The Middle-aged Man in Crisis: The Age of Endurance Sport

He was not a carouser or a sportscar guy, and he already had a shed full of high-end bicycles – that other refuge of the middle-aged man in crisis.

Tim Lewis, “Land of Second Chances: The Impossible Rise of Rwanda’s Cycling Team”

I suppose it’s no accident that, as a 35 year old suburban mom, most of the men I come into contact with are… ahem…”middle-aged”. They are the spouses or partners of my friends and fellow mommies and they are in their late thirties or early forties. As to whether these men are “in crisis”, I can’t presume to know, but what I do know is that more than a handful of them have taken up endurance sports with the zeal of semi-professional athletes.

When The Princess was born, two dads we know ran their first Comrades Marathons within months of the birth of their first children.

Holidaying in Mauritius in December, we met a dad who had recently run the Otter African Trail Run and become obsessed with the sport. In fact, he was scanning the Mauritian landscape during our transfer from the airport and was considering doing a race whilst on holiday. His wife and I looked at one another knowingly. He responded by asking if she’d rather he found himself “a blonde from Benoni”. She said yes, she would actually prefer that, as he would’ve tired of the blonde more quickly.

I think she may have had a point.

Over the past several years, it feels to me as though The Iron Man and the “Half Iron” have become buzzwords. And I think David starting feeling left out. In December 2012 he took part in his first triathlon in St Francis Bay (a sprint distance triathlon).

But it wasn’t until about six weeks ago that he started talking seriously about the Buffelspoort Triathlon on 9 March. He would pop to the gym a few times a week to swim, he did a few slow runs with me (which I blogged about here) and kept up his cycling. Not being well versed in the in’s and out’s of triathlons, I assumed he was talking about a sprint distance triathlon (750m swim, 20km bike, 5km run) or perhaps an Olympic distance triathlon (1.5km swim, 40km cycle, 10km run). But when I stopped to confirm the distances about 3 weeks ago, he was referring to a…gulp…ultra triathlon: 1.9km swim, 90km cycle and 21.1km run. The same as the Half Iron Man event. A few weeks ago his training dipped when he was travelling for work and he told me that he was having second thoughts about doing it. I completely encouraged him to laugh it off. When I was “training” for the 94.7 I wanted to be talked out of it when I moaned to my spouse so I figured it would only be fair to make him feel better about opting out. A week later he was still contemplating what to do. And then he said the key words:

“I’ll be in such a bad mood on that day if I don’t do it.”

“You should definitely do it,” I said immediately.

The night before Sunday’s event, he was literally cramming for the swim by studying an article in Triathlon magazine on common mistakes that triathletes make with respect to their swimming techniques.

The next day, our alarms went off at 3:30am, we were on the road by 4:15am and we arrived at Buffelspoort Dam in the North West Province by 6am for race registration.

Receiving a competitor body marking from the high school girl volunteers - possibly not the worst experience for middle-aged men in crisis
Receiving a competitor body marking from the high school girl volunteers – possibly not the worst experience for a middle-aged man in crisis

Once David had his body marking, it was time for him to set up his cycling and running gear in his transition area. Ever the light traveller, he just packed a few essentials:

All the gear...
All the gear…

Unfortunately, we were to discover that a triathlete’s transition area is not quite the same as a walk-in closet. You were not allowed to bring along a plastic version of a suitcase.

The next challenge was for him to put his newly purchased wetsuit on. We learnt that there is a special technique for this but fortunately, the lovely Carol from Troi Sports (herself an Olympic paddler, I believe) was there to help:


She also told David that he should try to relax. She had no idea that he’d have had a better chance of giving birth at that juncture.


Finally, at 7:11am the ultra competitors were off. David had said he’d be breaststroking the swimming leg (not his sporting forte). I thought that there was no way he would have the balls to do breaststroke in front of a bunch of cool, fit ultra triathletes.

But apparently, he did. Out of 170 swimmers, I could identify David as the only swimmer whose head bobbed up and down and whose arms did not exit the water. As a supporter, it was very convenient in terms of identification.

