I am somewhere in the middle of South Africa, in the mountains and there is a storm raging around. What I’m going to do now, will probably get a lot of people confused, and some of them will be scared too. But I have no other choice. I have no tool to navigate, I have no way to let others know, what’s going on and no one can contact me. The third racing night will come in a while, I have banked about an hour of sleep. The only option is to choose direction and run. A long way. Somewhere.
So here I am
South Africa is a beautiful and big country, I’ve never been here before, and so it was just a matter of time before got here. And what can be better than running a race there? The longer, the better.
I remember exactly how this idea arose. Last September, I was with a Swedish team at the adventure race organized by South Africans in Kashmir and Ladakh (India), and there was quite a lot of South African teams. When I mentioned that I raced in ultrarunning races, they showed me a tiny South African girl, Nicky Booyens, a have been told that she has won some long race in South Africa that I might be interested in. So I’m here.
I arrived in JAR almost a week before the race. The original plan to go to the Dragon Mountains proved logistically too demanding, so in the end I was exploring the beauty of South Africa around Johannesburg and Pretoria. Nicky and Gerrard took care of me, I got into a local trail running and AR community, took part in a night running race around golf course, got on more technical trails, met a few giraffes, and some other animals. Great.
400 km and some 14.000 m of elevation gain is ahead of me in a diverse and unknown terrain. I do not know much about the race. The day before the start, I packed once again and for the last time all the stuff for the race. In practice, I’m throwing away some of the stuff I had packed earlier only to throw away some more later. There are no dropbags. There is water and food provided at the CPs. If you want something special, you have to carry it. The same applies to all clothing (how many socks?), shoes (which shoes to take on a very diverse 400 km?) and also all the mandatory gadgets (mobile, navigation) and charging – a power bank. It was necessary to make decisions before the start and to do good decision.
A few minutes before the noon start and the last photo shooting. Fear? No. Respect before the course? Yes, but I have respect from every such route. I feel little strange. I start up to a 400km long race in an unfamiliar setting and I do not/cannot take the things I usually rely on. I have a no (paper) map, I’m used to. There is not any available. So I don’t take compass either. I have to rely on electronics. I start the race, I take only the most necessary things, and yet I have five cables with me. Strange.
You don’t need, what you don’t have
With food it is the same. There will be enough refreshments, but I’d appreciate want I’m used to. So I think over every bit. Finally, there are 6 doses of edgar , much less than I would have appreciated on this route, three cricket bars , basically as a treat when it gets worse. Logic would have it to eat it all as soon as possible to get the pack lighter, but these things will come most handy in the when it gets tough. Well, let’s see, I gonna have to deal with it.
We start on flat forest red clay tracks, in pine forests and views of African canopy. Only a lazy black viper distracts me from my rhythm for a moment – it does bother to move at all as I pass around. I settle down in second place, always meeting Bennie when is leaving a CP after having spent there quite a time, I am just entering it and then leaving swiftly. The first day we meet briefly when Bennie took a wrong turn, but then I let him go, I will hunt him down on the third day. So far everything is quiet, error-free, navigation works well, unscathed
After some hundred of relatively quiet and runnable kilometres, here comes the first proper ascend, a bit of loose rocks, stones, a couple of porcupines, wild cats, nice one. I’m going to sleep for a while at 120km mark, but the sleep is shit, I wake up every 10 minutes. And when I leave, I find that my GPS watch do not work. Frozen. What now? I press and hold all the buttons, a soft restart, another one, nothing. No results. I cannot make a hard restart, as the loaded route would get deleted. I’m waiting for another group, meanwhile, I’m trying to make the GPS work again. I’ll go with the group. Either figure out something along the way or make the GPS work again. If not, then on the next race village there should mobile coverage, I try to download a mobile app that can view the recorded route and my location at the same time.
