I said I was going to do it. I said I had to do it if I was going to run an ultra. I said I had plenty of time to train. I said it would be a breeze … okay, I didn’t say that.
There was plenty of time to train. I signed up for a twelve-week Bay to Bay training course: Mondays hills, Wednesdays track, Saturdays long run with the group; Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, run alone. That was way, way back, near the middle of October. And then my mom got sick and crazy, and my dad continued to be crazy, and my life consisted of driving, driving, driving every single day, while unfinished work and untouched chores and the plaque of the general messiness of life built up and built up. And stress. A tight-chested, short-breathed stress that held fast, like a limpet, whether I ran 10 kays or drank half a bottle of wine. It just sat there.
The days blurred by, one the same as the next, stale and tense, and pretty quickly I had gone five weeks without running. And I was feeling the effects. I was tired all the time and my body had gone puffy around the edges. I felt yuck!
Then I got The Kid going. Dragged her reluctant little butt out the door on short, slow runs. We did two weeks of 5 km and 7 km runs, and then I turned up for a group run, six weeks into the programme, fearing humiliation and pain. But I ran 18 km that morning. Up Suikerbossie, down the other side and back over again. I surprised myself. And I thought my training was back on track.
But the week that followed featured not a single run. And then I got out there. Somehow things with my parents settled just enough for me to get out on the road for an hour or so and get running again. I clocked 10 km runs, a 13 km and a 15 km. And they were awful. Every run was a struggle. Every run was through thick molasses with an anvil tied to each ankle.
‘You’re just getting back into it again,’ said the Significant Other. ‘It takes time.’
Bloody hell, it takes time. Good grief! Weeks of getting back into it! And the Bay to Bay was looming. Am I doing the right thing, I wondered? I’m so ridiculously undertrained for this thing.
The course is a meanie. It starts relatively flat and then climbs to 180 m over about 10 km. Then there’s a great downhill as you cruise down Suikerbossie into Hout Bay and then, when you think you’re going to be running along the flat, the road sneaks a steady little incline for 5 km to the turnaround. Then, of course, that steady little incline allows for a generous downhill to the 17 km mark. After that the hills start again, and it’s a steady up and up and up to a 180 m elevation again to the 20 km mark. And then, if you’ve paced yourself well, it’s a glorious 10 km cruise downhill all the way home. But it’s a coastal road, so it’s not really downhill all the way. There are imperceptible little inclines all the way. You can’t see them, but your legs suddenly resist.
So, did it make any logical sense to line up for a tough 30 km race if the longest distance I had run is 15 km, and the full extent of my training had spanned about three weeks, with each run, short and slow as it was, pure agony?
No. Of course it did not make sense.
Was I going to do it?
So I laced up and showed up. I lined up. I felt nauseous. Oh boy, did I feel nauseous. Uuuggghh …
But once I got going I felt pretty good. Strangely. I had decided that I would run/walk the race. Run 5 km, walk about 500 m or maybe even 1 km. And I wouldn’t worry about the cut-off. I would be doing this as a training run, just to get the 30 km in my legs. The medal was neither here nor there, and if I did the distance in four hours or four hours fifteen … well … would it change the universe in any way? No.
But I didn’t really feel like walking. I was keeping a slow, steady pace, and I was feeling comfortable. I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep it up, and that I should really stick to the plan, but I trundled on.
And then the 3h30 bus arrived behind me. I thought it would pass me but then I found that I could stick with it. And it was so much fun! I tucked in at the back of the group, getting some shelter from the strong gusts of wind that pummelled us throughout the race, and soaked up the gees.
The fellow up front was Derrick, and he’s clearly a well known pace maker, as numerous people called ‘Hi, Derrick’ as they ran past. And what a cheerleader this fellow is. I thought I might marry him by the end of the day. He had us chanting, US Marine style, all the way up Suikerbossie …
To the top … Don’t stop! To the top … Don’t stop!