After two laps in the Buffelspoort Dam, David was out of the water and in his transition area to get kitted for the cycle. Here, it would be safe to say that Oscar nominees probably take less time to get dressed for their event. His transition time clocked in at no shorter than 6 minutes and 57 seconds. To give this some perspective, the winner took 1 minute 37 seconds, whilst most people took between 2 and 3 minutes. A few were slower and took just over 4 minutes. I even saw David folding his clothes and placing them in special, individual bags at one point.

But then he caned it on the cycle leg and also did very, very well on the run.

In the end, he came 60th out of 170 ultra competitors who finished the race. Not bad for a middle-aged man!

The 60th of 170 finishers
The 60th of 170 finishers
David's youngest supporter
David’s youngest supporter

Little Girls & the “F” Word

I don’t know how long we’ll be able to maintain this, but for now, the “F” word is banned in our house. “Fat” is not a word my daughter – nearly three – has ever uttered. I know this will change but when it does, I’ll pretend not to notice. We still read Jack Sprat to her and she sees the picture of the morbidly obese Mrs Sprat in her Richard Scarry nursery rhyme book, but I don’t think she has any negative associations towards the poor woman who could “eat no lean.”

I was in no way conscious of body size when I was a little girl. That is, until I went to school. I turned 6 a few weeks after starting Sub A. (I never went to play school or nursery school). Shortly thereafter, and ever since then, I have thought of myself as some form of “fat” – overweight, slightly overweight, downright fat – somewhere on that spectrum. I am pretty sure it began when the Std 5’s chose mascots for inter-house Athletics. I wasn’t picked and it wasn’t hard for my 6 year old brain to figure out why. The girls who were chosen were tiny – short and skinny and just miniscule and adorable. Those of us who were taller – and perhaps chubbier but not necessarily – were not destined to be mascots for the Blue Team. And that’s how I knew I was fat and that fat did not equal cute.

At the age of 6 I had come face to face with the concept of body image in the Western world. I was probably fortunate to have this realisation relatively late. But I lived in a seaside village with a generator and no TV and I can’t see how I will be able to protect The Princess in the same way that I was sheltered for so long. Still, I would like to try and keep the “F” word as a banned word, for as long as possible. And I would more or less like to put into practice exactly what blogger and university student, Sarah Koppelkam, wrote last year in her post, “How to talk to your daughter about her body.” Sarah’s article was picked up by The Huffington Post and it quickly went viral. I came across it randomly when a London-based school friend of mine shared a copy and paste version of it on Facebook – one that had initially been posted on Facebook by a personal trainer in New Zealand – to give you a sense of just how viral we’re talking. I think it went viral because so many women identified with it. It is also incredibly beautifully written. If you haven’t yet come across it, here it is, with a link to the original post on Sarah’s blog below.

How to talk to your daughter about her body, step one: don’t talk to your daughter about her body, except to teach her how it works.

Don’t say anything if she’s lost weight. Don’t say anything if she’s gained weight.

If you think your daughter’s body looks amazing, don’t say that. Here are some things you can say instead:

“You look so healthy!” is a great one.

Or how about, “you’re looking so strong.”

“I can see how happy you are – you’re glowing.”

Better yet, compliment her on something that has nothing to do with her body.

Don’t comment on other women’s bodies either. Nope. Not a single comment, not a nice one or a mean one.

Teach her about kindness towards others, but also kindness towards yourself.

Don’t you dare talk about how much you hate your body in front of your daughter, or talk about your new diet. In fact, don’t go on a diet in front of your daughter. Buy healthy food. Cook healthy meals. But don’t say “I’m not eating carbs right now.” Your daughter should never think that carbs are evil, because shame over what you eat only leads to shame about yourself.

Encourage your daughter to run because it makes her feel less stressed. Encourage your daughter to climb mountains because there is nowhere better to explore your spirituality than the peak of the universe. Encourage your daughter to surf, or rock climb, or mountain bike because it scares her and that’s a good thing sometimes.

Help your daughter love soccer or rowing or hockey because sports make her a better leader and a more confident woman. Explain that no matter how old you get, you’ll never stop needing good teamwork. Never make her play a sport she isn’t absolutely in love with.

