‘Lite’ they say! ‘Lite’! What the hell!
Okay, well, the actual challenge is 38 km. But there was nothing ‘light’ about the 24 km route.
Last night I went to bed feeling like Rocky Balboa after having gone the distance with Apollo. Everything ached. I think the only part of me that didn’t ache was my bellybutton. But also, everything seemed to vibrate with some kind of electricity. My muscles seemed to twitch, ready for flight, though my body was so bone tired the only place I was flying to was Dreamland. And my creative brain was switched on to full power. Turbo-thrust-warp -speed. Words tumbled over each other like pebbles in a wave. Images and ideas burst before my mind’s eye in full 3D Technicolor. I lay in bed, eyes closed, ready to welcome sleep, and my creative mind, dressed in glittering, shimmering rainbow colours, was hopping from one foot to the other like a child on her birthday, saying ‘And what about this … and this … and you could do this … and make this … and you could write this …’
I should have dragged myself from my bed, found a pen and paper, and put it all down. But I didn’t. Because of course the Muse would leave it all neatly stacked on the bedside table where I could find it this morning when I woke up. Because the Muse is accommodating that way, being a trail runner herself.
This morning I woke up, gently aching all over, feeling warm and rested, and relishing the afterglow of having hammered my body the day before. The Muse had left the room before sunrise and had taken all her gifts along with her. There was nothing on the bedside table. No remnants of brilliant ideas. Not even a small sparkle of cheap glitter. She had wiped the slate clean. It’s as if she had sent those guys from The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind into my room last night with strict instructions to carefully erase everything. And they had done a brilliant job.
Not much training had happened last week. None, in fact. Let me not lie to my journal. I went to a 45-minute spin class on Monday night and walked the dogs most nights but other than that, I gave over to just resting and getting over this feeling of being permanently tired. I think last week’s Dirtopia trail run on Uitkyk took its toll a bit, and I just felt worn-out and drained all week. But by Saturday morning I was starting to feel like myself again, and by Sunday I was up at 4:44 am and getting ready for another morning on a mountain trail.
I was nervous to the point of wanting to throw up. The last time I had felt this nervous for a run was the night before the Rome Marathon, when Firstborn Daughter and I were so sick to our stomachs with terror we didn’t know what to do with ourselves – the only logical thing to do was to order pizza. Last week’s run had taught me a lesson or two about trail running and this week, no doubt, the mountains would have a few more hard lessons to teach me.
My ride arrived right on time and off we glided, out of the sleeping city and onto the highway – which was pretty busy for that time on a Sunday morning. The Spar Ladies’ 10 km would be taking place later on, and thousands of cars were streaming into town. Firstborn Daughter and I had run it two years ago. It was awful. We were happy to be leaving town to run a totally different race far, far away from the throngs of ladies who would be chatting and strolling their way through their 10 km Sunday morning challenge. Good luck and well done to them, but this wasn’t our race.
The first small hitch came when Firstborn Daughter, in charge of navigation, gave the instruction to turn right – kind of back in the direction we had just come from. Then to make a u-turn. Then to turn right again, then to make a u-turn again. Then we pulled off the road, re-established our bearings and headed straight – in the direction of the mountains, which made more sense. After another u-turn or two we finally arrived at the parking lot of the Jonkershoek Nature Reserve … and went straight to the portaloo queue. We’re getting this bathroom thing worked out now. The first bathroom call on the way to a race is at a petrol station on the highway. Then we have some horrid garage coffee (it doesn’t have quite the same appeal as a few sips of garagista wine) and head off to the race venue, where we immediately get into the portaloo queue. It seems to be working so far. No doubt my body will find a way to still cause havoc for me at about 8 km into a run but, for now, this is working.
Then we queued for bag inspection. We needed a backpack containing our own water, food for four hours, a space blanket, a windbreaker, a buff, a whistle, a first aid kit and a fully charged cellphone.
The cellphone was a small problem. My iPhone had given up the ghost this week and was in for repairs. I had to wrench The Kid’s phone from her, and leave her sweating and writhing in full-blown always-on withdrawal. While we were in the queue, Firstborn Daughter’s boyfriend came to tell us that we needed whistles. Ah, yes! Whistles. Forgot about those. R30 was handed over, and three cheap plastic whistles were bought and tied to our packs. Confident that I was now fully kitted, I stepped up to the bag inspection table and started unpacking all my stuff while the nice fellow ticked off the contents on his list. ‘Space blanket?’ he asked. Oh shit. No space blanket. I had spent the week rummaging around the house to find the space blankets they had given us at the end of the Rome Marathon. I eventually found them in the Rome Marathon backpacks (why didn’t I look there first?) and gave them to Firstborn Daughter and her boyfriend. Then promptly forgot to find the New York Marathon space blanket to put in my own backpack.
