There will be more glamourous blogs on the race. There is already a heady mix of media out there, and the imagery coming through from the race’s pro team of photographers has trail runners from all over the world amping for 2018. But here is my story; it’s longer than my race.
In 2015, I assisted Stu and Nic with their media and race comms. The race wasn’t as huge as it now is, but it was a rewarding job and one of my top Twitter games to date. It was just a taste of the kind of interest that this race would garner in coming years. In 2016, I ran the 65km. It was everything I had hoped to experience, and more. I felt a little like a tour guide on our mountain, with various languages and accents all around me. I was chilled, and happy, and finished hours ahead of my planned time.
I took a leap of faith and signed up for the 100km this year. It has a 17-hour cut off, and stringent cut offs along the way. It’s a proper throw down of trail talent and massive vibe, but it’s tough. Relentlessly and exhaustingly tough.
My training was, as always, around 70% achieved. I, like so many others, run for the pleasure more than the results. I love being out there, I love personal challenges, but I also balance my business, parenting and other life goals with my running pursuits. I nursed a calf injury after Tour de Tuli in July, but all in all I got some decent mountain time in, and climbed more than I ever have in the past. I got to gym twice a week for the three months prior, bulked up a little in terms of muscle, and worked hard at remaining positive about stepping up to a big challenge. I enjoyed the UTCT recces, especially the route between Constantia Nek and Hout Bay, and was pretty excited to give it all I had. I knew I’d be flying close to the sun in terms of cut offs, but I’m pretty damn stubborn and, in many other races, that has been enough.
But life has a way of keeping us all real. On 17 October, buzzed after a rad solo morning mountain mission and simply not concentrating, I crashed my 18-month old Jimny in to the back of a Fortuna. The damage was minor, but the car was towed and an avalanche of admin started coming down on me. Nearly three weeks later, after a lot of money spent on a rental car, I collected my repaired Jimny. As I drove away, the engine seized. Unseen radiator damage had not been fixed, resulting in a bit of a disaster. Insurance fights and no transport is not a particularly zen way to spend the weeks leading up to race. Soon after the engine rebuild was approved by my insurers, and two weeks before race day, my husband had to have knee surgery. He’d run for weeks on a torn meniscus, resulting in some nasty cartilage damage. A huge blow for an athlete of his nature, and our home systems were suddenly thrown in to disarray. He cannot bare weight on the leg for 6 weeks; no driving, working from home, and managing the emotional fallout of this surgery makes for a particularly unpretty picture.
“Let me tell you how I like my Weetbix” is a line we’ll both laugh about in years to come, but… not just yet.
Regardless of the stresses and our lives being largely turned upside down, the race buzz grew as we got closer to race day, and I tapered well. Vitamin C, Pro-biotics, Vitamin B shots as well as lots of water, good food and enough sleep. I had no niggles, and by the time we got to Thursday night registration, I just wanted to run. My youngest, Emma, came along to race reg in the hope of meeting Australian elite runner, Lucy Bartholamew. She spotted her straight away, and proceeded to conduct an in-depth “interview” with her hero, before said hero took a selfie of the two of them, and posted it to her 34 000-follower-strong Insta feed. How to make an 8 year old aspirant trail runner incredibly stoked!
Whilst in the registration queue, I had a moment that is best described as surreal when the volunteers at kit check called on the “next 100km runner” and somehow I was the one walking towards the table with my pack of compulsory goodies ready for scrutiny. I was the one accepting a 100km race bib, and I was the one walking away with a “drop bag” which I could fill with items I might need at 37km and again at 70km. Emma was holding my hand and asked if I was ok, so the moment must have registered on my face. “I’m fine, Em… just a little nervous…” A dramatic understatement as I felt my tummy flip and had a sudden irrational need to run and hide.
We listened to the elite athlete interviews, and I heard the characters I’d written about in the lead up to the race coming to life. Dylan Bowman from the US was the first to say that a sub-10 hour win was possible. Our local hero, Ryan Sandes, playfully warned his competitors about snakes on the course and I marvelled at how South African runner, Robyn Owen, had broken the Jonkershoek Traverse record the Tuesday prior to race day. Machines, all of them. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that I was there for the challenge and the fun, and that the collection of super-humans on stage were in a category of their own. No reason to suddenly feel completely inadequate…
I felt completely inadequate.
But I got a good night sleep on Thursday, and had a fairly stress-free Friday (jokes it is year-end and I have two kids in primary school… there is NOTHING stress free about the string of class picnics, school fairs, awards evenings, carol nights, charity collections, galas, summer school things-that-we-must-bring, notices to be filled in for next year and early collection times) . The kids went to their dad. I went to bed at about 8pm on Friday night, knowing that I had to be up at 2. My kit was checked, my head was right, and I was anxious but keen to get my running shoes on. Then, a noise from the bathroom that brings fear and dread to any pre-race athlete; VOMITING. My husband was navigating a stomach bug, crutches, leg brace and all. Holy HELL. I offered sympathy from as great a distance as I could manage, and sent him hobbling off to sleep in my daughter’s room.
