Another lesson learnt, and more respect to the mountains.
Familiar faces gathering, a close-knit trail community huddled around in the pre-dawn chill for one of the country’s toughest ultras. The wind whips up off the ocean beneath as we take shelter in the corners of the building at the far end of the parking lot. The place, Cape Point reserve at the tip of the peninsula. The destination – the Waterfront, Cape Town.
Voices raised above the nervous chatter call us forward to the start line and within seconds we’re off, into the darkness, heading north. For once we have a tailwind – an unseasonal winter has granted us a south-easter, usually reserved for the summer months, which blows gently at our backs as we wind our way slowly towards the gate. We exist in bubbles of light, splashed forward onto the road by our headlamps, lighting up every foggy breath that disappears on the wind.
I am running on my own, relishing the solitude, the peace, the quiet that this precious time in the reserve offers. In the distance I can hear the waves crashing against the cliffs, and watching the sky very gradually getting lighter over the mountains across False Bay.
I am on a well thought out mission, meticulously planned to beat the clock, to beat myself. I have no interest in who is ahead, or who is behind. Today is about me and the clock. Its about seeking revenge on what has escaped for too many years. I’m feeling strong and comfortable after so many months of putting the hard work in, but running as light as possible is a foolish mistake and I’m soon starting to get thirsty and looking forward to gulping down the first mouthful of precious water after 7kms, the only table on the 13km section to the reserve gate.
This reserve section used to taunt me, its long gradual hills and descents playing with my mind. But I’ve done my homework and run back and forth and trained here over and over and I can run this in my sleep now. I know every twist, every turn, every rise, every fall, and I can soon make out the distinct dark shape of the last hill looming before the gate. Up and around and through the bright lights and a step back towards civilisation, people, cars, support, and water. More precious water, and I gulp it down as the pace continues. I’m 10 minutes ahead of schedule out the gate and feeling strong and thrilled at the road and the stride increases and I’m just soaking it all in and absolutely loving this race. Owls calling to each other from nearby, the sky is lighter, the headlamp is off, and my feet are light, dancing on air to Redhill. Arms swaying effortlessly in tune with the legs, in tune with that beautiful ‘good good life’ which is singing in my mind. And it really is. It really is a good good life as I look around and take it all in – the fresh fynbos, the crisp morning air. The sun rising over a crystal clear false bay. And far up ahead, the early morning light catching the cliffs of Table Mountain, the distinct landmark skyline lying quietly in wait, miles and miles away.
Off onto the dirt track past the barking dogs, which are now named the biting-dogs after an unfortunate encounter, I see them out the corner of my eye, lunging in harmony, a perfect union of rusted chains and worn-out fur and frothed up anger and seething hatred all clanging and howling and hissing in desperation for another taste of my leg. But I don’t care about them today. I cant hear them. I don’t hear them. I look ahead, down the road and the dogs fade away into the past.
The end of the tar road finally and I grab my pack and up the first trail and I’m gulping at the other end of the hose – the lifeline from a bladder of precious water in my backpack. 28kms gone, and well over 20minutes ahead of the clock and smiling. The beautiful fynbos lined Blackhill trail sweeps by underfoot, listening to birds singing and water gurgling out of the streams, and traffic approaching on Glencairn Express jolts me back to reality as we sweep down an unnamed track alongside the busy road. Hidden in the bushes. Underground, we carry on quietly to our destination, finally popping out onto the road and braving 4-way intersections and lunatic drivers, duck off again into the bushy but short pipe-track and approaching the long-awaited start of the real trails at the foot of the Wagon Trail. Still running ahead of time but something isn’t sitting right inside. It hasn’t been for a while but I cant ignore it anymore. On with the trail shoes, and the long haul up the mountain begins. And the wheels start falling off. Dizziness sinks in as the wide track starts swaying underfoot and I’m trying desperately to focus on not losing that precious time and to keep on the track and to keep my precious liquid inside but its eventually too much and it starts coming up. One mouthful at a time. Stopping constantly to get it out, feel better for a few moments and the nausea and vomit returns. I try to take in the beauty of this wonderful mountain but the despair is too much and for the first time my mind starts a downward spiral. I know I cant let it happen, but it does. When you are chasing an enemy or fighting for a position on the podium, it’s something physical, but chasing the clock, fighting yourself, it is entirely mental. You cant see it. You cant touch it. You cant play games with it. It just keeps going. Relentlessly. It will never give up. And it will defeat you if you let it get a sniff of victory.
