Just AdDO it!

I hadn’t planned to write about this race. Which is strange, given that it is the farthest I have ever run in one go, and a race for which I trained HARD.
Bloody hard.

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Perhaps there was just too much to process. Or maybe the intense heat in the first hour (and then the final 24th, 25th and 26th hours) just fried my Hippocampus to a crisp. The latter quite likely. I still feel a little brainless and vacant come to think of it.

Though some would argue that signing up for 100 miler points to the fact that you are brainless and vacant to start with.

The week back home immediately after the race was somewhat fraught, with a post-race dose of flu, a presentation on plastic at an Ocean Summit to prepare for and a very sick young Ridgeback to nurse. Not a whole lot of time, inclination or energy to cobble words and thoughts together on a 26-hour-long running experience.

A whole two weeks have passed since all 76 of us Mad Dogs & Englishmen (MD&Es) set off from Addo Main Camp at 2 pm. Yup! 2 in the afternoon. A grand old time to start running 100 miles in the African bush. Makes perfect sense!

Rumour has it the temps nudged up towards 40 degrees in that initial hour or so. For some reason, Addo heat is especially intense. It’s in-your-face honest-to-God-bitch-slapping-heat that really tries its level best to suck the brain matter out of your ears and slap it down onto the dusty earth below.

It’s fry-eggs-on-your-forehead hot. And I am really not trying to over dramatize things here.

The initial dirt road section, which takes us out of the reserve and up towards the Zuurberg, was a chance for us all to settle into a rhythm, ease into the whole vibe, maybe partake in some idle, sociable chit-chat with other MD&Es.

I partook in some fairly idle chit-chat, but not much – thanks to aforementioned heat. I said hello, howzit to Jo McKenzie. For just those initial 10 kays, my pace actually matched hers. We laughed a little, exchanged pleasantries about mutual friends, and then she was gone. Kabooom! Gone.

Jo ran like a demon, lead the woman’s race for much of the way, and finished second, and third overall.

I then had a little chat to Annelise – we even shook hands while running…and again, after Checkpoint 1, she was gone. Kabooooooooooom. She also ran an absolute pearler and won in a record-smashing time.

So at about 15 kays, it became fairly clear to me that I would be chasing Tracey Campbell’s pocket-rocket-silhouette for the whole race and that this put me as fourth woman. The latter a detail I was told time and time again to NOT worry me or think about or do anything at all with. Of course, it is ALL I thought about. “The race only starts in the last 40 kays” they all chorused. “It’s a long day out, Karoline – anything can happen!” they chanted. “Don’t be tempted to chase anyone – they’ll blow!” they assured me.

Yeah right.

They didn’t blow. Not one of those wonderful three women. They bloody blitzed the course – convincingly. The whole 100 miles.

(The men did blow though. Many of them. Like flies. Or to quote the lovely Kim van Kets, “they melted like Salvador Dali clocks”. But more of that later.)

Anyway – back to chasing Tracey. I was immensely thrilled to catch up with her and run up alongside her at about 15 kays. We had a bit of a chat, but I could sense that she wasn’t really in the mood to engage in pleasant banter or to make light of the fact that we had both run out of water, and still had 5 kays until the next water point – so I let her go. Which was pretty darn thoughtful of me come to think of it.

This was to be how it was for the entire race. I literally became like a lion (an aged, quite ragged one, granted) – chasing my prey…..! I felt a little bad for Tracey at times. It must have been horrible having me on her arse. I realised this. Really I did. And given that I am the world’s most empathetic of empaths, I made a mental note to hang back once or twice, thinking how crap it must be having someone tail-gating you the whole time.

Well, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it…

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I mention the whole predator-prey thing because it was real. Honest to God! There were times – in that 26-hour period, especially in the dead of night….when I could literally SMELL Tracey. I could tell that she had JUST been through the one river….or brushed past the one bush. THAT is how finely-tuned one’s senses become when all you have is your torchlight and the night is inky-black around you.

I started fixating on the ground for footprints, looking for wet sploshes on the rocks at river crossings to try gauge how far ahead she was. The whole gig was just short of me on all fours looking for freshly snapped twigs and bits of hair snagged on thorns!

(It must be said at this point, that Tracey smells just GREAT – all sun-lotiony and floral and stuff. Not sweaty, feral and nasty at all – which is how I started to smell at the 18-hour mark…. or maybe quite a bit earlier).

Things start to happen in your brain after a while – when you’ve been at it for 10 odd hours and it’s pitch dark and you are completely alone in the wilderness.

We had all been told about the potential for Hippo encounters around the rivers. This, dear reader, was my only real concern going boldly into the good Addo night. I am super cool with most wildlife – indeed, I was really WANTING to bump into big snakes, spiders, bushpig, kudu, jackal und alles. I love wild animal encounters – it’s what makes me tick, it’s why I run trail….

BUT a hippo? Not so much hey.
The race director was very helpful and most diligent in suggesting what we should all do IF we Happed Upon A Hippo. “Turn your headtorch off and lie down!

Riiiiiiiiiiight. That’s exactly what I am going to do when face to face with a 1 500 kg beast getting sniffy because I’m between her and her babba…..

Thankfully there were no hippo to worry about, so the two bigger river crossings (which both boasted a taught rope tied across them) were an absolute breeze, and the only thing I had to worry about was the odd giant earthworm and a pissed off warthog at sunrise.

I loved LOVED running alone at night. And I was completely alone. Well, bar the occasional waft of Tracey, who seemed to get faster as the night wore on. I would ask at every water table “How far ahead is Tracey?”…..”Oooooh”, they would say….”probably about 10-15 minutes?”…..then the next water table “Hmmmmmmmmmm, maybe 5 minutes?”…..then sometimes I would actually meet up with Tracey at a water table. But never long enough for much more than a mumbled greeting as she would be off – kaboooom!

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The water tables were all quite epic – all with their own character and vibe and personality. They were like oases in the desert – seriously heaven-sent little moments of stillness and friendliness and warmth and water and sometimes soup and almost always a Tracey catchup update.
The legendary Ellie’s Tavern was quite the most exceptional of all water tables. I have fond memories of the little puddle of light deep, deep down in the valley below at the end of a very, very steep downhill. One hears all about Ellie and her fabled, famous millionaire’s shortbread, which is spoken of in hushed tones. I am quite appalled to admit that I never sampled the stuff. Oh the shame!

But I DID sample the incredible hospitality and warmth and love that every single volunteer exuded at that water point. Particularly on the return leg – which happens AFTER the much talked about Valley of Tears. I needed Ellie and her team of merry elves a whole lot then. I got to them somewhere around mid-morning on the Saturday – with about 115 kays in the legs, or maybe more. This after misplacing my sunglasses, my one water bottle, my buff and my cap along the way somewhere – or at the drop bag station. My specially-for-the-race braided hair and thus very exposed scalp was literally sizzling in the Addo sunshine.

The loss of all sunshine-diversion-apparel discovery was made about halfway along the Valley of Tears, which elicited a good bout of self-pitying weeping. Appropriately enough.

At that point too, my tracker unit was starting to jab repeatedly into my scapula, causing untold pain and anguish, and more goddamn weeping (in the Valley of Tears). Oh, and let’s not forget the CHAFFING that had started to take place in a place where the sun doesn’t shine, and which, upon squatting to pee, was quite literally akin to having hot sulphuric acid splashed into an open wound. Again, more tears (in the Valley of Tears) and a whole whackload of F%&ks.

It’s one thing having a childlike tantrum when you have an audience. It’s quite another when you have none whatsoever. I had none (in the Valley of Tears), and so they were relatively short-lived affairs, as after the first barrage of F*&cks and sobbing, you feel unutterably daft and pathetic, so you suck up your snot, wipe away the tears (with your non-existent buff) and carry on.

Which is pretty much when I stumbled into Ellie’s Tavern – for the second time. They held me, they patched me up, they offered me a jaunty old hat, they soaked my sizzling scalp, they gave me a massive dollup of Vaseline for the raw arse AND they even found a pair of old sunglasses with McGyvered plasters as a strap to keep them on.

These people were quite simply magicians. I fell in love. They warn you about this. The falling in love bit. You get sucked in see – and you don’t want to leave. And it’s not just because they’re SO nice…it’s because of the monster ARSE of a mountain that you then have to climb as you leave.

I have recently watched Free Solo – an epic doci about a loon who climbs up a steep rock face for hours on end without ropes.

Well I was that dude. Climbing that bastard jeep track, without ropes. I imagined myself in my own Nat Geo documentary, and somehow it got me through.
The final 40-50 kays were a bit blurry, but good, in that I knew I was going to finish the beast.

There was a brief moment of joy when I saw Tracey (who had been very elusive for many hours) ahead of me. My second wind kicked in and I chased after her with huge enthusiasm. She turned around, saw me, got a big fright and was GONE.

