Knights & Unicorns
Once upon a time…
But just wait, all good fairy tales have a bit of a back-story. Some canon or lore to create context. If you will indulge me let’s rewind to before I made it to the start line of this year’s event. (Event: because, let’s face it: a 100 miler for the likes of me is less of a “race” or a “run” and more an endurance spectacle).
My family moved around while I was growing up as my father was a Priest. Some of that time was spent living in East London, the home of The Buffalo Club (aka Buffs), the originators and custodians of “The Washie”. This is the arguably oldest running road 100 mile race in the world (160.934km).
For me the seed was planted a long, long time ago, in the Washie’s early years. My father, a 3-time marathoner in East London, never entered… He may well be infinitely wiser than me.
As an accomplished field hockey player I representing my province in 1991, my last year of high school. Back then I considered myself to be supremely fit (and may well have made a solid “race” of 100 miles back then).
However, in 1993 at College, on my first morning in residence, I was late to join a group of fellow athletes going for a run. In trying to catch up, I hopped over a fence, stood on the curb, took a roll or a dive that would have impressed Neymar, and proceeded to tear a tendon in my ankle.
Four months later, not entirely healed, I did a number on the matching tendon in my other ankle whilst playing volleyball. In hindsight my father’s sporting choices seem immeasurably wiser than my own.
I never thought I’d run without pain again. Ever.
It took nearly 10 years for me to start exercising with any kind of regularity again. There was just too much pain in the ankles when I ran. So I hiked. I got off of my posterior and onto the trail once every six weeks or so, and slowly began to add in a 2-3km run (1-2 miles) every few days.
The going was extra-ordinarily and painfully sedate. It took nearly 4 years before I could run a 5 kilo jog three times a week without pain.
Charlo Athletic Club became my running home in 2014 because I wanted to run my first ultra, and the Two Oceans Marathon requires an affiliated club membership. I progressed to competing in 10km and half-marathon races (I use the term “compete” loosely; I never came close to a podium).
I had to complete a marathon in less than five hours to “qualify” for Two Oceans… so I did it in four, all without pain in my ankles. The patience and solid training regimen was paying off. I would go on to complete my first ultra without incident. I did the usual “bonk” at 80% of the distance in both marathon and ultras, but that is nothing to write about.
2015 saw me compete in similar events before the birth of my child in May and an injury (plantar fasciitis) which enforced a prolonged layoff.
This hiatus was broken by a friend of mine attempting his first Washie in 2016 when Allister asked me to second him. I ran just short of a marathon distance during my seconding stints, but sadly he did not make it all the way to East London, bailing at the 100km mark.
However the dream from growing up in “Washie Country” was rekindled and my friend had thrown down the gauntlet: “Seconds all run Washie, dude. Its implied in the unwritten contract”. Dot. Dot. Dot.
When he made his second and more successful attempt in 2017 I was not able to join him as a seconder, but I was there in spirit to usher across the finish line. My resolve was getting stronger. Life commitments were changing for me in September 2017 which enabled a renewed focus on training which is essential for an event like The Washie. (100 miles on foot in 26 hours is not to be trifled with… trifle is for pudding and sweet blogs like these!)
So, once upon a time, in a land far, far away there was a knave seeking his knighthood. The weapons needed to be sharpened, the horses trained, the team assembled, the supplies stocked, the body trained, and the tournament completed. Only then were the spoils allowed.
Most of the training and preparing had gone well, with mileage growing from around 50 miles (80km) per month in October 2017 to 50 miles/week in May, June and July (50 miles = about 80km). In fact, if anything, the training had gone too well. Being over-trained is a thing, especially for an amateur runner. Never having run more than 35 miles (56km for 2 Oceans) in one go, I did include a fifty mile training run, which in retrospect I would change. However it gave me an indication of how the body experiences attrition past 35 miles.
The team was relatively set, the diet was discussed and developed and all looked good… if we could get there.
Thankfully a friend enabled that in short order by paying for my entry. The team included relatively ‘pace-ey’ runners, because I thought I’d like to start slow in the first quarter and ramp up the effort via heart rate monitoring over the rest of The Washie.