Eyes in the dark
We go in a group of five, after two hours and a couple of restarts, the GPS watch came back to senses. I left the group and set out to chase Bennie. The green meadows are gradually changing into dramatic cliffs with waterfalls and the whole stage to Coromandel Estate at 145km is just wonderful. Unfortunately, there the situation with the GPS repeats. I try to make it work for almost an hour when I revert to the original plan – I download a mobile app that has the necessary function. I have lost another hour, but finally I got a reliable solution, let’s go for Bennie. Another 17 km takes me just around two hours and the second night is upon me – 30 hard km up and then 30 easy km down.
30 km up, ok. And it’s not on the road at all, but we follow some rather overgrown path, I’m hitting it hard. Suddenly, something big jumps out of the darkness into the light of the headlamp. Distinct cat eyes and whiskers give me a look, I can see a distinct and powerful silhouette and tail as it jumps away. Before I can even begin to start being afraid, it’s gone. A cat. A bit bigger cat. Leopard, which we will not meet here. Okay. An Hour of sleep on a CP in a church, and just an easy downhill.
Easy downhill? Rain, fog visibility that you don’t see from one side of a rocky road to another. I look under my feet, look where I step, another look on my cell phone and on the side of the road if there is a junction. It’s 10 AM in the morning and I have enough, this stage cost me a lot of strength. But for Bennie it was the same. I caught up with him at the CP, so after all the problems I had had, we are back together and at 11 AM (47 hours into the race) we get off from Sabie for the last 150 km.
Is there anybody out there?
And that’s another super stage. At first, the trail hang out along the plain, with a view of breath-taking waterfalls, then it heads to the jungle to climb a gorge around one of them. Also, from the beginning at this stage, I felt my pace was as slow as a sloth, as I was falling asleep while running. Three short naps were enough, and I was chasing Bennie again. Devilish efficiency – the entire sleeping stop lasted 7 minutes and I managed to sleep 6 of them. Just 3 stops and I am back. It starts to rain very fast and the storm comes, but we are covered in a jungle. When the jungle ends, I’m up on a hill. Minimum visibility, checking the smartphone where to go.
I feel rather strange when I try to wipe my cellphone in a storm with a dry place on my clothes. I am running out of dry places, the screen flashes, goes out and never goes on again. And I’m screwed. What now?
I am somewhere in the middle of South Africa, in the mountains and the storm is raging around. I have no tool to navigate, I have no way to let others know, what’s going on and no one can contact me. The third racing night will come in a while, I have banked about an hour of sleep. What now? Think, think! Going back along the same route is not an option here – steep and slippery stones, you don’t want to go there in the night. Tracking Bennie would have worked, just like before – if it had not been for the brutal storm washing it away. SOS button on tracker – press or not press? There is nothing wrong with me, I’m not wounded, I’m not in danger, I just do not know where to go. Besides, there is no SOS button on this tracker. Other ideas all end in a similar way – “It will not work, mobile does not work”. If something goes wrong, then it goes wrong. Only the headlamp works perfectly. If it goes wrong … I do not know.
The only option is to choose direction and run. A long way. Somewhere. Either there will be a CP (probably not) or I’ll get to a village, hit a paved road, and somehow I’ll get in touch with the organizers. In particular, I have to run a way off course to make it clear that something has gone wrong. So I ran. Even before the cell phone went dead completely, I can hear the sound of notifications, maybe someone is writing me messages. I cannot read it or let you know, sorry. Actually, I cannot even turn it off. I have one dose of edgar and one cricket bar with me. What shall I eat? None of them, worse times are still to come.
After 6 hours of running I no longer have the morale to run, I stop for a while and eat the cricket bar. I was told I was only a kilometre from a tarmac road – the organizers came, picked me up and took me back to Sabie, from where I had left in the morning. Later I learned, that many people appreciated that I decided to continue the race. In fact I never thought about quitting – I had no problem that would prevent me from going further. I just did not know if I would be able to continue – although I was back in Sabie, I still had no way to navigate and communicate. The organizers provided me with a different GPS, so it was a no-brainer – three hours of sleep, and at five in the morning, 12 hours after I had left the right route, I went back for it.
