3,4, 5 November
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 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.
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.’
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?’
‘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.
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.