Ramp up… over 100 miles. Those who know will laugh.
About 3 weeks out my team fell apart… The dragon of work commitments gobbled up all but one of them… and I am grateful she got away from that fire-breathing monster!
Niki was the Benevolent Queen of the mobile castle and “ran” that support like a pro! She was joined by a Faithful Friar, Charles, without whose services our team would have been Alan-less and I would have been too slow; and the court Jester, Derek, playing his ever important role of maintaining levity and perspective while putting his pointy shoe appropriately up the arse of the come-uppity knave/would-be-knight. Me.
On top of the team falling apart, I had my first bout of gastric flu in over a decade! I have an iron constitution, but this flu rusted a 4-day hole in my training (which was probably a good thing!) There was no “catching up” on miles lost, just a slow week-long battle to get back up to the required intensity while maintaining godd nutrition. It meant I was “fresh” leading into my taper.
This lead us to The Washie’s new-revised-temporary start in Cathcart in good time for registration, food, the usual race briefing, and some time for mental preparation… (some would argue that all the preparation for an event like this is mental, or insanity just takes over). The Unicorns (my team of mythical creatures with magical properties) was now more ready than me, the knave-would-be-knight!
5pm approached. There was a cool wind at this elevation (we would broach 4500ft/1420m above sea level about 10 miles / 16km into the course). The marshals, starter and competitors lined up under the start banner, just over the grid at the Cathcart Country Club. Eric Wright and Butch Duffy were on the front line with a few of the contenders for this year’s race.
Eric and Butch both had 26 Washie finishes to their names each… If you want confirmation of the tenacity of insanity, look no further. Nervous smiles and laughs from novices, mixed with relaxed chirps and banter from the experienced and supporters gave a relaxing rhubarb atmosphere for the last 2 minute before go-time… those last 10 seconds came (and went) quickly and almost unnoticed.
As soon as the gun detonated the noise levels soared with runner’s whoops and the cheers of the throngs lining the roads. The “regular” route quickly loses the runner onto a main road with only the support teams to cheer before you get there.
Cathcart seemed to draw its people onto the road out of houses, shops, restaurants and the school hostel for nearly a kilometre of encouraging clatter. Not having been at many official races this year, the noise threw me somewhat! It was a good introduction to the business of 100 miles.
The run is broken up into 4 “quarters” of about 27, 26, 19 and 28 miles respectively. At the end of each was an official checkpoint to compliment unmarked marshals on the course checking for those teams cheating or disobeying rules. That first quarter is mostly made up of what has been dubbed “The Loop”. It is an out and back section of road heading towards Hogsback, one of the cooler places in South Africa at the end of July.
Quarter one is hilly, the short hills that are designed so that you don’t settle into a rhythm while running. There was no verge, so traffic had to be negotiated. And there were potholes, so you had to keep your wits about you for those, too.
The sun disappeared shortly after 6pm, and with clouds and wind blowing in your face, it promised to be a tough start to the night.
Rain made sure that promise was fulfilled… it was icy, and although not really heavy enough to wet one through, this one was a layer of clothes short with seconds too far away to access more… lesson learned: carry the pack (just ask Dora The Explora how valuable a pack can be!)
Jamo Davis and Jeremy Knox were great company at various points in this first quarter. Jamo, from Cape Town, does some insane events in a speedo for “Love Your Nuts”, a cancer charity. I had often run events for charity and know how difficult this can be; The Washie was the first one I haven’t… it was a relief to me, but maybe next time.
Jeremy is a school teacher from East London, also full of joie de vivre. Both of them were strong runners and kept me going well and focused: and entertained with their stories.
The rain cleared at about 15km, as did the clouds, and the wind slowly subsided over the next 2 hours. The full moon started blazing away… and it was light enough to turn off torches (except for the fact it meant cars would not see you, and you wouldn’t see potholes in the shadows of the trees, I would have kept mine off).
The longest eclipse in decades was about to start and we would get a grandstand view in the Amathole mountains. The Milky Way was fully visible and Orion, Mars and Venus fought to take my breath away first.
