The Munga. Where to start? On the official website the inaugural Munga Trail is described as a 400km (actually 413km) five day trail race with 11,000 m of vertical gain. It is run from Lakenvlei Forest Lodge (outside Belfast, Mpumalanga) to Three Rondawelsview point (overlooking the Blyde river canyon.) There are five race villages and nine water points along the route.
It also says that the riders (oops, runners) will do the equivalent of 5 Comrades back to back in 120 hours. That should have immediately been an indication that whoever was doing the write up really didn’t have a clue. One doesn’t run the Comrades on an unmarked and sometimes un-cleared single track. None of the Comrades is run in the pitch dark and mist under a forest canopy which renders ones gps useless, with a 7kg backpack. The last time I checked there wasn’t only one aid station on the entire Comrades journey and even if you are very, very quick or as slow as a carthorse no Comrade ever runs completely alone or without armies of spectators cheering him/her on. I’ve done the Comrades so I know its hard but jeepers lets be honest this is nothing at all like running 5 Comrades! Just saying.
And so we set off (“in pursuit of a medal embossed with a bicycle hat”, to quote Laura) all filled with nervous excitement and optimism and terror in equal parts, but really with very little idea of what lay ahead. The first thing I remember about day 1, after the adrenaline settled, was looking down to discover that I was bristling with blackjacks! Covered in them! I mean closely resembling a hedgehog! I stopped to ineffectually tug at the hundreds of annoying seeds and by the time I gave up everyone (I mean all 23 of runners) had disappeared. The mean little blighters (the black jacks not the runners) would torment us all for days, working their way into our shorts, socks, running bras. I threw away a pair of precious socks at one of the water stations because I really didn’t know where to start the unpicking process. One of my Munga regrets is that I know I am responsible for singlehandedly creating an entire plantation of them along the route for unfortunate future Mungrals to encounter!
After a brief navigation error I had the fabulous good fortune to meet up with Rieghard and Peter who were to become my Brothers in Arms/Herd/running maatjies for the next 3/4 days. We very quickly fell into the easy camaraderie that is one of the highlights of racing and soon worked out that we had a similar pace, similar routines and that we navigated well together with my GPS zoomed in to 30m and theirs taking in the bigger picture. We came to the first water point after 28km and were overcome by its lavishness. Wow! We gave our orders to attentive staff and happily settled down to a 3 course meal while simultaneously doing some foot care and backback tweaking. If this was going to be the standard we were in for a treat over the next few days. (With hindsight it may be a good idea if the first water point could be a little more modest so as to manage expectations and prevent complete meltdowns when future water station produced nothing but white nutella sandwiches or sad congealed stew that had been standing around for 24 hours). Night fell quickly after that and we paused briefly to sort out our headlamps and kit up for the first chill. Many hours of darkness and mist followed, punctuated by the surprise of a beautiful and unexpected half moon, a water point which we mistook for an 80’s party, eerie pine forests and furiously barking farm dogs who seemed intent on ripping out our collective jugulars. We followed the gps track along non-existent paths and across fields dripping with mist and dew, across a host of barbed wire fences and finally onto a dirt road where we bizarrely came across a prominent sign boldly advertising a dentist (albeit with a Pretoria phone number).
The race village seemed to take forever to materialise after spotting the first promising signs and we stumbled along an endless road to the distant trout lodge passing another bizarre sign proclaiming “Vintage Nymph Whisky”? Huh? Eventually after 80-something km and nearly 15 hours we arrived at the long awaited race village.
Instead of receiving a much anticipated hero’s welcome at every water point and race village a pattern had quickly emerged. Someone would rush up to me and begin berating me like I was a naughty child. I would stare at them in confusion until my tired brain established that I was being chastised for breaking my tracker. Again. It became clear that I was the Bermuda Triangle of all Trackers and managed to disable them immediately with my magnetic field. I got into lots of trouble at every aid station for being the very naughty participant who obviously darted out of every aid station in order to furtively, frantically, compulsively fiddle with my tracker (instead of actually running) much like one would do with a worry bead. The other theory is that I cunningly concealed my trackers in the bottom of my pack to flummox the competition (I was a HUGE threat to the front runners of course ;-)). Hahahaha! It didn’t seem possible that the trackers were themselves defective or that I would have a greater interest in being found than being under the radar…
Every race village meant a lot of admin: We had to charge phones and power banks, change batteries, fill bladders and bottles with water, stuff increasingly unappetising food into our reluctant bellies, do basic foot maintenance, wash socks and attempt not to lose any of our compulsory gear before trying to get clean and falling into bed. This process would take tired brains and pork sausage fingers an inordinately long time and because it was critical that we set off at first light to maximise daylight hours it meant less than 90 min sleep on the first 2 nights.
