On the ascent, I switchbacked up the hill and kept on climbing without ever stopping. When my breathing got louder and unbearable, the Mount Everest experience gave me mental strength to continue. It helped that the altitude at Big Five was only one third of that in the Mount Everest. I found the effort at Big Five was less excruciating, never feeling that I was going to faint and fall face first on the rocks. The inspection of the route the day before also helped me realize that there would be an end to this struggle after 2.5 km. I saw fellow runners stopping and bending over, some puking --- a demoralizing sight. At the top of the hill, I was out of breath and exhausted physically, but felt strong psychologically. The riskiest part of the run had been done, without incurring any injury.
I was on the upper escarpment again, where the start and finish area was. Too early to celebrate, though, as there was still another 16.5 km to the finish. The winter sun at around noon time in Entabeni felt like the hot August sun in Calgary.
I had to move to one side of the trail to make room for an OWVT carrying a bunch of distressed runners to Lake Side Lodge. The cruel course had dashed their dreams. As a runner, I could feel their disappointments. All the training and expenditure were for naught for them. Those in quest of running seven continents might have to go back there the year after or go somewhere else in Africa.
Not to be one of them, I concentrated on replenishing the salt lost through sweating by taking salt tablets. I drank more water from the palm-sized plastic bag picked up from an aid station. I also took Power Gels at certain intervals to replenish the fuel. I was tired physically, but was still sharp enough mentally to manage the run.
Running then on relatively flat and packed soil, with the Entabeni monolith in sight again, I took off the gloves, and put them in a bottle holder in my fuel belt. That innocent act could have cost me the finish, as I would find out a few minutes later.
Feeling then confident of finishing and not seeing any one around, I let my emotions out loudly, perhaps startling the animals in so doing. I thought of the well-wishers and of what I was going to write to them after the finish.
Noticing a glove falling from the bottle holder, I came to an abrupt halt, reflexively. Immediately thereafter, I was standing on my left foot. The biped turned uniped, in a fraction of a second. I had a cramp in the right calf muscle, which transmitted the pain signals to the brain, and the brain analyzing the severity of the pain sent signals to stop running immediately to prevent any more damage. Still standing on one foot, thoughts of not being able to finish the marathon and being picked up by an OGTV to Lakeside Lodge crossed my mind. I massaged the area, and then walked back gingerly to pick up the fallen glove. I started running slowly to test the injury. It felt tentative, but allowed me to continue. I gulped more water with another salt tablet.
The cramp subsided in a few minutes. A runner passed by me, coming out of nowhere. I tried to keep pace with her for a while, but decided not to let my competitiveness jeopardize my chance of finishing.
The cramp healed by itself, after a while. My confidence was growing and a finish was looking more and more promising after going past each km marker. 'Only a serious injury could stop me now,' I said to myself. So not incurring an injury became priority one --- by concentrating on the course.
Re-energized, I overtook a few more struggling runners. Nothing is better for a psychological boost than overtaking a runner in the late stages of a marathon. It makes the person overtaking go faster and the person who has been overtaken go slower.
From time to time, I felt something in the cramped spot; it was not painful, only two or three twitches in quick succession, warning me not to go too fast. I had to give up thinking for a while, since focus was needed for another rock-laden uphill section. The uphill section was followed by a downhill section, where I ran fast enough to overtake the person who had passed me earlier. That and the sound of African drums and announcements of names of finishers emanating from the still out-of-sight finish area brought in newly-found energy to the 64-year-old legs.
In some sections of the course, I ran all alone, as there were only 100 or so full marathon runners, running at different speeds, spread all over the course. Surprisingly, while running, I never thought of the biggest threat: the animals. I did not see any of them on or near the course. Apparently, the concentration the geologically complex course demanded and the focus to finish did not leave any room for entertaining the fear for the Big Five and other wildlife.
I did notice a few rangers parking their OWVTs at different locations to make their presence known to the animals and/or block their regular crossings and pathways. The animals also behaved. Without their cooperation, the rangers, who were few and far between along the 42.2-km long course, would not have a chance of rescuing a runner alive from an attack. But the animals left me and others alone. Evidently, the Entabeni animals, at least on that day, finished ahead of some humans, who harm innocent humans, unprovoked and for no good reasons. The behaviour of the Big Five would have made Mandela, the always forgiving, proud.
After being free, Mandela's forgiving those who had done so many mean and creul things to him and his people was an act of magnanimity commended by many in and outside South Afrcia. It was an act which has a few paralles in history. I remebered an incident in Cape Town, where I bought a wood art work of the Big Five from a shop at the V & A Waterfront. The artist was Maria, a white female, with an Afrikaner accent. While chatting, I shared my emotional visit to Robben Island. Maria listened and then said softly and respectfully, 'He was a great man!' And I could feel that she meant every word she uttered.
