DNF. It stings.
Like lemon juice in a grated finger.
It shouldn’t, really. But it does.
There was so much that was amazing about the day.
Setting the alarm for 2:15 am and getting out of bed after a sleepless night feeling energized and ready. Getting to the start line at 3:30 in the morning and standing amongst all the other nervous and excited trail runners. So many fit and strong people, ready to run 65 and 100 km up and down our mountain trails. Just being part of this event, being part of something so momentous, even before we started running, was special.
Crossing the start line, running through the gates and onto the road, forming part of this big wave of runners surging down the road in the dark, past darkened homes where families were still sleeping, running through the Company Gardens, past the homeless folk still fast asleep on park benches and looking remarkably comfortable and snug under their thick blankets and duvets, up through the dark city streets, through Greenmarket Square, past late night revelers who hadn’t made their way to bed yet, into Bo-Kaap where the Muslim residents were awake and outside their homes to cheer us on and then, suddenly, we were out of the city and on the mountain trail. Everything became quiet and still.
Looking up I saw the string of headlamps lighting up the trail ahead of me. Hundreds of runners, each one no more than a pinprick of light in the darkness, joining together to form a string of fairy lights looped across the base of Signal Hill.
I was feeling fresh and strong. It was good to be out there. I was doing my best to take it slow. There was a long day stretching ahead of me and I wanted to be there for all of it.
The sun was rising, colouring the dark sky that stretched above the city lights, coaxing the mountain to reveal it self in a crisply outlined silhouette. I had such a deep feeling gratitude and privilege. I get to do this, I thought to myself. I get to do this. I get to be here, to see this. I get to use my body for this purpose. No matter what happened in the race, I got to be there, on the mountain, with all those other runners. I dared to dream that I could be there. No matter how terrified I was in the days leading up to it, no matter what the outcome might be, I was glad that I had turned up.
I knew I wasn’t up to finishing this race. Well, more correctly, I knew I was up to it, but just not within the cutoff times.
I had managed to get myself overtrained and undertrained at the same time. Overtrained, because Sneeuberg and Mont Rochelle left me drained and exhausted. Well, maybe it wasn’t all Sneeuberg and Mont Rochelle. Life had flung a few boulders in my way, leaving me exhausted from stress. And so, over the five weeks leading up to the race, the entries in my training log look rather sparse. There were no hills and no trails, and the distances were no longer than 10 km. Undertrained, to say the least.
But, with enough positive self-talk, I managed to convince myself that I could finish. It would be tough, and I would come in with minutes to spare, but I could do it.
And it was going pretty okay until I reached Platteklip. Platteklip, which I had climbed in under an hour with Firstborn Daughter. Platteklip, which now told me that things were not going to be so simple. If I wanted to climb it in under an hour, after already climbing the base of Signal Hill, the base of Lion’s Head, and then Kloof Corner, I should have paid attention to those alarms that went off once a week on my phone and computer: ‘Platteklip with Firstborn Daughter’, it said. And ‘Lion’s Head with Firstborn Daughter’. I would look at the prompt in the top right-hand corner of my screen and carry on working. I felt miserable. I wanted to be out there. I knew that each time I went out there it would take me a step closer to reaching my Ultratrail goal.
But there was always something. As a friend said to me, life is bigger than running. There are many factors that fill my days. And my work doesn’t allow me to just drop and go. There’s always an impossible deadline.
But I digress.
Platteklip attached a giant anchor to my legs and held me back. After climbing Kloof Corner with a smile on my face, and running along the Contour Path with relative ease, Platteklip was a nasty reality check. I slowed right down, stopping to rest my quads, leaning on my knees, battling my way past day hikers and, eventually, stepping aside, time and time again, for the 35 km runners to make their way past me. It felt as if I was out there, struggling up that trail, for hours. Checking Strava, though, the reality is that I was there for about 40 minutes. I keep going back to check – it seems impossible.
It wasn’t going up that slowed me down – it was going down!
That was where my quads were loaded and my knees gave in. It was there that I became cautious and unsure of my footing. I was wearing my new New Balance Response trail shoes. We had had only a 5 km run together and hadn’t bonded. I didn’t know if I could trust them on slippery downhills.
Once at the top of the mountain, there was a long stretch of flat to get running again and make up for lost time. But the single track trail was busy now. Hundreds of runners on the 35 km route were constantly on my tail. Their legs were relatively fresh and they were moving at a much faster pace. Again, I kept stepping off the trail to allow runners to go by. It was frustrating. It broke my stride and stopped me from getting into a rhythm. But having someone running on my heels was more frustrating.
I passed someone is some serious distress. He must have been a 65 km runner. I don’t know what was wrong, but he had three somber looking people tending to him, holding him propped up, his body, wrapped in a space blanket, motionless. Later I heard that he had to be airlifted off the mountain.
But the views! Oh my! The views from that side of the mountain! I don’t know why I have never been there. I will be back. Definitely. I will be running up there as part of my training next year.
It was in the dip of Echo Valley that I knew it was all over. I wasn’t able to speed up. I needed to pick up the pace quite drastically to make it to the Groot Constantia checkpoint, and the pace was just not picking up. I had never been on this part of the mountain before. It was lush and green. It was incredibly beautiful. I wished I could stop to take some photos but, even though I knew I was behind, I felt I needed to push, to at least try. Finishing, crossing that finish line … ah man … that would be so great. So I didn’t give up, breathe and just enjoy the views. I carried on carrying on.
Along the Blinkwater Peak ascent I again felt the load in my legs. I had climbed a lot of ascents in one morning! But look at the places it had taken me!
