It came about quite unexpectedly and suddenly that a trail run was in my very immediate future. So, with immediate effect, I had a week and a half to prepare…
Well, on top of that I had to first arrange babysitters and complete my first ever marathon 5 days before the event.
I was ready. I was prepared. But I was stressed out and consumed with attending to my kids needs prior to the trail run, as it required me to be away for a number of days.
LONG story short: around 33 hours before our flight, I was ready to call it in as a good idea but no thanks when I received a call from a friend of a friend of a friend who said she could help.
I almost didn’t think it was a conversation that was actually taking place, but it was and that meant I would be running my first ever trail run in just more than 2 days.
So, now I had to pack. I had a vague idea of what I might need. After all, I’m a runner. It can’t be that much different. All the basics I thought I’d need were packed, and we were set to go. We had the early flight out, and long a drive to the accommodation.
At this point I still did not have a clue of what I was in for. Well aware that it was going to be challenging, I also knew it was going to be different. But I had no idea how much. And in the back of my mind I still had a niggle bothering me which I had picked up on my marathon the Sunday past.
Upon arriving at the venue, it became real. This was happening and we were there. Throughout the day I watched as people came and went and the camp slowly started filling up. The anticipation and excitement was starting to build. I was there. And I was going to run one of the most amazing looking runs I had ever seen.
Booked into accommodation a little way up the road, we left the camp later that evening after race briefing and dinner. It was truly an awesome experience. I had never been to anything like it. People on either side of us at any table in the very crowded tent, sat and spoke with fondness – and shared happy memories – of their previous runs.
Having rained for a week, the grounds were well soaked and muddy. It was starting to get chilly and we were not all that prepared for these conditions. Flip flops don’t prove much use in the mud and we were – well I was – slipping and sliding all over the place. Many people simply walked barefoot while most had gumboots on. Wellingtons. Rain boots.
Simple but so effective and I wished I had known or thought of it. (Note to self: buy gumboots for next trail run/camp adventure).
Back at the B&B we cleaned our feet – my shoes were shot – got ourselves ready for day 1, got warm and got to bed. It was an early start but nothing unusually early. It was a beautiful crisp fresh morning and there was no rain forecast. But who trusts the weather-man, right?
We arrived at the venue, the sun was almost breaking the horizon. I tried as far as possible to stick to what I would normally eat before a run, trying to remember I was going to be out there for a while longer than usual. There was not that much low carb friendly food available and a lot of carb heavy breakfast, but I managed. We had our hydration packs – which was one of 4 items marked as compulsory – loaded with nutrition for the day.
That was something I had NEVER worn, (never mind run with) until this moment. It was heavier than I expected and took a few moments to get accustomed to. But we got the best we could afford and I am so grateful we had expert help in this process. The Osprey hydration packs are super comfortable and within half an hour I hardly even noticed I was carrying it. There are so many easy to reach and simple to access pockets and flaps that it was like having a ‘seconder’ running alongside me.
I had been contemplating trail running for a while. Being a lover of nature and all things natural, it just made sense that this is where I’d feel most alive. But I never made the cross over from road to trail. Ever. Apart from walking a 3km loop near my home, this was the closest I had ever come to trail running.
Though, I have yet to get myself a good pair of trail running shoes. So here I was, at the start of day 1. In my regular, well worn, road running shoes. I had my running socks, but again not trail specific. In the few days I had to prepare I did however manage to buy at least one pair of trail socks.
They do work.
But I only discovered that difference on day two. At this point, I was at the start of day one, getting checked in and waiting in the batch to head off. Now, while I knew that running in grass ‘and such’ is different to running on the road, I forgot how much different. And grass ‘and such’ is not trail. Just to be clear.
Running on the road is hard and unforgiving. The road is demanding and expecting. Road running can become mindless and boring. It can be unadventurous and unexciting. But it can be challenging and it can be fun. It can be all these things it can’t be, when you go looking for it.
The trail is tough. It’s hard and it’s challenging. But it is incredible and it is beautiful. It is fun and it awakens the soul. It screams with childlike laughter and adventure. There is something exciting about it, and it makes you curious. There is a less aggressive pounding on the body, but there is a lot more work for the knees and ankles to do, the uneven ground can really catch you off guard. Real trail is living. It forces you to slow down and remember what is out there, all the good things that remain (largely) untouched.