So that was that really.

The last 15 kays were very, very sore and I had legs that were not terribly keen to come to the party, but I knew I had to just keep on swimming…

The less said about the final ascent to the finish the better.

What was wonderful and so very well timed was the final kilometre of the race. I summited the final monster mountain, looked around and there was Duracell….(who had just done the 76 k race). He looked strong and happy and VERY chuffed to see me, and he basically saw me through to the finish line. I weaved, wobbled and staggered my way to the blessed finish line arches and it was all sweaty hugs and happiness.

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I finished 4th woman, 7th overall in a time of 25:53:04.

The fact that only 3 dudes finished ahead of me makes me more proud than the 4th woman bit.

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This race really, honestly shows how women have the tenacity and strength and stamina and mind to do these crazy distances.

Annelise, Jo, Tracey and me….we all did women proud that day – coming in as we did in the top 7 – and leaving many a Salvador Dali clock flopping over rocks and tree stumps – in the Valley of Tears – and beyond.

WOMANDLAAAAA!!!!!!

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With massive, elephantine thanks to Sheena and Sian and their truly spectacular team for organising a SUPERB event. And to my wonderful coach Linda for her excellent training programme, guidance and support before, during and after this journey.

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Running in Remarkable Rwanda

Our rhythm is good, we are all enjoying the pace, leaping over volcanic rocks in the path, clambering up and down steep, mica-speckled slopes and teetering over wooden bridges that crisscross the canals in the lush tapestry of tea plantations.

`Mwaramutse!`, I yell enthusiastically as our little group scampers through a small copse of banana palms and past yet another humble dwelling. The woman I am greeting is wearing a bright yellow patterned Kitenge dress, her sleeping baby’s little cheek flattened against her back. She is sweeping the area around her home, rendering it even more immaculate, working her way around a large sheet covered in russet-colored millet seed, drying in the sun. “Yeego!” she replies, her face breaking into a glorious flash of white, her eyes wide and astonished. A few other women join her, laughing delightedly. We run on and I ask Jado, our young Rwandan guide why they are laughing. “They are really happy to see you”, he says, “they love to have visitors like you, they are welcoming you!”

We all came to learn these little Kinyarwanda phrases and greetings and it felt good to connect with the locals in their language – even if only on a fairly superficial level. I suspect we were something of an enigma to many of the rural folk we ran past. Seven Mzungus, four of them women, moving at speed through remote villages, waving, smiling and whooping with joy as they went. “Where is your car?” was a frequently-asked question….”Where are you going?” another….”To Kigali“, we would say, tongue in cheek. This was generally met with some hilarity. Crazy bloody Mzungus…

Travelling in a new country on foot is a unique and privileged experience. Travelling at speed, on foot, even more so. Running in wild places has been something I have been lucky enough to do more frequently in the last few years. I have covered 400 km in 8 days through the soggy bogs and rugged peaks of the remote Scottish Highlands, got swallowed up by boulders the size of houses of the Tattasberg and brushed past the endangered, prickly Halfmens of the Richtersveld, run into elephant on the banks of the Limpopo in Zimbabwe and wrapped my arms around the gnarly, rutted ancient bark of a giant baobab tree.

When travelling to new countries, I prefer to veer way off the beaten tourist track, stay well clear of the tour bus and selfie-stick brigade, and come eye-to-eye with as many of the local people, wildlife and habitats as possible in the time I am there. Lacing up a pair of trail shoes, throwing a few essentials in a pack and sniffing out the single track opens up a whole new window on a world beyond the road network and normal tourist routes. It’s often not easy to seek out this kind of travel in a foreign country, so it helps to be guided by those in the know and benefit from years of research and time on the ground.

Wildrunner’s Owen Middleton is one of South Africa’s most successful trail running event organisers. Wildrunner is well known for extremely slick events, ambitious destinations and more recently, with Wildrun Africa, for African wilderness running experiences. I have run three of Owen’s Wilderness multi-day adventures, all of them unique and memorable (the Richtersveld and Mapungubwe mentioned above are his). When he advertised his latest plan to run for a week in Rwanda, I looked on with envy and interest, but shelved it, thinking that it would be something well out my reach. So it was with a huge sense of disbelief when my partner announced he had paid the first installment (for the two of us) of the Rwandan Wildrun 2019! Digging into a fairly significant chunk of his life savings, this was a bucket list item that Filippo FOMO Faralla did not want to miss…

Enter Active Africa’s Chris Goodwin – close friend of Owen, and African travel expert of note. Trained chef, elite runner (in his earlier years) and all-round great human – Chris is one of those people who is just tailor-made for tourism. He exudes patience, a world class sense of humor and diplomacy. He’s also not afraid of some bloody hard graft. These qualities make up an essential skillset for one who makes a living taking tourists to remote locations on the African continent, ensuring that their every need is taken care of.

Chris has over 8 years’ experience in Rwanda, knows the country like the back of his hand, and has made some valuable connections and friends on the ground. His deep respect and understanding of how things roll in the country was visible in the week we were there – rendering our trip utterly seamless and hassle-free. He was also remarkably adept at arranging ice-cold, scented hand towels at the end of every run. There is nothing quite like being offered a rolled-up towel on a silver tray after a long, hot run in deepest Africa.

Wildrun Africa’s Rwanda 2019 inaugural trip was an absolute treat – from start to finish. Owen, Chris and their team of four local Rwandan youngsters Jado, Olivier, Emanuel and Danny laid on a completely unique trail-running experience.

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Our two Rwandan guides Jado and Olivier – wonderfully athletic young men, brimming with passion for their country

The 7 of us (all from South Africa) were treated to as many days of running through far-flung districts of the Northern & Western provinces of Muzanse, Rubavu, Rutsiro, Krongi & Nyamasheke. Our total mileage was 146 km, with a cumulative elevation gain of 5 700 m and 7 500 m of accumulative descent.

The adventure started and ended in Kigali – an impressive city of 12 million people. This city is spotless. Quite literally eat-your-breakfast-off-the sidewalks spotless. I have never seen anything like this, ever. And I have travelled widely – on the African continent, in Europe and North America, where waste and disposables are ubiquitous and highly visible. Litter and roadside trash are simply not a feature in Rwanda. Toss something on the ground and you will be reprimanded – not by a member of the armed forces or anything sinister like that – but by fellow Kigalians. It is just not done. Self-regulation and self-policing completely work here and this sentiment plays out on the roads too – with drivers of motorbikes, bicycles and vehicles all respecting one another with grace and humility. I am not sure I heard a single hooter honked in frustration or rage while I was in the city.

Plastic bags have been banned in Rwanda since 2006, the collection and recycling of plastic drinking bottles is rigorous, and many of the markets are completely packaging free. And it shows.

We ran twice in the city – exploring its (very clean and safe) side alleys, main roads and neighborhoods, passing easily between houses perched on the slopes around the flood plain, running through the highly cultivated landscape, and transitioning into cityscape, with some swanky hotels and ex-pat homes in the leafier, Jacaranda-speckled streets. Our hotel was within spitting distance of the presidential residence – an intimidating rolling-lawn affair, all high walls and armed guards at every pore.

On the first day we ran to the Camp Kigali Memorial. This was the site where the shit hit the proverbial on the 6th April 1994, shortly after the plane carrying Rwanda’s president and Burundi’s new president was shot down, killing both. Ten Belgian UNAMIR peacekeepers who had been deployed to guard the house of the Prime Minister were brutally tortured and all ultimately murdered by the Presidential Guard. The building where this played out has been left as is. The bullet holes peppering the exterior walls and doors, the rash of bullet holes in the corner of the room, all testament to the horror that would have played out 20 years ago. From that moment on, all hell broke loose. The army and the interahamwe began their systematic slaughter of around a million Tutsis, and over 100 days, the country quite literally bled to death – while the world stood on the sidelines, watched and did nothing.

The Gisoze Genocide Memorial is a harrowing experience, but one that must be done if you are to move through and get to grips with this country. It helps contextualise things and throws the spotlight on the extraordinary, forward-thinking resilience and optimism displayed by every single survivor. It is impossible to understand the depths of despair faced by so many, the sheer horror of neighbors turning on neighbors, the indescribable cruelty displayed by humans on other humans. We all left the museum feeling quite numb and pretty gutted.

Every individual I subsequently saw walking the streets (over thirty years old), would have witnessed and lived through the hundred-day horror. Looking into the eyes of these older men and women (many who would have been children at the time), it is impossible to fathom what goes on inside their heads. How is it possible to emerge from something so unspeakably traumatic, where entire families were erased – yet to stand up, shake off, look forward and build a nation from scratch?

