After a very busy first few months of the year things went slightly pear shaped as the weather got colder and winter started. I had reached pretty good form running under five minutes a kilometre for the first time I can remember towards the end of May, but this speed was not to last very long. June started with a burst ear drum after which I thought it wise to attempt the Outeniqua Quest, a 108km slog on the Outeniqua Hiking Trail in the Garden Route. Needless to say this was not a very good idea. I had to abandon the race after about 30km struggling with dizziness and general poor health. This was not the end of my troubles as I got bronchitis a week later and had to go on my second course of anti-biotics in not even three weeks. Luckily this little bout of illness blew over rather quickly and I started running again towards the end of June trying to get ready for my first Rhodes Ultra at the beginning of July.
Leading up to Rhodes, I felt rusty and unfit but was going along nicely without any problems and I was hopeful for a good race the weekend of 9 July. The Rhodes Ultra is an iconic event in South African running circles and is one of the oldest trail runs in the country. The distance of 50km covers trails around the iconic village of Rhodes in the Southern Drakensberg in the Eastern Cape and is known for freezing weather most South Africans are not used to. The race is characterised by a cold start, often as cold as -10 with snow often falling on and around race day. The race has been on the calendar since the eighties and is by invitation only. Runners are put on a waiting list and can then apply for a substitution to try and get on the start line of this very special event.
The drive of just over 800km from Pretoria went by quickly and I met up with a group of Rhodes Veterans in Aliwal North. Pierre Jordaan informed me that just outside the town of Rhodes we would stop and have a sip of sweet wine which was a tradition. I was not about to argue with Pierre who has done Rhodes a staggering 12 times and also, I don’t often argue when drinking wine is involved.
Arriving in the small town of Rhodes was almost like being transported to a different time zone, cut off from the reality of every day rushed life back in Gauteng. I was expecting tumbleweed to roll across the quiet dirt road and a horse to be tied up outside the general dealer but was soon faced with the busy race headquarters where runners were handed a glass of Old Brown Sherry at race registration. After collecting our numbers we walked a full 100 metres to where we would be staying for the weekend and I have to admit being able to see the Start and Finish banner from your bedroom window was a very new and unique experience. The house had a beautiful coal stove which helped us forget about the harsh cold weather waiting to test us the following morning.
The next morning we were met with a crisp -9 degrees Celsius at the start and being more of a hot weather runner my body was very confused with being made to run in such cold. It was so confused it would soon deliver a protest that reduced me to a sad, teary heap.
Except for being extremely cold I was feeling quite good and started at a reasonable pace trying not to go too fast too soon. After around two kilometres a lady in front of me fell down and I remember thinking ‘if you’re falling this early you’ve got problems.’ Less than five minutes later I came down like a wounded elephant when my toe hooked on the smallest rock to ever trip anybody up. I immediately realised I was in trouble because my arms and legs felt like limp noodles from the cold and I could not escape falling no matter what I did. I’m convinced people on the other side of the planet felt the earth shake as I ground to a halt on the rocky dirt road. My first instinct was to throw up and then I wanted to cry. I managed to avoid doing both but thought my race was over. It was only three kilometres into the race and I still had 47km to go and there was just no way I would be able to run all that way with a hole in my knee. I carried on walking and my friends Pierre and Lizzy Straus caught up with me. They were still upbeat and didn’t feel to sorry for me which was a good thing as I had recovered a bit and started running slowly with them again. Adrenalin soon sorted out my pain levels and I managed to pick up speed again. The amazingly beautiful landscape also distracted me from the throbbing pain in my leg and slowly but surely I made my way from check point to check point. The biggest challenge of the day was going up Mavis Bank which is a brutal climb (http://www.rhodesrun.za.net/route/altitide) where runners gasp for breath clinging to a rickety fence and even grass in an attempt to stay upright. After Mavis bank the next challenge was negotiating a very grassy trail without falling. I knew if I fell on my knee again I would have big problems so I was often reduced to a walk. Amazingly I managed to pick up the pace towards the end and reached the finish line in a time of just over 7h30. I was very worried about what was going on with my leg and went to the medic who told me the wound looked pretty closed up already and I was sent on my way with a bit of Betadine. I proceeded to follow my usual post race routine of drinking copious amounts of beer which also seemed to dull the pain a bit. Later on that evening I did however notice my pants were very wet and on closer inspection saw that the wound was bleeding a lot. Luckily there was a voice of reason in the form of Lizzy Straus that insisted I go back to the medics to have it checked out. Lizzy and Liezel loaded me into Liezel’s Discovery armed with a cup of wine and we went in search of the medical crew. Needless to say they were very surprised to find us knocking on their door 20h30 at night and I’m sure they thought I was just a bit scratched up and wasting their time until I showed them my knee and the medic informed his collegue to ‘bring mar die groot tas’ (bring the big bag). I was told that I needed stitches and this was for some reason extremely amusing to everybody around especially when my leathery knees were so tough the needle bent while they attempted to put in the stitches. I have now come to the conclusion that my left leg actually doesn’t belong to me but to a clumsy, overweight, old person that has never gotten up from the couch. Why else would it constantly be drawn to the ground trying to trip me up and stop me from running? I tried counting the number of scars on it but gave up rather quickly.
That night I could hardly sleep with every movement sending a stabbing pain through my leg and I was constantly reminded I had to drive back to Pretoria the following day which would involve 9 hours of clutch control with a leg that felt like it had been dipped in a wood chipper. Lizzy kindly offered to drive me home but I was in an incredibly foul mood and wanted to get home as quickly as I could. Yet again the morning was so cold that my wind screen wipers were frozen solid to my windscreen and in my impatient rush to get home I switched my wipers on breaking the one off. As I was leaving town I was however quickly drawn back into the beauty of this remote place when I saw a ‘skaap wagter’ walking across a field with a triangle of frost frozen on his chest. He had obviously slept outside in the brutal cold and as I drove past him he waved and smiled a very broken toothless smile and I realised how privileged I was to be in this amazing place having run 50km with likeminded people even if it was with a semi busted leg.
I arrived home and just fell into bed, exhausted. After another night of fitful sleep my leg was still extremely painful, my sister took me to the doctor for xrays which I was very relieved confirmed that nothing was broken and no ligaments seriously injured. My patellar tendon was however very bruised and the wound was very infected. I was forced again to go on antibiotics and had to spend the next week lying with my leg in the air. Of course I was in denial about how long it would take for this injury to get better and even tried after a week to hobble up and down my room to see if I could run. It’s now exactly a month and I’m getting back to my old self. The day after I fell, a month felt like it would be a year but now that it’s over it doesn’t seem like it was that long. I have never been injured and I was extremely disappointed but realise now that it could have been so much worse and I should just appreciate being back on the trails. I won’t be able to do anything technical for the rest of the year as falling on it again would probably put me out of running for a few months and I have realised through this experience that adjusting expectations and revising goals are not the end of the world and just being able to run, even if it is at snails pace, is the greatest gift. I have learnt to be patient which is something I’m not known for so maybe falling down on that rocky patch in Rhodes was a good thing!