Prove to your daughter that women don’t need men to move their furniture.

Teach your daughter how to cook kale.

Teach your daughter how to bake chocolate cake made with six sticks of butter.

Pass on your own mom’s recipe for Christmas morning coffee cake. Pass on your love of being outside.

Maybe you and your daughter both have thick thighs or wide ribcages. It’s easy to hate these non-size zero body parts. Don’t. Tell your daughter that with her legs she can run a marathon if she wants to, and her ribcage is nothing but a carrying case for strong lungs. She can scream and she can sing and she can lift up the world, if she wants.

Remind your daughter that the best thing she can do with her body is to use it to mobilize her beautiful soul.

Running with Husbands

A couple of years ago, The Husband suggested that we start running together again. I agreed – albeit somewhat apprehensively as he tends to take his sport very seriously. I reminded him that I hadn’t run in a long time and asked him how far he wanted to go.

“An absolute minimum of 5km. Anything shorter and it takes you longer to get dressed,” he replied.

“Not necessarily,” I said, “depends how long it takes you to run 5km”.

More recently, The Husband announced that he will be doing a triathlon on 9 March. A day or so later, he announced that he had begun his running training and had run 1km on the treadmill.

I burst out laughing. The man has spent more hours on a bicycle in the last five years than French people have spent at their desks and he was proud of himself for running 1km?

“A lot of people laughed when I told them that, but I have a plan!” he said. “It involves increasing your mileage in small increments.”

The following Saturday he wanted to know whether I cared to join him for a 2km run?

I took great pleasure in replying that it would take me longer to put my shoes on than it would to run 2km.

Then, on Sunday, he invited me to join him for a 3km run. Since the beginning of the year, my new running buddy, Judy, and I, have actually gone on a few very slow 5-6km trots, so I felt that I could continue to push myself beyond the 3km mark. I told The Husband that I knew a 5.5km route but that he was welcome to cut it short and run his 3km while I carried on. He agreed. Monday morning came along and off we set on our run around the neighbourhood.

I think I would have actually eaten my running shoe had The Husband waved goodbye and turned around after 1.5km.

We did 6km on Monday.

On Tuesday, we started to plan our Wednesday run.

“How far can you go?” he wanted to know.

“Um, since I’ve only actually been on about 5 runs in the last year and none of those have been further than 6km, I can run 6km.”

“That’s not far enough” said the man who, only three days before, had invited me on a 2km run. “What about 8km?”

Clearly, the man had a hearing problem but I didn’t feel like arguing.

“Fine, whatever, but what happened to your planning of adding 1km every run?”

“Oh no,” he said, “I ran out of time so I decided to add 1km every day, but if I miss a day of running then I still add another km the next day.”

“Right,” I nodded. “So, according to your custom training programme, how far are we supposed to be running tomorrow?”

The answer was 11km.

And I almost got bullied into signing up for the 21km route for the Hyundai Rock The Run on 16 March. Then I remembered announcing that I would ride the 94.7 cycle challenge last year and how tough it was to train for that race. So I stuck to my guns and declared that I would do the 10km route or nothing at all.

10km should be a breeze – in terms of The Husband’s training schedule we should be on about 39km a day by mid-March.

Who Needs Maths Anyway?

When The Sister was trying to get a job in consulting in London along with thousands of other bright, motivated grads from all over the world, she was subjected to some first round numeracy tests which are designed to separate the numerically gifted from the rest of us. She had higher grade Matric Maths and a major in Economics behind her but despite this, these little tests were nasty. So when she beat two Oxbridge candidates in a final round group interview and landed her dream job in consulting, she was relieved that her future was not, after all, going to be determined by a mini Maths test. The subject of her e-mail to announce to her nearest and dearest that she’d got the job, was: Who Needs Maths Anyway?

Apparently, I do.

My very first lecture as a mature student in Economics last night began with this little hand-out:

How good is your understanding of Matric Maths? You may think you are a Maths whizz (and good for you if you are) but if you struggle to answer any of the following questions with your current understanding of Maths, you are going to struggle with the Economics 1 course material. These are examples of the type of Maths problems that you need to be able to solve in order to pass this course…These examples are considered easy for the purposes of passing this course.

