It was supposed to be easier this year. The experience gained from having pushed those unknown boundaries last year, the ‘been there, done that’ mindset implies you can do it again, but from a week out I knew this was not going to be any easier second time around. The months of training and preparation went well, but come race day there are two things you cannot do. You can’t change the weather. And you can’t outrun a storm.
Its 7:30 a.m., Friday morning. The world is going to work. We’ve just arrived at the start. The support vehicle looks more stocked than for a week of camping. The ocean in the background is like a lake. Flat, windless, and perfectly reflecting the warmth of the sun which is already starting to creep higher into another clear African sky.
7:56 a.m., we gather at the start line, 5 of us about to set out on the long journey south. The traditional prayer is read out …The road is long, but we thank you that we don’t go alone… the words trail off and my mind starts drifting, to last year and the beauty of this run, to the quietness, …He will not let your foot slip – He who watches over you will not slumber or sleep…, to the solitude, to that absolute focus on the long task ahead … the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night… goosebumps rake over my skin … these words comfort us as we start this challenge… Eyes gaze up at the mountain ahead already glowing orange in the morning sunlight.
Then with a wave of a hand and a cheer from the dedicated few who have come down, we are off. It seems unreal but the legs know what they have to do and when I look down they’re moving and we’re running and slowly it starts dawning on me this is real, we’ve started that long journey. Some light-hearted jokes down Portswood Rd but the group splits and I find I’m soon alone out front, over main rd and along winding city streets to get up to High Level road. Soon up onto Signal Hill and I’m alarmed at how warm it is so early into the day.
Onto Signal Hill, a clear and warm Table Mountain up ahead starting to bake
8:25a.m. and onto Signal Hill, John K alongside in his car with music playing and good conversation – he’s talking about his first Puffer tomorrow and I’m glad for the distraction, even have time for a few laughs then he’s off to work and I’m off up to the mountains. Side-stepping rush-hour traffic to get across Kloof Nek then along the face of Table Mountain. A lone mongoose scampers into the bushes, scared off the road by the approaching thud of footsteps, and soon I’m at Platteklip, the ultimate in quad-busting humility. Its starting to bake in there, that proverbial Platteklip-oven in action and I’m grateful for any relief from the sun in the shade protected corners of the zig-zags.
9:35a.m. and I’m on Table Mountain. Not a person in sight. Its as crystal clear as I can ever remember it from up here, spectacular views to the mountains across False Bay, and then with a lump in my throat I see our halfway point. Over 60kms away down the peninsula and there it is – Cape Point, where the land finally runs out into the ocean.
When you stand here on Puffer and look south it is an amazing moment, with nothing but a sense of achievement at seeing where you’ve come from. Today it feels very different and I lower my head in respect for what lies ahead and focus on the rocks underfoot as the descent to Constantia Nek begins.
Dodgy self-portrait at Maclears Beacon
The view south…
Lara is patiently waiting there everything perfectly organized and arranged. I refill precious water, resupply with food and off again. 10 minutes later, on the grueling ascent up the Vlakkenberg, and the first telltale sign of the rising temperature appears. Cramp. Both quads, and I’m reduced to limping up here trying to keep both legs straight. Mind games at trying to convince yourself everything is okay when you can’t walk properly and still have 130kms to run. The top is eventually reached and relief on the downhill to Tokai forest. I’m desperately looking forward to dunking my head under my favourite river, whose crystal clear and cold waters are sure to provide relief. But today there is nothing. Not a trickle. Not a drop. The dry winter season has left the mountains bare of anything spare to give to us. I’m watching my shadow on the dry ground in front and know that the sun is beating at my back. Small clouds of dust puff into the air with each footstep. Another one forward. Another one closer to turning around. I know today is going to be very very hard in these conditions. The beaded necklace bouncing gently around my neck makes me remember running that first Comrades, and the cancer treatment my mom was enduring at the time. She had it hard, much harder. For 18 months. This is one day. And I suddenly feel embarrassed at feeling so pathetic and vow quietly that nothing is going to stop me. Come hell or high water.
Nearing Tokai forest
Still no sign of a single whisp of cloud in the sky and I’m wondering inside about the storm that’s forecast to hit tonight. Maybe I should’ve put more effort into that rain dance earlier.
Eventually level 5 above the forest reaches the single-track up to Elephants eye, and the sudden change of gradient brings more cramp, more hobbling, more limping and more talking to myself, trying to say its okay. We’re getting there I tell myself, like I’m talking to a person alongside. But its fine, no-one around to witness the madness, the slow deterioration into that mindless stupor. In some ways I’m even looking forward to the pleasant, eventual arrival at that solitary place inside, where you finally couldn’t care, and couldn’t comprehend anything around you anyway. Where your focus is reduced to one single task only. Going forward. One step. One more. Don’t stop. I think of a quote in the race booklet – “…blessed are the cracked for they let in the light…” and smile quietly and pick up the pieces and carry on.
