Incoming: Foodie Feb

People who don’t have a weight problem – perceived or otherwise – often simplify the emotional and physical roller coaster ride of weight loss to merely calories in and calories out. Burn more than you consume and you’ll lose weight. Then they say, smugly, ‘it’s that simple!’

Is it really, though?

Anyone who has spent any amount of time staring at the number on the bathroom scale or at that more-generously-proportioned-than-desired person in the mirror will know that in the space between calories in and calories out sits a whole range of emotions and experiences.

To find out, or rather, to remind myself, I revisited a food tracking/calorie counting app I used when, inexplicably, all my clothes had shrunk on their hangers a few years ago. I swear – they were just hanging there, in the cupboard, perfectly fine, and then, one day, they refused be pulled up beyond my thighs or to close at the waist. 

The mysterious clothes shrinking happened some time after I turned 50. Nothing in my nutritional and active life had changed, and yet, there I stood in front of the mirror with my clothes cutting into places they should hug, and body parts bulging where they should be flexing. The depth and speed of my plummeting mood was in direct relation to the ever-increasing number on the scale.

The problem was that nothing external had changed, while internally a whole storm was erupting. I was eating the same food and doing the same amount of exercise but, post-50, my body was in mutiny. It wanted fewer calories and more exercise if I were to maintain my happy relationship with the woman in the mirror.

I did all sorts of things: I got a personal trainer, I walked further and faster, I got into running, I joined a fat group and, after a much longer than reasonable amount of time, things started to look a bit better.

Back in the eighties, when noodle was the desired body type, I obsessed about counting calories. I carried a notebook in which I wrote down the calorie content of every bite and sip that passed my lips. The calorie content was found in my little calorie bible, the South African Calorie Counter. It took a lot of dedicated admin to keep my food intake to 1000 calories a day. Yep. One thousand calories. That was the gold standard back then, despite having to carry the burden of shoulder pads and big hair. The recommended daily calorie intake these days is positively gluttonous compared to the punishment we put ourselves through.

Before I continue, I must add that I do feel ashamed that I was so self-obsessed back then, and so filled with self-loathing for fat me, that the privilege of being able to choose to restrict, in the face of abundance, what I put in my mouth simply to meet some fickle societal standard set for women’s bodies completely eluded me. Even now, when I grow miserable because my clothes are too tight or my skin too saggy or my muscles not toned enough, or my running too slow, I must pull myself back and remind myself that the privilege of ageing, of growing more plump, and of being able to run at all is denied to many. So, yes, I do want to feel good, to be as fit, flexible, toned and healthy as I can be and to look as good as I can – even if now I have to add the words ‘for my age’ – but I do check myself before the ghost of seventies and eighties me takes hold of my soul and must be exorcised, and I remind myself that my body’s size, shape, and fitness do not define me, and that I am extremely fortunate simply to be the person I am, as I am, right now.

The mirror selfie. This one taken on holiday a while ago. Will I ever look without judgement at that woman in the mirror? Time for self-acceptance is running out. If I don’t want the tombstone to read ‘here she lies, still judging herself more harshly than she judges anyone else’, it’s time to get with the programme.

But to return to the app (of course, there are many other apps that do the same thing) and counting calories …

The app takes care of all the research and arithmetic: it automatically adds the calories as you add foods to your diary, and tracks carbs, fat and protein, showing you where you need to adjust the balance. You can follow other people and cheer them on, and you can add pics of your meals.

Using this app reminded me that:

– your body needs a pitiful amount of food in order to function – and I don’t just mean to survive, I mean to function 

– you have to do a LOT of hard, sweaty exercise to burn calories, and the number of calories burnt after such a session is always disappointingly low

– losing weight, if that’s your aim, takes a long time; much more time than you spent gaining it in the first place. 

Also: paying careful attention to what you eat makes you pay careful attention to what you eat. 

You start off by just logging your food and checking the calories, trying simply to keep the tally below the day’s allotted 1800 or 1600 calories, and soon you’re considering more than just the caloric value of each meal. You ask: will this fill my stomach or will it nourish me? Will it give me energy to exercise? Will it help my aching muscles recover in time for the next run?

When you take photos of your food you start asking: Is this meal colourful? Are there enough textures? Does it look appetizing? Is it interesting? Why is the lighting in this kitchen so damn terrible?

It’s still a quick pasta meal, but the standard pasta was swapped out for wholewheat pasta, and I love all the colours. And, yes, the kitchen lighting is terrible. Why?!

I had fallen into a rut with my meals and I knew my nutrition needed a kick up the butt. My energy levels and my moods were low, naps weren’t just for the dogs, I was sleeping poorly, and my post-workout recovery was slow. 

My online food diary inspired me to be more creative, to use my many recipe books, and to break my pasta habit. Please note: not give up pasta, just break the habit of having pasta almost every day. Food prep meant that the freezer was no longer crammed with store-bought pesto and soup, and the fridge was no longer a veggie morgue. 

The pile of under-utilised recipe books being called to duty.

I became excited about making food again. I started planning meals in advance and making sure that I could use the same ingredients for a number of meals, so that I didn’t end up using a small bit of some expensive item in one meal, only to have the rest of it go bad in the fridge and be fed to the earthworms weeks later.

Smoothies became an easy way of filling up on lots of colour and nutrients at the start of the day, and they instantly put me in a good mood.

Possibly the tastiest smoothie yet, with minimal ingredients: blueberries and cherries in Okja oat milk, with chia seeds, goji berries, steel cut oats and blue matcha powder.

I rediscovered oats. For decades the thought of oats would give me the shivers and activate my gag reflex. My mother, bless her – she was only doing her best, would spoon-feed me this grey slop every morning before school. I hated it then, and have hated it ever since. I haven’t touched the stuff in about fifty years. Then I discovered the difference between rolled oats and steel cut oats, and found a recipe for steel cut oats, amaranth and blueberries. I am a changed woman! And this all because I started tracking my food.

Steel-cut oats and amaranth, cooked in oat milk, and topped with blueberries stewed with cinnamon and maple syrup (recipe from A Modern Way to Eat by Anna Jones).

And so, because my life is meaningless without a challenge, I decided to call February Foodie Feb, and committing to creating at least one meal a day from one of my recipe books, to photograph it and to share it on some form of social media. I started off with a most delicious curried Jamaican stew from Gena Hamshaw’s book, Power Plates. It turned out to be so much food that we ate it for a week! I just added more veggies to the sauce and by the fourth time we ate the same dish it had a whole range of greens added to it.

But that was fine. I have still been making smoothies and oats for breakfast, instead of having coffee and rusks, delicious salads for lunch, instead of having just tea and biscuits, and something festive for supper.

This flavourful, crunchy, colourful cole slaw with its unusual dressing is from a recipe in Bountiful Bowls: Fresh, Vibrant, and Nutritious Flavors in a Bowl by Love Food Editors.

The aim is to slow down a little bit, not to grab what’s in the fridge and put together what is quickest and easiest, but to create nutrient dense meals that are interesting, beautiful and delicious, and to turn at least one meal a day into a celebration.

Sharing my meals on my food tracking app or Instagram, or maybe even here, is about accountability and also about spreading joy. If something has made me happy, it might make someone else smile too.

The 13 Peaks Challenge – a year-long adventure

At some stage during the course of 2020, I got the idea in my head to tackle the 13 Peaks Challenge. Finding a trail partner wasn’t that easy. My usual victims – The Significant Other, Firstborn Daughter and Her Boyfriend – each gave me a non-negotiable NO.

I had been running/walking/hiking with a generally agreeable and willing friend, though, and the response from her was an immediate, if not naive, yes.

We were going to do this thing over three days, we decided. 13 Peaks, spread over 107 km of Cape mountains in three days on barely any training.

We set aside a long weekend, packed our bags and set off early one hot December morning.

18 December 2020

We tagged the first peak, Signal Hill, within minutes. This was going to be a piece of cake!

Signal Hill took a few minutes to tag. The sun was shining golden just above the horizon and the day showed great promise.

This feels like a bit of a cheat, as we simply parked our cars in the parking lot walked towards the beacon and tagged it. Then we headed towards Lion’s Head, a peak we had climbed many times before and posed no threat at all.

Despite it being quite early in the morning, only around 6:30 or so, the sun was already baking down and the trail was jammed with people heading up and coming down. More troubling than the heat and the many hikers, though, were the hot, thirsty dogs on the trail. There were two Weimeranas in particular, both wearing muzzles, and struggling in the heat. There is no water on Lion’s Head, ever, and their owners clearly had not considered bringing water for them.

Moving swiftly towards Lion’s Head.
Still in the shadow of the mountain, we had no idea what the sun had in store for us.
There were just too many people and too many hot, struggling dogs heading up and down the trail on Lion’s Head.

It wasn’t only the dogs who were suffering, though, my intrepid adventurer was head down, elbows on knees and taking strain by the time we reached the beacon.

A beacon tagged and one 13 Peaks adventurer feeling the sting of the trail and the heat.
Views and golden light and a soft breeze … we were going to do this thing!

We took our time recovering and taking in the view before we headed back down Lion’s Head and onwards towards Platteklip, which was to take us to our next peak, Maclear’s Beacon. We were feeling pretty sprightly after our little rest, and the downhill boosted our confidence.

As soon as we started heading up Kloof Nek towards Tafelberg Road and Platteklip, though, the heat slowed us down again. We decided to detour past the restrooms and snack shop at the Lower Cable Station before taking the trail up towards the Contour Path and then to Platteklip.

Heading up to the Contour Path from the Lower Cable Station.
Are we having fun yet? Absolutely we are!

As with Lion’s Head, Platteklip was a trail I had done many times before, and didn’t for a moment consider that I might find it a bit of a challenge that morning. How wrong one could be! It was a sufferfest of note! We staggered up, one heavy step after another, and stopped many times along the way. Ah, the humiliation of people passing us, telling us that we’re doing well and that we were almost there! People we would normally have left in our dust – couples with small children scurried past us! One older gentleman hiking up the mountain with his granddaughter looked at me sympathetically as he puffed for breath and mopped the sweat from his face. ‘This is a young person’s game,’ he said to me. ‘Not that I’m saying you’re old, of course!’ And then, before I could muster the air or energy to explain that I hadn’t just started a few hundred metres down the trail, in the parking lot, as he had, he moved along, not to be seen again. I sometimes feel I should carry a sign saying ‘I’m not unfit, I’ve just already done a bunch of other stuff!’ or one that says ‘Yes, I know I can do it,’ or ‘No, I know I’m not almost there!’

We were taking so much strain that we actually sat down a few times on the way up – I even lay down in a patch of shade!

Lying down for a little think halfway up Platteklip. Don’t be fooled by the smile – I’m dying!
At least we managed to look cheerful in between wiping sweat from our eyes.

During one of our rest stops we considered the option of just taking the cable car back down and giving up on the day’s planned route.

We eventually got to the top and, before heading to Maclear’s Beacon, made a detour to the restaurant for some refreshment and a little rethink.

A couple with their children spotted us at the restaurant. ‘Aaah! You made it!’ they exclaimed. Will this humiliation never end?! Of course we were going to make it! We were always going to make it!

Sitting at the table under the umbrella and looking out across the mountain range, our final peak for the day looked very, very far away. 30 km along a mountain trail suddenly looked a whole lot more daunting than it had when it was still just an idea.

Hot, sweaty and already sunburnt, we revived ourselves at the Table Mountain Restaurant before finding Maclear’s Beacon.

But neither of us is a quitter. We picked ourselves up and headed towards Maclear’s Beacon. The first few steps away from the restaurant had us rethink our resolve again – the slight incline felt impossibly steep!

It’s amazing how steep a slight incline can feel!

We snapped our pics at not-Maclear’s Beacon before arriving at the actual Maclear’s Beacon. It was the first time we had tagged the wrong beacon, but it would not be the last time. In fact, first tagging the wrong beacon became kind of a habit – our trademark move!

Happily posing at Maclear’s Beacon Not.
Maclear’s Beacon tagged. Do we look like women who are going to make it to the end of the planned trail?

Emboldened by having tagged three peaks so far, we set off in search of Grootkop. It seemed to be always just around the next corner. Every little rise in the distance promised to be Grootkop. For something named Grootkop, it certainly knew how to hide itself!

A few hot kilometres after tagging Maclear’s Beacon, and beginning to feel that the search for Grootkop might be futile, we took a few moments to enjoy a snack and take in the view of the Hely Hutchinson Dam.
Views and views for days! Hours earlier we had started on Signal Hill, far in the distance, then scaled Lion’s Head and Platteklip before sitting at the restaurant, just visible on the top left corner of the table top. And here we were, kilometres away from them all, amazed that we had made it.
Still searching for that big head – once we came down from tagging Grootkop, and walked around it, the reason for its name became apparent. Do you see the face?

Marching towards the sunset in silence, we were both so in the zone we almost missed the sneaky little trail leading to Judas Peak. It was a short walk off the trail to get there, and then a scramble to get to the beacon. 

By the time we reached Judas Peak, though, a strong wind had come up. The  scramble felt a bit precarious, and it felt as if we were going to be blown off the peak. But that was it: the last peak for the day. Homeward bound! Home was via Llandudno Ridge, a long, precariously steep descent that we slipped and slid and scrambled along as the sun set, the temperature dropped and the wind came up.

Llandudno Ridge, the last bit of trail to cover before we would reach Suikerbossie and our ride home. It would be almost dark by the time we reached the bottom of this long, long, long descent.

Not only was there no way that we were going to tag Little Lion’s Head and Suther Peak that day, but murmurings about the sanity of attempting to finish our challenge in three days could be heard above the whistling wind.

There was confusion about the trail until the end, but once we found the correct path, I was so excited to have reached the end of the day, I found the energy to bound down the slope into the parking lot where Firstborn Daughter and Her Boyfriend had been waiting in the car for a few hours. But they had snacks and icy cold drinks and we had beaten down 31 km of trail, and climbed 1 857 m in elevation gain. We were sunburnt and tired but pretty pleased with the day – pleased enough not to spare a thought for the two peaks we had meant to include in the day’s challenge. I glanced at Little Lion’s head as we drove home, a silhouette etched against the evening sky, being saved for another day.

At around 10 pm I texted my fellow challenger: ‘Thoughts about tomorrow/the weekend/the rest of our lives?’

My friend was in bed. She was sunburnt, her feet were sore, she needed a week off before we tackled the trail again. It seemed a sensible thing to do, a decision of which Firstborn Daughter would heartily approve.

6 November 2021

Our week of reflection morphed into someone having an ear infection, then a family member contracting Covid, then a running injury, family issues, weather issues, a stomach bug, studies, work, kids, more Covid, more running injuries, more Covid, and Covid again. We managed some runs and some hikes, but one week turned into another, and the months passed without us picking up the challenge where we left off.

Almost a year after our first excursion we finally got back on the trail to tag the next two peaks: Klein Leeukoppie and Suther Peak, or, as it’s more commonly known, Suffer Peak.

This was meant to be just a quick one: just two peaks, both smaller than Lion’s Head. After all the hikes we had done this year, we’d get these two peaks done in time for lunch!

With watsonias in bloom and the sun just touching the top of Little Lion’s Head, the day looked set to being a breeze.
Klein Leeukoppie (Little Lion’s Head) done!

The scramble at the top was unexpectedly tricky and, when we arrived, a few people were standing there, trying to figure out how it had to be done, and whether they were even at the right place at all. I ploughed ahead, deciding it couldn’t be that hard, and my friend followed close behind. I heard one of the other hikers say ‘We’ll see if she gets up and then we’ll try it …,’ which made me laugh – they were a bunch of fit, brauny guys waiting to see if the little old lady made it up first.

Peak one of the day, peak six of the challenge. We were styling!

Onwards to Suther Peak – we could almost smell the coffee. 

Then things started looking a little bit dodgy …

The trail back off the peak seemed a little bit tricky – even trickier than the way up, and the path wasn’t always entirely clear.