We set off at dawn on day 2 knowing it was going to be a tough day with 88km and
2371m of vertical climb ahead of us. One of the highlights of the Munga was the sudden transition from Highveld to Lowveldt as we descended into the exquisitely beautiful valley leading up to the water point at Verlorenvlei. The change in vegetation and climate was instantaneous as we descended into the hot, sub tropical and fertile paradise (if you are sitting in the shade sipping a gin) and followed a silver stream all the way to Verlorenvlei, a very upmarket restaurant and also one of the water points for the day. Rieghard, Peter and I very definitely lowered the tone of the establishment on our arrival despite our best efforts not to leave a trail of filth and foot powder behind us! Verlorenvlei was quickly forgotten as we approached the mother of all climbs up a steep and wooded gorge crisscrossing a mountain stream that was often forced into the role of a waterfall by the relentless gradient. We often needed to use our hands to pull us up the impossibly steep and slippery climbs and I was traumatised by the repeated rock falls created by Peter who was just ahead of me and later by the unpleasant surprise of firmly pressing my hand into a cunningly placed baboon poo (disguised as an excellent hand hold). At long last we emerged from the gloom of the canopy in time to see the beginnings of a spectacular sunset for the exquisite run along the ridge looking down at where we had come from far, far below. We were filled with profound relief that we had completed the climb in daylight and worried about the Mungrals behind us who would have to negotiate the treacherous climb in the dark. I was feeling particularly good at this point and thoroughly enjoyed the next few km’s. Highs and lows are seldom far apart in ultra running and I was amazed at how quickly my form, mood and comfort levels plummeted as the temperature sank and as the relentless road continued uphill into the dark. The next water point had disappeared into the realms of eternity and it seemed unlikely that we would ever arrive. The water point came and went uneventfully (other than the obligatory rowing about my tracker) and brought a wonderful second wind with it which propelled me through the endless virgin grasslands studded with the glinting eyes of evil cows in the freezing mist. I navigated us perfectly through the endless pathless fields until we eventually paused to deal with Peter’s feet which had been troubling him for a while. I was shocked at their condition. We had been going for less than 48 hours and he already had massive broken blisters on the ball of his foot. Rieghard had a very painful hamstring and I was beginning to worry about the condition of my herd. Just when we thought that any further climbing was impossible we were confronted by yet another endless vertical climb. Fortunately I was massively motivated by the sight of a couple of headlamps not too far ahead and despite the poor condition of our threesome we caught up with Kerry, Richard and Rene’ near the top of the climb. I was sure that the day couldn’t possibly throw another challenge at us but what followed was an utterly mindboggling descent of the sort that nobody should ever attempt in the dark on exhausted legs which brought me to the brink of utter despair (although I had felt elated only minutes before.) We arrived feeling close to breaking point at Coromandel where Dylan (bless him) brought me a cup of tea, and tended to our every need. We had hoped to get 2-3 hours sleep on night 2 but with all the activity of runners coming and going and with the lateness of our arrival (we didn’t expect that 88km would take 21.5 hours!) we all woke up at dawn after an hour of sleep and were soon off again.
Despite the brutal routine, things were going well and we felt that good progress was being made. We were confident that we were on track for a comfortable finishing time. Nevertheless, I had a niggling concern about going into rest deficit. I have always managed sleep deprivation better than most and had no overwhelming urge to sleep, but I knew that legs and feet require a minimum amount of horizontal time to recover. My usually bullet-proof feet were already becoming a problem. They were too swollen, too sore for this early in the race. Although their deterioration was certainly hastened by the fact that I was running in brand new shoes (my shoes were stolen after an Adventure Race on the Wild Coast a week before) everyone appeared to be in more or less the same condition.
