30 May 2016
We had debated, agonized and argued about this race. We had signed up for so many trail runs and road races that the calendar was too full to enjoy anything else that life might have to offer, and the bank account was too empty to enjoy anything else life had to offer even if we had the time to take up the offer.
Then, finally, two weeks before the race, I sent Firstborn Daughter a text. ‘I think we should do this,’ I said. ‘I’ve found accommodation in Montagu and it’s quite cheap.’ I knew she’d be a pushover. The debate now was not whether to do it, but which distance to do. The 10 km was out of the question, of course. I mean … puhleeze?! But should we do 17 km or 26 km? I had had my heart set on 26 km from the start, from weeks ago, when I first looked at the race info. Now, after a handful of murderous trail runs, I have learnt a thing or two about how distance becomes quite elastic on a trail. I have learnt that 10 km can easily feel like a half marathon when faced with loose rocks and sand underfoot, narrow paths on which one misstep will send you so far down no one will hear you scream, and a path that winds up and up and up, relentlessly up and then up some more. You can’t even hope to run. You just power up as best you can, resisting the urge to stop, sit, lie down for a bit, send an emergency text calling for a helicopter …
So my reasonable self (oh, shut up!) said 17 km, my eager, excited, juvenile self said 26 km. Firstborn Daughter’s boyfriend had tapped in to his own eager, excited, juvenile self, and also wanted to do the 26 km – despite the fact that he becomes ill tempered and hates running, Firstborn Daughter, the universe and everything after about 15 km on a trail.
So we signed up for the 26 km. And immediately felt sick. Deep-in-the-pit-of-the-stomach sick. And then we told ourselves it would all be fine. It would be great, in fact. Of course it would be. After it was all over, that is.
Now, I need to digress for a moment here. I may have mentioned this, maybe, but I need to revisit this because I think there’s a chance that I forget this point fairly often. The point is that the Significant Other has always been pretty dismissive of trail running. To him it doesn’t count as running. Not really. Because, you see, there are those up-hills. And trail runners (all of them, every single one of them, always, you see) walk up those hills. And so it’s not called running. Because runners run up hills. Walkers (and trail ‘runners’) walk up hills. And that would be that.
So, deferring to his many more years of running experience, I believed him. And I honestly believed that if I put in the time on the road, did some hill training and ran my regular long slow distances, preferably along a hilly route, I would be well enough prepared for a trail run.
Let me repeat: not so.
Trail running is hard. It is so damn and bloody fucking hard!
Yes, of course many trail runners walk up those mountains. No matter how steep a road hill becomes, it can never compare to just how damn steep a mountain trail can become. You never need to go on all fours to get up a road hill. But many a trail has seen me moving primitively, primate-like, sloth-like, on my hands and knees, muttering things like ‘please don’t let anyone see me now, please don’t let anyone see me now’. And you never need to go down a road hill on your bum (‘please don’t let my pants split, please don’t let my pants split’), nor do you find as many opportunities for tripping and falling on your face as you do on the trail.
So, nosirree, trail and road are as different as waterskiing is to snowskiing, as different as baseball is to cricket, as different as hockey is to polo, as different as soccer is to rugby. Do not confuse the two.
If you are road fit, you are not necessarily trail fit.
Anyway. Enough of that digression. It raises my blood pressure. The point of it was merely to illustrate that our faith that it would all be fine was, and remains, simply delusional.
The week before the trail run, Firstborn Daughter scheduled some time for being sick. Hibernating, not going to work, not going out, feeling miserable, sick. Being the sensible sort, she stayed home, took it easy, took down fluids and vitamin C and, most importantly, stayed away from me … because heaven knows I’d be pissed off if I got sick!
By Friday she was quite determined that she would definitely, absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt, be in prime health and ready to tackle 26 km of mountain trail. Which is just as well, because this trail running thing, apart from being pretty tough, is also hellishly expensive. There’s the gear – and I don’t just mean the shoes and the backpack; you expect to have to buy that – it’s the compulsory emergency gear that seems to increase with each run. Just when you think you could survive any kind of apocalyptic emergency with what you already have in your pack, the race organisers of the next race throw in a few more items. Last week we had to buy thermal base layers at a gazillion drachma. And there’s the race entry fees, the petrol to the far-off race venues and, as in this case, the accommodation. So, by now, we have invested a fair bit of my non-existent retirement fund and their non-existent savings into flinging ourselves about rocky mountain paths.
With terror, trepidation and much excitement we headed off to Montagu – me stretched out on the back seat, laptop on my lap, trying to squeeze in some work while we drive, and the two of them in the front, bickering and insulting each other. Good times!
