It’s Tuesday, three days after the Infantry School Cango Marathon, and I’m slowly emerging from yet another running-‘failure’-induced funk. I’m still chasing that elusive sub-five-hour marathon, still trying to qualify for and run the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon, still holding on to the dream of being one of the thousands of runners to take part in the Comrades Marathon – between eighty and ninety kilometres of arduous up and down, and the pinnacle of South African road running. You just are not a South African runner if you have not run either or both the Two Oceans and the Comrades. Just not. Done. (Okay, that’s not really true – not everyone wants to run an ultra. But I do.)
On Saturday I came close. But, again, no cigar.
Before we left on our road trip to Oudtshoorn to give this marathon a try, I decided that I needed to be focused on making a sub-five, but that I also, no matter what the outcome, had to enjoy the fact that I had run a marathon. Running is meant to be fun, not a chore. Constantly chasing a time goal sucks the joy out of the experience. I was mindful of being grateful for having had the good health and the opportunity to do the distance, and I was determined that I would be proud of the achievement, no matter what the finish time. And I would have fun. That was the point of it all: to have fun.
Forty-two kilometres on foot is a long, long way. To run it, at any age, at any weight or fitness level, is a big job. Turning up at the start line takes courage (and a certain level of crazy). Crossing the finish line is kind of a big deal. It is something to be celebrated. It may not seem like such a big deal when you compare yourself to the guys in front – those ones who fly the distance in the same amount of time (or less – no, actually, really, less!) as it takes me to run a half marathon. And it may not seem like much of anything if you cross the finish line after cut-off. But gutsing it out when your whole body begs you, screams at you, to stop, is a big damn deal.
So I knew that the sub-five-hour goal should not overshadow all the other really good things about having completed a marathon. Missing that sub-five, though, stings a little. And the sting is compounded by the fact that the Cango Marathon has a five-hour cut-off. So crossing the finish line after five hours, even a mere few seconds after five hours, means that you may as well be invisible. No one at the end acknowledges you. There’s no announcement. There’s no medal. There’s boggerol. So it’s a bit of a … pfffffff …! It’s a bit harsh, really. And, of course, those few seconds or minutes mean that you have not qualified to run Two Oceans or Comrades. So it’s all a bit of a bummer. Really. It is. From whichever angle you look at it.
The day started at three in the morning. Seriously. Three. In the morning. How ridiculous? We had to be at the Infantry School grounds in time to board a bus at four. The buses would ferry us to the Cango Caves entrance, where we would wait for the race to start. This meant that we had an hour and a half to sit around and contemplate the insanity of it all. But one great thing about this wait was that there was plenty time to use the clean bathroom facilities. Just for once we didn’t have to stand about in a long line of desperate runners, waiting to get into a smelly porta-loo, where there would more than likely not be any toilet paper. We should have taken some food along, though, because one gets pretty hungry during the three hours between waking and running, and watching other people tucking in to their bananas and other treats didn’t help.
The time seemed to pass quickly, though, and before I knew it, I was amongst the throng of runners making their way downhill towards the climb up the scenic Swartberg Pass. The weather was perfect! The prediction had been a low of 19 and high of about 29 °C. But then the weather changed and the day before saw the heavens open and the streets flooding. The day of the race was cool and overcast with just a slight breeze. It started getting quite warm towards the end, but really nothing as bad as we had run in before … think back to the Sneeuberg Traverse!
On the profile the first hill looks murderous. It’s a long uphill but it’s really not so bad. It’s kind of similar to our Victoria Road run – from Bantry Bay to Llandudno. It slows you down and taxes your legs but it’s not so bad that you have to get your head down and slog, and at no point did I feel I needed to walk, although I had planned to, in order to save my legs for the last stretch.
Just after the turnaround, where we started to run downhill to the 12 km mark, I latched onto the back of a group of Itheko runners, who had formed their own sub-five-hour bus. I was running comfortably and feeling good. At some point the Significant Other told me that I needed to speed up if I wanted to make cut-off. Then, when I started to speed up, he told me to slow down. So I slowed down. Then he ran away from me. Go figure. Anyway …
The markers count down, showing you the distance still to do, rather than the distance already run, and I quite liked that. I like that I had only 30 km to go, instead of having run only 12 km. The markers also incorporated the point two, so when there was 1 km to go, there wasn’t also another 0,2 km after that. Nice and clean.