Up the hill … no walking! Up the hill … no walking!
Vasbyt! Vorentoe! Vasbyt! Vorentoe!
And I did it. I stuck with them all the way up the hill, no stopping, no walking. And I felt as if I could run like that all day. Just this pace, just this spirit, just one foot in front of the other, all day.
Down Suikerbossie we went:
Down the hill … Don’t speed! Down the hill … Don’t speed!
I passed people who had passed me earlier. I was heading to the halfway mark and I wasn’t feeling like death yet. In fact, I felt better than I had in any of my training runs over the last weeks.
The cat’s eyes along the yellow line were hazardous, though, and about five runners tripped and fell on the way up. Stay off the yellow line, I told myself. No falling.
We rounded the bend at the bottom of Suikerbossie and headed into Hout Bay. One of the ATC Running guys came speeding past, doing a cracking pace and clearly heading for a solid sub-three hour. I called out to him and he lifted a hand in recognition, keeping the focus, keeping the pace, just being a running machine. All the while I was looking for the Significant Other and his running mates.
And my legs started growing just a teeny bit heavy. This road is not flat, I realized. And there were speed bumps – more opportunity for people to trip and fall. And cones in the road – another handy tripping device. This race was hardcore!
We reached a water station just at the turnaround and, losing focus for a few moments, I got stuck behind some walkers. I didn’t immediately realize that they weren’t part of the bus and by the time I managed to get around them, the bus had pulled away from me. And I suddenly grew weary. I had done 15 km in 1h44. Perfect pacing. Except I was never going to do this thing in 3h30. So long guys, it’s been great! It’s not you, it’s me! See you on the flipside.
I watched them go, chanting all the way, feeding off each other’s energy, and resolved that next time I’ll be fit enough to stay with the bus all the way.
But I was looking out for Jacqui. Jacqui of the Big Spirit. Jacqui who brings up the rear in every training run – and turns up for every single training run. She shed about 20 kg after she started running, and she has just been sticking with it. She knew she couldn’t make cut-off. I knew she could.
Eventually I saw her. Dressed in purple she kind of glowed in the morning light. She was heading towards the halfway mark and she was looking well in control. I ran off course to give her a hug and wish her well. I felt so happy to see her, so happy that she was doing great. She was very far down the field and I knew the pain would set in after turnaround but she was there and she was doing it.
And then, from about 18 km, the walking set in. I don’t know how much was in my mind and how much was in my body, but I was fatigued. Running in the hot sun and against a strong wind wears one down, and I was feeling it. I walked up Suikerbossie. I probably could have run some and walked some, but I figured my running wasn’t going to be any faster than my walking at this point. So I decided to just conserve energy and walk. It’s still a long way home, even if it is mostly downhill.
Unfortunately, walking gives people license to tell you about their ailments, their aches and pains, their operations, their ex running partners, and any other (usually negative) story that you don’t necessarily want to hear. I was walking, yes, but I was walking with purpose, not weaving about the place, giving up. But I listened and responded and then moved on. I know that delirious feeling and if talking to someone helped them to keep moving forward, and if that someone was going to be me, then so be it.
The problem with walking too long is that those running muscles get themselves a martini and stretch out on the chaise lounge. And then they simply refuse to report for duty when you call them. Those running muscles of mine had abdicated responsibility to the walking muscles. And that was that.
And so the last 10 km were … err … sluggish … to say the least.
I walked and ran, walked and ran. I hauled my iPod out to get some running tunes to spur me on but the screen was too moist from being against my body in the Flipbelt for a few hours, and so it just wouldn’t work. No running tunes. I ate some wine gums for energy. But they gave me guts ache and so I had to deal with cramps as well as tired legs as well as a mind that had gone on holiday.
