I thought I was all prepared for the big trip, I had been planning it for long enough, every detail painstakingly mapped out, but those last few days in Oz just didn’t seem to run smoothly. I hoped this wasn’t an omen, however much travel I do I still get anxious at the last minute, have I packed correctly, are all the documents in order, will the plane stay in the sky? I did not need other matters to worry about.

Part of the preparation was to get a health check, in the past I have almost come unstuck when I have had to claim on travel insurance for medical issues and had to produce a letter saying I was healthy before I left (I don’t know what being healthy has to do with falling and breaking ribs) so this time I wanted to make sure a doctor knew I was travelling fit, just in case.  I had never been to  one of my local doctors so because she didn’t know me she sent me off for blood tests to look at cholesterol, blood sugars, kidney and liver function and who knows what else. Well, blood tests and I do not go well together. I get all geared up and know it’s not going to hurt but I just  can’t help the light  headed, dizzy feeling that comes over me. At pathology the first nurse couldn’t get the blood, I obviously looked rather drained so she said I could sit in the waiting room and she would try again later. I thought I felt OK to stand up but obviously not, the next thing I knew I was waking up on the floor! I have never fainted at these things before, only felt like it! After some rest another nurse came to try again, she was fantastic, chirpy and chatting and a real professional, she got the blood and it was all over. Or so I thought! No, the results showed everything was fine except my blood sugars were a bit high, it had only been a screening test so to find out conclusively I needed an oral glucose tolerance test – involving three consecutive blood tests! Wow, that made my day!  I saw the same nurse that was successful the first time, she was amazing, she needs a medal for her public relations skills, she got me through the whole three tests over two and a half hours and the results were everything was OK – what did I do to deserve that punishment?!

The fainting episode over with I now knew I was fit and healthy to travel, but that check hadn’t involved my teeth. Just flossing away in the morning and ‘ping’, what was that? It felt like I had popped a whole tooth out, well as good as, my huge gold crown had just been ejected from my mouth, followed closely by a bit of tooth that was underneath it. On the bright side it had landed on the floor and not gone down the plug hole! Off to the dentist, yes she was able to reattach it and fill the huge hole underneath it, I just need to keep my fingers crossed that it stays there for the whole trip, flossing will be minimal!

Now I am ready to depart, but no, something else of monumental importance breaks on me – my Garmin! Well, actually the watch was still functioning but the strap had broken, no time to look into this one, time to get to the airport.

For five weeks prior to race day I was travelling through Spain and France, finding wonderful places to explore during training runs, (carrying my Garmin, because apparently a watch repairer can’t fix it, only Garmin can and I am not about to send it away at the moment). I tried to stick to the training plan as much as possible and to get some hills and soft sand runs included. I found great hills in Barcelona, up to the castle, and in the little village I stayed outside of Montpellier, built on the side of a hill I could go up and down, round and round to my heart’s content, soaking in the atmosphere of the narrow French lanes, lush green countryside and quaint, ancient stone buildings.

I put myself to the soft sand test running from Montpellier to Sete. There is an amazing spit of sand that runs for more than 25 km, almost all the way between the two towns, the Mediterranean on one side of you and a large inland lagoon on the other, hardly a sole about – I was getting a bit worried that I would get to the end of the spit and not be able to cross the river to get to the town on the other side, but as I got closer there were people walking towards me so I guessed they had all not just walked the 20 km from the last town! As I got closer to Sete the skies cleared but the wind picked up – by the time I ran across the causeway I could hardly stand upright, I know why they have wind turbines on the hills! My planned 23km was up just as I reached the end of the causeway and I didn’t run a metre further! The town was still a couple of kilometres away but a cool down walk with a large bottle of water was the order of the day. The run had been decidedly slow taking 2 hours 28 minutes (the sand was much softer than that of St Kilda beach and the wind was much stronger – that’s my excuse), but it only took me 20 minutes to get back on the train!

Training for a marathon is generally a great way of seeing a new place, you have time to explore all its intricacies. However, I do find one drawback that sometimes makes me reluctant to venture forth, the fear of not knowing where the comfort stations (as my guide in India insisted on calling the public toilets) are! Of course if I think I am going to get caught short then I do, but I have managed to ease my anxiety by having some back up locations – bus and train stations; the great outdoors; fancy hotel receptions are the best option!

In Arles I ran along the canals, with mist rising off the water, Cyprus trees and Van Gogh’s bridge, it was totally peaceful and you could almost see the paintings of Van Gogh and Cezanne before your eyes.