Running at the back of the Itheko sub-five bus was the one highlight of my day. I can still hear the driver saying ‘Easy … eeaasy …!’ and telling his runners how well they were running and how awesome they were. The pace was as light as the mood and the banter, and if I could have made a video of these guys I’m sure I could have used it to convince hundreds of ‘I hate running’ and ‘you must be crazy’ types to lace up and get out there. These guys were the picture of the joy of running.
And then, just as things were looking really promising for me, the smell of spicy hot cross buns filled the air and the entire Itheko group dispersed … it was literally like a bubble being burst – my bubble, to be exact … as they all dashed to the side of the road to grab a spicy bun. I love spicy hot cross buns, and I salivated and gazed longingly at the heaped containers being held out by the enthusiastic support crew.
I thought I would just jog along slowly so that they could catch up with me. I didn’t want to stop and I didn’t want to walk. I was feeling good and I wanted to hold on to this feeling of easy running. But the plan failed. For some reason I stayed ahead of them for quite a while, and by the time they caught up with me, I had lost my legs and my will to live. I was briefly engulfed by the group, their chatter and laughter drowning out my pain, and then they passed me, widening the gap between my quickly fading self and them. I watched them as they passed me – chatting and bantering away, all fit and strong and well trained and well prepared and full of camaraderie and team spirit, and I felt a little bit envious. I remained hopeful as I held them in sight for a while, thinking, it’s okay, it’s okay, just keep them in sight, and then they were, poof, gone. Just like that. Along with my sub-five.
Now, I must point out that I have a deep-seated superstition that if I pass an Itheko runner, even a limping and struggling back marker, sweating and panting and weeping, my run will go south. Deep south. My superstition has now turned into a religion. I will never again pass an Itheko runner. Not even a runner reaching for a spicy bun. So, Itheko, when you’re out there on the road, and you’re asking each other ‘Who is this stupid woman sitting on our heels and why won’t she leave?’ It’s me. And I’ve just told you why!
I reached halfway in about 2:25, which was pretty much spot-on according to my plan: any faster, and I wouldn’t have the stamina to finish; any slower and I was putting too much pressure on myself. And I ran my fastest 30 km during the marathon, at 3:29, and so it was all going pretty well up to that point. And then it all started going a little bit pear-shaped. I knew from the start that I didn’t have enough long runs under the belt and that my endurance might flag near the end. But I kept positive and kept talking myself through. I just needed to get to the 10 km to go mark and then I would be in single digits. And then, if I could get to the 8 km to go mark, I would have only three kays to go before there were only five left before I crossed the finish line. But I also knew that only an hour and a half to do the last twelve kays was cutting it too fine. I kind of knew then that it was all slipping away from me.
‘Do the work,’ I told myself as I willed myself forward. ‘Do the work now so you’re not sorry this evening. Today’s the day. This is your day. This is the day you get your sub-five. This year you’re running Oceans and Comrades. Do the work! Do the work!”
And then my legs or my mind or both would call a halt and I would walk a few paces. ‘Just to that gate,’ I would tell myself. ‘Then you run again.’ I would reach the gate and pick up the pace, only to flag again. The same runners would stay just ahead of me, while others would pass me and walk, before I would pass them and walk … all of us doing the survival shuffle, desperate to make cut-off.
Time slipped away from me. Soon I had only about an hour in which to run 10 km. That’s what I run on a good day, on fresh legs, not after having run 32 km. ‘Do the work,’ I would scream at my self (in my mind, of course). ‘Do the work! Don’t be sorry tonight!’
Little kids lined the roadside, chanting encouragement and giving high fives.
‘Hou, bene, hou! Hou bene hou!’ they chanted as they hopped up and down and ran alongside the runners. A bunch of them ran with me for a while, which was sweet and fun until it was no longer sweet and fun and I wanted them to go away. They were crowding me, and their not-so-subtle glances at my waist belt suggested that their reasons for running with me were less magnanimous and more about what treats I might be carrying, and might be prepared to share with them in exchange for their support and motivation. But they were keen to stay. For skinny little kids their endurance was remarkable. So I stopped and snapped a selfie with them, showed them the pic and hoped that would encourage them to go away. I wasn’t sharing any treats with them. All I had was one GU Race sweet, and it had to see me through the last 5 km.
The last 12 km are made worse by the fact that the road flattens out and become monotonous and then, at about 40 km, it rises steeply … I mean … seriously?! What the hell? Who decided to throw a hill in at 40 km?!