Or was that breathlessness because of the cold and hilly nature of the course at altitude? I checked my Garmin for not the first time and noticed now that my heart rate had jumped from 130bpm (where it should have been) to over 170bpm. It threw my next 12 miles (20km) off completely. Was I bonking? Was I dying (my grandfather died at the age of 52 from a heart attack)? I didn’t feel like it… but you never know. I’m human and this was technology! What do you believe?
The “downhill” return trip to Cathcart was filled with a fair bit of walking as I tried to feel my way back to “normal” instead of looking at my Garmin’s interpretation of my heart rate. It didn’t really work, and I think that was because of the cold… I was struggling to think.
After 20 miles (35km) I figured out my Garmin couldn’t handle the cold and was swapping my heart rate and cadence. Relief! Apparently this is a not unknown problem with wrist-based hardware… 20:20 hindsight and I would not have had it on.
A conversation with Niki got me on track again… just the simple question of asking “how are you doing;” and then talking through the next stages of The Washie (in other words, the next 3-5 miles) nutrition and hydration.
When you eat an elephant, it is recommended you do it one bite at a time. The same is true of a long run. I can’t run 100 miles. But I can run 2.5miles, so I did that repeatedly… And that got me to the first checkpoint just outside Cathcart at about 27miles. I got there at 22:17 in 5 hours and 17 minutes… 27 minutes behind my goal time.
Yes, by this time I already knew my big goal was done. However, I thought “if I can collect myself and manage my body heat, my energy, and last until halfway, then maybe I can get that 22 hour finish”.
The first quarter had been a life and death struggle… it shouldn’t have happened so early in the event. But it did and now I had to deal… with Niki checking that I was eating enough and getting enough coconut water in, I was ready to go again.
Derek, the “court jester” had taken it on himself to be king of the clothes and also made sure I had a fleece under layer on, and at the next stop had my outer shell ready to protect me from the wind… The Friar got my pace up. What a team.
At mile 35 (50km) my right ankle began giving proper notice. It is the volleyball ankle, and the one that tends to be more vocal under stress; it had given its first sign at mile 20 (32km), but like all runners I ignored the niggle.
By mile 40 I was unable to sustain running for any distance… and my team will tell you that by here I had already said that if I walk at 16 minutes per mile (10min/km) I could easily walk it home before cut-off.
But the Jester and the Friar would have none of it. The Queen was more lenient… but then she was on my case about food and drink! The team was a machine working perfectly… they were my Unicorn!
During this quarter of the event, as we began the drop from Cathcart to Stutterheim, the temperature took its cue from the elevation and fell, too. I felt it more than usual. It apparently wasn’t as low as freezing, but I could have sworn it was.
In fact, I probably did swear; my team may or may not acknowledge what words were used if you offer the appropriate bribes (I’m not giving any clues!) They had been keeping themselves entertained with music and dancing as I too slowly meandered downhill.
I have recollections of Derek pushing me up hills and down flats saying let’s run these 7 stripes in the road… then we’d walk for 5. In truth he would usually make me run 8 and walk 4 (which I was very happy with, but I wasn’t going to let him know that) and I grumbled like an unhappy dwarf!
The blood of the moon had infested my right ankle… I knew I was in big trouble at mile 45… the first time you see the lights of Stutterheim over the hills. There was a long way to walk down and up and down again; the lights in the dark make distance deceptive. Each step was more painful than the last. I considered those cold rolling hills being pushed by Derek as being my last leg… but… Derek… and the other unicorns… and this…
In the car on the way to the start a cousin of mine messaged me about her technique for long events like Comrades or Otter Trail run. She would dedicate a section of each event to someone special to her and then run those sections on the other’s behalf… and I started to think about those in my family that would give an arm, leg or vital organ to be able to do what I am able to (maybe not the exact insanity of 100 miles, but…). That perspective, the knowledge of and love shown by those close to me (physically and emotionally) helped push me through those darkest and coldest hours of The Washie and into checkpoint 2.