The river at the path from Elephants Eye across to Silvermine provides the first relief along the whole way and I’m quick to soak it up and splash it over my head, then time to scuttle off again down to the car park. Support crew waiting to help refuel, and then off down the wagon trail. Legs have eased into running again and the fynbos on the wagon trail is as beautiful as ever at this time of year. Massive red proteas greet me from alongside the path and for the first time I’m starting to settle into the run. I can even feel the slightest hint of a breeze but still no sign of clouds. Worrying about the weather, this heat, and still clinging to the silly ideal that maybe we can outrun most of the storm, if its even coming – get as far as possible before it reaches shore.
1p.m. Onto tar at the foot of the wagon trail, roughly 40 something km’s later and quickly ducking downhill into the dense overgrown bushes of the woodcutters trail. Suddenly the cramp strikes again. The dry dust whisps off the trail as I grind to a halt. More anger, edging ever closer to sheer mental fury – at myself for having gotten into this situation, and at my legs for letting me down, swearing and cursing at them just to get them moving again. Talking to myself out loud again, and it seems the world is so close but just out of reach. I’m effectively stuck in the bushes in a bend in a road with legs that can’t move and starting to scream at myself inside. Louder and louder and feels like the world is just watching and laughing as the comedy act unfolds. Finally easing the legs and managing to get moving, but straight limbs make for a funny running style and I come back out onto the road looking like the gingerbread man on a mission. Back into a civilized world and it seems no-one would be any the wiser what just happened back there. Can safely say I’m starting to get that distant, ‘removed’ kind of feeling.
Support up ahead again to get me up the next hill. It’s a relentless climb, seems like a never-ending 2km of tar up to the start of the Blackhill trail and I’m desperately looking forward to trying to start over, in my mind. Its got to get better than this I thought. Get the head right. Start looking for the positives. Always look on the bright side.. dammit, now I’ve got this stupid bloody song in my head. For the next hour of beautiful trail I cant shake it. “Da dum, da dum da dum… Always look on the bright side…” But ironically its forcing me to smile and its working, and I’m noticing how beautiful the flowers are, the dry winter has bought an erratic flower season and the path is lined with colours, a palette of vibrant brilliance opening up in the sun before me. And the mind starts ticking and singing in time with my feet and soon the Gingerbread Man is at the crest of the last hill to the end of the trail.
2:20 p.m. Arriving at the end of the Blackhill trail above Simonstown marks the start of the dreaded 56kms of tar. Change into road shoes and off past the infamous ‘barking dogs’, I’ve been chased through here before by these pitbull-cross breeds, and bitten last week, so I’m weary and cautious in approaching. But I see with relief the horrible beasts are chained back today and I scamper past. They try everything to lunge forward and are up on their back legs as the chains tug at their necks. Anything to get loose and get a taste of the Gingerbread Man’s left calf again, but I’m pleased for the distance between us and make fast tracks through the short trail back onto the main road, still wondering if the few metres it saves is ever worth the danger. The long road to the reserve gate is steadily broken down and beaten in small run-walk chunks, Lisa & Andre alongside on bikes and Greg on foot. Support crew in the car and friends arriving and I’m feeling their dedication is amazing in coming out to support. For the first time that day I glance up and see a small bank of clouds in the western sky. Suddenly the nervous anticipation of the storm becomes real and I’m wondering how fast will it arrive? How fierce will it be? How far will we get before it hits us?
The gate comes into sight and the last kms of support comes to an end, on with the backpack and into the reserve – its 4p.m. again but no bungling this time with permits and we’re in and on our way for the final 13kms south. Gazing up is cause for alarm, the entire sky is now clouded in. It only took an hour. The mild nausea that’s been plaguing my thoughts for the last few hours are finally too much and a forced stop to rid my system of the days food follows. Back on the road there’s concern now for replacing the lost nutrition but I know that its dehydration from a day of blazing sun and hard work in the heat, and absolutely nothing is appetizing enough to go down. And stay down. Worst of all I know dehydration can finish your race, once it shows up its too late, and I knew there’d be a price to pay for this. The simple error of forgetting the re-hydration drink at the gate added to the frustration but we knew the next goal was so so near and when there are no other options you just focus on putting one foot in front of the other and getting there.