Despite some aches and pains, we were all in excellent spirits for the first 20 km of day 3 to the first water point. It was staffed by 2 glorious old “Ooms” who were hospitality personified and outdid each other bragging about their home made boerewors and peach chutney. We hadn’t been able to stomach breakfast before leaving race village 2 at Coromandel and by now we were desperate for real food and enthusiastically wolfed down a boerewors roll. We declared the “Ooms” to be the highlight of our journey so far (I have always had a particular weakness for old men) and reluctantly said our farewells before setting off under a relentlessly hot sun. 8km later Rieghard began to look uneasy and said his belly felt unsettled. He darted off into the undergrowth and urged us to go ahead and give him some space. We all proceeded at our own pace planning to regroup if necessary at the next water point. Imagine my surprise when I came across Peter slumped on the side of the road clutching his belly. My initial thought was that we had bonded so much as a herd that Peter was experiencing phantom sympathy cramps in support of Rieghard. Soon Peter was darting off the path too and it became abundantly clear that there was nothing phantom about his condition. I was feeling smugly superior (I have a cast iron belly that NEVER has any problems, so much so that I LAUGH at the thought of packing Immodium for a race). While my poor herd were all crouched in the bushes I powered ahead, got to experience the thrill of a large male kudu crashing across the path in front of me and of spotting a number of warthogs running for cover with their funny tails aloft. I had a refreshing swim and filled up my water bottles and toyed with the idea of putting some distance between me and the belly plague. Little did I know that I was minutes away from an identical affliction. A km further along the path I became the last to succumb to the dreaded plague of the boerewors roll. What followed was much like a poor copy of the Monty Python race for the weak-bladdered. There wasn’t one moment for the next 6 hours when we were all on the path simultaneously. One of us was always darting wildly into the undergrowth in search of cover. I was plagued by discomfort but also by a number of anxieties: I had 1 pair of shorts, 1 pack of wetwipes and a 3 second reaction time. Surely it was just a matter of time before I had a major disaster on my hands. I was also extremely concerned about the possibility of traumatising Stephan who I knew was just behind us and who may unwittingly come upon any one of us in a compromising and undignified position. I had to swallow my pride and beg my herd to donate some Immodium. All 3 of us overdosed on it to no avail. The situation was becoming quite worrying. We were moving much more slowly than planned, it was by far the hottest day of the race so far and we were almost certainly going to run out of water which would compound the fact that we were already dehydrated from diarrhoea.
Kerry (who had wisely declined a boerewors roll at the water point) came upon us shivering and sweating feverishly on the side of the path. She immediately registered that our need was dire and selflessly made a wet wipe donation (which made us quite emotional) before passing by quickly on the other side. Richard (who did not decline a boerewors roll) joined our misery a little later in the day bringing a new slant to the horror of it all. He alternated between making disturbing projectile-vomiting-bear noises from deep in his intercostals (although he insisted he sounded like a lion rather than a bear) and the standard “darting into the bushes” procedure. He (not surprisingly) recoiled in horror when I offered him a suppository. The day was degenerating into black comedy material. What followed was a festival of suffering and a journey between water points which took us so much longer than anticipated that it probably had a lot to do with costing some of us the race. We ran out of water at least 15km from the next water point and Rieghard began seeing mirages of tinkling streams and sparkling pools because the map clearly stated that there were a number of unofficial water sources en route. They never materialised of course and eventually, in utter desperation, we filled our bottles from a stagnant brown pond. We had to endure another 30 minutes of agony as we waited for the chlorine tablets to take effect and then forced ourselves to take disciplined sips of stagnant pond scum with a hint of chlorine. Things were really not looking good and Rieghard was at this stage falling asleep on his feet and veering dangerously off the path every couple of minutes. The next few hours felt like a death march held together by the following routine: Check my mileage, check my gps to ensure we are on course, check that Rieghard isn’t wondering off the path/order him to wake up, take tiny sip of pond scum (try not to vomit). Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. We couldn’t rest or stop or even allow Rieghard a 5 minute power nap because the temperature had plummeted at sunset and we were absolutely freezing despite having suited up with all of our extra gear. Through a haze of discomfort and stomach cramps and nausea we eventually stumbled into the fluorescent lighting of the church which was the 2nd water point of the day hours after we had planned. We had only covered 55 km since sunrise and were suddenly nearly 40km behind schedule. I made a decision that I was in no state to continue as I was in desperate need of rehydration and rest if I was going to make a recovery. Rieghard and I agreed that we would sleep for at least 4 hours but Peter felt it was too long a rest and got up to go after just 2 hours. He immediately realised that he still had stomach issues and was just too weak to continue and decided to make a call when Rieghard and I set off. At 4am Peter made the decision that he was in no state to continue and Rieghard and I headed into the dark mist alone. We were bereft at the loss of our maatjie, it seemed impossible that the 3 Mungatears were now down to only 2.
