Running With the Wildebeest: Welcome to the Big 5 Marathon

When I created the 1% Club last year, I didn’t know at the time just what I was getting into. I knew I’d have to start working on some of the hardest things right away. Climbing the Seven Summits would be difficult, but deciding which mountains to climb was easy—the path to success is well defined.

Running the Seven Continents would also be a challenge, but there’s no defined path. No “one size fits all” approach. Choosing where to run seven marathons is all up to me. How could I pursue a goal like this and make it interesting for anyone besides myself? How could I make a marathon, the world’s most boring spectator sport, fun to read about?

The answer, I believe, lies in adventure marathoning—races run not for time or for competition, but for the personal challenge and the once-in-a-lifetime experience they offer.

Thus, I begin my foray into worldwide running with the Big 5 Marathon in South Africa—a race run through mountains on a wild game reserve. A race where you’re just as likely to spot a rhino as another runner. And, if you’re lucky, the lions will stay away long enough to let you finish.

The following is my account of this event. I hope you enjoy reading about it as much as I enjoyed participating, and may it inspire you to your own adventures, marathon or otherwise.

In Transit to Entabeni

After a few frantic days at home sorting out last minute details—cancelled flights, broken computers, etc.—the wheels are finally up at PDX and I’m on my way to Africa. I don’t know what to expect. Africa, to me, has always felt like more of a fairy tale than reality—only hearing stories and never actually seeing or connecting with the distant land—but just 20 hours of flying later, I’d finally see the place for myself.

We land the next evening in Johannesburg where I’m greeted by a well-groomed gentleman holding a taxi sign reading, “Big 5 Marathon.” “Who else could that be for,” I ask myself as I walk up to say hello. In the mayhem of sorting all my flights for the trip, I’d accidentally scheduled myself to arrive in the evening, not realizing that getting to the Entabeni Game Reserve—the actual location of the race—would still be another four hours by car.

For awhile, it looked like my only option would be to rent a car and drive myself (bad idea!) but, at the last minute, the race organizers came through and scheduled a private taxi just for me. VIP treatment; thanks guys!

I meet Freddy, my driver and a native South African, and we set out for Entabeni. Along the way, we talk about what life is like in SA and how things are going in the country. Freddy tells me that the whole city of Johannesburg changed when the World Cup arrived in 2010. Of course, he’s most happy they widened the freeway so that commuting to work isn’t so bad anymore. It’s the little things, I guess.

Freddy doesn’t get much time off these days; apparently taxis are in high demand, but when he has some down time, he likes to watch his favorite rugby team, The Springboks, and other sports on TV and drink a little beer.

I like Freddy. For the next few hours, we talk about the various facets of life, the old days of South Africa and apartheid, and how smoking is a hell of an addiction when he pulls over every 45 minutes to light up. He offers a cigarette before withdrawing, remembering that he’s driving me to a marathon.

Many bumpy and unpaved roads later, we’re pulling into Wildside, a tented camp in the middle of Entabeni. Runners that arrived earlier in the day are having their last drink at the bar—yes, there’s a bar AND wifi in the middle of the woods—and getting ready for bed. I meet my new French roommate, Gaitan, before being escorted to my tent by a park ranger with a big gun who reminds me that Wildside is an unprotected camp and that I’m NOT to leave the tent until the morning.

No problem. I fall onto the bed and am asleep in seconds.

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The Baboon and His Nemesis

There’s a rap on the door promptly at 6:45 AM; I foolishly agreed to an early wake up call in a drowsy stupor the night before. Breakfast is ready, and the next five minutes are spent weighing the pros and cons of skipping it. My appetite eventually wins, and I’m out of bed.


Wow. I’d forgotten I’m now in the Southern Hemisphere, where it’s winter. This is something I’d considered briefly at home, but then thought to myself, “It’s Africa, how cold could it get?” The answer, as I now know, is “Very.”

At breakfast, I find myself surprised that I don’t feel much in the way of jetlag. Travel to Johannesburg, including timezone changes, was almost exactly 24 hours, so I suspect this played a big role. I pretend I planned it all this way and go on about my day.

Later this morning we all pile into a fleet of safari jeeps and head to the other side of the reserve to meet with the race organizers and drive the official marathon course we’ll be running tomorrow. This, of course, reveals what I long suspected but cheerfully ignored; the course is incredibly difficult. Over 26.2 miles, we’ll be running in deep sand, through narrow ruts, and over large boulders, not to mention thousands of feet of elevation change, the most daunting being the mile-long hill, parts of which are 40 degrees steep or better that we’ll have to run both down and up. Emphasis on “up.”

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I suppose this is the price you pay to run with Africa’s big game. I’m not complaining…yet.

After the game drive, we head to another lodge on the reserve for lunch. Despite the fact that I’ll see white lions later, this is the highlight of my day. At lunch, several baboons hide around the campus waiting for diners to leave their plates for just a moment. It’s in those moments that these ancestors of ours make their living, stealing every piece of bread they can get their hands on.

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Also at the lodge is one, lone employee who’s only job, as far as I can tell, is to thwart the baboons. The result of this combination is, for lack of a better word, hilarious. Watching the baboons and the baboon opponent attempt to outsmart each other over a handful of dinner rolls all afternoon may be one of the funniest displays I’ve ever seen.