‘You have to have a space blanket,’ said the nice fellow, shaking his head sadly. We stared at each other. I wasn’t going to be allowed onto the course. Oh bugger. Then, ‘You can buy one from merchandise,’ he said. And so another R30 was handed over, and another item I don’t really need was bought. But we were ready to go.
We were in H group. In my second turn at the portaloo queue, someone explained to me that the groups were ‘E, for Elite, F for Fast, G for Average and H for … ehrr … um … you know, the Others.’
So we were one of the Others. The ones to line up last. There were only about 30 of us in H group, and they all trundled off pretty quickly. My elasticated, toggled shoelace was flapping about, hitting the side of my shoe and threatening to cause damage at any moment. I had to stop and retie my shoelaces as everyone streamed past me. I more or less caught up with them before losing them again. Ah well … another long day on my own. It’s just as well that I like my own company so much.
I made my way up the first of many inclines toward a friendly marshal who asked me if I was enjoying my day. We exchanged pleasantries and he watched as I took a right turn and headed up a steep incline. Good grief, I thought, this up and up is starting early. But on I forged for a bit before I decided to take in the view.
‘Excuse me?’ I heard from below. It was the marshal. He had left his seat and was heading up the incline towards me.
‘Are you part of the race?’ he asked. Since my number was pinned to my front … well … one mustn’t judge …
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘You’re going the wrong way …’
Right. Okay. Good start. It’s always more exciting to go the wrong way when you’re already behind and on your own.
I picked up the pace and started running along the single track, enjoying the feeling of being in the outdoors, running along a mountain path, with no one around. Just me and my own breathing … heavy breathing. I passed a few other runners along the way and then, pretty soon, too soon, I hit the climb.
Oh. My. Word. What a climb!
At some point I had naively thought that I would catch the other guys when we got to the climb because, as I recall, I’m a strong hiker. Hm. Yes. I was quickly reminded that I had once been a strong hiker but, as with everything else, you use it or lose it. And I had not used my hiking muscles in a very long time. I honestly can’t recall where I left them. The people I had passed started passing me. The up and up and up continued steeply up and up and up. I stopped many times on that ascent, put my hands on my knees, took three deep-deep breaths, gathered my courage and pushed on. At some point I came upon a flat rock that so very much resembled a comfy chair that I felt it would be rude not to try it out. I sat down. Just for a very short time. Just a few seconds, really. But it was the first time that I had ever, ever sat down on any surface during a race. I think I might only have been halfway up the climb at that point.
And then my Garmin froze. It just stopped time and distance. What the hell!? Up and up and up I went, and still my Garmin stayed on the same distance. And the same time. But it bloody never stopped beeping as it autopaused and resumed. By the end of the trail I would be so sick of that damned little purple watch that it took a great deal of willpower not to rip it from my wrist and fling it into the bushes. Luckily the environmentalist in me was more concerned about littering than it was about my sanity. The annoying thing stayed on my arm until it flashed ‘Run saved’ at me (What? I didn’t save my run! I’m still running here!), the battery died and it finally shut the hell up.
I started thinking about the Ultra Trail Run I had signed up for. I’m going to have to do a lot of training before December. A lot!
But the funny thing is, my mindset has changed. Before, when I struggled on a run, I would beat myself up. A chatter of monkeys would be clinging to my back, weighing me down even more, telling me how useless I am at running, how I should be so much stronger and faster and fitter and just generally better than I am. It would suck all the enjoyment out of what I was doing, and completely negate how far I had come.
Yesterday, though, there was a neat, simple and very satisfying detachment. My self-worth isn’t measured by my running ability. All I need to do is train more. Two years ago I couldn’t run 3 km without walking. It seemed to take forever before I could run 5 km without walking or wanting to throw up. But eventually I ran a marathon. And then another. And then one more. And I’m signed up for two this year. I will never be a brilliant runner. I will always be in the middle of the pack and sometimes, like yesterday. I will be right at the back of the pack.
And so what?
While many other women my age are rubbing hormone cream onto wherever one rubs hormone cream, checking their ever-expanding menopausal girths in the mirror, and trying to squeeze the last bits of fun out of what remains of their libido, I am running up a mountain. From where I am, I can’t see my girth or my wrinkles or my grey hair. But I can feel my body working. I can feel that it’s strong and that I am still very much alive. I don’t think I feel like exchanging that feeling for a lazy Sunday morning brunch, no matter how pleasant Sunday brunching is.