Day one started up one ridiculous slope which was still completely muddy and slippery and much more of a challenge to get up than one could imagine. There were several people behind us and since the trail was narrow enough for only one – maybe two – to pass: we constantly felt like were being rushed. Chased. So, we stepped aside and the more experienced passed by in a flash.
Slipping and sliding going uphill made me question if this is what we were in for the whole way. Still, it was kind of fun. We dropped to the back of the pack and for most part of day one it was just the two us (seemingly) alone in this vast forest. You heard the birds calling and the insects buzzing.
At times, you heard the rivers flowing furiously ahead of you or a little distance to the left or right. The waters were ice cold in the middle of the days’ heat, and the most refreshing drink I have ever had.
It was amazing to think that we could simply bend down and fill our water bottles (hydration bladders) from the streams. We could scoop the water up in our hand and drink it clean out of the river. And we did. I wasn’t going to let that experience get away from me.
As a road runner, you are told to always keep your feet as dry as possible. On the trails that is impossible. And impractical. You miss out on the fun of splashing through the rivers. Your shoes will get dirty. Filthy in fact. Running through the rivers gives them a momentary clean.
When we broke out of the forest, we were at the top of the mountain. And it was absolutely breathtaking. Realizing how much we had climbed, it made sense – then – why we had struggled so much. But we were strong. This adventure was just beginning.
Going through the first water point, we were happy to know we were on the right path. I took an apple along for extra nutrition, as they had to do away with the second aid station due to inaccessibility from the rains. Stocking up as much as we could, we were off again. Along the path we met up with another fellow back of the pack trailer and had a little chat as we went on our way.
Together we wandered across the fields and up and over and down again across the mountains. All the way taking in the sights, the sounds, the smells of the nature in which we were so deeply immersed. I was in my element, even while this was hugely challenging for me, it was just exhilarating in every way. Every sense was alive.
On we went across the top of the mountain and were met by another forest, with more beautiful clean rivers and sounds of nature at work. We slipped through more mud – though considerably less than at the start. As a result we grabbled with branches and trees to get leverage when we needed it.
We learned that we were pretty good climbers – going up. Downward climbing proved a little more challenging. Which, more than anything, I believe that was due to lack of experience and confidence.
During the race we were exposed to a new phenomenon – a rest point. Yes, rest; as in sit down and take a break kind of rest. On beautiful lush green grass amongst trees and farmlands. Here we had an opportunity to go on the Karkloof Zipline.
Terrified by the height of it I was determined to make the very best of this adventure so I sucked it up and went. It was high. Very high. And it was fast. Very fast. Yet, it was a chance to do something out of the ordinary and live another experience. It was great fun.
The last six or so kilometers were relatively uneventful as we made our way to the finish.
We spent a fair bit of the last few kays with what was to be our companion for the most part of day two. He is known as ‘the sweep’. It was this daunting thing creeping up on us all day. In road running you don’t want to be near the sweep or sweep vehicle, as that usually means you’re flirting with missing the cutoff. This was a little different. Our Sweep was there to make sure we were safe and that no one was left behind. His job was to be the last guy across the line – whenever that may have been.
In the end, day one was a long day, a tiring day: but an incredible experience. One I will treasure forever. There is something therapeutic in being so deeply placed in nature.
After making our way across the finish line, having a shower and feeling a little cleaner we had time to sit, reflect, chill out and have a couple of beers. No needs and wants and demands that needed to be met. Something we had not done in years. It was priceless.
After dinner and race briefing we headed back to our B&B and called it a day. Surprisingly we both slept really well.
Day two started a little more reservedly than day 1. Firstly, it was further. It was hotter, and I was already hurting. The injury I had acquired on my marathon a week earlier had come back to haunt me. It was there, just lingering. So, I started off somewhat slower than perhaps what I would have liked. It was warm out already. There wasn’t as much shade as day 1, and we went about 10 km before we had our first bit of relief in the forest. It wasn’t as muddied up as day 1, but still wet enough to grant caution.
After our first table stop of refilling and refueling we headed into the next new forest. This was my favorite part. The forests. We walked along the path and took in the sights and smells. We saw bugs and spider webs and were pestered by flies.
It was much cooler in the forest, and the break from the heat was welcomed. We crossed rivers and climbed up the mountain. The climbs and descents were steeper on day two, but seemed less treacherous as they were somewhat ‘drier’ than day one.