Instead of leading us back down the peak the same way we came up, the map led us down the back of the peak. It didn’t seem right – it was way too wet and slippery, unclear and generally too tricky a path to include in a route for trail runners, some of whom would be speeding through the trail at night. I was sure I had been told to go back the way we came, but getting back up looked way harder than just pushing on.

Then, in the distance, was this rude sign … 

This couldn’t be real. How could half the mountain be private property? And why would there be armed guards? Guarding what?

We decided it couldn’t possibly apply to us – we were on a mission! We were following the official 13 Peaks map, and there was no way we were being led astray. Whoever owns the land must know that 13 Peaks challengers were coming through here. So we pushed on. Well, after veering off in different directions, trying to find a clear path, we pushed on.

The sign at the bottom was even more aggressive, and yet another sign promised that they would set the dogs on us. Not only were the signs quite adamant that we wouldn’t pass, but some people with an insane amount of money had  gone and built mansions right in the way of our trail,  blocking our access to Suther Peak.They may as well have had Gandalf standing in front of us, his grey hair blowing in the wind, shouting ‘You will not pass!’

We walked up and down, trying every possible way, retraced our steps, even though that meant walking uphill again – and we definitely didn’t need any extra uphill. 

There were cameras everywhere, tracking our every move, and so it wasn’t long before a security guard turned up in his car, and then another in a dune buggy. They were unarmed, we think, and there were no rottweilers. But they did very helpfully send us in the wrong direction.

This man seemed to have some idea of what we were talking about, and told us we definitely had to turn right and keep going. The beach was that way. The app told us we were off route. Completely off route. I tried contacting a friend to ask advice and then lost signal before I could listen to his voice note. It wouldn’t really have helped, though, as our way back onto the route was blocked by fences, guards, dogs, houses and threatening signposts.

Instead of a short trip across a bit of beach, we headed down, down, down towards Sandy Bay, which, from what we could see, clearly had no trail  of any kind, let alone a trail up to Suther Peak. There wasn’t even sand down there, just rocks. A little break was taken, a narrow, overgrown trail spotted, and off we went. Puffies and poachers be damned. We couldn’t spend the rest of our days on that rocky trail to nowhere, and Suther Peak would be tagged.

Rerouting ourselves along a little path that seemed to head in the direction of Suther Peak. And, hands on hips … a clear sign of impending despair! The suffering had begun way before we even reached the peak.

Somehow, after a long, hot stomp up and down the dunes, trudging through soft sand, we found our way to the Suther Peak trail. Halfway up we got to look back at the damned gated community, guarded by men with dogs, guns and dune buggies, which had blocked our way and had sent us on a ridiculous detour.

The correct route would have been to follow the same trail back down Little Lion’s head, all the way to the bottom, and then to have turned right onto the jeep track that would have taken us to a boom. Beyond the boom lay the correct route to Suther Peak.

The little stretch of beach we were meant to cross to get to the Suther Peak trail is on the right. Instead, we followed the path behind the trees to the left of the group of houses. It took us all the way down and then we climbed all the way back up that steep sand dune before getting onto the trail that would lead us up to the actual trail!

Hands on hips made way for head in hands and thoughts of maybe leaving Suther Peak for another day. Suffer Peak was living up to its name.

It was time for a little sit-down.

We decided to take our coffee break right there, in the middle of the trail while considering our options. Strong, lithe young hikers cheerfully leaped through our breakfast rock and ran up the trail … almost as if they had not just been lost in a desert wasteland, or had risked being shot by armed guards, or devoured by vicious dogs.

With fresh resolve, we set off to conquer Suther Peak … in between a few rest stops.

We may have taken some strain but it was very pretty out there.
There’s always time and energy to muck about. We stopped at Suther Not-The-Peak to take some photos, just because it was pretty. It gave some false hope to hikers behind us, though, who thought our exuberance had to do with reaching the top.
The harder the climb the better the view: Little Lion’s Head in the foreground, and its twin, Lion’s Head, a mirror image in the distance.
Suther Peak!

Once we had tagged Suther Peak, at last, we relaxed a bit and took the time to look at how far we had come, not only on that day, but on our previous mission as well. Despite our detour, we still had plenty of time left in the day to do all those other things we had planned to do in the afternoon.

All we had to do was head down the mountain, walk through Hout Bay and get into our cars. The day was not yet lost.

But do things ever go as planned?

Our map for the day was dodgy as hell, and our Little Lion’s Head descent down the wrong side into private property, and our Sandy Bay detour were not the last of our problems.

Instead of simply strolling into Hout Bay and walking along boring but safe and predictable tarred roads, we ended up bundu bashing for what felt like days. In fact, bundu bashing doesn’t even describe it. We cautiously made our way over piles of dead wattle branches, hoping they wouldn’t give way under our weight and have us sinking up to our knees into their splintered limbs. Every step creaked and crackled precariously. And who knew what was living under there?! Turning around may seem like it would have been a good idea, but while there, retracing our steps looked even harder than just pushing on. And, anyway, the map said we were on the trail – some of the time!

Does this look like a trail to you? I should think not! We stumbled about over these piles of fire hazard and under wattle branches dripping with ticks for what felt like hours.

We were hot, tired, dusty, itchy and had got lost so many times on what was supposed to be a simple route – to say we were over it at this stage is an understatement!

At least we didn’t come across any puffadders. Loads of ticks (loads of ticks – I pulled 14 off me when I got home!) but no snakes and no bad guys!

13 November 2021

Do we give up? Absolutely not!  The next weekend we were back on the trail and ready to take on peaks eight, nine and ten: Chapman’s Peak, Noordhoek Peak and Muizenberg Peak. According to the map it was all pretty straightforward: climb up a peak, come down, follow the trail, do the same with the next peak. 

What could go wrong?

Getting to Chapman’s Peak was quite simple. The weather was mild, the trail fairly easy, the wildflowers were in bloom, and the views rewarding. The day was off to a good start.

Victorious! Chappies’ beacon located and tagged!
Taking a little break on the way to Noordhoek Peak, and looking back at the distance covered from Chapman’s Peak.
Eagerly rushing to Noordhoek Peak’s beacon up ahead! But is it Noordhoek Peak’s beacon?
Gleefully tagging the wrong beacon again – this will be known as Noordhoek Peak Not.
This is Noordhoek Peak! After some pathetic effort at taking a selfie, we got some strangers to take our picture.

Tagging a peak lifts the spirits and fills one with renewed energy, and so off we bounded along the trail to find Muizenberg Peak. The cool, overcast morning gave way to a hot, cloudless afternoon. As we moved further away from Noordhoek Peak towards Silvermine, we came across some disturbing signs warning us of the likelihood of being mugged on the trail. We also came across some red-faced, sweaty, unfit and ill-equipped people (sandals, no hat, no water) walking their hot, tired dogs on the baking hot white dune sand that made up the trail. I was more concerned about the dogs than any potential mugging.

We passed a number of interesting spots along the way that I made a mental note about visiting on another occasion, when we weren’t already tired, pressed for time and on a mission. Of course, my mental notes are quickly erased and I can’t remember where the spots are!

As with Grootkop, Muizenberg Peak seemed always just too far away, and the glimpses of the blue water of the Silvermine dam served only to tease us. I was reminded of a comment I had read about someone’s 13 Peaks Challenge: ‘Why did you have to include Muizenberg Peak, Ryan, why?’ I could relate.

Having dodged the poachers and muggers, our next challenge was to dodge the cars speeding from both directions along Ou Kaapseweg. Judging by the open-mouthed looks of alarm on the faces of the people in the cars trying to exit Gate 2 onto Ou Kaapseweg, we must have looked like two deer caught in the headlights and facing certain death.

And then, with the end within reach, with our fingertips almost grazing that beacon on Muizenberg Peak, we got lost. Of course we did. All we had to do was walk in through Gate 2, through the parking lot, turn right, and keep on walking.

My map said no. It sent us straight along a different path before telling us that we were on the wrong path. And so we retraced our steps, wandered around in circles for a while, and then figured the correct way to go.

After many detours, plus a longer trail than advertised, and completely misjudging how long it would take us, Muizenberg Peak, at last. 
There was barely time  for a happy snap and a brief appreciation of the magnificent view before taking the 6 km hike back to the parking lot where longsuffering husbands had been waiting for rather a long time. 
Yet another spectacular view, this time from Muizenberg Peak.
We were in a hurry to get off the peak and back to the parking lot. Our husbands had been waiting for an hour already and it would take us at least another hour to get to them. But I had to snap this pic of the view.

With the trail extended by various detours, another 30 km was covered on day three of our challenge. We seemed hellbent on making sure that we got full value out of each day. We would be back the next day to conquer Constantiaberg Peak. We were hoping to include Klaasenkop (or Klassenkop) but that might prove to be a bit ambitious.

14 November 

Walking into Silvermine towards Constantiaberg Peak in the distance.

On Sunday we started where we had finished the day before, walked across the road and entered the Silvermine Reserve along the footpath we had used to leave the reserve and cross the road to get to Muizenberg Peak. We honestly thought we were doing the right thing. As it turns out, we were meant to enter via the main gate, even though we were on foot and just passing through, and pay an entrance fee.

Walking along the tarred road towards the trail isn’t great, and we were keen to get off it and into the mountains. Just when we thought we were close to getting off the hot, boring road, two officious SanParks officials pulled up next to us. Had we paid at the gate, they demanded to know. We were puzzled. No? Why? They told us that if we hadn’t paid we were trespassing and could be fined. We had to go back to the gate and pay our dues. But we’re almost off the road, we reasoned. Couldn’t we just pay them?

No, we could not pay them. We had to walk the 2 km back to the gate, get in line with the cars, and pay. The least they could have done was offer us a lift back to the gate. Actually, no, the least they could have done was be polite. Someone must surely have seen us at the start of the trail if they came looking for us in their car. They could have told us then that we needed to pay. They also said that they had seen us there the day before. We didn’t see any rangers the day before, so it all felt a bit uncomfortable.

There was nothing to be done: we simply had to detour back to the gate to pay our dues. The  grumpy SanParks officials sped off in their tan-and-green bakkie and we miserably headed back the way we came.

After the admin was done and potentially legal issues (jail time?) were dodged (again!), our map issues started up again. I couldn’t access the FATMAP app because there was no signal in the reserve. I had downloaded the AllTrails map, though, and the blasted thing led us along the Elephant Eye trail, which I knew to be the wrong trail, and, most frustratingly, did its best to keep us away from Constantiaberg Peak. The AllTrails map said one thing, and when I could access the FATMAP app, it said something completely different. And then, so early in the day, my cellphone battery started to run low. Running two apps at the same time and taking photos had burnt through my battery life.

Elephant’s Eye is on the left, and the lookout where a huge group of small kids went to is on the right. We were most pleased that the kids had moved on in a different location. It was just our luck that we ended up behind them just as we started the trail.
There was much doubling over with hands on knees, wanting the climb to end. The previous day’s three peaks plus detours had worn us out and we weren’t the strongest women on the mountain. I managed to snap my friend in a moment of weakness, but that was just because I had glanced up from where I was standing in exactly the same defeated pose!

It was another ridiculous experience of on-route, off-route, where-are-we-supposed-to-be, where-is-the-trail, are-we-there-yet …

We were hot and tired.

But, of course, we made it! We somehow always do.

We were all smiles once  we had finally found the beacon, tagged Constantiaberg Peak and could finally sit down and have our coffee and sandwiches. 

Oh, the happy little fool … what is that big round thing in the background?  Could it be a clue that this was not, in fact, the correct beacon? Of course it wasn’t. The actual beacon was a few metres back.
Right. Let’s try this again … this is the official top of Constantiaberg!
One might think the whole point of reaching the peak is to behave like a complete twit!

Onwards to Constantia Nek. It’s one single trail all the way there. A dodgy map, cellphone almost dead, no signal: what could possibly go wrong?

The AllTrails app, along with this little cairn, and both my cellphone and my watch officially checking out were what could go wrong! An Off-trail Alert popped up on the app and sent us back to this innocent-looking stack of rocks. Before we knew it, we were bundu bashing again, and heading  off the Hoerikwaggo Trail, down Bokkemanskloof and into the suburb of Constantia, from where we miserably hiked along the busy highway back to Constantia Nek.

Despite our achievements, we were two disappointed hikers at the end of this day. I managed to record only 12 km of the 22 km that we covered. But we had only two peaks to tag before we were done with the challenge, and we had come a long way from where we had started, not only in terms of distance, but in terms of endurance, fitness, and trail experience.

17 December 2021

Only one day short of a full year since we first set off to conquer the 13 Peaks we arrived at Constantia Nek to take on almost 30 km of trail and tag our last two peaks. We expected a shady meander along the Contour Path for most of the way. We were very quickly cured of that little misconception. It was up … and up … and there was no shade.

This was quite likely not part of the official route and probably part of the obligatory AllTrails detour.

My shiny  new  Garmin’s navigation sent us up one  trail, the AllTrails app disagreed and sent us back the way we came. Which one  to trust? The  one I’ve just met, or the one that has given me dodgy advice in the past? I went with the AllTrails app. Of course the thing added about 5 km to the trail, leading us up ladders and scrambles via Eagle’s Nest towards Camel Rock.

Camel Rock: what an amazing rock formation. We had to stop for a little photo shoot!

We found Klassenkop. Kind of. More or less. We got right to the point and retraced our steps, retraced them again, went around the other side, and tackled the peak from entirely the wrong  side. The useful little cairns dotting the trail were obviously intended for some other route. Or not.

Both Garmin and AllPeaks kept shouting out Off-Course alerts, no matter which direction we walked. The red line on our recorded AllTrails route makes from some interesting, possibly frameable, artwork.

The peak is obscured by a gnarly old tree covered in old man’s beard and lichen. The tree, in fact, offers its limbs up to those seeking the peak and provides easy access across the awkward space that yawns between the peak and the space where one is standing. This is the case, of course, if you approach the beacon from the correct angle.

If you approach from the wrong angle, you risk your life  either on the brittle limbs of a spindly old tree that really has neither the strength nor the inclination to hold your weight, or you face a dodgy scramble up some rocks pretty much devoid of footholds and grips to the correct tree. Neither option is recommended!

Two ways to risk life and limb on Klassenkop: option A, climb the wrong tree or, option B, do a spot of bouldering to get to the correct tree.
This is the tree to look out for when trying to find Klassenkop Peak.
Relieved to be safely standing on firm ground, my friend shows no sign of the terror experienced on that tricky scramble from the rock onto the tree and then onto the peak.
I, on the other hand, am possibly just a little bit manic after not crashing through some skinny, lichen-encrusted branches before making it onto the peak.
After coffee and admiring the long distance we had covered, we  set off to find that shady Contour Path. 
Down we went, down and down and down Nursery Ravine. If it weren’t for the beautiful handrail on the stairs at the top of the Ravine, we probably would have overshot and have had to retrace our steps again, or have had to go down Skeleton Gorge.

What goes down inevitably goes up. And what goes down, down and down, will go up, up and up.

Newlands Ravine, the recommended route, is a challenging climb  that takes you up to the Saddle. 

Newlands Ravine, lush and pretty and challenging. Bizarrely, we came across a group of kids who had been guided up by what must have been some school teachers. Some of them were complaining bitterly about how much they hate hiking, how tired they were and how they were never hiking again. It was quite a strange choice of route – especially in the afternoon heat – to take a group of what seemed to be a lot of unfit children out on their first hike.

It was about  halfway up Newlands Ravine that my friend came to the realisation that we should probably have trained a bit more!  Yes. We most certainly should have! Maybe we should have thought about that option earlier than on the last 10 km of the last day of our challenge!

AllTrails wanted to send us up Dark Gorge. Just the name should be enough to tell you it’s not the best idea. If you do a bit of research, or know a bit about the mountain, you’d know that Dark Gorge is known for its loose rocks that tend to be dislodged as one clambers up towards the light. The AllTrails map certainly did its damnedest to challenge us beyond the challenge we had signed up for.

Reaching the top of Newlands Ravine feels like an achievement, which it is. However, it’s not a peak. It’s simply the Saddle. Devil’s Peak still looms up ahead.