On the afternoon of our first full day in Rwanda, we all boarded a mini-bus and headed to Kinigi, about 110 km to the north-west of Kigali. We settled into The Five Volcanoes Hotel and got our heads around the next day’s adventure in Volcanoes National Park – made famous by its many family groups of mountain Gorilla. We were off to play in Dian Fossey’s misty, mythical hunting ground. And so began our Rwandan Run…

Day 2 Bisoke Volcano hike (7 km) and run in the foothills (14 km)

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The group about to embark on the Bisoke Volcano hike

Dressed in waterproof pants, sturdy shoes and cold weather gear we set off early to the Gorilla Centre – Rwanda’s gorilla tourism hub. Here visitors from all corners of the globe come together to receive a guide, get divided into groups and depart for their gorilla encounter experience. I found it a little overwhelming – and was grateful that our small group would stay as was for our planned Bisoke Volcano hike. We were told that should we come across any gorilla groups, it would be totally incidental. We had not paid the very hefty US$1.500 per person for a permit, so would quite possibly not encounter these primates. We drove to the trail head, met our larger than life camo-clad guide Fidel, were joined by a veritable flotilla of armed guards, issued with walking sticks and off we set.

The initial stretch had us walking through fields bursting with white daisies (Pyrethrum), which we noticed were being harvested by teams of women. This is a valuable commercial crop used to make insecticide. Rwanda is the world’s third largest producer of this incredibly valued flower.

Rwanda’s mountainous landscape is due to the fact it straddles the eastern rim of the Albertine Rift Valley. The nation’s highest peaks (the volcanic Virungas) are a 20 million-year-old by-product of the same tectonic rumblings and labor pains that gave birth to the Rift Valley.

The hike was strenuous and extremely muddy, with a 900 m vertical gain over 3.5 km, but we all soldiered up to the top where we had fleeting glimpses of the crater lake below us when the thick mist cleared. The armed guards disappeared into the mist and watched from the sidelines – a sensitive area, given that this is the border with the volatile DRC. We slip-slid our muddy way back down and were met with a picnic feast. Here we shed our waterproofs and put on our running kit, to get ready for a 14 km run back to our lodge.

That evening before dinner we were addressed by the very impressive and knowledgeable Dr. Jean Bosco Noheli, better known by his colleagues as Dr. Noel, from the Gorilla Doctors. He left us all feeling quite positive about the future of these incredible mammals. Wildlife tourism – as uncomfortable as it may make the likes of me – is this species only chance of survival. These daily, hour-long encounters between human and beast are what will ensure that these beautiful mammals continue to thrive in a very compromised world.

Day 3 Gishwati forest and Lake Kivu (16 km)
The day started with an early drive through to Gishwati, the start of one of the longer runs – a 28 km stretch to Lake Kivu. We disembarked at the end of a bustling, dusty road, fringed with busy stalls, shops and many bemused onlookers. The run took us through a tapestry of tea plantations, fields groaning with yams, cassava and sweet potatoes, mango and banana trees and eucalyptus forests. We ran through endless villages and were rarely alone or away from large groups of small, ecstatic children or men and women working in the fields. Since Rwanda has one of the highest population densities in Africa, it came as no surprise that we were almost constantly surrounded by people. When we arrived at one school, the kids couldn’t contain their excitement, and all dashed out the classrooms to surround us and stare wide-eyed and fascinated.

The terrain is hilly, and the running involves many ups and downs, but the views are always spectacular. We eventually reached the verdant banks of Lake Kivu, and after more of Chris’s famous towels, a blissful swim and an ice-cold Virunga beer, we settled into our rooms for a brief nap.

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The view down to Lake Kivu on Day 3

Lake Kivu is Rwanda’s largest freshwater body, and it also forms the border with the DRC. Reaching depths of almost 500 metres, with a water content of 333 km2 renders it one of the world’s deepest freshwater lakes.

That evening we went out on a small motor boat to watch traditional fishermen with their three-boat system (amato), long bamboo poles and nets. These incredibly fit young men head out at sunset (often singing as they paddle). They spend the night out on the water, catching as much of the only species of small fish, called iSambaza, able to survive the methane-rich waters of the lake and return at sunrise.

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Fishermen setting off for the night’s fishing in the methane-rich waters of Lake Kivu

Our evening was rounded off with an incredible dinner on the sandy banks of the lake, with some local drummers and dancers to entertain us.

Day 4 Lake Kivu trail to Kinunu (28 km)
Another 28 km day saw us skirting the lake shore, again passing through numerous villages, through fields, over hills, into valleys and along ridges overlooking the lake. With 10 km to go, we had a very welcome break at Nkora Market village. Here we were treated to some spectacular Rwandan hospitality (quite the most delicious warm chapattis dripping with local, dark honey and an array of locally grown fruit), courtesy of Mamma Nellie, a local Nkora Market village entrepreneur.

We ended the day at a small, basic but very cozy guesthouse at Kinunu where we were treated to a fascinating bean-to-cup coffee growing/washing plant and processing warehouse experience.

Day 5 Kinunu to Kibuye (25 km)
The trail continued southwards along the many bays and inlets of the Kivu coastline through fishing villages and fields of crops – the terrain becoming increasingly curvaceous and lung busting! Our run ended with a short boat trip to an island where a magnificent picnic had been laid out by Chris (with his towels) and his team. After a refreshing dip and welcome feed, we all boarded the little boat and chugged our way back to the mainland to our final Lake Kivu accommodation. Cormoran Lodge on the steep, lush banks of Lake Kivu is a unique place to stay – with vast treehouse-like rooms on tall stilts set above the sunbird-saturated canopy.

Day 6 Transfer to Nyungwe Forest (rest day)
On the morning of the 6th day we drove to Nyungwe Forest. On the way we stopped in at Gisakuru Tea Factory, which gave us a fascinating insight into how tea is processed – literally from picking, fermentation, drying to packing.

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The view across the tea plantation of Gisakuru towards the fringes of Nyungwe Forest

Day 7 Nyungwe Forest and Congo-Nile Divide Trail (42 km)

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The group at the start of the 42 km run

Day 7 started with a 3-30am alarm wake up call. We bundled into the vehicle and hit the road for a long, winding journey to the trail head of the Congo Nile Divide Trail. We were destined for a section of the Rift Valley Escarpment, which slices through western Rwanda, and which sits as the watershed between the continent’s two biggest drainage systems – the Nile and the Congo.

We were to run in the only large stand of protected indigenous tropical montane forest remaining in the country and in sub-saharan Africa. The trail boasts bracken fields, ericaceous shrubs, bamboo forests and primary forest. Our guide Jado referred to Nyungwe as “Kamiranzovu” – the forest that can swallow an elephant!

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Deep in the magical Nyungwe forest on the Congo-Nile Divide trail

The 970 km2 park contains 13 primate species (a staggering 25% of Africa’s total), 275 bird species, 1 068 plant species and 85 mammal species. We were delighted to see and hear the Ruwenzori and Great Blue Turacos – two extraordinary endemics. We also came across a Bamboo squirrel, Colobus monkeys and a host of other endemic bird species. The trail was 100% runnable, soft and leafy underfoot and incredibly well maintained. We flew along some of the flatter sections, slogged at a fast hike up most of the hills and whooped our way down the longer hilly sections. We all felt incredibly blessed to know that we were the first group of runners to complete what is a standard 3-day hike in 8 ½ hours.

The trip was very elegantly rounded off with a sumptuous dinner at the newly revamped One & Only hotel on the fringes of the Nyungwe Forest. We indulged in this other-worldly bubble of luxury for a few hours and ate and drank ourselves silly, sharing war stories and making appreciative speeches of thanks to our guides and the team.

The Rwanda Wildrun was a bucket-lister of note that exceeded all my expectations. Rwanda has a very tangible soul – she is powerful, positive, hopeful. As a country, she has drawn me in hook, line and sinker and I have fallen quite hopelessly in love.

Thanks to Filippo Faralla for all the photos!

In search of the Kelpie’s Bridle – an 8-day ultra-trail running expedition in Scotland

kelpie-water-horses-spirit-legend-cryptid-creature3In May this year, 110 people completed the Cape Wrath Ultra, an 8-day, 400 km race – described as Scotland’s answer to the Marathon Des Sables. Filippo Faralla and Karoline Hanks held the South African flag up high at the Cape Wrath lighthouse. This is Karoline’s story…
Scottish myth has it that while wandering through the Highlands a ‘kelpie’ may appear to a weary traveller or inquisitive child as a magnificent horse, ready to be ridden. When touched or mounted, alas, the hapless rider becomes stuck to the kelpie, which will dash into the loch and drown the victim…

I had just completed the fourth and final day of the Richtersveld Wild Run in 2015 and was sitting on the banks of the Orange River, when I spotted my partner Filippo on his cell phone, tapping away madly and trying to enter us both for the 2016 Cape Wrath Ultra. He had been chatting to world-renowned trail running journo Ian Corless, who was with us and covering Richtersveld that year. Corless had been extolling the virtues of the Berghaus Dragon’s Back race in Wales and was very excited about the prospect of covering a spanking new entry in the international Ultra Trail calendar – the Cape Wrath Ultra (CWU). This one was going to be a good few days longer than the Dragon’s Back and would play out in the Scottish Highlands. It was being organised by the same Race Director, Shane Ohly of Ourea Events, a UK-based organisation.