When we broke through the first forest we had quite a sight to behold. Miles and miles of spectacular farmlands. It was really rather impressive. Then we were plunged into another forest.
Again, up we went. Taking our time and soaking it up, we were not in a race. Rather we were on an adventure. Frequently we took pictures and marveled at the view for a couple of seconds. Then on we went. Up and up and over and under through the next forest.
Eventually we broke out at the other end and I think this was the top. It all starts getting a bit blurry from here. The pain in my foot which started out as a faint whisper was gradually becoming a loud whisper. But still only a whisper.
On we moved through conservancy and farm lands. We saw. We heard. We smelled. We tasted. It really is like nothing I have ever experienced. And still it made me feel childlike again. It made me want to jump into the dams and swim in the river, and not care about the mud in my shoes or on my clothes.
Along the way we met some amazing marshals who were there to give direction and encouragement. Along we ran on farm roads and past some beautiful houses. I think some of the residents who saw us must have thought we were lost or crazy. Or both. Judging by the looks we got…
Then came the second rest stop. This time I sat down. Benvie Gardens. This place is a soul restoring retreat. My foot was louder than a whisper now. And my newly acquired blisters had burst open too, so it really was a fine and dandy time for my feet. Or not.
The medic at the stop did his best with what he had left to wrap my feet and checked that I was ok. I was good, though fighting back tears at the thought of not finishing. I was fine. Just my feet hurt. Badly. My legs were fine. The rest of me was fine. But it’s the feet that carry you and this was the catch.
All wrapped up and with newly cut holes in my shoes we set off to take on the 15 or so kilometers. There were four of us together as we left the rest stop.
We had one more table stop and then we were home. I was getting slower and slower and my feet’s’ whispers fast became shouts of anger. They were really starting to yell at me.
On we went up another (and the last nasty) hill for the day. It was here where I took the last photo for the day. It was hot. There was no shade, no relief, nowhere to hide. At this stage I was officially suffering.
At the top of this hill I got a text from my mom asking how it was going. I had one word for her: Suffering.
Yet, at no point in this extremely long and taxing day did I go to places as dark as I went to on my marathon. It’s a different kind of suffering. A different pain. And perhaps not having an official time limit played a role in there to. I was going to finish and I was happy with that.
My blisters kept rubbing and the soles of my feet were seriously enflamed. It was only a couple of kays to go when we got to the last stop. From the 15 kilometer mark I had been checking in constantly and listening as we counted down the kays.
This, oddly enough, was really helpful and kept me going. I had looked around and seen the views and the scenery, but by this point pain had taken over and I had lost my sense of humour. I wish I had taken some photos of the village we passed through and the farm houses we passed by. But it is etched in my mind where I keep it safe.
Till we meet again.
As we were meters away from the finish I could hear the buzz. It was not electric. It was not wild. It was appropriately festive. I could hear the music, hear the odd announcement. From the pit within the last bit of will and determination to finish strong came up again and I surged on.
I was just quite simply relieved to get off my feet. Thrilled to be home and to have finished. I made it. As the finish line approached I could feel tears building up and promised myself I would not cry.
But in that moment when you realize you did this – no one else – and the kind of day it had been, I turned to my husband for something and the tears just flowed. Involuntarily they came streaming down my cheeks.
It’s a day I will keep in my ‘cherished memories’ box.
We never started day 3. I had injured the ligament in my foot and was struggling to keep myself upright as a result. I got it strapped up again and was hugely tempted to go. Right up until that moment when the last people were out of sight.
I went to lay down. It rained the entire morning, most of the day in fact. And I think it was a blessing that I woke up more tender on the foot than anticipated. If I hadn’t I would’ve certainly done the damage (if not worse) out there on day 3.
I was somewhat comforted by my decision when even the experienced commented on how challenging the conditions were.
But I will be back.
There was a lot more up and down and it was a lot steeper at that on day two. Never at any stage did I feel unsafe or lost. The event was well organized and well managed and I would absolutely definitely say you should put it on your bucket list.
But run some trail first.
Come injury free.
On the trip back to the airport I quietly reflected on the magnitude of the peace and tranquility I had experienced, it dawned on me: as a mother of three gorgeous happy healthy active children I wondered what would be left for them to experience.
My oldest may still have some of these untouched adventures, but my youngest (with a 10 year deficit on her brother) may not. That saddens me. It angers me. If we are going to raise healthy happy children, should we not preserve a healthy happy environment for them to live in…