In Paris I ran in the Bois do Boulogne, yes, I found soft sand! I think I was running along the horse-riding path because the sand was really stirred up, but good for my training. It was very pretty, all through the woods, you wouldn’t know you were in the centre of Paris. Then as I saw a scantily dressed young lady and an older gentleman (well, maybe that’s not the phrase to use!) come out of the woods and go in opposite directions I seemed to remember some stories about the Bois de Boulogne, whilst it might be a runners, walkers, horse riders and families delight through the day at night it comes to life with prostitution; now this was 7am in the morning, some of them obviously work late!

In Antibes I had a bit of trouble with locating sand for my training, the Mediterranean sparkled in the glorious sunshine but the sand was distinctly lacking, the few scattered beaches being about 100 m long! By running the 12 km along the coast to Cannes I got to run for about 3km on sand, a lot of the beaches were ‘private’ with sun beds lined up bumper to bumper, luckily they have to allow a 2 m gap between the sea and the sunbeds for people to walk by. There are certainly a lot of hills around Antibes though and I thought I found some steep ones, until I saw Yellowwood at Entabeni!

It works out well that I enjoy running because my real passion is food! I love French cuisine, the fresh baguettes, the cheeses, pates, tartes, crepes – everything! And of course the vino is excellent too. It’s amazing how I always seem to gravitate to the produce markets in each town, I meander amongst the stalls looking longingly at the culinary delights. I really work hard at restraining myself and just taking  home enough for my evening meal, well maybe some terrine and Roquefort to nibble on as an entrée!

My French training expedition came to an end and it was off to Barcelona for my flight back to Johannesburg, meet up with Peter, and transfer to Entabeni. It was exciting to gather at the airport with the other participants arriving from all corners of the world. When our coach load were gathered it was off on the three and a half hour drive and the start of our big adventure! I don’t think it was an exciting drive, miles of nothing, not unsimilar to home! Lots of flat scrub and open spaces. The road went from freeway, to highway, to country road, to two lane dirt road, one lane dirt road, then it was a change of vehicle, off the big coach and into the safari wagon, for the last four km.

Wow! On the drive into the reserve we saw giraffe, wildebeest, several species of antelope and then as the guide dropped us off at our cabin we looked across the ravine and there were four elephants straight in front of us – and I spotted them, the guide was really pleased as she hasn’t seen them for a few days! We stayed at Ravineside, what an apt name, the cabin was supported by poles right over the edge of the ravine, really spectacular.

After the first of many beautiful buffet meals, (I would definitely have to watch my calorie intake here, yes I know there was a marathon coming up but before then exercise was really limited, you could not walk from your cabin to the lodge, or anywhere, because the animals were often up close and personal) we were off on our first game drive.

Wow, wow, wow! What an introduction we saw warthog, zebra, white rhino, wildebeest, ostrich, giraffe, eland and impala. We were so close, they looked amazing. We were driving down a track and right in front of us the zebra were walking across the road – our guide said ‘Zebra Crossing’, I just cracked up, that is definitely the true meaning of the zebra crossing! She loved me because she said not many people get her joke, she did mean it as a joke but in actual fact it was purely a statement. Some of the others wondered what I was laughing at because they call our road crossings pedestrian crossings not zebra crossings!

Later that evening, after another feast, and our escort back to our room we discovered why it is called ‘darkest Africa’ – yes, the power went out! It would be a difficult country to live in, with their load shedding for the electricity, the country can’t produce enough so everyone has to take it in turns to do without! A shower by torch light! My main concern was getting my camera batteries charged up for the delights of the next day – it was all good, the power was back on in an hour.

Counting down the hours now, one day to go! Awoke at 6.15 to the sun rising over the escarpment, a beautiful cocktail of reds and oranges lining the ridge of the ravine opposite our room, what a start to the day.

After breakfast it was over to Lakeside Lodge, where the race starts and finishes, for a briefing and a course inspection. Sixteen jeeps lined up in front of the lodge for the three hour drive around the full course, you can imagine how rough it was! It was definitely a challenging course, and when they said there was a steep hill they meant it! I was anxious in the vehicle, let alone on foot! The course is hilly, rocky, sandy – but amazing scenery, fantastic views from the upper escarpment, I had just better remember not to look at the scenery tomorrow, I need to look down at where I am putting my feet! On the bright side there were no tree roots, (tree roots and I do not have a good history) but I am sure the rocks would have the same effect on me!

Race day – wow, what a day! Woke at 6am to get ready, our breakfast pick up was 7am – I declined all the culinary delights, I know from experience that two pieces of toast and jam set me up well for a marathon. 8 am and down to Lakeside for a planned 9 am start but it was 9.15 when we started, apparently that was because they were having trouble locating one of the lions! I didn’t mind waiting! The sun came out whilst we waited so I was able to leave my jacket with Peter, I wouldn’t have needed it for long once I started running. The music was great, a real motivator and all the staff were dancing along, a real party atmosphere. 267 runners in total for the half and full marathon.

