For most ultra-runners, tackling the Two Oceans Marathon once a year is more than enough, but this year Dave Chamberlain tackled the ultra route 50 times in 50 days in the build-up to the 2019 race. Here is the story behind this incredible feat.
By PJ Moses
When it comes to long distance running, Dave Chamberlain has done quite some distance on his feet. In years gone by he ran the length of Argentina, then ran across Canada, and followed that up with a run through the Namib Desert. Then in April this year he undertook his most recent running adventure, tackling the Two Oceans Marathon 56km route 50 times in 50 days, including running the race itself as his 50th ‘Voyage,’ to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the race in 2019.
So, the last thing you would expect to hear the man from Pretoria say is, “I don’t actually like running. I think I might even hate it.” Well, he sure has a funny way of showing it, given his various running exploits, but he quickly explains further: “Running is just plain uncomfortable for me, so I have a strong dislike of running just for the sake of running. It makes little sense to me.” However, add a charitable cause to the run, and then whatever the distance, Dave is your man!
For the Penguins
Thus in March he began his 50-day challenge, to raise much-needed awareness and funds for BirdLife SA, with the goal to raise over one hundred thousand rand to help save the African penguin from extinction. His daily run along the race course soon caught the attention of the Cape running community, and the media, and he was given plenty of support, sometimes had running company, and did a number of interviews as well. Naturally, he was asked again and again why he was doing such a seemingly crazy thing, and he gave the same answer each time.
“Over the past seven or eight years, I’ve completed other running projects, but what drew me to this most recent one was the desire to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Two Oceans in a way that had local appeal. Also, I mostly try to run for environmental causes, and so chose penguin conservation due to the position that penguins hold, especially from a tourism perspective and the threat of their extinction. They are even more endangered than rhinos! All those times spent birdwatching with my Dad when I was a kid just made them the obvious choice. Also, I chose to run for BirdLife SA, because they do amazing work, even while being under financial pressure to simply continue being viable,” says Dave.
Calling the campaign 505050 and working in conjunction with BirdLife and Utopia (who did the marketing pro bono), Dave started a crowdfunding campaign and even had a dedicated website where people could follow his journey on a daily basis, through vlogs and updated stats. With the logistics and marketing taken care of, all he needed to do was concentrate on the running, but a lot more went into the challenge than just doing 50 kays a day!
Preparing to Run
Initially, all planning for the event went along the lines of ‘that seems doable,’ says Dave, and he made sure not to let himself think too much about the distance, or else it may have become a major stumbling block to his success. “I’m actually the laziest person I know – sometimes even too lazy to order Uber Eats. In that case, I’ll usually just drink two litres of milk for lunch. So if I did any deeper research, then it might have scared me off from the idea entirely. Instead, I spent three months leading up to the start of it, travelling around SA and Lesotho, looking for hills to run up and scenery to photograph.”
He used the Sport Science Lab at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria for his base during his training, and focused especially on strengthening his core during this conditioning phase. He also had to work on his mental preparation for what lay ahead. “I seem to always learn – or perhaps re-learn is more accurate – that I’m an idiot. Mostly in a charming, naïve way, thankfully, but still. The repetitive nature of running the same route for 50 days, through a city, was interesting from a psychological perspective. It’s certainly opened my eyes to looking at different ways to approaching future projects.”
He says that he is lucky to count on a supportive family to back him up during his running adventures, although he says that it is a challenge trying to live up to his two sisters. Both are accomplished ultra-distance athletes themselves, having completed iconic races such as Comrades, Maraton Des Sables and IronMan, and Dave says they are a tough crowd to impress. “I am sure they were impressed at the beginning of my running exploits, but I think they have become used to it now.”
Given his apparent dislike of running, it comes as no real surprise that Dave did not really enjoy running when he was younger, either. “I was at an all-boys school and sport was always a part of the culture at the school. It was used as a tool to promote participation and a chance to try out different codes, but for me it was just a way to pass the time and nothing really stuck. I never developed a passion for any one particular sporting code.”
He may not have found a passion for running back then, but somehow it found him again some years after school. “My first running project was motivated by the need to catch a boat at the southern tip of Argentina, before it sailed, but since then these challenges have morphed into finding a way to travel cheaply, while supporting conservation, and also while fulfilling a desire to understand human psychology. Finding someone to be my ‘crash-test dummy’ seemed like a tricky undertaking, so I decided to ‘experiment’ on myself.”
Doing such long distances by oneself can appear to be a lonely experience, but Dave enjoys the time spent in his own mind. “I never get lonely on my runs. There is so much happening, whether in the world that I am running through, or inside my head. It is very exciting to see what is around the next corner. Also, when I run, I don’t listen to music, because it serves as a distraction. My big motivation for running is travelling, and I want to be present in the environment that I am passing through, so I don’t want to intrude on that experience with music. Also, from a safety perspective, I want to be able to hear approaching cars and bicycles.”