A glimpse of Devil’s Peak from the Contour Path can fill one with dread. We would have covered about 20 km by the time we started our climb up Newlands Ravine, and have been out on the trail for many hours. That peak looms large on a good day, when one approaches it on fresh legs. For a weary  hiker, it’s an intimidating sight. Of  course, if  you don’t know that’s the peak that awaits you, you just keep trundling along!
The Saddle, where a moment was taken to given in to just a dash of despair. 
It felt as if there should  have been some reward for having reached it the top of Newlands Ravine, but all that lay ahead was Devil’s Peak and the steep climb etched along its flanks.
Devil’s Peak, and the customary celebrations at the wrong beacon! The wind was howling up there, and so our ecstatic, whooping and cheering adventurer couldn’t hear the cries of ‘That’s not the one. It’s behind you! Behind you!
We made it! That seemed like the longest climb ever but we made it.

The wind was gusting and the day was drawing to a close – there was no time for hanging about basking in our great achievement. A few snaps, a sip of water, and we were off – as was my friend’s cap, which the wind whipped off and tossed across to Robben Island before she could snatch it back.

Next, it was just a simple matter of making it off Devil’s Peak to Tafelberg Road and then to Signal Hill. Well, a simple route, maybe, and long. Very long. It was time to wrap this thing up!

And, just like that, it was done!

We were tired, sweaty, sunburt, windswept, overjoyed, and a tiny bit bewildered.

Signal Hill! We had come full circle: Signal Hill around the Cape mountain ranges back to Signal Hill.
We could barely lift our feet but we had to get up onto the beacon somehow, and I had to pull a little stunt for our final snaps – the responsibility of which was thrust upon my Significant Other, who is notoriously terrible at taking photos. He did pretty well under pressure, I think.

It had been a long day. We had spent 12 hours on the trail, had trudged 30 km, and, after a year,  we had finally closed the circle to arrive back where we started, on Signal Hill, at the end of our 13 Peaks adventure.

We did so many detours, and retraced our steps so many times, that instead of covering 107 km, we ended up doing 127 km. 

It took us 48 hours to do – over the course of a year – and we never gave up on our goal. 

Part of Day 1’s route, without Signal Hill, Lion’s Head and Maclear’s Beacon, seen from Klassenkop.
(Pic created with the PeakFinder app.)
Little Lion’s Head and Suther Peak seen from Klassenkop. (Pic created with the PeakFinder app.)
Constantiaberg seen from Klassenkop. (Pic created with the PeakFinder app.)

Looking back at some of our peaks, we were amazed at what we had done. 

We hadn’t done any real training for this thing, and neither of us had been on any of these trails before. We had naively stepped into the big unknown, confident that we would be able to cover the distances and tag the peaks. 

Taking it one step at a time, it didn’t always seem like much, but panning back and looking at the big picture, looking at the trail in its entirety, well, that’s quite something! 

We did this big thing, just the two of us, on our own, and we’re ready to do it again – just with fewer detours and encounters with potentially armed guards!

13 Peaks route profile sourced from the 13 Peaks Challenge website.

A short grey crop does not mean I’ve given up on trying to be attractive!

So, this ageing thing … it brings with it some stuff …
Like, why does every hairdresser in town think I want to look like a man? I’ve had short hair for the last twenty years. I’ve been through all sorts of funky styles and colours – bedhead, asymmetrical, red, blue, purple, pink. And hairdressers have loved it when I’ve said ‘Just do what you want. Go crazy. It’s your creation; I just wear it. And, anyway, it grows.’
And then, about two years ago, a hairdresser convinced me to bleach my dark hair and go platinum blonde. It was an ordeal from hell. I sat in his stylist’s chair for eight hours while he tried to bleach the colour out of my hair. And then, just as the sun was setting on a long day at the vanity parlour, a Very Important Somebody walked in, and my stylist dropped me like a snotty tissue. The Very Important Somebody needed to be attended to, even though he had walked in without an appointment. Hastily and in a bit of a temper, he gave me a dreadful haircut while the VIS’s hair was being washed, and sent me out into the street with a badly cut head of yellow straw that made my skin look sallow. I had wasted an entire day doing something I didn’t want to do, had dropped a huge wad of cash I couldn’t afford, and looked and felt dreadful.
I found another hairdresser to try to remedy the situation. She thought that Hairdresser #1 was on the right track with the Marilyn Monroe business, and figured just a few more hours of bleaching and a few tweaks to the cut would do the trick. So I conceded. Again.
She improved the cut and I strutted out of her salon with a very-new-to-me ice blonde look. I kind of enjoyed it. I could now wear red lipstick, and a bright yellow jacket didn’t make me look jaundiced. The look had a certain appeal. It was eye-catching and different and even a bit glamorous. But I just didn’t feel like myself. I felt conspicuous all the time. And I felt as if I looked too desperate to look younger. Besides, the maintenance was bankrupting me.
I let the white grow out and thought it would be interesting to see what I look like without any chemical enhancement to my follicles. It turned out my real hair was quite dark and quite grey. I figured maybe it was time to let go of the Billy Idol look and the vanity and just wear whatever haircolour nature has chosen for me.
A short grey crop became my new look. If grey hair is good enough for Jamie Lee Curtis, Diane Keaton, Helen Mirren … even Pink … then it’s certainly good enough for me. The natural look is so much cheaper and needs far less maintenance, which works perfectly for this time of my life where I seem to be constantly chasing the next terribly important item on my never-ending to-do list.

JAMIE LEE CURTIS

Is a haircut like this too much to ask for?

But now … oh my word! I walk into a salon with my grey hair and hairdressers seem to think I’ve given up! I’ve tried more than one stylist. I tell them that I like to have my hair short because I run and that longer hair just looks a mess at the end of a sweaty hour or two on the trails. But I also tell them that they can be a bit adventurous and creative, that I would like to still look feminine and that I like a feathered fringe and neckline. And that I still want some hair on my head.
What do I get? The short-back-and-sides the barber gave my brother when he was in primary school. And he hated it so much and cried so hard during the head-shaving ordeal that his lollipop, given to him to calm him down, was covered in snot, spit and hair. My stylists don’t even give me a lollipop!
Seriously, if they have to take it all off at the back, and take it all off around the ears and up the sides of my head, can’t they just leave me some wisps of a fringe? Just something so that I don’t look like a bald eagle? Or like an old vulture.

Turkey Vulture b57-1-282_V

The turkey vulture … also not the look I’m going for. (Source: http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/turkey-vulture, Glen Bartley)

So here I sit again, sans hair on my head, not wanting to leave the house. With no hair to distract from my ageing, melting face, every line seems accentuated, my tired eyes look more tired, my mouth more bloodless and fleshless, my dewlaps longer and flappier than ever. And my neck … you know that scene from Death Becomes Her, when Meryl Streep turns her head and her neck corkscrews into a spiral of toffee-like folds? Well. That. That’s what I feel like every time I look to my left or two my right. So I won’t be crossing the road any time soon.

Death-Becomes-Her-2

When your neck starts looking like twisted toffee, you want your hair to create a bit of a distraction.

Put some make-up on, they say! No! That doesn’t work! I just look like a tired old drag queen! Or like Elizabeth Taylor in American Horror Story.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR AMERICAN HORROR

Elizabeth Taylor is gorgeous … but her look is her look … I don’t want to wear it.

Next time I have my hair cut I think I’ll wear a floaty pink chiffon frock and strappy stiletto sandals, and swing a little pink satin bag. Maybe then they’ll leave me with a tendril or two. But it’s going to be months before I have a tendril or two to offer.
For now, I think I’ll head out to buy new earrings. Big ones. And sparkly.

Just missing my sub-five: Infantry School Cango Marathon

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Once the race number is pinned on, there’s no backing out. 

It’s Tuesday, three days after the Infantry School Cango Marathon, and I’m slowly emerging from yet another running-‘failure’-induced funk. I’m still chasing that elusive sub-five-hour marathon, still trying to qualify for and run the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon, still holding on to the dream of being one of the thousands of runners to take part in the Comrades Marathon – between eighty and ninety kilometres of arduous up and down, and the pinnacle of South African road running. You just are not a South African runner if you have not run either or both the Two Oceans and the Comrades. Just not. Done. (Okay, that’s not really true – not everyone wants to run an ultra. But I do.)

On Saturday I came close. But, again, no cigar.

Before we left on our road trip to Oudtshoorn to give this marathon a try, I decided that I needed to be focused on making a sub-five, but that I also, no matter what the outcome, had to enjoy the fact that I had run a marathon. Running is meant to be fun, not a chore. Constantly chasing a time goal sucks the joy out of the experience. I was mindful of being grateful for having had the good health and the opportunity to do the distance, and I was determined that I would be proud of the achievement, no matter what the finish time. And I would have fun. That was the point of it all: to have fun.

Forty-two kilometres on foot is a long, long way. To run it, at any age, at any weight or fitness level, is a big job. Turning up at the start line takes courage (and a certain level of crazy). Crossing the finish line is kind of a big deal. It is something to be celebrated. It may not seem like such a big deal when you compare yourself to the guys in front – those ones who fly the distance in the same amount of time (or less – no, actually, really, less!) as it takes me to run a half marathon. And it may not seem like much of anything if you cross the finish line after cut-off. But gutsing it out when your whole body begs you, screams at you, to stop, is a big damn deal.

So I knew that the sub-five-hour goal should not overshadow all the other really good things about having completed a marathon. Missing that sub-five, though, stings a little. And the sting is compounded by the fact that the Cango Marathon has a five-hour cut-off. So crossing the finish line after five hours, even a mere few seconds after five hours, means that you may as well be invisible. No one at the end acknowledges you. There’s no announcement. There’s no medal. There’s boggerol. So it’s a bit of a … pfffffff …! It’s a bit harsh, really. And, of course, those few seconds or minutes mean that you have not qualified to run Two Oceans or Comrades. So it’s all a bit of a bummer. Really. It is. From whichever angle you look at it.

The day started at three in the morning. Seriously. Three. In the morning. How ridiculous? We had to be at the Infantry School grounds in time to board a bus at four. The buses would ferry us to the Cango Caves entrance, where we would wait for the race to start. This meant that we had an hour and a half to sit around and contemplate the insanity of it all. But one great thing about this wait was that there was plenty time to use the clean bathroom facilities. Just for once we didn’t have to stand about in a long line of desperate runners, waiting to get into a smelly porta-loo, where there would more than likely not be any toilet paper. We should have taken some food along, though, because one gets pretty hungry during the three hours between waking and running, and watching other people tucking in to their bananas and other treats didn’t help.

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Early morning selfie of reluctant marathoners. 

The time seemed to pass quickly, though, and before I knew it, I was amongst the throng of runners making their way downhill towards the climb up the scenic Swartberg Pass. The weather was perfect! The prediction had been a low of 19 and high of about 29 °C. But then the weather changed and the day before saw the heavens open and the streets flooding. The day of the race was cool and overcast with just a slight breeze. It started getting quite warm towards the end, but really nothing as bad as we had run in before … think back to the Sneeuberg Traverse!

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Minutes before the start gun …

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The time has come …!

On the profile the first hill looks murderous. It’s a long uphill but it’s really not so bad. It’s kind of similar to our Victoria Road run – from Bantry Bay to Llandudno. It slows you down and taxes your legs but it’s not so bad that you have to get your head down and slog, and at no point did I feel I needed to walk, although I had planned to, in order to save my legs for the last stretch.

Just after the turnaround, where we started to run downhill to the 12 km mark, I latched onto the back of a group of Itheko runners, who had formed their own sub-five-hour bus. I was running comfortably and feeling good. At some point the Significant Other told me that I needed to speed up if I wanted to make cut-off. Then, when I started to speed up, he told me to slow down. So I slowed down. Then he ran away from me. Go figure. Anyway …

The markers count down, showing you the distance still to do, rather than the distance already run, and I quite liked that. I like that I had only 30 km to go, instead of having run only 12 km. The markers also incorporated the point two, so when there was 1 km to go, there wasn’t also another 0,2 km after that. Nice and clean.

Running at the back of the Itheko sub-five bus was the one highlight of my day. I can still hear the driver saying ‘Easy … eeaasy …!’ and telling his runners how well they were running and how awesome they were. The pace was as light as the mood and the banter, and if I could have made a video of these guys I’m sure I could have used it to convince hundreds of ‘I hate running’ and ‘you must be crazy’ types to lace up and get out there. These guys were the picture of the joy of running.

And then, just as things were looking really promising for me, the smell of spicy hot cross buns filled the air and the entire Itheko group dispersed … it was literally like a bubble being burst – my bubble, to be exact … as they all dashed to the side of the road to grab a spicy bun. I love spicy hot cross buns, and I salivated and gazed longingly at the heaped containers being held out by the enthusiastic support crew.

I thought I would just jog along slowly so that they could catch up with me. I didn’t want to stop and I didn’t want to walk. I was feeling good and I wanted to hold on to this feeling of easy running. But the plan failed. For some reason I stayed ahead of them for quite a while, and by the time they caught up with me, I had lost my legs and my will to live. I was briefly engulfed by the group, their chatter and laughter drowning out my pain, and then they passed me, widening the gap between my quickly fading self and them. I watched them as they passed me – chatting and bantering away, all fit and strong and well trained and well prepared and full of camaraderie and team spirit, and I felt a little bit envious. I remained hopeful as I held them in sight for a while, thinking, it’s okay, it’s okay, just keep them in sight, and then they were, poof, gone. Just like that. Along with my sub-five.

Now, I must point out that I have a deep-seated superstition that if I pass an Itheko runner, even a limping and struggling back marker, sweating and panting and weeping, my run will go south. Deep south. My superstition has now turned into a religion. I will never again pass an Itheko runner. Not even a runner reaching for a spicy bun. So, Itheko, when you’re out there on the road, and you’re asking each other ‘Who is this stupid woman sitting on our heels and why won’t she leave?’ It’s me. And I’ve just told you why!

I reached halfway in about 2:25, which was pretty much spot-on according to my plan: any faster, and I wouldn’t have the stamina to finish; any slower and I was putting too much pressure on myself. And I ran my fastest 30 km during the marathon, at 3:29, and so it was all going pretty well up to that point. And then it all started going a little bit pear-shaped. I knew from the start that I didn’t have enough long runs under the belt and that my endurance might flag near the end. But I kept positive and kept talking myself through. I just needed to get to the 10 km to go mark and then I would be in single digits. And then, if I could get to the 8 km to go mark, I would have only three kays to go before there were only five left before I crossed the finish line. But I also knew that only an hour and a half to do the last twelve kays was cutting it too fine. I kind of knew then that it was all slipping away from me.

‘Do the work,’ I told myself as I willed myself forward. ‘Do the work now so you’re not sorry this evening. Today’s the day. This is your day. This is the day you get your sub-five. This year you’re running Oceans and Comrades. Do the work! Do the work!”

And then my legs or my mind or both would call a halt and I would walk a few paces. ‘Just to that gate,’ I would tell myself. ‘Then you run again.’ I would reach the gate and pick up the pace, only to flag again. The same runners would stay just ahead of me, while others would pass me and walk, before I would pass them and walk … all of us doing the survival shuffle, desperate to make cut-off.

Time slipped away from me. Soon I had only about an hour in which to run 10 km. That’s what I run on a good day, on fresh legs, not after having run 32 km. ‘Do the work,’ I would scream at my self (in my mind, of course). ‘Do the work! Don’t be sorry tonight!’

Little kids lined the roadside, chanting encouragement and giving high fives.

‘Hou, bene, hou! Hou bene hou!’ they chanted as they hopped up and down and ran alongside the runners. A bunch of them ran with me for a while, which was sweet and fun until it was no longer sweet and fun and I wanted them to go away. They were crowding me, and their not-so-subtle glances at my waist belt suggested that their reasons for running with me were less magnanimous and more about what treats I might be carrying, and might be prepared to share with them in exchange for their support and motivation. But they were keen to stay. For skinny little kids their endurance was remarkable. So I stopped and snapped a selfie with them, showed them the pic and hoped that would encourage them to go away. I wasn’t sharing any treats with them. All I had was one GU Race sweet, and it had to see me through the last 5 km.

