Drakensberg Northern Trail 2018 was so much more than a race to me. Actually it wasn’t a race at all. It was my first venture back on the trails in 8 months and my longest run since July 2017. It was a big test for my body, and even though I am still slower than continental drift in the mountains, my body passed with flying colours. I am confident to say that I am back to full health and I can now look forward to 2018 with great excitement and big plans.
If you haven’t done Drakensberg Northern Trail yet, you should move it right to the top of your trail running bucket list. It’s a wonderful opportunity to spend a day in the mountains without committing to something insane like Sky Run. What I also love about DNT is that it’s one of those smaller intimate events where runners that don’t know each other quickly become friends. With almost too many events to choose from on the calendar, it’s sometimes difficult to decide which races to do, but when I see Lauren and Andrew Booth are organising something I enter almost without looking at what is involved with the running. You’re guaranteed an adventure!
With DNT being my first serious race (I use this term loosely, haha) in a very long time, I felt like a complete novice and even had pre race jitters which is very much not me. Having done the event in 2017 I knew exactly what hellish suffering was waiting out on the trail and with massive amounts of rain falling in the days before the event, it was sure to be a very interesting day out. I decided before the event that my race strategy would be ‘If I think I’m going too slow, I’ll slow down some more’. This has worked for me before and as I’m not really bothered about running a fast time, it’s a pretty sound strategy. My biggest obstacle for the day would undoubtedly be my fear of heights. The year before I had a very interesting yet terrifying few moments at the top of Vultures Neck, and with clear weather it was going to be a difficult section for me again.
I think lots of people don’t end up doing events like DNT because the idea of being out on the trail all day is simply too daunting, but I believe just because something is going to take you all day doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. This was really a big a-ha moment for me on the day. I was moving exceptionally slow along the very muddy trail and at the 10km mark I had one panic moment where I realised I’m probably going to be out ALLLL day. The panic soon subsided and I went about my task of slowly but surely ticking down the miles. Lovely weather ensured breath-taking views which made all of this a lot easier.
Having made peace with the fact that I was going to be out for a very, very, very long time I had to deal with the next obstacle. My own clumsiness. I never knew that it was possible to be so clumsy that you step on your own feet whilst descending. I honestly don’t know what is wrong with my kinetic intelligence. No matter how hard I try or train, I simply can’t coordinate my feet to work in any kind of productive, non buffalo kind of way. I actually don’t think there is a trail clinic out there that could help me be less clumsy. They can use me as an example of how not to do it rather. The fact that I did not slide off the mountain, land on my face or stab myself with my own trekking poles is an absolute miracle. I am also extremely grateful that the camera guys hang out with the front runners because I have a feeling cameras will break if photos are taken of me while I stumble along the trail like a baby elephant finding its feet. I really hoped that all my training in Wolwespruit would help to get my technical skills up but the problem was that after 6 hours, my hip flexors turned into something resembling concrete and my muscles felt like they were going to disintegrate because of negotiating muddy and NEVER ENDING slippery technical trail. There really is no way for me to be nimble and not clumsy. This is ok. It is just very important to not care what people think of you because it’s impossible to look cool if you’re as clumsy as me.
If it wasn’t for the breath taking views and lovely landscape I’m not sure that I would have been as positive as I was. I was very worried about Vultures pass. Not only is it a leg breaker, it is also a massive challenge for anybody with a fear of heights. My fear of heights is made a bit worse by severe vertigo that is caused by a few operations I had on my left ear when I was much younger. Because of this I have extensive damage to my inner ear which makes me feel like I’m on some kind of trip (and not a good one) when I’m in the mountains. Other people swoon over the views, and I just try to stay upright by any means possible. The other little issue going up Vultures was that since the 2017 event I had turned into a little hippo after putting on around 12 kg. This unfortunate fact really is a problem when you have to drag your body up a very, very steep gradient. In 2017 I was able to hike up it with only one or two short breaks. This time was very different. Apart from resembling a very heavy and un mountainy buffalo I was also extremely worried about my lungs, and this section of the trail would be a massive test for me. I believe when you’re heavy there is a tipping point with gradient that just makes it extremely difficult no matter how fit you are. At my weight, which we will call X, obviously Vultures is just a little bit too steep for me. I ended up climbing four or five steps and would park my but on a rock and rest a bit, while trying to not be too terrified holding onto any tree or branch to just feel a bit more grounded. This cycle repeated to the top of the climb where the final scramble would provide my last big challenge for the day.
The previous year I struggled very much to get up the silly rock at the top of the climb and I tried very hard to convince myself as I got closer and closer that this time ‘I will not be scared, I will not be scared, I will not be scared, I will not be scared, I will not be scared’ only to get to the top and experience a very clear and resounding ‘I AM TERRIFIED’. I decided to try my best but yet again froze in the middle of the stupid rock. I was clinging to it thinking ‘I am going to spend the rest of my days here because I’m sure as F**** not moving’. Yet again there was a very patient and strong mountain guy who ended up climbing down to me and dragged me up with his one hand. In my eyes these guys are like the Avengers saving a very sweaty damsel in distress. Here I just want to mention that I have noticed the cool thing for trail runners to do nowadays is rock climb, I just want to confirm that you guys are definately NOT going to see me at City Rock or any other Rock any time soon. After being saved by Mr Mountain Avenger, I lay down at the top for a few minutes and patiently waited to stop shaking before going on my merry way again.
After the very dramatic yet not serious at all situation at the top of Vultures, I felt like a champion having faced my fears. I was heading to the finish with lungs in tact, a bit of my ego stuck on the boulder and a massive, yet exhausted smile on my face. I could not really go fast but I was heading to the finish line along the most beautiful trail with a very full Sterkfontein Dam reminding me how small I really am. My good friend Theo Bohnen met me about 5km from the end and ran with me. I had hoped to equal my time of 2017, but with the buckets of rain that came down in the days before the race this was not to be. I ended up being only 9 minutes slower than 2017 which for me was a massive achievement. After being ill and taking 5 months off, I only started running again in December 2016. I was doing half an hour of running 3 minutes, walking 2 minutes, and even this was a huge challenge to me in December. I felt I would never get fit again and I never would have thought that three months later, I would take on and finish a very difficult mountain run.
I’m sure the big question is, why do I do this if I’m complaining so much. The answer is quite simple. I think many people avoid things they know they aren’t good at. Somebody once told me that you learn more from a race that didn’t go well than one that did, and I think it’s the same with a race that includes elements that make you doubt yourself. Just because you’re afraid of something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, and that is why I return to DNT. I knew before I started the event that I would be terrified, tested to my limits and would doubt myself around every corner. When this is the case and you actually cross the finish line the sense of accomplishment is actually so much more rewarding. Surprising yourself is always a very positive experience. Now that I rediscovered my running mojo in the Drakensberg I think it’s time to plan some more terrifyingly positive experiences!
See you on the trail.