He then “whizzed” through an hour of “easy” examples. Not only, did I not find the examples easy, I understood close to nothing. Nada. Niente. Rien du tout. It was absolutely traumatising. I wanted to jump out of my seat and run out of the lecture theatre, get into my mommy car with it’s BABY ON BOARD sticker, race home and be faced with problems that I understand, like why The Princess has a tantrum when I tell her she can’t have another biscuit. Things that my brain can rationalise and process and relate to. Suddenly the frustrations of being a stay-at-home mom seemed so much safer than getting my head around the derivative of a function. The worst part was that I sensed that this was not difficult stuff. It was just impossibly, unfathomably difficult to me.

The good news is that I am married to a Maths nerd. And by Maths nerd, I don’t mean someone who was pretty good at Maths at school. I mean someone who did all the Maths problems in his Matric text book the summer before Matric began. For fun. As you do…That kind of Maths nerd. And one who has a University major in Maths.

The bad news was that if I asked him for help, it would be blatantly obvious to him how little I knew.

But it was also blatantly obvious to me that if I didn’t get help, I would fail the course.

And so, this morning, while The Princess watched Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, The Husband started explaining last night’s Maths problems to me. And very slowly, I realised that the material was not entirely impossible to comprehend. It might not be my forte, but with the right help, I hope to get my head around it.

The moral of the story? Marry a Maths nerd. Must get The Princess to understand this from an early age. (Unless she has inherited her Daddy’s Maths brain which, of course, is first prize.)

On Re-entering the Hallowed Halls of Academia

Ever since I quit my job in April 2009, I have been toying with the notion of studying Economics. Before my kids came along, however, I was extremely tied up doing all the things I didn’t have the luxury of doing when I was working full time, like travelling without counting leave days, taking afternoon naps, checking Facebook, going to gym, getting my nails done and shopping at 11am on a Wednesday morning. In short, there was simply no time study. No time at all. There was no way I was going to choose a tutorial on marginal costing over a cruise on the Peruvian Amazon.

And then my beautiful kids came along and now a romantic cruise in search of pink dolphins in the Amazon seems about as likely a trip to the moon. Being able to take a sabbatical before having children was possibly the greatest gift my husband could ever have given me. And having the opportunity to enjoy the first few years of motherhood free from the stresses of the workplace is something I am immensely grateful for.

But tonight I will attend my first university lecture – the first step in a journey towards re-entering the working world in some shape or form.

In November last year, when The Prince was four months old, I took myself off to Wits Plus (centre for part-time studies) to hand in my application for 2014. When I started at UCT in 1998 I was more worried about what to wear to class and whether the drunken words of “fresh meat!” being bandied about in a Rondebosch bar were being directed at me or not. The administrative details of actually registering were a very minor priority in my life at the time. Now I was returning to university as a…ahem… mature student, concerned only with being accepted for my choice of subjects. I had diligently prepared my application pack exactly according to the university’s specifications. I had noted that I needed sign-off from a certain member of the Economics department, but an e-mail sent to the lecturer in question, requesting such sign-off, had gone unanswered for weeks. On the day of application, I was sent by the Wits Plus staff to track down this lecturer in the Commerce building. As I set off, I wondered whether I looked like those mature students I used to see sticking out like sore thumbs on the UCT campus. And then I was addressed as “Ma’am” by a student I approached for directions and I had my answer.

I finally found the office of the lecturer I was looking for. There were many names on the door and each name was accompanied by a weekly sliver of office consultation time: for example: Tuesdays from 12:30 to 2pm. I was in between breastfeeds, eager to get my application in on that day and just praying that I would be able to sweet talk this man into signing my form outside of his usual office hours.

If only I could find him.

A polite knock on the door yielded one lone voice seated at a desk in a sea of empty desks. Of course, it would have been too coincidental if he had been my man, but at least I could ask him where to find said lecturer. Alas, the colleague did not know his whereabouts but suggested I e-mail him. I told him that I had done so many weeks ago but had received no response. Only then did was I told that, in fact, he hadn’t been seen on campus “for weeks”. In short, I wasn’t going to track him down between breastfeeds. I was directed to the office of the Economics co-ordinator instead.

