When I started running I set myself four goals. I wanted a marathon shirt, Two Oceans Ultra shirt, a Comrades shirt, and finally I wanted a jacket that said 12 hour circuit race on the back. Surely if I had all four of those, then I could consider myself a long distance runner!
It wasnt long before I started hearing about all kinds of other challenges, races, and along with them, their accolades. One hundred miles. One hundred and sixty kilometres and nine hundred meters. Madness. Sheer madness but you get a tracksuit at the end. That sold the deal for me. So I started to ask a few people about running a 100 miler, and I bought the book UltraMarathon Man. In it, he described the Western States 100 miler. The difference between this, and most other 100 milers was that it was trail running, and with a different challenge, came a different accolade. Instead of a tracksuit, a finisher is given a buckle. This I learnt was common with all 100 milers. Tracksuits for road 100 milers, and buckles for trail. Silver buckles for those under 24 hours, and bronze for finishing within the cut off.
So I needed one of each. A silver buckle would be many years away though!
I dont know what prompted me to enter Addo, as Washie was supposed to be my first 100 miler. It must have been the reassurance that I had from runners around me. Run the Addo they said. See the world they said. You will be fiiine! they said. If only they heard what I had to say about them at 5am that Saturday morning!
My quest for kilometres meant that I had to run a 10k in P.E. that morning, and only then could I head off to the pre-race briefing at the National Park main rest camp. I pleasantly surprised myself with a very relaxed 51minute run, and felt confident that after more than 25 marathons in the previous 90 days, I still had some speed in my legs if I needed to call upon it.
The race briefing was held for 57 50 miler runners as well as 13 lonely 100 milers. You could spot the novices from a mile away. While some laughed and joked about getting lost in the mountains, others went white at the thought of possibly running 161kms and not 160.9kms, never mind 170!
This was also where we would leave our drop bags. From here onwards, we would not be able to change what was in them. We could no longer pack and repack. What was in our drop bags, was set and final. It brought a cold shiver down my spine as it finally dawned on me that I was now an entrant in a 100 mile trail run.
I had decided to leave a drop bag at checkpoint 8 checkpoint 11 and checkpoint 13. This had taken me hours to decide on, never mind what would be in each bag! Eventually I settled for shoes, socks and bits of food in each back.
That night was bizarre for me. Whenever I was around people I became nervous of what was ahead. However, by the time I was lying in bed I knew that it would be tough, but that I could do it. Suck it up and run. My clothes were neatly lined up on the floor, and my backpack was fully stocked with water, food, a space blanket, knife, whistle, toilet paper, fresh socks and my rain and wind jacket. There was no more to do other than sleep, and so I planned to at least get that part right.
And that I did. After a full nights rest, I waddled down the stairs of the hotel to the lobby where tea and coffee was being served to the runners. Once again the novices were separated as they were rechecking their bags, and stretching everything from their hamstrings to their facial grimace. (The latter would be used extensively later!)
At 6.03am, a mottled looking bunch set off from outside the hotel. Family members, TV cameras, and a couple of photographers got the last shots of us before we turned the corner and headed into the darkness of the mountains just 3.4kms away.
Those 3.4kms were flat, and on road. Two things that we would not see again for a long time. Everyone laughed and joked, and most of the 100 milers watched as the 50 miler guys seemingly sprinted off at 6 min a km. As we hit the dirt roads the sun started to rise, and the mist settle. We wound our way up the pass until we cleared the mist, and overlooked a white blanket wrapped around the base of the mountains. Quickly the runners thinned out, and Susan (2nd place woman in Addo last year with a comfortable silver buckle, and winner of many road 100 milers), Stucky (2nd place man and also a comfortable silver buckle runner), Greg (3rd place in Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon) and myself were running alone. Then there were three as Stucky set off.
Last year rain had washed much of the course away, and the organisers were forced to change much of it. In response, I hear that some runners complained that the course was too easy, and that this year should be more difficult. Now, even at my tender age, I know that there are some people that you dont tempt. You dont say to a cop I dare you to lock me up, just as you dont say to a race organiser Come on! Give us a challenge!. But the damage had been done, and the first 40 kms clearly set out the precedent for the run. As we ran the fence-line trail, we yo-yoed up and down climbs of 200m in elevation over and over.
The sun was now in full force (even if it was only 28 degrees it was still hot!) and we passed 40kms in around 5h30. One quarter of the way, and feeling very strong. Great! Susan and I set off, as Greg wanted to do some walking. We maintained a steady pace as we climbed solidly for another 90 minutes. Everything was looking good. My choice to run in normal road shoes instead of trail shoes was paying off, as my feet didnt show any signs of wear and tear, and I was sticking to my golden rule for ultra marathons of Get to half way feeling like you havent started. Sure I was only 50 odd kilometres in, but I felt great.
We headed down a steep descent of about 260m in 3kms, and turned into the forest. This was going to be the section that I was dreading. The forest meant streams, and streams meant wet feet. Wet feet is the one thing that I knew could put my entire run in jeopardy as blisters develop far quicker, and into much bigger and nastier monsters on a trail run. Before long Stucky was back with Susan and I, and we tackled the water together. After a bit of rock climbing here, some bundu bashing there, bit of blood, and on the verge of tears at the extraordinarily slow pace that we were pulling ourselves through the thorn bushes, we finally popped out on the other side. My feet were drenched, and I knew I had to get to my first drop bag for new shoes before blisters formed. Problem was that the drop bag was 600m above me. Thats almost the climb of Comrades. Lucky for us though, the distance was only a couple of kilometres. Please pay attention to the sarcastic tone.