Through the Silvermine checkpoint, gulping down rehidrate in desperation to fool myself, to get everything back into the system and restored in an instant which I know doesn’t happen. And the clock ticks on steadily. On up to elephants eye and down onto Level 5. I manage to get into a barely runnable routine but it’s a rhythm that I haven’t had for a while and I’ll take anything I can get right now. Stopping for more vomiting sessions into the forest, and nothing is staying down and I am getting increasingly worried because I need food, I urgently need food, but it wont stay in.
The final rise and fall of the short but steep Vlakkenburg, and arriving at Constantia Nek to the most fantastic support from fellow club mates. It feels like home-ground advantage arriving to this scene, and I’m desperately trying to put on a brave face to hide the widening crack in my armour. Telling myself I can limp and cry and stumble and fall and feel sorry for myself all I like, but only when out of sight of these wonderful people. I can fail myself, but not them. Not now.
But for the first time in a very very long time I simply don’t want to get going again. My legs and body have nothing left to give. I feel absolutely depleted and dry. Empty.
But there is something inherently stubborn and incredibly selfish about doing what we do that pushes that level of pride further and further away from what most people would regard as reasonable. Maybe that is one unspoken requirement of running ultras, that your stubbornness threshold should be way higher than the level of discomfort you can tolerate. The pain lying ahead doesn’t compare to the agony of giving up, even in my fragile state I can contemplate that obvious conclusion, and I stubbornly limp away out of sight to deal with this on my own.
The struggle up to Maclears Beacon on Table Mountain continues. The frustration increases and I’m fighting demons to desperately try keep it together. I am buckled over a bush when it finally hits me. I’m watching everything I’ve just tried to eat at the nek come back up and I realise that I have now lost all the time I made up, I’m now running behind, and finally accepting it as a lost cause. And I immediately know that next year I am not coming back to try again because when you are giving everything, absolutely everything you can, and still unable to crack it, it wasn’t meant to be. You are simply not good enough. The clock has won.
My head sinks lower and sunken eyes keep staring at the path up to Maclears trying to find some consolation in at least just finishing. I stop to take in that majestic view from the beacon, the view south to Cape Point, where we started this journey in the early morning darkness. Who could have predicted this, the sheer disappointment after so much training and effort and hard work to be rewarded with this failure? It is a very bitter pill to swallow. I put my head down and start the trudge across to the top of Platteklip.
Fire down a Gu gel in a final ditch attempt to salvage something and start the bob and weave down off Table Mountain. Its only seconds later and I’m feeling something start to tick inside that I haven’t felt since Redhill and I let the legs go to start dancing again and they are soon skipping down off that mountain with a carelessness like never before and I’m smiling and at least enjoying part of this race again. Taking chances on corners and dodging tourists and I know that one slip will end this in an instant and I’ll be hurting for a very long time but right now I don’t care, I don’t give a damn, I’ve got nothing more to lose and I’m ready to take the chance and give it everything down here. The contour path is soon in sight and a quick glimpse at the clock and everything has suddenly turned. I’ve never run that fast down there before, I’m back in the lead against the clock – I’m beating myself and I’m over the moon and smiling huge and the tears of despair have instantly turned to beads of joy, dripping off my face, relishing the reward of effort. Racing hard on the contour path I drop to the lower cable station and hit the tar road to Signal Hill. Crazy West Coast support including a flasher making me laugh as I step onto their famed red carpet to begin the final descent off down to the Waterfront. Slip-sliding past the cannon and careening down onto and over high level road and making up time with each passing step.
Onto Porstwood road for that final home straight, head down and eyes wide taking in each stride and heaving each breath and arms pumping and everything happening in a rhythm that I had not felt all day, all but sprinting down that final kilometre like a man absolutely possessed, getting even with those demons inside at last, that any bystander would have been left struggling to imagine what was going on inside that guys’ head.
And round the last corner into the finish. Legs tingling with muscles about to seize, and a heart racing, pounding out of my chest, I’ve been here many times before but none have felt like this, the utter exhaustion, and equal elation. And the understanding at last what it feels like to beat that enemy within, the one that stands sometimes too tall and threatening, and shouts us down and tells us we cant. When we actually can.
Thanks to family & friends for such fantastic support, and Charl VD Spuy, Owen Middleton, Chris Hitchcock, and Chris de Bruyn for the photos. Well done to fellow club-mates and Puffer runners Rob & Andrew, Noel, Greg and Sandy, and to Janette on her fantastic Tuffer win.