When the giggling subsides, we head to another part of the reserve where a few lions are being kept to breed. White lions used to be plentiful here, but due to poaching over the years, their numbers have dwindled.

The day is fun, but tomorrow is the real test. Tomorrow, we run.

Running With the Wildebeest

The knock on the door is unmistakable; it’s Michael, our jovial ranger letting me know it’s time to “get the heck out of bed.”

It’s 5:30 and sleep last night was… difficult. It’s also the coldest it’s been since I arrived, and the wind is howling. “Maybe the wind will die down and it’ll warm up before the race starts,” I think to myself.

It won’t.

We gather for breakfast and sit silently, eying each other, the question we’re all thinking plainly obvious, “What if I just sneak back to bed? Will anyone come looking for me?”

Despite the common sentiment, we’re still excited for today, so we pile into the safari trucks again, me in extra clothing poached from my mountaineering bag, and head over the never-ending hill we’ll soon be struggling up to the start of the race. The hill proves challenging even for the truck.

Amidst howling winds and a sea of dust, the gun sounds and the race begins.

The first two miles is all uphill, of course. I take tiny paces and remind myself that, today, I will not be setting any records, personal or otherwise. To run a marathon… in Africa… on a game reserve… with wild animals… that is quite enough for me. I continue on happily.

Reaching the upper escarpment, nearly 9,000 feet in elevation, the wind is blowing so hard I occasionally have to run backwards to shield myself from the dust, and the gusts become so bad that they briefly stop all forward motion. Where wildebeest, impala, and rhinos wandered openly a day earlier, the land is barren. Apparently, they know better than us when to stay in.

Just before I reach the Hill of Shattered Dreams as I like to call it, I take one last look back, over the escarpment. The sky is clear and I can see all the way to Botswana. Breathtaking.

By the time I make my way back up the hill, a herd of wildebeest is running beside the trail. For the next four miles, they run back and forth across the track, probably spooked by the many runners, forcing me to stop and wait for them to move out of the way. I pretend this upsets me. The truth is, I appreciate the rest.

At this point, I’m pretty sure it’s physically impossible to run uphill any further but, of course, I’ve miscalculated. If you’ve ever run a marathon before, you already know how difficult the last three to four miles can be. No exception is made here except that the last four miles are also uphill.

Oh well, almost there.

At the final two aid stations, I neglect my better judgement and decide to try the Coca Cola they’re serving. I’m certain it will upset my stomach. I’m right. But, the pure sugar translates to instant energy for my tired legs, and within a minute I’m hightailing it for the finish line, belching the whole way like a locomotive on it’s last scoop of coal.

I cross the finish line five hours and five minutes after beginning—a full hour and eight minutes slower than my last marathon—but the time makes no difference to me; I just ran a marathon on Africa and had a hell of a time doing it.


I go for my complimentary post-race massage (a very nice touch), eat lunch, and head directly back to camp. Tonight, I celebrate with whiskey.

A Walk in the Woods

My eyes open wide. It’s already light out. No wake-up call; thank God for that. “A nice 12 hour nap,” I think to myself. Preparing to move for the first time since submitting myself to such a ridiculous test, I immediately remember how this went last time…

But, alas, no pain! “That massage must have really done its job,” I say aloud to no one. Gatain, the French roomate, hears me speaking and wakes up to respond with a belabored “Hermphgrumblebelob” before going directly back to sleep—he had his own one-man gin and tonic show last night. I nod in agreement and head for breakfast.

Today, we have a game walk in the morning. Rather than drive around in safari jeeps, we track the wildlife on foot. This isn’t just for fun, it’s great recovery for tired legs.

Michael, our guide/ranger/resident jokster leads us down a number of game trails, teaching us how to identify the many prints left the night before—three pads and claw marks for the dog family, two pads for cats, big hoofs for buffalo and small ones for impala. The big, round pads belong, of course, to the elephant.

As we follow the elephant tracks, Michael happily reminds us that if an elephant wants to kill you, there is no escaping.

We don’t see one, though. Instead we see a giraffe while traipsing through tall grass, following the path of trees the elephants had knocked over the night before. It’s quite a different experience to see an animal like this on foot than from a safari jeep. Exhilarating.

Beyond just the animals and their tracks, we learn things about the plant life—what to use to cure a cold, which plants have roots with good drinking water, and how to use the leaves of a certain tree as a substitute for Viagra. If you haven’t a need for Viagra, though, it also makes for great toilet paper.

Later, we return for lunch and an afternoon soaking our legs in the pool (yes, there’s a pool in the middle of the woods).

Dinner that evening is an all out feast around the camp fire, complete with a Zulu dance performance. There’s a DJ and, despite my fatigue and his inability to mix beats, I manage to dance like crazy into the night (pictures excluded for my own sake).

The ride back to Wildside tonight is somber. We’ll be departing tomorrow, and there seems to be a quiet agreement that, while we’re tired and ready to move on, we’re disappointed to be leaving new friends so soon. It’s interesting, the bond that can be formed over such a short period through a shared experience. We were all in this together. Many times we laughed as someone would tell their story of friends and family asking:

You’re going WHERE? To do WHAT?”

Such is life, though, and the next day I’ll be on a bus back to Johannesburg to catch a red eye flight to Nairobi, where I’ll begin my journey to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. More on that in a future update. For now, a warm goodbye to South Africa. Thanks for treating me well.

One more marathon down, five to go.

More shots from the adventure: