Legends are made from stories. Sometimes they are true. Sometimes they have music.
Make sure you pick a good tune if you choose an earworm as a pet. The Cranberries version of "Zombie" is a good tune. For the first 15 hours. Thereafter... you're the zombie! But, I'm ahead of myself. There were three sections to my Mac Mac adventure: the first part where I felt good: 11 miles. The second part where I wondered if I'd make it: 70 miles. The last part that I'll just call "Zombie": 19 miles.
Ideal race preparation goes "smoothly" and is "stress free". A few niggles that hampered recovery and training in the 2 weeks leading up to the race (at one stage I thought I might not make the start...) a sick wife, a sick and injured dog, 3 long-standing feet callouses coming off, and 3 late nights working in the week before leaving didn't exactly make the lead up ideal. And lest I forget, this was my 3rd 100 mile race in 3 months. Insanity for someone new to ultra-ultra distance running. Really, what was I thinking?! All in all, it was still a good lead-in compared to UTD.
Catching up with Andy Wesson, the O'Keeffes, and Sandra and Cindy was awesome... and of course meeting Stan and Rae properly, not just on social media was made pleasant by the shuttle from the airport. We pitched tents in a tight triangle, Rae, Cindy and I as darkness descended. We'd found a place under an autumnal glade of trees around a plug point to charge essential devices for our respective runs; me at 100 miles, Cindy at 50 miles and Rae at a more sane 46km. The other 2 of the trio crushed their courses! Yes, please and well done!
Kit check, strapping with the engaging Hanri Potgieter Physio and off to supper... a double burger. Delicious. And sleep... it is important the night before being awake for a long time. I was expecting 42 hours out there; nobody really knew the course and we were told close to 7500m of climbing and descent. Of course, I was also hoping to do about 33-35 hours if all went well.
Wake up too early... 5.30am. Have breakfast. Pack the last of my things (drop bag). Get dressed. Get on the bus to Pilgrim's Rest and the start... Have more food, and coffee. Have a medical assessment and swap notes with Dr Nakita, a triathlete who's interested in my nutrition (Tailwind & Neolife Bars... plus supplemented with real food at the aid stations)... and hang around for race briefing and the shotgun start. All fairly normal; filled with the usual pre-race anxiety and nerves... meeting other legends of trail, Andy's Munga-maatjie Nicky Booyens, Bennie Roux, and others. It was fun and part of why we do this.
Shotgun... and an easy start mid pack through the memories of yesterday in tin houses, shops selling wares from another time, and gold stores. Why does it always feel like I'm at the back when I see the racing snakes head off helter skelter into the distance? No pushing, just discipline; keep the heart rate down. Out of Pilgrims and the first climb starts almost immediately up, off and over a gravel road, through cuttings joining that road. It isn't testing so much as warning; a good warm up. Vegetation was green with a hint of brown, somewhere between the green Drakensburg and dry Addo. It may just be autumn because there seemed to be enough water on course.
The first section of Mac Mac 100 goes over the Prospector's Trail, a look into history. The hazy view reminded me of sepia photographs and long ago memories. It isn't difficult to imagine pioneers pushing through bushes at this point, even today. Pushing hard... finding paths to cut for cattle and oxen pulling wagons. It would have been a sweat fest every day breaking trail, looking for gold, hunting and gathering food. Nothing like my first 11 miles. Easy, relatively.
Until I stubbed my right big toe so hard it loosened the nail. I brought my left foot forward to stop my stumble and jabbed the trekking pole in my left hand down to prevent the fall. Except the pole landed on the bridge of my left foot... Sharp pain shooting along the top bone and sinew of my foot, a few stars in my eyes, and I may have used Sian's "special word" once or twice in a string of my own. Okay. Breathe. Stop. I'm 11% done. We're heading up. Can I walk? I can... Can I run... not yet. Stretch it a bit. Walk it out... Now into the plantations I could begin running slowly again.
Cramp! The first time in many years I've had cramp. More fun words. Okay, stand, stretch, ease it out. Done. Get going... slowly at first and then pick up the pace. As I round a corner to my right I
Section two of my Mac Mac... Doubt. "Can I make the end? Can I even make half way?" I walk the uphills and take it really slowly on the down hills now because of the pain in my foot. Also I am concentrating on my "form" and not compensating too much... I don't want to aggravate any of the niggles, although the "old injuries" are all behaving remarkably well. No pain or discomfort from them and for this I credit my biokineticist, Ilona Hearne, for exercising me to fill in the gaps that my body had created.
