People usually don’t like doing things that they’re not good at. We tend to stay in our comfort zone and pick jobs, holidays, races, partners and restaurants where we know what to expect, not wanting to venture into unknown territory, in the fear that this territory may possibly push us in a direction we don’t like.
This is not really a race report. It’s more about my experience at the Drakensberg Northern Trail which was one of making a mind shift and digging deep to survive something which I know would be extremely difficult for me. It would not only be difficult because the terrain didn’t suit me, but also because it was my third very hard race in 15 days. I had done the ADDO 76km two weeks before and the Om die Dam 50km Ultra the previous weekend. People, who know me well, know that I love doing stupid things, and doing a very difficult and technical mountain run after two weekends of running Ultras was pretty high up on my list of Stupidness.
One of my first trail runs when I switched over from cycling was the Otter and I had such a hard time on the slippery terrain that for years after that I avoided almost any race that was even slightly technical. Whenever I tried to test myself on technical terrain the result was always the same. I would pretty much be flat on my face half the time and sliding down rocks on my but the other half. I’ve become more accepting of the fact that I will never be fast on technical trails and have done a few events such as Lesotho Ultra Trail and Whale Trail which I enjoyed immensely, even though I resembled a baby elephant finding its feet on the trail.
Considering this, my participation in the Drakensberg Northern Trail made absolutely no sense. I have however always loved events organised by Andrew Booth and I simply could not resist. I knew it would be well organised, spectacular and very challenging trail running. I was definitely under no illusion about how incredibly difficult the event would be and I managed to prepare myself mentally for what was waiting for me out on the Berg.
Arriving at the Border Post on Friday afternoon, the venue was cloaked in mist and a light drizzle was falling. Under normal circumstances this would be very nice but knowing the 40km of trail would now be snotty and slippery, a wave of panic rushed over me. I don’t usually get stressed before events but all of a sudden I was so worried about the following days running I could hardly see straight. Now not only I would have to brave terrain that makes me more uncomfortable than a fish out of water, I had to brave this terrain in the rain.
Saturday morning I peeked out the window hoping some miracle happened and I would be greeted by clear skies, but this was not to be. It was grey, dreary and wet. Waiting for the start, runners were hiding from the rain despite the fact that they would be pretty wet as soon as they started. I actually had a little laugh standing there amongst the tiny and willowy racing snakes like Holly Page and Marzelle vd Merwe, because I was so far out of my depth it was just ridiculous.
The start of the race wasn’t that bad and despite the slippery track it was nice going and I wasn’t going as slow as I expected. The hard work started coming up to the second check point where a number of runners were huddled around a fireplace, having gotten too cold on the cold and rainy day. I started chatting to a few guys and realised if I didn’t move out of that cozy spot I was probably going to get stuck there with them.
From the start I was running with my friend Theo and as he had done the race before, he warned me about the climb to come, and that I should brace myself for a very hard bit of going. I have found with running and with some other things in life, there is just nothing anybody can say or do to prepare you for what is coming. The climb up to vulture neck was pretty much like this. Nothing anybody could have told me before the time could have prepared me for how hard this would be. I actually felt surprisingly strong going uphill and except for my complete phobia of heights I was doing ok. Luckily I had borrowed trekking poles from a friend, and I don’t even know how I would have gotten up that mountain without them. As we inched closer to the top I became increasingly more aware of how extremely high we were climbing. Even though the view was pretty much obscured by mist I couldn’t look over my shoulder. I was worried if I did I would throw up, or fall over like a fainting goat, neither being good news for Theo that was coming up behind me. In retrospect I think if I knew about this climb I would very possibly not even have done the race. The big problem was not the actual climb, it was when I got to the top and was confronted with a very steep rock face that I now had to climb up. Remembering how I was slipping and sliding, and inevitably crawling on my hands and knees on rocks not even nearly as steep as this one, earlier in the race, I had the biggest feeling of dread welling up inside me. I was standing there wondering how I would climb, scramble, crawl or even be dragged up this stupid, steep rock. When you’re a clumsy flat land creature with a crippling fear of heights, climbing up anything is a challenge. Never mind a slippery rock at the top of a break neck climb. When I got there my good friend from KAEM, Charmain, was also looking at this situation with the same terror as myself, and we were both thinking we would have to probably turn back to the check point with the nice fire place. The only problem would be going down the mountain, which would possibly be more terrifying than braving the stupid slippery rock.