Cape Point, 80km done, 80km to go
with Andre and Lisa, my faithful seconds in the reserve
5:50p.m. Half way – Cape Point. The joy of getting here last year is noticeably absent this time round, it just seemed to mark another step in the journey, stop like tourists for a few quick souvenir photos, and then we begin the daunting task ahead, that long road north that we had just traveled south, Andre & Lisa by bike, Gingerbread Man hobbling on by foot, stopping only to vomit, or gag uselessly on a dry and empty stomach.
The long road north begins into the evening
A special moment, watching the sunset in the peace & solitude of the reserve
The disappointing anticlimax of reaching that magic halfway turnaround, what should be one of the biggest achievements along the route, is soon made up for by the most magnificent sunset – the giant red ball moving slowly into view from behind the clouds before dipping over the horizon, a perfectly timed gap in nature that reflects off the ocean in colours of reds and oranges and purples. The quietness of being in the reserve, the feeling of absolute solitude and aloneness, adds to the moment and we all feel our spirits soaring for a few brief moments. Beaming smiles and talking a bit more lively now, but the nausea soon returns and my spirits slump. More vomiting and dizziness, trying to focus on the road but with an empty tank I’m aware only of that slippery downhill slide into oblivion from here. I clutch those beads every time I buckle over and tell myself again and again not to give up. Lisa suggests a Valoid to stop the nausea, I’m dreading popping pills but weighing up the ‘could cause drowsiness’ versus the other alternative of having to stop the race, and it’s quickly down the hatch. I can almost feel it working in an instant. The head clears and the battle takes on a new approach to get re-hydrated as quickly as possible. Nearing the gate and we encounter other runners Beaumont and Dougie heading south. We all wish each well and continue on our way, I know inside that tonight, despite the distance between, we are all together in our struggle against the threatening storm. In a way it brings a bizarre sense of comfort, this knowing there are others.
Back at the gate and unbelievable to see so many friends have come all the way out here to cheer. A big boost and we’re off in happier spirits. The cold is starting to bite deeper now, the wind is blowing harder and a few kms down the tree-lined road it’s blasting us in full force – I’m not one for numbers and wind speed in knots but its been predicted at gale force so I’m bracing myself big time for the onslaught. Running head on into this eventually becomes futile and even Andre dismounts and pushes his bike. We slowly tick off the mental landmarks that bring us closer to Redhill, but the drowsiness from the tablet is starting to take effect. The white line swings a right and hovers next to the yellow line for a while then becomes rough gravel underfoot and suddenly I’m finding myself heading into the bushes off the road. “Steady” I hear Andre’s voice guiding me as I’ve awoken and already tried to compensate and veered all the way back across the road. I’ve never tried to sleep on the move but this seemed about as good a time as any and I work myself up into a rhythm like a wind-up toy, aim straight, close my eyes and put my head down. Stop at the support car when you sense flashing hazard lights in the darkness beyond the eyelids, then wind up and off again into the night. The routine continues, km by km, and we have soon all but sleep-walked our way up Redhill. Another legendary leg-rub at the top, joined by Andrew and Rob who have been sheltering from the cold under the bushes for an hour, and off past the barking dogs again. Still tied up. Still lunging into the darkness to get another sample of Gingerbread Man’s leg. We think of jokes and how we could tease them just this once to get even. See how long those chains really are and wait just out of reach.
The end of that long tar road at Brooklands farm and time to get kitted out for the cold, on with the tights but unable to put my shoes back on because every time I bend my leg it cramps. Eventually we’re off again, back onto the trail and happy to finally have that tar behind. The wind is getting stronger and stronger and blowing straight into us. Every now and then I have to squat down to stretch the quads, and it’s instant relief, I bury my head down to take shelter, tucking my chin into my chest I feel the heavy breathing inside. I grasp on the beads again, and briefly speak to myself. Different things every time. Then I eventually say to myself get up and carry on, and somehow the legs follow the instructions and straighten and we move forward again.
A brief down-time on the mountains, nick-named ‘Wetherleys’ (it was luxury at the time!)
We slowly move down Blackhill and onto the Woodcutters trail. A snake slithers off the path in front of us, scared off by our headlights, but then its nap-time, a quick 2 minutes down time while it’s sheltered in here. I vow not to sleep, just to rest the weary limbs but my mind is quicker to drift off than I can hold it for and in an instant the voices have faded into the distance and I’m out. When I awake I pretend there was no napping but get teased regardless.
12:30a.m. and Lisa is back on the route to join us, “Fairweather” about to confront her fears in a big way. We’re back at the foot of the Wagon trail. On a good day with fresh legs it’s a long relentless daunting uphill, in a storm after 16 hours on the move its nothing short of hell. I’m counting three big uphills until we reach Constantia nek, the driving rain and wind bites into us and I’m officially regretting that rain dance now. The wind is screaming through the pine trees near Elephants Eye, but we quickly descend into the shelter of the forest. Another quick downtime under the last shelter in the grove of trees, if lying down in a storm on a bed of wet mud covered leaves at 3a.m. is considered relief then you know how desperate you are.