At some point, when I realised that it had all slipped away from me, I developed an acute case of Tourette Syndrome. A bad, bad, acute case. ‘Fuck!’ I said to myself. ‘Fuck. Fuckit. Fuck.Fuck!’ And, no, I wasn’t nearly as cute as Hugh Grant banging his head against the church wall going ‘Fuckity-fuck!’.
At 2 km to go I hauled out my cellphone and sent a voice message to my family.
‘Not going to make it,’ I said. ‘I have two kays to go, eight minutes left. That’s four minutes a kay.’
It was never going to happen. I have never run a four-minute kilometre and I certainly didn’t have the legs to run two of them at the end of the Cango Marathon.
Nope. It was done. It was over. No Two Oceans for me this year. No Comrades.
People called encouragement. Runners who had long ago finished their race and were walking to their cars called to me to keep running, don’t walk, almost there, just a little bit to go, well done …!
I heard noise coming from the stadium. There was a loud roar and a countdown, followed by a gunshot. That was it. Cut-off.
Cut-off happened while I was outside the stadium, on a hot, dusty road, its white sand reflecting the sun into my eyes. I just needed to finish. I could be sad later on. But now I just needed to run into the stadium, around the field and across the finish line.
Some kind people clapped and cheered me on. ‘Well done, ATC,’ they called. ‘Keep going,’ they said.
And then I crossed the finish line. Nine minutes and 24 seconds after cut-off.
An infantryman kneeled at my feet and started undoing my one shoelace. ‘It’s fine,’ I said. ‘It’s fine. You don’t have to do that. I’ll do that,’ I said to the white T-shirt covering his broad shoulders. But he ignored me and mutely busied himself with my laces. He retrieved the timing chip, tucked my laces into my shoe and moved off, never looking up at me or speaking a word to me. He must have been pretty done with retrieving timing chips by then. People sitting at the tressle tables with their clipboards and pens and other race organisers’ paraphernalia didn’t even look up. Those who looked in my direction stared straight through me. They had seen the winners. They didn’t need to be bothered with the losers.
It was a spectacularly inauspicious end to a marathon.
But it was an end to a marathon. It had been a great marathon – the weather, the route, the views, the people, the volunteers, everything had been good. And I hadn’t run a terrible time. If it hadn’t been for the cut-off and that I wanted to qualify for Oceans and Comrades, I would be smiling from ear to ear, especially if I consider that most of my training had been squeezed into the last eight or ten weeks. But now I felt like crying. Someone handed me a bottle of water and I made my way to the wooden benches of the stadium to sit down. From there I could let everyone know where I was and how I did, and from there I could locate The Significant Other.
In my post-race funk I briefly considered the unfairness of having to make the same time as someone much younger. The Boston qualifying times vary according to your gender and age group – not that I have a hope in hell of ever making a BQ, no matter how they skew the numbers to my advantage – and it would be nice if the qualifying time for people over 50 was slightly more lenient than the time set for the youngsters. But those are the rules and it was time to suck up and get back to the drawing board.
Well … I would suck-up and get back to the drawing board after a day or two of obligatory mourning.
I located the Significant Other where he was lying on the grass, shoes off, and pretty satisfied with how his day had played out. He had made cut-off and had earned his medal. He was less than enthusiastic when I presented him with this road trip to a marathon idea, but it had all worked out well. He couldn’t fault my plan. I think he’s still sending out texts to his running mates, telling him about this hidden gem of a marathon he had discovered.
After a bit of lying about on the damp grass, I was keen to get back to the guest house. Watching people get prizes would just be rubbing my nose in it. I was happy for them but there were enough people around to applaud their success. I wanted a shower and tea and a nap.
I got into the car and slumped down in the passenger seat, my tired legs up on the dashboard and my teary eyes barely level with the window’s edge. A gloomy cloud hung over my head and cast a shadow over everything around.
‘Don’t be miserable,’ my good angel runner said. ‘You did fine.’
‘You messed up,’ my devil runner said. ‘This isn’t the story you wanted to tell.’
‘Shut up,’ I said.
I had run a 5:09:24 and, while I had had a great run and was grateful for the experience of having run yet another marathon, I was pretty damn disappointed. I couldn’t pretend otherwise. The Cango Marathon was my Last Chance Saloon. There would not be another opportunity in time for this year’s Oceans and Comrades. I had blown my chance.