While running on the land of Mandela, I could not help but think of a scene in the movie 'Long Walk to Freedom', I had watched in the BA flight from Los Angeles (LAX)to Johanessburgh (JNB), in which he was keeping in shape by spot running in his tiny prison cell, with no idea of when he would be free, if ever. I also thought of the unneccssary labourious work the prisoners, including him, were forced to perform, and the lung diseases they developed by inhaling dusts from the infamous limestone quarry. The dust even damaged Mandela's tear duct so badly that after being free he could not shed tears any more. There in Entabeni, I was running free, breathing clean air, with superb support from race organizers and attentive volunteers. It was a long gruelling run, for sure. But it would be for no longer than seven hours. Mandela's marathon of suffering was for 27 long years, with no definte finish line in sight. Those inspiring thoughts brought more energy to my legs.
After taking a turn to right, I was delighted to see the banner displaying FINISH, only a few hundred metres away. I ran as fast as I could, still trying to save the right calf for the next two marathons over three months. I could hear someone in Danish accent having difficulty announcing a long Sanskrit-origin, Bengali-sounding name. Photographers sitting on the ground were pointing their long lenses at me, as I was crossing the finish mat, with raised hands.
I, the faint-of-heart Bishnupur Bangalee from the night before, was walking around wearing around my neck a finisher's medal, engraved with a male lion, wearing his majestic mane, on one side, and a runner chasing the Big Five on the other. With my head still looking like that of Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, I took a sip of water, while casting a long shadow on the red clays of Entabeni under an azure blue African sky.
Feeling great after finishing my fifth continent marathon in the land of Mandela, I was looking around for my wife. 'There!' She was standing by the finish banner, stunned, perhaps with a sense of relief, blended with a touch of spousal pride. She had seen the fear on my face in Hanglip Lodge in the morning and before the start at Lakeside Lodge. She had also seen an injured runner with a bloody face brought to the finish area in an OWVT. Several runners could not finish by seven hours, a few missing by only a minute. I owed my finish to the meticulous preparation and the inspection of the course the day before. The fear from that inspection made me focus.
Inside the mosquito-net of Room Five in Hanglip Lodge, I was tossing and turning again. Not out of impending fear, like the night before, but of excitement, the excitement of finishing the Big Five Adventure Marathon, unscathed by the rocks and unharmed by the animals. Unlike the night before, there was no counting backwards from 100. I wanted to cherish the African continent moment a bit longer. I also felt good realizing that I was only two continents: South America (Rio de Janeiro on 27 August 2014) and Oceania (Sydney on 21 September 2014), away from my goal of running in all continents. And both of those were regular city marathons.
From far away, the death-scream of another animal came floating down through the dry savannah air to my bed. A long silence sent a shiver through my spine, imagining what might have happened. I thought of the risk of an attack during the long difficult marathon run, especially when I was running alone. I kept thinking of the harsh course and the considerate animals until weariness and natural serotonin took control. Moving from a conscious to a subconscious state, I found myself being chased by an animal. I wanted to out run the chaser, but my feet got stuck in ankle-deep sands. As in scary dreams like these in the past, I wished it was only a dream. I wanted to wake up to reality. But the sounds were getting closer and louder.
Amidst banging sounds, I opened my eyes. The mosquito net reminded me where I was. MC was up too. With confusion and fear in her eyes, she looked at the chair barricade she had set up against the door before going to bed. "Good morning!" a friendly shout from outside the door calmed us both down.
We had to hurry up. The lions were on the itinerary. We had to be in an OWVT at least a few hours before they would go out of sight to sleep throughout the day. Two more days of safari by day and Boma (an open-roof or straw-roofed circular area enclosed by log poles, with a fire pit in the centre) parties at night were welcome diversions to recover from the battering the body endured from the marathon.
From an adventurous 'out of Africa' experience from South Africa, the land of Mandela, we flew to Zimbabwe, the land of Mugabe, to view the Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, for a feast for the eyes 'out of Africa' experience.
The night of my departure, the clear African sky looked as if it lit hundreds of thousands of lamps in honour of the Supreme Being. I felt a pang, the kind I feel when bidding farewell to my ancestral villages, Matlab and Bishnupur in Bangladesh. "Could Africa be my primeval 'ancestral continent'?" I pondered. (The end)
Tapan Chakrabarty, a seven-continent marathon finisher, an inventor and innovator, writes from Calgary, Canada