Darkness comes and Peter Koedyk and I have teamed up; we were to be the body guards for Mientjie Els until we reached Pilgrims Rest, where she took a sleep. Peter is an accomplished marathoner and ultramarathoner, including a sub 24 Washie 100 and last year's Karkloof 100 buckler. He is moving easily and I let him pull me along. Mientjie would prove just how strong an ultra runner she is, too! We're doing Scouts pace; running when we can and walking up and down. At about 10pm the temperature has dropped properly and my left knee siezes. It wasn't sore unless... the ITB won't let me bend it without pain. It is the second time today I wonder, "will I make it...?"
I was slow, feeling like I was keeping Pieter and Mientjie back, hoping that they wouldn't suffer the effects and get too cold. I forced myself to block out the pain and get going. It worked, sort of. My knee eased up, but here came that song: Zombie! For the next few hours I let the rythym of the song and our conversation carry my body. The foot and the knee took turns to feel the jolts of the path as we whiled away the night. There was the occasional light, and the friendly greetings of other runners as we passed on out and back sections, like the lead in to Pilgrims Rest. The Vine, by the way, has now become the only pub in the world through which a 100 mile race is run! I'll stop for that Jaegermeister next time, Johnny. Maybe.
The even ground of plantation roads and jeep tracks meant I could keep pace relatively well. As soon as it got uneven or the gradient went over a few percent either way, I was off kilter and worried that if there was too much technical ground to cover that I would be pushing cutoffs again... as it was, I made it to Mac Mac Hut for the first time. There were biokineticists there and a medic. The care from the station was superb, although a single piece of kinetic tape MUST be anchored. I had to stop to anchor the tape she put on costing me 10 minutes later on for what would have taken her 1 minute.
My second goal was now done (after getting to the start line): halfway. Graskop. At about mile 10 I'd hoped I could make it here before 5am and see the 50 milers off... At mile 12 that changed. Now I asked for a medic. I shared my woes... misery loves company. Sian and Tobie waltzed in looking fresh and focused. The medic suggested that based on his experience he thinks I should pull over and call it quits. I wondered if I'd qualify for a 50 mile medal... so I responded louder and more rudely than intended: Nooooooooo. Okay, so my mind was made up. I knew there were awesome, caring medics here. I also knew what I wanted: to finish. Next goal was to get back to Mac Mac Hut and have the bio dig deep into my muscles to release some of the strain, and strap me again. Properly.
Thank you, Peter K, for pulling this zombie on. I think you may be aware of just how great a contribution you made to my race, but if you're not... I'm telling you now that being able to ride on your coat tails that first night meant we got to half way in time for me to continue without pressure. That means the world to me in my efforts to #RazeABar. Running is NOT an individual sport... even if you have to do the effort by yourself. And so I was glad when Pieter felt he could head off into the sunrise without me... He'd played his part, motivated and encouraged me, given strength generously.
Somewhere around here I saw Frikkie and let him know that if I did break down he'd have to pull me off. I wasn't quitting. He said, "I'm not pulling you off". Such a lovely fellow.
As it warmed up, so did my knee. I could move more easily, although not run. Going uphill was definitely easier than going down, so I took advantage of that and pushed the flats and ups, while resting on the downs. I reeled in some of those that had passed me. At noon I reached Mac Mac Hut I saw Tarrin (aka Trail Physio)... who was to sweep. She chirped, "I hope I don't see you again". She didn't... fortunately, but their friendly faces gave so much energy. 15 minutes of nap. And then I had a poor strapping job again, and within 500 meters stopped to restrap my ITB. Anchor, anchor, anchor. That lasted me for the rest of the race... good job, Steven.
You will note I'm not speaking much about the terrain. From 10pm on Friday until about 1.30pm on Saturday is a little hazy as my zombie mind coped with the pain in my foot and transferred pain of a seized knee. But now whatever it was in my body switched off the pain receptors and moving upward through the biggest, most sustained climb of the race was actually pleasant. The views opened as we ascended out of the valleys. The birds chirped... prinias and cisticolas in particular came right up to me to say "hi".