Our guesthouse was lovely. Wow. We usually stay at the Montagu Country Hotel or the Avalon Springs when we go to Montagu, but the Avalon was full (makes sense, since that’s where the race starts) and the hotel was a tad pricey for what we needed. The guesthouse, 20 on Church or, as the sign says, the Mimosa Lodge, was even better than either of the two hotels. The bedrooms were huge, with lovely views of the garden and the mountains. I was looking forward to getting into that enormous bed, which I would have all to myself … no dogs, no snoring Significant Other. Just me … Aaaaahhhh!
As is normal the night before a race, sleep did not come to my eyes as readily as hoped. I lay in a state of semi-sleep all night, telling myself to sleep, sleep, sleep, dammit, and psyching myself up for the over 2 000 m of total elevation gain I would be powering myself up and over. But when morning came, icy cold and dark, I was up and ready to take it on.
The nice woman who did the briefing told us that the sweeper had bailed on them, and so if we were one of the slow runners we should look behind us to see if there were any other people left on the trail and to just let her know about them when we came in. I didn’t see any danger in me missing to notice someone behind me. There would be no one. For sure.
A number of people chirped wisecracks about being slow and being the last one in. Ja, ja, I thought, all you fit people. You don’t know about being slow.
‘We can make a sweeper team,’ quipped Firstborn Daughter, to the mirth of the nervous, popsicled runners nearby.
Then there was some indication that the race had started and off we went. Or, more correctly, off they went. I felt I was still standing in one place and, kachooongg, everyone else had shot off. Within moments I was on my own, fording my way across sandbag paths across the river, sinking into the soft river sand and bouncing along the flattened reeds. It didn’t bother me that I was at the back. It was a glorious morning, the sun was starting to paint its colours on the mountain tops and I was there, in Montagu, running a trail. As the trail opened up a little, I realized that I wasn’t too terribly behind and that some of the others might start to slow down soon.
All went well for a while. Firstborn Daughter and her boyfriend trundled just ahead of me and it was pretty pleasant to have other humans in sight. We made it up the first stiff incline and then ran amongst the proteas as the path flattened out. Then my foot hooked on a rock, my arms flung out wide, in a swallow-dive position, while my feet involuntarily tried out every dance move possible – kind of a Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, if you get my drift – to keep my body upright and on the trail. I was like Tinkerbell … a pigeon-toed Tinkerbell wearing Captain Hook’s too-large boots. I righted myself and carried on running, grateful that there was no one around to see.
And then I did it again. Only this time I danced my way right off the trail and flattened myself against the shrubs. There I lay, face down, spread-eagled, some of the blow cushioned by the shrubs and some of the blow cushioned by my own soft bits. I felt a sharp pain in my hand as my fingers bent back against a rock. The Boyfriend heard me gasp-shriek and turned around to see me lying off-trail, laughing at my own stupidity. Up I got and onwards I pressed. It’s not a trail run if I don’t fall, it seems. I would feel the graze on my thigh, the stiff hip, the bruised shoulder and elbow and the fat, swollen fingers only much later.
By about 4 km I sensed that the pace was starting to slow down, and it had nothing to do with me. We had reached the top of a fairly short but hellishly steep ascent and were starting the next one, and one of my two mountain goat companions was not her usual sprightly self. I stayed behind her, realizing that the week of being off colour was coming to remind her of the foolishness of running when not completely fit and healthy.
‘Have we done the first big peak yet?’ she asked, and I realized we were in trouble. What we had just done (actually, what we were still doing) was about a 400 m elevation, pretty steep, but not a killer. We were going to head downhill for a bit and then we were going to tackle about 3 km of steep climb to an elevation of 650 m.
‘Nope, that one is still coming,’ I said.
The first runners of the 17 km route, who started 30 minutes after us, came sprinting past us, barely breaking a sweat, and, within moments, were out of sight. Then, after a few minutes’ gap, the mid-packers came cruising by, looking slightly sweatier and breathing a bit harder, but not wasting any time hanging about with the likes of us. Then came the next bunch, the ones who were already in need of oxygen and maybe even a stretcher. And even they quickly disappeared into the shrubs.
Gnarly, whiskery men in their fifties and beyond, with not an ounce of body fat on them, tackled the rocky incline as if they were pushing a grocery trolley down a supermarket aisle. They barely glanced at us as their manic gaze remain fixed on the trail.
The pace got slower and slower as Firstborn Daughter’s energy drained. There was stopping for breath. And there was misery. Sheer misery. The sense of humour had been left back at the start line, I realised. I saw the 26 km route slipping away from me. Firstborn Daughter was not feeling well at all. Her chest was tight and she struggled to breathe. Every so often, one or two runners would catch up with us, ask us if we were okay, even though they looked as if they could do with some help, and then they would pass us.