Then, as I looked to my left, I saw a sight that still brings a lump to my throat and makes the world a bit blurry: a huge group of happy, smiling Spartan Harriers running towards the stadium. Running in front, flanked on either side by women, which is kind of how he likes it, I think, and sporting the biggest smile of all, was the instantly recognizable, unmissable, always chirpy, always happy, Boet van Zyl – a 74-year-old runner who turns up at every race. The Sparties, who had all finished their runs, had laced up again and had gone back out into the battlefield to bring their last soldier home.
And this is why I love marathons, no matter what my finish time is: the people. The best people run marathons (and ultras, I’m sure – but I won’t know for absolutely sure until I qualify for one!). Distance runners are in the race for the long haul. We all feel the pain, but we are still able to set our own pain aside and support a fellow sufferer.
Thank you, my Significant Other, Itheko and Sparties, and all the infantrymen and volunteers – I’ll be back. And this time I’m leaving with a medal.
Life shrinks and expands in proportion to one’s courage. Anaïs Nin
In another one of my optimistic, trigger-happy moments, I entered a whole bunch of races. Among them the Nutribullet Bay to Bay and, two weeks later, the Red Hill Marathon.
My thinking was thus: I have a fairly decent running base; all I need to do is give myself a week or two (max!) to recover from my failed ultra experience, give my ITB time to settle down, and then I can get back into doing some short runs during the week and some long runs on the weekend. Within a few weeks I would be ready to run a comfortable-ish Bay to Bay, which would set me up for the Red Hill Marathon. And, if I had managed to stick to the training plan, I should be able to give a sub-five hour marathon a shot. If not, then at least I would have a long run to add to my Cango Caves Marathon training.
Just reading this now makes me realize that I must have been a little bit deranged after the UTCT. Christmas was coming. I had deadlines. I was never going to manage to fit in the kind of running that I needed to do. And there’s the old man, who neeeeeeeds me on a regular basis. And The Kid hit a rocky patch, needing some close attention. Just making it through each day, with at best half of the items on the to-do list ticked off, was an accomplishment.
So, as has been the pattern for me, the training did not go quite as planned.
If I just set smaller goals, I’d be fine. A half marathon a month, maybe. Or even a half marathon every week would be doable. But, no. Marathons. Ultras. We’re setting our sights on those. Now. At this stage of life, where there are elderly parents, a teenager and work stress to cope with. At a stage of life where the body is breaking down, not building up, so any missed training session, any injury or sleepless night (and, boy, do I have those!) has impact and takes ages to recover from.
And so the Bay to Bay 30 km was anticipated with less joy and excitement than it should have been. Should I run it? Shouldn’t I run it? I probably shouldn’t run it. But I’ve entered. I can just take it easy. It’s 30 km. There’s no ‘easy’!
I argued with myself until the morning of the race. The Significant Other seemed to have a similar argument raging inside his head. He was feeling overweight and undertrained, and unsure of how his Achilles would bear up.
The raging gale force Southeaster that hammered the peninsula the night before the race served not to inspire enthusiasm. There was no way we wanted to run in that!
He came into the room at about five in the morning. ‘Are you running?’ he asked. I think he wanted me to say no, because then he wouldn’t have to run either.
‘I’m up,’ I said. It was a bit non-committal, but once you’re up, you’re up, and then you may as well run.
My intention was just to finish. Bonus points for finishing before cut-off.
Last year I joined the 3:30 bus. I stayed with them until the half-way mark, where I got lost in a throng of walkers and watched the little 3:30 flag disappear into the distance. This year I didn’t even try to stand near them. I was going to go slowly, take it easy, enjoy the view, enjoy the run. It was a 30 km fun run. Kind of like a long parkrun.
I maintained a steady pace, running, not walking, for the first half of the race. Just slow, slow, slow. But my stomach was giving trouble. Cramps. And there was a niggle in my left knee. By the time we were heading down Suikerbossie, my eyes were bulging from their sockets. I needed a portaloo. And I needed some crutches, maybe, so that I didn’t have to put weight on my left knee.
But still I was having fun. I saw some fellow club members heading towards me. We didn’t know each other but we exchanged some nods, smiles and waves of encouragement.
I had no tissues with me. And no Panado for this knee. Not really anything to eat, either. I had really treated the race like a parkrun. In fact, I’m sure I appeared at my parkruns with more preparation.