I was very relieved when I recognised two guys I met at Mont Aux Sources two years before. They were on the team that assisted runners up the chain ladders back then, and remembering how they patiently coaxed me up that mountain at Mont Aux Sources two years before, I now knew I would get up the stupid rock with their help. The two guys patiently told me step by step where to put my hands and feet, and I’m so grateful there was nobody around with a camera to capture the sad state of my climbing skills. I was still completely terrified and wanted to paint the rock a special shade of vomit, but managed to keep my bowels under control not wanting to embarrass myself even further. When I got to the top I sat down in the muddy grass feeling completely delirious, I managed to do something that terrified me beyond belief without throwing up on anybody. The kilometre to this point had taken me a mind numbing 40 minutes, and had it not been for the two awesome guys help, I honestly have no idea what I would have done…
The only way I can try to explain my experience in the mountains is to draw a bit of a comparison. People often talk about skilled mountain runners as ‘Mountain Goats’, well I’m not so much a mountain goat. I’m more of a ‘Mountain Buffalo’. Mountain Goats gracefully bounce from rock to rock without much effort and outsmart their enemies like mountain lions by flying down the mountain at break neck speed. They always look graceful doing this, and they are so one with the mountain it’s like an extension of themselves. A Mountain Buffalo on the other hand is not comfortable on the mountain at all. The only thing they do at break neck speed is actually breaking their necks. The mountain Buffalo will get up the mountain, but not nearly as graceful as the mountain goat. It may cause a few rock slides, kill small mountain creatures as it labours up the climbs, and strike fear into the hearts of all the other animals, as it huffs and puffs and blows down the houses of unsuspecting little mountain dwellers. The Buffalo is much more at home on the savanna where it walks hundreds of kilometres to a water source, in scouring heat with lions always close behind. You just have to be faster than the buffalo next to you in order to not be eaten. This is me… I am not a mountain runner. I am not at home on the mountains, I’m clumsy and out of place but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try or at least enjoy it.
Having faced my fear up to vulture’s neck, I was filled with such a sense of accomplishment I smiled all the way to the finish. I was by no means going fast but that was not the goal. I wanted to see what running in the Berg was about and the Drakensberg Northern Trail was the perfect race to show me up close, the secrets the Mountains have to tell. By this stage the weather was slightly better, and I could catch glimpses of the famous and spectacular views. The trail was also becoming more runnable so I was now experiencing such a runners high, I could have floated off into the horizon I was so happy. The last few kilometres were on dirt road, and even though I could have run fast here I was still going a slow pace just taking in the amazing scenery. Before the start I didn’t know what to expect at all and I was completely prepared to be the last person in, taking 10 hours to finish the race. I was on my way to finish under 9 hours and sped up the last few hundred metres because 8:57 just sounds slightly better than 9:03. My friend Theo turned back to come and fetch me after he pulled away in the last few kilometres, and this gave me the bit of motivation to speed up towards the end. I crossed the finish line feeling incredible. I was out of my comfort zone for probably 36 of the 40km and even though only 1 of those 40km was graceful I managed to finish with a smile on my face.
What I learned in the mountains.
1. It’s possible to go slower downhill than uphill. I can’t really call what I do running. Let’s call it going. As I was going downhill, I realised that I was probably stabbing numerous little creatures with my trekking poles and this is not good. If however I did not do this I would have fallen down on more than one occasion, crushing many more little creatures.
2. You don’t have to be good at something to enjoy it. Being closed minded about mountain running has kept me from experiencing the most amazing and beautiful things. I will be back and even if that means ‘buffalowing’ up the hills that is fine.
3. The good runners are fearless when they run downhill but I don’t think I will ever be fearless, and this is ok. I would rather be fearful and not end up with my face buried in a pile of mud, or my ankles twisted beyond the point of no return. Being slow is not the end of the world.
4. Back to trekking poles. They’re awesome. I might possibly someday poke somebody in the eye or stomach, so this serves as fair warning to anybody running in close proximity to me on a mountain.
It’s exciting when your running has room for improvement, and I can honestly be no worse at mountain running than I currently am. I’m very interested to see what my next venture into this very uncomfortable, yet breathtakingly beautiful territory will hold. I have no doubt it will be an enriching experience that will push my boundaries and challenge every part of me. I honestly hope next time that I will be able to be more graceful on the trail, but I have a sneaking suspicion I will again be terrifying other runners with my trekking poles.
Just because you’re not good at something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it your best shot! See you in the mountains!