Running the Addo 100 Miler last week end was a perfect reminder of why I run. I run because of joy, because I love trail runners (mostly….), because I love the folk who are passionate and insane enough to take on the organization of such a hectic race, I love the wilderness areas it gives me access to (especially when they are in my beloved Eastern Cape and when it is on its absolute best behavior almost to the point of showing off). Addo ticks all my boxes.
But it’s a very long time since I ran so far and in the build up to this race I was often immobilized by the sheer enormity of the goal. I had the kind of back injury a year ago that made putting on my own knickers a real challenge. When I recovered from that I focused almost entirely on cycling for the greater part of 2015. (As the weakest cycling link in Adventure Racing Team Lunar Chicks I felt obliged to apply myself to the area that was not my strength). And so despite the fact that in my head I can run out of the door and not stop for 600km if I choose, the reality was a very different story. I think if I ran more than 40km twice in 2015 that was a lot! And so when I started to really focus on consistent distance in early November I was beside myself with surprised outrage at how bad I felt. Every run made me feel like I was dying. Nausea, low grade all over body ache from about 20km (wtf??) until it reached a crescendo of pain by 45 or 50km, general lethargy. I couldn’t believe what was happening! Why Why?? Why did I feel so bad?? I researched endlessly, toyed with the idea that I had a dread disease, looked accusingly at my extra belly roll as if it were maybe to blame, complained to anyone who would listen, considered exploring my Pain with my friend Judy (who is also a very respected psychologist) and had intense and self absorbed discussions with my mate Vicky about my complex but imagined nutritional deficiencies (ja right, do I look malnourished in any way??). Like everyone I was juggling a lot of stuff and my training went about 70% according to plan while trying to juggle life, work and parenting. Suddenly, in early February and with the crystal clarity of hindsight, it became abundantly clear that there was absolutely nothing wrong with me! I had been just very very out of condition. And that although distance is irrelevant to me mentally40 or 50km is always a substantial physical challenge for most people. Slowly but surely I was clawing my way back, but was it all too little too late? I had a massive crisis of confidence. Was I too old for this? Too heavy?(Surely not??) Had I abused my body from too much running and were all the prophets of doom that tell us that our knees, hips, ankles, backs would all collapse all about to be proved right. OMG how do you run 160km if you haven’t run more than 50 for YEARS?? And then suddenly it was too late to do anything but rest my leaden legs, embrace my natural optimism and hope for the best.
The first 20km felt dreadful. I kept feeling horrid little tweaky pains and imagined lung issues. Runners can be terrible hypochondriacs! I was fabulously distracted however by TobieReyneke the legendary runner who has completed over 30 100 Milers (How? HOW??). The distraction he provided was 2 fold: On the one hand he is both deeply entertaining and hilarious and on the other hand he was so intensely traumatised by the sight of Jamo running in a Speedo (for testicular cancer awareness) that his horrified facial expressions reduced me to tears of helpless mirth. As we came trotting round a corner and up a steep single track incline he very nearly collided with the Speedo clad buttocks which were roughly at eye level as Speedo Man had already begun his ascent. Tobieleapt back in fright nearly toppling those behind him like dominoes and insisted that I pass in order to place a buffer (my own plus as many other conservatively clad bottoms as possible) between him and Jamo. When Speedo Man sat down at checkpoint 2, Tobiedarted past him without pausing anxious to get as much distance between the two of them as possible. He didn’t slow down other than to take his blood pressure tabs (really) for a long time after that and kept glancing anxiously over his shoulder until night fell. How can you feel tired or sore with these kind of bizarre distractions? By this time I was happily in a rhythm and absolutely loved running along the plateau (with a more relaxed Tobie) as the sun sank below the horizon.
