HOBBIT 90+ KM JOURNEY ALONG THE AMATHOLA TRAIL
My very earliest pre-school report states that “Kim is somewhat over-confident” and then a little later it adds: “and she is a very efficient eater.” Neither of the above are untrue (although a little direct if you ask me)and have to some extent remained constants in my life, sometimes a blessing and sometimes less so. Anyway, the point is that every time I have ever approached a race in over confident mode, things have gone badly wrong. (Typically: “Hahahaha, I mean I have run 250km a week for weeks at a time, I’ve handled 45’ heat and brutal terrain with a 12kg back pack, how hard can this be? Bring it ON!) And then the hardship monitor goes into overdrive and before I know it I am reduced to crawling along whimpering or projectile vomiting on the very brink of tears of disbelief). This has emerged as a pattern in my running life and so after decades of making the same mistake I now know that races only proceed nicely if one approaches them with great respect. Despite knowing all this I have regressed because I have recently run 100 miles. The problem with running 100 miles is that it makes one blasé about absolutely everything else (especially if one is inclined to over confidence). And being blasé about any run, ever, is a very foolish thing to do. This is especially true if said race is in the mountains, and there is a massive cold front on the way and all the other runners are whippet-like (or whippet sounding). Most of their NAMES alone make me think “less than 5% body fat” and I become inclined to ingest a 6 pack of cup cakes from pure anxiety.
Anyway, so every time I have an idiotic “I just ran 100miles so really, how hard can this be?”thought, I rap myself over the knuckles and plank for a minute (which is about as much as I can manage) as a penance for being very foolish. I am also religiously conducting all my pre race rituals (although my natural inclination was to ignore them as this race is only 90km in 2 days as opposed to 160km non stop.)[“AfterallI just ran 100miles so really how hard can this be” Aaarrghhh no, no! Rap, rap! Plank, plank.] So the ceremonial cleansing of the backpack has been performed, as well as the ritual cleansing of the shoes and I have made arrangements for a lash and brow tint. I realise that this seems like a very odd thing to do (especially considering my usually haphazard approach to grooming) but I do feel very strongly that it is impossible to feel powerful without eyebrows. My eyebrows periodicallydisappear from being bleached in the sun. They are there, but lurking undercover, and must be coaxed out into the open, especially before any race of more than 42km.
So there we were a couple of days later in the freezing pre-dawn at the start of the Hobbit (eyebrows present and accounted for). About 40 runners set off from Maden Dam (just outside King Williams Town) excited and nervous to explore the enchanted indigenous forests and Amathole mountains up to Cata hut to pass the night before heading onward past waterfalls, across mountain streams and over towering peaks, eventually descending into the quaint village of Hogsback.
Within minutes we were under a thick forest canopy, hopping over roots and weaving under overhanging branches in the weird light of our headlamps along a challenging single track. And then the climbing began in earnest. And from the distant memory of almost a decade ago when I last did this crazy race I suddenly recalled with crystal clarity: There is nothing that prepares one for the Hobbit, other than actually running the Hobbit. I mean really, normal trail running won’t do the trick at all. If you live in the Cape and can run up and down Platteklip or similar every day for weeks that may cut it. But there is nothing I can do near the coast of East London to simulate Hobbit conditions. The closest I could get would be erecting a vertical ladder up the side of my double volume house, greasing the rungs up a bit with something nice and slippery and scrambling up and down it for 8 – 10 hours a day. Ideally this should be done in gale force winds, -2 degrees and sleety rain (although admittedly its isn’t always like this and is often run in balmy Autumn weather).
As I settled down on a mossy rock to my legendary cheese, egg mayo and Bovril sarmie(very efficient eater and all…. but seriously, I really can recommend that combo) and Esther Lateganand HanlieBooyenscame past me with their hiking poles I also remembered thinking a decade earlier that it would be well worth mastering the use of hiking poles if I ever did this crazy race again. [Urgent note to self: Find a mountain to train on and learn to use hiking poles if you ever plan to do Hobbit in the future]. And then followed many peaceful and beautiful hours of frolicking alone in one of my happiest places. The indigenous forest, the paths and ferns and wild flowers, the giant yellowwoods are all indescribably beautiful! Every now and then, usually after a brutal climb, I would emerge from the forest to see breathtaking views beneath me. Sometimes the indigenous forest would give way to stately pines and I was enveloped by the beautiful smell, admired the magical way the sun shone through the glossy pine needles and embraced the soft carpeted paths under my feet. The streams and waterfalls just kept on coming, each one more exquisitely beautiful than the last and Loeries squawked overhead as I triple jumped over a beautiful emerald green snake which quickly disappeared into the undergrowth. The wind was gusting wildly by this stage and the temperature was dropping, but from the safety of the forest I could hardly feel it and the noise of the wind sounded like the comforting roar of the surf. I was just getting into the fantasy that I was a Xhosa chief retreating into my mountain stronghold during the decade of Frontier wars when I somehow lost the path and ended up crashing around in the undergrowth where to my surprise I came across another runner, Carlo Dutton. I hauled out my GPS and we were soon back on track and following the freshly painted yellow footprints.