The prospect of running and self-navigating (at speed) through remote wilderness is essentially what drives this adventurous man of mine. So… when Corless spoke of an eight-day ultra-trail running expedition that weaves its way through some of Britain’s more challenging landscapes, a seed was sown, and before I knew it, I was the proud owner of a CWU entry!

Alas, my Achilles was having none of that, and due to major surgery in December 2015, which took me out of running for 6 months, we opted to carry our entry over to the 2018 event instead (the CWU is a bi-annual event, alternating each year with its little sister, the Dragon’s Back).

Which is why, on the morning of the 20th of May, 2018, Filippo and I found ourselves alighting from a ferry onto the banks of Loch Linnhe in Fort William, accompanied by the evocative and goose-bumpy sounds of bagpipes being played by a ruddy-cheeked fellow in a kilt. Along with 177 other ultra-enthusiasts, we were about to set out on an epic 400 km journey.

The Cape Wrath Trail is touted as one of the toughest long-distance hiking trails in the UK. The trail starts in the relative comfort of Fort William (a charming little town at the base of Britain’s highest mountain Ben Nevis). It then winds through an exquisite patchwork of mythical, ancient mist-drenched lochs, boggy glens and rugged peaks and includes Morar, Knoydart, Kintail, Torridon, Assynt and Sutherland until it reaches Britain’s north-western most point – Cape Wrath. The trail often follows centuries-old, traditional drovers’ and funeral routes – routes that crofters and their animals would have used to navigate the remote north-western seaboard of Scotland.

Most people take between two and three weeks to complete the full journey and whatever time of year you attempt the trail it will test the limits of your physical and mental endurance. But dark, boggy moments are quickly forgotten amid a solitude and beauty rarely found in modern life. (Walking the Cape Wrath Ultra Trail, Ian Harper)

To say that I was ill-prepared for this race is a gross understatement. We have been talking about ‘The Scotland Trip’ in our household for years, so it always seemed a somewhat mythical thing that was going to happen in the very, very distant future. I barely gave it the time of day or attention it deserved, leaving it all up to Filippo, who has always been a meticulous planner and sorter of all things adventure related. He was the one who made sure we had all the right mandatory kit, that he was clued up on all the many Do’s and Don’ts and Must Haves. He spent days pouring over google maps and overlaying the organisers waypoints with his own, ensuring we had a detailed breadcrumb track for each day’s route (a solid purple line on our hand-held Garmins). I would come to love that solid purple line (and depend on it – quite literally – for survival!)
‘The Scotland Trip’ came about too quickly, of course. My training was haphazard and sprinkled with odd ill-timed affairs like the Two Oceans Ultra and the Platteklip Charity Challenge.

About two weeks before the event, I thought best to get some insight into the race and get my game face on. They say ignorance is bliss, but I was quite quickly coming to realise that I was in for a very BIG and very tough challenge – and I was being far too glib and nonchalant for my own good!

In describing the route, the hiking guidebook speaks of ‘some of the remotest country in Britain’, ‘one of the wettest places in Europe’, of ‘sudden weather changes, impassable rivers, extreme temperatures, ticks, midges and deep, dark bogs’.

The race
Day 1 started at a hellishly brisk pace. Given that we had some insanely long days ahead of us, I was quite alarmed at just how brisk. We ran along a lovely little oak-lined country road adjacent to the beautiful Loch Linnhe for a good few kays, with the front runners jostling and posturing for positions. Carol Morgan – an Irish lass – had set off at a bristling pace from the outset. She remained the female leader for the entire race. A veteran of ultra and endurance challenges, she also won the last Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race and the Montane Spine Race in 2017.

We then ran along an undulating rocky jeep track into a massive valley/glen – still at a very stiff pace and I found myself being overtaken by many runners. The voices of doubt started to niggle. We were just into Day 1 and already my lungs were bursting, and my hip flexors were twitching. What have you done Hanks? Who do you think you are? Why would you think you could possibly run 8 ultras in as many days?

I could just feel the steely eyes of a kelpie on my back on Day 1 already…

On the other side of our first ascent, I had my first real encounter with the boggy, soggy, humpy-lumpy, slippery stuff that would become the norm for much of the race. Often one would take a misguided step on what looked like mossy ground and you would plunge into a sucking, slurping bog – often up to thigh height. It took my breath away. Is this how it’s going to be the whole week?!
Roughly 3 ½ hours later, I got to the camp – an impressive layout of about 22 eight-man tents and a few main white marquees (kitchen, mess hall, medical tent and race HQ) and 70 welcoming, super- friendly race volunteers and staff all going out of their way to make our experience as comfortable as possible. We were staying a stone’s throw from the tiny settlement of Glenfinnan has been made famous largely for the Harry Potter viaduct – an impressive construct that towered above me as I stood in the icy river and had my first bracing, post-race Scotland river wash.

Day 2 saw the organisers batch us into groups based on our ‘prologue’ Day 1, with the slower runners starting first. The clouds were heavy and threatening to wobble, as were most of our moods – knowing that we faced a 57 km day in icy, wet conditions. The terrain was challenging, with bogs, slippery humps of grass and rocks. We passed through some utterly gorgeous countryside – fairy-tale waterfalls fringed with ancient, gnarly forests. Sadly, the technicality required such an intense degree of focus, that there wasn’t much time to stand around and take it all in.

At the top of the very final peak I could feel my mind and body shutting down. I was soaked through, the wind chill was hectic, and I could sense system collapse. I remember Filippo hearing my mumbling and seeing my face and then taking control, helping me put on two extra thermal layers and forcing me to eat something. My hands could not work, they were frozen into useless claws. I burst into tears and wept pathetically, taking huge gasping breaths and feeling immobilised by fear. I heard later that our tentmates (a young couple from Malaysia) had to be hauled off the same mountain, suffering hyperthermia. The end of the race for them.

Many participants found the day’s route and run brutal, and there were some despondent faces around camp that night. Some runners only trickled in well after midnight. There had also been one or two dramatic rescues off isolated peaks and one rescue even involved a boat, such was the inaccessibility of the route.

The Kelpies were at work – and runners were starting to topple.

Her slick, green skin twitched feverishly. She shook her vast, wild mane of dripping water weeds and serpents and pawed the Loch’s muddy bank angrily with her vast hooves. The kelpie then slid effortlessly back into her dark, misty home. She had just missed making eye contact with one lonely, exhausted runner….just. She would wait for the next though. And the one after that. She would wriggle her way into their minds, lure them into her dark, bottomless waters, and never let go…

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Day 3 was another brutal, long day with endless trackless boggy sections through the remote glens of Kintail and with four massive climbs. By the time I staggered into camp at 7-30 that night. I was in a dark mood. I could almost smell the Kelpie’s fetid breath, she was so close…

The one thing I realised very early on in this event was that nobody has any sympathy for or interest in your ailment, pain levels or discomfort. They’re all in the same boat and it really is all about each to his/her own. So, you could go about feeling sorry for yourself, but it began and ended there. It was a case of toughen the hell up, or go home…

Even though Day 4 was the second shortest day of the CWU, the accumulation of the two previous days distance and climbing was etched all over runners’ faces (and bodies). Many were held together with K-Tape and the meal tent mood was a tad more sombre than previous nights. Despite its relatively short distance, Day 4 still managed to bite many of us firmly on the arse with a long stretch of trackless boulder hopping towards the end.

Days 5, 6 and 7 have become something of a blur for me. I know they were all spectacular, and that they were long and tough and challenging. We would be out there scaling endless steep mountain peaks, negotiating our way through incredibly boggy, trackless moorland for hours on end. Yet on all those days the weather was perfect, and the rare window of sunshine would burn away any chilly, dark sentiments about one’s predicament. Had it been cold and wet throughout the week, I think the fallout would have been tremendous.

Kelpies have a weak spot. If you can get hold of a kelpie’s bridle, you will have command over it and all other kelpies. When a kelpie is captive, it is said to have the strength and stamina of ten horses. It is highly prized. If you have the power to use a kelpie bridle on this malevolent spirit beast, then it will bow down and serve the master of the bridle.
The final day’s route was spectacular, taking in as it did some exceptional coastal landscape and beach running. It was the shortest day, and we all knew it, and were eager to finally reach the seemingly elusive lighthouse that we had all heard about perched on the end of those ragged cliffs at Cape Wrath. My biggest regret is that I did not explore that little finger of land that plunged dramatically into the wild Atlantic below….I was just too shattered and overcome with relief at completing the race!