Quickly went the last 2 miles into the party-town of Stutterheim (I’d apparently missed the best of the party, but it was still festive at 4.30am). I had my first real “reboot”. The awesome team took off my right shoe, applied KT tape, gave my legs a little stretch and shake out, fed me chicken soup and pushed me back onto the road… all in under 20 minutes! How awesome were they? I don’t think a formula 1 team could have done a better job. Seriously.
I also remember being told about funny video’s, penguin dances, howling, and other highlights of a full moon; anything to keep me entertained, smiling and focused on the positives. All the things Unicorns would do…
I was two and a half hours behind goal time.
The third quarter of the race was where I had planned to slowly up my tempo… it was more downhill than up and all sweeping, allowing for rhythm to be built. “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry” (Robert Burns) and “when you’re going through Hell, keep going” (Winston Churchill) were two quotes that set me up to deal with the shortest quarter of this race… yes, Q3 was “only” 21-ish miles, but it included the hours before dawn.
The moon was bright, the stars all present and there were very few clouds chasing each other across the sky. The road was (mainly) smooth, seconds were chirpy and runners giving each other a lot of encouraging lies along the way (you look awesome/strong/great/fast/etc). It wasn’t as cold as it had been, but I was still in four layers… happily so.
But 2 miles into this quarter, although my right crankle was less cranky, my left ankle decided to show sympathy. There would be no more running for this quarter… just a fast walk as it was less painful and definitely less jarring. We could still make 25 and a half hours if we walked well.
I refused medication at this point knowing that it was a long way to go still and managing the pain for as long as possible was the “healthiest” option, if not the sanest. By now, my unicorns wouldn’t let me quit even if I fell over!
It is interesting how we see light as a positive. Earth needs the dark to survive as much as the light. However, we gravitate toward the light… and when the sun started to brighten the Easterly sky even the clouds were found there, keeping the breeze cold for some time.
Just before I got to the sun properly, and before breakfast, I’d changed my shoes to an ancient pair of 8mm drop shoes to give my ankles and calves a break from the zero-drop Altra’s I’d been in since the start. They were not that comfortable, but they did their job over the next 9 miles (15km) and got me through breakfast and into the light.
At times during the last 60 miles of The Washie, I said to whichever of the unicorns was with me, “I can do this hill”. What I meant was: I can’t get to the finish line. I am done. There is too far to go. But I know I can get around this corner and to the top of this hill. I will see what I can do when I’m up there. And without fail, at the top of the hill, it was so much easier to roll on. In the “dark times”, if you give yourself time to go with the momentum you’ve built in the “light times”, you will get through. And at the top of one such hill, with the soccer-ball-water-tower, I reached the last checkpoint at 10:15… only 3 hours behind my goal time.
Miles to go: 28-ish. From Cobongo to Buffs, East London. The longest leg for last; also where I’d hoped to string together some sub 10 minute miles (6 minute kilometers) in a happily heroic finish. After managing the worry of my heart rate in Q1, the cold of Q2, and the pain of crankles for all but 20 miles of the race, I was mentally frazzled.
We changed my shoes back and were joined by a friend from my childhood years… she is a doctor, and doesn’t believe in medication during an event; well, not entirely true... she medicated me with just 25 miles (40km) to go.
We’d spent the first 4 miles of Q4 taking my mind off of the pain and transferring my reality back to our childhood memories and catching each other up on our life stories, our spouses and intelligent offspring. Again, it was just what I had needed at just the right time.
It is also where I had another near-death experience; we walked past the Mcleantown Cemetery. My father had offered many services at the nearby Anglican church and I have lots of happy memories of the town and its surrounding farms; and some vague recollections of trying to fall sleep in the car on the way to church so I didn’t have to listen to my father preach… again.
The last mile before medication was tough… normally the team would have gone 3 miles (5km) on, but this time they’d gone an extra mile because to stop on a blind corner is dangerous, illegal and stupid. (Damned engineers putting my meds further away from me!)
But once the painkillers and caffeine kicked in, so did my ability to run… not far… not fast… not enough for those wished-for paces, but enough to get me back to solid sub 16 minute miles (10 min/km). I had been nearing the 20min/mile (12min/km) for a few kilometers and was at this stage in danger of flirting with the 26 hour cutoff.