I was quite sure there would be portaloos at the turnaround. But, knowing race day portaloos, I knew there would be no toilet paper. What was I going to do? The stomach cramps forced me to walk a few steps every so often. Then, lying there in the road, just in front of me, was a clean, white serviette. Oh wow! But, no! I couldn’t! I couldn’t pick up some tissue paper from the road! Could I? I ran past it. And then I thought, no, if the universe sends you some clean tissue paper while you’re having stomach cramps in the middle of a race, then you must thank the universe and accept the gift. I turned around, ran back to the serviette and picked it up. I figured anyone who saw me doing so would simply think that I had dropped it. It was completely clean. Unused. No shame in this. None at all.
But there were no portaloos at the turnaround. Oh, woe!
I started looking at the bushes, assessing them for cover. But I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t. ‘Where are the toilets?’ I asked the marshals. They, in sympathy, looked as desperate as I was feeling. ‘Choose a tree!’ one called after me.
Just near the 18 km mark was a shopping centre. In the shopping centre was a restaurant, La Cuccina – bless them and all their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I hobbled in, preparing myself to plead for mercy. But the waitress simply nodded in the direction of their clean, fresh, pleasant-smelling facilities. Ah! The small things that can inspire such gratitude!
I unwrapped a Gu Stroopwafel and took a few bites while I walked back onto the course. Suikerbossie was waiting for me. It had been a long, long time since I last tackled that hill. Probably at the last Bay to Bay, I think. I would walk-run it. There was no point in wearing myself out trying to run a 2 km hill, even though I had run this hill more than once in my short running career.
I made some friends along the way. We chatted, we joked, we encouraged each other. I left some behind. They would overtake me again later. I made it to the top of Suikerbossie and got ready to run home. I still had plenty of time to make it to the finish before cut-off. I was on top of Suikerbossie, on top of the world! It was an easy run home. I was feeling good. I could do this … oh … hang on … bugger! My knee! Ah man! My knee! It was not remotely interested in taking full advantage of the generous gift of a gentle downhill slope all the way home. Nope. It wanted to walk.
The pain shot up from my knee into my hip. I walked a bit. When I walked I felt pretty good. Then I’d run a bit. And feel not nearly as good.
And so I had to walk-run-walk the last 10 km, even though the rest of my body was pretty much up for a nice long run. A fellow from Bellville running club pulled up alongside me.
‘Are we doing to make it, sister?’ he asked.
‘Of course we are. We have plenty of time,’ I said.
‘Ah you are confident!’ he said. ‘That’s good.’
He complained of some cramps in his calves. Said we should pull each other through the rest of the route. It sounded like a fine plan, although I was too sore to be of much use to anyone. But we started running together, just keeping a gentle pace. We saw a cameraman and gave him our best smiles. So many cameramen on this route – and I was wearing shorts … were my legs making dimpled, wrinkled, old ladies’ legs waves? We ran on a bit more, chatting about the races we had signed up for. He was doing 27 for Freedom in Paarl. I had thought about it, but the early morning rise and schlepp all the way out to Paarl caused me to reconsider.
Then I had to let him go. My knee insisted on walking a bit. He ran on, found someone else to talk to, and then stopped a few hundred metres ahead of me. He was spraying some stuff on his legs – Dr Lee, it was called – and he shared some with me. Aaah! Sweet relief! I could run for a bit. It’s some Chinese stuff, probably full of all sorts of stuff that involves animal abuse and nothing that I would normally buy. But, boy, it felt good not to hurt for a bit! I didn’t see my friend again. I don’t know if he passed me again or if his generous sharing of Dr Lee meant that I left him and his cramps behind.
And still it seemed as if I had ages to go before cut-off. I could still hobble along, chat to people, take in the view, and make it before cut-off.
I would run along the flat section, I thought – that last bit that takes us to the finish. My knee would hurt on the downhill but it would definitely be good to go on the flat.
Dassie Sprint lay ahead. I was not going to be sprinting. I checked the clock. Time had somehow got away from me. Making the cut-off was no longer a sure thing. It was pretty much a no-hoper. I needed to pick up the pace … but … ow man! Geez!
Hundreds and hundreds of runners and walkers streamed through Camps Bay. Runners who had finished were walking upstream towards their cars, telling us to keep going, we’re almost done. Then people started calling time … only eight minutes to go … only five minutes to go … There was a solid chance of me missing cut-off if I didn’t start running in earnest.
A small, fierce woman came running up behind me, coaching some fellow who was in serious pain.
‘Catch the ATC lady,’ she called to him.
No way! Now I’m being targeted! I picked up the pace. It hurt. I kept going. It kept hurting.