How does it compare to Marthon Des Sables?
So – is this really Scotland’s answer to Marathon Des Sables (MDS)? Says Edward Vincent who completed MDS in 2008, and ran CWU this year, “I would say that CWU was a lot tougher than the MDS. I think mainly it’s the 8 days with no rest day and the elevation that makes it tougher – even though of course it is 100 miles longer. I never felt out of my depth on the MDS (apart from on Day 1), whereas there were a couple of times at the start of the week on CWU (Day 4 in particular) when I was a bit worried.”

Another 2018 CWU finisher Alan Li, who ran MDS in 2015 says, “With MDS, sandy terrain, heat and nutrition was the biggest challenge. You can be more strategic as you have the option of sacrificing luxury over mobility and also there is a rest/recovery day after the long stage day. Having said that, the length of CWU and the brutal cut-off times makes it less of a ‘walk in the park’. I believe that the CWU is a much tougher footrace. If you don’t look after yourself from the outset, there’s a high chance of DNF. I raced CWU – not against others – but to make sure I had enough time to feed, wash and take care of basic body admin back at camp.”

I like to think that when you run the CWU, you dance with the kelpies. The kelpies, of course, being the voices in your head, the ones that want to see you fail, drag you down and snuff you out. The Kelpies got hold of 38% of the field this year…

With any tough endurance event, where you are asking your body to do unspeakable things for an inhumane amount of time, where the pain levels shoot through the roof and beyond, yet you know you must keep going – up the next peak, through the next seemingly impassable bog field, the mind and how you control it becomes your greatest weapon. I found my kelpie bridle out there in the magnificent Scottish moors….possibly halfway through Day 5.

I met some extraordinarily powerful humans out there too – people who stared pain right in the face and blew those kelpies right out of the water, with the reins firmly in their hands.

Race results
Robert Barnes, England, won the men’s race in an impressive time of 45:37. Carol confirmed her place as one of the UK’s best ultra-runners by winning in a time of 55:11 and an impressive 12th overall. Filippo Faralla had an astounding week of running, and despite a hideous stomach ailment throughout the night before Day 6, he bounced back and claimed 6th overall with an excellent time of 52:20. I was placed 3rd woman, in an overall time of 59:22.

Route details
Day 1: Fort William to Glenfinnan (37 km; total ascent 500 m)
Day’s fastest times: Robert Barnes 2:37
Easy running up and into Cona Glen and the moorlands of Ardgour with a cascading river to the left. Runners head up and over the shoulder of Meall na Cuartaige and down to the camp in Glenfinnan.

Day 2: Glenfinnan to Kinloch Hourn (57 km; total ascent: 1 800 m)
Day’s fastest times: Jim Mann 6:35
The route ascends into remote territory with several high passes. The day’s highest point is at 522 m.

Day 3: Kinloch Hourn to Achnashellach (68 km; total ascent: 2 400 m)
Day’s fastest times: Robert Barnes 8:46
Route takes runners through through the valleys of Western Ross, with the highest point at 800 m – just below the dramatic Forcan Ridge. The waterfalls of the Glomach are the most voluminous in the Highlands.

Day 4: Achnashellach to Kinlochewe (35 km; total ascent: 1 400 m)
Day’s fastest times: Ian Stewart 4:21
Runners will experience the mountains at their loftiest, with high rocky passes. The terrain is rough underfoot and the last section requires careful navigation.

Day 5: Kinlochewe to Inverbroom (44 km; 1 400 m)
Day’s fastest times: Robert Barnes 4:37
Runners take on a moderate 1 400 m climb into the Fisherfield mountains and into some very remote wilderness, surrounded by high peaks, including An Teallach.

Day 6: Inverbroom to Inchnadamph (72 km; total ascent: 1 400 m)
Day’s fastest times: Jim Mann 7:43
On this, the longest day, the route penetrates some very remote and rough high ground, but is preceded by significant distances on double-tracks in the glens, and through prime salmon-fishing country.

Day 7: Inchnadamph to Kinlochbervie (61 km; total ascent 1 600 m)

Day’s fastest times: Robert Barnes 7:04
A great contrast of moor, mountain, and deep inaccessible sea lochs. Eas a’ Chual Aluinn is the highest waterfall in the UK.

Day 8: Kinlochbervie to Cape Wrath (26 km; total ascent 700 m)
Day’s fastest times: Jim Mann 2:41

Runners leave Kinlochbervie and head to Sandwood Bay, one of the UK’s most remote and beautiful sandy beaches. They then crossing rough hills and moorland before the lighthouse comes into welcome view

Part 2: Why I’ll never trust a man in a skirt again…

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A similarly bare-kneed fellow (without the pipes) offered some decidedly questionable directions on Day 3! (thanks to Jimmy Hyland for the pic)

With an event of this magnitude, where there are so many participants and where the sharp end of the field is fiercely competitive, the organisers need to lay down some rigid ground rules. All runners must be on a level playing field – no benefits may be gained from a) sneaking in a warm shower at a hotel along the way b) taking food from the mess tent to eat later out on the trail (!), c) skimping on mandatory kit, d) receiving any form of trail-side assistance from family, friends or even strangers etc.

Ultra-runners are naturally quite a single-minded, self-absorbed, belligerent bunch at the best of times. I know this. As such, you need some staunch systems in place. Failing that, you would quite likely have a riot on your hands.

As a SAffer, where we generally see most rules as mere suggestions, I found this quite a challenge, and, as luck would have it, fell foul of the system quite early on.

I only have praise for Shane Ohly and his team of Ourea Events. Their day-to-day management was impeccable, and their adherence to systems and consistency around rules was most admirable. It cannot be easy – being bad cop when you are simultaneously managing an event where encouragement and support really are the order of the day.

There was, and I kid you not, a “three strikes and you’re out” rule. Out, as in, out of the race, go home, bye-bye. This struck fear in many of our over-worked little hearts, and towards the end of the week, there was some trepidation (within the ranks of the more criminally-inclined) as we tried to navigate our way through a strike-free day, as well as across the bog-saturated landscape.

 

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Rules and news would be written up here daily….

 

I was struck down on the morning of Day 5. Yup! The shame of it! I had omitted to include gloves in my pack, you see. This being compulsory kit, I was given a strike. They were very sweet about it, and all that, but a strike was issued nonetheless. A stain against my name. Community service for me…??? No!…a 44k run instead!

One chap was issued a strike for “outside assistance”. The form of this assistance? He got a lift to the pub which was some distance away in a car by a mate for a beer! Yup….it was brutal out there.

The rules kicked in the morning of the race when we had to check our dry bags in. These were the bags Filippo and I had packed, unpacked, packed, unpacked several hundred times – both at home and in the UK. We had somehow managed to overlook the sub-text in rule 1 00 001 around dry bags. The one about weight allowance. We could only bring 20kg with us. Not a nanogram more. Our bags were being weighed by an officious fellow in a blue shirt with an electronic suspended weight machine thingy.

You can imagine the blind terror at being told that we each had to shed 5kg – before we had even started. But shed we did – all our meticulously packed clothing and food, all came out….into the car park of Fort William. Since all our other bags had been taken to Inverness the day before for retrieval at the end, we had nowhere to leave anything we did shed.

Food was the biggest casualty. Again, given the fact that we could not expect the organisers to feed us when “out on the hill”, we had to plan ahead and pack 8 days’ worth of nutrition. So the bananas, boiled potatoes, fruit squishies, energy bars were ditched. Filippo’s eye-wateringly massive quantity of nougat was ditched. It all ended up left on the front seat of the rental car – in the vague hope that the rental car people would enjoy the smorgasbord of trail running delights. I mean, who wouldn’t?

Given the weight restrictions, the take-no-food-from-meal-tent rule was a challenge for many I think. There was many a runner (in the latter stages of the race) who would stand in the queue, eagerly eyeing the tray of boiled eggs, slices of bread, bananas or sausages (no, not the sausages) and be dreaming up devious and cunning ways of smuggling items into pockets or under armpits…

We ate spectacularly well, and the catering was top draw, all served by the happiest, friendliest group of men and women. It was entirely meat-free – all week. We were told this would be the case upfront, and menus were listed upfront, so any serious carnivores had the opportunity to plan ahead and factor this into their 20kg allocation. I mean, how much can a leg of lamb really weigh?

And so we come to the bacon smuggler. He shall remain nameless, as I wish to protect his identity and future participation in all races in the UK, but, this incredibly generous soul took pity on us on the morning of Day 5. He had clearly seen our hollow, haunted looks and sagging shoulders 😉….He bought a few rashers of freshly fried up bacon at the nearby café and smuggled it into our tent! The air of subterfuge was palpable, as he entered our tent and hastily unpacked his stash, whispering loudly “eat this, quick!”.

