I came up with this cockamamie idea of running my first ultra right at the end of March, and in April started running again after a 5 year hiatus. Up until that point the furthest I had ever run was a 21km trail race back in 2009, and in the time that passed since then life happened, forcing me to all but abandon my hopes of ever running again. (Not that I didn’t keep very active and fit – after ankle surgery in 2011 I got into powerlifting, kettlebell sport and calisthenics.)
As someone who doesn’t want to repeat the same year 75 times and then call it a “life”, it didn’t take much of a self-directed pep psych me up into giving running a go again. It’s prudent to note that this was against the advice of my (now) ex-orthopaedic surgeon.
Before my body knew what my brain was I up to my sights were set on conquering the 2015 Ultra Trail Cape Town.
In the days leading up to the race the weather was mild with scattered showers, but every amateur meteorologist with a smartphone was holding firm that race day would be met with sunshine, children’s laughter and puppy dog kisses. All I can say is that weather predictions in Cape Town are about as reliable as a cellphone signal in a submarine…
Saturday morning (3 October) rolled around and sure enough, as we drove to the start/finish venue at Tech Gardens Rugby Club, the term “rather moist” kept playing over my mind.
Clouds, mist and rain would be the prevailing theme of the day, but being the super delusional bunch of crazy optimistic people that trail runners are, the mood at the start line was abuzz with measured anticipation.
The countdown ended, the flare burst into life, and so started the best twelve hours and twenty minutes of my life.
At this point it’s good to note the following:
I went into this race well prepared. Sure, I only had 6 months to train for what would undoubtedly be the hardest endurance challenge of my life, but I did train my ass off in the time I had at my disposal. From April to September I logged around a thousand training kilometers, making the best of my surroundings up in Middelburg, Mpumalanga. The one thing we don’t have up here are mountains. Not even any real hills to speak of.
We do own a treadmill though, so I spent hours and hours running on a 16 degree incline.
Now I hate a damn treadmill as much as the next rational person, but in order to get my legs prepared for the climbs I knew I had to do something more than simply log the kilometres around Middelburg’s golf course. Best decision of my whole training schedule right there, and a major reason why I crossed the finish line.
All that endless hamster-wheeling did take it’s toll though, and two weeks out from the race I had my first encounter with the dreaded Boogieman of ultra running; ITBS.
For those who don’t know, it’s an acutely painful situation where the IT-band pulls on the side of the leg, causing what can best be described as a feeling of “an icepick plunged into the side of the knee”. It’s thankfully not debilitating, and with enough gnashing of the teeth and furrowing of the brow it’s something you can kinda-sorta deal with during a race.
Novice ultra runners (like myself) take note: Your body needs time to adapt to the rigours of running such long distances, and having variety in your training is essential to staying strong and injury free. With the short window I had in which to prepare, I definitely put too much emphasis on time-on-feet, totally neglecting other aspects like flexibility and strength. My current running form is not ideal either, so remember to always keep working on your weaknesses – they get amplified and exposed exponentially during an ultra race.
But enough “Training with Chris”, let’s get back to the race.
Ultra Trail Cape Town offers a unique opportunity to experience a great cross-section of the city’s various treasures. With a time constraint of 15 hours, the 100km race is for seasoned trail runners only, but the 65km and 20km courses still offer some of the most scenic running imaginable. Views aplenty; weather permitting of course…
As we descended down into the city, an ever spreading line of headlamps snaked it’s way through the crisp pre-dawn air. The rain was persistent but light, and as we started heading up Signal Hill it became apparent that the mist would be a major feature for much of the morning’s running. There’s something surreal about running in what feels like a blanket of clouds wrapped all around you, with the steady sound of your footsteps the one constant piece of reality in an otherwise otherworldly experience. I’m sure it’s nothing novel for the lucky souls who get to train in the Cape during the winter months, but to me it was like moving through a dream. It was impossible for me to tell exactly where I was; it was still dark as night and any view of the city lights were obscured by the fog. This allowed me to focus on the running and I soon settled into a comfortable rhythm.
With my utter lack of local trial knowledge I really can’t remember the transition between running on Signal Hill, Lion’s Head and crossing to the bottom of Table Mountain. I just remember reaching the first aid station, drenched but feeling on top of the world.