Now I was beginning to move more easily and faster than some runners were running at this point; everything was still happening slowly… but I began overtaking other competitors one by one. Moving up the field is good for one’s psyche. Conversation became lighter as we ran 60 paces and walked 60. The miles rolled downhill like the road.
Once we hit 20 miles to go… it got easier.
Once we hit 25km it was easier to think “only 5 more parkruns”… Now I knew I could get through 3 miles (5km) at a time. The confidence was back to finish and I hoped I could get about 25 hours and 15 minutes. I wouldn’t beat sunset, but that didn’t matter.
Generally the team had run 10km at a time with me each… it meant they were each going to total about 40km for the weekend. Robyn, the team doctor, had spent 9 miles (15km) with me when she rejoined the vehicle for a break. She had given me a natural and a medicated high… sometimes both are necessary when dealing with relentless pain. She would join me again 3 miles (5km) later for a stint, too. This was just to make sure I was cleared until the end of the road.
Moving into the last 3 parkruns Robyn had to go and get ready for an awards evening. Her ladyship is actually a rather important contributor to the society that is East London, as her parents were before her (apples and trees). I was sorry I hadn’t been fit enough to finish with her… but we still had those 3 little 3 mile / 5k “marathons” to do… step by step.
At the race briefing our seconds had been clearly instructed to follow the rules of the road, avoid going on the loop if possible, not drive alongside runners, go with the traffic through the stop-go construction areas, and definitely not stop on the NEX (an expressway through East London, about 4 miles / 6km of which we ran to get to the Buffs club).
Unfortunately our “runner’s lane” had been lifted by the municipality at a point when half the runners still had to finish… a logistical error which fortunately didn’t cost anything more than insult. At this point I make no apology for swearing at seconds who disobeyed the law and the organizer’s instructions given in courtesy. I fully applaud the organizers who promised stricter application of disqualification suggestions and clearer rules next year.
Adrenalin was kicking in because we were nearing the end, because the setting sun was leaving us in growing darkness, and also because the danger of cars coming from behind us was very real. Niki and Derek did a phenomenal job of getting me around parked seconding vehicles and seconds who forced us dangerously into traffic.
I remember getting in front of Niki at one point as we went around a vehicle and bending the side view mirror in so that we could walk safely past on the curb side instead of the traffic side. It felt good to do that… and know it wasn’t permanent damage to the car! Also that adrenalin helped power me to finish the last 4 miles at about 13 minutes per mile (8min/km). Only the Loop went “faster” for me… Truthfully 13 minutes a mile is fast for a walk, but mind-numbingly slow when considering my running figures normally.
As you turn off the NEX you head back into a street that is not so well lit… there are trees everywhere to the West, so the fading sunlight was now more moonlight again. You could hear the noise of the finish line and expectant teams were out waiting for their runners to exit the NEX, too. Charles was there… the hero welcoming us in. Turning off the last bit of tar had been something I’d dreamed about for months and the reality didn’t disappoint.
ELB Equipment had their scooptruck gantry with the banner up over the finish line. The music beat itself into the night, but I have no idea what was playing. I remember running along that last 100m of grass with my team whooping their delight and mine. Tracy Mackay and some of the other organizers on the sidelines also shouted their congratulations. Deano took the shots as I leaned in for a better photo… and then it was over bar the shouting.
My voice lasted all of 100 miles and no further. A low, whispered thank you to all who came up to me. A few final pictures under the banner and muttered apologies to Susan for not staying to see Frank over the line… but I knew if I sat down I wouldn’t be able to get up.
The shower was welcome that night, but it was quick and falling into bed I didn’t dream. 7 hours later I woke up and negotiated my way out of bed like Neymar being tackled… and rolled myself to the facilities squeaking out pain from joints and mouth. It would have been hilarious to watch, is funny to recall, but was a feat akin to running a long way!
A shout out to the walls, Sydney, Robyn and Nico who helped me walk the next day… without support I would have done more falling and rolling to collect a tracksuit top and handmade trophy worth memories for a lifetime.
There is a knight to be discovered in each of us: a rite of passage is traveled; there are no shortcuts.