The wet, slippery, steep and technical downhills had hammered my knees and ankles, and, going down Smuts Track, with each step my left ITB delivered a painful stab all the way up to my hip. My right Achilles tendon made sure that stepping on the right foot was equally painful. I didn’t want to ruin the next six months of running, I thought. Yes, I want to finish an ultra, but not at the expense of not being able to run or race for months to come. Even if I were to make it in time, I thought, I would give in. Another 30 km in pain was going to be horrendous and was going to cause damage that was going to take a long time to heal. I was making peace with my DNF.
Whatever you feel on a trail, good or bad, will pass, I told myself. This pain will pass. Feeling bad will pass. And, shortly before the aid station at Woodhead Reservoir, I started running again. I was feeling somewhat better. I didn’t hang around at the aid station. Didn’t even take water. Just carried on going. Maybe I could still make it. I crossed the reservoir, which looked like an ocean at the top of the mountain. To my right a deep valley split the mountain. A waterfall gushed over its edge. I want to finish this. I want to cross the finish line, I thought.
Firstborn Daughter sent encouraging texts. ‘Go mom!’ and ‘Keep going’. She also let me know that 11 runners had already withdrawn and that most of those hadn’t made it up Platteklip. So, however badly I was doing, I was doing better than some. And I was third masters lady. Well, that meant, of course, that there were only three women in my age group who had the audacity to put themselves on the trail. I felt some pride in that.
At some point a string of texts came through at the same time. I had been out of range and the Significant Other and Firstborn Daughter had been having a long conversation about where I was and how I was feeling. It was good to know that they were thinking of me.
At the other end of the reservoir, a marshal saw my blue number – the only one amongst hundreds of greens. He asked if I would be diverting to the 35 km trail. ‘Do I have to?’ I asked. ‘No,’ he said. Well, then, I would continue on the 65 km route until someone told me to stop.
I turned right to take the steep descent to Groot Constantia. And this is where my knee turned up the volume. It whined and complained and harassed. Going down was agony. I did some funny crabbing hop-walk-run thing all the way. It took me an hour to cover the 7 km of downhill – the downhill section that, on the profile, looked like the place where I would make up the time lost on the ups.
It will pass. The pain will pass. It will get better. And it did. Only after it got worse, though. Much worse. And then the road flattened out and I could run again. My aches and pains eased out. Maybe they would let me run on. Maybe they would say I could go to the next checkpoint. If I could just make it to the 50 km mark, then I would be happy. Because 50 km is an ultra. I would still have run an ultra this year, even if I didn’t complete the race. Maybe …
Running along a vineyard trail, Landie Greyling, first lady of the 100 km, came gliding past me on her long, beautiful legs. She hadn’t even broken a sweat. With a huge smile on her face she told me I was looking good and to keep on hanging on. And then she was gone. Wow … what does it feel like to do that …?
Running along Constantia Main Road, I heard whooping and hooting. It was Firstborn Daughter and Her Boyfriend driving to Groot Constantia to cheer me in. I was glad to be running! At least they didn’t catch me walking. I was still racing. It was all over, but I was still running. No one had officially told me it was over, so I was putting in whatever effort I had left in me.
And then, there it was … Groot Constantia checkpoint. A blonde woman stepped in front of me. ‘Are you on the 65 km route?’ she asked. ‘Yes,’ I said, although it was clearly evident that I was. ‘Then it’s over for you,’ she said. Or words to that effect. ‘I know, I know,’ I said. ‘You’re aware of that, then,’ she said.
She must have had a lot of arguments with a lot of runners, because she came across as unnecessarily forceful. She was probably very nice, but in my disappointment, she just came across as a bit, well, bitchy. Suddenly I wasn’t okay with stopping. Not okay at all. A painful lump suddenly expanded in my throat, rivalling the pain in my knees. The Significant Other was there, walking towards me across the grass. I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want anyone to see me being a big baby. I smiled. Yes, I was fine. Yes, of course I wanted to carry on. No, I don’t want to sit. Yes, please, a piece of watermelon would be very nice.
Firstborn Daughter and Her Boyfriend arrived. She had brought some drinks, a towel, some flipflops. The Significant Other forgot to bring the bag I had packed and asked him to bring to the finish. It was fine. My daughter hugged me. ‘Well done, Mom,’ she said. It wasn’t well done. There was that lump again. And it made my eyes water. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.
‘You crazy woman,’ said Firstborn Daughter. ‘No one goes from running their first trail run to running an ultra in the same year.’
Well … maybe …
‘I would like to lodge a complaint,’ I said. ‘Here I am, sitting on a wine farm, under a gazebo, and there’s not a glass of wine in my hand.’
And so, to take the sting out of not reaching my goal, we went to lunch at Jonkershuis. We bumped into a friend who joined us for lunch. There was laughter and general merriment. I had a glass of wine, and then another. I had some lunch, and some more wine. It didn’t take the sting out of it. My great big fail sat on my shoulder, casting a shadow over everything.
It’s a big disappointment. It was my goal for this year. I had entered early this year and had set off getting as much trail experience as I could. It just wasn’t enough. It wasn’t consistent enough and not specific enough.
They had told me I was crazy. They had told me I couldn’t do it. I was going to prove them wrong. I proved them right.
This morning my eyes are still filling with water.
I know where I went wrong. I know where I lost focus in my training. I know what to do better and different next time. I will be back next year. I will run the 65 km. I will finish it. It’s less than a year away – the next Ultra Trail Cape Town is on 2 December 2017. Entry opens in March. I will be one of the first to enter. I will be there. I will finish.