Last weekend I conquered my mountain- literally and figuratively.
For two years, from when I first started running, I have wanted to tackle a skymarathon but there has always been a voice in the back of my head telling me I can’t. It took some coaxing from my coach, Clinton Hunter (RacePace Coaching) and from race Drakensberg Northern Trail organisers KZN Trail Running (KZNTR) but I finally decided to swallow my doubts and just commit to #2017DNT. It was the best decision ever.
Driving to Oliviershoek in the Drakensberg, I had no idea what to expect. Weather forecasts had predicted treacherous conditions, with showers, cold, mist and even a suggestion of snow. I know unpredictable weather forms part of the mountain running experience but I could not help but feel apprehensive of what was in store.
Arriving at the pre-race briefing the evening before, temperatures had dropped drastically and we were freezing. However, spirits were high as fellow runners gathered at the venue, all nervously excited for the mammoth task that lay ahead the following day. The jovial mood was infectious and, by the time we returned to our chalet, I was feeling really excited.
The following morning, we woke to pouring rain but, by then we were all beyond caring. The atmosphere was somewhat solemn as the 150 or so skymarathoners contemplated the run but we all found solace in the idea that we were in this together. Taking shelter, I did a last minute equipment check.
Felt a bit like a hamster hoarding copious amounts of food in my Ultraspire Alpha 2 hydration race vest but a vegan athlete’s gotta EAT! I love this vest because it is lightweight but features a significant packing capacity so I could store all my dates, banana chips, gels and other munchies with my phone, space blanket, bladder and basic medical kit.
Checked my Vivo Primus FG. Aboslutely love these shoes. I remember over a year ago, suffering from repeated injuries and strains, I decided to switch to barefoot/natural movement running. A few seasoned runners said it would be crazy to run a skymarahton in these shoes. I’m glad I didn’t listen because my Vivos got me through the race comfortably, with no pain, strain, hot spots, blisters or chafing. There was nothing left to do but get this run over with.
Walking to the start I noticed a cold runner huddled under his space blanket, shivering. I couldn’t help but smile and, looking at me, he grinned goofily.
“We are all $%^#$ mad,” I said, my sentiments echoed by a dozen or so other participants.
Counting us off, Andrew Booth of KZNTR left us with a reminder that this was what trail running was all about (a reminder to perhaps put on my big girl panties?) and then we were gone. The first few kms were cheerful ones but, as we began our first big ascend, the banter eased up. Freezing rain beat down on us as we navigated up the slick, misty mountain and to the escarpment.
I remember looking at my watch and thinking how the hell we could have possibly only covered 12kms. I felt the first wave of mild panic rise in my chest. My hands and nose were numb, my muscles were aching from the cold and we were only a quarter of the way in. Would I finish? There are huge chunks of the race that I don’t really remember but what really kept me going was the sight of Kim Westbrook’s red jacket up ahead.
I need to backtrack here quick. Kim Westbrook is a phenomenal local trail runner and person. I met her last year at King of Phezulu and her warmth, happiness and spirit really made a huge impression on my soul. This amazing lady has all the talent in the world to warrant her acting like an arrogant athlete but she is humble, caring and sweet. She is not phased about winning, she is there to have an amazing time and, to me, she epitomises what trail running is all about.
At DNT, I ended up associating Kim with familiarity, with warmth and joy so, in an environment completely daunting and new to me, she was my beacon of hope. At the half way mark there was a fuelling station and we spoke briefly and it gave me second wind. We made a pact, our goal was to survive this race. Nothing else.
The last 20 kms were tough but I found my groove. Admittedly I had an embarrassing moment where the paramedics had to ‘rescue’ me when I froze on particularly daunting section of rock climbing, but it was something to laugh about and I appreciate their chivalry. By the last ten I had found momentum to go all out. I felt the months of training on the trails and also put in the gym, under the guidance of Rhain Hoskins from Paragon Fitness/Crossfit RIED, pay off.
The thought of seeing my mom’s face at the finish really pushed me through it and I sprinted the last two kms home. Crossing over the finish, there was my mom and Kim and I got teary eyed. I had did it, we had survived. They both engulfed me in a bear hug and I felt something in my heart give way.
It is weird. you hear about people having revelations up in the mountains and I had always scoffed at that. The thing is, I have been going through some personal stuff (yes, a divorce- a nasty word that makes you feel like a failure, a bad person) and, these past few months I feel as if my heart had turned into stone. That is one of the reasons why it was so important for me to do this race. I wanted to prove to myself that I am strong enough to survive- this and my life. And up in those mountains I felt my layers stripped away until there was just my own truth left.
Climbing back down and to the finish I realised that I have so many amazing friends and experiences to be grateful for. I realised that I had closed myself off to so much joy because I had become a bitter, miserable person. Engulfed in that bear hug with Kim and my mom I felt tears of joy spring to my eyes. I felt my heart open up and an overwhelming sense of love for all these incredible runners wash over me. Then Kim said something that left me stumped, astonished, inspired, beyond happy. I was the sixth lady! In a race where we planned to ‘survive’ she and myself had made fifth and sixth position in a field comprising of elites.
I get it now. Why we put ourselves through such physical stress, why we keep pushing through the pain, why we spend all our time and money training, recovering, planning and running. Trail running, Skyrunning is a deeply personal and incredible experience. And I will do it all again in a heartbeat!