I stopped at the bottom of the appalling descent (heart attack hill or coronary cliff) to imagine I had arrived in Heaven or at some similar 5 star establishment. Ellie and her crew plied me with millionaires shortbread and proceeded to wait on me hand and foot while Nicky the physio gave me a 5 minute massage that made me feel that all was suddenly right with the world. The combination of sugar and tlchad me totally turbo charged and despite a brief sorty in the wrong direction (up the river instead of across it) I took off at pace for my favourite part: night running.
It had always been part of my plan to run alone at night. I love the sounds of the bush and the thrill of switching off my headlamp when there aren’t too many moon shadows. Running along feeling as if I belong to the African night is a very special experience that I don’t often get to savor. Every now and then I would see gleaming eyes or what looked like glow worms and would sometimes switch my headlamp on to investigate. I had no idea that some spiders have glow in the dark heads! Amazing! I had a beautiful little red eyed night jar fly and land repeatedly ahead of me as if she was showing me the way. I nearly tripped over a GIANT earthworm and only saw it because it was gleaming wetly in the moonlight. It was about as thick as a broom handle and spanned the entire road. I have always known that the giant earthworms of the Eastern Cape existed but had never actually seen them. I just stood there and marveled that we should cross paths like this. I am sure that I heard brown hyena noises just off the path and the crashing noises of buck escaping perceived danger more than once. The constant crossing of rivers became a tad tedious at one point and to pass the time to the 22nd crossing (where I got to change socks) I sang Pink Floyd songs to myself and had imaginary conversations with friends and even got around to some of my planned speeches. I stopped briefly for delicious soup at the check point staffed entirely by redheads and then hurried off again into the moonlight where I met up briefly with Nick who had seen a honey badger! A while later I came across Johan who was suffering from nausea. I was delighted to come across a runner who would truly appreciate a gift of one of my treasured Valoid suppositories. I was just about to triumphantly present it to him when I realised that instead of demonstrating the expected delight/relief/ enthusiasm/gratitudehe had in fact recoiled in fright and looking as if he had been assaulted. I suppose it is a rather odd offer, at 2am, to a complete stranger in a vulnerable state…..So as not to further upset him I left him to his nausea and disappeared hurriedly into the darkness sensing a profound feeling of relief in my wake.
There had been talk at the briefing of the possibility of encountering hippo’s on the banks of the Sundays River which I dismissed as a joke to scare the gullible runners. Hahahahahah! I mean surely we wouldn’t be allowed to run anywhere near a hippo? If I had the choice I think I would rather encounter a lion! So I confidently crossed the river twice with no disturbing hippo thoughts to upset my equilibrium (despite the nearby camp being called “Imvubu”! Funny that!) (purely historical I’m sure!). I was amazed and retrospectively traumatised when Inge and Clive (one of the Rangers and therefor less likely to be fanciful) said they had both seen and heard a hippo at the second crossing. OMG! OMG!!!!
Before I knew it dawn was breaking and I was still feeling surprisingly cheerful. No overwhelming need to sleep. No particular discomfort. I could hardly believe my good fortune! The good thing about daylight is that one can spot other runners from afar and have a lot of fun persistence hunting them. And so I would entertain myself for ages slowly reeling people in, then stopping to change my socks or change my GPS batteries, catching them up again and toying with them much like my cat does with a shrew :-). Over 100 miles of running one has to take whatever entertainment is on offer. It was shortly after daybreak that I came across some giant bloody paw prints crossing the road. There was no doubt that a large cat (leopard?) had been there recently dragging a freshly killed something. I hoped fervently that its victim wasn’t a runner! There was no sign of the predator or its victim so I hurried quickly past the scene hoping that the carnivore was now full!