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Selfie taken through a smudged and sweaty lens.

The last 12 km are made worse by the fact that the road flattens out and become monotonous and then, at about 40 km, it rises steeply … I mean … seriously?! What the hell? Who decided to throw a hill in at 40 km?!

At some point, when I realised that it had all slipped away from me, I developed an acute case of Tourette Syndrome. A bad, bad, acute case. ‘Fuck!’ I said to myself. ‘Fuck. Fuckit. Fuck.Fuck!’ And, no, I wasn’t nearly as cute as Hugh Grant banging his head against the church wall going ‘Fuckity-fuck!’.

At 2 km to go I hauled out my cellphone and sent a voice message to my family.

‘Not going to make it,’ I said. ‘I have two kays to go, eight minutes left. That’s four minutes a kay.’

It was never going to happen. I have never run a four-minute kilometre and I certainly didn’t have the legs to run two of them at the end of the Cango Marathon.

Nope. It was done. It was over. No Two Oceans for me this year. No Comrades.

People called encouragement. Runners who had long ago finished their race and were walking to their cars called to me to keep running, don’t walk, almost there, just a little bit to go, well done …!

I heard noise coming from the stadium. There was a loud roar and a countdown, followed by a gunshot. That was it. Cut-off.

Cut-off happened while I was outside the stadium, on a hot, dusty road, its white sand reflecting the sun into my eyes. I just needed to finish. I could be sad later on. But now I just needed to run into the stadium, around the field and across the finish line.

Some kind people clapped and cheered me on. ‘Well done, ATC,’ they called. ‘Keep going,’ they said.

And then I crossed the finish line. Nine minutes and 24 seconds after cut-off.

An infantryman kneeled at my feet and started undoing my one shoelace. ‘It’s fine,’ I said. ‘It’s fine. You don’t have to do that. I’ll do that,’ I said to the white T-shirt covering his broad shoulders. But he ignored me and mutely busied himself with my laces. He retrieved the timing chip, tucked my laces into my shoe and moved off, never looking up at me or speaking a word to me. He must have been pretty done with retrieving timing chips by then. People sitting at the tressle tables with their clipboards and pens and other race organisers’ paraphernalia didn’t even look up. Those who looked in my direction stared straight through me. They had seen the winners. They didn’t need to be bothered with the losers.

It was a spectacularly inauspicious end to a marathon.

But it was an end to a marathon. It had been a great marathon – the weather, the route, the views, the people, the volunteers, everything had been good. And I hadn’t run a terrible time. If it hadn’t been for the cut-off and that I wanted to qualify for Oceans and Comrades, I would be smiling from ear to ear, especially if I consider that most of my training had been squeezed into the last eight or ten weeks. But now I felt like crying. Someone handed me a bottle of water and I made my way to the wooden benches of the stadium to sit down. From there I could let everyone know where I was and how I did, and from there I could locate The Significant Other.

In my post-race funk I briefly considered the unfairness of having to make the same time as someone much younger. The Boston qualifying times vary according to your gender and age group – not that I have a hope in hell of ever making a BQ, no matter how they skew the numbers to my advantage – and it would be nice if the qualifying time for people over 50 was slightly more lenient than the time set for the youngsters. But those are the rules and it was time to suck up and get back to the drawing board.

Well … I would suck-up and get back to the drawing board after a day or two of obligatory mourning.

I located the Significant Other where he was lying on the grass, shoes off, and pretty satisfied with how his day had played out. He had made cut-off and had earned his medal. He was less than enthusiastic when I presented him with this road trip to a marathon idea,  but it had all worked out well. He couldn’t fault my plan. I think he’s still sending out texts to his running mates, telling him about this hidden gem of a marathon he had discovered.

After a bit of lying about on the damp grass, I was keen to get back to the guest house. Watching people get prizes would just be rubbing my nose in it. I was happy for them but there were enough people around to applaud their success. I wanted a shower and tea and a nap.

I got into the car and slumped down in the passenger seat, my tired legs up on the dashboard and my teary eyes barely level with the window’s edge. A gloomy cloud hung over my head and cast a shadow over everything around.

‘Don’t be miserable,’ my good angel runner said. ‘You did fine.’

‘You messed up,’ my devil runner said. ‘This isn’t the story you wanted to tell.’

‘Shut up,’ I said.

I had run a 5:09:24 and, while I had had a great run and was grateful for the experience of having run yet another marathon, I was pretty damn disappointed. I couldn’t pretend otherwise. The Cango Marathon was my Last Chance Saloon. There would not be another opportunity in time for this year’s Oceans and Comrades. I had blown my chance.

Then, as I looked to my left, I saw a sight that still brings a lump to my throat and makes the world a bit blurry: a huge group of happy, smiling Spartan Harriers running towards the stadium. Running in front, flanked on either side by women, which is kind of how he likes it, I think, and sporting the biggest smile of all, was the instantly recognizable, unmissable, always chirpy, always happy, Boet van Zyl – a 74-year-old runner who turns up at every race. The Sparties, who had all finished their runs, had laced up again and had gone back out into the battlefield to bring their last soldier home.

And this is why I love marathons, no matter what my finish time is: the people. The best people run marathons (and ultras, I’m sure – but I won’t know for absolutely sure until I qualify for one!). Distance runners are in the race for the long haul. We all feel the pain, but we are still able to set our own pain aside and support a fellow sufferer.

Thank you, my Significant Other, Itheko and Sparties, and all the infantrymen and volunteers – I’ll be back. And this time I’m leaving with a medal.

Life shrinks and expands in proportion to one’s courage. Anaïs Nin

Nutribullet Bay to Bay, 2017

In another one of my optimistic, trigger-happy moments, I entered a whole bunch of races. Among them the Nutribullet Bay to Bay and, two weeks later, the Red Hill Marathon.

My thinking was thus: I have a fairly decent running base; all I need to do is give myself a week or two (max!) to recover from my failed ultra experience, give my ITB time to settle down, and then I can get back into doing some short runs during the week and some long runs on the weekend. Within a few weeks I would be ready to run a comfortable-ish Bay to Bay, which would set me up for the Red Hill Marathon. And, if I had managed to stick to the training plan, I should be able to give a sub-five hour marathon a shot. If not, then at least I would have a long run to add to my Cango Caves Marathon training.

Just reading this now makes me realize that I must have been a little bit deranged after the UTCT. Christmas was coming. I had deadlines. I was never going to manage to fit in the kind of running that I needed to do. And there’s the old man, who neeeeeeeds me on a regular basis. And The Kid hit a rocky patch, needing some close attention. Just making it through each day, with at best half of the items on the to-do list ticked off, was an accomplishment.

So, as has been the pattern for me, the training did not go quite as planned.

If I just set smaller goals, I’d be fine. A half marathon a month, maybe. Or even a half marathon every week would be doable. But, no. Marathons. Ultras. We’re setting our sights on those. Now. At this stage of life, where there are elderly parents, a teenager and work stress to cope with. At a stage of life where the body is breaking down, not building up, so any missed training session, any injury or sleepless night (and, boy, do I have those!) has impact and takes ages to recover from.

And so the Bay to Bay 30 km was anticipated with less joy and excitement than it should have been. Should I run it? Shouldn’t I run it? I probably shouldn’t run it. But I’ve entered. I can just take it easy. It’s 30 km. There’s no ‘easy’!

I argued with myself until the morning of the race. The Significant Other seemed to have a similar argument raging inside his head. He was feeling overweight and undertrained, and unsure of how his Achilles would bear up.

The raging gale force Southeaster that hammered the peninsula the night before the race served not to inspire enthusiasm. There was no way we wanted to run in that!

He came into the room at about five in the morning. ‘Are you running?’ he asked. I think he wanted me to say no, because then he wouldn’t have to run either.

‘I’m up,’ I said. It was a bit non-committal, but once you’re up, you’re up, and then you may as well run.

My intention was just to finish. Bonus points for finishing before cut-off.

Last year I joined the 3:30 bus. I stayed with them until the half-way mark, where I got lost in a throng of walkers and watched the little 3:30 flag disappear into the distance. This year I didn’t even try to stand near them. I was going to go slowly, take it easy, enjoy the view, enjoy the run. It was a 30 km fun run. Kind of like a long parkrun.

I maintained a steady pace, running, not walking, for the first half of the race. Just slow, slow, slow. But my stomach was giving trouble. Cramps. And there was a niggle in my left knee. By the time we were heading down Suikerbossie, my eyes were bulging from their sockets. I needed a portaloo. And I needed some crutches, maybe, so that I didn’t have to put weight on my left knee.

But still I was having fun. I saw some fellow club members heading towards me. We didn’t know each other but we exchanged some nods, smiles and waves of encouragement.

I had no tissues with me. And no Panado for this knee. Not really anything to eat, either. I had really treated the race like a parkrun. In fact, I’m sure I appeared at my parkruns with more preparation.

I was quite sure there would be portaloos at the turnaround. But, knowing race day portaloos, I knew there would be no toilet paper. What was I going to do? The stomach cramps forced me to walk a few steps every so often. Then, lying there in the road, just in front of me, was a clean, white serviette. Oh wow! But, no! I couldn’t! I couldn’t pick up some tissue paper from the road! Could I? I ran past it. And then I thought, no, if the universe sends you some clean tissue paper while you’re having stomach cramps in the middle of a race, then you must thank the universe and accept the gift. I turned around, ran back to the serviette and picked it up. I figured anyone who saw me doing so would simply think that I had dropped it. It was completely clean. Unused. No shame in this. None at all.

But there were no portaloos at the turnaround. Oh, woe!

I started looking at the bushes, assessing them for cover. But I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t. ‘Where are the toilets?’ I asked the marshals. They, in sympathy, looked as desperate as I was feeling. ‘Choose a tree!’ one called after me.

Just near the 18 km mark was a shopping centre. In the shopping centre was a restaurant, La Cuccina – bless them and all their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I hobbled in, preparing myself to plead for mercy. But the waitress simply nodded in the direction of their clean, fresh, pleasant-smelling facilities. Ah! The small things that can inspire such gratitude!

I unwrapped a Gu Stroopwafel and took a few bites while I walked back onto the course. Suikerbossie was waiting for me. It had been a long, long time since I last tackled that hill. Probably at the last Bay to Bay, I think. I would walk-run it. There was no point in wearing myself out trying to run a 2 km hill, even though I had run this hill more than once in my short running career.

I made some friends along the way. We chatted, we joked, we encouraged each other. I left some behind. They would overtake me again later. I made it to the top of Suikerbossie and got ready to run home. I still had plenty of time to make it to the finish before cut-off. I was on top of Suikerbossie, on top of the world! It was an easy run home. I was feeling good. I could do this … oh … hang on … bugger! My knee! Ah man! My knee! It was not remotely interested in taking full advantage of the generous gift of a gentle downhill slope all the way home. Nope. It wanted to walk.

The pain shot up from my knee into my hip. I walked a bit. When I walked I felt pretty good. Then I’d run a bit. And feel not nearly as good.

And so I had to walk-run-walk the last 10 km, even though the rest of my body was pretty much up for a nice long run. A fellow from Bellville running club pulled up alongside me.

‘Are we doing to make it, sister?’ he asked.

‘Of course we are. We have plenty of time,’ I said.

‘Ah you are confident!’ he said. ‘That’s good.’

He complained of some cramps in his calves. Said we should pull each other through the rest of the route. It sounded like a fine plan, although I was too sore to be of much use to anyone. But we started running together, just keeping a gentle pace. We saw a cameraman and gave him our best smiles. So many cameramen on this route – and I was wearing shorts … were my legs making dimpled, wrinkled, old ladies’ legs waves? We ran on a bit more, chatting about the races we had signed up for. He was doing 27 for Freedom in Paarl. I had thought about it, but the early morning rise and schlepp all the way out to Paarl caused me to reconsider.

Then I had to let him go. My knee insisted on walking a bit. He ran on, found someone else to talk to, and then stopped a few hundred metres ahead of me. He was spraying some stuff on his legs – Dr Lee, it was called – and he shared some with me. Aaah! Sweet relief! I could run for a bit. It’s some Chinese stuff, probably full of all sorts of stuff that involves animal abuse and nothing that I would normally buy. But, boy, it felt good not to hurt for a bit! I didn’t see my friend again. I don’t know if he passed me again or if his generous sharing of Dr Lee meant that I left him and his cramps behind.

And still it seemed as if I had ages to go before cut-off. I could still hobble along, chat to people, take in the view, and make it before cut-off.

I would run along the flat section, I thought – that last bit that takes us to the finish. My knee would hurt on the downhill but it would definitely be good to go on the flat.

Not so.

Dassie Sprint lay ahead. I was not going to be sprinting. I checked the clock. Time had somehow got away from me. Making the cut-off was no longer a sure thing. It was pretty much a no-hoper. I needed to pick up the pace … but … ow man! Geez!

Hundreds and hundreds of runners and walkers streamed through Camps Bay. Runners who had finished were walking upstream towards their cars, telling us to keep going, we’re almost done. Then people started calling time … only eight minutes to go … only five minutes to go … There was a solid chance of me missing cut-off if I didn’t start running in earnest.

A small, fierce woman came running up behind me, coaching some fellow who was in serious pain.

‘Catch the ATC lady,’ she called to him.

No way! Now I’m being targeted! I picked up the pace. It hurt. I kept going. It kept hurting.

The man was in the zone. He had had enough of this race. He was hurting, he was tired, and he wanted done. His shoulders were pulled up to his ears, his back was hunched, his head was at an angle. He was sweating profusely.

‘We can finish this bitch!’ he shouted to no one and everyone. ‘Come on! We can do it! Aaah! Argh! Bitch! Let’s finish this bitch!’

I let him pass me. The last few metres onto the field were a steep downhill. Pain shot up my leg. I tried to do that crabbing thing, where you kind-of run-hop sideways while keeping one leg straight. It was about as elegant as it was effective. Two minutes to go … three … two … what?! How long? Can someone decide?

I made it onto the soft sand and dry, straw-like grass of the chute. There was noise. Music. The announcer was saying stuff. People were shouting, ‘Come on! Come on!’ There was less than a minute to go. I had to run this, no matter what my knee had to say about the matter. People were leaning over the railings, waving their arms. ‘Come on!’ they shouted. ‘You’re almost there! You can do it!’

I ran and I hobbled. No time for smiling now. I saw the time marked out in red lights on the big digital clock. The seconds rolled over. Did someone speed up the clock?

And then I was across the line: 3:59:24. I made it with 36 seconds to spare. Good grief!

What is the matter with me? Why can’t I just turn up for a race well trained and well rested? Does it always have to be more of a challenge than it needs to be? And what, pray tell, is wrong with running a few 10 km races a year and just taking it easy the rest of the time? What?

And next week is the Red Hill Marathon. Another undulating, ITB-smashing route, with a five-hour cut-off. No, I should not be running it. No, I have no chance in hell of making cut-off. In hell I will be, though.

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Bay to Bay start. We’re right at the back, as usual. 

Ultra Trail Cape Town, 65 km … DNF

DNF. It stings.

Like lemon juice in a grated finger.

It shouldn’t, really. But it does.

There was so much that was amazing about the day.

Setting the alarm for 2:15 am and getting out of bed after a sleepless night feeling energized and ready. Getting to the start line at 3:30 in the morning and standing amongst all the other nervous and excited trail runners. So many fit and strong people, ready to run 65 and 100 km up and down our mountain trails. Just being part of this event, being part of something so momentous, even before we started running, was special.

Crossing the start line, running through the gates and onto the road, forming part of this big wave of runners surging down the road in the dark, past darkened homes where families were still sleeping, running through the Company Gardens, past the homeless folk still fast asleep on park benches and looking remarkably comfortable and snug under their thick blankets and duvets, up through the dark city streets, through Greenmarket Square, past late night revelers who hadn’t made their way to bed yet, into Bo-Kaap where the Muslim residents were awake and outside their homes to cheer us on and then, suddenly, we were out of the city and on the mountain trail. Everything became quiet and still.