Both F and I gobbled it up like ravenous street kids, making sure to wipe all evidence of bacon fat from our lips. The crazy thing is, I am pretty much a veggie – but THAT bacon. THAT bacon…..it filled some kind of crazy, calorie hole and our bodies were grateful.

[On a side note, the above activity was entirely legit. We could make use of local shops and pubs, if we wanted to, if access was there for everyone. So I am not sure why there was any guilt attached to the bacon fiasco, perhaps just because we were in a designated meat-free zone?!]

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The food tent queue in a quieter moment…

From bacon smugglers to budgie smugglers…or the lack thereof, in Filippo’s case. Given his extraordinary speed and technical skills out on the route each day, Filippo would be at camp long before me. This gave him ample time to unpack his 20kg bag, lay out his bedding and get himself washed. This involved getting oneself to the closest river, dancing over the slippery pebbles and doing as deft a body wash as possible. In the first three days, this was in very chilly weather and with wet, skanky towels. Deeply unpleasant. Added to that, there was no element of privacy. For someone like me, with all manner of hang-ups (as alluded to in Part 1), washing one’s naked body in full daylight, standing up in a river, in full view of a bunch of strange men – yar, well, it had its moments.

I was shy and anxious on Days 1-5 and would try and walk miles upriver to avoid detection…..by Day 6, I really didn’t give a rat’s arse about who saw what. Funny what a bit of shared pain and adventure does to inhibitions.

Filippo had no such qualms from Day 1. This man – who admittedly only had a small face towel to work with (bigger towel ditched to make the 20kg, you understand) – was unphased by any vague notions of self-consciousness. He was frequently spotted – completely kaalgat/starkers – walking casually from the river washing area back to his tent, past all the volunteers and any other runners who may have also come in.
Granted there were not many of those. Given his great speed.

Still, after a while, the volunteers came to speak of him as “the naked one”. Much to my intense embarrassment. That embarrassment was all mine, and mine alone.

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“The naked one” – seen fleetingly before dashing down the mountain to camp.

So why will I never trust a Scotsman again? Well, on Day 3, which was incredibly long and incredibly difficult, with more peaks and climbs and bog crossings than in all the days combined, I came across the kilted one having a late evening stroll down a road. I was spent. Done. Tickets. I had been running for well on 10 hours and I needed to know that home was in sight.

My watch had run out of juice earlier that day, so I had no idea how far I had run. As I staggered past him, he put his meaty hands together and clapped, congratulating me and telling me Porker #1 “Yer looking soooo strong, keep goin’, well done!”.

How much further?” I ask.

Ogh eye….yer jes hafta pop o’er that wee hill o’er there, and the campsite’ll be right there!”

Oh phew, thank you!” I pant….and continue.

Only then do I really engage with the direction in which our kilted friend has pointed. There are no real hills, to speak of. There’s a vague bump in the road in the horizon, granted. But not a hill. Beyond that I see a very ominous mountain – it’s peak smothered in rolling, grey cloud. So which is it, I wonder?

I spend the best part of the next hour pondering the Scottish definition of hills and mountains and then as I crest the “hill”, I look down into a valley – utterly bereft of any civilisation – and certainly no tent in sight.

Right about then, I had one of those all-fall-down moments, which I think all adventure racers/ultra-runners have. I wept a little and bellowed “Nooooooooo!”. Nobody heard me. Nobody cared. I was alone.

I then promptly stepped right into a deep bog. More tears and wailing and extraordinary expletives – even I didn’t know I was capable of uttering.

I remember breaking into a very earnest and loud conversation – it may well have been for Angus’s benefit – something along the lines of: “Ooooh look, what do we have HERE…..I do believe that’s another f*%ing bog!….Oh, and over there? Oooooh, goody….! that’ll be another f&%ing mountain!

Once I got over all that, there was nothing for it but to knuckle down and gather myself….and climb. Yet. Another. Effing. Mountain.
I staggered into camp at 7-30 that night. A solid day out really. One which started shortly after 8am!

That night I was a little gloomy, but all that melted away when one of the volunteers “knocked” on our tent door and announced “Ultra-mail for Tent 7!
This was the most wonderful feature of tent life. Supporters from far-flung corners of the globe could communicate with you via the tracking site. It was all sent to a central PC and printed out. These little pieces of paper with lovely words of encouragement from friends and family were little positive treasures – they quite literally saved the day.

 

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My stash of ultra-mail – oh the joy!

 

Any blog on this race would be incomplete without mention of Angus – my happy, hairy coo and my most loyal running buddy. He did the full 400k, he did, and didn’t complain ONCE. I take my hat off to him for that – stoic little bugger. On Day 8, as we neared the finish line and had the lighthouse in full, glorious view, I grabbed him out of his comfortable pozzi on the back of my pack and slotted him in between the straps across my chest so he could watch the finish and us carrying the SA flag.
I swear that his little grin got a whole lot broader right then. As did mine.

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Relief etched all over Angus’s face at finally finishing the 400 k CWU!

 

 

Part 1: “Just over tha’ wee hill”, said the funny man in a skirt..

33768743_10156529854459048_7450161919316459520_nIt takes a while to digest something as challenging and tough as the Cape Wrath Ultra. I have spent hours going over the map, dissecting each day’s route and trying to grasp just how far we ran and the kind of terrain we ran through.

It’s a little crazy how one realises just how special, unique and life-affirming an experience is only once you are back home and dabbling in the mundane once more – packing lunch boxes, driving a monosyllabic teenager around, standing at the sink etc.

A CWU finisher who has written about the experience talks of a deep sense of calm she has been feeling since being home. I can attest to that. Whether this is thanks to the 8-day injection of endorphs or just sheer bloody exhaustion, I am not quite sure.

There is also a sense of not really wanting to talk about it all – it all just feels too surreal, foreign, dream-like, detached.

The challenge always with these things is capturing the right words, squeezing them onto the palette and then cobbling them together in a way that paints a picture for the reader – to somehow transport them into the world we inhabited for eight days and to help them relive it all with you.

I usually find the best way to deal with something difficult is to find the humour in it all. So far from a serious, technically accurate race report (which can bore most non-runners – and runners for that matter – to tears), I will attempt to bring the experience alive with a shot or two of humour and a focus on some of the quirkier aspects of a big expedition race such as this.

The whole bloody thing was Filippo’s idea.

Although this may sound disgustingly ungrateful, one needs to understand that I would NEVER, EVER seek out and sign up for an 8-day race – not here, not anywhere in the world. Aside from the obvious expense aspect (and the fact that I simply do not earn enough to justify the entry fee), I just wouldn’t see my way past the inevitable physical pain potential. That’s aside from the extensive air travel required (note, I have a pathological fear of heights and being in a metal tube with 200 plus people). Oh… and then there is the fact that I would have to be doing the whole communal living thing with the great unwashed. A challenge for any self-respecting misanthrope.
It all sounded quite hideous to be honest. But good girlfriend that I am, I went along with it with a smile. What a cracking idea. Yes, let’s go run an ultra-marathon every day for eight days. In the mud. With midges.

Lets!
So we did…

I was horrendously undercooked for this one. Filippo wasn’t. Filippo invested an inordinate amount of time in some serious back-to-back training, condition coaching, massage therapy and research, time on legs and then some. And it showed. The man ran a blistering race and popped out at the end in 6th overall. I ran at an infinitely less blistering pace, did a fair amount of bitching and complaining (to nobody in particular) and limped in 23rd overall and 3rd woman. This result may appear very impressive at first glance, but not when you see that I was well over an hour behind the second lady and a solid 7 hours behind Filippo! This latter detail is something that I shall never, ever get over. I shall be reminded daily, if not hourly, of this remarkable stat.
The competition between the two of us used to be quite robust. I have indeed been known to beat the bugger in one or two races. Comrades even. After this event, that has summarily died.

Apples and pears you understand. Apples and pears.

For something of this magnitude you really do need to get your shit together. You need to be preparing mentally and physically for at least 6 months. You need to be setting aside most things –family, love, work, play, pleasure, wine, chocolate, life….and just run. Run, run, run a bit more and then run again. A bit like those funny Ironman people I guess. The event must become your be all and end all. Otherwise you are quite likely to stare failure in the face and confront the very real possibility of Dee-enn-effing. (For the uninitiated, that means Did Not Finish. DNF is an acronym that strikes fear in the heart of many an athlete).

I stared the DNF monster in the face a few times in the first three days. And then I decided that – like all the other runners who were also in pain – it would just be better to toughen the f&*k up and get on with it. More of that a little later…

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One could write about the route, the terrain, the scenery and the distances forever. I could spend hours using whimsical prose and flogged-to-death superlatives such as gob-smacking, awesome, superb and magical. But I won’t. Because the views were all that and more and photos can only really do them some justice…

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Scotland is a magical, spiritual, ancient place. The fact that we ran through some insanely remote wilderness, where it would have taken 12 hours or more to access and bail out an injured runner made it special enough for me. I love remote. I crave being as far away as possible from humanity. And there were vast sections of this route where you simply did not see, smell or hear any sign of human life. That was intensely beautiful in its own right.