And so on I pushed. I finally made it to the single-track path that would take me along the face of the mountain. My legs were so tired that my feet grew floppy and stupid. I couldn’t lift my legs high enough to step over the loose rocks strewn all along the path and I kept tripping like a drunken deer. I was also being lapped by the 38 km guys, and had to step off the path numerous times to let them pass.
I passed one or two people who had passed me on the way up but mostly I was on my own. No one in front of me. No one behind me.
All by myself … lonely, oh, so lonely …
It would have been nice to share the experience with someone, have someone to talk to from time to time, have someone to say, ‘Come on, let’s run a bit,’ instead of it being just me and that narrow, rocky trail. But the mountains and the views were spectacular. I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.
I made it to the 14 km mark, home of the only water station on the route. The marshals with their clipboards eyed me carefully. ‘Are you okay?’ they asked. ‘Yes, thanks,’ I said more brightly than I felt. I was not being swept. I didn’t care how long I was out there but I was crossing that finish line on my feet, having done the distance. ‘Are you sure?’ the one marshal asked. ‘Yes, sure, I’m fine,’ I said, heading to the cups of Boss Ice Tea and cubes of Bar One. I looked at the vans. I could just get into one of them. Drive back.
I set off on a little run. Another van came up the hill and I’m sure I saw one of the guys inside say ‘Shame.’ But they smiled at me and said ‘Keep it up,’ has they bumped and bounced up the hill, over the rocks, their heads bobbing in sync with the van’s suspension.
Not long after that it all came crashing down. Really. Crashing down.
As I was clambering across some slippery mountain stream rocks, my foot in it’s no-longer-brand-new Salomon gave way and I thundered down onto my hip, sending seismic activity deep into the valley, and smashed my knee against a rock – the same knee that was still scabbed over from three weeks ago. My first thought was that I had broken my hip. I lay there in the water for a few moment, winded and mortified, trying to assess the damage. Nope. Nothing was broken. Oh my word, that would have been so much drama and inconvenience. I got up gingerly and leaned my hands on a large rock, steadying myself and trying to settle down. Other runners stopped to check if I was okay. ‘I’m fine,’ I said, not for the first time that day, and even less truthfully than before. I had 10 km to go and I was going to have to hobble it.
Stiffly and painfully I got going again, feeling a bit shaken, and fairly nervous of the narrow single track that dropped sharply off into a deep, overgrown darkness. One slip and I would be down there with no way of getting back up again. My hip and knee hurt and my body felt a bit off-centre. I would be fine once I got moving again, I thought, and it wasn’t as if there were really any other options.
I got back into the rhythm and carried on along the track, which, thankfully, had smoothed and widened. I was on the home stretch. Only about 8 km to go. It’s downhill from here. Easy-peasy.
Then I heard someone call to me. I turned to see one of the 38 km runners standing on a track above me. ‘Is this the right way?’ he asked me, pointing into the trees. He was standing next to two trail markers, cheerful little pink flags on wire masts. I would have run right past them, keeping to the track I was on, had he not called me. Another runner was ahead of him. The route seemed odd, but if that’s where the markers are, then that must be where the trail is. A bunch of us set off on a narrow single track that headed uphill … and I was so enjoying just travelling straight ahead, not down and certainly not up. I don’t know how far the track took us. It was possibly about 2 km. It ended on a jeep track – a jeep track on which we could either go left or right, and where there were no markers. Which way? Up or down? Down seemed good to me, and I headed that way, realizing that my battered knee was not going to love downhills. Another runner headed up. I stopped. Damn. Up or down? Left or right? Which way. I turned around and headed back up, following the other runner who, by now, had disappeared.
No, this doesn’t look right, I thought and stopped again. I could hear music and festivities coming from far below. The finish line was down there somewhere. I headed back down to where the single track had joined the jeep track. Which way? Another runner came out from amongst the trees. ‘Which way?’ I asked. Up we went again. Then down again. Then other runners joined us. Down we went. There were no flags anywhere. Again there was a fork in the road. To go straight to take a sharp right turn? Which way?
There was no point in running at this stage. If you’re heading in the wrong direction, there’s no need to get to the wrong place in a hurry. I kind of wanted this run to end now. The route we had followed way back had obviously been the wrong one. Someone had moved the trail markers – as a joke, maybe, or as a marker for their friends. Someone said it was the mountain bikers. Whatever the reason, and whoever it was, the manoeuvre had played havoc with the race for a whole lot of other people. I had 10 km to the finish in my mind. I had fallen. I was tired and sore. It was getting hot. It was enough. I didn’t need distance added to the run.