The man was in the zone. He had had enough of this race. He was hurting, he was tired, and he wanted done. His shoulders were pulled up to his ears, his back was hunched, his head was at an angle. He was sweating profusely.
‘We can finish this bitch!’ he shouted to no one and everyone. ‘Come on! We can do it! Aaah! Argh! Bitch! Let’s finish this bitch!’
I let him pass me. The last few metres onto the field were a steep downhill. Pain shot up my leg. I tried to do that crabbing thing, where you kind-of run-hop sideways while keeping one leg straight. It was about as elegant as it was effective. Two minutes to go … three … two … what?! How long? Can someone decide?
I made it onto the soft sand and dry, straw-like grass of the chute. There was noise. Music. The announcer was saying stuff. People were shouting, ‘Come on! Come on!’ There was less than a minute to go. I had to run this, no matter what my knee had to say about the matter. People were leaning over the railings, waving their arms. ‘Come on!’ they shouted. ‘You’re almost there! You can do it!’
I ran and I hobbled. No time for smiling now. I saw the time marked out in red lights on the big digital clock. The seconds rolled over. Did someone speed up the clock?
And then I was across the line: 3:59:24. I made it with 36 seconds to spare. Good grief!
What is the matter with me? Why can’t I just turn up for a race well trained and well rested? Does it always have to be more of a challenge than it needs to be? And what, pray tell, is wrong with running a few 10 km races a year and just taking it easy the rest of the time? What?
And next week is the Red Hill Marathon. Another undulating, ITB-smashing route, with a five-hour cut-off. No, I should not be running it. No, I have no chance in hell of making cut-off. In hell I will be, though.
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.
4 December 5, 2016
By next week Sunday, the Ultra Trail Cape Town will be a thing of the past. Whether I had turned up to run it or not, it would have happened. One thousand runners would have attempted either the 35, 65 or 100 km route and by Sunday night they would still be sitting in the warm glow of their accomplishment.
And right now I am looking at the train smash that is my training log.
13 km this week. Just over 20 last week. Not one week over 40 km in weeks and weeks.
And I’m supposed to be running an ultra on Saturday. An ultra that goes over a mountain. I feel sick. For weeks now I have avoiding looking in the direction of the mountain as I drive along the N1 on yet another trip to the northern suburbs. I sometimes allow myself to glance at the trail running across the plump waistline of Devil’s Peak. That’s the road home. The downhill track towards the finish line. There would still be 10 km to go, but the city would be in sight. The worst would be over.
I look at training logs of other runners on Strava, people who take their training seriously, people who sign up for big races and then do big runs in training, and I feel sick.
My training log looks pretty decent up to the Cape Town Marathon. And then it all just falls apart. Disintegrates. Vapourised.
What to do?
Do I turn up? It seems so disrespectful of the race, of the effort put in by the organisers, of the effort put in by all the other runners. Do I turn up and hope to survive, just hope to finish? Do I see finishing before cut-off as a win? Do I accept that a DNF can happen to the best runners in the world and that I might also have those three letters behind my name?
Ah. My word. My runs over the last few weeks haven’t even included a hill. Let alone a mountain.
How am I going to do this?
I am so absolutely terrified of what lies ahead that I don’t even have thoughts formulated in words. All I have is a leaden feeling of dread. It comes to roost in my stomach and then it sends waves of terror through my chest and arms. It closes my throat and it paralyses my legs.
Every time the Significant Other and The Kid ask me, ‘What’s changed? You were fine a moment ago and now suddenly you’re short tempered. What’s happened?’ it’s because I have suddenly been reminded of This Thing looming over me.
I tell myself that I have worked all year for this. I have signed up for all sorts of trail runs. I have done the toughest trails – Jonkershoek, Montagu Mountain Mania and Grootvadersbosch. There were various shorter trail runs – Groot Constantia, Lourensford and Uitkyk, as well as Strandloper. And then there was Sneeuberg: 111 km covered over three days of desert heat and dust, at altitude – I keep forgetting about the altitude. And I topped that experience with the sheer hell that Trail du Mont Rochelle.
I have taken on the trails along mountains, deserts, rivers and beaches.
So far I am only 19 km away from having run 1 800 km this year. I have clocked up an elevation gain of over 30 000 m. I have run three marathons – if you don’t count the 40 km and 44 km (inadvertently) run on the Sneeuberg Traverse.