Towards the end of day 1,I found myself running briefly with AnlizeEnslin who is an ICU nurse. This seemed fortuitous especially after the last climb of the day at which stage a coronary seemedinevitable. I decided to not let her out of hollering distance in case I required a medical intervention. We eventually burst out of the forest and over the top of a ridge (after the endless vertical climbing) to see Cata hut shrouded in mist and looking tremendously inviting. Tatum and friends (despite being freezing) were in their marvelously enthusiastic Duracell Bunny mode (standard operating procedure for Tatum) to welcome us home. GreggCheetham (who I though was the Maître D but turned out to be another runner) ladled sublime soup into a paper cup for me then ushered me to a dorm and selflessly offered me his bottom bunk (this was a great blessing as a groin cramp seemed unavoidable if I was going to attempt to launch myself onto the top one). I settled into 2 layers of merino wool, a down jacket and a seriaaaasly-able-to-handle-any-conditions sleeping bag for an afternoon of resting and bantering with my odd selection of dorm mates. Andy Wesson and I reminisced about Addo and he shared his cramp miracle cure: Gaviscon (interested to try that out).I became acquainted with legendary KeithMoodie (of Grootvadersbosch Trail run and other fame),Jack and Michelle Davis, Gregg (self appointed Maître D) and various other less vocal dorm mates. Tatum and Lofty served a magnificent dinner (chicken ala king, Old Brown sherry and CUPCAKES! Yay!) Despite consuming dinner (most efficiently) I woke up in themiddle of the night to visit the freezing outside bathroom in the driving sleet and then was unable go back to sleep or to ignore thoughts of Woolies spicy mini Salami sticks which I knew to be in the bottom of my pack. I was obliged to forage/ferret around in the dark until I found them and then retired triumphantly to my sleeping bag trying not to make annoying little (efficient) greedy feeding noises of delight. (Apologies to the dorm mates if I kept you awake J)
The next morning conditions were completely horrendous as we huddled in the dark lapa listening to a last minute briefing. The runners were unrecognizable in layers and buffs and beanies, with nothing but slightly panic stricken eyes showing through their collections of foul weather gear. And then the headlamps set off into the mist, appearing to be proceeding directly up a stairwayto heaven judging from their vertical gain. For the first hour we were all in survival mode, negotiating the icy mud, managing our body temperatures, trying not to be blown off our feet when we turned into the full force of the wind at the top of the first climb (HA!! See where less than 5% body fat gets you now!). It was a great relief when the darkness receded enough to switch off our headlamps. At first light a bunch of us managed to briefly lose the path near Geju Peak and veer off in the wrong direction. I hauled out my frozen GPS again and eventually got back on track. By this time everyone had disappeared other thana figure layered in red and blue who slowly emerged as Louis van der Walt. Its quite weird to not have a clue who someone is as you chat to them without seeing them behind you on the single track. Even if you do happen to glance at them through the gloom (taking the risk of plunging into a gorge or down a waterfall) there is nothing other than many layers of fleece and Gortexto give you any clue about their identity other than their muffled voice. It’s a bit likeinternet dating I would imagine. So we chatted for ages and I formed a clear mental picture of Louis, long before I had any idea what he actually looked like. After many hours we emerged into an open field, shed our beanies and looked at each other in surprise! I thought he was a red head! I am usually quite happy to run alone but I was immensely grateful for his cheerful and interesting conversation. Its also marvelous to get to share the particular beauty of a patch of forest or spectacular waterfall with another person. The waterfalls on day 2 are particularly majestic and we often stopped and stared in awed amazement at the splendor of it all. During the very long day Louis came up with a number of gems of which two remain very clear in my memory:
Me: “Isn’t it astounding the way these waterfalls are just here every day being magnificent and doing their whole waterfall thing even though there is no one to admire them?”
Louis: “Ja nee, there’s a good life lesson in there for us hey, we should all be doing the same thing as the waterfall. Being magnificent and doing our thing even when nobody is watching.” *
Later on we were speaking about learning from our mistakes, specifically with regard to running and racing but with reference to life in general. Louis’s quote of the day: “Good judgment….. comes from experience, which comes from bad judgment.”**
On we went, briefly hooking up with various other souls along the way, encouraging each other when the magically beautiful fairy-like forests turned into evil torture chambers (cunningly disguised as magical fairy forests) as they do from time to time. By the time we got to Zingcuka hut I felt sufficiently bonded to Louis to allow him to share the last half of my (now tired) egg mayo cheese and Bovril sandwich. As we all know, friendships progress quickly in times of trail running and war. Although we briefly pretended to be devastated, we were all secretly delighted to learn that the race organisers had re-routed us around rather than over Hogsback Mountain when they made the call to cancel the shorter 38km run. There is no doubt in my mind that this was the right decision.
We joined forces with Johan Ferreira for the seemingly endless last 10km on the journey home, sharing fantasies of hot baths, roaring fires and generous glasses of red wine. I took off my gloves not far from the finish and was distracted and slightly traumatized when I caught a glimpse of my hands for the first time that day. They were swollen and puffy beyond recognition and looked as if they would explode like hand grenades (bwahahaah) if not treated with extreme caution. For some light relief and in the hope that they would normalize soon, I ran the rest of the way with my hands in the air (like I just don’t care) looking for all the world like a groupie at a music concert. And then before we knew it we emerged from the forest for the last time and were soon trotting up the hill to the finish at the Arminel Hotel, pork sausage hands forgotten, overcome with both relief and sadness that the journey was over. Team Duracell Bunny were on hand as ever to welcome us in, together with a committed and freezing collection of family and friends. What an unforgettable journey it had been.
I really can’t wait to do that again! I mean how hard can it be the second time round??:)
*Possibly not his exact words, but close enough.
** Louis does not take credit himself for this quote, he apparently read it somewhere.
Photography credit: Bruce Viaene