The last of the three, the Vlakkenberg, is eventually crested. We are again straight into the teeth of the storm as we come over the rise, I’m desperately trying to get a glimpse of Table Mountain up ahead but its dark and covered in billowing cloud and I’m left wondering nervously, if its like this here what on earth are we in for up there. Gingerbread Man quickly looks down again and starts the straight-legged slip-sliding down the nasty descent back to Constantia Nek.
Its 4:40a.m. but we are welcomed with smiling friendly faces and a refuel for the final big hurdle – the slog up to Maclears. Glad to have experienced mountain runners Iain & JT along for this journey – we wave goodbye to the world of comfort at the nek and head off into the darkness that has become my world for the last 8 hours, living in a small bubble of light that is always moving just ahead of me. The grueling climb from the nek, up into the thick mist and rain, takes its toll and the dizziness returns. A quick upside down nap at the bridge before we round the corner straight into the storm again. The mountain can shelter you nicely in places but it can be a terrible shock when you come around a corner and move straight into an invisible wall that stops you dead in your tracks from going any further. It was enough to take my breath away in an instant. The small hazy circle of light stays just ahead of me on the ground but I can’t move forward towards it, it just hovers there, beckoning me. Fighting to move and I almost catch it, stepping closer but it moves forward again, and then again and again, and step by step we slowly start to move, higher and higher up the mountain. Past the Bailiff’s Hut, past Nursery, and over Skeletons Gorge. The highest point of Maclears is now tauntingly close, the mist is slowly starting to get light and the thought of daybreak is a massive boost to morale.
With Iain and Janette, somewhere on Table Mountain
Up ahead shapes of fynbos and rocks in the beam of my headlight take on strange forms and move in strange ways in the predawn hours. Sometimes coming forward to tease me, to ridicule me, to lure me forward, and sometimes retreating, blending with the shadows and turning into strange creatures and bizarre faces. Always morphing quickly into something else so I can never quite grasp it. I blink and hope they’ll be gone when I open my eyes but they are still there, staring at me, sometimes they wave, sometimes they are dancing. They sing and the voices grow louder and then fade and then return like a chorus of angels but when I turn to try follow them they vanish into the clouds and are blown away by the storm. The hallucinations continue up to Maclears, on top we follow the yellow footprints religiously for fear of getting lost in the white world of swirling mist and rain up there. Near the top of Platteklip gorge now, and I see through the mist groups of people standing on a stage, waving and swaying left to right and back again. Unbelievable, I think to myself, that they would be here in these conditions? I’m convinced they are maybe extras from a movie set following their script in perfect unison. Told to stand there and act. Odd though to have a film shoot here. Now. At 7a.m. Then we get close and I start to understand it, the people are bushes being blown side to side in the wind and the stage is a rock. Tripping on Table Mountain takes on a new meaning and I know I have to get off here soon.
The descent off Table Mountain, down Platteklip gorge, is a nightmare with the wet rocks. Gingerbread Man stumbling side to side and slipping forward and reeling back trying to stay afloat on the giant sized boulders that seem to move beneath him. The painful zig-zag path never seems to end, but like everything else this run has thrown at us it too is slowly overcome, step by step, flattening out onto the contour path, the start of the traverse along the face of the mountain before descending to the Lower Cable Station. The last few kilometers along Signal hill are run in high spirits, I’m deeply disappointed by having goals for the run evaporate into the clouds, but equally relieved at getting this far and all that matters now is getting to the finish.
We descend past the noon cannon on the slopes of the hill, and are soon back running the streets before that final kilometer down Portswood Rd. A straight, dull, gray road has never been so beautiful and the monotony provides moments for the mind to wander and to reflect on what has been. My mind shuts off from the conversation and shifts from sunburn, to aching and windblown and bloodshot eyes, from dehydration to the storm that tore at us throughout the night, hour after hour, to cramp, to vomiting, to stumbling and falling down Platteklip, to turning at the point in the reserve, that magnificent sunset, bright flowers, drifting to sleep on the move, hallucinating in the early hours, and everything in-between, it had been an absurd and very hard journey and one which I was very happy to see come to an end almost 26 hours later.
As we rounded that last corner just before 10 a.m. there were friends and cheers, and streamers and tears, and when at last I stopped and collapsed I just smiled because this time, I didn’t have to speak to myself to get up and carry on running.
the final home straight into the finish
done and finished