Sure, the last five weeks have been pretty terrible. I have been exhausted, post-flu, post-London, post-London-flu-type-relapse, post-Sneeuberg, post-Trail du Mont Rochelle. I’ve struggled to run. I’ve had to talk myself into running 10 km without stopping for a walk break. If I can run 10 km without walking, I’ve been telling myself, then all I have to do is run 10 km six times and the job is done. And chunks of the distance will be hiking, not running, as I’ll be climbing the mountain – like that’s a piece of cake! Parts of the trail will go downhill. And then, on the flat stretches, all I have to do is run 10 km without stopping. Six times. And then the job is done.
Oh. My. Word.
If it were as simple as that, the whole of Cape Town would be lining up.
It starts at four in the morning! I’ve not once managed to get out of bed at five in the last few weeks. In fact, Nor have I managed to stay awake for an entire day. Do I even go to sleep the night before the race? How do I do this? OMG! I would have to be there at 3:15 am, so I would have to leave home at 3:00, so I would have to be out of bed at 2:00 … no, 1:00 … Oh. My. Fuck.
Okay. Let’s go back to the pep talk. Every run this year has been aimed at gaining experience and fitness for Ultra Trail Cape Town. I have ramped up my mileage. Yes, I have had to take it easy over the last weeks, but the year’s runs are still sitting in my legs.
And Hal Higdon says you should taper for three weeks. You should be well rested at the start of the race. Rather undertrained than overtrained, he says. Or someone said that. I’ve always managed to turn up undertrained. That’s for sure. Except for Cape Town Marathon. I was well trained. And that bombed spectacularly. Twice, in fact.
And I don’t have a goal for the UTCT. The goal is simply to finish. For CTM I wanted a sub-five hour. A 4:30, in fact. But for UTCT there is no pressure. It’s simply a case of getting out there, letting all the young bucks pass me as soon as possible, definitely before the single track, and then spending the rest of the day – 14 hours – out there on the trails, making my way home. Even ET got home eventually. And Frodo and Sam made it from the Shire to Mt Mordor and back again. Atreyu makes it out of the Swamp of Sadness, even without his horse.
But I just had such big training plans. I was going to be so much better prepared. I was going to be awesomely prepared. All those Platteklip and Lion’s Head climbs I had scheduled. One or two climbs per week. It didn’t happen. All those abs classes at gym. Ditto.
It’s just so frustrating. As a woman, I can’t go out on the trails by myself. Roads are okay, but yomping up trails by myself is just looking for trouble. So here I sit, undertrained, with the entire route just outside my front door.
I have found Tuesday Trails and Mates, and I have joined the Mountain Club. So I’ll be set up for plenty of running groups next year. I just need to get through Saturday, 10 December.
I survived 12 and 17 hours of labour. I survived eight hours on the trail in Sneeuberg. I made it down that killer of a trail at Mont Rochelle. I made it up and down Grootvadersbosch and Montagu.
I can do this.
I think … Maybe … I hope …
I’m so ridiculously terrified!
If I can just remember to breathe …
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.
Last night was the first in a series of three night runs on Groot Constantia wine estate, sponsored by Merrell and Black Diamond. I immediately signed up for all three runs and last night I sat in the traffic for over an hour, worried that I might arrive in time to collect my bottle of wine and watch the runners disappear into the dark.
I made it just in time, though. Got signed up, checked out the Black Diamond headlamps, contemplated buying one and decided to ignore my credit card burning a hole in my pocket. An investment of that kind needs a little bit more thought. Do I really want to run with a battery pack strapped to the back of my head? And my stupid head is so teeny-tiny, they probably don’t make straps small enough to fit around it. I’ll have my headlamp hanging between my eyes like a giant, glowing bindi. Next time.
I felt a bit spare standing there on my own. Everyone seemed to be in groups or couples, all laughing and chatting and having a great time. The Significant Other was running with his mates, Firstborn Daughter is still nursing injuries and not running, and Her Boyfriend runs only when she does. I should have seconded him, anyway, I thought. But still, there was some freedom in being on my own. No pressure to run at any speed.
They delayed the race by a few minutes, waiting for darkness so that their markers could show up, and then we were off. It felt like quite a pace but I kept up. I felt good. I wasn’t expecting to feel strong after Sunday’s 30 km and a day of driving and dog training. In fact, I had felt so wiped out earlier in the day that I took myself off for a little afternoon nap – and actually slept. I woke up just in time to get ready and head into the traffic. So I intended to run slowly and fully expected to be at the back of the pack immediately. Runners whizzed past me. All around me was darkness, except for dots of lights dancing their zigzag rhythm between the vines. I felt as if I must be right at the back but I could hear signs of life behind me. It must have been only a handful of people, as there seemed to be a lot of lights up ahead, snaking around the trail.