Even though this was not his first running project, Dave says it was by far one of the toughest. “The lowest point of the project came on days 19 and 23. “I am not a big fan of cities, but ironically I went through a dark space because I could not participate in and enjoy the city life that I saw everybody else immersed in. Being in Cape Town and not being able to go to a Kirstenbosch concert, for example.”
One of the other challenges he faced was getting himself out of bed in the mornings. “Once I was at the start in Newlands and began running, I was fine. I think that it helped to not have a reason not to do it. In much the same way that many people don’t have a reason not to go to work, in spite of the rush-hour traffic that they know awaits them.” And when running became hard and the pain and discomfort felt like it may overwhelm him, Dave would remind himself that “This too shall pass.” He uses this phrase as his “reminder to endure the bad times, enjoy the good times and to embrace life, because they are all just transitory.”
But no man is an island, and even though he was the one running solo most days, the support of others helped to carry him through. “You can’t do these big runs without some much-needed support from others, and I was lucky to have some very good friends who live on Constantia Nek, so I could get sandwiches to nibble on and jump into the pool to refresh. I was also ‘adopted’ by Harfield Harriers as an honorary club member, and their support meant the world to me. All the help just meant that I only had to focus on doing the actual running and not much else.”
With a Little Help from Friends
The project was initially a self-funded and self-supported effort, but Pick n Pay stepped up and joined Dave in making it a success. “Being self-supported, I was looking for three watering holes along the route where I could maybe buy a snack and drink. I approached Pick n Pay with a request for a couple of drinks and an energy bar discount, per day, but they came back and sponsored my entire nutritional needs for the project. For that I owe them a very big thank you.”
“Also, the people I encountered on the route each day were fantastic. It meant a lot to me, even if it was just a hoot or a wave as I ran by them. It was interesting seeing how the various suburbs along the route responded to my repeated presence, but if I am to give out medals for support then it would have to go to the folks of Muizenberg, Noordhoek and Hout Bay.”
Ironically, his biggest obstacle came during the actual race, at kilometre 17, when the crowd of runners around him felt like it was suffocating him. “I’d run the course for 49 days, with all the space in the world, and found the crowds on race day claustrophobic. Luckily, I was able to start running along the pavement, and escape the crush. And after that, with the gradient starting to kick up to the base of Ou Kaapse Weg, the road opened up nicely. So, I stopped being grumpy.”
Next Challenge, Please
This former scuba diving instructor is a man trying to keep busy, and when he is not working in the family business, Dave is usually looking for his next running adventure. “The moment that I finish, I’m already thinking of the next possibility. I think that it comes down to the fact that I don’t do these projects for running reasons, so the physical completion of the project is merely part of the cycle towards the next chance to travel, or to explore my psychological state.”
He is not a bucket list type of guy, but he has a few ideas for interesting adventures that may be worth a go. “I already have my eye on something for January. Without running projects, I would quickly turn into a blimp. I am keen to find out how many marathons I can do in a row, other than that I would love to run the original routes of the Tour De France, Giro Da Italia or the Vuelta Espana, just to annoy the cyclists.”
He is even considering a run across Japan or Nepal, but that would depend on how much cash he can save between projects. Other than running vast distances, Dave is also a keen photographer… or at least, he tries to be. “I sometimes try to take photographs, but then I’m struck with the dreaded thought of having to hop in a car, and drive five kilometres to my sister’s house, to go develop them in my darkroom, so I have a lot of undeveloped film in my camera bag.”
Dave the Dreamer
Dave is a big believer in chasing dreams, and doing the things that bring joy to your life. “We have no control over the past, nor the future. And, we only have marginal control over the present. When presented with these brief moments, take control, no matter how silly they may seem. Kids live in their own realities, and I challenge you to find a happier sound than a bunch of little hooligans running around living their best lives. Taking control of the present is the best way that I know to add value and direction to my life, and a sense of peace,” he says.
“How you choose to manifest that control is up to you. If you like stamp-collecting, dedicate an hour a week to completely immersing yourself in stamp-collecting. If you love to bake, but don’t know how to give back to society, go to a nearby orphanage, get a list of birthdays, and bake each child a cupcake for their birthday. The sense of recognition that that child will receive is far greater than anything that I can achieve through running, and it takes so little of one’s time. Change is possible, and opportunities are all around us. You don’t need to save the world. Bringing a smile to a strangers face is all that is required.”
The challenge he sets for all of us is a simple one, but one that many people struggle to fulfil in their own lives. “Never let anyone destroy your dreams, and never destroy anyone else’s.” Dave is doing his best to live true to those words, and so should we.