Looking up I saw the string of headlamps lighting up the trail ahead of me. Hundreds of runners, each one no more than a pinprick of light in the darkness, joining together to form a string of fairy lights looped across the base of Signal Hill.

I was feeling fresh and strong. It was good to be out there. I was doing my best to take it slow. There was a long day stretching ahead of me and I wanted to be there for all of it.

The sun was rising, colouring the dark sky that stretched above the city lights, coaxing the mountain to reveal it self in a crisply outlined silhouette. I had such a deep feeling gratitude and privilege. I get to do this, I thought to myself. I get to do this. I get to be here, to see this. I get to use my body for this purpose. No matter what happened in the race, I got to be there, on the mountain, with all those other runners. I dared to dream that I could be there. No matter how terrified I was in the days leading up to it, no matter what the outcome might be, I was glad that I had turned up.

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Early morning from Signal Hill.

I knew I wasn’t up to finishing this race. Well, more correctly, I knew I was up to it, but just not within the cutoff times.

I had managed to get myself overtrained and undertrained at the same time. Overtrained, because Sneeuberg and Mont Rochelle left me drained and exhausted. Well, maybe it wasn’t all Sneeuberg and Mont Rochelle. Life had flung a few boulders in my way, leaving me exhausted from stress. And so, over the five weeks leading up to the race, the entries in my training log look rather sparse. There were no hills and no trails, and the distances were no longer than 10 km. Undertrained, to say the least.

But, with enough positive self-talk, I managed to convince myself that I could finish. It would be tough, and I would come in with minutes to spare, but I could do it.

And it was going pretty okay until I reached Platteklip. Platteklip, which I had climbed in under an hour with Firstborn Daughter. Platteklip, which now told me that things were not going to be so simple. If I wanted to climb it in under an hour, after already climbing the base of Signal Hill, the base of Lion’s Head, and then Kloof Corner, I should have paid attention to those alarms that went off once a week on my phone and computer: ‘Platteklip with Firstborn Daughter’, it said. And ‘Lion’s Head with Firstborn Daughter’. I would look at the prompt in the top right-hand corner of my screen and carry on working. I felt miserable. I wanted to be out there. I knew that each time I went out there it would take me a step closer to reaching my Ultratrail goal.

But there was always something. As a friend said to me, life is bigger than running. There are many factors that fill my days. And my work doesn’t allow me to just drop and go. There’s always an impossible deadline.

But I digress.

Platteklip attached a giant anchor to my legs and held me back. After climbing Kloof Corner with a smile on my face, and running along the Contour Path with relative ease, Platteklip was a nasty reality check. I slowed right down, stopping to rest my quads, leaning on my knees, battling my way past day hikers and, eventually, stepping aside, time and time again, for the 35 km runners to make their way past me. It felt as if I was out there, struggling up that trail, for hours. Checking Strava, though, the reality is that I was there for about 40 minutes. I keep going back to check – it seems impossible.

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Platteklip’s long ascent, where the warriors are separate from the wimps.

It wasn’t going up that slowed me down – it was going down!

That was where my quads were loaded and my knees gave in. It was there that I became cautious and unsure of my footing. I was wearing my new New Balance Response trail shoes. We had had only a 5 km run together and hadn’t bonded. I didn’t know if I could trust them on slippery downhills.

Once at the top of the mountain, there was a long stretch of flat to get running again and make up for lost time. But the single track trail was busy now. Hundreds of runners on the 35 km route were constantly on my tail. Their legs were relatively fresh and they were moving at a much faster pace. Again, I kept stepping off the trail to allow runners to go by. It was frustrating. It broke my stride and stopped me from getting into a rhythm. But having someone running on my heels was more frustrating.

I passed someone is some serious distress. He must have been a 65 km runner. I don’t know what was wrong, but he had three somber looking people tending to him, holding him propped up, his body, wrapped in a space blanket, motionless. Later I heard that he had to be airlifted off the mountain.

But the views! Oh my! The views from that side of the mountain! I don’t know why I have never been there. I will be back. Definitely. I will be running up there as part of my training next year.

It was in the dip of Echo Valley that I knew it was all over. I wasn’t able to speed up. I needed to pick up the pace quite drastically to make it to the Groot Constantia checkpoint, and the pace was just not picking up. I had never been on this part of the mountain before. It was lush and green. It was incredibly beautiful. I wished I could stop to take some photos but, even though I knew I was behind, I felt I needed to push, to at least try. Finishing, crossing that finish line … ah man … that would be so great. So I didn’t give up, breathe and just enjoy the views. I carried on carrying on.

Along the Blinkwater Peak ascent I again felt the load in my legs. I had climbed a lot of ascents in one morning! But look at the places it had taken me!

The wet, slippery, steep and technical downhills had hammered my knees and ankles, and, going down Smuts Track, with each step my left ITB delivered a painful stab all the way up to my hip. My right Achilles tendon made sure that stepping on the right foot was equally painful. I didn’t want to ruin the next six months of running, I thought. Yes, I want to finish an ultra, but not at the expense of not being able to run or race for months to come. Even if I were to make it in time, I thought, I would give in. Another 30 km in pain was going to be horrendous and was going to cause damage that was going to take a long time to heal. I was making peace with my DNF.

Whatever you feel on a trail, good or bad, will pass, I told myself. This pain will pass. Feeling bad will pass. And, shortly before the aid station at Woodhead Reservoir, I started running again. I was feeling somewhat better. I didn’t hang around at the aid station. Didn’t even take water. Just carried on going. Maybe I could still make it. I crossed the reservoir, which looked like an ocean at the top of the mountain. To my right a deep valley split the mountain. A waterfall gushed over its edge. I want to finish this. I want to cross the finish line, I thought.

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The ocean on top of Table Mountain – Woodhead Reservoir.

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The valley on the other side of the reservoir wall.

Firstborn Daughter sent encouraging texts. ‘Go mom!’ and ‘Keep going’. She also let me know that 11 runners had already withdrawn and that most of those hadn’t made it up Platteklip. So, however badly I was doing, I was doing better than some. And I was third masters lady. Well, that meant, of course, that there were only three women in my age group who had the audacity to put themselves on the trail. I felt some pride in that.

At some point a string of texts came through at the same time. I had been out of range and the Significant Other and Firstborn Daughter had been having a long conversation about where I was and how I was feeling. It was good to know that they were thinking of me.

At the other end of the reservoir, a marshal saw my blue number – the only one amongst hundreds of greens. He asked if I would be diverting to the 35 km trail. ‘Do I have to?’ I asked. ‘No,’ he said. Well, then, I would continue on the 65 km route until someone told me to stop.

I turned right to take the steep descent to Groot Constantia. And this is where my knee turned up the volume. It whined and complained and harassed. Going down was agony. I did some funny crabbing hop-walk-run thing all the way. It took me an hour to cover the 7 km of downhill – the downhill section that, on the profile, looked like the place where I would make up the time lost on the ups.

It will pass. The pain will pass. It will get better. And it did. Only after it got worse, though. Much worse. And then the road flattened out and I could run again. My aches and pains eased out. Maybe they would let me run on. Maybe they would say I could go to the next checkpoint. If I could just make it to the 50 km mark, then I would be happy. Because 50 km is an ultra. I would still have run an ultra this year, even if I didn’t complete the race. Maybe …

Running along a vineyard trail, Landie Greyling, first lady of the 100 km, came gliding past me on her long, beautiful legs. She hadn’t even broken a sweat. With a huge smile on her face she told me I was looking good and to keep on hanging on. And then she was gone. Wow … what does it feel like to do that …?

Running along Constantia Main Road, I heard whooping and hooting. It was Firstborn Daughter and Her Boyfriend driving to Groot Constantia to cheer me in. I was glad to be running! At least they didn’t catch me walking. I was still racing. It was all over, but I was still running. No one had officially told me it was over, so I was putting in whatever effort I had left in me.

And then, there it was … Groot Constantia checkpoint. A blonde woman stepped in front of me. ‘Are you on the 65 km route?’ she asked. ‘Yes,’ I said, although it was clearly evident that I was. ‘Then it’s over for you,’ she said. Or words to that effect. ‘I know, I know,’ I said. ‘You’re aware of that, then,’ she said.

She must have had a lot of arguments with a lot of runners, because she came across as unnecessarily forceful. She was probably very nice, but in my disappointment, she just came across as a bit, well, bitchy. Suddenly I wasn’t okay with stopping. Not okay at all. A painful lump suddenly expanded in my throat, rivalling the pain in my knees. The Significant Other was there, walking towards me across the grass. I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want anyone to see me being a big baby. I smiled. Yes, I was fine. Yes, of course I wanted to carry on. No, I don’t want to sit. Yes, please, a piece of watermelon would be very nice.

Firstborn Daughter and Her Boyfriend arrived. She had brought some drinks, a towel, some flipflops. The Significant Other forgot to bring the bag I had packed and asked him to bring to the finish. It was fine. My daughter hugged me. ‘Well done, Mom,’ she said. It wasn’t well done. There was that lump again. And it made my eyes water. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.

‘You crazy woman,’ said Firstborn Daughter. ‘No one goes from running their first trail run to running an ultra in the same year.’

Well … maybe …

‘I would like to lodge a complaint,’ I said. ‘Here I am, sitting on a wine farm, under a gazebo, and there’s not a glass of wine in my hand.’

And so, to take the sting out of not reaching my goal, we went to lunch at Jonkershuis. We bumped into a friend who joined us for lunch. There was laughter and general merriment. I had a glass of wine, and then another. I had some lunch, and some more wine. It didn’t take the sting out of it. My great big fail sat on my shoulder, casting a shadow over everything.

It’s a big disappointment. It was my goal for this year. I had entered early this year and had set off getting as much trail experience as I could. It just wasn’t enough. It wasn’t consistent enough and not specific enough.

They had told me I was crazy. They had told me I couldn’t do it. I was going to prove them wrong. I proved them right.

This morning my eyes are still filling with water.

I know where I went wrong. I know where I lost focus in my training. I know what to do better and different next time. I will be back next year. I will run the 65 km. I will finish it. It’s less than a year away – the next Ultra Trail Cape Town is on 2 December 2017. Entry opens in March. I will be one of the first to enter. I will be there. I will finish.

 

Trail terror

4 December 5, 2016

By next week Sunday, the Ultra Trail Cape Town will be a thing of the past. Whether I had turned up to run it or not, it would have happened. One thousand runners would have attempted either the 35, 65 or 100 km route and by Sunday night they would still be sitting in the warm glow of their accomplishment.

And right now I am looking at the train smash that is my training log.

13 km this week. Just over 20 last week. Not one week over 40 km in weeks and weeks.

And I’m supposed to be running an ultra on Saturday. An ultra that goes over a mountain. I feel sick. For weeks now I have avoiding looking in the direction of the mountain as I drive along the N1 on yet another trip to the northern suburbs. I sometimes allow myself to glance at the trail running across the plump waistline of Devil’s Peak. That’s the road home. The downhill track towards the finish line. There would still be 10 km to go, but the city would be in sight. The worst would be over.

I look at training logs of other runners on Strava, people who take their training seriously, people who sign up for big races and then do big runs in training, and I feel sick.

My training log looks pretty decent up to the Cape Town Marathon. And then it all just falls apart. Disintegrates. Vapourised.

What to do?

Do I turn up? It seems so disrespectful of the race, of the effort put in by the organisers, of the effort put in by all the other runners. Do I turn up and hope to survive, just hope to finish? Do I see finishing before cut-off as a win? Do I accept that a DNF can happen to the best runners in the world and that I might also have those three letters behind my name?

Ah. My word. My runs over the last few weeks haven’t even included a hill. Let alone a mountain.

How am I going to do this?

I am so absolutely terrified of what lies ahead that I don’t even have thoughts formulated in words. All I have is a leaden feeling of dread. It comes to roost in my stomach and then it sends waves of terror through my chest and arms. It closes my throat and it paralyses my legs.

Every time the Significant Other and The Kid ask me, ‘What’s changed? You were fine a moment ago and now suddenly you’re short tempered. What’s happened?’ it’s because I have suddenly been reminded of This Thing looming over me.

I tell myself that I have worked all year for this. I have signed up for all sorts of trail runs. I have done the toughest trails – Jonkershoek, Montagu Mountain Mania and Grootvadersbosch. There were various shorter trail runs – Groot Constantia, Lourensford and Uitkyk, as well as Strandloper. And then there was Sneeuberg: 111 km covered over three days of desert heat and dust, at altitude – I keep forgetting about the altitude. And I topped that experience with the sheer hell that Trail du Mont Rochelle.

I have taken on the trails along mountains, deserts, rivers and beaches.

So far I am only 19 km away from having run 1 800 km this year. I have clocked up an elevation gain of over 30 000 m. I have run three marathons – if you don’t count the 40 km and 44 km (inadvertently) run on the Sneeuberg Traverse.

Sure, the last five weeks have been pretty terrible. I have been exhausted, post-flu, post-London, post-London-flu-type-relapse, post-Sneeuberg, post-Trail du Mont Rochelle. I’ve struggled to run. I’ve had to talk myself into running 10 km without stopping for a walk break. If I can run 10 km without walking, I’ve been telling myself, then all I have to do is run 10 km six times and the job is done. And chunks of the distance will be hiking, not running, as I’ll be climbing the mountain – like that’s a piece of cake! Parts of the trail will go downhill. And then, on the flat stretches, all I have to do is run 10 km without stopping. Six times. And then the job is done.

Oh. My. Word.

If it were as simple as that, the whole of Cape Town would be lining up.

It starts at four in the morning! I’ve not once managed to get out of bed at five in the last few weeks. In fact, Nor have I managed to stay awake for an entire day. Do I even go to sleep the night before the race? How do I do this? OMG! I would have to be there at 3:15 am, so I would have to leave home at 3:00, so I would have to be out of bed at 2:00 … no, 1:00 … Oh. My. Fuck.

Okay. Let’s go back to the pep talk. Every run this year has been aimed at gaining experience and fitness for Ultra Trail Cape Town. I have ramped up my mileage. Yes, I have had to take it easy over the last weeks, but the year’s runs are still sitting in my legs.

And Hal Higdon says you should taper for three weeks. You should be well rested at the start of the race. Rather undertrained than overtrained, he says. Or someone said that. I’ve always managed to turn up undertrained. That’s for sure. Except for Cape Town Marathon. I was well trained. And that bombed spectacularly. Twice, in fact.

And I don’t have a goal for the UTCT. The goal is simply to finish. For CTM I wanted a sub-five hour. A 4:30, in fact. But for UTCT there is no pressure. It’s simply a case of getting out there, letting all the young bucks pass me as soon as possible, definitely before the single track, and then spending the rest of the day – 14 hours – out there on the trails, making my way home. Even ET got home eventually. And Frodo and Sam made it from the Shire to Mt Mordor and back again. Atreyu makes it out of the Swamp of Sadness, even without his horse.

But I just had such big training plans. I was going to be so much better prepared. I was going to be awesomely prepared. All those Platteklip and Lion’s Head climbs I had scheduled. One or two climbs per week. It didn’t happen. All those abs classes at gym. Ditto.

It’s just so frustrating. As a woman, I can’t go out on the trails by myself. Roads are okay, but yomping up trails by myself is just looking for trouble. So here I sit, undertrained, with the entire route just outside my front door.

I have found Tuesday Trails and Mates, and I have joined the Mountain Club. So I’ll be set up for plenty of running groups next year. I just need to get through Saturday, 10 December.

I survived 12 and 17 hours of labour. I survived eight hours on the trail in Sneeuberg. I made it down that killer of a trail at Mont Rochelle. I made it up and down Grootvadersbosch and Montagu.

I can do this.

I think … Maybe … I hope …

I’m so ridiculously terrified!

If I can just remember to breathe …

 

 

The Sneeuberg Traverse

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3,4, 5 November

Wow.

The experience was so big, so beyond what I imagined I would be capable of, that most of what I went through has been erased from my memory banks. Kind of like what happens when you go through childbirth or maybe even your wedding day.

