A year ago I was carting a doughnut cushion around with me. I was in pain, bitterly disappointed about missing Oceans after a great block of training in the lead up, and I was worried that Comrades wouldn’t happen either. A broken coccyx is not a whole lot of fun. The recovery and races that followed made me feel like a human yo-yo. A confusing mix of good, bad and ugly running, and a poisonous overall lack of confidence prevailed. Regular humility checks are quite healthy, and I’m sure there are many more coming my way. With the wisdom of hindsight, I welcome them, and maybe I’ll learn to manage them a little better.
Just before the Addo 76km trail race in March this year, I was wondering about going through with it. I’m usually game for new races, and unknown challenges but I was feeling like I’d set myself up for a sure fail. It would be the longest I had run off road, and on unknown terrain. I met up with my friend Meg Mackenzie for a last minute attempt at pulling a race strategy together. Meg is an accomplished athlete, a running coach and a life coach in addition to being a school teacher. She is a powerful mix of enviable human qualities; a rare combination of super tough and super kind. We spent 1.5 hours going through my strange head space, where I had and had not met my training programme requirements, and mapped out a few Addo scenarios. I don’t think I would have finished the race without that session. It was tough, it was exceptionally hot, and I my “top 10 ladies” idea seemed laughably ludicrous as the hours went by. In the end, I made the top 10. I was nearly 2 hours off my goal time. Addo reminded me that my greatest life lessons and moments of pure joy were all preceded by a decision to go further, or faster, or in to the unknown. That is where my truth is.
I had a month to recover from Addo, and prepare for Oceans. With a trail ultra lurking in my tired legs, I felt pretty slow for much of the remaining road training. I hit a few 90km weeks, and only one 100km week, and then it was time for a swift taper. I honestly felt springy, and excited by the time race week hit. As for a time goal, a sub 5 was the general idea. I’d never got a Sainsbury medal before.
Q was starting in B batch, I was lining up in C. We arrived at the start pens and parted ways, with more than 40 minutes until 11 000 of us would be unleashed on to the “world’s most beautiful marathon”. I sat as close to the front of B batch as I could, and felt my tummy turn. I’ve had my fair share of total tummy disasters in recent races, so I took another Immodium and tried to think of anything but needing the loo. I was carrying a hydration pack with all the water I would need for the day, as part of my commitment to #plasticfreerunning so I distracted myself by organising and reorganising my pack. Anything but an emergency loo trip that would take me out of the starting pen and force me to the back of the race. My mind went to the session with Meg, where she had encouraged me to visualise Addo as a movie.
“Play all the worst case scenarios out. An ambulance, a drip, pulling out and waiting for the sweep vehicle. Then rewind each bad scene and replay until you have the perfect race in mind.”
So I sat in C pen with my tummy doing a worrying dance and visualised the first 10km down main road. Dip just below 5 minutes a km, not much faster. Then slow slightly until the 21km mark. Let the vibe determine your pace for a while, soak it up. The dead section in to Noordhoek, keep sipping your water, take a potato… push the Chappies climb, easy downhill in to Hout Bay. Marathon mark at 3 hours 42 minutes. No faster. Then Constantia Nek. A steady climb, don’t stop. Reach the top and find Susie with her big sign. Refill water here if you are out. Then hit the last section with all you have left. Run freely, smile, greet friends and encourage other runners. Finish line. See the clock. Clock should say 4 hours 50-something minutes. Receive a Sainsbury medal.
My movie was clear in my head. My tummy stopped flipping. We stood, the tape dropped and I wiggled further forward towards more of the B seeded runners. Not too far forward, I didn’t want to get caught up. The fish horn, the gun. Run!
Reality is, plenty can go wrong on an ultra. From badly planned nutrition to an over-trained body shutting down. Sometimes the weather smashes all our plans, sometimes we trip over nothing at all. Some of the best planned races can end in uncontrollable vomiting, or a stress fracture that arrives to say hi. Some days our mind, our heart or our emotions let us down. There are days when you just… can’t.
But when it works, it has to be one of the best damn feelings around. As I ran down main road on Saturday, just below 5min / km, the 5 hour bus of runners came screaming past. My friend Reid said, “Let them go”. I was filled with panic and suddenly doubted my plan, but I listened to him. Around half way in Reid and I parted ways, and I hunted my 3 hour 42 minute marathon mark. I hit it. I was tired, things were hurting, but my smile was huge. I knew I would see my friend Susie at the top of the Nek, with a big sign that she had made for our super-fast friend, Devon Yanko, and I. The Nek climb wasn’t going well, and I was losing time. I spotted a Wild Runner club mate Vicky just ahead. She paced us up the Nek with a perfect run / walk strategy. We wanted to reach the circle with an hour to spare, but we were 5 minutes behind the plan. A quick Susie hug, no tears allowed, and then I chased Vicky for 2km before she powered ahead of me. But we had caught up enough time to breathe a bit. That fantastic section of Rhodes Drive flew past in a blur. I heard friends cheering and my smile was back in place. Two small hills to UCT, then the green grass of the finish. It was almost like my movie, it was close enough. I was nearly there. The second small climb gave me a fright. The legs said “we’re done” and I started walking. Shit…. Was I going to have a 5 hour 2 minute finish? Was I really going to miss the goal by such a small margin? Had to use my head a bit, tell myself to harden up. I got running again, and once that little climb was done the rest was easy. The grass was there. 56km done. I ran in and the clock said 4 hours 57 minutes. The Sainsbury medal was mine, and I was only a minute behind Q although we hadn’t seen each other the entire race. I had successfully carried my own water and other nutrition the whole way. My tummy had held out. It was one of those races where every box got ticked. I wish that feeling could be bottled.
Susie, Devon and I spent a lot of time together before the race, and again afterwards. Devon is a podium runner but came over from the US to run Oceans just after injury recovery. She had a lot of self-doubt going on before we lined up. She hit a fantastic 4 hours 15 minutes on the day. Not her personal best, but absolutely incredible considering the lead up and still a top 15 place. Susie was a big part of getting our heads right. She is an incredibly encouraging friend, with much wisdom to share. We celebrated hard.
The sign that Susie made for us, and some of the time that Devon and I spent in in Susie’s peaceful garden the week before the race.
The lessons around this one are pretty important, so I’m writing them all down. This list is for me to refer back to, but I hope it helps some of you, too.
1. Prepare your head for a race, not just your body. This might mean surrounding yourself with your people, your tribe, and physically blocking out people or issues in the lead up.
2. Sometimes your goals and the outcome of the race will be at odds with each other. Sometimes that will be a win, too.
3. If you have a time goal, then have a plan. Look at a pacing chart or two. Reid was right. The 5 hour bus went out too fast this year, and people were popping off it by the time the marathon mark was done. A bus can be a blessing, but your own plan is gold.
4. Celebrate hard.