But the views! Oh my! The views! Montagu lay far below us, cloaked in a thick white blanket of mist. The massive mountains, their peaks turned to glowing orange and their valleys still resting in shades of deep green, seemed to stretch endlessly out and up. It was such a privilege to be there. Even if we didn’t get to do the full 26 km, it would still have been worth it just to be there, to see those views, breathe in that air and, of course, be able bodied and healthy enough to have gone that far. And the friendly people at the water tables helped to keep the spirits up. I have no idea how they got not only their tables, the water and the neatly chopped up Bar Ones up there, but their sweet little kids too … and they managed to put the little guys to work!
Firstborn Daughter was impervious to my (obviously very annoying) Pollyanna vibe. She clung stoically to her misery, despite the very best efforts of the Boyfriend and myself. We had to amuse ourselves for the rest of the trail … and what a very long, long trail it turned out to be. It took two and a half hours to cover the first 10 km. But no quick and easy decent awaited us over the crest of our first peak. Nope. It plummeted down. It was down-on-bum stuff. There were some great bits where we could stretch out and run, and Boyfriend and I grabbed the opportunity when we could, but then we had to stop and wait for Firstborn Daughter to drag herself towards us.
‘Smile,’ he ventured when she caught up with us. ‘Come on. Just try.’
She glared at him. Oh well … We made frightened faces at each other and pushed on in silence – or, as silent as you can be while trying to suppress giggles.
From the peak we could see a trail snaking up from the valley far below and then stretching out to carve its way up the flanks of Bloupunt, the 1 250 m monster we had been dreading with nervous, expectant excitement. Bloupunt was going to hurt us, and we were going to bitch and moan, but we were going to beat it. We were going to come down from there, having felt the pain, and we were going to be feeling great.
Boyfriend and I looked at the trail runners far below, looking like tiny, scurrying mice from where we were, running up the trail. We looked at each other. We didn’t really have to say anything. We knew it wasn’t going to happen. One of our team wasn’t well. We would stick with her. But, wow, wouldn’t it be awesome to do?
We finally made it down the mountain and to the T-junction: left to follow the 26 km trail or right to head home along the last few kays of the 17 km trail. The marshals told us that the first 26 km runners had already come down from Bloupunt and had headed to the finish line about 15 minutes earlier. That means they were only a few minutes away from the finish. What kind of magic potion do these trail runners drink?!
We had a perfunctory debate about whether we should turn left or right. We knew Firstborn Daughter would be fine on her own for the last 3 km. ‘I don’t need you,’ she said. But we knew we were turning right anyway. We had lost hours on the first peak. We were so far behind that, if we attempted the 26 km, we would be done hours after the last person had staggered in. They would all have packed up and gone home by the time we arrived. In fact, they were all such nice people that they would probably have sat it out and waited for us. The marshals didn’t try to stop us from heading up the mountain, even though it would have been perfectly reasonable if they had.
With a last glance at the dark, Tolkien-like valley to the left and the massive mountain looming above, we turned right. We headed for the finish. Daughter and Boyfriend were so ashamed at having bailed on the 26 km route that they took their numbers off. They didn’t want anyone to mistake them for really fast 26 km runners when, in fact, they were almost stone last 17 km runners. In fact, it would count as stone last, since we had a half an hour head start and still we were past by all but three of the field.
I felt kind of heavy. Emotionally heavy. I was done. The last few kays were on soft river sand. I need to run on the beach, I thought, and up stairs, and on mountain trails. There’s just so much training to do, on so many varied terrains and elevations that for a while there I thought that is was all just too big. A road is a road. You can run a road. You can walk a road. It goes up, it goes down, it can give you cramp, it can make you cry, it can make you vomit, but it’s still just a tarred road. A trail? It can be anything. You can’t judge how long it’s going to take you to run 1 km, because you don’t know what it’s made of.
Firstborn Daughter and Boyfriend disappeared and I found myself running alone. Just for a change. I walked for a bit, pondering this …
‘So, what now?’ I thought. ‘It’s “Hallelujah, I can walk!” and then you leave the mom behind? Geez!’
But she had stopped just ahead to wait for me.
‘I’m not running in without you,’ she said, and we ran our way over the last few hundred metres, narrowly missing being flattened by the third-placed 25 km runner sprinting in as if he were doing a 5 km time trial.
We explained to the lovely people that we didn’t finish our race. But they gave us medals anyway, and said well done for doing the 17 km, and expressed great concern for Firstborn Daughter’s heart and wanted her to go to the medics so that they could give her something (I’m not sure what).
We opted for a paper cup of coke instead. We donned our red ‘Madness’ buffs, took a selfie and waited around to see if Firstborn Daughter’s sense of humour would turn up. It didn’t. Not all of it, anyway.
Then we soaked our sorrows away in the most wonderful water of the hot springs before tackling the drive back home. We still felt a bit defeated and disappointed, but we knew, deep down, that Bloupunt had some special torture in store for us, and that we were probably better off turning right instead of left. She’ll still be there next year, waiting for us. And we’ll be back.