Fortunately there is nothing so motivating as a sunrise and we were soon in good spirits again. We had both woken up feeling rested, and despite being briefly lost because of my lack of concentration, the beautiful sunrise, the much recovered bellies and the mainly downhill gradient for 38km into Merry pebbles at Sabie saw us making up time. We were buoyed by the appearance of Rieghard’s sister in law and her partner as well as that of Frikkie and Pieter (who we knew from Addo) and arrived at race village 3 feeling positive. We were optimistic that despite yesterday’s setback we would be able to claw our way back to where we should be. Despite my optimism I had a nagging concern that my feet were becoming a massive problem. I had blisters forming beneath the callouses on the balls of my feet. I couldn’t get to them to treat them as I normally would by draining them and injecting them with methylate. It was impossible to get the needle through the callous and into the problem area and so the pressure in my feet continued to build. I had other surface blisters but they were less of a problem as I could treat them. Also my ankles and feet had swollen dramatically (as had everyone else’s ) and getting feet into shoes was becoming more and more of a problem. We didn’t waste much time at race village 3 and were on the road again after less than 2 hours determined to keep chipping away at the previous day’s loss. We both felt strong and motivated and powered through the next km’s toward the dreaded Towerbos climb, the biggest climbing challenge we would face on the Munga. I triple jumped over 3 night adders spotted at the last minute in the pool of light from my headlamp, surprised that I hadn’t seen more snakes on the journey and hoped and prayed that Carsten (a Norwegian runner who had expressed anxiety about snakes) hadn’t encountered any.
What followed was a monster climb, in the pitch dark mist repeatedly crossing a fast flowing stream across treacherously slippery rocks. There were a number of tree blocks and the faint trail (which had been partially cleared on both ends but not in the middle) disappeared repeatedly. The difficulty of negotiating the path was exacerbated by the fact that we couldn’t see more than a couple of meters ahead because of the mist. We seemed to successfully navigate our way through the mayhem with more luck than skill, especially because our gps’s failed to register any signal under the thick canopy. We paused 2/3 of the way up the climb for Rieghard to eat the muffin he had been saving since the race village, switched off our headlamps and drank in the pitch darkness and complete silence (other than the methodical guzzling sounds as the muffin was efficiently disposed of). The utter solitude and quiet and inky darkness made that a very special moment that stands out as a highlight for me.
To our surprise and delight we came across Stephan and Rene’ stumbling around on the path not far beyond the muffin stop. They had left the race village hours before us but had become lost and disorientated in the dark and mist without a clear gps track. We were all delighted by the extra company and paused briefly at the top of the climb to document the moment in a blurry photo before the freezing cold forced us to hurry on. We were on top of the world although we couldn’t see the view in the pitch dark and having come out of the shelter of the forest were now exposed to the freezing cold and wind chill. We staggered along in the freezing cold imagining how beautiful it would be in daylight. By this time the agony in my feet was becoming an all consuming problem and I was beginning to realise I was in deep trouble. I was shaking with cold (as were all of us I am sure) and becoming increasingly panic stricken about my feet as well as my prospects of finishing the race within the cut off. At long last the nightmare came to an end and we saw the flashing red light indicating another water point where we planned a brief rest. It was about 3am and the hiking hut was in complete darkness. We were greeted by a barking dog which seemed to rouse the reluctant volunteers from their slumber. There didn’t appear to be anything to eat and I was too tired to care and fell directly into a grubby sleeping bag fully clothed in my equally grubby gear, overcome with gratitude that there was a brief respite from the agony in my feet and grateful beyond words to be still. I thought I would never fall asleep as I shook uncontrollably with cold but must have done so at last because I was blissfully unconscious when Rieghard shook me awake at 5am.
