8. The Big Five Marathon, South Africa

After completing the Rio de Janeiro marathon on Sunday 18th June I didn’t have much of a rest as my next (and final) marathon of my challenge was just 6 days later and on another continent! Yep I would be running  2 marathons within a week!

The Big Five Marathon was the run I had been most looking forward to. Not only was it in South Africa (a country I had heard great things about and really wanted to visit), it was also through a game reserve. It was basically a safari… only my legs were the vehicle rather than a jeep!!

As I said I was on a tight schedule to get to South Africa in time for my final run. The Big Five marathon was part of an organised tour, with safaris planned either side of marathon day. The tour included transfers from Johannesburg airport to our hotels located in Entabeni game reserve, where the run would take place. My scheduled transfer from Johannesburg airport was at 11:30 on Thursday 22nd June.

My flight from Rio de Janeiro to Johannesburg was on Monday 19th June, the day after I had run the Rio marathon.

I always arrive at airports really early – I tell certain people it is just in case there are any delays going through security… but really it’s because I love a cheeky bit of airport shopping (duty free Kurt Geiger,  Benefit and Kate Spade – yes please!) In Rio it was no exception – despite being achey and tired from the run the day before I arrived at the airport with lots of time to spare. I went up to the check in desk with my massive rucksack weighing me down, which I couldn’t wait to offload so I could start browsing the shops. As I had mentioned before, there was a massive communication barrier in Brazil as the extent of my Portugese is knowing who Christiano Ronaldo is and enjoying the odd custard tart. It was therefore a bit of a struggle to understand the lady at the airport desk. She said  yellow fever and I replied “yes”, as I had been vaccinated. She said it again and I again replied yes… Then she said “yellow fever paper” and my heart dropped. Yes I had been vaccinated, but no I didn’t have the yellow fever certificate with me to prove I had been vaccinated. Seeing me trying to explain but miserably failing, an English speaking colleague came over to the desk. She explained that South Africa is the only country which requires all passengers travelling from Brazil to have the ORIGINAL yellow fever certificate with them. Without it you are simply not allowed to travel. I tried to show her a scanned copy, but the airline were having none of it. I stood at the desk with tears pouring down my face as they told me for the hundredth time that I couldn’t fly and politely asked me (again) to leave the queue…

I told them I needed a flight to London. They told me there was a flight that evening… then they told me it was fully booked. They told me there was another flight the next day…then they told me it would cost me £3000… As I hobbled away from the queue a worker at the last desk told me to “have a nice day”. How ironic.

So I was stuck, alone, in an airport, in Brazil, with 73 hours to get to South Africa via London to pick up my yellow fever certificate. There were no available seats within visual distance, so I slung my backpack onto the dirty airport floor, sat down on it and cried. Like a crazy lady. As far as low points go, this was definitely one of them, but I had come this far and I was absolutely certain that I would be running that marathon 5 days later in South Africa.

So I started hunting for flights. It was like in the movies where you see people running up to airline desks at the airport asking for last minute long distance flights. But none of the airlines could get me there in time for less than £3000! I rang my holiday insurance company and after 30 minutes on hold they told me they couldn’t help me (and that one phone call cost me £50!)

At this point I had been in the airport for 3 hours and hadn’t even been in the duty free shop yet. It was a new personal best.

Desperate times called for coffee. I sat in Starbucks, to use their free wifi and searched for flights, scribbling down possible routes on the back of a receipt for my Americano. After speaking to my mum and boyfriend my tears had turned to laughter- I couldn’t believe how ridiculous the whole situation was. I laughed so I didn’t cry again. And looked even more crazy in the process.

I eventually found a route to South Africa which I could just about afford and would get me there in time…

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Atlanta, USA – London Heathrow – Dubai – South Africa… 20, 402 miles… 5 continents… in 3 days…

So off I went… from Rio to Atlanta. 10 hour flight followed by a 12 hour stopover. Then from Atlanta to Heathrow, a nine hour flight. My Mum and Dad were there to meet me at the arrivals gate with my yellow fever certificate (and thankfully some clean clothes). We had a 30 minute coffee break, before I said goodbye to them and headed to departures. Another 3 hours waiting around before my next flight left from Heathrow to Dubai (10 hours). A mere 5 hour wait in Dubai before boarding my fourth and final long haul flight in 3 days, from Dubai to Johannesburg (8.5 hours).