As I powerwalked myself up a climb that one simply doesnt encounter on a road run, I left Susan and Stucky behind. The sweat dripped off of my nose, and my mp3 player pumped at full volume to AC/DC. Checkpoint 8 was a welcome sight. Not only did it mean that I had crested, but also that I could now change my shoes, and get something to eat.
The altitude brought new challenges though. With it came the wind along the top of the mountains, and the cold. The sun was setting, and I knew that I had to make the best of the light while I still had it. The track was not suited for night running, and I wanted to cover as much of it as possible. I put on the new socks and shoes, and ate what I could before setting off.
The view along the ridge was mindblowing. I could see for kilometres, and yet I couldnt see any signs of man. Other than the half overgrown track in front of me, there was very little sign that I was not alone. As night fell, my world became smaller. Suddenly the views were gone, and all that I knew of was the small white circle on the track in front of me. It put my previous thought of loneliness to shame. Every now and again I would catch a glimpse of the distance lights of P.E., or maybe spot the headlamp of another runner. I would guess as to who it could be, and how far away they were. The distance as the crow flies gives no indication, as the trail turned in a new direction every 50 meters. For all I knew, it could take me an hour to reach the point of that headlamp.
The day before I noticed a board at the National Parks reception. It listed the various animals sighted that day. On the list were Lions, and Hyenas. I had thought nothing of it. However, after running alone in the dark for 6 hours, with little sign of people, and no visibility under the new moon other than your little headlamp, your mind wanders. As I headed through a thicket and what might have been a hiking trail, the bushes seemed to become denser and denser. They closed in over my head and I found myself running in a small tunnel of bushes. I thought about the photos that I had seen of a man after being attacked by a leopard, and I remembered the warnings of potential snake bites and night adders. I realised that I had turned off my mp3 player as it would prevent me from hearing the charge of a lion, or snarl of an angry territorial leopard. I behaved like a Sandton schoolgirl!
Schoolgirl or not, I was pleased when I came out on the other side and spotted lights at the top of the hill ahead of me. Sure it meant I would have to do a lot of climbing to get there, but it also meant I was back to some form of civilisation. Checkpoint 11 was also one of my drop bag points, and my three sticks of droewors went down as a treat! New shoes set me off into the night.
It was roughly midnight, and my next big challenge lay ahead. The hours of 1 to 4am are renowned as horrid. These Hell hours or Witching hours are normally the hours that require the greatest levels of concentration. The 16 hours of running before you has tired you out more than a normal day, and now you refuse your body sleep, when you would normally be out for the count. As you resist sleep, strange things happen. Your mood swings, and your mind plays tricks on you with the shadows of your headlamp. It didnt play any tricks on me though, as I know that I saw that log walk across the road like a crocodile. It was there damnit!
Another problem with running at night under a new moon is the hills. When you realise that you are heading up, there is no way of knowing how far you are going. You could be climbing for 100m, or you could be climbing for 10kms, but there is no way of knowing because you cant see that far. Everytime you get to a ramp of any kind the thought process starts again. The darkness isnt all that bad though. As I stopped for a roadside widdle, I turned my headlamp off, and realised what I had been missing. The sky was alight with stars like I had never seen before. Once again I realised how incredibly beautiful my surroundings were.
Susan passed me in the early hours of the morning, showing her huge 100 miler experience and little wear and tear, and I caught up to Laura just before sunrise. She had been walking sideways across the track as she fell in and out of sleep on her feet. We were both struggling in our own ways. My feet had taken a hammering from the stones and rocks, and she needed company. We made good progress for a couple of hours together.
That morning I had a very special moment. I watched the second sunrise of my run. It was now more than 24 hours of running, and the clouds turned pink above me. It became an emotional moment, as I realised that not many would be able to say they had run through the mountains to witness TWO sunrises. The mountainsides that I had been running through completely oblivious to, just hours before were now showing themselves in all of their glory. Massive drops off of the track, and layered green or rocky mountains appeared out of the darkness. I was sad to have missed these views during the night suffering.
Once again, as the sun came out the task at hand became apparent. Slog on to the finish. Laura left under my instruction with about 10kms to go. In all honesty, I was tired, and sore, and on the verge of cracking. I dont know what would have cracked but I was feeling fragile. My feet were bruised, and I just wanted to finish. I had fought the feeling since 5am, but all I could think about was, not having to move. I wasnt thinking about anything as drastic as bailing, but being clipped by a passing farmers bakkie was an appealing option as I would have an excuse to stop.
I turned my mp3 player back on once Laura had left, and within minutes my motivation lifted. I started running again, and quickly picked up the pace to an excruciatingly fast pace. Once again the exhaustion had made me emotional, but I couldnt have cared less, as I was now moving faster than I had for at least 10 hours preceeding it. I spotted Laura at the next checkpoint, which was also the last checkpoint, and promptly sat down to eat my last 3 jelly babies.
The final 8.3kms to the finish was a slow walk. I knew I was in, but my legs and mind had done enough for me to get my buckle, and it was not just a technicality that I had to waddle the final bits. As I approached the finishing corner I burst into a sprint on an uphill, simply for dignitys sake, and gladly broke the tape.
After a shower I collapsed down at the restaurant, and ordered a sandwich and chips. Before my drink had arrived my chin was on my chest, and I was fast asleep.