Clocking up another big race

2011-05-27 00:00

AMONG the thousands of runners making their painful way up the hill to Pietermaritzburg on Sunday will be a man whose pastime it is to run in races around the world.

Ken Skea, a Canadian engineer now living and working in Vadodara, in the heart of Gujarat, India, has been training hard for the past few months for his first Comrades Marathon­.

Skea started running in marathons about 10 years ago.

“It was a natural progression,” he explained. “I was running shorter distances of 10 kilometres and had reached a certain peak — a ceiling — when I decided to try a longer distance — this was a half-marathon in Victoria­, Canada, back in 2001. I finished­ and also managed to qualify for the Boston Marathon.”

The Boston is one of the five greats, in marathon running — the others being New York, Chicago, London and Berlin.

“After that, I was hooked,” Skea said.

Apart from Canada and the United States, Skea has run in India, China, Portugal, Greece, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, Dubai and Turkey. All marathons and ultra-marathons follow a particular format, irrespective of the country in which they are held.

“They are extremely well organised and their websites provide timetables, schedules, entry forms, training programmes, course profiles and tips for runners.

“You can do a virtual survey of the course online before you even reach the country, and with the introduction of the microchip, which is either in your bib or shoe, your times are professionally recorded and easily accessible to race organisers. This is important, because your place in the line-up before a race is allocated according to your last recorded speed.

“With more than 19 000 participants in this year’s Comrades, I’ll have to be content to run with the group, for the first five kilometres or so, before I can begin to strategise and pull ahead,” Skea said.

The highest altitude at which Skea has competed was the Great Tibetan Marathon, at Leh in Ladakh, the Buddhist­ former kingdom and northernmost state of India, which borders with Tibet and Kashmir.

Much of Ladakh is at an altitude of over 2 987 metres and most people are affected by the lack of oxygen and acute mountain sickness, with symptoms of nausea, headaches and breathlessness. The only remedy is to spend at least five days acclimatising yourself before the race.

“One of the most fun marathons in which I’ve run was the Disney World Marathon at Orlando in Florida. You start on the edge of the park and then you actually run through it. You get a Minnie Mouse medal for the half- marathon, a Mickey Mouse medal for the full marathon and the Goofy medal­, for completing both,” Skea said.

On another occasion, on a stop-over in Frankfurt, on the way back from China, he decided, on the spur of the moment, to enter the Frankfurt Marathon. Feeling peckish, three kilometres before the end, he stopped at a café for a hamburger and a beer and then went on to complete the race.

The two problems that Skea has had to face in India, in the long preparation for this year’s Comrades, are the heat, with summer temperatures regularly in the mid-40°C and also the flat Gujarati terrain, which is quite a contrast to the steep incline between Durban and Pietermaritzburg.

There are only two hills in the vicinity­, one at Pavagadh, about 46 kms from Vadodara­, at an altitude of 448 metres, with the famous temple of the Goddess Mahakali, located on the top of the hill and the other at Mount Abu, in the neighbouring state of Rajasthan­, the only hill station, which is within reach. A hill station is a high point where local people go to escape the heat of the plains during summer.

Although Skea has done a little training at both these sites, because of the distance, he’s had to rely largely on his own basic home training programme and gruelling hours spent on the treadmill.

Marathons have become increasingly sophisticated over the years, with technology playing an ever greater role — there are theories about training, technique, clothing, diet and hydration, but 50 years ago, runners simply relied on water, their bodies trained to compete in those conditions.

Nowadays, a variety of food and drinks are provided along the route to boost energy levels. With media interest and live television coverage, sponsorship has become an important factor, attracting large sums of money and with thousands of participants and spectators converging on a town, for a number of days, the advantage for tourism and related business, is obvious.

Skea will fly to Durban via Dubai and spend a week here after the race. touring the country with his wife.

• Berenice Schreiner is a South African based in Vadodara, Gujarat, India

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