I knew immediately that my feet were in a state of terrible and irrevocable disrepair when I couldn’t get them into my shoes. I dug out my thinnest socks and tried again. I felt like I was forcing them into a child’s shoe. The pain was unbearable but I knew that it would come and go in waves and that it would get fractionally better as I warmed up and got into a rhythm. I also knew that Rieghard was feeling strong and needed to give the last 30 hours everything he had. I knew that if he pushed really hard there was still a chance that he could make it and I knew that it was probably all over for me. An intense loyalty develops very quickly in these conditions and I knew it would be complicated for him to make the decision to leave me. I urged him to go. My legs felt strong, but my feet were broken. I could manage to keep up some kind of rhythm on a decent track or road but the minute I hit the rough stone strewn single track that is the most part of the Fanie Botha trail, the agony was unbearable. (I am not entirely certain who Fanie Botha is but I did not entertain generous feelings toward him. Possibly unfairly). As I slowed down to a crawl on the uneven track I watched Rieghard, Stephan and Rene’ disappear over the horizon. This was my darkest moment so far. I inched along the trail in a state of complete agony and total despair. I am relieved that I had no witnesses for the next few hours as I alternated between cursing, weeping and praying. I knew that I was completely unable to run or even maintain a good walking pace. I was overwhelmed by exhaustion and by bitter, bitter disappointment. I knew that I wasn’t going to make the cut off unless I received a miracle mercy drop containing some schedule 5 drugs that would enable me to keep up a decent pace. I wrestled with an overwhelming desire to give up and make the pain stop (although there was no chance of that until I emerged from the Wilderness into some semblance of civilisation). For now there was nothing for it but to continue. But then what? When I eventually hit a road surely I could stop? After all there was no doubt now that I would fail to achieve the goal of finishing within the cut off. I was moving at about 2.5km an hour. I just had to do the maths to realise that the very most I could cover in the next 24 hours was nowhere near enough. The frustration was enormous, how was it possible that I had been reduced to this. How was it possible that I was moving so slowly? But if I just gave up, what message would I send to my daughter? I had to keep trying until the last minute. I decided that if I didn’t finish I would at least make sure I was on the course for longer than anyone else. There had to be some dubious honour in that. And also, somewhere in the back of my tired brain I was thinking…….if the organisers so seriously under calculated the arrival time of the front runners (they had predicted their arrival in approx 72 hours but were in fact close to 30 hours out), surely they would realise their error (it was an experiment after all) and extend the cut off? And so I decided that I simply had to keep pushing on, making relentless forward progress (albeit at the pace of a mortally wounded sloth or a very old snail).
I eventually emerged onto a jeep track from the very depths of despair and came across poor Sven Musica who was in the wrong place at the wrong time with his camera waiting to take photos of the motley crew of Mungrals. I was obviously delighted at some subliminal level to finally have an audience for my suffering and (I am deeply ashamed to admit) dissolved into tears of self pity the minute I came within range. Sven is either very used to highly emotional runners who have had 4 days of almost no sleep or he is very evolved but he seemed to manage the situation beautifully and take it all in his stride. He even took a number of photos documenting my humiliation. I’m so sorry Sven. I am usually HILARIOUS not Tragic!
He managed to communicate to me that Rene’ wasn’t far ahead and that if I hobbled for all I was worth on my broken feet I may come across her sooner rather than later. And so I set off with renewed determination, (resembling the Monty Python Ministry of Funny Walks) and found Rene’ slumped on the path in a state not dissimilar to my own. Suddenly because there were 2 of us and a smidgen of perspective, the situation became comical rather than tragic and we decided that we would turn the last day and night into a festival of madness and hilarity rather than one of self pity. And that’s exactly what we did.