This next paragraph will only mean something to trail runners in SA, so apologies for this. It’s a useful exercise though, and has helped me to get a sense of this crazy CWU monster…

So on Day 1 we ran the equivalent distance and technicality of the Jonkershoek Mountain Challenge. On Day 2 we awoke to the bone-shattering cold and rain and set off to run Marloth (in distance and elevation gain). The day after that, on tired legs, we carpe-diemed the crap out of Ultra Trail Cape Town’s 65k race. A day after that, we smashed the OTTER (oh grail of trail that it is). On Day 5, we charged out of the camp to take on Table Mountain Challenge and then some. On Day 6, we embarked on the PUFFER. Because we can! On Day 7, we dabbled in a little Sky Run Lite equivalent. And then on Day 8, we had a little breather, and did a longer version of the Fishermans Trail Challenge – just a little warm down.

So that takes care of route, distance and elevation gain details. No need to really go into much more on that front…

Onto communal living! The tents were all miraculously laid out and arranged upon finishing each day. The 70-strong volunteer/event team were brilliant in every way. I have never met such a delightfully, cheerful, helpful, funny, efficient bunch of humans ever. Every single day they came out in their blue T-shirts and had a cheery, positive chirp, a genuine helping hand and a big encouraging smile. Testament to Shane’s sterling leadership, I imagine.

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Sharing tents at the best of times can be a challenge for one who likes their space and who has a large – read, GINORMOUS – space bubble. And tolerance issues generally. Misophonia actually. Over sensitive hearing and oversensitive olfactory issues. All round baggage really.

So when I was asked to share a fairly small space with 8 other humans, 6 of them total strangers, it was a pretty big ask. But this adventure was all about toughening the f%#k up, remember, so I donned the silicone ear plugs when it was bed time, smiled and carried on. Thankfully for us (and most certainly not for them), we lost 4 of our tentmates after Day 2, so we ended up getting to know 2 wonderful Canadians, who turned out to be the kindest, loveliest people I have met in a long time.
Sleep was tricky for a host of reasons – not least of which was the Scottish sun, which just refuses to put itself to bed! The brain gets seriously confused when at 11pm it’s still light. Hard when an aching body is craving rest and sleep.

People in neighbouring tents also somehow felt that their canvas walls were impenetrable and sound-proof. So we got to hear all robust and lively conversations, very clearly, late into the night. And the snoring. And farting. The latter increased in pitch and cadence as the days went by. I will place the blame for this firmly at the door of the Great Veggie Sausage (GVS). The latter a regular feature of the buffet table. Particularly at breakfast. Those GVSs had a sneaky habit of breaking into the odd stew, lasagne and soup for dinners and lunches. Cunning beasts those sausages.

While on matters lavatorial, one cannot talk about any expedition race of this nature without making mention of the chemical porta-loos. Again, I had to put all sensitivities aside and embrace the concept of sharing 12 porta-loos with 250 or more folk over 8 days. This doesn’t need too much airtime, suffice to say that after about Day 4, a few runners clearly lost interest in the flushing routine. There were indeed one or two times that little confined space was just too dangerous to enter. As a child I developed a rather strange fear of public lavatories, and have never really managed to sit on a lavatory seat. I had to set much of this unhelpful, crippling OCD behaviour aside however. Though I drew the line at using my hand to man-handle the large pump stick mechanism thingy which drew the blue chemicals into the bowl. I used my foot for that. Depending on which day we had run, I had to use a different foot. The one that wasn’t strapped up and toe-nail-less and which was most up to the task.

The walk to the bank of toilets was always quite an amusing affair – placed as they were a fair distance from the main camp and feeding area. As the week progressed, the “porta-loo alley” would be a scene straight out of WW1 trenches – grown men leaning heavily on walking sticks, limping forlornly past, others hobbling zombie-like with midge nets over their heads muttering post-traumatic syndrome gibberish…

One lesson learnt on this one. While standing in the food, tap, washing up or toilet queue, one should never, ever, ever ask a fellow CWU runner this: “How did your day go?” Do that and you’re generally in for something along these lines: “Aaargh, my ankle’s stuffed…..Hmm, torn a ligament in my calf…..Not great, think I’m out…..Bit broken, everything sore …..” That sort of thing.

One rarely had: “Ooooohhh, I had a cracker of a day, jeepers, what a ride! I am super strong! Blitzed that boulder section I did! And, man alive, I cannot WAIT for sunrise tomorrow so we can get stuck into the 76k day!!!!!!!”

Nope, not a lot of that.

Part 2 will involve sordid and intimate details of a bacon smuggler, Filippo’s daily naked post-wash dash across camp, meeting a f(lying) Scotsman in a kilt (who told me a porker about the remaining distance to camp on Day 5), finding sympathy and compassion in a war zone, a brush with hypothermia, hugging strangers, ultra-mail and other tently delights, pain management, prize giving embarrassment and Angus my happy hairy coo companion pictured below in all his smiling glory.

PS: This was a BRILLIANT adventure and I loved (almost) every minute of it.

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Mission Turtle – Trouble in Paradise

Mission Turtle – Trouble in Paradise

The alarm was set for either 3 or 3-30 am every morning.
We would toss the mozzie net aside, pull on some running gear, grab our head torches and leave the cocoon of our little chalet to make our way down the boardwalks between the other chalets to the beach. All the other guests would still be fast asleep.
As soon as we hit the sand, we would start running – easy going, hard-packed, low-tide sand. The circle of torchlight would bob up and down and pink ghost crabs would scuttle away and dive into the foaming surf to our right.
Mission Turtle.
We would run for up to four kilometres, perhaps more, before any reward. I would usually be ahead, just trotting along, crunch, crunch, crunch….
Then! The sheer joy at coming across the ruffled sand, the tell-tale tractor-like grooves that leave the surf and head straight up to the dunes. See one, inch a little further. If you see another a short distance on, you sigh quietly and move on.
Two tracks – you’re too late. One track – bingo!
Heart races, torch is switched off immediately. You follow it quietly up the beach….and then you stop. And listen.
Swish, swish, swish.
In the pre-dusk gloom you can just make out a massive shape on the sand and if you listen very carefully, you can hear breathing, and puffing.
We had two such encounters this year. Two beautiful, massive Leatherback female turtles, both at the end of their laying, both covering up the nest and then moving a little further up to disguise and make a “fake nest” to confuse any potential predator. The work is exhausting, her flippers work hard – front and back: scoop and flick, scoop, scrape, dig, flick, smooth over. She sighs with the effort of it all. The lack of buoyancy, the effort of having to work against something solid, as opposed to the ease of moving in water. She is exhausted. Mucus mixed with sand pours from her eyes and mouth. She gasps, sighs deep, flicks, scoops. Driven by a magnetic instinct, so powerful, so brilliant.
I take a moment to reach out and touch her shell. A light touch. I stroke this barnacle-encrusted soul, and whisper: “You clever thing you”.
Eventually we watch her manoeuvre her massive shape and face the surf. She inches rhythmically back down towards the waves – almost parallel to her track out of the sea.

I love watching her as the first ripple hits her. The sense of relief must be enormous.
I touch her one last time. It’s emotional. I almost want to pull her back – tell her not to venture there.
Not in there. It’s bad in there. It’s getting worse.
Because of me.
Because of us.
“Go well, be safe beautiful”, I say quietly – my words whisked away in the wind.
She inches further and then a wave pounds down and covers her completely. It retreats, and she has moved, sunk into the sand – an incredible, prehistoric, ancient shape, again enveloped in meringue-white surf. We watch as she starts moving with greater ease into the pounding surf and beyond into the flatter stuff. Her little head pops up – once or twice….and then she’s gone.
Gone.
Why do I feel so heart-sore every time I see these magnificent animals re-enter their ocean home?
I have visited this beach for three years in a row now. Each time I find more and more ocean-borne plastic being spat out. I can no longer holiday here without the overwhelming compulsion and need to pick everything up. In the five days that we were there, we collected ten large hessian bags of plastic waste from approximately two kilometres of beach.

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In an OCD-driven frenzy, I separated everything out and counted it all up. These were my findings.

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Plastic bottles – 175
Shoes (flip flops, soles, whole shoes) – 30
Polystyrene pieces – 30
Soft plastic pieces (bags, packets, sachets) – 40
Bottle tops – 260
Cigarette lighters – 12
Toothbrushes – 28
Light bulbs – 8
Rope/strapping – 50
Random plastic pieces – big and small (pieces of kid’s toys, coat hangers, toothbrushes, etc) – 300
This beach, for me, is a complete mirror to the ocean. Since there are no rivers in the area, no community nearby, all that we come across is coming from the ocean. It is a very real reflection of what is going on out there.
And that, to me, is utterly terrifying.