The 2am alarm went off and I woke the athlete that was staying with us for the night. I made us oats, and filled my hydration pack, and double checked everything. Toes lubed, sunscreen lathered on, regular sips of an electrolyte drink… my heart was racing but we pumped the power tunes on the way to the race and then I lined up with some of the world’s best ultra trail runners. Ultra-Trail Cape Town would be the last race on the 2017 Ultra-Trail World Tour. The vibe was absolutely electric. A collection of some of the coolest humans I’ve seen in one small space. The flare was lit, the sky around us turned pink, and off we ran in to the dark. A 4am start. We wound our way down from Gardens through town on tarred roads. We hit the trails around 4km in, and a bottle neck held us up a few minutes. My friend and training buddy, Kerry Bee and I looked at each other anxiously. Cut offs, it was all about reaching those cut offs. We snaked our way towards Signal Hill, passing on the single track whenever we could to get ahead of the crowd. I lost Kerry there, and didn’t see her again. She ran 90km of that massive race, and missed the final cut by a few minutes. That’s a win.
I was clammy and dizzy but put it down to nerves. As the sun rose the field opened up and the front runners were long gone, racing an epic race at mind blowing speed.
On the climb on Lions Head I forced some date balls in. I didn’t want food but knew I needed to keep eating. I kept sipping on my flask of Tailwind and water between. I was on track for my timing plan, but without any breathing space. I had a lovely run on the downhill section back towards the base of Lions’ Head. I’d taken my Trail Fairies group there a week prior, and smiled at the memory of them climbing hard up that hill. They are all around 8 years of age, and showing them the trails of the Cape has been exceptionally inspiring. “Run light”, I kept thinking. Like those Trail Fairies.
As I climbed up through what is known as “The Glen”, just below Kloof Nek, the nausea hit me full on. I wasn’t far behind my planned pace, but I felt horrible. I had a fresh flask of Tailwind waiting for me at the Kloofnek aid station, and my friend Lauren welcomed me in. I told her I wasn’t well. Only 18km in, not a great sign. I forced a few crackers down, sipped on my Tailwind and left to tackle the Kloof Nek Corner climb. I didn’t even notice my colleague, Leo, here. But he got the only two pics of me on race day. Not a happy face!
Normally I’d be chatting with fellow runners in a long race like this. Nervous banter, bad jokes, anything to distract ourselves from the distance ahead. I was completely silent on the climb, guided by the cow bells at the top, and there James Hallet saw my first small tantrum. I blamed my flask of Tailwind for the nausea and pretty much threw it at him. I’ve had my best races on Tailwind… that was not the problem. The contour path run was fine. I kept thinking I could bring it back on track. Platteklip lay ahead, more than 2km of straight up vert to the top of the Table. Big steps, boulders and plenty of hikers to dodge. It’s one climb that I always tackle grimly, just step, step, step, winding along until the top. At one stage I stood next to a huge rock and put my cheek on it. It was comfortingly cool. Not much further and I had my first vom. I pushed to the top and tried to chat to runners around me. I saw my friend Mo, and a few others in a bit of a blur. At the top I just wanted to sit down. There is a beautiful piece of trail from there to the highest point of the mountain, but I couldn’t enjoy it because nothing would stay down. I know that running like that is dangerous, but I had hoped it would come right.
I made it to the 31km aid station where my friend Sarah, who was running the 35km route, offered me some watermelon. That came up soon after. Just as I was heading down on to the trail that would take us to the dams, a lovely marshall stopped me and asked if I was ok. I crumbled in to the poor woman’s arms and admitted I was the opposite of ok. She summoned the medical vehicle that was about to take 3 other runners down to Constantia Nek. Rolled ankles and various other ailments. I terrified them with my ugly cry, then messaged my support crew to pack up their amazing picnics and snack offers from around the course, dump the frozen towels, the marmite sarmies and the boiled potatoes, and head on home. I was not going to finish the race. I stumbled around the Constantia Nek aid station, fetched my “drop bag”, got a dry top on and then accepted a lift back to the finish with my wonderful friend, Alyce.
I can’t describe that feeling as anything more than “kak”. Standing at the finish, wrapped in a blanket that Alyce had offered me and looking up at beautiful Table Mountain, I felt cheated of the chance to try. I hadn’t been able to give that race a go. Even if I had been cut later in the day, even if I had not made it to the finish line, having a stomach bug that destroys the dream so early on is just unfair. Later that day I heard that Dylan Bowman, a pro from the US, only made 10km of the race before a stomach bug ended his dream. He’d flown all the way to South Africa to race 10km. I’m certain his disappointment was greater than mine!
This race is something incredibly special for South Africa. I stayed to watch the top 2 men finish. When defending champ Prodigal Khumalo came in to the stadium, it was special to be part of the crowd, all up on their feet, cheering hard. 5 minutes later Ryan Sandes came through, and again the grandstand shook with exhilaration. I’ve watched all the videos and poured over the photographs, and I feel so proud of South Africa for bringing such a great race to the global trail running stage. UTCT is going one way, and that is up.
Will I go back in 2018? I absolutely have to. There is a cowbell at the end of the climb.