70.5 hours later, I had made it from Rio de Janeiro to Johannesburg, with 1 hour to spare before my transfer picked me up. I secretely rolled my eyes as I heard some people complaining about how tired they were after their 10 hour flight. I had not slept in a bed for 3 days. I had lived off plane food. I had washed in airport toilet/bathrooms. Needless to say I was not looking fresh.

 But looking on the bright side I watched loads of movies, became a bit of an airline and airport review connoisseur and (after sleeping on planes for 3 consecutive nights) I learnt to appreciate how amazing it is to sleep in an actual bed!

When I arrived in Entabeni (after a 3 hour coach journey from the airport!), I was absolutely captivated by the stunning scenery. My mission of a journey was soon forgotten when I saw zebras strolling around outside my hotel window as I enjoyed a drink on my watching the beautiful South African sunset.

As I mentioned, the Big Five Marathon was an organised trip – and I was lucky to have the opportunity to meet some amazing people and talented runners from all around the world (America, Mexico, Holland, Singapore, New Zealand). Strangely enough however, the person I became closest to was from a little closer to home. I met my room mate  Hollie on the night I arrived to Entabeni after my 20,000 mile, 3 day trip, so needless to say I wasn’t on my best form. I heard her filthy laugh before I saw her (not so filthy) face. I was relieved that I had an English speaking room mate. She said she was from “near Brighton”. I asked where. She replied “Worthing”. I told her I worked at Worthing Hospital. She told me her Grandad was in Worthing hospital at the time. I asked his name… and it turned out I had been the doctor looking after him before I left for the trip!! I had heard all about Hollie and her family via her Grandad a few weeks before. WHAT A SMALL WORLD!!! We got on like a house on fire and I know we’ll stay friends in the future 🙂

The day before the marathon we drove the marathon route in safari jeeps. I had heard the course was challenging, but I didn’t expect it to be as tough as it was- it took 2 1/2 hours to drive the 26.2 miles in the jeep!!

The hotel we were staying at was an hours drive from the start line, so it was an early start for us on race day. As we took our seats in the windowless jeeps the morning of the race, we huddled together to try and shelter from the cold winter winds. Needless to say (yet again) I was unprepared for it to be as cold as it would be!

We got talking to an American guy on our journey to the start line. We asked him if he had seen many animals on his safari the previous day and he said he’d seen some rhinos, antelopes and zebras. Up until that point they were the only animals I had seen too. I told him I was desperate to see some giraffes in the wild, “if I saw a giraffe it would absolutely make my day” I said… and literally seconds later we looked over and there was a huge giraffe standing tall and proud right beside us. Neither of us could believe it and we laughed hysterically for the rest of the journey. It sounds silly, but I just knew it was a good omen. “If I come first place it would make my day” I joked after…

Well I didn’t come first BUT I did come second. And I could not believe it!!!!

The race was tough. “Hilly” is an understatement – the race comprised of a 3km high menacing MOUNTAIN which was so steep you physically could not run up it. People were literally on their hands and knees crawling up it! And then there was the sand. Thick sand for 9km, so deep that you sank straight into it and pulling your feet out with every stride was such a magnificent effort.

But it was the race I had been most looking forward to and it definitely didn’t disappoint. I loved every second of it. From the African tribes playing music at the water stops, to the unbelievable scenery all around me, to the zebra that bolted out in front of me and nearly knocked me over, to the ostriches I saw roaming around in the distance.

I simply don’t have the words to describe the race in a way that would do it justice. And I seriously can’t describe how shocked and overwhelmed I was to have finished in second place.

The days after the marathon were spent chilling with new friends, soaking up some sunshine and most importantly seeing wild giraffes, elephants, lions and crocodiles on safaris.

It took me a long time to get there, but it was totally worth it. In fact it felt like more of an achievement because of my challenge getting there… two marathons in six days with a three day journey (spanning 20,000 miles and five continents) in between.

2nd place female in an international marathon.

What a way to end my marathon mission.

And what an incredible time I have had along the way.

8 marathons in 8 countries in 8 months

Mission complete.

The Big Five Marathon, Entabeni, South Africa:

4 hours 12 minutes

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