But I wanted to make cut-off. Seeing Jacqui toughing it out at the back just made me want to make cut-off so that I could get a medal so that I could give it to her. There’s no medal for trying and not making the cut-off, and I have enough medals. I bit down and pushed on. I could do this. The wind shoved us towards the barriers, swung round to push us from the front. We steadied ourselves, leaned in, heads down … onward!
About 5 km from the end a bus from the ARD running club caught up with me. Suddenly they were just there, walking next to me. Then they picked it up again and started running. One of their members put his hand between my shoulder blades and pushed.
‘Get on the bus,’ he said.
And so on the bus I got.
They ran and walked. Ran 200 m, walked about 100 m, ran … walked … ran …
But I was done. Done. Ugh! So done!
I tried to drop off but the guy would turn around to look for me, come back, fetch me, put his hand on my back and keep pushing until I had run the 200 m.
Waves of nausea joined the stomach cramps. I was feeling pretty rotten. I had time, though. I was going to make the cut-off. If I stayed with them, I would reach the finish line about five minutes faster. So it mattered little whether I dragged myself along at my pace, or if I bit down and stuck with them. I let them go. The guy, whose name I never got, tried one more time to get me to stay with them, but I waved, said something, and watched them disappear.
I clicked into power-walking mode and worked my way through Camps Bay, pulling strugglers with me. ‘Come on!’ I called, and kept on keeping on. This damn, bloody-bloody race was almost over. The clock was ticking. Fifteen minutes left to do about one and a half kays. How badly do you want this? Cut-off was just a number. It meant little. But I wanted the medal for Jacqui, because by now she’s feeling pain and, if things went well, she’s at least half an hour away from home.
I made it. I ran along the grass, past the cheering people, my eyes on the clock, terrified that it would suddenly speed up and clock four hours before I reached the finish line. The announcer was urging people to get onto the field … cut-off was only minutes away.
And I made it. I made it in 3h55.
I laced up. I showed up. I finished – before cut-off.
And there were no more medals! They had only a limited number for the first however many finishers, not for everyone who finished. How crap was that?!
You slog it out on the road for almost four hours and then … pfff … nothing!
So I didn’t have a medal to give to Jacqui but I did finish 30 km in just under four hours, which means that if I put in the training I can finish the Peninsula Marathon in under five hours. Which means I qualify to do the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon.
Which means I’ll have to do two Bay to Bays, back to back … and I’m not so sure how I feel about that!
I made my way to the RCS Gugulethu running club’s gazebo, where the Significant Other was loitering about, chatting, as he does after race. Where do they find so much to talk about? I was light-headed and spacy and needed to get out of the sun. I sat down in the shade and one of the Gugs runners came over to me. He took my hand in both of his and told me well done. These guys are all sub-three heroes and here I am, the straggler who just crawled in, and they’re being so nice.
‘What’s this still doing here?’ he said, looking at the little plastic sleeve holding my details and showing my running position. I garbled something incomprehensible.
‘I’ll take it,’ he said and picked it up. Off he went to put it in the box on the other side of the field. Wow … people can be so nice.
‘Are you in?’ I texted Jacqui. I kept looking for her. I wanted to go and wait along the fence but the world started spinning every time I stood up. I stayed put. Our running club’s tent was right next to where I was sitting. She would make her way here.
And then, there she was, smiling away. She had made it. She missed cut-off, sure, coming in at 4h18, but she had done the distance. And a runner who saw her coming in, a total stranger, gave her his medal! How cool is that?
And then I heard my name being called over the sound system …
Then I heard my name again, followed by ‘…Not here?’
‘I’m here! I’m here!’ I called, waving my arms and jumping up and down like somebody who had not just run 30 km and wanted to fall over a few minutes ago.
I had won a prize in the lucky draw – which would not have happened had the Gugs runner not put my number in the box.
So, no medal, but distance done, cut-off made and a Gold Entry to the Cape Town FNB OneRun 12 km won in the lucky draw.
A long, tiring day out on the field … But a good one, nonetheless.