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The UN has very recently stated that ocean plastic is a new looming planetary crisis.
It is vital that we start putting pressure on manufacturers to take responsibility for their products.
We also ALL need to look at our disgracefully wasteful consumption patterns that are driving all this. We simply have to address our addiction to DISPOSABLE. Our need for instant gratification, ease of use, the quick, the dirty.
There is NO AWAY – not for plastic.
Every day we make choices – from ordering a cup of coffee on the move, quenching our thirst when away from home, taking leftovers from a restaurant to carrying our purchases home. All of these choices involve some form of super-convenient, super-cheap, super-indestructable and super-damaging, plastic.
So I start 2018 feeling so enraged, yet so fuelled to try and generate awareness and to help everyone connect the dots and see how our choices – from how we light a cigarette, how we shave our legs, how we hang up our clothes, what we sit on, what we wear on our feet, what we cover our school kids books in, what we buy for our kids to play with…..ALL OF IT….or bits of it….is ending up in the sea.

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An environmental campaigner colleague and friend recently completed a cross-Atlantic trip in a small rowing boat. He said that marine wildlife sightings were few and far between. He did, however, come across three dead turtles. Out of curiosity, he cut them open and all of them were stuffed with plastic.
It is so easy to feel helpless and despondent and overwhelmed. But there’s no time for that. We have to talk, rattle cages, have conversations, and, if necessary, shout.
Very, very loudly.

 

Bilbo Baggins Returns

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

There really seems to be no limit to what can be run these days.  The Otter Trail (a five day hiking trail) can be run in under four hours ….the 50 km Whale Trail (another five day hiking trail) is clobbered by the racing snakes in just under 5 ½ hours.

So why not take on a six day hiking trail, but run it over two days? Why not indeed!

Meet the Merrell Hobbit 90 k Journey – a trail run that can be (and was) run in 13 hours by one particularly speedy chap this year.

They call it a journey, and that it most certainly is. It is one peppered with more twists and turns, ducks, dives, leaps, bum-slides and face plants than your average trail run.

The route is never dull. You cannot, and should not let your guard down for a second. If you do not keep your wits about you, you will trip on a mossy rock or tree stump and find yourself with a mouthful of worm ingested mud. If you lose sight of the faded yellow footprints (on trees or rocks), you will find yourself wondering into never-never land…feeling as though you had gobbled up the magic mushrooms you stumble over.

If a print appears upside down you are going the wrong way. (Hobbit Journey notes)

Day 1 starts with a rather rude 3-30 am alarm clock. A fleeting “why am I doing this?” and a pillow-over-head-moment is swiftly Carpe Diemed into submission.  The 1 ½ hour bus ride is a chance to take stock, eat a little, listen to the nervous chatter around you and consider the day ahead. We hit the early morning bustle of King William’s Town and then wound our way out of town on a pot-holed, roller-coaster dirt road to Maden Dam. The sun was just inching her way onto stage, the fish eagles welcomed us with a resoundingly hopeful cry, and all 33 of us huddled together for a quick pre-race photo.

The first 9.5 km leg is largely forested single track that snakes its way around the dam, into the forest and along the banks of the Buffalo River. The path winds its way precariously over mossy rocks, roots and logs, eventually popping out at Gwili Gwili Hut after crossing two forestry roads. The barbets, orioles, turacos, robins, thrushes and parrots usher us through the forest with an orchestra second to none. I mention to Filippo how much I would like to stop and ID a particularly strident bird call.

No time, I fear, no time. The competition is stiff, with a woman I have never met ahead of me and showing great tenacity and focus.

I have to catch her, the chase is on….

Bilbo’s Aunt – giving chase

We slip and slide our way on giant, slick mud-worm piles, cross rivers, pass freshly used porcupine holes and slice through sunbeams. We pass a gigantic, ancient Yellowood.. I silently wish I could sit and chat and hear her stories (of Redcoat/Xhosa bloodshed, elephants, leopards and early axe-wielding pioneers) ….no time. Only time for one quick embrace. I put my arms around her gnarled trunk and rest my damp cheek fleetingly against her, almost expecting to feel a pulse.

Filippo must think I am mad.

I am.

Barking.

The second 15 km leg is mostly through more damp, beautiful indigenous forests. We occasionally pop out into the hot sunlight and get a view of the surrounding countryside, but for the most part, it’s all just mossy, peaty, ferny, mushroomy, dappled brilliance.

The last 16 km winds up to the foot of a moss-encrusted waterfall. Here I spot my competition up ahead and I turn to F to click my fingers and exclaim “prey up ahead!” F is flagging, he silently indicates for me to carry on, catch her.

A final vicious ascent pops us out of the canopy and onto grassy flat stuff. We can see the sky and better still, I can see my competition up ahead. She is flagging. Walking, bending over.

I take the gap. She stands aside and says “well done”…..

Game on!

With screaming legs, there is yet another climb, this time in the hot, midday sun to the top of Doornkop. I accidentally lose sight of the wretched yellow feet and wonder off down into a vicious bramble forest that attacks my legs from all sides. I emerge with blood pouring, soaking my gaiters and socks…

A final steep relentless, fast descent on rocky, grassy, cambered paths sees you heading down towards another forested gorge. In this forest, I catch up with another running friend who is flagging. I pass him, we mutter and grumble at one another. Enough of the climbing already….enough of the f*&$#ing climbing already….

I am met by Lofty (Tatum’s hubby) – a wonderful, familier friendly face. He has come down to meet runners and warn them of a fat, angry Puffadder on the trail. We run (or rather clamber up) together for a bit and then I see Cata Hut, hear Tatum “whooooping and whoo-hooing” and I run the final stretch to the finish.

Cold beer, hot, meaty soup, a hot shower and soft mattrasses in the sun. Heaven.The evening is all about cosiness, warmth, recuperation, steaming pots of food, laughter, birthday candles, red wine and new friends. And sleep.

Dori: May I tempt you with a cup of chamomile? Gandalf: Oh, no, thank you, Dori. A little red wine for me, I think.

Day two starts with a rude, dark, steep 3 km climb. My torchlight is weak, I have my competition on my heels and I fear the day will be a long, pressurised one. We skirt around Geju Peak and then try and convince our shaky legs to work down a 1 km descent to the plateau, avoiding a massive scree slope.

Gollum: Is he lost? Bilbo Baggins: Yes, yes, and I want to get unlost… as soon as possible!

The forest embraces us once again, we stop to drink and fill bottles from the water that cascades off the black rocks, admire the scenery (briefly) and then charge on. UP, up and more up…..hills so steep it is almost impossible to get purchase.

We wind our way through yet more forested sections, finding the route infinitely more runnable than the previous day. We skip over great whirls of papery lemonwood bark that erodes into strange shapes as it rots on the forest floor, pass towering Streptocarpus that glues itself to tree trunks and competes with the orange, yellow and white fungi for space to grow. The harebells, watsonias and falling stars are in delicate bloom, and I try not tread on any of them as we whizz through.

The very final climb heads across the infamous and much talked about “Hog”. Words cannot really do justice to this not-so-little piggy…photos do that best.

Gandalf: Far to the east, over ranges and rivers lies a single solitary peak. Elrond: So this is your purpose, to enter the mountain? Thorin Oakenshield: What of it? Elrond: There are some who would not deem it wise.

The final 10 kays are a bit of a blur of down, down, down, forest track, conifers and zig-zagging switch backs, until the final slog to the finish line at the Arminal Hotel to run into the wonderfully welcoming arms of Tatum and her team.

Here the great curve of the Amatole Range holds in its embrace a valley of grace and beauty, equaled in few other places and excelled in none in South Africa…. Across the valley was the strange mountain the Xhosa called “Bhukazana”, with its three peaks of serrated ridges; and, between these and the Juanasberg, the Hogsback, but which the Xhosa called “Belekazana”, from its fancied resemblance, when seen from the Mnyameni valley, to a woman with a child on her back. Basil Holt

 

Dwarves: [singing] The pines were roaring on the height / The winds were moaning in the night / The fire was red, it flame spread / The trees like torches blazed with light…

This really was an unforgettable journey into Hobbit country.

The Mountain Runner team of organisers (Tatum, Graham, Sarah, Lofty et al) is quite simply exceptional. Their effortless professionalism – mixed with an array of delightful personal touches – and a degree of nurturing (that one does not get in other races) totally blew me away.

THANK YOU.

Thanks for Andrew King for his excellent images and to he legendary Mr Tolkien too of course for the inspirational Hobbit quotes!