The biggest climb... when you see in your course pack that you're climbing Moore's Peak from the bottom, you make sure you have some energy for it. Eat. Drink. Drag yourself up. The foot pain has subsided, but the knee is still bothering me if I'm not careful about my form. Concentrate. On the view, too! Wow! There is a photo somewhere of me at the top... I'm not sure I'll ever get to see it, though.
As I got to the top (well, not quite... Frikkie and Eloff didn't get us there, did they!), I saw Sven, photographer par excellence. And of course we think he did get a pic of me at the top as his battery failed ;) . The views in all directions were breathtaking. With water nearly done, he offered me more and showed me the next check point... it looked 3km away and I refused. It was 6km away and I was a dumbass. At least it was all relatively easy going.
Peter Purchase is another legend of trail. He's completed Munga... and others. One really should listen when one meets these guys. At this aid station he was going to take a nap. It would be the last place to do so for a while. But it was still light, and although tired I thought I could take advantage of the last 40 minutes and get going... without a torch, which I'd forgotten in my drop bag. What. A. Way. To. End. AMUK. No torch = DQ. In steps the generous aid station volunteers who loan me one of theirs. Relief washes over me!
Repack my bag, stock up, head out... 35 minutes of light left. I'm moving with Sian and Tobie now. Having people to pull me along the roads and tracks helps motivate my pain tolerance. The views of forests, fields and plantations shorten as the light fades, until the view is limited to the circle of lights on our heads.
And finally when we reach the bottom, Tobie and I, he is able to move off a little more quickly than I. My knee did not like that descent. I hobble through to the aid station another mile or so off and listening to live music on a half-sized guitar I sleep in white lodge linen under a down duvet. It wasn't a dream... and neither did I dream. 18 minutes and I'm awake again, dressing and eating and drinking.
Mildly refreshed, noting the tallness of this forest section the road meandered through some indigenous and then plantation woods. The moon was now peering through trees. I heard an owl... I can't tell you what his name was, though. There was a breeze that occasionally came through. Two layers of clothes was too cold. Three was too warm. I was constantly lifting or letting sag my wind resistant shell to moderate my temperature.
The zombie moved on with Zombie plugging my brain. Through the last check point. The road led to Frikkie's Folly. Upwards I marched... slightly more compos mentis. Breathing hard, beginning to sweat in the pine plantation, but enjoying the smell of needles. Undressing, getting cold, redressing, getting warm... cycling it on. Reaching the top you turn onto MTB paths. Repeating the cold and heat, dressing and undressing. Slowing down going downhill... seeing the same lights and wondering if your're wandering off the path, but no, there's a reflector. Shall I sleep here again; in the bush; on the side of the road or path; in the path? Zombie. Zombie. Zombie-ie-ie. In your head...
Eventually finding the river to cross and knowing that the end is nigh... and I've beaten the sunrise. I might be alone, but I'm never alone and part of a greater family. Zombie will soon be sleeping.
To have Frikkie and Eloff greeting me with an almost forgotten medal... and the words that if he'd heard I'd bailed Frikkie would have driven out and beaten me over the finish line with a stick... well, at least it wasn't Eloff's shotgun! We all chuckled that tired laugh respecting, if not knowing the details, of organizing and participating in an event of this magnitude.That burger was the best meal I had all weekend, guys... you can cook again. You and the team have created something... I want to come back when I'm fresh and see what I can really do!
To have Riana, Stan, Sheena and Sian there... family. And Cindy... you're kinda my "AMUK person" now. Thank you. You didn't have to wake up after your phenomenal performance on the 50 miler... but you did... flatbois for life.
Rene Vollgraaff. We are not machines, but you are inspirational. Your ability to recover and press on through AMUK and more is currently unparalleled. I am in awe. I might just need your coaches number ;)
The beneficiaries of #RazeABar have kept my head in this game. Perspective is a wonderful gift. Knowing that there are others out there worse off than I was when in pain and zombie-mode kept me alert enough to keep moving to the next goal. And each of these beneficiaries will have their life changed by your support of this cause. Thank you.
PS: There were no elevators, or even escalators. There probably won't be any next year either... but I thought I might have seen one going down near the mines at the end. Maybe.