Driving back from a run we had done with some mates over December, my friend tells me about how she’d like to run African X but it’s a team event. She adds in there how Thamar and Rich are doing it (Thamar & Rich who can literally run a marathon backwards and still beat me to the finish). I completely forgot about the conversation until a watsapp message appeared with the link to the African X website.
So there I was, about 2 weeks later, having transferred the money to Dani so she could enter us as a team and then proceeding to cry in the corner for about an hour. I had never done multi stage trail running, had never done much trail running at all actually and have only ever run one marathon. 3 days of back to back distance running probably in the region of 30kms per day, what was I thinking? Christmas came and went and I had to get into the training from early January 2014.
I belong to Edgemead Running Club and we have a phenomenal coach, Gavin McCarthy who put together a training programme for me. It started out pretty simply until the Redhill 36km race was thrown in there within a week of having started the training. Well….after crossing that finish line, I convinced myself that there was no way I could run again the next day. There was no way I could even get myself home from the race. I then heard the following week that a few people had doubted my capabilities to finish African X and that served as motivation enough for me to continue the training with a force. One rest a day a week and back to back running and races over the weekends, with a combination of road and trail running. We threw all 4 Spur Trail Series events in, hosted by Wildrunner and which we thoroughly enjoyed. Before I knew it, African X was upon us and I was packing to leave for Houw Hoek on March 15th.
Day 1 and there we were at the start line, I hadn’t slept too well the night before but I felt prepared. I had trained, come on, I had this! We eased it into the run comfortably until Dani (my team mate) started feeling quite nauseaus. We managed to struggle past the first water point at Thandi and I’m sure with the climbing and blistering sun, Dani unfortunately couldn’t carry on. So there I was, making friends with the sweepers and pushing through on my own. Luckily not far along, I met a lady who had also lost her team mate due to an injury and we finished the race together. The climbing was torturous, there was a beaut thrown in at around 20kms where Monique (my new friend) had to literally put her hand on my back to push me up. Finishing down the single track into Houw Hoek I knew we were almost home and grateful that I had made it so far. 32kms was the longest trail run I had completed. Recovery on Day 1 was extreme and I was seriously concerned about day 2. I had trained, yes, but no, I was starting to doubt that I “had this”. I had gone into the race with a niggly calf injury but thanks to the physio’s, I was massaged out and strapped up again.
Onto the morning of Day 2 after a very restless night and sore sore legs, we were told that waterpoint 2 would be at 19kms and the organisers had enforced a cut off of 3:30 for this part. On the road, this would be easy for me but with 32kms in my legs, on trail, nothing seemed to be working. My legs didn’t want to move fast enough and the incline to the top of Gantouw pass was hell. I never even got a second to appreciate the spectacular views. At the top of a climb, I remember sitting down and crying my heart out. Then I remembered about everyone who believed in me and giving up just never became an option….truthfully though, carrying on didn’t seem like a great idea either. Nevertheless, I pushed on and wound down through pine forests to the 2nd water point. We paced consistently to make up time and ensure we never missed the cut-off however the water point was at 21.5kms and we were unfortunately just 6mins behind. My dad had come out to support me that day and when I saw him I broke down and cried, genuine heart sore sobbing. I was exhausted and sore, upset that I wasn’t strong enough to have made it within cut off. After that point was 7kms of climbing which I heard from friends was extremely tough so after having calmed down, I understood why the cut off was enforced.
Day 2 took a lot out of me mentally and physically. I have probably never pushed harder or wanted anything more than I did to make the cut off that day. It was a constant fight with my mind to keep pushing. We relaxed a lot that afternoon and reflected, I appreciated the advice that came from friends, both fast and slow runners and even a few of the elite guys. In particular my friend Bronwyn Davis who joined with her hubbie Jamo for this event. Bronwyn didn’t manage to get much running training in, in preparation for African X and came into it full of nerves. Yet there she was, every day, smashing those trails with a courage and strength that will keep me inspired for the rest of my life. Always with the biggest smile. So I packed my plate full of protein for dinner and whilst listening to the race briefing and watching the video hi-lights – I felt a slight elation. I caught Chantal Nienaber walking up a bit of a climb….so yes, these racing snakes do actually know how to walk….occasionally, and probably only once in the race.
Woke up in the morning after a great sleep, really pumped. It was the last day and I was going to throw my entire heart into the last part of the journey. Although I never got to appreciate too much of stage 2 amidst all the emotion, stage 3 for me was the absolute best. The descent into Botrivier was most appreciated and after the 1st water point, the climb to the top was so worth it to be afforded those magnificent views of the mountains. Running down the forest behind the finishing line and hearing our great friend, Sean Falconer, rooting for us was absolutely amazing. I was so happy to be home and to cross the finish line with my team mate, most of the journey would not have been possible without her. It was the biggest event I had ever completed and it has set such a standard for my next goal.
Could I have chosen an easier multi stage race as my first one, yes probably, but African X blew my mind away from start to finish. I am not an experienced trail athlete (not even an experienced road runner) but I can guarantee you those trails are some of the best that SA has to offer. The organisation of the event was superb, the accommodation and food was incredible and the entire vibe of the weekend was more than I ever expected. The sweepers (my ultimate friends who put up with the swearing, the crying, the anger) and medics, volunteers at the water points, who are literally out there for most of the day. We found 2 medics at the top of a mountain on day 3, no idea how they got there, waiting in that heat to ensure we had a safe journey all fully kitted out with their necessary equipment. We forget about these guys, the true heroes of the race. Obviously Seanie, who was on the mic for most of the weekend kept us pumped up and it was such a relief to run into his arms with a big sweaty hug at the water points every day.
So what do I take away from this – obviously the most important fact, I learnt that endurance running is by far 80% mental. Only a person who has had to mentally tell their mind to carry on will know that it is a constant fight out there. To keep moving forward, which Dani would insist on during the race. Dream big, have massive goals but every now and then, instead of looking forward, just look back and see how far you have come. Surround yourself with people who inspire and motivate you all the time. Get out there, believe in yourself, give your whole heart to everything and smile along the way, this is YOUR journey. There is a lesson to be learnt in almost everything that you do and getting that lesson is how you move forward.
Thank you to Stillwater Sport & Entertainment for a spectacular event, the organisation is world class. I will be back next year without a doubt to make friends with those mountains. And most definitely…nature gave me the most phenomenal run for my money