I remember trying to get out of the city and on the road to Murraysburg. As always, it was a ridiculous endeavour. I can never leave the house and go on a trip like normal people do. No matter how much I plan to start shopping two weeks before the trip, ticking off my list of items as I go, and starting to pack various items a week beforehand so that I just need to finalise the day before, I always end up chasing my own tail on the day of departure.

There are so many things that that trip me up, demand my attention and slow my progress. Work, mostly, which always intensifies when I have a trip planned, and The Old Man. The house, The Kid. Occasional glumness and a sense of being overwhelmed by the to-do list that fills an entire Moleskine and that never seems to grow a full margin of ticks.

On the day that we were meant to leave, I still needed to get myself a solar charger so that I could charge my iPhone and Garmin(s) while I was out in the Karoo and, since the temperatures were going to be a bit on the crazy-hot side, I decided that I should get my thatch trimmed if I wasn’t going to expire of heat or drown in my own sweat while out there on the trail. Exit almost feminine-looking grey-haired woman. Enter stereotypical middle-aged lesbian. Why does she always scalp me?! What have I ever done to her?! She has a gorgeous, funky, feminine hairstyle. But when I walk in she seems to think I want to look like a man. Ah well. It grows. At least there would be no mirrors out there. I wouldn’t have to look at myself.

Firstborn Daughter added to the panic by damaging a tyre the day before and having to replace it that morning. She then discovered that her spare tyre had been stolen by the last mechanic to service her car. So most of the morning was taken up by expensive and stressful motor vehicle admin.

We did eventually leave town in a rather overloaded little VW Polo – me sitting on a few inches of back seat with my knees pulled up to my ears and Her Boyfriend with his knees against the dashboard. We would be nice and comfortable for the next seven to eight hours on the highway.

The trip was the usual … we were running late, of course, since there is no other way to travel. And then there was a call from the organisers to pick up a fellow runner in Laingsburg, as her car had broken down – there was just no way she was going to fit in on that back seat next to me; and then, as night fell and Firstborn Daughter tested her mettle on the N1, dodging trucks and reckless drivers, it became quite clear that we were going to be arriving at Murraysburg very late. Too late for the registration and briefing. Too late even to meet any of the other runners, as they would have gone to bed by the time we arrived. Then we overshot the turnoff, conveniently labelled ‘Graaff-Reinet’, not ‘Murraysburg’, and had to find a safe place to do a U-turn on the highway in the dark and make our way back to the turnoff. We always like to start our trips in the most stressful way possible.

The next morning we all met at the Murraysburg showgrounds. This was where we would have breakfast before being loaded onto a cattle truck and transported to the start line of Day 1.

Everyone checked everyone else out, quietly assessing each other’s running ability. There were some strong looking people but also some pretty non-athletic-looking runners. The presence of the less-athletic-looking runners did nothing to calm my nerves. Running has no body type, and the most endomorph or unmuscular shapes can conceal the strongest runners.

I was not ready for this. I had signed up months ago, despite Firstborn Daughter telling me not to be ‘retarded as ****’. I just kind of had to sign up after that.

I figured I would, if I stuck to my ultra training programme, be in great shape for this when the time came, and it would be great training for Ultra Trail Cape Town. Then came the Cape Town Marathon, the flu, the trip to London and being under the weather for a few weeks after getting back home. Basically, more than a month had passed without any decent training, and I was struggling my way through short runs. I had run (struggled through) the Groote Post 18 km the week before we left, and after coming stone last. It was then that I knew that Sneeuberg was way beyond my abilities. I also knew that if Sneeuberg was going to be too tough, it was time to start bidding the UTCT my sad goodbyes.

Had Firstborn Daughter and Her Boyfriend not committed to going along to Sneeuberg (despite my insistence that I would be just fine on my own and that they had better things to do, like settle into their new home, for example), and had their commitment not cost both them and me a fair amount of cash, I would happily have bailed on this one. I would have lost the money I had paid and stayed in bed with the duvet over my ears for three days. Simple. And comfortable.

But it was too late for any of that. I had arrived in Murraysburg. I had pulled on the running gear and the trail shoes, strapped the too-heavy Osprey onto my back, and climbed onto the cattle truck. There was no pulling out now.

At best, I thought, I would do two days. Day 1 and Day 2 would be more than I was able to do. Day 1 would be pushing the limits. Day 2 would be out and out bravery. Purple Heart stuff.

Knowing my lack of training, the Significant Other, Firstborn Daughter and Her Boyfriend all tried to convince me to, if not bail, then at least just go and do Day 1. Just do it slowly. Walk most of it. Enjoy it. And then take the remaining two days as some time off in the desert. They seemed to make perfect sense.

Day 1

Day 1 was supposed to be the easy day. Instead, it was the toughest day out on the field – ever! Although, I have had so many tough days out on the trail that I can’t really say for sure which one of them has been the toughest.

I do know that I have never pulled out a sarong to wear over my head to shield myself from the sun. I rarely wear a cap when I run but on Day 1 I wore a cap and a sarong. I have also never felt the world spin as if I were about to faint. I have also never felt my lungs burn as I gasped for air … while walking! Yes, walking! There was altitude! I had not for a moment considered altitude when I signed up. We started at around 1 300 m elevation and climbed, eventually, to 1 700 m before we started our long descent to the finish line. I don’t remember much about Day 1 other than the last ascent, a 2 km climb from 1 600 m to 1 700 m (that really just doesn’t sound like very much at all, does it?).

The sun baked down on me. The wind churned up dust that settled between my teeth. The climb, at times as tough as 16%, seemed endless, sometimes slowing my pace down to an excruciating 20km/h (according to Strava). Those would have been the times during which I just stood still … to take a deep breath and toto take stock … to take stock of the climb ahead,  the climb already conquered, and of how I was feeling physically, mentally, emotionally.

Each time the going got tough I pulled myself back into the present space. I told myself to be grateful for the privilege of being there, in that ancient, unspoilt, silent space. Just be here, I told myself. Just be here.

I remember (before the climb) trying to catch the couple ahead of me. I could see the husband behaving much the way my Significant Other behaves when he has decided that a runner ‘Shall. Not. Pass.’ I could see she was exhausted and taking strain. I could see him looking back and starting to run each time I drew near. I was tired and some company would have been good but I couldn’t help but be amused at his determination to keep me in the distance.

I didn’t catch them. I stopped first to walk off the trail to admire a giant cliff that is usually a spectacular waterfall and then, when I drew close to them again, to help a giant mountain tortoise that was stuck in a fence. I was enjoying the solitude and the toughness of the route, and I was glad that I wasn’t being hurried along by a significant other.

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The cliffs over which waterfalls tumble when the rains come. 

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One of the many tortoises along the route. At the pace I was setting, any one of them could easily have raced me to the finish. 

I finished just after them, completing the 27 km in under five hours, and averted my eyes when karma had him blowing chunks over the truck’s tailgate on the ride back to the farm.

Day 1 had me wiped out and I had no idea how I was going to face Day 2. Firstborn Daughter and Her Boyfriend devised some game plans for me. Her Boyfriend told me to do Day 2 and then skip Day 3. Firstborn Daughter said I should rest on Day 2 and tackle Day 3, as Day 3 would be the longest distance and more useful to my ultra training.

I had decided that I was done with running. I was definitely done with running long distances and maybe done with running altogether. I would start over, I thought. I would go back to 5 km runs, parkruns, even, and slowly build up to  gentle 10 and 15 km runs. I would slowly get myself ready for the Peninsula Marathon, maybe, if I felt like it. But, mostly, I was done with running. My legs were tired, my skin roasted to a crisp and my toes bruised. Why keep running?

‘Which are you going to do?’ they asked. Clearly their game plans were my only two options.

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I’m just going to push on.’

Day 2

And so, when the alarms in our little camp all started going off at 4:30 am, I got myself into my gear, had something or another to eat, and got onto the truck. I sent a text to the Family, saying ‘Second morning sitting on a hay bale on the back of a truck, ready to be dropped off on a patch of wasteland. Starting to ask myself some serious questions.’

Day 2’s route had been shortened to a mere 35 km. Everyone was most grateful.

Miraculously, once I got going, I felt great. Really great. I powered ahead of the Stick People – the couple from the day before and another couple who were doing the race with their daughter’s boyfriend, all of whom were doing the race with trekking poles.

Trekking poles! These were the items that I was going to buy specifically for the Sneeuberg so that I could try them out! I never got to that item on the to-do list. In fact, my addled memory didn’t even allow me to write it on the list.

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A promising start to Day 2: water … a pretty rare sight in the Karoo, especially now that we are in the midst of a serious drought.

Day 2’s route was pretty wild, with quite a lot of trail going straight through veld. The morning was cool, the air fresh, and the pain from the previous day was long forgotten. My mood was elevated and I felt as if I was going to do well.

I powered along, looking back to the Stick People from time to time to verify that I was on the right track. The markers were, to me, not always clear, and the guys in front (who all had Suunto’s) had disappeared from sight. Confident that I was on the right track, I forged ahead, clambering over rocks and having a fine old time.

The only problem was that, while I was watching my feet and working my way through the waist-to-shoulder-high scrub, I missed a critical marker cheerfully winking at us from a gate. On I went, right past it, without even noticing that there was a gate, until I reached a steep drop.

‘Ah, this must be the cliff he spoke about,’ I figured to myself, recalling snatches of the race briefing, and clambered down, slipping on the loose gravel and stones and carried on.

‘Follow the fence line,’ said the instructions. There was a fence, I hadn’t seen any left or right turn arrows, and so I had to be on the right track. Then I reached another drop, this one higher and steeper than the last one.

‘Ah, that wasn’t a cliff. This is a cliff,’ I told myself, Crocodile Dundee-style, and clambered down this one too.

I stopped to look up at the steep section I had climbed down, take in the surrounding countryside and gaze off into the distance. The fence stretched a long, long way away. I could see far into the distance and what I saw was … nothing! No markers. No other runners. No matter how far ahead they were, I should have been able to see tiny, multicoloured specks moving swiftly in the distance.

I checked the GPS app on my phone.

‘Ooooooo …’ I said to myself.

There I was, the pulsating blue dot at the bottom left of the screen. And there was the trail, a solid blue line at the top right of the screen. I was pretty far off course. I would have to climb back up those steep drops I had so enjoyed climbing down!

Oh well … all part of the fun. Onward!

Up I went. I sensed some movement high above me and, squinting into the morning light, there he was, the Race Director, waving his arms over his head. The Stick People behind me had told him that I had pushed on and had disappeared over the edge. He had come to look for me and guided me back to the gate where I was supposed to turn left. I had added about 3 km to my route, and we were only about 7 km in. I was now stone last. No one else was anywhere in sight. Even the Stick People. They were all ahead of me.

Luckily I like my own company. And I was still having a great time. And, really, what did it matter that I was stone last? What did it matter if I ran or walked or crawled? I was out there, in nature, being active, feeling strong and healthy. It was all good.

I powered on along another steep incline. I wasn’t going to try to run the inclines on this trip. I needed to get through three days, and the distances were great. Running up a hill at my running speed really doesn’t save as much time as it consumes energy.

So, up I went, taking it all in, enjoying the surroundings, and taking care not to miss another marker.

Until I reached about 16 km, that is.

I opened a farm gate, closed it behind me and, as I turned back towards the trail, came face to face with the most spectacular view. It literally took my breath away. I was mesmerized. Despite the nice, flat section of clear trail, I just couldn’t run. I simply had to walk to take it all in. To my right, mountain ranges in shades of blue, green and purple rolled away into the distance. To my left, clumps of bright yellow wild irises dotted the green slopes. Straight ahead of me, the earth fell away. I walked to the cliff edge to take a look. It was incredible! The soil was rich and deep brown, not pale and dusty, as much of the trail had been, and the slope was covered in green (not brown) vegetation. I tried to take a pic with my iPhone and again regretted not buying myself a small camera to take along on the trail. There was just no way of adequately capturing these memories on an iPhone.

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A glimpse of the views that had me distracted.

I looked around for a marker. There it was, dangling from the fence. I was still on the the right track. I looked at the instructions. It said that I should take the cow path down into the valley. It said I should be careful as the descent was steep. This all seemed to match with where I was standing. So down the slope I went. Down and down and down.

But there should be more markers, shouldn’t there? A fence this long should have some reassuring marker somewhere along it.

Yes, I could follow the fence line but was this really a cow path?

Had I missed another marker elsewhere? Was the cow path more to the centre of the slope? Can cows even walk down a slope this steep?

I started looking for footprints. Yep … there they were. Footprints following the fence line.

But … there should be more markers … surely?

And … this fence looks pretty new. Maybe the footprints were left by the guy who put the fence up?

I looked back up to where I started. Ah man. It was pretty damn high. I really, really didn’t want to climb back up. Really. Not.

Maybe I could walk across the slope for a bit and see if there was a cow path going down the middle. Maybe I would spot another marker. It seemed like a much better plan than clambering back up the slope. Eventually, with time ticking away, I had to concede that the only way out was back up. There were clearly no other markers in the vicinity and that was never a good thing. I must have missed a marker while taking in the view.

Back up I went. Strava tells me that some parts of the ascent were a cool 30%. A mere nothing in the greater scheme of things.

I looked towards the fence where I had last seen the marker.

Um … What …? Wait …? No way?! There was no marker! Had I become delirious and imagined that there had been a marker? Up and down the trail I walked, scanning the fence and the surrounding areas for a marker. How far back would I have to walk this time? I was puzzled. Extremely puzzled. But, wow, it sure was pretty there!

Then I heard a voice. Doubting my sanity at this stage, I also doubted my hearing. There was no one for miles. I looked around and looked around some more. There definitely was a voice. And, for the second time that day, there was the Race Director, standing at the top of a koppie, waving his arms above his head, calling my name.

Oh. My. Word.

I am such an idiot!

And also very relieved to see him. Had he not been there, I might still be out there on that trail. Only now I would be one of those Karoo legends that trail runners would tell each other about around the fire at night. They would ask each other if they had seen that woman with the white cap, walking up and down the same stretch, holding a piece of white paper in her hand …

I had another steep incline to climb to get to him. I had to hurry, as he was waiting. And I was an idiot. But, wow, the incline was steep, and I had just climbed up that other one, and I needed to rest for just a moment, but I was an idiot and I had to keep going … oh, good grief, I was never going to finish Day 2 and I was never going to run again. Never. Not ever.

Finally back on the right path, I made my way to the aid station at the halfway point. Ah man! Did I ever regret not wearing longs that day! My legs were scraped raw. He had said that he wanted the trail to be a bit wild and he certainly delivered on that. Wild it was. Every so often I would lose sight of the next marker. I would wander in some direction, not sure if I was going the right way or not, lose confidence, and wander back to find a rock to stand on so that I could scan the tops of the shrubs, orient myself and get going again. Wow. It was tough. There was very little running to do through that kind of terrain.

And all that kept me going was that I was going to reach the aid station and then I was going to tap out – like they do in the Barkley Marathons. Because, really, what I was doing was at least one circle of the Barkley Marathons. The trumpeter could start wetting the whistle, because he had a tune to play for me …

I finally reached the aid station, feeling remarkably fresh. But I had been out there for a long time – almost five hours, in fact – and I just couldn’t make the sweeper stay out in the field until I staggered over the finish line. It wouldn’t be right. I sat down in a camping chair and announced that I would go back on the truck. As I said it, I felt my eyes tear up. I didn’t really want to bail at the halfway point.

‘The last guys passed through here only twenty minutes ago,’ they said.

‘What?!’ I said. ‘No way?!’

Up I got immediately. I had people to catch.

In my eagerness to get back on the trail, I forgot to fill my Osprey bladder with water.

Off I trotted. The last guys were only twenty minutes ahead. Even if I came in last, it wouldn’t be such a humiliation. On I smashed, scraping my already scraped-raw skin on shrubs, bashing my bruised toes against rocks, and keeping a fairly steady, albeit painfully slow pace all the way. Occasionally I would pass white bones and skulls strewn along the trail. Things die out here. I could be next.