And we’re off! 1km downhill, then 2 km up and that was the theme for most of the course! The first 10km were really good, I was third female at the 10km turn around, but dropped back a bit after that! I was feeling really strong at the 16km mark, that’s where the spectators were, it was good to have a bit of a cheer squad.

That was the end of the feel good stage, it was then the very, very steep 2km down from the top to bottom escarpment. Who planned this race? I’m sure they could have found 42 km of perfectly good tracks on the top escarpment without having to venture down, but this is what made it the challenge! I am not good at running downhill, and it’s not safe, so I pottered carefully down, one of the young girls from our lodge flew passed me, I don’t know how you get the confidence to do that, I suppose we all have our strengths, at the bottom it was soft sand for 10km and she was only 500m in when I went passed her, and stayed in front, my soft sand training paid off! In fact I passed all the folk that overtook me on the downhill! It was an absolute killer on the quads, it really wrecked the rest of the race, I was sort of ok for the loop at the bottom (except I found a tree root, yes don’t let it be said I can’t fall over in a race, down I went, luckily on completely soft sand, straight down on my side, didn’t even put my hand out to break my fall and got straight back up again. I had a couple of near trips on rocks, luckily they didn’t eventuate into falls) but after coming back up, the legs were done in.

The 21 km mark was really fun, the staff all had drums, there was music and dancing, plus some much needed drinks of course, I even managed a bit of a sprint to get with the mood! At the 26 km mark it was back up that dam hill! Nobody ran it, I don’t think anyone could, I walked up, trying to do so as quickly as I could, I felt much safer going up and I don’t think it did as much damage to the legs, but it was a long haul. I made sure I was running when I reached the spectator spot at the top! The whole crowd cheered, excellent motivation, if only the legs had ears!

From there it was a pleasant slight decent, with firm ground, rock free for a few kms, but I was getting weary; I decided to have my second gel, but then I was really thirsty, the drink stations had been about every 4km, but I’m sure this was the longest gap, I began to think I was getting dehydrated, then at 34km yeah, the next drink station, I hoed into the water. Mariska and Christy (our ranger guides) were at the 34 km drink station, they were cheering me on madly; they said only 4km to go, I wish! Rangers were positioned, with their rifles, throughout the run, some at drink stations and some in between, there were a lot more at the bottom of the hill, that’s where the lions and hippos live!

The last 12 km were really hard, I wanted to run the flat and the downs, but the downs were the most painful. I was looking forward to the hills for an excuse to walk! I have never walked so much in a marathon, but everyone else was too. At the 38 km mark certain muscles felt so strained that they might pull or strain, I thought, please don’t give up on me at this stage of the game! The last few kms I was running / walking alongside another couple of guys, each of us taking turns to lead, fall back, lead again! At the 40km mark you could hear the finish line, it was exciting, anticipating being almost there, then you were amongst the twist and turns of the hills and lost the sound till you were right upon it – as I came up to the finish line one of the other guys I had been running backwards and forwards with was just in front of me, I put on a sprint (well, a sprint for me!) and we crossed the line together, in 4 hrs 53 mins, I hope I didn’t ruin his finish photo!

That’s it all over! How fit did I feel now? Not very! My first port of call was the massage table. Ooh the pain! Hopefully that meant I would be pain free tomorrow! Next stop was a shower, followed by lunch and yes, a vino!

I bought my ‘finishers shirt’ I think I deserved it; 5th female over the line; 24th overall and if I want to claim a first I was the 1st Aussie female home – and definitely the first over 55 female.

Although the run was finished the experience continued. The next evening was the amazing after party at the Hippo Boma, a thatched roof, circular gathering place, partially closed with stone walls, with a roaring fire in the middle. Staff continued to entertain us as only they now how, singing and dancing and getting everyone involved! Food was plentiful, a few beverages were imbibed in and fun was had by all!

To complete the adventure our last game drive delivered us to both the male lion and the lioness. We owed the close sighting of the male to our ranger, who, thinking the lion was on the other side of the track had ventured down from the jeep for a call of nature. The call turned out to be more nature than she expected, the male lion was walking right in front of her, she remained calm, kept eye contact with him and backed up to the jeep. Once safely back in the jeep we could all admire the stately animal.

Whilst I was really happy with my performance that wasn’t what made the event, it was the combination of new friends; fantastic scenery; amazing animals and friendly, energetic, dancing staff – I can thoroughly recommend the Big 5 Marathon.