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.