My watch signaled the end of the first kay. 5:51/km? Could that be? Too fast! Too fast! The next kay was also under 6:00/km. I could hear my breathing. I don’t like to hear my breathing. I feel self-conscious. I sound unfit. I sound as if I shouldn’t be there with those real runners whose pulse is still sitting at a resting rate. Never mind. The first hill will come. Then they will start to slow down.
I got up the first climb and still kept the pace around 6:00/km. Wow! What’s going on here? The next hill will definitely knock me off pace. It did a bit, and I slowed down to just over 7:00/km. I had to talk to myself. Look around at the view. Look around and don’t trip!
How amazing! How spectacularly beautiful! And what a privilege to be there. No, I didn’t have my best people with me to share the experience with me. But I was there. I was running. The orange and white city lights lay spread out to my right, their glow reflecting off the clouds above. Mirrored in the still water of the dam were the sky, the clouds and a silhouetted line of runners. All was quiet. Each person in his or her own world, moving through the night air, shrouded in darkness, surrounded by trees and vines. It was magical.
Some runners slowed down. I passed them. I was on a trail and I was passing runners! Then, once on single track, I had to walk. People ahead of me had slowed down and I had to stick behind them. I was grateful for the rest but wanted to rest a bit faster. Gloopy mud made for some creative, arm flailing moves in places. But I didn’t land on my butt and I didn’t trip over roots or into holes. I thought of Firstborn Daughter and her recent tendency to tumble.
I counted the distance to go. The 500 metres between 4,5 km and 5 km seemed to take forever. We wound our way along a muddy single track, uphill, between tall trees. The markers glowed in our headlamps, creating a strange feeling of being in another world. Were fairy creatures nearby? The people in front of me were too slow. I wanted to pass. But what if I passed and then they sprinted past me again, smirking in the dark and silently casting smug thoughts back at me? I hung behind them until they seemed to slow even more. I needed to pass. They didn’t pass me again.
And then it was downhill. Downhill and home to the finish. I couldn’t pick up too much speed on the downhill. It was slippery, there were dongas and gullies cement pipes lying in wait to twist an ankle and ruin a marathon. But I didn’t want the people behind me to catch me. I hooked round a switchback onto a flat and saw the runners heading down the hill, way too close for comfort. I picked up the pace. I picked up the pace? What the hell? The Garmin beeped. One more kay to go.
A left turn took me across the lawn. It sloped uphill and I ran up it. I felt energized, joyful, powerful. The last stretch to the finish took me down a paved path. I passed some people. Why were they walking?
And then, out of the darkness, into the light, under the finish arch, face beaming. A rather nice-looking blonde fellow smiled at me, said well done and handed me a bottle of water. Someone wrote on a clipboard. That was it. I was done. 56 minutes and some change.
I collected my bottle of wine and my free wine tasting and went to sit on a low wall to take it all in. That was good.
I took a sip of wine – nothing like rehydrating with alcohol, right?! My iPhone lit up to signal a text message: my results. Already! Not great, not brilliant, but not last, either: 95th overall, 33rd in my gender. That would include all those sprightly young things with their swishing ponytails; those ones who actually look great with a buff worn as an Alice band.
The official results show that there were 11 runners in the Masters category. I came 6th out of the Masters. Masters one to five were men. Only two other Masters women managed to secure evening passes from the old age home last night. They finished about two minutes and ten places after me. Had they had prizes for age categories, I would have had my moment for the first time in history! I would have podiumed in first place!
Oh well …
I waited around for the prize giving. Maybe I would luck upon a Black Diamond head lamp. I was getting chilly. My jacket was in my car but the car just seemed way too far away. Once there, I would get in and drive home. I decided I may as well use their facilities while I wait for the prize giving to start. I headed in to a cubicle, cell phone, wine bottle, water bottle and wine glass in hand. And it was only when I came back out that I spotted the row of urinals against the wall. I had gone into the gents’ loo! Oh my word! I don’t know what I would have done had there been a fellow standing there, pointing his pieps as the porcelain …
I didn’t podium. I didn’t get a medal. I didn’t win a Black Diamond headlamp.
But it was fun. So much fun. I am so very fortunate to be able to do this.