It was day again, the mist has gone, herds of zebras and antelopes grazing around, perfect. In an hour, the batteries in the GPS went flat. At this point, I just laughed – I remembered the route from the map and by this time I was able read others’ footprints . Bennie’s Altras, Nicky’s small Inov8 Roclites and few other shoes were printed on the way ahead of me. And what is more – on the next CP I changed the batteries for another that someone had left behind. And another 50 km were basically following a tourist route. Had the cellphone gone dead half an hour later, I may have made it to the CP and from there it was really easy to navigate. But that is just “if”…
Last night gamble
Graskop – 70 km to the finish. Here I caught the group ahead of me. My gap is 6 hours on Bennie, 3 hours on Bo Larsen. Classic last night’s gamble. The wisest thing to do would be to have some sleep before going into the last (4th) night and then go for it. But to have any chance at all to catch them, I have to go straight. Sleep, foot care, all of it is suspended – I give it one last try. In such a situation, the last night often turns into hell and it is the same here. Fortunately, Nicky caught me after a short sleep on the track, and since then we’ve been fighting with last night’s sleepmonsters together. Short sleep on the way until one is freezing cold, sleeping while walking, thrashed feet, welcome to the last night. The terrain was not favourable to our suffering at all – an overgrown path with lots of loose stones. The last 20 km was completely punishing. Since the morning I was quite broken and just wanted to get to the finish. Nicky was the same, we have not raced each together, each of us went as fast as our feet or other parts of the body would allow. Although I do not normally do this, I had to dose Ibuprofen using mathematical induction. After less than 99 hours, I’m at the finish line. Happy that it’s over.
In less than 99 hours, I got 3rd place in men (and 4th overall). Ambitions were higher, but after all that happened during the race, I have to be satisfied to make it to the finish. Last night I tried to catch the guys ahead one last time. It did not work, I was too tired, it was more suffering than racing during the last night and day and the guys did a really good job keeping me at bay. Great race as a whole – beautiful environment, variable route. Both runnable and technical sections, nature and animals, animals, animals. Just a super race.
Thoughts about race gear:
If there is no dropbag and you carry everything with you, you will think carefully about what to take. What I took and I could count on:
Headlamp Ledlenser MH10 – The only electronic I worked was the headlamp, but this worked on 100%. In many ways, it saved my situation. And not just on this race – lightweight, powerful, durable, ideal piece of kit.
Edgar.power.drink – Due to the race format, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much Edgar I should take with me. In the later stages of the race, especially the last night, it would have helped a lot, but it has not made it there (I used it earlier). (A discount is still available with PALONCY10 promo code).
SENS Bar – I had only a few of them (In fact I had only a few pieces of everything this time).
Pemikan – as much protein as possible at the lowest weight and still tastes great.
Inov8 Shoes TerraClaw 250 – Here I’ve been thinking a lot about whether to take these or the Roclite 305 GTX. TerraClaw is has smaller drop and mot much cushioning on such a long route, but they are more slippers-lie – their front is quite spacious and comfortable even in the later stages of the race. I took them and I am slightly inclined to think I have made the right choice (over Roclites).
Backpack Ferrino X Cross 12 – perfect size with a lot of pockets to put the things that are accessible while running. It worked perfectly on 400 km and kept well on my back – not a surprise. With an older version, I ran for example on the San José Volcano and back.
Backpack Ferrino Radical 90 – this time I did not have things in my bag, but I have chosen a backpack. I expected to move more with all my things and the backpack seemed like a good choice. The new Radical 90L (in the link is 30L), weighing less than 1kg, while still being very durable influence my choice a lot. It’s appearance looks like an Italian pop star in the 1980s, but despite its minimal weight it is well worn and durable.
The Tilak Vega Jacket – I’ve packed it in my backpack for most of the time and appreciated its low weight, but when the storm came, it worked great.
Map – Despite the new technology and electronic toys, the head-map orienteering principle has not been surpassed. Next time, I’ll take care of the map myself, even if it should involve printing tens of sheets of Google Maps.
Photos: Nicky Booyens, Erik Vermeulen, I shot something myself, but the most interesting parts were left in my cell phone. I will see in a while, if I can get it out of there.