Eventually we saw some little flags dotting the trail. We were on the right track. My Garmin said 17 km, which was obviously completely wrong. Another runner’s Garmin said 22 km. With the autopause going on and off, I had no idea how long I had been out there, and with my Garmin losing me more than once, I had no idea how far I had gone nor how far I still had to go. But I knew people would be worried by now. I had taken far longer than I should have. I pulled The Kid’s cellphone from my pack. The screen was black. I pushed some buttons. Nothing. Thanks, Kid, for the dead cellphone. I stuck it back in my pack. Then I felt it vibrate. It’s not dead. I hauled it out again. Nothing. Black screen made blacker by the bright sunshine. I could faintly make out the icons on the home screen, but couldn’t read any text and couldn’t see where to turn the brightness up. I stood crouching over the annoying thing trying to shield it from the sun with my body. Another runner turned up and tried to help me. We managed to push the button to phone Firstborn Daughter but she was either out of range or her phone was engaged. The call was dropped and I gave up.
The road was, dusty, hot, empty and endless. I sucked at my water tube. Nothing. I had about 4 km to go, more, even – the distance remaining always seemed to be ‘about 6 km’, no matter whom I asked or how far I had gone since the last time I asked – and I had run out of water.
The phone in my backpack vibrated again. A phone call – this I could deal with. All I had to do was keep swiping my finger along the bottom of the screen until it hit the right spot and answered the call. It was the Significant Other. I told him I was fine, that I was near the dam, which was the big landmark, that I had about two more kays to go, and asked him to call Firstborn Daughter to tell her. She had, apparently, been pacing up and down on her bandaged legs, also having fallen, trying to get marshals to radio up into the mountains to try to find me. Her boyfriend, being far more pragmatic, had chosen to nap on a beanbag under a tree.
‘Your mother is fine,’ he told her. ‘ And she won’t be coming back in a car. She’ll be coming in on her feet under that yellow arch over there. Sit down.’
She sat down, but not at the finish line. She found another spot to sit, where she had an unobstructed view of the trail, where she could see me arriving in the distance and be sure that it was me, alive, heading towards the finish. ‘Come on, Mom!’ she called. She looked so tiny and so far away. ‘Come on!’ I saw her stand up, a bit awkwardly, and realized that she had hurt herself. Both knees were bandaged up. She had hyperextended the one and I-don’t-know-whatted the other. But she had fallen twice and had gamely hobbled the full distance, coming in before cut-off. What can I say – she’s from a good egg that one!
And the Boyfriend was right. I did come in on my feet. I didn’t get into a car. I didn’t say uncle. I think I may have been stone last. But I wasn’t really, because there were others who said uncle, others who threw in the towel, and hitched a ride down the mountain.
I ran a bit, because one doesn’t walk across the finish line. Then gave up on that idea and walked. The four marshals sitting under their big yellow umbrella gamely cheered and clapped for me.It sounded like a slow day at the cricket. The Boyfriend, barefoot, cheered from his supine position under the trees – man, that looked so comfortable!
The one marshal walked over to me. ‘Well done,’ he said. And then he said that, unfortunately, there would be no medal for me, as I had come in after the cut-off. I didn’t expect a medal. I know the rules. I mentioned that I had been lost up there in the mountains for a while. He said he knew about the flags and that they’d been sorted out a long time ago. I said I got lost a long time ago.
But he was nice, and he wanted to give me a medal, but they just had none left. One of the other guys from the Ice Tea stall walked across from his stand to hand me an ice cold bottle of Boss. Everyone was just being so nice. It was like being in a Disney movie, except I was grubby and smelly and sweaty and in no way resembling a princess.
I put myself down on a beanbag and gratefully opened the bottle of Boss.
‘You can have my medal, Mom,’ said Firstborn Daughter. Medals mean a lot to her. She is very proud of her collection of medals. The decision wouldn’t have been made lightly but I couldn’t take her medal. She had made the cut-off, even after spending time being bandaged by the medics, and even after she had fallen so hard that she had cried. ‘You deserve it more,’ she said.
The Boyfriend eyed my Boss. ‘Are you going to finish that?’ he asked. I glared at him. WTF? He looked wounded and went off to the Ice Tea stand to beg another bottle for himself.
The marshal came walking across to me with a medal. He had found one with a 38 km ribbon attached, and handed it to me. How cool is that?
And so I learnt that it all ends okay anyway. I was nauseous with terror, afraid of the day in the mountains, afraid of coming last, afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it, afraid I would bail. But I did it. I fell, I got lost, I ran out of water, I came home stone last or stone second-last, way after cut-off. And no one laughed and pointed. No one shouted ‘Off with her head!’ I’m still here. I did the distance. I’m another run stronger, another run fitter. And I’ve had another great experience.
If that lugubrious fellow with the morbid fashion sense and scythe wants to take me, he had better limber up, because he’s not finding me at home, on the couch, waiting for him.