Vayama recently sponsored the ‘TriLife Ultra Marathon team‘ as they participated on their first ‘Comrades Ultra Marathon‘ in Durban South Africa. Vayama assisted TriLife with their flights to South Africa on South African Airways. This week we caught up with Philip Kiracofe (a member of TriLife’s inaugural team) for a Q & A about the race, the wild beauty of Southern Africa, and even an old South African miner’s song that helped his team pull through the toughest parts of the ultramarathon.
1-Vayama: What is your name and how long have you been running marathons?
Philip Kiracofe: My first marathon was NYC in 2001, and it was significant for the symbolism of 35,000 people running through NYC in a massive show of support for a city wounded by terrorist attacks. Since then, I have been drawn to epic endurance events, ranging from marathons to triathlons. I have completed 5 marathons and two Ironman triathlons, and Comrades was by far the most challenging and rewarding of them all.
2-When did you form or join TriLife and what it is that you do exactly.
TriLife was formed in 2003 by a group of amateur triathletes who wanted to complete an Ironman distance race. Since then, the program has expanded to train athletes for all manner of athletic endeavours, including triathlons, trail runs, marathons, and multi-stage, ultra distance races. This year, Trilife formed the ‘Trilife Ultra Marathon team’, and Comrades was the inaugural race. 17 athletes trained for the event, and 100% completed – a remarkable accomplishment for a first year program.
3-What is an ‘Ultra Marathon’
Technically, an ultramarathon is any running race longer than 26.2 miles. The most common distances are 36M (50K), 50M, 62M (100K) and 100M. Comrades is the oldest 9since 1921), largest (by # participants), and most esteemed ultra distance marathon in the world
4-Does running a marathon in South Africa make it more of a challenge? Logistically and or physically?
Any ultra distance race is a major challenge. Naturally, one wants to train in conditions that are close to race simulation so your body knows what to expect. This proved impossible for Comrades for several reasons. First, the race is run in late May, and it is hot in South Africa, whereas we trained for 8 months thru one of the coldest winters on record in NYC. The hills on the Comrades course are also legendary, with the Big Five each climbing several hundred vertical feet and stretching for 1-3 miles. NYC, by contrast is relatively flat, so we simply had no way to train for that kind of hill profile. Finally, the 17 hour flight to South Africa is very taxing on the body, so it is important to go early, and to fly with an airline that gives you room to stretch and walk around. SAA proved to be incredibly accommodating, and were very excited to have a large US team flying with them to such a legendary race.
5-What was the most challenging part of the Comrades ‘Ultra Marathon’?
The most challenging part of the race is that the course never lets up. Most people assume that running down hill is a relief, but in fact it is more punishing to go down than to go up. The ideal course for running is flat, and Comrades has NO flats. You are climbing or descending for nearly the entire 55 miles, and by the late stages, your body is so fatigued that you are increasingly tempted to give up and walk it in, or just get on a medical bus. But we trained for so many months, and the camaraderie with the team was so incredible, that I did not want to let anyone down. So when things got really tough, I could look down at my shirt and see the TriLife and Vayama logo, and it reminded me that I was running on behalf of an amazing, extended support team.
6- Did you get a chance to visit South Africa’s natural wonders?
The Comrades Marathon is a point to point course between Durban and Petermaritzburg, and runs through some of the most beautiful interior landscapes in South Africa. We were running from the coast up towards the Drakensburg Mountains and were treated to vista’s that took your breath away (although that might have been me gasping for air!) After the race, we spent 3 days in Phinda Game Reserve (video), where we had a magical safari. It was the trip of a lifetime, and made all the more unique by the intensity of the training and race.
7-What was your impression of South Africa as a host country and South Africans in general?
South Africa is candidly my most favorite country in the world. The South African people we met were so proud of their country, especially of all the upgrades since the 2010 World Cup, and made it very difficult for us to fly home (in a good way!) I had last spent time in Capetown in 2005 and the climate has improved noticeably since then. It is nos a safe and comfortable city and there are tons of new restaurants, cafes, stores, activities, etc. I would love to move there. During the race, hundreds of thousands of fans lined the entire course, and many people made it a full day celebration, having braii’s (cookouts) while supporting runners. The entire 12 hour race is broadcast nationally, and the day is a federal holiday. Five of our female athletes were running together for a good portion of the race, and they were pretty distinctive in a race mostly dominated by men, so as they ran along in their white race tops, the crowds started cheering for the “Vayama Mama’s” and that became a chant that got passed along.
8- Did you try the local wine?
We EXTENSIVELY sampled the South African wines, and brought back a fair amount to share with friends and supporters here in the US. We had some amazing tours at vineyards, and one of the most impressive was Solms Delta, which is a leader in sustainability and cultural heritage. After suffering through 10 months of training, and then 9 hours of racing, the wine there was like the nectar of the gods. Truly exquisite
9- Did your team get to visit the tourist sites in South Africa like Table Mountain or Boulder Beach?
We rented large vans and traveled as a group. We spend 5 days in Capetown sightseeing. We visited Cape Point, saw the penguins in Simonstown, sampled wines in the world famous vineyards, went up Table Mountain, petted cheetahs, enjoyed High Tea at Mount Nelson, and much more.
10-Did you enjoy the local food? Did you try biltong.
After the long season, and grueling race, I felt I was justified in gorging myself on all the local delicacies. I was most impressed by the seafood and I was blown away by the delicious Cape Malay influenced curries.
11-Did you learn any words of Afrikaans? Or Xosa? Or Zulu?
The most important word we learned was ‘Shosholoza’ – which means ‘go forward’ in the Ndebele language. It is the title of the most popular folk song in South Africa (affectingly called its second national anthem). It was sung incessantly throughout the race. It’s a particularly powerful song that was originally sung by miners doing hard labour, and it rhythmically symbolizes a steam engine. So as one is struggling to climb the epic hills of the Comrades course, the sounds of Shosholoza being sung by countless bystanders (and athletes) are a powerful motivator.
12-Will you return to South Africa and recommend it as a travel destination?
Not only will I absolutely return and encourage everyone else to do so, I may go so far as to move there!
13-How was the service on South African Airways?
South African Airways was extraordinary. They made every effort to ensure that the members of our team (plus a half dozen supporters) were comfortable, and they also allowed extra luggage and clothing that we were bringing for donation. The flight attendants kept us well fed and hydrated and enjoyed our group stretching breaks in the galleys.
14-Will TriLife run the Comrades Marathon again?
TriLife will be sending a team to South Africa for the 2012 Comrades, and looks forward to the support of Vayama and South African Airways to make the trip just as incredible as this year’s inaugural journey. I will be supporting the team in every way possible without actually running the race!
See the wild and open beauty of South Africa for yourself with Vayama’s airfare deals to Cape Town and Johannesburg on South African Airways. You can participate in the excitement of the Comrades marathon by being there for the 2012 race. Shosholoza!