And then I reached a descent. Oh my word! I think Dante swung that way before he wrote his Inferno. Straight down it went. This was the descent into the valley he spoke about. That other pretty slope was just for decoration.

A rickety wire fence provided some kind of handrail as the dry sand and loose rocks shifted underfoot. Way, way down below, about halfway down the slope, were two of the Stick People. They seemed so far away that I couldn’t tell if they were moving up or down the slope. They must be moving down, I told myself. No one could possibly move up. And … cow path?! No way cows can go down this path!

But … I caught up with them. I had to smile to myself again. The Stick Man clearly saw me coming. But there was no wave. No acknowledgement. He stood with his back to me as I came down.

And I caught up with them. Bwhahahaha-haaa! I did! I caught up with them!

The Stick Woman was lovely. So lovely. She offered me one of her sticks. She said she didn’t know how I was managing without sticks and that I should take one of hers. I tried the stick out but I wasn’t used to it and it slowed me down.

Now wasn’t the time to experiment with equipment. I handed it back to her and made to pass the Stick Man. As I passed him, I turned to answer a question or to say something and, because I am an idiot, I lost my balance and fell. Hard. I grazed my already tenderized leg and felt my hip jolt out of alignment. But there was no way I was hanging about feeling sorry for myself. Walk it off, woman! Walk it off!

I reached the nice man waiting by his little white car – our last checkpoint before we would be alone again – and asked if he had any water. Wetting my Buff and the top of my head was all I could think about. He had none, he said, but there was water along the route. Oh wow … no water … I gazed out at the dusty trail. It didn’t seem as if there would be water out there. There was a clump of green trees, completely out of place in this arid landscape, so it must have meant that there was water nearby. I set off again, somehow energized after getting lost twice, adding 5 km to my route, scraping my legs to shreds, falling, and passing the last two people in front of me.

I did find some water to wet my Buff in. A large-ish lake appeared, mirage-like, out of nowhere. I squelched into the gooey mud and doused my head in water. It seemed to be the best thing that had happened to me all day. But I couldn’t allow the Stick Couple to pass me. I had to keep moving. I glanced back into the trail. I couldn’t see them. Onwards!

And then there was another climb. As if I needed another climb. It was on jeep track, so somewhat easier than had it been on single track. But 6 km of up and up and up after already trudging 26 km was more than I needed. But, somehow, I had energy. I saw the Stick Couple below me, not yet on the uphill part. The Stick Man was now walking ahead of his wife. ‘They’re not catching me on this uphill,’ I thought. ‘Don’t stop. To the top. Don’t stop.’ Onwards I went, one foot in front of the other.

And then there was a bit of glorious downhill … followed by murderous, endless, soul destroying flat. About 7 km on same-same-same landscape and monotonous terrain that messed with the head. My legs, now filled with some leaden, burning liquid, refused to run. ‘Run,’ I would tell myself. ‘This is not a hike. You are no longer a walker. You are a runner. Run.’ And so I would run. And then I would walk. And then I would run a bit again.

By this time my Garmin’s battery had died and I had no idea how much further I had to go. I wasn’t sure if my iPhone was still charged and I didn’t want to touch it in case I wore that down too (if it was still alive).

I kept referring to the piece of white paper in my hand. Where was I? Was I still on the trail? Should I be over there, where those trees are? Or should I be here? Where are the markers? I sucked on my mouthpiece for water. It yielded nothing but strong resistance. I had used up all my water and I still had about 6 km of afternoon heat to conquer.

To my right, in the distance, was a large dam. I wished for the trail to veer towards it. But it stayed far in the distance. I heard whooping and yelling coming from the other side. Everyone has already finished running, I thought. They are all swimming and having fun in the dam. There’s just me out here, in this heat and dust, with no water, still – still – trying to finish this damn run.

But the noise wasn’t being made by fifteen other people. It was being made by our support team – Favourite Daughter, Her Boyfriend, and The Mother of one of the Top Runners. They were watching us through binoculars and could see us approaching. I couldn’t see them. I could hear them but they were so far away that they were invisible to us poor unfortunate souls out there on the trail.

And then I saw them. The trail markers kind of disappeared again. There were wire sheep kraals, as per the instructions on my piece of paper, and caves up against the cliffs, so I was kind of in the right place. But where exactly to put my feet …? Just keep going. Keep going.

And then, there they were: humans. Tiny humans waving their arms, whooping and yelling and running towards me – Firstborn Daughter and Her Boyfriend. Then they were pointing and waving – I was going the wrong way. I adjusted my trajectory. Then they were pointing and shouting again. I was going the wrong way again. Just make this trail stop. Just make it stop! Just get me to the end!

Then I had to climb over a rusty, rickety, wobbly gate, just high enough for the shoe on my back foot to hook onto as I stood there, trying to balance, not at all ballerina-like, in arabesque, trying to dislodge myself without pulling a muscle and move on. Then, in some cruel joke, I missed another marker, headed in the wrong direction again. My faithful, trusty supporters, Firstborn Daughter and Her Boyfriend, waved their arms frantically. ‘Other way! Other way!’ they called.

Ah man! Another fence to climb over. Then a dam wall to walk along – I didn’t think I had the balance left in my body to keep myself steady along a narrow dam wall strewn with open sandbags. Then I was off the wall and had a small bank to clamber up and then the last stretch to run. Good grief! Oh. My. Word. What a long, long day out. Just under nine hours of … I don’t know what … something … out there in the Karoo landscape. But it was done. I could sit in a chair for a short while. I could have some water. And then I could head back to the farmhouse where I could wash myself in about an inch of cold water in a dirty bath that all the other runners had already used and no one had cleaned. Luxury!

I had done two thirds of this thing. Was I going to do Day 3? I wasn’t sure. I didn’t decide that I was definitely not going to. But I also wasn’t anticipating it as eagerly as, say, not running it.

I went to the hour-long yoga class, had some supper, went for a massage and slowly came to the realization that not deciding not to turn up for Day 3 was really the same as deciding to turn up for it.

I had a restless night in my little tent. I kept slipping down the slope that the tent hand been pitched on and having to crawl back up my mattress again. The light on the stoep of the farmhouse kept going on and illuminating my tent. Someone in the tent nearby was snoring up a storm. I was starting to feel murderous. I fantasized about getting up and kicking the fellow’s tent and shouting at him to stop snoring. I considered taking my sleeping bag and pillow and going to sleep on the couch inside the farmhouse. But I stayed where I was and managed to get some sleep here and there through the night.

Day 3

Day 3 dawned. The alarms started going off, again, at 4:30. I was going to do this thing. I hadn’t intended doing it. I didn’t think I could do it. But it seemed I was about to do it. With hands shaking I got my gear out, got dressed, mixed some Tailwind, filled my reservoir with water and joined the rest of the gang at the start line. I was terrified. I was gagging and fighting waves of nausea as I followed the other runners to the start. If the first two days were anything to go by, today was going to be the end of me.

We set off. I was running at the snail’s pace of 7:30/km, and I was out of breath and struggling. How was I going to make it through the day at this pace? The Top Runners disappeared within minutes – and, infuriatingly, looking as if they were just going for a light and easy parkrun. They were laughing and chatting to each other as they just blitzed their way along the trail, leaving not even a puff of dust in their wake.

The Stick People spread out. The Stick Couple were just in front of me, and I tried to stay just behind them. The Stick Trio disappeared from sight behind me. Somehow, without meaning to, I passed the Stick Couple. I thought I would stay just a few paces ahead of them and that they would soon pass me again. But I pulled further and further away from them.

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A flock of sheep looking like tiny puffballs of cotton in the early morning light.

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The Stick Couple, showing solidarity. The Stick Man gently guided his Stick Woman through the entire trail, giving her his arm when the going got tough and holding her hand just because. 

It was another glorious morning in the Karoo. The temperature was still mild, the breeze gentle and the light just gorgeous. I started feeling quite good. It was strange. After two hard days on the trail I should have been feeling leaden, but somehow I was feeling stronger than I had on either of the previous two days. Even more bizarre was that I was feeling good while the trail immediately kicked off on an uphill, gently at first, and then with feeling. The profile shows an ascent akin to a sheer cliff face. I stopped to chat with the Race Director near the top and saw the Stick Couple approaching. They’re not passing me today, I thought, and set off.

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Despite my huffing and puffing, Day 2’s trail seemed to hold promise of a good day ahead.

I crested the top and a nice, long stretch of flat allowed me to settle into a run, allowing me, I hoped, to widen the distance between the Stick Couple and myself. The countryside was completely different to the previous two days, and absolutely beautiful. I was feeling strong. I was flying. Today wasn’t going to be a good day. It was going to be a great day. I wasn’t getting lost. I wasn’t wasting time. I was getting the job done and getting off the trail as soon as possible – I was getting off before the fun wore off.

When I reached the aid station they told me that the previous runner, one of the Top Runners, was only ten minutes ahead of me, and that the other Top Runner, a big fellow who had come third on Day 1, was only about fifteen minutes ahead of her. Of course, on the trail, that adds up to a massive distance, but still – I was doing not too badly at all.

Inspired by this small gap between the next runner and me, I set off immediately. I was still feeling great and the trail was forgiving. I looked behind me: no sign of the Stick Couple. I could see the aid station in the distance and they hadn’t arrived there yet.

I took my back of chips from my backpack and walked along the path, eating chips, taking in the wild countryside and thinking how amazing this was and how great I was feeling and how very lucky I was to be there. Of course, that should have given me reason to worry. Whatever you’re feeling on a long distance run, good or bad, it will pass. And feeling confident, in control and strong would pass.

I folded up the packet, put it back in my pack, pulled my cap down over my eyes and got running again. The trail stretched ahead of me. There were no obstacles in the way and no visible turnoffs. All easy and plain sailing. I was going to smash today.

And I ran along easily, keeping my eyes on the path. And then, suddenly, there was a fork in the road. And no marker. Left or right? Which way? After the previous day’s fiasco, I was in no mood for getting lost again. I felt a sense of humour loss creeping up on me. I took a snap of the two jeep tracks veering off in different directions and sent a furious, X-rated text to Firstborn Daughter.

At the aid station, the marshal had told me that, should a marker have fallen off, I should be sure to keep the cliffs on my right. So I figured that markers were likely to have fallen off. I checked the distance on my Garmin. 24,6, it said. I checked my piece of paper. ‘At 24,6 km, bear left,’ it said. Okay. Bear left. I bore left.

The jeep track quickly disappeared, which was an indication that things were going wrong. We would stay on a clear jeep track all day, we were told. And there were no markers. But there was supposed to be a gate at 25,3 km, so I would either be on the right path or I would add an extra 2 km or so to my distance. There was no gate at 25,3 km. I wasn’t happy. I walked back to the split in the road. Maybe this isn’t the place to bear left, I figured. I should probably carry on with the road I was on. It looked like a clear road and the cliffs were still to my right. I carried on along the road, which started to descend into a valley. The piece of paper said that I would be descending, so it must be right. Right? There were wheel tracks in the soft sand, which could have been the Race Director passing by on his scrambler. Or not. I could see no footprints.

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The fork in the road … left or right? I tried both. Neither were correct. I was lost on the trail again.And not so very cheerful this time. 

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The fork where I should have gone left. Except, I saw no marker, I was on the right hand side of the track with my head down and in the zone. I just carried on straight until I spotted the next split in the track.

My sense of humour left me. As did cellphone signal. I couldn’t get the GPS tracker to work. I could see a giant cellphone tower on the peak across the way from me, but my phone couldn’t pick up a signal. I texted Firstborn Daughter. ‘I’m lost,’ I said. ‘Really lost.’ Then a text from the Significant other came through. ‘I’m alone and lost,’ I said. ‘Any support?’ he asked. Well bloody of course not! What didn’t he understand about ‘alone and lost’? I was pissed off. So pissed off.

I was wandering about the trail, pretty damn lost, holding my iPhone in the air, trying to catch a signal. I had added another 5 km and another climb to the route again, and I had wasted so much time wandering about, texting, trying to find signal and trying to find a marker.

My Garmin died at this point. I had brought a backup watch and strapped the blue Garmin to my wrist. Then I plugged my phone, which was also about to die, into the solar charger than I had brought along. At least I would be able to record my distance. Kind of. In two parts.

I walked back to the split in the road and then retraced my steps back onto the original path, scanning the countryside for a marker. I was certain that there had been no markers along the way, and nowhere to turn off the path I had been on. And then I saw it – there, right off the original path, in the shrubs, was the marker for turning left.

I got going again. It was time to put my game face on, be positive and get this run over and done with. Instead of running the planned 40 km on Day 3, I would do 44 km. Yay me. An ultra.

The trail quickly turned treacherously rocky as it descended down into the valley. I needed to pee. But I didn’t know where the Stick Couple were. Were they just behind me or had they passed me? Heaven knows I had mucked about on the trail long enough to give them ample time to pass me and disappear into the distance. Keeping my eyes firmly on the unsteady terrain – this was not the time to roll an ankle – and making my way down into the valley at a decent pace, I kept moving forward. That’s all you need to do: keep moving forward. At the same time, I was scanning the trail for a secluded space to pee. And then, suddenly, something moved next to my right foot. I had almost stepped on a snake! It had pulled back and was writhing away towards my left foot, which I lifted out of the way just in time. Wow! That was all I needed – a snakebite! I later found out it was a harlequin snake, a very pretty black, orange and yellow snake, not lethal, but its bite could make you pretty sick.

Then, I had to pee. Had to. I found a curve in the trail and some big rocks to hide behind. By now I was desperate. I tugged at my running tights. But today, of all days, I had tied the drawstring. I couldn’t get to the ends of the drawstring. And when I did, I couldn’t untie it. I pulled and tugged and writhed and tried to look out for oncoming runners. And then … well … you know … Now what? On previous days I had run with a backup pair of pants and socks in my backpack, just in case I felt like freshening up. Not on Day 3. Not on the day that I would actually need a clean pair of pants.

But I had a sarong. A tatty piece of fabric with giant holes in it where the puppy had chewed through it. And no underwear. It would have to do. I pulled off the wet tights, stuffed them into a ziplock bag, tied the sarong around my waist and got going again.

A fashion statement it was not, but there was something quite liberating about running along a dusty Karoo trail with the breeze blowing up my skirt!

Minutes later the aid station marshals came rolling along in their bakkie. Oh my word. Talk about timing. What had they seen? I stepped aside for them, holding onto the sarong to avoid exposing too much of my thigh and other bits.

‘Are you okay?’ they asked.

‘Yep,’ I said.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes.’

‘Okay, enjoy,’ they said, and set off.

And then it was just me. Alone on the trail, wrapped in a sarong and wearing no underwear. The toughest part of the trail was ahead of me. There were about eight merciless kilometres of straight, flat, hot, dusty, mean trail ahead. I would have to dig deep.

I ran and walked and ran and walked, desperate for a bit of water to pour over my head and neck. They were going to leave some water along the trail, and I scanned the area around every marker to see where they may have hidden it.

And then, when I felt I could go no further, it was time for the iPod. I hauled it out of my backpack and got my running playlist going. Bruno Mars filled my ears, filled my body, filled the Karoo sky. I waved my arms over my head and started dancing and singing. ‘Up. Town. Funk you up! Uptown funk you up! Whooooo-hooo!’ Taylor Swift shook it up next, because haters gonna hate-hate-hate-hate-hate, and Axel Rose made me a sweet child of his. There was no one to hear me scream and no one to hear me sing.

So I sang and danced and ran and walked my way down the last 7 km to the finish. I had blisters. My toes were bruised. My skin was fried to crackling. I was hot and desperate for water. The surrounding countryside seemed to shrug me off. I was of no consequence in that landscape. I could be there or not. It made no difference.

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The last 7 km of Day 3, stretching endlessly, mercilessly ahead. The Stick Couple did manage to pass me while I was taking my little detour, which caused great confusion and concern at the finish line.

And then I found the two bottles of water – about 3 km from the end. I poured cool water over my head, wet my Buff, squeezed it out over my neck, wet it again and put it around my head. And then I danced and ran and walked some more.