After getting somewhat lost again, I found myself outside the co-ordinator’s door. I could hear him on the phone which meant that he was in – phew! While I waited patiently outside his door, I had plenty of time to study the very detailed process flow diagram he had designed for the channeling of Economics queries:

The Hallowed Halls of Academia
The Hallowed Halls of Academia

I decided to feign ignorance and did not attempt to plug my query into his process flow chart, fearing it would direct me elsewhere. When I could hear that he had finished his phone call, I knocked on the door. He barely looked old enough to drive but he knew alot more than I did when it came to applying to study Economics. He pointed out that if I intended to take Economics to third year level, I would need to study Computational Maths and Business Statistics. This was news to me, but I was glad that he had brought it to my attention. Since my brief interaction with him thus far had been positive, I decided to ask him a question that was fairly central to my long term study plan: would I effectively hold a major in Economics if I completed the course to third year level, since I already held an undergraduate degree?

Before opening his mouth to respond, he looked at me pointedly for what felt like hours in the way that people do when they want you to know that you’ve asked a really, really stupid question.

“Here’s the thing,” he said: “Wits Plus doesn’t award degrees. Faculty… “(he said the word ‘faculty’ extremely slowly and with emphasis in case it was new to my vocabulary) “awards degrees. Do…you…understand?”

“Uh, yes, well, sort of… er… I have a vague recollection of the term “faculty” from the hazy days of my undergraduate degree,” I stammered, tempted to add “which I obtained while you were in pre-primary school.” But I smiled meekly because I had no idea what he was talking about and I need him to sign my application. Thankfully, he signed but not before sending me off to the Office of the Dean (or something like that) to find out whether there were other subjects I needed to take if I intended to study Economics to third year level.

I found the offices without getting lost but there was a small hitch. The offices were all housed behind one master door with a list of names and extension numbers next to an internal phone. I was literally locked out and didn’t have an actual name of someone to phone so I would have to irritate someone with my whole story and hope that they would be able to help me. Fortunately, someone decided to exit at this point and I politely accosted her with my problem. She was unable to help and in fact, in her opinion, this bank of offices was not where my answer would lie. Instead, she sent me off to another branch of academic administration in the building. Before long, I was lost again but I saw a Professor-y looking type to ask for directions. He was very nice and started explaining where I needed to go but then looked down at his watch and looked back at me with empathy: “You’d better hurry because it’s ten to one and admin staff take their lunch breaks very seriously.”

I literally RAN (one benefit of being a stay-at-home mom is that I’m always in flats) to said admin office. There was still someone behind the reception kiosk. Relief. She directed me to another person within a corridor of locked offices which she granted me access to. The office of the person I was supposed to consult with was empty. I scanned through the offices to find a human. I happened upon someone and explained that the Economics co-ordinator suggested I confirm what other subjects I needed to do in order to be allowed to take the subject to third year level. She told me to have a seat and started leafing through a rather thick official-looking handbook.

“Hmm,” she said, “It doesn’t look like there are any pre-reks for Economics.”

“Um, by pre-rek, do you mean a pre-requisite?”

She looks at me as though I’ve just asked whether Maths is short for Mathematics.

Okay, I could change my vocabulary but I was a bit concerned that she wasn’t 100% certain of her answer and that the answer may or may not have resided in a very thick book where it could very easily be over-looked.

I asked her if she was sure about four times and I found none of her answers to be re-assuring.

In the end I left and convinced myself that Computational Maths and Business Stats sounded like good subjects to do and if they turned out not to be the correct “pre-reks” for obtaining a major in Economics that may or may not be granted by “faculty”, then so be it.

