doubts crept in.
That night tossing and turning in the comfortable bed, I thought of those who wished me well and were praying for my health, safety, and success, and in particular of: Dr N Ahmed who prayed the most; Dr K Rahman who announced he would fast on the day of the marathon, mimicking his mother's doing so on the days of her children's important exams; and Dr J Zaman to whom I dedicated the Big Five Marathon and who had advised me to focus before I left for South Africa --- the first, a former VC of BUET and all three my former colleagues and teachers from BUET Chemical Engineering Department, from the late sixties and early seventies.
'How can I disappoint them?'
I took comfort knowing that I had planned and prepared well. During the trip, I exercised self-control by not eating salads and cut fruits in the lodge. Cape Town meals were all apartment-cooked by MC. I drank bottled water and even washed my mouth with boiled water in both places. In the planes, I even wore nose and mouth mask, and hand gloves, the latter after watching a TV report that germs in trays and seats in planes survive at lease for a week. I also did not have any injuries, except for some tenderness in the right foot arch. Although I could not train as much, I could still rely on the endurance from the March 10, 2014 Antarctica Marathon. I reminded myself that mental toughness was what made me complete all three prior adventure marathons and 23 other marathons. I felt assured thinking that the Big Five could not be tougher than the Mount Everest I had run in rarefied air, starting from the Base Camp at 17,500 feet to Namche Bazaar in Nepal.
With those positive reinforcements countering the negative thoughts, I started counting backwards from 100, several times until I could no more.
In the morning of the marathon, an OWVT took us to Lakeside Lodge, the start of the marathon, in a 45-min scenic drive through the reserve. The sun was rising in a crimson, cloudless sky to warm up freezing Entabeni. Along the way, we saw zebras, giraffes, wildebeests, antelopes, and rhinos, which were being chased away by other OWVTs from the course. The course was being readied for the intruders, the runners, and being closed to the regular inhabitants, the animals. The animals had no choice or voice in this, like the hapless human residents and street vendors in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in a political hartal. Fortunately, for the Entabeni animals, that was only once a year inconvenience.
The day before, we had been instructed on what not to do and to do, if we happened to have a happenstance encounter with a dangerous animal on the course: 'Must not run away from a lion with your back facing the lion; raise your hands to make you look bigger than you are; and talk to the lion.' Finding the idea of talking to a lion funny, I decided to give the following line a try: 'Hey, I enjoyed the Lion's King musical in Las Vegas.'
At Lakeside Lodge, I was busy doing the pre-race preparations: shedding off morning cold-weather clothes and stripping to a Canada short and a Canada singlet --- the right attire for the run-time sun and temperature in the low twenties (Celsius). I fastened a fuel belt, in whose pouches I had packed salt tablets, Power Gels, Advil, and Band-Aid. I put on a white Adidas cap, a pair of sun glasses, a sweat band on my right wrist, and a satellite-aided Garmin watch on my left wrist. I hung a hand towel from the waist belt. I then dropped the small personal-supply bags into the boxes to be taken to the three designated aid stations. I sipped some Gatorade, and then applied Vaseline to skins that would be subjected to close to six hours of friction, and sunscreen lotion to all exposed arms, neck, and shoulders. At Hanglip Lodge earlier in the morning, I had put on CEP compression calf-sleeves, Smartwool socks, and Brooks Cascadia 9 trail shoes. To protect against abrasion of fingers in the event of a fall, I put on a pair of thin gloves as well. Preparation, preparation and more preparation are prerequisites to a successful marathon. I became a running machine --- lubricated, fuelled, shoed, socked, clothed, geared, shaded, stocked, and hydrated. I was ready and set. I was in a zone --- fearful but focused. (The next instalment will appear tomorrow)
Tapan Chakrabarty, a seven-continent marathon finisher, an inventor and innovator, writes from Calgary, Canada