My approach to the race profile had been to largely ignore it. Afterall it is what it is and there is little point in spending too much time or anxiety anticipating what may lie ahead. I am glad now that I didn’t know what was in store for me. The race really only began at 100km. Up until that point it had been challenging but suddenly it shifted gears from hard to BRUTAL. There is no way to describe some of the climbs and descents that kept appearing ahead of me. At some point I came across a trio of Iron Men who seemed to be in a state of complete disbelief. I didn’t blame them. There were many times I wondered if I could possibly be on the right track. What kind of sadistic person would make us run (crawl) up HERE with 120km in our legs?? But the GPS insisted that I was on track and so there was nothing for it but to keep on moving forward. Admittedly the views became increasingly breathtaking. With about 130km showing on my GPS I had the good fortune to catch up with Anthony, Peter and Hylton all of whom were beginning to show symptoms of the dreaded checkpoint yearning syndrome. Fortunately we were not far from the sublime Ellie/millionaires shortbread/physiocheckpoint which we passed on our return journey for the second time. We collapsed with gratitude under the gazebo and allowed Ellie and friends to tend to our every need. We also found Mbulelo relaxing at the checkpoint reluctant to leave the luxury and lazy from the full valet he had received from the physio. I had no idea at that stage how lucky I was to come across my 4 brothers in arms. Up until that point I had been happily independent. I had no need of other runners. But at 135km my feet suddenly and unexpectedly began to disintegrate! MY FEET! But my feet are meant to be bulletproof?!! The extended running in wet shoes (despite the obsessive sock changing) combined with the incredible ruggedness of the terrain, combined with the insane distance was starting to take its toll and the pain of blisters on the balls of my feet soon became unbearable. I put masses of energy and effort into trying to avoid sharp stones or tread on the side of my foot but nothing seemed to be working. How on earth was I going to finish on broken feet? I didn’t expect this! I took a brief moment out from my self pity to take a look at my fellow runners and almost collapsed from laughing out loud! We looked like a Monty Python cast doing the Ministry of funny walks! Mbulelo was trying to minimize chafing in his nether regions, Peter was trying to avoid any contact between with the path and his feet, Hylton’s ankles didn’t seem to be operating as ankles should …..only Anthony seemed more or less normal. Hooray for other people’s suffering! I don’t normally take pleasure in other folk’s pain but desperate times sometimes result in desperate measures. Somehow the hilarity of what we had all been reduced to made it easier to bear. There is no doubt that laughter contains morphine or similar. We had slipped into that wonderful easy camaraderie that only exists on the trail and passed the long and painful km’s swinging between despair and hilarity, taking turns to be the pacesetter, alternating between abusing and encouraging each other and endless bantering and laughing more than one would think possible under the circumstances. I LOVED those guys and I had only just met them and probably would never see them again. That’s the beauty of this kind of insane event. Its probably a bit like being in a war. After that it was a case of hanging in/vasbyt/nyamezela/one foot in front of the other until we crossed the line at last around 11.30pm after many many hours having clocked 167.7km. What a tremendous sense of accomplishment! What a relief to stop! Thanks to the astounding organisers who all have the ability to make each of us feel like their favorite child (a rare gift previously only identified in Nadia Arndt). I can hardly wait to be back.
Notes to self the next time I run 100 Miles:
- 100 miles is very far.
- Don’t postpone running 100miles until you feel prepared for the distance. You will never feel prepared for the distance. No one’s training goes according to plan. Ever. But that’s ok.
- You don’t have to do long runs of more than 50km to run 160km(unless you plan to win).
- Your feet are not completely bullet proof.
- Not all socks are created equal. When it comes to socks, quality may trump quantity.
- Footpowder is magical and very powerful fairy dust.
- Pain is inevitable. You are not a victim of pain, you are a willing participant. Wasting energy feeling surprised or outraged that you are in pain is unhelpful.
- When pain becomes unavoidable you should go towards it rather than avoid it. Instead of trying to pussyfoot around it or “save” your blister spots its better to slam them into the path so that the pain quickly becomes expected and part of your new routine. This makes it easier to handle. (This is a little sick but that’s ok)
- Faffing at checkpoints is a bad idea. Stopping at every 2nd checkpoint works well.
- Checkpoint yearning must be proactively managed at all times.