Mommy’s Weekend Away

I have heard a handful of stories about high-powered women pumping breast milk in corporate bathrooms with a two week old baby at home. Since I’ve been “on sabbatical” for the past four years, I haven’t had to worry about expressing in bathrooms or empty boardrooms. In May, at 28 weeks pregnant, I decided to implement a self-imposed travel ban until December this year. I had dragged The Princess on about 40 domestic and international flights by the age of two and I was not going to do the same with two kids. But a few months into my “travel ban”, I received an invitation to the wedding of one of my favourite school friends in George. I quickly calculated that The Prince would be about two and a half months old at the time of the celebrations – too young for me to lift the ban, I thought.

But The Husband – having enjoyed a two week cycling trip abroad when The Prince was just a month old – encouraged me to fly solo and to go and enjoy the wedding on my own while he looked after the kids (with reinforcements, I must stress). So I booked my flights and began a regime of expressing extra milk.

Aside from planning to leave refrigerated breast milk behind, I hadn’t really thought through what it means to leave your baby while you’re breastfeeding. When I told my neighbour (and fellow mom of a newborn) that I was looking forward to wearing a cleavage busting dress for the wedding, she raised an eyebrow and pointed out that I’d have to wear a feeding bra and breastpads too. Hmm. I hadn’t thought of that. She also mentioned that if I didn’t pump while I was away, not only would my boobs explode, but I’d also risk inadvertently drying up my milk supply. I also hadn’t really thought of that.

Okay, so I’d need to pack my pump.

Then, another wise mommy friend, Mandy, asked me how I was planning on sterilising the pump while I was away. I somehow hadn’t thought of that either. My glamorous mommy’s weekend away was starting to look alot less glamorous… But Mandy – having produced enough milk for her two children to supply a neo-natal ward – had a plan.

“Are you really going to keep the milk you express? How are you going to ensure it stays chilled when you bring it back on the plane? You don’t want to take any risks… Not to mention the fact that it’ll be full of wedding champagne… Why don’t you just toss it?”

My initial reaction was shock and horror. I recalled battling to eke out a breast milk supply for The Princess. Back then, pumping sessions would very rarely yield more than a meagre 20ml at a time. Expressing 30ml was an infrequent triumph! This time around, when I express before going to bed, I can often pump up to 120ml. Still, because of my experience with The Princess, I regard every drop of breast milk as liquid gold and therefore balked when Mandy suggested throwing this away. But I confess that the thought of having to sterilise the pump’s parts after every session did not appeal. And the idea of indulging in an unlimited amount of bubbly certainly did. For these reasons I decided to take Mandy’s advice and, sniff, sniff, toss out The Prince’s liquid gold supply.

As I checked in on Saturday morning, my thoughts not only wandered to bubbly but also to the unlimited intake of coffee I would be able to indulge in…

Enter Vide e Caffe:


Secure in the knowledge that all breastmilk toxins would literally be going down the drain for the next 30 hours or so, this was my first airport stop for a fully caffeinated, GRANDE cappuccino.

Aside from the caffeine indulgence, I must admit that it felt odd sitting down quietly and alone at a table with only my industrial breast pump as hand luggage: no pram/ Baby Bjorn/ nappy bag and especially no toddler wanting to race around the entire departure lounge. And on the flight I had a whole two hours to read, to sleep… This was, however, interrupted by the SWD Eagles rugby team who treated the aircraft like a school bus, with the back row shouting across to their teammates 15 rows in front. They put the “brains vs brawn” debate firmly to rest for anyone in doubt by shouting out things like:

“Ladies & gentleman… 20 minutes in the toilet! What has he been doing in there?”

Surprisingly, my fellow passengers failed to break out into uproarious laughter but this did not deter one of these 130kg hulks, who were all well-oiled with canned Klippies ‘n Coke by then. Ignoring the definition of insanity, the hulk blurted out his toilet “joke” again and again, evidently hoping for a more positive response at each attempt. It was at this point that I started to wonder whether I’d rather be on a plane with a screaming toddler or a team of drunk rugby players. I came to the conclusion that I’d probably have more luck reasoning with The Princess, owing to her innate brainpower advantages.

But despite the bruisers on the plane and having to express every four hours, I was thrilled that The Husband had pushed me to go to the wedding. The experience was worth every ounce of discarded liquid gold. And The Prince and Princess were even cuter and cuddlier than I remembered when I arrived home the next day.

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