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Empower5 Challenge: Soweto Sojourn (with a Side of GoGo Glamour)

So there I was, staring down the barrel of a 3-degree Celsius car thermometer.  Three degrees! In July! Was this some cruel South African prank to test my commitment to the Empower Five Challenge?  Maybe Rwanda in August would be a walk in the park compared to this…

Training solo gets old fast, folks.  That's why I found myself at the Discovery 21.1km in Orlando – a race I knew from last year was equal parts "fun" and "full of character." Speaking of character, lesson number one from last year's race came flooding back faster than a flashback to a particularly potent curry: it was gonna be farking cold at the start.

Race Start:

Forget fancy starting corrals.  This race starts in a tunnel… a tunnel that's actually just a regular road lined with people's houses.  Talk about an immersive experience!  While the pre-race hype music blared, I witnessed a scene straight out of a heartwarming commercial: a gogo (South African term for grandmother) in her finest gown emerged from her house, all smiles and greetings.  She chatted with the ladies next to me, snapped some photos, and then sashayed back inside.  This, my friends, is the magic of Soweto races.  You get a healthy dose of running alongside a glimpse into the township lifestyle, complete with a kaleidoscope of aromas, housing styles, and enthusiastic supporters (gogo power!).  

It's a humbling experience, and honestly, every Gautenger should do this race (or the Soweto marathon) just for a reality check.

The Race:

Somehow, I managed to weasel my way near the front of the pack (clearly ignoring my coach's "negative split" instructions).  Let's just say the first 11 kilometers flew by in a blur of 47 minutes.  The remaining 10 kilometers?  More like 41 minutes of pure "hold my beer" determination.

This race lived up to its reputation in all its olfactory glory.  Remember those "interesting smells" from last year?  Yeah, they were back, everything from sewage to the occasional "ganga corner" (ahem, cannabis haven).  But hey, it was cold, so the pace picked up to get to the finish line faster.  Cruising at a 4:20 pace (wink wink), there weren't many other runners around, but that changed later in the race.  As the various distances converged, the camaraderie and sheer mass of humanity became infectious, pushing my motivation into overdrive.

Those Soweto hills are back, folks, and heartbreak hill at 14km lived up to its name.  But this time, I channeled my inner Rwandan warrior (future race, remember?) and powered through it.  Honestly, I loved it!  The finish line, after a glorious downhill stretch, felt like a victory lap.  Crossing the finish, I high-fived my way past the throngs of runners tackling the shorter distances, feeling a surge of pride and motivation for them all.

My teammate, bless his heart, confessed this race wasn't his favorite of the series.  Pity, I say!  The Discovery 21.1km is the people's race.  It's a chance to reflect on your blessings, witness the development of Soweto and Orlando, and maybe even encounter a glamorous gogo or two.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to find a hot cup of coffee (and maybe a hug from that awesome gogo).

Before peeling out, I had to pay my respects to a landmark I passed around the 8km mark: St. Martin de Porres High School.  Schools are a dime a dozen on this route, but this one stuck out like a sore thumb – literally behind a 10-foot wall topped with enough barbwire to make a medieval castle jealous.

Why the photo op, you ask?  To show you, dear reader, the lengths some schools go to in this country to deliver education.  And of course, for the teachers – the real rockstars braving these environments to mold young minds.  Well, guess what?  Empower 5 has answered the call!  With the help of our awesome sponsors, we're bringing all the teachers at St. Martin de Porres onto our platform.  Boom!

This, my friends, is just another reason why I believe more and more in the Empower Five Challenge.  It's not just about running (although that gogo high five was pretty epic).  It's about empowering the teachers who are truly making a difference.  So next time you lace up your running shoes, remember – you might be doing more than just logging miles.  You might be helping build a brighter future, one high five (or inspirational gogo encounter) at a time.

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