I haven’t written a blog post in a long time but the killer that was Kruger 2 Canyon this past weekend deserves one.
Lazarus Lake said that ‘If you are going to face a real challenge, it has to be a real challenge. You can’t achieve anything without the possibility of failure.’ And boy was K2C a challenge.
Kruger to Canyon has been on my radar since the first edition but every year life intervened and I missed it. This year everything went according to plan and last Friday I made my way to Hoedspruit for my first outing in the Blyde River area. I am not in the best shape at present but decided that with a stubborn mind set and positive attitude I could probably have a good race.
The thing with K2C is that people speak about how hard it is in hushed tones, but it’s one of those events that you have to do, to fully understand exactly how hard it is. The surprise I got on the Saturday can probably be compared to walking into your kitchen and finding a roaring lion in front of the dish washer. In my wildest dreams I could not have imagined the suffer fest that was in store.
Andrew Booth always hatches the most devious plans and runners can expect something spectacular when he is involved. I asked him before the race if it was as hard as the 50km Lesotho Ultra, and he replied that it’s not. I was lulled into a false sense of security and had a pretty good night’s sleep, not knowing what lay in store for the following day. By 16h30 that Saturday afternoon I was cursing Andrew and informed him that Kruger to Canyon was indeed harder than Lesotho Ultra, Otter, Addo, Comrades or pretty much any other single day race I have ever done.
Before I carry on I just have to remind everybody of the Buffalo vs Berg Bok factor. Basically I am a Buffalo, not because I see myself as fat, but because I am a big girl. I wear a size 9 men’s shoe and the biggest struggle of my life is to find a hat that fits. I am also not very fast, nimble or flexible. I can however carry on for however long is necessary, have the most positive attitude on the planet and the pain threshold of a very pissed off elephant. The Carine Bezuidenhout’s and Landi Greyling’s of this world can be regarded as berg bokkies. They float along the trails with a grace that can’t be taught or trained. When in the mountains it’s much easier for berg bokkies to go up the mountains and even easier for them to come down. Buffalo don’t belong in the mountains, they become very dangerous when heading downhill and they can tip over the edge of a cliff very easily. Keep these ideas in mind when reading further.
The start of K2C is very much like a kick in the gut. You start climbing from the very first kilometre and the trail up notorious Mariepskop just gets exponentially steeper and steeper as you approach the top at around 6km where you will have done a staggering 940m of vertical gain. I started with my good friends Eloff and Maretha Hoffman and in my heart I wanted to try and stay with Eloff but I also knew I would probably not be strong enough. As we neared the top, the climb became more and more technical and the gradient torturous. The surface under foot can only be described as slippery as the very fine velvety forest ground kept giving way as you clawed your way up the mountain. Andrew and Mike put up a few ropes where the gradient was just too much which sounds like it will help, but you actually need upper body strength to make this work. You also have to be careful not to stab yourself or your fellow runners with your trekking poles in the process. I felt like a piece of bait on a hook when I grabbed the rope because I was soon flopping around realising my t-rex arms would not result in much upward or forward movement using the rope. My legs were however feeling strong so I let go of the rope and made use of the ‘hande viervoet klouter’ technique. My sense of trepidation increased together with our altitude as I realised we would head down this same insane climb at the end of the day. Having a debilitating fear of heights I realised I had a bit of a problem. It was on kilometre 8 that I started toying with the idea of downgrading to the short route, as I for some strange reason thought the 28km would not come down Marieps Kop towards the end.
Between kilometre 8 and the first water table I wasted a ton of time as I was trying to decide if I should wait for Maretha and do the 28 or carry on. I would stop under a tree until I got cold and carry on, feel sorry for myself, curse a bit and then walk a bit further. When I realised both the long and short route had to go down Marieps kop I got over myself, put on my big girl panties and decided to tackle the long course. After the craziness of the first climb the route becomes very runnable with beautiful views of the Blyde River Canyon and a sound track of Loeries and other birds serenading you along the way. The following 15km I ran pretty comfortable and my hopes picked up again. I started the second climb feeling strong and probably set out a bit too fast heading up as it was very similar to Marieps in the way that it kept getting exponentially steeper towards the top. The total climbing for this second unnamed bastard was 6km with around 700m of elevation gain. Before long I was back in the hell of pulling myself up on tree roots and clawing my way towards the top of the mountain. I kept thinking what the front guys and gals looked like going up there and was very grateful there wasn’t a media person around to capture my very ungracious struggle.