And there they were: Firstborn Daughter and Her Boyfriend, running towards me. The end must surely be near?! Firstborn Daughter got hold of me in a tight hug. I needed off the trail. I broke out of the hug. ‘I must get this thing done,’ I said, or something like that.

And then, there it was, finally. The end. People stood up from their deckchairs in the shade and applauded me with their hands over their heads. ‘Whoooo!’ I shrieked. ‘Whooo-hooo!’ I whipped my cap and Buff off my head and waved them over my head. ‘Whooo!’ I cried as I ran towards the finish, clasping the open ends of my sarong in my left hand to make sure that I didn’t create a finish photo to end all finish photos.

And then it was done.

Just like that.

Three days. 27, 40 and 44 km through the Karoo. One hundred and eleven kilometres. Just under 23 hours of running – well, running, walking, hiking, climbing, dancing. Twenty three hours of determined forward motion.

I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t even intend doing it. But I did it.

And Day 3 turned out to be an ultra. Of course, that’s not the ultra story I wanted to write, and it’s not an official ultra, and so I don’t see it as the destination of my road to ultra. But it was longer than a marathon, and so it was, technically, an ultra.

The experience, truly, was so big, so physically, mentally and emotionally demanding, that it was impossible to take it all in, and impossible to remember it all. But I do know that I did it. Doing it didn’t change the world. It didn’t save lives. It didn’t even cause a flicker anywhere in the universe. But I did it. I look back at it in disbelief. Part of me wants to brush it away as a nothing, a so what, a who the hell cares. And part of me feels proud. And mostly I feel thankful and so, so fortunate.

I have found this thing called running. I found it late in life, at an age when most people have given up running around in multicoloured tights. And it has taken me to so many places. It has given me time with my daughter. It has tested me in so many ways. It has tested my physical strength and my endurance. And mostly it has tested my strength of mind. And I’ve learnt that I can get through anything. No matter how tough it is, no matter how much I want it to end, I know I can get through it. And I know my body can go so much further than I may think it can at the time.

The only thing I seriously doubt it can do this year, four weeks from now, is the UTCT. I feel this Sneeuberg Traverse is the full stop to this year. I feel I have achieved something bigger than I thought possible and that it is enough for this year. I feel I have not trained remotely enough for UTCT, that I have not even close to enough trail running experience, and that, honestly, it would be disrespectful to the race to turn up at the start line. At this point, I am not entirely sure what I am going to do about UTCT.

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Merrell Spring Night Series 8 km

7 September

Last night was the first in a series of three night runs on Groot Constantia wine estate, sponsored by Merrell and Black Diamond. I immediately signed up for all three runs and last night I sat in the traffic for over an hour, worried that I might arrive in time to collect my bottle of wine and watch the runners disappear into the dark.

I made it just in time, though. Got signed up, checked out the Black Diamond headlamps, contemplated buying one and decided to ignore my credit card burning a hole in my pocket. An investment of that kind needs a little bit more thought. Do I really want to run with a battery pack strapped to the back of my head? And my stupid head is so teeny-tiny, they probably don’t make straps small enough to fit around it. I’ll have my headlamp hanging between my eyes like a giant, glowing bindi. Next time.

I felt a bit spare standing there on my own. Everyone seemed to be in groups or couples, all laughing and chatting and having a great time. The Significant Other was running with his mates, Firstborn Daughter is still nursing injuries and not running, and Her Boyfriend runs only when she does. I should have seconded him, anyway, I thought. But still, there was some freedom in being on my own. No pressure to run at any speed.

They delayed the race by a few minutes, waiting for darkness so that their markers could show up, and then we were off. It felt like quite a pace but I kept up. I felt good. I wasn’t expecting to feel strong after Sunday’s 30 km and a day of driving and dog training. In fact, I had felt so wiped out earlier in the day that I took myself off for a little afternoon nap – and actually slept. I woke up just in time to get ready and head into the traffic. So I intended to run slowly and fully expected to be at the back of the pack immediately. Runners whizzed past me. All around me was darkness, except for dots of lights dancing their zigzag rhythm between the vines. I felt as if I must be right at the back but I could hear signs of life behind me. It must have been only a handful of people, as there seemed to be a lot of lights up ahead, snaking around the trail.

My watch signaled the end of the first kay. 5:51/km? Could that be? Too fast! Too fast! The next kay was also under 6:00/km. I could hear my breathing. I don’t like to hear my breathing. I feel self-conscious. I sound unfit. I sound as if I shouldn’t be there with those real runners whose pulse is still sitting at a resting rate. Never mind. The first hill will come. Then they will start to slow down.

I got up the first climb and still kept the pace around 6:00/km. Wow! What’s going on here? The next hill will definitely knock me off pace. It did a bit, and I slowed down to just over 7:00/km. I had to talk to myself. Look around at the view. Look around and don’t trip!

How amazing! How spectacularly beautiful! And what a privilege to be there. No, I didn’t have my best people with me to share the experience with me. But I was there. I was running. The orange and white city lights lay spread out to my right, their glow reflecting off the clouds above. Mirrored in the still water of the dam were the sky, the clouds and a silhouetted line of runners. All was quiet. Each person in his or her own world, moving through the night air, shrouded in darkness, surrounded by trees and vines. It was magical.

Some runners slowed down. I passed them. I was on a trail and I was passing runners! Then, once on single track, I had to walk. People ahead of me had slowed down and I had to stick behind them. I was grateful for the rest but wanted to rest a bit faster. Gloopy mud made for some creative, arm flailing moves in places. But I didn’t land on my butt and I didn’t trip over roots or into holes. I thought of Firstborn Daughter and her recent tendency to tumble.

I counted the distance to go. The 500 metres between 4,5 km and 5 km seemed to take forever. We wound our way along a muddy single track, uphill, between tall trees. The markers glowed in our headlamps, creating a strange feeling of being in another world. Were fairy creatures nearby? The people in front of me were too slow. I wanted to pass. But what if I passed and then they sprinted past me again, smirking in the dark and silently casting smug thoughts back at me? I hung behind them until they seemed to slow even more. I needed to pass. They didn’t pass me again.

And then it was downhill. Downhill and home to the finish. I couldn’t pick up too much speed on the downhill. It was slippery, there were dongas and gullies cement pipes lying in wait to twist an ankle and ruin a marathon. But I didn’t want the people behind me to catch me. I hooked round a switchback onto a flat and saw the runners heading down the hill, way too close for comfort. I picked up the pace. I picked up the pace? What the hell? The Garmin beeped. One more kay to go.

A left turn took me across the lawn. It sloped uphill and I ran up it. I felt energized, joyful, powerful. The last stretch to the finish took me down a paved path. I passed some people. Why were they walking?

And then, out of the darkness, into the light, under the finish arch, face beaming. A rather nice-looking blonde fellow smiled at me, said well done and handed me a bottle of water. Someone wrote on a clipboard. That was it. I was done. 56 minutes and some change.

I collected my bottle of wine and my free wine tasting and went to sit on a low wall to take it all in. That was good.

I took a sip of wine – nothing like rehydrating with alcohol, right?! My iPhone lit up to signal a text message: my results. Already! Not great, not brilliant, but not last, either: 95th overall, 33rd in my gender. That would include all those sprightly young things with their swishing ponytails; those ones who actually look great with a buff worn as an Alice band.

The official results show that there were 11 runners in the Masters category. I came 6th out of the Masters. Masters one to five were men. Only two other Masters women managed to secure evening passes from the old age home last night. They finished about two minutes and ten places after me. Had they had prizes for age categories, I would have had my moment for the first time in history! I would have podiumed in first place!

Oh well …

I waited around for the prize giving. Maybe I would luck upon a Black Diamond head lamp. I was getting chilly. My jacket was in my car but the car just seemed way too far away. Once there, I would get in and drive home. I decided I may as well use their facilities while I wait for the prize giving to start. I headed in to a cubicle, cell phone, wine bottle, water bottle and wine glass in hand. And it was only when I came back out that I spotted the row of urinals against the wall. I had gone into the gents’ loo! Oh my word! I don’t know what I would have done had there been a fellow standing there, pointing his pieps as the porcelain …

I didn’t podium. I didn’t get a medal. I didn’t win a Black Diamond headlamp.

But it was fun. So much fun. I am so very fortunate to be able to do this.

I can and I will

Last night, in yet another tiresome attempt at convincing me of my folly, the Significant Other said to me, ‘You can’t struggle on a 13 km trail run and then think you can run an ultra.’

Did I say he ‘said’ it to me? The word ‘said’ doesn’t quite encompass the passionate conviction loading his delivery of those words. But anyway …

So we were standing on a rooftop patio, sipping some mediocre, overpriced drinks while waiting for the screening of ‘The Barkley Marathons – The race that eats its young’, and of course the conversation turned to trail running, ultra trails and general crazy running adventures. I have set my sights on running 65 km of mountain trail on 10 December. It will be the longest race I have ever done. It will be the hardest thing I have ever done, and by ‘hardest thing’ I do believe I include the 17 painkiller-free hours it took to push The Kid out of my body 17 years ago. I know I need to train one helluva lot more than I have up to now. I also know I have put more training in during these last eight to ten weeks than I have for any of my previous marathons. So I know I have it in me to train hard.

(I am in a bit of a dilemma, actually. The last ten weeks of training, consistent as they have been, are not enough for a good marathon. The marathon is really just a training run for the ultra. But I don’t want to do another six-hour marathon, so I don’t want to turn up on tired legs and so I need to taper. But if I’m training for an ultra, I need to be pounding big distances on the trail. Tapering means two to three weeks of too little ultra training … Dilemma. I digress.)

Last week, before lining up for a 13 km trail run on Sunday morning, I:

  • did a 45-minute spin class on Monday
  • ran 25 km on my own on Tuesday
  • ran a fairly fast 10 km on Wednesday
  • ran a 12 km, which included a long uphill, on Thursday
  • hiked up Devil’s Peak on Saturday evening, drank some wine afterwards and walked the dogs at about midnight before finally getting to bed way, way later than I had wanted to.

By Sunday morning, having had about five hours’ sleep, I was a touch tired. I briefly considered skipping the run entirely. But I also know that getting up is like ripping off a plaster: the anticipation is awful, the rip hurts a bit and then it’s all okay from then on. So I got up and got myself to Lourensford wine estate for a little early morning trail run.

And it was amazing. I loved it. The Significant Other ran with me pretty much all of the way, which is most unusual. He was in good spirits, despite his distaste for trail runners in general, and it was a pretty pleasant way to spend a morning with one’s partner of two decades. I could feel that my body was tired but at the same time I was aware of how much stronger I had become. I had run this trail some months ago, with Firstborn Daughter and Her Boyfriend, and I had struggled. Really struggled. I was walking pretty soon into the race. Then stomach cramps kicked in, and I had to walk-run to the end. I also fell into a ditch.

I am getting stronger and fitter. In tiny increments, I know. But progress is progress. As long as I stay healthy and injury-free, and keep training consistently, I will grow stronger and fitter. I will be able to run further each time and maybe I will even be able to run a little bit faster each time.

I had to walk bits of some of the hills. The Significant Other, being a road runner through and through, does not believe in walking hills. You run hills. End of story. Well, that’s great. If you’re fit enough. But I have figured out that if you’re a strong walker, you really don’t save that much time by running up a hill. By walking you may lose a minute or two, but the energy you conserve is going to stand you in much better stead later on, especially if you’re thinking of running longer races. The Significant Other treats this philosophy with a great deal of disdain.

The Significant Other also runs about 2 min/km faster than I do, even when he’s injured or out of condition. So I was puffing a little bit at about 10 km when the pace was rather faster than I would have run on my own. I asked that we slow it down a little.

So all of this ended up to the conclusion that I had ‘struggled on a 13 kay’ and that I should therefore very seriously reconsider my ridiculous intention of running a 65 km ultra at the end of the year. Why not try for next year? Why not try for Two Oceans, which is a 56 km road race, and which happens in April next year? ‘Next year’, again. Always ‘next year’.

Maybe I am foolish. And maybe they do make sense. Maybe next year would be better. Maybe 18 months of running longer distances and more distances on trail before attempting an ultra would be more sensible.

But here’s the thing …

I enter the trail runs simply to get on the trails, not to race them, not to work on my speed, but simply to get out on the trails. I can’t get on the trails any other time because I have to run on my own, and the trails are dangerous. Even if I do mange to escape the prowling rapists, muggers and murderers, I could trip (it’s not uncommon for me to do a Superman dive in the direction of a precipice) and sprain or even break an ankle and need help to get off the mountain. And there are things that bite and sting. All round, heading into the mountain on my own is not a good idea, much as I would love to. So the best way for me to get some trail running in, safely, is to enter a race. So if you see me jogging at the back, or walking up a hill, it means everything is going to plan and I am perfectly happy, thank you very much.

I have three months before I need to be ready to run an ultra. I am in training. This means my training is not yet complete. If I am not able to run an ultra this week or next week, that’s just fine, since I only need to be able to be ultra fit in three months’ time … not in three weeks.

Why not next year? Because life is uncertain. Who knows where I will be next year. One year I drove off to do the 50 km Big Walk and my car broke down. I had to go home. I was devastated. ‘Don’t worry. There’s always next year,’ they said to console me as I lay in a miserable heap on the bed. There wasn’t a next year. The Big Walk’s major sponsor didn’t sponsor them again and the event was cancelled. And my intention had always been to finally walk the 80 km leg of The Big Walk. That never happened and it’s never going to happen. There wasn’t a next year. There isn’t always a next year. I am 55 years old. This year I am fit enough to run a marathon – no matter how slow a marathon it may be. I don’t take that for granted – not the fitness nor the time I have had available to train. By next year any number of things could have happened – good things, yes, but also things that might prevent me from running a marathon or an ultra, or even from running at all.

So I have entered to run this year. I know that many things can happen in the next three months. It might turn out that I am not fit enough or well enough to run in December, after all. But for now I still have the option of doing so. For now I can still look at my training schedule, plan my week’s running, fail miserably at it, and update my Strava log each day. I have a goal. I have something to train for. I have something that terrifies me and excites me. I have my gaze on something that I might or might not be able to accomplish. It is a massive run and the chances are pretty good that I will fail. But so what?

If I have a disastrous run and I don’t finish or if they erase the finish line hours before I get there, well, then, so be it. Then I will aim for next year.

So, yes, next year … next year maybe as well as this year. But this year is the goal. Because it’s there. It’s close enough to see.

Why not Two Oceans? Who said no to Two Oceans? Maybe Two Oceans. If, by some miracle, I happen to run a sub-five hour Cape Town Marathon, the first thing I will do (after having a little weep) is enter the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon. I don’t know if I can run a sub-five hour marathon on the training I have done, though. And it doesn’t really matter.

Because the experience of running up, down and across our spectacular mountain trails, feeling my heart pound against my ribs and my rasping breath burn my lungs as I trudge, inch by inch, up the mountainside, feeling the power in my legs – the power that is still there at age 55 – reaching the top, standing in the sky and seeing the whole world stretch out in all directions, the sensation of being the last person on a pristine planet, and the feeling of being with likeminded people – people who care about the environment and who love being in nature – cannot be compared to running 56 km of road with thousands of people who will be elbowing each other, spitting and tossing plastic sachets along every inch of the route.

No, I have not dismissed the idea of running Two Oceans but its importance has faded.

Yes, I know this is crazy. Yes, I know I might fail. Yes, I know it’s going to be insanely tough. Yes, I know I have weeks and months of hard training to do. Yes, I know I am going to have to change my lifestyle, radically, for the next few months. Yes, I know it will become overwhelming at times and that I will want to give up. I am going to be so far outside my comfort zone I’m not even going to know what a comfort zone is supposed to be. I’m going to be terrified witless. I’m going to have sleepless nights. I’m going to be aching all over. I’m probably going to pick up an injury or get sick and fall behind in my training. And then I’m going to have to start over.

All of that, yes.

But what if I don’t fail? How utterly, wonderfully, ecstatically amazing would that be? So, while the possibility of failure is … well … possible … I am going to focus on how utterly, wonderfully, ecstatically amazing success could be.

I can and I will.

What if I fly