My wife Elzerie was waiting there, and seeing her instantly lifted me even more. This aid station was supposedly in the car park near the cable cars, but my recollection of it was just an oasis in the mist where I could refill some water bottles and re-adjust the taping around my leg. It was a constant struggle the whole day to get the strapping just right. The wet conditions made the elastic tape become unstuck, and hastily strapping that down with electric tape I went too tight. Let’s just say that I spent a fair chunk of my aid station visits trying to find the balance between no circulation and not enough support.
The run along the lower contour of Table Mountain was a lot of fun, with a wall of rock on my right shoulder and a wall of swirling white mist on my left. There was a pleasant diffuse glow of the morning light coming through the clouds and the conditions underfoot were wet yet runnable – even for a Table Mountain newbie like myself. Reaching the notorious Platteklip Gorge I felt like I was on cloud nine, and I climbed that whole section with confidence, not pausing to rest until I reached the top. It’s here that the tone of my day would drastically change, as it quickly went from “Woohoo!” to “WTF!?”
Let’s just say the weather on top of that mountain can be a lot different to what it’s like down in the city. Conditions were rough, with wind and rain competing to see which would get you to cry for your mommy first. Normal footpaths looked like mountain streams, and the idea of trying to avoid pools of ice cold water soon got tossed out of the game plan.
Despite the seemingly apocalyptic weather, it was not at all a miserable experience. I think ultra- and trail runners are a breed unto themselves, and I’d like to think that somewhere I managed to cultivate some of that special crazy that thrives on adversity. As the wind drove sheets of horizontal rain across the landscape, I caught myself every now and then laughing at the invigorating exhilaration of it all. Mind you, I was freezing my balls off and I knew that I had to keep moving at a steady pace in order to avoid getting too cold, but it was I challenge that made me feel more alive than I had in quite some time.
Of all the wonderful volunteers that made the race possible, I really take my hat off to those kids who manned the second aid station at Woodhead reservoir. Exposed to the elements and unable to move in order to keep warm like the runners could, they must have had the most miserable of Saturday mornings of their lives. I filled up my empty flasks with plain water and quickly ate a banana, as trying to get a sachet of Tailwind into the ridiculously microscopic neck of a Salomon soft flask would not have happened. I was shivering way too much and with conditions that resembled the midst of a cyclone, I basically just wanted to get the hell outta Dodge!
After leaving the aid station and it’s battered crew behind, I trundled down the path all shell shocked and daydreaming of steamy baths and cups of hot chocolate with marshmallows on top. It’s on this section that my knee started hurting something fierce, and by the time I was running on the cement road across the reservoir I had to fight to keep from limping.
The weather was a lot friendlier already, but downhill sections were becoming an issue, so instead of running down them like I was supposed to, I was reduced to walking like I had load in my diaper. At one point I was getting passed by what felt like the slowest runners on earth, and I had to frown extra hard in order not to fall into a pit of despair. Luckily I had some Ibuprofen in my pack, so I decided to make quick pitstop, pop some painkillers and get my shit together.
Lesson; make sure your first aid kit is packed in such a way that you can access non-waterproof items like pills without them (a.) spilling on the ground and (b.) dissolving onto tiny blue piles of depressing nothingness.
I must’ve looked like the cocaine crazed ex-stock broker in some eighties movie; desperately trying to extract what could possibly be his very last fix from the shagpile office carpet of a menacing cartel boss. Only this was real life, my leg was hurting like a sonofabitch and I needed pain meds. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but somehow I managed to get some of the pill-paste down the right hole before skulking down the path on my not-so-merry way. Cement roads suck. Wet cement roads on top of angry mountains suck the worst.
Thankfully things would only be getting better.
My recollection of this section of the course is vague, but do remember eventually starting to cope with the pain in my leg. Maybe it was the pill sludge I had managed to scrape of the road, or maybe I was finally turning into a badass. (I think it was the pills.)
The pain was an intermittent issue and one that I could deal with for the rest of the race by walking when necessary and running when able. By the time I reached the road leading into Groot Constantia I was feeling much more chipper. I even hooked up with another runner (not like that!) and spent a good while running along, chatting about this, that and the other. The fact that he was a multi ultra finisher, with races like Two Oceans and Comrades under his belt made me feel a little better about my day up to that point. Upon reaching the aid station, I grabbed a fresh shirt and Injinji socks from my super awesome wife, re-strapped my leg, drank some coffee-like substance and refilled my bottles with Tailwind Nutrition. I even took time out for a little dessert; mini Bar-Ones rule!