I got to the top of the second climb and miraculously actually felt better than after the first climb. I could actually get myself running at a decent pace and there were a few fleeting moments where I thought ‘I’ve got this’. I have however learned that the moment you feel confident you should brace yourself for some kind of crash. My crash came in the form of ITB caused by a glute muscle that went into a spasm and then being faced with the sheer drops on the side of the mountain. I was reduced to a walk and my dreams of finishing in 10 hours started to look more and more unlikely. I had about 12 km to go and running was out of the question. It was after clinging to plants and trying to block out the view of the sheer drop down the cliffs, where my first crippling negative thoughts took over. I actually thought to myself ‘Why the fuck am I doing this? Should I not just find something else that is easier than this bullshit?’ I actually thought about the fact that I had been out there the better part of the day and that the hardest bit was still to come. I had to make my way down Mariepskop and I had no idea how I was going to manage that. If I had a choice at that stage of going down the mountain or hitting myself in the face with a hammer, I would have asked for the hammer without a second thought.
The last check point had the friendliest people on the day and their awesome spirit gave me a bit of a boost as I did my march towards the last downhill of the day. The first few hundred metres I was still going at a pace that was slightly respectable but as soon as the gradient took a dive, so did my legs, skills and attitude. I decided that the closer I am to the ground the less painful the inevitable fall would be and also if necessary I could slide the steeper bits on my butt. This is exactly what happened and because of the very steep gradient the sliding happened a bit faster than expected. The most horrifying moment of the day was when I looked over my shoulder and saw a guy employing this same technique unintentionally. He had his trekking pole thrashing about in the process and I had visions of an Altra wearing Buffalo Sosatie skewered next to the trail. I let my fellow brave heart pass and carried on with my butt slide, tree grab, jelly leg technique down the mountain.
Towards the end I was catching up to some people on the 28km route and realised I was not the person having the hardest day out there. I could hear the music and voices from the finish and phoned Eloff telling him I’m 2km away, they should buy me a Savanna so long. The last two kilometres took what felt like forever as I could still not run with my painful ITB. I spent the time trying to find a technique where I could at least not look like the wounded buffalo that I am coming into the finish. There was no such technique and I limped around the last corner towards the end and heard the voices of my friends and their kids cheering me on. Maretha was waiting at the finish line with a Savanna that tasted like the coldest, sweetest and best thing I ever had.
I spent quite a bit of time after the finish repeating the phrase ‘This is the hardest thing I have ever done’ and I think I was probably the dirtiest person around having rolled down the mountain.
I decided very early on after the stage that I would not start the next day as I was so tired and broken, and had already started getting stiff only a few hours after the race. The experience on day one was however such a rich and rewarding one that I didn’t even have FOMO the next morning when the rest of the crowd headed out for the final stage. I said goodbye to all my trail friends and family and headed to the Kruger Park for two days of rest and reflection.
The Kruger 2 Canyon represented absolutely everything I love about trail running.
Achieving something that seems impossible and facing your fears.
Being surrounded by likeminded people who suffer together and find beauty in small things.
Being over whelmed by a massive and glorious landscape that assaults your senses and tests your body to its extreme.
Going through the process of being broken and finding the strength to carry on.
Witnessing the best, strongest and surprising of the human spirit.
The absolute savage beauty of our country.
Thank you so much Andrew, Lauren, the KZN team and every single friend that was there to make me laugh and didn’t make fun of me when I wanted to cry. I have been saying since the race that this is one I will never do again but writing this makes me reconsider….
See you there next year.
Photo’s by Sven Musica and Arlo van Heerden