I managed to clock up 376km by the time Rene’ and I finally stopped running (well hobbling really) and hitched a lift to the finish on an the back of a bakkie 125 hours after starting out (admittedly some of those km’s were clocked up running around in circles in the undergrowth and we continued for 5 hours after the cut off so that may not be my official mileage). We achieved the honour of being on the course for the longest time. I have not experienced such highs and lows or such sustained physical and mental agony in any race ever before. I have not witnessed the kind of courage demonstrated by RieghardJanse Van Rensburg, Kerry Longhurst, Misty Weyer, Rene’ Vollgraaf, Laura Bannatyne who all knew that there was a good chance they wouldn’t make the cut-off but refused to give up anyway. I remain bitterly disappointed by what is objectively a failure to have achieved the goal I had set for myself. But to see my experience as only a failure would be very one dimensional. Here are some of the successes:
I know that this country is even more exquisitely beautiful than what I thought it was. I have a lot of new brothers and sisters in arms. I have a new insight into how far beyond my perceived pain limit I can go. I have reinforced my knowledge that hilarity is to be found even in moments of utter despair (thanks Peter and Rieghard for the laughs on the Day of the Great Diarrhoea, to Rene’ for the humour in the last 29 hours of the Munga and especially for the laughs as we descended into Bramble Mordor Hell then ascended into the Misty Mountains for the millionth time). I also know that personal hygiene disappears completely off my hierarchy of needs pyramid beyond 72 hours of sleeplessness, that I am very alarmed by brambles and that one should never go on an adventure without their very own supply of tea bags and hard boiled eggs (this kind of self knowledge is vital).
54 Munga Pioneers entered the race in 2017, 24 lined up at the start and 9 officially finished. I am curious to see what 2018 will bring. Would I do it again? I think for now it is too soon to tell. I suspect that if I were to make a decision right now it may be to prove a point rather than for all the right reasons. So I will wait for good sense to prevail before I make any decisions. One should never, after all, litigate or run insane distances to prove a point
Things I didn’t anticipate:
- How long it would take to recover (I experienced severe foot pain, very swollen ankles and what felt like a serious hangover for about a week after the Munga)
- Exactly how much strain my feet would take (I dislodged callouses in both feet about 3 days after I got home and found a boil like abscess under the callouses which took days of care to cure.
- That I would see very few of the runners for the duration of the race. If one is used to multi day stage races the camaraderie in the evenings is a huge highlight. The elite runners mingle with the back of the pack runners and everyone in between. I didn’t realise (although its abundantly obvious retrospectively) that I would see almost no one else for most of the race.
- How much I would wish I had seriaaaas painkillers in the last 24 hours. Rene’ and I came across an empty pack of Tramacet lying in the trail about 30km from the finish. My very first thought was “please God let there be one left!” Followed rapidly by “I wonder if it’s fair to shut down all your pain synapses when everyone else’s are in overdrive?” (possible sour grapes) and lastly “I wonder what that does to already overtaxed kidneys?”
- My annoyance levels when one of the organisers (showing little emotional intelligence considering how close I was to the end of myself) suggested that the only reason that 60% of the astoundingly strong and experienced field hadn’t finished within the cut off was because of our complete lack of discipline. Mmmmmm, although I don’t entirely agree with that confidently stated opinion, I am prepared to dispassionately consider it now that I have had a good nights sleep. It would be fabulous if I could ignore my feet and my running and just work on self-discipline for the next year. Note to self: be sure to ask said organiser for some tips!
Things that I would do the same:
- My handheld Garmin gps map64 was utterly reliable and worked much better than the watch style gpsunits which a lot of the runners used. The best thing was that I could keep it zoomed in to 30m while the watches would default to 150m and often created confusion.
- My 18 L Osprey backpack was brilliant, fitted all the compulsory and other gear perfectly and was totally comfortable.
- I was extremely happy with the Quiver rain and wind jackets that I wore every night as well as with the Icebreaker base layer that I slept in (when I could still be bothered to change out of my smelly running kit).
Things that I would do differently:
- I would pack (more of) the following:
Immodium, socks, tea bags, protein eg salami, biltong, nuts (not bars)
- I would run more and walk less on day 1 and 2 rather than trying to be too conservative (this would reduce time on feet and possibly delay onset of blisters)
- I would not run in brand new running shoes.
- I would seek helpful tips on how to improve on my (obv poor) self –discipline 😉
- I would interpret a lot of the pre race and briefing information as broad guidelines rather than the gospel truth in an effort to manage my expectations.
.E.g: There will be a range of sweet and savoury foods at water points. Or: there will never be more than 25km between water points. Or: The path has been recently cleared.