The section through the winelands was mostly a mix of tarmac and varying states of dirt road. Some of it was slick and muddy, but mostly the terrain was friendly and on a normal day, without a gimpy leg, it would have been infinitely runnable. Unfortunately I was struggling on the flat sections and downhills, so much so that got kiddy with joy every time I encountered anything even slightly resembling an upward incline. I was officially halfway at this stage, but it had taken me five and a half hours to cover only thirty five kilometres. My sub-ten hour goal had long since disappeared into the mist back on the mountain, but by the time I rolled up to the Alphen Trail aid station at the forty three kilometre mark, I was certain that I would finish the day on a high note.
The rain had dissipated and I was headed onto a section of the course I was really looking forward to. Beautiful as it was, the section through Newlands forest took a considerable amount of time to complete. Trails that would normally be easy to run on were slipperier than a soapy eel, and I spent much of my time in the forest making sure I didn’t fall on my nose. A mix of wooden paths and single track was interspersed with multiple stream crossings and slick boulder fields. This made for incredibly beautiful and thoroughly engaging sightseeing, and before I knew it I was cruising into the last aid station at the University of Cape Town with a big ol’ shit eating grin on my face. I think it took an hour and a half longer than expected for me to complete that section, but damn it was pretty!
The fact that I was standing at UCT with only ten kilometres to go felt utterly surreal, but I knew that there was still the small matter of a climb up to the King’s Blockhouse to deal with, as well as a gnarly descent back down to the finish venue. Having topped off my supply of Tailwind Nutrition for the last time, I headed off in the direction of Rhodes Memorial.
As with most of my (mis)adventures, things normally go from great to “stupid! stupid! stupid!” in the span of less than a second. While trying to stuff a loose item into the front pocket of my jacket, I missed a critical turn and ended up running more than a kilometre down the wrong path. At this stage I was far too euphoric to get upset, and once I realised my errant course I simply turned around and ran back up the road until I found a route marker again. Instead of going left and starting the gruelling climb up to the Blockhouse, I had run past the (very clearly marked) route and continued on my merry way down a gravel road. Lesson learned; pay attention dummy!
As I reached the Blockhouse, the clouds had started rolling over the mountain again, leaving any spectacular view I could have had a mystery to hopefully to be revealed during next year’s race.
A couple of the leaders from the 100k race started passing me, so I was under no illusion of how slow of a day I had. Still, I was moving forward and even running some of the flat sections, but as I started the final descent back down to the city my knee was a source of unrelenting torture. I went down that mountain at a glacial pace and nearly got bitten by an off-leash Australian sheepdog-thing – I didn’t care one iota. My first ultra finish was within grasp and I could taste the celebratory beer already.
That final run onto and around the rugby field was one of the proudest moments of my life. It was far from the perfect day for me, but that’s exactly what did make it the perfect day for me.
The lessons I learned during that twelve hours, twenty two minutes and forty seconds will stay with me forever, and I’m already looking forward to returning next year with a much improved performance… and maybe even a view or two along the way!
With regards to gear, here’s a quick rundown of what I used and how it stacked up:
- Tailwind Nutrition – I switched to Tailwind a two months before the race and it’s been a revelation. As someone who likes the sweet stuff in very limited amounts, and who likes to run without having to worry pooping mah pants, Tailwind is absolutely a game changer. The local distributors are awesome people as well – huge thumbs up!
- Brooks Cascadia 10 shoes – Bomb shelters for your feet and in my opinion one of the best ultra shoes out there. I only wish the importers here in South Africa would stop treating the brand like an unwanted step-child.
- Injinji trail socks – I had zero blisters or hotspots and I can’t imagine a long run without them. Again, only gripe is with the lacklustre local distribution.
- Salomon 12L something-something race vest – it’s stupidly expensive but arguably one of the best ultra race pack on the market – and I’m not even a Salomon brand queen. Fits like a shirt and carries every last bit of gear in total comfort. If someone else made something better I’d try that, but I don’t think it can be topped.
- Trucker cap – I’ll never ultra without it!
- Buff – The duct tape of running gear.
- GoPro Hero4 Silver – Go check out my short film, Ultra Dreams at https://vimeo.com/141975285 (There’s also a shorter race-footage-only edit available on Vimeo.)
- iPhone 6 + with LifeProof waterproof case – I don’t own a fancy shmancy GPS watch, and I heard a lot of bragging from those who’s watch batteries lasted for the whole race. I accurately tracked the whole race using the free Nike+ app and and at the end of a twelve hour day the battery life was a solid 73%. Pretty impressive stuff.
- LED Lenser headlamp – It got wet but it kept on shining. Comfortable fit and good overall value for money.